MAN AT THE TOP - The Complete Second Series / DVD Review

Network kindly release the second series of thirteen episodes of Man at the Top this month just as, with a timely sense of irony, BBC4 show a new adaptation of the John Braine source novel Room at the Top (note: now sadly postponed due to rights issues). Both are clearly period pieces, as BBC4 retain the 1950s setting of the original for their version and the 1972 series of Man at the Top literally screams its era's cultural credentials from the rooftops.

Braine however has little more than a creator's credit on this second series and it is very much an authored piece at the behest of that prolific drama and comedy writing team, Tom Brennand and Roy Bottomley who emerged from the Oldham press agency of the early 1960s and started their television career with a chat show for ABC in 1962.

With an impressive television CV that covers drama and comedy over a number decades, they originally cut their teeth on comedies for Granada, such as Nearest and Dearest (1968 - 1973), contributed scripts to the early videotaped series of Special Branch (1969 - 1974) and were the creative consultants on the long running This is Your Life (1969 -1993).

The combination of Yorkshire actor Kenneth Haigh, as the anti-hero Joe Lampton, and the Northern writing duo of Brennand and Bottomley certainly creates a heady brew in this second series of Man at the Top, a heightened examination of male chauvinism and the North-South divide that producer Jacqueline Davis found a challenge, as a self-declared proponent of Women's Lib. "In this second series he grows even more ruthless as he climbs higher. Women seem to succumb to him fairly easily... it does seem better drama for him to walk all over the women but it goes against the grain for me," Davis revealed in an interview with TV Times (see below).
... the cock of the North
The series starts as it means to go on with You'll Never Understand Women and the story opens with a pre-titles mid-argument between Joe and his long suffering wife Susan (Zena Walker) before it freeze frames on her giving him a slap across the face after he accuses her of having an affair and he throws her out.

For series two the opening title sequence has changed completely from the faux Sweeney style of the previous year. To emphasise the testosterone oozing from Lampton's very pores it depicts him gazing out, standing on a hill like some feudal lord, over his Yorkshire roots of Dufton as Robert Earley's wonderfully brassy theme kicks in.

From images of Northern cobbled streets, then down the motorway to London, a succession of images of the Post Office Tower and the London Hilton are intercut with Haigh's stony face, complimented by its Peter Wyngarde moustache (another macho touch for this series) and a self-satisfied toke on a massive cigar (lots of phallic cigar imagery appears throughout the series too). He's truly the cock of the North and an encapsulation of the series's preoccupation with class and roots. Lampton as the man of two worlds, a mix of Yorkshire grit and London anonymity.

Essentially, the first episode then goes on to show how Lampton must get his domestic affairs in order and repair his relationship with his wife to keep on the right side of executive Bernard Maclaine (James Maxwell) who has now taken over at Lampton's company Clayton Textiles. Lampton's manipulation of Susan (and other women) is a central theme in this series and here his requirement of her to conform to the marital role is just to satisfy the puritanism of a chief executive. At the same time, he also has to settle a strike in one of the textile mills in his home town Dufton.
"still making the rules up as you go along."
The themes of class difference (or as one striker claims of Joe "to see if London's turned 'is belly soft"), returning to one's roots to confirm whether leaving them behind was necessary (symbolised in this episode by Joe meeting up with an old family friend and their discussion ranging from the gassiness of keg bear to the horror of living in tower blocks), and the wife's role in marriage and work are eventually explored throughout all of the thirteen episodes. 

You'll Never Understand Women also introduces the first of a number of fellow executives, most of whom are also trying to cling on to their power, here with Finch (Edward Petherbridge) attempting to sully Lampton's reputation with Maclaine. By fair means or foul Lampton and the likes of Finch try to pull the rug out from under each other. Lampton tends to win these battles with some spectacularly clever manoeuvre, often based on working-class common sense or insight but more likely conducted out of sheer ruthlessness. There are also clashes with a number of rivals for Susan's affections and, when he returns to Dufton to bring Susan back to London and sees off Paul Harmsworth (Donald Pickering), we're treated to one of many hilariously vitriolic exchanges between husband and wife. Susan sums up his attitude to his unorthodox methods at work and at home with "still making the rules up as you go along."

This ethos is more or less what drives the narratives of the following three episodes as Susan, lured back to living with Joe, embarks on her own career as a fashion consultant working for Mike Slater (Paul Shelley) and fights for her own independence. Joe utterly resents her having a job and suspects that Slater is having an affair with Susan. In A Very Desirable Property we are also introduced to a recurring character, the equally swaggering Charlie Armitage (Colin Welland) whom Joe cons out of property, then reneges on a land deal only finally to have him installed as a mithering election secretary when local politics comes calling at the end of the series in Winners are Losers.

Much of this echoes Braine's own ambitions as a working class writer and how success changed his political allegiances. As I covered in my review of the first series, Braine's character of Joe Lampton is supremely about the 'embourgeoisement' of the working class and how the perceived qualities of Britishness - fair play, respect and chivalry - are tossed aside for cold-hearted ambition and rampant acquisition of objects and people.
... swagger, male chauvinist bullshit and pithy backchat
The emphasis in the second series is definitely on the differences and prejudices between men and women - particularly Joe and Susan - and how that intersects with working and domestic lives as well as nascent free market Conservatism clashing with Keynesian industrial relations and union power.

The strike of You'll Never Understand Women is virtually replayed some ten episodes later in High Stakes. Both revolve around settling the dispute by manipulating trade union officials and by returning Joe to his roots in Warley and Dufton. His disenfranchisement with what could be perceived as the 'genuine working class' and family ties is further underlined in Welcome on the Mat where Lampton clashes with a local landowner, his cousin Arthur (Philip Stone), who doesn't care that his scheme to build a new shop will extinguish the pigeon loft, that great symbol of male working class life, belonging to Joe's uncle. It's also interesting to note that Joe's revived ambitions confer on him the status of prospective member of parliament for Warley as a result of his strike negotiations in High Stakes. Perhaps he's the symbol of the decline in class defined voting in Britain during the 1970s because he is seen as neither Labour nor Conservative but as an 'independent' candidate. How he deals with this is taken up in the final two episodes and his response is as unorthodox as ever.

The second series also examines very closely Lampton's family and not just the relationship with his wife, who after blossoming in a job she likes is prevented from progressing any further by her selfish husband, but also to his own flesh and blood, Barbara and Harry. The internecine board room battles, industrial power games and sexual misadventures abruptly come to a halt in A Mug Like Me where Lampton is forced to take stock of the way he steamrollers through business life and the people in it, and affected by it, when Susan is injured in a car crash that results in the death of their daughter, Barbara.

The episode is perhaps the pinnacle of Brennand and Bottomley's achievements with the series, finally tearing away the swagger, male chauvinist bullshit and pithy backchat to reveal a Lampton who does have moral boundaries and comes to realise he has never stopped to think of the real consequences of his working class made good crusade and the manipulation of his wife and family to his own ends.
... a wake up call for Lampton
Both Walker and Haigh give particularly sensitive performances in an episode that completely alters the trajectory of the characters for a significant number of episodes. Lampton rejects the demands of his new boss Henry Webster (George Sewell) who gets him to compete with fellow executive Kempson (Paul Eddington) in a bid to install him as his right hand man. Webster is something of a wake up call for Lampton - being a reflection of himself as the cold-hearted, unsympathetic bastard - and he does not like what he sees, describing Webster as "full of shit." The death of his daughter momentarily provides him with something approaching clarity and a sense of guilt about his working practices.

Post A Mug Like Me the next few episodes see Lampton adrift, unemployed and having to start from scratch. As he embarks on an affair with a doctor, Helen Reid (Janet Kay) and his father-in-law Abe and wife Susan discover that he has been fooling them into believing he still has an executive job, he is reduced to flogging chocolate bars as a confectionery rep in All Very Hush Hush. His emasculation indicates those very traditional links, still potent in 1970s society, between the male provider, work and masculine identity. His wife, after recovering from the crash, has a breakdown and emerges as an extremely bitter woman who finds a modicum of courage in alcoholic addiction, desperate to keep her son at home and her distance from Joe.

The final six episodes show Joe's inexorable return to the top of executive life as his wife suffers further ignominy and despair when she discovers how he slept his way (with reporter Janet Adams) to landing a prize job with Sir Robert Hudson (Robert Beatty) in Don't Rock the Boat. Really, she should have known not to expect anything less of him.
... lord of nothing but himself
He even turns the tables on Webster in a rematch and unbeknownst to Hudson, is traitorous enough to get Hudson replaced as chairman with his brother Donald (Paul Maxwell) as the series explores the replacement of collective corporate greed and industrial relations with a more individualist desire for wealth creation in Living Like a Lord. This preempts much of what happened at the end of the 1970s when free market monetarist policies and a focus on entrepreneurial competition were in their ascendancy.

By the close of the series, Lampton's brusque Yorkshire attitude turns nastier as he moves into local politics and is reunited briefly with Helen Reid in Winners are Losers. Momentarily it looks like he's prepared to give it all up and get a divorce from Susan but, when his influential sponsor Lord Belmont (Richard Vernon) makes him an offer he can't refuse (and above all Lampton is never satisfied), he kicks Donald out of his role as chairman and dumps Helen. Susan has by this time withdrawn to a safe distance and is no longer the recipient of Joe's opprobrium.

In the finale, The Foreman's Job at Last the pressure cooker finally boils over as Charlie Armitage, Abe and Lord Belmont push Joe to breaking point after the death of his uncle, Dick Lampton. Abe and Belmont turn the funeral and memorial service into a vast PR exercise and use it to announce an investment deal that will seal Joe's success in the elections. This leaves a very nasty taste in Joe's mouth and he wrestles with his conscience. Susan, meanwhile, is also tiring of the respectable front she is being forced, by her father Abe, to provide for Joe's career. The memorial service is a spellbinding moment where Joe literally tears down what he sees as his own hypocrisy and takes his masters Abe and Belmont with him. The last image is of Lampton on the hillside looking down on Dufton, mirroring the title sequence's notion of him as lord of his domain but finally where he is lord of nothing but himself.

Brennand and Bottomley certainly knew what they were doing with these thirteen episodes and not only provide an entertaining melodrama but also plot it with great precision. They weave their supporting characters of Charlie Armitage, Helen Reid, Henry Webster and Janet Adams deftly into the struggles between Joe and Susan and her parents Abe and Margaret (Paul Hardwick and Avice Landone) and Joe's son Harry (Brendan Price) who, by the end of High Stakes, is thoroughly disgusted with his father's double standards.

Cruising through all of this, holding a steady course between underplaying and exaggeration, is Kenneth Haigh as Joe Lampton. Clearly relishing the part, he never disappoints in any of the episodes, even if Lampton now comes across as a close relative of Gene Hunt, albeit without the charm. There is also great nostalgic pleasure to be found in the production design and costumes of the period, epitomised early in the series with the high camp value of Stephanie Beacham, as Paula, modeling fur hats and coats when Joe comes to visit her at a studio in The Knacker's Yard. Plenty of flares, wide-lapelled suits and leisure wear to drink in while eyeing up the distinctive wallpaper and furnishings.

As a postscript, less than a year after the final episode of the series, Kenneth Haigh returned as Joe Lampton in a continuation of the story but this time on the big screen. In Wayne Kinsey's Hammer Films - The Elstree Studio Years, director Mike Vardy, who had helmed many of the television episodes, takes up the story, "For its time, the series had been very popular and had been a real ratings success for ITV. During production of the second series, somebody at Hammer must have thought it might translate into a successful feature for the UK market."

Kenneth Haigh co-produced the film (as Dufton Films) with Hammer and their EMI distributors, and Vardy was hired as a director, as someone who knew the show well. Written by John Junkin and Hugh Whitemore, the film sees Joe as the managng director of a pharmaceutical company, working for Lord Ackerman (Harry Andrews) and, investigating the suicide of his predecessor, he discovers that a new drug that is about to be marketed in Africa has serious side-effects.

Despite Hammer executive Michael Carreras dismissing the film as "a total disaster" it captures the flavour of the series very well. Memorable TV. Com described it as "all very 1970s... there is ample nudity and thuggery... but Haigh is superb... it looks at one stage that Joe is going to get a crisis of conscience but as the final scenes play out you realise that once again he has arranged things so that he comes out on top."

Well, we wouldn't have it any other way, would we?

Man at the Top - The Complete Second Series
Thames 1972
Network DVD / Released 11 April 2011 / 7953513 / 650 mins approx / Region 2 - PAL / Subtitles - None / Sound: Mono - English / 1.33:1 / Colour / Cert: 12

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