A Movie That Was Not About Walter Watts

Images of Derek Jacobi from "The Fool"

If you are a fan of Charles Dickens or Derrek Jacobi, you have probably seen the acclaimed 1987 film adaptation of “Little Dorrit.” You need to be a more hardcore Jacobi aficionado to have any familiarity with 1990’s “The Fool” produced by the same husband and wife team, Richard Goodwin and Christine Edzard. Any reader of this blog will have no trouble understanding why my heart skipped a beat when I came across a description of this movie and read that it was about a clerk in 1850s London who leads a double life working in a theater and posing as a wealthy gentleman. Given the limited number of people whose life story that describes, I thought there was pretty good chance someone had made a made a film about Walter Watts. I found, to my disappointment and to the possible detriment of the film, that this was not the case… or not entirely so.

[For readers who don’t like spoilers – I’m going to discuss the plot in detail. If you have not viewed this film yet, you may wish to do so before reading the rest of this blog entry.]

Derek Jacobi as Mr. Frederick in "The Fool" 1990
Derek Jacobi as Mr. Frederick in “The Fool” 1990

Walter Watts was one of the white-collar criminals profiled in David Morier Evans’ 1859 “Facts, Failures, and Frauds.” Although Watts had been dead for nearly a decade at this point, because of the popularity of Evans’ book, numerous newspaper articles were written railing against his misdeeds anew and linking them to other similar crimes of that decade. John Hollingshead, writing in Dickens’ journal, “All the Year Round” in 1860 put Watts at the head of a quartet of forgers and embezzlers who led lavish double lives including Leopold Redpath, William Robson, and William Pullinger.

It’s my suspicion that when gathering background material to give realism to “Little Dorrit,” the Dickens enthusiasts who would eventually write the script for “The Fool” read Hollingshead’s “Convict Capitalists” and thought, “Well, there’s a good story idea.” I feel like I’m on reasonably firm ground making this assertion even though I’ve found no interviews mentioning this article because of parallels in plot points. Also, much of the film is devoted to showcasing other background material gleaned from Henry Mayhew’s 1851 “London Labor and the London Poor.” The un-blinking, fine-grain realism used to reproduce the urban London of both “Little Dorrit” and “The Fool” meticulously includes the broad spectrum of otherwise invisible denizens of the inner city described in that text with an almost documentary style of detail. No generic bonneted apple sellers or happy chimney sweeps here. The creators overtly acknowledge their debt to Mayhew’s work in a closing credit for “The Fool.”

The main character of the “The Fool,” Mr. Frederick/Sir John is not Walter Watts. At best, the character can be seen as an amalgam of Watts’ story with elements of those of Redpath, Robson, and Pullinger, combined with purely original additions from the writers. Perhaps because Walter Watts is not a famous historical persona, to the extent that they referenced his experiences at all, the screenwriters of “The Fool” apparently felt no obligation to adhere strictly to the facts of his timeline. (Come to think of it, screenwriters don’t feel a very deep pull to extend that courtesy to extremely famous people either, though, do they?) Victorian authors Henry Mayhew and Charles Dickens seem to have been the twin obsessions of the creative team behind “The Fool” rather than any interest in telling Watts’ story.

Journalist Henry Mayhew did not write about Walter Watts in the 1840s. Mayhew was one of the founding editors of Punch magazine, but had left long before Watts leased the Marylebone and began to receive favorable reviews from that publication. Mayhew’s focus was, as the title of his most famous text baldly proclaims, on the poor and working class denizens of London. Thus in the movie when it came time to create the persona for Watts’ day job, instead of writing a character who held down a very comfortably middle-class career at the offices of an international firm in the heart of the city, the writers decided that Mr. Frederick should be a Bob Cratchit-like clerk eking out a precarious existence by begrudgingly cooking the books for a blustering actor/manager at gloriously decrepit London theater.

Derek Jacobi and Ralph Richardson in "The Fool" 1990
Derek Jacobi and Ralph Richardson in “The Fool” 1990

This choice on the part of the writers does give us some of the movie’s most striking scenes as Mr. Frederick passes through a progression of shops and back alleys, changing clothes and transforming into or out of the persona of Sir John. His remarkable metamorphosis is so complete that although we watch the process, Mr. Frederic/Sir John blends with chameleon perfection and becomes almost invisible in the crowd when he arrives at either point of destination at each end of the economic spectrum.

Derek Jacobi in "The Fool" 1990
Derek Jacobi in “The Fool” 1990

Watts travelled out to what was then London’s suburbs to carry on his double life. The hour-long walk from the offices of the Globe to the Marylebone Theater would have been very muddy and pickpocket-y to make every day if one could afford to do otherwise. Watts may have taken a cab to Islington. There are stories about him giving big tips to cab drivers. I think it’s equally probable that on some days he had one of his expensive carriages come pick him up at the door of the office and take him to his theater after work. In descriptions of him, many people recalled in detail his fancy brougham with its well-turned out driver. In his own coach, he could have changed clothes in transit. However there is a good chance that the whole Mr. Fredrick/Sir John wardrobe swap didn’t take place at all. Walter Watts probably dressed much the same as a clerk on weekdays as a millionaire theater manager on the week nights. He might have done nothing more than add expensive cufflinks and a tie pin once he arrived at his office at the Marylebone to switch personas.

One of the ironies of the Watts scandal was that businesses like the Globe Insurance Company demanded such high standards of personal appearance from their employees that no one noticed that Watts had for years been exhibiting sartorial tastes far beyond his income level. His outfits were always at the height of fashion. His hair was always impeccably groomed. He owed expensive vehicles. None of these things raised any red flags at the Globe. Apparently they assumed he was a young, single man somehow managing to live beyond his means. Watts’ lifestyle choices weren’t their problem until they realized they were footing the bills. Watts was no Bob Cratchit. He was more like Ryan from “The Office.”

As a character who trended more towards the Ryan Howard than the Bob Crachit end of the morality continuum, there are some serious problems with Walter Watts if one sits down to write a narrative with a strong Mayhew/Dickens-style social justice theme. Watts definitely robbed from the rich. He even gave to the poor… sometimes. However that wasn’t the primary reason why he robbed from the rich.

I think there is an interesting story to tell about Watts and the intersection of class, morality, and economics. However, it is not a classic Dickensian parable of triumphant middle-class virtue in defense of the less fortunate. Watts seemed to have been motivated by an awareness of a socio-economic system rigged to allow him to succeed only so far and then no further. He found loopholes to beat the game. Ultimately he was crushed by the system when instead of taking advantage of last minute opportunities to flee, he stood his ground and fought, genuinely convinced that nothing he had done had really been a crime.

Instead of going with the complex, morally gray story of Walter Watts’ life, the creators of “The Fool” concocted the pseudo-Dickensian tale of Mr. Frederick. The system is so stacked against poor Frederick that he can’t get a good job like Walter Watts because he never had nice clothes like Watts did. The only employment Fredrick can find is at a theater that looks like a dilapidated version of the Lyceum under the unpleasant supervision of a bullying Alfred Bunn-like manager. Frederick lives in the prop room and has to perform his duties at a desk stuck in a hallway instead of inside of an office. Life is very tough for Frederick.

Derek Jacobi in "The Fool" 1990
Derek Jacobi in “The Fool” 1990

On the flip side of his dual identity, Frederick is impersonating Sir John. Sir John is incredibly popular with all his wealthy friends who hang on his every word, invite him to each significant social function, and spend a lot of time wondering why he isn’t around more. Sir John asks everyone pointed direct questions which they all answer with childlike trustfulness. No one is put off by the fact that Sir John replies to their pointed questions with evasions such as “Oh, I don’t know anything about that…” despite the fact that much of their conversation throughout the film is about a recent scandal where many of them were taken in by someone who turned out not to be who he claimed to be. Life is wonderful for Sir John.

Why then, you may be asking (I know I did), does Frederick not become Sir John full time? Well, we gradually glean (there must be much gradual gleaning in the early cinema verities-style scenes of this movie) from Frederick’s scenes with his journalist friend that he is very concerned with the plight of the poor and longs to correct social injustices. Even later, we see that Sir John is running what seems to be a Ponzi scheme among his rich friends. Fredrick is leading a double life as Sir John so he can steal from the rich and give to the poor. Fredrick/Sir John is a noble and crusading capitalist thief.

Derek Jacobi in "The Fool" 1990
Derek Jacobi in “The Fool” 1990

The climax of the film features a scene of pure double Derek delight for Jacobi fans where Frederick seems to have some sort of mental break. The two halves of himself manifest and have an argument. He concludes he doesn’t know who he is anymore. (Pro tip: If you are not an identical twin and you see a different version of yourself walk into the room – Yes. Something is very, very, very wrong with the situation.) Then instead of going through with his plan to distribute his money to the poor, Fredrick/Sir John goes to a party, confronts rich people with their hypocrisy, then throws a lot of money out a window. Roll credits.

Derek Jacobi in "The Fool" 1990
Derek Jacobi in “The Fool” 1990

Reader, even if you decided to wave aside my warning at the onset and proceed through this blog without first viewing the film, you will no doubt not be surprised to learn that one of the primary complaints of reviewers about the movie was that “The Fool” lacked coherence. The first third of the movie is so stunningly realistic in its presentation of slice-of-Victorian-life snippets of conversation that the viewer is nearly a half an hour in before one gets a strong sense of who the main character is and if there is going to be any plot at all. After dipping its toes gingerly into a few other historic drama genre styles, the final quarter of an hour veers suddenly into an incarnation of absurdist nihilism guaranteed to either make you go, “What the what…?” or “Oh, that’s deep…” depending on your level of personal receptivity to that sort of thing.

Obviously this movie did not click for me, but then again, I’m doubtlessly the only person who has ever watched the film waiting breathlessly for someone to mention Walter Watts’ name. I’m not a demographic the creators anticipated. I can understand why if the writers were aware of Watts, they might have rejected some of the episodes of Watts’ life in favor of the Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr.-Hyde-Do-a –Ponzi-Scheme morality fable they came up with to achieve a certain thematic through-line or just for pure cinematic impact. However, in the converse of the way that details taken from Mayhew’s work on the London poor made Dickens’ “Little Dorritt” look more realistic on screen, that same realism only makes the plotline they may have derived from real events seem more contrived.

Ultimately I think that contrasting the fictional plotline of “The Fool” with the lived experiences of Watts, Redpath, Robson, and Pullinger can provide us with a departure point from which to examine the difficulties of attempting to crystalize the messy and contradictory stories of real people into a dramatic narrative designed to convey a coherent message.

In my opinion, the tale of Walter Watts’ dramatic rise and swift fall has cinematic potential. Would-be screenwriters would do well, though, I think, to view “The Fool” and realize that re-framing his story as the narrative of a possibly schizophrenic, failed Dickensian do-gooder is not going to be the most productive approach.

Images of Derek Jacobi from "The Fool"
Images of Derek Jacobi from “The Fool”