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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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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