Sidelong Glances At The PCU Characters: John May
A friend of mine who was a theatrical agent hired a Leicester Square cinema (back in the days when you could do such things) for his own birthday and had a screening of ‘Gone with the Wind’. I saw it for the first time then, and remember thinking, ‘Bless Butterfly McQueen, but this hasn’t aged well.’
I remember the Tom & Jerry cartoons as a kid, and thinking ‘Who is this big screaming lady?’ It never occurred to me that she was a servant, or that I was watching a grotesque caricature. Let’s not get into sexism or we’ll be here all night on the ‘Carry On’ films alone, even though there’s something curiously childlike about all those tits ‘n’ toilets jokes.
‘Alfie’ isn’t looking too hot either, although of course it is, thanks to Michael Caine. When Sidney Furie made ‘The Ipcress File’, deliberately distancing Harry Palmer from James Bond, a movie executive told him to dump Caine’s spectacles and make his girlfriend do the cooking because Caine ‘looked like a faggot’.
The link between ‘Gone With The Wind’, ‘Tom & Jerry’ and ‘Alfie’ is that they were all fêted in their time, but times move on. All of which brings us to a man out of time; John May. (I’m pretty sure I gave him a middle name but right now I forget what it is.)
When May first appeared I had him down simply as a rational foil for Arthur Bryant, someone who would counteract his frivolous thinking. But then I had to consider; who really was he? Why did he remain slightly in the background? Why does Bryant rely on him? When was his best time?
Of course May had peaked in the late nineteen sixties / early seventies, when he was handsome, charming, a tad too sleek and confident with women (as befits the times). What stopped him from behaving like a cad was his calm intelligence. But unlike Bryant, who was always old even as a young man, he had perhaps resented ageing and a loss of charisma, and does not always like finding himself yoked to Bryant by age.
But May’s calm strength has remained and he has mellowed into a rather admirable man. His career at the Peculiar Crimes Unit has cost him dearly in personal terms, but it is a price he now accepts.
If we see Michael Caine at his best in ‘The Ipcress File’ we would see John May at his peak of popularity in swinging London, and as it faded so did he, just a little. Lacking the confidence to lead in the way that Bryant does, he has found a reconciliation of sorts in that companionship. And bearing in mind that the last woman he went out with shot him, he’ll be wary for a time to come.