Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Separate Tables, 1958

Terence Rattigan's 1954 play SEPARATE TABLES is a Fifties time capsule now, capturing as it does that genteel Bournemouth hotel with its residents at their separate tables ... the play is in two acts, with the main two leads playing different characters in each act, the other residents stay the same. In the original production it was Eric Porter and Margaret Leighton. But the Hecht-Hill-Lancaster production team when they made the popular 1958 film in Hollywood, combined them both into one continuous narrative, thus 4 stars were required for the main 4 characters, who are now Burt and Rita Hayworth, and David Niven and Deborah Kerr. This required a lot of dexterous pruning of the original script, which Rattigan himself did with John Gay and an uncredited John Michael Hayes. 
In the theatre when played as two acts, the acts are 18 months apart time-wise, but in the film we are in the continuous timeframe of the first act. This means a lot of the young couple (Rod Taylor and Audrey Dalton, below right) has been removed, and new material inserted, like scenes between Sybil and Mrs Shankland (Kerr and Hayworth) (who do not meet in the two separate act orginal).
The young couple stay as we see them in the first act - but in the second act of the play (18 months later) they are now married with a baby, which takes up all the mother's time - she sides with dragon-lady Mrs Railton-Bell to get the bogus Major, who has been exposed as a fake and a pesterer of women at the cinema, expelled from the hotel. Her husband does not agree and sides with the other residents. It makes for more interesting drama, but all that has to go for the film. 

There is a lot more of Miss Cooper, the hotel manageress, too in the play, but Wendy Hiller managed to scoop Best Supporting Actress for her role in the film. Niven of course won the Best Actor, but it seems a blustering fake performance, but then he is playing a blustering fake. Kerr is marvellous as the downtrodden Sybil, who finally stands up to her bully of a mother - Gladys Cooper being very malevolent here, as she was to Bette Davis in NOW VOYAGER. Hayworth and Lancaster add the Hollywood gloss and are perfectly adequate. The film is one of 1958's big enduring ones, up there with I WANT TO LIVE!, THE DEFIANT ONESTHE BIG COUNTRY, THE VIKINGS, SOUTH PACIFIC, AUNTIE MAME etc. 

I have seen a few other productions - John Schlesinger directed that 1983 television film, long unavailable, which goes back to the two act structure, with Julie Christie and Alan Bates (ther fourth teaming) playing both sets of leads, with Claire Bloom perfect as Miss Cooper, and Irene Worth, a monstrous suburban bully, as Mrs Railton Bell. Liz Smith shines too as the racing-mad spinster and Brian Deacon (from THE TRIPLE ECHO) as the young husband. - as per my fuller review, at Rattigan/Bates/Christie labels, which also goes into another version of Rattigan's work ...

I have now seen a BBC 'Play of the Month'  production of the play from 1970 with Porter and Geraldine McEwan in the lead roles. It is perfectly satisfying but a bit low-key. It is part of the BBC Terence Rattigan boxset (a nice companion to the Noel Coward boxset, again with interesting productions which I must return to), which also includes part of another version I saw on stage in the 70s, with John Mills and Jill Bennett. (As we mentioned previously, Rattigan's original text had the major pestering men in the cinema, but that would never have played back in the Fifties... and certainly not in the film, which suggests there is a future for the Major and Sybil).  

I also saw Rattigan himself at the BFI giving an entertaining talk also in the early 70s. The 1958 film though, directed by Delbert Mann, is the version most people know and like, even though it does not do full justice to the play and Rattigan's plea for tolerance for those who are 'different'. 


  1. It was Eric Portman, not Porter, in the original stage production of Separate Tables