THIS ARTICLE IS NOT SAFE FOR WORK AND IS VERY TRIGGERY INDEED.
Over the last few years I’ve mounted an effort – possibly over-elaborate in both its scope and ambition – to create a map of the counterculture of the late Sixties and early Seventies in London.
I’ve done this by linking films in some way to every single station on the city’s Underground subway system and its interconnected commuter railway lines. The superimposition over a location of a film, containing within it cultural artifacts specific to its time and location, reveals an historical Rorschach blot.
Cinema is, after all, frozen shadows. The dead and the forgotten return to life when light’s shone through an opaque storage medium for moving images. This effect isn’t unlike the liquid-light shows that accompanied psychedelic rock gigs. Oil and water, trapped in suspension between slivers of glass, boiling and pulsing under the heat of an arc light into peacock-display non-existence. And if you want to infer that as a metaphor for Brexit in 2019 as well as for Led Zeppelin in 1972, hey I won’t stop you.
Whereas American liquid-light shows for Jefferson Airplane were often impressive affairs involving banks of projectors, the British and European variants were more modest and twatty: a couple of slide projectors with the dichroic heat filters turned off. Having said that, the bands they were saturating with cheerily meaningless fluorescence were far more influential on the culture around 1969 – 1973 than their US counterparts. The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Soft Machine. Pink Floyd. Need I say more?
The ink favoured by liquid-light showmen was Flo-Master (which is no longer manufactured), valued for its vivid colours and opacity, which also made Flo-Master the marker pens of choice when street-writing on subway cars and their windows took off in New York City at the beginning of the 1970s. “Фломастер” (“flomaster”) has become a common name for any kind of marker pen in Russia. A country where Industrial electronic dance music, Goth fashions and graphically violent and occult-tinged horror films have enjoyed a resilient afterlife beyond their Nineties heydey. Vladislav Surkov was a prime architect of Putin’s successful influencing operation to swing the 2016 Brexit advisory referendum, narrowly, to Leave, by scrawling semi-transparent lies on social media. The original flomaster, Surkov is reported to have been a Prog Rock fan back in the day. While it’s possible that Vladislav never attended a liquid-light show in Soviet-era Russia, you can guarantee that he’s read extensively about them since.
The horror genre of film-making in Europe has a similar status to the ambiguous globs of opaque technicolour excess that once haloed Robert Plant’s impressively verdant hairdo. The primal Id triggers of exorcism and exoticism – nudity, implied or faked violence, pagan rituals and religion, the colour red in the form of fake blood and gaudy art direction – are all cheaper than stage extras, models, costumes and sets. Me Me Lai wasn’t squeamish about blood, semi or actual nudity, violence or paganism in her film and TV roles, whether it was posing with Jason King or a teasmade on ‘Sale of the Century’, or being eaten alive in Umberto Lenzi’s cannibal films.
What’s trapped in the amber lamplight, rematerialising through the magical act of film exhibition, are the artifacts of recent history which we choose to turn our mind’s blind eye to. The fascination with, say, Soho films like ‘Expresso Bongo’, ‘The Small World Of Sammy Lee’, ‘Beat Girl’ – of Birmingham’s housing estates in ‘Violent Playground’, or the mean B-roads of Slough’s hinterland where Stanley Baker’s delivery driver tries to go straight in ‘Hell Drivers’, of a New Town coffee bar in ‘It’s Trad Dad’ – is the revelation of Formica surfaces, already-chipped Coronation china, of gleaming Gaggia coffee machines, hair oil and starched collars. So it is with the admittedly quite small filmography of Me Me Lai.
I came round to thinking about Me Me Lai’s career in this way when I was selecting films for the Underground map and working out what to link with Maidenhead on the Crossrail line. An unfinished mega engineering project which has already changed familiar locations in central London beyond recognition – especially holy sites of the film and music industries around Soho, like Denmark Street – Crossrail had ambitions before Brexit of connecting Reading in Berkshire to the west and Brentwood, Essex to the Capital’s East, to Farringdon and then to the Continent. It’s only the most recent of many similar ambitious schemes. The Metropolitan Line, the first London Underground route when the trains ran on steam and the tunnels smelled of sulfur, had plans to link Manchester to Paris (it also gave its name to Le Metro), “stopping off in London on the way” as Sir John Betjeman recalled in his BBC film ‘Metroland’.
Excavations for Crossrail began in 2009, when the Brexit referendum was but a talking point of fringe politicians on the Eurosceptic right wing of the Conservative party, as well as the long-held dream of billionaire wingnuts like the late Jimmy Goldsmith. There was no sense a decade ago that £17.6 billion would be blown on creating near-frictionless transport to Europe from the outermost reaches of London, only for red tape and borders to be re-introduced on the basis of a wafer-thin majority in a contentious (probably illegal) advisory referendum, that would mean everything draws to a standstill the moment you try to board the Eurostar at Kings Cross.
So now, rather than people in Wokingham or Romford deciding – on a whim – to leap on a train and spend a long weekend in Provence or Budapest, this privilege belongs once again to the people with real power in England, who often reside along the meandering axis of the Elizabeth line (as Crossrail is now known, officially) in small market towns and villages characterised by ornate bridges, weeping willows by rivers, and mock Tudor manor houses. Crossrail slightly strengthens the connections between the countryside where the rich live and the city where they make money, reinforcing a status quo which has existed since the early 19th Century, at least. It’s another bit of infrastructure connecting London to the watering holes of stockbrokers, auditors, PR executives, and the powerful elites who created Brexit – capriciously or by design – who now seem to be on the edge of our mind’s eye even though it was only 3 years ago: David Cameron’s Chipping Norton set, pornocrats like David Sullivan, ‘Express’ newspaper owner and UKIP party donor Richard Desmond. Eton boys who can hop off the Crossrail train at Burnham station or at Taplow, which is also close to Cliveden House, central to the Profumo scandal. (Stephen Ward rented Spring Cottage in the grounds, and Christine Keeler met Minister Profumo at one of Ward’s parties there).
‘Gallant and gay in Cliveden’s proud alcove,
The bower of wanton Shrewsbury and love’
… Alexander Pope wrote of Cliveden House and the fleshy underside of the baronial estates to the west of London.
What is left to England, without Europe, of the horror genre; without the primal fears of aliens next door who may want to infect us, sacrifice us, eat us, or (worst of all) find us somewhat sexually attractive? What is European horror without much of its primary source material, which is the 18th and 19th century Gothic literature of England? Pope’s dotty underground grotto is in Twickenham, not that far from the western Liz line. So is Strawberry Hill House, the Gothic Revival villa built by Horace Walpole, generally accredited with being author of the first “Gothic” novel, ‘The Castle of Otranto’ (a book set in the Southern Italian region of Apulia and not, it should be noted, in Richmond upon Thames).
When I was making my selection of films along the Crossrail line for these stations, I knew that for Maidenhead I had to pick something filmed at Oakley Court, 3.5 miles from the railway, the former HQ of Hammer Films and Dr. Frank N Furter’s castle in ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’. The mansion was also the location for numerous horror and horror-comedy films, including lesbian vampire cult favourite ‘The Vampyres’, ‘The Brides of Dracula’, a decent Karloff vehicle based on Lovecraft’s ‘The Colour Out of Space’ ‘Die, Monster, Die’, ‘And Now the Screaming Starts’, ‘The Reptile’, ‘Plague of the Zombies’, ‘The House in Nightmare Park’ – a Frankie Howerd-starrer and rival to ‘Carry on Screaming’ as a Hammer-pastiche – the Cook and Moore ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’, ‘Murder By Death’ and many more. The past is a foreign country and nothing unnerves the English like foreigners moving in next door. I mean, I’m not a racist but would you want Regency aristos moving on to the estate and erecting vulva-shaped follies everywhere as shrines to their Elder Gods? No, I thought not.
Ultimately, however, I settled on ‘Au Pair Girls’. It’s the most genuinely terrifying of the exploitation films made at Oakley Court, the most indicative of the chaotic energy of the waning counterculture in South East England in 1972, and also – coincidentally – what you get if you extract the Eurohorror of Bava and Franco from low-budget Seventies British cinema. No Eastern European vampire lesbians but all the go-go booted RADA-trained women actors sporting dodgy accents, and implied work-based sexual violence that you can handle.
“I don’t like watching my own films on the cinema, certainly not the cannibal ones” Me Me Lai has said of her three Italian movies ‘The Man From Deep River’, ‘Jungle Holocaust’ and ‘Eaten Alive’. “Though I did see ‘Au Pair Girls’ in the cinema! […] I feel good about that now, though I didn’t at the time. Although they were horrific, people remember me because of these films and say how much they enjoyed them.” After she left acting (her last screen role was 1984’s ‘The Element of Crime’ for Lars von Trier) Me Me Lai became a body-builder and then a police officer.
‘Au Pair Girls’ may not be the British sex film we choose to investigate as part of a Public Inquiry into the 1970s, but it’s the one we deserve to revisit now that we’re probably leaving the European Union. A repressed memory of the world before membership of the EEC, as it was (the original referendum was in 1971, the year before ‘Au Pair Girls’ was made… what is it with Brexiters re-running votes till they get the result they want?) most British sex comedies of the Seventies weren’t sexually titillating and also weren’t funny. Only Tigon British Film Productions’ ‘Au Pair Girls’ and ‘Zeta One’ managed to be neither, and also the career nadir of so many illustrious and interesting people: Val Guest directed ‘Au Pair Girls’, which stars John Le Mesurier, Richard O’Sullivan, Geoffrey Bayldon , Gabrielle (sister of Nick) Drake, and many others plodding through a series of jarring, often visually disturbing, vignettes.
(‘Zeta One’ aka ‘The Love Factor’, made in 1969, deserves a mention in this context for dungeon scenes where James Robertson Justice wearing a butcher’s apron sexually tortures various dolly birds from a parallel feminist universe – including Valerie Leon – – who’re invading Sixties London, for some reason. Robertson Justice’s name has come up frequently in connection to trips made by the late Sir James Savile and other celebrities to Duncroft girl’s school. Sir Jimmy maintained a flat at Duncroft, one of a number he had keys to next to hospitals and other facilities where he abused young people).
Tigon specialised in bleak, claustrophobic horror and exploitation films such as ‘The Curse of the Crimson Altar’, ‘The Sorcerers’ (both starring expat Boris Karloff), Frankie Avalon-starring teen slasher flick ‘The Haunted House of Horror’, and so on. ‘Au Pair Girls’ exudes an aura of danger and existential horror, with no eroticism to speak of.
From the opening moments of Roger Webb’s (irritatingly memorable) theme music, a relic of syncopated singing which has been expunged from the collective memory but which literally dominated the culture for more than a decade like a swinging stay-behind army of occupation, we’re subjected to what amounts to evidence before an international tribunal into Seventies Britain’s crimes against humanity, or at least against half of it. We’ve barely forgotten Val Guest’s credit as director. As the au pairs get off the plane at Heathrow, this is happening…
This is nanny-fixated England in 1972, and – yes – everyone’s still talking about those kinky boots. So foot fetishists, you’re kept happy by ‘Au Pair Girls’.
At Oakley Court, Me Me Lai initiates an isolated young man into the ways of making physical love. It’s a kind of riff on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s ‘The Secret Garden’. (I think?)
It’s hard to imagine that any work of cinema could make one nostalgic for Me Me Lai’s Italian work, replete as it is with extreme gore, grim sex scenes, people impaled on sticks, and the kinds of anthro-freakshow Orientalism that Gualtiero Jacopetti had pioneered in Italian and world cinema in 1962 with ‘Mondo Cane’, and had crafted to a pustule-like head by the time of 1971’s utterly nauseating and reprehensible ‘Goodbye Uncle Tom’, filmed in Haiti and restaging the horrors of pre-Civil War slavery in the United States.
If any film can induce such nostalgia, it’s ‘Au Pair Girls’. Call it ‘Mondo Berkshire’, or ‘Goodbye Seventies Brexitland’ if you like. I don’t mind. I’ll be the other side of Hadrian’s Wall for the foreseeable future. Arrivederci, ciao, pal… yeah, ciao…