Recommended Viewing Situation:
Sitting on a settee sipping tea from bone china teacups eating rich tea biscuits. Groovy wallpaper, lava lamps and The Mamas and the Papas distantly playing in the background.
As a child, I was drawn to musical films of the ’30s and ’40s, with their feel-good song ‘n’ dance routines, set against a backdrop of romantic tomfoolery mixed in with light Hollywood melodrama. This may be, partly, why I was so awestruck by Georgy Girl. Having been released in 1966, it was possibly my first experience of an old black and white movie that stood firmly outside of the musical genre. With hindsight, it was probably, also, my first experience of an old black and white movie that shunned the stylised acting of the ’30s and ‘40s and, thanks to director Silvio Narizzano, bravely embraced the (then) ‘new’ Stanislavski approach to acting, characteristic of the 1960s.
From the opening credits, with The Seekers’ bouncy song also entitled ‘Georgy Girl’, I was hooked. I happened to like the band, but only the most miserly amongst us could fail to feel instantly uplifted by their breezy notes and jaunty lyrics, so perfectly aligned with the audience’s introduction to the title character, Georgina Parkin (Lynn Redgrave). In those first seconds of the movie, it was clear that this was going to be a story about a real girl, not a primped and preened Hollywood siren. And if it was about a real girl, then maybe the story would be a real one too. I don’t mean to sound disparaging about the beautifully choreographed musical movies from the earlier part of the 20th century; moreover, this was my childish brain making the comparison, because I had not encountered an old movie before of the kitchen sink variety so fear not: I am still in the midst of a love affair with those glamorous Hollywood flicks and in wide-eyed awe of Fred Astaire and his contemporaries’ talent in tap-shoes (and other shoes).
In the opening scene, Georgy leaves a hair salon with an elaborate barnet but rather than enjoying her walk home, feeling at the cutting edge of fashion and attractiveness, she goes to the nearest public convenience to rinse away the stylist’s creation down the plug-hole of a grubby basin. Thus her character is established as a little unconventional. Her jolly demeanour is manifest in her childish skipping on her journey home. In retrospect, it was no wonder that I fell for the movie so readily – what child wouldn’t, with the main character being so in touch with her inner child?
Georgy flat-shares with the beautiful, yet flighty Meredith (Charlotte Rampling) who is a musician. Meredith is as cold as Georgy is warm and as stunning as Georgy believes herself to be plain; indeed, Georgy refers to herself as a ‘brontosaurus’ next to her svelte flat-mate. Meredith has one mood, which is unbelievably sulky and apart from looking porcelain perfect at all times, this is all that is required of Rampling. However, she fits the bill and produces a flawless characterisation nonetheless.
Georgy’s job is running some sort of all-singing and all-dancing concern for young children. As a child, I believed it to be a nursery school and as such is entirely responsible for my promise to myself that one day I would run my own nursery school. Strangely, that seemed to be the most inspirational part of Georgy’s character for me: or maybe I found all of her inspirational and that was the only part I felt I could actually attempt to emulate. But anyway, whereas I have no desire to run such an operation now, I did set up and run my very own nursery school for one year of my life. I also ran a small business for around a year (a different year) in after-school drama clubs, which is far more closely allied to Georgy’s business in the movie, so perhaps the effects of Georgy Girl on my ambitions ran deeper than I realised.
Georgy is a well-educated, articulate twenty-two year old, incongruous with her working-class parents (Bill Owen and Clare Kelly). The latter are live-in employees of the wealthy James Leamington (James Mason) and in the absence of children of his own, the latter treated Georgy (the child) as if she were his own daughter and therefore she received a good education, including Swiss finishing school. Despite James’ paternal instincts towards Georgy, he has designs on her from early on in the movie. I cannot recall my thoughts on this as a child, but on watching the film in adulthood, it is clear that this is a Lolita-esque element to the story. At worst, it smacks of pedophilia and grooming; at best, it raises an eyebrow and brings about a definite feeling of discomfort.
One day I will read the book on which this film was based (by Margaret Forster) and find out how his character was originally written and whether this slightly disturbing theme came from the author or the director. Mason pays lip service to his (presumably) working-class roots by allowing a hint of a regional dialect into his plummy, BBC diction. So we gather that we are to consider him a self-made man and to be fair, despite the suggestion of sinister intentions, he plays his part with sincerity, as a man who recognises Georgy’s quirkiness with a genuine desire to care for her.
Initially, we see Georgy rejecting James’ awkward advances in a jocular yet gentle manner, much to the weary consternation of her actual father, playfully referring to James as her ‘other daddy … the rich one’, reminding us of the inappropriateness of James’ behaviour. Owen is a suitably but permanently exasperated Mr Parkin, obviously keen to establish a stable future for his daughter (given that marrying well was the easiest route to financial security for women back then) but seemingly unfazed by the fact that his employer and Georgy’s suitor, is old enough to be his daughter’s father, or, as Georgy jokes, ‘managing director’.
Meanwhile, back at the flat, Meredith is busy two-timing the handsome Jos (Alan Bates) and before you can say Swinging Sixties, he is proving to be more than a pretty face when he and Georgy form a stronger friendship than Meredith’s sex appeal, mostly over games of Scrabble, whilst the latter is out on the town with whomsoever has the cutest convertible.
‘Do you have a feeling that Meredith’s a sort of irritating lodger?’ muses Jos to Georgy.
So Georgy finds herself the object of two men’s desires and never having received this sort of attention before, is flummoxed as to how to deal with the situation. But so far, I have given you the exposition only. The real problem arises when Meredith announces her pregnancy by Jos.
‘I’ve destroyed two of yours already,’’ she cruelly goads Jos, with no provocation and therefore bringing the theme of abortion into the story (this went completely unnoticed by me as a child). Bates is an engaging Jos, winning the sympathies of the audience over Meredith easily, as he develops new, lovely facets to the character in a surprising manner. It is easy to imagine at the start that a boyfriend of Meredith’s would be as shallow as she is, but Bates gradually and beautifully, reveals a depth to Jos that endears him to all.
I wouldn’t want to spoil this movie for those who have yet to watch it, so I’ll stop there with the plot, with the exception of indulging myself in sharing my favourite scene.
Obviously, she has to choose between them. One of them has to go. So Georgy and ‘the one’ are on a boat on the Thames and he disembarks. She remains on the boat and he becomes further and further away on the quayside, fooling around. It seems like a game and you can’t believe that the increasing amount of water between them symbolises the end of their relationship. She even laughs at his antics. But it is the end of their relationship and it’s classic Romeo and Juliet syndrome, when you hope that the ending will be different. Pretty organ music is characteristic of this movie; the organ giving a gentle, Sunday-morning-at-church feel to it and the arrangement adding a child-like quality, adapting slightly to the mood each time. But there’s just the sound of boats in this scene and the simplicity enhances the pain. As a child, I remember feeling bereft; firstly, because the story wasn’t going my way and secondly, because I didn’t feel the scene had been granted enough drama and pathos. This compounded my pain, which I think was the director’s wish and so I can only declare the scene a resounding success.
I can’t imagine anyone else playing Georgy so roundly. Redgrave manages to impart childish innocence mixed up with wisdom, warmth and playful charm so perfectly, that you never question why two men, eligible in different ways, are keen to win Georgy’s affection. And rather than conforming to expectations, Georgy remains the buxom (well, she isn’t really, but we’re supposed to consider her so!), eccentric oddball that makes her loved by all the right people.
A romantic comedy which gives a peep at life in the ‘60s, allowing those of us who missed this decadent decade to have just a taste of it, with fleeting shots of ‘60s nightlife and rooftops and fire escapes belonging to cramped housing. (In contrast, of course, to the palatial home of Georgy’s childhood and one of her suitors.) Georgy Girl is a delightful experience, with enough heartache and seriousness to prevent it from being too saccharine. Watch it to feel happy, because everyone can relate to Georgy’s blunt philosophy on life:
‘God always has another custard pie up his sleeve.’