As aspiring Beat Girls, our Girl Squad, as we didn’t say back then, responded promptly to the discovery of Edmond T Greville’s film, Beat Girl, which was first released in 1960.
With its depiction of teenage rebellion and its insight into the jazz club and coffee bar milieu of London’s Soho, not to mention the presence of Adam Faith, Beat Girl promised to be a movie we could relate to.
Undeterred by the over-16s-only X certificate, we employed our usual tactics for looking older, which involved pale Rimmel lipstick and headscarves tied under the chin (don’t ask, the early 1960s were very strange times) and got in to watch this entertaining and baffling film.
Over the years, the film has acquired cult status. The story focuses on teenage Jenny, whose father is a successful architect and lives in some style in Kensington.
When he remarries and 24-year-old Nichole becomes Jenny’s stepmother, Jenny’s anger and resentment erupts into ‘deviant’ behaviour.
She sneaks out at night and bunks off from college to hang out in a cellar club in Berwick Street, mixing with an eclectic crowd of art students, beatniks and strippers from the sleazy joints in adjacent Walkers Court.
Two parallel stories emerge. One involves Jenny’s discovery that her stepmother had herself worked in the sex industry in Paris, when she was young and broke, and the other traces Jenny’s own experiments with wildness, including a dangerous car race, a game of ‘chicken’ on the railway lines and stripping at a party at her father’s house.
She is about to leave for Paris with the strip club manager to become a star stripper when fate intervenes. About to be arrested for the murder of the sleazy manager, she is rescued and drawn back into the protective family circle. Conventional morality
Beat Girl keeps promising to be a different kind of film.
It’s a little bit noir, with the shadowy night-time shots of Soho alleys, and a little bit French nouvelle vague with its moody colours and interesting angles.
It’s a bit music movie, like The Tommy Steele Story and Expresso Bongo. There’s an element of social realism, with contemporary social issues being aired, then buried.
The emerging ‘generation gap’ between us, cool daddy-os one and all, and the non-Beat squares, is given an interesting context.
Jenny has hysterical outbursts against her father, who naturally doesn’t understand her need to live for kicks.
But architect daddy isn’t the stereotypical dullard who designs town halls and leisure centres. He is obsessed with the tiny cardboard model of his City 2000 project, hundreds of high-rise blocks intended to enable people to live without human contact. Daddy may be a square, but he’s a pretty weird one who deserves his own ‘Madman or Genius?’ story.
The upper-class character Tony is given a sketchy background as the son of a stiff-upper-lip army general. He has a drink problem and is probably still grieving for his mother who was killed in the London Blitz.
These circumstances suggest that Tony is more than a cultural tourist, and could be given a bigger story as a representative of the post-war alienation which is touched on in the film.
For us, the most disappointing character was Jenny. Her first appearances are promising, with their faint echoes of a female Hamlet. Her antipathy to her new stepmother is palpable, and she does a nice line in rude sulky moodiness.
She presents herself as a bit of an intellectual, and makes a show of being a reader and a thinker. But this peters out, and her rebellion finds its focus in becoming a stripper.
Well, you lost us there, Jenny. Stripping didn’t even figure in our life and career options. And you had other choices. You were at art school, for heaven’s sake, just about the coolest, hippest place to be. You could have been a painter and artist like Pauline Boty. You could have hung out with David Hockney and Peter Blake. You could have entered the world (well, you kind of did) of Colin MacInnes’ Absolute Beginners. But sadly, you became a victim of the exploitative sleaze which is at the true heart of the movie, and fizzled out in a heap of peek-a-boo bras and baby-doll pyjamas.
So in the end, Beat Girl wasn’t really for us. It was for fat cats with cigars who liked watching women take their clothes off. Its Euro-trash was alien and unappealing.
But in the end, there is the music, the distinctive jazzy-rocky sound of John Barry and his group, and of course, Adam Faith, compelling as the singer and guitarist who represents working-class existential angst.
The songs are broody, echo-heavy intense evocations of a time and a place, and they create images which transcend the narrative.
We had no trouble in relating to the girls in the songs. Feeding the jukebox, wearing long black stockings and no make-up? That’s more like it. Less Raymond Revue Bar, more Juliette Greco. And the line about looking like a stick of dynamite sitting on a coffee bar stool had us straightening our backs and flicking our hair as we perched on the stools in our school science lab, preparing for the exciting bohemian life that awaited us.
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Living Doll features the phenomenon of the Beat Girls in a coming of age novel set as the 1960s started to swing. It’s available from Amazon worldwide.