Sunday, 10 March 2013
Review: Girls Come First (1975)
Girls Come First is the middle film in a trilogy of British sex comedies based around the talented, but perennially cash strapped artist Alan Street, played by bodybuilder turned actor John Hamill. An authentic nice guy, Hamill’s pleasant personality and laid back charm filter on through into the films themselves; defining their character and helping Hamill become a popular British sex film leading man. Featurette length creations, “the Alan Street trilogy” served as ideal sexploitation filler, playing 2nd feature to Euro and American imports. At the same time the series cannily exploited the Eady fund situation, which saw a percentage of the box office takings handed over to British filmmakers if half of a double bill was home-grown fare. For their overseas release the Street films had hardcore scenes added to them, bulking the films up to feature length and acting as part of Britain’s contribution to the porno chic era.
Girls Come First’s producer and the mastermind behind the Alan Street trilogy was one of British sexploitation’s true wild cards, David Hamilton Grant. Chaos and controversy forever shadowed Grant, whose diminutive stature, beard, jolly smile and city businessman apparel –including a pair of braces and tie- earned him the nickname ‘The Gnome’. Amongst the tales, upon which the twisted legend of David Hamilton Grant is built, is that Grant once auditioned an off-duty policewoman for one of his films, leading to an expose by The Sun newspaper, who were likely to have been tipped off about the story by Grant himself. Grant is also said to have reduced Deep Throat director Gerard Damiano to a nervous wreck during the space of one afternoon. An afternoon that saw Grant take Damiano on a trip around Grant’s favourite West End casinos, only for Grant to lose a fortune on the tables, blowing the budget of the film he was trying to impress Damiano into making. Today the fate of Grant remains the genre’s greatest unsolved mystery. A popular rumour, spread about what was left of the British sex film industry in the early 1990s, has it that Grant wound up imprisoned in a foreign hellhole, got released, only to be followed to a bar, then garrotted, by a contract killer. However no official confirmation of Grant’s death has ever been found.
“The Over Amorous Artist”, the first film in the trilogy, and the one that established Hamill’s sex comedy alter ego, poked fun at the notion of the stay at home, househusband with a storyline that saw Street trade places with his wife Sue (Sue Longhurst). While Sue goes off to work, Street stays at home doing the household chores and attempting a career as a serious artist, only for his artistic endeavours to be derailed by a parade of wannabe nude models, suburban housewives, an alcoholic older woman (Hilary Pritchard), her daughter (Felicity Devonshire) and even a women’s libber (Marianne Morris) all of whom view Street as fresh meat. By the end of the film Street’s pursuit of his artistic dreams and being the subject of all this sexual attention takes its toll, earning him sympathy from Sue, who inadvertently adds to his problems by hiring a foxy au pair to help him out around the house.
Girls Come First doubles as that film’s sort of sequel and a curious meditation on John Hamill’s own career and position in life by the mid-1970s. This time Alan and Sue have swapped the swinging suburbia setting of The Over Amorous Artist for the sun drenched London of 1975. Alan’s luck appears to be on the up when he is spotted sketching Sue in his back garden by Hugh Jampton (Bill Kerr) the owner of the sex magazine “The Swinger”. The magazine has seen better days but Jampton thinks Street’s erotic illustrations might just be the thing to boost flagging sales. Without so much as an invitation, Jampton along with his cohorts; nympho secretary Miss Drysdale (Rikki Howard) and Japanese chauffeur Sashimi (Burt Kwouk) barge into Street’s backyard, offering Street the job as artist in residence at the magazine’s HQ and the chance to sketch the magazine’s models. News that goes down like a lead balloon with Sue, who knows only too well of Alan’s ability to bring out the devil in other women.
Bill Kerr’s acting in Girls Come First is a wonder to behold. As Jampton, Kerr gives the impression of a man with no control over his limbs or facial expressions, eyeballs roll, eyebrows shoot upwards, jazz hands mannerisms are frequent. Jampton never shuts the fuck up, banter ranging from unfunny one-liners, inappropriate comments (upon hearing Sue once burned a copy of The Swinger, Jampton wails to Street “they did that in Nazi Germany, and look what happened there”) to complete gibberish (“rutti, tutti, tutti, Miss Drysdale”). Evidence elsewhere would suggest this isn’t entirely representative of Kerr’s acting ability; he toned it down drastically to play a bereaved father in Pete Walker’s House of Mortal Sin, made the same year, and delivered a fine performance as a mentally unbalanced sailor in the B-movie ‘Port of Escape’ (1956). Here however subtlety is a stranger to Kerr’s performance, which rivals Alan Lake’s cocaine and amyl nitrate fuelled theatrics as the genre’s most over the top turn.
For a character meant to epitomise rampant heterosexuality Jampton often comes across as extremely camp, albeit in the manner of a straight man impersonating how he believes gays behave and overegging it. Midway through the film Sue re-appears dressed in militant feminist get-up and throwing feminist literature over the heads of Jampton’s topless models. Reducing Jampton to jelly, and causing him to effeminately hide behind one of the girls, using her as a human shield against Sue. The inexperienced sex film actress playing the human shield looks amused yet slightly unnerved by Kerr’s unpredictable antics.
Inherently infantile as Jampton is, his character isn’t without its crooked and ruthless edges, making him a true creature of Soho. Excited as Jampton might be at Street’s talent and the idea of ‘keeping’ him, Jampton is less fond of having to pay for that privilege. In order to get any cash out of Jampton, Street has to agree to take a second job as a barman in Jampton’s nightclub which boasts its own rockin’, all girl, all topless house band (the nightclub scenes were shot at The New Rockingham Club, later immortalised in the end credits of Minder). In a scene that demonstrates an insider knowledge of the Soho netherworld, Sashimi shows Street the art of making a rip-off ‘near beer’ drink (5% alcohol, 95% ice) served to customers too distracted by all the titty action in the club to care less. Proving that nothing had changed about the Soho of 1975 seen here, from the West End Jungle-era.
If there is any sense of narrative drive or conflict here, it is in the tug of war for Street’s mind, body and soul that is played out between Sue and Hugh Jampton. Sue represents the chance of a monogamous, honest life; one in which money is tight but Street’s artistic integrity gets to remain intact. Jampton represents the allure of artless, but financially rewarding sex work, with all the glamour and promiscuous perks that go hand in hand with such a life style. There are obvious parallels between Alan Street, the impoverished artist finding greater success with sex work than legitimate art, and John Hamill the impoverished actor finding greater success with sex work than legitimate acting.
Very early on in his career Hamill had first known the temptations of sexploitation, his socially acceptable career as a bodybuilder existing alongside a career side-line posing full frontal for closeted, muscleman magazines and striking poses and a friendly smile for 8mm films that were the homosexual equivalent of a Harrison Marks glamour film. Roles in feature films offered the chance for Hamill to prove his acting chops, while always offering a little something for his considerable gay fanbase. The lesson you learn from watching Hamill in Trog (1970) and Tower of Evil (1971) is that British horror films weren’t above finding gratuitous reasons for men to strip off to their underwear, or go nude, if there was a perceived audience for it. The book “The Bare Facts Video Guide” reduces Hamill’s entire role in Tower of Evil to a description of “buns, walking with Penny, then more buns, rolling into the water, dead”. By the time of Girls Come First Hamill had hit a career crossroads. He’d had a few successes in legit films and TV, playing supporting roles opposite the likes of Nigel Davenport, Beryl Reid and Peter Wyngarde, but the sex films offered the chance to be a top-billed star and bona fide sex symbol, winning the adulation of women and the envy and hero worship of men. Proper thespian or professional stud muffin? what is a boy to do….
In the film Street might be persuaded to throw the towel in on the sex industry, but in real life the Jampton side of Hamill’s conscience evidentially won the argument and persuaded him into taking further sex film work, including the final Alan Street film, 1977’s Under the Bed. The same year saw Hamill cement his reputation as British sexploitation’s favourite bit of rough with a blokish turn in ‘Hardcore’ in which he fucks Fiona Richmond in the back of a fruit and veg van. Hamill later unrepentantly admitted “the sex movies ruined my career, but you know how it is: I was out of work, the birds were smashing, and I’ve always been a born flasher”. As the line between the fictional Alan Street and the real life John Hamill gets a tad blurry at times, this simultaneously draws you into looking for similarities between Hugh Jampton and David Hamilton Grant himself.
Its a comparison that is certainly in keeping with the British sex film tradition of the genre’s slipperiest onscreen characters (Benny U Murdoch in Eskimo Nell, Judd Blake in Adventures of a Private Eye, Bill Anderson in Emmanuelle in Soho) being thinly disguised caricatures of real life British sex film bigwigs. Sure enough, autobiographical elements have found their way into the script, Jampton shares Grant’s fondness for keeping small dogs as pets, and in one of his calmer moments lets slip to Street and Miss Drysdale that Hugh Jampton isn’t his real name, revealing his first name to be ‘Izzie’. Again mirroring Grant, who entered into this world as Willis Andrew Holt and changed it by deed poll to David Grant when he first entered into showbiz –initially as a photographer- in the late Sixties. Jampton’s backstory, one that includes a flirtation with an art career, offers a possible insight into the trouble making Grant’s closely guarded background, with ‘art’ being a stand in for Youngman Hamilton Grant’s keen interest in photography. “My mother, I’d show her the pictures and she’d say ‘they’re beautiful do some more’” Jampton confesses to Street “I said Momma, why do you do this to me, I got no talent as a painter, my pictures are crap, why do you encourage me. And you know what she said…she said ‘son, when you paint you stay at home’…, mothers yuck!!”
While Girls Come First doesn’t represent just how tasteless Grant could get at times (for that you need pointing in the direction of his 1972 sextoon ‘Sinderella’ in which the three bears sport boners, and gang rape the ugly sisters) the humour here is decisively from the land that political correctness forgot, it being heavily focussed around racial or cultural stereotypes. Street queues for a copy of The Swinger, finding himself behind a Rabbi who asks for his copy of The Swinger to be hidden inside a copy of The Jewish Chronicle, then insists on haggling the price of the two periodicals down from 75p to 50p. Kwouk’s chauffeur is also constantly on hand, spying on Street and Sue through a pair of binoculars the wrong way round, since as Street points out “those Japanese see things differently to us”. When Jampton asks Sashimi to make dinner, the chauffeur casts a hungry eye over one of Jampton’s pooches, menacingly proclaiming “come along, little fella”. Kwouk is the surprise piece of casting here, in that he doesn’t seem to have needed the work, having bounced around a series of big budget gigs like Rollerball and a Pink Panther sequel the same year. Leading to speculation that this role was a favour to the film’s nominal director Joe McGrath (directing here under the pseudonym ‘Croisette Meubles’) who is an old mate of his.
Oversexed French women are in abundance here too. A couple of years before the Carry On team and John M East managed to fudge the character for a British audience, Grant could actually lay claim here to having made the first British film to feature the Emmanuelle character. Predictability Grant’s take on the character reduces her to comedy, French bubblehead (played by low-level starlet Bobbie Sparrow) who tries to sell Alan Street on the joys of joining the ‘mile up club’ and flashes her knickers at him in a scene shot in view of Blackfriars Bridge. A bit of indecent exposure that brings out an uncharacteristically reserved streak in Street “for God’s sake cut that out Emmanuelle, we’ll have a dozen police officers down on us”, he moans as Emmanuelle rolls her eyes knowingly.
Admittedly it’s not an especially funny scene but only a heartless swine wouldn’t quietly cheer Bobbie on as she battles against her limited acting ability and the challenge of maintaining a comedy French accent, cracking a cute and victorious smile at the end of the scene. Apart from Bobbie’s pop culture referencing Emmanuelle xerox, support characters in Girls Come First all seem to have some basis in Grant’s day to day existence yet flittered thought the topsy-turvy worldview that is at work here are remarkable for the larger than life qualities that the film brings out in them. Even insignificant characters, like Street’s landlord –played by an actor that Grant has inexplicability had outfitted in the style of a 1930s gangster- are striking in appearance.
About the only thing that Girls Come First takes seriously is sex itself, you’ll find none of that speeded up bonking scored to C&W music bullshit here. Instead Girls Come First’s sex scenes are shot erotically straight, offering a spanner in the works to the cinema snob thinking that this was a genre devoid of genuine sexiness and obsessed with portraying Englishmen as blithering, sexual incompetents. As if railing against these future misconceptions the film is deeply into fetishizing John Hamill as a sexual superman with a series of physically demanding sex scenes that he always manages to rise to the occasion for. Whether it be fucking one of Jampton’s models in a pool, or taking on two French maids (one of whom is Heather Deeley) who serve him breakfast, then themselves. A patriotic rendition of ‘Rule Britannia’ plays over shots of Street’s exhausted, sexually satisfied conquests. Grant’s camera is equally relaxed when lingering over Hamill’s nude body as it is Hamill’s female co-stars, providing plenty of “buns, more buns, buns, then further buns” for The Bare Facts Video Guide to one day obsessively document. Hamill isn’t shy of getting his cock out in these scenes either, proving that old habits really do die hard. Moments that conspire to make Girls Come First far less sexually straightforward fare than the Confessions or Adventures series, in which the sight of naked men was never anything other than a source of audience guffaws. To watch these scenes is to hear Grant’s closet slowly creaking open.
Heather Deeley of course looks great in and out of her French maid’s outfit, bringing her own brand of H.D Sauce to the screen, and showcasing the kind of sex appeal and acting talent (she handles her French accent far better than Bobbie Sparrow) that would see her star shine brightly throughout 1975, her key year as a performer. Deeley returns for a second helping in a sequence that acts as yet another challenge to Hamill’s virility. One that sees him attempting to satisfy two different women in two different rooms, rushing back and forth between a bedroom to fuck Deeley and a bathroom to fuck another of Jampton’s models, played by a pre-fame Hazel O’Connor. A “before they were famous” porn moment that would ensure Girls Come First a shelf life beyond the death of its own genre. It was undoubtedly O’Connor’s appearance that was the reason Girls Come First was the only film from the Alan Street trilogy that Grant bothered to commit to videotape, issuing it on his own, soon to be scandal dogged, World of Video 2000 label in 1980. A release that made very sure to emphasize O’Connor's appearance, including her name and a cartoon version of her on the box (in contrast she in seventh billed, and credited as ‘Hazel Glyn’, in the film itself). Grant also made extra money by selling footage of this scene to interested parties, such as Electric Blue, and other porn compilation companies. As late as 1987 Grant was still milking the O’Connor footage for all it was worth, including it in his own compilation video ‘Who Bears Sins’ (sic) even though music industry legal battles had caused O’Connor to slip from the public eye by that point.
Aside from offering a glimpse of a New Wave pop star to be, Girls Come First is extremely strong on location work, showing off everything you’d want to see in a film made in 1970s London. There are shots of Piccadilly Circus, location defining views of The Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace, cinema marquees for Death Wish and The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3. One priceless shot, filmed from inside of Jampton’s limousine, finds the vehicle trying to cut into Great Windmill Street, provoking grimaces from a sea of pedestrians, annoyed at temporality being prevented from doing the hellish, Piccadilly Circus shuffle. Night time shooting takes in a self-publicising shot of Grant’s own ‘Cinema XXX’ (aka The Pigalle Cinema X) in Macclesfield Street, an unlicensed cinema that showed explicit films and shorts. The solo masturbation loop ‘Me and My Vibrator’-said to star Clyda Rosen- had a marathon run there, despite advertising for that film having to be removed from the cinema’s frontage following protests from The Soho Society.
Girls Come First is often random and loosely structured, a vaguely connected group of scenes, like thoughts flying through an attention deficit disorder addled mind that is obsessed by bad taste comedy and raunchy sex. Characteristics that ring true to Grant’s personality but are also in keeping with director Joe McGrath’s approach to cinema. Even McGrath’s mainstream offerings, the ones he left his real name on, like The Magic Christian and The Strange Case of the End of Civilization as We Know It, have the feel of a bunch of sketches and revue like turns from Joe’s famous mates, all vainly in search of a proper narrative. McGrath’s films always seem to slightly resent the fact that films are meant to have a beginning, middle and end.
Still you have to hand it to Grant and McGrath, Girls Come First is a brief, undemanding 43 minute distillation of all of the British sex film’s requisite elements. Plentiful sex and comedy being provided by the era’s favourite starlets and character types (Hamill and Longhurst always being an especially value for money pairing) plus familiar faces from mainstream film and TV there to lend a slight degree of legitimacy to the proceedings. It’s a film that is perfectly in touch with the psychology of its target audience. Any young male cinemagoer could identify with the randy, but fundamentally decent Street, while older dirty macs get Jampton to relate to, and though this character the chance to live out the fantasy of not only being constantly surrounded by beautiful women but living the millionaire’s lifestyle thanks to them as well. Both an artless piece of sex film fluff and a personal look at the world through Grant’s eyes. The film acts as Grant’s bust of his favourite leading man and his love letter to the Soho he lorded over and treated as his own playground, just before the storm clouds started to gather over his empire. Girls Come First could accurately be re-titled “Confessions from the David Hamilton Grant Affair”.