National Film Theatre, London 12th/13th October 2006
In our endless search for the sights and sounds of the 60s, we are prepared to go anywhere, anytime, at the merest suggestion of a rare track unheard for decades, or a film clip, unseen since those heady, colourful days. Sometimes, we are rewarded for our persistence, as me and my good lady were, when we attended two of the NFT’s Stop! Look! Listen! Programmes.
They contained collections of short clips from magazine-type programmes made by the (Orwellian-sounding) Central Office of Information, to publicise Britain’s popular art and culture overseas, principally to the Commonwealth. Those lucky Canadians, Nigerians and Australians got to see some eye-popping colour footage we never did. Yes, colour! With only a few exceptions, the clips were in glorious, if sometimes faded colour, and I would contend that nothing gives you the flavour of that magical decade more than the colours people were wearing in their clothes.
‘Swinging London Fashion’ opened up with an item about late ‘50’s ladies couture, but quickly moved on to some wild footage of Twiggy and Peggy Moffitt wearing op art jewellery. The Twig and The Peg need little introduction to readers of Modculture, and to see the two of them dancing and fooling about in very little apart from jewellery ensured my undivided attention. If you’re new to the scene, you’ll almost certainly have heard of Twiggy already, but for Peggy, just think ‘two big eyes on a stick, crowned with a geometric bob’ Her breathtaking features are a template for a good ten per cent of mod girls, with Twiggy making up at least another ten, maybe more. A further clip of Twiggy and friends striding, running and driving around an otherwise grim, grey London in the mid-sixties came and went all too quickly. A trip down ‘our’ Carnaby Street (i.e. not the pedestrianised lumberjack boot and sports shirt-selling tourist-infested ninth circle of hell it is today) followed, and we hungrily devoured the briefest glimpses of shops like Lord John, Domino Male, and the outrageously-titled ‘Tres Camp’ (!) It was hard to decide whether to look at the shop windows or the people looking in, and even harder to do, so short was this clip. Another short featured what the average girl wore to the office, and how the lads of the 60’s got any work done at all, is beyond me. Interviews with John Stephen, Tommy Nutter and Laura Ashley (I know, I know, but the programme covered more than just the 60s) and ended with a long feature on Zandra Rhodes.
As if that wasn’t enough, the following night’s offering, ‘Projecting a Modern Britain: Music and Fashion’ was better still. Opening with an unintentionally hilarious analysis of The Beatles music by a very dry and dusty orchestral musician (yes, I also felt that their music contained some ‘splendid cadences’). New ideas like a dress that could be reduced in hem and arm length by pulling a string were trail blazed, as well as some slightly disturbing footage of a group of hard-looking girls in an amusement arcade. Brother mods, I was relieved when they started talking to each other and comparing their jewellery, rings nearly an inch high, made up of layers of multi-coloured plastic, sandwiched like a liquorice allsort. Phew, they looked like they were going to clock somebody. A clip of Billy Fury singing ‘Phone Booth’ on board a boat on the Thames followed. Made for the African continent, and using presenters from those sunny climes, a happy crowd of what looked like British and African students danced at this New Year’s Party. On an open boat. On the Thames. They must have had three layers on under their overcoats. A clip of stunning American model Kellie Wilson wearing chain store fashions came next, leaving us with the wish that chain stores still sold such beautiful stuff.
Students of the macabre would have thoroughly enjoyed the clip of Procol Harum playing their excellent ‘Homburg’ in threads I can only describe as ‘The Pothead Pixie look.’ You’ve probably seen the Top of the Pops (R.I.P.) black & white clip of the band doing ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ in outlandish eastern satins etc., well, this gave you the full-on synapse-frying experience in lurid colour. Roy Harper sang ‘Last Day in April’ and restored some decorum to the proceedings, even if he did appear to be wearing a Buffalo Bill moustache.
The final offering came on, and my good lady thought she had died and gone to some sort of mod heaven. A quarter-hour clip about the glorious Biba store! The camera followed the owners, Barbara Hulanicki and Stephen Fitz-Simon around a typical working day, making decisions about how to display their gorgeous wares, what to get in tomorrow, all in the environs of the famous Kensington store. Barbara, with her near-spherical blonde bob on her tiny body, looked like Lady Penelope come to life, as she glided about the place. Her sales assistants looked impossibly young, and the meteoric success of Biba is less surprising when you see just how beautiful it was, and remember how inexpensive its clothes were, well within a working teenage girls’ reach.
If you couldn’t make it, too bad, because this footage, unseen in Britain before and unseen anywhere else since it was aired on Commonwealth countries’ TV 35-40 years ago, has doubtlessly been returned to its archive limbo for another four decades. I’d have bought a ticket to see just one of these clips, (well, maybe not the Procol Harum one, no matter how much I like their music) but if there’s even a tiny chance of them being shown on TV, (BBC4 can you hear me?) or brought out on DVD, well …