Gilbey on Film: the young ones

Which movies sum up your youth?

I've been trying to get my hands on the 1968 British comedy Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush for some time now. Twice a year for the past, ooh, six or seven years, I've been googling or eBaying to see if there are any decent copies floating around. This diligence in the pursuit of a film was, for once, entirely selfless: I was after a copy for my father, who has long cited that movie as being especially evocative of his adolescence and early twenties.

I suppose I could've made a pilgrimage to the home of my NS colleague Hunter Davies and asked to borrow his copy. Why him? Well, he wrote the thing -- the original novel and the screenplay. Except that whenever you read Hunter's column, he's usually writing about being snuggled in his armchair watching the footie, refreshments close at hand, and I would undoubtedly have rung the doorbell just as, er, London United were scoring against the Galapagos Islands or something. (Sorry, Hunter. Never watch the game.)

Now the BFI is releasing the film on DVD and Blu-ray on 13 September as part of its excellent Flipside strand, which highlights exotic British treasures off the beaten track, so I can finally be a good son and reunite my dad with one of his youthful enthusiasms. Mulberry Bush follows teenage Jamie (Barry Evans) in his efforts to discard his virginity but a few elements in particular make it more noteworthy than the average losing-your-cherry romp.

For a start, Evans is delightful almost to the point of tweeness -- the beaming grin, which never drops, makes him look like God's milkman. In this context, his every leering "Phwoar!" at the "birds" he meets feels less like the catchphrase of a lecherous caveman and more like the mark of a little boy playing in the dressing-up box. The story of Evans's own subsequent career (he turned up later in the deplorable sitcom Mind Your Language) and his eventual death, all outlined in the film's excellent accompanying essay by Vic Pratt, makes for sobering reading and can't help but lend Mulberry Bush a downbeat tinge.

The film's rambling structure is also interesting. Hunter claims in the DVD booklet to have been influenced by J D Salinger: "Bloody hell, I exclaimed when I'd finished [The Catcher in the Rye], it hasn't got a plot. It just wanders off and about, enjoys itself, follows where it likes."

Of course, the film looks dated now (sorry again, Hunter, and sorry, Dad). That sounds like stating the bleedin' obvious until you watch it alongside another new Flipside release, Bronco Bullfrog, which feels positively revolutionary despite being shot in east London in 1969. But whereas Bronco's director, Barney Platts-Mills, took his visual cues from Italian neo-realism, Clive Donner resorts to every psychedelic camera trick in the book for Mulberry Bush. Claims have been made that the picture sends up rather than exploits the Swinging Sixties grooviness. I'd say the jury's out.

Paradoxically, this visual ripeness only underlines the film's strongest element: its location. The novel was set in Carlisle but the movie shifted the action south -- not to Carnaby Street or Chelsea but to plain old Stevenage. The town was chosen, says Hunter, "partly because it was just 30 miles from London. There was some union agreement at the time that cast and crews should be paid overnight allowance for any film shot more than 30 miles from London. So Stevenage saved them a lot of money."

That setting will really breathe life into Mulberry Bush for viewers today. The concrete plazas that epitomised the excitement of modernity and all those underpasses and wide, wide streets that Jamie cycles through as he delivers his libidinous monologues like an Alfie Mini-Me: there's a sociological power in these things that's beyond the reach of any production designer or wardrobe department. I think that's what my dad was responding to when he first saw the film and what has enabled his affection for it to endure; while he adored Hollywood product like Bullitt, it was Mulberry Bush and The Knack...and How to Get It that spoke to him about his life.

We've all had those moments when a piece of art articulates our own experience so keenly that we feel a sense of ownership toward it; I couldn't discern any shape or texture to my twenties, for instance, until I saw Jamie Thraves's The Low Down. It wasn't merely a film -- it seemed to explain emotions that I had never quite grasped. That truth transcends era. Anyone who watches Bronco Bullfrog will look at the shambolic characters (an apprentice welder and sometime petty criminal, his sad and dainty girlfriend, a local chancer fresh out of borstal) and think: I know them. Or: I am them.

In an article that accompanied the film's brief theatrical re-release back in June, the Guardian's Xan Brooks interviewed the former actor Sam Shepherd, who played the title character and now works as a porter at Spitalfields. "I remember at the time, this film critic, Alexander Walker, he said, 'This is a film that will be talked about in years to come.' And I thought: 'You're mad.' What do people get out of it today? They're mad. I mean . . . does it say anything to you at all?" Over to you.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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After Strictly, I'd love to see Ed Balls start a new political party

My week, from babbling at Michael Gove to chatting Botox with Ed Balls and a trip to Stroke City.

If you want to see yourself as others see you, write a weekly column in a national newspaper, then steel yourself to read “below the line”. Under my last offering I read the following comment: “Don’t be angry, feel pity. Her father was a member of the European Parliament. Her older brother has been a member of parliament, a cabinet minister, a secretary of state, a historian, a mayor of London. Her younger brother is a member of parliament and minister for universities and science. She has a column in the Daily Mail. Can you imagine how she feels deep inside?” Before I slammed my laptop shut – the truth always hurts – my eye fell on this. “When is Rachel going to pose for Playboy seniors’ edition?” Who knew that Playboy did a seniors’ edition? This is the best compliment I’ve had all year!

 

Three parts of Michael Gove

Part one Bumped into Michael Gove the other day for the first time since I called him a “political psychopath” and “Westminster suicide bomber” in print. We had one of those classic English non-conversations. I babbled. Gove segued into an anecdote about waiting for a London train at Castle Cary in his trusty Boden navy jacket and being accosted by Johnnie Boden wearing the exact same one. I’m afraid that’s the punchline! Part two I’ve just had a courtesy call from the Cheltenham Literature Festival to inform me that Gove has been parachuted into my event. I’ve been booked in since June, and the panel is on modern manners. De mortuis nil nisi bonum, of course, but I do lie in bed imagining the questions I hope I might be asked at the Q&A session afterwards. Part three There has been what we might call a serious “infarction” of books about Brexit, serialised passim. I never thought I would write these words, but I’m feeling sorry for the chap. Gove gets such a pasting in the diaries of Sir Craig Oliver.

Still, I suppose Michael can have his own say, because he’s returning to the Times this week as a columnist. Part of me hopes he’ll “do a Sarah Vine”, as it’s known in the trade (ie, write a column spiced with intimate revelations). But I am braced for policy wonkery rather than the petty score-settling and invasions of his own family privacy that would be so much more entertaining.

 

I capture the castle

I’ve been at an event on foreign affairs called the Mount Stewart Conversations, co-hosted by BBC Northern Ireland and the National Trust. Before my departure for Belfast, I mentioned that I was going to the province to the much “misunderestimated” Jemima Goldsmith, the producer, and writer of this parish. I didn’t drop either the name of the house or the fact that Castlereagh, a former foreign secretary, used to live there, and that the desk that the Congress of Vienna was signed on is in the house, as I assumed in my snooty way that Ms Goldsmith wouldn’t have heard of either. “Oh, we used to have a house in Northern Ireland, Mount Stewart,” she said, when I said I was going there. “It used to belong to Mum.” That told me.

Anyway, it was a wonderful weekend, full of foreign policy and academic rock stars too numerous to mention. Plus, at the Stormont Hotel, the staff served porridge with double cream and Bushmills whiskey for breakfast; and the gardens at Mount Stewart were stupendous. A top performer was Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, who runs his own conflict resolution charity. Powell negotiated the Good Friday Agreement and also has a very natty line in weekend casual wear. Jeremy Corbyn has said he wants a minister for peace, as well as party unity. Surely “Curly” Powell – a prince of peace if ever there was one – must be shoo-in for this gig.

PS: I was told that Derry/Londonderry is now known as “Stroke City”. I imagined stricken residents all being rushed to Casualty, before I worked it out.

 

On board with Balls

Isn’t Ed Balls bliss? From originating Twitter’s Ed Balls Day to becoming Strictly Come Dancing’s Ed Balls, he is adding hugely to the gaiety of the nation. I did the ITV show The Agenda with Tom Bradby this week, and as a fellow guest Balls was a non-stop stream of campery, charleston steps, Strictly gossip and girly questions about whether he should have a spray tan (no!), or Botox under his armpits to staunch the sweat (also no! If you block the armpits, it will only appear somewhere else!).

He is clever, fluent, kind, built like a s*** outhouse, and nice. I don’t care that his waltz looked as if his partner, Katya, was trying to move a double-doored Sub-Zero American fridge across a shiny floor. After Strictly I’d like to see him start a new party for all the socially liberal, fiscally conservative, pro-European millions of us who have been disenfranchised by Brexit and the Corbynisation of the Labour Party. In fact, I said this on air. If he doesn’t organise it, I will, and he sort of promised to be on board!

 

A shot in the dark

I was trying to think of something that would irritate New Statesman readers to end with. How about this: my husband is shooting every weekend between now and 2017. This weekend we are in Drynachan, the seat of Clan Campbell and the Thanes of Cawdor. I have been fielding calls from our host, a type-A American financier, about the transportation of shotguns on BA flights to Inverness – even though I don’t shoot and can’t stand the sport.

I was overheard droning on by Adrian Tinniswood, the author of the fashionable history of country houses The Long Weekend. He told me that the 11th Duke of Bedford kept four cars and eight chauffeurs to ferry revellers to his pile at Woburn. Guests were picked up in town by a chauffeur, accompanied by footmen. Luggage went in another car, also escorted by footmen, as it was not done to travel with your suitcase.

It’s beyond Downton! I must remember to tell mine host how real toffs do it. He might send a plane just for the guns.

Rachel Johnson is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories