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Who’s better? Laurence Olivier or Roger Daltrey?

October 4, 2013



Or rather, who’s better – Peter Brook or Jonathan Miller.

(Not such an arresting question, now is it?)

Each year I have to consider which filmed version of The Beggar’s Opera I’m to recommend to my students.  The one directed by a young Peter Brook in the 1950s and starring Olivier and the one made by a not so young Jonathan Miller in the 1980s and starring Daltrey.  Each year, it’s no contest as I declare that “that deaf, dumb and blind kid – sure plays a mean eighteenth-century highwayman!”.

The truth is rather more complex.  Although the 1980s version is rather more accessible for pedagogic purposes, Brook’s film has much to recommend it.  Visually it is extraordinary.  It is stagy and cinematic at the same time.  Although Brook uses very few exterior shots and sticks to a very confined space (anything but an ’empty’ space) the camera moves constantly.  Brook revels in creating something other than a stage production and enjoys the peculiar and distinct language of film.  It’s also a film that is steeped in Hogarth, recreating specific Hogarth tableaux on more than one occasion.  It is, in fact, the most carefully and deliberately Hogarthian film ever made.

It also provides the only occasion where Laurence Olivier ever shared screen time with Kenneth Williams.  When you see them play opposite one another, you’ll regret that they didn’t spend more time together, and maybe form a double act.

Olivier himself refuses to make any concessions to “low life” however.  Although he would become the definitive Archie Rice only five or six years later, in the early 1950s, he’s still on the wrong side of the kitchen sink – as it were – and his tones are clipped and precise.  Indeed, the visualisation of “low life” cannot be properly matched by a splendid cast who stubbornly refuse to forget their elocution lessons.

In the 1980s, Miller assembled an equally impressive cast, most of whom are struggling for attention.   Bob Hoskins appears engagingly and fleetingly – a good illustration of a kind of competitive clash of egos which matches the competitive congestion of 1720s Newgate rather well.  As for Daltrey – he is more abstracted and confused than Olivier – less dangerous and more vulnerable.  His singing has a rare frailty to it that is quite moving.

The star of Miller’s production is Patricia Routledge as Mrs Peacham.  She sings beautifully, yet retains a parodic edge to her own virtuosity.  She leaps in and out of her little songs.  She’s a bundle of libidinous energy, a mass of hopes and fears and screeching panic.  She’s a joy.  Apparently she was in a successful sitcom of some kind soon after this – but it’s her performance as Mrs Peacham that will doubtless make her name immortal.

Miller’s version has an amusing fake ending – but not as amusing as Gay’s original fake ending.


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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    On Larry Olivier’s 110th birthday – reposting the classic Laurence Olivier versus Roger Daltrey debate…

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