Sunday, 16 June 2013

The Philanthropist (1975)

By Christopher Hampton.
BBC TV, 29 October 1975.

Nowadays Christopher Hampton is best known as a screenwriter (Dangerous Liaisons, Atonement, etc) but in the 1970s, along with Tom Stoppard, David Hare and Howard Brenton, he was one of the coming men of British drama. His first play, When Did You Last See My Mother?, had a London try-out while he was still an undergraduate at Oxford. Helen Mirren was there, she tells us, on 5 June 1966 at a Sunday night ‘production without décor’ at the Royal Court Theatre. She recalls being “just blown away by the writing”.

The Philanthropist, subtitled ‘a bourgeois comedy’, first reached the stage in 1970. Destined likewise for the Royal Court Theatre, it was at first rejected by Lindsay Anderson, then the theatre’s co-artistic director, as “frivolous” but found a sympathetic director in Hampton’s regular collaborator Robert Kidd. After a short run at the Royal Court, it transferred to the West End, where it ran for three years, picking up a number of awards along the way. In 1970 the Sunday Times published two reviews. Harold Hobson’s official one raved: “A masterpiece of organisation… a wonderful evening, intellectually stimulating, touchingly sympathetic and gloriously, gloriously funny.” But Alan Brien’s Diary, a few weeks later, disagreed: “When it is funny, it is usually improbable. When it is accurate, it tends to become tedious.”

I’m with Mr Brien on this one. Even allowing for the passage of time and the mutation of taste over the years, this is irksome stuff. Combining the pleasant geometry of the English comedy of manners with a postgraduate riff on Molière’s Le Misanthrope, Hampton’s play is deadeningly cerebral, the working out of an idea. It relies on the conceit of a phlegmatic hero, Philip, who loves words (he is an academic philologist) but doesn’t understand what they portend. Somehow this cold fish has attracted the vivacious Celia (Helen Mirren in the TV adaptation), to whom he is engaged. In the course of a dinner party, which takes up much of the action, Philip (Ronald Pickup) unwittingly snubs his fiancée, is propositioned by the man-eating, ample-bosomed Araminta, then decides the next morning to make a play for the quiet, demure Liz, only to discover that she has palled up overnight with a fellow don (the appropriately named ‘Don’). Where Molière’s Alceste offends by abrasive candour, in the jaded university environment of Hampton’s play, everyone takes offence at Philip’s desire to be inoffensive. As he says, “My trouble is, I’m a man of no convictions. At least, I think I am.” His love of his fellow man, his ‘philanthropy’, is mistaken for something else – sarcasm, cynicism.

What is conveyed, with a clunking fist, is the self-absorption of the academic world, a solipsism which exposes the characters as isolated from a set of bizarre occurrences in the ‘real’ world. The suicide of a budding playwright in Philip’s college rooms in the opening scene seems to leave him and Don strangely unmoved when we encounter them a few days later. The murder of virtually the entire Cabinet on the day of the dinner party is not, as one might expect, the main topic of conversation that evening. When a terrorist organisation starts murdering prominent authors, the sole concern of fashionable novelist Braham Head, another of the dinner party guests, is the disappointing discovery that his name is not on the hit list.

Personally, it’s hard for me to dislike a play in which Helen Mirren is enamoured of someone called ‘Philip’, but dislike is close to what I feel. Perhaps the problem lies in the script. The play’s two female characters are distinctly underwritten. Araminta is a creature of schoolboy fantasy, if ever dramatist devised one. Celia has the potential to provide a moral centre, a source of well-directed empathy, but she misdirects her emotional facility into malice and fantasy. As she says, “lies are usually that much more interesting than the truth”. She chides Philip for his passivity, accusing him of being “a pudding, wobbling gently”, yet her own energies are absorbed in entertaining the company with fictional accounts of her tutors’ fumbling efforts to seduce her.

Mirren has said that she felt “awkward” and “uncomfortable” playing this part: “I vaguely remember that I could never quite get a handle on this one,” she told a BBC interviewer in 2007. She puts it down to her own “inability to understand the role”, but also points to the circumstances of TV production. Unlike the theatre, where a performance can develop over the course of a run, or big-budget movie-making where whole days can be spent filming one short scene, there’s “not a lot of chance to get it right” on TV. A couple of weeks of rehearsal would be followed by several days of studio recording, shooting anything up to six scenes a day. “I just didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” says Mirren now of her work on The Philanthropist; yet “often I’ve felt like that, and then when you look at the piece, I don’t see it necessarily in the performance”.

The Daily Telegraph reviewer was certainly convinced by Celia the fantasist:

… Another reference [to Molière (sic)] was perhaps to be found in Celia’s (Helen Mirren no less) contribution to the party scene. Her swiftly invented account of how each of her university tutors had made a pass at her, each more incompetent than the last, had a bubbly artificiality managed with much skill.

Indeed, this critic was impressed by the TV adaptation altogether, calling it “a scathing comedy of intellectual manners that manages by neat turns to be smart and understanding, funny and grim, compassionate and heartless”.

The Listener was less persuaded, finding the play “mannered, fussy and at times… very tiresome”, redeemed only by “several excellent performances, especially from Jacqueline Pearce as the university’s easiest lay, and Helen Mirren as the philanthropist’s fiancée.”

It was a low-key performance from Mirren, a point picked up by Polly Toynbee in the Observer:   

The ubiquitous Helen Mirren… has the precise ability to seem like a person, someone we might actually know. Perhaps it helped that her hair and make-up looked like anyone else’s, blotched on in a rush in the morning.

Low-key. Hardly a career highlight. But still eminently watchable, once you’ve got past the mumsy Laura Ashley frocks of that benighted era.


Sean Day-Lewis, “Television: dubious view of unsolved 1931 murder”, Daily Telegraph, 30 October 1975
Ben Francis, Christopher Hampton: Dramatic Ironist (1996)
Harold Hobson, “The fatal match”, Sunday Times, 9 August 1970
Joseph Hone, “Television: a glut of drama”, The Listener, 6 November 1975
“Helen Mirren remembers”, DVD interview on Helen Mirren at the BBC (2008)
Polly Toynbee, “Television: Mr Hampton’s black joke”, Observer, 2 November 1975 

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