Charlie Bubbles is the most personal and affecting film of the late 1960s for me. It suffered distribution difficulties at the time and was considered a failure – not least by its principal creator Albert Finney who directs and stars. It was one of the first films produced by Memorial Films, the company set up by Finney and Michael Medwin who acted as producer of Charlie Bubbles. For a long time it was unavailable in the UK (it was shown in the US in 1968, but only in festivals I think) and it was not until 2008 that a Region 2 DVD was released. The IMDb response to that release encourages me into thinking that its reputation is now being improved. (It has since had a Blu-ray release from Indicator in the UK.) The script was written by Shelagh Delaney, another creative talent from Salford, born only two years after Finney and here with her third film writing credit.
The film’s narrative is quite simple. Charlie Bubbles (Albert Finney) is a successful writer living in London with a housekeeper and butler and a PA/Secretary in the form of an American student (Liza Minnelli) who hopes to develop her own writing career. He is clearly disillusioned with the way things have turned out and decides on a trip back to his roots in Salford to visit his estranged wife Lottie (Billie Whitelaw) and his son Jack, now living in a farmhouse in Derbyshire. The trip is not really a success and the film has an open ending leaving the audience to wonder what happens to Charlie (and all the other characters).
The film is split into three sections, designated by location. In the first we see Charlie in London, in the second on the journey north in his Rolls and in the third his ‘adventures’ in Manchester and the Peak District. The tone and style of these three sections varies considerably. The opening section seems at one point to suggest that the film will be part of the ‘Swinging London’ cycle, with comedy scenes featuring Charlie’s old mate played by Colin Blakeley. The second phase is the most anonymous, characterised by a long and ominous standoff in a garage in Hendon and then in a deserted motorway service station. The third is both nostalgic about Manchester and Salford and positively rural in Derbyshire.
Everything about this film is personal for me. I saw it in, I think, 1970 at the Hendon Classic, then a good cinema for waifs and strays on release (the BBFC entry is for 1970). For the previous three years I had travelled by train or on the night bus from London to the North West, visiting home from university. I thought I understood what Finney was trying to say. It would be 20 years before I faced the inevitable and moved back North, missing London but knowing I’d chosen to reconnect with my roots. In the first flush of appreciating movies as the centre of my cultural life in 1970 I thought Charlie Bubbles said it all.
There are several key scenes that had a big impact. The first is the stop in the motorway café in the middle of the night. Everyone disses the motorway services these days. They have no real attraction except that the driver gets a rest. But back in the 60s I remember we drove from Blackpool just to see one of the first at Forton on the M6 south of Lancaster. Just like airport buildings, these places were ‘modern’ and exciting then. Stopping at these services was part of the experience of travelling home on the night bus from London (or hitching). They were sites which seemed to mark the change of environment from South to North. British travellers will remember the sign on the M1 which read ‘Hatfield and The North’ or mainly just ‘The North’ – it really was moving from one culture to another. In the service station Charlie meets a character played by Yootha Joyce, an earlier RADA graduate known for working-class roles on TV but who here plays a woman who appears to have moved into upper middle-class circles. In a highly stylised scene, Finney the director seems to use the clash of cultures between this character and her group with both Liza and a young RAF man played by Alan Lake (a lad from Stoke, another RADA graduate who married Diana Dors in 1968) as a kind of exercise in non-communication, but which is still loaded with potential meanings. Finney the actor is completely distracted during the whole scene and into the next when he gives a lift to the young man.
The second key moment is when Charlie in his Rolls tours those parts of Manchester and Salford that have yet to be redeveloped after wartime bomb damage. These are the same streets and large areas of wasteland featured in the BBC documentary Morning in the Streets (1959) and which also feature strongly, in a different setting in Newcastle, in the sitcom Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads (1973-4) and in Jack Gold’s Liverpool setting for The Reckoning (1969). I remember too, visiting a friend in Liverpool to watch the World Cup together in 1970 and drinking in pubs which stood alone among the ruins of streets of back-to-back houses. Here’s a clip which also includes a marching band – oddly reminiscent of a scene from the short documentary Spare Time (1939) by Humphrey Jennings which caused a minor furore at the time (Jennings was accused of patronising working-class culture).
The third key moment is Charlie in the new Piccadilly Hotel in the centre of Manchester meeting an old friend of his father (played by the great Joe Gladwyn, another Salfordian) who is now delivering room service. Again, this is an uncomfortable scene in which Charlie is embarrassed when tipping the older man. Immediately after, he faces an awkward encounter with Liza who has told him she has family in Salford and wants to research the community. Behind these hotel scenes lies the issue for the successful young men (all men at that time and women might might be affected differently), like Finney himself, who felt uncomfortable returning to their roots. The same issues were well-presented in the Nigel Barton plays written by Dennis Potter for BBC Play for Today in 1965.
The fourth moment is when Charlie arrives at Old Trafford having picked up his son. They end up in the equivalent of the modern ‘executive suite’ where the son feels uncomfortable and separated from the real fans and the players on the pitch (see the still at the head of this post). For many working-class lads in the UK, one of the rites of passage in those days was being taken by your father to support your local team. In the sixties this still meant standing on the terraces, perhaps sitting on his shoulders or standing on a stool in one of the less crammed parts of the ground. Manchester United were still a local team for Salford in 1966 when the film was shot. The scene in the box eloquently displays Charlie’s lack of understanding and Jack’s realisation that his father has failed him. The point is emphasised visually in Lottie’s house back in Derbyshire with the estranged father as isolated as possible in the room.
These moments are all very real to me and I’m sure other readings of the narrative will be possible, though the experience of returning to family and old friends must be universal. But what should we make of Finney as director and star? It can’t be coincidence that Finney in 1966 embarked upon this kind of questioning narrative after the enormous success of his breakthrough on the screen with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and Tom Jones (1963). In 1966, Finney was just 30. Did he feel already that his time had past as the iconic figure of a young man from ‘the North’? Was he conscious of what the Beatles and the mergence of British pop culture meant? He seems very ‘old’ as Charlie and the open ending of the film (which he approaches with a big cigar in his mouth) suggests that he is undergoing some form of very early mid-life crisis. Finney himself, as Keith pointed out recently, was also interested in his stage work and had already begun to work in international cinema. His other film (as an actor only) for Memorial Enterprises was Gumshoe in 1971. Written by another northern writer Neville Smith and directed by Stephen Frears it shares some elements with Charlie Bubbles, but doesn’t have the same ‘personal’ resonance.
After a third viewing I’ve found many more nuances in Charlie Bubbles and it seems to me a very fine film. Billie Whitelaw is under-used but powerful when she appears and Liza Minnelli, in her first film role for the cinema screen is very good. Her vitality and perky intelligence show up well in her interchanges with Charlie. I’d have liked to have seen Finney direct more films, but watching some of his later interviews I think I understand why he didn’t. When scholars discuss 1960s British cinema I think they should pay more attention to Charlie Bubbles, it has a lot to say.
Here’s a distinctly odd trailer which avoids presenting the ‘real’ Charlie and tries to fit the film into a more conventional mode.
Gumshoe is difficult to write about with any critical distance as it’s a film that I love on so many different levels (though I do worry about its use of racist language). It cropped up on Talking Pictures TV and worked as a tribute to Michael Medwin, one of the least recognised but most important figures in the British film industry over a period of 60 years or more – mainly as a character actor but also as a producer. Medwin died aged 96 a month ago and since Talking Pictures TV schedules well in advance this screening probably wasn’t planned as a tribute. In fact, because he appeared in over 100 films and TV programmes, Michael Medwin pops up frequently on Talking Pictures. In 1968 Medwin’s production company established with Albert Finney, Memorial Enterprises, released its first two films. Charlie Bubbles (1968) was directed by Finney from a Shelagh Delaney script and co-starred himself with Billie Whitelaw and Liza Minnelli and if . . . . made a star of Malcolm McDowell in Lindsay Anderson’s film. Spring and Port Wine followed in 1970 with James Mason in a Bill Naughton-scripted family melodrama set in Bolton. I really should post something on each of these three films, important to me when I first saw them and also now.
Gumshoe re-unites Finney and Whitelaw as actors but it also introduces a whole range of other creative talents. Albert Finney plays Eddie Ginley, a man in his early thirties who has ‘achieved’ little so far. He lives in a bed-sit at the top of a Liverpool town house where he re-reads Dashiel Hammett and develops a comedy routine to try out in the social club where he has a job as a bingo caller and occasional MC. But now he decides to expand his range and he posts an ad in the Echo offering his services as a ‘Private Eye’. He intends to hide behind his Sam Spade impersonation and dresses and talks like his hero in The Maltese Falcon. He’s surprised to get a phone call quite quickly and to be offered a job that appears deeply mysterious and which shocks poor Eddie.
I won’t describe the plot but I will sketch in the characters and the themes. The script is by Neville Smith, a Liverpool lad who was a young actor in the 1960s, appearing in some of Ken Loach’s TV plays as well as writing his first script in 1966, The Golden Vision about a bunch of Everton FC supporters, for Loach. Smith also gets a small part in Gumshoe as he had in the Loach play. Finney was from Salford, just up the Ship Canal from Liverpool and Whitelaw was brought up in Bradford. Both were part of the RADA wave of brilliant young Northern actors who broke into UK stage and screen acting in the 1950s. Billie was a few years older and got a start in the early 1950s. In Gumshoe, she is Ellen, Eddie’s ex-girlfriend who went and married his older brother William, the smooth and money-grabbing character played by Frank Finlay. Finlay was born in Farnworth, Bolton. There are also parts for two familiar Liverpool actors, Bill Dean as the club owner and a cameo for Ken Jones as a clerk in the labour exchange. Liverpool looks good in the film, from an oddly deserted Lime Street station down to the docks and around several streets of Georgian terraces. At one point Eddie goes down to London and meets a woman in a bookshop played by a young Maureen Lipman (from Hull). I thought this scene was perhaps a nod to Humphrey Bogart in the bookshop in The Big Sleep where he meets Dorothy Malone. There were moments too when Eddie’s internal monologue seemed more Chandler than Hammett when he refers to hotel carpet “so thick you could feel Axminster up to your knees”. And to reverse Lippman in London, Eddie also has a joking dialogue with Wendy Richard as a girl working in William’s office who came up to Liverpool from London and got conned into staying (Richard was born in Middlesbrough). The mystery is concocted by the arrival of a South African in Liverpool played by the American actor Janice Rule and the mystery girl (looking very late 60s) is Carolyn Seymour as a South African post-grad student. Finally, Fulton Mackay is a menacing would-be Scots gangster type. Mackay and Jones were re-united in the long-running UK sitcom and later feature film Porridge (1974-9).
The dangerous criminal narrative behind all the comedy moments involves William’s trading company getting involved in a sanctions-busting enterprise, shipping goods to Mozambique that will then be transported to Rhodesia to support the Ian Smith regime. This plot seems vestigial at best and Eddie’s involvement is accidental. One disturbing feature is that the young white South African woman played by Seymour is protected by a black student (Oscar James). He has to be ‘dealt with’ in the process of the smuggling deal and Eddie (who discovers what happens) refers to him using the language of Hammett/Chandler as it might have been used in the 1930s and adds to them some 1970s racist terms. Similarly, Eddie’s comic routine includes the kinds of racist/sexist lines common in northern clubs at the time. It’s jarring now but it works in context – Eddie is a good guy, even if he does himself no favours. Perhaps his racial taunting is cover for his own terror? I think we forget now just how prevalent such language was, but even so it does demean Eddie and emphasises his lack of confidence in himself. His relationship with Whitelaw as Ellen is not dissimilar to their relationship in Charlie Bubbles. But in this case marriage to the horrible William seems to have derailed Ellen.
This is a great Liverpool film and an essential North of England film. (There is a useful Liverpool perspective on this website.) Gumshoe did get a US release but, from some of the reviews, it did present problems for American viewers. Some must have been baffled by Finney playing the ‘loser’. It was a début fiction feature for director Stephen Frears (from Leicester) who would go to become one of the most accomplished British directors of the last fifty years. It’s a sign of where British cinema was heading in the 1970s that Frears began in TV and made his name there with some important working relationships, including with the writer Alan Bennett on TV films and plays. Apart from the criminally under-rated and neglected The Hit in 1984, it wasn’t until My Beautiful Laundrette in 1985 that Frears would emerge as an international filmmaker – and even then its success was almost accidental since that film began as a Channel 4 TV film. Chris Menges photographed Gumshoe as his first high profile job after Kes in 1969. He had shot Living Memory a 57 minute drama directed by Tony Scott, again for Memorial Enterprises in 1971, but I don’t think that got a cinema release. Gumshoe was composed for 1:1.66 projection so it is very slightly blown-up and then cropped to fit the 16:9 TV screen. There is plenty of diegetic music in Gumshoe, mainly in the club, but the only false note in the film for me was the non-diegetic song over the final scene and closing credits – by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. This was before their careers had taken off. Lloyd Webber is credited with the film’s music but this is the only one of the duo’s compositions (the others are covers) and it is wrong on every level. It’s the song not the singer, who was Roy Young, a ‘Beatles in Hamburg’ era rocker. But there is a mute button on the TV remote.
Humphrey Bogart was popular again in the late 1960s/early 1970s. In 1969 Woody Allen appeared on Broadway in Play It Again Sam in which he actually converses with a Bogart look-alike and a film version was directed by Herbert Ross in 1972. I don’t know if Neville Smith saw the play. Probably not, but he may have caught the zeitgeist. There is another link worth exploring and that is Jack Gold’s The Reckoning (1969), a film in which Nicol Williamson plays a scouse version of Charlie Bubbles, returning to Liverpool for his father’s funeral and investigating the death. Columbia put money into both The Reckoning and Gumshoe. Gumshoe is now available on a Blu-ray from the UK specialist distributor Indicator. The disc also carries an early Stephen Frears short Burning (1968), shot in Morocco standing in for South Africa.
Part of the freshness of the British New Wave was the films’ use of relatively unknown actors such as Albert Finney (above) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was one of the first New Wave films to focus on working class life. The film that heralded the ‘wave’, Room at the Top, had a protagonist, Joe Lampton, who is desperate to join the middle classes whereas Saturday Night’s Arthur Seaton (Finney) relishes his working status with his ‘chippy’ attitude as his opening voice over states, above an image of him working in a factory:
Don’t let the bastards grind you down. That’s one thing I’ve learned . . . I’d like to see anybody try to grind me down. That’d be the day. What I want is a good time. All the rest is propaganda.
Finney’s brilliant performance shows both the charisma of the rebel the immaturity of Seaton, particularly when his face breaks out in a childish grin when he fires pellets at a local gossip. Despite the fact that, in common with other films of the time, it represents popular culture negatively, Seaton criticises his dad for watching television all the time (see above), its treatment of race, although incidental, is progressive. During Seaton’s introductory monologue he says ‘I’m like him’, and at that moment the camera frames one of the few Afro-Caribbean workers. Seaton identifies himself via his class and rebellious attitude and not race.
At the end of the film it appears that Seaton has been recouped for a conventional lifestyle, as he decides to wed Doreen (Shirley Anne Field) after, it is implied, they’ve had sex. However, this doesn’t stop him throwing stones at a site where the ‘nice’ semi-detached homes he’s destined for are being built.
The cast is brilliant giving a debut to some who would become stalwarts of British cinema: Colin Blakely, Bryan Pringle and Norman Rossington. Hylda Baker is a standout as Seaton’s Aunt Ada and Rachel Roberts, as the married woman with whom Seaton is having sex, is heartbreaking when faced with an abortion.