Hipsters, Flipsters & Finger-Poppin’ Daddies
By Stewart Home.
The BFI Flipside series consists of reissues on disc (DVD and Blu-Ray) of forgotten Brit films, and each and every one is proving crucial viewing for anyone with even the slightest interest in the history of British cinema. Many of the flicks are simultaneously incredible documents of the emergence of swinging London and the subsequent come-downs from that high.
The oldest movie in the latest round of Flipside releases is That Kind Of Girl (dir. Gerry O’Hara, 1963). It’s the tale of a swinging Austrian au pair called Eva (Margaret Rose Keil), who catches the clap from seedy middle-age advertising executive Elliot Collier (Peter Burton) and passes it on to two younger men. Obviously the scenes of sex kitten Eva getting her dose of syphilis and spreading it around prove more fun than later episodes covering her cure at the Special Clinic. Nonetheless, fast-paced editing keeps the film moving and not even the educational sections will bore you. Indeed, the sight of a doctor quoting 1963 UK syphilis infection rates to a Special Clinic nurse as if she didn’t already know them might make you laugh: “14,000 new cases a year – and most of them young people.”
Eva’s first boyfriend is working class autodidact Max (Frank Jarvis) who picks her up at the El Sombrero coffee shop. By the 1970s (and probably also in the 1960s) this was a concession beneath The Sombrero Restaurant in High Street Kensington. Right at the start of That Kind Of Girl, we see Eva getting off a 31 bus and walking along a stretch of High Street Kensington before going into the entrance of The Sombrero. This sequence was shot in the early Sixties at a time when the 31 bus ran between Notting Hill and Chelsea, the route was changed on 29 May 1999. In That Kind Of Girl, we cut from Eva going into The Sombrero to her appearance in the El Sombrero coffee shop. I assume this would have entailed going down a flight of stairs but that isn’t shown. When my swinging mother Julia Callan-Thompson, who was part of the Beatnik scene that Max also represents, arrived in London at the start of the 1960s, El Sombrero was one of the places she hung out. Barry Miles provides a description of the place from a later era in his new book London Calling: A Countercultural History of London Since 1945 (Grove Atlantic, pages 319-320):
“El Sombrero, in the basement below the Sombrero restaurant, distinguished by its Mexican hat neon sign, at 142 Kensington High Street, was a popular hangout in the late seventies. For a time Derek Jarman, Ossie Clarke, Angie and David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Bianca, Long John Baldry and Dusty Springfield could be found there every week, and even Francis Bacon sometimes peeped in. It was the first disco in London to have coloured underfloor neon lighting beneath its flashing, star-shaped, glass dance floor. There was a raised section overlooking the dance floor which could be reserved by ordering champagne. To comply with licensing laws, everyone was given a paper plate with a thin slice of pork pie and a smear of coleslaw. That way you could dance until 2 a.m. for a couple of shillings. The patron was Amadeo, known to all as Armadillo, who sat at the bottom of the steep staircase, counting the pound notes. The waiters Jose and Manuel balanced glasses on trays held high above their heads as they weaved their perilous way through the crowds. It was mostly a gay club and later changed its name to Yours or Mine?”
Papers of my mother’s that survived her death in 1979 indicate that in the late Fifties and early Sixties El Sombrero was run by Harry Laubscher. The venue must have been revamped between then and the late seventies because the interior in That Kind Of Girl looks quite different to 1970s descriptions of it as a gay disco. While I’ve come across other references to The Sombrero and El Sombrero in this latter period (for example in Bertie Marshall‘s biography Berlin Bromley), That Kind Of Girl provides the first reference I’ve found to its earlier Beatnik incarnation from a source other than my mother’s papers.
Returning to the character Max as played by Frank Jarvis, like many British Beatniks he is a ‘ban the bomb’ activist and so he takes Eva along to the annual Aldermaston March. During this sequence, the film cuts between real footage of this staple of early Sixties activism and fictional material featuring actors. Eva’s other lover, Keith Murray (David Weston), is a posh student drip with a flash sports car – and the most exciting thing they do together is strip down to their underwear to go swimming at a party in Weybridge held on the banks of the Thames. Nonetheless, we do see all Eva’s men dancing with her at an unnamed but hip-looking Bayswater cellar club where the musical accent is very much on modern jazz.
Dirty old man Elliot Collier proves a lot more interesting than over-privileged young toe-rag Keith Murray. He takes Eva to what he calls ‘a proper nightclub’, which turns out to be The Latin Quarter. This is one of the notorious London ‘cabaret’ clubs that gets frequent name checks in the biographies and autobiographies of 1960s entertainers and criminals. It is also a club that I don’t recall having seen on film before. At The Latin Quarter, Eva and Elliot enjoy a silver service supper together, but no doubt for men who turned up alone ‘hostesses’ were available to keep them company as they ate and drank the night away. We see some of the cabaret on film, but presumably far more flesh would have been visible off camera than is shown in the That Kind Of Girl.
Janie Jones, a name synonymous with the salacious side of the swinging Sixties, was one of those who performed in The Latin Quarter cabaret and her career is not untypical of the girls the place attracted. Arriving in London in the late Fifties and living initially in Ladbroke Grove, Jones made her entertainment industry debut by working as a show girl at The Windmill Theatre and got her first proper taste of the limelight after being arrested as she arrived (un)clad in a topless gown for the West End film premier of London In The Raw. At the time she was consolidating her career in the glamour business with appearances at hostess, stripping, cabaret and drinking clubs including The Latin Quarter, The Gargoyle, The Astor, The Stork, Quaglino’s, Le Prince, The Pigalle, The Georgian, The Don Juan Casanova and The Establishment. At The Don Juan Casanova, Jones worked as a hostess for an exclusive clientele alongside the likes of Christine Keeler and this infamous colleague even roomed with her for a few weeks. At The Gargoyle, the waitresses were dressed in cat outfits. The Astor had a reputation for attracting both television personalities such as Bruce Forsyth and Max Bygraves, and criminal celebrities like the Kray Twins.
Le Prince, which became Revolution, was located in Bruton Place, Mayfair. The show biz clientele attracted to this club included pop singers such as Tom Jones but also took in scriptwriters and film producers. Revolution was run by Jim Carter-Fea who also owned an after hours rock club aimed mainly at musicians called The Speakeasy. Somewhat more respectable was The Establishment, where the likes of David Frost and Peter Cook could be found making personal appearances. In her autobiography, The Devil and Miss Jones, Janie Jones reveals that through these clubs she came into contact with a large number of rich men who enjoyed sado-masochistic sex with those hostesses who would accept payment for services that ranged from whippings through to defecating on a glass plate that one polymorphously perverse former public school boy would place on his face. Among the many hostess club clients she met, Jones claims she came to know the shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis particularly well. Onassis, it seems, would fork out the readies for Jones to be released from her work at The Don Juan Casanova, so that he could take her to Churchill’s.
These clubs played a key role in winning 1960s London the appellation ‘swinging’, and the Flipside series does a very good job of documenting them. Aside from the intriguing footage of The Latin Quarter included in That Kind Of Girl, Churchill’s and many other cabaret clubs are featured in the older Flipside reissues of London In The Raw and Primitive London. There is also footage of Revolution in the 1969 short Tomorrow Night In London included as an extra on another disc in this series, Kim Newman’s Guide To The Flipside Of British Cinema.
Moving on to our next Flipside reissue, many people will be familiar with Privilege (Peter Watkins, 1967) by reputation at least. It’s a movie that I first saw on British TV back in the days when I was still a teenager. Privilege is a faux documentary set in the near future with a fascistic British establishment exploiting pop singer Steven Shorter (Paul Jones) to manipulate public opinion and behaviour. Johnny Speight who created the original story seems to have taken Bernard Kops’ novel Awake For Mourning (1958) as his starting point. In his full-length fictional debut, Kops depicts teddy boys being manipulated by a fascistic youth party fronted by a pop singer. Privilege takes this idea but really runs with it. The Watkins film is an immediate precursor to The Monkees auto-critique of themselves as plastic pop icons in their countercultural film Head (dir. Bob Rafelson, 1968). The use of Shorter to promote Christianity and national unity at revivalist rallies in Privilege also looks like it influenced, among many other things, the adulation accorded to the Pinball Wizard in the cinematic realisation of Pete Townshend’s rock opera Tommy (dir. Ken Russell, 1975), and some of the musical choices in Derek Jarman’s Jubilee (1978). Since the leading lady in Privilege is none other than top Sixties model Jean Shrimpton in her only fully-fledged film role, this could still prove essential viewing even to those who have no interest in the history of cinema or youth culture.
Lesser known, but every bit as good as Privilege is Permissive (dir. Lindsay Shonteff, 1970). In Permissive many of the actors are emotionally mute, and there is a lot of straight documentary footage of real life performances by the progressive rock bands Forever More and Titus Groan, as well as a soundtrack and cameos by acid folk heroes Comus. Maggie Stride (playing Suzi) takes the lead as a bed-hopping groupie who over the course of the film makes it with every member of Forever More, and finally displaces her best friend Fiona (Gay Singleton) in the affections of singer Lee (Allan Corrie, later of The Average White Band, playing a thinly fictionalised version of himself). The world of jobbing rock bands is portrayed as grim, and the hierarchy among their groupies as a vicious struggle to make it with the top men. While the individual scenes within Permissive often appear numb and cold, they slowly build into a switch-back ride through an over-amplified rock ‘n’ roll low-life of madness, sex, drugs and suicide. The overall effect is infinitely greater than the sum of the parts.
As I’ve already said, the Flipside series offers an incredible overview of both emerging youth cultures and London as a world centre of libidinal energy during the 1960s and 1970s. Better yet, alongside the main features there is some equally wonderful bonus material. Permissive has the whole of Stanley Long‘s countercultural sexploitation feature Bread (1971) as an extra, and this boasts some footage of the Isle of Wight festival alongside rare Juicy Lucy and Crazy Mable live performances. Among the supplementary attractions offered by That Kind Of Girl are A Sunday In September (James Hill, 1961), a stunning TV documentary about a day of anti-nuclear weapons protests in London on 17 September 1961. For anyone interested in London or the counterculture, Flipside provides a wonderful opportunity to view material that has been next to impossible to see for a very long time. If you only rent or buy one movie this year, make sure it is one of these Flipside reissues!
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, February 1st, 2010.