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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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis