“Can you tell me where I’m travelling, I do not want to go…”
The hippie dream had to end sometime, I suppose. And we in the UK, being the last man in, were almost certainly the first man out. In America, it dragged on, despite Altamont, the Manson cult murders and the Chicago Conspiracy trials, until the late 70s: over here, though remnants persisted throughout the early to mid-70s, and the aesthetics remained (thankfully) ingrained in our fashions and architecture until long after punk had come knocking at our door, the first signs of atrophy began to show as early as 1971. The party, for many who didn’t have their parents’ money or a trust fund to live off, was over, with free love and idealism fading fast and giving way to a sense of confusion about the new decade. What would become of those left behind?
Private Road, one of the most incisive, thoughtful and visually beautiful films to originate from that year (thought by some to be the apex of British music and filmmaking, but also one from which a downward slope was inevitable), is unique in that whilst very much “of the moment”, it tackles this dilemma, only considered by many others in retrospect, head on. Part of this is no doubt due to the subject matter favoured by its director, Barney Platts-Mills, who had previously articulated the frustrations of the teenage Suedehead in Bronco Bullfrog (1970): perhaps the ultimate social realist picture, with a cast drawn from genuine working-class residents of London’s Stratford and West Ham districts. A search for direction, a sense of place and ultimately an escape from perceived societal shackles are ongoing concerns for this particular filmmaker, despite the privileged circumstances of his own upbringing (something else very ‘key’ when understanding the counter-culture of the 65-75 social revolution in the UK), and as we stand poised on the brink of the most depressing era since the Austerity years, with social unrest on every corner and the grey spectre of Governmental incompetence hovering permanently above us, many who had previously looked forward to a future of egalitarianism and opportunity find themselves asking the same questions posed 40 years ago.
It is therefore not only right, but particularly apt, that Flipside should now unearth and reissue this film, previously only available directly from its creator’s own website- the only marked difference being that this time, the articulate youth left pondering their futures, as Bruce Robinson and Susan Penhaligon do here, are now the minority, marginalised by those who happily digest chav culture, reality TV and packaged pap with little regard for their own fate or anybody else’s. But let’s not dwell too heavily on the negatives: not only is Private Road an excellent, ground-breaking piece of work worthy of discussion, and a personal favourite of my own, but a film that (for once) ultimately inspires positivity and hope, even if it provides no answers. And heaven knows we could do with some of that right now….
As with Bullfrog, Platts-Mills largely eschews here the rigid convention of rehearsing til “word perfect” and having his actors learn their lines by rote: granted, a firm script is adhered to, and this time the cast is comprised of ‘professionals’, but if mistakes are made, they are largely left in, and if longueurs linger, then so be it. That very imperfection is, after all, an accurate reflection of how people, even trained performers who would later go on to greater recognition, speak and behave, and if the ‘educated’ middle-class tones of hero Peter, heroine Ann and their cohorts seem laconically disjointed, it’s in a positive way, inferring the director’s keenness to dispense with the perceived ostentatiousness of much film dialogue. “I jumped into a puddle of water”, says fellow writer Alex Marvel (Trevor Adams, later to make his mark as a guest of Fawlty Towers) during an otherwise classic stoner conversation held to the sound of the Stones’ Let It Bleed, “and everyone should know what that feels like, without using any flowery language”- a valid point which British playwrights from Osborne and Pinter onwards had been trying to emphasise. In both cases, the playwrights’ formalised education let them down, but Platts-Mills, by comparison, seems unhampered by his origins and happy to allow the actors natural emphases on their delivery.
Not that I would suggest for one moment that a “year zero” or some kind of British Stundenahl should have taken place, with all previous cinematic conventions (largely derived of course from theatre) swept under the carpet: at any rate, the British New Wave and Social Realism movements of the early 1960s had already (kind of) done that, and if they did leave in large chunks of “poshspeak” (notice, for instance, that none of the characters in Pinter’s The Caretaker, with the exception of the vagrant Jenkins, talk in a way you’d expect “geezers from ‘Ackney” to talk) it actually enriched the cinematic lexicon and allowed for some of the best diction and delivery ever seen onscreen, whilst still managing to step half a world away from the pleasantries of the “Gertie and Noel” era. Nevertheless, Platts-Mills’ own refreshing, uninhibited approach to dialogue, coupled with the serenity of his characterisations and settings, only makes you wish there had been more like them, or that more were aware of his work: as it transpires, he has to date only made one other feature film since, Hero (1982), which takes language into yet another realm by having its cast (again, like that of Bullfrog, amateurs, but this time the inhabitants of Glasgow’s Drumchapel housing scheme) speak Gaelic, and while this may be a far cry from the genteel world of Peter Morrissey and Ann Halpern, even if at one point in the film, they too relocate to Scotland, the modus operandi remains intact.
The crucial difference between Private Road and its siblings is that while the earlier film reflected in no uncertain terms the actual lives of its actors, and seemed outwardly more believable for it, and the latter tips towards fantasy by concerning itself with ancient legend, here we have a pleasing balance, with harsh realities tempered by settings that still invite varying degrees of disbelief. For a start, Peter is not a factory worker, a barman or a member of the unemployed, but a writer, who receives (in 1971!) £500 cheques for short stories (putting things in perspective, I’ve never got more than £50 for any article) without ever seeming to do much actual writing: he already has a respected agent (Patricia Cutts), and his output- exact style or nature unspecified- appears to mainly end up in Woman’s Own, yet he seems happy with this arrangement, bumbling and stumbling along as if it were part of some subtle plan. In these respects, realism may seem lacking, at least to those who have never had such gifts bestowed upon them, and his sudden decision (made in conjunction with Ann, who he meets at his agent’s office, begins dating, and moves in with almost instantaneously- yeah, like that ever happens) to chuck London life in and relocate to a Scottish country cottage, is one I’m sure many of us would have made were we able, like him, to conjure up such cottages at will thanks to the intervention of a well-placed friend or relative.
They even drive up there in a car seemingly bequeathed unto them by Ann’s parents, who, despite their original misgivings at their daughter’s new-found propensity for staying out all night far from their Esher home, getting legless, and (presumably) indulging in other pleasurable activities, soon take to Peter and ‘trust’ him. Unsurprisingly, rural life doesn’t prove to be the idyll once promised- after 2 days hunting, Peter is unable to bag anything more than a small rabbit (a sequence later legendarily recreated in the young actor-turned-middle aged director ‘s script for Withnail And I) which Ann is too squeamish to skin and cook, the cottage is draughty, there’s not a lot to do, and the bickering starts- so they head back to the Smoke.
By this time, however, a baby has been conceived, about which its mother is ambivalent at best, its father more pleased out of a sense of duty than actual anticipation of the “joys” of impending parenthood- and for the first time, the couple, even though now living in a white-walled ‘pad’ they seem to have rented just by clicking their fingers, find themselves facing the world of careers, responsibilities and adult decisions, which all their friends, with the exception of one, are also doing. Upon having his book rejected (“you have it in you to write a great novel”, quoth Erica the agent, “ but not this one”) Peter abandons his literary ambitions in order to earn a crust for his partner and imminent child, and finds himself working alongside his mate Henry (George Fenton) as an advertising copywriter, where he’s told within two minutes by two different people that his previous experience is irrelevant because there they “don’t write for an esoteric audience”: while in his spare time, Henry is trojanically plotting a Marxist revolution from within, but only under extreme pressure from his stern, humourlessly right-on girlfriend Iverna (a fantastic cameo from folk-singer Catherine Howe), and one suspects he’s just as confused as Peter.
This is where the importance of the film’s historic context becomes apparent: while others continued to show the twenty-something generation as the inheritors of a bright future, Platts-Mills not only turns things on their head by suggesting they’ve actually been dealt a bill of goods, but is also possibly the first director of his era to suggest possible solutions to the problem, even if only as hypotheses. In these respects Private Road is a satire, and a fantastically astute one, its underlying implication being that whilst it’s all very well to sit on one’s arse getting stoned, drinking wine, listening to hippy beatnik music and pondering the cosmos, there comes a time when even the most privileged, who have this lifestyle handed to them, can see directly through it for the shallow pursuit it is- but by the same token, joining the rat race may also just as easily not be the solution. What emerges either side is the writer-director’s love of creating, of his own art- and it’s this very art that Peter, after Ann’s inevitable abortion and their uncertain estrangement, will and should return to pursue. There is no suggestion anywhere of anything as banal as “work at it and you’ll make it”, but it’s the process of finding out, rather than the end result, that matters, and the lasting impression that it may still be, despite the pitfalls, worth aspiring (and returning) to an individualistic lifestyle, rather than encouraging individuals to become aspirational, which is something quite different.
Much of this may seem vague, but only as vague as the film itself- we must emphasise, this is not a world of beginnings, middles and ends, but of stumbles, fumbles, false starts and half-resolutions. If there is any linear progression, or slightest hint of ‘morality ’in the storyline, it comes not from Peter, but his best friend Stephen (Michael Feast, known to cult film buffs for a similar role in I Start Counting and to everyone else as the ersatz Kenneth Pitt-alike in Velvet Goldmine) Portrayed at the start as a scruffy, guitar-strumming rail guard who “always wanted to be a racing driver” , and secretly longs to train as a pilot, he soon declines in his friend’s absence into sweaty, pale-face heroin addiction, glimpsed “waiting for his man” around bus stations in the dark and being so non-compos mentis that he openly skins up huge bifters in front of people’s parents before tying off in his mates’ bathrooms, until, after several thwarted attempts by Robinson, he retreats to Yorkshire to clean himself up, and eventually emerges as the saviour of the day, stealing a typewriter in an extremely comedic fashion to enable the writer’s aforementioned return to his vocation, regaling him with Cockney sing-alongs and encouraging him not to disregard his art as a joke.
These recurrent appearances, from one of Britain’s greatest and most underrated actors, portend many of the film’s high points: his interplay with Robinson glitters with the incisiveness and honesty of true friendship, although not always in both directions, and while there is never any hint of homoerotic undercurrent between the two men, it’s clear at several stages that Peter regards Stephen more highly than he does his girlfriend. In an early scene, when Feast claims the new flat is a “bit big for one person”, actually referring to Ann’s soon-come relocation, Robinson replies “when are you moving in?”, and when she busts into hysterics at the sight of intravenous drug use in the bathroom, it’s the user’s side her boyfriend takes, pacifying her dismissively about the situation and stating that it’s “OK, as he’s just trying it”
Do such traits mark Peter out as a callous, self-centred git? Not at all- he is still our hero, as much as an unconventional film such as this demands one, and throughout, only attempts to do the “right thing”, or keep the peace, in every situation. Sometimes this conviction is misguided- he persistently asks Ann if she wants the baby, in order to avoid having to rationalise whether or not he wants it, and even when first confronted by the news, dismissively shrugs “well, we won’t do anything, we’ll just have the thing” as if it were a new sofa he was discussing, but his heart is in the right place, and, unlike Iverna, who one feels might strap herself and her friends to ten tons of gelignite and dive off Wandsworth Bridge if she felt it would further the ‘cause’, he doesn’t have a malicious bone in his body .
This inherent ‘niceness’, while in no way twee, has invited some criticism, and for a figure of youthful rebellion, it has to be said Peter is closer to Jimmy Clitheroe than Jimmy Dean. Even his disagreements with “authority figures”- here represented in quite a middling, forgiving and non-judgemental manner by his agent and Ann’s parents (Robert Brown and Kathleen Byron, the latter a mere few months before her sterling turn in Hammer’s Twins Of Evil) – are conducted politely with an air of wry satire rather than genuine insouciant rebellion, and we’re left with the impression that possibly, both generations see something of each other in each other, to the point where respect must remain unspoken for the sake of convention but is still very much implicit.
Only two swear words (one graffitised humorously on a wall after a burglary, the other directed by Ann at her father) are uttered throughout, the nudity is subtle in a manner suggesting either tastefulness or naivety, although we’re never sure which, and the only point at which spats turn to full-frontal physical confrontation is immediately after Peter discovers the abortion of his unborn child. Given such circumstances, we can’t really blame either him or Mr Halpern for allowing their emotions to run away like that, yet again, another pertinent realism is at work here: that as with everyday life, even if you do have pots of money, nothing is ever certain or permanent. People casually attempt various endeavours, some work, some don’t, some plans come off and some are scuppered, and the story ends on a similarly uncertain note to the one it started on, yet with a new positivity and hope largely enforced by the recovery from opiate addiction of one of its principal players.
Such character transformations are also in keeping with the realist ethos: rather than remaining in stasis, as is often the case with “straight” drama, personalities are malleable and flexible. Witness the way in which Peter and Ann’s playful joking in a muddy pond outside their Scots farm soon turns to a full-blown argument, how smiles can turn to angry faces within the course of one day (or even one conversation) and how Ann herself shifts from playful teenage vulnerability and popsiness to full-on, nagging shrewish suburban wifery- and back again- with not so much as a flicker. This, after all, is how people are- very rarely in everyday life do we come across one who is a purebred “nutter” like Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter, a “smoothie” like Peter Wyngarde’s Jason King, or a “chirpy cockney geezer” like Jim Davidson’s alter-ego Jim London in Up The Elephant And Round The Castle, although you may find those who live solely by codes of ignorance and violence. People- well, decent people anyway- are fallible, unreliable and even at their most predictable, wont to change, inbetween bouts of uncertain muttering and occasional flashes of euphoria. By acknowledging these characteristics, is Platts-Mills displaying a deliberate observational objective?
If so, it’s never made clear. To the outsider, Private Road is possibly the most genreless, unclassifiable film ever, in that it doesn’t actually appear at first glance to be about anything: yet this in itself remains possibly its truest reflection of life. The father of a school-friend of one of my own best friends was known for the catchphrase “nyep, well, you know, some things happen and some things don’t”, and that seems like an accurate summation of reality as depicted within these 90 minutes, even via the niceties of artistic longhairs living in boho Notting Hill apartments, managing to travel from Notting Hill to Waterloo in 10 minutes (yeah, right!!) and occasionally popping round for dinner at the parents’ Surrey mansion. Yet this uncertainty should not be seen as a “nothingness”, but rather a confusion instilled by too much choice- and this is where today’s society differs, as many of us have little or no options of this kind. What remains in 2011 is the ability of the articulate few to appreciate this dichotomy and choose their reaction.
This approach is also evident in the film’s technical specifications. Platts-Mills and cameraman Adam Barker-Mill shoot from a perspective as naturalistic as the dialogue used, with few concessions to Wellesian doctrines of ‘pure cinema’ or any other paragons of orthodoxy. Occasionally, even after the mandatory excellent remastering one expects by now from Flipside, the sound is muffled, revealing its source limitations- but that only adds to its antiquarian charm and further legitimises the experience, as do tiny details such as the Robert Plant poster in Ann’s bedroom. Sleeve-notes state that the filmmaker supervised the new transfer personally, although I doubt seriously whether such an avowed realist would be particularly bothered about aspect ratios (1.85:1 in case you wondered, data geeks) or indeed sound formats, and duly, the film remains monophonic throughout.
Package-wise, the label have wisely eschewed this time the vague and subjective theorising that occasionally lets them down, choosing instead a warm, witty and informative essay by their own Kevin Jackson, a reproduction of Nigel Andrews’ original Monthly Film Bulletin review from 1971, concise biographies of actors and directors, and rather fascinating pieces by Vic Pratt and Sue Woods on The Last Chapter and St Christopher, the extra films contained within. The latter, which deals with the education of both mentally and handicapped children in early 60s Britain (focusing on two institutions, one in Bristol, the other in Yorkshire) is actually a revelation, as it approaches the subject with total candid honesty, avoids both the mawkish sentimentality or po-faced gravitas one would expect, and is interesting enough to make me wonder (given the lack of any Apted-style sequels) what became of its participants, particularly Ruth, a girl whose aggressive nature and cosmetic retardation belie, to these eyes, a hidden intelligence. As for the former, seeing it was something of a personal accomplishment, not only because of my avowed affection for its author John Fowles, but because it’s listed as a British Horror short in the appendices of Harvey Fenton’s superb Ten Years Of Terror (FAB Press, 2001) and was believed, until this release became reality, to be long-lost.
In truth it’s more of an allegorical fantasy than a horror, but with vague supernatural overtones: its inclusion here is due to the casting of Private Road ‘s female lead, Susan Penhaligon, as the teenage temptress who is ostensibly sent to intimidate cynical, embittered espionagesploitation author Denholm Elliott (and, like she does to Bruce Robinson, distract him from his typewriter) but who in truth may have more mythical origins. Directed by the under-used David Tringham, the film belongs to a select group, alongside Footsteps (1973) Mrs Amworth (1973) The Contract (1974) Red (1975) Dream House (1975) Take An Easy Ride (1975) The Contraption (1976) The Kiss (1976) The Sex Victims (1977) Panic (1978) Victims (1979) and Dark Waters (1979) of macabre works less than 40 minutes in length that went out as support to more mainstream pictures during British cinema’s most fascinating decade, economically shot yet still with all the attributes of a full-length feature, and which could have all easily flourished on their own given the right developmental circumstances.
Within its brief running time we get fantastic dream sequences, trick photography, a great performance from Elliott as a womanising misogynist (somewhat lacking in credence maybe given the circumstances of his death, but apparently Albert Finney was unavailable) and, as an added bonus, Sneaky Panhooligan (as Pete Walker dubbed her during the filming of House Of Mortal Sin) with her baps out. Trust me, she’s so beautiful in every respect that even other women and gay men reading this may take an interest… Apparently, the film bears little or no relation to Fowles’ original script, which has the author-lead (semi-autobiographical, of course) kill himself in frustration at his artistic stasis, and though the author agreed that suicide was an ‘extreme’ reaction for cinema, he was still unhappy with Tringham’s final rewrite: nevertheless, the finished product constitutes something of a minor masterpiece in the canon of ‘short’ cinema, and like Private Road itself, deserves to be seen by a wider audience.
Will it be? Quite possibly. The legend of PR as “one of those movies from the 70s you have to see” has grown considerably in recent years, not least of all due to its star’s status as the director of Withnail And I, which, as mentioned before, was largely inspired by his experiences shooting the earlier film. There has definitely been a ‘whisper on the breeze’ about the film for some time now, with Mark Gatiss and Matthew Sweet devoting an entire radio show to it last year (although cynics may suggest that this was in fact a structured ploy to prepare people for this DVD), the release of Stephen Weeks’ similarly Withnail-linked Ghost Story through Nucleus Films, and sporadic underground film screenings all upping the ante, but whether these factors translate, in the middle of an economic crisis, into hard sales remains to be seen.
In my estimation it will definitely sell more than its companion release Duffer/The Moon Over The Alley, but in quantities by no means comparable to Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush, Privilege or The Bed Sitting Room, to date Flipside’s best-selling titles, and possibly not even as many as Bronco Bullfrog, which has the added benefit of belonging, however tenaciously, to a subculture still very popular with the youth of today. Then again, as a BFI employee recently confided in me, commercial sales are not what Flipside are about. And amen to that. Nevertheless, there is an audience, that much-vaunted yet now slightly-diminished “inbetweenie” culture that exists between hippie and mod, that will seize upon it as almost an anthem for their lifestyle choice, and who will be smitten by the Roy Harperesque-soundtrack contributed by Feast, Fenton (later responsible for the excellent theme to Trevor Preston’s award-winning crime drama Out) and their flatmate David Dundas (of “Jeans On” fame). Not only are the songs easily the equal in “folksploitation” terms of Audience’s Bronco score, but one in particular, the recurrent “Don’t Wear Me Out”, is as good as the best work of Alan Hull, Al Stewart, Duncan Browne or any folk-rock troubadour of that era.
And, seeing as the film ends where it began, with the hopeful longhairs philosophically reflecting over their failures but looking forward to their next escapades, maybe this is where we too should go out. It’s a frightening, insecure and bleak world in 2011, but all the warmer and more reassuring with Robinson, Feast and Penhaligon in their rightful W11 environs. As Peter Hammill once sang, “West is Mike and Suzie, West is where I love, West is refugees’ home”. Private Road, then, is a film for the refugee in all of us.