The 1970s could have been amazing time for British Film. They should have been amazing. In the 1970s Britain had the opportunity to much more clearly and impressively define its own cinematic identity.
There are many reasons cited why, for example, French cinema is so unique in style and content and why most French films are unmistakably French. One of the most popular reasons people use to praise French film is that, generally, French Films are made by French people with a French audience in mind. They are not, it is felt, making a film that is solely designed to do well in American theatres. That is merely a bonus for the producers and foreign distributors. One of my biggest bugbears about British film and television is that rather than make British-centric material to appeal first and foremost to a British audience, it is often the case that everyone involved seems to have at least one eye on the American market and rather than being satisfied with telling the best story they can as befits the content and budget, there are many casting decisions, shooting locations, national stereotypes and unnecessary flair in the style and delivery of the piece that indicate quite clearly that the film is designed to look better on a show reel than it is on a cinema or TV screen. They might as well have a caption on the screen all the way through it saying “look at me America! I can do this properly like you”.
Britain, In the 1970s, for what appears to be no specific reason, took the bold, exciting and liberating step of no longer trying to impress America. This is should have been the dawning of a new era of interesting, personal and national cinema for Britain but rather than just stop trying to impress and compete with America the British Film Industry decided to go one step further and make almost NO films of commercial value at all. Nearly all British cinematic output from the 1970s are feature film spin-offs of television sitcoms or sex comedies. Nothing wrong with those two types of film, but it seems that was all we made. Other than Get Carter and The Long Good Friday try to think of another commercial feature film made with British Money or a British Studio during the 70s. I mean, it’s not impossible and there are some obvious ones, but it’s not easy as you think it should be given that we are dealing with a 10-year period.
So, was Britain finally making British Films for British audiences like France? It would appear so. But if that is the case it does seem unimaginative and lazy on the part of the film industry that sex comedies and TV sitcom movies would be the main staple. I have no snobbery about the genres but to think that that is almost all we made is a staggering thought, not least of all because nearly all of the films are terrible.
The main problem, in a nut shell, with the British Sex Comedies of the 70s is that they aren’t funny, sexy, or even really have any actual sex in them – which I would have thought is a pretty basic pre-requisite of a sex comedy. The nearest you get to anything funny or resembling actual sex is watching Robin Askwith’s porcelain-white arse bumping up and down in the ‘confession of’ series. There is usually a steady procession of bare breasts and bums to keep you visually fixated but despite their AAA rating these films are hardly adult or erotic. The simple fact of the matter is that if you watch any of these films for the sole purpose of laughing or wanking you will be bitterly disappointed!
If anything, these awful films are so misjudged and amateurish that they end up being surprisingly charming and strangely endearing. Whilst the plots and situations are silly and the films do not take themselves seriously, the comedy is usually sub-standard vaudeville – in Adventures Of A Private Eye, for example, a policeman unable to remember the number for ‘999’ is one of the better ‘jokes’ of the film (and of the series).
To be fair to the films of this era they have no delusions of grandeur. They are in many ways content to be feature film versions of saucy seaside postcards and like the picture postcards the films contain the ‘hilarious’ interactions and conversations of busty, promiscuous women, randy male chancers, outraged middle aged people and funny foreigners. Even the usually reliable Carry On Team who previously got genuine gold and harmless, joyful fun from such caricatures were not immune from banality, producing during this drought of originality the two worst Carry On films: Emmanuelle and England. Emmanuelle is truly a nadir for the series (and film in general) and features in one scene a hugely embarrassed looking Kenneth Williams parachuting in the nude and looking as he does so like an Albino Twiglet.
However, this reliance on preposterous stereotypes and simplistic, outdated social conventions that make up the staple of these films is so wonderfully naïve that it creates a strange nostalgia that make you view the film somewhat favourably. Even Confessions from a Holiday Camp with all its casual racism and sexism is still oddly charming and somehow seems harmless.
The fact that people are frequently being tricked, duped or coerced into sexual shenanigans, often against their will or without their being in full possession of the facts, like Gabrielle Drake’s nude photography disaster in Au Pair Girls, is never rapey but rather like an inoffensive, albeit nudie, drawing room comedy. It’s often like watching a Brian Rix farce where people lose more than their trousers. These films are so silly and unbelievable that you can’t take any content seriously. That said, it still doesn’t alter that fact that they are all, apart from one film, poorly made, forgettable wastes of time and money.
I always just feel sorry for the actors. There is no way anyone can come out of these films with any dignity (nude role or not). It’s one thing to graduate from RADA and find out the first thing you’ve been put up for is ‘bird in bar with big knockers’ and that’s all you’ll get cast for a whole decade, but spare a thought for all the brilliant, established British actors who are forced to take part in these films just to pay their bills. The 60s provided such a wealth of popular, comedic and dramatic acting talent and it is such a shame to see most of their ensuing film work consisting of bit parts in these sex comedies
Think of poor Harry H Corbett, one of Britain’s greatest serious actors and one of the first to truly embrace method acting. He was in Steptoe and Son for nearly 12 years. He was a household name and he had earned his spurs on TV. By rights he should expect to make the progression into successful feature films that show off his exceptional talents for serious and comic acting. But this was the 1970s and Britain didn’t make films anymore and so is left with nothing more glamorous than bit parts in Adventures Of A Private Eye and Percy’s Progress. Percy’s Progress?! A glorified cameo in the sequel to the film about the world’s first penis transplant? That’s how the British Film Industry treats one of its greatest actors? It’s truly unbelievable.
It wasn’t just Harry H Corbett…Talent like Diana Dors, Jon Pertwee, Irene Handl and practically all the Ealing comedy supporting cast regularly pop up in films like The Amorous Milkman, The Au Pair Girls, Rosie Dixon – Night Nurse, What’s Up Nurse!, Come Play with Me and all the Confessions of /Adventures Of films and it’s just heartbreaking to see them humiliated by having to take the only work available to them. I don’t know how John Le Mesurier felt but I know I died a little inside every time I saw him hilariously fainting in his guise as yet another embarrassed lawyer or politician who has had the misfortune to unexpectedly see an inappropriately unclothed woman.
Also, the sheer number of people whose last film appearances are in these films is, actually, quite heartbreaking. Denis Price, Arthur Askey, Lance Percival, Avril Angers to name but four…
However, out of this strange period of British film came a very interesting film. The diamond in the rough, the shining light of British Sex Comedies. The film is Eskimo Nell. Eskimo Nell is, in essence, a sex comedy about the frustration of only being able to get funding for rubbish sex comedies. It is directed by Martin Campbell (Yes, the same one who did Casino Royale and Zorro) and written by and starring Cult horror/comedy/sexploitation genius Michael Armstrong. The plot centres around the exotic, but dodgy, producer Roy Kinnear who green lights a film of The Ballad of Eskimo Nell and the subsequent struggle for the filmmakers to complete four different versions of the film. This is because Roy Kinnear has got funding from four different backers who all insist on having their own version of the tale told as their contract stipulates – a family friendly version, A Gay Western, a Kung Fu movie and a Hardcore Porno.
Clearly based on the Armstrong’s real life struggles to gain financing for projects and his creative differences with producers and studios this film contains thinly veiled attacks on real people in the film industry and is a very satisfying satire on the adult film industry and filmmaking in general. Roy Kinnear is brilliant in his role as Benny U. Murdoch and I believe it to be one of the best things he has ever done. The rest of the film is actually pretty funny too and, despite being tame by today’s standards, there is sauciness a-plenty.
Eskimo Nell is a sex comedy because it had to be to get funded but the filmmakers managed to stick two fingers up at the industry by also making a film that is funny, sexy and has fine actors getting great lines and interesting characters to sink their teeth into – which makes their appearance memorable for all the right reasons. Eskimo Nell is a film worth praising in its own right, but even more so for being the best British Sex Comedy of the 1970s. Mind you when you think of all the others, it hardly had any stiff competition…