Reviewed: Smashing Time at the NFT

by Modculture 25 November, 2007


Those nice fellas at The Flipside managed to secure not only the use of a print of Smashing Time, but also a personal appearance by the delightful Rita Tushingham! In case you haven’t run across this little belter of a film before, I’ll summarise:

Two girls from the North of England, Yvonne & Brenda, come down to London in search of ‘The Scene’, which they’ve heard is located somewhere around ‘Carnaby Street’ and we follow their hapless journey from the drive of St Pancras Station, forty years before the glittering refit that transformed it into a sight worth seeing, but here, begrimed with eighty years of soot, and in disrepair, to Camden Town, the result of asking a drunken gentleman of the road the way to that more fashionable street in W1, all the way to that dreamy thoroughfare of fashion, to the more upmarket of West London’s boutiques, fashion shoots and Yvonne’s thwarted pop career, then the long walk back to St Pancras and home.

The journey they had! Scripted by the late, much missed George Melly, respected jazz musician, journalist, wit, raconteur and all round good egg, it pokes gentle fun at the Swinging 60s, with its impossibly young media stars, ambisexual fashions and endless appetite for excitement. As a victim of the Mod Age, Melly had more reason than most to despise the pop music scene in general and Mods in particular. In the late 50s/early 60s, jazz was a double-headed behemoth, its trad head the object of intellectual/student admiration, and its modern head the seductive opiate of the cool people. Hard to credit it now, but back then, jazz was well on its way to becoming the most popular music in the world. Then came pop and buried it, in the USA and UK, anyway. However, Melly’s script is no boot in the gut, but always a belly-laugh at the expense of the faux-sophisticates and fools who made up the periphery of the pop scene, who kidded themselves they were running it all, when the whole joyous inferno was actually the toy of a few sussed, but rather traditional business types. 

Our heroines, irrepressible but selfish Yvonne (Lynn Redgrave) and frumpy but adorable Brenda (Rita Tushingham) find themselves caught up in a desperate struggle to survive being stuck in London after the theft of their savings, (£24, 0s, 0d for all you pre-decimal nuts) an unpaid for meal of fried everything with bread and scrape that necessitates Brenda doing the washing up from hell while Yvonne slips away to pursue her dream of landing a pop career in the as yet unlocated Carnaby Street. As Brenda finds herself in a food fight that owes a lot to classic silent comedy slapstick, Yvonne gets her photo taken by ace snapper Tom Wabe (Michael York) as an example of how a girl shouldn’t dress in the 60’s. This scene is the stand-out eye-popper, with beautiful colour footage of Carnaby Street’s boutiques on a busy day, Yvonne swinging her handbag as she strides mannishly past such shops as ‘Domino Male’, ‘Tre Camp’ ‘Clothes for Him’, the pavement awash with Dolly Birds and Dandy Dans in their stunning technicolour threads.

With Yvonne being made a fool of by the snobbish Wabe, Brenda crosses paths with a second-hand clothes shop owner played perfectly by the ever-welcome Irene Handl, who kits her out in what is to Brenda, dowdy Victorian gear, but to the Scene people, the latest in Vintage Chic. She is spotted by Charlotte Brilling, a boutique owner played with considerable relish by Anna Quayle, and offered a job in ‘Too Much’, a hangout for her upmarket, aesthetic friends. Two exotics, played to the max by Murray Melvin and Paul Danquah, make a surprisingly frank appearance, wearing their homosexuality on their pristine sleeves. Danquah’s white silk collarless jacket, part of a classic late Mod ensemble, almost out-Sammy Davis Juniors Sammy himself. After a brief episode working in a Bunny-style club, with Brenda saving Yvonne from the amorous advances of ageing lecher Bobby Mome-Roth, (Ian Carmichael, suitably caddish), the girls find their luck changes, and they win £10,000 in a Candid Camera-type TV show. Yvonne proceeds to blow the lot on a pop career, presided over by Jeremy Tove, an exuberant Jeremy Lloyd perfectly cast. Recording a brilliant spoof of a pop single (I don’t know a thing but I’m young, BA BA BA BAH!) brings Yvonne temporary success, but they need one huge publicity stunt to propel her into the stratosphere of fame, a party at the top of the Post Office Tower (Telecom Tower to younger readers).

Meanwhile, Brenda is being courted by Wabe as the new face of ‘Gauche’ Direct Action perfume, in a brilliant pastiche of the Paris student riots as their advertising campaign. 

Yvonne’s ruinously expensive party at the PO Tower is attended by the cognoscenti, a dippy John & Yoko – like couple, a small spaced-out Twiggy clone, several gangsters, a Botticelli cherub – haired DJ and many others, who all end up splattered against the walls of the revolving restaurant as it gathers momentum, being put into overdrive by Brenda as revenge on Wabe for making fun of her friend’s fashion sense.

Spoof  it may be, but an affectionate one, and this film is to be relished right to the very last shot of our girls walking miserably up the deserted Charlotte Street, on their weary way back to St Pancras and home. If you know someone who has a tape dating from one of its rare televisual outings, beg them to lend you it.

What made this evening under Waterloo Bridge extra special was the presence of Rita Tushingham, who bounded up to the mic like a teenager, talked animatedly about the film and her co-stars and took questions from many audience members. Rita remembered it went down well in the USA, and she recalled with obvious affection the film’s making. A short ‘home movie’ followed, showing a scene being filmed, with Yvonne defacing a poster bearing her friend Brenda’s sophisticated look for ‘Gauche’ perfume, and this provided the evening’s only sad moment. The beautiful colour of this little home movie has survived with grater clarity and intensity than in the print of ‘Smashing Time’ itself. Age and bright projection lights have taken their toll on the film emulsion, but the intervening 40-odd years have certainly not done so to the delightful Rita Tushingham, still with her trademark bob, and now working again. Our time with her had to be brief, as she was off to see a short she had made.

My good lady and I spotted a few faces from today’s Mod scene in the audience, but if you couldn’t make it, fear not. The Flipside are continuing their search for prints of unusual, hard to locate and downright weird films, and will be showing them on a regular basis at the NFT for the near future.  A walk across Waterloo Bridge, to Kingsway, just in time for the recording of a Ready Steady Go! at the BBC Theatre, was the end of a perfect evening. Buy us a drink at the NFT bar sometime, and we might tell you where that rip in the time-space continuum is.

The Scenester

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