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The Knack -perhaps not worth knowing?

My latest sojourn to London’s South Bank was to see with a fellow cineaste was to the National Film Theatre to see something from their Woodfall Films’ season. Woodfall was a British production company that effectively created the British New Wave explosion of gritty, realistic dramas in the 1960s like Saturday Night & Sunday Morning, A Taste of Honey and Kes.

The only film in the season that had any real appeal was The Knack…and how to get it (1965). It was directed by Richard Lester and starred a very young (23) Michael Crawford, Rita Tushingham (who seems to have been in every British film in the 1960’s), Ray Brooks and a new name to me Donal Donnelly.

The film amazingly won the main film prize at Cannes at the time and was named the Outstanding Comedy for 1966 (when it was released), but I think it fair to say that The Knack has not aged well. It is a time capsule of a movie and centres round the activities (or non-activities in the case of Michael Crawford’s character) of super stud Tolen (Ray Brooks) and his menagerie of very willing female lovers –including amongst them Jane Birkin, Jacqueline Bissett, and Charlotte Rampling. Tolen shares a very art deco house with timid schoolteacher Colin (Michael Crawford) who objects to the amount of womanising that his house mate gets up to– mainly because he has no experience of girls. Between them come two interlopers – the obligatory girl from the north (Tushingham) and a new tenant (Donnelly).

Based on a play by Ann Jellicoe, the film has two parts to it. The first 30-40 minutes where Richard Lester channels the Beatles films he directed (A Hard Day’s Night) with a lighter touch and a sense of ‘Swinging London’. He adds in a Greek Chorus of London characters telling you what was wrong with young people and this is where the film flows as Crawford’s character tries to learn ‘The Knack’ on how to get a girl. Brooks’ character is a Rocker turned Mod who appears to have an amazing effect on every blonde or brunette in the capital –although Brooks’ tips would be seen differently from the space of 50+ years.

His observations to Crawford are that women want to be dominated and that “girls only get raped who want to be raped”. Richard Lester uses the second half of the film to centre on the rape issue when Brooks tries it on with Rita Tushingham, leading to her running away claiming to all and sundry that she has been raped (she hasn’t). The film makes a lot of fun of the rape issue (in one scene Tushingham goes up to a housewife and tells her she has been raped and her response is “not today thank you!”- I suspect a younger, more feminist audience would struggle understanding this attempt at 1960’s humour.

In the end I think I was disappointed with The Knack. It had its good moments when it focussed on the London of the middle 1960’s, and you can see where Crawford got a lot of his Frank Spencer moments in the stunts that he performs with a lot of exuberance, but its last 30-40 minutes waned and it got bogged down on who was going to bed the Tushingham character first.

Rita Tushingham was as always excellent but she was very typecast as the plain girl from the north trying to find swinging London and after her role in Dr Zhivago (which she made in the same year as The Knack, her roles in films dried up.

Unlike Michael Crawford, Ray Brooks’ later career stumbled and probably peaked after he starred in Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home (1966) and one of his later film appearances was in Carry on Abroad (1972). He is perhaps better known now for his TV work in series such as Big Deal (1984-86), Growing Pains (1992), voicing Mr Benn for Children’s TV, and EastEnders (2005-2007).

Director Richard Lester although an American, based himself largely in the UK and hit the big time when he directed The Beatles’ films including Help (the same year as The Knack) before he made a number of blockbuster movies such as Juggernaut (1974), The Three (& Four) Musketeers (1973-1974) and co-directed Superman II (1978). Lester effectively retired after his close friend Roy Kinnear tragically died in a horsing accident whilst Lester directed him when making The Return of the Musketeers (1988).