Wednesday, 9 March 2016
Whose Child Am I (1974, Gerry O’Hara)
Remember all those now antiquated films about Y2K and the world ending in 2012? Well, watching Whose Child Am I – a 1974 film about the pros and cons of artificial insemination- is an experience akin to revisiting those films today. The makers of Whose Child Am I obviously hoped to cash in on a subject that would have been on everyone’s lips at the time, only for the controversy over artificial insemination to quickly fizzle out and the public’s interest in the subject to wane, leaving us with a film that seen today just seems to be making a fuss about nothing.
Although American exploitation cinema had spotted the box-office potential of the artificial insemination theme relatively early–there is a film from 1948 called ‘Test Tube Babies’ for instance- in Britain the subject had largely gone overlooked, and Whose Child Am I remains one of the few British exploitation films to comment on artificial insemination. The film’s director Gerry O’Hara was something of a dab hand at zoning in on taboo topics and turning them into movies. Chances are if there was a subject that had collectively raised the eyebrows of the British public in the Sunday papers they’d be a Gerry O’Hara film along shortly to feed that interest. From venereal disease (That Kind of Girl), underage love (All the Right Noises), the underbelly of swinging London (The Pleasure Girls) to domestic violence (The Brute), Gerry tackled them all. ‘Officially’ Whose Child Am I is the only time O’Hara used a pseudonym on a film –he is credited as ‘Laurence Britten’ here. The reasons for this remain unclear, O’Hara has made more explicit films than this under his real name, like his 1983 adaptation of Fanny Hill, and he has certainly signed his real name to films far worse than this, such as 1993’s horror dud ‘The Mummy Lives’ or as I like to call it ‘Whose Mummy Am I’. In interviews however O’Hara has admitted to using fake names in order to direct ‘utter junk’ for Wilbur Stark, so there exists a possibility that there are even more pseudonymous movies in O’Hara’s closet that he doesn’t want the world to know about.
In Whose Child Am I, Kate O’Mara and Paul Freeman play Barbara and Paul Martin, a loving, married, yet unhappily childless couple. We know there are a loving couple because the film opens with them having very passionate sex, and we know they are unhappy because immediately afterwards they begin arguing and fretting that they seem unable to conceive a child. “I don’t know, every time we make love I feel more like a sperm disposal machine than a woman” Barbara complains, to which Paul lights up a cigarette then comes back with “thanks allot, I thought I was your husband, turns out I’m some kind of pump”. Right from the get-go the dialogue in this film really grabs you by the funny bone and has such a marvellously keen ear for crudity that you’d swear the film was written by Jackie Collins. Whether or not the makers of Whose Child Am I would take that as a compliment I’m not sure, but it is hard not to think of Whose Child Am I as some kind of offshoot of the Collins sisters universe, especially as leading lady Kate O’Mara would later show up as Joan’s sister in Dynasty and director O’Hara would soon after direct Joan in the Jackie scripted ‘The Bitch’. Paul and Barbara Martin are the kind of people who you can easily imagine moving in the same social circles as the characters in The Stud, The Bitch and The World is Full of Married Men. They’re a wealthy, successful, sophisticated young couple with a sprinkling of showbiz glamour in their lives, due to the fact that Paul works in the music industry, presumably for Vertigo records, given the posters for Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality album that decorates his offices.
A visit to a sex shop brings Paul into contact with a book about conception, which in turn leads Paul and Barbara to Dr Benson (Edward Judd) a leading expert in the field who recommends artificial insemination as a solution to their problem. Along with his assistant Helen (Frances Kearney), Benson is presented as the responsible and respectable face of artificial insemination treatment in this film. Progressive, friendly and authoritative, Benson is basically here to take the film’s audience by the hand and walk them through this unknown subject. Even so, there is an underlining concern in Whose Child Am I over how artificial insemination and sex aids pose a threat to the role of men in both the act of conception and the sex act itself. In the scene in the sex shop, a sour faced Paul is confronted by various phallic themed sex toys, whilst in the background an elderly man is casually seen buying a vibrator (“it works on 120 or 200 volts or a rechargeable battery” a female shop assistant informs the old timer). The fear of a world where a man’s penis is no longer of use to women permeates this film.
Thankfully for male audience members Whose Child Am I provides reassurance that the cock is still mightier than the test tube when the couple’s attempt at artificial insemination fails, leaving Barbara to contemplate going behind her husband’s back and committing adultery as a way of having a child. Enter Professor Roland (David Markham) a less ethical colleague of Benson, who essentially runs a stud farm where “normal mating” occurs between Roland’s female patients and Roland’s assistant Michael (Bob Sherman). Despite being now desperate to conceive, Barbara wrestles with her conscience over whether she can enter into “making love without loving” and flees the room after only some brief foreplay with Michael. This oily, full of himself wannabe gigolo isn’t about to be deterred however, and Michael talks Barbara into a series of clandestine sexual encounters at his bachelor pad. Soon after Barbara finally gets knocked up and has a daughter named Harriet. Complications arise however when Barbara’s Uncle Harry dies, leaves his estate to Harriett, and Michael steps in to try and claim paternal rights on his now rich illegitimate offspring. In turn forcing Barbara to come clean about her infidelity, and resulting in Barbara and Paul eventually having to do battle with Michael in court over the child.
As if the main plot of Whose Child Am I didn’t already pack in more drama than you can shake a test tube at, the film also follows the plight of several other characters who are in some way connected to Dr Benson. Whose Child Am I could never be accused of not trying to embrace just about every public concern when it came to artificial insemination, what with these sub-plots giving the chance for O’Hara to cover themes of race, lesbianism and incest. A furore erupts in Benson’s lab when it is revealed that the sperm of an ‘African donor’ has been given to a white American patient, Mrs Lustig (Beth Porter). As if that situation wasn’t enough for Benson’s assistant Helen to cope with, she is also dating an older silver fox called John Roberts (Ronan O’Casey). Trouble is, Helen’s mother suspects that Roberts is the long ago sperm donor who helped her conceive Helen and therefore Roberts may inadvertently be dating his own daughter!! Benson is also approached by a gay female couple Renate (Diane Fletcher) and Carrie (Felicity Devonshire) who plead the case for them to be given equal consideration for artificial insemination treatment as any straight couple.
What disappoints about Whose Child Am I in this respect is that these subplots feel so underdeveloped. As if the filmmakers wanted to raise potentially controversial issues and yet when push comes to shove have nothing really to say about them. This is particularly true of the Mrs Lustig subplot, where the news of the sperm mix-up understandably leaves this dope smoking, ex-hippie stunned and dismayed. By rights you’d think that the next time the film revisits Mrs Lustig we’d find a character deep in turmoil and considering legal action. Instead, we find her just shrugging off the problem with the reasoning that she and her husband were considering adopting a Vietnamese kid anyway, so it don’t really matter that she is having a black one now. At which plot this whole storyline just deteriorates into a horribly misguided attempt at comic relief. Don’t get me wrong, Whose Child Am I isn’t a film without a sense of humour about itself, but the rest of the film still manages to take its subject matter seriously, making this played entirely for laughs subplot feel so out of place for not towing the line. Scenes like the one where Benson rushes to Lustig’s bedside expecting to help her give birth only to discover it’s a false alarm and finds her sucking on an orange and listening to rock music, elicit a head scratching audience response of ‘at what point did this film suddenly become Carry on Matron’. Beth Porter was a wonderfully gifted comedy actress, check out her screamingly funny turns in Eskimo Nell and the Crown Court story ‘Scalped’, but she does seem to be acting in a completely different film to everyone else here. Not only is there the cowardly sense of a film trivialising and avoiding a genuine issue here, which is doubly frustrating given how rarely British exploitation cinema dealt with racial issues, but it also undermines the trust the film has built up in Dr Benson. Are we really to believe that the same man who puts the rest of the characters in this film through a rigorous screening process before commencing with artificial insemination treatment would really okay the impregnation of a dope smoking, scatter-brained all around walking disaster area that is Beth Porter’s Mrs Lustig. Frankly, it is too big of an ask.
Fortunately Whose Child Am I is a bit more willing to engage in the subject of same sex couples’ right to artificial insemination treatment. Renate puts forward an eloquent and persuasive case for her right to motherhood (“we’re probably more married than many of your so called married couples”) in the process challenging Benson’s homophobic concerns about lesbian mothers. It’s enough to eventually convince Benson to heroically go ahead with the couples’ treatment, despite knowing that doing so is likely to result in a heated backlash from the conservative elements of British society and the press. Renate and Carrie represent one of the more positive depictions of a gay female couple seen thus far in British exploitation cinema, they are shown to be committed to each other, financially and emotionally stable, and comfortable with their sexual orientation. Whose Child Am I admirably avoids the route that so many British exploitation films took of making one half of a lesbian couple essentially bi-sexual and whose wandering eye for men leads to problems within their gay relationship, as is the case in films like ‘Vampyes’, ‘Prey’ and ‘Erotic Inferno’. It’s not all positive though, and in a piece of dialogue that causes you to do a severe double-take Carrie at one point tells Renate that “you’re the butch in this family, I think I should be the one to have the baby……you’re so flat chested”. Now, the last part of that comment can be taken two ways, either the suggestion is that Carrie thinks her body is more suited to motherhood because she has bigger breasts or that she thinks any offspring born to her has a greater chance of developing bigger breasts and being conventionally attractive. Either way though it hits you as a really crass and tactless comment and hardly the thing someone would really say to a long term lover. I’d also question whether Renate really qualifies as being ‘butch’. She may be in her late 30s and have a forceful personality that could intimidate certain men, but she still is quite feminine and the actress who plays her deemed attractive enough to have a nude love scene in a film aimed at straight men, yet the way Renate is referred to in the film you’d think people were talking about someone who drives a truck, is great at playing tennis and works as a warden in a women’s prison.
Considering the torment that Paul and Barbara go through in this film to have and keep a child, their gay counterparts do get a relatively easy ride in comparison. Benson’s doom mongering concerns about the public reaction to him providing insemination treatment for a gay couple leads you to anticipate violent retaliation and homophobia aimed at the couple that thankfully never actually comes to pass in the film. In fact after Carrie and Renate win over Benson they never experience any further kind of homophobia during the film. Evidence of a film with an enlightened attitude towards lesbian couples? Or evidence of a film with an underdeveloped script? Whatever the answer, it is worth noting that the gay characters do ‘win’ at the end of the film. After Carrie gives birth and Renate sits at her bedside, a man visiting the same ward asks Renate if Carrie is her sister, to which Renate proudly and immediately responds “oh no, she is my wife”. A line that allows the couples’ story to end on a powerfully triumphant note.
The subject matter of both Whose Child Am I and O’Hara’s The Brute, artificial insemination and domestic violence, are almost exclusive staples of American TV movies these days. Back when O’Hara made these two though, the thinking seems to have been that they’d be suitable subjects for the big screen as long as they received a large shot in the arm of sex and sensationalism. Thus The Brute tackles the subject of domestic violence as if it were a horror film, complete with the wife beating villain of the piece going all Norman Bates at one point and pursuing the heroine whilst dressed in his mother’s clothes. On the other hand Whose Child Am I regularly interrupts its narrative with bouts of soft-core lovemaking and full frontal nudity from people who didn’t usually do such things like Kate O’Mara and Ronan O’Casey. This approach does give Whose Child Am I and The Brute an immediate uniqueness, but it is hard to escape the feeling that these films’ subject matter and the genres that O’Hara assigns them to sit awkwardly together. Take Whose Child Am I with its preoccupations with child birth, marital problems and male impotence, plus talk of VD, blood tests and women’s periods… hardly the kind of thing that has the average person reaching for their dirty mackintosh is it? It may have not been apparent when the film was being made in 1974, but by the time it finally came out in 1976 Whose Child Am I would have found itself swimming against the cultural tide. In those interim years sex on British screens had become something silly, something irreverent. Keeping in mind that by 1976 the Confessions series was at part 3 and the Adventures series was onto its second outing, all of which would have made a film like Whose Child Am I the square peg in the round hole of British sex comedy mania.
Trying to find evidence of this film’s British release is a task in itself, in the process of researching the film I’ve managed to come up with promotional material on it from Yugoslavia, Italy, North America and Japan but came up empty handed on anything relating to Whose Child Am I’s domestic release. From what is known, it was distributed here by Miracle films who put it out under the title ‘Feelings’ on a double bill with an Italian crime thriller called Street Killers starring Helmut Berger, now better known under the title of ‘Mad Dog Murderer’. A pairing so random it is as if Miracle films just grabbed the nearest two acquisitions they had and sent them out there, regardless of whether these two films had anything in common. This double-bill played for a week in the West End in July 1976, thereafter Whose Child Am I all but became invisible in its country of origin, it has never had a UK video release, and its content means it is unlikely to have ever made it onto British television.
There is evidence in Whose Child Am I itself that the film had its sights set on an audience outside of the UK. Namely the fact that the majority of the cast are sporting put on American and Canadian accents in the film, with the exception of Beth Porter and Bob Sherman who as Americans do the film in their real accents. The accents may imply a Canadian setting at times, yet exterior shooting occasionally lets slip home-grown details such as shots of double decker buses and an Ann Summers store. A confused audience might be less inclined to ponder the title question of Whose Child Am I and instead puzzle over ‘Whose Country Is This?’
The background of the film’s producers offers a possible clue to the reasons for the Canadian/US masquerade being played out here. Whose Child Am I was produced by a married couple called Jesse and Carol Vogel who around the same time were involved in the making of a sex comedy in Toronto called ‘My Pleasure Is My Business’ starring the Happy Hooker authoress Xaviera Hollander. Outside of film producing, the Vogels were primarily known for re-shaping and dubbing Eastern and European films for release in English speaking territories. For people who grew up during the video era the Vogels’ best known work is probably the re-editing of several Japanese TV shows into feature length movies for American producer Sandy Frank. The resultant films like Time of the Apes, Fugitive Alien and Mighty Jack were omnipresent in bargain basement UK video shops during the 1980s and 1990s. Given their brush with canuxploitation via My Pleasure Is My Business and the fact that the main focus of their careers was altering movies to suit American tastes, it is likely that the Vogels were key to why Whose Child Am I plays the faux Canadian/US card.
The credits to Whose Child Am I also reveal it to be copyrighted ‘1974 Mara Company’, which could be an indication that the film’s star Kate O’Mara had some kind of producership role or financial involvement in the production. I can’t claim to be the biggest expert on Kate O’Mara’s career, but the work of hers that I am familiar with, from early horror films like Corruption and The Horror of Frankenstein to of course Dynasty does tend to relegate her to secondary ‘never the bride always the bridesmaid’ acting roles. The fact that she enjoys the unusual status of lead actress here, along with that production company name, does add credence to the idea that her involvement with this film extended beyond just being an actress for hire. The performance we get from Kate O’Mara here is a far from typical one for her. Barbara is an enormously sympathetic character, one who doesn’t enter into deception and infidelity lightly and remains emotionally troubled by her actions throughout the film. Making her the antithesis of the shoulder padded villainesses that would eventually become O’Mara’s forte. The quality of the acting in Whose Child Am I is universally high, which maybe one of the film’s more redemptive aspects. Paul Freeman is especially good, and even at this relativity early stage in his career demonstrates why he’d go on to become a highly respected stage actor and appear in big movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark. His is a brave role to take on, going against the alpha male image that 1970s men were meant to aspire to back then. In Freeman’s hands Paul Martin makes for a humorous and highly likeable figure, and as a result becomes the character you tend to connect to the most during the film. Paul isn’t afraid to show his feelings or air his sensitive side; he is seen knitting children’s clothes at one point and poses with a doll under his jumper for Barbara’s amusement in a clear nod to the 1970 “would you be more careful if it was you that got pregnant?” Pregnant Man ad campaign. Paul is the light to the darkness of the memorably vile Michael played by Bob Sherman, a serial fucker of other men’s wives who can only relate to women as sexual objects and/or a source of financial gain.
Surprisingly none of the performances are brought down by the prerequisite of having to adopt phoney accents, with even lesser known and less experienced cast members being up to the demands of these meaty roles. Special credit is due to the relatively unknown Frances Kearney who (along with Ronan O’Casey) is given the tough, unenviable task of having to sell the farfetched incest subplot to an audience. Kearney demonstrates considerable range within this role. Her character Helen may come across as rather cold in the early scenes of the film, but later displays vulnerability and anger when a cruel twist of fate threatens to destroy her emotionally and compromise her professionally. “It’ll make the highlight in my lecture, I sleep with my own father, and we plan on breeding a long line of idiots” she tearfully rages at her mother. Kearney carries off the role with the confidence of a seasoned pro, and is someone you’d imagine had a decent career ahead of her, whereas in reality she only ever appeared in three other roles on TV, which is a real shame.
Pseudo-father figures abound in Whose Child Am I, Benson acts as a fatherly mentor to Helen, expressing parental concern over her dating an older man. Barbara’s Uncle Harry also comes across as another substitute father, and has no problem with doting on Barbara’s daughter Harriett and writing Harriett into his will. The point that Whose Child Am I appears to be making by stressing these relationships is that a strong parental bond can be formed even if the people in question aren’t actually blood related. This argument is echoed in the main plot of the film, with Paul undergoing a transformation from a person initially dismissive over whether he could bond with a child that isn’t his (“every time I’d look at the child, I’d say to myself I’m not its real father, someone else had to do the job for me”) to coming to the realisation that he truly loves Harriett and needs to rise up to the challenge of fighting Michael in the courts for her. In an audacious move Whose Child Am I even cites the Bible as part of this argument, with the catalyst for Paul’s change of heart coming when he visits a kindly priest who advises that Paul should follow by biblical example “yours is not the first case in human history, consider the humble carpenter Joseph, who loved and cared for his son Jesus even though he knew he had not begotten him”. Whose Child Am I even extends its biblical references to the incestuous subplot with Ronan O’Casey’s character drawing comparisons to his and Helen’s situation with that of Lot and his daughters “y’know when you read in the bible about some venerable patriarch like Lot sleeping with his own daughter it didn’t seem to matter, in fact it even made for spicy reading in those pre-permissive days”. Disappointingly however Whose Child Am I eventually ducks out of the extremely controversial move of using the bible to justify and validate an incestuous relationship by failing to provide an adequate resolve to this sub-plot. We never discover if they are actually related, with their storyline ending with them discussing the possibility and awaiting the results of their blood tests. Although the fact that they are discussing this whilst walking about in a graveyard, for no apparent reason other than the setting being frightfully ‘symbolic’, strongly indicates that their relationship might be headed for that graveyard.
Whose Child Am I can be annoyingly indecisive about its subject matter at times, and would be near on impossible to defend against charges of sitting on the fence. There are moments in the film that are in the corner of artificial insemination, counter arguing any objections from the religious right by throwing the priest’s ‘what would Joseph do’ speech back in their faces. By its very nature as an exploitation film though Whose Child Am I tends to betray these well-meaning intensions with its inability to resist scare mongering and playing to a tabloidish mentality …… WHAT IF SHE HAS A BLACK ONE BY ACCIDENT!!!…..WATCH OUT LADS, NOW THE LESBIANS ARE AFTER OUR SPERM!!!….. HOLD THE FRONT PAGE!!!
Sadly it is not hard to understand why the film has all but vanished, Whose Child Am I is very of its time and I suspect deliberately so. Many of its references are calculated to resonate specifically with audiences of the day, the use of the posters for the Black Sabbath album as set decoration, the visual reference to the ‘pregnant man’ advert, there is even a name drop mention of the oil crisis too. As if the film wanted to grab 1970s audiences by the collar and with a Donovan Winter-esque air of self-importance yell at them “the characters in this film listen to the same music as you, they pick up on the same advertising campaigns as you, they’re as concerned about the oil crisis as you are, therefore this film has to be important to you!!!”. It isn’t just that the film has dated badly in terms of fashions and cultural references, from a 2016 perspective it is impossible to overlook the fact that the passing of time has now rendered whole chunks of this film’s plot obsolete. Gay marriage and the right of same sex couples to have children are now a reality, whereas for the gay characters in this film such concepts are the impossible dream. More damagingly is that today’s science and technology pisses all over the plot twist at the end of the film. Major spoilers coming up, so as they say in sports programmes, turn away now if you don’t want to see the results. The courtroom revelation that Barbara slept with several members of Roland’s staff in order to get pregnant, which causes the Judge to throw out Michael’s claim to being the child’s father on the reasoning that this makes it impossible to say which member of staff made Barbara pregnant, just wouldn’t happen today given that advancements in DNA testing would make it possible to give a definite answer to the title question of Whose Child Am I.
For all its faults Whose Child Am I has grown on me over the years, it does boast an involving storyline, characters you genuinely care about and the quality of the acting impresses. It is also proof that British sex films weren’t always just seaside postcard derived smut, and were on occasion able to engage on a thought provoking level. While I do still have issues with and reservations about the film, overall I do feel that it is a pity it has fallen into an even bigger sinkhole of obscurity than many films of its ilk. Whose Child Am I also features what I consider to be the greatest line ever spoken in a British exploitation film, when Helen sings the praises of older men and their virility by claiming “they say you make the best wine in old barrels”. Now, I have to confess to frequently repeating that line over the years, I’ve managed to drop it into conversations about everyone from Charles Manson to Des O’Connor and more recently Rupert Murdoch, and it never fails to get a huge laugh. So, for the old barrels line alone I am forever indebted to Whose Child Am I.