Hello once more, Mr Chips

20th December 2002 at 00:00
A familiar figure returns on Boxing Day in his fourth guise in 70 years. Bernard Adams sees how the latest Mr Chipping measures up

Goodbye Mr Chips ITV, December 26, 8.30pm

James Hilton wrote Goodbye Mr Chips in four days in 1933. Almost 70 years later, this little book - hardly more than a long short story - achieves its fourth screen incarnation when Martin Clunes plays Chips in ITV's Boxing Day offering.

Hilton, at 33, already had 10 novels to his credit when he wrote Chips against a Christmas deadline for the British Weekly. The story of an amiable schoolmaster who teaches generations of boys at a public school almost immediately became a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic. Mr Chipping, soon shortened to Chips, was largely based on one of Hilton's teachers at The Leys school in Cambridge: W H Balgarnie, who was already an institution when Hilton arrived in 1915.

The theme may have been hackneyed even then, but the writing is skilful and the structure cinematic, flashing back and forth as Chips dreamily remembers 50 years of schoolmastering at Brookfield, with a headship coming almost as a postscript. The boys are not over-sentimentalised: "decent little beggars individually, but as a mob, just pitiless and implacable". The hero is no superteacher, his school no Eton. "Chips, in any social or academic sense, was just as respectable, but no more brilliant, than Brookfield itself."

Chips largely accepts the limitations and vices of the public school system until he marries Katherine, a Shavian New Woman. Under Kathie's influence girls appear - for a dance - at Brookfield, and East End boys come to play a football match,and behave impeccably. Kathie even persuades the new, more liberal Chips to reconsider his attitude to intramural homosexual activity.

The story is extraordinarily slight: there is little dialogue; almost no action; and few developed characters, apart from Chips and Kathie. Chips is 40 before anything interesting happens to him. Screenwriters over the past 70 years have had to fill out the shadowy characters and create enough action to fill 90 minutes or more.

Turning the story into a musical, starring Peter O'Toole and Petula Clark, was one perhaps over-creative solution tried in 1969. O'Toole was nominated for an Oscar, but there was a fairly strong critical consensus that the film did not work as a musical.

More recently, in 1984, Roy Marsden played Chips in a six-part BBC series. It would be interesting to see how such an episodic structure worked: it goes very much against the grain of the tightly constructed original.

The most direct comparison for what you'll see on Boxing Day is with Sam Wood's 1939 movie made for MGM, starring that most refined of English actors, Robert Donat, and introducing the then unknown Greer Garson. Donat takes literally Hilton's description of Chips's eccentric verbal tics and at times seems to be giving us a muted preview of Clive Dunn's character in Dad's Army. Astonishingly, he won the Oscar for Best Actor, beating James Stewart (Mr Smith goes to Washington), Clark Gable (Gone with the Wind) and Laurence Olivier (Wuthering Heights).

Yet in one important respect, the 1939 Chips is true to the original: it starts with Chips already old and ends with his death, making the narrative a long flashback. The new ITV version ignores this element, which means some loss of subtlety and resonance. But Judy Counihan, one of the executive producers, defends this approach on the grounds that it will appeal more to a younger audience. "A contemporary audience which has grown up with Martin (Clunes) should see him as a young teacher straight away."

This new Chips, directed by Stuart Orme and scripted by Frank Delaney, creates a very believable Brookfield with convincing boys, filmed at Winchester and Harrow. The role of the German teacher, Max Steafel (well played by Conleth Hill), is beefed up, and staffroom dynamics, including the friction caused by the arrival of a brisk new-broom headmaster (Patrick Malahide at his sharpest), are neatly shaded in.

Clunes first bumbles nicely as Chips, then shows the depth of his unsentimental regard for the pupils. He gains authority enough to fight the good fight against fagging and, during the First World War, against mindless patriotism. Victoria Hamilton makes Kathie bright, combative and charming.

So here comes another, this time thoroughly convincing, screen version of a touching story, but one which is surely by now edging towards cliche. What magic draws producers and adapters back?

Dr John Hammond of the James Hilton Society believes the key lies in its literary quality. "It is so beautifully written - in a white heat of inspiration. Hilton said that he did not have to hesitate over a word or a sentence." For Counihan, the appeal lies in the story's simplicity. "It's about a man with two passions - for his wife and for teaching boys. It's someone finding his place in the world."

Whether this fourth version means Mr Chipping will finally be allowed to rest in peace remains to be seen.

Re-reading Chips, it's clear that it is very much of its time. It reflects an England damaged by the first war and fearful of the second. As Chips contemplates the European storm clouds, Hilton says: "At Brookfield, and even in a wider sense, in England, there was something that charmed (Chips's) heart because it was old - and had survived. More and more he saw the rest of the world as a vast disarrangement for which England had sacrificed enough - and perhaps too much."

It's difficult not to feel there's yet another film lurking in Hilton's slim and elegant volume.

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