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The Scrivener: Caught In The Middle

Brian Barratt, with subtle insight, introduces us to L P Hartley’s novel, ‘The Go-Between’’, and its film adaptation.

The novel, published in 1953, is about the recollection of childhood experiences from 1900. It is a study of class distinction and behaviour in England in the time in which it is set. “The film version, made in 1971, is faithful to the novel even though the screenplay by Harold Pinter uses a different structure to bring past and present together,’’ says Brian.

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In a recent TV 'family reunion' documentary, a young man travelled to Australia to visit his grandmother. They had not met for 20 years. There was much hugging, laughing, weeping, and enthusiastic chatter. One thing, however, seemed strange. He did not take his hat off when he entered the house. The baseball cap stayed on his head.

It is perhaps good that some of the formalities of old fashioned etiquette have faded away. On the other hand, they did at least indicate good manners, politeness and respect. We placed our knives and forks together neatly on our plates when we had finished eating. We said 'please' and 'thank you'. We raised our school caps when greeting people — including one or two whom we did not know but had been told we must respect — and took our caps off when we entered a house. But all that was during a boyhood 60 years ago. It's in the past.

'The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.' The opening line of L.P.Hartley's novel 'The Go-Between' is significant. It does not read, 'The past is a foreign country; they did things differently then'. Events and experiences from the past stay with us in one way or another, perhaps more than we realise. Some lie just below the surface.

The novel, published in 1953, is about the recollection of childhood experiences from 1900. It is also a subtly crafted study of class distinction and behaviour in England during that period. The film version, made in 1971, is faithful to the novel even though the screenplay by Harold Pinter uses a different structure to bring past and present together. The adult Leo, who unwillingly remembers and slowly recounts what happened, is played by no less than Michael Redgrave. As a 12-year-old, he is portrayed convincingly by Dominic Guard, who received a BAFTA award for The Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles.

Though the film won several other BAFTA awards and received the greatest accolade of all, the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 1971, it is now largely forgotten, a thing of the past. One reviewer writes that its qualities might not be admired by 'contemporary filmgoers, trained to be impressed by superficial dazzle'. There is certainly no dazzle in niceties such as not coming down to breakfast in one's slippers; not taking one's swimming costume down to the lake if one does not intend to swim; and not wearing one's school togs when one is playing in a village cricket match.

'And, Leo, there's another thing you mustn't do', says Marcus. 'When you undress you wrap your clothes up and put them on a chair. Well, you mustn't. You must leave them lying wherever they happen to fall — the servants will pick them up — that's what servants are for.' Therein lies one of the main themes of the story.

When he goes to stay with his school pal, Marcus Maudsley, Leo discovers that he is in the midst of an affluent upper class family, and soon subject to 'pleasantries [which] seemed to spring up all round me like rows of gas-jets scorching me, and I turned redder than I was already'. He discovers that Marcus's vivacious sister Marian (played by Julie Christie in the film), whom he adores, has a puzzling friendship with a local farmer, Ted Burgess (played by Alan Bates). At the same time, she is engaged to a viscount, Lord Trimingham. The innocent boy is at first unaware of what all this implies.

He becomes a 'go-between'. Trimingham gets him to take simple messages to Marian. However, when he starts carrying letters between Marian and Ted, he has no idea that they are secret lovers. Nor does he understand the social gap between them. She lives a life of idle luxury by virtue of her birth. He is a tenant on the Maudsley family's land. His perceived status is summed up by Marcus's older brother when they see him at a swimming hole on their land: 'He doesn't swim badly, does he, for a farmer?... I'll just say how do you do to him. We don't know him socially, of course, but he mustn't think us stuck-up'.

Later in the story, Leo wanders by himself through a farmyard, and has a go at sliding down a straw-stack, Ted Burgess comes rushing out, shouting, 'What the hell do you think you're doing here? I've a good mind to give you the biggest thrashing you've ever had in your life'. Writing as an adult, in the novel, Leo comments: 'Oddly enough this didn't put me against him: I thought it was exactly what an angry farmer ought to say'. He has classified Ted, just as he classified the Maudsleys.

At one end of the social scale are his school pal's family and even a viscount. At the other end is Ted Burgess, a farmer. Caught in the middle is a middle-class boy. Caught by more than class distinction, because when his curiosity overcomes him, he has a sneak look at the top of one of the letters he is carrying for Marian. He sees the words, 'Darling, darling, darling' and is suddenly aware that he is somehow trapped in the middle of their relationship. Each of them, in ways suited to their social class, is taking advantage of him.

The story builds up to betrayal, traumatic confrontation, and tragedy. Leo has a breakdown and, for a while, blocks out memory of the events. But they live on and have a profound influence in his life. As an adult, he is unable to form relationships. 50 years later, he is revisiting the place where it all happened and painfully re-living the memories.

He finds Marian, now an old lady living among her dreams and delusions. They have a long and difficult conversation in her darkened room, by the end of which 'her face was wet with tears'. For Leo, however, not only is the past a foreign country — what happened in his childhood has made him 'a foreigner in the world of emotion'.

Through glorious cinematography, the film evokes the quiet beauty of the English countryside, bathed in the soft light of summer. The background music by Michel Legrand reflects that beauty but it also builds up strident chords which signal what is to come. In that way, it is reminiscent of Mascagni's music in the opera 'Cavalleria Rusticana', where ultimately fatal rivalry lurks behind beauty.

In an era when cinema and television bombard us with 'superficial dazzle', it is deeply satisfying to see again an elegant film based so firmly on an English literary classic. It serves to remind us in several ways that elements of the past might have been discarded but are not entirely forgotten — they are intrinsic to today's living experience.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2008


The book is still in print, in a Penguin paperback, 55 years after publication.
The DVD might still be available from some outlets.


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