SPOILER ALERT: This article refers to story points in the film
The title of the 1961 film, No Love for Johnnie, directed by Ralph Thomas and starring Peter Finch as Labour politician Johnnie Byrne, suggests that its focus is on love rather than politics.
Johnnie’s unhappy personal life is indeed essential to the narrative, and the three women with whom he is involved provide plot points and insights into his character, but it’s the political story which has real bite and verve.
Johnnie Byrne represents Earnley, a constituency in the north of England, possibly modelled on Bradford. He is hoping to be offered a Cabinet position in the newly-elected Labour government, but his hopes are dashed. His face doesn’t fit, we gather. He is too far to the left of this right-or-centre-leaning administration.
A little cabal is forming in the party, its leader played by a sinister Donald Pleasence, which is intent on challenging and unsettling the government, and Johnnie accepts the invitation to join them, more out of anger and bitterness than political conviction.
He is selected to table a question in the House of Commons attacking the government’s foreign policy, but basically is nobbled by the Prime Minister, sees which side his bread is buttered, and doesn’t turn up for the scheduled slot.
In the end he is rewarded for his self-seeking duplicity. He escapes a vote of no confidence from his constituency party by the skin of his teeth (he really is a dreadful representative, not in the least interested in local people and affairs), and wayhay, is offered a government role as Assistant Postmaster General.
This is just the start, we feel, as the final shot of the film focuses on him in the Chamber, feet up (nice shoes), in the kind of arrogant pose with which we are all too familiar. Well, nothing less might be expected of this ‘unmitigated grasping and self-important bastard’, as one of his own party calls him.
Sunday School sweethearts
Johnnie has an interesting backstory, but it sits unconvincingly in the film’s context. He and his wife were childhood Sunday School sweethearts from northern working-class politically active families. As a youth, he had signed the abstinence from alcohol Pledge, a commitment which he still struggles with at the age of 42.
The trouble is that the superb Peter Finch just doesn’t have that look about him. Perhaps it’s a mark of his successful self-reinvention that he looks and sounds every inch the urban sophisticate, as opposed to his wife, whose background is never in doubt.
Johnnie’s wife is supposed to be an unappealing character. Rosalie Crutchley does a grand job of portraying the chilly, unsexy Alice, a left-wing activist more wedded to the Communist Party than to her husband, who she leaves at the beginnning of the film.
Her character seems designed to create sympathy for Johnny, who has had to endure this loveless marriage. But the politically committed woman who can live without a man is an interesting type, and Alice’s character could stand more exploration, such as she might receive in a Doris Lessing novel, for example.
Alice finally returns and suggests to Johnnie they should maintain their marriage as a platonic mutually supportive partnership, seemingly on the basis that clinging to the same raft is the best way for them to survive.
This is interesting enough to sustain more development — but that would be in a different kind of film. Johnny seems to be considering her suggestion seriously, until he is told that his promotion in the party had been blocked because of Alice’s communist links. Dilemma? Not a bit of it. He tears up the card with her phone number and takes his place in the House.
A scandal to come
Pauline, played by Mary Peach, is Johnnie’s love interest. They meet at a party to which he’s been invited by his neighbour (played by Billie Whitelaw), who also holds a torch for him. Pauline is 20 years old (too young to vote at that time when 21 was the voting age). Well, make that 20-going-on-40. Her appearance is another reminder that the 1960s of popular perception didn’t begin until well into the decade.
She’s lovely, of course, with her blonde chignon and her nice little suits and her pearls, but the visual image undermines the crucial, deal-breaking differences in age and stage between her and Johnnie.
There are tantalising moments when you are hoping that Pauline will be revealed as a more layered character.
We know, as the contemporary audience would not, that 1961, the year of the film’s release, was the year in which Christine Keeler and the government minister John Profumo met at Cliveden. The scandal which is to rock the Conservative government in couple of years’ time is taking shape at this very moment.
In the light of this knowledge, it’s hard not to feel a frisson of anticipation when Pauline, who says she is not interested in politics, repeatedly follows Johnnie’s comments about a Commons bill or a debate with, ‘What’s it about?’ Ooh, you think, she’s going to be a spy, exploiting the intimacies of pillow talk to gain favour with or fulfil her obligations to the Soviets, or MI5, or MI6…no. She’s just trying to show an interest. Poor girl.
Revolution in the air
Other moments in the film remind us of the social and cultural revolution which is still to come in the real world.
When Johnnie follows Pauline to her family home, he turns up unexpected and unannounced and soaking wet, having walked from the station in a torrential downpour. Pauline’s GP father, a man close to Johnnie’s own age, opens the door to the stranger on his doorstep, who explains he has come to see Pauline. Her father immediately says that what Johnnie needs is a hot bath and a change of clothes.
This remarkable level of warm Northern hospitality paves the way for a near-comedic scene in which Pauline’s father and Johnnie, in the borrowed sweater and trousers which rob him of his towny sophistication, form a kind of middle-aged men’s alliance, looking similar and talking in bluff tones about matters which exclude 20-year old Pauline.
The scene is almost set for some droll misunderstandings and generation-gap gags. But the only markers of gaps in the lovers’ experience, here and elsewhere in the film, are clunky references to the war. As the decade unfolds we’ll encounter much more fertile ground of the ‘who are The Beatles?’ variety, but at this point the popular culture of the 1960s has yet to infiltrate every area of life.
In any case, the atmosphere darkens when Johnnie responds to something Pauline says with, ‘When you’ve been around a bit longer you won’t make such sweeping statements.’ Top of the class for patronising self-importance, Johnnie boy. Nice jumper, though, in a middle-aged way.
The politicians are the most compelling characters in the film.
You could watch a series (and in the future we will) featuring types such as the wet-behind-the-years newbie, the creep, the fixer, the ‘conscience of the party’ who rails against ‘intellectuals and toffee-nosed barristers’ (oh dear). There is a genuinely moving scene when the Prime Minister (Geoffrey Keen) says goodbye to a terminally ill minister. You can feel his pain when he says the minister is going home to his garden, to plant flowers he won’t live to see. He mourns the loss of his colleague, saying that a good man in politics stands out like a mountain peak.
And at the very party where Johnnie and Pauline meet, there’s an obviously unintentional slight nod to the explosive collision of the social and political arenas which is to come. As Johnnie plays a party game with the bohemian hostess, seeing for how long they can hold a kiss, the man counting them down (Oliver Reed in an early appearance) has, for fun a wastepaper basket over his head. This image foreshadows one of the scandals of 1963, in which the identity of a ‘headless man’ at a society party occasioned lively speculation during that year and for many in the future.
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