‘Landscape and Dialectical Atavism in The Ruling Class

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English fiction films in the early 1970s developed new modes of deploying country house locations, whereby the architecture and history of an estate became intrinsic to narrative. At the same time, the new approaches to landscape historiography that emerged in the decade were anticipated by these films. My paper addresses the narratorial functions of landscape in one of the most innovative country house films of the 1970s, The Ruling Class (Medak, 1972). Matching the genre hybridity of Peter Barnes’s original play, The Ruling Class pursues its protagonist’s transformation through a landscaped trajectory. The film progresses from formal to picturesque gardens, mobilising a paradigm shift in the history of English landscape architecture to deconstruct the relationship between the aristocracy and landownership. Formal grounds constitute the site where ‘paranoid plots’ threaten the main character, J.C. He fears the revelation of these schemes more than the schemes themselves. In response, he lets himself become intertwined in the plots, appropriately suturing the formal landscape into a fantasy of courtly love. On the other hand, after J.C. has taken on the personality of Jack the Ripper, his soliloquy is recited in a picturesque space. Here the partial concealment typical of the picturesque is used to camouflage his madness. Therefore his arc comically and perversely straddles the divide between the courtly allegories of the formal garden and the pleasing concealments of the picturesque. My paper will thus consider the way in which the film creates a dialectics between two historical landscape styles. Landscape as history is abstracted into structural components, or myths. The gardens, like the film’s other cultural references, are surfaces, pastiches detached from their provenance. It is apt that a film which attacks the aristocracy denies even the aesthetic pedigree of the ruling class’s landscapes.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 4 Jul 2007
EventDon’t Look Now? British Cinema in the 1970s - University of Exeter Pree, Exeter, United Kingdom
Duration: 4 Jul 20077 Jul 2007


ConferenceDon’t Look Now? British Cinema in the 1970s
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


  • The Ruling Class
  • Peter Medak
  • British Cinema
  • 1970s
  • Landscape Gardens
  • Dialectical Atavism
  • Adaptation
  • Peter Barnes
  • Setting
  • Location
  • Country House
  • Heritage


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