Monday, 15 August 2016

Man At The Top

It is rather strange that this programme has never drifted into my orbit before, since there was what we would now call a whole franchise around the 'at the top' series of films, book and TV programme. The top part of the title is actually a metaphor for the protagonist's ambitions to better himself:
' Joe Lampton, recently demobilised from the armed forces of late 1940s Britain, is starting in a new job with the Municipal Treasury in the town of Warley. He was a https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/POW">POW
 who spent his captivity studying to pass hishttps://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accountancy">accountancy examinations. He is an https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orphan">orphanwhose parents were killed in an https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Airstrike">air raidagainst his home town. He is determined to make something of himself, targeting a high-paid job with a thousand a year salary. He notices, shortly after arriving, a young man with an expensive car and a pretty girl friend and he realises that this lifestyle and appearance is what he aspires to. The book centres on Joe's efforts to secure a future he can take pride in.
'In Warley, he takes lodgings with the Thompsons, a middle-class couple living in the better part of town, known locally as "T'top". Lampton is delighted to find himself already socially advantaged by taking, quite literally, a "Room at the top", and this serves as a metaphor for his ambition to better himself and to leave behind any vestige of his former life and acquaintances, many of whom he characterises as "zombies", lacking any trace of genuine life and character. Everything about Warley is an improvement on his former life in Dufton.' ( https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Room_at_the_Top_(novel))
The 'at the top' franchise is of course very much of its time, part of the movement towards realism in theatre and other media (my preference for unreal TV is probably the reason this series has never grabbed me before), and depicting the tension brought by the upward mobility of the post-war years. And here, right at the start of my own actualy writing in this post, I've already fallen out with this show in a big way.
The phrase 'Northern anti-hero' has kept popping into my head while I have been watching it. It's nothing to me, after all in the great division between the North and the South of England, I'm from the Midlands, and both sides of the great divide place the Midlands in the other camp anyway, but I feel that this show's target audience can only really be Southerners. In addition to the ambition element, there is also an element in which this show is about the interaction of the North and the South. Don't ask me how I know, it just comes across as clear as a bell with the accents of the characters. Lampton, the protagonist, is in a sense alienated from both sides of the divide: his accent alienates him from one and his aspirations from the other. What I'm trying to say is that I feel he may be a character calculated to attract a lack of sympathy in his audience, although I'm consciously trying to avoid prejudging both sides' reactions to him. If I have to come down on one side or the other, since this was produced by Thames Television, I would think that this was calculated to be seen by Southern eyes. Just for the record, speaking as a Brummie, Haigh's accent goes through me, and the posh people's reactions to him also go through me.
On the other hand, I suppose this programme is about human aspirations in the broader sense, things such as relationships, money, identity, and security. More to the point they are about these things in a very specific moment in time, which is where this series makes a much better impression on me. If ever there was a person for whom the word aspirations was invented, it must be Lampton. I suppose it is important to remember my own repeated point that we must at least make an attempt to view these TV shows with the eyes of the time, to enable the issues to be put into their true context. Since this is a 1970s TV series, it must be seen against the back drop of unrest, conflict and crisis, accompanied by great luxury for some. These were of course the events which led up to the values of Thatcher's Britain, which embodied an aspirational value system. I feel that Lampton's relative prosperity would be seen as completely alien by many of this show's original viewers, and of course there is the uneasy tension that his aspirations would alienate him from his working-class roots. If I have to give my jaundiced opinion on this tension, I feel that Man At The Top actually holds this tension very well, and this show is genuinely one which deserves thinking about. It is not an easy evening view after work.
For the modern viewer, especially one of - ahem - my age, one of the greatest things about this show is its perfect 1970s setting. The wardrobe Lampton wears is so similar to that worn by my dad in the 1970s as to be uncanny. The contrast between the rich people and the poorer people when Lampton briefly goes home, is perfectly done and since this show is not trying to be anything other than contemporary, once again rushes me back to the scenes of my youth. My usual advisory notes to anyone who may prefer the faster pace of modern television apply: expect to have to pay closer attention to this show than modern ones. This is before the age of the sound bite. The show's production values are of the time. There are occasionally times when a set is a little too obviously a set, or you catch a glimpse of studio lighting, but I don't personally mind that. Another prominent way in which this show is of its time is in Lampton's attitude to women, and perhaps there is a subtext in which the show's title of *Man* At The Top is very suitable.
I would recommend this show to anyone wanting a challenging sociological view. I would just warn that there is an uneasy tension at its heart built on the famous British North/South divide and post-War aspirations, which tends to militate against this show being relaxing viewing.
Image credit: http://www.cathoderaytube.co.uk/2010/01/man-at-top-complete-first-series-review.html

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