It must have been an odd time to be a teenager in Britain, 1961. While American rock ‘n’ roll had effectively given birth to the teen six years earlier, in Britain, we’d had a handful of stage-managed Elvis imitators with increasingly ridiculous names (Billy Fury, Vince Eager) and the rapidly sanitised likes of Cliff Richard to carry the flag of teenage rampage, and whatever rebellion they might have had to begin with had already been replaced with a family friendly image by the start of the Sixties. Before the Beatles came along in 1962 to change it all forever, it hardly seems odd that many thought rock music was just a passing fad. Indeed, at the time Beat Girl was made, the hip thing with swinging kids wasn’t leather-jacketed rock ‘n’ roll, but trad jazz – the likes of Acker Bilk being the heroes of hipster youth. It was a very strange period.
Like rock ‘n’ roll, teen movies were something that it seemed the British were doomed to be also-rans at during this era, but there is one exception – the film that showed the way forward – and that’s Beat Girl. This is the only British teen flick of the time that can stand proudly alongside its US rivals (more often than no starring Mamie Van Doren), and if the juvenile delinquency on offer here is comparatively small potatoes compared to the American films, then it also feels more authentic as a study of frustrated youth and the generation gap.
Gillian Hills – soon to be a French pop icon and appear in the likes of Blow Up – is Jennifer, a bored mid-teen who’s rebellious nature is pushed to the fore when her rich architect father (David Farrar) brings home his new wife, a French poppet called Nichole (Noelle Adam). Despite Nichole’s best efforts to befriend the girl, Jennifer is having none of it, sneaking out at night to hang out in beatnik nightspots with sullen boyfriend Dave (Adam Faith) and her other friends. When Jennifer finds out that Nichole knows a dancer from the local strip club, she tries to use this to her advantage, though any idea of blackmail or similar dramatic developments remain undeveloped; rather, Jennifer simply wants to embarrass her new step mother and be a continual brat. After assorted scenes of bored teens living for lightweight kicks, Jennifer is finally drawn into the seedy world of the strip club and its slimy boss Kenny (Christopher Lee). The requirements of the time demand that Jennifer gets her comeuppance and sees the error of her ways in a suitably melodramatic finale, though the sense of teenage nihilism is hard for the film to shake, and you suspect that ultimately, the generation gap will remain as wide as it was at the start of the film once the closing credits role.
Gillian Hills is a fantastic screen presence, dominating every moment of the film (even when up again Lee, who is spectacularly seedy here, in his second strip-club themed movie in two years, having made Too Hot To Handle with Jayne Mansfield in 1960). She’s sullen, sexy, angry, bored and bitchy throughout, and has a cute little dance that mixes excitement and tedium brilliantly. Jennifer might well be the most authentically pouting, tantrum-primed Bad Girl of the era as she immediately sees through Nichole’s efforts to seem cool (knowing who jazz musicians are, wearing slacks). She certainly outshines Adam Faith, who seems to be trying rather too hard to be a bored, alienated Brando type (though he does get to knock out a couple of solid rock ‘n’ roll numbers).
But where Beat Girl really shines is in its collision of styles, all deliciously perfect studies of a long-lost era. The scenes of teen boredom – the not-so-wild parties, the games of chicken on the road and rail tracks, the hanging out in coffee bars – have a remarkable innocence abut them now – I imagine many a parent wishes that this was the worst their kids got up to. The rejection of booze as being for old squares and the non-existence of drugs in this film certainly suggests a curious wholesomeness. Of course, this is teen rebellion seen through decidedly middle-aged eyes, and the hip-speak (“straight from the fridge, dad”) is hilarious – and yet the film’s era is now so long ago that these laughable efforts now seem as authentic as anything else. Maybe kids really did talk like that.
Wedded to this is the melodrama of the generation gap – Farrar’s father figure is a hopeless idiot, more interested in building a soulless city where no-one ever meets anyone else than in his own family, and square-up reel or not, it’s clear that the film is on Jennifer’s side. Nichole is a more sympathetic character, but her own hypocrisy (she was clearly a wild child herself once, and is rather painfully desperate to seem cool) and the fact that she married such a bore counts against her. On the teen side, Shirley Anne Field looks rather too old to be a teen, but does get to sing the fantastic It’s Legal, while Oliver Reed – credited simply as Plaid Shirt – steals every one of the few scenes he is in, as you might expect.
Finally, Beat Girl is gloriously sordid exploitation cinema. There are several striptease scenes that are saucy for the time, and the whole world of Soho sleaze is nicely captured – a world long since sanitised out of existence. The strip club – seedy yet pseudo-sophisticated – is thrilling to see, as are the extravagant routines of the strippers, and Lee’s Kenny is as unsavoury a character as you might hope to see on film, attempting to seduce the underage Jennifer into either performing or running away to France with him (or possibly both).
With John Barry’s blasting, iconic score – you know the theme to Beat Girl, whether you realise it or not – and the sold direction of Edmond T. Greville (who probably didn’t understand any of this, but was professional enough for that not to matter) – this is one of the great teen movies of all time. And as a pre-Beatles slice of British youth cult, it’s a pretty essential – if not exactly accurate – historical document.
The BFI Flipside blu-ray is everything you would want it to be. There are no less than three versions of the film included – an export copy has extra dialogue but, oddly, softer strip scenes (‘export versions, from the 1950s to the 1980s, were usually hotter cuts) while the extended version is the best – splicing together the missing scenes and the stronger sex and violence moments. Also included is an entertaining interview with Gillian Hills, and three shorts. Cross-Roads is a pre-Dracula supernatural short starring Lee – a bit sluggish, but not without interest (imagine a more lacklustre, British Twilight Zone episode and you more or less have it). There are also two 1950s 8mm cheesecake shorts – Beauty in Brief has a young woman trying on various clothes (allowing a tiny flash of boob at the end), while Goodnight With Sabrina has the buxotic blonde TV personality stripping into lingerie and taking a bubble bath – with no flesh exposed. This sort of thing was once the hottest stuff legally available, and if they seem laughably tame now, they are still a welcome addition to this must-have disc.