Monday, 13 June 2011

Smashing Time, Revolt Into Style and Swinging Sixties London


Smashing Time was a musical comedy made in 1967 which re-united Lynn Redgrave and Rita Tushingham, who’d appeared together in director Desmond Davis’s 1964 film (his cinematic debut as director) The Girl With Green Eyes, an Irish-set drama adapted from Edna O’Brien’s novel. Redgrave had definitely played second fiddle in that film, which focussed on Tushingham’s character and her relationship with an older man, a well-off but disillusioned writer played by Peter Finch. She takes a much more prominent role in Smashing Time, whilst essentially replicating her role as the brassy, loud friend, overly certain of her worldliness. Rita, too, is little different, portraying her usual wide-eyed (and eye-linered) innocent, inexperienced but far from naïve, and certainly not prepared to be anyone’s fool. Only the accents have changed, Irish morphing into Corrie-land Northern. Lynn is now Yvonne and Rita Brenda. The two travel down to London in order to fulfil Yvonne’s fantasies of instant fame in the swinging heart of the capital. As she puts it in language which betrays the fact that her perceptions have been wholly formed by teen pop magazines, they are ‘young girls coming down from the North with their hearts full of dreams’.

Trog titles - arriving at St Pancras
The film was written by George Melly, who had already been surveying the 60s pop scene and whose observations (written between 1966 and 1969) would be gathered in his book Revolt Into Style, published in 1970. This looks at pop in all its forms - not just music but the visual arts, cinema, theatre, fashion and literature. Melly was largely sympathetic to the pop art movement and its pervasive influence on the emergent youth culture. He makes a clear distinction between pop and popular culture, the latter identified as the long standing traditions which have their roots in the entertainments offered in music halls and theatres, pubs and clubs. Pop was likely to be disseminated and absorbed through more material (and therefore more disposable) media: records, clothes, magazines, advertising, films and television. ‘The principal difference’, Melly writes, ‘is that popular culture was unconscious, or perhaps unselfconscious would be more exact, whereas pop culture came about as the result of a deliberate search for objects, clothes, music, heroes and attitudes which could help to define a stance. From this it can be said that, whereas the older popular culture stood for the spirit of acceptance, pop culture represented a form of protest’. Melly had an affinity with the dada and surrealist movements, which he had discovered whilst a pupil at Stowe School (as detailed in the first volume of his autobiography, Scouse Mouse), and which had helped to define his sense of difference (he was bisexual, although most of his youthful sexual experiences were with men). If surrealism aimed to make deep and startling connections with the subconscious, then pop just aimed straight for the id. Its shallowness was its virtue; it didn’t seek to make deep connections, merely to skim across the bright, reflective surfaces of instant gratification.

Dark City - St Pancras noir
Pop art was not necessarily a new form allowing for mass expression, however. Its market value relied on the creation and maintenance of a fairly narrow elite. As Robert Hughes points out in The Shock of the New, ‘pop art, far from being “popular” art, was made “by highly professional trained experts for a mass audience” (here Hughes quotes English pop artist Richard Hamilton, whose 1956 collage Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing was the first to use the word, prominently displayed on an oversized lollipop). It was done to the people. It grew by analogy to what it admired, advertising and the media through which advertisements were replicated. And it grew dandyistically, casting itself in the role of the detached, amused, lenient, but inflexibly ironic spectator at the vast theatre of desire and illusion which the mass media of the twentieth century had erected’. Hughes’ point can be extended beyond the fine art context within which he writes. The idea of art as product manufactured from the matter of commercial culture by a small, knowing group and marketed to a mass audience using the very means which form its subject is at the heart of Melly’s script for Smashing Time. The film, for all its surface frivolity and apparent participation in the voguish fascination with all things pop, is a great deal more cynical about the colourful world of swinging sixties London than Revolt Into Style. Melly seems to have been aiming for a caustic satire along the lines of Hogarth’s series of prints which told the sorry tale of A Harlot’s Progress. He created a series of exaggerated caricatures for his two deluded protagonists to encounter in order to highlight the moral pitfalls awaiting the unwary provincial arriving in the capital, full of unreal expectations. What bite his script might have had is rather lost in the film’s determination (or the determination of its director, perhaps) to project the kind of self-conscious zaniness which had come to characterise pop films of the time, however.

Defiant dabs of colour - standing out against drabness
Brenda and Yvonne (Rita and Lynn) come into London via St Pancras station. It offers a complete contrast to the bright and dazzling world which they (or at least Yvonne) are seeking. As they walk along the platform, only the women’s dresses and the toys which spill out of the salesman’s suitcase (the first example of the film’s clumsy slapstick) distinguish the environment from the drab grey and brown tones of post war austerity. An elevated perspective shot as they emerge from the station’s exit reveals the façade of St Pancras to be shockingly black, coated with the grimy pollutants of the city to the extent that its red brickwork is entirely invisible. British Rail’s plans to demolish the whole building suddenly seem a little less sacrilegious. The tiny figures of the travellers spilling out into the Euston Road provide the only spots of colour against this dingy and depressing backdrop, and serve to illustrate Melly’s point about pop as protest, the bright yellows and reds appearing assertively defiant – a revolt into style, in fact. From beneath the arch of St Pancras’ exit, we also get to glimpse the other side of the Euston Road. The concrete council offices and library have yet to be built, and there seems to be a theatre off to the left where now there are only fast food outlets. The film continuously contrasts the colourful pop world with the dilapidated and grungy reality from which it is trying to break free. Melly makes it clear that the world of swinging London didn’t have a wide geographical reach. Yvonne and Brenda initially make their clueless way to Camden, after some confusion, their requests for directions to Carnaby Street having been met by a ‘comic’ Irish drunk. This is still the area as depicted by Walter Sickert and the Camden Town Group, a place of dark interiors and shabby, poverty-worn housing. It’s the Camden which James Mason shows us around in The London Nobody Knows, also released in 1967 and similarly looking at the capital beyond the chic clubs and boutiques, its nature still displaying a continuity with the Victorian era. The road in which Yvonne finds a room for rent, Grudge Street (no longer in existence, if it ever was), could come out of a Dickens novel, or indeed George Gissing’s London-set novel New Grub Street (1891), which also reflects the impact of new mass media on the capital’s culture.

Carnaby epiphany - Yvonne enters the street of her dreams
Yvonne does make it to Carnaby Street, and their follows an archetypally swinging sixties scene as she dances joyfully past its boutiques, alongside which various trendy types are decorously posed, snapped by young photographers with cameras permanently attached to their faces. This scene, with its screechingly grating accompanying song, is contrasted with Brenda’s labours in the greasy spoon café in which they had failed to pay for their everything-included fry-up, up to her elbows in baked-bean encrusted plates. This environment, in which dirty browns predominate, is presided over by Arthur Mullard, about as far from a swinging sixties character as you could imagine. He was a character actor who unfailingly played comic embodiments of a lumpen proletarian, dim and incapable of articulating a sentence of more than a handful of words, but essentially decent nonetheless. The swift intercutting between Yvonne and Brenda’s experiences of the capital underlines the divisions evident at the time. Dominic Sandbrook, in his book White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties, portrays Swinging London as a ‘small social network’ and points out that ‘far from being open and classless, the swinging scene was essentially the province of a self-satisfied elite…it is hard to deny that the swinging elite had simply replaced one form of snobbery with another’. Julie Christie, in Very Heaven: Looking Back at the 1960s, a collection of reminiscences edited by Sara Maitland, articulates the atmosphere of cliquishness pervading at the time. She talks of ‘the peer pressure – the whole business of being as freaky as possible and if you weren’t you were labelled “straight” or “square”. There was definitely status within that apparently no-status, “classless” society. There was enormous status and it hung on how much drugs you took or how you dressed of just how freaky you were. I know I always felt I was on the outside looking in. I think the majority of people did…I felt like a country bumpkin who had for some reason found herself in this elevated society and had no idea how to handle it’. If even Julie Christie felt like an outsider, immortalised in one of the era’s defining songs, Waterloo Sunset, it must really have been an exclusive scene. Those few who gained access and made a success of themselves swiftly formed a new class – a pop aristocracy who took their place alongside the scions of the old guard.

Girl With the Green Eyes - Rita comes South
Brenda and Yvonne represent two faces of the working class in the sixties. Brenda, in her brown twinset, and with her wary suspicion of the new, stands for the traditional values and sense of belonging to a particular background. Yvonne, with her red and white ziz-zag patterned mini-skirt and op-art PVC coat, and her whole-hearted belief in the ‘switched-on’ world of pop stands for the desire to break away from that background, from the replication of the lives which your parents had led. It’s a difference which also marks the faultline between the films of the kitchen-sink generation and the more whimsical, madcap fare of the pop era. It’s a division which can be emblematically marked by two films: Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life, which came out in 1963, and which has been seen by many both as the apotheosis of the kitchen-sink movement and as the film which heralded its end; and A Hard Days Night, which displayed both a pop subject and, in Dick Lester’s innovative, new-wave influenced directing and editing style, a new pop technique. George Melly (again, in Revolt into Style), writing about A Hard Days Night and Lester’s work in general, suggests that ‘what he’s after is to make the maximum impact now, to hold the moment, freeze it, show it, and let it melt’. The intercutting between the Carnaby Street scenes and Brenda’s washing-up drudgery acts as a stroboscopic juxtaposition pastiching these two styles. Kitchen-sink films tended to be set up North and to feature working class lives set against industrial backdrops, and to focus on the trials and tribulations of their characters. They were also, by and large, black and white. Pop movies were generally London-based and were more escapist, generally eschewing social comment in favour of celebrating the moment, and were increasingly filmed in eye-catching colour. Rita Tushingham had emerged from the former world, having made her initial impact playing in Jo in one of the classics of kitchen-sink realism, the Salford-set A Taste of Honey. Lynn Redgrave’s first starring role was in the London-set Georgy Girl, which was a pop film with one foot in the kitchen-sink (if that’s physically possible), its protagonist at a remove from the pop world, and ultimately fixated on more traditional values. The film in which both Tushingham and Redgrave starred, The Girl With the Green Eyes, was also transitional. It shifted the kitchen-sink locale from the North to Ireland but was otherwise fairly true to form. But it did end with Tushingham’s character leaving Dublin for London, leaving her narrow horizons behind in the hope of discovering a new and more exciting life.

Contrasts - Brenda experiences the other side of the sixties
Rita’s Brenda is very much the put-upon, downtrodden drudge, always subject to Yvonne’s brashly assertive manner and aggressively self-centred fancies. Her pussycat outfit, worn in the grubby nightclub in which she works with Yvonne, and in which she ends up serving her friend as she is picked up by Ian Carmichael’s soused old roué, may as well be that of a mouse. Her friendship amounts to an abusive relationship in which she is constantly belittled and blamed, no matter what lengths she goes to in order to rescue Yvonne from the many disastrous escapades she blunders into. Lynn Redgrave has an unenviable task in playing a someone so wholly lacking in sympathetic character. Her attempts at singing are also deliberately strident and grating. When she finally makes it for a fleeting moment in the pop music business, her image could perhaps be seen as aspiring to emulate someone like Cilla Black, whom George Melly refers to as ‘the Gracie Fields of our day, the Queen of the Common Touch, the Toast of the Golden Mile’. She proves unworthy of such soubriquets, however. She represents the grasping, acquisitive aspect of the new youthful consumer, eager to define themselves through novel fashions and tastes and in opposition to the conservatism and sobriety of the older generation, who sought to be a part of the crowd and not to stand out. She is rudely dismissive of Brenda partly because she sees her as remaining attached to these values – and partly, of course, because the abusive partner in a relationship always bolsters their own self-image by diminishing that of their other half.

Charlotte Street mornings - rediscovering friendship
The contrasts embodied in the two protagonists are replicated throughout the film, with locales and characters mirroring each other. This serves to portray the co-existence of entirely separate worlds in the London of the time, worlds which are, however, not so far apart as they might initially seem (or as they might wish themselves to be). So, Carnaby Street is contrasted with the second hand clothes shops and street markets of Camden, Mrs Gimble’s dingy and disordered shop with the painfully chic Too Much boutique, Arthur’s café with the Sweeney Todd pie shop, the squalid bedsit in which Brenda and Yvonne first find digs with the ultra-mod high-rise apartment they end up in, the reality TV show You’ve Got To Laugh, with its mockery of the aspirations of the poor, with the absurd consumer fantasies of the TV ads Brenda makes, and the in-crowd party at the top of the Post Office Tower with the seedy and senescent pick up joint of the old Soho club where the friends find work shortly after arriving in the city. Ultimately, both Yvonne Brenda are outsiders, and will always remain so. They have no real place in this uber-cool world, even if they manage to gain access for a brief 15 minutes. They are inevitably going to be shown the door at some stage. Their rejection is made apparent from the start, as Yvonne is photographed in Carnaby Street by Michael York’s David Bailey-esque Tom Wabe specifically so that she can be made a mockery of in the papers. Lynn Redgrave was tall and full of figure and face – the very opposite of the boyish Twiggy or Shrimpton gamin figure fashionable at the time (and pretty much ever since). Rita was accustomed to playing the overlooked outsider with the plucky character, and no journalist of the time seemed capable of writing an article about her without at some point using the phrase ‘ugly duckling’. It’s a shame that Melly didn’t give them a bit more pluck and allow them to join together to kick back against the hip orthodoxy who treat them with such disdain and contempt. But they remain fixed in their attitudes and behaviours throughout, Yvonne aspiring to chisel out her own place in the pop aristocracy, with Brenda as her permanently submissive lady in waiting. Even Brenda leaps at the chance to become a part of the glittering pop world when it offers itself, rather than telling them where they can stick it. Only at the end, as they wander aimlessly through a Fitzrovian Charlotte Street dawn, does a genuine flicker of friendship, of two compadres facing the world together, surface, Yvonne asking ‘what the hell are we going to do now, Bren?’ As they dance wearily up the empty, rubbish strewn road, we get a glimpse of how these two characters could have been played in a more sympathetic and companionable tenor, a portrayal which would have made us care a little bit more about their ups and downs.

Fashion parade - outside John Stephen's Tre Camp
We do get to see Carnaby Street in its heyday (or at least only a little past it) as Yvonne prances along in an ecstatic daze. This was at the time when John Stephen (not to be confused with John Stephens, the free jazz drummer and convenor, at about this time, of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble), the ‘king of Carnaby Street’, was at the height of his success and helping to define the look of the moment. Stephen was a Glaswegian who ventured down to London at the age of 19 and, having worked initially as a tailor’s clerk, opened his first shop in 1957. Ten years later, when Smashing Time was filmed, he owned ten boutiques along Carnaby Street. Stephen’s shops provided young men with a cheap alternative to the more exclusive (and expensive) Kings Road tailors such as Cecil Gee and John Michael, and introduced a new expressiveness to men’s fashion. His clothes were colourful and flamboyant, flying in the face of the accepted sobriety and conservative formality of menswear. Although principally known for his male fashions, by the mid 60s he had added boutiques for girls to his Carnaby Street collection (although the first, Lady Jane, had been opened in 1966 by Harry Fox and Henry Moss) and the area became a magnet for the general populace wanting to keep up with the latest look, or journalists and tv reporters wanting to feature it in a colour supplement article or news item. We get to see three of Stephen’s shops: Tre Camp, His Clothes and Male West One, alongside others called Mates and Doris. There’s an interior view through the window of Cranks, a pioneering vegetarian restaurant which opened on Carnaby Street in 1961, and which has now migrated Westward, currently baking in the Cider Press Centre at Dartington in Devon. Through another boutique window (complete with mannequin sporting a union jack dress) we also get a glimpse of Gear, a shop run by Tom Salter which sold voguish old clothes, antiques and general odds and sods, and which was also the locale for the film’s launch party (pictures from which you can see over here).

Daylight robbery - clothes for the Essex girl
Stephen’s clothes were intended to be disposable, in line with the throwaway commercialism of pop, and as such they were generally cheap and not always of the finest quality. They were meant to be swiftly replaced by the next trend, the latest cut or pattern. The very accessibility (and affordability) of Stephen’s shops and their contents, the fact that they offered modern fashion for the masses, left them open to the scorn of the new pop elite, for whom exclusivity was a virtue. As Melly says in Revolt Into Style, ‘the “in” group wouldn’t have been seen dead in Carnaby Street by 1966. Chelsea, after a period of decline, reasserted its role on the stage of fashion, and so it has remained ever since’. Being out with the in crowd, Carnaby Street is thus the perfect locus for the fantasies of a provincial dreamer like Yvonne, fed on a diet of second hand impressions of swinging London from pop magazines and cliché-ridden newspaper reports and pictures. As the camera goes out and about on the streets, nouvelle-vague style, we see two other sights which give an insight into the tenor of the times. There’s a display of a book entitled Birds of Britain in one shop, not an ornithological study but a series of portraits by photographer John D Green of the women who were prominent fixtures of the swinging sixties scene. It features the likes of Cathy McGowan, Sarah Miles, Marianne Faithfull, Julie Christie, Charlotte Rampling, Jane and Victoria Ormsby-Gore and various other double barrelled debs. Its publication and foregrounded display is an indication of the extent to which the swinging sixties had filtered through to the wider public consciousness, and the fascination which its glamour exerted. It’s title and some of its content is also a sign that feminism was not to make an impact on this self-contained world until well into the 70s. If you’ve got a copy of this book in reasonably good condition now, you can probably get a good hundred quid or so for it. Another shop window displays a poster proclaiming ‘we’ve got Sandie Shaw’s clothes’ (well give them back then), a sign of the close association between pop music and fashions. Shaw was on the verge of trashing her mod credibility with her Eurovision Song Contest entry Puppet on a String in 1967, but her style would still appeal to the likes of Yvonne, who would also identify with her humble origins as an Essex girl from Dagenham. Shaw would go on to marry the fashion designer Jeff Banks, who owned the London boutique Clobber, and would launch her own fashion label, Sandie Shaw, selling clothes and, ironically, given her fondness for going barefoot, shoes.

Mrs Gimble and 'Gaylord' - or Mrs Cornelius?
Brenda, meanwhile, has found herself in the rather more musty surrounds of Mrs Gimble’s old clothes shop. Mrs Gimble is played by Irene Handl, who is absolutely hilarious. Michael Moorcock, in the introduction to his novella Gold Diggers of 1977 (included in his collection Casablanca), his free adaptation of the Sex Pistols’ Great Rock and Roll Swindle film, observes that ‘I’d always seen Irene Handl as Mrs Cornelius’ (she played a cinema usherette in the movie). Mrs Gimble could certainly be the matriarch of the Cornelius pantheon caught in a mellow mood. Robed in fur coat and hat, her Chihuahua Gaylord clutched to her bosom like a living stole, and with densely populated racks and shelves of age-dusted clothes as a theatrical backdrop, she is the queen of her closed, shadowy and timeless realm. At first suspecting her of being a mod, out to stow animal paws up her skirt to stick on the back of a scooter, she soon recognises Brenda as a genuine hapless innocent. She picks out a velvet Victorian cape for her (‘fabless’) and a nightie of similar vintage to serve as a dress. Seeking to win Brenda over from her initial scepticism, she invites her to ‘look at the work on it – blinded theirselves’. Further to that, she gives an intimation of its elevated origins in a conspiratorial aside – ‘titled’, and perhaps even ‘better than that – yerss’. Brenda is sold.

Rita in wonderland
She may indeed have got a bargain. Fashion was moving on from the kind of openly artificial fabrics and materials from which the kind of mod and pop clothing Yvonne considers to be in were made. The most exclusive boutiques were now places such as Granny Takes A Trip and Hung On You (run by Michael Rainey, who married It girl Jane Ormsby-Gore) in the Kings Road and I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet in Portobello Road. The style they promulgated would eventually be opened up to the masses by Biba, which opened a new art nouveau styled shop in Kensington High Street in 1969, and which was already offering a mail order catalogue in 1968. Granny Takes a Trip was of sufficient renown to be used as the title for a song by The Purple Gang. This was an innocuous little ditty, accompanied by rinky-dink piano, kazoo and washboard, but it still managed to fall foul of the BBC, who promptly banned it. These shops raided the past for their fashions, and Mrs Gimble’s emporium was exactly the sort of place which they might go to get ideas, or indeed clothes. It’s in this way that Brenda meets Charlotte, the owner of the Too Much boutique. The appropriation of styles and accessories from the past would appear to betray pop’s dedication to the moment, evincing a recognition of a cultural heritage which had a part to play in its current configuration. George Melly addresses this seeming paradox, having asserted that for pop’s eternal yet ephemeral present to sustain itself ‘it is essential to conceal a past’. Although the pop culture of 1967 seems ‘to be permeated through and through with eclectic nostalgia…this is a subtle method of rejecting the past’. As English pop turned away from its American inspirations, it began to plunder its own cultural artefacts. Given that ‘it is impossible to think of England as having no past’, Melly writes, ‘this is dealt with by treating history as a vast boutique full of military uniforms, grannie shoes and spectacles, 30s suits and George Formby records. By wrenching these objects out of their historical context they are rendered harmless’.

Too Much, daahling - desecrating the bowler
The Too Much boutique which Brenda stumbles into overseeing for an afternoon is very much in the mould of a place such as Granny Takes A Trip. Dominic Sandbrook quotes Granny’s owner Nigel Waymouth recalling that ‘the shop definitely had an intimidating quality, a mystique. It was not a friendly shop’. It exuded a deliberately cultivated exclusivity designed to repel those outside the hip inner circle. It was full of a cluttered jumble of ‘Victorian bustles, Boer War helmets, Ottoman fezzes, Charleston dresses and Chicago gangster suits’, alongside photos of Edwardian chorus girls, antique swords, glass walking sticks, Victorian feather boas and an early gramaphone. A catch-all assemblage of dash and dandyism through the ages. Smashing Time’s Too Much echoes the exclusivity of Granny Takes A Trip, and whilst it is more neat and sparsely stocked, it harbours a similarly eclectic bricolage of cultural artefacts: red Imperial military jackets, Tiffany lamps, exotic stuffed birds mounted and housed beneath bell jars, nickelodeons, ceramic heads with drooping handlebar moustaches, two tone ‘gangster’ shoes, Edwardian nude photos, a gramaphone and a tram conductor’s peaked hat. This exquisitely arranged emporium, a perfect embodiment of a moment in time, was no doubt the work of the film’s art director, Ken Bridgeman, who was working at about the same time on the sets for The Prisoner. Too Much is a swinging sixties wonderland with swirling art nouveau patterns on the windows serving to veil the outside world from this magical interior. Primary coloured bowler hats are displayed with circular holes cut out of the crown, as if they’ve been munched by fastidiously geometric moths. It’s a desecration of a sartorial signifier of establishment status. Shop owners in Carnaby Street had made a similar gesture in 1965 by forming a ‘ban the bowler brigade’. The bowler stood for all they were rebelling against in their style revolt; it might just be a hat, but it represented conformity, an acceptance of and indeed an eagerness to be a part of the status quo.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

One of my favourite films,and a great document of how grim a lot of London was at that time. I was lucky to see it again recently at the Barbican Centre,as part of their POP ART season, tho it was sad there was only eight of us in the audience..