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Beatnik Blow-Outs in Swinging London With a Frothy Topping of Kinky Sex

By Stewart Home.

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The BFI Flipside reissues of British cult movies are steaming ahead with a new dual format of a DVD and Blu-Ray disk in a single box. You now get both formats for the price of the cheaper one! First up this time is the previously unreleased original cut of the Oliver Reed beatnik shocker The Party’s Over (1963-1965). Directed by Guy Hamilton, the film sat in a can for two years before finally finding release in 1965 in heavily censored form. A simplistic reading of the plot is that a young American called Melina (Louise Sorel) has thrown her lot in with a dissolute bunch of Chelsea beatniks. She falls to her death during a party and details of her subsequent necrophiliac rape slowly emerge as her fiancée Carson (Clifford David) runs around London trying to find her.

However, while the censors at the British Board of Film Classification clearly understood the film in the simplistic fashion outlined above, the key flashback sequence is re-told three times with significant variations. While by the end of the movie it is obvious that Melina is dead, how she died and whether it was at the party is not at all clear. She may have been killed in a hit and run accident after the debauched get-together. The Party’s Over features two remembered versions of a beatnik funeral parade for the American girl, and the first is clearly a mock ceremony with Melina still alive albeit extremely drunk. All those present at the party at which Melina is alleged to have died were completely inebriated; they are unreliable witnesses and may not have anything approaching a detailed knowledge of what actually happened. Whether any of the various incidents detailed in the flashbacks are ultimately ‘true’ remains a moot point.

The Party’s Over seems to draw on real events including the media furore surrounding the pot bust of Malcolm ‘Grainger’ Drake and his ‘idle’ (tabloid speak of the time for ‘unemployed’) Chelsea friends in the spring of 1962; and similar outrage when the Peace Café in nearby Fulham Road was raided for drugs shortly afterwards. That said, there is a sense of unreality about the portrayal of the beatniks in the film, and Oliver Reed (as posh beatnik gang leader) Moise really hams things up. So while at a very superficial level the movie seems to be saying that beatniks — and by implication most young people — are a bunch of degenerates, at a deeper level it reveals this reactionary message to be socially constructed and ultimately untrue.

As The Party’s Over was being made — and while it was sitting in the can awaiting release — the trustworthiness of representatives of British authority in the form of the Metropolitan Police was being openly questioned in Parliament and the press, since it had become apparent that Detective-Sergeant Harold Challenor and his colleagues at West End Central cop shop had been fitting up innocent men. The event that led to Challenor’s downfall was his arrest of cartoonist Donald Rooum on 11 July 1963. Challenor claimed Rooum had been carrying a half-brick in his pocket. Forensic examination of Rooum’s clothes, handed to his lawyer before he was released from police custody, proved that Challenor’s claim the cartoonist had been in possession of an offensive weapon was untrue. As a consequence various other instances of Challenor planting weapons on innocent men came to light, and this eventually led to the pardoning of a number of people who’d been imprisoned on the basis of ‘evidence’ Challenor had fabricated.

The Party’s Over mirrors the way an almost endless series of lies unravelled in the Challenor case. However, rather than revealing police corruption, here it exposes the fakery and dishonesty of the mass media. What emerges is a major challenge to the symbolic order of capitalism. The discrepancies in the flashback sequences of The Party’s Over undermine the credibility of the film-makers and the broader media spectacle of which they form a part, as well the fictitious characters within the movie. The Party’s Over is patently obviously a piece of fakery, and this is its strength rather than a weakness. It might also explain why director Guy Hamilton has dissociated himself from the BFI’s pre-censorship release of the movie, since it was probably never his intention to create something that undermined both his own authority and that of the broader culture industry. Therefore the way in which The Party’s Over prefigures the self-referentiality of so much postmodern culture appears to be a happy accident that its reactionary director still rues.

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The Party’s Over is a must-see for anyone already taken with That Kind Of Girl, another Flipside exploitation reissue dealing with early 1960s London youth culture. This latter film and another being newly issued alongside Oliver Reed’s beatnik blow-out called The Pleasure Girls (1965), were directed by Gerry O’Hara. The Pleasure Girls is an alternative take on swinging London, showing a group of young women and a gay man sharing accommodation, and on the whole not having a particularly groovy a time. Klaus Kinski plays a Rachman type figure and sugar-daddy to one of the girls, extorting money from poor tenants and gambling the night away at swish clubs. The bright lights of Sloane Square and elsewhere prove less glamorous close up than from a distance. Everything about The Pleasure Girls, apart from the title and Kinski’s over-acting, is downbeat — and serves to expose the myth of swinging London to be a media construct that attempts to paper-over the reality of capitalist exploitation and alienation.

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What particularly grooves me about the Flipside releases is not simply the way the series is making available (and sometimes for the first time) a slew of entertaining movies, but the value of all the films as social documents. If you’re interested in British youth culture or London in the 1960s, then you need to see both The Party’s Over and The Pleasure Girls. Aside from being consistently entertaining movies, the various Flipside releases and their carefully chosen extras give us a much-needed alternative take on British social history during the sixties and seventies.

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[For a detailed examination of Harold Challenor’s despicable activities as a bent copper see The Challenor Case by Mary Grigg (Penguin, Harmondsworth 1965). Incidentally, a documentary about The Phoenix Strip Club in Soho is featured on an earlier Flipside release of London In The Raw. The owner of this club, Wilfred Gardiner, collaborated with Harold Challenor to get five men falsely imprisoned for demanding money with menaces. Gardiner was a convicted pimp with a long criminal record, and the young men jailed on the basis of perjured evidence from him and Challenor were eventually pardoned after the Rooum case came to light.]

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stewart Home is Britain’s greatest living underground legend.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 11th, 2010.