The films of Swinging London have been pored over and cherished ever since the 1960s. Which made Saturday’s rare BFI Southbank screening for Two Gentlemen Sharing with a Q&A with director and the two leading ladies all the more intriguing. There’s another to come on Sept 23rd.
Based on a novel by David Stuart Leslie about a white ad man sharing his Knightsbridge flat with a Jamaican lawyer – both Oxford-educated – the screenplay was written by Jamaican born writer & Joseph Losey collaborator Evan Jones whose 60s film credits include Modesty Blaise and Funeral In Berlin. Evans’ own experience as an Eng Lit graduate from Wadham, Oxford, is directly given to Hal Frederick’s Andrew McKenzie. The film is sumptuous to look at. London locations around Knightsbridge, Hyde Park and Notting Hill fizz with energy and action shot amid real people. The girls delight in the height of 60s fashion: brightly coloured suede jackets and mini dresses with giant false lashes and “daisy” eye makeup and big hair. Robin Phillips in his pink shirts, tight slacks and wide lapelled suits is an upper middle class dandy closer to the kind of people who were filling the Scotch of St James than the working class heroes that cinema often gave us at the time.
Canadian director Ted Kotcheff says he was raised in a home of civil rights awareness. His Hungarian born parents went on a protest march against the conviction of the Scottsboro Boys in 1931 when he was still in the womb.
And Two Gentlemen Sharing would make a magnificent double bill with Waris Hussein’s A Touch Of Love (also 1969 and also recently screened at the BFI with director and the star Ian McKellen) – which shows another Oxbridge outsider/insider eye for the same locations, milieu, ambigious sexuality but with a radically different female point of view.
Much of the fascination of Two Gentlemen Sharing is simply seeing the racial diversity of London at the time and its weird, often contradictory exploration of sex and race. Children play in the street with derelict cars or stop to star at the camera while the heroes and heroines have romantic heartfelt encounters. There’s a magnificent documentary like sequence with our heroes at a Caribbean jump up in a town hall reminiscent of the British social realism pictures of the early 60s. At the end of the night, as the steel band play the national anthem we see a handful of party goers remain to stand respectfully – a Sikh gentleman in a suit and a sari-clad woman, who we’d earlier seen bopping with enthusiasm. A cricket match sequence where Andrew shows his prowess, features Garfield Sobers, the renowned West Indies player who was captaining Nottinghamshire at the time.
But like the posters for Ken Loach’s Poor Cow – the sell of the film was often made on uncomfortable sexual innuendo and treatment of women. Two gentlemen sharing indeed.
Judy Geeson, who’d made her film debut opposite Sidney Poitier in To Sir, With Love said straight off it was one of her favourite film and how wonderful it was “to be playing a role that wasn’t a “dollybird”. The complexity of integrated lives at the time is captured in the lovely scenes with Earl Cameron — we see her raised by a Jamaican stepfather and a white mother who’s learned to cook rice and peas. This kind of relationship is one so many of us born in the 60s remember seeing in our parents’ friendship circles. The open minded women who married “across the colour bar” after the war deserve to have more of their stories told.
Esther Anderson – who described herself in the Q&A as a Jamaican beauty queen, played Caroline, a posh middle class Jamaican girl modelling in London but making up a false identity as a British born girl from middle class Beckenham in Kent. “Do I look like an immigrant?” she says challengingly on meeting the white Roddy (Robin Phillips) for the first time.
But Anderson also revealed that on set she and other black women felt pushed into exploitative unscripted sex scenes prompting her to lead a fight back. And she expressed a concern, that despite the beautiful cinematography she felt the black women were definitely not lit with as much care as Judy Geeson.
In one scene as Roddy visits his “frigid” girlfriend’s ghastly parents, the father dismisses her and her mother as “bitches”, laughing enthusiastically at Roddy’s plans to drop her for his working class hairdresser Judy Geeson. However throughout the film there’s a strong indication that Roddy is gay, and that sense of repressed sexuality adds another powerful layer to a film that seems limitless in the issues it explores, and seems to speak beyond its time.
Two Gentleman Sharing shocks still for several reasons. It’s set in an upper class London. Those n-words have an extra resonance from those posh mouths. Some of the sex scenes remind you of the “even the bath water’s dirty” horror allegedly felt by Hollywood executives when they saw a cut of of the contemporaneously shot Performance.
Norman “A Hard Day’s Night” Rossington as Roddy’s lower class ad-man chum brings both welcome honesty and sleaze in his obsession with bedding black girls. Like Peter Watkin’s Privilege it prowls around the weird world of 60s ad-land, but for laughs – sexy laughs – rather than cold dystopian horror. In Two Gentlemen Sharing the emphasis is on comedy and entertainment, but like Performance the decrepitude of Rachmanesque slumland is a visual nightmare on screen. “Notting Hall” jokes Andrew to Roddy, welcoming his white flat mate on a visit.
Perhaps the most shocking imagery of the film is when Roddy takes his black and white friends to his parents’ crumbling Jacobean mansion. It looks like a Rachman slum inside. Mater and Pater crawling around hidden in the filthy servants’ quarters. Kotcheff said he saw the metaphor for the crumbling British class system. 50 years on it’s a reminder of an age of supertaxes and how much the aristocracy have since been rehabilitated and fetishised in popular culture.
The big question is how and why was the film supressed in Britain? It was the UK entry to the Venice Film Festival that year. Esther and Judy remember the scale of international press interest. Burt Caesar who hosted the BFI screening said an X certificate and concerns that it could spark race rioting led to it being effectively banned in Britain, despite its straightforward release in the US, Canada and Europe, where anecdotally it seems to have had a significant presence on the European film circuit over the years, notably in France.
The film sets off new lines of enquiry, beyond its strange hanging ending. Where is Hal Frederick now? Judy says he was last known to be running a restaurant in LA. Robin Phillips after starring in a few films made his career as a renowned stage director in Canada. According to his 2015 Guardian obituary “he is credited with the first modern-dress Shakespeare production at the RSC, in 1970 – Two Gentlemen of Verona, with Helen Mirren, Ian Richardson and Patrick Stewart lounging round an onstage swimming pool with cocktails and shades.”
Esther revealed so much about the network of Caribbean performers helping eachother out – she cites Bond girl and “white Jamaican” Daisy Mae Williams who was also in the film, for standing up for her.
Ted Kotcheff – had directed Life At the Top before going onto such Hollywood fare as the Rambo film First Blood, Weekend at Bernie’s and TV’s Law and Order, and my own personal favourite of his – Split Image (1982) about a cult deprogrammer starring James Woods, Peter Fonda and Karen Allen.
The daring and the experimentation of what was poured into Two Gentlemen Sharing endures. Its flaws are part of its power. Kotcheff told the BFI audience via skype that he had only recently rewatched the film after 50 years. He told us: “I always aim for 100 and this film was as close to 100 as a film could be”.
My thanks to both Burt Caesar who’s done so much research into this film and to curator David Somerset for sourcing the film and getting it shown again.