Primitive London (UK - BD RB)
The Wilson Brothers dig the Primitive beat with this BD release from the BFI...
There is something within the human psyche that make you want to slow down and rubberneck at a car accident; something that compels you to seek out the more unpleasant and outrageous aspects of life and become fascinated by them…
The trend for ‘Mondo’ movies that began with Gualtiero Jacopetti’s 1962 opus Mondo Cane exploded in around the world and the desire for similar movies was intense. Producers Michael Klinger and Tony Tenser (the latter would set up his own notorious company, Tigon) seized upon the idea of making a movie that would document some of the wilder aspects of England’s pre-swinging capitol and the result was Primitive London.
With a cheerful mid-Atlantic accented voiceover (Canadian radio personality David Gell), we are presented with footage of a light-aircraft taking off from an airfield and presumably to make its literal and metaphorical descent into Primitive London.
This film tries to top what had been seen in London in the Raw—the opening sequence showing a woman giving birth and the child’s subsequent desperate struggle for life is a perfect example—and though the results will be more pleasing to viewers who are watching for the sensation aspect, it feels less structured and focused than the previous movie.
After very briefly skimming over the importance of a good education and being born into anything other than a working class background (this would soon start to change), the film soon jumps into that new and threatening class of human being, the Teen-Ager! Mods and Rockers are examined in this documentary, but they are painted as being fairly amiable—Mods are seen trying on and purchasing clothing from the trendy male boutiques that starting springing up everywhere and the somewhat more inarticulate Rockers are interviewed in a late-night cafe—it would have been far more exploitative to show a gang of Rockers kicking living shit out of some Mods, but that might have been a bit too much for viewers at that time. It's interesting to note that The Beatles' ‘Can't Buy Me’ Love is heard prominently on the soundtrack, as the Fab Four started off as Rockers who were eventually dressed in Mod suits and became globally famous. Beatniks are also covered, but more on them later...
At this point, the voiceover then says that there is another category of young person who exists outside of the Mods, Rockers and Beatniks—these are people addicted to the horrors of... pinball machines! Seriously, they put up a reasonable argument, saying that they are content to remain in passivity, indulging in something that has no actual value and they are content to do this rather than engage in real life. Over four decades on, this observation is even more applicable to computer game addicts, as the level of submersion is far deeper than that of a pinball machine.
As fun as Primitive London is, it is true to say there are several sequences that are so unconvincing that they make the some faked scenes from Faces of Death III look a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking. Primitive London accuses the twentieth century of being synthetic—the irony is that this comes just after one of the most blatantly staged sequences in the thing, that shows a voiceover artist in a recording studio trying to record a line for a coffee commercial. We are sure that many viewers will be scratching their heads and wondering what the hell these scenes are all about. This just feels like an attempt to inject a bit of satire into the proceedings, showing that much of what you see on the big (or small) screen is an illusion. To further blow any sense of credibility to these scenes, one of the sound engineers is played by none other than Barry Cryer! You can’t help but get the feeling that because Cryer has been writing comedy for the best part of half a century, he was possibly responsible for penning these scenes. This material really isn’t very amusing and would only be found funny by people who actually work in that arena. It has to be said that the presence of Cryer is probably the main thing that destroys a sense of verisimilitude—if ever something takes you out of a movie it’s the appearance of Barry Cryer…
Speaking of undeniably fake pieces, there is one sequence that recaps the infamous misadventures of Jack the Ripper, complete with pretty atmospheric reconstruction of Jack stalking one of his victims, but this is merely done as a segue into a sequence that suggests a modern-day Ripper was on the prowl just as London started to swing.
There is a sequence that takes place in an upmarket hat shop—the voiceover emphasises the importance of hats and how it is socially advantageous to have a custom-made titfer on your head, but this footage was shot at a time when social fashions and conventions were changing and wearing some sort of hat in public all the time was rapidly evaporating. There are those who feel that the lower classes began to forget their place when the customary wearing of hats went out of fashion—if this is the case, then we’re only too pleased that it did, as the class system is a load of bollocks. Getting back to Primitive London, we can’t help but feel that this scene was included for one of two reasons—firstly, to try and steer the lower classes back into hat-doffing subservience; or secondly, the producers were given a back-hander by the national milliner’s association in order to prevent their trade from slipping into extinction. Maybe it was a mixture of both…
At one point, the voiceover muses that if women suffered from baldness, they’d be working around the clock to find a cure (some women do suffer from hair loss—it’s called alopecia)—this seems to be a reversal on the old observation that if men had to contend with PMT, then scientists would have come up with a cure a long time ago.
There is footage of a beauty contest, where young hopefuls are seen primping and preening to look their best for the judges. Considering that this documentary was shot a few scant years after Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom came out, you would have thought that many potential models would have been put off modelling for life.
Staying with the subject of health and beauty, there is footage of an archetypal sixties muscle-man and the ever-mocking voiceover guy muses that where female perfection is to be adored, the body-beautiful male is more amusing than anything—of course, this was in the days before performers like the Chippendales sent women of all ages into a sexual frenzy.
There are numerous musical numbers filmed in some of London's nightclubs—the first one to be heard is a fairly mundane version of ‘What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For?’, sung by a woman who is irritatingly intent on pronouncing every single letter in every single word of the song.
Naturally progressing from this last segment is a piece on wrestling—this will give people of a certain age a nostalgic frisson, as legendary British grappler Mick McManus is shown doing what he does best. The old phrase ‘no holds barred’ is used, differing from mixed-wrestling where no holes are barred….
One of the more interesting pieces in Primitive London is a sequence which features teen heartthrob Billy J Kramer making a personal appearance at a record shop, where he is mobbed by a gaggle of young, adoring female fans. The fleeting nature of fame is sharply demonstrated by the appearance of slightly faded teen heartthrob Terry Dene amongst the teenaged throng and the kids don’t even recognise him. It must have been pretty hard for Dene to agree to appear in something that blatantly paints him as a has-been, but you have to applaud his decision for doing so, as it really puts the fickle nature of fame into perspective.
Some of what seemed vaguely sensational to include in Primitive London is now so commonplace that viewers without an idea of social British history before the 1980s will be either scratching their heads in befuddlement or just laughing hysterically. The self-defence classes for women are a perfect example of this—at the time, women were just starting to come across as more than just wives and kiddie-bearers; shock, horror—they were actually interested in doing things other than cooking, cleaning and crocheting. The viewer is treated to a self-defence class populated by female students, with the voiceover guy having an interesting mixture of sincerity and mockery. Martial arts were still considered exotic at the time, and the prospect of showing some of the weaker sex indulging in mystical forms of attack and defence must have been like catnip to Arnold L Miller. Whilst it’s nice to see footage of early modern female empowerment, Primitive London includes it for sensationalism and little else, which could seen upon as exploiting women. The same goes for a similar section that shows a woman having a bird tattooed on her person (it looks like a swallow—still, it’s better than a spit)—shocking stuff indeed. One of us has a dear friend who has a tattoo on her pubic mound; imagine if they had showed something like that in Primitive London.
The shock value has certainly been increased—apart from the opening scene, which is usually pretty gruelling stuff for most males—there is a sequence that shows the systematic slaughter and processing of chickens in an abattoir, which is finger-licking good, and there is also surgery being performed on a goldfish, which makes for a bizarre experience—some would say that it would be easier and cheaper to flush the thing down the crapper and get another one.
There is a sequence that lambastes the upcoming comedians of the time, emphasising that these were no longer the ‘comics’ of old, but ‘comedians’, who were ruthless and able to speak the unspoken thoughts of the masses. During this scene, comedian Ray Martine (who would go on to appear on Joker’s Wild with his Primitive London co-star Barry Cryer) is seen on-stage, doing his stand-up shtick, which included pops at the Rolling Stones, Harold Wilson, amongst others—it was fairly innocuous stuff, but God knows what they would have made of Lenny Bruce...
Probably the highlight of the movie is the sequence that involves wife-swapping; set in a middle-class suburban home, a group of well-off couple get together to drink and play silly party games before the climax (no pun intended) of the evening’s entertainment rolls out. Rather than just being a straightforward look at how these key-in-a-bowl shindigs work, the viewer is introduced to one poor berk who starts to experience feelings of growing anxiety and regret as the evening goes on—he still leaves the place with someone other than his significant other, but at least his moral compass is still showing some signs of pointing vaguely in the direction of north.
For those wanting to know just how far Primitive London goes in terms of showing female flesh, the answer is further than London in the Raw, but not that far; there is copious usage of pasties in the show, but there are some unfettered tits on display. For those of you who are interested in seeing anything of the basement shameful bits, the opening birth scene tastefully shows a jack’n’danny, but anyone who finds this scene in any way erotic is seriously disturbed and requires immediate help.
About the only sequence in Primitive London that does not seem as though it was scripted and rehearsed comes when a group of beatniks are interviewed—because of this, the movie comes across as being more judgemental than London in the Raw because the interviewer is trying to trip up the subjects with smart-arsed quips and also merely asking them about their social and employment status can be seen as a form of attack, as this interview was filmed when Britain was experiencing a boom period and it seemed socially unacceptable to be unemployed. There is one interviewee who is able to give as good as he gets and Larry, as he is known, has a ready wit that he uses to confound the somewhat elitist interviewer—good on ya, Larry!
Primitive London is fun for those who crave a nostalgia kick and also for those Mondo movie fans who don't like 'em too graphic—other than the chicken slaughter footage, the fairly explicit birth during the opening is probably about as strong as it gets—but those who could be offended can take solace in the fact that the air of uncertainty about the future of the decidedly blue-looking newborn is resolved at the end of the movie, where we can all sign with relief and coo (affecting our best Dara O'Brien impersonation) ’Aww, loogada little baybee!’.
The BFI has come up trumps again. The full-frame, 1.33:1 1080p image on Primitive London is simply jaw-dropping. Taken from the original 35mm negative, the freshness and vibrancy of the image is just astonishing—colours and remarkably rich and deep; the lurid reds and greens are particularly breathtaking. The image is so sharp that you could practically cut yourself on it. There is no edge enhancement or haloing to speak of.
There is certainly grain present, but it's healthy and normal (like the ingredients in a Eat Natural bar) and as such, we have no problems with that—we’d rather see the natural grain than having everybody looking as though they were shot with a Lucille Ball lens. Primitive London looks almost as though it was shot yesterday, which is pretty damn good, seeing as it was a low-budget exploitationer filmed four and a half decades ago.
The film comes with a 48 kHz/24 bit PCM 2.0 Mono track that is pretty good, but can’t really compete with the superb image quality. There are no problems with hiss or distortion; the almost ethereal opening music comes across nicely, as does the musical interlude with Mod group, The Zephyrs.
Also included for your aural pleasure is a French-language track—you can pretend that Primitive London is a more upmarket documentary by switching over to the French track and putting on English subtitles…
Documentary: Carousella: Clocking in at twenty-six minutes, this B&W documentary is a look at stripping from the perspectives of three women working within the industry; one of them is a good-time girl who likes American sailors, another is full-time mother and the last one is a dusky part-Middle-Eastern woman. Whilst it is interesting to hear how they all got into stripping and how they view themselves within society, you are more than aware that they were consciously picked because they are so different. This is an entertaining documentary that could be considered more socially relevant than the main feature, as this is just presented in a very matter-of-fact fashion, free from the sensationalism that runs through Primitive London—however, the only sequence that feels staged is the boating trip through Cambridge, featuring two of the oldest US sailors ever put to sea, they were rowing the boat, so that would make them punters in more ways than one...
Interview: Al Burnett: Burnett was the owner of London’s Stork Club and in this seventeen minute interview, he speaks about the legal problems he faced operating such an establishment and what methods were used to get around licensing laws (ordering a bottle of whiskey from an off-licence during opening hours and having it delivered to a club later on was one such method). Burnett had been in the skin-club industry for decades and he paints a fascinating picture of the changing attitudes towards such places between the thirties and what was then the present day.
Interview: Stuart McCabe: The owner of another strip club is put before the cameras in this fifteen minute piece. McCabe is a witty and intelligent individual, who like Burnett, provides an invaluable insight into how strip-clubs were operated. The anecdote about him watching a seemingly respectable woman shooting up in a crowded tube-train is quite eye-opening.
Interview: Shirley: This six minute interview with a stripper by the (stage) name of Shirley contains nothing particularly revelatory or shocking, but it provides an interesting look at how a ‘nice’ young woman got into the business. All three of these interviews were filmed as part of a proposed television series—entitled Now and Then—that barely made it off the drawing board. It's nice to see that these interviews survive and now vividly paint a picture of how things were back then. Wonderful stuff!
Trailer: Letting you know what you are in for, this coming attraction certainly whets your appetite for Primitive London.
Booklet: Whilst not an extra on the disc, Primitive London comes with a nice, thick little booklet, providing you with a huge amount of background information on the documentary, the people behind it and essays on the thing, not to mention additional information on the bonus material. This booklet is an absolute thing of beauty, as it really enriches the whole package and is conclusive proof that the concept of including literature inside DVD cases is not dead!
Primitive London is a movie that will find a ready-made audience. Time has robbed the film of its' ability to shock, but the march of time has caused something far more significant and socially meaningful–it has transmogrified Primitive London into an invaluable time capsule; a snap-shot of a period when great social change was underway and this documentary was showing things just as the change was beginning to occur. The work that the BFI has put into this release shows with every luminescent frame and they have managed to raise the gold standard of film restoration to a completely new level. We can't recommend this highly enough!
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Wilson Bros
Suitable only for persons of 15 years and over
Release Date: 25th May 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Aspect: 1.33:1 Full Frame
Audio: PCM 2.0 Mono English, PCM 2.0 Mono French
Subtitles: English, English HoH
Extras: Carousella, Interviews, Theatrical Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Arnold Louis Miller
Cast: Barry Cryer, Ray Martine, Billy J Kramer, Terry Dene
Length: 87 minutes
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