"Permissive" is nominally a sexploitation movie, released in 1970 by Tigon Productions, and intended to appeal to both the traditional, older, 'dirty mac' clientele (then perceived to be the usual market for such films) and a younger, much 'hipper' crowd made up of the audience for the kind of hazy post-sixties acid-folk psych rock that dominates the film's soundtrack. It is set in and around the backstage rivalries of the early 70s 'groupie' scene, a subject ripe for the kind of treatment that dominated the British sexploitation movies of the day, which often took 'hot topics' ripped from the censorious headlines of the tabloid press as a basis for their frolicsome antics; often they would sell themselves as 'social problem' films, supposedly intended to highlight the dangers of whichever subject formed the basis of the story being touted.
Derek Ford's "Groupie Girl" came out at about the same time as "Permissive" and like many of the films aimed at the younger generation, it adopted a moralistic tone towards its subject matter — the drugged out, sexually promiscuous culture of the rock scene of the day — attempting to circumvent the censors by presenting itself as a hard-hitting social realist drama, while cramming in as much luridly presented T & A as it could get away with. Somewhere along the line though, Canadian-born director Lindsay Shonteff seems to have forgotten just what the Raison d'être of his film was supposed to be: "Permissive" takes neither a particularly obvious moralistic tone, nor one calculated to titillate. Perhaps this explains why the film has been little seen since its original release, and was not a huge hit at the time. Instead, it has since been relegated to one of the neglected and forgotten corners of the British film industry's output from that time, precisely the kind of cultural artefact the BFI's new 'Flipside' imprint was designed to resurrect and celebrate. Viewed today, although certainly no masterpiece, it does nevertheless reveal itself to be a hugely evocative document of an era, capturing the post-coital wind-down of an exhausted sixties culture, now sick and dizzy on the aftermath of too much 'swinging', and adrift in an aimless dope-fuelled haze of empty sex and deadened spirit.
Hardly the kind of thing to give you your jollies!
By 1970, Tigon Productions had done relatively well by the Horror market, and had already produced films such as Michael Reeves' "The Sorcerers" and "The Witchfinder General"; but it was now beginning to move into the sexploitation market thanks to the success of lesbian drama "Monique". In a way, this was bringing Tigon founder Tony Tenser full-circle. He'd first come to prominence with Compton Films, a production and distribution company he had co-founded with former strip club owner Michael Klinger, which had started off producing 'nudie' films but then ended up financing Roman Polanski's "Repulsion"! And Tigon too would go on to combine classic horror ("Blood on Satan's Claw") with exploitation fare such as "Zeta One".
"Permissive" is one of the first products of this period. It's director, Lindsay Shonteff had previously directed the black & white supernatural thriller "Devil Doll" (a film now highly regarded as one of the key non-Hammer British Horror films of the sixties) and would go on to an eclectic career of James Bond spoofs and camp pastiche like "The Big Zapper". "Permissive" though, strikes a curiously detached and resigned tone and, with its repetitive series of collages of band performances, tour footage and recording sessions, ends up making the life of a touring 70s rock band look like the most dispiriting and monotonous job in the world, despite, or because of, all the sweaty 'groupie' couplings in cramped toilet cubicles and anonymous hotel rooms.
The film's story-line is kept deliberately vague and incidental but is beautifully performed by the deadpan cast headed by Maggie Stride who plays Suzy: a gamine, whey-faced young woman in a duffel coat who turns up backstage at a Forever More gig (a real group from the period who were signed to RCA) to see her best friend Fiona (Gay Singleton) and ends up becoming queen of the groupies by the film's end. Stride gives a great performance here; the film is completely structured around her character's arc — her transformation from naive newbie (who doesn't even know what the term 'pulling' means), to icy, dead-eyed opportunist who sleepwalks her way through the destruction of her own soul while everyone else falls dead away around her.
Initially, Suzy has something of the childlike detached air of Catherine Deneuve's character in "Repulsion": a person with seemingly no back story and no previous life; a blank slate waiting to be moulded, who turns up in the capital with no money and no place to stay. Her school friend Fiona, who started off as one of the freeloading groupies and hangers-on who trawl around after the band, but who has now 'risen' to the top of the heap having become the girlfriend of hirsute lead singer Lee (played by Forever More front man Allan Gorrie), virtually creates Suzy's adult persona from scratch — dressing her up in one of her short-skirted turquoise cast-offs like a doll, and allowing her to follow the band and herself from hotel to hotel as they trek around the tour circuit. Suzy eventually falls into a casual and unrewarding sexual relationship with the band's gnarled-looking tour manager Jimi (Gilbert Wynne) but it is a chance meeting with itinerant folk troubadour Pogo (Robert Daubigny) which offers the only real hope of true friendship and fulfilment. A hope that is casually and cruelly snatched away when he gets mowed down in a random road accident!
In this first half of the film, the tone is much like that of a fly-on-the-wall docudrama or even a Warhol project like "Chelsea Girls". On-stage band performance footage (complete with mad '70s crash zooms!) and repetitive shots of their beat-up Ford tour van cruising down a grey succession of indistinguishable tree-lined motorways are interchanged with vignettes staged around inane backstage parties in beige-walled hotel rooms, where the likes of the Collinson twins ("The Twins of Evil") vie for the attentions of various taciturn long-haired rock musicians.
Suzy keeps a relative distance form the excesses of the scene at first, finding solace in her wanderings around London with Pogo. There's lots of great footage here, capturing what looks to be authentic street images of 1970s London (there are still derelict bomb sites from the Blitz clearly on view) and evoking a bleak and rather grimy picture of urban decay. This could have seemed fairly unstructured and freeform but its looseness is kept in check by the relentless soundtrack by Forever More and cult acid-folk rockers Comus, who provide the incidental music and appear briefly in a few scenes as some of the backstage hangers-on.
Director Shonteff also nicks the device, first made familiar in "Easy Rider", of cutting in brief snippets that flash forward to events later in the story, thus giving the whole film a fatalistic, hopeless air of inevitability. A scene of Fiona and Suzy early on in their relationship, when they're still happy and relatively carefree, will suddenly cut to a few frames of Fiona wandering dejected and alone looking baleful, or an image from her suicide at the end of the film. And this is not a spoiler — the film makes no attempt to hide the eventual demise of the characters fated to die. Pogo's death is even flashed onto the screen during Suzy's very first meeting with him; and Fiona's squalid demise, having slashed her wrists in a hotel bathroom, is constantly referenced again and again throughout the film. We know where all this is heading, and even in apparently happier times (or at least not quite so utterly hopeless and dejected ones) death and despondency are the ultimate end points of this destructive lifestyle.
The second half of the film, from Pogo's death onwards, sees Suzy throwing herself wholeheartedly into the groupie lifestyle, working her way through the entire band and anyone else who happens to be around as well. Still with that detached, uninvolved air about her, there's a new icy disinterest at the core of her character. The childlike passive acceptance of her treatment is replaced by a wholesale determination to actively embrace the aimless, exploitative lifestyle of the professional groupie; and, when lead singer Lee finally comes into her orbit, her friendship with Fiona is of little value when it comes to grabbing a chance of becoming the queen bee of the scene.
Of course, there is plenty of sex and female full-frontal nudity served up along with all of this, but it is always presented as squalid and routine; an endless succession of listless and disappointed couplings in sleazy hotel rooms and the darker graffiti-daubed corners of the backstage area. The whole thing — which by the second half has become an almost hypnotic and repetitive collage of images of monotonous motorway travel and stage performances followed by crashing out in identical-looking hotel rooms — is elevated by a great droning folk rock soundtrack. The more grim and sleaze-ridden the images, the more elegiac and tender are the echo-laden noodlings of cult band Comus, who begin to sound rather reminiscent of Fleet Foxes, and who give the depressing mundane lifestyle on display a tragically poetic air; and Forever More both look and sound like the very prototype for early Kings of Leon — only much, much pastier and hairier! The band, who appear throughout in performance and in the off-stage scenes, obviously cannot act to any significant degree, but their semi-mute mumblings only seem to add to the thoroughly dejected, uninvolved atmosphere of despondency. Lead singer Allan Gorrie, as Lee, the leader of the band, is perfect as the object of undeserved slavish adoration by Fiona - the beady-eyed hair-monster clearly not giving a monkey's about her or anything much else!
This doesn't play at all like your usual British sex film — neither the overtly moralistic end of the spectrum nor the trashy, nudge-nudge, wink-wink variety. The film doesn't even judge Suzy particularly, it merely observes her behaviour with a stoic curiosity. It even waits right until the end before it delivers those mainstays of sexploitation: the all female cat fight scene and the lesbian seduction sequence — although even here, Suzy's virtually catatonic and bloody nosed while the episode takes place and both scenes appear to be almost a reluctant afterthought.
Only at the very end do we realise the significance of the first image we ever see of Suzy — a freeze frame captured as the title credits play. It's a flash forward to the near-end of the film: the moment when she discovers Fiona's suicide attempt and realises that she doesn't really care. The moment she decides to leave the dying girl to her fate; and the moment her own soul is lost forever ...
"Permissive" looks simply incredible on BFI's latest Blu-ray release. Transferred in High Definition from the original 35mm negative, there's barely a scratch or a tear to be seen; the colours are eye-popingly vivid when necessary (the garish bright-red hotel bedroom curtains and orange blankets) and authentically grey and depressing most of the rest of the time. The grain and texture of the film seems to have been perfectly reproduced and the whole colour scheme seems to capture that unique '70s feel of films from the era very successfully. The sound has been taken from a 35mm print and, although the mono is a lot thinner than one is usually used to, it is undoubtedly as good as the film will ever sound, with all the main pops and crackles and hiss removed.
As extras go, this Blu-ray disc has definitely got some interesting ones — mainly in the form of an entire second feature!
"Bread" is an early Stanley Long picture that runs for about one-hour eight minutes. The former cameraman (who once shot grimly pallid footage for Michael Reeves' "The Sorcerers" as well as doing uncredited work on "Repulsion") forged a successful career as a writer-director-producer during what is usually regarded as the nadir of the British film industry. He was responsible for the "Adventures of a ..." series of sex comedies and "Bread" plays very much like a prototype of that type of thing. It's built around the exploits of a group of hippies who decide to mount their own rock festival after being disgusted by the price of the grub the 'straights' are charging at the Isle of Wight Festival ("three bob for a sandwich!"). The gang commandeer the grounds of a Middlesex mansion after being employed to paint it while the owner goes on a business trip (but not before shaggy-haired leader of the group 'Trev' [Dick Hayden] gets to shag the owner's posh-but-bored wife), and, after attempting to raise some finance by shooting their own porn movie, they contact third-rate '70s rock gods Juicy Lucy and Crazy Mabel directly.
The film doesn't really work as a convincing evocation of the era, looking more like a modern parody of the '70s than anything else, and displaying all too painfully the fact that it was written and made by people who had no real idea about 'the scene' they were attempting to exploit, with its cringe-making dialogue and the embarrassing 'hippy' wig of the chubby male lead. There's also a curious lack of on-screen flesh after the halfway mark, the last twenty minutes or so virtually given over entirely to a tedious mini rock concert with inconsequential snippets of alleged comedy thrown in. You can certainly see the as-yet unformed style of Stanley Long beginning to take shape though and this is undoubtedly an intriguing extra that makes the perfect compliment to Permissive's more jaundiced take on the times.
12 minutes of footage cut from the original release of "Bread" are also included, although the soundtrack elements no longer exist. They are presented separately and without audio and consist mainly of extended scenes and rock concert footage.
A short sex education film shot in 1973 by the Oxford Polytechnic for the Family Planning Association and originally included on the BFI's DVD "The Joy of Sex Education" is included here also, and features yet more frayed denim and bearded students. The film sees a skinny, bearded university student on a trek across London to find a condom (in speeded up film with jaunty music a la Benny Hill - a device often used in British sex comedies). The film ends with the tasteless slogan: "Don't Make an Abortion of it!" as the student arrives back to find his equally grubby-looking girlfriend waiting expectantly on the floor mattress. How romantic!
If all this wasn't enough, you also get a glossy 38 page booklet crammed with colour stills, essays, cast lists and biographies of Lindsay Shonteff and Stanley Long, and reviews by the likes of I Q Hunter, author of "Seventies British Cinema" and Lee Dorrian, former singer of Napalm Death.
"Permissive" is a skilfully made document of a very particular social milieu and highlight's society's conflicted nature about the sexual liberation of the day. The sexual scenes themselves are listless and unerotic so it's perhaps not surprising the film didn't find much of an audience in its time. It is definitely worth looking at again now though, especially by fans of British Tigon Productions and of unusual or offbeat British cinema.