It’s the 1960s and the setting is London. A bobbed-haired girl band play some rockin’ tunes while the crowd below jostles and sways. There’s nothing unusual about this scene, except for the fact that all the punters are women and most of them are real people.
Robert Aldrich chose to film this extraordinary part of his 1968 drama The Killing of Sister George at Gateways, the legendary lesbian bar of the era. As a diverse group of gay women slow dance – without being judged – in the background while the three lead characters (all lesbians) argue, it becomes apparent that their struggles are not so much social as internal.
June (Beryl Reid) is an actress known for her role as the do-gooder George in parochial BBC soap Applehurst. In real life, she is an abrasive hard drinker who dominates her babyish girlfriend, nicknamed Childie (Susannah York). The real trouble starts, however, when George finds out her character is due to be axed from the soap and an arch, sophisticated executive called Mercy (Coral Browne) intervenes, resulting in a darkly comic love triangle.
The film’s humour, which ranges from killer one-liners to near door-slamming farce, is what Sarah Wood and Selina Robertson of Club Des Femmes want to highlight at their summer screening. Sister George and her companions may be considered wicked by some audiences, and obscene by the original censors, who to Aldrich’s horror gave the film an X rating, but to Club Des Femmes they are heroines. ‘The film does ask you to take sides, but read in the context in which it was made, it says a lot about how much a gay character would have to suffer before an audience would sympathise and even empathise’, says Wood. ‘We hope that now, watching it in 2009, it’ll be obvious that it’s pantomime. What gives the film heart is the three wonderful central performances.’
A pantomime-style atmosphere is what Wood and Robertson hope to deliver at the screening. ‘Cheer the goodies, boo the badies’, incites the poster, and Sarah adds that she hopes that a 2009 screening of a film that, due to censorship, has so far been denied a big audience will help bring out the fun of what they call ‘dykesploitation’.’We’re jokingly reclaiming a genre of film, made up of certain tropes and stereotypes, to be read and enjoyed by a dyke audience. The Killing of Sister George was made as a general release film, but we like to encourage audience re-engagement. Watching the film on DVD or as a TV re-run in the lonely isolation of your home is one thing. Watching it with an audience who shares the joke is quite another’, she says.
Coinciding with both Pride and the Mayor of London’s Story of London project, the Club Des Femmes event is also a chance for those with memories of the Gateways club to share them with the audience, thus documenting a social history that for the most part has been ignored.
The other film in Club Des Femmes’ Swinging Summertime programme, The World Ten Times Over (1963), features scenes of another nightclub. Its lead characters Billa and Ginnie work as hostesses in a night spot frequented by rich businessmen. While Ginnie appears to revel in the position, and the riches and attention that come with it, her flatmate Billa has grown tired of it. However, when Ginnie’s boyfriend leaves his wife to be with her and she finds out Billa is pregnant, she too begins to unpick the delusion of her existence.
Wood and Robertson describe The World Ten Times Over as ‘possibly the first British lesbian film’. The relationship between the two women is cautiously developed by filmmaker Wolf Rilla, and the biggest display of affection is the loving embrace that closes this stylish and understated film. Although it features nothing as provocative as the sex scene in Sister George that shows a predatory Mercy drive Childie to orgasmic delirium, the censors were still unhappy, presumably because the film challenges the so-called ‘tolerant’ values of the time, which turned out to be anything but.
In case we get complacent about the times we live in, the screenings serve as a reminder of how quickly the freedom of sexuality in this country could be reversed, and how few of the gay female characters we see on screen nowadays are realistic, entertaining or reflective of the naturally diverse group. As Wood puts it: ‘When you want to make a lot of money the default characterisation is still knee-jerk. The lesbians are still to be hunted by the vampire slayers.’