In 2002, Patrick Malahide appeared in an ITV production of Goodbye, Mr. Chips as Headmaster Ralston. Charged with task of modernizing Brookfield, a boys’ boarding school, and improving its finances, Ralston finds himself at loggerheads with its longest serving and best loved teacher, Latin Master Mr. Chipping (Martin Clunes).
With his neat mustache, trim physique, and lovely wardrobe (there are some nice shirtsleeve and vest scenes), Ralston looks every bit the military man he proves to be. He is an antagonist, but he isn’t actually a villain. He has been assigned a task, and he takes it on with a vigor guaranteed to shake up the old guard. While his views and actions put him in the category of “bully”, they are somewhat understandable (if not necessarily condoned) when you take into account his remit and the world events occurring during his tenure.
A Dashing Entrance
It is 1913 when Ralston makes his first appearance. By this time, Mr. Chipping has been teaching at the school since the Victorian era. He has grown to love more than one generation of schoolboys and they him. They grieved with him when he became widowed, and he has their undying affection. And now Ralston shows up to throw a bunch of spanners (all with “I hate Chipping” written on them) into the works.
But let us get to that fantastic entrance. Vrooom! He shows up in a lovely period car that I can’t help but notice does a LOT of rattling over Brookfield’s cobblestones. Rattling doesn’t bother Ralston in the least because he just pops right up after parking and begins work on making everybody miserable.
Since he has been there the longest, Chips gets to show Ralston around. It doesn’t go particularly well. Ralston blithely struggles to pronounce the German instructor’s name, Herr Staefel (Conleth Hill), foreshadowing his opinion on having a German on the grounds during the lead-up to WWI. Chipping valiantly tries to defend his friend Staefel, but Ralston is already stampeding to his next focal point. Ralston is a champion stampeder. He moves with a force that gives vivacity to all his scenes.
The differences between Ralston and Chipping continue to develop when military man Ralston asks if the school has an officer training course. Chipping says they prefer to keep violence out of Brookfield. That goes over like a lead balloon.
Battle Lines Being Drawn
There is a particularly good scene where Chipping and Staefel are having a mock debate over which is best: German or Latin. The students are having a giggle at their masters’ playful wit and conviviality, but glowering through the window is an absolutely unimpressed Ralston. You can see the disgust in his eyes as he watches the two friends entertain the pupils with their gentle barbs and philosophical viewpoints. It is obvious that he is more than ready to see the backs of certain instructors who don’t fit into his world view, especially the German one. In short, it is a typically brilliant bit of silent acting from Mr. Malahide.
Ralston gathers the instructors together and lays down the law. “I have spent the past few days touching the very fabric of Brookfield; I regret to tell you I found the fabric somewhat frayed.” He has plans to economize, economize, economize. He is going to raise tuition fees substantially, and he’ll reach out to wealthier families, encouraging them to send their sons to the “new and improved” Brookfield.
None of that is surprising considering that was why Ralston was hired in the first place. However, Chips has one little question: What about Brookfield’s long history of philanthropy? Will there still be a bursary (scholarship) available for “boys of lesser means”? Ralston completely ignores the question and bids the gentlemen good day. He magnanimously states that his “door is always open,” but his hand gesture has more of a “get out, now” vibe to it.
Ralston continues establishing himself by placing a suit of armor outside the building, an aggressive symbol that Chipping disapproves of. He is seen stampeding (yet again) along the cobblestones, showing off Brookfield to wealthy couples.
As mentioned earlier, WWI is now imminent. Ralston’s plans of teaching officer training have come to fruition and things are getting very uncomfortable for the German master Herr Staefel. One quick comment on him: I find it hard to believe the super sweet and cuddly Herr Staefel is played by the same actor who portrays Lord Varys in Game of Thrones. “The Spider” is one of GoT’s creepier characters, and GoT has a LOT of very creepy characters! Not Lord Balon Greyjoy, though, he is made of salt and iron and is too stubborn and bluff to be creepy. 🙂
Stubborn and bluff are good words to describe Ralston. He essentially forces Herr Staefel to submit his resignation, thus bringing on the big confrontation with Chipping who describes Ralston’s record as “disgraceful.” “Do enlighten me, Chipping.” Chipping enlightens by waylaying him over the bursary fund, or lack there of. Ralston has no plans to continue with it, so tough luck.
What I like about this scene is how Ralston patiently takes Chipping’s vitriol. He stands like a soldier at ease would. For me, it highlights his military background and reinforces the battle analogy.
Chipping finally blurts out the words Ralston was patiently waiting to hear, “…and I don’t see that I can continue to serve under you.” Ooops! Martin Clunes’ face is perfect as he realizes what he just said. Equally perfect is Mr. Malahide’s triumphant look as he leans in, menacingly, to say that they are now “on the same page.”
The Boys Rally:
Word soon spreads that the most popular master is being driven out, and the boys choose to support Chipping. Ralston, stampeding somewhere, overhears and pauses to listen. He is clearly infuriated and gives an epic jaw jut before stomping away.
Ralston has one last shot at redemption when a representative of the board of governors, Sir John Rivers (John Harding), arrives. Sir John was a former pupil of Chipping’s and had the distinction of showing him around the grounds when he was a new teacher. Obviously, he is going to ally himself with Chipping. But, he gamely tries to convince Ralston to relent on the matter of the bursary fund.
Ralston has none of that, claiming that to relent would be to relinquish his authority. “In this case, I fear, it has come to a choice,” he says. Ralston is pretty much a living embodiment of the Oak and the Reed fable, isn’t he?
At assembly, where Ralston will lay out his additional plans and also send off Chipping, it all comes to a boil. Sir John takes the podium and riles up the boys by imploring Chipping to remain at Brookfield. Realizing he has been defeated, Ralston turns to Sir John and says, “you place me in an impossible decision.” Nope, you did that yourself.
And with that Ralston departs. He actually chooses to rejoin his regiment! Just think about that for a while. He decided WWI sounded a better prospect than dealing with “Mr. Chips” on a daily basis! Chipping went on to become headmaster, so yay for him, I guess. 🙂
Ralston adds a huge amount of energy and intensity to the production. Mr. Malahide’s performance shows a brilliant combination of energetic zeal with a controlled restraint. You can tell Ralston would like to be even *more* aggressive, but has to hold back to a certain degree. And while it was intensity and refusal to yield that cost him his position, he did show a decidedly strategic side by allowing Chipping to resign himself. He just didn’t quite count on the loyalty that Chipping’s students, both current and former, would show. Maybe he should have told Chipping they would have a bursary, if he (Chipping) could figure out a way to fund it. 😉