Film star Sarah Miles makes surprise guest appearance at Chiswick In Film festival

Image above: Sarah Miles at the screening of The Servant (1963) at the Chiswick In Film festival 2022; photograph Roger Green

Opening Gala night – The Servant

Film star Sarah Miles made a surprise guest appearance at the inaugural Chiswick In Film festival on Friday (30 September). She introduced the film The Servant (1963) in which she starred with Dirk Bogarde, for the Gala Opening night.

The Servant was scripted by Harold Pinter (1947 – 2008), one of Britain’s greatest modern dramatists and a former Chiswick resident. It was his first collaboration with American theatre and film director Joesph Losey, and his first forray into screenwriting.

The film sees the aristocratic Tony (James Fox) move to London and hire manservant Hugo Barrett (Dirk Bogarde). Barrett seems to be a loyal and competent employee, but Tony’s girlfriend Susan (Wendy Craig) does not like him and asks Tony to send him away, which he refuses to do. Barrett convinces Tony the house also needs a maid, so he can introduce his lover Vera (Sarah Miles), passing her off as his sister.

The relationships between the characters cause the deterioration of Tony and Susan’s relationship and Tony’s moral and mental decline. Some of the film’s icy scenes as their relationship becomes strained, were shot at Chiswick House and Gardens.

Images above: Sarah Miles; James Fox with Dirk Bogarde; STUDIOCANAL

“My parents told me I’d shamed the family” – Sarah Miles

In the Q&A afterwards with arts critic and broadcaster Phillip Bergson and critic and author of Harold Pinter’s biography Michael Billington, Sarah Miles was hilarious recounting how her family had reacted to her promiscuous role at the time:

“A week before it opened, my parents went to see it. They came to my house afterwards and they were very angry. They said ‘How could you let the family down? How could you be in such trash? We’re so ashamed of you. You’ve ruined your parents and your relationship’ … and off they went.

“I’ll never forget the exhaust coming out. And the next week it opened to these rave reviews and they had to eat humble pie.”

“I’m not making any changes” – Harold Pinter

Director Joseph Losey had wanted her to play the role as more of a stereotypical tart, she said but she had wanted to make her a girl, “childish, still not quite sure who I was or what I was doing.”

He had let her do it her way. She played it, said Michael Billington as “both a victim and a perpetrator.”

She took to Joseph Losey straight away, she said.

“It was a great team, quite magical. It doesn’t really happen like that very often.”

There was one falling out, which Michael Billington mentioned.

“Joe said ‘I think we need to make some changes’. Harold said ‘I’m not making any changes’ and walked out.

“That was the only cross word, then they worked on it together.”

Although it has possibly the longest single shot in a movie, there is not a wasted shot or a wasted word in the film, said Michael.

Image above: Phillip Bergson, Sarah Miles and Michael Billington Q&A for The Servant; photograph Roger Green

“I always felt let down by the ending”

The Servant was nominated for a host of awards and won three BAFTAs. Dirk Bogarde, James Fox, Sarah Miles, Wendy Craig, Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter were all nominated. Dirk Bogarde won Best Actor; James Fox won Most Promising Newcomer; Douglas Slocombe won Best Cinematography.

Harold Pinter won the Best Screenplay award from the New York Critics Circle and Best Dramatic Screenplay from the Writers Guild of Great Britain.

The film is ranked number 22 in the BFI’s list of Top 100 British films.

Sarah Miles asked the audience whether they understood the ending, as she never had, she said and had always felt “let down” by it. There is the suggestion of an orgy about to take place and a furious Susan kisses Barrett but then marches off and leaves them to it.

One of the women in that scene is wearing a black cocktail dress and a huge round feathery hat. Phillip Bergson said the film referenced European films at the time and the hat was a nod to Fellini.

“Why?” asked Sarah “Do women wear hats to orgies in Europe?”

Image above: Sarah Miles in the bar at Chiswick Cinema after the screening of The Servant; photograph Roger Green

“I’m rather proud of my ‘canon'”

Now 81, she is known also for her roles in Blowup (1966), Ryan’s Daughter (1970), The Hireling (1973), White Mischief (1987) and Hope and Glory (1987). She received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her performance in Ryan’s Daughter.

“I’m rather proud of my ‘cannon'” she told the audience. Asked what was her favourite of her films, her answer was The Hireling (1973) from the novel by L.P. Hartley.

MIchael Billington said he thought The Servant had not dated, it was “utterly timeless”.

“It transcends the 1960s. It’s about power; who has the power.

“A lot of Harold’s scripts were about class and they are all about power.”

In the course of the film the power shifts from the upper class Tony, barking orders, to Hugo the servant. Robert Maugham, the author of the book on which the film is based, told the story as an allegory for the fear the upper class had for the lower classes, fearing a revolt after the Second World War.

Harold Pinter made it more about a power struggle, changing it quite a lot from the novel, Michael Billington told the audience. He was more interested in the degradation of the two men, while Losey was “fascinated by class”.

The house is also a character in the film, said Michael:

“Harold Pinter wrote a lot about houses. The staircase, the mirrors … James Fox is seen imprisoned behind the bars of the staircase.

Image above: Phillip Bergson, Sarah Miles and Michael Billington Q&A for The Servant; photograph Roger Green

Sarah Miles was kind enough to say she thought the Chiswick In Film festival would be a great success:

“I can tell,” she said.

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Chiswick In Film: The Servant

See also: Chiswick In Film: Darling

See all the latest stories: Chiswick Calendar News & Features

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