As a teenager I was fully into the whole swinging sixties thing; these days it bores me to tears.
The spectacle of Britain trying to be the pop-cultural touchstone of the world is always pretty laughable, and if the sixties version seems any less ludicrous than the shameless Blair-era remake that might simply be down to how much water has passed between it and us. The pretensions of sixties British culture may retain a certain naive charm, but it's a charm that's largely lost on me, now.
I appreciate this puts me in the minority in an age when kids learn about the Beatles in school, but there it is.
But one passion still burns fierce from my one-time love of all things sixties: Rita Tushingham.
Firstly, she's great-looking. Rita was one of the defining faces of 1960s Britain, as surely as Twiggy (thin model with cockney accent) or George Best (pissed footballer). In her relatively few years as a major movie star she became an icon both of the social-realist or ‘kitchen sink’ movies of the late fifties and early sixties, and then, quite separately, of the freewheeling, ‘Swinging London’ films that replaced them. .
Her unpretentious style, carefree attitude and striking looks – far from conventionally pretty but undeniably magnetic, with straight, dark hair and eyes huge and expressive enough to drown sailors in - seemed to chime exactly with the mood of the times. But when the international attention Britain had enjoyed in the sixties receded she faded from prominence too, though in truth she was far from unique in that.
It is an odd but possibly telling fact that virtually none of the most iconic stars of the sixties extended their careers successfully into the seventies (the one exception, perhaps, being Michael Caine, who deliberately subdued his more idiosyncratic characteristics in a string of international package-deal movies and had to wait forty years for roles as good as the ones he started out in). Others, like Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris and Albert Finney seemed to graduate almost immediately to elder statesman status, working prominently but only occasionally, while the most celebrated faces, the ones that dominated the magazine covers and most overtly defined the look and attitude of their era – Terence Stamp, Julie Christie, Alan Bates - seemed almost to disappear. Rita belongs in this latter category.
Perhaps they embodied their moment so perfectly that they had no real place in any other: certainly their images remain instantly recognisable visual indicators of their decade. Or perhaps the kind of photogeneity that defines zeitgeists was ultimately all that Stamp, say, had to offer in the first place. (Only a suggestion, you understand...) But Rita was different. As well as great looking, she was a compulsively watchable actress, as much cursed as blessed with fleeting Sunday supplement appeal.
. On the face of it, she may have seemed unlikely material for Cool Britannia status. Where most previous British star actresses had emerged from the Rank charm school, or somewhere with a very similar postcode, with unrelaxing beauty and speaking clock diction, Tushingham was exactly as she appeared: a slightly gangly Liverpudlian teenager, a stranger both to drama school and beauty school, trained neither in deportment nor elocution, who still spoke in the lilting accent of her home town.
She was a greengrocer’s daughter, who had more or less stumbled upon her aptitude for drama in convent school plays. On leaving school she took roles with the Liverpool Playhouse, and was just eighteen when she appeared as Jo, the troubled teenager and unmarried mother in Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey (1960), a hauntingly beautiful performance in a comparable film, with Dora Bryan equally impressive as her feckless mother.
The film was ground-breaking in several ways, with its unflinching focus on such hitherto unmentioned issues as single motherhood, divorce, adultery and homosexuality, and it cemented a new attitude that had been bubbling for a year or two in British movies, helping to make room for Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Billy Liar and A Kind of Loving. But while the majority of these films centred around alienated, frustrated - and basically annoying - male characters, A Taste of Honey was unusual in that its central character was a young girl, through whose eyes the audience experienced the unfolding drama. And there was a sincerity and worthiness to her story that Billy Liar, for all its wit and sharp observation, could never match. The film is not merely groundbreaking; it's genuinely moving, and chief among its attractions was and remains the astonishing freshness and authenticity of Tushingham’s performance, which deservedly earned her the BAFTA for best newcomer and propelled her to the front rank of British screen performers.
. The same talent she brought to Honey was just as strongly in evidence in her subsequent performances in The Leather Boys (1964), another unusually frank treatment of homosexuality, set among London’s motorcycle gangs, and the more lyrical Girl With Green Eyes (1964, above and below), which casts her as a naïve, rural girl who falls for an older man (Peter Finch). In both films, Tushingham’s performances are as assured as her debut - funny, touching, and always unerringly truthful.
.But by the time it was released the fashion in British movies was turning away from kitchen sink realism in favour of something rather more upbeat. Responsibility for that rests largely with the entirely unexpected international success of Tom Jones (1963) a film invariably described as a 'rollicking period romp', though if you don't find it remotely rollicking I won't tell on you if you don't tell on me. Albert Finney was now the face of a more carefree sixties-chic, as movies swapped social realism for a somewhat desperate exuberance. James Bond played his part too – the first of the series, Doctor No, came out in in 1962, with From Russia With Love and Goldfinger following in quick succession.
Suddenly to be English was to be cool (they said, so we believed), all eyes were on Carnaby Street and the King’s Road (they claimed, and thus it was so), and London was swinging (an elusive talent for any city, and a concept that slips through the fingers like water in the effort of definition, but one which was rarely interrogated, then or now). In consequence, virtually all the major American movie studios rushed to open London offices, and huge amounts of Hollywood money was injected into British film production, in the certainty that this was where the big hits were going to be coming from. .
Though there had always been an eminently exportable kind of English style, it had been dispensed in the sober tweeds and discreet hipflasks of Herbert Marshall, Leslie Howard, George Arliss. The thing that was new about the 1960s version was its focus on a romanticised version of working class modes and lifestyles, and the celebration (and exaggeration) of an unpolished national specificity that the studios had hitherto sought to iron out. Imperfect beauty, regional accents, gawkiness and eccentricity were all in. So Rita, who might easily have seemed hopelessly out of step in this new and glossier cinema, in so many ways antithetical to the one in which she had risen to prominence, found herself equally at a home as a quirky leading actress and alternative style icon.
And it was in this idiom that she gave her other most defining performance: as the gauche provincial girl arriving in London in Richard Lester’s comedy The Knack (1965, below), alongside Ray Brooks and Michael Crawford.