My City #5

Princes Street (screen right). The word “Directed” is slapped on top of Edinburgh Castle.

THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES is one of a trio of post-Ealing comedies directed by Charles Crichton, which sought to replicate, perhaps a little self-consciously, the “gentle humour” associated with that studio’s output. Crichton’s cinema career rather sputtered out over the course of these productions (THE LOVE LOTTERY, LAW AND DISORDER), although he remained active in television. It took the injection of some Monty Python acidity to give Crichton a sudden boost — A FISH CALLED WANDA ended his  career on a high.

In TBOTS, Peter Sellers gets to demonstrate his celebrated versatility as an elderly Scotsman, whose tweed company is threatened with modernization by American businesswoman Constance Cummings. I don’t know how faithful the treatment is to James Thurber’s source story, The Catbird Seat, but the action largely plays in Edinburgh, which is where I come in.

This is one of those productions that snatch a few set-ups in Edinburgh then decamp to an English studio (in this case, Independent Artists Studios, Beaconsfield, now the National Film School). Crichton chooses some prime tourist spots, cramming Edinburgh Castle into the background whenever he can swing it ~

The columns screen left are part of the National Gallery, an eighteenth-century neoclassical affair. The castle is arrayed along the horizon. Robert Morley is meant to be in the cab but I’m not sure he is.

However, the stars of the film did make it up here, so we get a nice “and did these feet in ancient times” feeling from seeing Sellers and Cummings in situ.

Here’s Sellers on the High Street, with the law courts and St Giles Cathedral behind him, where, exactly forty years later, we’ll film the hanging of William Burke in BURKE AND HARE: THE MUSICAL. I think the little side-street (or “close”) Sellers has just emerged from was also used in that short.

The street is Castle Wynd, the Castle is silhouetted at screen top courtesy of a graded filter, and the building with all the windows at screen left is Edinburgh College of Art, where you’ll find me on teaching days. But not in 1959, when I was minus eight years old.

This one really looks like a glimpse into another time. Yet only the traffic has really changed today. The building screen left was the North British Hotel and is now the Balmoral, otherwise unaltered. In the far distance is the volcanic jut of Salisbury Crags, which hasn’t moved about for tens of thousands of years, at least. The bridge leads up to shops which are still shops and newspaper offices which are now a hotel. Oh, I guess that nice lamppost has gone. If I were really ambitious I’d go up town and take a snap from the same spot, but the zoom’s broken on my camera so I might not be able to match the framing.

Here’s an odd one. To save money, when Sellers and Cummings head north to visit the crofters who make the tweed his company deals in, the scenes are actually shot in around Arthur’s Seat, the big volcanic hill in Edinburgh’s Queen’s Park. Essentially the same crags seen in the distance in image 4.

The movie itself is mildly funny, sinisterly sexist, and suffers from the unadventurous spirit of much 1950s British filmmaking. The burst of energy released during wartime, which lasted to some extent into the early 50s, boosting the ambitions of modest talents and allowing great ones like Powell & Pressburger to attain amazing heights, has now largely dissipated. In a few years, a whole new energy will be unleashed, in which Sellers’ former TV collaborator, Richard Lester will play a major role…

UK Shadowplayers can buy BATTLE here:
Battle Of The Sexes [1959] [DVD]

And Crichton’s more interesting wartime opus, POINTED BOATS, here:
Painted Boats [DVD] [1945]

7 Responses to “My City #5”

  1. I saw this when it came out. It was a big hit stateside, and ran exclusively in a New York art house for months before fanning out to the suburbs. What impressed everyone at the time was how reserved and subtle Sellers was with this particular portrayal.

    Chrichton of course went on to unexpected later glory with A Fish Called Wanda When John Cleese was asked why he hired him for the film he said “Everyone wants brilliant young directors. I want brilliant old ones. They tend to know what they’re doing.”

  2. really interesting stuff, but isn’t the shot four down Johnstone Terrace, not Castle Wynd?

  3. Cleese asked Crichton if he was the best Ealing director. “No, I was the second best. Sandy Mackendrick was the best.”

    At the Edinburgh Film Fest Cleese introduced Crichton as “the oldest film director in captivity,” and Crichton bounded onto the stage crying “I’m not dead yet!”

    Sellers is fairly muted here, but not as utterly real as he is in I’m Alright Jack.

  4. As to the streets… ack, I should just know this, but looking at photo references online, both answers seem valid. You’re probably right.

  5. Google Maps to the rescue — you’re quite right, and Castle Wynd is a tiny sidestreet adjoining Johnstone Terr.

  6. David, If you can wait a couple of days, I’ll be in Edinburgh with my camera on Monday and will have a go at replicating Shot 4.

  7. Thanks, that’d be terrific!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: