In one of my other lives, I’m the administrator of a playwriting competition. Every year, anywhere between 200 and 300 scripts are submitted. Of these, I would estimate (since I don’t actually read all the plays myself – I parcel them out among a dozen or so readers) that at least 30% have the same basic plot line: A group of people, frequently members of the same family, are brought together for some occasion – a wedding, a funeral, a holiday, something plausible – and, in the course of their gathering, long-held secrets and grievances are finally aired and brought to some sort of conclusion.
The Holly and the Ivy by Wynyard Browne was such a play. It was produced in London’s West End in 1950 and proved to be successful enough that two years later it was turned into a film with some fairly big-name British stars in the leading roles. It’s not a particularly imaginative film, cinematically speaking; aside from a handful of short scenes inserted at the beginning to provide a little background to the characters, this is a fairly straightforward filming of the play, set entirely on the ground floor of a Norfolk parsonage. It could have been made for television. As it happens, this places all the focus on the script (which is a good one) and the performances (which are excellent).
The occasion here is Christmas. The head of the family is an amiable, disorganized parson, the Rev. Martin Gregory (played by Ralph Richardson), and it’s the first Christmas since the death of his wife the previous spring. His slightly dowdy daughter Jenny (Celia Johnson) has put off her engagement to a young Scotsman (John Gregson) in order to take care of her father and the parsonage. Another daughter, glamorous Margaret (Margaret Leighton), has been working in London as a fashion journalist; she has a couple of secrets, including a drinking problem and a wartime love affair that produced a child. There’s also a son, Michael (Denholm Elliott), a high-spirited and slightly bitter young man serving (not very competently) in the British Army. They’re all at the parsonage for the holiday, along with two elderly aunts and a middle-aged cousin.
Margaret and Michael announce that they’re abandoning the family on Christmas Eve to go to the movies but actually head to the pub for some heavy drinking. Upon his return, Michael drunkenly informs his father that nobody can tell him the truth because he’s a parson (and presumably too unworldly to understand the problems of his family); and soon thereafter, all the grievances begin to spill out.
The Holly and the Ivy is superbly acted in the stiff-upper-lip style that was prevalent in British films at the time and that would seem hopelessly outdated about ten years later. Ralph Richardson was fairly unique as a leading man – pudgy, homely, with a gift for playing apparently ordinary people who live at a slight angle to the rest of the world. Here he offers a kind, unintellectual man who loves to serve his parishioners while doubting that they even pay much attention to him. Every performance I’ve ever seen by Celia Johnson (including Brief Encounter, In Which We Serve, The Captain’s Paradise and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) has been extraordinarily impressive – she could do more with her eyes than most actors could do with their whole bodies – and here, although she’s about 15 years too old for her role (and looks it), she conveys the pain of a woman who is sacrificing her future happiness for the sake of her father. Along with the rest of an extremely fine cast, they make what could have been a soggy, cliché-ridden soap opera into a gripping piece of entertainment.