Dir: Barney Platts-Mills, 1971(BFI DVD)
Although Bruce Robinson assured his place in the cinematic canon by writing and directing Withnail and I (1987), less is said about his acting career, which is impressive in its own right. Private Road, Barney Platts-Mills' telling depiction of a pair of bright young things embarking on their first meaningful relationship, is a good place to start. Robinson looks every inch the part as London bohemian Peter Morrissey, a 'brilliant young writer' (in the fulsome words of his literary agent, Erica Cutts). Susan Penhaligon is Ann Halpern, the product of a moneyed yet narrow upbringing in prosperous Esher, currently employed as a receptionist at Cutts' agency. The pair soon gel, whereupon Ann begins to gravitate towards Peter's way of life: scruffy but cheerful communal living in London, with friends and associates of the assertive, arty and political type. Theirs is a world of beautiful, impressive people, but it is a testament to the acting of all concerned that none of them irritate the viewer. In fact, the opposite is true: these characters are highly engaging. Peter Morrissey affords Robinson the chance to display his great abilities -as a case in point, witness his shyness during moments of intimacy with Ann in Scotland-- while Susan Penhaligon can turn eating a bun into a fascinating spectacle. In general, the entire cast of Private Road is first class, and supports Platts-Mills' decision to move away from the use of amateurs (in his debut picture Bronco Bullfrog) to a comparatively larger budget which allowed him to employ professional actors.
When Peter talks about Ann with his close friend Stephen (played by Michael Feast), it is with tongue only partly in cheek that he declares their burgeoning relationship to be on a spiritual plane. Whatever he means by it, this idea is a delusion. Nevertheless, the initial spark still burns, and as Ann hesitantly enters into Peter's bohemian life, disconnecting from her wealthy (and predictably rather worried) parents in the process, Peter is clearly thrilled despite his attempts to appear blasé. Madly and openly in love in what seems like five minutes, they decamp to Scotland. Ostensibly this is an attempt to escape London for a while, but it marks a turning point in both their lives: no longer merely boyfriend and girlfriend, Peter and Ann are declaring themselves a couple. However, even at this stage, fault-lines have started to appear on the spiritual plane. Peter seems to find communication difficult to accept unless it is purely on his terms. Film writer Nigel Andrews (1) points out that any scenes of joy, serenity or romance between the pair are those mainly or completely without dialogue, which is an important signifier of Peter's character. Even his interactions with his friends (and original flatmates) Stephen and Henry are persistently lightweight. Ann, meanwhile, apart from the odd parentally contrived social occasion, appears to have no friends at all. Kevin Jackson (2) accurately observes that these are "young men and women dead set on escaping the cramped gender roles of their parents, but not wholly sure what to put in their place." This remark certainly appears true of Ann, but applies to some of the other characters just as well. Stephen drifts and descends into heroin addiction, while Henry (George Fenton) becomes dour and inert under the influence of his terrifying politico-feminist girlfriend Iverna (Catherine Howe).
Although Ann and Peter are an impossibly attractive pair, and Peter's writing talents are trumpeted from the start, the film chooses to set about dismantling the myth of bohemia rather than promoting it. Private Road is by no means alone (3) in suggesting that bohemian excitement, creativity and glamour are mainly an illusion - often, admittedly, a meticulously presented one - and that a deep-rooted mundanity is never far away. We come to learn that bohemia for Peter and Ann was only next door to an ordinary and even rather conservative lifestyle. The film neatly demonstrates how thin the line between them really is. When Peter takes a job and the couple no longer live in the communal flat, this is enough to demolish everything, a change symbolised when their tiny flat is burgled: Peter's typewriter is stolen and an obscenity is daubed starkly on the living room wall.
When discussing this film, it would be remiss not to mention the numerous portents of Withnail and I. Bruce Robinson may not have been the director of Private Road, but it contains vignettes that he later developed in his classic (and largely autobiographical) tale of two unemployed actors and their drink-fuelled personal detritus in late 1960s Camden Town. In Private Road, Peter and Ann's escape from their London flat to a cottage in Scotland is short-lived compared with Withnail's protracted Cumbrian stay, but some of the scenic photography is very similar. The cottage itself could easily be Uncle Monty's lakeland hideaway, 'Crow Crag,' and the hunting scenes (with Peter blasting away at rabbits in a highly unconvincing manner) are a forerunner of Withnail's precariously balanced trout shoot. Private Road's rabbit slapped down for dinner, resplendent in its fur and innards, becomes a chicken on bricks in Withnail and I. The entire trip seems to have been arranged with great ease by Peter, apparently through a family favour, which is echoed in Withnail's appropriation of Monty's holiday home. Private Road will provide hours of fun for Withnail obsessives.
Despite its equal division of the narrative between Peter and Ann, Private Road does not provide a neat resolution for either character or for their relationship. Some might view it as a fairly superficial love story with few important incidents (4). On examination, though, it is crammed with things to say about relationships, creativity, influence, friendship and personal development. An impressive facet of Robinson's performance is that it leaves us, sadly, with a palpable feeling that Peter has 'grown up,' and realised that various disappointments of differing magnitudes will inevitably come into his life. From a more positive angle, we at least see him rediscover a close friend and begin to find his lost creative spirit.
As we have come to expect from BFI Flipside, all of this is bundled up in a beautifully presented package. There are essays on Private Road by Nigel Andrews and Kevin Jackson, plus extras The Last Chapter (a somewhat spooky B-Movie, starring Denholm Elliott as a self-absorbed thriller writer) and St Christopher (a remarkable documentary film by Barney Platts-Mills about a Bristol special needs school), both of which are supplemented by booklet essays.--Neil Jackson
Clive Donner's Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush
Dir: Clive Donner, 1968 (BFI DVD)
The BFI Flipside edition of Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush not only rescues from obscurity a much-admired cult picture, consigned to a handful of late-night television screenings since its initial release, but also functions as a worthy reminder of (or, alternatively, an introduction to) the talents of its male lead, Barry Evans. He had studied at Italia Conti before moving to a Gielgud scholarship at the Central School of Speech and Drama, and here performs a demanding role with infectious exuberance in this very English, resolutely period coming-of-age movie set in a late swinging-sixties New Town, namely Stevenage, near London (1). Evans' performance, although laudable, was to see him typecast as a wide-eyed, slightly bewildered optimist, as evinced by his appearance some seven years later in a pale imitation of Mulberry Bush: the superficially similar yet completely one-dimensional seventies 'sex romp' Adventures of a Taxi Driver (also starring three of his Mulberry co-stars, Adrienne Posta, Angela Scoular and Judy Geeson). Evans, seemingly doubtful of such projects' merits, declined the chance to reprise the character for subsequent titles in the Adventures series, but the roles of greater artistic substance that he sought were either to elude him or prove unsuccessful. He did, however, sustain a television acting career throughout the 1970s and 1980s, mainly in situation comedy, essentially playing re-hashed versions of his Mulberry character: he became vaguely known to the English public for Doctor in the House (as Michael Upton, a typically 'wet behind the ears,' knockabout young man), and also as Jeremy Brown, the hapless teacher of English as a Foreign Language in the now discredited series Mind Your Language.
In Mulberry Bush Evans is Jamie McGregor, a jobbing delivery boy working towards a set of fairly short-term goals, mostly concerned with bedding pretty young girls, attending parties and generally plunging into the uncharted waters of a new, permissive youth culture. He also harbours the comparatively longer-term prospect of a new life at Manchester University (with his friend Spike, played by Christopher Timothy). Part of a family including his modestly aspirational, typically 'New Town' parents, endearingly portrayed by Moyra Fraser and Michael Bates, and his teenage brother Joe, Jamie finds himself approaching adulthood in the bright, modernist surroundings of Stevenage circa 1968. Director Clive Donner's choice of a New Town location not only chimed with the film's ethos, but this environment also afforded an imaginative photography team scope to craft impressive sequences amongst the town's angled architecture and progressive areas of open space, which are, it must be said, worthy of far loftier cinema. The film opens with a series of imposing, perspective-heavy tracking shots usually requiring Evans to deliver his gabbling quasi-philosophical monologue to camera (a feature throughout the film). Evans has a great deal of dialogue and screen-time to contend with, but he does so with aplomb, even while also riding a delivery bicycle at high speed. These pacey opening shots mark out the film's intentions accurately. The key message is a direct appeal to the target audience: modern life in the sixties is fast, exciting, colourful, and young people finally have it good. For the first time, post-austerity England has a generation obsessed with modernity, harbouring little desire to be anything like their parents. With its Traffic and Spencer Davis Group soundtrack, ample psychedelia and myriad fashion parades, Mulberry Bush buys into this era completely. It is unashamedly and fervently a film for sixties English youth. The boys in the audience, for 96 minutes at least (and probably far longer) would positively become Jamie McGregor -as reflected, quite literally, in Vic Fair's promotional poster (2) of a groovily attired young hipster, complete with floral jacket and trendy hair, but with a mirrored surface instead of a face. Jamie must have been viewed as a standard bearer by half the cinema audience and an object of desire by the other half, as they watched him hare around Stevenage with the apparent aim of attaining all that the permissive society had tantalisingly promised his generation, but without any clear idea of what it really means or how to go about it getting it. One thing he does realise is that the girls at school have blossomed, seemingly overnight, into things now extremely worthy of his attention. As the storyline unfolds, we understand that Jamie is not so much shallow as clueless, in a literal sense; he can only blunder with a dogged sense of hope into the unmapped territories before him. Initial quests for the holy grail of carnal knowledge typically involve a charm offensive one minute, followed the next by a blunt and resigned admission of his real objective when he does not instantly achieve it.
To say that Jamie objectifies women at this point would be an understatement, and yet, as we grow to appreciate his sensitivities, we see that this is merely a product of his own confusion, even panic, in the midst of what he views as his compulsory involvement in the game. His peers are in the same boat, of course: collectively, as the first let loose on these probably quite intimidating freedoms, they are faced with having to blaze a trail for others to follow. And so it is in the manner of a pinball that Jamie ricochets from failure and rejection to the next visible opportunity, often within minutes, and sometimes at the same club or party. On one of these occasions he spies the well-bred, rather difficult and generally spoilt Caroline Beauchamp (Angela Scoular). Their dalliance results in one of the film's highlights: a weekend at the expansive home of her louche parents. Denholm Elliott makes a great job of Caroline's bumbling upper-class father, who progressively reveals himself during Jamie's fraught stay to be not, as he suggests, simply a devoted oenophile, but instead a raging alcoholic. He is joined in this pursuit by his wife (played by Maxine Audley), and indeed by Caroline herself. In fact, it becomes evident to Jamie that the whole family must devote a great deal of their time to getting comprehensively plastered. Not until Jamie finally does chance upon a girl remotely compatible with himself (the wistful and free-spirited Mary Gloucester) does he learn that the business of engaging in a relationship can be as exciting as it is awkward and confusing.
It is worth mentioning that, as a backdrop, writer Hunter Davies and director Clive Donner present a commendably realistic and in some ways quite touching portrayal of typical family life. The McGregor parents have their quirks - a slightly other-worldly mother ("not too many of those nasty drugs, now!")-- and a father reluctantly accepting of the disciplinarian role when all he really wants to do is listen to the radio. In the main, however, the majority of children would think of them as perfectly decent, in stark contrast to the ranks of harridans, layabouts and bullies ominously stalking many films of the earlier sixties, mainly products of the New Wave such as A Taste of Honey, Billy Liar, or Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. (Indeed, the repetitiveness of these parental authority figures could even be a minor criticism of that genre. That said, the films' purpose was to reflect a hard life and to question, and chiefly reject, any form of overbearing power.) Jamie McGregor's cosy parents have no place in William Fisher's austere Stradhoughton, a place about as far from a gleaming, southern New Town as it is possible to get. Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush has an entirely different remit where the notion of authority is concerned: it is practically non-existent. Witness Caroline Beauchamp's parents as a prime example, little more than children themselves in their stately play-pen. The only social issues in this picture are the various ways in which one can chase, or be chased by, members of the opposite sex— and what on earth to do when you're caught.
As the film's ending draws near, Jamie comes to realise that his desire to whirl hysterically around the mulberry bush has been brief, and the rewards are less substantial than he first thought. The much-vaunted English 'swinging sixties' are drawing to a conservative close, in contrast to Paris's youth protest riots (3). Jamie's subtly burgeoning disillusionment with the 'zoom zoom' generation can arguably be seen as an admission (by the film itself, if not by the character) that underneath the peacock attire, and despite any amount of posturing, his own people had little to say. However, the sixties remain an era venerated as a high water-mark in English cultural history, reverence in marked contrast to today's view of those utopian New Towns.
Given his Adventures, it is more than a touch ironic that Barry Evans became a taxi driver in real life. Unable to break free of the 'Jamie' character, failing (despite his efforts and wishes) to forge a viable acting career unless offered clones of this role, the advancing years made his position in television and film increasingly untenable. From hotly-tipped prodigy--Mulberry Bush garnered a genuinely star-studded premiere--to expired stereotype, by the mid-1990s Barry Evans had sadly become a drinker and a recluse. He died in 1997, aged 53. Although his talent may have become a black dog, it is best and deservedly remembered in this wonderfully packaged, captivating release from BFI Flipside.
A selection of extras is included on the DVD, notably a conspicuously positive (virtually propagandistic) 21-minute period documentary on Stevenage, England's first New Town. A booklet accompanies the release, and Vic Pratt's poignant article on the life and career of Barry Evans is particularly recommended. Hunter Davies (who wrote the screenplay for Mulberry Bush, adapted from his original novel) offers his thoughts, as does film professor Steve Chibnall in a highly insightful essay.--Neil Jackson
1. Hunter Davies had set his original novel in Carlisle. As he explains in his booklet piece, however, there were a few too many pictures being shot in the 'grim' North at that time, and filming near London also offered financial benefits.
2. The promotional poster is depicted on the cover of the DVD's accompanying booklet.
3. Steve Chibnall discusses the Paris youth comparison in his essay Circling the Bush, also included in the booklet.