Sunday, 16 June 2013

Review: Boys and Girls Together (1979, Ralph Lawrence Marsden)

For the most part British sex films can be divided up into three boxes, down to earth films that any working class cinemagoer could see themselves and their libido reflected in… Confessions of a Window Cleaner, Adventures of a Taxi Driver, and their sequels and imitations. Then into the 2nd box goes films that maintain one foot in everyday reality, but also carry the lingering sense that things aren’t quite right here, due to overplayed performances, flirtations with the surreal, and people generally not talking or behaving as they would do in the real world. A common bond shared by the likes of Girls Come First, I’m Not Feeling Myself Tonight and Emmanuelle in Soho. Then there is a rare third box of films that depict a world that never existed outside of their makers’ heads, films that can’t hide the personal eccentricity or sexual obsessions that they were born out of, films like Secrets of Sex, Come Play With Me, Sex Express and Zeta One.

There is however one film that stubbornly refuses to be pigeonholed into any of these imaginary boxes, a film whose ultra-low budget and Hampstead location shooting ties it to the mundane reality of the 1st box, but is much an individualistic piece of filmmaking as anything in the bizarro 3rd box of British sex. In fact Ralph Lawrence Marsden’s Boys and Girls Together so stands apart from everything else in its genre that by all rights it shouldn’t exist at all. Not only that but it comes complete with a title that’s mischievously deceptive, since the film is more diverse in its sexual tastes than the strictly heterosexual couplings implied by its title. For the first half of the film at least no one is getting together either, and the film instead serves as a meditation on loneliness and masturbation, the two least things a sex film audience would have expected to be confronted by.

Anyone seeking the film out on its 1980 release, hoping for a sexual thrill and the opportunity for a J.O. session would be faced with onscreen characters in the exact same predicament, a far cry from the usual escapist titillation that sex film fare usually offers.

Set in a rundown guest house straight out of Rising Damp, the boys and girls of the title are the guest house’s multicultural student tenants, West Indians Lily and Leroy, Jat from Singapore, American Don, Ilsa from Germany and the home-grown Jenny (given the current climate, and the film’s now unfortunate choice of title it perhaps needs clarifying that all the people in this film are ‘of age’ adults, let’s just be grateful no one thought to entitle the film “Guys and Gals Together”.)

Youth and good looks might be on the students side but there is little enviable about their lives. Rarely interacting with each other, they prefer to lock themselves away in their rooms with only self-induced misery for company. Everyday tedium, of the kind regular movies skirt around, is constantly dwelled upon in these early scenes, characters wash their clothes, do the ironing, cut their toenails, one of the women is filmed on a toilet reading a magazine, the unglamorous isn’t something Boys and Girls Together shies away from. Boredom begets sexual fantasies here, some look to their own pasts as a source of erotic inspiration, the gay Jat daydreams about a former boyfriend playing tennis, inspiring Jat’s hand to wander down his trousers for his own balls. Others turn to fantasy material, Don pursues a porn magazine containing stills from a film called –aptly enough- ‘Confessions of a Sex Maniac’, and a carrot and a poster of The Who’s Roger Daltrey are Lily’s stimulation of choice.


Misery and wanking go hand in hand in this film, a connection not made out of any conservative mind set on Marsden’s part –this is by no means a narrow minded film- but more out of concern that these characters are living only for past relationships or unobtainable ones, in doing so holding themselves back from satisfactory relationships with others that they are entirely capable of executing. The sexual charge the characters get from masturbation provides only a momentary release in their lives, after which a sense of un-fulfilment and shame creeps up on characters like Lily. The lesson that can be learned from this film is that a carrot is no substitute for Roger Daltrey.

Like his onscreen characters Director Marsden wasn’t from around these parts-hailing from Melbourne, Australia- and his is an outsider take on London that recalls Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and anticipates An American Werewolf in London. As in those films the London on display here isn’t without its local colour, fez wearing entertainers do their thing on street corners, and porno shops and sex cinemas catch Marsden’s eye as they later would do for American Werewolf’s John Landis. Ultimately though this is a very alien, unwelcoming environment, one that is seen to be short tempered and hostile to non-natives. The fresh off the plane Don attempts to pick up a prostitute in Soho, only to see her do a runner with his cash, losing him in a series of back alleys around Wardour Street. The seemingly easy task of Ilsa making a phone call to her boyfriend takes on a nightmarish quality when the phone call is interrupted by an impatient member of the public banging on the telephone box, demanding she wind down her phone call. His grimacing, threatening face at the telephone box window finally causing Ilsa to flee.

Menacing as that encounter is Boys and Girls Together manages to top that when Lily gets harassed by an aged, white haired weirdo at a shopping precinct. That Lily rebuffs his advances, fails to stop this mackintosh wearing individual from lumbering after her around the semi-deserted precinct. The shopping precinct pervert is given the rare honour of having dialogue in this film, not that that counts for anything. His grunts and mumbling, distorted voice being reminiscent of somebody attempting to speak with a severe cold or with their fingers held over their nose. His only decipherable piece of dialogue being the insult of “fucking cunt” as he chases after Lily. Momentarily diverting Boys and Girls Together into horror film territory, the chase continues right back to the guesthouse, at which point Don’s presence looks to scare the shopping precinct pervert away. Oddly, the shopping precinct pervert appears to be only inches behind Lily towards the end of the chase, but when Don catches sight of the scene just moments later the man has disappeared and Lily is running down the street by herself. It might be the result of bad editing, but the effect –unintentional or otherwise- is to plant a question mark over whether the shopping precinct pervert suddenly ducked down an alleyway, or was he just a figment of Lily’s imagination all along?

The Shopping Precinct Pervert

After the anguish and disastrous encounters of the first half of the film the characters finally start to get ‘together’ at this point, as the film begins paring them off. Don playing knight in shining armour to Lily, marks the beginning of a relationship that soon turns sexual after she spills coffee on his lap. Resulting in a tussle that finds Don attempting to preserve his dignity and shield his erection from her, verses Lily’s determination to wrestle those trousers from him and grab herself some dick.

Jenny experiences her sexual awakening by slipping on a bar of soap and impaling herself sexually on a toilet brush, symbolised by multiple takes of her orgasmic face and a loud ‘BOING-BOING-BOING’ noise on the soundtrack. An unorthodox way of losing her cherry that nevertheless doesn’t deter her from becoming sexually interested in Ilsa soon afterwards. The sparks beginning to fly there after the two women brush past each other on the way to the bathroom.

In a truly daring touch the film also pairs up Jat with the hitherto assumed heterosexual Leroy (seen at the beginning of the film reading a love letter from an ex-girlfriend) but revealed at this point to be bi-sexual. Accidentally walking in on Jat masturbating, Leroy reacts not with disgust or horror but with compassion for the visibly embarrassed Jat, and a wandering eye towards the gay hardcore magazine Jat was masturbating to. An interest that quickly leads to both men beating their meat over it.

Ethic groups rarely contemplated in any positive sense in 1970s British culture are given leading role status and unashamedly sexualised here. Jat, for all his muscles and long hair, goes against the ‘inscrutable villain’ or kung-fu fighter stereotypes associated with oriental men of the time by turning out to be an extremely gentle character, emphasised in scenes of him playing with a kitten. The relationship between him and Leroy, which takes in views of gay porn, Jat reading The Gay News and a visit to a gay bar (complete with drag act MC) offers a peek at the 1970s gay lifestyle at a time when it was crawling towards social acceptability while still being looked upon with a degree of suspicion and mockery by mainstream culture.

Boys and Girls Together is also refreshingly nonchalant about the interracial relationship between Don and Lily. Compare this to say, 1977’s Confessions from a Holiday Camp which felt it necessary to counterbalance its eroticisation of a black woman’s body and that series’ first mixed-combo action with sniggering racial humour to appease a perceived racist audience. A factor that now places Confessions from a Holiday Camp on the wrong side of history, while Boys and Girls Together emerges as an enlightened and courageous film for not adhering to the status quo of the period.

Marsden’s anti-professional approach, use of hand held camerawork and favouring of authentic location work over studio shooting, creates the illusion of a film that could easily have been made by one of its own twenty something student characters. Say, had one of them brought a film camera back home from university for the weekend and decided to turn the camera on the sexual problems of themselves and their fellow tenants. Sex filmmaking meets group therapy.

Another of the film’s distinguishing qualities is the almost entire avoidance of dialogue. A decision that adds to the sense of alienation, and feels plausible too, you’re never in any doubt that painfully timid characters like these can go for days without speaking to anyone. What could have been an irritating gimmick is a device used to brilliant, heavily disorienting effect. Just when you think this thing might become conventional and be on the verge of being dialogue friendly it goes in the opposite direction and piles on the audio confusion, the radio that Ilsa is heard listening to turning out to be broadcast in her na├»ve German, and the shopping precinct pervert of course talking a language all of his very own. Dialogue is abstained for so long here that on the rare occurrences it does surface it somehow feels a grossly unnatural act for these long mute characters to suddenly begin engaging in conversation.

As a stand-in for dialogue Boys and Girls Together draws on music in a proto-music video manner of commenting on the onscreen action or setting the tone. Moody, depressing instrumental tracks are aptly utilised for the film’s miserablist first half, elsewhere an endlessly repeated song ponders the sexual possibilities on offer to the characters “every boy should have a girlfriend, every girl should have a boyfriend… every boy should have a boyfriend, every boy should have a gay friend… every girl should have a girlfriend”. Songs and music here all being the work of an unknown singer/songwriter hiding out in the end credits under the joke pseudonym of ‘Clift Ritchard’. A phoney name that always gets a laugh for its cheeky attempt to implicate a sound-a-like singer in a sexually explicit, gay favoured film like this.

Effectively bleak as its opening half is, Boys and Girls Together eventually reveals itself to be a fundamentally positive and upbeat film. A shift in tone signalled by the couples- Ilsa and Jenny, Jat and Leroy, Don and Lily- taking a romantic walk around a park. All of a sudden London doesn’t look the grey netherworld of thieving prostitutes and mumbling perverts that it had previously, as the hot, midday sun beats down on the picturesque park setting, the actors, and cheery members of the public –including a few nuns- unwittingly captured on film here.

 Our man Clift Ritchard returns to the soundtrack to celebrate the experience “my, my, what a lark it is to walk in a park on a Sunday” sings a man not born Harry Webb “when you get to the end you can meet a new friend on a Sunday”.

The park’s maze temporarily splits up the couples who go off in different pairings for further sexual shenanigans. Leroy is partnered up with Jenny, Don with Ilsa, and Jat with Lily, before all re-converge on the park to cast away their clothes, inhibitions and the concept of monogamy in order to dance naked, embrace each other then enter into group sex. A freeze frame of this nude, ecstatic bunch –sitting in a circle, their hands raised up to the sky- ends the film.

A closer inspection of the credits reveals a surprise connection between this apparently fringe piece of filmmaking and the commercial side of the British sex film industry, the opening credits revealing this to be a production by David Sullivan’s Roldvale company, and the end credits listing regular Roldvale director Willy Roe as the film’s producer. It is the unlikeliest of marriage, the lack of sexploitation names in the Boys and Girls Together cast, plus the film’s blatantly bi-sexual orientation having little in common with the defiantly heterosexual nature of regular Roldvale fare like The Playbirds and Queen of the Blues. Marsden even breaks the golden rule of Roldvale filmmaking by having Don read a porn mag that wasn’t one of Sullivan’s own top shelf publications, Sullivan being the king of cross marketing, product placement in his films and magazines.

The Roldvale parentage makes the gay elements in the film a greater surprise, given Sullivan’s noticeable discomfort with the subject of homosexuality in the past. Credit where its due however there is little evidence of Sullivan imposing his own personality over this production or removing material that he may have found personally distasteful in post-production.

  The same unfortunately couldn’t be said of the British censor who trimmed over two minutes from the film before granting it an X- certificate in 1980. Judging by the cuts list what was lost to the censor was –predictably enough- part of the gay sex scene, and a significant reduction of male nudity. The version submitted to them reportedly containing a great deal of hand to genitals contact and shots of actors sporting hard-ons (“After women spills coffee on young man's trousers and pulls them down, remove sight of semi-erect penis”, “remove sight of blonde woman with her legs over man's shoulders and profile shot of his erect penis entering her” and “in sequence where black woman sunbathes on roof with Chinese man, remove all shots of his erect penis and subsequent thrusting” were among the cuts).

Regrettably it is this heavily censored version –complete with distracting jumps to the picture and soundtrack- that has always been the version issued on VHS and DVD, a version that only hints at the sexually revolutionary film this must have been in its original, uncut state.
If truth be told the majority of British sex films are antiquated in their outlook these days, of course that’s also part of their charm as a window into a past that was –for better or worse- a very different country, but Boys and Girls Together might be the exception to the rule –a film whose tolerance towards people regardless of skin colour or sexual preferences is something these turbulent times could do well to learn from – and of course Boys and Girls Together is a film that loves to break the rules.