PROSTITUTE/ DVD Review

Another trawl through the archive by the BFI this month has brought us Tony Garnett's directorial debut Prostitute from 1980. Garnett has been a forthright voice in British television and cinema since his celebrated partnership with Ken Loach and Jeremy Sandford produced The Wednesday Play: Cathy Come Home in 1966.

Over at the BBC, The Wednesday Play was ushered in as a replacement for the existing drama strands Festival and First Night. Under the influence of producer James McTaggart (who had presented new plays under the First Night strand), Garnett worked with the likes of Roger Smith (McTaggart's script-editing cohort) and Ken Trodd (later producer of Dennis Potter's major works for the BBC) to put together approximately thirty plays for the first run of The Wednesday Play.

The eight that eventually made it to the screen between October and December of 1964 were more or less the remnants of plays commissioned for the Festival strand and some Canadian imports, but the run that commenced in 1965 and continued through to 1970 featured the provocative, social realist, left of consensus dramas that made it such an influential antholology in 1960s British television.
... the authentic nature of contemporary lives
Garnett, working alongside Roger Smith as his associate story editor on The Wednesday Play, collaborated with Ken Loach on Up the Junction (1965) a social realist drama, adapted from Nell Dunn's 1963 novel about the working class lives of three women, that depicted theft, casual sex and back street abortions, in the slums of Battersea and its workplaces, cafes and pubs.

It was a depiction of urban life that many had never seen before and it focused attention on the debates about the legalisation of abortion, which was finally achieved in 1967. It was largely filmed on location and intercut other narratives, statistics and an interview with a doctor into a dense soundtrack featuring some specially composed songs, that placed it emphatically in the here and now within the ever present urban landscape captured on film by Loach and his crew.

The experiment was repeated to even greater accord with Cathy Come Home (1966) which took the documentary and agit-prop techniques of their previous drama and this time depicted the desperate struggle of the homeless in 'swinging London' based on the mass of research conducted by writer Jeremy Sandford. Both were dramas that, as Stephen Lacey notes in Tony Garnett, reflected "Godard/Coutard's use of natural lighting, observational camerawork, jump-cuts and direct address to camera" allied to Loach and Garnett's desire, often from a leftist political context, to reveal the authentic nature of contemporary lives, their often stark reality and to cut the ties between television drama and what Garnett had called "its false dependence on theatre." Cathy was just as influential in changing attitudes towards the homeless and the state of British housing in the 1960s, coinciding with and certainly affecting the successful launch of housing charity Shelter.
... agit-prop, social realist documentary aesthetic
The collaboration with Loach stretched on well into the 1970s, including editions of The Wednesday Play and Play for Today (1970-1984) where they worked with writers such as David Mercer, Neville Smith and Jim Allen on some of the most politically radical drama ever broadcast on British television. Their equally feted work with Barry Hines produced the iconic British realist film Kes (1969) and The Price of Coal  a two-part Play for Today (1977).

They last collaborated on an adaptation of Leon Garfield's Black Jack, a children's film made by their company Kestrel Productions in 1978. Kestrel had been formed, with Clive Goodwin, McTaggart and Mercer, at the behest of an approach from LWT to produce films for television and, along with Kes and Black Jack, Garnett produced The Body (1970) Family Life (1971) and one film for television, After a Lifetime (1971).

When Garnett returned to the BBC a year later, he championed the work of Les Blair, a director who shared Garnett's desire to create drama with political and social awareness. Blair's work was also characterised by the improvisational methods he used with actors and under the Play for Today banner, he and Garnett collaborated on Blooming Youth (1973) and The Enemy Within (1974).

This period also provided fruitful support for Mike Leigh's earliest television work, including Hard Labour (1973), and a final play with Jim Allen, The Spongers (1978) an acerbic attack on the excesses of the Royal Jubilee during a period of social and financial inequality.

Perhaps the most powerful and notorious example of his work with Blair was the four-part Law and Order (1978), written by G.F. Newman. Garnett's agit-prop, social realist documentary aesthetic was married to Blair's extraordinary improvisational work with actors in a drama that examined corruption in the British legal system via an investigation presented from the perspectives of the police force, the criminal, the solicitor and the prison system.

The production was accused of negative depictions by both the police and prison officers. This was his final work with the BBC and by the end of the decade Garnett was uncomfortable with the way the political landscape was shaping up under the recently elected Thatcher government. After directing Prostitute he moved to America and produced a number of feature films there.

It's interesting to note now how Garnett took the methodology of his early work at the BBC and his experience with films like Prostitute and synthesised it into the highly regarded popular dramas he would make upon his return to the UK in 1990 as an executive producer at World Productions and responsible for the likes of Between the Lines, This Life and Cops for the BBC and Outlaws and No Angels for Channel 4.

Here's a link to his BAFTA chat 'Breaking The Rules', which explores his legacy.

Prostitute is very much the end of the particular cycle of work he had started at the BBC with Blair, itself an extension of his socially conscious dramas produced with Ken Loach, and is the story of a number of women, prostitutes and social workers, and their families and friends in the more deprived urban areas of Birmingham. Garnett wrote, produced and directed the film, shooting for six weeks, with a script based on meticulous research conducted over four years and a close collaborative working relationship with Programme for Reform of the Law on Soliciting (PROS) whose growing campaign for changes in the law Garnett positively recognised as a result of his experience making the film.

The film focuses on three intertwined stories. Sandra (Eleanor Forsythe) is a prostitute working the seedier streets of Birmingham's suburban sprawl who decides to quit the streets when it not only becomes clear that outmoded laws and police prejudice are making it more and more difficult to work but also that she yearns for some kind of stability and respectability in her chosen profession. The state's hypocrisy, perhaps in itself a symbol of the Thatcherite enshrinement of 'family values' and the demand that society return to a kind of pre-war repression, is seen through the victimisation of another woman, Rose (Nancy Samuels) who is arrested by the police as she walks home at the beginning of the film for allegedly soliciting while on probation. Like Law and Order, we see Rose trapped within a very biased legal system and she then spends much of the film in prison, away from her son and friends.

The film's proto-feminism is seen within the context that, though these women have a profession that much of society may find objectionable, they are just as human as the rest of the characters in the film - the sympathetic social workers and local MPs and the more vulnerable clients - and operate within an extended 'family' of other women and their children. Garnett places Sandra within the conventions of family life by showing her as a guest at a wedding for example. There is no question that Sandra and Rose love their children because in the end they see what they do as something infinitely preferable to working in a supermarket or, in fact, being unemployed. The prostitutes in the film are very matter of fact about what they do, are not seen as 'glamorous', and we never really get to understand how they really feel about the work they do apart from the lighter moments when they talk about clients.
... deeply un-erotic
Sandra also shares a house with the third female character at the heart of the drama, Louise (Kate Crutchley). She is the social worker who eventually sees that these women are being subjected to injustice and attempts to bring them together in the form of a committee to campaign for the reform of the law.

Through Louise, the film explores the audience's own judgements about these women and Garnett also takes a wonderful pot-shot at sociologists in a fantastic scene, perhaps reflecting his own experience when he came to make the film, where Louise attends a conference and meets Griff, a lecturer.

As they sit talking in a pub, Griff spouts a "phenomenological view" of prostitution, a distancing theoretical position that Louise coolly dismantles by simply asking him if he has actually met a prostitute. As Garnett himself admits of his own knowledge when setting up the film, "I knew nothing about prostitution and had never knowingly met a prostitute."

Again, the film's self-reflexivity and Garnett's role as its creator is embodied in the sequence towards the end of the film where, after Louise and the local MP have highlighted the injustices meted out to prostitutes in the city, Louise meets with a television researcher who is working on a documentary. Here, Garnett's neutrality is embodied in Louise's concern that the researcher will sensationalise the material. This is also a question that Garnett wanted to address and he is adamant that Prostitute itself is not a sensationalist film and as he explains in his notes "I wanted to make a film from the prostitute's point of view. It would not be sexy, turning the audience into punters."

For the viewer, the sex in the film is deeply un-erotic. Much of it suggests that women simply see it as a commodity, as goods to be exchanged for money to men who are either incredibly vulnerable or bored. When Sandra leaves the streets, her first job is to work in a massage parlour. Garnett unflinchingly shows us a masseuse jerking off a client, where the pleasure is purely mechanical and denoted by the woman reducing the man to a child-like state through her almost maternal address to him. Later, when Sandra has moved to London, she attends a party where two women literally go through the motions in a lesbian clinch before a drunken, bored assembly of men on a stag do with one woman instructing the other that they'll get away with just faking it.

This does change when later in the film, after Sandra has to role play (again emphasising the idea that for some men sex seems to function only within a child-like fantasy) with a business man who enjoys dressing up as a little girl, she then is sent out by the exploitative madam she works for to a client who represents the opposite end of that scale, where sex is connoted with violence and bestiality.

Eventually, Sandra attempts to work solo after refusing to engage in such acts (demonstrating that she does have a moral limit) and is again the subject of humiliating sexual violence at the hands of corrupt vice squad detectives who confiscate her earnings and exchange the money, and their silence about her activities, for sexual favours. Sandra's story is one where the structures of the sex industry and police corruption conspire against her and she returns to the streets of Birmingham, unable to escape from the downward spiral she finds herself in.
"... a complex world with many motives and consequences"
Louise is the symbol of politically correct liberal rationalism but even she is castigated by her superiors towards the end of the film for taking too much of an interest in these women and allowing her own neutrality to be compromised by sharing a house with a known prostitute. The relationship between Louise and Sandra is briefly explored, attempting perhaps to get an understanding of how prostitution affects women in a psychological sense, in a scene set by the riverside in Stratford.

It stands in complete contrast, as a lyrical, almost glamourous and romantic interlude, to the derelict surburbs of Birmingham and the anonymity of London, environments which Garnett uses to underline the banality of Sandra and Rose's lives. The use of long-shots with the characters dominated by urban decay seems to support this idea.

It also represents an ideal against which the real hard work of reform takes place where Louise struggles to get the women together, to create a representative voice, and then has to persuade a local MP to listen to them and survey local residents about the existing law. This all marks out Garnett's territory of using research and allowing the script to be influenced by the discussions with PROS and the actors, improvising and rewriting as the film was shot.

It's not a depressing film but perhaps is emotionally rather stunted because it is merely one that attempts to tackle a very difficult subject with dispassion rather than lurching into melodrama. However, the film is also blessed with very naturalistic and committed performances from Forsythe, Crutchley and Samuels and a strong supporting cast. It certainly isn't as polemical as Cathy Comes Home or Up the Junction, abandoning the hard facts of statistics for a more accessible view via Louise's campaign and the women involved in it. A fascinating film about a profession that probably hasn't changed much since the film was made.

In the end Prostitute, as an experience for the viewer, is best summed up by Garnett's conclusions in the notes accompanying the release, "The experience taught me to be wary of generalisation, that it was a complex world with many motives and consequences. It taught me that moral judgement was the enemy of understanding. It also taught me that prostitution was difficult - tough on the body, tough on the soul, tough on self respect. But that some women found it tougher than others."

Quick word about the transfer. It's been fully restored (and is now completely uncut) in high-definition from the original 16mm and looks very good on DVD considering the natural lighting and vérité style of film-making employed here is not that concerned with fine details. The image is grainy, as to be expected, but the colour palette and contrast are well rendered. With the soundtrack consisting of naturalistic, often murmured, dialogue the 2.0 mono audio makes a pretty competent job of providing as much clarity as is possible.

Special features
Taking a Part (1979, 45 mins): Documentary by Jan Worth about the experiences of two young women involved in prostitution
Illustrated booklet featuring essays by Tony Garnett, Russell Campbell (author of Marked Women: Prostitutes and Prostitution in the Cinema) and filmmaker Jan Worth

Prostitute
Kestrel /Mainline - UK 1980
BFI / Released 25 April 2011 / BFIV893 / Cert 18 / colour / English with optional subtitles for the hard-of-hearing / 98 mins / DVD-9 / aspect ratio 1.78:1

Bibliography:
Tony Garnett Stephen Lacey (Manchester University Press, March 2008)
Screenonline profiles of Tony Garnett and Ken Loach: Lez Cooke
Marked Women: Prostitutes and Prostitution in the Cinema Russell Campbell (Univ of Wisconsin Press, 2006)

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