Top 10 film performances: Roger Livesey

Black and white photograph of Roger Livesey as Jean Cordeau and Ivan Samson as Bernard Bazire in 1948 BBC production Men of Darkness

Last updated: 05 March 2010

Roger Livesey in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

In the opening minutes of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, the film's ostensible hero, a florid-faced corpulent veteran looking like a beached whale is caught, almost literally, with his pants down in a Home Guard exercise raid on a swimming baths.

He's been embarrassed by the effrontery of a tyro soldier (a potential usurper of his rank?) who's broken unspoken military rules by starting the manoeuvre early. The image of this Blimp's slack-jawed outrage lingers long in the mind's eye.

Barry-born Roger Livesey's Major General Clive Candy is, at that moment, a figure of fun, as loveably anachronistic as the old buffer hero of those Low cartoons so popular in the wartime Daily Express. We're constantly aware early on that Candy, defiantly clinging to his own and traditional service moral codes, cuts a ridiculous figure for those much less shackled by convention.

Yet it's a measure of Livesey's powerfully persuasive performance and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's subtleties of scripting and direction that we gradually understand and eventually laud most of Candy's values.

We empathise when he's flummoxed by the wit or brainpower of his intellectual superiors and even when he's frankly misguided in his views. For Candy's flaws are part of the endearing nature of this essentially genial, humane man, revealed most in his constant, deeply-felt friendship with a German officer and, moreover, the man who has unwittingly taken away the girl he loves.

Their reunion and mutual affection for each other after years of separation or alienation allows Powell and Pressburger to convey just where their sympathies lie. This Blimp may be a dinosaur, and he doesn't lack blinkers or prejudice - but he's never without honour.

Anton Walbrook, star of so many German films, is one of the greatest actors ever to command the screen. Here he's almost as good as in his Leomontov/Diaghilev role in the Powell-Pressburger Red Shoes (1948), but Livesey is his equal here and never has that fruity, nasal voice better served the material.

Winston Churchill as PM tried desperately to have this film withdrawn (testimony to the power of Livesey's performance). He thought Candy's floundering and flagrant fallibility and the antics and moral culpability of others would discourage recruits and affect army morale.

What a misreading. Who knows? We might have to thank a few service blimps for talking him out of sabotaging a British masterpiece.

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