Sidelong Glances At The PCU Characters: John May

Bryant and 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.

25 comments on “Sidelong Glances At The PCU Characters: John May”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    It’s interesting to compare “Alfie” with “Spring and Port Wine” as they are both by Bolton born Bill Naughton. “Alfie” was atypical-he usually wrote “Northern” rather than “Cockney”.

    I saw “Alfie” a few years after it was made, and the central character was vile to me even then. But I have never understood the popularity of the (to me) uncharismatic Michael Caine. On the other hand, the father in “Spring and Port Wine”, whilst dominating and overbearing, at least has his comeuppance and becomes humanised. Until then, he runs the household with a rod of iron and his wife is a mere flunkey. As an amateur actor I have been in 2 versions of the play (not as the father) and find it a rather warm play. Underneath, the father really cares. Alfred Marks was the father in the play, (I can’t really see him in the part) but a rather miscast James Mason was cast in the film. but he made it work in a curious way. It is a play that can and is still performed today, though as an early 60s period piece.

  2. Jo W says:

    Happy Publication Day, Christopher! Be well and enjoy!

  3. Paul C says:

    My granddad was an extra in Get Carter filmed on Tyneside but he sadly doesn’t appear in the final cut. He was paid a fiver and given a free lunch and told everyone he would soon be appearing in Get Garter (sic)

    He thought Michael Caine was very friendly and down to earth – happy to sign autographs and chat with locals.

  4. Brian Evans says:

    Oh, yes. Good luck with “Oranges and Lemons” I have just downloaded mine.

  5. Brooke says:

    Sidelong or sideway?
    Congratulations on release of O&L.

    J May is not a character I like…one reason I could not finish HoM. His characteristics remind me of too many white males I’ve met in corporate life who, self involved souls that they are, never see the weapon that’s about to clobber them. You do not want to work with them and never, ever, report directly to a John May type.

  6. John Griffin says:

    I’ve always thought of May as you portray him here, a man from an earlier era who has done all the technical stuff to stay with the times but is hollow within emotionally, out of time. It’s a bit like those who fought in WW2, after that everything was pretty empty and dull; my (adoptive) stepfather was emotionally inert, his heart still in the Western Desert campaign.

  7. Martin Tolley says:

    Oranges and Lemons arrived 5 mins after midnight from Amazon. Weekend sorted.

  8. John Griffin says:

    Guess who accidentally ordered two copies.
    Apart from trying to read in stereo, an opportunity to get daughter (Ian Rankin fan) into B & M.

  9. Peter T says:

    I’m surprised John May excites so much reaction. To me, he’s some of John Le Mesurier, too much of Roger Moore and a dash of Denholm Elliott. On a good day, there may even be a touch of Jack Hawkins or Michael Rennie, but it’s a few years since May had many good days. Unlike Arther Bryant, I don’t relate to him; we don’t seem to share feelings or ways of doing things, which is probably good – for him. Arthur is the essential element in the partnership, the heart and the soul.

    I generally enjoy watching Michael Caine. In his more cheerful roles, I recall the joy and optimism of the 1960s. In spite of that, for me, he still succeeds in the grimmer ones.

  10. Frances says:

    Interesting comments. He is my favourite character in the books. He is less easy to ¨see¨ and therefore intriguing. Also, I suppose, a man of my generation and there is much in him which I recognise.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    John corrects Arthur, usually gently, sometimes bruskly, but in any event he reminds Arthur that there is a closer, easier route to an answer if you can make it work. I think of Arthur as a balloon on a string, peering ahead, above, around but possibly missing what is immediately ahead and John as the holder of the string, keeping Arthur from flying off in all directions and watching the ground for potholes and lumpy rocks.

  12. Penelope says:

    Peter, Michael Rennie is a good call!

    Ironically my first B&M was Full Dark House, which of course has no Bryant (in a way, natch). I loved the way May roamed London assessing its past and present and I had no preconceived ideas about his character. An interesting introduction to the series! But Bryant is my fave, no question.

  13. Debra Matheney says:

    I like Helen’s imagery.Captured the prtnership well. I like May. Bryant can get on my last nerve. Can’t wait for my copy to arrive here in California, where the news is always bad. Reading it will be an antidote to all that is life today.

  14. Derek j Lewis says:

    Peter Butterworth “ Now you said I had haemorrhoids and you were wrong, and you said it was a slipped disc but you were wrong…..
    Thought i’d slip my favourite “carry on” joke in as it was getting all getting a bit meta
    I’m a John May fan too

  15. Dawn Andrews says:

    I find both John May and Arthur Bryant alternatively engaging and annoying, it’s that chemistry that makes the books fizz.

  16. admin says:

    Nice summation, Helen. A balloon on a string. I hadn’t thought of him like that.

  17. SteveB says:

    I see Arthur often as an authorial voice if I’m honest, with John May as the counterpoint.
    If I’m allowed to say this, the writing in the new book is really good, sharper than ever. And I read all the section quotes already, really liked them, especially the one at Part 5!

  18. Brian Evans says:

    SteveB-whoops, spoiler alert. I haven’t read mine yet!

  19. Jo W says:

    Bigger spoiler alert!! I haven’t even got my copy yet! 🙁

  20. Helen Martin says:

    Mine arrived here just a few minutes – well, an hour actually – ago and I’ve opened it the way a teacher taught us (to save the spine) and read to page 20. Wild Chamber will be set aside to read the new one. Goodie, goodie. Thanks for the compliment above, Chris.

  21. Brian Evans says:

    I’m the same Helen. I hate bent spines on books. I also like to sniff the pages when I open as I love the smell of a new book. I must admit, though, Chris’s latest is an ebook on my tablet. I find them easier to read now as I can make the screen lighter and the print bigger. Old age is a bugger!

  22. Stephen says:

    I’ve always liked the character of John May.

  23. David Ronaldson says:

    Interesting connection for me here, as I often picture John May as Michael Caine, alongside Toby Jones’ Bryant

  24. Ian Luck says:

    David – The brilliant Toby Jones was born to play Arthur. The complaint ‘He’s not old enough’ comes to me. I reply with ‘David Suchet as Poirot’. Perfect casting, and he wasn’t as old as he looked. Clive Dunn as the doddering Cpl. Jones, in ‘Dad’s Army’. Not an old man, but utterly convincing (apart from the physicality the role needed). If I read a B&M book, it’s Toby Jones’ voice I hear when reading Arthur’s dialogue. John May has Roger Allom’s voice, by the way.

  25. Michael Pitcher says:

    Never thought of Toby Jones as Arthur what a good idea !

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