No Love for Johnnie (UK 1961)

No Love for Johnnie is an interesting film, not often screened in the UK. I managed to watch it on Talking Pictures TV – otherwise it only exists as a 2011 DVD on an obscure label (Strawberry Media). Many years ago I had a hardback copy of the original novel but I don’t think I’d seen the film before now. The early 1960s is an odd period in British culture, caught between the Lady Chatterley trial and ‘the Beatles first LP’ (as Philip Larkin put it in his poem ‘Annus Mirabilis’) in 1963. It was supposedly a ‘dead’ period in pop music and in cinema everything was deemed to be happening in Northern towns and captured in the ‘realism’ of the British New Wave. So here is the first conundrum. No Love for Johnnie begins in the fictitious town of Earnley (modelled on Bradford, like the town in Room at the Top) where Johnnie Byrne has just been re-elected as the local Labour MP in a General Election campaign which Labour have won. (In reality, Labour lost the 1959 General Election but went on to win in 1964 and 1966.)

Johnnie (Peter Finch) with his neighbour Mary (Billie Whitelaw)

On his way back down to London, Johnnie gives an indication that he has become cynical about his supporters as he boards the train. Once in London, he has to answer a TV reporter’s questions about whether he is expecting a Cabinet post. Back in his flat, Johnnie’s love life is unravelling. His wife signals she is leaving, his neighbour is inviting his attention but he finds himself attracted instead to a 20 year-old model (Johnnie is 42). The film is presented in black & white ‘Scope (like the New Wave classic, Billy Liar (1963)) and as some reviews have pointed out Johnnie’s three women match the two of Joe Lampton in Room at the Top (1959). So, why isn’t No Love for Johnnie a New Wave film? The original novel was written by a Labour MP, Wilfred Fienburgh, who was killed in a car crash aged just 38. He held Islington North – now the seat of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Fienburgh had been brought up in Bradford, so in one sense he was a Northern novelist like the others whose novels became New Wave films – but he wasn’t a ‘literary novelist’. His was a more ‘workman-like’ novel – though Fienburgh was seen as a very intelligent working-class lad who had an excellent war record and the book was seen as perceptive about Labour politics.

Johnnie with the young model Pauline (Mary Peach)

The problems with the film from a New Wave perspective were two-fold. First the central character is too old at 42, he doesn’t fit the ‘angry young man’ or aspirant working-class/lower middle-class type in the other novels. At 42 he has the war-time experience behind him, whereas the New Wave (anti-)heroes were only children during the war – the exception is Room at the Top where the dating of the narrative is fudged to allow Joe Lampton to have been a POW. Johnnie is played by Peter Finch, the ‘wild’ Australian (though born in London) who was a leading actor/star of British cinema at the time and not a new working-class actor like Albert Finney or Tom Courtenay. Secondly the film was directed by Ralph Thomas for producer Betty Box. Thomas and Box had been a successful working partnership since 1950 and The Clouded Yellow, a wonderful thriller filmed on location across the North of England. But they were best known as the team behind the ‘Doctor’ series of Rank comedies in the 1950s. This condemned them in the eyes of some critics. I think it’s time they were given more attention (which has in fact gone to Betty Box as a successful female filmmaker with a solid track record during the most ‘commercial’ period of British filmmaking).

Box and Thomas were highly efficient at producing successful mainstream films. This production was shot, like most of their 1950s films by Ernest Steward and included many other regulars working at Pinewood, the base for the Box-Thomas productions. The team constructed a replica of the House of Commons chamber and Cabinet room on a Pinewood set, but much of the film was shot on London streets – and seeing the London of 1960 is one of the bonuses. There is a very strong cast of supporting character actors with the terrific Billie Whitelaw as the neighbour re-buffed by Johnnie and Mary Peach as the 20 year-old model. The House of Commons features Donald Pleasance and Geoffrey Keen and a host of other well-known faces. I was also amused to see Oliver Reed, uncredited as a drunk man at a party (the original Mr. Buckethead?).

Johnnie has to listen to his local Labour Party members

Betty Box claimed to be uninterested in the politics as such and was aiming for an ‘entertaining film’. She was a young communist in her youth, but primarily for ‘social reasons’ – her older brother Sydney, head of Gainsborough Studios 1945-1950 was a committed Labour supporter. J. Arthur Rank who financed the film was a Conservative, but Betty Box was allowed to make her ‘personal projects’ as long as she also continued to produce the highly profitable comedies for which she is best known (e.g. the ‘Doctor’ series).

It is worth noting that dramatic narratives about Left-Labour MPs are more interesting in terms of personal morality. Tories, seen as less principled by many, have less to lose in some ways. No Love for Johnnie was followed in the 1970s by the TV serial Bill Brand (1976) an 11 x 1 hour episode narrative written by Trevor Griffiths and starring Jack Shepherd as a new left-wing MP. In 1988, A Very British Coup, based on a novel by Chris Mullin MP and scripted by Mullin and the great TV playwright Alan Plater was a three-part TV mini-series detailing the unlikely but ‘much wished for’ general election victory for a Labour Party led not by right-wing Blairites but by a working-class socialist played by Ray McAnally. The military and leading right-wingers plot against him.

Johnnie meets the PM (Geoffrey Keen)

As I’ve indicated, Wilfred Fienburgh was seen as a bright and perceptive politician, so the narrative of No Love for Johnnie has a strong base. The film script was written by Nicholas Phipps, a long-time collaborator with Box and Thomas as both actor and writer. He was joined, in a rather unlikely pairing, with the Canadian novelist Mordecai Richler. Richler had lived in the UK since 1954 and published several novels. (There were several Canadians in British film and TV.) The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz was published in 1959 and became a major film in 1974 with a young Richard Dreyfus in the lead. Richler had already written two films by 1960 and would go on to script Life at the Top (1965), the follow-up to the 1959 film. The representation of politics in No Love for Johnnie is both cynical and believable. There is a particularly good passage in which Johnnie has to cope with a ‘dressing-down’ by his constituency party and a crisis in his love life during a trip back to Earnley.

Unusually for a Betty Box production, the film did not become a box office hit, though many critics responded favourably and Peter Finch won a Berlinale prize and a BAFTA. I suspect that Talking Pictures TV will provide us with some more offerings that challenge the dubious canonisations of ‘British New Wave’ films and perhaps give us a better sense of the range of Betty Box productions. She stands as perhaps the most successful British film producer with a near 30 year career starting in 1946.

In this clip, the PM wants to see Jonnie who has been selected by Labour rebels to ask a an embarrassing question. The issue is one which is remarkably contemporary with Saudi Arabia moving into Yemen to attack rebels:

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