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Dolly Birds and Dandies: Swinging London in Film


Teenagers in London's Carnaby Street. Wikimedia CommonsTeenagers in London's Carnaby Street. Wikimedia CommonsPost-WWII London, by the mid-to-late 1960s, was reimagining, rebuilding and rearranging. Its economy was strong, and nearly 30% of its population was aged 15-34. With these factors in play, and with that undefinable "something" that brings creativity and zest to a location for however brief a time, London emerged as the style capital of the world, its youth culture arising from the heady influences of new music and street fashion.

I Was Lord Kitchener's Valet, King's Road. Wikimedia CommonsI Was Lord Kitchener's Valet, King's Road. Wikimedia CommonsAs early as the mid-'60s, street fashion evolved from newly manufactured Mod styles using Op-art themes to Victorian and Edwardian styles, as well as vintage styles from the 1920s to 1940s. Boutiques like Biba, I Was Lord Kitchener's Valet, Hung On You, and Granny Takes a Trip, began to reinterpret clothing designs of the past. Ethnic elements from India, Tibet, and Native America became a major influence in the clothing styles and interior design of the late '60s.

Music was central to the formation of this vibrant media event, first dubbed "Swinging London" by Time Magazine in an article published in 1966; a sexually liberated, socially radical lifestyle was developing which involved a new sort of classlessness, albeit led by aristocratic, well-connected young people. Musical groups like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Animals — to name a few — became this new scene's royalty.

Two pop prototypes emerged during this time: the dolly bird, with Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy as dolly bird style icons, and her male counterpart the dandy, who combined Mod and Edwardian styles. The dandy was wittily lampooned by Ray Davies in The Kinks' 1966 single, "Dedicated Follower of Fashion." Just as Swinging London's fashion district, Carnaby Street, became a social space, discotheques, art galleries, coffeehouses and restaurants became places to see and be seen.

Several movies made in London from 1964-1968 serve as time capsules for that era while remaining, almost a half-century on, outstanding films in their own right. Here are some of the best films produced in that wildly creative time and place known as Swinging London.

Blow-Up (d. Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966) was adapted from the short story, "Las Babas del Diablo" by Julio Cortazar, and from Francis Wyndham's 1964 London Sunday Times article "The Modelmakers," and featured David Hemmings, Sarah Miles, and Vanessa Redgrave. Hemmings' character was based on notorious British fashion photographer David Bailey, who had relationships with models Jean Shrimpton, Sue Murray, and Penelope Tree. Although cited by critics of the time as a film about decadence, art, and the "youth of today", the city, as it existed before gentrification — at once familiar and totally vanished — is as much a character in this film as its human protagonists. This scene, featuring the Yardbirds performing "Stroll On," is priceless. Blow-Up is the quintessential Swinging London film.

Darling (d. John Schlesinger, 1965; screenplay by Frederic Raphael) features Julie Christie in a star-making performance for which she won the Best Actress Oscar in 1966, and co-stars Dirk Bogarde, Laurence Harvey, and Roland Curram. The term "darling," used not as an endearment but as an epithet, refers not only to Christie's Diana Scott, but to each of this film's charming, amoral, never to be satisfied characters. This sardonic masterpiece skewers the jet-setting Swinging London scene, taking well-aimed swipes at advertising, consumer culture, celebrity, beauty, and wealth. It tells a story of isolation and lovelessness in fabulous surroundings, and is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago.

Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, and Eleanor Bron light up the screen in Bedazzled (d. Stanley Donen, 1967; screenplay by Peter Cook; musical score by Dudley Moore), a hilarious retelling of the story of Faust set in Swinging London. Oxbridge educated comics Cook and Moore had their first taste of fame with Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett in Beyond The Fringe, a comedy sketch show that was a huge hit on the London and Broadway stages. After Beyond The Fringe, Cook joined Moore on his BBC TV show Not Only . . . But Also, where the duo honed their comedic edge, incidentally paving the way for Monty Python's later success. Bedazzled is a wonderful example of British comedy at its best: a razor-sharp combination of satire, verbal wit, silliness, and buffoonery.

A Hard Day's Night (d. Richard Lester, 1964) follows The Beatles as they take a lighthearted romp through "a train and a room, and a car and a room, and a room and a room," with lots of vintage London scenery thrown in for good measure. While the movie didn't really have much of a plot, it served to introduce each of the Fab Four's personalities to their legions of insatiable fans. George Harrison met his future wife, Pattie Boyd, while working together in this scene, one the very first "music videos" ever made. With this film, director Richard Lester introduced a frenetic and highly visual new style of movie making.

Georgy Girl (d. Silvio Narrizano, 1966) stars Lynn Redgrave, Alan Bates, James Mason, and Charlotte Rampling. This movie, based on the novel by Margaret Forster, gives us a glimpse into the life of a plain yet vivacious working class girl in a time when women had few options; a true slice of life, this film's allusions to premarital sex and abortion were scandalous at the time. The cast is amazing, and the '60s London scenery fascinating. Originally written for her sister Vanessa, the part of Georgy was Lynn Redgrave's break-out role.

Alfie (d. Lewis Gilbert, 1966), the film adaptation by Bill Naughton of his own novel and play, stars Michael Caine in his first screen appearance, with a supporting cast that includes Shelley Winters, Jane Asher, and Julia Foster. Actors Terence Stamp and Anthony Newley originally turned down this role, which catapulted Caine to international stardom. Although Alfie is a despicable misogynist who takes full advantage of women during the burgeoning sexual revolution, Caine is so charismatic that we can't help but sympathize with his character. "Alfie," the tie-in song by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, was recorded by Cher, Cilla Black, and Dionne Warwick.

Performance (d. Donald Cammell/Nicolas Roeg, completed in 1968, released in 1970), starring Mick Jagger, James Fox, and Anita Pallenberg, explores the place where hedonism and excess intersect the violent elements of gangster culture. Jagger's character, Turner, is said to have been modelled on the late Brian Jones. In this movie, Pallenberg introduces a new archectype into film consciousness: the powerful female libertine — the woman no longer content to be a mere dolly bird. This film signifies the end of Swinging London.


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