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Permissive (DVD) [1970]

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BFI Video / Classification: 18.

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    1 Review
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      30.08.2010 10:32
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      An unexpectedly good little film

      This BFI DVD is currently £11 on amazon. BFI DVDs tend to be a bit too expensive.

      This is part of the BFI's Flipside series, which releases odd little cult gems that most people have forgotten even exist.

      Made in 1970, Permissive is an early example of a British softcore sex movie, a genre which proliferated in the 70s as censorship got less strict. Although most British sex movies were lumpen comedies of the Confessions type, there are quite a few which offer a rather grimmer take on the permissive society. This is one such film.

      Naive Suzy comes to London to hook up with her worldly friend Fiona. Fiona is chief groupie to a prog rock band called Forever More (a real band; we see them play a lot). After a time sleeping rough on the streets, Suzy casts aside any morals and becomes a groupie herself, shagging her way into favour with Forever More. But is there room for two groupies in one tour van?

      This is a surprisingly nasty little film, an antidote to the idea that London in the 60s was glamorous. I don't think anyone ever smiles or laughs in the whole thing, and I'm not even sure the sun ever comes out. Grey London sits under a grey sky while nasty-minded little people screw each other over with a complete lack of feeling. There are no tourist-y bits - this is a world of grotty music clubs, nasty hotel corridors and small cafes. It's a great glimpse at London in the late 60s - bits of it are still recognisable (Kings Cross Underground doesn't seem to have changed much) without ever showing Carnaby Street, Big Ben or Abbey Road.

      Suzy is a completely unsympathetic character. At first she's just maddeningly wet and passive, and later she's a hard-edged bitch. She's only (briefly) likeable when she's homeless and hanging out with a tiresome but well-meaning hippy called Pogo. That ends badly, though, and from then on she cynically uses sex to advance herself. She's not alone - all the women in the film are stone-cold, constantly looking for opportunities to advance themselves at each other's expense. Only Fiona seems remotely nice, and she is very obviously going to get swept aside before too long. The men, on the other hand, are just vile - sexist oafs who treat women as property. Although Lucy at one point accuses Lee, the band's frontman, of sexual double standards, there's no feminism in this.

      In a sense it's the suspicious Telegraph reader's view of the counterculture, and it confirms all the prurient fantasies retired colonels must have had about hippy girls. But there's a grimy sense of authenticity here. The film obviously couldn't afford to get a well known band, and the crowds Forever More play in front of are much smaller than the dubbed-on crowd noise would have us believe. But the attitudes towards women; the dullness of the tour routine; the emptiness of their lives; and the lack of meaningful emotion all ring completely true to life. You can imagine a roadie throwing some dead-eyed groupie out of, say, Robert Plant's hotel room the morning after, and it captures very well the feel of still being awake in the early hours after a particularly tiresome party.

      No one is particularly good looking, and all the performances are very low-key, almost to the point of catatonia. The only real emotion displayed is during a catfight at a party. Even when they're having sex the characters just stare into nothingness. Certainly in the case of the band, it's obvious they're not real actors. Lee's dialogue is mumbled into his beard, and often inaudible. A lot of dialogue is drowned out anyway by the music.

      It's well made, with some particularly nice flash-forward editing. The bleak ending won't come as any real surprise because we see it about five times during the course of the film in flash forwards, an odd but effective way of doing things. It's a little like Performance in that respect, but while Nic Roeg and Donald Cammell had the budget to hire Mick Jagger and throw in any amount of playful hippy artifice, this can only manage a prog band you've never heard of and a depressingly predictable tale of desperate groupies on the make. There's a documentary feel to a lot of it, which adds immensely to the depressing ambience.

      I defy anyone to get turned on by this, unless really hairy men do anything for you. The sex is clearly a means to an end for the characters, and almost none of it is filmed in an erotic way. The exception is a gratuitous and out-of-character lesbian scene that comes completely out of the blue and is a mis-step (and it's not often I'd say that). If tobacco-stained fingers gingerly squeezing naked breasts in pub toilets sounds sexy, then you'll be in hog heaven with this one. If not, watch it for the story.

      Or the music. I'm not a huge fan of prog, but I must admit, the performances are pretty cool. Most of the soundtrack was done by Comus, and it's got a nice pastoral feel to a lot of it. Forever More do about five songs, and a group called Titus Oates also appears. Apparently this should be exciting to prog fans.

      We get a second feature as an extra: Bread, made in 1971. It's a mercifully short (66 mins) film about some crazy hippy kids putting one over on the squares by hosting their very own rock festival on some rich guy's property without telling him. Hilarious.

      This film is just plain bad. It's a comedy that isn't funny; a music film without much music in it (it features Juicy Lucy and Crazy Mabel, two more obscure bands); and a sex film with hardly any nudity. It therefore fails on all counts. The actors aren't very likeable, the story is deathly dull and the script has no flair at all. It feels weirdly old-fashioned, with the references to porn and drugs feeling out of place in a storyline about can-do kids getting things done.

      There is one nice sequence where the hippies drive around London in an old vintage car, and some footage from the Isle of Wight festival. That's about all I can find to say in this one's favour, though. 16 minutes of silent outtakes from Bread are also included as an extra. I didn't watch them.

      Other than that, the DVD has a trailer for Permissive (quite interesting, it focuses more on music than sex); and a short film about a hippy trying to buy condoms. That one's also on the BFI's sex education compilation. There's also a good booklet, as there always is with BFI DVDs, giving background information and putting the films in context.

      I was genuinely impressed with Permissive. It's a bitter little film that's probably a lot closer to the truth of the 60s rock scene than anything else you're likely to see. If you like your films bleak and dirty, give this a look.

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