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September 2011

Beat Girl

cast: David Farrar, Noëlle Adam, Christopher Lee, Adam Faith, and Shirley Anne Field

director: Edmond T. Gréville

88 minutes (12) 1960
Orbit DVD Region 2

RATING: 6/10
review by Andrew Darlington




Beat Girl poster
Beat Girl

Between the career-demise of Marty Wilde, and the chart-escalation of Billy Fury, Adam Faith dominated the enclosed world of UK pop, second only to Cliff Richard. He was a slight presence with a thin voice, lacking range - no problem now in the age of auto-tune, but which he disguised and compensated for with distinctively exaggerated pronunciation that unmistakably personalised his records - that; and his warm easy-going likeability. He'd already been around awhile, on the outer fringes of pop. But after his third failed single, Disc magazine (June 1959) carried an interview in which he declared his intention to quit singing and become an actor. Not yet, not yet...

Instead, that same summer of 1959 Adam fortuitously bumped into John Barry when he was guesting on BBC-TV's Drumbeat show where Barry's 'Seven' happened to be working as resident house-band. The meeting proved mutually beneficial. Backed-up by Barry's distinctive plinky-plonk pizzicato string-arrangements, Adam got his first #1 record with What Do You Want? And, after a couple more hits, when Adam was signed to give this modest little exploitation flick some teen-appeal, Barry got to score the soundtrack for their first movie together. The teamwork continued through their next joint movie project, Never Let Go (1960), with Peter Sellers, and Mix Me A Person (1962), from a Jack Trevor story screenplay. By the time Adam's pop career veered off in other directions, John Barry's potential genius had snagged the attention of the producers of Dr No, and the rest, as they say...

Meanwhile, cuts were necessary before Beat Girl (aka: Wild For Kicks) qualified for its adults-only 'X'-certificate, although, watching this restored DVD edition, it's very difficult to search out what exactly the censor found objectionable. The titillating 'striptease' sequences are tame and very polite. Possibly, they objected to the bit where Jennifer sneaks into the Soho 'Les Girls' revue and sees exotic dancer Pascaline doing a vaguely phallic routine, drawing her robe up between her legs in a suggestive manner, and kissing it. Then the bra comes off to reveal... another smaller bra!

But first, plot-wise, things get started when architect Paul Linden (David Farrar) returns to his Kensington mews home with Nichole (Noëlle Adam), his French wife of five days. Inside, she finds a bleakly modernist living room tastefully decorated with abstract art. To 'Paris poodle' Nichole, her new home, like her new husband is "austere, with a twinkle behind the façade." She's welcomed by housekeeper Martha (played by Margot Bryant, or 'Minnie Caldwell' from the original Coronation Street cast). But Paul's 16-year-old daughter, Jennifer (Gillian Hills), is openly hostile, while posing poutily like a young Bardot. "She's a puzzle," agrees daddy. Jennifer has "a talent for illustration," and is supposed to be a student at the Saint Martin's School Of Art - yes, the same one Jarvis Cocker sings about in Pulp's Brit-pop hit Common People.

But, attempting to bond, Nichole tracks Jennifer down only to find she's bunking off. In an evocative sequence, tracking images of a long-lost London, she follows her down through a Soho street-market, past 'The Havana Club' and Duncan's dirty 'Magazines: Books' shop-neon, to a coffee-bar called 'The Off-Beat', where the beatnik crowd hang out. Inside, there are posters and wall-mounted album sleeves for Oscar Peterson, the Modern Jazz Quartet, the 'Music Pictorial: fabulous top ten contest' and, interestingly, the famous 'Two I's' coffee bar too, where real-life pop stars like Cliff Richard were first discovered.

In the basement the John Barry Seven perform live jive sessions, and Pinky Ross fails to break the world drumming record. In the lyrics of the movie's hit-song, "I saw you sitting there so cool, like you just come home from school, looking such a pretty sight, like a stick of dynamite, sitting on a coffee-bar stool." That's Jennifer. But her friends are a disparate bunch. Hardly bohemians; they're more like crazy mixed-up kids and aspirant non-conformists, or - like that other Pulp record - misfits.

And Jenny's more than a little vexed by their reaction to step-mum Nichole's entry. Dave (Adam Faith) leers at her, bantering "now that's what I call material." In the background, Oliver Reed is effectively surly; while another drinker swigs cough linctus. "Make the banshee," Jennifer urges, by way of distraction, so Dave sings I Did What You Told Me, using the big beautiful chrome-gleaming Rock-Ola jukebox to provide a convenient karaoke backing-track, while slapping out rhythm on the back of his guitar. "He sends me, over and out," grooves a fan.

Although Adam's very presence in the movie is evidence of the burgeoning rock 'n' roll movement, jazz still remains the 'cool' music of choice. Nichole - as an 'ancient' 24-four-year-old, digs Dave Brubeck, and is sufficiently in touch to interpret the cult to daddy Paul who professes "it's all double-dutch to me." The beatnik crowd..? "It's a gimmick from America," she explains. But opposite the 'Off-Beat' there's 'Les Girls', a strip-club that charges 17 shillings for a little pervy ogling. And Nichole is recognised by Greta, who strips there as 'the Duchess'. Apparently, Nichole has a dubious past.

After all, in 1960, Paris is still considered a distant exotic place. Club-owner Kenny King even has a copy of French digest-size 'Petite' magazine on his desk, as if to emphasise the point. Played to sinister perfection by a smarmy oleaginous Christopher Lee, with a carnation in his lapel, King observes the stage through one-way glass from his office. And when Jennifer, eager to dig out some smut on her unwelcome new step-mum, bluffs her way in to watch an 'amateur night' French maid strip-routine, King homes in on her with predatory intent, trying to recruit her with the lure of "twenty-five quid a week."

Starlet Gillian Hills makes the most of her role as Jennifer 'the crazy one', flouncing around effectively in baby-doll nightie, or stretch-slacks, with a glowering 'bad-girl' pout stroppy enough to burn holes in the celluloid. She even gets to deliver some marginally existential one-liners, such as "Love? That's the gimmick that makes sex respectable." Later, she goes on to minor roles in iconic Brit-flicks, Blow-Up (1966) - romping with Jane Birkin to establish the screen's first pubic hair visibility, and A Clockwork Orange (1971), as one of two girls Malcolm McDowell's Alex picks up for a fast-forward ménage a trios in his flat. She's pretty good with Patrick Magee in Hammer's horror Demons Of The Mind (1972), too.

Trading on her Bardot-alike sultriness, Hills even notches-up respectable sales in France as a vocalist, enjoying a hit with her translated-cover of the Zombies' Leave Me Be, for the Barclay record label. While Shirley Anne Field - who gets to sing a sinuous It's Legal in a Beat Girl sequence, could originally be glimpsed in pocket-porn magazine Span (September 1954) for just one shilling. But she went from pin-up covers for Tit-Bits and Reveille to Michael Powell's brilliantly unsettling Peeping Tom (1960). She also shares credits with Oliver Reed in Joseph Losey's minor cult-classic The Damned (1963).

Back in Kensington, claws are drawn. As an architect, daddy's life's work is his 'City 2000' project; he has a boxed-in model of the city in his lounge and intends selling the plans to South American clients. This 'toy' is worth more to him than anything else in the world. Jennifer bitterly agrees. It's more important to him than she is. "Don't kid yourself he's in love with you," she warns Nichole, "he's in love with City 2000." There's an angry confrontation. Jennifer teases Nichole by alluding to her secret stripping past. Nichole slaps her. Jennifer storms out. In a strop, she winds up at a candle-lit proto-rave at 'Rock Les Caves', filmed in the Chislehurst Caves in Kent (also used for location shots in Jon Pertwee's Doctor Who tale The Mutants (1972), and still later for Norman J. Warren's SF clunker Inseminoid, 1981).

Urged to "sing daddy-o sing" Adam Faith's Dave moodily stubs out his cig on the rock wall and does Made You, utilising Eddie Cochran's Somethin' Else riff. Adam's fourth top ten hit, it might have climbed further than its #5 high-point were it not for a timidly stuffy BBC denying it airtime due to what they perceived as its 'suggestive' lyric (and back then there was nowhere else to go for your pop-fix). They might just have had a point, he was singing about the pre-copulatory glow of 'making out' after all.

Anyway, in the caves the subterraneans dig it, enthusing "Hey dad, great, straight from the fridge!" - 'hip' patois that would later become the title of a book on hip-speak (Straight From The Fridge, Dad: A Dictionary Of Hipster Slang by Max Décharné, 2009). Adam's not so keen, "this groove's not so hot," he complains, and so they split, speeding through the night racing each other in two open-top cars. They screech to a halt at a level-crossing to play 'chicken', their heads lined up on the rails like coconuts at a coconut-shy, with the last to flinch winning. Jennifer, pauses for a delayed will-she won't-she moment as the locomotive hurtles towards her, until pulling away at the very last instant.

Intended as some kind of symbolic existential gesture, let's be honest, it's a pretty silly sixth-form kind-of prank in a pretty silly film. In his insurrectionist tome Bomb Culture (1968), poet Jeff Nuttall describes what he calls 'the excitement game', something he explains that - to 'squares', is "unrelated to 'constructive' living. Theft is understandable. Revenge is understandable. But the principle of excitement is not. It only makes sense in terms of the moment, to the people trapped within it."

Trapped within the moment, that is. In its inept way, that's exactly what the subtext of Beat Girl is striving to say. There's even a contrived, but amusingly observed exchange at the core of the film. "I am me, Jennifer Linden, a complete whole independent living person," she asserts. "This language," daddy protests, "these words, what does it mean?"

"It means us. Something of ours - we didn't get it from our parents. We can express ourselves. It makes us different." He still doesn't understand, "why do you need to feel so different?"

"It's all we've got. Next week, voom, up goes the world in smoke. And what's the score? - Zero. So now, while it's now, we live it up. Do everything. Feel everything. Strictly for kicks." It's a highly-scripted exchange designed to define the generational gap between them. Elsewhere, Dave offers further motivational evidence, as a child of the Blitz, "When it was over I played on the bombsite, down in the cellars among the rats." It's all highly-stylised shorthand for Cold War cultural angst, but that's what gives this quaint curio of a movie its kick.

Things move inexorably towards climax. The kids wind up throwing a party, sprawling and snogging all over daddy's Kensington mews lounge. When Dave accuses Jennifer of being an 'iceberg', she reacts to his jibes by going into an impromptu striptease. She's down to bra and big knickers when first Nichole intervenes, then - as they fight, daddy turns up to throw the 'jiving scum' out, hurling Dave's guitar after them. In their retreating wake, more cats are let out of more bags. Yes, Nichole finally admits to doing 'cabaret' in Paris, and taking casual 'clients' too. But she was the lucky one. Paul came along and rescued her from the vice-life. Greta was not so fortunate.

Meantime, Jennifer escapes into the night and catches a cab to 'Les Girls'. Once there, she poses knowingly in front of King's mirror. "Well, somebody down there likes me," he leers with lascivious intent. Daddy and Nichole drive to the rescue. King lures Jennifer with tickets to Paris, caressing her bare shoulder... then confusion. Who stabbed him with the letter-opener? Was it the hysterical Jennifer? No. It was Greta. As King's neglected flame she saw Jennifer as her potential replacement. Fearing she was about to be dumped, Greta did them "all a favour" by offing the creepy letch.

Daddy arrives just in time to take his wayward daughter home, one arm around Jennifer, the other around Nichole. The drama has drawn the three of them together. Only Dave and his rootless feral pals remain. When roaming teddy boys smash up his parked car, he refuses to retaliate. "Fighting's for squares," he protests, "if you wanna fight go join the army, that's the place for squares." As he dumps his smashed guitar into a bin beneath the Pepsi logo, he delivers the movie's final one-liner, "Funny, only squares know where to go."

He was a rare example of a pop singer who could actually act, and although Adam remained modest about his days in music he logged no less than 255 weeks on the British charts. His subsequent career in films and television (especially in Budgie) won him even more recognition than his long string of hit records. But it began with Beat Girl, this fascinating slice of lost sub-cultural history located somewhere between the 'angry young men' and Desolation Angels. As a London response to the existential threat to morals and society presented by the Beat generation, living for kicks in the shadow of nuclear annihilation, for dope, free sex, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and wow-mad be-bop, it's a pretty lame tame affair, carrying the parentally reassuring message that - really, all these crazy mixed-up kids need is the loving guidance their confused lives lack.



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