“Illicit love, passion, brutality, riotous parties and sudden heartbreak all play their part in this frank story of five bachelor girls who seek fame and fortune amid the bright lights of London.”
A ‘Swinging London’ film of the mid-‘60s, The Pleasure Girls focuses on the life and times of five ‘bachelor’ girls living out of their Chelsea flat in a tight time frame of one weekend. Sally (Francesca Annis) is fresh from the countryside and drawn to London to move in with friends and begin modelling school. Dee (Suzanna Lee) goes out with already-married landlord Nico, who makes a tidy fortune renting slums. Marion (Rosemary Nichols) finds that she has become pregnant by her n’er-do-well boyfriend, Prinny. Angela (Anneke Wills) cannot find a man while Cobber (Colleen Fitzpatrick) hopes to go into acting, spending most of her money on elocution lessons to remove her Australian accent. Paddy (Tony Tanner) is friendly and open but has not shared everything about himself.
The Pleasure Girls shares much of its image with other Swinging London films of the mid ‘60s, with parents commenting on “Those dreadful beatniks” and characters driving around in Mini Coopers or E-Types, enjoying a party lifestyle and “making the most of being young”. The formula is familiar, as seen in the better known Georgy Girl (1966) and The Knack…and How To Get It (1965). As with many such films, The Pleasure Girls sees the young women the film revolves around rush around the city, shopping, working and partying, while pursued by men of assorted attractiveness – yet there are subtexts that perhaps belie such an obvious interpretation.
While nowhere near as dark or controversial as The Party’s Over (1965), The Pleasure Girls (also released on the British Film Institute’s ‘Flipside’ reproductions of obscure, lost or censored British films), still holds some subversion of what could be taken at first glance as tawdry exploitation film. The history of the film makes for very interesting reading.
Filmed in only four five-day weeks, The Pleasure Girls was shot out of a Kensington townhouse, being much cheaper to rent than a professional studio. Director Gerry O’Hara recalls the entire project costing around £30,000. Yet it is the clash between the Director’s creation and producers’ intentions that I feel best explores The Pleasure Girls’ merits and flaws.
O’Hara began writing the film as A Time and A Place after producer Raymond Stross has advised him to write about what he knew, the film springing from the Director’s life in Chelsea, time spent in the various clubs and hobnobbing with notorious landlord Peter Rachman. After Stross picked up a film in LA, O’Hara took his idea to former employers Compton Films – for whom he had made That Kind of Girl (1963), proving himself an efficient and talented director.
This production and distribution company had sprung from a members-only film club in Soho’s Old Compton Street, which screened naturist films and uncensored continental imports for an annual fee of ten shillings. Though willing to green-light the project, re-titled The Pleasure Girls, their intention was fairly clear – profit through exploitation.
The Pleasure Girls is certainly a league above whatever the producers would have intended. Despite pressuring O’Hara for the titillation flick they wanted, suggesting more nudity and scenes in bedrooms rather than the neutral locations (such as telephone boxes), the final result remained tasteful. Humorously, producers Tensor and Clinger blocked O’Hara from the final editing and added more nude shots and inserts of an orgy scene – in response, the jilted Director notified the British Board of Film Censors, who banned most of their additions from the export cut.
Marketing also went awry, with attempts to sell the film as a much racier product. Its American tagline read, “Kept in a Plush Pad for his Desires … She played the Game and Paid the Price!” with British publicity material advising cinema managers to emphasise that, “The pitfalls that await young girls drawn to the metropolis are unblushingly revealed”. Supporting material included Francesca Annis vaulting over a noticeably phallic bollard, which her character is far too ladylike to do throughout the film.
O’Hara himself commented on a dislike for the “rum-tee-tum” title song played as a primly-dressed Francesca Annis shakes out her hair and applies makeup on the train to London, which apparently reminded him of a children’s TV theme. Yet he cheerfully mentioned that “The critics saw through the promotional mush and I got some marvellous reviews” and he would go on to receive contracts worth more than this film’s entire budget – so I suppose all ended well.
Humorously, this was not the first time Compton had commissioned a cheap titillation flick and received a well made piece of cinema. The same year, they had taken Roman Polanski’s psychological thriller Repulsion aboard, which went on to rave reviews and critical acclaim.
The Pleasure Girls itself, then, is in an interesting position – a low budget yet beautifully shot film whose quality outshone attempts to sell it as an exploitation vehicle. Particularly interesting are the morals, gender roles and sexuality it espouses.
Male characters typically come across very unfavourably, typically as poorly spoken boorish louts. From a croupiér spitting out of a window (“I should’ve been a farmer”) to Keith’s introduction (“That tall bitch with the wet brother”), the depiction of men is notably poor in personality, presentation and language, especially when compared to the flowing prose and fluid speech of female characters. Even “Mr. Autosport”, who appears very briefly and seems more upper-class than most of the cast, refers to Angela’s drink as a “libido loosener”.
To be blunt, likeable or sympathetic male characters are very thin on the ground. Marion’s boyfriend Prinny (Mark Eden) is up to his eyeballs in gambling debts while she hopes to give birth and raise their child. What would often have been portrayed as a sweet, blossoming relationship between Sally and beatnik photographer Keith (Ian McShane) is slightly unpleasant from the pair’s first meeting. It becomes very clear, very quickly that Keith is only around for sex.
Dee, who casually remarks on her hopes to marry into money, finds herself hung up on Nico (Klaus Kinski) – a European making money in renting slums to West Indian immigrants, which he spends on a playboy lifestyle and gambling despite having a wife and child kept very much behind the scenes.
This is a clear reference to Peter Rachman, a Polish landlord notorious throughout the period for the exploitation of tenants in his West London properties. After coming into possession of housing in Notting Hill, he proceeded to drive out sitting, white tenants (protected by law against high rent increases) and moved in African-Caribbeans, who struggled to find housing under racial segregation and could be charged whatever their landlord saw fit. Though he espoused himself an excellent choice for immigrants seeking residence, he only became famous following his death – when it became apparent he had had affairs with both Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies, both involved in the Profumo affair of 1963, which had discredited the Conservative government.
Ultimately, his reputation became well known enough that the term ‘Rachmanism’ entered the Oxford English Dictionary, a term used for any greedy, ruthless landlord. It isn’t difficult to see how he influenced this film. Klinger and Tenser, who held control of casting, signed Klaus Kinski as Nico to bring an air of European sophistication to the project, at a cost of only £900 for nine days work (this preceding his great success in Dr. Zhivago). Unfortunately, O’Hara discovered that Kinski’s English pronunciation was so poor the script had to be re-written to remove words beginning with R
Unfortunately, the film’s attempt to explore stories of Rachman’s excess and violence through relationships between Nico and his ‘moll’, Dee, is not as skilfully carried out as it could have been (nor are those between the landlord and his desperate tenants). If O’Hara intended this film on some level to be an exposé of swinging London’s dark side of driven, venal men and exploited women, it has barely materialised – the final result often seems quite watery and lacks impact.
Though Nico’s wild gambling and flamboyant lifestyle sit jarringly against the desperation of his distressed tenants, it is not well explored – some men appear for a fight and that’s about all. Kinski’s activities are never really explored and only form a suggestion of the darkness its inspiration could have lent. Dee’s comments earlier in the film, when she doesn’t want to be “Minked up like a tart,” are the only realisation of what she is becoming, when she briefly meets her opponent in love at the end of the film only to find herself in a fur coat.
Some confusion is to be expected, given the collision of intentions between an aspiring Director and profit-focussed exploitation film Producers, though the extent to which it has influenced the film requires some consideration as the result is quite unique.
As I have mentioned, there is not a single likeable heterosexual male in this production – even their language implies a considerable gap in attitudes and intelligence. Despite the Swinging ‘60s bringing a change in morality and sexuality, many films of the time remained misogynistic and demeaning to women – The Pleasure Girls is an effective subversion of these traits.
Though it begins with a typical exploitation concept – naíve country girl seeks fortune in big city – there are unexpected results. If Sally is warming to dark-eyed Keith, she actively resists falling for him – with good reason. Unfortunately, their relationship never really comes to much and receives very little closure by the end of the film – perhaps a casualty of the single weekend timeframe. Keith is difficult to like, with his every appearance showing him to be sleazy and transparent in his motivations. But he is weak, rather than genuinely bad and comes across as a pathetic, pestering sex hound– he possesses none of the presence or power of Oliver Reed’s dark performance in The Party’s Over (1965), another BFI Flipside release. There is, however, an interesting comparison to be found in Producer pressure to shoot more scenes in the bedroom and Keith’s constant suggestion that Sally go to his house.
Marion and Prinny’s troublesome relationship is better realised. If he’s established as another dislikeable and poorly spoken male character immediately, it is only in the exploration of their relationship that he’s proven genuinely weak willed and quite pathetic. Marion, a schoolmate of Sally who made the exodus to London earlier than her compatriot, has broken through the image of Swinging London and found a bitter reality, as she carries the unwanted child of a gambling addict.
Perhaps The Pleasure Girls can be considered a Trojan horse – an exploitation-marketed film featuring a strong feminist subtext. If the film rather lacks a finale, there is certainly a common theme in female characters rejecting flawed men and doing what they feel is right, rather than what they are told to do. When Keith offers to rid Sally of her virginity, because “You should realise how incomplete you are,” Sally quickly ripostes “On the contrary – I’ll never be so complete again.” The comparison of language between genders shows a considerable barrier, as female characters’ fast and snappy dialogue contrasts so strongly with men’s lumpen innuendo.
O’Hara had worked as assistant director for films such as The Truth About Women (1957) in which a man reflecting on his history of romances and friendships concludes that there is no single truth for all women and The L-Shaped Room (1962), a “kitchen-sink” drama about a sophisticated French woman in her late ‘20s, pregnant and moving into a down-and-out boarding house – both can be interpreted as feminist films. In truth it comes down to the viewer to decide, as he would go on to direct The Bitch (1979), an exploitative mess of meaningless promiscuity and psychedelic lighting effects.
The film’s depiction of homosexuality is credible, however, and certainly worthy of praise. Paddy, a lodger in the flat, is not introduced as gay – which makes sense, given the legal situation of the time. It is, however, certainly hinted at through the film’s early sections. Paddy and his boyfriend Ivor are respectable characters, well-spoken and dressed with no trappings of ‘camp’. It comes across as both respectful and a long way ahead of its time – Sally’s discovery of the two in intimacy is treated as a normal, acceptable thing that “Just fell into place”. As Ivor only appears briefly, Paddy is the only likeable male character in the film. He comes across as friendly, open and generous without expecting anything in return and shares the girls’ quick wit and energetic language.
Sadly, such treatment of homosexuality may have helped towards the film’s X certificate, which I feel to be undeserving even by contemporary standards (despite the occasional, unnecessary semi-nude or sexual scene). BBFC files prove enlightening – the delivery of the script showed examiners worried about “queer types” and insisted, “Avoid showing a crumpled bed suggesting homosexuality.” Any nudity between men was disallowed. The film’s weak treatment of Rachman is also highlighted, as the censors clamped down on mentions of Mandy Rice-Davies and connections between the Profumo scandal and the Royal family.
Despite intervening on homosexual and political fronts, however, BBFC records have left no sign of any controlling influence against heterosexually explicit material.
Many characters are quite underdeveloped. Anneke Wills’ Kohl-eyed Angela never really receives any development – she can’t find a man, and that’s her story (though she may be a comment on the emotional emptiness of a party lifestyle). Cobber’s (Colleen Fitzpatrick) small performance as an Australian trying to lose her accent falls very flat. Other characters’ parody of her accent is funny in entirely the wrong way – her “Crikey, mates!” accent is so bad that any jokes made at its expense sound genuinely ridiculous.
Perhaps The Pleasure Girls succeeded as a film despite the efforts of censors and its own producers. It is only suggestive of a darker side of Swinging London and never tackles the issues it highlights to a satisfying depth. Though there is tension between youthful ‘60s frivolity and the dark side of parties, sex and gambling, I can’t help but be slightly disappointed that what could possibly have been a powerful deconstruction of the popular Swinging London genre shied into a shallow background for a character-driven plot.
I enjoyed watching The Pleasure Girls but it won’t stay with me for long. Though entertaining and well presented, it is unlikely to be remembered as very little about it truly stands out from other films of the day. It is beautifully shot and makes full use of the studio’s real-life location, and its tight time-frame, lively acting, fluid speech patterns and fast editing differ it somewhat from other Swinging London films. Though a feminist subtext is certainly a fresh addition for a period rife with misogyny (even in non-exploitation film), O’Hara’s film doesn’t break any boundaries. Though it links a party lifestyle to a darker reality, this is never taken to any particular intensity. Much of the plot needs more work to close off loose ends – a few underdeveloped characters and an unsatisfying ending may leave some viewers disappointed.
As with other BFI Flipside films, this presentation is sold with both the DVD and Bluray disk in a single package. The standard edition release was clear and sharp even on a 42” television and the audio high quality and of good clarity. The release includes an original theatrical trailer (worth watching considering the disparity between Direction and publicity), an illustrated booklet with entries from film experts and O’Hara himself, as well as the alternative export cut (available in full on the Bluray and as extra scenes on the DVD, though it only amounts to 13 minutes of extra footage). Short films The Rocking Horse (1962) and The Meeting (1964) are also included.