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The 500
The Voice of Roger Livesey

Chris Samuel

18.08.19

Still from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s ‘A Matter of Life and Death' (1946). Image copyright of ITV Studios Home Entertainment. Not for commercial reproduction.

In the climactic scene of Powell and Pressburger’s 1946 classic A Matter of Life and Death, Roger Livesey’s character Dr. Frank Reeves is a guest in heaven, addressing court. He’s operating as defense counsel to his patient Peter Carter, a wartime Lancaster bomber pilot who, due to an administrative error ‘upstairs’, didn’t die when his aircraft was shot down over dover.

The mistake causes panic in heaven, and on earth Peter then promptly falls for June, an American radio operator. Amid bouts of unconsciousness, visions of angels insisting he accompany them to heaven, and celestial stairways, Peter demands that he be given the opportunity to remain alive and in love.

Still from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s ‘A Matter of Life and Death' (1946). Image copyright of ITV Studios Home Entertainment. Not for commercial reproduction.

A trial to determine his fate is hastily arranged though it’s unclear whether this heavenly summons is real or a symptom of head injury sustained in the crash. Convinced that winning the case may prevent Peter from losing his mind, Reeves agrees to be his legal defender and apparates by his side at the pearly gates.

Leading the case for the prosecution is Abraham Farlan, the first American soldier to die in the American Revolutionary War, and a vociferous critic of British Imperialism. He reminds Reeves that (despite being an Englishman) he is not above the law. ‘Yes, Mr. Farlan’, replies Reeves, raising to the jury a wry, involving brow, ‘but on Earth nothing is stronger than love'.

It’s a sentiment that would be unbearably saccharine in any other mouth, but one that is wielded with grave solemnity by Livesey.

Still from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s ‘A Matter of Life and Death' (1946). Image copyright of ITV Studios Home Entertainment. Not for commercial reproduction.

And it’s an odd voice for a film star, so unlike the louche mid-Atlantic drawl of Carey Grant, the smothered Welsh of Richard Burton, or the clipped, reedy twittering of David Niven. His is a parched and chasmic rumble rising behind large, ciggie-scorched teeth. Many of his vowels are all but extinct, noises now emitted by only the most willfully anachronistic of Tory backbenchers. ‘Found’ is rendered as ‘farynd’, and Paris is ‘Peris’. ‘Ns’ bleed into succeeding words, an elongated springboard for the next part of the sentence: ‘we must winnnnnn or lose his case tonight!’.

In a conventional narrative Reeves’ professed admiration for June early in the film might be a point of conflict. Spotting her in the village, Reeves summons Byron, ‘She walks in beauty, like the night…’ but, a prisoner of propriety he concludes, somewhat absurdly, ‘only she’s cycling and it’s daytime …’ his voice a sad, ruminant thrum that seems to recognise his lack of the recklessness required of a romantic lead.

Livesey was the star of another Powell and Pressburger classic, ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’, with first-choice Laurence Olivier unable to take the part due to contractual constraints. And Powell was well-aware of the effect Livesey’s voice and persona would have upon the role: "The only change was that instead of having a vicious, slashing, cruel, merciless Colonel Blimp we had a dear old bumbler and of course everybody loved that".

Even then, as a relatively young man, Livesey’s sort were on the wane: dear old bears soon to be skinned by a tribe of hard-drinking, irreverent and above all, ‘angry’ young actors. Livesey’s voice didn’t infect a scene like Finney. It was generous, thoughtful and fading.

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