The opening images of Tony Garnett’s “Prostitute” offer an instant snapshot of Birmingham, England at the end of the 1970s that looks like it could have come straight from anyone’s home movie footage of the era. The city’s surrounding dull maze of concrete ring-roads and flyover junctions; its 60s-built office blocks and the distinctive Rotunda ‘Bullring’ shopping centre, offer up a severe and dispiriting backdrop for this low-key realist drama. Here a thriving multicultural community had been established during the early-‘50s post-war period; but by that time the city was already set in harsh decline. The ensuing economic hardships engendered by the policies of Margret Thatcher’s first Government, which came to power in 1979, were soon to lead to increasing depravation, a sense of embattlement, and inner-city strife in what had once been the country’s industrial heartland during the 19th Century. We can see all this implicitly established in the well-poised selection of images that open a film which is clearly grounded in the aesthetics of the naturalistic, social realist school of cinema and the distinctive drama-documentary style of its writer, producer and director’s former associate, Ken Loach.
“Prostitute” is a grimly evocative early-‘80s attempt to authentically highlight the lifestyle and motivations of what is still a much-maligned but always present section of the community in any big city – especially one undergoing the economic convulsions of Birmingham in the early eighties. With its stark, unadorned scenes of routine day-to-day life as experienced by a small group of Brummie prostitutes, who are seen here in the midst of an alienating, semi-derelict landscape of poverty row housing estates that look out over a concrete-grey city skyline (shot on 16 mm film in a quasi-documentary style that recalls Cinéma vérité at its grittiest and most convincing), “Prostitute” is a tough sell for any prospective audience. But within this faltering attempt to engage authentically with an activity that is merely a simple fact of life for this distinct group of women, while at the same time a constant source of both stigmatisation and prurient fascination for the general public, the film becomes a hugely evocative document of the social and political trends and attitudes of the period, as well as a film record of a specific moment in this late-‘70s/early-‘80s milieu (before the horror of AIDS had set in) that seems to capture the texture of everyday life in Thatcher’s Britain for vast swathes of disenfranchised people who lived outside the capital back then.
Garnett spent a lot of time researching the subject beforehand with an open mind, looking at both the ‘high end’ call girl trade and mixing and interacting with the ‘street girls’ from an inner city area of Birmingham called Balsall Heath (where the film came to be set and where it was largely filmed) over a number of years, gradually earning their trust and befriending many of them. In the accompanying booklet’s notes, Garnett describes his approach as being one of ‘go out and research, then come back and make it up’, claiming: ‘there is no substitute for research … otherwise your imagination will feed off prejudice and second hand clichés, but you will not know it’. The screenplay was open to constant revision and so attains a sort of semi-improvised spur-of-the-moment realism; professional actors and real prostitutes interact on screen without it being identified in the cast credits which is which; the locations are real and mostly unaltered.
Tony Garnett established a reputation for this distinctive mode of street level filmmaking, designed to increase social awareness of difficult issues while presenting a truthful portrait of its subject matter, during the ‘60s when he first worked as story editor with director Ken Loach on the Wednesday Play for the BBC. This was when the pair made the ground-breaking dramas “Up the Junction” (the TV version of the 1963 short story collection by Nell Dunn) and the highly influential “Cathy Come Home” (written by Dunn’s husband at the time Jeremy Sandford), which was an emotionally charged depiction of homelessness that painted a very much bleaker picture of the ‘swinging’ London of 1966 than audiences had ever seen on television before. Garnett’s association with Loach continued in acclaimed feature films such as 1969’s “Kes” – an adaptation of Barry Hines’s novel – after he briefly left the BBC to set up Kestrel Films. Later, during the ‘70s, Garnett was instrumental in giving opportunities to new up-and-coming directors such as Mike Leigh -- producing Leigh’s “Hard Labour” as a ‘Play for Today’ in 1973. During the ‘60s and ‘70s, Garnett also produced a series of highly controversial and politicised plays by Jim Allen.
Following “Prostitute”, which saw his own move into writing and directing as well as producing, Garnett went to work in America where he successfully adapted his mix of documentary-style authenticity and non-melodramatic, seemingly improvised material to produce the disturbing “Handgun”, a ground-breaking film which saw Karen Young as a victim of violent rape, taking revenge on the perpetrator by becoming adept in the codes of machismo as represented in America’s gun laws, throwing herself into the gun culture in order to gain the means of her deliverance. Today, Garnett is again very active in British TV and has been behind some of the best known shows of the last few decades, programmes such as “Between the Lines”, “This Life” and “No Angels” have all been developed to push the conventional continuing TV drama format to new levels of realism while also displaying a more populist tone in their general approach than is evident in, say, the relentlessly fragmented and downbeat style of “Prostitute”.
At the heart of the film lies the truthful depiction of the friendship between social worker Louise (Kate Crutchley) and her prostitute flatmate Sandra (Eleanor Forsythe). In a series of naturalistic scenes, developed in the film’s casual, over-the-shoulder, eavesdropping style, and with excellent realistic performances by the two actresses involved, a portrait emerges of the two women’s varied backgrounds. In particular we see how Louise’s horizons have been broadened by education, especially after her move from working-class Wolverhampton to University life in London. Implicit in this backstory is the notion of how the negotiations that went on between men and women in the social context of the time -- in the wake of the ‘60s sexual revolution, and in the midst of student radical left wing politics of the ‘70s -- saw Louise being expected to conform to certain behaviour demanded by the liberated sexual mores of the day, or risk being branded ‘bourgeois’ by her peers. Nevertheless, the trade-off was her escape from the low expectations and grinding poverty of her declining West Midlands homeland. Sandra meanwhile, who also shares the couple’s flat with a West Indian partner and a young son (the exact nature of their relationship is never established, thanks to the deliberately casual, elliptical style employed by the film, which gives one the feeling of eavesdropping on events and overhearing someone else’s conversations in a pub) is motivated by money and the dream of extricating herself from the gloomy urban surroundings of Balsall Heath. She earns her money as a street girl, soliciting at all times of day, but she plans on making her own ‘liberating’ move to London where she will be working as a call-girl. This, after first attempting to escape the perils of streetwalking in South Balsall by taking a day job in a seedy city massage parlour. Meanwhile, Louise becomes involved in campaigning for a change in the law after one of the women in her charge -- Rose (Nancy Samuels) -- is picked up by corrupt plainclothes police officers, charged with soliciting and given a three month prison sentence by an unsympathetic female magistrate.
Louise’s subsequent attempts to decriminalise prostitution and reform the penal system, seeking to highlight the draconian laws on soliciting and loitering, organising the initially unwilling women themselves, making the issue known to the local MP and attempting to court the right kind of interest from TV when the prospect of a BBC2 documentary on her campaign is mooted, forms a major strand of the film and is clearly inspired by Garnett’s own dealings with PROS (Programme for Reform of the law on Soliciting) during the four years he spent researching the topic. Louise’s attempts to help Rose cope during her stint in prison are intermixed with intimate sequences that illustrate the relationship between the social worker and her no-nonsense friend Sandra, while other scenes depict the day-today interactions that underpin the life of a street girl, with the activity depicted in the casual manner with which any job might be documented, especially when Sandra goes to work in the massage parlour, where the girls are seen chit-chatting between shifts, discussing their hours and organising training with the off-hand indifference others might talk about working shifts in a factory.
The unadorned, neutral, almost austere style is occasionally lightened by a sense of the absurd which rises now and then throughout the first half of the film, especially when, for instance, Sandra peruses Louise’s bedroom bookshelves -- which are stuffed with series academic social theory texts -- creasing up in amusement at their convoluted titles and the incomprehensible jargon they employ, even making that time-honoured joke about French theorist Michel Foucault (“Michael Fuck-who?!”) at one point. The contrast between the down-to-earth women who are actually engaged in the activity of prostitution and the theory-bound, left-leaning politics of the middleclass academics interested in pigeonholing them with their cultural and sociological theories is a major source of humour in the film, never more so than in a long sequence in which Louise goes to a sociology conference and has a one-night stand with another attendee who talks about the subject in terms of the functionalist model (‘with its problems of reification, tautology and teleology’) versus the phenomenology standpoint which attempts to elucidate ‘the indexical features of the social situation’. After a long pause, Louise asks him if he’s ever actually met a prostitute. ‘What? …not knowingly, no!’ he eventually admits, rather sheepishly.
In its painfully naturalist documentation of the social rituals involved in the couple’s agreeing to spend the night together, the film seeks to draw parallels with the similarly well-established customs that define the relationship between client and prostitute. But while the film treats the business in a laudable down-to-earth, non-sensationalist manner (there are no sex scenes apart from a decidedly un-erotic and business-like ‘hand job’ shown performed on one of the massage parlour’s regular punters), concentrating in the main on documenting the attitudes, surroundings and activities of the groups involved, which includes the women who participate in the activity, their social workers and the local vice squad, Garnett’s script does suggest a price to be paid for those women who refuse to play a role in attempting to improve their own social position through campaigns such as the one Louise and her lawyer and social worker associates attempt to organise. Sandra, for instance, is not in the least concerned with such matters, and instead – ironically, inspired by Louise’s own account of how she felt liberated from her provincial upbringing after encountering new experiences at University -- leaves her partner and son in the Birmingham flat they share with Louise and moves on her own up to London, assuming that working for a visiting massage agency will earn her big bucks and free her from the grind of life on Birmingham’s city streets and its constant threat of a conviction for illegal soliciting.
Sandra’s ill-advised trip to London forms a major part of the second half of the film, and feels slightly different in tone to the relentlessly neutral and low-key first forty-five minutes: she falls prey to a ruthless and authoritarian Madam played by Brigid Mackay (it’s no coincidence I suspect, given the identity of the prime minister in power at the time, that this unpleasant individual is given the name Mrs. T!) who dresses in a masculine-looking suit, barks commands at her and the other girls and takes most of Sandra’s earnings while she’s forced to live in a fairly cramped and grotty bedsit that looks a great deal less salubrious than her previous dwelling. The film is more up-front about provoking a negative response from the viewer with regard to what happens to Sandra during her time here: the power dynamics that define the relationships between the girls, the dubious characters they work for and their often rich and powerful clients is more transparently seen to be an exploitative one, and the film seems more comfortable condemning the call girl trade in general, while Sandra’s motivations for foolishly becoming embroiled in it are shown to be bound up with her own self-deluding ambition and selfishness. The film is slightly more sensationalistic and often times macabre in its treatment of the activities that are shown to occur between prostitute and customer here, as well: a party of rich toffs in a grand town house employ two girls to strip off and simulate lesbian sex on the living room carpet while they and their upper crust pals sit around and gawp; Sandra finds herself having to dress up as a little girl and play act at being a child for a London businessman who enjoys also dressing as an infant in regressive role play; one of her clients tries to force her into taking part in an act of bestiality with an Alsatian dog; and the London vice squad prove even more vicious and corrupt than those on her home turf -- stealing her earnings and breaking into her flat early in the morning and then forcing her to perform humiliating sex acts on them.
The film ends with Sandra realising her error and returning home to Birmingham, Rose being released from prison after her three month stint, and Louise showing a film researcher from the BBC around the South Balsall area (‘Oh, look at these lovely tower blocks!’), as she contemplates the corporation making a film about the subject of prostitution on the streets of Birmingham. This introduces a note of self-reflexivity into the film of course, dramatized by the researcher shown planning her opening shots … which turn out to be exactly those we’ve previously seen at the very start of Garnett’s film. “Prostitute” gets closer to creating an authentic document of the experience of girls on the street than most past films that attempted to deal with the subject even when their intentions were good. However, it is very much a document of a specific era. As Garnett mentions in his notes with the film -- it could well all be very different now. Viewed as a period piece then, the film is of great value, but the fact that its aim of promoting the decriminalisation of the trade and removing the stigma that surrounds it has largely failed, it probably doesn’t tell us much about how this illicit twilight business is conducted in the 21st century. For that we need more filmmakers of Tony Garnett’s standing, prepared to put their own preconceptions to one side and explore our own times with equally uncompromising forthrightness. The BFI’s DVD release of this previously little seen film gives us one particularly fine example that provides an excellent model for how this should be done.
“Prostitute” has been transferred in High Definition from the original 16 mm Interpositive, and the 2.0 mono audio has been transferred from the original magnetic tracks. Displayed in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio (the film was shot in 1.85:1 open matte), it looks as vibrant and clean as a 16 mm film can – which is a lot better than you’d expect, given it is thirty years old. The disc also includes a forty-five minute student film shot in 1979 at the Royal College of Art by young filmmaker Jan Worth. “Taking a Part” is Worth’s own attempt to explore the world of prostitution and her own attitudes and prejudices about the subject as a feminist and a filmmaker. With voiceover anecdotes, filmed interviews and diary readings conducted by young prostitutes the filmmaker originally encountered while living in a London squat with them, the film hints at more than it manages to deliver with its attempt to expose the distance opened up between film subject and filmmaker, and the roles forced upon each by the very process of attempting to document the participants’ experiences. Whether this attempted deconstruction of the narrative assumptions created by the recounting of such apparent ‘direct experience’ is successful or not is debateable, although the film does at least manage to create a tension between the anecdotal, conversational style of certain sections of the film which feel like naturalistic documentary, and others which involve the women reading falteringly from a text which may or may not be their own work, thus reminding us of the always present necessity for editorial intervention in the documentary process. Lastly, the DVD also comes with another excellent booklet which includes a well-researched and comprehensive essay on the film by Russell Campbell (actually a modified excerpt from the author’s book “Marked Women: Prostitutes and Prostitution in the Cinema”), extensive cast and crew credits, a short essay by Tony Garnett on his experiences during the preparation and making of the film, a reproduction of the BBFC’s correspondence concerning the one sexually explicit massage parlour scene, Jan Worth’s short essay on the motivations for her short film, and an extremely detailed overview of Garnett’s career by Lez Cooke which first appeared on screenonline.com.
“Prostitute” is a great example of the British social realist tradition at its finest and most compelling, and gets a commendably excellent treatment here in another first rate BFI DVD release.