Beat Girl: BFI Flipside Review

Rock with the cool kids in Brit exploitationer Beat Girl, released on dual-format by BFI Flipside.

When her widowed father (David Farrar) brings home his rather younger new wife, Nichole (Noëlle Adam), teenaged Jenny (Gillian Hills) hangs out at the Off Beat coffee bar in Soho, along with friends Dave (Adam Faith) and Dodo (Shirley Anne Field). Across the road is the strip club Les Girls, run by the sleazy Kenny (Christopher Lee). And then Jenny discovers something about Nichole’s past…

By the late Fifties, rock’n’roll had arrived in the UK, to much handwringing from older folk about how a younger generation, born during the War and so too young to remember much if any of it directly, was being led astray. That was reflected in the decisions of the British Board of Film Censors of the day, which made heavy cuts to The Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause and which banned The Wild One outright. If youth was running wild, it wouldn’t be seen to be doing it in the cinemas of this green and pleasant land. But if the music and the cultural influences were coming from the United States, soon Britain had its own scene, its own beat groups and, as per this film, its own beat girls and boys, gathering in coffee bars and dancing to the latest sounds from the jukebox. If it seems a little quaint now, don’t forget that, as with future youth movements (such as punk, nearly two decades later), many people were actually scared of a teenage demographic which, with the help of full employment and an end of post-war austerity, wanted to make a world for itself, one not in the form their parents envisaged. Beat Girl like Expresso Bongo from the same year, 1959 (and released simultaneously with this by BFI Flipside), falls halfway between Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” (memorably played over the opening credits of The Blackboard Jungle) and the start of the Beatles and the Stones and the beginning of what we think of as the Sixties. In both films, we see something of a British response to the music coming from across the Atlantic: Cliff Richard (and, briefly, the Shadows) in Expresso Bongo, and here, a local pop star in the making, Adam Faith.

But Beat Girl isn’t as high-minded as that. One of a growing number of British films intended to take advantage of the (relative) licence of the X certificate which had been introduced earlier in the decade, restricting audiences to those aged sixteen and over. It’s at heart an exploitation movie, coasting on particular trends, and the work of filmmakers who, due to the nature of the film industry, were older rather than younger (director Edmond T. Gréville was in his fifties),giving a notionally younger audience what it seemed to want. And as well as the beatnik slang and the music, that’s also as much titillation – courtesy of the strip-club scenes – as you could get away with within the bounds of the X. A generation has shifted: David Farrar, fifty-one years old, who twelve years later had made the nuns hot and bothered in Black Narcissus is now the safe, dull father who’s a “square” as the young folk put it, and so out of it his daughter, played by an actress thirty-six years younger, rebels against him. It’s interesting that his great project in life is as the architect of a city for the year 2000, at a time when that year denoted THE FUTURE more than anything else, because in this film he’s very much a figure of the past.

Gillian Hills, fifteen when this film was made, had made one film before: the Roger Vadim version of Les liaisons dangereuses. As written, there’s not a lot to her character than a youth-runs-wild stereotype, but she gives the role quite some presence. Noëlle Adam, imported from France, speaking with her native accent, seems a bit lost. There aren’t too many demands made on Adam Faith, who did become a very capable actor, but here he gets to do what he then did best: play a guitar and sing. He collaborated with John Barry on the music score, which was among the first soundtrack albums released on twelve-inch vinyl. Christopher Lee, who had then made his reputation in horror, is effectively slimy as the villain of the piece. Further down the cast are Shirley Anne Field (who has a song of her own) and Oliver Reed. This was a studio production (at MGM British in Borehamwood) but the black and white camerawork from Free Cinema veteran Walter Lassally gives the proceedings a realism it might otherwise lack.

Needless to say, Beat Girl was given a rough ride from the BBFC, who made the somewhat lofty comment that the film was “the product of squalid and illiterate minds”. Even with a X certificate, the striptease scenes suffered cuts, as did the scene where the teenagers Jenny hangs around with lie down on railway lines. Like many people I suspect, I first saw Beat Girl in 1995, shown uncut as part of BBC2’s three-night Forbidden Weekend. VHS and DVD releases followed, and now it is available on Blu-ray as part of the BFI’s Flipside line.

The Disc

Beat Girl is BFI Flipside release number 30, dual-format comprising one Blu-ray disc and one DVD, both encoded for all regions. A checkdisc of the former was supplied for review. What was once restricted to the over-sixteens with cuts now bears a 12 certificate. The overall package is a 15, due to the two short films Beauty in Brief and Goodnight with Sabrina among the extras. The other short film, Cross-Roads, is rated PG.

Beat Girl is provided in three versions. The main one is the uncut UK theatrical version, mastered at 2K from the original camera negative. This runs 87:42. Among the extras are an Alternative Version, apparently tailored for certain overseas countries, and an Extended Version (92:09 and 92:38 respectively). Both of these contain an additional scene straight after the opening credits (which play over a flashforward to a scene later on in what would have been the first reel in a 35mm print), of Paul and Nichole on a train. This cuts to their arrival at their house in a taxi, which is the first scene after the credits in the theatrical version. The difference between the two longer cuts is that the Alternative Version contains softer versions of two scenes which are unexpurgated in both the theatrical and extended. These are replacement shots in the Pascaline exotic dance (quite noticeable due to a change of contrast and increased grain) and some shots deleted in the late scene where Kenny is trying to persuade Jenny to go away with him (a close-up of his baring her shoulder and another of his hand caressing the back of her head). On the DVD, only the theatrical and extended cuts are present, with the different versions of those two scenes in the alternative cut presented as a separate item running three minutes.

All three versions are in a ratio of 1.66:1. There’s really nothing to complain about concerning the transfer, which is sharp and detailed, with blacks, whites and greyscale as it should be. There’s a noticeable dip in resolution with the additional opening train scene, inevitably as that was sourced from a digibeta master.

The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as LPCM 2.0, as it would have been heard in the cinemas at the time and since. It’s clear and well-balanced. English subtitles are available for the feature but not the extras, though Beauty in Brief and Goodnight with Sabrina contain no dialogue needing subtitling.

Other than the variant cuts of the film, the extras begin with a new interview with Gillian Hills (25:26) which talks about her experiences of making the film and how she and the other younger cast members (including Adam Faith, whom she fancied, though he was in love with Shirley Anne Field) tended to unite against the older crew members. There’s not much about her later career which included (along with Jane Birkin and David Hemmings) a censorship watershed in Blowup and several other roles in the Sixties and early Seventies, as well as working as a singer.

“Cross-Roads” (19:17), a short film made in 1954, probably didn’t play as support to Beat Girl but its connection here is Christopher Lee, before Dracula but in full-on sinister mode (including a big close-up emphasising his eyes) in a nicely-done brief supernatural tale.

There doesn’t appear to be much information about both Beauty in Brief (3:50) and Goodnight with Sabrina (3:49), with the BFI dating them as circa 1955 and circa 1958 respectively. Both were primarily intended for a certain clientèle (dirty mac optional) to purchase on 8mm or 16mm to project at their leisure – the fact that the former was made by a company called Pin-Up Productions will tell you all you need to know. That said, it seems there was an attempt to get these films into cinemas, as both were rejected by the BBFC in 1959. (Both now bear 15 certificates.) In the first, with just a music score and silent-movie-type intertitles, shows a young woman, seemingly in search of a wedding outfit, dressing and undressing in what looks like a hotel room, with any too-overt nudity hidden by a translucent nightgown. In the latter film, we see Sabrina, a statuesque blonde best known as Arthur Askey’s comedy sidekick on television in the mid-Fifties, arriving in an evening gown showing off her hour-and-a-half-glass figure, then disrobing and enjoying a bubble bath before posing for the camera in a negligée. Viewers at the time would only have needed one hand to operate the projector. All three shorts are presented in 1.33:1.

The BFI’s booklet runs to twenty pages, and has a spoiler warning, so read it after you’ve watched Beat Girl. It begins with a two-page piece, “Gillian Hills Remembers Beat Girl“. Inevitably this overlaps with the twenty-five-minute interview on the disc. Vic Pratt’s essay “Beat Girl: Dig that, daddy-o!” is his appreciation of the film, concentrating on the musical aspects and Adam Faith’s participation in particular. Jonny Trunk discusses John Barry’s score and the soundtrack album and Jo Botting contributes a biography of director Gréville (French-born, hence the accent aigu), much of whose filmography, as she points out, isn’t easy to see nowadays. Also in the booklet are advertising blocks for the film and soundtrack album, film credits, credits and notes for the extras, and transfer notes.


Updated: Apr 27, 2016

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