School For Scoundrels

UK (1960) Dir. Robert Hamer

Nice guys always come last – I should know (or at least I hope people think I’m a nice guy, but I digress), having spent my life watching total arseholes get everything while I sit in my dark corner alone. The real question is whether such shameful behaviour is something grotty people are born with or if it can be taught…

Henry Palfrey (Ian Carmichael) feels like a loser in life, sport, and love. Having met April Smith (Janette Scott) as a result of his clumsiness, Henry invites her out to dinner, but is undermined by his senior clerk Mr. Gloatbridge (Edward Chapman) who fails to book a table for him. Fortunately, Raymond Delauney (Terry-Thomas), an acquaintance arrives at the restaurant and invites them to dine with him, but only so he could woo April.

At a tennis match, Delauney humiliates Henry in front of April, after he has been conned into buying a banger of a car by two dodgy salesmen. Frustrated, Henry responds to an ad for the Yeovil School of Lifemanship, run by Dr. Potter (Alastair Sim), which claims will help men learn to get on over on their enemies and be on top for once. Henry takes the course and comes out of it with a new attitude.

Despite what you might think, School For Scoundrels is not an Ealing comedy, even if it is from the same period and features many familiar faces in the cast. Subtitled How To Win Without Actually Cheating, it is inspired by the Gamesmanship series of spoof self-help books by Stephen Potter (see what they did here?), satirical tomes which advocate using unsavoury and deceitful methods to win the game of life.

Thankfully, people got the joke and the books sold by the truckload, with the central premise being ripe for a creative adaptation, of which there were many. Robert Hamer assembles a veritable Who’s Who of British comedy actors of the time to bring this idea to life, from a script which boasts an early draft by one Peter Ustinov no less! It is very much a product of its time which adds to its charm, though I dread to think what the Yanks did in their remake in 2006.

In that regard, whilst Henry is a bit of a hapless sap, but not in the sense he has nothing going for him, as would be the case were this made today. He has inherited the family business, lives a comfortable life, and at least knows his worth. However, what Henry is lacking is respect, partly from taking himself too seriously but also from being too nice and gullible. At work, Gloatbridge treats him with contempt, hence the restaurant stunt, whilst others are canny enough to know how to walk all over him.

Bumping into April (literally) exposes both Henry’s naivety and his genuine nice side but proves a catalyst for his downfall and eventual resurgence. Delauney is the suave rogue that Henry isn’t, thus his flashy sports car and familiarity with the restaurant staff is enough to impress April, when Henry’s attempts to bribe the head waiter (a rare dubious character for the inimitable John Le Mesurier) have little effect.

Furthermore, car dealers Dunstan (Dennis Price) and Dudley Dorchester (Peter Jones) spot Henry coming a mile away and flog him a right old lemon for £690, using all the patter and spiel only an idiot will fall for – which he did. The final straw is Delauney using similar tricks to easily win their tennis match and leave with April since there was no way she would get into the eyesore contraption Henry showed up in.

Enter Dr. Potter, espousing the theory of lifemanship, or knowing what ploys to use to get one over on those trying to get one over on you. It sounds nefarious and potentially corruptive but in fact is based on philosophical and psychological warfare; the best thing is, no laws are broken and nobody actually gets hurt, just wounded pride and loss of face. But as Henry is such a nice chap and Potter looking like Satan’s personal bookie, we fear he could be lost to the dark side.

Which of course is what we are supposed to think, but this was the 1960s and values were a bit different then. There is little hubristic about Henry that we want him to fail yet his new confident, smart, and duplicitous persona has the potential to be the end of him as far as April is concerned. This is the part modern audiences will have trouble with due to the sexual politics of the era being archaic to our more discerning sensibilities.

Luckily this is only a small part of Henry’s revenge plan, bringing a pertinent moral twist to the denouement (which sees Potter break the fourth wall, such is the anomaly of it), allowing us plenty to time to indulge in some well earned Schadenfreude first. Henry’s comeback begins with a return visit to the Dorchester Brothers, then a maths lesson for Gloatbridge, and finally to the big game, Delauney, returning fire for everything he did to Henry earlier on.  

You can imagine how mean-spirited this would be if made today; the politeness and restraint displayed here would take modern audiences out of it. Delauney calling Henry a “cad”, “rotter”, and “spoiler” (but not a scoundrel) is tame compared to what would be said in 2022; however, these well-mannered outbursts are coming from Terry-Thomas which is where the humour is. Alastair Sim is delightfully shady as Potter, bouncing off a wonderfully protean Ian Carmichael, the archetypal nice chap of British comedy.

School For Scoundrels is a film which benefits from coming out during a period when British comedy was on a roll, and is therefore has been afforded classic status. It is a fun, amusing romp boasting a great subtly satirical premise for the era, bounding along amiably for its 90-minute duration, making for an easy watch.