Bawdy late 60s “Swinging London” comedy with plenty of dishy birds for you plonkers…whoa, wait a minute—it’s depressing as hell.
By Paul Mavis
Warner Bros.’ Archive Collection line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has a remarkable forgotten gem in its queue: All Neat in Black Stockings, the 1969 British “sex comedy” produced by teeny tiny Miron Films, and released in the U.K. by Anglo-Amalgamated Productions (National General Pictures handled the roll-out here in the States…to that brief company’s usual uninspired results). Based on a novel by cult author Jane Gaskell (who co-wrote the screenplay with Hugh Whitemore), and starring Victor Henry, Susan George, Jack Shepherd, Vanessa Forsyth, Terence de Marney, Anna Cropper, and Harry Towb, All Neat in Black Stockings seems to have confused some critics, then and now, as to whether the movie considered itself a raunchy comedy or a so-called “kitchen sink” melodrama.
That’s a puzzling confusion, because the movie makers here know exactly what they’re reaching for in this resolutely downbeat, devastating look at a typical wanker who bought into the unrealistic fantasy of the deadening “sexual revolution”—a social movement that ticket buyers must have supposed was being positively promoted in All Neat in Black Stockings. A brilliantly-realized drama that draws you further and further into its miserable, sad tale of a petty, cruel, empty purveyor of late ’60s “anything goes” sexual ethos, All Neat in Black Stockings comes out of nowhere to stand right alongside—or maybe even slightly above—such similarly-intended classics as Alfie and The Knack…and How to Get It. Tragic actor Victor Henry (look up his ultimate fate to understand the true meaning of “randomness”) gives a performance of startling charm and undirected anger. A little beauty, ripe for re-discovery.
“Ginger” (Victor Henry), a horny-as-hell 20-yr-old London window cleaner, is on a mission to nail every bird he sees…and then pass her off to his mate, Dwyer (Jack Shepherd), who occupies the equally filthy bed-sit next door. Running along outside window ledges at a local hospital, before pouncing inside to ask a pretty Italian nurse, Babette (Jasmina Hamzavi), for a date, Ginger sees his pal, “Old Gunge” (Terence de Marney), who may be in the hospital for some time, owing to a liver ailment. Pressing his house key on Ginger, Old Gunge asks Ginger to stop by his house and feed his animals. On his date with Babette, Ginger can’t stop looking at all the other girls, until he spots Jill (Susan George) and Carol (Vanessa Forsyth). Young, innocent-looking but sexy beyond belief in her black fishnet stockings, Jill immediately initiates an obsession with Ginger.
When Ginger visits Old Gunge’s spectacular, hidden ruin of a mansion, he realizes he could pass the place off as his own to unsuspecting birds. It’s also a home where his downtrodden sister, Sis (Anna Cropper), burdened with a young baby, with another on the way, and with a lay-about boyo husband, Issur (Harry Towb) can momentarily flop (Issur quickly takes advantage of Ginger’s kindness—and his wife’s fatalism—and moves in his mistress, Jocasta, played by Nita Lorraine). Soon Ginger finds himself falling for Jill, but problems arise with her bourgeois mother (Clare Kelly), who thinks her daughter can do much better (boy is she right…), and with his mate Dwyer, who manages to sleep with Jill before he does. Pregnant, Jill can’t believe that Ginger still wants to marry her, and eventually…neither can Ginger.
I thought I knew what I was getting when All Neat in Black Stockings was delivered to my door. I had never heard of the movie, despite some initial heavy cred to its pre-production (apparently, no less than famed British New Wave director Lindsay Anderson was briefly attached to the project at one time). However, from that release date, the country of origin, and the original poster art (“Discover the New Excitement of Sharing!”) with two crudely mocked-up pictures of Victor Henry and Jack Shepherd waiting for a Susan George stand-in to get her kit off, I guessed All Neat in Black Stockings to be some kind of a “transitional” sex comedy from the U.K., one that bridged the gap between earlier, more serious works like Alfie and Morgan! A Suitable Case for Treatment, and the later genial, superficial smut of the Confessions of… series.
And nothing about All Neat in Black Stockings‘ beginning said any different. The opening shots of lead Victor Henry, perched precariously on various window ledges trying to get an eyeful of Jasmina Hamzavi, had a recognizable Richard Lester “mod slapstick” feel, before Ginger executes a neat swan dive into the hospital ward and secures a date with Hamazavi, thanks to Old Gunge’s help. His bed-sit is vile looking, but we’re charmed by actor Henry’s natural charisma as he enthusiastically gets ready for his date, reverting to using toothpaste when his shaving cream can comes up empty. All signs pointed to a bawdy lad’s own romp.
Fair enough…until we get to the date. Arriving at a believably smoky, noisy bar, the rather average-looking but engagingly cheeky Ginger has scored an evening with the sexy Hamzavi, and yet he barely looks at her—he’s too busy hungrily checking out every other girl in the bar. “What gives?” we think, while he’s openly hitting on Susan George (granted: it’s Susan George…but Hamzavi’s certainly no slouch). And that’s when we realize something’s up, an unsettled feeling confirmed by the creepy end of the date, when Ginger and next-door-mate Dwyer execute a routine but well-rehearsed move and secretly switch places in the dark to sleep with each other’s dates (which might as well be rape, since we’re made to believe the girls don’t realize their agreed-upon partners have been swapped).
Now, I’m sure there were plenty of guys in the audience back in ’69 that yucked it up throughout this scene, fantasizing about doing the same thing with their mates during those dwindling “Swinging London” days, but I’d bet most of the women ticket buyers—if this movie even had very many of those—pretty much crossed off Ginger as a sympathetic character, after that scene. While perhaps dismissing All Neat in Black Stockings as a tasteless sex comedy designed strictly for jerky guys…did the female audience or the critics notice the opening credits that listed Jane Gaskell as co-screenwriter, from her own novel?
If they had, then they might not have been so surprised at the turn All Neat in Black Stockings takes at this point, ditching any claims to the bawdy English sex comedy genre as it paints an increasingly dark, neurotic, unpleasant view of a predatory male who takes a brief stab at supplanting love for sex, before falling right back into his previous, cosmically depressing rut (sorry—couldn’t help that one). For convenience of labeling, if nothing else, Ginger is the real “Alfie” that exists solely off our movie screens. When Alfie was released in 1965, many reviewers and most moviegoers were blinded by the captivating charm of super-cool, quirky Michael Caine’s performance…while conveniently ignoring the fact that his Alfie character is little more than a grotesque who uses women horribly for his own immature gratification, until forced to see the end result of his games: a mutilated, aborted baby laying in a cheap basin pan (the same thing happened with Martin Ritt’s Hud, where physically perfect Paul Newman snake-charmed panting female patrons with one of the most heartless, amoral cinematic bastards to ever make it up on the big screen).
Here, in All Neat in Black Stockings, actor Victor Henry’s Ginger possesses none of Caine’s or Newman’s glamorous, intriguing on-screen qualities. As shown in grimy, squalid colors by ace cinematographer Larry Pizer (Morgan!, Our Mother’s House), Ginger’s just-average face and decidedly scrawny, undeveloped body, his cruddy job (a window washer), his tacky clothes, his hovel of an apartment, and his second-hand transportation (first an old truck, then a rusted-out sports car…and then a bicycle), all point to someone who’s only getting all those girls due to sheer chutzpah and dogged persistence. Even the way he eats an egg is revolting (he pours the salt into his navel, and screws the hard-boiled egg into it). Who in the world would want to sleep with the kind of guy who would surreptitiously pour a can of pop under the covers and let a girl think he wet the bed, just to get her to leave? He doesn’t even have a real name; he’s just called “Ginger” because of his red hair (a serious social drawback in England at the time, believe it or not). He’s a “type,” a nickname, rather than a dimensional human being.
So when Ginger starts to fall for the nice, ordinary school teacher Jill, we wonder if Ginger is finally going to wise up, and grow up. After all, he resists sleeping with her (at first), and when she keeps saying no, he only momentarily gets angry (a big deal for a machine like Ginger), before reluctantly backing off. Some critics have called the character “romantic” for this behavior, but it’s more akin to an adolescent trying to “be good,” only to be doomed to fail time and again because only the surface symptoms of the behavior have been temporarily addressed.
Indeed, for the rest of the movie, Ginger slips back and forth, like a fallen alcoholic, in the ways he (mis)treats Jill. When Dwyer makes fun of Ginger for going weeks without sleeping with her, Ginger crudely tries to get her drunk, before being foiled by the arrival of her mother. He tries to be nice again, pushing her off on Dwyer to “take care of her” when an impromptu party at Old Gunge’s gets out of hand (as a brilliant antidote to all those fab views of “swinging London” in movies like Smashing Time, director Christopher Morahan stages an ugly, unfunny “mod” party the likes of which you’d never want to attend).
When Ginger discovers she’s slept with Dwyer (she’s crying afterwards), he’s devastated, not so much because she’s been unfaithful, but more because he’s the one finally on the receiving end of his own sick sex game. Jill quite rightly states she was just trying to keep up with Ginger’s own rules of “no rules” when it comes to sex, believing Dwyer’s lies that Ginger passing Jill off to him for protection, was Ginger “passing off” Jill for sex. But Ginger doesn’t really hear her: he’s been duped like all the girls Dwyer and he tricked (you might even go further, and say the act was deliberately self-destructive: somewhere deep down, Ginger didn’t know “passing her off” to Dwyer would end the way it did?).
And that’s the beginning of the end for Ginger’s salvation through mature, committed love with Jill. Everything falls apart for him after Jill sleeps with Dwyer. His “lad’s life” is basically over, and the progressively more gloomy tone of the movie beautifully reflects this. (SPOILERS!) Ginger sells back his sports car; he loses his washing jobs, Old Gunge kicks him out of his house, and he eventually winds up pedaling around on an old bicycle. When he learns Jill’s pregnant, he tries to be “noble” and offer marriage, but it’s an empty gesture that simply can’t last. He’s clueless to Jill’s disappointment at his choice of an apartment for them (it’s worse than the one he already has), while she can’t see that moving in with Mum is the last thing he wants.
Having Dwyer, the father of Jill’s baby reading the congratulatory telegrams at Ginger’s and Jill’s wedding is a bitter reminder of his mate’s betrayal, before Ginger later sees Dwyer with his own sidekick “replacement”: a mentally-challenged young man (“He’s bonkers!”) who Dwyer happily shoves around (the look on actor Henry’s face, recognizing Ginger’s self in his own substitute, is remarkable).
All that’s left is to reject the baby he promised to love (he won’t even hold it), sleep with his aged mother-in-law (a moment’s realization—and horror—at what he’s doing as he stares down into her lined face, is determinedly pushed aside), and to flat-out declare he’s not in love with Jill (“Don’t you love me anymore?” she piteously asks, as he snaps in disgust, “You’ve got me, haven’t you? You’ve got your husband…what more do you want?”…before brightly, sadistically commenting on the baby, “You know…he looks just like Dwyer.”)
The movie’s final scene is extraordinary. Ditching the crappy sandwiches his lover/mother-in-law made for him, Ginger enters a dingy little diner and spies a sexy waitress (Christine Pryor) wearing the kind of black fishnet stockings he likes so much. Hitting on her, and getting the desired response back, Ginger smiles a phony smile that pulls down into a dead, blank, empty stare, as he sits among the other lonely-looking working men.
He’s not even right back where he started at the beginning of the movie—he’s lower than that. He doesn’t even have a mate to share her with. Worse, he now knows how empty it all feels, this predatory, no-commitments “sexual revolution” he’s so skilled at exploiting. His stare of meaningless conquest is angry, and utterly doomed. And you won’t find that haunting stare in Alfie or Morgan! or The Knack…and How to Get It, or certainly in any of the Confessions of… flicks—only in little, anonymous, flat-out brilliant All Neat in Black Stockings.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.