Attendant Lord

Ben Aris as John Thomas, the new master, in IF….

Nobody ever talks about Ben Aris.

I don’t want to be the first.

One of those very useful types British cinema exults in. He should be rights have inherited all the posh, ineffectual roles Richard Wattis used to play, but Aris never achieved Wattis’s (marginal) level of recognition. Yet he fills out the casts of some of our great films, with his unmistakable combination of the vulpine and the unready.

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;

Am an attendant lord, one that will do

To swell a progress, start a scene or two,

Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,

Deferential, glad to be of use,

Politic, cautious, and meticulous;

Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;

At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—

Almost, at times, the Fool.

In JUGGERNAUT, Aris spends the whole film taking a bracing stroll around the deck of the Britannic, an imperiled ocean liner in stormy seas. Like IF…., this is a state-of-the-nation address centred on a microcosm of Britain, but here the whole thing’s disguised as a group jeopardy thriller. Aris’s pointless but unending perambulations mark him out as something akin to The Spirit of England.

JUGGERNAUT’s director, Richard Lester, seems not to have been a favourite of Lindsay Anderson (who had few favourites outside his immediate cohorts in the Free Cinema movement), but they used a lot of the same actors. Lester elevates extras, Tati-style, into featured players, while sometimes reducing his stars to background artists (qv John Lennon’s complaint of HELP! “We were extras in our own film.”) So for a wily and characterful actor like Aris, the opportunities were there, however tiny the role. In ROYAL FLASH he gets the funniest gag, being brained by a swinging champagne bottle at a christening ceremony for a new locomotive. Rather than doing a straight pratfall, Aris sways like a sapling in a hight wind, shimmying in an extravagant and physically impossibly manner with his whole gangly body, like a piece of wet spaghetti dangling up instead of down, before collapsing bonelessly — all made funnier by the enormous fur busby atop his head, which joins in the movement in sympathy.

5 Responses to “Attendant Lord”

  1. Juggernaut would make for a great double-feature with Film Socialisme (the latter being so much in the news these days.)

  2. estienne64 Says:

    When I was growing up British TV was positively swimming with ‘type’ character actors: Ben Aris was just one of many who successfully wangled themselves into my subconscious. British casting choices feel much lazier these days, from the top (a handful of brand names) downwards. Aris never seemed to have very much to say, even when he briefly became a regular on the ridiculously popular sitcom ‘Hi-de’Hi’ in the 1980s, though as you say he was always adept at being physically inept (he played a ballroom dancer on the show). Given how easily he assumed the mantle of a minor English aristo or hapless middle manager, I always found his foreign-looking surname intriguing. His son Jonathan, a shorter and prissier chip off the old block, is still in very regular work on British TV (eg the pathologist in the updated ‘Sherlock’ series).

  3. In an odd way, Juggernaut might pair well with Britannia Hospital — the Britannic and the Britannia, two state-of-the-nation microcosms stuffed to the gunnels with beloved character players.

    It occurs to me that I know far more of those actors than I know real people.

  4. Well that’s because they’re more fun than real people.

    I love the scene where he’s shown to his room in If. . .

  5. Beautifully bleak.

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