The 60’s, When Sex Held the World Together

In April, ’68, a massive demonstration at Piccadilly Circus had crowds streaming in from Greater London – the biggest rally since the WWII victory parades. It went off smoothly, no incidents, and unlike the violent protests in North America with bloody rioting and police truncheons, such as at the Chicago convention later that summer.

Extraordinary were the London bobbies, who at that time carried no weapons. In a pinch, they sent a runner back to the station. Faced with their daunting task at Piccadilly on that occasion, the bobbies acted like shepherds to the huge influx of demonstrators, winning the day with their cheerful and polite attitude.

Britain was hard hit by the debilitating postwar depression. In 1948, my family passed through London on our way emigrating to Canada. To the visitor’s eye, all that had happened in the intervening years since the war’s end, were streets swept clean and bricks neatly stacked. Huge mid-town crater holes gaped, and two-door taxis were not uncommon, the front doors rendered for wartime scrap metal.

The 60’s heralded a reinvigorated economy and a re-emergent society. The Beatles, and the phenomenal pop music boom and a nascent fashion industry, featuring the mod and Chelsea look, were a bell-wether to better times ahead. One felt a societal whiff of the staid class system yielding under the pressure of new opportunities, and of a more level playing field induced by higher education. The London School of Economics (attended by Mick Jagger on a scholarship) at the forefront of this business meritocracy.

In the late 50’s, Mary Quant, a graduate of Goldsmith’s College, set up a fashion boutique in trendy Knightsbridge. As a designer emblematic of this 60’s relancement, Quant capitalized on the higher hemlines introduced by Courrèges and Balanciega and minted the mini-skirt, a name inspired by her love of the Mini sports-car.

Slashing at mid-thigh and spectacularly audacious at the time, it’s hard to relate this excitement to today’s standards, with young women displaying Madonna-style midriffs, and the diaphanous nothing-left-to-the-imagination look that has taken hold recently.

Although fashion columnists encouraged women of all ages to consider the new ‘with it’ styles, shapely legs were touted as the only requirement for wearing a mini-skirt. For the less courageous, the more modest mini sliced just above the knee. The engaging Quant, married to businessman Alexander Plunkett-Greene, launched the mini trend and its fashion accessories: Swinging London’s hot pants, plastic raincoats, ‘paint box’ makeup.

As a film school student in London, from 1967 to 1969, I used to see mini-skirted young women seated on a double-decker bus, their thighs clenched tight, the matrons clucking in displeasure, and everyone enjoying every minute of it.

Liberalization in England was buoyed by several phenomenal developments. For starters, women with top notch typing and office skills – in the 60 to a 100 words a minute range, and perfect – could work freelance as office Temps, making £18 to £20 a week, when the average wage was £12. Temp agencies, often run by women, serviced the niche for Temps, also able take time off between assignments.

Paradoxically, this personal freedom via secretarial and managerial skills was advocated and presaged in the novel, The Odd Women, by George Gissing, a Victorian classic.

Another superlative advantage of the 60’s in England: any student with an A or O level (similar to Grade 12 or a High School Leaving certificate), accepted by an arts college -flourishing like springtime dandelions – or at film schools popping up everywhere – could get an Arts Council Grant, that allowed its recipients to live moderately well for at least two years, provided the candidate attended courses.

At my hole-in-the-wall film school, a vacant warehouse adjacent to Covent Garden (where Hitchcock filmed Frenzy), there were 70 first-year students dwindling to about 12 in the graduating class of the two-year diploma course. At least half of the first-year students were ‘phantoms’, checking in for the requisite roll calls while engaging in other pursuits. As a Montrealer, I was completely charmed by these types living on the edges of Apple records and the like, buying their duds at Portobello Road. An interesting other Canadian at the film school, was the third of the child actresses playing Maggie Muggins on the long-running afternoon TV series. Delightfully red-haired as the role called for, this ‘Maggie’ returned from a trip to India much evolved, but still giggling.

Many success stories hinged on young English kids developing their talent via an Arts grant. Another English film school friend escaped being indentured in a Dickensian manner as a mechanic at his seaport town, by coming to London to seek his fortune, and with an Arts grant, became a prominent filmmaker and photographer.

London, a-buzz at a time, when, apart from the first skyscraper erected at Tottenham Court Road, the city was a conglomeration of towns and villages grown together, where the average mid-city building height rarely exceeded five storeys.

And of sexual quaintness.  In Canada, I remember it a common experience, the youthful trepidation of going to a pharmacist to buy safes. In London, the task was easily relegated to the barber, who said, in ringing up your bill, ‘And anything for the weekend, sir?’

The Vietnam war, and the groundswell of grumbling throughout the capitals of Europe, including the breathless Prague Spring of 68, made it seem like the world was unraveling, held fast by this new imagery of sexuality, the relaxed rules of the sexual game exposed at the movies and as the subject of the new hot reads.

Unlike the free-love exhortations emanating from American campuses, and the angst of parental anxiety versus the teen subculture of drugs and sex, the British managed the so-called sexual revolution with an ingratiating ease and sophistication.

Not that drugs weren’t around. Before the English cannabis laws of 1969, a loophole existed that saw some hip doctors prescribing for anxiety marijuana sold over the counter (dreadful stuff really). English kids exhibited a lifestyle difference from their American counterparts. Over there, they didn’t have the free-spending money.

The English had a convivial drinking culture, with strictly barred class and racial exclusions. I’ll never forget an ugly incident at the Earl of Sandwich, at Leicester Square, a repair of buskers and mid-town denizens. Amongst the regulars, Meg, who sang the closing song in Antonioni’s Blowup. Baggy and often barefoot in winter, a large woman with a sweet birdlike singing voice.

One evening, an exchange of blows between an extremely well-dressed black man, mingling alone with the white pub crowd, and a sodden drinker braying at the counter.

The black man looked like a visiting dignitary – perhaps he had wandered in by mistake unaware of the race code. Then, a sudden eruption as the white guy landed a few punches at the black visitor, and the latter taking his beer tumbler and smashing it against the face of his assailant. The place went dead quiet.

The black turned and left, exiting with dignity through the crowd. I gaped at the blood on the man’s temple. No further imprecations, the white guy just clammed up. It all ended quickly, and reminded me of the way the English handled ‘awkwardness’ by reverting to typical phrases to defuse a situation. The muttering tone of the people left at the bar was distinguished a peculiarity a they went back to their drinking, closing ranks like penguins guarding their stones.

Difficult it is to convey the buttoned-down English mores prior to the 60’s. On the film set of David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1946), an honest portrayal of a marital affair, with the two partners comfortably married, the movie was the first of its kind to hit the English silver screen – an adaptation of Noel Coward’s play, but somehow theatre was accorded a wider latitude of morality (Though new plays still had to obtain the seal of London’s Lord chancellor in order to be produced.)

And David Lean’s film crew threatened to walk off the production not only because of the controversial subject matter, but the lack of a soppy ending that might otherwise have condemned the traducing lovers, who simply return to the status quo. Bittersweet reality.

The new realism also found its ways into the popular novels. And none better than Edna O’Brien’s Country Girl Trilogy, with Girls in their Married Bliss (1963) offering an edged view of sexual freedom compromised by materialism, the male in a relationship dominating a through money power. O’Brien refreshed the perennial themes of youth and disappointment as related to the 60’s generation, adding some swish London settings.

The release of an unexpurgated Lady Chatterly’s Lover (1960) set the tone for the re-exploration of societal issues and a new character appearing in fiction and the movies, the working class hero of later John Lennon fame. Not the young rising lower middle class, delved into by the previous generation of authors like D.H. Lawrence and George Orwell, but the defiant against-all-authority working class young man found in Allan Sillitoe’s remarkable Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), an account of a Midlands football club, and the uncompromising portrayal of tawdry martial affairs and the cheapening of love – the mediocrity of a brief flash in the sun that youth allows.

The legacy of Lady Chatterly was an exhuming of previous attitudes dealing with the taboo of cross-class fornication, earthy sex and a few choice words. However, in the 60’s, the scope enlarged just as the morality became, only briefly perhaps, more humanitarian. As film historian Leslie Hallowell said of Karel Reisz’s 1960 adaptation of SN&SM: ‘The film broadened still further the British attitude to illicit sex and taught us that the subject needn’t be treated very seriously.’

In 1967, a milestone when the Imperial Parliament adopted the Wolfenden report and largely decriminalized homosexuality. Prior, ‘Everything was illegal in those days and you had to be very careful.’ The barrage of harassment and indictments against gays included ‘constant fear of blackmail, exposure and humiliation of electric shock and hormone “treatments”, as well as imprisonment.’

Driven underground, a gay subculture developed using a protective code known as Polari, or ‘lavender linguistics’, that enabled its members to speak freely in the straight world. Parlyaree, an argot of Italian derivation and used in England by carnival and street types as early as the 18th century, is the basis of Polari, that in 50’s and 60’s incorporated Cockney, Yiddish and a variety of slang to compose a vast repertoire that is now almost forgotten.

In Polari, ‘eek’ is a face, ‘fortuni’ means gorgeous, ‘omee’ is a man, ‘palone’ refers to a woman, and ‘omee-palone’ is a homosexual, while ‘palone-omee’, a lesbian. Many terms are readily understood: a ‘vogue’ for cigarette. Wippets, for some reason, were breasts, Polari, the lingo, sparked by inventiveness and a defiant sense of fun, also transferred a set of values between generations of gay men avoiding detection. Thus, “You could say ‘bona cartes’ (‘good cock’) in a crowded pub without anyone else twigging.”

It is important to recognize that the buttoned-down postwar ethos spawned an entire generation of ‘sexual absenteeism’, whereby sex trade workers and prostitutes were driven from public view. Exploring on foot, I never saw a hooker soliciting in the street. Their solution was to advertise at the grocer’s bulletin board (for a nominal fee, no doubt). Thus, one would see the ubiquitous ‘Baby Doll for Sale’ or ‘Latin American Woman Teaches Quick Tempo Lessons’ with their phone numbers next to the mundane notices.

The 1967 decriminalization precipitated a healthier public attitude that was, alas, short lived, (before the predictable backlash of the 70’s). At the time, English permissiveness was far gentler, and more civically inclined to shun the harsher modes of unpleasantness found in America. The eccentricity of the English, a legacy of the upper classes depicted in such works as Brideshead Revisited, allowed for an elevated response carried off by the verve and humour the Brits are famous for.

Thus, the straight world was lampooned with travel movie titles like ‘No Sex, Please, We’re English’, while the laxity of rules surrounding homosexuality quickly found its way into the 60’s stellar BBC radio program, Round the Horne. A Stooges-style of comedy that peppered its repertoire with Polari, the show gained a household audience thanks to its two masters of innuendo, known as Julian and Sandy (Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams, respectively).

The off-the-wall comedy routines, dreamed up by co-writer Marty Feldman, popularized quick, witty repartee that comprised a distinctly music hall flavour, thus bombarding the listener exchanges like: ‘Where do you stick it? – In the family album.’ And original characters like the ‘neighbourhood spy’, all of it tossed up with ‘ducky’ endearments.

It was an example of the British level-headedness that unerringly defused social issues.

A level-headedness that strangely underplayed sex appeal in advertising, that remained witty and visually forceful – the wall-sized beer ads in the tube – and without resorting to the bump and grind exploitation heavily utilized in American ads, without which the auto industry there couldn’t survive.

The British film wave of the 60’s produced magnificent B&W movies that defined the era: ‘Billy Liar’, starring the delectable Julie Christie and a muddle-headed Tom Courtney, a small-town undertaker’s assistant whose fantasy life replaces the real life challenge of following Julie to London; ‘Morgan’, a somewhat addled mix of left-wing sentiment and the glorification of off-beat lifestyles; the fluffy The Knack and How to Get It, featuring the ravishing Rita Tushingham who prances up to a cottage house door, imitating a milkman, and then says to the matron answering the door, ‘Rape?’ And the matron replies, ‘Not today, thank you.’

The first male kiss emerged in Sunday Bloody Sunday, with Peter Finch initiating the honour, while The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner reiterated the unremitting class war, but it was A Taste of Honey, Tony Richardson’s 1961 unflinching adaptation of Shelagh Delaney’s play that encompasses the ineffable loneliness and marginalization of homosexuals, that is a heartfelt masterpiece, shot around the unusually beautiful but largely unknown urban canals.

Alas, the apogee of the brilliant British new wave of cinema, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey completed in 1968, an American production filmed at English studios and featuring pioneering special effects. The fact is, the British output couldn’t compete in America, other than in the art-house circuit, while American ‘product’ filled up the British screens; this, in spite of valiant efforts to impose solutions for the domestic market survival, vibrant since the Ealing comedies of the late 50’s, of competitive quotas and tariffs, all to no avail against the American movie distribution onslaught.

In a similar vein, the British fought an ardent campaign to protect short films – ‘British Shorts Won’t Go Down’ – without ultimate success. This failure is in some respects, emblematic of the rolling over like a great wave of the fabulous 60’s and the openness that transpired to completely reshape society; the expansiveness washed up on shore and returned to the great ocean of liberal and artistic fecundity.

To be sure, aspects of the great revival morphed into different avenues. The English, with the extraordinary British Film Institute set up in south London, continued to revere film culture, the energy of which was transferred to television production, with series like Minder, the co-produced Masterpiece Theatre, and the longest running soap, Coronation Street at the top of the list of enduring viewing (the second longest series, Germany’s 26-year Derrick, an innovative detective combo that is a sociological portrait of a nation), with, along the way, All Creatures Great and Small, and the 1982 A Very British Coup as the very best in small-screen entertainment, and lately, the addictively good-natured Doc Martin.

Talent rises, so the saying goes.

And me? Well, if you’re interested, it was tough adapting to English conveniences, or lack thereof. The damp cold winters and ‘feeding’ a shilling meter in the daft hope of warming a bedsit. The subsistence on sandwiches as a staple diet, the paltry grocery stores with a few wilted vegetables – that all changed in the 70’s with the success Bird’s Eye Spinach and market gardening serving London. The worst was the phone system, defunct to say the least, and the unparalleled mail service. So that if you mailed a letter inviting a friend to dinner before 10 AM, you could be sure the post would arrive by four o’clock the same day in Greater London, with every chance of your invitation receiving the attention it deserved.

Two things: as part of the ‘honour the student’ tradition, you could go to a fish and chip stand just before its closing at night, and say you were a student, and with a smile, be handed as leftovers, a newspaper cornet of fries and fresh catch-of-the day, usually plaice.

I could never figure out the misfortune of a working class family living on 12 quid a week (before metric conversion), when the cheapest lodging, a room beyond the Circle Line Tube still cost four or five pounds a week. And last, I once called Baby Doll, in fact two or three times just out of curiosity, mind, and never got through because of the phone system. How did people manage?

The ground-shaking euphoria of May 68 has evaporated, but the memories remain as strong as ever.

John Fretz has free-lanced in films for 35 years. He organizes spoken word events like Poetry Plus and Poetry in the Park.