A wizard show: RC Sherriff and The Dam Busters

Say the name RC Sherriff to most people and their instant reaction is likely to be ‘the man who wrote Journey’s End.’ He is certainly best known for this, and the popular identification with his first widely produced play will surely grow all the while it remains on the GCSE set text list. The First World War classic was based on his own experiences serving in the trenches as a captain in the East Surrey Regiment.
It could also be argued, however, that Robert Cedric Sherriff deserves to be widely remembered for another reason, as the man who provided Hollywood with the first British ‘stiff upper lip’ characters – archetypes which persist today in the kind of roles given to actors like Colin Firth, Ralph Fiennes and Jeremy Irons.
Journey’s End was a huge success. First produced in late 1928, it then ran for two years in the West End, and went onto Broadway and other parts of the world. It enabled Sherriff to quit his job in insurance, first to go to study at Oxford and then to become a full time writer. He was lured to Hollywood by the legendary producer Sam Goldwyn (‘A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on’, ‘Include me out’, etc, etc) where he worked both as a writer of original screenplays and a script ‘doctor’. His original work included The Invisible Man and Goodbye Mr Chips, and his rewrites such wartime classics as Mrs Miniver.
In his BFI monograph, John Ramsden noticed the importance of the timing of his arrival in Hollywood, in the early 1930s.
At exactly the moment when sound films were about to sweep all before them, in 1928, Sherriff captured in Journey’s End the way in which a certain type of British officer and gentleman spoke and behaved. He then carried these manners and forms of expression into his screenplays, was much imitated in doing so, and saw them develop into clichés of cinematic Englishness.
(John Ramsden, The Dam Busters, Tauris, 2003, p.38.)
It’s worth noting that although Sherrif developed this style, he wasn’t himself from an upper middle class background. His father worked in insurance, and the young ‘Bob’ went to a grammar school, Kingston Grammar, not a public school. But his love of rowing and his service in the war as an officer would have brought him in touch with the kinds of people he is famous for depicting.
His understated style of writing is an important characteristic in what could be argued is Sherriff’s second most important work, the screenplay he wrote for The Dam Busters in 1954. There are many examples throughout this script where a character says just a word or two, but this is more than enough to drive the film’s narrative forward:
Gibson: ‘I wanted you for this. You’re the low-flying expert.’
Martin: ‘Low flying? Fine.’
WAAF: ‘Are you flying tonight?’
Pilot: ‘That’s the general idea.’
Wallace: ‘Why don’t you turn in, Gibby?’
Gibson: ‘I have to write some letters first.’
This last exchange is the final piece of dialogue in the film. As the music swells to a great climax, Wallis moves away and Gibson turns and walks back to his office, acknowledging the salute of a passing sergeant. We know that he is about to undertake the commanding officer’s most terrible duty.
Sherriff was nominated for a BAFTA for his script, one of the two nominations he got for this award in 1955. The other was for the lesser known The Night My Number Came Up, which also featured Dam Busters actors Michael Redgrave, Ursula Jeans, Nigel Stock and Bill Kerr. However both were beaten by the classic comedy, The Ladykillers.
By the time The Dam Busters was made, Sherriff was living more or less permanently back home in England, in a large house, Rosebriars, in Esher. Although he was described as a shy and retiring man (see this reference, scroll almost to the bottom of the page) he was still actively involved in rowing, and was a member of several clubs until he died.
This passion for rowing explains a number of references in The Dam Busters – Melvin (‘Dinghy’) Young’s Blue for rowing at Oxford and Henry Maudslay’s feat of being captain of rowing at Eton are both mentioned. Young’s actual Boat Race oar was even used as a prop on the set, A prop made to look like Young’s Boat Race oar features in the sequence after the raid, when the camera zooms in on various reminders of the aircrew who have failed to return. [Updated, January 2013]
Sherriff never married, and died in 1975 without leaving an heir. A trust was established with the money from his estate, and is used still to support arts activities in the borough of Elmbridge. And the boat club at his old school still uses his name for its fundraising and support activities.