It used to be thought, back in the 1960s, that there was something noble about cities; living in them, experiencing the squalor (as a non-inhaler, a detached reporter), bearing witness to the end of empire, the acne-encrusted barbarians at the gates. Scars of war were still visible. Overgrown railway tracks like third-world gall-bladder removals. Streets were monochrome, as was human flesh: heavy, powdered, sagging. Complexions of suet made from recycled newsprint. Men lost their heads in clouds of pipe smoke and women protected themselves behind shellac helmets of hair, eyelashes like fly traps. Life was indoors, segregated, peculiar. If you had to travel, you walked fast, seeing nothing: clipclopping like a stripper between engagements. Or one of those City bankers, black as pints of stout, in their school-extension uniforms, photographed by Robert Frank. Beetling between the cracks of sooty buildings. Holding back the terror. One day it will all come down.
Reporters don’t come more detached than that salaried sleepwalker, Marcello Mastroianni, in La Dolce Vita. Fellini’s 1960 portrait of Rome – loving tribute masquerading as exposé – was unpunctuated, informal. But the melancholy Italian matinee idol didn’t translate into London, looking – when brought to Notting Hill for John Boorman’s Leo the Last in 1969 – jet-lagged, traumatised. Absent. Like the shabby stucco of the alien territory he was visiting. A performance phoned in from another country.
Rome was old, queeny, a museum insulted by traffic. The Paris of Jean-Luc Godard was a newsreel, with accidental poetry, captured by that dynamic camera-sniper, the Indo-China veteran Raoul Coutard. Los Angeles showed its underbelly, its toxic spread, in a mix of documentary and polemic fiction known as The Savage Eye, shot by Ben Maddow, Sidney Meyers and Joseph Strick in 1959.
But film in London was always a difficulty. The gap between the accepted version, the stiff-necked industrial product of those great suburban factories, and the gamey trash of the ghetto, was a chasm. Camp theatricals and rigid technicians, remaking literary classics, scorned the lowlife with their huckster quickies. A defining image comes in the Soho viewing theatre where a group of men squeeze up to watch the rushes of a city-shocker made by a wealthy director who would be dead by the age of 25. The Sorcerers was the first proper feature by Michael Reeves. You have Reeves, posh establishment, and a quorum of barbered faces, money men, hustlers. Tony Tenser, publicist for Miracle Films and the man who invented the “sex kitten” tag for Brigitte Bardot. Tenser was the former partner of Michael Klinger, a club-owner with dubious connections. Together they produced two films by Roman Polanski. Patrick Curtis, an American, was keen to get into the business and was married, at that time, to Raquel Welch. The party was completed by the film’s director of photography, Stanley A Long, and his chum, the line producer Arnold L Miller – those unnecessary initials signalling a rather desperate bid for respectability by an odd couple who surfaced in 1965 as the makers of an uncelebrated exploitation flick called Primitive London
In the cramped viewing theatre you have the classic London package: class, crime (a blood-soaked, serial-killer movie with Boris Karloff), property speculation, pornography, transatlantic schmoozing, aspirations towards critical acceptance by way of cultural cannibalism. The tender eroticism of the deal. That, according to the writer Derek Raymond, a Soho habitué, was the point of any exchange between insider and civilian: “To work the gelt out of the pocket.” Nobody ever lost money operating on the Xerox principle: discover an energy source, copy it, copy it again and keep going.
Primitive London was a Xerox, by way of those jaunty “Look at Life” programme fillers, of Gualtiero Jacopetti’s 1961 hit, Mondo Cane. Jacopetti travelled the world in quest of savage sexual rites to capture and expose. The world paid its respects at the box office. Klinger and Tenser, cinema owners, skin-flick promoters, spotted a trend. They signed on as executive producers of this daring new hybrid: part tit-show, part satire, part tabloid editorial. Primitive London never strayed far from its Soho roots – keeping the emphasis on that “prim”. Miller produced, wrote and directed. Long (future director of Adventures of a Plumber’s Mate, On the Game and Naughty) operated the camera. Ian Ogilvy, star of The Sorcerers, didn’t think much of Stan’s craft: “Very B or C team, frankly.” But Long had been around for years, producing, directing, facilitating: 8mm nudies, exotic postcards – and even, it is claimed, taking over, seamlessly, from the respected cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, to complete the last third of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. He wasn’t expensive and he had his own equipment.
The weird thing is that, seen again, Primitive London is revealed as a watermark (or scum-on-the-bath) for our city at a moment that was not yet the 1960s as we think of them. The psychedelic labyrinth of infamous memory starts around 1966 with Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup and is buried alive by another, neurotically frenzied documentary, Peter Whitehead’s Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London. Which is cod colour supplement, rather than News of the World: a timid shuffle of celebrity, unsure about having a camera thrust up its hooter; Mick Jagger, Julie Christie, David Hockney and all the others, before they knew quite how to do it, be themselves.
Primitive London opens with a private aircraft, a lift into the clouds (a nudge towards Antonioni’s L’Eclisse). The proximity of airfield and city was not yet a cause for anxiety. Long had financial interests in aviation. He could rent his own machine to his production. The voice of a mid-Atlantic narrator, David Gell, pitches the theme. The city is an argument between sentiment and realism. In the Miller/Long exposition, realism very soon declines into surrealism of a peculiarly British kind. A bloody birth, child held aloft like a chicken – and, later, slaughtered fowl on hooks, the assembly line; dead things heading off to the freezer compartments of one of those new Green Shield stamp supermarkets. Robotic showgirls parading their disenchantment on the tiny stage of Churchills club, where every night is New Year’s Eve. Old men in white coats do terrible things to young women in chairs. A bald tattooist dips forward to peck a bluebird into the shoulder of a bleached blonde. Mannequins parading topless fashions will be cut against cows. Men in greasy suits watch women in fantastically architectural underwear. Something very strange has happened to the nipples. They have grown sparkly crusts, prophylactic devices to deny their natural function, as a source of milk for babies. Fat wads of white male flesh, matted hair on a pregnant turkey, are pounded by black hands.
Everything in Primitive London is borrowed, short-changed, asset-stripped; everything is a morning-after memory of something better. As if the film-makers had absorbed the London visions of Colin MacInnes and Jack Trevor Story, without reading any of their books. Klinger and Tenser, the executive producers, had been associated with Harrison Marks, on Naked as Nature Intended. Long and Miller shape Primitive London as a film about voyeurism, for voyeurs. They feed on traces of the kind of European art cinema Tenser and Klinger were importing for their Compton-Cameo outlets. But where Tenser’s client, Bardot, gets to undress out of doors, alongside the blue Mediterranean, the parade of pallid flesh in Primitive London is strictly under the pavement, in a cellar, a hole without windows.
The form of the documentary follows the pattern ordained by John Betjeman for his much-loved television essay, Metro-Land. Music hall with a pinch of sermon-as-performance. Whenever the voiceover moralising of Primitive London begins to flag, cut to a stripper. A suburban wife-swapping party. “Car keys dropped into a brandy glass.” The surrealist pantomime of beauty contestants removing their padding. The grim jollity of Churchills club with its eternal cabaret is the framing device. A great night out as the anticipation of a monster mixed-drink migraine. Mouths furry with other people’s tobacco smoke. Business folk from the sticks and villains up from the East End watching an unforgiving parade of boys in straw boaters and showgirls dancing as if they were stamping on cockroaches.
Buried inside the medicine-bottle colours of Primitive London are refractions of respectable British cinema, the films that go into the reference books. Wrestlers summon up Gerald Kersh’s 1938 novel, Night and the City, as well as Jules Dassin’s 1950 film adaptation. Male bodies, down on the floor, grunting and heaving, suggest Francis Bacon. Lumpen rockers, interrogated in forensic close-up, fade into Sidney J Furie’s The Leather Boys. Beatniks and their haunts pay tribute to a British genre of fascinated social embarrassment, films like Guy Hamilton’s The Party’s Over and Edmond Greville’s Beat Girl
You could read Primitive London as nothing more than a location-hunting expedition for Blowup – which was released one year later, in 1966. The hierarchy of the city, hospitals, clubs, advertising agencies, airfields, polite orgies (with little black dresses left over from Jeanne Moreau in La Notte). Miller and Long conduct a series of interviews with representatives of the coming youth culture, mods, rockers, victims of pinball autism. They contrast the crooner Terry Dene, forgotten at 24, with Billy J Kramer. No more awkward exchange has been committed to film since James Mason was persuaded to chat up the denizens of a Whitechapel dosshouse for a television version of Geoffrey Fletcher’s The London Nobody Knows.
One leather boy, lasciviously framed, is asked a question that becomes prophetic in the way that only subterranean exploitation flicks can achieve. “If you were the prime minister, what would you do?” The youth grooms, grins, fires back: “Get out of it quick.”