Produced in 1962 for BBC arts series Monitor, Pop Goes the Easel (terrible pun) explored British Pop Art. In a shirt and tie and with fingers steepled, Huw Wheldon introduces the documentary, which was directed by maverick visionary Ken Russell.

‘They’re four painters who turn for their subject matter to the world of pop art,’ he informs his audience. ‘The world of the popular imagination, the world of film stars, the twist, science fiction, pop singers; a world which you can dismiss if you feel so inclined, of course, as being tawdry and second rate but a world all the same in which everybody to some degree lives, whether we like it or not.’

If I had to put my money on it, Wheldon would definitely veer towards the tawdry and second rate category.

Peter Blake and Derek Boshier

Sadly, Pop Goes The Easel is shot in black and white, which fails to convey the sheer fizzing colour of the paintings and some of Russell’s idiosyncratic imagery.

Four twenty-something British artists were chosen to represent the rising movement: Peter Blake, Peter Phillips, Derek Boshier, and Pauline Boty. Pop is usually seen as an American movement but you could easily argue that it was invented in Britain by artists like Richard Hamilton and The Independent Group, Eduardo Paolozzi and Peter Blake himself, just as in the 1970s, punk became associated with Britain although again you could argue that The Ramones, Richard Hell and others kicked off things in New York.

Pop Art was about breaking down the barriers between high and low art and bringing back representation in an increasingly dreary art world where critics were championing an increasingly dry and dreary brand of post-painterly abstraction.

The documentary begins with the four artists hanging out together in London. They stroll along a funfair accompanied by James Darren’s contemporary hit Goodbye Cruel World, typical of the kind of kitsch and (second rate) chart pop that was all the rage when I was in nappies.

Pop Artists at a Coconut Shy

They ride some dodgems, slip coins into slot machines, visit a coconut shy, and then a shooting gallery where they all take aim with various degrees of success. Russell gets appropriately playful, editing in a shot from an old Hollywood Western of a gunslinger firing back – as if at the Pop Artists. Peter Blake draws a couple of clowns. As it’s the 1960s, they smoke incessantly.

Russell then presents single portraits of the quartet. A version of Jorge Veiga’s Brigitte Bardot by Achilles and his Heels plays as Blake pretends to wake up, his bedspread embroidered with a myriad of flags and photos of eminent Victorians. Two feet emerge from the bed but they surely aren’t Blake’s. No, Russell splices in a shot of Bardot’s legs also emerging from a bed as Achilles sings ‘The longest legs in Europe and the cutest nose I know.’ We see some of Blake’s Tattooed Lady series; Siriol, She-Devil of Naked Madness and Self Portrait With Badges. He’s already a highly accomplished artist.

Peter Phillips glances through monster and girlie mags that have inspired his work. In his room, huge canvases like For Men Only and The Entertainment Machine dominate the walls. A mysterious blonde beatnik girl plays pinball. She would be no match for Roger Daltrey’s Tommy from Russell’s 1975 film, though. Phillips points a toy gun at her and she mimes firing back and blowing away imaginary smoke from the imaginary barrel – just like the pretend gunfight in Godard’s Band of Outsiders, shot three years later.

Derek Boshier Studio in Pop Goes the Easel

Derek Boshier introduces an element of criticism into proceedings as he talks about advertising techniques and the commercialisation (and Americanisation) of British life – or should that have be commercialization and Americanization? – as he explains the thought processes behind the making of works like A Man Playing Snooker and Thinking of Other Things.

Pauline Boty Nightmare in Pop Goes the Easel

Cut to the most visually arresting sequence in the film. Pauline Boty lays out some of her works on paper onto a corridor floor and contemplates it. She is startled by the sudden sight of a line of women – who, oddly enough, appear to be social distancing. One speaks angrily in German and walks over the artworks. Pauline slaps her. Pauline is then pursued along curving corridors by a woman with black hair, black clothes and dark glasses in a wheelchair, a cranked up alarm bell adding to the unease, or is it an alarm clock? Yup, it’s an alarm clock finally ending a particularly disturbing and surreal anxiety dream.

‘I’ve always had very vivid dreams and I can remember them very, very easily,’ she tells us as she teases her hair like a 1980s goth. ‘I’ve used the kind of atmosphere of the dreams in my collages.’

The gang gather together at her West London flat. Peter looks at some of her collages. He is said to have harboured a massive (and unrequited) crush on Boty – it’s easy to see why – and once sent a valentine to her. None of your cheapo card shop efforts either. His valentine combined collage and enamel paint on hardboard.

Pauline Boty & Peter Blake in Pop Goes The Easel

Derek and Peter meanwhile, muse on the chance to visit space. The Science Fiction Bookclub is offering to send prospective moon pioneers an ‘authentic moon tour reservation’ which won’t commit them to taking the voyage. Of course, this depends on you spending money on some of their paperbacks. They decide to sign up for it anyway and Boshier quips that he’ll sort out the Mars trip later.

The four troop off to a local market and browse through racks of comic books then spend an evening watching wrestling with Pauline looking genuinely excited by the action of a tag team bout.

Finally, at a crowded studio, it’s time for the big daddy of dance crazes. Forget the locomotion, the mashed potato, or doing the alligator. Twisting time is here and Cole Clay is insisting that ‘everybody twist’. The party-goers obey and the twisting gets frenetic at times – it’s no wonder nobody in the room is chubby!

David Hockney makes an appearance in his big round black rimmed glasses and dyed blonde buzzcut. He jumps and hops rather than twists which maybe gives an indication that he would always follow an unconventional artistic pathway. It maybe also explains why he isn’t included in the gang – he wouldn’t have wanted to be pigeonholed as a ‘Pop Artist’ even though he had leanings in that direction back then.

Everybody’s having a smashing time and the camera loves the centre of attention that is Pauline Boty. She shows off shamelessly, grabs a fur stole and waves it behind her head. She grins and winks at the camera and I think the swinging sixties were at this point inevitable. They maybe even began at this precise moment.

pauline winking

Blake, Phillips and Boshier are all still creating art, much of it still pop tinged. In 2015, all three were all commissioned to create new channel idents for the BBC Four Goes Pop! Season.

Blake has designed covers for Paul Weller, Oasis and The Who (including last year’s WHO album). Most famously, he created the iconic cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, along with his wife of the time Jann Haworth.

Peter Phillip’s paintings have adorned album covers by The Cars and The Strokes. In the early 1970s, Boshier taught a guy who insisted on everybody calling him Woody at London’s Central School of Art & Design. Joe Strummer, as he was by 1978, helped hire Boshier to produce a songbook for Give ‘Em Enough Rope. Boshier also worked with David Bowie on the sleeves for Lodger and Let’s Dance.


And Pauline Boty? She would also enjoy a secondary career in acting, and was shortlisted for the role of Liz in Billy Liar. She didn’t land the part but some have observed that Julie Christie’s portrayal owed something to Boty’s free-spirited appearance in Pop Goes the Easel. Pauline went on to play a blink and you’ll almost miss her cameo as one of Michael Caine’s conquests in Alfie and Russell hired her in 1964 to play a prostitute in his Bartok film. She also acted at the Royal Court and on TV and radio and she and Derek Boshier were selected as regular dancers on Ready Steady Go.

Somehow during all this activity, her art progressed rapidly too. She embraced a more pure pop style (the collages we saw earlier owe more to surrealist Max Ernst than anybody else) and she would soon reach her pop art prime with paintings like The Only Blonde in the World – a rare take on Marilyn Monroe from a female artist – and With Love To Jean Paul Belmondo, a huge rose crammed into the top half of the canvas representing her sexual desire for the French film star.

Tragically, Pauline’s life was cut very short. While pregnant, it was discovered that she had leukemia during a checkup. She rejected the idea of an abortion and also refused chemotherapy, fearing it might harm her unborn child.

She died in the summer of 1966, four months after giving birth to a daughter.

Pauline Boty Monitor

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