THE PLOT: Terrence Rattigan, creaky old warhorse of West End French window theatre, makes the final stand for old fashioned sighs-‘n’-string-sections melodrama in a big ensemble piece centred on London’s fashionable London Airport’s fashionable VIP lounge. Among the passengers are: Paul Andros (Richard Burton) who’s dropping his wife Frances (Liz Taylor) off for a holiday, though she’s secretly going to dump him and fly off for a Stateside knee-trembler with the louche Marc Champselle (Louis Jourdan); bonzer tractor magnate Les Mangrum (Rod Taylor) and his diligent secretary (Maggie Smith); arch film director Max Buba (Orson Welles) and the ditzy Duchess of Brighton (Margaret Rutherford). Will they get to their destinations? How will their stories all intertwine? It’s another busy day at… London Airport!
This one might make most sense if we trot through it as it comes at us, so please be patient. Being one of those Big Old MGM productions, this looks twice as ancient as it is. By the time this came out even Philip Larkin was turning on, but save a few bits of fitted furniture this could have been made at any time in the previous decade. The opening credits have been carefully thought out for one thing; a bit of curtain-up quaintness all the other studios stopped bothering with after Suez. We immediately open on a swish art deco gazebo hosting a lavish dinner party, at which Liz, Dick (he’s on a platter-mounted phone while at table – establish character!) and Louis moon about while their credits appear. Louis and Liz make faces at each other while Burton makes deals on the phone. So there’s your requisite romantic triangle of leads all nicely laid out at the start, like that cheery little cardboard diagram of where the wires go that comes helpfully impaled on the prongs of a 1 3-Amp plug.
The other stars get similar ‘in their natural environment’ treatment. Dame Margs is spotted in a churchyard, and establishes her ‘dotty yet indomitable’ character with a few quiet moves, emotional economy in action. Liz, take note! Next we see diligent but frustrated, as performed by Maggie Smith at a big old G-Plan office desk. Her boss Rod Taylor, meanwhile, languishes out among his tractors. Then, after Orson looms up in bashed hat and red scarf and mugs furiously at the lens, we get an unselfconsciously clichéd roll of red carpet over the film’s title. (Incidentally, the ‘fun’ doesn’t let up even as we go into the obligatory time-saving photomontage for the rest of the names: the 3/4 of a Punch reader’s dream bridge game that is Dennis Price, Richard Wattis and Ronald Fraser are represented on screen by the grills of Rolls-Royces to denote their well-bred nature, while David Frost is most amusingly symbolised by a Mini. Later, the ‘Miss Elizabeth Taylor’s wardrobe supplied by’ puff is represented with a shot of a moth eaten old cardie slung willy-nilly over a battered chair of the ‘seating for security guard in run-down stately home’ variety. We’re not exactly in Around the World in Eighty Days credits territory here, but they do try.
So, with that catalogue of jet-set accoutrements out of the way, time for the film proper, which will of course turn out to be an even longer catalogue of jet-set accoutrements, as becomes clear from the moment we see Orson’s Cadillac pull into the glory that was London Airport. It’s undeniably swish, is London, with the split-level hangar decked out in yellow and marble, so shot looking from the roof down it’s something of a Festival of Britain vision, but any glimpses of the out of town cash-and-carry roof give it all away.
The VIP restaurant fares better – no open plan EST bar or grim cod-Irish indoor pub for the first class set. It’s all brash-yet-tasteful square orange podia topped by jungle ferns. The high life! But we shouldn’t carp, as with package holidays still beyond most people’s pay packets, a big selling point of this film would really have been the chance to see what London Airport – indeed, any airport, actually looks like inside.
And we are really in the actual airport, as the shite dubbing quickly makes clear. We first get wind of the sound situation when Frostie turns up, playing an exaggerated version of his (reputed, at least) obsequious chat show persona, being all familiar with Welles while sticking the knife in. ‘Excuse me, Mr Buba, but aren’t you rather overweight?’ Orson: ‘???! Oh, the luggage!’ Thus are set both the silly tone of Orson’s comedy vignettes in this film, and the sound levels, Welles in particular, ever the king of atrocious dubbing, sounding like he’s in a Bird’s Eye pea voice over booth rather than standing in a big, echoey airport. Still, the brain adjusts after a while, as it adjusts to pretty much everything else slightly off kilter this film can throw at it, mainly because it’s got no choice.
Now here’s Richard Wattis as the brilliantly diligent VIP receptionist, full of just-below-panic-level flightiness and old world deference to his worthy charges. Seeing a well-loved British character actor ham it up with proper Hollywood stars is always a joy, even if the results aren’t comedy gold, and the rule holds here. When Burton admiringly dubs Wattis ‘the best reception manager of any airline in the world,’ we defy you not to lep ten feet in the air with pleasure.
For high comedy that works on its own terms as well, the wait is over. Enter Margs, fiddling about in a bottomless handbag for her vaccination certificate. ‘Do I really need one, In India I went through an epidemic of Black Water Fever… I’m not afraid of smallpox!’ Eventually she produces a ration book. ‘How did that get there?’ Margs hasn’t flown before, so she’s borrowed some ‘uppers’ from her maid, if you please. ‘It’s pepped me up all right! But not just up, in all directions!’ This is all, obviously, brilliant, but it slightly spoils things, in a way. Now the vicarious pleasures of watching the rest of the old school melodramatic shenanigans will be tempered by the desperate desire to see Margs back in action. There can never be enough of the old dear, and her absence casts a bit of a shadow over the violin-washed proceedings throughout.
Speaking of which, the least interesting and therefore biggest chunk of the narrative is choppered onto the airport concourse in an Eskimo coat. As Liz and Dick swan through to the bar, they happen upon Dick’s chum Marc. What a coincidence! ‘You, of all people!’ Meanwhile, Rod has arrived and is the latest contestant in the film’s game show, Waltz Up to Wattis. ‘Orlwroight there! Mangrum’s the name, chairman o’ Mangrum tractors! Brung us a noice, hut cuppa toy!’ Wattis guesses his antipodean roots. ‘Oi always thought oi spoke as English as Macmillan!’ He’s corny is Rod, but he’s a goofy bugger with it, which is more than you get from the film’s other businessman, Dicko.
Meanwhile Maggie Smith gets to communicate her frustration through long admiring looks as Rod yammers urgent business down the line. ‘Top Amalgamated’s offer by a shilling a share! A shilling a share!’ It’s Rod’s destiny to save his tractors via some convoluted ruse that’s incomprehensible to our tiny business-ignorant minds, but involves him having to get to his New York boardroom ahead of some cheque being cashed, or something.
Now Burton’s naffed off leaving Louis alone with Liz. (Incidentally, before this tale gets any duller, and it will exponentially, it’s worth mentioning Rattigan based this bit of the film on a true story, that of his old chum Laurence Olivier, who was cuckolded in just the same manner over Vivien Leigh by Peter Finch.) Louis bangs on about ‘playing the field’ and stiffing rich old duffers at cards. He’s the no good young gadabout, Burton the boring old tycoon. How closely these personas relate to Larry and Pete is uncertain. Liz, sporting so much hair lacquer and red lippy she resembles Ruth Madoc with a lardy cake on her head, voices suspicions of Burton’s suspicions of them. He called Louis a gigolo, she maintains, and Jourdan is outraged. ‘A gigolo?! The nerve! We just paid for these teas!’ he responds, weirdly.
Now over to Orson, trussed up in his coat like a fat Bernard Cribbins, or maybe a rapidly greying Paul Shane, discussing tax dodges with his loopy mitteleuropean financial guru. He must leave the country by midnight tonight to avoid losing a million quid to Hector the Inspector. And here comes Frostie again, Timmy Williams played by Timmy Williams. ‘Sorry, I wonder if I could impose on you some questions?’ Welles ignores him, preferring to patronise his daffy Euro-starlet accomplice, the subtly-named Gloria Gritti, played by Elsa Martinelli, who was in Welles’s The Trial at about this time, so we now know what he’s doing here – going through the motions to scare up some cash to pay off that film’s creditors. Which ties in nicely with the tax dodge storyline, which the stereotypically giggly and carefree actress now imprudently blurts out to Frostie.
Never mind that low comedy, high drama kicks in as… it’s announced fog will delay all flights for an hour. Thus the dilemmas are triggered. It transpires Taylor’s left a Dear John letter on Burton’s mantelpiece – there’s now a chance he might see it and come back to the airport before they’re out of it. Rod, obviously, is buggered if his arcane business meeting is missed. Welles will find his self-assessment form takes rather longer to fill in if there’s any further delay. And Margs will be so off her tits as to pose a major security alert. No doubt mulling all this over, the man at the top frets and ponders in his swish, panoramic-windowed office with the grave dynamism only Michael Hordern can give. The sheer scale of managing Britain’s busiest airport is made plain. ‘I have 27 flights due to take off this morning and some 3000 passengers on my hands!’ The Met Office (combined staff: Richard Briers) have let him down again. Hordern expresses his deep concern to a s hocked Wattis in grave yet bizarre terms. ‘If it gets any thicker even the pigeons’ll have to walk!’
Still, the VIPs are given complimentary luncheon vouchers, which placates the stoned Margs, at least. But the others have enough on their plates as it is. Liz phones home, and Burton answers. Ulp. Louis sorely tempts fate by musing ‘something tells me the next hour will drag a bit.’ Sure enough, here he comes, Louis suspecting he’s got a gun on him. They peg it to a safe enough distance to allow Liz to break down in a torrent of Rattigan’s finest cornball emotion. She is, unsurprisingly, having second thoughts about it all. ‘His face – I’ll never forget it as long as I live!’
Meanwhile Margs loads up still further. ‘I’ve got two enormous purple things here which apparently knock you out flat!’ Wattis ushers her onto an absurdly spacious plane (your captain: Terence Alexander), where she plonks herself down next to Clifton James and gets into a fine old contretemps with stewardess Moyra Fraser over a hatbox that won’t fit in the compartment. ‘Conductress!’ ‘Did someone call something?’ Moyra is supercilious to a fault, but Margs is more than a match. ‘If you wanted this with the rest of your luggage you should have thought of that before, shouldn’t you?’ ‘If that is a question to me personally, yes. [Tilts hat at rakish angle like Eric Morecambe doing a cod gangster pose prior to a vigorous ‘now look sunshine’.] If it is a general comment about human behaviour it is an extremely unoriginal one, and hardly worth making. Kindly dispose of this hat box.’ Margs is, in her own words, ‘flying already’.
Time for more Hollywood star/Brit stalwart interfacing at the BOAC helpdesk with Orson Welles. Behind it, Lance Percival. ‘A million pounds? Now that’s quite a situation to be in I must say, sir!’ Further fog sends Margs off the plane and back into the bar for a large brandy. And now back to the wall, as Louis and Liz commence round two of Rattigan’s ratty dialogue tournament. Liz pours her heart out. Louis responds ‘please, don’t talk like a woman’s magazine!’ A fair point. But it’s better Terry sticks to airless clichés than tries to be witty off his own bat. Liz regards Louis as helpless. ‘Helpless? Me? The most notoriously self-sufficient character of the age?’ Just the sort of thing someone would say!
Burton corners Louis alone and points, but doesn’t fire, the gun, which he was carrying through the airport all the time. Simpler days… Burton instead indulges in that ‘chequebook generosity’ Liz has upbraided him for, and tries to buy Louis off with a cheque for ten grand, signed with a really big pen. But Louis won’t be bought, declaring his genuine love for Liz in phrase s brilliantly fashioned by Rattigan to sound not at all incongruous coming out of a Frenchman’s mouth. ‘You poor bloody idiot!’ I love her, Paul. The only woman in my life I ever have loved…’ Cue violins. Louis joins in the slagging of Burton’s expensive but thoughtless gifts. ‘She’d rather have had the odd toy duck from Woolworth’s if you’d chosen it yourself!’ Burton in turn impugns upon Louis’s good name. ‘You’re a gigolo! a buffoon! a professional diner outer!’ Louis tries to reason with him. ‘Killing me won’t get your wife back! e Eventually he leaves, and Liz looks even more bereft. Or is she just knackered?
She probably is, as all flights are grounded until morning, so we relocate to a swish hotel full of wedge-shaped G-Plan sofas, terracotta walls, ethnic sculptures bunged in crevices, cardboard lift doors and big brass urns full of bulrushes on plinths. Margs totters in accompanied by the Brass Eye Answer Prancer music. Orson’s accountant has ‘lost himself in the woods near somewhere called…Bore-Ham.’ And Liz continues to strop it out. There’s no sign here of the ‘any good’ Taylor of Virginia Woolf here, that’s for sure. mind you, with dialogue like Ratty’s, what’s there to be done except Mills-and-Boon it up? Cue strings again, as Louis gazes rapt into Liz’s limpid pools.
Outside, Orson, faced with bankruptcy, marries his star for a desperate, last minute tax break. But surely that’s only come into force during the next financial year? Maggie continues with her ‘nunnishly devoted secretary who looks increasingly like a brunette June Whitfield’ shtick as Rod drowns his sorrows. ‘Once the crocodiles get ya, ya stay got at!’ But at least they’re a bit silly. Back at the narrative coalface, Liz has teased a flange of hair our of her tonsorial lardy cake and put on a hot pink number. She and Burton engage in one of those big, tense, on-opposite-sides-of-the-room-looking-away-from-each-other whispered conversations. ‘No, Paul! It’s too late now!’ ‘Have these eleven years meant nothing to you?’ ‘I thought I was giving you enough! But I was wrong. You wanted more!’ ‘That’s the kind of husband I am!’ Finally he forces her arm through a mirrored wardrobe door. Undone by high rent glamour! ‘I don’t belong to anyone now! Love me yes, and need me above all, but… I’m a person!’
Now those narrative strands start coming together with subtle storytelling deftness. Or great big wodges of telegraphed clodhoppery, whichever is in readier supply. Maggie and Rod, now quite ‘squiffy’ after a conciliatory blow-out, spot the dejected Burton at the bar. Rod is in awe. ‘Comparing him to me is like comparing Sydney Harbour Bridge to a pontoon!’ Rod must have loved delivering that line. Spoiling the party, Rod’s missus, ex-Mrs Tyrone Power Linda Christian, turns up in her brand new leopard skin pill-box hat. Maggie mousily shrinks off, but plucks up enough mousey courage to beg Richard Burton for the requisite 150,000-odd smackeroos needed to save Rod’s tractor-making arse. Miraculously (read: astonishingly unconvincingly) he coughs up, signing the cheque with an even bigger pen, and Mags returns to Rodd triumphant. ‘Wacko! You little beauty!’ In something approaching a subtle touch, wifey is now all but forgotten, and slinks out as Mags and Rod go business bonker s together. Maggie is now all confident smouldering and tonsil-flaunting laughs, having gone on Her Journey in about four minutes flat. Still, it’s sweet enough, stopping recklessly just short of ‘without your glasses, you’re beautiful!’ territory.
Back downstairs, Burton is a broken man, cracking up in an uncannily similar way to Herbert Lom in the Pink Panther films. Let’s hope he doesn’t shoot off his nose with that gun the security staff presumably still haven’t found. Meanwhile Margs, not keen to go to bed, scores more amphetamines off the elderly night porter, who is of course Rutherford’s husband Stringer Davis doing his contractually obliged cameo. Suitably doped up, she goes into a reverie of Old England. ‘Do you know a village in Sussex called Thaxmead?’ She makes heavy use of that little ‘eyes shut, mouth makes little ‘Ooooh!’ of silent rapture’ expression Patricia Routledge would later employ in many a Kitty monologue.
The dawn is heralded with a stirring panoramic shot of the airfield with one plane on it. Wattis is fretting about a visiting Russian delegation. ‘Lay on champagne, caviar and cake. Some sort of Russian looking cake.’ Louis and Liz leave through the airport’s modernist stained glass lobby and into the Caddy with rotten back projection, looking even more incongruous than usual, as it’s Liz Taylor in front of a projection of some overcast rows of semis in Hounslow.
More story strands are ham-fistedly woven together as Welles eyes a stately home on a poster for a film location – which turns out to belong to Margs! The money’s good, and she no longer has to leave the country! Sadly that also means she’s no longer in this film, and the departure of her dowager Tom Baker feels like the end of the film. As indeed it is. Rod and Maggie finally cop off. Liz gets a suicide note from Dick, and makes her choice breathily. ‘I love you Marc, but I must leave you. You and I can never see each other as long as we live… Now go and catch that plane!’ A fur hatted Liz runs across the airport, in a big showy scene featuring all those duty free shops in full glory, to collapse in Burton’s arms outside London Airport’s equivalent of Waterstone’s. Her final words are uncannily like those which would end Boom! some five years later. ‘I’m so tired… take me home.’
Why is this dollop of mouldering chocolate box fluff so watchable? It can’t just be the table lamps. So why do we, died-in-the-wool Gone with the Wind haters that we are, love this sort of stuff? After all, MGM had barely changed their romantic drama style in the intervening 30-odd years between the two films. Perhaps it’s the fun of seeing an old warhorse of a sub-genre being unceremoniously packed off to the knacker’s yard, foaming slightly at the mouth. And speaking of Liz, well, she’s still firmly aping the old matinee idols here, but her impression’s too crap to tell if she’s trying to do Vivien Leigh or not. (We mean Gone with the Wind Vivien Leigh; we know she’s doing the standing-up-Sir-Larry Vivien Leigh. God, this gets confusing.) She certainly comes worst out of the three nascent Dames in the picture, Maggie trouncing all her tearful cupboard-clobbering self harm with a supressed whimper, and of course La Rutherford burying the both of them with, of all things, a comedy stoner act – thus ironically providing the only vaguely 1960s element of the film, as well as the only vaguely funny one.
Was Margs’s Oscar a bit OTT, a hasty ‘it’s for everything else she’s done, really’ gong flung at the venerable old bird on her final approach to the end eternal twig? Maybe, but she wipes everyone else off that slippy marble floor with ease, and deserved to beat even fellow ennobled nominee Edith Evans, who was up for Miss Western in Tom Jones, a film that had proper jokes in it and everything. And as well as the stars, there’s Orson Welles to show everyone how not to do a cameo – taking the piss, copping Rentaghost-sized double takes and generally treating the entire enterprise with such self-important contempt he might as well have studded the back of his coat with ‘I’m only doing this shite for the cash’ in rhinestones. The ego-free Margs relishes any work – no job too small, and no childishly indignant ‘I’m better than this!’ bluster for her. A proper pro at work. Dame 1, ‘Master’ 0. And we bet she does a mean frozen pea voiceover too.