July 24, 2014

All Neat in Black Stockings (1968)

When discussing “Swinging London” cinema as a genre in itself (as opposed to an offshoot of the more provincially-minded “Social Realism” movement), the same names tend to crop up: Alfie, Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush, Blow-Up, Performance, Up The Junction, Privilege, Darling, et al, and quite rightly so- all are classics, and deserve constant re-examination. Yet, as with any genre, there are always those that don’t, for whatever reason, quite garner the same appraisal, and slip the net, only gaining recognition decades later. Sometimes this is due to poor distribution, on other occasions the “hidden hand” of industry which suppresses the work of one artist in favour of another.

And sometimes, it’s a simply that the film in question falls between two stools and seems unmarketable. Such is the case with All Neat in Black Stockings, which never seems sure whether it wants to be a ribald comedy, kitchen sink drama or psychedelic arthouse romp, almost as if someone had taken, with a kind of predictive hindsight, all the composite elements of what would become popular 1960s subgenres and arbitrarily stitched them together. The irony is that apparently, people did queue round the block to see it- just not for long enough. Subsequently it found itself buried underneath the era’s more successful releases, only acquiring a late-career cult following through pirate trading and occasional cable broadcasts (last shown, I believe, by TCM). Part of that cult is due to the presence of Susan George, in a role actually smaller than in the preceding year’s Twinky, where she had taken the title role with considerable verve: here she plays definite second fiddle to the film’s star, Victor Henry.

And ‘tis he that provides the fascination factor for most cult film enthusiasts: his tragically short life, like that of Vivian Mackerell, Soledad Miranda or Laird Cregar, is the stuff of legend. Here he’s cast as the archetypal 60s London rogue (albeit with a northern accent strangely not shared by his onscreen sister, Anna Cropper), a low-rent Alfie by the name of Ginger. He cleans windows for a living and resides in a suburb I can’t quite recognise (Stockwell? Clapham? Fulham? Battersea? SOMEWHERE round there anyway) on the top floor of a boarding house that serves as an all-purpose knocking shop, where he and best mate Dwyer (Jack Shepherd) share women (charmingly referred to as “it” or “something”) between them and propagate the cause of good old fashioned English cinematic chauvinism. Which some say might be due for a revival ….

The fact that Henry is neither (a) good looking (b) slim (c) rich or (d) an actual Londoner, plus the fact that he has red hair (generally regarded as a nono even now in PC 2010) is strangely neither here nor there: he convinces from the off, and brings a naturalistic quality to his part which even the most talented of his peers, such as Martin Potter and Terence Stamp, occasionally lacked. He may be a cad and a bounder, and you may wonder what every woman in the film sees in him, but he also seems like the type of bloke you’d be happy to share a pint with, providing you didn’t leave your bird alone in the same room for more than two minutes.

Like all the best rapscallions, he has a human side: he cares deeply for his sister, always trying to save her from the worst excesses of her womanising ne’er-do-well husband (Harry Towb): when given the keys to the home of an elderly friend, Gunge (Terence De Marney) who’s in hospital with gallstones, he invites her and her offspring to come and stay with him there (in what must be one of the most elaborately designed set pieces in British movie history, a resplendent palace of aquariums, aspidistras, chandeliers and objects d’art with a concealed entrance located inside a giant billboard hoarding) and get a taste of good living. OK, he wants to use it for his own purposes too, so that he can impress birds and claim it’s his own, but that’s hardly a crime in itself, is it? And he cares for Old Gunge deeply too (despite a rather unfortunate incident with his prize parrot and a bathtub), so much that he vows to clean the place regularly for him, and when it’s subsequently destroyed by Towb and his carousing free-loader mates, he goes to extreme lengths to make reparations as soon as possible.

He’s also a romantic underneath, hoping implicitly- as opposed to the explicit quests of Barry Evans in Mulberry Bush and Dennis Waterman in Up The Junction- that something long-term and tangible will arise out of his litany of conquests, and when it does- in the shape of Susan George- he reacts accordingly, buying her big stuffed animals, playing the dutiful boyfriend and making ostensible overtures toward “settling down”. Yet his wayward nature isn’t that easily sated, and when he finds out she’s pregnant (by Shepherd, meaning she wasn’t exactly averse to a bit of waywardness either) he subconsciously reacts against domesticity by shagging her austere-yet-still-fit mother (Clare Kelly) and even indulging in a “clip scam” to raise money for a jaunt to the South Of France.

What the film is actually trying to say by virtue of all this, however, is unclear, and this ambiguity- as opposed to its unclassifiability, which is actually quite charming- remains its biggest failure. If it’s trying to point out that all good people have intrinsically dark sides, or that all so-called ‘bad boys’ have a heart of gold, then fair enough- but in the bigger picture of Swinging London thinking, where does that fit in?

Assuming, of course, that it means to do that at all. Chronologically, the film comes after Alfie, Poor Cow and Up The Junction, which had already reclaimed the 60s for the working classes instead of the ‘establishment’ figures found on display weekly in The Avengers- and it also succeeds cynical comedown pictures like The Party’s Over and The Sorcerers, in the latter of which its leading man had also starred, but it still precedes the utter nihilism of Goodbye Gemini and Cool It Carol, both of which seemed to proclaim that there wasn’t a single person between Chelsea Harbour and the Halfpenny Steps not out to use and abuse you. ANIBS (neat acronym!) is gentler than that, and presents both Ginger and Dwyer as sympathetic, essentially nice people with a wanton streak, as opposed to out-and-out bastards of the Joe Lampton variety, and if their sexist attitudes seem crass to judgemental eyes these days, one must remember, this was very much a different age to the one we live in now (which is why so much of the colourful yet gritty London depicted within is now practically non-existent). We should also bear in mind that the script was written by a woman- Jane Gaskell, adapting from her own novel.

This may be the reason why the women are presented in a far more sympathetic light than usual for the time. Susan George’s character Jill, while young and impressionable, is in no way a ditsy blonde idiot, and has reservations throughout about what she wants and whether she wants it- in fact, when first married, it is she, not Ginger, that seems discontented, and you get the impression she only allowed Dwyer to sleep with her because of a genuine- if transient- interest in the principles (fair enough, proposed mainly by the menfolk of the era) of ‘free love’ and ‘share and share alike’. But that still doesn’t clarify the author’s personal standpoint, if she even had one, on such matters, and leaves things open ended and ambiguous, as indeed does the ending, showing a now supposedly settled and married Henry in a café pondering what looks to be another easy prospective conquest.

Could Gaskell be saying, like Scorsese later would with Taxi Driver and indeed Walter Hill later would with The Driver, that some people are doomed to repeat the same pattern throughout their life and never be anything else, due to an inherent flaw in their character? Actually, it was hardly a new point- John Fowles’ quintessential anti-hero Nicky Urfe epitomises it perfectly in The Magus, Galton and Simpson used it as the underlying theme of Steptoe And Son every week and would continue to do so (“I’m a rag an’ bone man, an’ that’s all I’ll ever be”) for several more years, and you could even trace it all the way back to Macbeth and Hamlet if you want to. Somehow, though, ANIBS, whilst still enjoyable to those of us who dig “that sort of thing”, doesn’t seem as if it comes from that lineage, and it’s doubtful whether it influenced either American director, meaning we have to take any profound philosophising as coincidental.

Perhaps the question can be answered by a closer examination of the film’s origins: producers Miron are/were practically unknown, a factor which screams “shoestring” to the observant viewer, and distributors Anglo-Amalgamated had specialised since the late 40s in cheaply-produced fare, managing several accidental blockbusters (Carry Ons, Entertaining Mr Sloane and Edgar Wallace mysteries among them) but always churning out quick product, often of B-picture status, as economically as possible. Could it be, then, that the film had to be delivered before the script could be properly honed, blocked and polished? That would at least explain its lack of focus.

Or are we merely nitpicking here? On an aesthetic level, it looks great, has a fantastic mod/lounge soundtrack largely composed by legendary Brit jazzer Bob Cornford (whose own life was almost as tragically short as Henry’s) features one of “those” iconic scenes set in a pub with blue lino and yellowing walls, stars a great actor at his peak shortly before a road accident turned him into a vegetable and tragically ended his career (his actual life ending some 10 years later), alongside several other great performers in interesting roles (particularly Shepherd, here practically unrecognisable as the man later famous to a zillion housewives as TV’s Inspector Wycliffe) has incredible art direction (you really have to see DeMarney’s house to believe it) and location settings, and, despite Morahan’s relative inexperience at the time as a film rather than television director, it cracks a long at a fair old pace. Also, cinematographer Larry Pizer, who’d just been DP on the excellent Our Mother’s House for Jack Clayton, as well as seminal works like Morgan! and Four In The Morning, certainly knows his way round a filter or two, and captures that exciting-yet-faded, promising-yet-jaded look perfectly. So, given that criteria, and considering that if the film were to be re-released on DVD now, it would be bought by people with far more liberal tastes than your average Sight and Sound reader, do any of the previous points matter?

Well, yes. But only a little. It just would have been nice to see, even in the 60s when “open-ended” (The Knack, If etc) was fast becoming the norm, a little more resolution and “closure” (a yucky, positively 90s American term but I couldn’t think of a better one) for some of the characters. Ginger’s uncertainty we can almost deal with, as it’s been pretty much his shtick from the offset, but what becomes of Dwyer, last seen with his “new mate”, a bespectacled, pubescent Larry Dann? Is there any follow-on from Ginger’s late night encounter with his bird’s mum? Will Cicely (Cropper) remain as housekeeper/guest to the kindly, almost heartbreakingly philanthropic Old Gunge, or return to the clutches of her usuring hubby, continuing to turn a blind eye to his dalliances with dollybirds like Babette (a pre- Amicus Jasmina Hilton)? None of these matters are satisfactorily dealt with, almost as if (again) Gaskell was ordered to tie things up quickly for distribution purposes. I wouldn’t mind a good read of the novel, to see how they differ.

Amazingly, even most fans of mod/psychedelic/cult fare haven’t seen the film: this could possibly be due to TCM’s tendency to show it in the afternoons, when most of the audience consists of kids (too short an attention span, and those who did see it would have forgotten it within a few years) students (stoned) housewives (too busy, and largely non-existent in today’s culture anyway) and old people (soon to be dead). To date, it’s only attracted one solitary poster on IMDB, quite an inauspicious fate when you consider the fanfare with which it was originally unleashed, cashing in on George’s status as Britain’s premier teenage totty. This concept would be better handled in the subsequent The Strange Affair (David Greene 1968), but Stockings still carries, despite its faults, the greater fascination. And like I said earlier, this is largely due to the inclusion of Victor Henry.

There’s not much (or rather, not enough) information about him lurking in cyberspace, but what little there is contains naught but praise: close friend Michael Gambon talks of how he was the “wow” of Liverpool’s Royal Court Theatre, and the envy of many other actors, while his filmography, moving increasingly toward major roles such as this in its final years, suggests that his subsequent immobilisation happened at a point when his star was very much in the ascendant. In this film alone, he displays perfect timing, delivery and a powerful talent for pathos, even if his Northern origins are neither glossed over nor explained in context of his character (making him, I suppose, something of a pioneer in an otherwise RP, pre-Parkinson age) while his smaller parts undertaken for Michael Reeves and Peter Watkins are among the highlights of both respective films. It’s pointless to surmise “what if”, but you can’t help it.

If nothing else (bar the alleged first usage on-screen of the word “plonker”, a decade before the similarly grimy-yet-cosy Only Fools And Horses made it a part of our lexicon forever), All Neat In Black Stockings, like its simultaneous counterpart Up The Junction, Gerry O Hara’s All The Right Noises and the subsequent work of Barney Platts-Mills (Bronco Bullfrog, Private Road), is another picture that brings the parallel strands of grimy realism and frivolous escapism together, showing that the poor, or at least those on lower incomes, such as a window cleaner dwelling somewhere Sarf of the river, had just as much right to “swing like a pendulum do” as the dicky-bowed toffs of the Chelsea set, and question moral values (marriage, monogamy, parenthood) previously taken for granted, whilst remaining a world apart from the Northern misery of Loach and Sillitoe.

In doing so, it provides an insight into a short-lived overlap time, when the counter-culture had started to spread to the suburbs but hadn’t quite hit the Poole Pottery, Brentford Nylons and Fruit Parfit world of Barry Evans, Robin Askwith and Christopher Neil. That was soon to come, though, and if the history of British film (the one unwritten by the establishment, at any rate) can be seen in terms of a linear journey, then I think the world of ANIBS is a stop I would have liked to have gotten off at and visited for a while, mop, chamois and bucket in hand.

DARIUS DREWE SHIMON



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About Drewe Shimon

Drewe Shimon has written 61 post in this blog.