Our latest guest blog is by Jingan Young, a PhD candidate at King’s College, London. Her research project ‘Soho on Screen’ explores British post-war cinema’s representation of London’s hedonistic playground. Jingan will present her research at our project symposium ‘From Profumo to Performance: New Perspectives on 1960s British Cinema’, which will take place at the University of York on September 1 2017.
James Bond. The Beatles. The Cuban Missile Crisis. The Profumo Affair. Founding member of Private Eye and staff writer for the satirical television series That Was The Week That Was (1962 – 63) Christopher Booker proposed that 1963 was the “year old England” died. 1963 saw the harshest winter, the collapse of the Conservative Establishment…this was the beginning of a media fueled frenzy that proclaimed Britain had become “sex crazy.”
Wolf Rilla’s X-rated critical and box office failure “The World Ten Times Over” (“Pussycat Alley” as it was renamed for its American release) embodies the spirit of the early 1960s and reflects the beginning of the permissive society in Britain.
The film follows a day (and night) in the life of two twenty-something Soho club hostesses, the docile and cynical Billa (Sylvia Syms) and the “feckless and flyaway” Ginnie (June Ritchie) who live together in a one-bed flat above Frank’s Delicatessen. The real-life location is Formosa Road in the heart of Little Venice. The narrow streets mimic the “urban village” arrangement of Cosmopolitan Soho (and, as I found when I recently visited the location, still very much does).
Whilst Ginnie revels in her affair with the married heir to a property empire Bob Shelbourne (Edward Judd), Billa must “endure” a day’s visit from her prudish father (William Hartnell) a schoolmaster from the country who, upon discovering her vocation as a club hostess who takes lovers left and right, denounces her a “sinner”. The film then plunges into a melodramatic abyss: Billa reveals she is pregnant though she doesn’t know who the father is and Ginnie attempts suicide.
Upon its release critics were of the consensus that the film was far too concerned with an attempt to convey “realism” and that it failed abysmally in its emulation of the “less inhibited” European filmmakers of the period like those of the French New Wave.
Interestingly, critics of the period did recognize its so-called “lesbian finale.” Stephen Bourne cites this is one of the first British films to depict a gay relationship between women. This was confirmed by an interview with Syms in 1989 with the Gay Times :“As far as I was concerned my character was in love with June Ritchie and I wanted to play it that way, but in those days one could only suggest lesbianism.”
The tie-in novella published to accompany the film’s release by Pan Books tells the story from the perspectives of the male and female characters. Perhaps this was an attempt to appeal to a new consumer and possibly to garner an older audience who had become slaves to television. Cinema admissions dropped 755 million in 1958 to 501 million in 1960 as a result of closures of cinemas and the meteoric rise of the small screen.
But this also meant that subject matter – mattered. For “In British cinema, as in the culture at large, the stifling censorship apparatus quickly crumbled, and sexual themes became a commonplace in mainstream films and in the now more visible pornography industry.” (Jim Leach, “British Film”)
This film fits neatly into the category of the “girl problem” British film which was popular from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s. This cycle included films like My Teenage Daughter (Herbert Wilcox, 1956), (incidentally starring Sylvia Syms) which follows problematic 17 year old Janet who falls in love with Tony (Kenneth Haig) and Rag Doll / Young Willing, and Eager (Lance Comfort, 1961) in which 17 year old Carol escapes her abusive alcoholic father for London only to shack up with and fall pregnant by Soho wannabe gangster and alleged pimp Joe Shane (Jess Conrad). That Kind of Girl (Gerry O’Hara, 1963) tells the story of Eva, an Austrian au pair who, after having sex with several men, contracts a venereal disease.
These films are also categorized within the “social problem film” genre – which Richard Dyer states as films that are “focused on subject matter that have traditionally been thought of as being ‘outside of’ history, and therefore class struggle – that is to say, sex and family.” The social problem film cycle’s major narrative structures hinge on women. In the case of TWTTO: the story of a young girl who is lured to the glitter of the city and is corrupted by it confirms Dyer’s thoughts that the social problem film is “very unclear as to how much is the corruption of the city and how much is perversity in the girl [and] often these films contain thriller structures in which a woman is revealed as the culprit…” (Dyer)
The relationship between two women is dependent upon their individual representations of the establishment and the new world order, of traditional values and modernity. The screenshot above of Billa combing her hair, an act of routine and ritual whilst Ginnie lounges about on the bed with a teddy bear further emphasizes their roles in the household: Billa cooks and cleans for Ginnie (even helping her bathe) whilst Ginnie, the juvenile, often performs acts of physical violence towards her by smashing glasses or making repetitive gestures of irritation.
In one scene we are guided through The Xtacy Club in Soho, and Rilla places us right into a smoke-filled, cramped, sweaty and debauched space where balding brash men drunkenly fondle their sober female hosts who coquettishly demand their client order more and more Champagne. This highlights the ways in which “sex was politicized in the 1960s” most notably by the tabloid journalism surrounding the Profumo Affair which led to the downfall of the Conservative government and “unlocked the outrage about declining moral standard which had built up during the 1950s.”
TWTTO marked the end of two careers: By 1964, the gritty realism of The British New Wave was out, the glamorous misogyny of Bond was in. Wolf Rilla directed four more B-films before he retired to run a hotel in Provence.
This research was presented at the Literary London Conference 2017 at the Institute of Education in Bloomsbury in July 2017.