Smashing Time (1967)
Directed by Desmond Davis, Written by George Melly
Starring Rita Tushingham, Lyn Redgrave, Michael York
(Spoiler alerts throughout)
The theme of rural or provincial innocents abroad in the wicked city is a familiar source of comedy and satire.
In the 1967 British film Smashing Time, starring Rita Tushingham and Lynn Redgrave, the innocents are Northern girls Brenda and Yvonne, and the city is London in the latter throes of its Swinging Sixties’ phase.
Through a chain of random encounters of a very 1960s’ nature, the girls experience the worlds of bedsits and flats, boutiques, waitressing, modelling, pop stardom and media manipulation before turning their backs on the in-crowd and getting the train home, their resilience and grit undiminished by their exploits.
Jazz great George Melly wrote the script
We are guided through their adventures by scriptwriter George Melly, the renowned jazz musician and ‘self-confessed’ surrealist. Watching the film is something of a surreal experience as we are spun through a dizzying series of scenes from various genres with glimpses of images and snatches of dialogue which provide a barrage of teasing references and allusions.
The cartoonish opening titles prepare us for some broad strokes, and the slapstick scenes fit the bill. There are two sequences of carefully choreographed physical humour, homages to old silent film comedies, complete with Benny Hill-type soundtrack.
The first is in the greasy spoon cafe where Brenda is resentfully washing up to pay the bill, the girls’ money having been nicked by a passing tramp. (All the stereotypes in this film are knowingly deployed.) Brenda and the customers end up squirting noxious substances at each other and their food as cleaning liquid, liquid manure and fly killer are abused in the place of regular condiments. In a nod to the tradition, when the policeman appears you know it will be only a matter of moments before he too is squirted in the face…
Pies get mashed in Sweeney Tood food fight
The other scene of a similar type is in the ultra-trendy Sweeney Todd’s Eating House where Yvonne is waitressing, decked out in Nell Gwynn mode. The restaurant’s name alerts us to some pie business, and sure enough a full-on food fight develops, which is taken outside the restaurant, where the appearance of a traffic warden and an evangelising vicar signals their roles as targets. The restaurant’s owner apologises to the customers, declaring ‘This will never happen again’, before…yes, you’ve got it.
A counterpoint to in-your-face humour are scenes which emphasise the surreal and the futuristic. The girls go to an art exhibition in the Jabberwocky Gallery (cue the fantastical world of Lewis Carroll, also referenced by characters’ names Wabe, Brillig,Tove).
The artist, played by avant-garde artist and performer Bruce Lacey, who had a real-life interest in cybernetics and humanoids, presents an array of robots he has built. He encourages the punters to buy one for their 60-foot L-shaped sitting rooms or dream kitchens where with, one press of a button, they can create chaos and the end of civilisation as we know it.
Of course, it’s not long before a button is pressed — by Brenda — and we are treated to a display of bizarre events, including a shrinking man and another whose clothes are removed by an emerging balloon. One of the machines consists of red lips, a tip of the hat to ultimate surrealist Salvador Dali.
The film takes a pop at certain kinds of Carnaby Street boutique. Brenda gets a short-lived job in a shop whose posh-girl owner (Anna Quayle) runs it not as a business but as a hobby and meeting place for the in-crowd.
The murky world of night clubs and escorts is pilloried with a light touch, as the innocent Yvonne gets work in such a club is hit on by an upper-class sleaze-ball (Ian Carmichael) whose attempts to seduce Yvonne back at his bachelor pad are stymied by Brenda, who breaks in to protect her friend with antics such as putting down drawing pins which he treads on and filling the bath with foam which gets out of control and envelops him.
The satire becomes more pointed as the girls’ fortunes change when Yvonne wins £10,000 in a Candid Camera-type television programme in which people’s houses are demolished while they are out. ‘You Can’t Help Laughing’, the title tells us, as we see what slimy presenter Peter Jones calls ‘ordinary people’s drab lives’ shattered, or as the programme would have it, transformed, by being presented with a lovely bungalow on the Watford By-Pass to replace their home.
Stars in their eyes
The money enables Yvonne to buy her way into pop stardom under the venal management of manager and impresario Jeremy Lloyd. The power of the media and publicity machines comes under fire as talentless Yvonne leaps up the charts, ahead of The Beatles, with her tuneless but technologically enhanced rendering of ‘I’m Still Young’, a nice shot at the nation’s obsession with youth.
Her tenure at the top of the tree is short-lived, and Brenda’s star is in the ascendant as the photographer (Michael York) who ridiculed blonde bombshell Yvonne with a photo taken of her in her mecca Carnaby Street (oh the cruel irony) turns his attention to the quirkily attractive Brenda.
In shots which evoke the Bailey/Shrimpton style, Brenda becomes the star of grainy, moody images of her in an operating theatre or gnawing a bone, or promoting a perfume called ‘Direct Action’ against a background of riots.
Tower of London
It all comes to nothing in the end. The final scene is a party attended by ‘all the turned-on people in London’. It’s held in the Post Office Tower (now known as the BT Tower) whose revolving restaurant at the top was the height (ha!) of fashion.
There’s a wonderful sequence of the then currently great and good pouring in to the party while crowds of screaming fans look on. In York’s words, the guests consist of glitterati such as ‘TV producers, gangsters, paperback writers, MBEs’. There’s a Twiggy lookalike, a John Lennon clone, an archbishop, a Maharishi type yogi who seems to levitate in on a carpet, and Kray-type gangsters who get a deferential salute from the police officer on duty.
The party doesn’t go well for our heroines. Yvonne, who already has the aura of yesterday’s girl, is ignored. Brenda’s swine of a photographer (they never appear in a good light) chats up another bird. Events are drawn to a close by — yes, you guessed it, Brenda, who once again displays her new-found ability to operate controls to disastrous effect. She flicks the switch which turns the revolving speed of the Tower from slow to very fast, with predictable results. The girls have had enough, and head for home.
It’s a zesty, patchy movie, an engaging pastiche of styles and genre which takes a pop at a wide range of targets. Some of the allusions and references are so quick and incidental that you blink and you’ve missed them.
Much like the Swinging Sixties themselves.