December 4, 2016

Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1968)

“It’s a case of the fors and the againsts, and we fors are winning!!!”

Capable Caroline. Jamie MacGregor. Runny Old Linda. Spike. Audrey. Names that will live forever- or at least they will if you’re a lover of 60s Brit cinema. I’ve lost count of the amount of conversations they’ve cropped up in, normally after an all-night bash spent grooving to suitably retro sounds- but I do remember distinctly that for the last ten or eleven years, mentioning of their names was almost always prefixed or suffixed by the eternal question: when’s Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush going to come out on DVD? Actually, come to think of it, we asked the same question about video during the preceding decade…..

Well, the wait is over- because this Summer, BFI Flipside (yes, them again) finally made it available for our delectation. Not that several of us didn’t already own, ahem, “unofficial” copies. I know I did. But now, for the first time, we can hold the full megillah, the definite article, in our hands in all its remastered glory. Out of all the titles released by the label so far, this, alongside the similarly mod-leaning Privilege (Peter Watkins 1967) is without a doubt the one guaranteed to sell the most copies- the only thing that will hinder sales is if people refuse to buy it because they can’t believe it’s finally happened. But considering the Stevenage branch managed to sell out its entire stock in one morning- yes, even in 2010, it would seem the inhabitants of the town still remember- I don’t foresee a problem.

As with any film from the classic 65-75 Britcult/Britsploitation era, there’s always a danger that too much tweaking could ruin the atmosphere, robbing the film of its grainy, lurid, kitchen sink mystique- Peter Collinson’s Straight On Till Morning (1972) suffered in this respect when Anchor Bay brought it out some years ago- but this hasn’t happened here, possibly because the film in question is (for the most part) upbeat, breezy and optimistic by nature. Put simply, it looks magnificent- the picture is sharp but not too shiny, its vivid colours are rich and full of depth, and, most importantly, it manages looks brand new whilst simultaneously retaining the vintage quality which make it essential viewing. Somebody in the BFI technical department really knows what they’re doing.

To purt things in perspective, it should maybe be explained that Stevenage was the first official new town built in post-war Britain (following on from the 1920s trend for ‘garden cities’), and one of the few that has been in any way moderately successful in its aims since (although I do stress the word ‘moderately’). While some Brit film locations are interchangeable, meaning that as time goes by, one piece of suburban Middlesex, in spite of the natural character inherent in such places, looks very much like another, the town is unique, and absolutely essential to the film. Why it was set there is open to debate, as the author of the original book, Hunter Davies, was a Scotsman living in London- although that would at least explain why the chief protagonist is called Jamie MacGregor- not the most obvious of names for such a quintessentially Southern Englishman. Maybe director Clive Donner wanted to take advantage of the fact that the town was within reasonable driving distance of Elstree Studios and offered a wide, cinematic suburban sprawl bigger than those usually found in quaint neighbouring areas such as Rickmansworth, Moor Park or Borehamwood. Maybe the very futuristic nature of the town in some way summed up the brave new world the characters all seemed so keen to explore.

Whatever the reason, it cannot be denied that the location makes the film- providing it with a distinctively autonomous ‘Swinging but not quite London’ feel, thus removing any ‘Chelsea set’ pretensions: from this point on, new-towns would be imbued, for filmmakers and location managers at any rate, with a sense of mystique. I think it’s fair to say that had Donner not led by example, the likes of I Start Counting (David Greene 1969) and The Offence (Sydney Lumet 1972) would not have followed, although Mulberry Bush paints very much a more optimistic view of small-town English life than either. Just as well really.

Mark you, even though the world might have been new, the attitudes weren’t necessarily that fresh or progressive. Beneath the veneer of fun times, playing the field and living for kicks lies an old-fashioned, quasi-Victorian urge to find the perfect girl, settle down and get married (at 18!!), hinting that every day before this happens should be lived to the full, as the rug may be pulled out from under our feet at any moment. Eat, drink and make merry with as many different partners as possible, for tomorrow we die. There’s also a touch of old fashioned comedy bum-pinching, and the type of behaviour that would be regarded today as blatant sexism (the classic opening gambit “Knickers!! I’m knicker obsessed!” for one- try getting away with it now and see what the Herts constabulary give you in return), but such was the way of things back then, and only the most delusional of revisionists would claim to the contrary.

In fact, one of the elements I personally find so pleasing about Mulberry Bush is this blatant honesty- its depiction of family life, courtship and youth is far more believable than that shown in Alfie, its attitude to the “beautiful people” is far less idealised than in, say, The Breaking Of Bumbo or Blow Up, and yet it still manages to eschew the ‘harsh realism’ of Poor Cow, Darling or The L Shaped Room, which by the tail end of that decade was becoming as much of a cliché as the stuffy, middle-class conventions it had set out to destroy. Jamie’s parents (Michael Bates and Moyra Fraser)- she slightly squiffy and full of good-natured instructions like “not too many of those nasty drugs now!”, he purportedly authoritarian but only to the extent of clipping his sons round the lughole and insisting they listen to the football pools with him- are perfectly acceptable people, unlike the harridans many youths outwardly perceived authority figures to be: his relationship with younger brother, who stashes cologne in the cistern and whose own success with the opposite sex is of consternation to Jamie, is spot on, their infighting and bickering typical of most siblings (definitely of me and my own brother, anyway) and never crossing the line into theatricality.

Ditto Maxine Audley and Denholm Elliott, deftly cast as the upper-class, croquet-playing, wine quaffing and more openly sexualised forebears of the similarly liberated ‘Capable’ Caroline (Angela Scoular). While undoubtedly playing for comic value (Elliott in particular blessed with an enviable clutch of one-liners, although Angie herself, in describing why the family chose a German au pair, gets to weigh in with the classic “the French ones were all used up”), their approach is refreshingly cliché-free. Anyone who’s ever gotten pissed in the company of someone else’s parents will appreciate the surrealism of such a situation, particularly if one of them starts talking to his wine glass in front of you!! It’s all too tempting to cringe and gnaw your fist at the tragic inevitability when Jamie turns down an offer of congress with the delectable Caroline (by far and away the sexiest of the harem, and I say that as a lifelong Geeson lover) or even a ‘glass of milk before bedtime’ from Audley, but human error is an intrinsic part of real life, and every performer onscreen conveys theirs perfectly.

Undoubtedly, though, the film’s most remarkable strength comes from Evans himself- who delivers a remarkably naturalistic performance and makes Jamie MacGregor a character most men of a certain age can relate to. You take to him the minute you see him: admittedly that might be because he’s kitted out in the best Mod threads ever seen on anyone not in a band, and you’d quite like to be him, but that’s also true of Robin Askwith in the Confessions films- which owe more than a passing nod to Mulberry Bush in terms of construction, photography and, well, more or less everything, and that doesn’t make loving those films a crime either.

He’s never wooden, always convincing, and remained so throughout most of his all-too short career, which saw him criminally underused post-1982, and his equally short life, which ended in 1997, by which time he had, in the most tragic of ironies, returned to his native East Midlands and actually become a cabbie, more than 20 years after playing one in Stanley Long’s classic sex comedy Adventures Of A Taxi Driver, which saw him reunited with his Mulberry Bush co stars Adrienne Posta, Judy Geeson and Angela Scoular. In a further twist, both his demise and that of Denholm Elliott, came as a result of their closeted homosexuality- Elliott from complications of HIV and AIDS, Evans in altogether more sinister circumstances involving an alleged attack upon his person by a sexual partner, although the coroner returned an open verdict.

Mention his name to any so-called “serious” cinema lover and you’ll be met with either blank indifference or a snooty raise of the nostril, probably prefacing a predictably pretentious prattle on why British films of the 60s and 70s are low budget failures, down at heel by comparison with our “great”American counterparts and demonstrative of a small-minded provincial world. There will also follow at some point a long discourse on why Mind Your Language was such a dreadful programme and how thankfully it wouldn’t be allowed in these educated times. Yawn bloody yawn, I’ve been to Crouch End too. Evans may have not been a great thespian in the mould of a Burton or a Scofield, but he never turned in a bad performance, and of all of them, Jamie MacGregor remains his definitive creation.

Like his gang of mates, portrayed variously by Nicky Henson, Roy Holder, George Layton, Christian Roberts and Christopher Timothy- yes, they’re all here, as is almost every nascent dreambabe of the subsequent decade (Vanessa Howard, Diane Keen, Sheila White, a barely recognisable Angela Pleasence)- Jamie is human, fallible, a little naïve, good-natured and cheeky without being arrogant, always treading the fine line between kitchen sink inevitability and Blytonesque enthusiasm. They stand, like Stevenage itself, poised somewhere betwixt the quaint old world, where the chippie is still a communal hangout for both Mods evolving into longhairs and old biddies never tiring of fish, and the burgeoning, exciting new one, equally unsure what will happen next. Is it merely coincidence that the “197” on the door of the flat where Jamie’s dream milf Mrs Kelly (the ubiquitous and wonderful Marianne Stone) resides conjoins with her letterbox, appearing to read “1970”? Maybe not.

Writer Hunter Davies probably had about as much idea what the future held as his characters- ie very little- but it was the finding out they were looking forward to. In the film, this manifests itself in the shape of summer jobs driving London Country Green Buses (ah, those were the days!!) before decamping en masse to university in Manchester, where “all those new birds” await (as well as, presumably, the indignity of being referred to as “southern nancies” for three years) but in reality Britain’s youth, already slightly bemused by the ‘love revolution’- yes, it looked good and the music sounded great, but what did it actually mean in the long run?- were still looking for direction, and whether or not they ever found it is still a moot point.

Nevertheless, life still looks more attractive through Donner’s viewfinder than it would today, where the film could probably be titled “Here We Go Round The Stanley Knife” and feature the world weary menopausoteens of Hollyoaks and Skins. Even a world where “the ones you don’t fancy, fancy you, and when you’re really old, say 25, you get married” (believe me, not much has changed, particularly outside London, in the intervening 42 years!), and the most exciting recreational activities on offer seem to be (a) throwing a party in an unattended bed shop (b) drinking soft drinks in a strange underground daytime all-ages bar- did they ever exist?- or (c) taking the girl of your dreams to a boating lake, holds a greater fascination, at least for a certain sector of society, than grime, bling and Big Brother, and the five minute culture on display here- “don’t bother about your bike, stay the night. Don’t bother about anything, life’s too short”- beats hell out of today’s seven second attention span.

Sure, the 1968 generation may appear ‘unenlightened’ now, but is 2010’s cynical aggression and obsession with technology and gadgetry really better than the sexual inexperience and occasional lapses into casual prejudice of the late 60s? In Brighton, the mods and rockers may have been kicking the shit out of each other on a weekly basis, but in Davies’ world, the most violent behavioural traits never extend beyond occasionally wanting to slap your best mate because he’s pulled your ‘bit of tail’, or falling into a lake when it turns out the girl of your dreams is having the same dreams about everybody else. A ‘rave’ in those days may have merely referred to watching the Spencer Davis Group at a local church hall with several ‘groovy Christians’ in attendance, but who knows, maybe even that’s overdue for a revival. Then again, knowing my own peculiar brand of perverse solipsism, if every club was suddenly transformed into a psych joint full of fluorescent lamps and gyrating dollybirds in floral minis, I’d probably retreat into my beard and pipe and start hiding out at jazz and folk gigs instead. Such is the way of being intrinsically British…..

Whatever your standpoint, the fact remains that Mulberry Bush was not designed to be ‘retro’- well, it wouldn’t have been, would it? What we see onscreen was once contemporary- even if it depicted a society in transit- but so, once, was everything before and after it, and so too will be everything yet to come. So, why does it still matter in 2010? Why is it still relevant to some of us? It’s more than nostalgia, it’s almost a way of life, even though if we tried to live that life now we’d probably find it had as many pitfalls as pleasures. Most of us never had first-hand experience of that society: even if some are lucky enough to know people who did, their recollections are inconclusive, ranging from positive to negative depending on where they lived and what their job was, and when a friend recently asked me how popular “these films” were at the time, I could provide no straight answer, as (a) I wasn’t there, and (b) some will have inevitably been more successful than others.

In the case of Mulberry Bush, people queued round the block, a fact helped in no small part by the popularity of both Traffic and Spencer Davis, who provide the majority of the soundtrack with the exception of the beguilingly melancholy ‘Been A Long Time’ by Andy Ellison- but to view even a success on that level through rose tinted spectacles, and perceive a societal perfection that may not have actually existed, is as potentially dangerous as the most cynical of denigrations.

Which is closer to the truth? Did anyone involved, with the exception of the musicians, actually know what ‘psychedelia’ was? Come to think of it, what is it? And by merely contemplating such matters, are we all mental? Cast member Nicky Henson certainly thinks so, having revealed in several interviews his ongoing bemusement with the renewed popularity of both Psychomania and this film, and he could have a point. Why do so many of us crave a society with no internet, no mobile phones, no cashpoints, high taxation and endless strikes? And what exactly is it about Mulberry Bush that seems to epitomise the very essence of everything we like about it? I’ve asked the same question before, in reference to titles as disparate as All Neat In Black Stockings and Herostratus, and the answer still seems no clearer.

There will, of course, always be those who find little value in such a film- and indeed, those who like their plotlines deep, impenetrable, and Cassavetian would be advised to stay away. Mulberry Bush is not a slow-building, multi-layered story with plenty of arcs (even though between them Donner and Davies go out of their way to tie up any remaining ends and offer resolution for all), more a diary of episodes in the life of one person who, though unaware, acts as a social glue in a burgeoning and growing culture. Yet it draws its characters skilfully in several dimensions, says much about ‘social types’ in a way that many previous films hadn’t dared to, questions (at a prosperous time of full employment in the UK) the aspirational ‘treadmill’ of jobs, cars, mortages and marriage, deals equally with joy and disappointment (when Jamie finally loses his virginity to Audrey, the experience seems less than overwhelming, and even his nookie-filled boating weekend with Mary, the ‘girl of his dreams’, is beset by conflicting emotions and a troublesome dog), and offers a candidly open and progressive- for the time, anyway- representation of the camaraderie between and the conversations held by young men on the brink of maturity.

Donner’s direction is also periodically breathtaking, turning a golf sandpit into a quasi-subterranean landscape, handling nudity (which Geeson once claimed years later she had never done, although she had just been annoyed by a tiresome interviewer) more ‘gently’ than many of his contemporaries, injecting just the right amount of dream sequences and ‘flash forwards’ but avoiding the trap of screwball comedy each time via ingenious choices of filters and costume- one of particular note showing Posta (who, as ‘Runny Old Linda’ is meant to be the rough bird in town, but is actually still rather delectable) as a blonde Theda Bara. Moreover, in adapting Davies’ dialogue for the screen, he manages to accidentally invent a device that has subsequently been used by nearly everyone else, where the actor, rather than talking to camera ala Michael Caine in Alfie, talks inwardly to himself, allowing the audience access to the implicit. Could this even be the film which bestowed upon us the now time-honoured comic device of writing bad answers when set questions on Shakespeare? It seems so, although in literary terms Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle beat Davies to the ball by some fifteen years.

Four decades on, there may no longer be such a thing as a “beautiful mature woman of 28”- most people of that age still can’t afford to leave home- there may be less supermarket jobs going, not to mention less supermarkets, cleaning your teeth before a shag is definitely out, it may no longer be possible to make somebody fancy you by simply grabbing their hand at a party and yelling “right, let’s go!”, if indeed it ever were, and the street where Mary Gloucester once lived in palatial, mock-Swiss luxury with her parents may now be run down beyond recognition, but there remains a little of Jamie, Spike, Mary, Paula and even Runny Old Linda in all of us.

90 percent of the people that will buy this DVD are now aged 35 and over, and over 50 percent of that group, myself included, are still floundering in the dark, subconsciously waiting for our time machine. And if the past really was another country, what became of the ‘city of tomorrow’? The fascinating documentary ‘Welcome To Stevenage’, included as an extra on the DVD, outlines exactly why at the time, it seemed like the answer to everyone’s problems- but with the benefit of hindsight, it’s equally plain to see why 60-plus years of cheap building materials, infrequent public transport, conservatively-minded council planning and poorly handled ‘regeneration’ projects that did little but line the pockets of developers have ensured it wasn’t so, even if Technicolor scenes of leather-clad teens gyrating to KPM approximations of glam rock, footage of newly built, spotlessly clean roundabouts and precincts, and a seamless integration with the Olde Village create the illusion of a concrete Utopia. Some have even made pilgrimages…..

Whether or not the Britain of Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush, Welcome To Stevenage, and others of their respective ilks, ever actually existed, or indeed will return, remains unproven- although I saw a vintage Routemaster 75 leaving Bellingham Garage the other day, so you never know. But at least we can immerse ourselves in it time and time again, even though, as my old mate Rob Mesure said to me recently on the old telling-bone, it’s hard to believe we can now hold it in our hand, in beautiful high definition DVD and Blu-ray, after all these bloody years of waiting, and without having to visit some dodgy scooterist shop in Camden either. No-one’s going to deny it’s of its time, but it remains that rarest of creatures- a great film in any genre, and its existence might just, in this precarious economic climate, when BFI employees face concerns over alleged 25 percent cuts, secure the continued existence of Flipside. Barry Evans- you didn’t die in vain after all, mate. Cheers, geezer.



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About Drewe Shimon

Drewe Shimon has written 61 post in this blog.