You know that feeling you get when something catches your eye? Everybody tells you that it’s rubbish. You can tell yourself, just by looking at it, that it’s rubbish. But your curiosity has been aroused. You want to find out for yourself just how and in whay way it’s rubbish. And maybe, perhaps, given that you rarely go with the tide, might you discover that it’s actually not as bad as they say? And the DVD is so cheap on eBay…
Intriguingly, the film (which was also released as School for Unclaimed Girls in America, but began life as, ludicrously, The Smashing Bird I Used To Know) still has an 18 certificate. It’s clear from the most cursory glance that it would have been X-Certificated on release in 1969 but for it to have maintained that certificate into an age where standards are very much looser than they would have been then must mean either that it was much raunchier and explicit than expected for the Swinging Sixties, or that it’s so insignificant that no-one’s bothered to update the certificate for the Twenty-First Century. Without even removing the wrapping from the DVD (it’s not brown paper, in case you were wondering), I suspected the latter.
Ninety minutes later, curiosity has been satisfied but curiosity alone. Frankly, to talk about the film at all is to give it a significance it no way deserves, except as an example of the peculiarly staid genre of British sexploitation films. It is indeed rubbish, but perhaps the worst thing about it is that it is not bad as bad goes, but rather stupid, tedious and, at worse, guilty of setting itself up with a genuinely serious premise that is no more than window dressing for the supposedly sexy stuff. Which, for the prurient, consists of sexual predation on older women, attempted rape (twice) and lesbianism (about ten seconds of actual kissing between two young women, one of whom is a young Maureen Lipman). For a screen time total of about thirty seconds, at most, bare breasts on about three different women are seen. That’s your sexploitation. It might have been risque in 1969 but it’s about as racey as a broken Matchbox model now.
The film ‘introduces’ Madeleine Hinde in the lead role of Nicki Johnson, a sixteen year old schoolgirl. Hinde had one previous credit, in two episodes of the long-forgotten BBC soap, The Newcomers. A very large part of the film requires her to sit around looking blank and saying nothing, which is the only part of her role that doesn’t task her acting abilities beyond her capacity. Nicki’s story is the set-up: at age nine, visiting a funfair with her parents, her father takes her on the roundabout, with ‘ponies’ that go up and down. Nicky is terrified and wants to get off, but when her father leans over to reassure her he falls off and is kicked to death by the ‘ponies’ hooves. It’s an accident, but Nicki blames herself for it.
That’s the film’s worst part. This is a genuinely disturbed, seriously traumatised girl, about whom a serious film could and should have been made, and instead it props up crap like this. When we meet Nicki at her present age, she’s being further traumatised by hearing her mother Anne (Renee Asherson) enthusiastically and noisily fucking the younger Harry Spenton (Patrick Mower), a sleazy con-man who preys on older but still attractive women, getting money out of them to bribe his non-existent wife into a divorce and buy some money-spinning business, such as a launderette.
Nicki hates and resents Harry. It’s all down to him ‘replacing’ her father in the film but frankly he’s like all the sleazy bastards in films, as obvious a fake and phoney as he could be without a neon sign over his head (it’s not like Mower was casting against type now), with only the besotted women he’s screwing unable to see it.
Anyway, despite the trauma horses induce in her, Nicki’s favourite place is the local stables. With the assistance of her boyfriend Pete (Dennis Waterman, suppressing large amounts of his cockney accent) – who hasn’t and won’t shag her – she sags off school, goes for a ride, gets traumatised when the horse starts going too fast, has a fall, bangs her shoulder, comes home and takes off her blouse to rub linament into her shoulder, revealing her small white bra. Harry’s lounging about in his short dressing gown and tries to rape her, smacking her about along the way, but she manages to grab a peeling knife off the cocktail trolley (for slicing lemons) and stabs him in the stomach with it.
This gets her into the remand home among half a dozen other girls, all working class unlike the distinctly middle-class Nicki. For a long time she and we are allowed to think she’s killed Harry but she hasn’t, even though she stabbed him in the stomach. She’s here for what we’d now call a psychiatric evaluation, at the hands of Dr Sands (Faith Brook), who’s kind and sympathetic, except at the point Nicki starts to explain what happened and the good Doctor immediately goes up the wrong track, suggesting she came on to Harry to separate him from her mother…
(Incidentally, in a surprise development that falls flat instead of being a dramatic denouement, the Doctor breaks the news to Anne that Harry is an unmarried con-man with a track record for ‘false conversion’, saving Anne’s little money before she hands it all over to him. Unfortunately, this is the same day Nicki and Sarah break out. Counterproductive.)
But this is the main point of the film. Young, nubile, skinny-legged, bad girls, pent up together. Sex! Violence! Sex! Lesbian sex! The bouncers are outside, throwing them in. But it’s all a fake as I’ve already said. Hinde’s not getting them off and Maureen Lipman’s going no further than short skirts and knee-length boots (and pajamas in bed). Lipman is Sarah, aka Killer, the bad girl ne plus ultra of the dormitory. She’s a lesbian with a lover sneaking into bed with her for the aforementioned kiss, but she’s fallen for Nicki – genuinely – at first sight.
I have to mention the scene where Sarah sneaks into the oblivious Nicki’s bed (I swear that girl wouldn’t notice if you slapped her across the face with a wet fish) to talk. Talk is all they do, a whispered monologue by Lipman in best emoting style, showing her vulnerabilities and a background of sexual abuse. I listened to the whole thing, wondering if this was an excellent con job by Sarah to play on Nicki’s sympathies and get her to undo her pajama top, but that would have been a subtlety on a level way above anything the film could conceive: she was being genuine.
Anyway, let’s move on. The pair break out but Sarah is captured. Nicki manages to get to the antiques shop where Pete works, seeking his aid. The shop is owned by Geoffrey Burnham (an even pre-Basil Brush Derek Fowlds) who plays the role with such camp archness, especially towards Pete, his furniture restorer, that you instantly think that the reason Pete hasn’t had Nicki’s knickers down is that he’s getting it far more often from Geoffrey, but no. Geoffrey’s just as straight as you or I, as he demonstrates by breaking Nicki out of another hysterical fugue, brought on by sitting on an antique rocking horse by trying to rape her. Tut tut, Mr Derek.
By now we’ve been going for almost ninety minutes, though trust me it felt longer than a Lord of the Rings Extended Version, so we need an ending. Dennis Waterman gets to sum up the psychological element by identifying Nicki as someone who doesn’t want to be helped, who gets herself in trouble (thank heavens he didn’t descnded to Janet and John level by pointing out she wants to be punished for killing her Dad). She agrees to let him take her back. Immediately you know what’s going to happen, especially as its telegraphed by random irrelevant shots of a bloody big lorry driving along and, except that I expected her to suddenly yank Pete’s steering wheel to cause a crash, actually they meet the lorry at a bottleneck, Pete swerves, crashes through the wall and the car plunges off a viaduct and falls approximately two thousand feet (it must have been to accomodate how long the pair were in freefall) to their deaths in flames. Cheap ending or what?
Except that, cynically and clumsily, we cut to Harry at the racecourse, pulling a con job on another woman in her mid-forties who’s not getting it from anyone more trustworthy, and that’s the credits, and I can take the DVD out now.
Somewhere in this film, Lesley-Anne Down, aged 15, made her screen debut, under the name Lesley Downs, as someone called Diana, but was neither recognisable nor distinguishable. In 1974, the screenplay writer, John Peacock, would script the adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s To the Devil a Daughter: by all accounts, that’s atrocious too.
Still, my obsession has been resolved by experience, which is usually the only way to get rid of it, and my expectation has been justified. I know now what once I only suspected, which is usually a good thing. I have one more highly disregarded British film ‘comedy’ that exerted the same effect on me yet to watch, but that won’t be next week. Next week, we’ll have something I expect to be good.