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The Servant that led cinema into a new era

It's 50 years since Joseph Losey's movie liberated British filmmaking. Ahead of a special screening, Geoffrey Macnab considers its legacy

Fifty years after The Servant (1963) was first released, it's easy to forget quite how creepy and transgressive Joseph Losey's film once seemed. The early 1960s was still an era of Norman Wisdom comedies like A Stitch In Time (also released in 1963 and a huge box office hit) and of rip-roaring war movies like 633 Squadron (1964). True, British cinema had its own “new wave” of sorts led by Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz, making gritty new films in the north of England, but Losey's movie wasn't anything like The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner or Saturday Night And Sunday Morning. As scripted by Harold Pinter from a novella by Robin Maugham, The Servant played like a twisted, homoerotic 1960s version of one of PG Wodehouse's Jeeves stories.

You could tell that Losey meant mischief right from the opening shot. The camera pans across a tree-laden Chelsea street before closing in on the shopfront of Thomas Crapper (“By Appointment To The Late King George V Sanitary Engineers”). In front of the shop, crossing the road, brandishing his umbrella, is Barrett (Dirk Bogarde), en route for an interview with Master Tony (James Fox), the young toff who wants a manservant (a “gentleman's gentleman”) for his new townhouse.

What was startling about The Servant wasn't simply its subject matter – the fractious, shifting and increasingly intimate relationship between master and butler – but its showy style. British films tended to be characterised by their restraint but Losey (the American who had fled to the UK to escape the anti-communist witch hunts) was always ready to show off his artistry, The jazzy music, the sinuous camerawork (the film was shot by Douglas Slocombe, who turned 100 last month) and the constant use of mirrors created a disorienting and jarring effect. Even the use of dialogue was stylised. “He (Pinter) understands how often the human creature uses words to block communication,” Losey enthused of his screenwriter.

Robin Maugham's novella was written in the late 1940s but the film is set very firmly in the early 1960s, in a period when old certainties about class and sexuality were being challenged as never before – 1963 was the year of the Profumo Affair. As Philip Larkin later told us ironically in his poem Annus Mirabilis, it was the year that sexual intercouse began, “Between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles' first LP.”

The Servant portrays a British society in the process of deep social upheaval. The very idea of domestic servants is already anachronistic. Tony isn't living in some Downton Abbey-style country house but on his own in London. We're never quite sure where his money comes from (the assumption is that he has inherited it) or what he does. (He has vague business plans in Latin America.) He has many of the characteristics of a Bertie Wooster – he's idle, impractical and enjoys a drink – but he isn't a comical figure at all. At first, as he orders Barrett around, he appears in control but we soon realise he is more the dependent than the master (if only because he appears incapable of doing anything for himself.)

The gay subtext to the story is a matter of continuing debate. “I don't want the film to be simply a study of a little homosexual affair,” Losey is quoted as telling a journalist in David Caute's biography of the director. Dirk Bogarde, too, was keen to play down this side of the film. He had recently starred as a bisexual lawyer in Basil Dearden's Victim (1961). Although keen to leave his old life as Rank Organisation matinee idol behind, he was also wary about alienating his fans.

When The Servant was released, the response from British reviewers was wildly enthusiastic but they were more interested in the class tensions than in the attraction between the master and the servant. As they noted, this wasn't a two-hander – alongside Bogarde's Barrett and James Fox's Tony, the film features strong female characters – Sarah Miles as Barrett's promiscuous “sister” Vera to whom Tony is very attracted, and Wendy Craig as his haughty fiancée, Susan.

“I think critics at the time were a little bit shocked at the implications of what was going on in the film,” comments Brian Robinson, a programmer at the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (where a restored print of The Servant is screening.) Robinson cites a moment early in the film when Barrett first meets his future employer and is asked if he can cook. “My soufflés have always received a great deal of praise in the past,” the butler boasts.

“For a man to be making soufflés in 1963, at a time when Continental cooking is not as widespread as it is now, was definitely something a little bit suspect,” Robinson suggests.

The Continental flavour of The Servant was precisely what appealed to 1960s critics, even if they didn't care to probe too deeply into Barrett's relationship with his employer. They acclaimed a film, which (as Dilys Powell put it in The Sunday Times) was doing “for our screen something of what the great Italians and the best of the young French have been doing for their own screens”.

Inevitably, there was grumbling in the letters pages of newspapers about the pretentiousness of The Servant but it had a hugely liberating effect on British filmmaking. You can trace a direct line from Losey's film to Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg's Performance (1968), another claustrophobic, mind-bending British drama exploring sexual and social identity.

With his outsider's eye, Losey picked up on the absurdities in the British class system. The original Robin Maugham novel was told from the aristocrats' point of view and was unashamedly snobbish but the film – in spite of Bogarde's oleaginousness as Barrett – is far more even-handed. “Look, he may be a servant but he is still a human being,” James Fox's Tony earnestly tells Wendy Craig when she is off hand with him. It's hardly an original insight but it's one that few other British films had ever bothered making before.

A new 50th anniversary restoration of 'The Servant' screens at the 27th BFI London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival on 21 March (whatson.bfi.org.uk/llgff/Online/the-servant)