On 23rd January the Barbican will be revealing the first of its collaborations with the Hammett Story Agency. Writers are commissioned to write a short story about a minor character in their favourite movie. The evening will feature a screening and a reading of the story by its author. The first film, selected by Cathi Unsworth, is Beat Girl, made in 1960 by Edmond T. Gréville and starring Gillian Hills, Adam Faith and Christopher Lee. Cathi Unsworth will read her story ‘Johnny Remember Me’ (the title of soap star John Leyton’s 1961 chart topper), a first-person account narrated by one of the anonymous backing musicians.
Beat Girl is set in that mythic milieu in pop culture history – Soho in the late 50s – the moment when England discovered ‘cool’, when wild young merchant seamen such as Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard went looking for kicks during shore time and accidentally imported an American music called rock’n'roll. In coffee bars, across the street from strip joints, the nation’s first ‘teenagers’, fuelled by double shots of espresso, went wild for this new music. Somewhere between child and adult, this new being began to create its own identity and its own language. When Jenny’s (Gillian Hills) father asks her what all the new words mean she replies, ‘It means us. Something that’s ours. We didn’t get it from our parents’. The film is peppered with so many ‘cool it daddios’ it seems almost too forced – the ‘square’ movie producers’ idea of what the kids sound like – but it may well be accurate.
Like other ‘fictional’ accounts of this era, The Tommy Steele Story (starring Tommy as himself) and Espresso Bongo (which charts Cliff’s rise from coffee house bongoiste to becoming God’s own Elvis) the film depicts a world of crazy beatnik jazz and early rock’n'roll (as always the importance of skiffle is overlooked). The jazz music (nothing like the bebop that Kerouac, Cassady and Co went wild for) is provided by the John Barry Seven (just a year before Bond theme mega-stardom) and the rock’n'roll by Barry’s protégé Adam Faith – who gets to perform two songs. The John Barry theme tune is quite something, maybe even better than his classic Bond theme. Thus it is that Beat Girl became the first British film to have a soundtrack LP release.
‘THIS COULD BE YOUR DAUGHTER’, the poster shrieks, and Beat Girl is undeniably an exploitation film, with the familiar mix of titillation (a lengthy strip scene was cut from the original UK release but is usually reinstated nowadays) and delinquency with a timely lesson in morality thrown in at the end. Unsurprisingly, it is a bit corny and a little clichéd but in all the right places. When Faith strums the battered old acoustic guitar he wears throughout the film he is suddenly backed by an invisible rock’n'roll band and his voice is drenched in Elvis Presley-style reverb. But Gillian Hills is excellent as the wild beat girl ignored by her architect father (obsessed with the creation of his sound-proofed utopia ‘City 2000′) and angry at his new 24-year-old French wife. She spends her time screaming hysterically in her bedroom or sneaking off from St Martin’s College to hang out and drink coffee with her friends and go dancing in cellars and caves ’til the early hours with a young Oliver Reed (now that is wild!). The film is always willing to show the seedier side of life. As in Jane Mansfield’s Soho-set movie Too Hot To Handle (1960), much of the action concerns the strip clubs and their managers (Christopher Lee in both cases) and of course the strippers.
Beat Girl remains an entertaining film and a great picture (lacking in some authenticity I’m sure) of that brief moment of British ‘cool’ before the entertainment industry stepped in and turned Cliff, Tommy et al into family entertainers. But while Cliff and Tommy got cleaned up, Soho’s reputation as London’s centre of sex, caffeine and rock’n'roll was made. In the 60s the R’n'B clubs gave the likes of Georgie Fame and The Yardbirds their start and even today coffee shops (mostly Starbucks, granted) exist alongside strip clubs and sex shops. And jazz can still be heard at the Pizza Express.
As for the Cathi Unsworth story I’m curious to find out. Will the musician follow John Barry to Hollywood and work on soundtracks? Does he think in hip-talk or just use it to act cool with his friends? Will he break the world drumming record? And are they really only drinking coffee?
For details of the event click here.