By William Boyd for the New Statesman.
I was seventeen when 1969 became 1970 so, logically and irrefutably, I had lived through the so-called Swinging Sixties. I do remember going to a discotheque in London when I was sixteen, called Samantha’s, I think, and dancing around a white e-type Jaguar in the middle of the floor that contained the DJ. And that was pretty much it, for me. But that was near the end of the ‘60s. When did we, nationally, actually start to “swing”? The consensus is 1964 or ’65, though what exactly the catalyst was is harder to identify. Was it the arrival of the mini-skirt? Or when Boots the Chemist started selling condoms over the counter? Or when the Rolling Stones’ first number-one hit, “It’s All Over Now”, presciently announced the demise of all that was stuffy, repressed and class-conscious?
In the world of British cinema, perhaps, we can establish a more precise moment. In the late fifties and early sixties the interesting British films that were being produced were what we might call social realism, influenced by the French nouvelle vague. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Room at the Top, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner are typical of the gritty, realistic, “kitchen sink” spirit. The same rather dour aesthetic was simultaneously transforming British theatre. And then something changed.
How might we define it? Christopher Booker, in his somewhat eccentric book about Britain in the 1950s and 60s, The Neophiliacs, attempts to pin it down. Paradoxically, in doing so, he quotes an 1824 review that William Hazlitt wrote about Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Posthumous Poems. Shelley had recently died, drowned at sea in 1822, and Hazlitt, who had known the poet quite well, had this to say about him:
“If a thing was old and established, this was with him a certain proof of its having no solid foundation… If it was new, it was good and right.”
Very 1820s and, it turns out, very 1960s. As if to corroborate the parallel, in 1966 the New York Times correspondent in London was instructed to report on the frame of mind and attitude of the city. He recorded that:
“The atmosphere in London can be almost eerie in its quality of relentless frivolity. There can rarely have been a greater contrast between a country’s objective situation and the mood of its people.”
In the world of British cinema it was another American, the film director Richard Lester, who sought to capture this “relentless frivolity” and replicate the giddy, superficial spirit of the times on celluloid. In the film he made in 1964 with The Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night, Lester threw every cinematic joke, pratfall and trick into the mix of the film, a surreal fantasia about thirty-six hours in the lives of the band that, despite its whimsical, knowing larkiness, still holds up well after all these years.
However, Lester had opened a door and soon a flood of British films followed-on in the same flippant style. Of course, as in any era, many types of films – thrillers, romances, cops and robbers, historical epics, war movies and so forth – were being made. But in the second half of the 1960s something distinctive emerged that had a decided, recognizable character. I suppose “zany” is the best single word that might sum up the aspirations of these British films. They were very up-to-the minute, exploiting all the fashions and look of Carnaby Street and the King’s Road. There was a bolshie, anti-establishment aspect to them, as well. Many of the lead players were working-class and spoke with regional accents, deliberately undercutting the classic English leading-man stereotype that actors like Kenneth More, Richard Todd and Stewart Granger embodied. There was also, reflecting the new license of the times, an almost adolescent, brazen, saucy sexiness about them. And, of course, rock and pop music – and the wayward, louche, mocking attitudes of the current musical idols — played a vitally important part in the films’ appeal.
Interestingly, the singular nature of these films was often advertised in their verbose titles. Here is a random selection of post-A Hard Day’s Night releases. I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘is Name, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, Thirty is a Dangerous Age, Cynthia, Catch Us If You Can, The Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery, The Knack…and How to Get It, Morgan, A Suitable Case for Treatment, Work is a Four-Letter Word, Three into Two Won’t Go, and, perhaps the apotheosis of this short-lived genre, Anthony Newley’s Can Hieronymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?
I became interested in this type of film because I had decided to invent one for the novel I was writing, Trio. Trio, set in 1968, is about the secret lives of three characters, a man and two women, all involved, in one way or another, in the making of one of these rather silly Swinging Sixties movies — in Brighton — that I decided to entitle Emily Bracegirdle’s Extremely Useful Ladder to the Moon. All the tropes of these late Sixties movies appear. Lots of rock music, a pop-star making his film debut, a famous, glamourous young American actress, a freewheeling, it’ll-be-all-right-on-the-night heedlessness of the industrial norms of film-making, up-to-the-moment fashion statements, and a kind of youthful, wistful romanticism. Amidst all the banter and comic anarchy a lot of these films had at their core a message about true love that would not be amiss on a Hallmark valentine card.
This was nowhere more evident than in Anthony Newley’s Hieronymous Merkin film, as its full title suggests, and I used the concept of Hieronymous Merkin as a rough template for Emily Bracegirdle. Anthony Newley was at the height of his fame when he made his first film as director and, as with most of the films in this category, it is over-crammed with ambition, characters, narratives and effects.
Purportedly an autobiographical meander through the life of an ageing singer – the eponymous Merkin, played by Newley — it also flexes the usual surreal and semi-pretentious Fellini-esque and Goddardian muscles as best it can, wherever it can. It’s both a musical and a sex-romp; its nude scenes (male and female) garnered it an X-certificate. It also goes “meta” as Newley steps out of character and harangues the producer of the film (voiced by Newley) and the scriptwriters. It is, in a way, the ultimate self-indulgent dog’s breakfast but – and I remember seeing it when it was released – it has its moments. As time goes by I believe it will have a cinematic importance, if only as the exemplar, the last gasp, the final spasm of the British Swinging Sixties film.
The film was released in 1969 and was a flop at the box-office, globally. The Sixties were ending and Hieronymous Merkin and its failure drove a stake, one might say, through the heart of those curiously, particularly British films that Richard Lester had initiated back in 1964. The mood was changing once again, more sombre realities obscuring all the ditsy, surreal fun and games. Lindsay Anderson’s If was released at the end of 1968, the bloody massacre at its conclusion replicating all the international violence, riot, dissent and assassinations of the previous twelve months, it seemed. The Sixties, as they closed, were turning dark. Another film completed in 1968, but not released until January 1971, was Performance, a film that is perhaps the most fitting full-stop to the era. A strange crime thriller directed by Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg, its deliberate obliquity and powerful scenes of drug-use, sex and violence made the distributor hold back its release until – symbolically — the decade changed.
But was it the zeitgeist mutating that terminated this short-lived explosion of disorderly, wacky, sexy silliness in British cinema? The real answer is probably more prosaic. For all their notoriety and finger-to-the-pulseness very few of these films made any money, particularly in the USA. Then as now, the British film industry was and is a mere satellite to Hollywood’s pulsing star. For example, Universal Studios, it is calculated, had pumped 30 million dollars into a dozen British films in the last years of the 1960s, financing them one hundred percent. That’s over $200 million at today’s prices. One of them was Hieronymous Merkin (budget $500,000) but not one of them was a true hit. And that’s just the balance sheet from one studio. The Hollywood studios themselves, anyway, were nearly broke at the end of the 1960s, having overproduced thoughtlessly and found themselves carrying a mass of unreleased, or unreleasable films. The show couldn’t go on if there was no profit at the end of the day. And so the plug was pulled — and British filmmakers, sadder and wiser, went in search of a different type of inspiration.