Sunday, 13 April 2014

Confessions of a Taste Breaker

The subject of the critical mauling dished out to the ‘Confessions’ series over the years recently came up at one of my internet haunts, and reminded me of that brilliant defence of the film series, originally published in the September 1976 issue of Films and Filming, as well as causing me to offer up my own two penneth worth on the subject, which I thought was worth reposting and expanding on here (to the degree that ‘offering my own two penneth worth on the subject’ may now have bloated into ‘endlessly pontificating on the subject’ but so be it.)

At the risk of sounding like Citizen Smith here at times, I do find myself grimly drawn to the conclusion that loathing for the Confessions series by film critics –both then and now- could well be ‘a class thing’. As the Films and Filming letter suggests the Confessions series were the 1970s continuation of a tradition of British film comedies aimed specifically at the working classes. A part of British cinema, which by its very nature has tended to be looked down upon by middle class critics, who give the impression of not only being unable to relate to the people being depicted on screen, but of being embarrassed-or even offended- over that section of British society getting its own cinematic mouthpiece. To Brian Evans’ list of early comedy stars whose big screen vehicles act as the forefathers to the Confessions series, I’d also personally add Old Mother Riley and Frank Randle (whose ‘Holidays With Pay’ is very proto-Confessions in its centring around a dysfunctional working class family).

For the majority of the time the British sex film, of which the Confessions series were an important part of, was a predominantly working class genre of film, especially in terms of audience demographics and what you encounter up there onscreen. Now admittedly, you can punch a few Joan Collins and Pete Walker sized holes into that argument, the genre had its fair share of notable toffs both in front of and behind the camera, but it is the explicitly working class ‘Confessions’ side of the story which the genre will forever be associated with in the minds of the public. Not to mention the chief point of reference whenever the genre is up for parody (The Fast Show, Tramadol Nights, the films of Jan Manthey) or pornographic emulation (it could convincingly be claimed that 1990s/early 2000s porn stars Ben Dover, Dr Neil Down, Phil Mycok, Omar Williams, all carried the Timmy Lea gene, their hardcore videos serving as a meeting of Confessions ethos and the American originated ‘gonzo’ school of pornography).

I do find it significant that the few films from the British sex comedy era that fared poorly at the box-office –Keep It Up Downstairs, Mistress Pamela and the two Koo Stark vehicles- were all period pieces based around the affairs of upper class characters, and possibly for those very reasons were unsuccessful in connecting with audiences in the way that the Confessions and rival ‘Adventures of a…’ series were.

A sense of reverse snobbery existing within the core British sex film audience doesn’t look to have gone completely unnoticed by the filmmakers themselves. Once private but recently made public correspondence between Confessions honcho Michael Klinger and Confessions producer Greg Smith, sees the former voice concerns that with the first Confessions sequel ‘Confessions of a Pop Performer’ the series was in danger of drifting into the realms of escapist fantasy and away from the realistic, working class environment established by the first film ‘Confessions of a Window Cleaner’. A likely reason as to why the two remaining sequels saw the Timmy Lea character dropped into the believable, down to earth occupations of driving instructor and holiday camp entertainment officer. Klinger’s anxiety over Pop Performer might not have been without justification if you cast an eye over the genre as a whole. Even films with contemporary 1970s settings that diverted away from working class surroundings were prone to the curse of poor box-office returns. Adventures of a Private Eye’s central occupation likely being an alienating factor for audiences, never as relatable as the occupation of the previous film in that series, Adventures of a Taxi Driver. Likewise Private Eye’s middle-section which sees its hero plunged into some sub-Rawlinson End antics involving a faux-haunted house and its eccentric aristocratic owners, may well have been another obstacle for cinemagoers, it’s just too removed from anyone’s regular environment, even though these scenes are among the comedy highpoints of the Adventures series. Similarly miscalculated is the Confessions team’s Rosie Dixon-Night Nurse (1978). In spite of sharing Confessions’ producer and scriptwriter team in Greg Smith and Christopher Wood, it emerges as a considerably more middle class creation, both in appearance and P.O.V The trainee doctors who act as suitors to its forgettable bimbo heroine might be of a similar school of thought to Timmy Lea, but they clearly went to more expensive schools, and Rosie’s boyfriend –bespectacled, frequency seen trouser less and at one stage holding a symbolically flaccid bunch of flowers- is a nightmare vision of the bumbling, sexually incompetent upper class twit. Not even seasoned comedy pros John Clive and Bob Todd can work up much enthusiasm for this onscreen, and an equal amount of audience apathy meant that Rosie was a one movie wonder.


Less carefully considered critiques of the Confessions series regularly find class based prejudices rearing their heads. “Drab high streets, dull suburbs, tawdry holiday camps…Britain in all its glory” sneered one internet hack over the Confessions’ series landscape. A statement that –depending on the author’s background- either displays a deep distain for working class Britain, or self-hatred should the author have come from that background himself. All too often when the Confessions series –or films of a similar comedic ilk- come under scrutiny, the mask of film criticism falls away early on, revealing a frowning face of snobbery beneath. A recent Radio 4 piece on ‘Holiday on the Buses’ by Mark Gatiss and Matthew Sweet, saw that film produce a howl of disapproval from both parties. Not only did Holiday on the Buses fail to meet up to their high standards, but the physical appearance of characters, their holiday camp surroundings, occupations and indifference to bettering themselves socially, all proved to be an affront to Gatiss and Sweet’s sensibilities, with Gatiss at one point remarking that the main characters took to the setting of that film “like pigs wallowing in shit” (not his exact words, I’m quoting from memory here, but a toned down version of that expression was used.) A radio piece that was as joyless to listen to as Holiday on the Buses was for Sweet and Gatiss to obviously watch.

Male characters in the Confessions series don’t really conform to the idea of the working classes as noble, politically aware heroes as found in the cinema of Ken Loach, they’re an apolitical bunch who –as might be expected from a comedy series- are riddled with characteristics we are meant to find funny (carnal clown Timmy, wheeler dealer brother in law Sidney Noggett, uncouth kleptomaniac father Walter Lea). In the academic essay “Confessions of a Window Cleaner: Sex, Class, Popular Taste” Sian Barber puts forward a case that a bourgeois agenda hides within the Confessions series, one that encourages audiences to feel revulsion at the working class Lea family, with narratives that put them in their place (heavily citing the wedding reception scene in Confessions of a Window Cleaner). Personally I wouldn’t be so quick to assume that anything which shows the working classes in a less than saintly light is evidence of a bourgeois/undercover snob agenda. If anything British culture has a habit of adopting life’s losers as its comedy icons- Arthur Daley, Del Boy, Steptoe, Old Mother Riley, etc. At first glance none are flattering examples of working class Britain, flirtations with petty criminality, making enemies of authority figures and being a sucker for get rich quick schemes are common characteristics here, but the public took these characters to their collective bosom anyway, maybe even recognising these characters’ failings in themselves. The Lea family of the Confessions series fits in perfectly in that company. As for the wedding reception scene in Confessions of a Window Cleaner, which sees a culture clash between the Lea family and the upper middle class family of Timmy’s girlfriend Elizabeth Radlett, and results in the Leas failing miserably to endear themselves to the prim and proper Radletts. It all really depends on which side you identify with and who you take against, I’d argue that the film itself strongly pushes the audience into the corner of the Lea family.

For virtually all of Confessions of a Window Cleaner, we are in the company of various members of the Lea family, and –if the film is successful in working its magic on you- have been entertained and amused by that family unit. The use of voiceover to allow Timmy to talk directly to the audience, furthering an alliance to that character and his family. In contrast the Radlett family are outsiders to the narrative, introduced late on into Confessions of a Window Cleaner and the subject of a critical eyeballing by the film. In their brief appearances the Radletts are portrayed as humourless and uptight socially (in the case of the father, a police inspector), spoilt and uptight sexually (in the case of the daughter/girlfriend) and horribly judgemental (“there are criminals abroad you know” remarks Mrs. Radlett, to which Inspector Radlett looks at the Lea family and chips in “not only abroad”). All are quick to find fault with Timmy (upon their first meeting Inspector Radlett’s chief concern is that the tires on Timmy’s van are worn down) or turn him into something he isn’t (“you’re too good for that sort of job” claims Elizabeth of Timmy’s window cleaner occupation “you’d make a good policeman”).

That in mind I’d argue the film encourages the audience to get behind the Lea family patriarch Walter as he quickly loses his put on airs and graces, reverts to vulgar type and inadvertently offends the head of the Radlett household. “I’ve got a lot of respect for the police” he unconvincingly tells Inspector Radlett “anyone ever calls them bastards, I deny it”. It is in keeping with the series’ routine ridiculing of authority figures, anti-police force sentiments are strong in Window Cleaner, and in Confessions from a Holiday Camp the chief villain/object of humiliation Whitemonk is another bogeyman of the criminally orientated working classes, an ex-prison officer.  

An inability to succeed in any walk of life –another reoccurring characteristic in British comedy icons- follows the Lea family over the Confessions series. For all of Sidney Noggett’s best laid plans, every one of his schemes is destined to fall apart thanks to his accident prone brother-in-law. A situation that brings poor Sid closer and closer to insanity with each passing film. By the end of the series with Confessions from a Holiday Camp, Sid has been rendered as barking mad as Inspector Dreyfus of the Pink Panther series or Dennis Hopper in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 (the scene in Holiday Camp with a cowboy hat wearing, grass cutter wielding Sid might be what brought on that unlikely comparison). The comedy of failure is a series trait that puts the Confessions series at odds with another take on the British working class that has found favour with middle class audiences of late; that of the underprivileged outsider attempting to better themselves in areas perceived as being beyond their social status, succeeding and in doing so leaving their working class background behind. Exemplified by the popular ‘Billy Elliot’ (2000) and the loathsome ‘Starter for 10’ (2006). Confessions of a Window Cleaner however ends not with Timmy married, socially upgraded and tied to the Radlett family, but with the audience pleasing outcome of seeing him happily single, still working as a window cleaner and still chasing women on the same high street from the start of the film.

As tends to be the case with many exploitation sub-genres, little can be gleaned about the British sex comedy on the basis of initial critical responses. Searching through old Monthly Film Bulletins, Films and Filmings, and Films Illustrated leads nowhere but hostile pan after hostile pan. If anything the British sex comedy story acts as a reminder of how little attention the public actually pays to film critics (something that in itself is unlikely to ever endear the British sex film to critics). For if the public did listen to critics this is a genre that would have been strangled at birth, rather than have been a recognisable strand of British cinema for over a decade. Its remarkable then that Brian Evans’ Films and Filming letter slipped through their net, albeit branded with that ‘taste breaker’ title by the magazine, and followed by letters of condemnation in the October 1976 and January 1977 issues. The latter counter arguing “while my local ABC continues to show Robin Askwith, even if he be a modern George Formby losing his trousers, I will not enter their foyer at all”.

Over a year earlier in the October 1975 issue of the Monthly Film Bulletin the widening gap between the tastes of film critics and the tastes of the public was touched upon in the MFB review of the John Cleese comedy featurette ‘Romance with a Double Bass’. A write-up which resentfully acknowledges the words of the critics were falling on deaf ears with the public; “it is probably too much to expect that a whimsical comedy made with a measure of style will do as well these days as the current crop of lamentable but money spinning British sex comedies- but one can hope”. Fat chance, not only did that review fail to divert an audience away from those sex comedies and in the direction of Romance with a Double Bass, it couldn’t even deter that film’s director Robert Young from the allure of the genre, which saw Young later helm Keep It Up Downstairs and The World is Full of Married Men. In the years since the British sex film’s demise there has been a concentrated critical effort to denigrate the genre further and instil a sense of shame in the public for ever having held it dear, the films are called unfunny, miserable, unsexy, a forgotten embarrassment or “films from the darkest days of British cinema” as the Daily Mail dubbed the Confessions series a few years ago.

Confessions of a Driving Instructor playing Piccadilly Circus in 1976 (photo courtesy of Klaus Hiltscher)

Facts which inconveniently serve as a reminder of the popularity the films enjoyed with the public –Come Play With Me’s four year run at the Moulin cinema, and Adventures of a Taxi Driver out grossing Taxi Driver upon their release in 1975 – are therefore a source of torment, maybe even the odd sleepless night by the genre’s detractors. A response of head scratching, feigned confusion over these successes, chooses to ignore the glaringly obvious explanation for them, that people simply liked Come Play With Me and went to see it over and over again, and that as far as 1975 British audiences were concerned they’d rather spend money on seeing Barry Evans losing his trousers than they would on seeing Robert De Niro losing his marbles. In Shepperton Babylon, Matthew Sweet –an author whose fixation for British exploitation cinema is matched by his inability to say anything remotely positive about it- claims of the entire sex comedy era films “they are neither funny nor sexy. It’s hard to believe that they ever made anybody laugh; that the people who bought tickets for them through the 1970s watched in anything but glum resignation.” But if that is the case, why when I put on a DVD of Confessions of a Window Cleaner for an audience of working class males do they still laugh like a drain at Robin Askwith’s trouser dropping antics?

Despite the Confessions films boasting a series regular who was a known heavyweight when it came to left wing politics in Anthony Booth, and Askwith’s own close association with a highly regarded figure from the British new wave movement (Askwith’s roles in the Confessions films being bookended by appearances in Lindsay Anderson’s ‘If’ and ‘Britannia Hospital’) the series currently joins the ranks of many a form of 20th century British entertainment –bawdy and working class in nature- that are seen as suspect, threatening and a cause for concern amongst the more influential elements of British society. Their averse reactions to which can often boil over into calls for censorship or suppression- consider the persecution of Donald McGill over his seaside postcards in the 1950s, or the current middle class led backlash over Lad’s Mags and Page 3.

The knives have definitely been out for Confessions of a Window Cleaner in these last few years, likely singled out purely on the basis of it being a well-remembered and genre defining title. I’ve grown increasingly tired nay intolerant to hearing it described along the lines of ‘the nadir of British cinema’. A tag that feels unsuited to, and unfairly hung around, a film that on a technical level could hardly be considered an example of Ed Wood type ineptness. It is in fact a reasonably budgeted film, professionally directed by a veteran filmmaker, financed by a major studio, and with an experienced –and to a UK audience- well known supporting cast. As for nadir in terms of lack of success, we’re talking here about a film seen by millions of British cinemagoers, one that sold all over the world, spawned sequels, imitations (The Ups and Downs of a Handyman) and imitations of imitations (Close Encounters of a Handyman, The Ups and Downs of a Superstud), I daresay there are plenty of filmmakers around today who’d give their right arm to stumble upon such a lucrative ‘nadir’ as Confessions of a Window Cleaner.

For all the hundreds of unkind words spewed forth over the Confessions series by critics, and recent attempts by the likes of Sweet and Dominic Sandbrook to portray them as a cultural embarrassment, it is worth pointing out that the Confessions films have rarely been out of circulation since they were made, what with theatrical releases (and double-bill re-releases) in the 1970s, being pretty much everywhere on video in the 1980s, and in recent years the Channel 5 and Paramount TV airings and the DVD releases. Which when all is said and done, to me speaks volumes as to how the British public really feels about these films. So Mr Brian Evans of Sydenham, London, whatever else you did with your life, on account of that Films and Filming letter alone, this fellow taste breaker salutes you.


Sunday, 6 April 2014