No Scruggs, or my truncated journey into the mysterious film career of David Hart

By Melanie Williams (@britfilmmelanie)

I’m aware that some of what follows will sound like the makings of an Adam Curtis documentary but here goes anyway…

In the course of beavering away in various lines of enquiry into 1960s British cinema, I came across a few mentions of an intriguing 45 minute featurette from 1965 called Scruggs or A Game Called Scruggs, which had not only managed to get the hot young female star of the moment Susannah York to appear in it for a deferred fee, and US actor Ben Carruthers, fresh from Cassevetes’ Shadows, but had also got popular jazz musician and film composer Johnny Dankworth to write and record its theme (one of the few elements of the film still readily accessible) and had even managed to rope in Raoul Coutard, Godard’s cinematographer, to shoot it. With such a distinguished group of contributors, clearly this was no ordinary unambitious little programme filler and as I dug a bit further, Scruggs began to sound more and more like a short Anglicised version of A Bout de Souffle, centred on an existentialist gangster hero living his life like a poker game and the girl who joins him for the ride.

The film was also notable for having such a young director, 22-year-old David Hart, whose previous experience had been some amateur films he’d made in his teens and which he’d taken to festivals but who had nonetheless succeeded in hustling himself into the position of being able to make a ‘proper’ film. Unsurprisingly there was some press interest in this promising and impressively dynamic young meteor, and in an interview with the Sunday Times magazine, Hart espoused his working methods, which were centred on improvisation, Brechtian self-reflexivity and what seemed to be a pre-Monty Python eye for the absurd:

[Hart said to its lead actor Ben Carruthers] “You and me and Susannah are going to make a film, and the fact that a camera will be there is just an accident.” Hell, it’s not really a film at all. It’s a guy, a girl, a gun, and a chase. It’s a happening […] What we’ve tried to do with Scruggs is to let the audience know that they’re in a cinema. I walk into the action myself. It’s alienation. We want to keep the people guessing: to tease them a little. For instance, there’s this marvellous sequence where we release a parrot on Primrose Hill, and there’s a character called Uncle Max who says “The kite is a marvellous bird”, and then he reads out the section on kite flying from the Encyclopaedia Britannica. As the film progresses it gets more and more scatty.’

(Sunday Times Magazine, 10 October 1965)

Once Scruggs had been completed and had even made it to Cannes, The Illustrated London News covered it in its 14 May 1966 issue, hailing Hart as ‘a poet of the cinema’. They cited as evidence a key scene in which Carruthers and York flee the scene of a crime, ‘inexplicably climbing fence after fence, which seem like fences in the mind. The camera follows them until Susannah collapses panting and saying “What does he want me to do now?” The screen is white; no images remain. Is it the character’s reaction to the escape, or that of the exhausted actress?’ That journalist was clearly impressed by the film’s inventive imagery, as were the jury at the Salonika film festival who awarded the film a special prize for ‘introducing new cinematographic form and dealing with contemporary subjects’ (quoted in Variety, 12 October 1966). However, its esteemed cinematographer Raoul Coutard seems to have taken a slightly different view, describing the film in retrospect as ‘completely incoherent’.

scruggs

Report on Scruggs in the Illustrated London News, 14 May 1966

Sadly, it is not possible to judge Scruggs for ourselves at present because although the National Film Archive holds a negative of the film there are no viewing copies currently available. It remains tantalisingly locked in the vaults, not lost exactly – unlike Hart’s final feature Sleep is Lovely/The Other People/I Love You, I Hate You (1968) – but not fully ‘found’ either.

But what makes Scruggs really intriguing is what its director David Hart did next. By the time of Hart’s death in 2011 at the age of 66, his obituaries were unanimous on his primary significance as a public figure and it had nothing to do with filmmaking. Hart was described by the Guardian as ‘a maverick Tory party fixer and adviser’, while The Times called him an ‘influential eminence grise behind the government of Margaret Thatcher’, and the Telegraph went further in characterising him as someone with ‘a whiff of sulphur’ about him, whose ‘name rarely appeared in the press without the epithets shadowy or sinister’, and who was sometimes compared to Rasputin (although he looked more like Lord Lucan). For a taste of the libertarian credo Hart espoused in later decades, read this set of notes symptomatically entitled ‘Escaping the Tyranny of the Majority’ that he prepared for Margaret Thatcher in 1983.

hart

David Hart in later years, bearing a strong resemblance to Lord Lucan

Hart had been born into money, heir to the Ansbacher banking fortune, and had used some of that inherited wealth to fund his youthful film-making career as well as investing in the more predictably profitable business of property development, although he led such an extravagant ‘Sun King’ lifestyle that he ended up bankrupt by the mid-1970s (and condemned as delusional by the official receiver). But his previous levels of wealth were restored upon his father’s death in 1978. He made no more films after the debacle of the never-shown Sleep Is Lovely, but continued to write novels and plays as a creative outlet alongside his increasingly ‘colourful’ political activities.

Hart’s peak period of political influence was during the 1984-85 miners’ strike when his position as a so-called ‘Downing Street irregular’, one of Thatcher’s unofficial advisors, was consolidated as he travelled to the coalfields to report back on the dispute’s progress and to enlist miners to a breakaway anti-strike group, the National Working Miners’ Committee, which he ran from his suite in Claridge’s. In David Peace’s 2004 novel GB84, Hart appears only lightly fictionalised in the guise of Stephen Sweet, a narcissistic agent provocateur presented through the eyes of his chauffeur. Hart advised various Conservative governments on defence, and amongst other activities founded the right-wing think tank ‘Committee for a Free Britain’ and acted as Michael Portillo’s mentor (before Portillo left politics to become a cuddly TV personality) writing the controversially bellicose ‘who dares wins’ coda to Portillo’s conference speech of 1995 and setting up a campaign headquarters for a leadership challenge to John Major which then failed to materialise. In 2004, Hart was even questioned in connection to an attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea in which Mark Thatcher, Margaret Thatcher’s son, was embroiled. Hart was no right-wing fellow traveller but a fully committed libertarian ideologue.

sleep

 Olga Georges-Picot and Donald Pleasance in the Paramount-backed Sleep is Lovely (1968), Hart’s ‘lost’ final film

So we have here a life story of apparently bewildering disjuncture, spanning the idealistic Godard-worshipping young filmmaker immersed in the counterculture of the 1960s and the Malthusian extreme right-winger of the 1980s and 1990s. How did the teenager who made an amateur short film extolling the benefits of Zen Buddhism (1964’s Sitting Quietly, Doing Nothing, Spring Comes and the Grass Grows by Itself) end up writing something as ruthless as ‘Escaping the Tyranny of the Majority’ twenty years later? It appears to be an incoherently divergent political journey but perhaps the distance between the two is not so great as it may initially appear. In 1988, music journalist Charles Shaar Murray voiced a hypothesis, growing in popularity throughout the 1980s, that ‘[t]he line from hippy to yuppie is not nearly as convoluted as people like to believe and a lot of the old hippie rhetoric could well be co-opted now by the pseudo-libertarian Right – which has in fact happened. Get the government off our backs, let individuals do what they want – that translates very smoothly into laissez-faire yuppyism, and that’s the legacy of the era.’ Likewise Jenny Diski in her 2010 book The Sixties looked back at some of her cherished formative reading on anti-education and anti-psychiatry with a new perspective granted by hindsight: ‘we didn’t get that “freedom” was not solely the property of the liberal Left. Yet again, aside from a rigorous few, we were too young, and not thinking coldly enough, to imagine what a Margaret Thatcher might do with the word […] We were guilty of woolly-mindedness: and as in politics and education, the upshot of libertarianism was there to be seen at the time. We didn’t see it, or if we did, we didn’t think about it enough.’

Although one journalist observed in 2003 of David Hart that it seemed ‘wildly implausible that a Thatcherite hatchet-man should also be a libertarian ex-hippy’, and expressed astonishment that a man who was word perfect in his recitation of Danny the drug dealer’s threnody for the sixties from the film Withnail and I should also be a right-wing fixer of the most extreme stripe, Hart’s personal journey is not all that unusual or unique. Think of Jonathan Aitkin, the hip young journalist author of a definitive work of sixties myth making The Young Meteors who later became a disgraced (and imprisoned) Tory MP. Or Felix Dennis, the magazine publishing magnate whose consumerist titles included Maxim, Stuff and CarBuyer and who wrote the book How to Get Rich but who started out on Oz (and went on trial in connection with their notorious schoolkids issue). Or hippy capitalist Richard Branson crediting Margaret Thatcher with creating the culture for his success as an entrepreneur upon the occasion of her death in 2013.

And this is not necessarily always a case of people making the familiar political journey of taking a rightward turn in age but rather starting out with a set of beliefs even in their youth that chime far more with ideas of the right rather than the left. Even back in the 1960s, George Harrison composed ‘Taxman’ to whinge about the Inland Revenue. His bandmate John Lennon has been the subject of a particularly vicious revisionist takedown from historian Dominic Sandbrook in which he suggested that the Beatle was nothing more than a rapaciously acquisitive business magnate who prioritised money and possessions over peace and love. Sometimes it seems, as Jenny Diski suggests, that these tendencies were hiding in plain sight all along. Zen Buddhism, the subject of Hart’s first film, might usually be seen as a gentle, sensitive credo and a Western engagement with it a sign of cosmopolitan open-mindedness, but in its emphasis on detachment it can equally be read as an excuse for political quietism, and a kind of spiritually endorsed laissez-faire. No wonder it appealed to Hart.

Likewise the fascination with gambling as a form of existentialism in Scruggs might be linked to the activities and ethos of the ‘Mayfair Set’, and its casino-running figurehead John Aspinall and his friend Lord Lucan (now this really is entering Adam Curtis territory, and his documentary series on their nefarious activities). A roulette table featured prominently on the infamous ‘swinging London’ Time magazine cover of April 1966 alongside the mods and the red buses. The politics of liberation associated with the sixties counterculture were always inextricably entangled with libertarianism, as both left-wing communes and right-wing think tanks of the period dared to ‘think the unthinkable’ (to adapt the title of Richard Cockett’s book on the latter phenomenon). There is a false binary in place in understandings of the sixties as straightforwardly a site of conflict between leftist progressive permissive forces and their reactionary rightist opposition (exemplified by the bogeywoman figure of Mary Whitehouse). The truth is altogether more ideologically complicated, as David Hart’s particular personal trajectory suggests. There may be ‘no Scruggs’ available for viewing – which is a great shame, because it sounds like a fascinating film text, whether it’s an ambitious misfire or not – but there are still some important lessons we might take from the strange truncated directorial career of David Hart, and how what he did in the 1960s may have connected with what he did afterwards.

 

 

[With thanks to De Montfort University’s Peter Whitehead conference (April 2017), where I presented these ideas for the first time and gained some valuable feedback]

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