The Ruling Class: "But is it funny?"

Cassiel C. MacAvity

    The Ruling Class was released in 1972 by Keep Films, Ltd., with a screenplay written by Peter Barnes which was an almost line by line adaptation of his stage play. The movie stars Peter O'Toole as the 14th Earl of Gurney, son and heir of the 13th Earl of Gurney. The 13th Earl is a judge who, early in the movie, explains his need of being hung by the neck for short periods of time. "How else can an English Judge and peer of the realm . . . see six vestal virgins smoking cigars? Moses in bedroom slippers? Naked bosoms floating past Formosa?" When he next does so, hang himself, that is, he then also kicks over the stool he's been standing on, and makes this hanging a permanent one. Normally, and soon after even such a death, a exchange of titles is a simple matter, except that Jack, the 14th Earl, thinks he's God.

    An analysis of comedy can cover a number of things, including definitions of comedy, defining parts of comedy, looking at different kinds of comedy. And then, for a short paper on a particular example of comedy, there is always Occam's razor, adoption of the simplest available answer to "Q.: What is comedy?"

    "A.: Comedy is that which I think is funny."

    "Q.: Do you think The Ruling Class is funny?"

    "A.: Yes."---

    "Q.: Then why is The Ruling Class funny?"

    When one looks at a number of different jokes, they do not always follow a logical progression. Quite often, at some point the joke will veer off into the unexpected or the ridiculous, usually both. By themselves, the ridiculous and unexpected are not necessarily amusing. Ridiculous was launching the Titanic with an insufficient number of lifeboats for the passengers and crew. Unexpected would be a classroom full of children where a bomb suddenly explodes. Neither of these are usually considered funny at face value. However, the sight of a fat man in formal wear suddenly and ridiculously slipping on an unexpected banana peel is often considered funny. In like manner, in The Ruling Class, the ridiculous and unexpected are often connected and funny.

    It one looks at the characters, The Ruling Class is a quite serious affair. It has an old family, led by an Earl. There is a backup knight, the Earl's uncle. A Bishop of the Church of England, the official British church, is a close in-law. The arch-staple of British propriety, the English butler who is the son of a butler, is present for most of the movie.

    However, to bring in the ridiculous and unexpected, It's Jack, the Earl, who thinks he's God, his uncle, Sir Charles, is a pompous ass so concerned with "being a proper Gurney" he ends up trying to screw everything up, the Bishop is a doddering old fool a half-step from total senility. The butler, Daniel Tucker, is a communist who inherited thirty thousand pounds from the late Earl, then stayed at the manor, insulting everybody in sight. Dinsdale, Charles' son, aspires to be an M.P., but he's a blithering idiot. Charles' mistress, Grace Shelley, was to be foisted off on the old Earl, to produce an heir and disown Jack. Instead, after the 13th Earl got hung up on something, she gets handed off to Jack for the same reason. All of these ridiculously unexpected characters get set up and turned loose and all produce ridiculously unexpected lines and situations.

    When a prophet announces himself, he's announcing his creden- tials, the A to Z of "how I became enlightened." This subject can be very serious, which is how Jack begins. "Like every prophet, I saw visions and heard voices. I ran . . ." So far so good, except; ". . . but the voices of St. Francis, Socrates, General Gordon, and Timothy O'Leary all told me I was God."

    "Where did this happen?", he is asked.

    "East Acton. Outside the public urinal."

    As Dr. Herder, the psychologist who's been observing Jack states, "In reality, he's an Earl, an English aristocrat, a member of The Ruling Class." A certain type of word and action and, often, eccentricity, is often expected, but this Earl has a full sized cross in his drawing room and sleeps on it.

    The morning after his arrival, Jack wakes up---stretched out on same cross---climbs down, and accepts a toasted muffin from Tucker.

    For what I am about to receive, may I make myself truly thankful. Soon, I must be moving on. Sail away, to Lalaha, New Jersey, Port Said, and Crewe. First I shall command the Pope to consecrate a planeload of contraceptives for the priest-ridden Irish.

    Two local society ladies soon appear to ask the new lord to speak at an upcoming event. "Tell me ladies, what do I do at this gala opening of yours? Do I charm bracelets, swing lead, break wind, pass water?"

    A suggested speech topic is made of "Britain, and our way of life." The noble Earl responds; "Britain. A fly-blown speck in the North Sea. You can't kick the natives in the back streets of Calcutta anymore." One doesn't expect to hear this from too many, let alone most English Lords . . . .

    Charles isn't expecting such either. In the scene directly after Jack's grand declaration of holiness, he's talking to Dr. Herder.

    Herder: His Lordship is a paranoid-schizophrenic.

    Charles: Paranoid-schizophrenic? But He's a Gurney!

    Herder: Then he's a paranoid-schizophrenic-Gurney who believes he's God.

    Charles: But we've always been Church of England!

    Tucker is another source of humor. His reign of error begins very soon after he hears about his thirty thousand pound inheritance. First, he goes singing and dancing out of the drawing room. When he soon reappears in the doorway, he's smoking a cigar. As all in the room are in an uproar and ignore him, he disappears momentarily, then reappears, cigar in mouth, and huge vase in hands. He waits for a moment, then drops the vase with a resounding crash, sending pieces flying in all directions. Only then, when everyone is quiet, he calmly announces Jack's arrival.

    At one point, Dr. Herder asks him about Jack. "How do you find the new Earl, Tucker?"

    "By sniffing. He's a Gurney."

    "You don't find him odd . . . peculiar."

    "Oh, you mean nutty." Yes, he's a nutcase. Most of these titled fleabags are. Rich nobs and privileged arseholes can afford to be bonkers."

    Later, while serving drinks, Tucker ends up with one drink too many. "Waste not want not." He drinks it himself.

    When Lady Claire, Charles' wife, gets killed, Tucker stumbles over her corpse on the drawing room floor. Stumbles is certainly the word, because he's so drunk it takes a closer look to see the knife wounds. He's immediately struck with strong emotions, his eyes bulge, his hands shake, he screams . . . "One less! Praise the Lord! Hallelujah!"

    At a joke of a wedding reception, he's already half-drunk and enthusiastically getting more so. "You should have seen the late Earl's wedding, M'lady. Five hundred guests. The creme the menthe. Wastrels all, may their carbonized bones rot in Hell!" A minute or so later, he and Dinsdale start cavorting about in a drunken waltz. As Jack and Grace exit, Charles screams at Tucker to stop. "Sorry, sir. Thought you'd like me to liven up this wake." When Dinsdale comments he wouldn't like to be in Grace's shoes this night, Tucker wraps up the scene by cackling; "It's not her shoes he'll be in, Master Dinsdale."

    Immediately after the reception, the new Lady Grace, Countess of Gurney, is in the master bedroom---doing a striptease, to music, with a narration to the audience of "I've done it all, from Stanislavski to strip . . . Nobody need worry about me fitting in. All I have to do is play it cool." As she finishes, she arranges herself on the bed and calls out to Jack; "Darling, I'm waiting."

    On this, their wedding night, Jack comes rolling into the room pedalling a tricycle and ringing its bell. Shrieks Grace; "It's ridiculous! It's not dignified!"

    "Dignity has nothing to do with divinity.", he replies.

    "Not here! Not now! A bike? You're mad!"

    "Don't be frightened."

    "I'm not frightened. I just didn't expect to see my husband riding a three-wheeled bike on his wedding night!"

    Grace wasn't expecting it, it was ridiculous. She thought it undignified, I thought the combination funny. A large portion of The Ruling Class is made up of a combination of the ridiculous and the unexpected. Between Jack, Tucker, Herder, and the rest, all sorts of combinations appear and are uttered. All, of course, are in The Ruling Class, and I think all, and The Ruling Class are funny, all and The Ruling Class are comedy.




    Barnes, Peter. The Ruling Class. New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1969.

    The Ruling Class. Keep Films, Ltd., 1972.


© 1996 Cassiel C. MacAvity