So what exactly is a ‘zeitgeist’? Literally translated, it means “spirit of the age” (cue a thousand Hawkwind fans bursting into song) but that hasn’t stopped it being bandied about with alarming frequency these days, especially when describing ‘lost classics’ or ‘cultural artefacts’ that the cyber-stuffalanche of the last decade has enabled us to familiarise ourselves with. “Such-and-such captures the zeitgeist of the era better than half its more well-known contemporaries” we might say, and unless the reader was “there”, or has seen all the material described, who are they to argue? Lazy journalism at its best, and I’m as guilty of it as the next man- which ironically, is probably indicative of a zeitgeist, not that the next man would notice. Therefore, I shall attempt to review the following film without stooping to such vagaries….
Capturing the zeitgeist of the pre-flower power mid-60s more convincingly than its contemporaries….oh bugger. Only joking anyway, as frankly, it doesn’t. Gerry O’ Hara’s scaremongering programmer That Kind Of Girl is never destined, even after this latest pristine release from BFI Flipside, to be regarded as a lost classic, because it simply isn’t. What it is, undoubtedly, is an entertaining, if somewhat baffling, film redeemed by believable characters, classic ‘suburban Middlesex’ locations and a snappy, fast-moving plotline. And in a way, that’s exactly what one should expect from what is essentially a ‘social problem’ teensploitation picture. I came to the film expecting no more or less, even as an avowed lover of O’Hara’s later work like All The Right Noises (1968) and The Brute (1976), and as such, I was satisfied, but classic? Only if Danger By My Side and Painted Smile are classics. Mind you, come to think of it….
Aesthetically and thematically, it does share common ground with those films, as well as the likes of Beat Girl (1959) The Yellow Teddybears (1962) Girl On Approval (1963) and Don’t Talk To Strange Men (1962), and like the first-named, which also deals with the hitherto taboo subject of sexual promiscuity, the film sometimes bears the air of an educational public information release rather than a b-feature programmer aimed at mainstream cinemas. Yet here, the story never adopts a judgmental tone or biased angle, and even if its underlying theme appears to be “don’t have sex or bad things might happen”, it makes no social or moral distinction between those who do and those who don’t. In the world of That Kind Of Girl, we are left to make up our own minds as to where our sympathies lie: whether this is deliberate, or an inability of the filmmakers to decide which side of the moral fence they sit on, is open to conjecture (if they sit there at all), but then again, who says they have to?
In this respect, O’Hara’s film predicts the harsher but also freer social attitudes later given full reign by the likes of Pete Walker and Lindsay Craig Shonteff, chronologically beating both past the winning post in the social exploitation stakes: furthermore, its forthright discussion of the topics of venereal disease and pregnancy could be seen as a precursor to (and direct influence upon) the more explicit approach of later pictures like Baby Love (1968) and I Start Counting (1969). At the same time, we should be wary of making the common (and extremely incorrect) assumption that that the opinions expressed within the film mirror those of the filmmaker: the script was actually the work of Jan Read, who, though involved in the writing of classics such as Street Corner, The Blue Lamp and Grip Of The Strangler, was by that time far more used to writing for television. Is the film’s approach the result of Read stretching his muscles in a way disallowed by the restrictive practices of the small-screen, or O’Hara curbing his progressive instincts (which would later be given full reign) at the request of producers (oh no, not them again) Tony Tenser and Michael Klinger?
Does it even matter? In the right circumstances, ambiguity can be an asset, and provide the viewer with multiple layers to decipher, pore over and enjoy. A further example of this can be found in the character of “that kind of girl” herself- Austrian au pair Eva, played by Margaret Rose Keil. On the one hand, she could be seen as a cynical opportunist (ie a bit of a “slappeur”), sleeping first with a rich man she doesn’t actually care for and then another she barely knows but who was previously kind enough to give her a lift- yet further examination shows her motives to be nothing but good, and the overall impression given is one of a childlike, naïve and corruptible innocent rather than any kind of wanton hussy. She even spends the latter half of the film trying to bring to justice her former seducer Elliott (Peter Burton) from whom she contracted syphilis in the first place, a noble gesture when one considers how many other girls on his worldwide ‘business trips’ he may have infected with it. She cares implicitly for the family for whom she works, and is terrified at the thought that by handling their children she might have accidentally passed on a syphilitic infection to them: she also bravely places herself in a vulnerable position by confronting her paramour Keith’s fiancée Janet (future sexploitation goddess Linda Marlowe, in a far more bookish role than those for which she would become known) face to face in an attempt to make reparations for her actions.
Keith (David Weston, showing embryonic signs of the talent he would later develop as one of Britain’s leading character actors) may also seem reckless on the surface, but is a “good egg” at heart- a kindly, intelligent undergraduate of good stock who doesn’t really mean any harm in cheating on his fiancée, and is more than willing to take full responsibility for his actions when confronted with their consequences. Marlowe’s willingness to accept him back into her life after discovering his infidelity is harder to swallow, but maybe O’ Hara is illustrating the same point made later by Pete Walker in Cool It Carol – that it’s possible for good people to commit bad deeds and start afresh afterwards. Let’s not forget that in 1963, the liberation of the “permissive society” was still a good 2 years off, but at the same time, there had already been enough change in the air to suggest that a single girl could choose her own sexual partners without being tied down to domestic roles as a result, even if ironically, monogamy and domesticity seem to be what Janet ultimately desires.
Viewed in this context, could the film be suggesting that it’s OK to choose your own lifestyle, as long as you take care and choose wisely? The dialogue of the sympathetic, understanding and free-thinking young doctor (John Wood) would seem to suggest as much. After all, the problem isn’t Eva’s promiscuity per se, merely her poor choice of partners- an outright philanderer and an already romantically involved man. Paradoxically, in creating such a scenario, which portrays Eva as the archetypal dumb, ditsy blonde and suggests that beautiful women only go for (a) bastards and (b) unsuitable men, even though she doesn’t actually know of Keith’s engagement, both writer and director betray their age, and thus the film’s exploitation antecedents: however, that doesn’t necessarily make them wrong, and by presenting the chain of events in a manner verging on a demonstration of the “six degrees of separation” principle without pointing the finger or apportioning any blame to any party (except Elliot, who really is an arse, albeit a suave one), and avoiding preachy moralising, they steer the picture out of a potential cornfield. The resulting implication- that such things could easily happen to any of us, from reserved academics and sexless bearded marching leftists to wide-eyed innocents recently arrived in the city- must have been an eye-opener for an audience weaned on Summer Holiday and Heavens Above. Woe betide the many who, as Wood says, walked into surgeries back then thinking it couldn’t possibly happen to them: even relatively innocent student Max (Frank Jarvis), the one and only person who seems to treat Eva with respect, and therefore inevitably the only one she refuses to have full sex with, ends up copping a dose of the dread disease from “heavy petting”( now there’s a term you don’t hear anymore). There is no escape….
Put together, these elements combine to make an unquestionably enjoyable, thought-provoking and visually engaging film, due in equal parts to O’Hara’s undoubted directorial and editorial skill and the crisp, clear monochrome photography of none other than the great Peter Newbrook (a man whose viewfinder depicted more than its fair share of suburban London), but there is an unsettling air of coldness to That Kind Of Girl that stands in marked opposition to the inviting warmth found in, say, Terry Bishop’s Life In Danger (1959) or the aforementioned Don’t Talk To Strange Men. Maybe it’s the uneasy juxtaposition of gravitas and frivolity: the opening credits (proudly declaring that “the producers of this film wish to gratefully acknowledge the help of the British Medical Association”), imply that someone (presumably the director rather than, judging by their later track record, Klinger and Tenser) had high hopes for the picture, but I’d choose entertainment over ‘social import’ any day. That said, the air of resigned fate that hangs over the ending, with Keil heading back to Austria and Marlowe declaring “if we’re going to be unhappy, we might as well be unhappy together” before she and Weston walk off into the Twickenham sunset, is little short of poetic, and it is perhaps these little touches, these nods to social realism, that elevate That Kind Of Girl above mere titilatory exploitation status.
Performance-wise, Keil is no great shakes compared to her contemporaries such as Gillian Hills and Shirley Anne Field, and it’s Weston, Burton and Marlowe who steal the show, aided by the ever-exemplary Martin Wyldeck in a superb cameo as Janet’s father, but whatever the film’s merits, it still deserves, as do practically all British titles made between 1880 and 1980, to be seen. Thanks to Flipside, this is now possible: unfortunately, I can’t see that many people queuing in droves to buy this one, as all the attractive packaging, digital transferring, and excellent special features in the world (including three short films that provide yet more fascinating insights into, and perhaps the only visual record of, the social mores of two distinctly different Britains now gone forever) won’t alter the (sadly) limited appeal films of this kind hold compared to something like Deep End or The Bed Sitting Room, particularly with a cast relatively unknown except to seasoned aficionados. Also, whereas Permissive, Privilege and Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush are intrinsically linked to musical genres and tribal cults still active today, That Kind Of Girl is rooted in a netherworld actually quite unrepresentative of its era, with most of its cast still sporting short, beatnik haircuts, wearing cardigans and dancing to (presumably for budgetary reasons) a library hybrid of jump-band jive and rock’n’roll that almost makes it seem like the Beatles had never happened, which may fascinate me and other complete nutters of my persuasion, but will go over the heads of most.
On the plus side, the accompanying booklet is, as usual, packed full of delights, including an informative essay on Marlowe’s career, and notes from the director which provide genuine insight into the genesis and gestation of his work. However, I could have done with more information on Keil (even if she’s actually quite an unremarkable leading lady) Weston or Jan Read as opposed to deep, involved analyses which fail to provide anything other than ideological bias, and run the risk of alienating the target audience, especially at a time when, thanks to Matthew Sweet and several other informed parties, we finally seem to be moving away from the snobbish ‘received wisdom’ concerning b-movies and quota quickies, and growing to appreciate their cultural worth. This is not, it should be pointed out, an attempt in any way to castigate Flipside, but to highlight a worrying trend in contemporary DVD releasing which could eventually prove a possible undoing of the industry: surely the best way to enjoy a film such as That Kind Of Girl is surely to view it (despite its slight air of resignation and pessimism) with a dose of humour, levity and wit, recognising its undoubted qualities without avoiding any slide into intellectual superiority, but sadly, many DVD companies these days still find themselves falling into the trap of the latter approach, which could prove foolhardy in the current economic climate…
I could be wrong, of course, and hope I am- as there’s nothing I’d like to see more than a renewed awareness and popularity of films like this, and a cessation forthwith of the endless directorial name-dropping (Scorsese, Tarkovsky, yes, they’re all great but yawn bloody yawn) favoured by self-professed ‘cineastes’ and arbiters of taste. Personally, I’d suggest a series of television, rather than cinema screenings (on one of the five proper channels, not BBC Middle Class) of films such as this and the upcoming Lunch Hour, making them readily available to everyone, and I say this as a card-carrying Londoner myself, rather than just the select few who live in the South and can afford to attend the NFT. These days, of course, distributors are prone to attacks of turtle touchcloth about such ideas, fearing that the public will just record the films and not buy their product, but figures show that sales of Anchor Bay’s Norman J Warren boxset actually rose after BBC screenings of Terror, Satan’s Slave and Inseminoid in 2004, so it’s worth considering.
At the end of the day, films like That Kind Of Girl seem almost (to viewers of my generation at least) tailor-made for late night screenings on ITV, sandwiched between reruns of Scotland Yard and Shelley (I’m unsure as to whether it was actually shown this way, but it easily could have been) so it would make sense to restore it, and others like it, to its secondary natural habitat. This may not be what the Kermodes of the world, with their avowed disdain for television, want to hear, and given the awful dross broadcast nowadays, you can’t exactly blame them, but getting more of this stuff back onto our screens (which could easily be achieved simply by dropping the price of the broadcasting rights) could be a step toward restoring the gogglebox to its former glories, and showing people that That Kind Of Girl, whilst no kind of classic, could be their kind of movie.