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.