MAN AT THE TOP - The Complete First Series / Review

John Braine's novel Room At The Top, published in 1957, was considered one of the key 'Angry Young Men' texts that examined the doldrums of post-war Britain and the rise of young working class men concerned with their own political and economic aspirations. Saddled with that label, Braine is often mentioned within the same breath as John Osbourne, Alan Sillitoe, Arnold Wesker and Harold Pinter but like many of the writers that were described thus he's a good example of how imprecise the description is. The meaning of the label dissipated over the years as many of the writers to whom it was originally applied set out on quite divergent careers. Braine, born and raised in Bradford, took various jobs before he had success with Room At The Top and considered himself left wing as far as his political inclinations were concerned. With success he moved to Woking in Surrey in the late 1960s and his politics underwent a shift to the right of the Conservative Party, his rejection of socialism detailed in a pamphlet, A Personal  Record, published by The Monday Club, a pressure group on the right wing of the Party.

Room At The Top was filmed, very successfully, in 1958 and told the story of working class Joe Lampton (then played by Laurence Harvey) climbing the social ladder by marrying Susan Brown, the daughter of a local industrialist, despite her parents' complete opposition to him. He bounces between pursuing Susan and having an affair with Alice, an older Frenchwoman he admires. Susan's father even attempts to buy him off before revealing that Susan is pregnant. He offers to arrange a marriage between them and set Joe up in his business if he stops seeing Alice.

Man At The Top picks up the story over ten years later and also combines some of the storyline from Braine's sequel, Life At The Top, written in 1962, which finds Joe, in an executive job, and Susan married with two children in a new home. Joe is increasingly dissatisfied with his lot and both he and Susan have their infidelities, leading to a temporary separation.

Made in 1970, the first series of Man At The Top, now available via Network, finds working class, brass necked Yorkshireman Joe Lampton, rather like his creator Braine, in that new home in Surrey’s stockbroker belt and with a career as a management consultant. As pushy and hard-headed as ever, he will go to any lengths to win new contracts and keep his business solvent. Joe remains married to Susan and they have their two children, but his relationship with his wife is unsettled and with good business connections to his advantage he often wanders off the marital path, especially when beautiful women are involved.

As I pointed out in my review of Zodiac, a the prevailing social trend of the 1970s was one where aspirational avarice became the salve to the various political woes and industrial crises that Britain suffered. The miners may have been on strike, you may have been doing your homework by candlelight and Heath may have initiated the three day week, but your parents, particularly if they were upwardly mobile working class, were still obsessed about material things. Their drive for social and class mobility could see them move from being manual wage earners and into administrative, professional and managerial salaried positions. Man At The Top reflects this trend and is as much about Britain's decline in industrialisation as it is about the struggle to maintain your self-employability. Joe Lampton, played with great intensity and relish by Kenneth Haigh, is a man coming to terms with being one of the petty bourgeoisie whilst also clinging on to his working class roots. As this internal conflict is waged, he's also clearly aspirational, wanting what's best for himself and his business at any reckless cost.

Haigh's portrayal of Lampton also provides an interesting dissection of the kind of televisual masculinity that was prevalent in the 1970s. Whilst this depiction of gender is now seen as highly stereotypical - Lampton is the 'bastard' that women love to hate and is generally presented as dominant, aggressive, rational and competent - there are attempts within the narrative to have female and male characters proactively undermine this hegemonic masculinity. Every so often, the women Lampton toys with turn out to be much smarter than he is. His nemesis in three of the episodes is Toby Marcliffe, a prototypical scheming yuppie type, smoother in tone than Joe. Lampton and other similar male characters are seen to make poor decisions, often involving their relationships to women in the series, which suggest that the perceived edifice of masculine stereotypes that littered many British television series in the 1970s had already started to crumble as Man At The Top was transmitted in 1970 and 1971.

However, the casualties in this game are his wife and children and his colleagues. His wife Susan is clearly bored of her role as housewife and has aspirations of her own. Women in the 1970s were seizing their independence and Man At The Top is not just about a bluff Yorkshireman getting the better of his social superiors and laying their wives and girlfriends. As the feminist movement gained exposure in the late 1960s and early 1970s, television searched for ways to capitalise on women’s liberation while making it palatable to advertisers and mainstream tastes. Man At The Top examines the trials and tribulations of younger women, with the Julia Dungarvon character as a particularly good example, and reflects how assertive and independent middle-class women could be. Jonni Devon, a character played by Ann Lynn, and the cause of the Lampton's marital disintegration, is the epitome of the series depiction of well to do, socially savvy, sexually powerful women. Whilst it may fall back on stereotypes and melodrama to tell its stories, the series tentatively explores changing ideas about gender roles and gender politics, traditional femininity and new feminism, particulalrly with the Julia and Jonni characters, and the stories often feature other strong female characters who are as assertive as Joe Lampton in articulating their desires.

In essence, Man At The Top takes much of the personal and boardroom politics of The Power Game and updates them and offers a template for similar programmes in the 1970s and 1980s such as The Brothers, A Bouquet Of Barbed Wire, Howard's Way all of which dealt with the changing face of capitalism pre and post Thatcher and the shifting sands of sexual politics. There is also Braine's own political defection from left to right woven into the series increasingly cynical view of late 20th Century capitalism and a dissection of class that predicts much of the post 1970s political distinctions, as outlined by David Monaghan in 'Margaret Thatcher, Alan Bleasdale And the Struggle For Working Class Identity' (Journal Of Popular Film And Television, Vol 29, 2001), "between the productive and the unproductive, private and public, wealth creating and wealth consuming, and on the privileging of freedom over equality". Braine's Joe Lampton is a figure truly representative of aspirant working classes caught in up in these dichotomies.

Some have criticised the series for its blatant exploitation of the North/South divide, specifically suggesting it is nothing more than a story of a Northern working class character raging against all the corrupt and cynical Southerners he encounters. For me, that doesn't represent the series at all. Joe is playing as fast and as loose as all the other men he meets in business. Granted he does have an arch nemesis, Toby Marlcliffe, the slimy management consultant played rather well by Gawn Grainger, and both lock horns over various business contracts during the first series but that's little to do with the North/South divide and more to do with putting each other out of business by fair means or foul. One episode in particular, Change Partners, sees Joe return home to Warmley in Leeds for his mother's funeral (and tieing into the events of Room At the Top for good measure). If anything it is the hideous Northern stereotypes he encounters in the local pub, and not the more sophisticated Southerners, that resent their working class kin rising above themselves to make a better life away from poverty and questionable moral values.

The episode articulates the position Joe, and presumably his creator Braine, take in the reductionist class warfare around them and it perhaps indicates that Braine found the Labour movement wanting when it came to approving of the ways some supporters raised themselves from poverty and enjoyed the fruits of their success. However, that doesn't excuse Joe's deplorable and thuggish behaviour towards his wife Susan which emotionally situates him at the Neanderthal levels of his fellows in the Leeds pub. His attitude leaves his marriage and career in tatters. In contrast, I'll Do All The Dirty Work, a cracking episode by Tom Brennard and Roy Bottomley, sees Toby Marlcliffe and Ian Somerset, two 'posh Southerners', who do look down their noses at Joe because of his working class roots, hatch a plan to discredit Joe's firm with some dirty accounting practices. A Northern oik he might be, but Joe is a savvy businessman and the conclusion of the story is an utterly delicious slice of corporate revenge, Lampton style.

Haigh is supported by Zena Walker, excellent as Susan Lampton, the wife struggling to be accepted for who she is beyond the role of housekeeper and mother, frustrated at Joe's often unsympathetic view of the woman's place within the family structure. It's how her character develops and makes decisions towards the end of the first series that's also of major interest too despite the final episode's script not staying true to her character. Katy Manning makes one of her first television appearances alongside a young Michael Kitchen and Mark McManus in The Prime Of Life, a story focusing on Joe's teenage son Harry who has a crush on Julia Dungarvon (Manning), who runs a local cafe. Susan frets about Harry's slip in standards at school and Joe's solution is to seduce Julia.

This later comes back to haunt Joe in the aftermath of his marriage break down and as the spectre of unemployment hovers over him in ...A Bit Of Spare And Nothing Else where Julia's new found female emancipation puts Joe's arrogance into perspective. Manning is excellent in the latter, giving a natural and subtle performance. In Join The Human Race, he hypocritically lambastes his partner Teddy Soames for his affair with the company secretary Fiona (an early appearance from Gabrielle Drake) and disapproves of it to such a degree that he has her followed by a private investigator and discredited in front of Soames in his office. Yet, he also, quite properly, puts two fingers up to bigoted, narrow minded client Joshua Redroe when he insults his dinner party guests.

Joe Lampton will have you cheering one minute at his triumph over adversity and then absolutely aghast at his behaviour towards people, especially women, the next. How aghast you'll be will depend on your opinion of the final episode Fixtures And Fittings where Joe successfully and craftily schemes to get a top job with a Manchester textiles firm (his success is captured in an hilariously appropriate Potteresque sequence that cuts together posed still images of Haigh and guest star Rupert Davies with The Gang Show classic 'On The Crest Of A Wave' on the soundtrack) and is then rewarded in a reconciliation with his wife Susan and a return to the family home that unfortunately makes a bit of a nonsense out of much of the character and narrative development that's taken place across the entire series. It also reduces Susan, with her strengths as a female character, to nothing more than a pliable victim. A disappointing conclusion.

It's a terrific series, quintessentially 1970s in its style with, for example, lots of male characters flaunting cravats as leisure wear (a drinking game of 'Spot The Cravat' would require urgent rehab at the conclusion of these ten episodes), women in pastel trouser suits, parties at flash apartments resembling the interior of Biba (complete with requisite Vicki Wickham lookalike in the biggest pair of blue tinted shades you've ever seen), offices plastered with quite horrendous looking chunks of 70s corporate art, and a funky, brassy, totally addictive theme tune from Robert Earley used on a title sequence that feels like a dry run for The Sweeney and positions Joe as simultaneously 'down with the kids' playing football in the street and handling an Aston Martin with masculine aplomb. Mere decoration for a series that, although made in 1970, still speaks to us of corporate greed, ruthlessness and corruption and the conflict of embracing your class roots whilst being one of the bourgeoisie. Something socialists continue to struggle with, I'll bet.

Man At The Top - The Complete First Series (Network DVD 7953220 - Region 2 - Released 18th January 2010 - Cert 12)

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One Response to “MAN AT THE TOP - The Complete First Series / Review”
  1. FOULARD says:

    Great review! I've a fan of both the books and the first film (I thought the second was a dud), so I'm looking forward to the TV version. As an American, I also find British video drama of that time fascinating and engaging in its different tone to the slicker, but less-literate American TV I grew up with. The historical socio-economic aspect also makes it all the more interesting.

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