Educating Rita, says who?

The OED on education refers an inquirer through a Middle English (ME) root of educe meaning to bring out or develop (something latent or potential): very much Willy Russell’s territory in his melodramatic farce of 1980 at the Royal Shakespeare Company;  which in turn became an even more successful (1983) film of the same name. whose stage version also had the same leading actors as the film. But that is only half the story.

The other, equally important half of Entertaining Rita is in the dictionary’s entry for entertainment, another ME root, invoking amusement or enjoyment and – simultaneously – hospitality. A near magic formula for the raw, native skills of writer, director, and actors.

That sounds highfaluting – a case where dictionary precision could take us as far away as possible from the craft considered.  A musical comparison is easier to grasp – when we hear all the right notes in all the right places:  but with no music.

Confusion as artistry in fact. And what fun the team have with this romp. It is as fresh today as in 1980.

There is lots of fun ‘music’ to be enjoyed in Entertaining Rita, though none of it comes through instruments or voices. This is a team that interplay each the others’ skills. The effect is dizzying. A bit like being pleasantly drunk.

Booze is so centre stage in Rita that it almost takes over as the dominant character. And both lead characters – Susan ‘Rita’ White (Julie Walters) and Oxford don, Dr Frank Bryant (Michael Caine) become more of their real-life-selves in what must function as a plot. Booze helps both in this pursuit.

Unwittingly (stay with me on the plot for a moment) they swap roles: the don becomes the student and the student the don: what the Neapolitans call the serva padrona (master trans-mutes into student and vice versa) – the very nerve centre of commedia dell’arte farce. [Pergolesi wrote a charming one-act opera, La serva padrone, which remains in repertory.

Few actors become more of themselves in every role they play. But Walters and Caine are two. (Margaret Rutherford, Alastair Sim, Peter Ustinov, Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin are others). Playing out farce for them is as natural as breathing. For it to be convincing the art must be taken seriously. Nothing so serious as a clown. Just think of the bathos of Naples’ leading screen clown, Toto. (Watch on YouTube Pasolini’s Uccellacci e Uccellini [Bad Birds and Little Birds] to see this art at its finest. Be warned that the English subtitles do not always hit the bullseye of what these Neapolitans say.)

More than threequarters of director Lewis Gilbert’s Educating Rita is exactly that: professor aims to point student in the right direction. Anyone who has been involved in university teaching will tell you that the rewards for the teacher outweigh those for the student. If you are lucky (most of the time) your student will be educating you in ways you could only previously imagine. Those students will go all-out to be educated, just like Rita. They will babble (like Rita) prize irrelevances on the discourse. Over to you now professor: you must invite the student to explore and expand supposed irrelevances – still keeping your role as guide gently involved. Your listening will be superior to your speaking at this point in the operation: when to intervene, when not. If you are foolish enough to make a judgement on a student’s take, you are the looser. Feel your way into guidance without judgement. Care needed here. It requires practice to sense which path you should be going down. Should you find yourselves going down the wrong path, remember that this path has been swanned into by you. Therefore, immediately proclaim your folly (the university pays you to do this) and immediately regain the respect of the student.  All this may not be easy at first (and increasing more difficult in a post-covid world of online university tuition). But it will be entertaining. For you both. Providing you are Rita and you survive.

Our Rita is Julie Walters who is Twiggy size, exceptionally pretty as petite alone can sometimes be, and as bossy as Margaret Thatcher, even before she has begun to think about what or who she is bossing. Remember how good Walters was as the ballet teacher in Billy Elliot? I have never met the lady in real life, but I would take a bet that not-thought-through and boss-before-you-think are part of her natural attributes. Just be yourself and for god’s sake don’t act, dear Julie.

Droll is the word which comes to mind with the person of Michael Caine. He can be highly dismissive too, of people as well as ideas. But his dismissiveness is more dangerous than Rita’s, sounding more convincing by being sprinkled with academic jargon, which naturally he doesn’t believe himself.  A great act of self-parody. Or is it part of the real-life Caine? It seems as if writer Willy Russell handed him the script saying, For god’s sake don’t start acting: I’ve written this part for YOU! (Actually in the original stage production, the part was played by Mark Kingston.)

A great moment near the beginning of the film is when a student protests that he is learning nothing from Dr Bryant’s seminar and is therefore leaving. Just what I would recommend replies the professor, it’s a beautiful, sunny day and I don’t understand why you’re not all out there enjoying it instead of wasting your time here. 

Not quite outdoing Caine in drollness is Michael Williams as Brian, who is having an affair with Frank’s mistress who when he hears the professor approaching, picks up the phone, pretending to be talking to his publisher. He does this once too often, after Frank has decided to leave his mistress by keeping up the pretence. Brian then tells the professor he will be leaving the mistress, Frank says, Well that will make a difference to my phone bills, Brian; or would have done had I not had the line disconnected this morning. 

There is another minor character that must be mentioned: Malcolm Douglas as Denny, the hapless co-habitant with Rita, who unemployed – and so in another type of lockdown – has decided to try his hand at house restructuring. His enthusiasm for this work is infectious to us as well as to Rita, who decides to give a hand uninvited, and with one mighty bash of a giant mallet, brings an entire wall down (something that I am sure has been replicated somewhere during these recent ‘at home’ weeks). Denny is nearly as small as Rita, but more muscular. In real life he not only acts but is a businessman. (I have seen him described as a ‘cultural operator’, whatever that may mean.) We would like more of you on screen, dear Michael.

As you will have seen, it has been an education and entertainment to write this review. I hope that it might be an entertainment and education (both parts of my religion) to read it.  If you do not know the play or the film, watch Educating Rita on BBC iPlayer as it remains available (at the time of writing) for a few more weeks (click here).

Jack Buckley

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