The world of the ‘rock movie’ is a nebulous, uncertain terrain with few ground rules and even fewer conventions. By the very nature of its existence, it embraces a culture that thrives on hedonism, breaking of taboos and (to a certain extent) rebellion (not necessarily of the teenage kind, one must stress, but at least as an underlying thematic abstract). Therefore it should come as no surprise to find lurking under the genre’s umbrella a disparate plethora of films, which bear little in relation to each other aesthetically or thematically, and in which pretty much anything goes. Fantasy is never out of the question: narrative is often told via lyrics and music rather than dialogue, and, depending on who your target audience is, the plot doesn’t have to be linear either. That’s not to say that the makers of such teen epics as Three For All or Side By Side (both 1975) would have queered their pitch by bringing in Bergmanesque character swooping or sudden jump cuts, thus alienating the platform-soled boppers who they hoped would queue in droves outside every picture palace from Arundel to Auchtermuchty, but even in something as blatantly populist as Ringo Starr’s Born To Boogie (1972) there is a sense of controlled chaos, dormant insanity and playful anarchy looming behind the viewfinder from the very first reel.
Not that this was necessarily the case with every film: Richard Loncraine’s Slade In Flame (1975) aka simply Flame, pursues a deeply British, downbeat kitchen-sink feel in which everything that can go wrong does, even if you’re the biggest band in the country, which acts as the total anathema and antithesis to the schlock superhero glitz of its US equivalent Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park. As the decade wore on (and the British film industry slowly wound down like an aged grandfather clock in the face of high taxation laws and American omnipotence) movies took the ‘harsh reality’ path with increasing frequency: the advent of ‘punk rock’ in 1976 didn’t just influence the outlook of music but of ALL media, and the disaster of the first few years of Thatcherism in the 80s was not lost on anyone in the UK with an impulse to create, from sitcom writers to arthouse minimalists. Therefore, it makes sense that the subject of this article, Return To Waterloo (1985) written, directed by and featuring the music of the Kinks’ poet supreme Ray Davies (and thus the music of the actual Kinks themselves) is about as grim, grey, rainy and inherently English as any rock-based film could possibly be.
Funded partially by Davies himself and partially by the then-still-comparatively nascent Channel Four, but somehow leaking out of its television schedules into various sporadic theatrical support slots to American and Italian horror releases of the mid-80s, the movie occupies (once again) that strange netherworld betwixt genres which I find so fascinating both as a fan and a writer, in this case hovering between horror, suspense, drama and a musical without ever fully committing itself to any one of them. In that context, it could be seen as (and has been referred to as) a poor copy of Alan Parker’s The Wall (1982): there are indeed thematic and constructional similarities between the two, and on a personal note I find the Floyd film more of a rewarding cinematic experience (something which may have more than a little to do with Waterloo’s semi-televisual origins) but conversely I find Davies’ humanity and humility much more engaging than Roger Waters’ oft-lamented descents into narcissism, self-aggrandisement, self-pity and downright ego-wank, which of course, filtered through the heavy handed direction of the unsubtle Alan Parker, is ego-wank on the most bloated, grandiose scale.
Return To Waterloo is, by comparison, low-key and somewhat refreshing, not least of all because it chooses an actor of some considerable skill and repertoire (Ken Colley) in its principal role (as opposed to The Wall’s Bob Geldof, a fine musician and humanitarian activist but, let’s be honest here, an actor of scant talent) and also because of its much shorter running time: it lasts almost exactly 60 minutes, the length of a commuter’s journey between the sleepy dormitory towns of North Surrey and, not surprisingly, London Waterloo Station. During this time, our attention focuses on the aforementioned Colley in the role of ‘The Traveller’, one of the many who do just that twice every day in and out of the metropolis to work. Of course, this is a Ray Davies storyline we’re talking about here, so the Londoncentric southernisms of the whole affair is worn on the film’s sleeve from start to finish, but substitute any city and its surrounding suburbs and the point is pretty much the same: anyone who’s ever done a dull yet financially rewarding job can appreciate the tedium of the daily commute. Only in this case our commuter is slightly different (or is he? I wonder……) because he just might possibly be the ‘Surrey Rapist’, a smartly dressed middle-aged man wanted for a series of violent sex crimes in the area.
This we glean from half-heard snatches of radio and television dialogue, sometimes displayed in flashbacks, sometimes heard as station announcements, and also in conversation between his fellow passengers, including such familiar faces as Gretchen Franklin (shortly to find her niche as Ethel Skinner in Eastenders) , but mainly because the photofit displayed on the newspaper everyone on the train seems to be reading is quite clearly of Colley’s face. As the story unfolds (with minimal dialogue and told mainly between visuals and Davies’ eloquent lyrics) we discover that he’s married, went to a decent school, and like the rows of dancing, pirouetting, besuited businessmen that surround him daily, climbed, as the song puts it, the ladder to the ‘pinnacle of success’: Thatcher’s monetarist, capitalist ethos in excelsis deo. However, all may not be as rosy as it seems: apart from the small fact that he just might be a vicious sex criminal, there are also hints that he has at some point molested his teenage daughter (again, flashbacks of opening doors, naked backs, turning heads and rather uneasy family photograph sessions tell us this) prompting her to bugger off to God alone knows where to the strains of the song ‘Solo’, that his marriage has long since broken down or at least ceased to be a sexual one and that his wife, reduced to writing to Claire Rayner (who cameos in the movie during the song ‘Dear Lonely Hearts’) suspects him, if not of paedophilia, of at least having an affair. There’s also an even more bizarre subtext, as discussed between Franklin and her companion (Betty Romaine, a popular ‘old lady’ face on British television screens of the 60s, 70s and 80s) in which we surmise that maybe, like many people faced with the grim economic realities of the decade, he no longer has a job at all, but still travels to work every day in his suit and spends the day feeding ducks in the park and thinking dark thoughts to himself, either out of sheer pride or a denial-rooted breakdown of reality. This plotline, of course, was used to great effect by Tom Wilkinson’s character Gerald in The Full Monty (1997): somehow, in the context employed by Davies, it takes on an altogether more sinister import.
Return to Waterloo (1985) continued.It is at this point we begin as viewers to ask ourselves questions, the most obvious one being as to whether any of the events we see depicted onscreen are happening at all, save for the tedium of a daily train journey that could cause one’s imagination to wander and call to mind all manner of bizarre fantasies constructed simply to fill one’s time. Does Colley’s character even have a wife and daughter? Is there really a “Surrey Rapist”? Quite possibly not, as from this point the plot (albeit a thinly sketched one, but a plot nonetheless) moves further and further towards the realms of fantasy and horror. The arrival on the train of a gang of sneering punks (led by an amazingly youthful Tim Roth in what must have been one of his earliest roles), carrying a ghetto blaster blaring a suitably punky Kinks tune, ‘Sold Me Out’, leads to a sexual encounter in the toilets between the Traveller and a saucy/Siouxsie-looking punkette which may or may not have happened at all (the lack of physical retribution by anyone would lead us to believe that it didn’t). Colley later beheads said punks with his briefcase, all of whom are revealed as nothing but plastic dummies (whether this is a comment by an older, wiser musician on the transparency of the New Wave is up to you to decide, but hardly essential to the storyline) although immediately afterwards, they’re back again- this time meeting an unpleasant demise as an old blind lady they have attempted to mug (who removes her sunglasses to reveal the most terrifying eyes since The Mutations) goes postal and starts slashing everybody with a large razorblade, whilst two old soldiers (Nat Jackley and Wally Thomas, both the kind of actors that prompt one’s parents to exclaim “Ooh, what have I seen him in?”) lament the passing of our nation’s great heroes and goad our spiky-topped friends into snotty retaliation. In an attempt to escape the carnage, Colley runs down a train corridor which appears to get longer with every step, only to find himself , and not for the first time, in a morgue (seemingly fitting, as much of the previous musical number has taken place whilst driving past huge graveyards) where his dead, naked daughter rises to embrace him from a mortician’s table.
Eventually we find ourselves back where we started, at Waterloo: whether this means we have witnessed both the outward AND the return journey is unclear, especially seeing as that would mean the Traveller lived in the city and worked in the suburbs as opposed to the other way round. Maybe we saw him going home first. In which case… a comment on the tedium of middle class life, perhaps, or maybe an homage to several science fiction plots in which the hero finds himself forever trapped within the same scenario? Whatever, the Traveller is definitely no hero: if his fantasies are real, then he is a thoroughly despicable (yet still human) individual, if not, he is an insignificant nobody like the rest of us. The fact that he can never seem to remember where he has put his ticket, coupled with the fact that the limousine he has previously thought of, and which he strides so purposefully towards, actually belongs to the punk rockers (more barbed satire from Davies?) would suggest the latter: even the woman he seems to be embracing in earlier frames underneath the ubiquitous Waterloo clock is actually kissing someone else. As he strides down from the main concourse into the Underground, footsteps echoing ominously on the cold grey tiles, we see that he may or may not be pursuing an attractive young woman: the director, stood there busking just as he was at the start, turns his knowing gaze turns to meet that of our man, and there you have it. The End. Frozen in time, we have completed our paradoxical circle.
For all of its valiant attempts to take what is essentially an hour-long play and turn it into a piece of psychotropic cinema (actually, this may NOT have been what Davies was attempting, but it comes across that way) and for all its intrigue and thought-provoking elements, Return To Waterloo is still somewhat unsatisfying and definitely no masterpiece. Often slow, sometimes repetitive in its camerawork, and posing far too many oblique questions, such as the unresolved references to the recently discovered bodies of unidentified females, for on example, which act almost as obiter dicta to the actual story (I mean, I’m all for ambiguity and interpretation as much as the next bloke, but there is a limit), it has a tendency to veer between feature film, shortform play and perhaps somewhat inevitably that most maligned of genres, the promotional music video, without ever satisfyingly tagging itself to any. I must be fond of it on some level though, as I have watched it on several occasions – I definitely like it much more than my girlfriend, who considers it a fruitless waste of time, but still feel it falls short somewhat of what Davies clearly had in mind for it. And sadly, compared to other projects the band had been actively involved with such as Percy, Arthur or the superlative Play For Today The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Piano Player, all of which are at least a decade older, it has dated very badly- not least of all in the instrumentation used by the band (particularly keyboardist John Gosling) at the time, all Linndrums, Rolands and claptraps.
Still, the one thing none of this can detract from is the quality of Davies’ songwriting, which, although far from Golden Era, is still superlative compared to practically everyone else’s. Released at a time when the Kinks’ popularity had surged again on both sides of the Atlantic, in no small measure due to the hit single ‘Come Dancing’ which was probably, alongside either ‘Rock And Roll Fantasy’ or ‘Superman’ where listeners of my generation first encountered them, their renewed record deal as laid down by Arista Records’ supremo Clive Davis stated clearly that Ray should abandon what he considered the ‘self indulgence’ of the band’s proggy concept album period of the 70s and produce straightforward pop-rock/AOR numbers: no surprise then that the movie seems to once more embody the more adventurous end of his oeuvre, a concept album on video if you like, as indeed my esteemed colleague Gav Whitaker has put it. Twenty odd years on, it’s a wonder that in the very era the film portrays, such a project got off the ground at all: it may not have done so today, and it’s doubtful whether or not it would find an audience. Deliberately not just targeted at Kinks fans, it was apparently shown (unbelievably) in scattered UK and US cinemas, a year or so after its release, as support to disparate films including on one occasion Evil Dead 2: even though it does tread on horror territory occasionally, what such gorethirsty audiences must have made of it is anyone’s guess.
For those wishing to view it now, it is available on DVD, in the US if not the UK (like many British movies, it would seem) although I wouldn’t recommend it as any kind of classic, the curious, and lovers of both social realist and exploitation could do worse than cast their gaze over it: the rewards are there for the patient. Here’s an idea: watch it on your laptop whilst commuting to and from work, and see if the faces around you, including your own reflection in the window take on implicitly sinister new overtones. And careful with that briefcase.