Thursday, 6 June 2013

Film Freak by Christopher Fowler

Christopher Fowler’s Film Freak is a follow up to his well-received memoir about growing up in the South East London suburbs of Greenwich, Paperboy. Categorising both as memoirs is misleading, however. Whilst they do contain a good deal of autobiographical material, these books are as much about the evocation of time and place and the exploration of the cultural tenor of the 60s and 70s, the decades in which young Christopher grew up and found his way in the world. Paperboy was a reminiscence of a childhood world, and of the peculiarities of the British character in the post-war period. It was affectionate but resolutely unsentimental, tending towards the painfully but often hilariously honest exposure of the absurdities underpinning the façade of suburban normality. It was also unrelenting in its depiction of the claustrophobia inherent in a traditional nuclear family, within which any love between husband and wife had long since become desiccated, drifting and settling to mingle with the household dust. Film Freak finds him departing the family home at the earliest possible instance, leaving his father to his endless round of disastrous DIY projects. He swiftly finds a job in an ad agency as a copywriter, the best way he can think of turning his love of writing into remunerative employment.

If Paperboy summoned up the spirit of a particular corner of South East London in the 60s, Greenwich and its surrounds, then Film Freak does the same for Soho and Fitzrovia. Fowler wastes no time in seeking out the local cinemas, and spends the greater part of his spare time in faded picture palaces and rank fleapits watching what amounts to a history of British film. Once he gets involved in the film industry himself, setting up a promotional company, the geographical compass narrows even more. The business end of the British film world was concentrated in the Soho artery of Wardour Street, a loose hub around which the studios scattered in the hinterlands of London formed a radially attached ring. In a manner familiar from the wonderful Bryant and May books, Fowler delights in uncovering the hidden strata of local myth and geography; a rather less portentous and obscurantist variety of the psychogeography practised by Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd, Will Self et al. Here, we learn of the underground world beneath Wardour Street – the tunnels worming their way between buildings on either side, and the secret basement screening room bunkers where the rough cuts of innumerable movies were shown to a small coterie of insiders. Some to be forever forgotten, others to achieve subsequent immortality in more or less modified forms. There are excursions to places beyond this small world, outside the comforting if mouldy and nicotine-coated womb of the aging London cinemas. But the nightmare of Cannes and Hollywood makes the return to these damp and dreary isles seem like a relief. Fowler’s descriptions of the manners (or lack of them), the insularity and the stunning levels of insularity and self-delusion on display in these movie business subworlds balance undisguised revulsion and level, dispassionate observation in the classic Waugh, Isherwood or Huxley Englishman abroad style. In fact, the LA sections reminded me of Michael Moorcock’s Letters from Hollywood, a similarly amusing and insightful collection of observational missives originally sent back to JG Ballard in his English filmtown home of Shepperton.

Fowler conjures up the atmosphere of the 70s in all its pungent, decaying glory. This is as much a book about that decade and the declining years of the British film industry as it is a personal story (although one’s own life is, of course, inextricably intertwined with the times one lives in). There are plentiful asides which give his own outlook on the cultural characteristics and social shifts of the era. Fowler is far from being a ‘Bakelite-sniffing nostagist’ when it comes to his recollection of a past age, to requote Matthew Sweet’s splendid phrase from his secret history of British cinema, Shepperton Babylon, which is cited in Film Freak. The two books sit comfortably beside each other on the shelf (as the sharing of Alec Guiness in The Man in the White Suit as a cover star in some editions would suggest), each offering an affectionate but clear-eyed view of the British film industry. Much of the humour in the book (and it is an audibly funny read) comes from detailing with telling precision just why the 70s were such grubby and desperate years, a ‘plummet from the dazzling 60s into miserable decline and poor taste’, as it is put. Any retro veneer of glamour we might be under the illusion the period possessed is soon stripped away. The first ad office Fowler works in, in Fitzrovia, has none of the modernist, future-now décor he was expecting. Instead, it looks like ‘a Welsh post-office’. The flesh-burning qualities of the static electricity conducting Brentford Nylon sheets he is obliged to make ads for are hilariously outlined in a way which also summons up the proudly synthetic spirit of the age. Even the NFT is included in the portrait of a country whose brief flowering has been and gone, the petals fallen and the stem drooping and withered. It is summed up as ‘a building designed to punish people for liking films’. I can’t say the experience I’ve had there have ever been particularly punishing.

Fowler is not one to say unpleasant things or spread cheap gossip about people, famous or otherwise, whom he comes across in the course of his career in the advertising and film businesses. The closest he gets to celebrity tittle tattle is an observation about how unbearable Eric Morecambe became over the course of an evening, so determined was he to be constantly ‘on’. This is really a way to express empathy with Ernie, the eternally overlooked partner, who he notices diplomatically smoothing things over with everyone afterwards, acting as Eric’s minder, or the solicitous overseer of a wild kid brother. Elsewhere, he ignores the many objectionable actors and showbiz ‘personalities’ (whilst acknowledging their capacity for appallingly self-regarding behaviour) and notes how ‘smart…quick witted and gentle’ and aware of his limitations Larry Grayson proved to be. Kenneth Williams is the soul of kindness and generosity, taking time to make helpful suggestions to someone new to the business as to how he might improve his comic writing. Cary Grant, whom he briefly bumps into in LA (he marries the receptionist at the office where Fowler works), thankfully maintains his immaculate aura, glowing with the ‘charisma of sun god’.

Not George Sanders' finest hour
Fowler doesn’t put too much of himself into the book. He remains more of an observing presence at its centre, a relatively anonymous POV camera soaking in what he sees and reflecting on his surroundings and the people who populate them. He remarks that he feels authors should maintain a certain degree of mystery and anonymity, otherwise their projected personality distorts the reader’s reception of their stories (and good storytelling is what Fowler prizes above all). It’s refreshing to find a memoir which doesn’t descend into indulgent displays of self-diagnosing therapeutics or literary feuding and cattiness (celebrity gossip culture for the prurient highbrow). Not that Fowler isn’t capable of the odd sharp-clawed swipe. I did enjoy his comment (another of his footnote asides) about George Sanders’ suicide note, which cited boredom as the reason for ending it all. ‘He had presumably been watching his own late film output’, Fowler pitilessly (but very amusingly) remarks, having just discussed a typical example, the 1973 living dead biker flick (and Trunk Records favourite) Psychomania. Rather ignominiously, this was indeed the film which he bowed out on, the final item in his filmography. All About Eve or Journey to Italy it ain’t, although it does have its own special charms. Coincidentally, the suave Mr Sanders also worked as an advertising copywriter before making it in the movies.

Fowler’s coming out is dealt with in a similarly offhand, flippant manner, which characterises the light and witty tone of the book as a whole. Anecdotally, his awareness of his sexuality is confirmed in his own mind ‘when I snubbed my school’s rugby final to go to Die Fledermaus’ (he had already revealed his love of Gilbert and Sullivan’s quintessentially British comic operas in Paperboy). Of course, it was probably a great deal more complex than that, but there something positive in the shrugging attitude to sexuality as being an incidental aspect of an individual’s character, looking forward to a world where no-one really does give a damn. A tiny glimpse of another side of his life is offered by a throwaway remark about being stranded in a wintry Tottenham Court Road in the early hours, modesty covered by little more than a dusting of body glitter. Actually, he later writes that he suspects regular gay clubbers are reactionary at heart, something which a constant diet of ‘Kylie, cock and ketamine’ (a wonderfully alliterative triad which shows that those years writing film poster straplines weren’t wasted) would tend to instil. This is not the sort of book in which such revelations and wild times predominate, however. We’re more likely to find young Chris in his true home, a rank cinema with peeling wallpaper, cracked plaster and sticky carpets where a double bill of well-worn, scratched and dirt flecked films is unreeling before his hungry eyes. The author retains his cloak of semi-invisibility, allowing us a few discrete glimpses of the person it’s wrapped around (no flashing, mind). Of course, one can put together a composite (and perhaps deeper) portrait by reading between the lines of the fiction, where an author tends to leave the most personal of traces.

The Scala today from the top of a bus
There are certain personal touchstones scattered throughout both Paperboy and Film Freak which trigger memories for me. In Paperboy, the South East London suburban settings were very familiar, as was the importance of the local library in incubating a love of reading. More specifically, the Popular Book Centres to which he refers, with their diamond printed stamps, which allowed you to exchange the books for half their value, were regular haunts of mine. I used to travel to the one in Lewisham on my trusty three-speed bike (two-speed in effect, since one gear had conked out) or on the 21 bus if I had a bulging bag of books to barter with. Here I’d stock up on Dicks and Delanys, New Worlds and Dangerous Visions anthologies, Le Guins, Aldisses, Ballards and Vonneguts – anything which took my fancy (and of course I’m leaving out the less cool stuff, here). In Film Freak, the Scala Cinema is the point of connection, a place whose shadows I regularly retreated into to absorb generous helpings of Cocteau and Tarkovsky, Powell and Pressburger and Hitchcock, all-night showings of George Romero, horror and sixties countercultural oddness, and If and Blow Up whenever they were shown in double or triple bills. Fowler describes the audience there as consisting of ‘social outcasts, autistic film nuts and…loners’. Not sure which one I was – possibly all three. I also share his love of discovering London film locations. Like him, I sought out Maryon Wilson Park in Woolwich, used in such an atmospheric way by Michelangelo Antonioni in Blow Up. It still looked little different from the place where David Hemmings photographs what may be a murder in the upper, tree enclosed area, and where he ends up participating in a game of ‘mime tennis’. I confess, I may have run up the steps and clicked my heels in imitation of Hemmings’ Baileyesque fashion photographer.

Smashing Time OST - worth 30 quid according to the latest Record Collector Guide

Fowler has a taste for idiosyncratic cinematic fare, and a not inconsiderable amount of the book is spent in outlining particular favourites which he saw at the time (a time when the wide variety of repertory cinemas provided a readily available introduction to the history of cinema). The Bliss of Mrs Blossom and Beautiful Things (which achieves the considerable feat of casting the Thamesmead Estate in a favourable light) have thus far passed me by, but I will keep an eye out for them from now on. It’s always good when you are pointed in the direction of new films and books like this. Other choices are more familiar. I’m particularly fond of Smashing Time, Sparrows Can’t Sing (I’ve written about those two, in fact) and Death Line. The latter features a devolved cannibal living in the underground who emerges from time to time from the tunnels leading into Russell Square tube station (although a lot of the film, as with most recent movies with underground sequences, was shot on the platforms of the disused Aldwych Station). I feel an obscure sense of admiration for Fowler’s feat of first seeing the film in what is now the Renoir Cinema (formerly the Gate) in the Brunswick Centre (itself a location in Antonioni’s The Passenger) just a stones throw away. Rather tiresomely, I mutter ‘mind the doors’ to Mrs W every time we pass through Russell Square on the tube, these being the only words now left in the pitiful creature’s vocabulary. Disappointingly, the announcement system intones the safety mantra ‘mind the gap’ these days.

The text of the book is structured in an unconventional way, although it hardly reads as hardboiled Joycean modernism. There are footnotes on nearly every page, which are initially distracting, but soon become like conversational asides or quips sparked off by a certain comment. More often than not, these offer mordant commentaries on particular personalities or products redolent of the period. They’re like transatlantic translations for those who would have no reason to know what Peak Freans biscuits were, or who on earth Joan Turner was (actually, I didn’t know that one). There are also plentiful lists (Fowler seems an inveterate lister) detailing everything from favourite London films and locations to our intrepid traveller’s brief sampling of the myriad artificial highs on offer in Hollywood, the latter tabulated as ‘my cause and effect chart of chemical experimentation’. It’s a comical and unpreachy refutation of the supposedly ecstatic or mind-opening properties of drugs. The ultimate horror on offer here is the local bastardisation of the English cuppa, the only stimulant which our Chris really craves. No Huxleyan intellectual or gonzoid Hunter S Thompsonish pill scoffer, Christopher prefers to keep the doors of perception firmly shut, thanks. Keen observation, the power of good art and a vivid imagination are more readily available and quite sufficient to steer the mind beyond the mundane.

Fowler’s double-columned lists are particularly amusing, bathetically contrasting a projected ideal with the provincial, small-time British reality. This is best illustrated in the table juxtaposing Hollywood film conventions with their equivalents in British life. In addition to mocking Britishness in a way which makes it clear that he really rather likes it here, Fowler has a neat line in self-deprecating humour of the kind which only works if you are in fact quite comfortable in your own skin. The photoshop grafting of his head onto Alec Guiness’ running form from the poster of The Man in the White Suit on the book’s cover is entirely apposite. He depicts himself as the quiet, semi-anonymous ‘little man’ who struggles to overcome an overly apologetic nature inculcated by his archetypal English upbringing. But, as with Guiness’ character, underneath the mild-mannered exterior there is a determination, allied with self-belief, a tireless work ethic (and an inherent talent) which makes him stand out. The Mr Cellophane from Chicago to whom he likens himself becomes inked and fully coloured in. The story is really a classic bildungsroman; in other words, the growth of a young man into maturity and wisdom.

The Producers - Bialystock and Bloom, or Sturgeon and Fowler?
Fowler puts a lot of this growth down to his friendship with a character called Jim Sturgeon, who is himself colourful and manifestly substantial from the outset. Their odd couple relationship is at the heart of the book. It is a love story of sorts, with two people who seem to complete each other. A portrait of his father as an English icon of repression, disappointment and failure was at the melancholy heart of Paperboy. Jim is like the father he never had (we don’t have to intuit this for ourselves, he tells us so quite explicitly). Even his own dad seems to view him in this light, as the father he wished he might have been. Fowler likens them to Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom in The Producers (he is Gene Wilder’s Bloom, of course), and suggests that they should have had a composite name in the modern Brangelina mould, although he ends up with the rather less than celebrity headline friendly Fowlgeon. Jim is the bluff and hearty bon viveur, always living well beyond his means (not even really registering the concept of ‘means’). He naturally becomes the centre of attention in any room he enters. But he is also genuinely interested in people and the world around him, and views things from his own unique, acutely angled perspective. Fowler’s episodic narration of their meeting, dreaming, scheming and eventual parting is like a letter to a lost love. Jim also becomes the manifestation of the nobler aspects of the spirit of the age, made manifest through the billowing miasma of his chain-smoked ciggies. When he dies, so does the era they had made their uncertain but ever-hopeful way through (even when they had no rational cause for hope). Fowler’s final tribute to his dear friend, sitting through a double-bill of his favourite movies (The Producers and Harold and Maude) in an empty cinema is deeply touching. As he walks out into the Soho night, he says goodbye to all the ghosts he has so palpably summoned up in the course of the book (the writing of which means that Jim can now take his place amongst them). The past is now not just another country, but from an entirely different continuum. Wardour Street, he says in conclusion, is now ‘an alien universe’.

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