BY Michael Bracewell in Features | 01 NOV 09
Featured in
Issue 127

The Thrill of it All

Extravagant, experimental and often improvised: the spirit of young artists in British film

BY Michael Bracewell in Features | 01 NOV 09

Courtesy: North West Film Archive at Manchester Metropolitan University © Manchester School of Art

The young man is exquisite, his demeanour ruthless. His dark, heavily lashed eyes lend a softness to his expression, and his sensuous mouth is a neat bow. He looks around with the knowing and insouciant air of a spoilt and unchecked child. He is dressed in a black morning suit with silk lapels. The occasion is a wedding – his own, and, it will transpire, to himself – which is taking place in the ruins of a bombed-out London church. An Edwardian full-length mirror stands to one side of the rubble. Approaching it, the young man takes off the pair of leather-sided aviator glasses he has been wearing, leans forward, and, with a look of luxuriant pleasure verging on a swoon, kisses his own reflection.

This is the opening scene of the black and white, 16mm film, Food for a Blush, made between 1955 and 1957 by two art students, Nicholas Ferguson (who played the narcissistic groom) and Elizabeth Russell (his jilted bride). Art historically, this little-known piece – barely 30 minutes long – can be seen as a pivotal document of the period between the dusk of British neo-Romanticism, Social Realist painting, and the rise of Pop proper.

The film’s fascination lies not only in its wit, imagination and technical achievement, but in the way that it describes a distinct gap between cultural epochs. In its symbolism and charade-like inventiveness it is a portrait of a pause, and is all the more remarkable for being made by a small group of friends and acquaintances and shot in their houses in London’s Chelsea and Fulham. All were amateurs in the world of filmmaking and many of them were art students or artists working during the drab, concussed austerity years that followed the end of World War II.

Films that have been made by and about art students in the UK often tend to incorporate playful and extravagant excursions into sub-cultural self-portraiture – not a million miles in their ethos from the Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland tradition of ‘Let’s do the show right here!’ On the one hand they attempt, technically and artistically, to achieve a generational self-definition in a manner that is new, accurate and interesting; on the other they essay an exercise in outrage, dressing up and having fun. Art school cinema, therefore, tends to combine its concentration on the dogma of sub-cultural style and fine artistic trends with an alert sense of comedy and satire.

In one sense, such projects extend the notion of theatre developed by the British writers Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden during the 1930s. Their co-authored plays such as The Enemies of a Bishop (1929) and Paid on Both Sides (1930), were based on an Anglicized version of the political cabaret they had seen in Berlin, whereby ‘amateur’ dramatic forms such as charades or party games – played with and for one’s friends – become the bearers of high or serious meaning and progressive ideas. Two notes written about Food for a Blush by Russell, for example, propose the film’s psychological terrain. The first, written in March 1959, (with an ironical nod to the Socialist Realist documentary style which at that point typified the Free Cinema movement) when extracts from the film were shown at London’s National Film Theatre as part of ‘Free Cinema Six: The Last Free Cinema’, describes the film as ‘a documentary of worry’.1 In a longer note written in 1975, Russell goes on to summarize its broader mood: ‘A picture of the post-Teddy-Boy-aimless-coffee-bar feel of the King’s Road of 1955’, adding that the sole remedy for this sense of ennui and melancholia ‘is work, be it only to make a film about the somehow disappointing feel of being 20 in 1955’.2 The cinematic influences of Food for a Blush come from both Surrealism and the fantastical glamour of the films of Jean Cocteau.

While a student at Chelsea School of Art, Ferguson – who had previously made a 16mm film while a pupil at the highly progressive King Alfred’s School in Hampstead – had started to write a basic script in the Students’ Union common room. Here he met and became friends with Russell, who then contributed further notes for the script, and became the film’s co-author and co-star. The atmosphere of endless waiting, of the search for a new language, of being trapped between adolescence and adulthood within the ruins of a city which still felt Victorian (all to a hissing and crackling soundtrack of old jazz songs, such as ‘Red Hot Henry Brown’, recorded by the Georgia Melodians in 1928 on heavy wax 78 rpm discs) lends Food for a Blush both its tense energy and dreamlike drift through absurdist, melodramatic and romantic tableaux. Rich with symbolism and Surrealism, the film takes its place, vitally, as both pre- and proto-Pop. There is a sense that the art school cast of Food for a Blush are in need of a new language, and indeed a whole new culture, through which to express both their identity and their frustrations.

By the time of the film’s screening in 1959, this language would have developed in the form of pop music and a burgeoning, mass-media popular culture. Shot in 1955, there is a prophetic subtext to the long, silent closing shot of the film, in which a group of unsmiling Teddy Boys lounge impassively to face the camera outside The World’s End pub – occupying one of the ley lines of punk, which would be flourishing on precisely that stretch of the King’s Road a little more than 20 years later.

Ferguson recalls that Food for a Blush was screened at London’s National Film Theatre in 1959 ‘to absolute silence’.3 The contrast, therefore, to the controversy caused by Ken Russell’s 44-minute documentary, Pop Goes the Easel, for BBC television’s Monitor strand screened just three years later in March, 1962, could not be more telling. Pop Goes the Easel is a film about four young Pop artists – Peter Blake, Derek Boshier, Pauline Boty and Peter Phillips – all of whom had either studied at, or were still attending, London’s Royal College of Art. From its opening scene of the four young artists walking through a fairground, to its iconic closing sequence of art students (including a vamping David Hockney) doing the twist at a party held in Richard Smith’s studio near Old Street, the film is constructed entirely from the audio-visual language of pop music and popular culture.

Pop Goes the Easel is structured around four early morning sequences (in Boty’s case, a fantasy nightmare scene) each of which introduces a segment on a different artist, linked with scenes in which they are seen as a group of friends. London is still in the grip of austerity; shot beneath lowering, bone-white skies, and in a succession of chilly flats and bedsits, the sense of raw cold is immediate and palpable. What warms the film, prompting innovation, exuberance, humour, sex appeal and – particularly in the case of Phillips – undiluted early Mod cool, is the manner in which the young artists and art students are concerned solely with the pervasive presence of (mostly American) Pop: in the design of cereal packets, imported American comics, wrestling matches, beat music, UFOs, free jazz, amusement arcades, movie magazines, the NASA space programme, and presiding over all, like new divinities, the ‘pin-up’ presences of Brigitte Bardot, Buddy Holly, Elvis, the Everly Brothers and Marilyn Monroe.

Where the art school sensibility of Food for a Blush takes form as a bizarre charade (its temper – bored and adrift within the landscape of a senile patriarchy – halfway between that of Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel Alice in Wonderland and a Surrealist parody of John Osborne’s 1956 realist drama Look Back in Anger) in Pop Goes the Easel a whole new sensibility, Pop, offers refuge, strength, creative power and, above all, a rigorous and exclusive modernity. It catches the moment just before the rise of The Beatles, and the exchange of American Pop values for those of Merseyside. Phillips’ day begins with him being driven in a shining, open-topped Cadillac, to be dropped off at his bedsit in west London. His entrance could not be more stylish or triumphal. The young man and his circle – two aloof young women, one playing pinball, the other reading a magazine – are the epitome of razor-sharp Mod detachment. They don’t speak; they simply exude high style and exclusivity. There is just one line of dialogue. Phillips throws a movie magazine over to one of the women; the page depicts what appears to be a semi-alien monster, with half his skull missing. The girl glances at it, asks, ‘Does this cat twist?’ and then looks away. Unsurprisingly, this is precisely the same Pop sensibility – fine art meets Mod cool – that a group of students at what was then Manchester Polytechnic, and whose personal style and social lives were dedicated to the music of Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music, would revisit in Roxette, a 30-minute film made as a degree submission by John McManus, nearly 16 years after Pop Goes the Easel – it was shot in 1977 and screened in 1978.

The art student ‘stars’ of the film – by now, generationally, inhabitants of a new Pop sensibility, based on nostalgia for earlier forms of aggressively modern mythic glamour – are filmed in a manner that emphasizes the high style of their sub-cultural self re-creation against the harsher backdrop of the quotidian city: in this case the red brick Victoriana and concrete brutalism of Manchester, and specifically Salford, in the latter half of the 1970s. Roxette is shot in documentary form, neatly building up through a series of atmospherically lit scenes to the group of students arriving by cab, dressed in their finery, to attend a Bryan Ferry concert at Manchester’s Opera House. As in Pop Goes the Easel, the world of pop and popular culture has offered the film’s subjects an alternate and exclusive world, within which they can assume heightened identities. And as with the Surrealist debt within Food for a Blush, the ethos of Roxette derives from the application of artistic ideas (Pop art, the avant-garde, cinema, performance) to self description and self re-creation. Art is created (and filmed) as sub-cultural lifestyle, with the values of Pop art being fed by the student Roxy fans, via their film, back into the service of pure popular culture. Even in the late 1970s, the experience of being filmed was exotic and somewhat glamorous.

Today, when it’s possible to make an entirely serviceable film on a mobile telephone with instantaneous release and distribution on the Internet, there is a sense of living in a constant state of mediation. Rather than dilute the concerns of art school cinema, however, the ubiquity of digital filming through personal technology has coincided with both self questioning and the re-evaluation of earlier attitudes and forms.

In Ryan Gander’s film Things that mean things and things that look like they mean things (The Magic and the Meaning) (2008) a subtle narrative game is deployed around the fictional scenario of filming a group of art students who are making drawings of paintings within a gallery. Ostensibly an interview with the artist about the process of making the film, the piece reflects Gander’s interest in capturing the particular energy and psychology of a traditional drawing exercise, while at the same time making an intimate portrait of both the students themselves and the processes of documentation. It is a quietly forceful film, within which Gander’s commentary on the filmmaking process – as seen taking place at Tate Britain, London, during the exhibition ‘Francis Bacon’ (2008) – sits quietly beside footage of young students absorbed in the process of making drawings. By contrast, Spartacus Chetwynd’s Hermito’s Children (2008) – made very much within a community of artists and their friends, and in the Audenesque spirit of charade – seems to reclaim, darken and update the kind of anarchic humour that 30 years earlier had characterized Musical, a 16mm film made in 1968 by artist Carol McNicoll and two friends while students at (what was then) Leeds College of Art. Summarizing Musical in her 2003 monograph on McNicoll, Tanya Harrod writes: ‘It reads as a lexicon of Postmodern practices. The conventions of the classic musical were sent up, alternative happy endings were offered, the soundtracks of existing musicals were collaged and big set-pieces defiantly tackled on tiny budgets.’4Hermito’s Children is a pastiche murder mystery featuring a transvestite heroine, confrontational nudity and aggressively camp melodrama. It hovers between low-budget cinema and a highly sophisticated sense of filmic poise; it’s a trash-porno, Goth-futurist excursion into the shadow of Postmodern practices, undertaken by an artist fluent in the visual languages of pastiche and stylization, from Derek Jarman to Michael Powell by way of John Waters. Chetwynd’s aggressively inventive work might be taken as the current last word in a history of films made within and about a community of working artists.

In the meantime, as Francis Ford Coppola has observed about the future of film, we must hope that, somewhere, a bored teenage girl is picking up a movie camera and beginning to make plans.

1 Elizabeth Russell, programme note to ‘Free Cinema Six: The Last Free Cinema’, National Film Theatre, London, 29 March 1959

2 Elizabeth Russell, unidentified screening note, British Film Institute Library, London, 1975

3 Interview with the author, 3 April 2008

4 Carol McNicoll, RoseLee Goldberg and Tanya Harrod, The City Gallery, Leicester, in association with Lund Humphries, 2003, p.14

Michael Bracewell is a writer based in the UK. His most recent book, The Space Between: Selected Writings on Art, is published by Ridinghouse, London.