Saturday, 3 November 2012

Seeing red… Deep End (1970)

Jane Asher
Too often Jane Asher has been seen as a celebrity cake-maker, a red-headed “Lumley” for celeb reality shows or in terms of her relationships: wife of political cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, ex- girlfriend of a Beatle (Macca) … but anyone who has seen Deep End knows different.

Having watched the film as a student on my tiny black and white TV it left an indelible mark for its strange and unpredictable story of young love and obsession. Now, seeing the BFI’s Blu-ray in glorious full colour, I can appreciate the full depth of Jerzy Skolimowski’s extra-ordinary film.


The poet, painter and soccer fan had come to the fore in co-scripting Polanski’s Knife in the Water and went on to make his own films, including the polemical Hands Up! which effectively got him exiled from his native Poland. He came to London where he rented an apartment next to Jimi Hendrix and produced Deep End from his own script. Inspired by the story of an incident in a swimming pool and a couple who lost a diamond in the snow… he ties the two events together very well: how would you look for a diamond in a hundred-weight of icy snow?

The film was based in London but was actually filmed mostly in Munich using a lot of German actors with English overdubs.. Skolimowski expertly blends exterior shots of Soho, Leytonstone and Fulham Public Baths with customised German interiors. Great credit here to designer Anthony Pratt (who is the nephew of one Boris Karloff…) who took the elegant public baths of Munich and converted them into run-down, paint-peeling, garishly coloured, British ones…

John Moulder-Brown
The film starts with a drop of blood from the hand of a young man holding a bike. It’s Mike (John Moulder-Brown) a 15 year old who has just left school and is about to start his first job. We see him cycling through London free of school and with his life ahead, looking forward to his first stab of independence…

He has a job as an attendant at the local public baths, hardly salubrious but it’s a step up from school. He’s met by the manager who tells him that he could be sitting behind his desk if he applies himself…Mike is non-plussed. The film is full of this gentle humour and it acts to mask some of the darker themes which, as in life, are always there if we but look.

There’s a very pretty red-haired girl, Susan (Jane Asher) who shows Mike the ropes in suitably perfunctory style… she has no ambition to inherit the boss’ office but she knows there’s something else out there for her.

Jane Asher and Karl-Michael Vogler
As it is she’s happy to work her hours and pick up the plentiful tips from the regulars. She tells Mike he should do well with some of the middle-aged clientele and so it transpires. In a superbly brave cameo, Diana Dors (the British Monroe no less) plays a rapacious housewife who has her way with Mike under the cover of a running commentary on football and in particular the playing style of George Best.

This scene was largely improvised and shot in two takes leaving Moulder-Brown slightly bruised and bemused. 17 at the time and not quiet the novice that his character is, he was still overwhelmed by the intensity of Dors’ moment.

Diana Dors and John Moulder-Brown
Gradually the patterns of life at the pool are revealed. A salacious school teacher (Karl-Michael Vogler) arrives with a gaggle of schoolgirls whom he prods and pats into the water. Susan looks on in mild disgust and it is only later that we learn that she is having an affair with him. She’s engaged to a young businessman Chris (Christopher Sandford) although she seems indifferent to the longer-term outcomes of this relationship. She’s hard to fathom but fun at the same time. Hardly much older than Mike, she has more in common with him than these two sexually mature men.

The two youngsters quickly become allies but Mike doesn’t know how to read Susan and he certainly doesn’t know what she wants or how to give it to her. The story is set over a mere seven days but things move very quickly in the minds of youth and Mike is soon besotted with Susan.

John Moulder-Brown and Jane Asher
He follows her and Chris on a date to a adult film (The Science of Sex made by Skolimowski as a spoof backdrop for this scene) and fondles Susan from the row behind. She complains and Chris calls the manager but while he’s away she gives Mike a lingering kiss… The two are complicit even though Susan seems to push the situation as far as she can. The police arrive but she takes Chris off so no charges can be made.

Mike follows the couple home where they share a half-hearted goodnight kiss before Susan sends Chris on his way. He walks off disconsolate behind the spying Mike who then tells a policeman that Chris is importuning him… childish tit for tat, but there could be adult consequences.

Christopher Sandford, Jane Asher and John Moulder-Brown
Susan and Mike are children playing with the adults but they’re also being preyed upon by adults who all seem united in their sterile decadence. Even the maintenance man wants to someday “give her one” whilst the receptionist (Erica Beer) is eaten up with jealousy of the younger woman and lust for Mike.

But Susan is half-way to being the kind of adult she despises. Chris buys her an expensive diamond engagement ring and takes her on another date. Mike follows again and tries to find a way to get closer to Susan… he doesn’t have a plan just an instinct.

John Moulder-Brown and Warrington's finest, Burt Kwouk
One of the best sequences is filmed around Soho with Mike buying a series of hotdogs from a stall run by Burt Kwouk. This segment is accompanied throughout by the relentless propulsion of Can’s Mother Sky. One of “krautrock’s “ finest exponents, Can’s pared down "blues" has dated far less than many British groups of the period and their music gives an almost anachronistic spin to events as Mike tries to hide away from a sex shop owner having stolen a life-size cardboard cut-out that may or may not have been Susan (it certainly was Jane Asher, as she now confirms, "every inch from top to toe").

He takes refuge in the flat of a prostitute (Louise Martini) who has broken her leg but still worked out a way of carrying on working… Another football fan, she’s kind to Mike but only wants his money in the end. Mike escapes with his cardboard cut out and confronts Susan on the train. She refuses to confirm or deny whether it is her and Mike smashes it into the lights – his first real display of anger towards this girl whom he loves but cannot understand (they had to reimburse London Underground later for that inspirational accident).

He escapes back to the pool and takes a swim with the cut-out which morphs into Susan in his mind… he is becoming enveloped in obsession and reality is blurred around the object of his desire.

John Moulder-Brown and Jane Asher
The next day he follows Susan and her school-teacher to the school race. He joins in for the first lap and then sabotages the teacher’s sports car. In a rage Susan lashes out at him and her diamond is knocked into the snow. Searching for the stone in panic, Mike works out a way of finding it and scoops up all of the snow into plastic bags.

Back at the pool they begin to defrost the snow using a kettle… Mike finds the diamond and tries to use it to make Susan have sex with him. The couple have a union of sorts but it doesn’t appear to be consummated either physically or in terms of the intimacy Mike so obviously craves. Susan is in control and he cannot understand why she appears to want him and then not at all. I won’t reveal the end as it is such an important part of the film: the reason Skolimowski reveals, that he made the film.

Deep End benefits from extraordinary camera-work from Charly Steinberger who worked with a hand-held camera for most of the film. This adds a great deal to the immediacy and uneasy reality of the film and must have taken a huge amount of strength to carry off in the days before “steady-cams”.

He also perfectly captures Asher’s incredible red hair turning it into one of the running colour motifs for the film. When Mike and Susan finally connect in the swimming baths, the hair is swirling around both of them… a rainbow of glorious golds. But Mike's fingernails are dirty...it's an imperfect moment.

Jane Asher, Erica Beer and painter man...
The set design is outstanding, plugging the gaps between Munich and London in seamless fashion but also allowing Skolimowski to introduce running themes and subtle foreshadowing of the narrative. His editor Barrie Vince must have also played a major part in this continuity as well as the film’s economy (a number of scenes were cut in order to allow the story to flow better…difficult to decisions to make and a sign of the collaborative work ethic Skolimowski fostered.

This is also epitomised by the two mesmeric leading actors, who part-improvised their way through proceedings in a way which challenged their formal training and gave an unpredictable freshness to their portrayals. Both had been acting since their childhood and yet they could easily have been making their first movie here… vibrantly awkward.


The BFI Blu-ray/DVD set is accompanied by a 74 minute making of documentary which is one of the best I’ve seen with main actors, director, set designer and cameraman all still proud and enthused by their work decades later.

It’s also very interesting to see Jane Asher discussing her character’s motivations with John Moulder-Brown. Both have different viewpoints and clearly this was true at the time as they improvised key scenes…But, whilst Deep End may be a tale with lots of accidental meaning there are clear and deliberate messages about the enduring truths of youth, sex and communication.

Deep End is available from all good Amazons and the BFI themselves. In addition to the making of feature, there's a full-some booklet of essays and a short feature, Careless Love (1975) featuring Asher.


2 comments:

  1. Great post on a film I love, and have written about too. Yes the BFI 3 disk pack is ideal - great to see Asher & Brown still looking great now and discussing their work. Its a film they are understandably proud of. I also recently saw Skolimowski's KING QUEEN KNAVE from a Nobokov novel, in 1972 with Brown again as the orphan sent to live with uncle David Niven and lush wife Gina Lollobrigida - its terrific too and goes off in directions one does not expect.

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    1. Thanks Michael! It's one of those films that stays with you - innovative and honest (with all that entails).King Queen Knave is on my to-do list - it's on YouTube but I don't know if there's a DVD? He also worked with Jane Asher again in Success Is the Best Revenge.

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