The Shooting Party

January 6, 2010 at 3:14 am (Anglophilia, books, Film and television)

In August of 2008, in response to one of Jonathan Yardley’s Second Reading feature pieces in the Washington Post,  I wrote Six Gifted Englishwomen. Shortly thereafter, I read Isabel Colegate’s luminous novel The Shooting Party. I had seen the cinema version in the 1980s, shortly after its release, and was eager to see it again. I finally did so several days ago.

Made in 1984, this is a film of almost painful beauty. Its evocation of Edwardian England, a world about to be lost forever, is both vivid and poignant. Some would say of that world, one of privilege and presumption, that it is one we are well rid of. But seeing the elegance of its people and the beauty of their surroundings – well, it is hard to be so dismissive.

Of course, what these people are doing in these beautiful surroundings is killing birds at an incredible clip. I gave the numbers in my review of the novel, calling it carnage on an incredible scale. Actually seeing it makes it seem even more brutal. Also hearing it: there’s a point at which you simply want to flee from the sound of gunshots.

Of course, there is an awful irony always present in these scenes. What was once merely a  sport engaged in by gentlemen of a certain rank in society (and facilitated by a veritable army of servants and others from the lower classes) will soon be transformed into something horrible and deadly.  We know this; they do not – although some can see the clouds gathering on the horizon…

The house party takes place at the Oxfordshire estate of Sir Randolph Nettleby. He is played by James Mason, in one of his final screen roles. It’s a superb portrait of a man who seems somewhat tired of life – or at least, of the role he is called upon to play in it. What a perfect match of actor and part!  After Mason/Nettleby had spoken some especially moving lines, we took a brief break from our viewing. On the screen, the men and women of  the party, making their way slowly toward a noonday repast, were frozen in time. I found I had tears in my eyes.


In a career that spanned nearly five decades, James Mason made an enormous number of films. I particularly recall him as Norman Maine in A Star Is Born (1954), seen by me at the (very impressionable) age of ten, and as Humbert Humbert in Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation of Lolita. But I believe that henceforth, I will think of  him in the role of Sir Ralph Nettleby in The Shooting Party.

James Neville Mason 1909-1984


The Shooting Party was filmed at Knebworth House in Hertfordshire. Knebworth has been home to the Lytton family since 1490. One of the most famous members of that family was Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873), author of the novel The Last Day of Pompeii. The Honorable Henry and Martha Lytton Cobbold are the current residents.


Finally, this is probably as good a place as any to thank Jonathan Yardley for the Second Reading series, which he has recently closed out. Click here for the list of books featured in this series, and here for the articles.


  1. Deb said,

    I enjoyed your thoughtful comments about “The Shooting Party.” I suppose, like any other period in history, the Edwardian era was wonderful if you were rich and powerful; otherwise, not so much.

    Edward Bulwer-Lytton also wrote the novel Paul Clifford with its immortal opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night….”

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks, Deb – I had no idea where that deathless “dark and stormy night” quotation originated!

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