Monday, 16 February 2009

Swinging London on Film

When most of us hear the term "Swinging London," we think of a specific time and place--London in the early to mid Sixties. It was a period when several different cultural trends, in fields ranging from music to photography to fashion, emerged from London, first to sweep through the United Kingdom and then throughout the world. It is difficult to determine when Swinging London exactly began. Its roots go all the way back to the Fifties, as can be seen in the 1959 novel Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes. At any rate, it was well under way by 1963. As to when Swinging London came to an end, that is easier to pinpoint. In 1967 attention began to shift away from London as a centre of youth culture to San Francisco (the Haight-Ashbury district in particular). Psycedelia would overtake mid-Sixties Britpop as the dominate form of rock music in the world.

While Swinging London would come to an end, it was immortalised on film for posterity. Several movies in the mid-Sixties would attempt to capture the spirit of Swinging London. Some would succeed. Other would fail. What is notable is the sheer variety of films set in Swinging London. Some would approach that time and place from a light hearted point of view, treating it as a gigantic playground. Others would explore the darker aspects of Swinging London, it decadence and emptiness. In the end, all of them would play a role in preserving the legend of Swinging London, a place which probably did not exist as we remember it.

Precisely what was the first Swinging London movie is open to debate. It could quite possibly the 1963 film adaptation of Billy Liar. The movie starred Tom Courtenay and featured Julie Christie in her first major role. Part of the British New Wave, it was not actually shot in London, but on actual locations in Bradford, York. Like the novel, it centred on a lackadaisical clerk in northern England who whiles away his time in fantasy. And while the film does not take place in London, it is that city to where Billy longs to go.

While it might be debatable if Billie Liar was the first Swinging London movie, there can be no doubt that A Hard Day's Night is set in that time and place. A Hard Day's Night follows a day in the life of The Beatles, as they prepare to make their appearance on a television programme. As such, it places The Beatles in the heart of Swinging London. Not only does it feature the pop music that would become identified with Swinging London, but it includes a trip to the Garrison Room of Les Ambassadeurs Club--one of the hotspots of Swinging London. For many A Hard Day's Night would be the Swinging London, capturing the energy and spirit of that time and place.

The success of A Hard Day's Night and the continued popularity of various pop groups guaranteed that it would have imitators, each starring another British invasion band, would appear in its wake. None other than John Boorman directed Catch Us If You Can, starring the Dave Clark Five, from 1965. That same year Gerry and the Pacemakers appeared in the now rarely seen Ferry Cross the Mersey (which was actually set in Liverpool, not London). Even the Spencer Davis Group made a movie, The Ghost Goes Gear, in which the band must try to save a haunted house. It was released in 1966 and has not often been seen since.

The same year that saw the release of A Hard Day's Night also saw the release of The System. The System Oliver Reed as one of a group of youths who go to a seaside village looking for sexual conquests. A drama, The System not only examined the changing sexual mores of the era, but was one of the first films to look at the dark side of the Swinging London phenomenon.

The following year Richard Lester, who directed A Hard Day's Night, would see the release of two of the quintessential Swinging London films. The first was The Knack …and How to Get It. The film essentially centred on the competition between three roommates to win Nancy (Rita Tushingham), a young woman new to the city. Although based on the play of the same name, Lester did the movie in the same style that A Hard Day's Night had been and Help! would be, complete with breaking the fourth wall, comedic subtitles, and other touches. The Knack …and How to Get It is notable for one of the few genuine potrayals of a Mod on film. Tolen, the experienced Mod with a knack for picking up women, not only dresses exquisitely, but even listens to Thelonious Monk!

The second Swinging London film directed by Richard Lester to be released in 1965 was, of course, Help!. Help! finds The Beatles trotting the globe in an effort to save Ringo's life from the cult of Kalili, who want to sacrifice him now that he has their sacrificial ring stuck to one of his fingers. Despite being shot on a variety of locations, Help! must be considered one of the Swinging London films, capturing much of the spirit and the energy (not to mention the music) of the time.

Also released in 1965 was Darling, a film which explored the darker side of the Swinging London phenomenon. Darling starred Julie Christie as an amoral model who uses her sex appeal to its full advantage as she sleeps her way to the top.

Nineteen sixty six saw a mixture of films about Swinging London, some dwelling on its lighter aspects, others dwelling on its darker aspects, and yet others on both. In this final category we may place Alfie, a starring vehicle for Michael Caine. Alfie centres on the title character of that name, a young man who leads an essentially meaningless life as he sleeps with numerous women until he suddenly finds his life turned upside down. The film was neither comedy nor drama, but a little bit of both. And while it ultimately condemns many of Alfie's actions, it also has the ability to find the humour in them at the same time.

Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment was another 1966 comedy, although a bit more light hearted than Alfie. Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment centres on the title character, a young man who married a woman higher than himself on the social scale. When she asks him for a divorce, Morgan tries to win her back, only to find himself in even deeper trouble. Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment essentially blends the old Hollywood screwball comedy with the sensibilities of Swinging London.

Like Alfie, Georgy Girl was also a movie which blended comedy with drama. The film starred Lynn Redgrave as the title character, a talented and charming but slightly plump young woman whose flatmate is a relentless party girl and whose father's employer propositions her. In some respects the film is a condemnation of the Swinging London lifestyle. To wit, in the end it is Georgy, the sweet girl of more traditional sexual mores, who comes out on top.

While many of the Swinging London movies released in 1966 were comedies, there was one notable exception. What is more, along with the first two Beatles movies and The Knack …and How to Get It it is one of the quintessential Swinging London movies. Blowup explores the dark side of Swinging London, portraying 24 hours in the life of a fashion photographer (David Hemmings). He shoots photos in his studio of a French model. He frolics with young girls. And he inadvertently photographs what may be the corpse of a murder victim (visible only after the photos have been blown up). While many films only captured part of the phenomenon known as Swinging London, Blowup embraced several of them. Not only is the lead character a fashion photographer (perhaps based on David Bailey), but includes a scene with The Yardbirds (Michelangelo Antonioni had wanted The Who), drug use, and meaningless sex. While A Hard Day's Night and Help! capture the energy of Swinging London, Blowup concentrates on the downsides of its lifestyle.

By 1967 Swinging London was already fading from view, but it would be preserved in films released that year. In fact, it was that year that one of the quintessential Swinging London films was released. Smashing Time was a comedy starring Rita Tushingham and Lynn Redgrave as two girls from northern England who come to London in the hope of finding fame and fortune. Like Blowup (although much more light hearted), Smashing Time embraces as much of the Swinging London phenomenon as possible: a fashion photographer (played by Michael York), partying, and pop music. In many respects, it was a parody of the whole phenomenon.

Bedazzled is as much a fantasy film as it is a Swinging London film. It starred the comedy team of Cook and Moore, with Dudley Moore playing short order cook Stanley Moon, hopeless in love with the waitress Margaret. To this end, he sells his soul to the Devil (played by Peter Cook) for seven wishes. Sadly, none of the wishes turn out how Moon would like them to, even though he becomes, among other things, a rock star, an intellectual, and so on.

I'll Never Forget What's 'is Name featured Oliver Reed as an advertising executive who longs for his past life as part of Swinging London. Sick of the adventising game, he attempts to rebel against his boss. Both a comedy and a drama,
I'll Never Forget What's 'is Name was very much a Swinging London movie, featuring as it did the morality of the era. It is also historic of being, alongside Ulysses, the first film in which the F-word is actually used.

Oliver Reed also appeared in another Swinging London film from 1967, The Jokers. With Michael Crawford he played two brothers who want to get rich without really having to work for it. To this end, they decide the steal the Crown Jewels. The movie made prime use of many of London's locations.

By 1967 Swinging London was winding down. Naturally this meant that Swinging London would not appear in any more films. As it is, there were many other films than the ones listed here that could be considered as Swinging London movies, even though Swinging London may not be central to their premises: Repulsion, To Sir with Love, and Poor Cow among them. In the end Swinging London was recorded in many films, and they were a varied lot.

Indeed, the Swinging London movies ranged in genres from offbeat comedies to serious dramas, and their views of Swinging London ranged from light hearted to downright dark. In fact, one only need to contrast two of the quintessential Swinging London films to see the variety of films made concerning that time and place. A Hard Day's Night is a light hearted look at the day in a life of The Beatles. Blowup is a dark look at the day in the life of a fashion photographer. The lifestyle of Swinging London, which involved clubbing, drugs, fashion, and sex, was sometimes glorified, sometimes condemned. Regardless, all of the films captured a time and a place, one that may never have existed, for the ages.


Toby O'B said...

The best visualization of the swinging London of the 60s didn't come from the movies, but from the last episode of 'The Prisoner'. Alexis Kanner in that mod outfit with the top hat and ruffled shirt front and sleeves - that may as well be a comic book costume for how outlandish it looks today.

Man, I wish I had the bod to pull off that Mod look. LOL

Mercurie said...

Yes, I think Alexis Kanner in that Mod suit does tend to sum up the era quite nicely!