The League of Gentlemen – not just a comedy TV show

Barry Forshaw writes about smart, intelligent heist movie The League of Gentlemen for our Read a Great Movie feature. Adapted from the novel by John Boland, it’s a must-see class commentary and a who’s who of 1960s cinema.

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Ambition is not necessarily a characteristic of British films of the late 1950s. But a film made in the UK at the end of the decade had it in quantity. Looking at The League of Gentlemen (Basil Dearden, director, 1960) today, it’s a shame that this title is now so ineluctably associated with the eccentric TV comedy show that hijacked it.

Dearden and (co-writer and co-star) Bryan Forbes’ smart and intelligent British heist movie, adapted from the novel by John Boland, is as diverting and pointed as ever, with an acidulous commentary on class, the military and the professions in Britain to finesse the narrative.

Dearden was always, even at his most accomplished, essentially a journeyman director, but Bryan Forbes’ machine-tooled script drew a career-best job from him.

Jack Hawkins excels as a former army officer bitter at being forced to retire early. Using his special access to top-secret military personnel files he begins to plot a daring £1 million bank robbery – and sets about gathering a highly skilled team of accomplices, drawn from various social strata (all of which are adroitly delineated).

A who’s who of 1960’s cinema, the film’s copper-bottomed cast includes Nigel Patrick (scene-stealing outrageously, as he so often did), Roger Livesey, an oleaginously spivvy Richard Attenborough and writer Bryan Forbes himself. The League of Gentlemen allows for a certain class solidarity among its disparate protagonists, but it is of a critical nature (as expressed in Bryan Forbes’ sardonic screenplay).

What is cogently represented is the working-class readiness to accept the upper-class, right-wing figures’ cynical bending of the rules when it is in the latter’s interest. Such actions do not prompt disapproval in those lower down the social scale, but a wry, grudging admiration. Current attitudes to the officer class (in film terms, anyway) are generally unsympathetic. But films such as The League of Gentlemen allowed a wry acceptance that, in organisational terms at least, quality will out in those used to giving orders.

 

Barry Forshaw’s latest books are Nordic Noir and British Gothic Cinema. He is also the author of British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia.