Peter Sellers was a more talented actor than many people realise. Say his name these days, and a large majority of people would smile and begin to ape his most famous film character, Inspector Clouseau. The ‘Pink Panther’ films were US productions, made when the flame of the British film industry had finally guttered out. These films were OK, but not a patch on some of his earlier work. I have already discussed ‘I’m Alright Jack’ and ‘Heavens Above!’ in the course of this blog, both of which were good British films and starred Sellers as strong leading characters. Of course, he was also an excellent support character in one of my top five favourite films ‘The Ladykillers’. However, the true test of an actor is to be able to successfully bring a lifeless character onto the screen. By lifeless, I mean one that is boring, one that has no charisma and not a great deal to say. In ‘The Battle of the Sexes’ (1959), Sellers does just this job with the role of Mr Martin. Mr Martin is a Chief Clerk in an old family tweed firm called the House of MacPherson. Their working practices are Dickensian. He is quiet, mild mannered and he indulges in no vices. He has given his life to the MacPhersons and he requires no recognition or reward – only for his life to continue on in the same vein. I think that it is fair to say that Mr Martin is the polar opposite of Mr Sellers. In real life, he was known to have been a very charismatic man. Liz Fraser writes about him in her autobiography (“Liz Fraser…and Other Characters”). She says that he was a man of passions – the latest technology, cars, cameras and women were acquired relentlessly and never lasted long. But her telling line, when discussing his womanising is “Peter being Peter, you just forgave him.” To be able to put all of that strength of personality to one side and to play Mr Martin so convincingly shows how talented he was. To share the screen with such a larger than life co-star as Robert Morley – and be the one that all eyes are on – it is a deft feat.
|Sellers by @aitchteee|
So it is with regret that I have to admit that ‘The Battle of the Sexes’ is an appalling film. Despite Sellers’ highly watchable performance, the storyline is mean spirited. When old man MacPherson dies, his son (Morley) travels home to Edinburgh to take over the business. While on the Sleeper train down from London, he meets an American business consultant called Angela Barrows (Constance Cummings). He takes her on at the House of MacPherson in order to modernise and rationalise the business. Her ideas and methods distress Martin, who sees no need for change and considers Barrows’ methods to go against everything his beloved old Mr MacPherson stood for. While things are initially going her way, Angela Barrows is confident, clever and articulate. However, when Martin begins to quietly sabotage her work she plays the “I’m just a woman” card in a painfully sexist turn of events. This is a blatant attack on women’s attempts to forge careers – and quite possibly an attack on Americans and their fancy new methods too.
After the end of World War Two, women were shoved back into the home and told to give up their jobs to men returning from the forces. Films, magazines and advertising gave propaganda support to this idea, the most virtuous women depicted as housewives and mothers. But of course another compartment of the Pandora’s Box of women’s liberation had been opened by the war. Progress continued to be made by trailblazing women in a range of jobs. This film appears to be a rallying call to clerks everywhere to help put a stop to it. I don’t believe that Angela Barrows’ nationality is a coincidence either. In the 1950s, Britain was dependent on US aid to get the country back on its feet. Their money and their culture began to infiltrate our culture, slowly starting the globalisation that we are subject to today. Already the loss of the old ways was beginning to be mourned.
Sadly, I don’t think that the subject matter is as historic as I would like it to be. Globalisation has won hands down and there are still some businessmen with archaic attitudes to women. We continually hear about the need for more women in business and those that are successful face many more pressures than their male counterparts. But we have won a few battles on the way and taken a few steps forward.
‘The Battle of the Sexes’ reminds me of the time at school, when the class bully singles someone out with a comment that is so cruelly witty that you can’t help but laugh along despite yourself. But really, should this film be on television until the war of the sexes is finally over, and we can view this impartially as a historic record of what once was?
Short Stories, novellas and cinema history books by Sarah Miller Walters - click here to visit the Amazon page