Bursting the bubble: The Touchables (1968) and its stately, inflatable pleasure dome

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‘Dear Bobbie, I am afraid I have to report a further disaster to the dome’. 

It is 12 November 1967, and things are not going well for the producers of The Touchables.  John Bryan, of Film Designs, has written to Robert Garrett of Film Finances, the completion guarantee company, to inform him about the latest in a series of problems with one of The Touchables’ key sets, described in an early version of the script as ‘a beautiful transparent dome … about eighty feet high, towering above the nearby trees.’  When built, it was the largest transparent pneumatic dome in the world.

The dome is the perfect setting for a film that director Robert Freeman claimed not to see as a story: ‘It’s more an atmosphere or a vague modern environment.’  Freeman had developed the film from the title, which he saw as both ‘evocative and [having] slight erotic connotations.’  In the film, the dome is the country retreat of a group of four girls – Sadie (Judy Huxtable), Busbee (Marilyn Rickard), Melanie (Ester Anderson) and Samson (Kathy Simmonds) – who kidnap a pop star, Christian (David McBride) and hold an ‘indoor Olympics’ to compete for his sexual favours.  This was, as an advertisement in Variety put it, ‘the kind of pleasure-dome that Samuel Coleridge … never hallucinated’.

Despite claiming that he wanted The Touchables to be the first film to fully explore the character and motivations of ‘the type of girl in England today which hasn’t really been covered yet’, Freeman also described the film’s design as possessing ‘a slight science fiction quality’ and of action taking place within ‘different fantasy worlds’.  Art directors Peter Hampton and Richard Rambaut create so successful a fantasy world, however, that The Touchables purported desire to chronicle contemporary developments in British gender relations becomes essentially fantastical, too.

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The dome is the country retreat of a group of four girls who kidnap a pop star, Christian, and hold an ‘indoor Olympics’ to compete for his sexual favours.  

With its polished aluminium floor and see-though walls, the dome appears simultaneously boundless and finite.  Its transparency allows a view of the landscape in which it is located – Frensham Little Pond, near Farnham in Surrey – to permeate its man-made membrane, situating the interior of the dome in its wider rural setting.  Yet the slightly opaque quality of the plastic creates a hazy barrier that keeps what is inside in sharp, brightly lit focus, and renders what is outside less precise, more impressionistic. This separates the dome from the outside world, creating a sense of distance that is all the more pronounced because the shapes and colours of that outside world are still recognisable.  The dome plays with the eye, and with the viewer’s perception of space and distance, like a giant piece of three-dimensional op art.

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The dome was an attractive backdrop to many of The Touchables most memorable sequences; it was dressed sparsely, and its fairground carousel bed adds an appropriately carnivalesque atmosphere.  External long-shots shots show the dome resting in the landscape like a huge bubble, ethereal despite its vast size, at once there and barely there; external medium shots show a set so otherworldly, and whose size is so difficult to judge, that it appears unreal, more poorly constructed model than actual dome.

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Fabricated by Pakamac, the dome had been designed by Arthur Quarmby, an architect who was hugely excited by possibilities offered by the combination of plastics and pneumatics.  Building with these materials and technologies had the potential to free designers from some of the restraints that had previously determined a building’s formal and aesthetic properties, and made possible some of the more playful, ovoid/spherical designs that emerged during the 1960s.  Demonstrating that the phrase blow-up had more than one meaning in the period, Quarmby had in 1964 developed a prototype inflatable chair – a type of furniture which, like paper dresses and cardboard seats, spoke of the modernity and disposability of a certain kind of 60s fashion.

A few years later, Quarmby recalled that the dome desired by director Robert Freeman was an inherently problematic shape: ‘a three-quarter sphere is a pretty dodgy form pneumatically – pressure and uplift conditions vary around it and a difficult concentration of stresses develops at the crown.’  In short, the dome looked stunning, but was prone to damage caused by the wind.  This was an issue would haunt the production, especially as shooting on the film did not start until September 1967 – just in time for gustier autumn weather.  Indeed, concerns about the weather, and the spiralling cost of using the dome, persuaded the producers to switch location shooting from a site in the Lake District to meteorologically calmer Surrey.

Following various ‘mis-adventures’, Film Designs took delivery of four different domes, each of which cost £2,400.  The daily progress reports compiled by production manager John Oldknow give a flavour of problems faced:

Monday 6 November: ‘[Third] Dome arrived on site at 8.30 a.m.’

Thursday 9 November 1967: ‘Dome successfully inflated.

Saturday 11 November 1967: ‘The dome was totally destroyed at 12.15 a.m.’

The production team eventually adopted a fatalistic attitude towards this capricious plastic god: ‘It is obviously impossible to foretell what will happen with these domes, though from past experience it would seem unlikely that we will complete shooting without further disasters’.

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With each new bubble came more, and increasingly restrictive, instructions as to use.  For much of the shoot, the dome had to be deflated if wind speeds rose above 30mph, although there was some concern after the initial inflation of the third dome that this might be lowered to just 10mph.  Days were lost as the producers arranged meetings to insure the dome(s).  Because high winds were likely to burst the dome’s crown, the crew became much interested in atmospheric conditions: the policy that was eventually agreed obliged the production to contact ‘the nearest official meteorological forecast office’ twice a day.  A recording anemometer was installed on site for good measure.

The production team eventually adopted a fatalistic attitude towards this capricious plastic god.

It was initially anticipated that it would take 50 days to shoot The Touchables.  In the end, the production overran by 34 days, and dome was held to be the root cause of 28 of these.  This slippage to the schedule was, of course, hugely expensive.  Budgeted at £301,055, The Touchables ended up costing £150,000 more, with the dome held responsible for at least £90,000 of this additional expenditure.   Because the dome was so central to the film, when it was out of action, there was not always much else for the cast and crew to do, yet they still needed to be paid.  It appears that so desperate were Freeman and Bryan to make progress that some scenes were rewritten so that they no longer featured the bubble.

Looking back on his involvement in the film, Quarmby suggests that the various mishaps that befell the production inspired a new ending: ‘the [earlier] bursting was so effective that it was done again, deliberately, at the climax of the film.’  This kind of serendipitous, almost aleatory approach to film production seems in keeping with some of the excesses of the British film industry in the 1960s, an industry whose bubble would by the end of the decade have burst in a similarly dramatic manner.

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