Colours swirl on the screen, blurry footage of the capital’s signifiers swim into view, London buses and the like, as The Pink Floyd chug into ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ on the soundtrack, the one that sounds a bit like the theme to Steptoe and Son. We get the title, and then the subtitle, ‘a pop concerto,’ as a montage takes shape of magazine covers, straplines and hemlines, union jacks on everything: welcome to cool Britannia. Tonite is a definite case of the right filmmaker at the right time.
Photographer-director-editor Peter Whitehead was a well-connected hipster and his hour-long documentary, released in 1967, catches the British Pop wave at its mod zenith, just before things got a bit more… hairy. So we get interviews with Mick Jagger, Michael Caine and David Hockney, Edna O’Brien and Julie Christie, Vanessa Redgrave singing ‘Guantanamera’ in Cuban sympathy, the Ginsberg poem that gives the film its title, performances from the Animals and Floyd and Alan Aldridge painting on a naked dolly bird to keep the investors and the raincoat brigade happy, all tossed lightly together in labelled sections (‘The loss of the British empire’, ‘It’s all pop music’, etc.) on a bed of skilfully assembled observational footage. Whitehead has an eye for the arresting image and a talent for sly juxtapositions in the editing suite; in the section on ‘dolly girls’ we see a pair of nuns touring the fashion boutiques, and he plays the Stones’ fragile, chivalric ballad ‘Lady Jane’ over footage of alarmingly aggressive female stage invaders at a near riotous 1966 concert.
It’s interesting that here, at the height of it all, most of his interviewees are sceptical about London’s elevation to the kingdom of kool. Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham seems to be a portrait of louche disinterest behind yellow-tinted shades, hinting that his part in pop music will be over and he might move into film – he and Aldridge are pretty circumspect about what they do and its cultural worth. Christie opines that ‘a good time is much easier to have now’ but wonders whether that’s for a minority, a bubble she’s very much part of: ‘everything’s happened to me, I haven’t happened to anything’. It’s telling that both Hockney and Caine bring up the British licensing hours. Caine calls them a ‘condescending piece of class consciousness’ brought in for the First World War to keep the workers in their place. Both bemoan the fact that the average bloke has to call it a night at 11 o’clock and that the capital’s nightclubs are too pricey for the masses. Hockney witheringly describes one as a ‘rhythm and blues Aberdeen steakhouse’ and dolefully laments that you would be unlikely to find a plumber from Camberwell in any of them.
Money turns up over and over again, as freedom, as the reason people have the time to attend Vietnam protests. There is much here to confirm the suspicion that swinging London actually swung for very few, and that, as ever, it helped to be rich. Asked about ‘pop art seduction’ Caine says that ‘it helps to be a movie star, or a pop star, or at the very least among the first 200 people on the Aldermaston march,’ which is pretty damn cutting. It’s left to the yanks to be wholly enthusiastic in the last reel. Lee Marvin (!) calls the pop explosion ‘a healthy break away from the stoic, the stolid and the staid,’* Hugh Hefner just seems delighted that there’s somewhere to put on one of his Playboy clubs, where you can be surrounded by ‘recognisable people’.
On the whole it’s a great document, freely available on YouTube and well worth an hour of your time. It’s too smart to attempt to be a definitive document of the times, and is much more of a freewheeling impressionistic grab bag of moments, people, styles and music, a cousin to the Mondo movie. Still, it’s artfully constructed and there’s plenty here to chew on. ‘It’s all about the loss of the British empire,’ says Caine at the outset, as we see footage of a a phalanx of bowler-hatted old-school-tie types observing the trooping of the colour or some other such piece of pomp and ceremony, with the implication that the days of royalty and deference may be numbered. Forty-odd years later social mobility seems to be backsliding and the Eton boys are firmly in charge. Plus ça change, or ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss,’ as The Who would have it. Toodle pip.
* He later says, ‘there’s more room in a Mini car than there is in a Cadillac, I don’t know if that holds true for the miniskirts,’ which makes me want to seek out more Lee Marvin interviews. Here, he seems to be in costume for the shooting of The Dirty Dozen.