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Bearing the cumbersome burden of Shakespearean tragedian, Laurence Olivier made a conscious effort to occasionally ground himself by playing against type, as he did in his depiction of dead-end music hall performer Archie Rice in Tony Richardson's The Entertainer (1960). Another such role, though lesser known, was that of a milquetoast schoolteacher in Peter Glenville's Term of Trial (1962).
Part of the genre of naturalistic, working-class British dramas known as "kitchen sink" films, Term of Trial observes the meager existence of Graham Weir, a teacher at the East Secondary Modern School, in Northern England. Weir was a conscientious objector during World War II. In his mind, this makes him a man of principles, but to everyone else, he is merely a coward. It was as punishment for his refusal to serve that Weir was assigned to the hardscrabble school. With alcohol as a crutch, he muddles through the grim predicament that is his life.
Weir is browbeaten by his wife Anna (Simone Signoret), patronized by the school headmaster (Frank Pettingell), and taunted by a student, Mitchell (Terence Stamp). His ray of sunshine appears in the form of fifteen-year-old Shirley (Sarah Miles), who requests after-school tutoring. A bond between teacher and pupil develops, and Weir begins to rediscover the joy of teaching, not realizing that Shirley is becoming infatuated with the kindly father figure. On a school trip to Paris, Shirley begins to express her affection for Weir. After returning to England, she makes an all-out attempt at seducing him -- unsuccessfully. Feeling rejected, Shirley retaliates by telling her parents that she was accosted by the teacher.
Weir is put on trial for the offense, and makes a desperate plea to Shirley to retract her false accusation, and wonders what consequence the trial will have upon his already strained marriage.
Term of Trial was the screen debut for Miles. For her role as Shirley, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) nominated her as Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles. She would later earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for Ryan's Daughter ). Term was also the first film for Stamp, whose performance in Term of Trial was overshadowed by his turn in the title role of Billy Budd the same year, for which he received an Oscar® nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
In spite of the introduction of such talented new actors, and the commanding presence of Signoret (Academy Award®-winner for Room at the Top ), Term of Trial is undeniably Olivier's show -- a cinematic proving ground for his acting range.
"I'm not difficult about playing the ordinary man...as I did with Simone Signoret and Sarah Miles in Term of Trial," Olivier once recalled, "Not boring myself. Getting closer to myself, perhaps. Not boring the audience. And learning all the time." But audiences and critics had come to expect the extraordinary of Olivier, and it was with some difficulty that they accepted him in such a plain-faced role.
"If there is one role that Sir Laurence Olivier cannot play well, it is that of the little man," wrote Alexander Walker in The Evening Standard, "This [pronouncement] is prompted by watching Olivier this week give a performance that reveals this cruel limitation to the finest tragic acting talent of his generation."
Generally, blame was laid not on Olivier, but the character of Weir. In The New York Times, Bosley Crowther wrote, "The meek and shabby high school teacher that Mr. Olivier plays in this British rehash of Blackboard Jungle , with minor Lolita  overtones, is a wistful and well-meaning fellow for whom your heart bleeds a drop or two as you watch him stoically enduring all sorts of troubles and woes. But he's just not enough of a person to make your blood run hot or cold... And no matter how patiently and deftly Mr. Olivier plays the role, with all his skill at portraying discomfort and down-at-heel wistfulness, he cannot quite make this fellow absorbing -- or even wholly real."
Variety was more laudatory, praising Olivier's "boff thesping." "Olivier's performance is gloomy, often deliberately dull, but it is minutely observed in detail and is never less than absorbing... His acting is always rewarding."
Stanley Kauffmann, in The New Republic, singled out the courtroom scene as the film's most memorable moment. "His outburst at the trial cuts to the quick a white-hot, bare-nerve revelation of agonized love."
While working on Term of Trial, Olivier was expanding his horizons in other ways. In 1961 he had been offered the directorship of the Chichester Festival Theatre, in the town of the same name. While the theatre was under physical construction, the actor prepared a season of repertory plays. "It would be the first time that I had actually started a theatre," he recalled in his memoirs, Confessions of an Actor, "Companies, yes; a theatre, no."
On March 17, 1961, shortly after appearing in The Entertainer, Olivier married his co-star from the film, Joan Plowright, to whom he would remain married until his death in 1989. The British press hounded the newlyweds -- perceiving their relationship as somewhat scandalous, Plowright being 22 years his junior, and expecting a child so soon after Olivier's divorce from Vivien Leigh (January 6, 1961). "I don't remember press photographers ever being more avidly persistent than those multitudinous knockers on the door and hiders behind mailboxes who wished to record Joan's condition on film," Olivier later wrote, "In desperation we begged David Niven to let us stay with Hjordis and him at their house in the south of France, just so that no one would know where we were for a bit. Well, I suppose St. Jean Cap Ferrat is not a place where a camera has never been seen, and it did not take long before lenses were trained through our bathroom window from the next-door house."
Eventually, the beleaguered couple was obliged to flee the Nivens' home, "There are circumstances in which guests, however loved, cannot be quite as welcome as they might be," Olivier explained. After the birth of Richard Kerr Olivier in 1961, the press allowed the Oliviers to resume somewhat normal lives.
The Chichester Festival Theatre began its inaugural season on July 5, 1962. The company that Olivier assembled later united with the Old Vic Company to form the National Theatre Company, known today as the Royal National Theatre, one of London's most influential, publicly-funded theatre companies.
Director: Peter Glenville
Producer: James Woolf
Screenplay: Peter Glenville
Based on the novel by James Barlow
Cinematography: Oswald Morris
Production Design: Wilfred Shingleton
Music: Jean-Michel Damase
Cast: Laurence Olivier (Graham Weir), Sarah Miles (Shirley Taylor), Simone Signoret (Anna Weir), Terence Stamp (Mitchell), Frank Pettingell (Ferguson), Hugh Griffith (O'Hara), Dudley Foster (Sgt. Keirnan), Thora Hird (Mrs. Taylor), Norman Bird (Mr. Taylor).
by Bret Wood