Archie Rice (Laurence Olivier) is an entertainer of the old school, performing his variety hall act to dwindling audiences in Morecambe, but carrying on regardless since he doesn't see any other way to live. He has three offspring, his daughter Jean (Joan Plowright) is coming up from London where she works as an art teacher, and is tentatively engaged to businessman Graham (Daniel Massey), but is leaving him behind since her brother (Albert Finney) is being sent to Suez to be part of the British Army dealing with the crisis there. She feels she should be with her family at this time, and sure enough there is trouble when the young man is captured by the rebels - but is Archie bothered?
Well, yes, he is but more likely to face problems with a joke and a song than he is to tackle them head on, in this, Lord Olivier's favourite screen role and one of his favourite stage ones too. He had noted the Angry Young Men emerging in British theatre and rather than dismissing them and retreating to the Bard, he embraced them and requested their leading light John Osborne to pen a role for him, so The Entertainer was the result. It was a huge success, an unbeatable combination of the two men's talents and was relevant to the era it was created, thereby keeping both relevant in the process; call it canny, but also call it intelligent when they knew they could bring out the best in each of them.
It was not merely a tale of a comedian going down the dumper, though there was a strong element of that, but it was a metaphor for how Britain found itself in the world after the Suez Crisis, not a superpower anymore and less relevant than they had been even a decade before, a precipitous drop-off from their previous status. Osborne was not subtle about this, but he did not bash you over the head with his allusions either, as while Suez was a major part of the plot, you could equally regard this as a farewell to the music halls as entertainment moved on into the sixties, and that old-time glamour, a somewhat seedy one at that, was eclipsed by the new, up and coming acts.
Of course, the irony here was that the sixties would see Britain dominate the world again - only not through its military, through its entertainment. The rest of the world couldn't get enough of British movie stars and pop and rock acts, they truly led the way, but crucially, the old pros like Archie Rice and his father Billy (Roger Livesey) would not be part of it, it was a new landscape of diversions that would look down on the Rices as part of the past. Certainly, there was an interest at home in Victorian and Edwardian culture, but it fed into something fresh and self-aware; Olivier wasn't to know this when he took the role here, but he and Osborne were onto something, and The Entertainer was looking ahead as much as it was looking behind, at a pivotal point for more reasons than one.
Needless to say, Olivier absolutely owned the role, the smart casting of the greatest Shakespearean of his generation as a down at heel variety act proving its worth when he brought such humanity to his delusions that he doesn't really believe in anyway. And historically, the film conjured up images of a bygone age - the seaside resorts are still there, but no longer the draw they once were, seen as downmarket and (a word that is used here like a curse) "common". When Archie sees his dream of getting his own headlining show in London as he finds a backer in the mother (Thora Hird) of his latest conquest (Shirley Anne Field), who came second in the beauty contest he was judging (but not first!), he almost believes he can escape his drudgery and daily (and nightly) grind which is not helped by his high-strung wife (Brenda de Banzie, all raw nerves). But naturally, at the end of an era there will always be casualties. The Entertainer was criticised at the time for its essential theatricality, and it does have its lapses, but as a record of Olivier's classic performance, it has great value. Music by John Addison.
[Available as part of the BFI's Woodfall box set on Blu-ray and DVD, which includes these fully restored films: