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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).

'My Generation'- and its FAB,man!

Premiered at the London Film Festival in 2017 My Generation opened to a great reception and I and my brother were fortunate to attend its premiere in Chelsea (where else for a 1960’s shindig?) and together with an associate we saw it again at the splendid (but very overpriced) Picturehouse Central in London’s Piccadilly on its general release this month.

Second viewing around I was still very impressed by the Michael Caine fronted documentary, aided by a suitably drole script by Likely Lads & Porridge creators Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. The title gives the game away about what the movie is about –it is about Caine’s, Twiggy’s, Mary Quant’s, Lulu’s, Joan Collin’s and others 1960’s- especially ‘swinging London’.

Michael Caine fronts and narrates the 85 minute documentary and the main argument he talks about is how the 1960’s were the first working class generation to do things their own way- it is a fair point and he is very good when talking about the dullness of the austere and rationing Britain you would have found post war but of course every generation argues that the existing one is boring and that you need to rebel and find your own voice.

But I don’t think we should take My Generation too seriously- its sheer pleasure is in the extraordinary range of footage that director David Batty has unearthed and presented for us of that youthful generation.

The film is at its best when it shows original footage of what one generation thought about the other – a variety of middle aged (and older) people stopped in the streets to ask what they thought about youngsters wearing long hair, wearing flowery shirts/blouses and not being able to tell the difference between men and women –something my parent’s generation frequently did (watch any classic episode of Steptoe & Son for the proof: Albert: “you can’t tell the boys from girls these days”, Harold: “I can and I’ve not made a mistake yet, mate!”).

To the current (2018’s) generation, they would probably struggle with some of the material and values on show. For example there is next to no diversity shown and the MeToo# community would be horrified to hear Michael Caine’s mother say about girls in miniskirts that “If it’s not for sale why put it in the shop window?”. The film is not as good about what the 1960’s revolution led to – the murder of Sharon Tate in the USA, addiction to drugs and how much of a wasted generation did we have?

That said, it made a change for a film about the 1960’s not to keep banging on about Vietnam or Civil Rights (as important to the decade as they both were) but rather to celebrate the time –even if it was remarkably short – when Britain was the swinging place to be and the music chosen is FAB!

Beryl and The Croucher


The latest Talking Pictures TV film worth a viewing is the 1949 effort No Way Back. It falls into the ‘Spiv’ crime thriller category of pictures that were made just after WWII, but this one has something a little extra in it.

‘Starring’ (and co-written by) Terence De Marney and produced by his brother Derrick, it is set in the world of the London boxing ring where De Marney as an over the hill veteran boxer known as ‘The Croucher’. The pugilist after too many fights ends up having to retire due to his bad eye and barely has he told his girlfriend (Shirley Quentin) the bad news, when she in a heart breath has dropped him-leaving him without a career or a girl.

The Croucher easily falls into the gutter drinking in bars until almost by accident he comes into contact with the real Star of the film –the excellent Eleanor Summerfield as his first love (Beryl). Beryl like The Croucher has fallen into bad ways- she is effectively small time hustler Joe Sleet’s (Jack Raine) moll.

Before long The Croucher and Beryl rekindle their friendship and love for each other and there seems hope for the two until Sleet decides to involve The Croucher in a botched jewellery raid. Sleet, Beryl and The Croucher end up going on the run and leaving our twosome to decide whether to fight on or go down in a blaze of glory.

In a lot of ways, No Way Back has echoes of Marty (1955) and Rocky (1976) that would follow in the decades to come. Two people who Life has not dealt any kind cards to and who both fall into bad ways, but want to improve themselves if they can.

De Marney comes over as a pretty wooden actor but he did make out for himself a fruitful career in Hollywood in the 1950s & 1960’s in TV fare such as Bonanza and Wagon Train, before ending his career in familiar UK offerings such as Dr Who and Z Cars before an untimely and accidental death on the tube.

Summerfield though is the real reason to watch No Way Back- she makes Beryl and The Croucher an appealing couple and you do root for them because of her. She was always a very accomplished actress and always worth watching in films such as Dentist in the Chair, Petticoat Pirates and The Watcher in the Woods. She did some fine work in the theatre too and a regular home for her was the ‘Players Theatre’ at London’s Charing Cross. She married The Good Old Day’s popular and verbose host Lionel Sachs.

So, No Way Back is a decent way to spend an afternoon, to see London as was in the post war years and to see Eleanor Summerfield at the top of her game.


Not such a 'Smashing Time'!

It’s rare for the British Film Institute to show a ‘bad ‘un’ but in its showing of Smashing Time (1967) as part of its ‘Girlfriends: Projecting the Archive’, I think it did that.

The film had been referenced at the recent and very good Renown/Talking TV Pictures Festival at Rickmansworth when Smashing Time’s co-star Rita Tushingham was interviewed on stage. It has been said by her that she recalled little of the making of the film – and on viewing it you can understand why.

Although Melanie Williams (Gender Politics guru at the University of East Anglia) prefaced the screening with her thoughts on it and that it did show an early view of female companionship, it was really not much better than a ‘Carry On Swinging London’. Written by George Melly the jazz man and culture critic, it is supposed to be a satire on the London ‘scene’ at that time but regrettably it falls on most counts. It can’t decide if it is a satirical comedy or musical as it does not take much for any character in the film to start warbling about something or other.

The story –such as it is – is the well-worn one of two Northern girls who come down to London to find ‘Swinging London’ and be famous. Lyn Redgrave plays Yvonne who is clearly the more assertive of the couple of friends, who insists she is ‘in the know’ about trends and how to be ‘cool’. She is also quite mean as very early on, they have their money stolen and Yvonne leaves it to Brenda (Rita Tushingham) to have to work off their fried up breakfast/brunch/lunch. In playing Brenda, Tushingham does her best to make her character real – she comes across as being smart but always in the shadow of Yvonne and always having to do her dirty work for her.

The film soon descends into a series of custard pie throwing slapstick antics to fill up the space of barely 90 minutes which drags. They even managed to repeat a poor gag where Brenda ends up continuously falling into a puddle and in-between the slapstick, there is a sub-plot where lounge lizard Ian Carmichael tries to bed Yvonne, Cockney Michael York tries to bed Brenda, Brenda gets a job at a boutique but is too smart in actually selling items and Brenda getting a job as ‘pussy’ (I did say ‘Carry on Swinging London’) at a very low brow nightclub.

The film on its release was not a success as by then Swinging London had disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. The friendship between Brenda and Yvonne is pretty uneven as there does not seem to be any real regard and certainly little love between the two women. Smashing Time has the traditional ending where the two girls put their differences behind them and end up going back ‘up north’-presumably learning whatever lesson has been taught.

It is very much a period piece – if you want to see parts of London in the 1960’s and a long list of British character actors (Arthur Mullard, Irene Handl, Toni Palmer, George A Cooper….) doing their stuff then this may be to your taste, but personally it would be better to wait and see My Generation narrated by Sir Michael Caine for a more authentic and riveting journey though London and the 1960s….