Monday, 15 December 2014
A dark cloud looms over this month, with the news that my internet pal Chris O’Loughlin, who also wrote under the pen name Jonny Sambuca, passed away on the 21st of November, after a battle with cancer. I guess you could say it was Timmy Lea who first caused Chris to enter into my orbit, when Chris contacted me with the idea of him writing a book about the Timmy Lea ‘Confessions of a’ film series. What initially struck me was that Chris was an Australian, born in Hobart, Tasmania, and while I’d been aware that Australia was something of a second home for British sex comedies –with even terrible ones like The Love Pill and Emmanuelle in Soho having been released there- Chris really opened my eyes to just how well loved Robin Askwith’s cinematic sexcapades were ‘down under’. Chris had amassed a huge collection of Confessions related memorabilia from around the world, Yugoslavian stills, Icelandic pressbooks, back issues of Titbits, and ads for cheapskate ‘Confessions’ tie-in competitions with prizes including an electric blanket and a deluxe pop-up toaster, good grief Columbia pictures and Greg Smith were really pushing the boat out with those glittering prizes.
Chris’ main reason for contacting me was due to my friendship with Suzy Mandel, who he’d hoped to interview for the book. A plan that eventually morphed into Suzy writing the ‘outro’ for the chapter about Confessions of a Driving Instructor. I encouraged Chris to seek out further former Confessions starlets for the book, not that he needed my encouragement there, Carol Hawkins initially showed an interest but never got back to him, Chris did however strike up a friendship with Nicola Blackman, ‘Blackbird’ in Confessions from a Holiday Camp. Nicola’s outro to the Holiday Camp chapter turned out to be a superb piece of writing in its own right, and satisfied my own curiosity as to what the actress made of a now rather contentious role thirty odd years on. Chris had hoped to round out the book with an interview with the great man himself, Robin Askwith, but in the event had to make do with archive interviews with Askwith and Greg Smith, originally conducted in the mid to late 2000s.
So much hostility exists towards the Confessions films on home turf, decades of put downs, snobbery and historical revisionism have taken its toll on the series, with much of the criticism predictably emanating from people detached from the working class culture these films were a product of. This was one of the reasons why I threw whatever support I could behind Chris’ book. Much like Su Tune’s Robin Askwith blog, I felt that having being born outside the land these films sprung from was actually their mutual strong point. The likes of Chris and Su never having been tainted by the negativity that haunts these films in the UK, or the fear of being branded ‘unhip’ for saying anything nice about the Confessions series. Sure enough, Chris’ book boasted a true fan’s enthusiasm for the series, with pages and pages of headshots of his favourite characters, the crème de la crème of their Christopher Wood dialogue, and bits and bobs of rarely heard trivia (Suzy was particularly tickled by the revelation that Confessions producer Greg Smith had been a pantomime dame early on in his career.) Chris wasn’t afraid to ruffle a few politically correct feathers either, and fully entered into the spirit of the films by phwoaring over their actresses. Olivia Munday earned his praise for her “great slutty performance”’ in Window Cleaner, whilst in Confessions of a Driving Instructor “Suzy Mandel looks real hands down the front of ya pants horn cracking, the best she has ever looked on film”. Everything about the book spoke of his gratitude for the fun and enjoyment the films had given him over the years “it was a great thrill to be amongst two hundred odd people laughing and hollering from the very first opening to the closing credits” he wrote of attending a 1981 cinema screening of Confessions of a Window Cleaner.
His take on the Confessions films wasn’t entirely in keeping with my own or popular opinion, he wasn’t a big fan of Confessions of a Pop Performer and thought the sequels director Norman Cohen was an notably inferior director to Window Cleaner’s Val Guest (I’ve never seen the join where one ends and the other’s work begins myself). However the book was Chris’ own personal journey to the heart of the Confessions films, and I couldn’t help but respect the time and effort he’d put into it.
Privately I was rather concerned that finding a publisher for such a book would be an uphill struggle, especially with it being a visually driven book, and one that only the expensive, coffee table treatment would have done justice to. Realistically, I have to admit that British sexploitation cinema is a very hard sell to people, harder than say British horror or American sexploitation cinema. I kept my fears to myself though, hoping they were unjustified, and passed onto him the names of just about every niche British publisher I could think of who might pick it up and run with the idea. Their responses were- I gather- a bit muted, with one publisher pretty much echoing my private fears when they turned him down- citing the fact that a similar themed book they’d published had been one of their lowest selling titles.
I didn’t hear back from Chris for a long while after that, and he seemed to disappear from the internet for a time. His silence I’d hoped would be entirely down to him being busy re-tuning the book and pitching it to various publishers, but when he eventually re-emerged ill-health sadly turned out to be the real reason for his absence. “I’m alright at the mo, but long-term unfortunately doesn’t look too positive” he told me back in June. It was around this time that he sent me a 185 page PDF copy of the book, and asked for my feedback. Under normal circumstances I might have chipped in the odd bit of constructive criticism and advice, but given the awfulness of his situation, I felt the need to offer nothing but praise and good will. I did make the suggestion that if all else failed then maybe the book could be published electronically, or self-distributed on data CDs, but I got the impression that he always wanted it to be a ‘real’ book, and besides I suspected his health needed to be his number one priority and that the book was being put on the back burner. In our last correspondence I brought up the subject of Guy N. Smith’s unofficial ‘Confessions’ books, which Chris had given a special visual mention to at the end of his book. Atrocious looking, even by the inglorious standards of Confessions rip-offs, these books were so creatively barren they came up with their names by merely adding the word ‘sexy’ to the titles of pre-existing Askwith films, hence ‘Sexy Confessions of a Window Cleaner’ and ‘Sexy Confessions of a Pop Performer’.
Smith’s writing in these books appears to play second fiddle to softcore photos of lame Askwith and Olivia Munday clones going at it. Whereas in Smith’s horror paperbacks the characters were frequently in danger of being killed by crabs, the models in his Confessions books look more in peril of contracting the crabs. Needless to say, the sneak peek of the Smith knockoffs in Chris’ book makes you instantly want to go out and find one of these monstrosities for yourself. “They are what you would expect” Chris jokingly warned. So our relationship at least ended on a high, and a laugh, with both of us taking the piss out of Guy N. Smith.
In a perfect world, Chris would still be around, I wouldn’t be writing this, and you’d be holding a glossy, hardback, coffee table version of his book in your hands. I can only hope that the book surfaces in one form or another, and I’m heartbroken that he didn’t realize his dream of having it published. It deserves to be regarded as a treasure trove by Confessions fans, and Chris himself deserves to be remembered as a man who flew the flag high for all things Confessions.
Thursday, 11 December 2014
Double Exposure turns out to be that rare beast, an Anouska Hempel vehicle that is actually worth seeing. James Compton (David Baron) a middle-aged fashion photographer accepts a private commission from shipping tycoon Howard Townsend (Alan Brown) to photograph Townsend’s trophy girlfriend/mistress Simone (Hempel). A series of intimate photo-shoots soon unwisely transforms into a secret affair between photographer and subject. However romance gets nipped in the bud when Simone is kidnapped by three criminal former associates of Townsend, who use their knowledge of the affair to blackmail Compton into the dangerous position of acting as middle man between themselves and the crooked Townsend, whose shipping business is a front for arms dealing.
Double Exposure appears to have been independently produced then jointly distributed by two big American companies (Columbia and Warner Brothers), fittingly then it’s a low-budget film that is initially preoccupied with masquerading as a major studio production. Anything that indicates wealth and success, be it characters travelling by Rolls-Royce, private jet and steam train, or country estates and rows of antique cars is treated as visually holy here, and constantly captures the eye and camera of regular British exploitation director of photography Alan Pudney. It doesn’t really have the budget to stretch to A-List stars though, a factor that isn’t necessary a disadvantage. Since as a result, Double Exposure is filled with solid British character actors, all clearly relishing the opportunity to get their hands on larger-than-usual roles for them. David Baron makes for a laid back but efficient hero. With his lived in face and hangdog expressions, Baron is perfectly cast as the Bailey-esque swinging Sixties photographer disgracefully drifting into middle age and unapologetically still wearing jeans and suede jackets to work. You can just about buy into the idea that Simone would go for him, due to a combination of Compton’s own likeability and the despicability of Townsend, who isn’t above slapping Simone around as a way of relieving his frustrations.
Another standout performance comes courtesy of Robert Russell, a prolific TV and film actor, probably best remembered as John Stearne in Witchfinder General. Cast here as Bradley, the head kidnapper, at the outset it’s the type of sadistic goon role that Russell could have played in his sleep, but the character grows more compelling as the film progresses revealing Bradley to be a man who isn’t entirely without his own moral compass. Bradley acts as Simone’s savour at one point when his brutish underlings try to rape her, and attempts to justify his kidnapping of her by pointing out that Townsend himself has committed far worse acts in the pursuit of money. In the process stirring Simon’s long dormant consciousness over the murderous activities that have been funding her and Townsend’s privileged lifestyles.
Hempel is the cast member who has drawn the short straw when it comes to roles here, while male characters develop during the film, Hempel is stuck with a role that goes from beautiful but shallow fashion model to captured damsel in distress. Inevitably evoking unwanted memories of her role in the dreaded Tiffany Jones, and denying her any of the acting sparks that flew by the casting of her as a villainess in Russ Meyer’s Blacksnake. Maybe I’m being a bit unfair on the filmmakers and The Hemp there though, as there is evidence in the film to suggest we are deliberately deceived into thinking of Simone as weak, defenceless and one-dimensional in order to pull the rug from under us right at the very end (the UK and Canadian VHS covers are unfortunately hugely spoilerish in this respect, both drawing on a key image from the final scene in the film).
As double-dealings and plot twists are the name of the game in Double Exposure, we are definitely talking the type of film here where the less you know about the plot going into it, the better. Not that I had much of a choice myself, little having been written about Double Exposure over the years, and the film having an almost invisible presence on the internet. The only passing mention of it I could find on the net being during an overview of Hempel’s career contained within bloodypitofhorror blog’s review of Blacksnake, but even there the reviewer hadn’t managed to see the film and was uncertain whether Double Exposure should be regarded as a horror film or a crime thriller. Having had the benefit of tracking it down, I can confirm Double Exposure to be in the crime thriller camp, albeit with brief, but vicious moments of violence that wouldn’t be out of place in a Pete Walker film of the period. An opening face slashing and shooting to death of a minor character makes the preceding ‘AA’ BBFC certificate card seem quite lenient, but the one scene guaranteed to linger in the memory here finds two of Townsend’s heavies dressed up as cleaning ladies in order to sneak up on a “double crossing bastard” associate of his, who is summarily thrown off the top of a building!
A subplot that sees Compton enlist the help of Patterson, an ex-government boffin who has moved on into computer espionage, brings about the surprise casting of a pre-fame Hazel O’Connor, in one of her two film appearances prior to Breaking Glass (the other one being David Hamilton Grant’s Girls Come First). Briefly cast as the Moneypenny character to Patterson’s ‘M’, O’Connor first shows up as an ordinary office secretary before being given the gem of a request to “put on a mini-skirt and heavy make-up, we’ve got a special assignment for you”. Said assignment involving O’Connor strutting her stuff up Greek street and posing as a hooker in order to distract the thugs Townsend has had trailing Compton. For a laugh keep your eyes peeled for the pervy looks O’Connor gets from real life passers-by during this scene, who don’t appear to be aware they were being filmed.
Apart from Hazel O’Connor, Patterson’s other trick up his sleeve is a (then) futuristic device that Patterson has created by hooking up a phone to a computer which allows him to connect to other people’s computers and steal information stored on them. In what could now be seen as an early example of the internet and computer hacking, showcased here a good few decades before either would become commonplace. “Computer espionage is the trend of the future” predicts Patterson with allot more spot on accuracy than the filmmakers could have ever dreamed of.
While Double Exposure doesn’t quite make it into the same league as say, Get Carter, Sitting Target and The Squeeze, it leaves a decent enough impression for you to question why the film isn’t better known. It’s certainly on a par with a better than average episode of The Sweeney or The Professionals, to which it shares a certain kinship, due to the presence of actors associated with TV shows of that nature and a shared passion for the funkier side of the era’s library music. Nobody gets to walk around or drive about in Double Exposure for very long before some lively piece of 70s library music starts to overpower the soundtrack.
By rights the film should have acted as a calling card for its director to go on and helm episodes of TV action series, much in the way that ‘Freelance’ did for Francis Megahy, but as far as I can tell the credited director/writer/producer William Webb doesn’t appear to have made anything else. Should that unfortunately be the case, Webb can at least take solace in the fact that the one film he did make fetches high prices these days. According to the bloodypitofhorror’s Blacksnake review a Canadian VHS release of Double Exposure recently sold for $250 on Ebay, an eye-opening amount given we’re not talking about a well-known or much sought after film here. In light of the rumours about Anouska Hempel having bought the rights to Tiffany Jones in order to suppress further screenings of said film, is it wicked of me to wonder out loud whether a person willing to pay that much for a VHS of Double Exposure might also be a person with a burning desire to perform a disappearing trick on their former acting career?