London in the Raw (1964)
Some time ago I was lamenting the lack of a UK equivalent to the Italian Mondo genre of 'shockumentaries'. Well, thanks to the BFI, I've now been able to catch up with British sexploitation cinema's answer to Mondo Cane: 1964's London in the Raw and its 1965 follow up, Primitive London. These two films brought together some of the leading names in sixties British exploitation films: Arnold Louis Miller, Tony Tenser, Michael Klinger and Stanley Long and was distributed by Tenser and Klinger's Compton Cameo Films. To focus on the first film, from the outset London in the Raw is a shameless imitation of the style established by Mondo Cane, with its supposedly real, but undoubtedly staged, footage shot on the streets of London. Opening with a juxtoposition between two 'street workers' - an old busker with a penny whistle and a prostitute inviting foreign tourists to her room - musing that the possible fine for busking was far more severe than that for soliciting, the film quickly moves into its overriding theme: the need for belonging.
More specifically, the justification for the vignettes it strings together is an investigation into the social pressures which lead people to try and conform to various standards of behaviour, fashion or ideals of beauty, in mid-sixties London. This starts with women having 'unsightly' hair removed in the name of 'beauty' and a man undergoing a crude (and extremely painful looking) form of hair transplant in order to conform to the predominant view that masculinity involves having a full head of hair. Other scenarios involve health clubs and gyms, to underline the pressure to conform to physical 'norms'. Inevitably, of course, things start to move toward the sleazy - a segment on LOndon Beatnik society shows us 'typical' Beatnik behaviour, including girls posing topless as still life models and the Beatniks eating cat food (as its cheap). People's need to be part of social groups and sub cultures (such as Beatniks) now becomes the dominant theme. A segment supposedly shot in a clip joint (although it is obviously staged) shows how this is sometimes driven by loneliness and how the 'outsiders' seeking human contact this way are ruthlessly exploited. This leads us into, arguably, the film's weakest sequence, as we are introduced to various London clubs, which, ultimately, consists of segments of the main acts performing in these clubs.
Despite the repetitive nature of these club sequences, their central premise is that sixties London is an ethnically diverse city, as most of the clubs and societies are specific to various nationalities living in the capital, showcasing their cultures. In today's febrile, anti-immigrant, culture, this celebration of multiculturalism seems startling, reminding us that, within living memory, the UK enjoyed, if not universal racial harmony, at least a tolerance and appreciation of immigrant cultures. The film gets back on track with an examination of British drinking culture, with a visit to a traditional working class British pub, complete with singalongs, and more 'upmarket' drinking clubs. All of which is then juxtaposed, in true Mondo fashion, with scenes of down and outs gathered around fires in a derelict building, drinking meths (mixed with milk, to make it digestible). Again, the human need for belonging, even to group of meths drinkers, is emphasised. This sort of 'dark' social group is further explored in a sequence about the London drug culture, with addicts loitering around Piccadilly Circus, waiting to collect their methadone prescriptions from the all night pharmacists. Interestingly, as the narration reminds us, this was a time when drug addicts were seen as victims and prescribed treatment rather than being prosecuted. Consequently, the number of registered addicts was surprisingly small.
At seventy six minutes (on the BFI DVD, there were, apparently, slightly longer versions released in the sixties, as well as a cut down forty six minute version which is included as an extra on the DVD), London in the Raw offers a brisk journey through London's seamier side, with everything held together by David Gellar's mid Atlantic accented narration. Whilst the film is immensely entertaining, it can't quite match the sheer, unrelenting, sleaziness of a true Mondo. There is an air of English restraint about it: it seems reluctant to go too far, to shock too much. There's no cannibalism, exotic made up primitive rituals or animal cruelty which characterise Italian made Mondos. Indeed, it is fascinating to compare London in the Raw with the later Italian 'Swinging London' Mondo, Naked England, which covers much of the same ground. The latter film also looks at what it labels the 'legalised drug culture', but does so far more sensationally, with addicts shooting up in grimy toilet cubicles. Naked England, also includes sensational (and clearly faked) footage of the police beating people up, the discovery of the body of a child murder victim, huge amounts of female nudity and even brings Nazis into the mix. By contrast, London in the Raw looks incredibly restrained. But it ids none the worse for that, offering a fascinating picture of a pre-swinging London, at a time when people were beginning to notice the social changes which were shortly to transform the city.
Not only is London in the Raw well worth watching in tiself, but the BFI DVD also contains some excellent extras. These include Pub, a black and white documentary short which distills a typical evening in a sixties working class pub into fifteen minutes and Strip, which presents a very down to earth portrait of London strippers. Indeed, the extras alone are, in my opinion, worth the price of the DVD.
Labels: Forgotten Films