Welcome to the world of another great and unjustly forgotten subgenre of British cinema’s counterculture period – Hippiesploitation!! Regarded at the time as a slow, bleak, poorly-acted and badly produced attempt at cashing in on the ‘groupie craze’ (see Derek Ford’s GROUPIE GIRL or its German counterpart ICH EIN GROUPIE for further reference) from the director that had already brought us such low-budget sexploitative horror fare as NIGHT, AFTER NIGHT, AFTER NIGHT (1969) – albeit under his pseudonym of Lewis J Force – PERMISSIVE is now regarded in certain circles as a minor cult classic, something which would probably come as a great shock to all those involved. That is, if they still remember being in or wish to talk about the movie in the first place.
The plot, such as it is, concerns Suzy (Maggie Stride) an innocent, waiflike hippie girl from an undisclosed location (the implication of her innocence is that it’s obviously not London) who arrives in the metropolis to join the ever-growing legion of groupies (including, in one brief shot, future TWINS OF EVIL Madeleine and Mary Collinson) and band followers lurking around the rock scene. A scene which, being the turn of the decade, lurks in that fabulous twilight netherworld ‘twixt the hippie flower era and full-on bearded folkdom, but where the peace and love ideals of two years hence had already been dropped (that is, had they ever existed) in favour of a harsher, more cynical, self-preservationist ethic that was to be the prevailing trend of the ensuing 1970s.
Canadian-born Shonteff (whose later credits would include Bond pastiches/cash-ins such as NO. 1 OF THE SECRET SERVICE, cheesy actioners like THE BIG ZAPPER and the set-in-Vietnam-but-actually-filmed-in-Surrey war epic HOW SLEEP THE BRAVE alongside plenty of sex and horror schlock masterpieces) was obviously not the only director turning his savage critical lens on the hitherto celebrated world of Swinging London at this time: Pete Walker’s contemporaneous COOL IT CAROL had already delivered a punch to people’s cosy sensibilities, the aforementioned Derek Ford was preparing to shock legions of dirty macs with the revelation that the girl they were watching gyrate onscreen could be their own daughter, Donovan Winter was revealing that the whole thing was little more than a butcher boy’s fantasy, Stanley Long’s gritty ‘mondumentaries’ were packing them in in Leicester Square, and Alistair Reid had pushed the envelope further than before in 1968 with the highly salacious and dubious morals of BABY LOVE, which made a star out of its 15-year old leading lady Linda Hayden. “Torn from yesterday’s headlines!!” the tags often read, encouraging whole generations of middle-aged, ostensibly respectable men (and, if the figures are to be believed, young men and ladies alike) to flock to cinemas in droves to see their peculiar outsider’s view of the prevailing social problems of the week. Yes, hard as it may seem to believe, there was a time when the ‘dangers’ of live rock music were considered to be a social issue, and even acoustic guitar-strumming, loon-panted gnomes like Forever More, whose music soundtracks this very film, were reviled by the self-appointed guardians of the nation’s morals.
A little background research on said band reveals the following facts: Forever More were a real band, signed to RCA (releasing two albums for said label which fetch immense sums of money in mint condition on vinyl, and which have to date never been reissued on CD, even by some of those ‘unofficial’ labels one reads about in Record Collector), and were fronted by Alan Gorrie, who was latterly involved with his fellow Scots the Average White Band and has recently resurfaced again as the composer of incidental music and themes for such Hollywood blockbusters as Howard Stern’s PRIVATE PARTS. Like Marc Bolan and the doomed-to-obscurity Christian downer-rockers Plus (whose album ‘The Seven Deadly Sins’ was an attempt to cover each great human failing in depth in just 35 minutes), the band were managed and promoted by the notoriously bisexual and self-aggrandising publicist Simon Napier-Bell: how their free-spirited prog idealism gelled with his continual quest for the pound sterling is another matter, as is what the band must have thought when the idea of appearing in this sleazy underground movie (underground even by the standards of the late 60s) was proposed to them. One wonders where the other members are now: I am willing to wager they have little idea that their albums now change hands for ‘silly money’, nor that Circulus frontman Mike Tyack once left his girlfriend because she found their debut in a second-hand shop and didn’t tell him.
Obviously it didn’t do them any major commercial favours, otherwise I wouldn’t be having to explain their history in any depth right now: nor, it seems, did it turn up trumps for psych-poppers Titus Groan or seminal acid-folk pioneers Comus, authors of the world’s scariest album ‘First Utterance’, both of whom also appear in the film at length and have several songs played. Still, ’tis the obscurity and rarity of such things that makes them fascinating, and British exploitation films of the psychedelic era don’t come much more obscure than PERMISSIVE, although it did have a brief run on DVD in the late 1990s thanks to (surprise surprise) Nigel Wingrove’s Jezebel label, before the disc was deleted and became a collector’s item in its’ own right. And like all the best films of that era, it is perhaps best enjoyed when viewed on some scratchy old third-generation tape with Dutch subtitles, or screened on “possibly the only 35mm print still in existence” (as arthouse hucksters the world over would have you believe) in some down-at-heel community centre in the backstreets of Greater Manchester in the company of several of your bifter-toking, Nuggets-loving chums.
Although he eschews the ‘documentary portmanteau’ approach favoured by sleaze auteurs such as Ford and Long in their concurrent low-grade masterpieces such as THE WIFE SWAPPERS, SUBURBAN WIVES, NAUGHTY and ON THE GAME, Shonteff doesn’t take a straight narrative approach either: rather, although there is no attempt made to convince us that this is in any way a slice of real life, and definitely no cheesy mock-gravitas narration the feel of the movie is very much that we are following its principal protagonists around with a camera and that some form of prehistoric ‘docusoap’ approach is being employed. Over the course of 80 minutes, we watch Suzy develop from a shy, makeup-less little mouse in a sackcloth dress into a booted, hatted, preening backstage queen who will literally ‘take on all comers’: initially shown round and looked after by old school friend Fiona (Gay Singleton), she is soon abandoned whilst Forever More drift up north touring, and after an unsuccessful attempt to pal up with the groupies of Titus Groan (which is swiftly curtailed when one of the band members comes onto her) realizes she is going to have to fend for herself- or at least depend on, as Tennessee Williams would have said, the kindness of strangers.
The kindest of these strangers turns out to be Pogo (Robert Daubigny, one of those people with a very familiar face but for whom several hours of internet scouring yielded next to no matches) a generous soul who wanders the streets with his guitar busking, keeps a satchel full of food in a lockup at Victoria Station (you couldn’t remake THAT in these days of “heightened terrorist awareness”) calls everybody ‘maaaan’ (even beautiful women) and is kind enough to share both his food and his meagre lucre with Suzy in her hour of need. Unfortunately for all concerned he’s also a grade A card-carrying fully-fledged nut-job, with a predilection for wandering uninvited into churches and launching into random sermons against, like, the might of the evil fat cat bread-head capitalist conspiracists who have defiled his father’s earth, maaaaaan, until the inevitable happens and he gets dragged off by the rozzers (insert joke here). On the way home from said police station, Suzy nips into a shop to get some change and the hapless minstrel is very suddenly knocked down and killed by a car: this is even more uncompromising to my mind than the final scene of EASY RIDER, as the driver in this instance simply has no regard for whoever walks out in front of him, “hippie longhair faggot” or otherwise, and presumably sees the death of a pedestrian as just another inevitable occupational hazard of London life.
Permissive (1970) continued.It’s at this point that Suzy turns, and by the time the band return from their Northern jaunt (during which time she is seen kipping rough in what can only be described as a ‘lean- to’) she’s a harder-edged, less malleable character: like many girls she willingly gives her favours to Forever More’s inevitably slimy and sleazy yet well-dressed road manager (Gilbert Wynne, possibly the only member of the cast still actively working today, albeit only in CASUALTY) yet unlike all the others soon begins to realize that the only way to stay on top of the game is to play it with a similar detachment and lack of emotion, and refuses to let herself be another of his degraded victims. Various songs, all strong compositions, from all three bands involved (but principally Forever More, of course) soundtrack the development and sea-change of the characters: lyrics that refer to “saints watching intruders within their jewelled domain” could refer to a number of things, although interpretations wouldn’t differ too much, and it would be wrong to assume that the film was designed with any hidden message in mind for one to spend time divining. Titus Groan’s principal involvement comes in their live performance scenes, after one of which Suzy and the frontman pick up pretty much where they left off and finally get down to it on the back seat of the tour bus, before being caught by his irate girlfriend, whom our heroine, showing her by-now-true colours, promptly tells to fuck off.
Suzy isn’t the only major character to undergo transformation either: vocalist Lee (Gorrie) is becoming increasingly cynical and detached from his life on the road, and maybe a little more tired of the possessive Fiona than she is of him. The inevitable happens and he sleeps with Suzy (who has had the rest of the entire band and the road crew by this point), prompting much resentment, anger, frustration and public haranguing: the climax of this situation, in which a full-on fist-flying, hair-pulling bitch fight ensues in the middle of a hotel party to the sound of Comus playing “The Bite” (I kid thee not, prog folksters everywhere, you have to see this one to believe it) is, alongside Pogo’s sermon, one of the most memorable scenes in the entire film. So memorable in fact, it makes the immediately following and obligatory lesbo scene, in which the injured Suzy is, ahem, “assisted” by a kindly lady with first aid training, seem gratuitous and unwelcome- possibly the only film from this entire era one could genuinely say that about. As for Fiona, whom we had hitherto believed to be a hardened, toughened, emancipated lady with plenty of road experience, this recent turn of events serves only to show just how vulnerable she really is….
Like many of its thematic counterparts, PERMISSIVE seems as if it were shot through a film of layered grime: its brown, beige and yellow colour scheme, whilst typical of 1970 hues, actually serves to accentuate its gritty, realistic intensity. Realistic? Sure. Did hordes of girls really queue up to be seduced, used, abused and cast aside by hordes of bearded, plimsolled, gnome-like, Jethro Tull-esque folk-proggers, whilst sex gods like Jagger, Daltrey, Rod the Mod, Bowie and Percy Plant were already on the rampage? Of course they bloody did. One only has to read Jenny Fabian’s searing semi-fictionalised expose GROUPIE (based allegedly on times spent touring with, of all people, Family) to see that. After all, not everyone could afford to follow the big bands, and if what we’ve read about Ian Anderson and the Tull boys is anything to go by, they certainly weren’t getting up to much, so why not leave it to the bands that followed in their stead? But more importantly, like all the most fascinating films of the era, especially those which have yet to be discovered by a mass audience (although it packed ‘em in at the time as support to Tigon’s cause celebre MONIQUE in the nation’s fleapits) PERMISSIVE is a great movie because of the coldness and austerity its very nature, which in hindsight, ironically radiates an immense warmth.
Lovers of the sexploitation/Britsploitation genre, among which I count myself, often speak of the voyeuristic angle, and it’s true: such a movie allows one to interlope upon a world one would not otherwise see (I personally did see something similar, as a rock promoter at the turn of the century, but the music wasn’t as good by then) and draw one’s own conclusions: although no-one could accuse the film (particularly its nihilistic ending) of having anything good to say about the scene it describes, it doesn’t exactly tell us not to go there either, and thus draws us morbidly to its world of usury and decadence like a passer-by would be drawn to stare at a car crash. It’s also far richer and fuller in its depravity than anything the punk era ever dreamed of (sorry Alex Cox, but there you go) and as a slice of reality (admittedly fictionalized, but reality all the same) on screen, it sure as hell beats BIG BROTHER and its foul offspring. Having said all that, its depiction of its explicit softcore sex scenes (of which there are of course many) is not a glamorous one: in fact quite the reverse, as even the girls everyone wants to sleep with seem a little haggard and raddled around the edges. In these days of hi-tech CGI lovemaking (cf LEXX) it wouldn’t be given house room, but that’s all part of the charm. If you want your sleaze sleazy, this is the place to be.
It remains in my mind Shonteff’s neglected masterpiece, even though his grindhouse potboilers and revenge thrillers, often starring either Nicky Henson, Gareth Hunt or Tom Adams, made him more money, and his shlock Brithorror classics (beginning with DEVIL DOLL and THE CURSE OF SIMBA in 1962 and running as far as the extremely rare LIPSTICK AND BLOOD in 1984) are often spoken about with deserved respect by those in the know. Sadly not enough people do know or respect the man’s work, and his sad death in late 2006 at the age of 69 whilst in pre-production for his latest (by now American-funded) title seems to have robbed him of that chance- although at least his closest colleagues have vowed to complete said film. In my opinion, he should rank, despite his colonial birth status, alongside Norman J Warren and Pete Walker as one of Britain’s three greatest sex’n'horror auteurs: his unique and quite iconoclastic take on the sex film should be remembered and admired. Even his attempt at a comedy within the genre, 1972′s TAKE SOME GIRLS, retains his peculiar dark humour and grit, although it should be said that intentional humour in PERMISSIVE is one commodity the viewer will find very thin on the ground.
In some ways, Shonteff’s oeuvre is even more fascinating than Walker’s, for whilst the latter director peppered the shrill world many of his films with at least one reassuring star (ranging from Rupert Davies through Ray Brooks to Jack Jones) or introduced us to the delights of the great Robin Askwith, Shonteff often opted for the even-lower-budget route (bringing in the film’s costs at under £20,000) by employing a cast of relative unknowns. Only Gilbert Wynne was in any way a name prior to production, thanks to several years of casting as various down-at-heel detective types on TV (not to mention cinematically in the director’s own works): the likes of Singleton and Stride, in no way any worse as actresses than any of their contemporaries (Luan Peters, Virginia Weatherall, Sue Longhurst etc) seem to have drifted into as much obscurity and ignominy as the characters they portrayed, appearing seldom on either the big or small screen in the ensuing 30 years save for appearances in the likes of THE BILL, Z CARS and WITHIN THESE WALLS. Maybe it’s the same fascination with what became of these lost screen luminaries that draws us to be fascinated by PERMISSIVE’ s dramatis personae, although in both cases the truth may transpire to be more prosaic than the legend one creates in one’s mind would have you believe.
False legends notwithstanding, at time of writing PERMISSIVE is increasingly becoming a cult film by word of mouth among people of a certain age group and inclination. The rise to prominence since the late 1990s of hitherto unknown albums by “acid folk” pioneers (including soundtrack contributors Comus), now more easily and cheaply available on CD, and the emergence of a new young breed of such musicians, has sparked a whole wave of interest among the more esoterically-minded record buyer: such audiences tend to be fairly cinema-literate too, and tend to number the likes of THE WICKER MAN, PSYCHOMANIA, PERFORMANCE, O LUCKY MAN and SMASHING TIME (possibly this film’s nearest direct ancestor) among their favourites. Word of PERMISSIVE has spread considerably in that time: maybe a new DVD release with some decent extras would ensure it a place in the pantheon. And if you think that sounds like a hint, then you’d probably be right. Sod it, let’s have the whole bloody catalogue out – his relatives deserve (and could probably do with) the money. The Great Shonteff Revival starts here…