Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Love in a New Town… Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1967)

And…every so often a flash of colour! This film is special in being perhaps the only major motion picture filmed using the UK’s first major “New Town” as its backdrop. The town is Stevenage which was transformed in the early 1950s from a small Hertfordshire village into a sprawl of optimistic high-rise flats, acres of uniform clean-white housing and fly-overs, pedestrian precincts and one of the most deliberate shopping centres modern architecture could conceive.

You can imagine that Stevenage, Skelmersdale or Corby would have looked stunning as architects’ scale models and too often the full-sized constructions are viewed as failures. But it’s not necessarily the buildings, or the people, it’s the economy, stupid…Yes, some of the layouts were naive and forced people into un-social environments with less connection than the inner city areas they were extracted from. But some of the design worked well and continues to breed pride and good neighbours, even during times of economic difficulties.

In Clive Donner's 1967 film, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, the clean white of the nearly-new town is used to underpin a contemporary tale of hip teen angst. They could have filmed in Notting Hill, Camden or Highgate but they chose somewhere representative of the forward looking optimism of the times.

And, the uncluttered environs of Stevenage were perfect for filming Barry Evan’s bicycle flying down the quite walk ways, talking incessantly to camera in the manner of a younger and not-yet-qualified Alfie. It also allows all walks of life to be shown from the detached modern house of Barry’s dream girl Mary (Judy Geeson… like Susannah York, only sweeter…), to the already running-down flat of his fall-back girl Linda (Adrienne Posta, who somehow manages to exhibit the defeated physicality of a middle-aged woman in a 20-something’s body…) and back to mansion of plummy Caroline, the girl beyond his reach (a quite superbly bonkers Angela Scoular).

Based on a book by Hunter Davies, Beatles biographer, one of the main chroniclers of this progressive decade, and inspired by his partner’s scripting of Georgy Girl, Mulberry Bush is the story of a young man’s coming of age, based on Davies’ own youth in Carlisle. Evans plays Jamie McGregor an over-sexed sixth-former who is obsessed with girls and growing up.

He works as a delivery boy for a supermarket and spends his time whizzing around on his bike taking cardboard boxes of groceries to needy housewives. But they’re never as needy as he wants them to be whilst the girls he knew at school have either already got well-off boyfriends with cars (Mary) or are locked into a pattern of all too adult behaviour (Linda).

Jamie wants to find them and to find himself… even if he doesn’t know that’s what he’s looking for. He has a fish and chip-fuelled liaison with an unresponsive Linda which is cut short by the arrival of Mary with his friend Spike (future TV vet Christopher Timothy). Next he gets invited to a church disco with Paula (Sheila White) who leads him on a little way but really has the hots for the priest. He then spends a strange evening with Caroline’s parents who are interested only in using others only as props for their own jaded sexual gratification. Denholm Elliot is magnificently malevolent as Caroline’s wine-loving pater.

Jamie finally achieves base camp with the very friendly Audrey (Vanessa Howard) at a party in a furniture store…carpet burns galore as the teens trash the displays and change partners with dizzying speed.

A visibly disappointed Jamie spots Mary on his was out and they head off into the night. They go away to Mary’s parents’ sailing club and enjoy a memorable skinny dip by the side of a river but there are soon little cracks even in this relationship. These are widened the next day when Mary reveals that she wants to carry on seeing other people whilst Jamie is set on some sweet old fashioned monogamy. He knows now what he doesn’t want whilst Mary is happy to carry on enjoying directionless youth.

As the boys look forward to starting University up in Manchester, Jamie reveals that he’s no longer interested in playing the field but then catches site of Mary’s friend Claire (a young and lovely Diane Keen) who flashes him an encouraging smile.

As with Hunter Davies’ inspiration, Catcher in the Rye, not much happens in the end but the film succeeds in conveying the “state” of youth at that moment between school and college when everything seems possible, even if only for a little while.

It’s a good snapshot of a moment in time and a New Town when it was in the same position before “ …a great future” passed behind it! Now we’re all of us over 30 in a state of “Stevenage”…

The soundtrack is provided by hipster beat combo the Spencer Davis Group featuring the vocals of Stevie Winwood. Appropriately enough for a film about coming of age, this also includes the title track played by Winwood’s next and more grown up band, Traffic, who moved on from psychedelic pop to lay the bedrock for early progressive rock.

Stevenage is the next big town along from where I live and knowing it as it has now become makes viewing Mulberry Bush a strange experience. Watching a film from 1967 is like viewing any other period piece but with a difference, as most of the scenery in this case remains intact if a little run down in parts.

Not a major film but still a vey interesting one. I would urge you to catch the train up to Stevenage one day …before or after you see this film, and then try and spot the difference. You may struggle to pick up the soundtrack LP but, last time I looked, there was a second-hand record stall in the covered market.

The excellent BFI dual format pack, includes a documentary on the history of Stevenage New Town along with other shorts and an excellent booklet with a contribution from Hunter Davies as well as an appreciation of the sadly under-appreciated Barry Evans. Available from Amazon (as is the soundtrack CD) or direct from the BFI Shop.

1 comment:

  1. Stevenage was not a village before the postwar New Town; it was a thriving town and has been since the 13th century.