Saturday, 2 November 2013

Don’t Envy Jim

‘Lucky Jim’ (1957) is based on the novel of the same name by Kingsley Amis.  As is usual with films derived from famous novels, it presents a much abridged version of the story.  Any attempt at analysing the film as a historical resource would therefore be a shadow of what could be gleaned by analysing the book instead.  There may be some visuals that provide incidental information – car types, railway scenes or fashions for example.  But Amis meant this story to be a document of its time and it deliberately lays into the education and class systems.  This isn’t a literary criticism blog.  I had enough of that to last me a lifetime when I did A Level in English Literature.  Blimey, if I never see “The Grapes of Wrath” again it’ll be too soon. Anyway, I’m sure many intelligent people have made a much better go of analysing the literary ‘Lucky Jim’ than I have the capability or inclination to.

But, as a student of history, there was one particular scene which caught my attention.  Towards the end of the film, Jim Dixon (Ian Carmichael) drunkenly rebels against being forced to deliver a history lecture that has been prepared by his boss, Professor Welch.  The lecture is on the subject of “Merrie England”, and it paints the English Middle Ages as a golden age of music and dance.  Anyone can see that this is a heavily biased view of a period that for most people was nasty, brutish and short.  It goes completely against Jim’s principles to deliver this “bunkum” and Professor Welch is shown as being completely out of touch with modern academic study.  This caught my interest because, 60 + years on, we still struggle against an often over-romantic view of history.  But now, we are over-romanticising the period in which ‘Jim’ was written and filmed.
Ian Carmichael as Lucky Jim by @aitchteee
The current craze for vintage, which seems to centre on the 1950s – from fashion to music styles to home baking - has in no doubt been initiated by the often overwhelming pressure of modern life.  But as we hark back we are selective.  We seem to imagine the 1950s as a golden era, sandwiched between austerity and psychedelia, when everyone had a job and knew their place.  Where everything was stylishly designed and built to last.  We conveniently forget that those cosy coal fires caused deadly smogs, that those chromed up cars caused carnage on the roads, that too many people lived in slums and didn’t have access to an inside toilet never mind the latest furniture designs. Look at ‘Lucky Jim’ itself for evidence that the 1950s were not so golden.  Despite the advent of grammar schools, introduced to give the intelligent from the lower classes a hand up, the class system still exerted a toughened glass ceiling.  You were judged on your voice, on your school and on your clothes.  Womens’ roles are only supportive and their presence in academia is treated as a joke.

As the film might have been subtitled: We never learn, do we?

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