Deep End (1970): British Movie Night #4

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A British–West German co-production, filmed in London and Bavaria, and written and directed by a Pole, you might question this being a British film. But it is entirely set in London with the main roles going to English actors, so that’ll do for me. Beware, though, that a number of smaller roles went to German actors and some of their dubbed dialogue veers towards the dodgy at the start of the film.

Shy, inarticulate and clumsy, Mike (John Moulder-Brown), is fifteen but comes across as immature even for that age. Fresh out of school, he finds employment as a male attendant at a municipal public bathhouse and pool. Here, locals often go to have their weekly scrub-up, and he sometimes gets the chance to collect tips from clients for ‘special services’ rendered.

His first experience of this comes via a middle-aged platinum blonde (Diana Dors) who visits to get some sexual kicks by pathetically trying to enact a George Best fantasy with a clearly confused Mike. Like Friends, a 1971 film soundtracked by Elton John which I watched recently, it can make for some uncomfortable viewing due to the screen age of certain cast members, so I should point out that Moulder-Brown himself was 17 during the shoot.

Female attendant Susan (Jane Asher) shows him the ropes and he becomes besotted with her. It’s easy to imagine a teenage boy going down this line. Even though she’s maybe a decade older and already engaged, he somehow gets it into his head that a relationship with her might be on the cards – although you’d guess there’s as much chance of this happening as me beating Jane Asher in a cake making competition (I am, though, hoping to perfect my Buckforest Gateau recipe in time for Christmas).

In addition to her fiancé, Susan’s also involved with an older married man, a pervy PE teacher whose jobs include taking schoolgirls to the pool for swimming lessons. Judging by his behaviour as he does so, he may have become involved with Susan when she was his pupil.

Mike takes his infatuation – which he mistakes for love – to an extreme level. His working hours are spent with Susan and at night much of his time is devoted to spying on her.

In 2007, in a Sight & Sound feature on cinematic hidden gems, critic David Thompson chose Deep End. ‘Skolimowski’s direction is extravagant, crude and tender by turns, slapping the audience in the face with its insouciance and weird wit,’ he wrote, before adding: ‘Today the soundtrack by Can and Cat Stevens would probably win a high cool rating.’ I’m not sure why anybody would consider Cat Stevens cool but Thompson was certainly right about hipster favourites Can – credited here as The Can – whose Mother Sky perfectly soundtracks a particularly feverish segment of the film set in Soho, with Mike out on stalking duties again, having discovered that Susan’s fiancé Chris (Chris Sandford) is taking her to an upmarket disco.

In this sequence, Mike is shown desperately seeking Susan and
everything is a little off-kilter. He enters the disco, and a handheld camera completely disorientates viewers as it continuously swirls and circles around him in the reception area as he attempts to gain admission.

Mother Sky is pretty disorientating too. Jerzy Skolimowski has spoken about avoiding ‘obvious soundtracks’ and in 1970, commissioning an underground act like Can was certainly far from obvious – especially when you consider that it had only been around a year since Easy Rider had revolutionized movie music by rejecting a traditional instrumental score in favour of a carefully assembled rock soundtrack consisting of existing or newly commissioned songs.

On seeing Susan and her flashy boyfriend enter, Mike flees. He buys a hotdog. Two doormen attempt to cajole him into a strip joint. He buys another hotdog. He steals a life-size cardboard cut-out of a female, who looks suspiciously like Susan. Hiding from the bouncers of the club he stole the cutout from, he enters the room of a hooker with one leg in a plaster cast. Due to her predicament, she offers a cut-price deal for sex, but he’s more interested in loitering outside the disco again. Two girls persuade him to buy them hotdogs. They’re not too interested in Mike apart from getting something free from him. A group of Christian evangelist squares attempt to spread the word of the Lord in deepest, darkest Soho of all places. Predictably, with zero success. He buys so many hotdogs, he’s offered one for free.

Finally, he spots Susan and her fiancé on the street, arguing. They go their separate ways. He follows Susan to the underground, still carrying his cut-out. Is he having some kind of breakdown? It looks like it. I’m beginning to think this isn’t going to end well.

Mostly filmed during the first half of 1970, Deep End premiered at the Venice Film Festival. Critics were mostly very positive. In the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas insisted that the film was masterpiece, that ‘shows Skolimowski to be a major film-maker, impassioned yet disciplined.’ Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune hailed it as ‘a stunning introduction to a talented film maker.’

Sadly, at the box-office it failed to generate much interest. Doubtless the fact that neither of the leads is sympathetic, didn’t help. Mike’s obviously excessively voyeuristic and prone to throwing childish tantrums too. Susan uses men (and is used by them) and also harbours a nasty streak, shown when she calls Mike’s mother a cow, presumably to hurt him, just because she can. The dialogue is not always convincing, likely as a result of Skolimowski’s poor English. Several of the actors had to rewrite their lines or improvise as the camera rolled and this didn’t always work, although arguably it adds to the dreamlike quality that is often evident.

Despite its flaws, Deep End is fascinating too. It displays a highly striking colour palette – at one point, in the background, a man begins painting the bath’s green tiled corridors a shade of the deepest Suspiria red (seven years before Argento’s horror classic was made). And if anybody ever tells you that everything the 1970s was either grey or beige, feel free to refer them to Jane Asher in her long yellow vinyl mac and blazing red hair.

Asher, incidentally, is very good as the cynical and amoral Susan.

The film also successfully showcases Skolimowski’s taste for absurdist humour. It is never predictable and although some critics judged it a film that deserves a better ending, I thought the climax in the pool was inspired and one of the most memorable in cult cinema.

Unavailable for decades due to legal problems, Deep End was released by the British Film Institute in a dual format edition on their Flipside series in 2011 and given a limited re-release in British cinemas. The film was also chosen to be screened at the Monorail’s Film Club at Glasgow Film Theatre in 2013.

The Hanging Debate Takes A Curious Twist

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John Cooper Clarke: Suspended Sentence (Rabid Records)

Why John Cooper Clarke didn’t pen an autobiography before, I have no idea as it has struck me for a decade or more that that the life of Britain’s premier punk poet was ripe for the memoir treatment. But good things come to those who wait, as the old cliche goes, and I Wanna Be Yours was finally published last month.

I’m now on the home straight, after reading a big chunk of it almost addictively in one go yesterday – although, as is my usual non-linear autobiography reading habit, I jumped in at what promised to be the most fascinating segment of the story for me – which was when Clarke was making the move from playing cabaret clubs in the north of England to embracing what might loosely be called the punk scene. I will get back to the start at some point, though.

Cooper signed to Rabid Records, a local label that had already put out singles from Slaughter And The Dogs and The Nosebleeds, and would go on to become best known for Jilted John’s Going Steady, a #4 hit in Britain in the summer of 1978.

Founded by Tosh Ryan, Lawrence Beadle and Martin Hannett, the label grew out of Music Force, a socialist musicians’ collective that set up live shows and arranged PA hire for bands – an offshoot of this being a profitable fly-posting business that apparently helped pay for the launch of the record label.

Initially, Clarke wasn’t keen on committing any of his work onto vinyl, especially with contributions from musicians, but did see the opportunities of helping promote himself with a single. A one-off band called The Curious Yellows was assembled and Martin Hannett oversaw production duties for what became the Innocents EP. ‘I didn’t really enjoy the recording process, and the results were mixed,’ Clarke admits. ‘Occasionally, it somehow hung together by accident, and I was pleasantly surprised, but generally I could only hear the mistakes.’

Released in November 1977, I first heard Suspended Sentence on the John Peel show and failed to notice any mistakes. Late at night, likely with the lights switched on low, Clarke’s surreal vision of a dystopian Britain made for a simultaneously comic and chilling listen. Peel adored it too. On his end of the year Festive Fifty list, he placed it at #5.

After signing to CBS, Clarke grew increasingly pissed off with Rabid. In the book, he complains (or maybe kvetches might be a more Cooper-esque way of putting it) about them punting out an album with the frankly shite title Où est la maison de fromage? ‘A shamelessly cheap, probably illegal move by a bunch of no-mark chisellers, secretly recorded and marketed without any input or consent from me. Naturally, I only want to present the polished end-product of my labours, therefore its very existence is a continuing thorn in my side. It never stops hurting. If you love me, throw it away.’

Sorry, John but the chances of that happening are the same as me being able to fit into a pair of your kecks.

I Wanna Be Yours also details two appearances at the Glasgow Apollo. The first came via a support slot early in 1978 on Be-Bop Deluxe’s Drastic Plastic tour.

My home town of Glasgow, it would have to be admitted, isn’t a city where acts can be automatically guaranteed a warm welcome. If they like you, you are treated like an absolute hero. If they don’t take to you, then there may be trouble ahead. I’ve mentioned before that I witnessed Suicide receive an Apollo reception so vituperative that Alan Vega still sounded a little shell-shocked when talking about it almost forty years later.

Sheena Easton’s Glasgow Green show in 1990 was to end badly too. Recording a Bond theme, winning Grammies and hooking up with Prince count for very little when your audience consists of boozed up Glaswegians if you commit the cardinal sin of speaking with a Mid-Atlantic accent when you’re fae Bellshill. Let’s just say that adulation was in short supply throughout her set.

According to John Cooper Clarke, his first taste of the Apollo stage was not to last long. Four minutes to be precise. ‘I just stood there,’ he writes, ‘ with no indication that the hostility would ever abate. You can’t fight that level of animosity, so as soon as the volume dropped a fraction, I just said, ‘Let’s call it a draw.’ ‘

Within a year he was back for a re-match, on the same bill as Richard Hell and The Voidoids and Elvis Costello and I was there to see the great man for the first of many times. His onstage banter and breakneck renditions of poems like Kung Fu International and (I Married a) Monster from Outer Space were all met with raucous laughter and appreciative applause. You shoulda seen him go-go-go.

‘The redemption of that night was priceless,’ he explains. ‘Ever since then, my Glasgow audiences have been some of the wildest in the world. It’s a wonderful city full of beautiful people.’

He’s way too kind.

For more on I Wanna Be Yours click here.