On Thursday night I went to the launch of the British Film Institutes’s first 3 Flipside releases of neglected and off-beat British cinema. These DVD and Blu-ray reissues are an extension of the monthly Flipside screenings at BFI Southbank. The launch consisted of both a public screening of Richard Lester’s The Bed Sitting Room (1969), and a private party afterwards. Aside from The Bed Sitting Room, the other two disks being promoted were the fabulous London In The Raw (1964) and Primitive London (1965), both directed by Arnold L. Miller. The Miller titles are mondo movies about London and its nightlife in the 1960s.
I’m not a fan of director and producer Richard Lester but I’ll sit through anything with Rita Tushingham in it at least once – with The Leather Boys (1964, directed by Sidney J. Furie) being my favourite film featuring this actress, since among other things her character Dot gets to deliver the immortal line: ‘Do you like me hair?’ By way of contrast, The Bed Sitting Room is merely a curious sixties period piece greatly lifted by the presence of Tushingham, but nonetheless a movie that is ultimately a vehicle for Spike Milligan. It is based upon his Cuban missile crisis inspired play of the same name, and is imbued with a pre-Beatles and pre-permissive society mind-set.
The Bed Sitting Room takes place in the ruins of post-nuclear apocalypse London, and I guess the humour is supposed to be zany and surreal, but I found it very old-fashioned. The best joke comes during the credits where the cast are listed by height from shortest to tallest; a device that fortuitously provides Tushingham with top billing. Among the other famous names featured in this film are Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Marty Feldman, Harry Secombe, Jimmy Edwards and Arthur Lowe. During a panel talk after the screening, Lester said that while he had no issues with the cast when making the film, their respective agents proved rather argumentative about billings and thus listing the actors by height was his means of resolving this problem.
Lester dominated the panel talk although he’d been joined for it by Rita Tushingham, with BFI curators Will Fowler and Vic Pratt moderating. Lester mixed some entertaining anecdotes with an unbelievably superficial take on events in Paris in May 1968. He seemed to view the entire year – and in particular the occupations movement in France – as a bit of a downer, largely because these political events disrupted his travel plans. Unfortunately Rita didn’t get to say much, but she’s an old pro and having known Lester for around forty-five years appeared both used to and unflustered by his habit of hogging the conversation.
Tushingham is in incredibly good shape for a 67 year-old, and while she now appears a little older than in her 1960s prime, her distinctive looks are still very much with her. At the BFI she adroitly deployed her exaggerated feminine moves of the sixties, with several big arm swings to keep her legion of fans happy. Afterwards in the corridor as I was making my way towards the private party, I was nearly knocked over by a group of men who were mobbing Rita for autographs. I haven’t seen a celebrity creating that amount of havoc at the BFI since Jane Fonda was in the building signing copies of her autobiography My Life So Far back in 2006.
At the party I exchanged brief greetings with BFI luminaries Eddie Berg and Vic Pratt, spent a little longer speaking to Will Fowler about the Flipside releases, and managed a proper conversation with my fellow-freelancer Kim Newman; this latter exchange covered everything from Lester’s films to our shared family connections to Elgin Crescent in west London. The BFI had provided crisps and peanuts for revelers, but I wanted to eat something more substantial and so left after a couple of drinks. While I had a curry on my mind, of more interest to everyone else will be the viewing menu on offer to those that grab hold of the current and upcoming BFI Flipside releases. Of the future releases I’m particularly looking forward to Privilege (1967, directed by Peter Watkins), coz it must be coming on for 30 years since I last saw this very curious flick about the corporate control and political manipulation of a rock star. As already mentioned, out next week are two of the most important films of the mondo movie genre: London In The Raw and Primitive London. There are variant versions of each film on the disks plus a host of extras, including two great documentary shorts about London strip clubs – Strip (1966) is served up alongside London In The Raw, while Carousella (1966) acts as a side-dish to Primitive London.
And now it’s time to declare my personal interest in all this. I contributed an essay to the London In The Raw booklet, while Iain Sinclair provides a companion-piece to my text for Primitive London. I got quite carried with this engagement, since it was an opportunity to write about London clubs in the 1960s… and very quickly my composition became too long to accompany a film release. Therefore, I chopped out a lot of material before I emailed the text to the BFI and reformatted some of that into an earlier blog (the opening and closing paragraphs were written to make this material work as an online post, the rest is unrevised material I’d cut from my BFI essay). I find the subject of London clubs of the 1960s endlessly fascinating, which is why I ran way over the word count the BFI provided and had to take rather a lot out. Originally, I’d wanted to conclude with a paragraph or three of contextualising remarks, but in the end this also had to go. One of those ‘lost’ paragraphs read as follows:
“The fascination with strip and hostess clubs evident in the work of both sets of film-makers represented on this disk reflects the fact that such establishments proliferated in London during the sixties as a direct consequence of the 1959 Street Offences Act, which attempted to sweep prostitution off the city’s pavements in line with the desires of the Wolfenden Committee. It should go without saying that the sex industry didn’t disappear, although large parts of it did relocate to both dank basements and apparently swanky clubs. When strip clubs spread to the vast bulk of cities in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, a similar cinematic obsession with such establishments was evident in many North American movies. That said, to my eyes and ears, London in the sixties is infinitely preferable to the American mid-west of the nineteen-nineties; the girls were more varied in those largely pre-plastic surgery days and the music was better. The British pop-cultural obsession with strippers was still very much in evidence a few years after the films gathered here were made; one example being the song The Girls Are Naked issued by top London mod act The Creation as the b-side to their May 1968 Polydor single Midway Down.”
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!