Seemingly so obscure that it doesn’t even warrant any comments on IMDB, yet simultaneously revered by the tiny few who have seen it, ALL THE RIGHT NOISES is a difficult film to categorise. Taken at face value alongside its director’s other work (The Pleasure Girls, That Kind of Girl, The Brute and of course The Bitch), one could easily mistake it for a sleazy sexploitation title, and indeed a tiny part of me is disappointed this isn’t the case. Conversely, the other 95 percent was both delighted and enthralled to see a charming film handling ‘difficult’ subject matter with sensitivity, uncut and remastered in a beautiful print that highlights its best points without overdoing the glossiness. Sometimes, you want your obscure British films to look, well, obscure- and too much restoration, as is the case with Anchor Bay’s release of Straight on Till Morning, can reduce the aesthetic effect.
Thankfully, Flipside have (once again) struck the prefect balance. The reels, presented in their original 4:3, are fittingly ‘orange, white and blue’ in the way all the best films between 1965 and 1975 should be, authentically reeking of Timothy Whites, Double Diamond, Nimble bread and Atora suet pudding, but at the same time pristine enough to please format snobs everywhere. All the technology in the world, however, won’t hide a bad film- but thankfully, the minute the opening credits appear in that font, to the strains of Miss Melanie Safka’s theme song, you know this won’t be the case.
O’Hara’s tale of a thirty-something man falling for a teenage girl is, as he points out in his sleeve notes, semi-autobiographical. The fact he is able to mention that shows in itself a sea-change in attitudes since at least 2002, when such subjects were considered if not ‘taboo’ then ripe for ridicule. Maybe it’s for this reason that All The Right Noises comes across as such a gentle, disarmingly honest film with little or no sensationalism, although that could also be in part down to the inspired casting of Tom Bell in the lead role of Len Lewin, the theatre electrician unable to resist the winsome charms of the Lolita-like Val (Olivia Hussey in only her second movie).
Some, including my very own editor, believed the late Bell to be an ‘unassuming’ leading man (as did, from what I gather, the film’s backers including O’Hara’s close friend Nic Roeg) and while one might find, if one was looking, sufficient evidence of that throughout his career, I find his laid-back, almost shy demeanour (tempered with time-honoured Scouse wit) uncannily perfect, to the point where it’s hard to imagine who else could have carried off the part. One could maybe suggest David McCallum or Peter McEnery, both of similar age and physicality, but to my mind, the former is far too classically good-looking and the latter too bookish. Len needs to be portrayed by someone idiosyncratic, an actor not in any way ugly but by no means a heartthrob.
We have to believe he’s normal enough to have a day job, a beautiful (yet homely) actress wife, two kids (one played by future Hammer and Amicus devil-child Chloe Franks) and a flat in an estate by Battersea Bridge, but at the same time unusual and exotic enough to capture the heart of a school-leaver in her first flush of womanhood. With his almost-long hair and Frank Worthington sideys (a look some of us are still attempting to cultivate in 2009) framing his Parka jacket and pronounced jawline, Bell fills all such criteria. You even get the feeling that these events could easily have happened to him in real life, although his real life was obviously more glamorous.
There is no sleaze on offer, just a bittersweet love story with all the highs and lows one might expect from such a whirlwind romance. Yet it’s not a ‘romantic’ or ‘weepie’ film as such- there are no tragedies or major screaming outbursts, merely tinges of regret (particularly with regard to the pregnancy that never is) and the affair is never revealed to his wife Joy (Judy Carne), who seems as genuinely happy with him as he with her. If she knows about it (as it sometimes appears) nothing is said: not only is she too preoccupied with the (unthreatening) advances of casting director Richard (John Standing) but you imagine she’d be both understanding and forgiving. This was 1969 after all, and the way Carne and Bell appear to understand each other is symbolic of the changing times. Monogamy and fidelity were just two of many subjects, previously taken as read, that were now up for question, and whilst it would be stretching things to imagine an ‘open’ relationship between them, Len and Joy are the kind of couple you could easily see picking up where they left off after a dalliance. Then again, theatricals live by their own rules.
Yet for all its progressive leanings, All The Right Noises missed the boat- stifled by a distributor that delayed its release until 1971, by which time many of its principal issues were no longer topical and its taboos no longer unspoken. At the time of filming, the ‘love revolution’ was still very much happening, and questions being asked left, right and centre- by the time it slipped quietly out into the cinemas, many had been answered. The ‘strange new world’ that bewildered the principal characters in concurrent productions such as Monique (1968) Baby Love (1968) I Start Counting (1970) and Deep End (1970) was now an everyday matter of fact, and no longer ripe for exploitation by producers (even non-exploitation producers). The film’s subsequent exposure, restricted to very rare television screenings in Britain, Australia and very few other places, plus an 80s VHS release more limited than a goldfish’s attention span, did little to expand its potential audience.
Thankfully, enough people (including the curators of BFI Flipside) remained aware of it, and with good reason. More than just a curio, it’s a perfectly preserved snapshot of a bygone era, where smoking was allowed in tube trains and stations, the unemployed (as represented by Z Cars star John Keegan in the role of Len’s itinerant father, with whom the roles of provider and dependant are completely reversed) didn’t have to sign on, and where men didn’t run the risk of being labelled ‘paedos’ by both chavs and pseudo-intellectuals for fancying women under 21, especially if, like Len here, they were unaware of their age to begin with. The past was, as the saying goes, a different country: so, seemingly, were stations on the outer reaches of the Metropolitan Line. “Uxbridge?” Bell exclaims upon discovering his new love’s home town, “you’re damn right I’ll walk you to the tube!”
The irony, of course, is that 50 percent of British films of the time, even if set in Central London, were shot or produced in the environs of Uxbridge anyway, at nearby Pinewood studios. Once we reached 1974 and the heyday of British sex comedies, it suddenly seemed OK for directors (other than Derek Ford, who had been doing it since 1970 with Suburban Wives and Commuter Husbands) to openly embrace suburbia, but in 1969 this was still a way off. He does eventually accompany her all the way (as per her original request), precipitating their first sexual encounter (again, handled with taste and subtlety) in a nearby park: strangely, when the pair make love later in Bell’s Battersea flat (after yet another ‘tease’ when he makes up the sofa for her so she won’t feel she has to enter his marital bed) we only see the aftermath.
It’s almost as if the exotic locations of Zone 6, or later, the underneath of a rain-soaked pier, are necessary to make their affair less mundane than the love he professes for his wife. When asked if he would ever “do it” to (ie cheat on) his teenage mistress, Bell replies “of course not, I’m not even doing it to my wife now”, thus demonstrating the double standard hinted at earlier when it is also suggested her age will bother him less when out of school uniform. The instability of the situation also raises its head when she realises she exited his home within two minutes of Joy’s ensuing entrance, even if, as he put it earlier, she could have come from “any of 50 flats in this block”. For some reason though, maybe because of rather than in spite of Val’s age, Len doesn’t regard this as infidelity- just something natural. This is, of course, total denial, but a denial some viewers may recognise from personal experience.
Regardless of the characters’ motivations, the juxtaposition between Val’s seemingly staid life in Middlesex and Len’s more urban, streetwise London existence (though no secret is made of his Northern origins) is one of the film’s most captivating qualities. Another is its ‘show within a film’ aspect, with principal characters all involved in the staging of a nameless touring musical (choreographed and arranged by Nic Roeg’s daughter Nicolette) which I have to confess I wouldn’t mind seeing if it existed. With this (and Len and Joy’s attempts at grabbing a few stolen hours between engagements) as a subplot, O’Hara is able to transport the film not only across Greater London but to Manchester and Brighton, all locations he makes good use of.
To see Britain glimpsed through the director’s viewfinder is fascinating, each frame offering a new perspective on an already enthralling era. Watching Hussey, fresh from Romeo And Juliet, taking on such an emotionally complex role is also quite an experience. With her striking, almost alien visage and ability to convincingly wear anything from school blazers to Victorian period costume, the young actress is uncommonly beautiful, even if she does seem to spend much of her screen time tucking into one fattening foodstuff or another. Mind you, a cursory glance at the eating habits of most Brits in the late 60s will show we just didn’t put on as much weight back then. What happened? Although only 17 in real life, she manages somehow to combine Lolita-like charm with of real maturity, incorporating sarcasm, world-weariness and even bloody-minded determination into her worldview, and it’s this development, naturally, that the film concerns itself with, as we witness her growth from a child naïve enough to believe that pregnancy would be easy into sadly, a woman old enough to realise that a prospective career as a touring actress holds more fascination than life as the mistress of a 32-year-old spark. Let’s not forget, he’s already married to one showgirl. Does he really need another? To quote the advertising tagline, “Is 15 and a half too young for a girl? Are two women enough for one man?”
As sweet, innocuous and inoffensive as it is, All The Right Noises would not get made in today’s Britain: it may sound like a cliché, and I’ve said it about at least five films before, but as it’s true, I’ll say it again. Since the turn of the century, we have found ourselves saddled with a moral climate hovering somewhere between Puritanism and Nazi Germany, who would jump on its creator and practically accuse him of membership of NAMBLA before he could say “Justin Villeneuve”. And it’s not even an exploitation film. As a result, a slight feeling of “Oh, is that it?” may be experienced on first viewing- something which one could not say of David Greene’s more horror-themed I Start Counting or John Bown’s slightly salacious (yet still subtle, and demanding of reappraisal) Monique.
Further investigation, however, will reveal a film as rich in pathos, humour, drama and depth as any of its most acclaimed contemporaries, one that deserves repeated, albeit infrequent, viewing by any serious connoisseur of British culture. And if the three strong leads (superbly embellished by Keegan and Standing’s sterling cameos) aren’t persuasion enough, a cursory glance down the cast reveals a cast to be reckoned with: Lesley Anne Down (younger than Hussey but playing slightly older, in her first role prior to plunging headlong into sleaze with The Smashing Bird I Used To Know and Assault), Yootha Joyce, Rudolph Walker, Oscar James, Chrissie Shrimpton and the ubiquitous Marianne Stone.
It really is a shame, then, that the film has been shrouded in such obscurity until now (although nowhere near as much obscurity as the extra feature, the skulduggerous 1972 short The Spy’s Wife), and although I’d like to think that this release will bring it to the attention of a wide audience, the sad truth is that it will probably sell a few thousand to cult movie buffs (some of whom will have, ahem, grabbed a free copy through the industry anyway) and hardened BFI anoraks, but still remain outside of the mainstream.
Then again, it is outside the mainstream that all of its principal players always remained. Bell, whilst recognised worldwide as an actor of incredible skill (and a favourite of ‘fantastic’ genre fans through appearances in Straight On Till Morning, Quest For Love and The Magic Toyshop) never achieved the stardom he deserved, possibly due to his uncompromising refusal to kowtow (famously heckling Prince Adol- er, Philip at an awards ceremony and being unofficially blacklisted for a year afterwards). Hussey, who despite relocation to the US, a succession of showbiz marriages, a ‘rock and roll’ lifestyle and several high-profile parts never rose above the status of a ‘cult’ actress, remains best known to this day for Jesus Of Nazareth alongside a series of horror titles (Black Christmas, Distortions, It!, etc) and works infrequently, spending most of her time at home with her husband, hair-metal/AOR vocalist David Glen Eisley. Carne, famous to millions prior to the film as the Limey from Northampton who crossed the ocean to star in Rowan And Martin’s Laugh In and popularised the term “Sock it to me!” was poised for the stratosphere at the turn of the new decade. Unfortunately, aside from a memorable turn as Donna Mills’ hapless roommate in the Thriller episode Someone At The Top Of The Stairs, supporting work in several crime dramas and a small part in the mega-rare short Brit horror Out Of Order (1981) alongside Bob Monkhouse and William Hootkins, work proved scarce- a situation not helped by a series of drug addictions, arrests, car crashes, failed marriages (something that had begun as early as 1963 when she wed Burt Reynolds) and mental breakdowns that led her to a quite different life from that which she expected.
Her last feature film to date, What About Me (1991), in which she appears alongside the similarly tragic Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan, more or less sums it up, and might have acted as a grim foretelling had she not returned to the UK to live quietly in her birthplace (where she remains today) soon afterwards. Director O’Hara, as he himself points out in his lively, informative sleeve notes, found life to be a series of compromises and disappointments, his greatest being that he is still primarily known for the Joan Collins sexploitation vehicle The Bitch (1977). Personally, I’d be proud of such an achievement, but not, I suppose, if I’d seen half my other work undermined and misunderstood in the way his was. For all his setbacks, though, he retains to date an air of cheerful optimism, describing himself self-deprecatingly as “a writer who did a bit of directing”, and his belief, as he puts it, in the “with one bound Jack was free” attitude to life is something we could all do well to take heed of.
So, what else, other than a melancholy rumination on the perils of extramarital love, a stellar cast and some evocative photography courtesy of the prolific Gerry Fisher (will you just vada that resume!!), does the ardent film buff get for their £19.99? The Spy’s Wife, made in 1972 by the director in collaboration with Julian Holloway (another underrated talent) as part of an ongoing series of supporting shorts which sadly only ran to one more entry, is an amusing little period piece which maybe even had the potential to run to a longer feature. Here Bell appears in a slightly more kitsch context as a dashing secret agent, whose titular partner (a seductive Dorothy Tutin) knows full well what he does for a living and thus isn’t too keen on being left alone in the house whilst mysterious strangers like Vladek Sheybal and Holloway himself make impromptu appearances at the door. Throw in a bit of hanky-panky involving Ann Lynn at her blondest and most alluring, and we have another minor gem worthy of investigation.
The most interesting extras, though, come yet again from the archives of Bernard Braden’s unreleased Now And Then interviews, in which, shortly prior to the casting of All The Right Noises, Hussey was interviewed alongside her Romeo And Juliet co-star Leonard Whiting. Aged only 16 and 17 respectively, their innocence and optimism is already fused with pragmatism in the case of Whiting, who sports a louche suit and sips the occasional drop of what appears to be orange juice, but generally looks like a man seriously considering his future, and nascent decadence for Hussey, who despite looking physically younger than she had when making the film weeks earlier, is seen cheerily glugging away whilst puffing on cigarettes (something she is keen to point out to Braden that “most young girls do, if you took the time to find out”) and talking about the new opportunities that are opening up for her. Subjects that may have seemed touchy to others, such as the much-vaunted ‘nude scene’ and Zefferelli’s directorial practices, are handled with surprising ease, and though the pair still manage to look as if butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, the ways of the world are already if not beginning to weary them, at least become apparent: a reminder of a time often referred to as ‘more innocent’ than the present day, but which on reflection was very much an unforgiving rite of passage for young performers.
Traces of Whiting’s Norf Lahndaaahn accent keep slipping out from underneath the RP, but these only serve to make him more personable. Hussey’s unearthly appearance should provide her with an air of detachment, but she is demonstrably too human (repeatedly breaking into gigglish laughter and goading her counterpart) for this to be the case. Considering her later life (and her subsequent marriage to a decadent, leather-clad rock star type) it’s as amusing to see her embracing “rock and roll” behaviour at such a young age as it is to see Whiting, who would go on to sing guest vocals with the Alan Parsons Project, being quite reserved: a demonstration of the difference between heavy metal and progressive rock before either were even properly invented!!. As with the outtakes from this series that appeared on Flipside’s Bed Sitting Room disc, the source material is uncut, unedited and unmixed- but that only adds to its authenticity.
A fine package all round, and probably my favourite Flipside release so far. Could we have Amsterdam Affair next, please?