The 1969 film All Neat in Black Stockings is based on a novel by Jane Gaskell, a prize-winning writer whose literary output over three decades consists mainly of fantasy novels. Her mid-1960s’ vampire romance The Shiny Narrow Grin has been acclaimed as the Twilight of its day, and some say is superior to it.
My attention was drawn to Gaskell in the 1960s by two things. Her first book was published when she was 16 years old, and she is the great niece of the 19th century novelist Elizabeth Gaskell. I read the first volume in Jane G’s Atlan saga out of curiosity and in spite of it not being my favourite genre, and found it to be a very good read. A few years later I found Attic Summer, a mesmerising account of youth and the Kings Road at the end of the decade. I also read the novel All Neat In Black Stockings (now hard to get hold of) on which the movie is based, no doubt drawn by the title with its Beat Girl vibe.
This film should be among the essential viewing for anyone looking to explode the myth of London’s Swinging Sixties. It takes place somewhere in south-west London (there’s a brief glimpse of Battersea Power Station) where middle-class semis stand alongside dingy boarding houses and squalid bedsits with communal bathrooms.
Here, young lads like our hero Ginger make a humdrum living, in his case as a window cleaner. Liberally doused in Eau de Testosterone, he and his mate Dwyer share girls and swap them around, practically writing the book of rules for one-night stands. One of Ginger’s master-strokes is pretending to wet the bed to get rid of his companion. What a lad, eh!
The boys refer to girls as ‘it’, a practice already honoured by Alfie, Bill Naughton’s eponymous hero of book and film, and a term which is hard to hear without wincing. To be fair, the girls don’t object to the way they are treated, and we see a bit of unsisterly gloating when someone is unceremoniously dumped to make room for a newcomer. They also seem not to mind finding out they’re in bed with the wrong bloke — oops, what a laugh, well never mind.
The women in All Neat In Black Stockings are a sorry lot. The central female character is Jill, played by Susan George, the sweet young thing who makes Ginger want to give up his old way of life. George does a nice job portraying innocent vulnerability and confusion, but the character is essentially lightweight, a victim of circumstance.
Another ‘victim’ is Ginger’s sister, barefoot and pregnant while her husband flaunts his other women under her nose. Jill’s mother is a lonely widow whose repressed desires present themselves in the bad back she has suffered since her husband’s death. Ginger sorts that out for her, though, after a heavy evening’s drinking, and the next morning she expresses her gratitude by cooking him a full English breakfast. Oh dear, oh dear.
Ginger’s brother-in-law and the eccentric, philanthropic Gunge are more interesting than the female characters.
Bro-in-law Issur claims to be a painter, but is essentially a sponger. He is a flamboyant, bearded, totally selfish practitioner of free love, and is just crying out to be mercilessly lampooned in another film or book.
Gunge, at the beginning of the film, appears to be a bit of a loser. He’s in hospital, fretting about his pet birds at home. Home turns out to be a magnificent dwelling, hidden behind an unassuming door on the high street next to an advertising hoarding. It’s a sprawling mansion with aquariums and reptiles and interesting objets d’art, and Ginger’s first visit there is filmed with a kind of art-house touch, almost as if we have dropped in on another movie. Later on, Gunge cuts a fine figure in his dapper wedding gear, a proper gent of the old school.
Ginger himself is not such a fine figure. His character has some sympathetic aspects. He cares for his sister and for old Gunge. He has the potential to be more than the type he represents. His romantic idealisation of Jill in her neat black fishnets and his careful treatment of her suggest he is ready to grow up and embrace a different life.
Alas, this is not to be. His understanding with Dwyer about sharing women backfires on him. Jill becomes pregnant with Dwyer’s child, and Ginger, in full knowledge of this, marries her. This noble gesture marks the end of his carefree laddish life, but not, sadly, the start of a better one. He has already lost everything, his car, his window-cleaning round, his living accommodation at Gunge’s. Now he faces life in a miserable flat with a wife he knows he doesn’t really love and a baby he can’t bear to hold who looks just like Dwyer — no longer his best mate.
The mood of the film, never as jaunty as perhaps it pretends to be, darkens. In the final scene, Ginger goes to a cafe round the corner and flirts with the waitress, all neat in black stockings, and she responds. Here we go again. But there’s a resignation, a lack of joy, a deadness. The fun is over. Ginger stares into the distance, and his empty gaze seems to convey not just regret for his choices but also an awareness of the hollowness at the core of life.
The note of melancholy is intensified by the knowledge that Victor Henry, who played Ginger in the film, died after a street accident which put him in a coma for a year. His acting career seems to have been colourful — Jane Asher recalls him being a very drunk Jimmy Porter in a 1968 revival of Look Back In Anger at the Royal Court, and, in a rehearsal of an Arnold Wesker play, it was said that Henry pulled a gun on Wesker and threatened to shoot his children.
All Neat In Black Stockings plays with some familiar themes of 1960s’ British film and theatre. It’s a bit kitchen-sink, a bit saucy romp, a bit mod caper, a bit arty. But overall it’s an indictment of certain aspects of the decade which swung for some.
In other fictions, Gaskell presents interesting, strong, independent female characters — as indeed does her ancestor, Elizabeth Gaskell. It’s a sad reflection on the society depicted in the film that the Victorian heroines of novels such as North and South show more fire and spirit than their later, liberated sisters.