In 1989, Patrick Malahide played the aptly named Mr. Quarles, a disgruntled schoolmaster, in the first episode of the Granada television miniseries “After the War“, based on a Frederic Raphael novel by the same name. Actually, “disgruntled” may be a fairly mild description of Quarles, although he does show flickers here and there of being a little more compassionate towards his charges.
The greater part of the story deals with the beginnings of a sort of friendship – I say “sort of” because there’s a lot of animosity and hostility involved; maybe “acquaintance” is better – between two Jewish schoolboys in 1942 England: middle-class Michael Jordan (Nicholas Dastor) and refugee Joe Hirsch (Nicholas Fletcher). World War II has caused their school, St. George’s, to be uprooted and moved from Sussex to the Lorna Doone Hotel in North Devon, along with all of its schoolmasters and staff. Among those schoolmasters is Mr. Quarles, whose very first appearance tells you much of what you need to know about him.
An Invalided Schoolmaster
We first see Mr. Quarles descending some stairs as Joe Hirsch and his mother Hilde (Haydn Gwynne) arrive at the school. Quarles uses an ivory-topped cane and walks with an evident limp; he’s obviously ineligible for any kind of military service. Somehow Mr. Malahide manages to suggest Quarles’ bitterness and frustration with his situation just in this very brief appearance. He directs a long, appraising stare at the new arrivals, especially at Mrs. Hirsch, conveying a world of discontentment and thwarted desires in mere seconds. Okay, I may be reading a lot into it (who, me??), but I instantly got the sense of a man who’s feeling trapped by his circumstances and surroundings.
The Armchair General
Mr. Quarles is passionately enthusiastic for the war he can’t possibly fight in. He’s perfectly willing to play armchair general, opining at length on what various leaders should do and what he’s smugly certain will happen, even though he’s ironically and amusingly wrong most of the time. During lunch, he confidently predicts the Russian army will last only “five or six weeks, at the outside” against the Wehrmacht. He adds that the Allies will then have to “put [their] faith in Mr. Roosevelt” and “discover what it is that a dollar can and cannot buy”, while wearing an incredibly self-satisfied smirk. Mixed in with this pronouncement is a little more checking out of Mrs. Hirsch (he’s completely blatant about it), who’s found employment as a school “skivvy”, putting her very low in the staff hierarchy indeed. Quarles seems to take license from the difference in their social classes for his attitude towards her.
Not Interested in Utopia or Sandcastles
A mandatory recreation period for the boys on a nearby beach reveals more of Quarles’ attitude towards his job. “Little girls still playing sandcastles as usual, are they?” he remarks with casual disdain to another teacher. “Keeps them out of mischief, doesn’t it?” returns the teacher, and Quarles replies, “Wouldn’t be happening in Germany at the moment,” combining dour pessimism and righteousness. Sandcastles seem to provoke special hatred in him for some reason; perhaps he was never allowed to build them as a boy. One student, Carmody (the designated Jonah amongst a very Lord of the Flies-ish set of cliques), naïvely attempts to show off his work to Quarles as an “idea” of “how things could be one day, after the war” (an oft-repeated refrain). Quarles eyes him and answers crushingly: “Utopia’s never been my idea of a desirable address, I’m afraid.” Plainly, as a teacher, he’s not in the business of doing anything namby-pamby like encouraging students’ dreams or aspirations!
Survival of the Fittest
He also doesn’t appear overly concerned about his charges getting along and not killing each other – maybe he figures that Lord of the Flies was merely a good place to start. When Carmody tries to draw Quarles’ attention to Hirsch and Jordan fighting (Hirsch takes exception to Jordan referring to his mother as a “skivvy”), Quarles first ignores him, then unconcernedly replies that it’s “keep[ing] them out of mischief”, ironically repeating the other teacher’s words. But his reasoning is sound… it would certainly cut down on the number of schoolboys he has to supervise if Survival of the Fittest prevails… and the Lorna Doone Hotel is conveniently located next to a great, big cliff overlooking the sea…
Mr. Quarles seems to have been teaching for so long that he’s past mere boredom and all the way into burn-out and deep frustration. During the school’s Free French fund-raising rally, Quarles performs an epic eyeroll when headmaster Major Stanhope (Frederick Treves) declares that all the countries now fighting the Germans will be “united after the war” (that phrase again!). It’s very quick and you see it only in passing, but Mr. Malahide perfectly conveys Quarles’ utter cynicism; he might seriously be considering gnawing off his own foot to escape!
Deadly with a Piece of Chalk
But Quarles reigning over his classroom domain makes for one of the best scenes in the entire episode. His subject is history and he’s holding forth about the British Empire – “if there are any empires like it, which I take leave to doubt” – when he notices Jordan isn’t paying attention and he suddenly demonstrates his uncannily accurate chalk-throwing skill, surely born of years of practice. He nails Jordan from clear across the room without so much as stirring from his desk. Given the subject matter and Quarles’ innate sense of imperial superiority, I couldn’t quite blame Jordan’s lack of interest, although it was amusing to hear Quarles describe the British empire’s purpose as “spread[ing] justice to our dominions” after being “invited in” by “grateful kings and princes needing…support against unscrupulous foreigners”. Of course, the British don’t count as “unscrupulous foreigners” themselves!
Cohesion, Competition, and Discipline
School life livens up considerably when a large floating mine appears in the sea near the hotel. The students are evacuated yet again, and Quarles does show some trace of dedication and concern for his charges when he places himself in front of a bomb disposal lorry so students can scramble out of its way. While everyone’s waiting to see what happens with the mine, Quarles makes a pitch to Headmaster Stanhope on his personal philosophy for the school. He wants to create “a sense of cohesion, discipline, [and] command structure” so students will “live within a disciplined, competitive system, every moment of the day” – because apparently pre-adolescent boys aren’t already competitive and bloodthirsty enough and he really does think that Lord of the Flies is an instruction manual.
Quarles believes that if the boys are “more accustomed to organized competition”, they’ll have “a more alert, competent, and patriotic spirit” and be “keener when the time [comes] for them to go into the forces”. This sentiment immediately made me draw parallels between Quarles’ ideal and Hitler Youth membership, and Quarles himself reminded me of the jingoistic schoolmaster in All Quiet on the Western Front, eagerly exhorting his students to enlist with glorified and unrealistic tales of combat. But just like everyone else, Quarles is very concerned with what’s going to happen “after the war”. He thinks the world will “…need order, organization”, and definitely not “a sissified bunch of crybabies who know how to build sandcastles and arrange British colonials in their albums” (the latter is a direct shot at poor Carmody, who’s just trying to mind his own business and be a kid). Quarles is especially worried about “clever” types who will “fill the natural leaders with doubts and uncertainties” (a smattering of Ayn Rand there!) and be “more than ready” for any unprepared opponents. He’s obviously put a lot of thought into this; never mind that much of it reflects his favourite hobbyhorses.
Headmaster Stanhope is incredibly patient and hears Quarles out, managing to contain his reaction to some incredulous eyerolling. I noticed Quarles addresses him as “Major” rather than “Headmaster”. I wasn’t sure if this was part of convention, or if it was an indication of Quarles having automatic respect for a military title. It also suggests that Stanhope just might have a little more combat experience (I wish it was spelled out if he did) than Quarles and understand conflict a little better. When Quarles asks if Stanhope resents him for “having spoken so freely”, Stanhope replies, “On the contrary. Freedom of speech is something to which I attach a great deal of importance – before, during, or after the war.” There’s extra meaning to his words if Stanhope has prior military experience; unfortunately, it’s hard to say if Quarles truly picks up on the significance. Stanhope abruptly changes the subject, deferring his answer to Quarles’ pitch (probably indefinitely, if he can help it) to tell the students they’ll be staying at Drake House, a nearby posh manor, until the mine is safely detonated.
A Bump in the Night
Quarles is lucky enough to get nightwatch duty at Drake House. He shows a return to his usual form, rudely shining his flashlight in sleeping boys’ faces and taking no care to keep the sound of his footsteps or cane quiet. Of course, this is the night that Jordan’s clique, the Bulldog Drummonds, decides to climb Lord Breville’s library shelves to retrieve objets d’art. Jordan’s supposed to be keeping lookout for his buddies but he loses his nerve, hiding behind a suit of armour when he hears doors opening and closing. He’s discovered by Mrs. Hirsch just as there’s an especially loud crash from the library. Quarles (who apparently never sleeps) quickly discovers and seizes the miscreants, who’ve fallen off the chairs they were using as a makeshift ladder. While escorting his prisoners to justice (the British kind, of course), Quarles surprises Jordan and Mrs. Hirsch in the act of sneaking back to their rooms. He doesn’t seem entirely convinced that Jordan just needed an innocent trip to the lav, but he lets him get away with it (for now) and sends him to bed.
Alone At Last
Quarles and Mrs. Hirsch are alone at last (she’d probably rather be anywhere else), and the sexual tension that’s been building finally simmers over in a marvelous scene. Quarles is both suspicious and madly curious, asking Mrs. Hirsch what she’s “doing up and about at this time of night”. The question’s intrusive enough on its own, but Quarles’ manner suggests something beyond ordinary curiosity. He’s obviously attracted to Mrs. Hirsch, directing many appraising glances her way since her arrival, but her social status means that he can’t (or won’t) ever follow through on his attraction, let alone express it respectfully. The fact that she’s in her nightdress, looking rather fetching with her hair down, just adds to the strained atmosphere. To her credit, Mrs. Hirsch defies Quarles and flatly refuses to answer his question. His reaction speaks volumes; he raises his eyebrows in a kind of supercilious shrug, conceding temporary defeat, but he also leers at her speculatively as she goes back to her room. For an extra bit of petty revenge, he loudly utters a parting shot she’s certain to hear: “She entertains our allies, I believe.” If he can’t have her, he’ll publicly slag her reputation instead. Could that be a wee bit of frustration and jealousy? The invalided Quarles cuckolded before he can even get started by American G.I.s?
Investigating a Theft
The mine is finally detonated but before returning to the Lorna Doone, the boys swipe a statuette from Drake Hall and turn its possession into a clique rivalry. You’d think Quarles would be pleased that his charges are showing initiative for once; instead, he and Stanhope have the unpleasant task of discovering who took the figurine and where they’ve hidden it. But Quarles has been outwitting schoolboys for an awfully long time. His methodicalness and thoroughness at ransacking their rooms, silently rummaging through every drawer, closet, suitcase, vase, and nook and cranny, suggests that he’s made many a search before. He does it all while darting one of the most daunting, gimlet-eyed Glares of Death I’ve ever seen at the (suspected) guilty parties; it’s a wonder they don’t crack on the spot and confess everything bad they’ve ever done.
Discovery and Dismissal
The boys are canny enough to know they should stash their swag off-site. Hirsch, in an attempt at ingratiation or possibly self-sabotage (because he knows it’s likely to be eventually discovered) offers to hide the statuette at his mother’s house. But Quarles, still nursing a grudge, suggests searching Mrs. Hirsch’s residence as well. He even uses the opportunity to make another cheap shot about Mrs. Hirsch’s “middle of the day” activities. He quickly finds the figurine and Mrs. Hirsch and Joe have to answer to the headmaster for it. She vehemently protests that they’re not thieves while Quarles conjugates mockingly in the background: “We are not thieves… They are not thieves…” Faced with a sticky situation where their innocence can’t be conclusively proven, Stanhope decides he has no choice but to dismiss Mrs. Hirsch and throw her and Joe out of the school.
Quarles appears smugly satisfied by Mrs. Hirsch’s dismissal, even though she never turned him down for a question he never asked… not that he was likely to ever ask the question anyway. Her background, religion, and social status all mark her as lower on the totem pole than he is, yet he still desires her and seems to hate her for it. He knows she dates American G.I.s, so she’s available – but she’ll never be available to him, and might not be interested even if she was. So he lashes out, getting some final digs in even as she’s leaving. He cattily remarks to another teacher that her departure will “reduce the intake of off-the-ration fun and games in certain quarters, but that’s the price we must pay, what?”, with an amused grin at his own wit. When Jordan decides he can’t take the unjustness of the Hirsches’ dismissal and runs to the headmaster, defying Quarles’ order to return, Quarles directs a look after him that conveys more bewilderment than anger at his disobedience. There’s a lot of nastiness and pettiness to Quarles’ attitude, yet I can’t help thinking that he’s dealing with some very deep-seated frustration and bitterness at his own impotence in being unable to join up, and perhaps insecurity as a man.
The Flawed Yet Fascinating Mr. Quarles
I’ll leave it to the reader to discover what becomes of Hirsch, Mrs. Hirsch, and Jordan. I only watched the first episode of this three-part series, as it was the only one that Mr. Quarles (and Mr. Malahide) appeared in. But what an amazing amount he packed into his performance to give us such a complex character just through demeanour, posture, expression… I got a very real sense of Quarles as a person in a very concise, compact package. Mr. Malahide showed us the depth of this man – the extent of his frustration, bitterness, and hurt, layered with a brittle veneer of cynicism and sarcasm. He created a character that I cared about and wanted to know more about even though he was really kind of a jerk. What did become of Mr. Quarles after the war? And – this bit is kind of shallow, so you might want to avert your eyes – he does look simply smashing in Forties tweeds. 🙂
You can view clips from “After the War” below, courtesy of Admin (thanks as always! :-)), or scroll down for a gallery.