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Sunday, 1 May 2016

Teenage ‘X’ Certificate

Now there’s a title to increase the hit rate! I had better say up front that this is about ‘X’ certificate films I saw before I was eighteen. Apologies if you were searching for something else, but please stay: at least then you won’t be looking at things you shouldn’t – unlike I thought I was when I saw What’s New Pussycat?, Alfie and Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush.

It would once have impressed my son:

Did you see any ‘X’ films before you were eighteen?”
Yeah, loads!”
Can I go see one?”

In fact, if my memory is correct, I saw just these three ‘X’ films while still at school. It was a big deal: a coming of age thing; something to brag about. It is interesting to look back to see what all the fuss was about. Not much is the short answer.

Poster: What's New Pussycat?
It would have been late 1965 or early 1966 when, barely sixteen, and propped up by the company of four or five mates, I plucked up the courage to go up to the box-office to buy a ticket for What’s New Pussycat? The fact it was ‘X’ rated was more important than the actual film. One of us was not even sure what we had paid to see. He thought we were there for Tom Jones who of course sang the theme tune. We laughed at that more than the interminably dull and irrelevant film.

It is said that Woody Allen’s original script was hijacked by Peter Sellers for his own glorification with the result that even Peter O’Toole and a cast of delectable actresses were unable to redeem things. If you are amused by characters with silly names and the occasional weak joke (e.g. the Goon Show past its heyday), then you might find it funny. None of us did.
Lascivious adulterer,” accuses the wife of demented psychoanalyst Dr. Fritz Fassbender.
Don’t call me that until I’ve looked it up,” replies Peter Sellers, overdoing the mock Austrian accent.
Why it was given an ‘X’ certificate is hard to see. I suppose that as a farce laced with with sexual innuendo  (“Satire, slapstick and sex  ... swinging sixties style!”) it had to be, but it was very tame by today’s standards, and more ‘beatnik fifties’ than ‘swinging sixties’. Even the word ‘square’ was square to us.

Poster: Alfie
Some months later we went to see Alfie, a classier film with a deeper philosophy, fascinating to watch again now, but just as hard to like as it was then. I suspect we found Michael Caine’s philandering and thoroughly objectionable character, Alfie Elkins, too self-assured and sophisticated to relate to. He wore smart suits, blazers, shirts and ties, and inhabited a world where people were bus conductors, chauffeurs, lorry drivers and brewery workers: not the kind of life we aspired to. I remember Alfie’s monologues to camera, and the stylish background jazz track, but not too much of the plot or other characters.

Were we supposed to cultivate his misogynistic attitude in ourselves? 
I find I'm quite willing to overlook the odd blemish in a woman, provided she’s got something to make up for it. Well, that’s what were all here for, innit - to help each other out in this life.
Alfie’s ‘X’ certificate was undoubtedly justified due to scenes of extra-marital sex and abortion, even though they were implied rather than explicit. Again, the period was pre-Beatles, early nineteen-sixties.  Not what we wanted to see.

It almost put me off the cinema completely until around another year passed and along came an ‘X’ rated film that was actually enjoyable. In Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush, Barry Evans played a likeable sixth former unable to concentrate on his ‘A’ Levels in face of distractions from some of Britain’s trendiest and most fanciable young actresses. Now that was more like it: the permissive Sixties. At last a film about us, or at least how we liked to think of ourselves.

Poster: Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush
Evans, with his good-looking boyish face, infectious smile and just the right degree of gullible innocence, was perfect in the leading role, but there was scant storyline and some awful fantasy sequences. Watching again now, I persevered to the end (admittedly in chunks), and the longer you watch, the more you want to travel back in time to re-experience the joy and optimism of the nineteen-sixties: at least for a brief visit. It is reassuring that a writer of Hunter Davies’s calibre can be responsible for such mindless claptrap. Maybe the book, set in Carlisle, is better than the film made in Stevenage.

I can see why we thought it the height of groovy at the time. It was exactly how we imagined the swinging sixties to be, even though it took another decade for our small Yorkshire town to catch up. The music track, mainly from Traffic and the Spencer Davis Group, was spot on. The ‘X’ certificate seems to be down to what was then considered strong language (Denholme Elliott gets “pissed”), the focus on sex with suggestions of promiscuity, and outrageous nudity when Barry Evans goes skinny dipping with lovely Judy Geeson.

Only a couple of things stayed with me from the film. One is when Barry Evans toasts the Queen with a cup of eye lotion. The other is the film’s most profound philosophical reflection:
The ones you fancy don’t fancy you, and the ones that fancy you, you don’t fancy. 
I wish though that I had paid more attention to the ending: that despite all the parties and revelling, these sixth formers still did enough work to get into Manchester University.

After Mulberry Bush, most of the cast became film and television regulars (e.g. Diane Keen, Adrienne Posta, Christopher Timothy, Nicky Henson, George Layton). Many of them turned up in one rôle or another in the Doctor series based loosely on Richard Gordon’s books. Barry Evans became the callow medical student Michael Upton in Doctor In The House, then a newly qualified doctor in Doctor at Large and later an evening class tutor in Mind Your Language. Sadly, he died in mysterious circumstances in 1997 at the early age of 53.

I could watch episode after episode of the Doctor series, most of which are on YouTube. The five programmes from the 1971 series of Doctor at Large written by Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie are hilarious. They feature Arthur Lowe as Dr. Maxwell, the drop-dead-gorgeous Madeline Smith as his daughter and a set of patients played by an accomplished troupe of British character actors. I was helpless with laughter at the idiotically surreal episode Congratulations it's a Toad, which harks back to the days when toads were used in pregnancy testing. The ‘Tadpoles in the Ice Cubes’ sequence (from 19:15 for approx. 5 minutes) is a master class in comedy acting from Arthur Lowe and Fulton Mackay.

Two similar ‘X’ films I might have liked around this time were Georgie Girl and Blowup. I saw neither until much later.

What’s New Pussycat, Alfie and Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush are now all ‘15’ certificates on DVD. But in finding this I also realise that their certificates have hardly changed from when I first saw them myself. I am dismayed to discover that until 1970 it was perfectly legal to watch ‘X’ certificate films at the age of sixteen. In other words I did not see any ‘X’ films under age at all. Just don’t tell my son.


The inclusion above of the promotional poster images is understood to be fair use. The links to the trailers for What’s New Pussycat and Alfie, and to the whole of Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush and the Doctor at Large episode on YouTube may not work indefinitely if the copyright owners block them. At the time of writing you can also find the whole of Alfie on YouTube in several parts.

2 comments:

  1. I went to see 'Midnight Cowboy' when I was about 15 and didn't understand it at all. Then I went to see 'Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' and there was nakedness in it. I also saw 'Butch Cassidey and the Sundance Kid' released in 1969 a year before X rated was increased from 16 to 18.

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    1. I see they all came out in 1969 by which time I was seeing films at least once a week. I remember Midnight Cowboy and Butch Cassidy very well, but Prime of MJB left so little impression I wonder whether I saw it at all. Of the three I would choose Midnight Cowboy because of the 'dreaming of a better life' element.

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