“The Pleasure Girls” is ostensibly a typical piece of British mid- ‘Swinging Sixties’ cinematic fare, designed to appeal to exactly the kind of young, culturally mobile consumer to whom the myths of the swinging London lifestyle were becoming increasingly attractive in 1965 when the movie was released. The film depicts the events in the lives of five young independent single women over the course of one weekend - all of whom are living side-by-side in a Victorian terrace house divided into flats in the fashionable Chelsea district. Inevitably, most of the situations revolve around the girls’ differing experiences with the men in their lives, and serve as a fairly snappy indication of the context in which the sexual revolution of the sixties was taking place, while also casting a perceptive eye over some less salubrious aspects of the social milieu opening up in the period - which are rarely mentioned in relation to this decade of ascendant youth culture and innovative fashion.
Two up-and-coming actors, Francesca Annis and Ian McShane, are at the centre of the action, though they actually have the least interesting story to tell. Annis’s arrival in swinging Chelsea provides a frame for the film’s introduction of the other four girls, already attempting to survive in the capital while living the full bachelor girl lifestyle in the process. Annis plays Sally Feathers - an ambitious young woman hoping to forge a career as a model in the fashion industry; Marion (Rosemary Nicols) finds herself pregnant while her feckless boyfriend Prinny (Mark Eden) is up to his eyeballs in debt to gambling racketeers; Dee, meanwhile, is the upper class Mandy Rice-Davies stand-in of the film (played by Suzanna Leigh), planning to marry into money but hopelessly involved in an affair with a married, rat-like slum landlord, Nikko Stalmar (Klaus Kinski). Then there’s the lovely blonde girl-about-town Angela (Anneke Wills), living the swinging lifestyle, but lonely and unable to forge a lasting relationship with the opposite sex amid the emptiness of the London party scene. Last and least (she plays no real role in the rest of the film) is Cobber (Colleen Fitzpatrick): a cheerful Australian who’s desperate to lose her accent. In a plot device that would still be common in the cynical and much more explicit movies of the early seventies, later to be being made by the likes of Pete Walker in sexploitation fare such as “Cool it Carol”, Sally comes down to London seeking fame and fortune and finds a ruthless city behind the exciting, cosmopolitan, free loving and easy-going lifestyle on offer. She quickly falls for dark-eyed, smooth-talking beatnik Keith Dexter (Ian McShane), a photographer who promises to help kick-start her career as a model, but, over the course of the forty-eight hour period covered by the film, comes to realise that he is only after one thing, and that she has to find the strength to resist his tempting charm. The film’s unadorned pro- female stance makes it unusual even for the forward-thinking sixties (which could actually be quite misogynistic at times) and it’s also way ahead of its time in the matter-of-fact depiction of the homosexuality of the girls’ male friend and downstairs lodger, Paddy (Tony Tanner).
The film was written and directed by Gerry O’Hara, better known to most people for having directed the atypical ’70s sexploitation pic “The Bitch”, but actually an extremely skilled and creative director who already had 15 years worth of experience working as an assistant director on big budget epics by esteemed filmmakers such as Otto Preminger, Carol Reed and Tony Richardson by the time he came to direct the low budget “The Pleasure Girls”. Nevertheless, O’Hara’s subsequent career seems to have been one long struggle to eke out opportunities to direct or write his own material, and he had to snatch his projects when and where he could, making the most of often limited resources and less than satisfactory contracts. “The Pleasure Girls”, despite the perky style of the finished article, with its indelibly swinging Bob Barrett-composed theme music, sung by The Three Quarters, actually started life as a screenplay written for the British producer Raymond Stross, called “A Time and a Place”. O’Hara, much like the young Pete Walker, who had a brief career as a stand-up comedian in the Gentlemen’s Clubs of Soho during the early-sixties, moved among many of the same circles which later came to public prominence during the infamous Profumo Scandal of the Summer of ’63; like Walker he knew Mandy Rice-Davies, and had heard many stories of excess and violence and criminality centring on the activities of her ex-boyfriend Peter Rachman, a slum landlord who terrorised his tenants, many of whom constituted the poorer sections of the immigrant community who had arrived in the UK during the ’50s and who found it difficult to find accommodation because of the then common colour bar.
It seems likely that O’Hara’s original script was a slightly more hard hitting account of these times - an anatomy of the darker side of the affluent society and the rapidly evolving mores of the period. The Stross project fell through, though, and O’Hara was forced to pitch the film to Michael Klinger and Tony Tensor at Compton-Cameo.
Compton was a production and distribution company that had gradually developed out of its founding duo’s highly successful Compton Club: a Private Members’ film club, based in Soho on Old Compton Street, which screened naturist films and ‘racy’ continental import features in an uncensored format to members who paid an annual subscription fee of ten shillings. O’Hara had previously churned out the quickie “That Kind of Girl” for Compton-Cameo, and had proved himself an efficient and skilled filmmaker. Most of all, he had shown he could get the film in the can, on budget and with the minimum of fuss. Tensor and Klinger were happy to give the green light to the new project, now re-named “The Pleasure Girls”, but their priorities were to make films they knew they could sell, and the one thing they knew they could sell was exploitation.
“The Pleasure Girls” is a film that ends up being artistically a lot better than the cheap, sensationalist girlie flick Tensor and Klinger wanted, despite pressure during the shoot for O’Hara to film more bedroom scenes. Compton were beginning to make a habit of ending up with much higher quality product than they had originally commissioned: at the same time as “The Pleasure Girls” was going into production, the company was already getting rave critical acclaim for Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” (although the Polish director had committed the ultimate sin of going way over budget and falling behind schedule). Nevertheless, the duo famously orchestrated the shooting of some nude sequences to make O’Hara’s film easier to sell abroad; but the director tipped-off the Secretary of the British Board of Film censors, John Trevelyan, and managed to reduce the extra raciness in the export cut to a few brief shots of, for example, Suzanna Leigh’s right breast as she gets out of bed. That didn't stop Tensor and the film was still marketed in the U.S. as though it were a much more explicit film than it was, with a tag line that went: ‘Kept in a Plush Pad for his Desires … She played the Game and Paid the Price!’
“The Pleasure Girls”, then, is a beautifully made and exquisitely photographed low budget film which makes the most of its real life location (a town house in Kensington), conjures a beguiling and convincing portrait of its era and features a young cast who were just on the cusp of exciting careers. The screenplay isn't quite as interesting as its basis in true life inspiration suggests it could have been: Klaus Kinski’s Stalmar presents a somewhat watered down version of Rachmanism, with Suzanna Leigh’s character never really penetrating the degrading depths of the activities only vaguely hinted at by Kinski’s shifty appearance. The Prinny and Marion section is by far the most vividly realised; its invocation of Marion’s previously sheltered lifestyle in her small village and the determination to escape to London in order to begin living, with the resulting disappointment as her dream ends in unwanted pregnancy and involvement with a weak, gambling-addicted boyfriend, is well told, and Prinny falling into the clutches of violent extortionists who hang him out of the window after beating him up (a toned down version of a real incident O’Hara had heard about: originally the man was killed and half his jaw taken off) brings a sense of claustrophobia and desperation to otherwise fairly light, breezy material. Although both McShane and Annis are compelling screen presences, their story never really takes off, and McShane, despite being overly persistent in his pestering of Annis’s Sally, is never really that bad, and comes across more like a bit of a drippy college boy (with his stripy scarf slung nonchalantly about his neck) rather than a dangerous and edgy beatnik; he certainly has not got the smoldering intensity of Oliver Reed in “The Party’s Over”. The lovely Anneke Will, meanwhile, lights up the screen, as she does in just about everything she was ever in, but the character of Angelia isn’t sufficiently developed either. The tensions between the light and frothy sixties frivolity the film encapsulates and the darker demands of some of the subject matter, are never properly resolved by O’Hara’s screenplay, so that we're left with an attractive looking and suggestive portrait that never really gets beneath the skin in quite the determined way it should have.
The duel format 2-disc set, featuring the film in both standard DVD and Blu-ray editions, is released as number 10 in the BFI’s Flipside series: a catalogue of films intended to rescue weird and wonderful British Films from obscurity and present them in new high-quality editions. The high definition transfer of “The Pleasure Girls” is another beauty: the BFI are producing some of the best high def versions of older films in the format; detail is astonishing and the black & white photography appears rich and full of depth. Once again, seamless branching technology is used to include both the theatrical and the export cut, although the differences between the two versions are not as great as they are between the two cuts presented on the disc of “The Party’s Over”.
The Blu-ray disc also includes two short films: “The Rocking Horse” (1962), in which a young man with a Teddy Boy-style quiff and a motorbike, meets up with a young independent female artist on a night out in Piccadilly; and “The Meeting” (1964), an atmospheric ten minute short filmed at Great Malvern train station, in which a young woman awaits her lover on a eerily deserted and silent station platform. The first of these films in particular presents a compelling image of London night life in the early-sixties as experienced by its working class protagonist and the bohemian female lead, and filmed in the free cinema style; while the second is a highly stylised and atmospheric exercise. Both have been presented in high definition from sources held in the BFI National Archive, in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. “The Meeting” looks particularly sharp, while “The Rocking Horse” has not faired as well, and looks rather smudgy and grainy.
Accompanying the release is an excellent 26-page booklet which features an essay on the film by Emeritus Professor of Film at the University of Portsmouth, Susan Harper; a piece by Gerry O’Hara recalling the writing and directing of the film; a biographical portrait of O'Hara; detailed notes on the two short films accompanying the main feature, plus film credits and publicity stills.
Once again the BFI present an intriguing snapshot of an under-explored but very worthwhile side of British Cinema, and Gerry O’Hara’s reputation receives yet another retrospective boost as a result. Another heartily recommended release.