Monday, April 10, 2017

West End Jungle (1961)

Directed by Arnold Miller and produced by Miller and Stanley Long, West End Jungle purports to be a 'journey into the dark heart of London, filmed in the actual places of vice'. It might have been shot on the streets and in the clubs of Soho, but the prostitutes and punters aren't the real thing, with their encounters recreated, Mondo style.  A precursor to London in the Raw and Primitive London, West End Jungle's main claim to fame nowadays is the fact that it was effectively banned in the UK after the BBFC declined to award it a certificate. Indeed, it was only officially released in the UK until a DVD release in 2008 (when it received a '15' certificate).  Did it deserve to be banned?  Whilst its subject matter might still have seemed somewhat risque for the early sixties, its presentation is in the tradition of the 'cautionary tale' type of documentary, warning of the perils awaiting girls who fell into London's vice trade and complete with a moralising narration from David Gellar.  There's no actual sex depicted, let alone any nudity.  The reasons for its effective banning, as we will see, lay elsewhere.

Despite being tersely dismissed by Wikipedia as  'a 1961 British film about prostitutes', West End Jungle presents itself as a serious investigation into the consequences of the 1959 Street Offences Act, which effectively removed prostitution from Britain's streets. The film shows us, in gleeful detail, how this simply resulted in paid sex moving from the streets into seedy clubs, clip joints and Soho's growing number of strip joints.  But it doesn't stop there, it also examines how the sex trade had never been confined to prostitutes soliciting for trade on the streets, pointing out that, contrary to its portrayal in the popular press, prostitution wasn't just something indulged in by immoral, down on their luck women and grubby, depraved men in dirty raincoats.  A lengthy segment shows how the 'hospitality' offered by company directors to their high flying clients constitutes nothing more than very expensive prostitution, as we see a company director from the provinces set up with a high class 'escort' by his London equivalent after their companies sign a lucrative business deal.  A supposedly upmarket club is 'exposed' providing similar services to businessmen, whilst another city gent decides to visit a 'health club' rather than his usual club.

Which isn't to say that the film doesn't also explore the more downmarket side of the post-1959 London sex trade.  As well as being treated to visits to various strip clubs, we also experience a clip joint and even the 'photographer's model' trade.  As it notes, the 'lonely' men who 'hire' such  models don't actually take cameras to their assignations with girls 'who need a bath'.  Also included is the obligatory story of the innocent girl from the provinces arriving in London to seek her fortune, only to fall prey to the pimps who apparently lurked around the arrivals platforms at Waterloo station.  (This particular ingenue ends up working in the clip joint).  Of course, for all its moralising, West End Jungle is simply playing the game still played by the likes of the Daily Mail to this day: in order to demonstrate just how evil or depraved whatever is being condemned actually is, they have to show it to us in all its filthy detail.   Whether its the West End sex trade in the early sixties or scandalously brief swimsuits being worn by starlets today, we have to be shown it in order to fully appreciate its awfulness.

The problem for West End Jungle was that, although it didn't actually show anything really depraved, it showed enough to give the impression that Britain's capital city was a seething hive of iniquity.  An impression that the great and the good of London's elites really didn't want disseminated across the world, let alone Britain.  Unfortunately for them, they could only pressure the censors to deny it a certificate for cinema exhibition in Britain and the film was released to foreign markets, regardless.  Ultimately, West End Jungle falls into that category of films which might be classified as proto-Mondos. Along with the likes of European Nights (which chronicled various exotic nightclub acts from across the continent) it presents some of the content which would become the staples of true Mondo movies, but without the outrageously staged excesses of cannibalism and animal cruelty (amongst other things) and the gleeful narrations which, rather than condemning what we're seeing, celebrates it.  Compared to Miller and Long's later, far more Mondo-like, London in the Raw and Primitive London West End Jungle comes over as more sober, with stark black and white photography and rather harder edged recreations of events.  The clip joint segment, for instance, is far seedier and rough than a similar segment in London in the Raw, even showing an unhappy punter being roughed up by the doorman.

Nowhere near as slick as the two later 'shockumentaries', West End Jungle is, nonetheless, still an enjoyable slice of sleaze from the sixties.  if nothing else, it provides us with a vivid picture of pre-swinging London.  Moreover, at only fifty five minutes long, it doesn't have time to outstay its welcome.  As with London in the Raw and Primitive London, the DVD also includes a selection of short films as extras, including Get 'em Off, a history of London strip clubs narrated by Hugh Scully of Antiques Roadshow fame.  That alone, surely, is worth buying the DVD for.



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