The Winslow Boys

10 Aug

The first film in which I  saw Jeremy Northam perform was The Winslow Boy (dir. David Mamet, 1999). The film, and Jeremy’s performance, made a deep impression on me, so I was inspired to find out more about the very special actor I’d just seen, and the play on which the film was based.

David Mamet crafted a pitch perfect film, but I discovered it was thanks to the skill of one of the twentieth century’s leading dramatists, Sir Terence Rattigan, that he was able to do so. And of course, I also found that David Mamet’s Winslow Boy was not the first film version to be made.

This year is the centenary of Terence Rattigan’s birth, and theatre-goers have been provided with plenty of his work to enjoy. The Chichester Festival, for example, which is currently taking place, has a wonderful programme of plays and events. You can find out more about it (and all the centenary events) by visiting

Sir Terence Rattigan

Interestingly, The Winslow Boy was originally intended to be a film, not a play. Rattigan had been working as a screenwriter for the RAF Film Unit during World War II. His producer, Anatole de Grunwald, suggested (knowing Rattigan’s penchant for collecting books about famous court cases) that he write a screenplay exploring the British Justice system. Rattigan had already earmarked the Archer-Shee case for just such a purpose. In 1946, instead of a screenplay, it became The Winslow Boy: a play for the theatre (de Grunwald had thought the case too dull to work on screen). Those of you who like ‘Jeremy links’ will enjoy knowing it was written, consciously, in the style of Harley Granville-Barker (author of The Voysey Inheritance, in which Jeremy played Edward Voysey at the National Theatre in 1990, winning an Olivier) to aid in its evocation of the Edwardian period.

Martin Archer-Shee (left) and his son, George

Thirteen year old George Archer-Shee was at Osbourne Naval College when he was accused of stealing a 5/- postal order from another cadet. After his expulsion, and convinced of his innocence, the Archer-Shee family engaged renowned barrister Edward Carson to take action against the Admiralty. This involved requesting a Petition of Right from the king who, traditionally, would sign it and write on the document ‘Let Right be Done’. The navy successfully challenged the petition, but the family appealed and won the right to have a trial, which quickly became a cause celebre. Edward Carson was said to have wept at the trial’s successful conclusion.

Sir Edward Carson

If you’ve seen the play or film adaptations, this will all sound very familiar. In all but name, the play follows the case of George Archer-Shee fairly accurately, though Rattigan ‘plays’ with the politics somewhat, making the conservative Archer-Shee daughter into suffragette Catherine Winslow. Edward Carson becomes Sir Robert Morton. De Grunwald may have thought it a dull idea for a screenplay, but on stage it was a success. It ran in London for over a year, winning an Ellen Terry award for best play; and in America, it won the New York Critics Circle Award for Best Foreign Play.

Jeremy Northam and Rebecca Pidgeon

You may remember author Alec Nevala-Lee’s insightful post about David Mamet’s The Winslow Boy and its memorable curtain line. Alec said, ‘The greatest curtain line in movie history, as far as I’m concerned, comes at the end of David Mamet’s 1999 film version of The Winslow Boy.’ Alec wasn’t completely certain who had written it (Mamet or Rattigan) and neither was I. I developed a minor obsession with finding out! All I knew for certain was it wasn’t in the play, which ends with Morton asking Catherine if he will see her in the House one day, to which she replies, ‘perhaps’, and that it will not be in the Gallery, but across the floor. Morton repeats her ‘perhaps’, bids her goodbye and leaves. I was very interested to read that Rattigan was pressured to add a romantic element at the play’s conclusion for American audiences. He refused. So where did the romantic element originate?

Off I went in search of a copy of the original film version, made in 1948 and starring the sublime Robert Donat as Sir Robert Morton, Margaret Leighton as Catherine Winslow, and Cedric Hardwicke as Arthur Winslow. Anatole de Grunwald and Terence Rattigan provided the screenplay and Anthony Asquith directed. What I saw was definitely from the same source, but was a very different film to David Mamet’s.

The Winslow Boy 1948

In 1948, Robert Donat was a tremendously successful and highly regarded star of stage and screen, and his version of the story reflects his star status. Even though Donat as Morton doesn’t appear until about half way through the film, from the moment he does, it’s all about him. Donat was a very elegant, gifted, extremely charismatic actor, with one of the loveliest voices ever heard on film. His Morton is a man passionate about the law, a passion he hides beneath a rather stiff, sardonic facade.

The original play is staged entirely in the Winslow’s house, but the film fleshes out the story and adds extra scenes (including some of the trial). There is much that is familiar to those of us who know the 1999 film well, but this film uses a more expansive canvas.

Robert Donat and Margaret Leighton

Donat is magnificent, and he is ably supported by the rest of the cast. But is there any romance between Catherine and Morton? Margaret Leighton’s Catherine is a suffragette, but a much softer interpretation of the role than that of Rebecca Pidgeon. There are obvious hints at a possible romance almost from the moment they meet (as you would expect of a film made at this time). We can see Catherine is interested despite herself. Pidgeon’s Catherine never shows her feelings so obviously.

But what about the curtain line? Was it there in 1948?

So, we’ve narrowed it down to either Rattigan or de Grunwald as the curtain line’s author. If anyone knows which of them, for certain, please let me know! As you’ll see, the curtain line is used and played in a rather different way, and we do not have a sudden and delightful realisation, as we do in our beloved Mamet film. Rather, we lead up to it. The exchange about Morton weeping is far more significant here too. Just watch Robert Donat’s beautifully expressive face.

You might also ponder, as I have found myself doing, on the similarities between the two actors who have played Sir Robert. There was a spooky moment when I saw Robert Donat as Sir Robert Morton for the first time. I know the cast of the 1999 film would not have been consciously influenced by the 1948 version, but both actors, Donat and Northam, gave independent life to Morton so successfully that, seeing him there in front of me, the very same man but so many years earlier, was a little unnerving. If you watch both films, let me know what you think.

Which Winslow Boy do I prefer? Impossible to say because they are so very different and both so very good. Both are adaptations of the source from very different writers and directors, and in very different times. I will always love (and be thankful to) the 1999 version; because it introduced me to my favourite actor, and because the final line and the way it is delivered is a masterstroke that I enjoy every time I watch it. I love the 1948 version because there are few actors, even now, who can equal Robert Donat on screen. It is The Winslow Boy writ large. How can I choose when they both include Sir Robert Morton? It is a gift of a role and an irresistible character: who wouldn’t respond to a man with a hidden passionate heart who would give up fame and fortune for what is right?

Terence Rattigan, sadly, didn’t live to see the 1999 film adaptation of his play. I wonder what he would have made of it …?

by Gill

If you enjoyed this post and would like to find out more about Robert Donat, who played the first screen Sir Robert Morton, please visit my other actor blog (co-run by Jenny The Nipper): Robert Donat.

14 Responses to “The Winslow Boys”

  1. Roe Tifft August 10, 2011 at 10:25 pm #

    You’ve done a brilliant job on something I knew just a little about. I had seen Robert Donat and the wonderful Margaret Leighton in THE WINDLOW BOY many years ago with Sir Cedric Hardwick. I agree with just everything you say. Donat was brilliant and pitch perfect and so was our Jeremy. Margaret Leighton was a great actress and she does soften the daughter, she had to, but she could act any way that was directed of her and she was a great friend of Rattigan’s, who used her brilliantly elsewhere among which was the impossible to forget SEPARATE TABLES on the stage. I love both versions of the film but prefer the film overall of Donat, which you do because that director with Anthony Asquith, a far finer film director, more practiced shall we say than the talented Mamet. As talented as Mamet was and is a play writer and director, Asquith was a greater film director and could breath humanity and life into every scene. Mamet was blessed with a good cast particulary the wonderful Nigel Hawthorne, but did not have the emotional resources to give his film what it needed. His film as a cool feel to it, in spite of Hawthorne, shall we say a boxed in, play feel to it. Both Donat and Jeremy have the gift of giving humanity and warmth under even the stiffest of collars to their characters, that is why Jer’s film lights up when he’s in it. The boy who acted in Jer’s film was also pluperfect as was the woman who acted the maid.

    • Gill Fraser Lee August 10, 2011 at 10:33 pm #

      Thank you so much, Rosie, for your wonderful response. Your comment is a great addition to the post. There is so much more to say about both films and the play, so thank you for filling in some of the gaps for us xxxx I will certainly look up Rattigan’s diary in my on-going quest!

  2. LauraP August 10, 2011 at 10:48 pm #

    Great post, Gill! Thanks for the background on “our” Winslow Boy–both the historical case and the previous incarnations of the fictional story.

    I haven’t seen Robert Donat’s Sir Robert yet, but I wouldn’t want to have to choose a favorite between his interpretation of the character and Jeremy’s. Both men are brilliant actors. How very lucky that we have these 2 versions to enjoy!

    • Gill Fraser Lee August 10, 2011 at 11:07 pm #

      Thank you Laura 🙂 I hope you get the chance to see Donat’s version. I’ll be very interested to hear your thoughts.

  3. Robyn Wildman August 10, 2011 at 11:37 pm #

    Wonderful post, Gill!! I enjoyed hearing about the actual case and seeing pics of the participants. I haven’t seen Robert Donat as Sir Robert Morton yet so I really appreciated seeing the clip. There is a similarity to Jeremy and Donat look which adds to the Sir Robert comparison.
    I have seen Donat in other films and do enjoy his work. Just double checked Netflix and the 1948 film isn’t available. Do you know if it’s available on DVD in Britain?
    i look forward to your next post!

    • Gill Fraser Lee August 11, 2011 at 11:48 am #

      Thanks Robyn, I’m glad you found it interesting. I agree, there are a lot of similarities between Robert Donat and Jeremy. It’s a certain gracefulness they bring to certain roles, I think. And they both have voices like honey!
      The 1948 Winslow Boy is available from Amazon UK on DVD, I checked 🙂

      • Robyn Wildman August 11, 2011 at 9:28 pm #

        Thanks for checking. It’s not too expensive either! I’ll add it to my list!

  4. jules August 11, 2011 at 12:07 am #

    Thanks, Gill! It was great to see that clip – the similarities between Jeremy Northam and Robert Donat’s Sir Roberts were striking in the ‘tone’ not just the words, but I hope it was just the words leading the actor and that Northam hadn’t been unduly influenced by the earlier film; although, apparently Rattigan wrote extremely specific stage directions so could it be partly down to those that so many of their gestures are the same?
    (As to which I prefer – I’m going to stay loyal to 1999; if nothing else then for Rebecca Pidgeon’s costume and hair!)

    • Gill Fraser Lee August 11, 2011 at 11:56 am #

      Thanks Jules x I don’t know if Jeremy had seen the earlier film, but I suspect if he had the two Sir Roberts would have been more dissimilar. But that’s just a guess. There’s less humour in Jeremy’s portrayal, I think. Donat is more ‘knowing’ whereas Jeremy plays it straight. As I said above to Robyn, I always think there is a similarity between the two actors, a certain gracefulness, an elegance and intelligence they both have which they’re able to use. And both are character actors AND romantic leading men, which is quite rare. I’m guessing again, but I think that’s why their Sir Roberts capture the man so brilliantly and why we pick up on a likeness, as well as their adherence to the text and stage directions (though the final scene of both films doesn’t appear in the original play).

  5. Martina August 21, 2011 at 10:20 am #

    A bit late, but I also want to thank you very much for your fascinating recherche here – it was a great pleasure to read and very interesting! When I noticed the similarities in looks, gestures and manner and tone between R. Donat and J. Northam in that short clip I also thought it downright eerie! On the other hand all what we “know” about the actor Jeremy Northam and his professional honour is, that he never would only plagiarize. And though he surely has to follow the script I think he`s always beeing anxious to do a part in his own way. But it´s only my guesswork… (knowing very well that I might have missed some finer points because of the foreign language).
    Gill, your explanation above sounds to me rather plausible and I´m looking forward to perhaps further insights.

    • Gill Fraser Lee August 26, 2011 at 10:39 pm #

      Thanks Martina, I’m glad you found it interesting 🙂
      I’ve been reading some more about Robert Donat’s approach to the role, and discovered that he liked to find ways of making his characters sympathetic, even such a ‘cold, supercillious fish’ as Morton. This may be the key to some of the differences, but I’m glad to hear it was not only me who found these two actors tackling the same character without influence from each other in any way yet managed to be so similar.

  6. Jennythenipper September 29, 2011 at 5:26 pm #

    I love this post. Just going back and re-reading it and sighing. Great work, Gill.

    That cap of JN peaking around the corner! It’s like his entrance in Emma: just perfect.

    • Gill Fraser Lee September 29, 2011 at 5:31 pm #

      Glad you like 🙂 I agree, that entrance is a thing of great beauty.


  1. Happy 50th Birthday to Jeremy Northam! « The Jeremy Northam Blog - December 1, 2011

    […] Texas, to his astonishing transformation during Cypher, to his subtle and restrained brilliance as Sir Robert Morton, Jeremy has incredible range as an actor. (From Ansie) As Harry Sawyer in 'Happy […]

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