Bill Naughton’s creation Alfie Elkins has had several outings since his first appearance in the 1962 radio play Alfie Elkins And His Little Life. In addition to the radio drama, this character has sustained a stage play, a novel and a sequel, a 1965 film and a 2004 remake.
Alfie Elkins turned out to have legs, the most notable being those of Michael Caine, the star of Lewis Gilbert’s 1965 movie Alfie, in which Caine’s long lean frame is stylishly clad in Mod-inspired duds such as low-rise grey tapered trousers and Chelsea boots. There’s also a double-breasted blazer bearing an RAF badge, worn without the irony with which military dress was adopted as a fashion later in the decade.
The original story of Alfie Elkins, a serial seducer of women in the tradition of Don Juan, covered the years from the mid-1940s to the late 1950s, and his transportation to the middle of the 1960s illustrates some dismal aspects of the decade that swung.
Alfie is often described as a comedy, or even a romantic comedy-drama, but its depiction of the eponymous working class boy with the cheek of the devil sits uneasily in these categories.
Breaking the Fourth Wall
The 1966 movie seems more connected to the kitchen sink genre, with its chippy, self-asserting protagonist, unglamorous locations, drab interiors and uncomfortable realism. But stylistically, the film moves in a different direction, with Lewis Gilbert’s inspired use of the speaking straight to the camera technique. Alfie steps out of the action and addresses the audience directly, breaking the convention of the ‘Fourth Wall’ and drawing us into his confidence.
It’s very well done, but makes for some uncomfortable viewing now, and illustrates that the sexual liberation for which the period is celebrated worked mainly in the favour of men, and, as Alfie’s confidences gradually reveal his self-loathing, suggests that there is a price to pay for being a ruthless, feckless womaniser.
A few examples illustrate Alfie’s attitude to women. There’s the ‘little bird Gilda, a bit on the simple side, but a good standby’. At least she’s a ‘bird’ — his usual noun is ‘it’. He tracks her period and challenges her if it seems late.
He says of runaway Annie, ‘All it needed was a good wash,’ and tells her to have his dinner ready ‘and if I’m here I’ll eat it and if I’m not I won’t.’ He refers to a former girlfriend as ‘a big fat thing’. He says of married Lily, ‘Now I look at her she ain’t so ugly after all.’ He is actually ‘quite prepared to overlook the odd blemish in a woman’. And so on. Did we howl with delighted and/or horrified laughter, back in the day?
Alfie is an amoral world, in which the weakest go under. He tells Gilda to fiddle the till at work. His own fiddling the books at work is known about and tolerated by his boss. They’re all in it together, after all.
The hint of class warfare is also seen when he tells Gilda that their child would be better off being brought up by a rich woman so he would have better chances and would speak properly, like rich kids. He’s dismissive of the blokes he cuckolds, and now and again we too are invited to mock them. Siddie’s husband is depicted as a figure of fun, meeting her after a clandestine steamy session with Alfie and saying he’s pleased she’s had a nice time — he’s enjoyed going through his gardening catalogue.
In this respect among others, Alfie brings to mind Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night And Sunday Morning. And in both films, the reality of abortion prior to the act of 1967 is brought home starkly.
The depiction of Lily’s abortion is harrowing, and Alfie’s glimpse of the scene and of the lifeless form is a significant step in his growing dissatisfaction with himself and his life. He’s become fond of Malcolm, his and Gilda’s child, but he loses contact with them through his refusal to take responsibility for his son, who becomes ‘a kid I used to know’.
Throwaway phrases like ‘we all need proper fathers’ and ‘I don’t know what love is’ alert us to the hollowness at the centre of Alfie’s bravado. In his final address to us, he acknowledges that he hasn’t got ‘peace of mind’.
A lovely little stray dog accompanies him across Waterloo Bridge, a much more appealing echo of his appearance in the opening scene, sniffing round the car in which Alfie and Siddie are at it. Perhaps a more graceful life awaits.
Life after Alfie
Alfie’s women are put down, patronised and dehumanised, but they don’t emerge too badly.
Siddie, having been dumped, rejects his offer to have another go. She has a nice life with her husband. Gilda marries and has a family with her patient suitor Humphrey, who brings up Alfie’s son as his own.
Lily, presumably, carries on with Harry, who never knows about the termination, although surely the whole experience can’t have been worth what Alfie calls a nice way ‘to round off the tea’.
And good old Ruby, richer, older and smarter, bins him off for a younger model.
But Annie, oh Annie. The film’s portrayal of the lovelorn young girl who hitches a lift from Sheffield to London to make a fresh start is dismaying in so many ways. The lorry driver who picks up Annie assumes she is his property — and she accepts it.
When Alfie swoops in and takes her from under his nose, he assumes likewise — and she accepts it. It’s one thing to want to pay your way for board and lodging, and to need activity to distract you from your heartbreak, but she is always seen cooking or scrubbing the floor or ironing or cleaning.
And the thing is, it’s 1966, and this is JANE ASHER! Has she forgotten that London is swinging and the counter-culture is booming just a stone’s throw away from Alfie’s seedy pad in Notting Hill? She goes out with a Beatle! Her brother co-owns the trendiest art gallery in town! Fancy not realising that.