Clive Donner's quintessentially 'Swinging Sixties' romp Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush finds its way to Blu-ray in September as one of the BFI's latest releases in their Flipside strand. The film depicts sixth-former Jamie's journey into sexual maturity as a sort of Rake's Progress for a chronically virginal boy about (new) town. 17 year old Jamie informs us of his odyssey into sexual awakening directly to camera, a la Alfie, breezily welcoming the audience into his lower-middle class life as he cycles around Stevenage. Stevenage was the first of the nearly thirty new towns in England, Scotland and Wales that represented the post-war management of overpopulated areas such as London or fulfilled the shortfall in new housing stock so desperately needed. These modernist dreams, an extension of the Abercrombie Plan, summarise the best and the worst of the late 1960s, both the failed potential of the 'new Britain' that 1951's Festival of Britain showcased so spectacularly and the explosion of modern design and planning that gradually and briefly lifted the country out of its post-war austerity.
In the role of Jamie is the then 23 year old Barry Evans and it is ironic that the optimistic, fresh promise of a new life beyond the urban claustrophobia of the big cities is encapsulated in a key performance from which Evans himself could not escape. He would forever repeat his innocent, fresh faced charm in sitcoms, Doctor in the House and Mind Your Language, and virtually re-create Jamie's antics in British sex-comedy Adventures of a Taxi Driver. Evans is certainly the best thing in Donner's film and captures well the frustrations of a teenage boy desperate to become a man as the freedoms and permissions of the late 1960s offer more and more opportunities for sexual experiences at a younger age. The Sixties milieu - of sexual liberty, of progressive pop design, of new music - is caught in aspic here with the new town of Stevenage, planned and partly designed by principle architect and designer Leonard Vincent and Ray Gorbing, shot as a glowing, full colour vision of future Britain; the latest designs by Ossie Clark, Foale and Tuffin worn by the female characters; and the story soundtracked by Traffic and The Spencer Davis Group.
It all makes for a very attractive package even if artistic license clearly indicates that Stevenage wasn't altogether as 'with it' as this film proclaims. Unfortunately, and more in hindsight, the film's release in 1968 marks it out as the last in a line of British films of the Sixties that just simply soaked up the exuberance of the times and reflected them back to us. In the same year, revolution hit the streets of Paris and Prague, Chicago, Berlin and Mexico. As historian Dominic Sandbrook explained: "Youth was a new thing in the Fifties, and by the Sixties you had young people who, for the first time, were self-consciously generational. In America, Britain and Europe the growth of education and affluence meant that young people were suddenly defining themselves as separate from, and indeed, against the beliefs and values of their parents." The film emerged at a time when the Sixties dream was slowly turning into a nightmare. It's that nightmare that can be experienced as Mulberry Bush's antithesis in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange with its 'ultra-violence' showcased on the Thamesmead Housing Estate almost as a stand-in for Stevenage itself.
Whilst Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush may be a flashy, colourful slice of Sixties life, it still has a patina of the ongoing generational and class divides informing Jamie's odyssey through his lower middle class life, structured by family (his mother and father clearly don't understand him and are awkward about his 'permissiveness'), education and leisure - that can be seen in the film's bedfellows - Alfie, The Knack, Georgy Girl and Smashing Time - and suggests the only escape from middle class suburbia is to do well in the sixth form and get to university as quickly as you can. However, very rarely did the underclass kids make their way to university in the 1960s and very rarely were they clothed in the trendiest way that Donner's film seems to imply.
One of the funniest observations of class in the film is when Jamie dates various girls from different backgrounds, with the clearest distinction being between the working class Linda (Adrienne Posta) and the snobbery of 'posh' Caroline Beauchamp (Angela Scoular). Linda is seen as the 'runt of the litter' in the available girls, is obsessed with chips and, in Jamie's summary at the end of the film, is visualised as sitting in a pile of chips having inherited a shop of her own. Caroline whisks Jamie home where he's introduced to her father (wonderful Denholm Elliot), her mother (Maxine Audley) and their Swedish au pair Ingrid. Over dinner, the family quickly get drunk as Mr. Beauchamp fancies himself as a wine expert. The evening ends as a version of La Ronde with Mrs. Beauchamp desperate to get into Jamie's pants, Mr. Beauchamp pursuing the au pair and Jamie caught in between. Caroline, too drunk to do anything, passes out.
So its optimism wears off somewhat. Jamie finally achieves the sexual conquest of the one girl, Mary played by Judy Geeson, he has fancied from the beginning of the film, and whom always seemed out of reach. But then through his own lack of emotional development he selfishly causes the relationship to self-destruct. The summery frolic with Mary by a glittering lake, restored to its full glory in this edition and only ever previously seen in full by the Swedes, turns sour and Jamie vows not to get involved with women again. That soon changes of course and there's also the promise of a different life at university. Whilst it may not have much intellectual feminist rigor to support its female characters, it does show Mary as a woman capable of making her own mind up about men. Her powerful emancipation as opposed to Jamie's emotional and sexual insecurities is reminiscent of the relationship between Billy Fisher and Liz in the film version of Billy Liar.
Full of young actors who would become household names or cult favourites, including Christopher Timothy, Diane Keen, Nicky Henson, Roy Holder and George Layton, this is a charming film that shows Britain as a colourful, progressive society, even if it actually wasn't for many in the 1960s. Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush was largely forgotten upon release and it reflects, with exaggeration, the times in which it was made and whilst it does touch on the shifts in post-war consciousness that affected the country both politically and culturally, it does miss the march on how those times would so dramatically change during 1968. It's comedic exuberance, very wistful, naive and attractive here, can eventually be seen partly translated into the nadir of the British sex-comedy film genre of the 1970s as well as offering an abrupt contrast in tone and style to Lindsay Anderson's coruscating satire If... and the post-1960s bitter aftertaste of All The Right Noises, A Clockwork Orange and Get Carter. Oddly, its indeterminate nature seems to summarise Barry Evans' own frustrated career path.
The film has been restored for this release and whilst it may not be the most detailed high definition picture, the colours are very strong, with good detail and excellent flesh tones, and perfectly captures Alex Thomson's luminous cinematography and Brian Eatwell's considered production design. Sound is reasonable, supporting a good, clear dialogue track, but I was occasionally aware of some odd distorting effects to sounds in the background but not enough to spoil my viewing.
The package comes with a superb booklet that includes an essay from Steve Chibnall, with some warm, personal reminiscences from him about the film, from author Hunter Davies who delves a little into how his original novel, on which the film is based, came about and Vic Pratt's bittersweet appreciation of the lovely Barry Evans. It also comes with a biography of director Clive Donner as well as notes on the supporting material, including an interesting view of the development of new towns by Mark Tewdwr-Jones.
- Complete uncensored presentation of the main feature
- Alternative censored version (Blu-ray only)
- Alternative censored sequences (DVD only)
- Because That Road is Trodden (Tim King 1969) - A poetic, black and white short that explores in a dream-like narrative the fantasies of a public schoolboy
- Stevenage (Gordon Ruttan 1971) - Stevenage Development Corporation's hard sell celebrating their new town's status as an icon of modernist, progressive British design and town planning. It reflects the optimism of Donner's own main feature. You'll want to start looking at properties in the town after watching this and the film. An archive gem.
As if in diametric opposition to Mulberry Bush's exuberant proselytising of the 'swinging Sixties' milieu within suburban new towns, the BFI are also releasing Barney Platts-Mills paean to the communities that over enthusiastic town planners and Labour policies left behind: Bronco Bullfrog. In his 1969 feature, Platts-Mills pushes French New Wave realism to the fore, shooting in black and white in the East End with a non-professional cast to chart the inter-relationships between young, disenfranchised teenage lads falling foul of the law as their boredom ensures they indulge in criminal activities. It also examines what happens when one of them, Del Quant (Del Walker), finds love in the form of Irene (Anne Gooding) and sees it as a catalyst to escape, on his newly acquired motorbike, from the suffocating and nihilistic decay of London's East End, much as Jamie finds education and affluence as his preferred exit from suburbia in Donner's film.
Bronco Bullfrog maps out its territory in grainy monochrome and observes its working class slice-of-life drama in the greasy spoon cafes, the 'city in the sky' council estates and the still uncleared bomb sites in and around Stratford. Del and his gang, trapped in a spiral of unemployment, the lure of petty crime and by angry parents, take any opportunity to make a bit of money. They hook up with a Borstal boy, the strangely named Bronco Bullfrog (Sam Shepherd) and rob goods trains of aspiring consumer products they can flog back to their neighbours and friends. Into this sub-cultural 'suedehead' arena of male-bonding and its urge for freedom, sexual experience and a job worth doing, Platts-Mills weaves the 'Romeo and his Juliet' sub-plot of Del and Irene.
They yearn for an idyllic life in the country, feeling at odds with the grim reality of the impoverished areas of the city and their parents' expectations of them. Platts-Mills switches his focus from the rough, underclass battles between street gangs and between the generations (Del's hypocritical father and Irene's snobbish mother are constantly bickering at the two youngsters) to the idyll of Del and Irene's motorcycle journey into the country, in almost a British forerunner to Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen's own attempts to wrestle free of conformity in Badlands, and to visit Del's uncle and persuade him to let them stay. Alas, it all goes horribly wrong. Returning from the country, and with Irene's mother alerting the police to Del's 'kidnap' of her daughter, the law eventually catches up with the couple whilst they are staying at Bronco's flat.
Platts-Mills constructs a raw, gritty narrative around a group of non-actors who were it seems the very delinquents the film portrays, often vandalising Joan Littlewood's Theatre Royal in Stratford and harassing the actors who would come to work there before Littlewood hit upon the idea of bringing them into the theatre and channeling that energy into acting and improvisation. Platts-Mills was an admirer of Littlewood's approach to realism in acting and in 1968 eventually made a documentary about the boys Everybody's an Actor, Shakespeare Said. Out of this experience, Platts-Mills worked with them to develop the ideas and characters seen in Bronco Bullfrog.
There is something wonderfully unpretentious and awkward about the acting in the film and, although the film was made under much different circumstances than Donner's Mulberry Bush, it is honest and truthful about its depiction of life in inner city Britain at the fag-end of the Sixties, reflecting the similar drive to authenticity in Garnett and Loach's work, especially in Kes and Poor Cow, and the realism of Truffaut and Italian neo-realist directors like Rossellini. And yet, despite its bleakness and the open ended conclusion to the film, it demonstrates that this underclass still have aspirations, still want to get on in life and often set out to achieve their victories with immense humour. It's just the means and methods and the morality attached to them are very different, offering a biting critique of the exhausted state of Wilson's Labour government and how it left a good proportion of the working class behind to fend for themselves in the late 1960s.
A forgotten gem that the original distributor British Lion couldn't even begin to work out what to do with, and unceremoniously pushed off its London debut screening by Olivier's Three Sisters despite the protests from the young cast when Princess Anne turned up at Olivier's premiere (she later came to a screening of Bronco Bullfrog at their local Mile End cinema at the invitation of Sam Shepherd). With the original negative then dumped in a skip in the 1980s and apparently rescued by a lab technician, it's a miracle that the film survived and that it remains so fondly regarded to this day. Now an incredible time capsule, it also shows us the route that British cinema could properly have taken in the early 1970s once foreign investment dried up. Instead, we ended up with the diminishing returns of past-their-sell-by date Carry On films, the cultural cul-de-sac of countless sex comedies and international co-productions that simply disregard the British experience. This is also genuinely adventurous British cinema that clearly foreshadows the work of a later generation, such as Shane Meadows and Andrea Arnold.
The film has been lovingly restored by the BFI and now, in high-definition, probably looks the best it ever has. There is a vivid sharpness and exceptional contrast to many sequences, particularly in Del and Irene's journey into the country where the detail really comes alive. Sound is good but with the film literally made on the hoof dialogue can be indistinct at times. It reflects the way the film was made but it also shows off the excellent score from the group Audience. A packed booklet examines the story behind the film's conception, its place in British realist film tradition, the score, and a career biography for Barney Platts-Mills. There are also notes on Platts-Mills 1968 documentary which is also on this release.
- Everybody’s An Actor, Shakespeare Said (1968, 30 mins): Platts-Mills’ documentary charts Joan Littlewood’s theatre work with the teenagers who would star in Bronco Bullfrog.
- Joan Littlewood interview (1968, 21 mins): the formidable and outspoken theatre director discusses her career. One of Bernard Braden's Now and Then archive interviews now preserved at the BFI.
- Seven Green Bottles (Eric Marquis, 1975, 35 mins): a cautionary tale of seven young delinquents, played by non-professional actors.