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• • • Being a journal by artist and designer John Coulthart, cataloguing interests, obsessions and passing enthusiasms.


 

Smashing Time

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Writing about the late Lynn Redgrave last year I picked out this film as a career highlight despite not having seen it for a very long time. Watching it again recently was an interesting experience, not least for the way it connects to more recent points of obsession, none of them evident the first time round.

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Carnaby Street antics.

Smashing Time was directed by Desmond Davies in 1967, and the direction is as perfunctory as you’d expect from someone whose career before and after was mostly for television. Of more interest is the script by George Melly, a bisexual jazz singer, writer, and lifelong evangelist for Surrealist art. This was his first job as a screenwriter and he seems an odd choice; he was 41 at the time, and his portrayal of Swinging London and its denizens is often typical of the acerbic older generation’s view of the younger groovers. It’s never as cynical as the Private Eye crowd but without Melly’s humour the tone might seem patronising. That said, it was the satire magazine that originated the names of the two lead characters, Brenda (Rita Tushingham) and Yvonne (Lynn Redgrave) being Private Eye‘s names for Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret respectively. The story is a simple one of the pair coming to London from the north of England in search of “a smashing time”, and, in Yvonne’s case, an attempt to make it big somehow. Misadventures ensue.

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Brenda in the Too Much boutique.

Along the way there are digs at avant garde artists, lecherous men, greedy pop promoters and wealthy boutique owners. Melly leavens his barbs with yet another example of the Lewis Carroll influence on late-60s culture. There’s a scene in the Jabberwock Gallery and a host of Jabberwocky-derived character names: Tom Wabe (Michael York), Charlotte Brillig, Mrs Gimble (the always wonderful Irene Handl), Bobby Mome-Rath (Ian Carmichael) and Jeremy Tove. There’s also an Alice Boojum and a band named The Snarks (real-life psych band Tomorrow) who don’t get to play, unfortunately. Tomorrow, who appear in the final party scene, are the sole connection with the genuinely hip London of 1967. Everything else we see is the Sunday supplement view of the city with Carnaby Street, shots of Chelsea and a dishevelled Camden, ending with that bright new landmark of 1960s London, the Post Office Tower.

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Yvonne begins her pop career.

My childhood enthusiasm was obviously taken with the film’s superficial qualities—there are so many songs it’s almost a musical—whereas now I’m impatient with the laboured slapstick but enjoy all the peripheral stuff. Many of the documentary shots of streets away from the centre are a reminder of how shabby and grimy the capital really was at that time, as was the rest of Britain when there was still a century of industrial soot on the walls. I also realise I’d missed the double-meaning of the title: “smashing time” isn’t only a modish phrase for an enjoyable experience but a nod to the way Brenda and Yvonne cause havoc wherever they go. The jabs from an older musician at brainless pop culture would have annoyed some but Yvonne’s hit song, I’m So Young (which is actually very good), has lyrics which resonate today:

I can’t sing but I’m young
I can’t do a thing but I’m young
I’m a fool
But I’m cool
Don’t put me down

Lynne Redgrave is fantastic as Yvonne, completely convincing in a part which requires her to be loud, selfish and petulant without ever being too obnoxious. She also wears a different wig in nearly every scene. Among other moments of note there’s some fleeting gay humour with a pair of waiters camping it up in the Sweeney Todd pie shop (as does Murray Melvin in another scene). And there’s also an incident which, being an Aubrey Beardsley obsessive, I have to draw attention to:

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Was this the first appearance of Beardsley’s work in cinema? The V&A exhibition which began the Beardsley revival had taken place only a year before, and I can’t think of any examples earlier than this. The William Morris wallpaper is a fitting touch as well.

Reservations aside, this is a film I could watch more often than “properly” psychedelic fare like Wonderwall. For a snapshot of the period, it’s still a smash, baby.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Lynn Redgrave, 1943–2010
Through the Wonderwall

 


 

Posted in {art}, {beardsley}, {film}, {gay}, {music}, {psychedelia}.

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8 comments or trackbacks

  1. #1 posted by Márcio Salerno

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    Goood old days, when I wanted to travel and meet the Swinging London, but was too young to do it. I’m grown up today, but the swing is long gone… and my pocket is empty…

  2. #2 posted by Thombeau

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    What a wonderful post, as always! I’ve never heard of this flick before you mentioned it last year; I wonder if it was even released in the US of A. It looks a bit of a camp-fest, thus I shall have to investigate!

  3. #3 posted by John

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    I think it did get a US release originally as many films at this time were bankrolled by Hollywood studios. Swinging London was more attractive than Haight Ashbury for Americans since it was less of a threat. But I doubt the film turned up on TV much afterwards, it’s very British and would have dated quickly.

    This and a handful of other films from the time were the reason I headed directly to Carnaby Street when I first visited London in the early 70s. It was full of tourist-trap shops by that point but still felt magical to me. I bought a souvenir Carnaby Street sign which I wish I still had.

    Smashing Time is very camp–George Melly wrote the intro for Philip Core’s guide to camp–and great fun apart from the slapstick scenes which go on too long without being very well-directed. Worth watching for the two leads although Rita is better on her own in The Knack and A Taste of Honey; here she’s a foil to Lynn’s egomania.

  4. #4 posted by Thombeau

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    Thanks, John! And you’re spot on about the Swinging London vs. Haight Ashbury thing.

  5. #5 posted by 3lbFlax

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    And thinking of Smashing Time always brings to mind the Television Personalities song, which is a bonus.

    No UK DVD though, which is a smashing shame (and the cheapest price for the US DVD on Amazon is over £50). I got the BFI release of Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush for Christmas, and it’d be nice to see Smashing Time get the same treatment.

  6. #6 posted by John

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    I was thinking the same about the BFI but things will come down to who owns the rights. Paramount financed Smashing Time so this indicates they don’t really care about it enough to keep it in circulation. Some of these things may be available on demand one day but I’m not holding my breath.

  7. #7 posted by Lola Walser

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    Regarding appearances of Beardsley’s art in film, Albert Lewin’s 1945 adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray features a copy of the famous Dent edition of Le Morte d’Arthur illustrated by Beardsley, with the stylised lotus flowers on the cover. The book is prominently displayed on a side table in Dorian’s house and visible in several scenes.

  8. #8 posted by John

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    Hi Lola. You’re quite right, I should have remembered that one considering I’ve written about the film here a couple of times! So the question now is whether there’s any earlier than 1945. Nazimova’s silent Salomé doesn’t count since that has costumes based on Beardsley’s art but none of the art itself.

 


 

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