Primitive London Review

The BFI’s second Arnold Louis Miller exploitational pseudo-documentary takes another look at the unknown side of London in the swinging sixties. Noel Megahey reviews.

We are a civilised people they will say, and they’ll be insulted to be reminded that they are also animals

By the time it comes to Primitive London, the intentions of maverick filmmakers Louis Miller and Stanley Long are not quite as clear cut as their previous collaborations, even if the character of those other London exploitation films was one of ambivalence. The 1959 Street Offences Act was the main target for their attentions in West End Jungle (1961), apparently lauding it for sweeping the filth of prostitution off the streets of London, while at the same time delighting in staging titillating scenes that showed that the law just placed a veneer of respectability on the profession, but still allowed punters to find ways around the regulations. London In The Raw (1964) similarly revelled in the spectacle of legalised strip joints and casinos that grew up in their place and in how the new liberalism showed up the contradictions in the English nature between their suppressed urges and the need to maintain of appearances of respectability. The target is somewhat wider in Primitive London, the tone more ‘Mondo’, the film going to greater lengths to uncover the primitive urges that lie behind the respectable appearances of our modern society, but it consequently also ends up being somewhat random and unfocussed.

As far as structure goes, lip-service is paid only in the form of bookending scenes of a newborn baby being born, the film in-between having an open form of what lies in store for the child in this bizarre modern world, where appearances are not all that they seem. Rather randomly then on the subject of appearances, the film considers whether the child may want to buy a hat or whether he will grow up to be a Mod, a Rocker or – as if it’s the only viable alternative – a Pinball Machine addict. In this strange world, he needs to beware that the roles of men and women are no longer quite so reliably defined, with women even taking part in judo, having tattoos and boosting their charms of “a good pair of legs and a well-built body” with padding, make-up and false eyelashes – (all this long before cosmetic surgery became commonplace, a procedure this film would otherwise have revelled in showing) – truly, appearances can be deceptive!

The scene of the childbirth however is indeed depicted bloodily and graphically, giving some idea of deceptions that are being employed by the filmmakers and what the real intentions of Primitive London are, and that is, rather like London In The Raw, to use the pseudo-documentary format to shock the viewer with the kind of images that could at that period not otherwise be shown on the screen. There are certainly images here just as painful and revolting as the hair-plug surgery in the earlier film, with everything from goldfish surgery and a chicken processing plant to Jack the Ripper (reportedly only added to boost the film up to an ‘X’ certificate from an ‘A’) – never missing a sensationalist opportunity to once again gaze on the shocking degradation of the lives of prostitutes.

That makes the film sound rather more structured and thematically coherent than it really is. In between women taking part with men in judo bouts (but not too aggressively, otherwise how will he be able to sign the cheques for that new dress!), it lurches between wrestling, knights in suits of armour, the “combat” of a beauty parade to tattooing, Turkish baths and jeans shrinking – with a rather bizarre over-extended skit on a radio advertising recording session featuring Barry Cryer – schizophrenically leaping between musical interludes of Mendelssohn, Mod group The Zephyrs and girlie shows from Churchills nightclub. What limited novelty and trivia there is in such subject matter is enlivened it must be said by the contortions of the script to shoehorn them all into a common theme. David Gell’s narration remains as hysterical as ever – really getting its teeth into wife-swapping “key parties” (“the final degradation of love – the sex lottery”) – the documentary style changed slightly to include some genuine interviews rather than what in West End Jungle and London In The Raw sound like scripted ones read out by actors.

Strangest of all are some bizarrely awkward interjections into the narrative by “Louis” (presumably the director) and “Henry”, playing up on the random episodic nature of the film’s skits as if it were a tug of war between the filmmakers to balance the arty cultural observations with more scenes of naked girls. With scenes showing women modelling topless swimsuits, gratuitous stripping and, tying in with the whole combat theme of this “modern aggressive world”, the topless stage-show performance of the cat-woman who graces the DVD cover, Louis certainly gets his way.


Primitive London is released on Blu-ray in the UK by the BFI as part of their ‘BFI Flipside’ strand of films. The film is held on a BD50 disc and comes with a 1080/24p encode. Extra features are all also presented in full HD. The disc is not region coded.

Like London In The Raw, Primitive London is derived from the original 35mm negative and looks most impressive in High-Definition. Most of the comments made about the transfer on the earlier film also hold true here – the colours bold and bright, capturing the glamour of the nightclub show stage-sets and lighting at Churchills, while also showing terrific definition and shadow detail. Blacks remain solid and more stable than they often look on a regular Standard Definition DVD, while close-ups of faces reveal just how good the detail is in skin tones. There is none of the brightness flicker occasionally noted in the London In The Raw transfer, the image here much more fluid and stable, and there are only a few fleeting flecks evident. Again, the grain structure of the print is evident in freeze-frame, but invisible in motion, showing how well the transfer is encoded. It’s hard to imagine this looking much better than it is presented here.

The film’s original mono audio track is presented in PCM 2.0 (48k/24-bit). The audio is rather clearer here than on London In The Raw, with sounds and dialogue robust throughout and the music score having an effective punch.
A French audio track is also included, with English subtitles, the narration in the few sections I sampled wonderfully replicating the tone and content of the original.

English Hard of Hearing subtitles are provided for the main feature and all extra features. There are in a clear white font and are optional.

The original Trailer (1:59) is included, setting saucy strip dances appealingly to the beat music of The Zephyrs – “their desire for pleasure is gratified in Primitive London”.

A short 1965 staged-documentary film Carousella (26:22), directed by John Irvin, takes a rather more considered view of the nature of the strip joints, following the lives of three young women on and off the stage. Inspired by the nouvelle vague (notably in a Cambridge boating scene that recalls Jules et Jim), the documentary is marvellously photographed – particularly the girls’ dancing routines – and uniquely staged). Despite a few minor marks in one or two places, the HD transfer of the black-and-white photography is simply breathtaking.

From 1967, the Al Burnett Interview (17:11) provides some fascinating rundown on the vagaries of the UK’s ridiculous gambling and liquor licensing laws from one of the entrepreneurs of the London 60’s club scene, as well as the ingenuous ways in which they were flouted. A 1968 Stuart McCabe Interview (15:23) reveals the difficulties of opening and obtaining a license to run a strip joint. Smartly dressed and well-spoken, every inch the businessman, McCabe details how growth in the industry exploded with prostitutes being cleared off the streets under the Streets Offences Acts and how attitudes towards a more permissive society have changed. One of the girls speaks in the Shirley Interview (6:19), explaining how a girl gets into the business of stripping and why, but in-depth information is rather harder to come by.

A 40-page high-quality booklet is included, lavishly illustrated with production stills. It contains a superb essay by Iain Sinclair – one of the great visionary explorers of all things London – describing the film’s dubious qualities in his delightful poetic-prose style. Among the other notes, credits, essays and technical details on the transfers, there is a look at the French translation of Primitive London, some interesting facts about the film by Stanley Long, another dismissive review from Monthly Film Bulletin, as well as biographies of Arnold Miller and Stanley Long. There is also a review of Carousella and notes on the film by John Irvin.

Compared to the earlier London In The Raw it’s rather harder to justify any serious documentary purpose for Primitive London, the film shamelessly giving itself a broad canvas to exploit the strange, the bizarre and the nude. It certainly still has some novelty value and historical interest however, and is an entertaining if rather random and innocent look back at a time that is not so long ago, but which seems like a different world entirely. BFI’s Blu-ray release of the film is most impressive, the quality of the transfer certainly justifying the High-Definition release, the fine extra features certainly justifying a purchase.


Updated: May 25, 2009

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