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

Zeppelin vs. Pterodactyls

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An unmade high-concept from Hammer Films’ early Seventies dalliance with pulp adventure, if you must know. Via Boing Boing via Jess Nevins via Airminded where we learn:

The story was along the lines of THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT, with a German Zeppelin being blown off-course during a bombing raid on London and winding up at a “lost continent”-type place.

Rather like the Civil War balloon that’s blown off-course in Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island then, which ends up on Captain Nemo’s volcanic island of giant birds and insects. Of course, the mere fact that a film was never made is no obstacle for YouTube’s army of diligent mash-up artists and you can see Zeppelin v. Pterodactyls re-imagined as a 1936 Republic Serial here. (And on a pedantic professional note, an older font should have been used for the titles since Hermann Zapf didn’t design Palatino until the 1940s.)

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It was another horror company, Amicus Productions, that produced The Land that Time Forgot (1975) (and its ER Burroughs-derived sequels, At the Earth’s Core [1976] and People that Time Forgot [1977]) so this Hammer concept may have been an attempt to follow Amicus’s lead and exploit the momentary flush of enthusiasm for ERB and co. Or perhaps they thought that Zeppelin movies were the next big thing after Michael York’s First World War adventure, Zeppelin, in 1971. No one in Hollywood these days would dare finance a film with a title like this. The same dumbing-down imperative that gave us Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone (because Americans can’t be trusted to know what the Philosopher’s Stone is) would no doubt want “pterodactyls” replaced by “dinosaurs” or the wording of the whole thing reduced to ZvP.

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U-boat vs. dinosaurs! Illustration by Frank R Paul for a 1927 reprint of The Land that Time Forgot.

The Land that Time Forgot was scripted by Michael Moorcock and New Worlds‘ (and Savoy Books) illustrator James Cawthorn. The pair did a decent job with the story although the film as a whole is let-down by silly monster effects, the pterodactyl (or is it a pteranodon?) in this instance being a lifeless thing swinging from a crane. Moorcock and Cawthorn worked together on Tarzan Adventures which Moorcock was editing as a teenager so they appreciated the material at least. This wasn’t the only connection New Worlds had with pulp cinema, more surprisingly JG Ballard had provided a story for Hammer in 1970 with When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth. Hammer missed an opportunity in not hiring Moorcock for something seeing as he’d just written one of the first retro-dirigible (and pre-Steampunk) novels, The Warlord of the Air, in 1971. UK film producers had some of the best writers in the world under their noses yet could only offer them trash to work on. No wonder the British film industry went down the tubes in the Seventies after the American funding dried up.

My favourite pulp adaptation from Hammer is The Lost Continent based on Uncharted Seas by Dennis Wheatley. A typical Hammer product in the way the story is frequently preposterous yet the whole thing is made with the utmost seriousness. Amazon summarises the plot, such as it is:

This film starts out like The Love Boat on acid, as a cast of unpleasant characters, all with horrible secrets, take a chartered cargo ship to escape their troubles. Unfortunately, the leaky ship is carrying an explosive that can be set off by sea water and it sinks, stranding many characters in a Sargasso Sea populated by man-eating seaweed, giant monster crabs and turtles, and some Spanish conquistadors who think the Inquisition is still on.

Eric Porter is the ship’s captain, a very good actor who was superbly sinister and convincing as Professor Moriarty in Granada TV’s Sherlock Holmes adaptations. The Lost Continent was Wheatley’s shameless plundering of William Hope Hodgson’s Sargasso Sea tales, the book being originally written in 1938 when Hodgson was less well-known than he is today. Until the Pirates of the Caribbean films this was about the closest thing on screen to Hodgson’s world of drifting weed, lost galleons and man-eating monsters, so there you have its cult value. Just be ready with the fast forward button if you try and watch it.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Moorcock on Ballard
Coming soon: Sea Monsters and Cannibals!
Revenant volumes: Bob Haberfield, New Worlds and others
Druillet meets Hodgson
Davy Jones
The Absolute Elsewhere