Given that any hint of cinematic sexism is now immediately pounced on by critics – even if the sexism in question comes from a character who is supposed to be an unreconstructed male – I can only imagine the reaction from people to All Neat in Black Stockings. Even taking into account the film’s age, I can see this as the feminist’s worst nightmare – and for once, I couldn’t really argue with them. This is, after all, a film that has a hero who is a ‘plonker’, a term given new meaning by Only Fools and Horses but here used to describe a bloke who swaps girls with his mate. This seems a dubious activity at its best, treating women as chattels, but the fact that the girls sometimes don’t even know that they in bed with the wrong man – portrayed here as a comical event – is astonishing. You’d be up on a rape charge if you tried that today.
This, plus the fact that the women in the film are routinely referred to as ‘it’ – literally objectified, sometimes to their faces – would certainly suggest that this is the work of the worst sort of Sixties male chauvinist. But there’s a complication – the screenplay, and the novel it is based on, were written by a woman, Jane Gaskell. And as you watch the film, it’s not always certain that this is a misogynistic piece – in fact, men are portrayed so badly and one dimensionally that you could equally accuse it of misandry. In this film, men really are all beasts.
Victor Henry plays Ginger, a laddish window cleaner who picks up a sexy continental nurse while cleaning the hospital and then spends his date with her in the pub trying to pull the innocent Jill (Susan George), who he first encounters when transfixed by her fishnet-clad legs (which, to be fair, I can’t blame him for). Ginger is an extension of the sort of character we’ve seen in swinging London movies, from Alfie onwards – laddish, sex mad and unwilling to commit himself to just one bird – until he meets the right bird, of course, and then his cosy life all falls apart. Surrounding him is best mate Dwyer (Jack Shepherd), his fellow plonker and one of the biggest cocks you’ll ever see in a Sixties movie – seriously, he’s a complete dick – and his put-upon sister Cicely (Anna Cropper), heavily pregnant while her unfaithful waster husband (Harry Towb) carries on with other women under her nose.
Things start to fall apart for Ginger as he begins to court Jill, never getting the chance to get his end away thanks to her possessive mother. Unfortunately, Dwyer is luckier, and Jill ends up pregnant, leading to an ill-thought out marriage to Ginger that you assume will lead to years of misery for both of them.
All Neat in Black Stockings is an odd hybrid – part sex comedy, part dour social drama. Certainly, the Swinging London of this film is defiantly working class and grim – it’s all grotty pubs, bedsits and suburban curtain twitching rather than nightclubs, rock bands and dolly birds. The film might be portraying the sexual revolution, but this isn’t some hippy idea of free love – just blokes looking to get their leg over and sow their wild oats. They treat women as objects and there’s no suggestion that they suspect that these women might also have desires – they are just there to be used. But the film does suggest that they are mistaken in this belief – Jill might blame Ginger for the fact that Dwyer got to her first (Dwyer thinking she was just another girl to be ‘plonked’), but nevertheless, Jill obviously agreed to have sex with him. Not that the movie exactly feels like it is striking a blow for female sexuality – it still seems like men are the predators and women are the prey, and that seems insulting to both sexes.
This mix of comedy and social realism is sometimes awkward, sometimes effective. Within a decade, the British sex comedy stripped away the guilt, the hypocrisy and the dour reality of this story to give us Robin Askwith, another window cleaner but this time engaging in happy sex with women who were sexually rapacious and unashamed. All Neat in Black Stockings might be the better film, but I’d suggest that Confessions of a Window Cleaner has the better attitude.
As a time capsule though, this is a fascinating, often rewarding film. Henry does his best in an often thankless role – there’s little to like in Ginger, quite frankly and even his attempts to do ‘the right thing’ seem self-serving. Susan George is good, too – given how much of a Sixties and Seventies glamour girl she was, it’s easy to forget how she could easily slip into the role of an ordinary working class girl, and she’s entirely convincing here.
This is a museum piece, certainly. You need to remember that the past was a different country while you watch the film (and the attitudes displayed and accepted by men and women in the film certainly go a long way to explaining why so many people are now being hauled through the courts as a result of wandering hands in the 1960s), and be prepared for a movie that is very much of its time – not just in attitude but in the strange combination of farce and kitchen sink drama. A curio, but one worth watching with an open mind and a suspension of modern social values.