The Admirable Crichton aka Paradise Lagoon from director Lewis Gilbert is a wonderful film which skewers the British class system, and if you’re a fan of classic British film, The Admirable Crichton most definitely deserves a look.
The film is set at the beginning of the 20th century. Suffragettes are on the march in England, and Lord Loam (Cecil Parker), the aristocrat who owns a lavish country estate has definite ideas about equality. He does, however, draw the line at the idea of equal rights for women. Lord Loam is a bit of an eccentric, and when the film begins, we see a typical day in the Loam household. The house is basically run by the butler, Crichton (Kenneth More), but he runs the place so smoothly and tactfully that Lord Loam is left with the illusion that he’s the one really in charge.
Lord Loam decides to put his notions of class equality to the test by inviting (in reality ordering) all the domestic servants to participate in tea with the family members. This is an occasion of embarrassment and awkwardness for the servants, and disgruntlement for Lord Loam’s two daughters, Lady Mary (Sally Ann Howes) and her younger sister Lady Catherine (Mercy Haystead). Lady Mary is particularly annoyed by the forced social engagement with the servants as she is about to become engaged to the horribly snobbish and strait-laced Lord Brocklehurst (Peter Graves)–a man whose horribly domineering mother, Lady Brocklehurst (Martita Hunt) does not approve of equality on any level whatsoever. She believes that the ‘lower’ classes should be kept in their place and that to contemplate otherwise is a very dangerous thing.
The youngest daughter, Lady Agatha (Miranda Connell) goes to London to watch a suffragette march with her fiancé Ernest Wolley (Gerald Harper). She’s supposed to be there observing only, but she gets mixed up in the protest and causes a family scandal. As a result of this event, Lord Loam, at Crichton’s suggestion, takes his daughters and a few indispensable servants on a cruise aboard his yacht. Things go horribly wrong, however, when the yacht is caught in a storm….
The Admirable Crichton explores exactly what happens when rigid class rules are transposed to a desert island. One of the most important characters in the film is Tweeny (Diane Cilento)–Tweeny (which basically means that she is a maid who works [between] several floors) discovers that her currency soars when beauty and culinary skills are valued more than bloodlines.
This film is essentially a comedy about hypocrisy, and we see that Lord Loam may have ‘enlightened’ views about equality with his fellow man, but these are just intellectual ideas that he really has no intention of actually altering his his lifestyle for. The first notion of hypocrisy comes in the film when Lord Loam mouths his beliefs about equality with the servants but then refuses to countenance the notion that women are equal to men. While Lord Loam may experiment with a tentative tea which he controls in his own household, he is ill prepared for a full-scale upheaval. On the desert island, there are no innate privileges, and instead survival skills become the most valuable skills of all. Just what happens when members of the upper class are forced to cohabit with their servants makes for great entertainment.
One of the notions here is that the class system may be enforced legally and socially, but it is also absorbed by all those involved. Thus we see Crichton as the ultimate snob with the other servants and a pragmatist when it comes to realising his humble position.
The Admirable Crichton is based on a play by J.M. Barrie , and here Barrie creates a very different alternate world from the fantasy world he created with Peter Pan, but it’s a viable alternate world, nonetheless.
There are two other film versions of this play: We’re Not Dressing (1934) and Male and Female (1919).