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Mar 10, 2009

Interview: Mike Wallington

by editor

Dressing for Pleasure

As part of LIDF’s John Samson Retrospective, independent film-maker Mike Wallington, John Samson’s long time collaborator and producer of Tattoo, Dressing For Pleasure, Britannia and Arrows talks to Kamila Kuc about the unique status of the work he and Samson made together.

Kamila Kuc: How did you meet John Samson?

Mike Wallington: I first met John at the NFS [National Film School, now the National Film & Television School], in 1973, when we both applied as students for the second year’s intake. John brought along to his interview his Maryhill photo portfolio and a homemade no-budget film about a Glasgow street musician, Charlie Williamson. I brought along some borrowed East African natural history footage shot on a wind-up Bolex camera and some Joseph Cornell-styled ‘boxes’ I’d made using the craniums of monkeys.

KK: When and how did the NFS start?

MW: The NFS started in 1972, probably a few months too early. All that happened in the first term was an infamous crash of the school’s Land Rover, a spectacular explosion of some stored nitrate film stock and the defection to the industry proper of Bill Forsyth, who wouldn’t hang around. Students had large budgets. Only jet pilots had more money spent on the training of each student.

KK: Were there many documentaries made at NFS?

MW: The NFS made decent ‘intervention’ pieces: Steve Morrison’s ground-breaking open-ended film ‘documents’ which aimed to get Catholics and Protestants to have a dialogue on camera, Ben Lewin’s coverage of the fight to save the whales, and a clutch of films which got as close as you can get to miners and mining communities.
A second group of documentary filmmakers was led by Colin Young, who promoted an aesthetic of non-intervention. We learnt a lot about anthropological film-making from Colin – there wasn’t a student enrolled who couldn’t thread the argument of a story together without commentary. In fact, I’d be more provocative and I’d say that these years in the mid-70s were the golden age of the documentary without commentary. It was at the NFS that new approaches to voice-over were tested and the generation that graduated then took the revived aesthetic into television – film-makers like Kim Longinotto, Jana Bokova, Nick Broomfield.
Then there was another smaller group of documentary film-makers at the NFS whose work was neither overtly political nor ethnographic. These students were immersed in popular culture, they were often more aware of stylistics and the role of metaphors in film than were the fiction film-makers, they had fairly acute narrative sensibility and they liked to experiment with form and content. I guess I “belonged” to this group. And John Samson was its primary exponent.

KK: How do you remember John from those times?

MW: John was a determined defender of the creative possibilities of the working man and woman. He knew about dry stone walling, about pie-making, about Warhol and he boasted of an aunt who was an unreconstructed Stalinist. Unlike some of his fellow students, he had lived a bit, too. He was a social worker in Easterhouse (razor-gang capital and one of the few police no-go areas in Glasgow), and a leading figure in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

KK: How did you get to make Dressing For Pleasure?

MW: As part of the Tattoo research, John met some remarkable people with extreme tastes and he discovered some secret clubs in London and the Home Counties that met to dress up in kinky clothes – and have sex. That is how the idea for Dressing For Pleasure started. At that time, the only “high-street” shop willing to openly sell fetish wear was Sex in the King’s Road, a hang-out for punks. It was owned by Vivenne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. McClaren had just come back from America where he’d made friends with the New York Dolls, Vivienne Westwood was already showing the early signs that she’d become Britain’s greatest fashion bricoleur, and the Sex Pistols were coat-hangers for some of the shops T-shirts and “S&M” gear. But we were dealing with the real McCoy: pet-shop owners from Tewksbury who brought their own collection of dog collars and leashes, a man from the BBC with countless all-encompassing rubber suits with matching masks, Paul from Portsmouth who cross-dressed as a dominatrix, and housewives in mackintoshes.
Remember the times. 1976 – this is before the explosion in top-shelf magazines, before cable TV, before celebrity sex tapes. The only really swinging clubs were gay, and even those you’d have to describe as discreet. There was no fetish scene. Instead there were lots of different communities, usually with its own do-it-yourself house magazine, all very proto-punk, and very underground. John’s great talent lay in getting obsessives to talk and perform.

KK: Both Tattoo and Dressing For Pleasure were shot in Beaconsfield Studios?

MW: For Tattoo and Dressing For Pleasure, John had the free use of the massive main sound stage at Beaconsfield Studios, where the NFS made its home.  Before it was decommissioned as a working studio in the 60s, the last feature film to be shot there was a Norman Wisdom comedy, but it had been associated with greats of the British film establishment – Alexander Korda, Michael Balcon, John Grierson, people like that. Between 1966 and 1974 nothing was shot there, it lay dormant, dusty, cold and a bit spooky.  Tattoo used a big old Elemack Spyder dolly and tons of black drapery and black floorpaint for its gallery sequences.  We shot on consecutive weekends because that’s when our tattoos could travel, they had jobs and commitments during the week.  John’s great talent lay in getting obsessives to talk and perform. We advertised in the Evening Standard and Time Out and those who replied to us got a sheet of paper in the post with a body map, front and back, to fill in tattoo styles and positions.  Some of them had signed tattoos, from G Bone and the Skuses. A teacher from the Midlands, I think it was, asked for two body maps and he visited us with his partner whose tattoo he shared.  Their dragon tattoo only joined up when they embraced each other, wrapping itself round both their bodies.

KK: Dressing For Pleasure won an Outstanding Documentary Award at the London Film Festival but it was banned by London Weekend Television.

MW: London Weekend Television arranged and advertised a late-night transmission but the governors got wind of it and the film was banned on the same day that it was due to transmit.  This was probably the beginning of the mythic status of the film. It thenceforth had an underground reputation that grew and grew. That year a staged panel discussion took place at the inaugural showing, including John and some sexologists. They were viciously attacked for not promoting one fetish or another at the expense of all other fetishes.  The most vociferous critic was a blind man who tried to storm the stage.  Also the film was shown at the ICA as part of a Fashion Week organised by Ted Polhemus. More bikers than fetishists turned up to see it.  In December, we had a Christmas Party showing, to which those who positively like the film were invited. A “waitress” was willingly tied up as part of the entertainment but the tier (an expert in Japanese-style bondage) went home early and we could not untie her.

KK: Dressing For Pleasure seems to be one of the most quotable British documentaries of the 70s?

MW: In the 80s we were approached by Le Cinemateque Francais to put together a bunch of our films for showing in Paris.  The package included John’s films, plus my own oddities Champions and Arcade Attack.  Dressing For Pleasure was of course in there too, and the evening’s programme was called “L’Angleterre Insolite” – untranslatable, but very flattering.  Insolite is somewhere between gonzo and strange. Part of the same programme was shown at the London Film-makers’ Co-op and it attracted an art school crowd.
In the 90s the BBC pirated extracts from Dressing For Pleasure for their Punk & The Pistols documentary.  And our friend Julien Temple quoted liberally from it when he made his tribute to the punk era, The Filth & The Fury. In 2004 Vivenne Westwood chose to show Dressing For Pleasure round the clock in a loop as an exhibit in her Retrospective at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Dressing For Pleasure continues to be quoted in many BBC programmes – without permission and without accreditation. Even up to 2009 – the most recent instance is Style On Trial-1970s.  It is a fitting apotheosis to a film that nobody could show, which became a cult film that a lucky few got to see, and is now a film that is absolutely essential viewing for those looking for archive of the mid-70s punk scene.

KK: Then you made Toys.

MW: Toys was made in 1977 and it was 8-minute short, edited from a sequence shot for Dressing For Pleasure but not included in the final cut of that film. It was a guided tour of sex accessories conducted by Glyn and Gerald of Hardcore Leather. The film mysteriously disappeared from the cutting room in 1977, presumed “lost”.

KK: What about the connection with AtomAge magazine?

MW: AtomAge was weird, a full colour occasional publication which was a bouillon of so’westers, inflatable rubber suits, PVC, boxing gloves, gas masks, extreme leather body-bags, dainty little cartoons and almost quaint articles waxing lyrical about the joys of the texture, sound and touch of the materials the clothing was made of. By way of editorial, Sutcliffe ran a column called ‘Dressing For Pleasure’ in each AtomAge – we not only had our mainline man, we had our title, too. With typical brilliance, John Samson dreamed the impossible: he said he thought he could bring the pages of the magazine to life on stage, the same stage where we’d shot Tattoo.

KK: I see a lot of Kenneth Anger in Tattoo and Dressing For Pleasure. What would you say were your major influences of the time?

MW: As regards stylistics, Dressing For Pleasure now seems very much of its age. We were watching Herzog and Warhol, not Derek Jarman or Ken Russell. We were trying to release feelings of intimacy and that requires longer takes, an attention to time passing, bending time. Of course, we knew the Magick Lantern Cycle of Kenneth Anger backwards – especially Kustom Kar Kommandos and Puce Moment – but what we loved was the sensuality of the image and the visceral use of music. Jimmy Vaughan, Anger’s UK distributor and maverick producer/financier of Lucifer Rising, was also a key figure. He’d made a miniature masterpiece called The Moon & The Sledgehammer, directed by Phil Trevelyan, about a strange family who lived deep in the New Forest, which he’d brought to the school to show us. I have no idea what happened to it, it’s probably another lost jewel.

KK: What would you say made yours and John’s films unique?

MW: The aesthetic perhaps. This aesthetic that John and some other fellow students developed at the NFS wasn’t entirely new but it borrowed wisely. It was pioneering, in the sense that it was slap bang in the middle of the debate we started at the NFS (and later continued on Channel Four) about the authoritarian nature of voice-over commentary.
All the films I made with John intentionally avoided voice-over. They breathe easily, they’re natural in exposition and development. Anyone who’s been working in TV recently – let’s say the last decade – will know of the enormous pressure to conform, usually to a house style, and they will have seen the creative role of documentary film-makers diminish because of it. The tedious professional toolkit of so-called story-telling techniques (the lingo of hooks, signposts, jeopardy, traction) has meant the end of civilisation as we know it – not because they are not useful but because they have become the boring norm. They treat the audience as if it were stupid.
Werner Herzog’s poetic documentaries would be our proof of how liberating life without commentary can be.

KK: How did the film Britannia come about?

MW: We met a guy named Barry Wright who was a PR man for the Association of Railway Preservation Societies. He introduced us to a postman and a butcher and a sheet metal worker who were, in their spare time and with about a dozen other volunteers, restoring a steam locomotive.
The film looks at our mighty industrial past to watch a phoenix rise. Its first appeal is to train buffs and to the railway preservation movement. But with its symbolic title and its championship of the efforts of working men to get an old rust-bucket back up to steam again, it majors on the theme of resurrection.
It was a hard film to make – lots of location work (Barry Island in Wales; Bridgnorth and Bewdley in Shropshire), lots of visits over time, difficulties of access for equipment.
The engine graveyard at Barry Island was a nightmare to film in.  Locomotive boilers apparently are lined with asbestos shields. We arrived on a sweltering hot summer day and were climbing all over and even inside these magnificent iron hulks and in the excitement hadn’t recognised the fine dust, very light and airy, which was dancing in the light, clinging low over the engines. This was killer asbestos dust laying itself gently down on our lungs with every breath.
Another of our films, Arrows, is a take on Fat City, a film we saw again and again in the autumn of 1973 when we first met. It proposes that the champion dart player is the modern gunslinger, taking on all comers in the macho halls of working men’s clubs and local radio stations. Not a bad way to earn a living if you’re good enough, but one that takes courage and cockiness.
John was intending to follow the dart-player lifestyle, which was spent on the road, in overnight hotels and late nights in smoke-filled rooms on the far ledge of stamina.  Darts competitions had just begun to get TV exposure, so the game had about as much pizzazz as it was ever going to get.

KK: Both Britannia and Arrows seem to be rooted in a tradition of poetic documentary in a fashion reminiscent of directors like Humphrey Jennings.

MW: Arrows, like Britannia, is outwardly a mainstream film, deliberate in its choice of themes to explore and relatively uninspired in its structuring of those themes. But John was incapable of making a conventional documentary.
Three devices raise its game. The first and most obvious is the signature studio piece, a coda of Eric Bristow’s unusually poised throwing action pushed to the point of abstraction. Another is the tension-filled radio interview between Eric and the belligerent jock, which I know to have its inspiration in two classics of the 70s, Vanishing Point and American Graffiti (whose DJs, Super Soul and Wolfman Jack, lend an heroic edge and alternative reading to proceedings). And the last most-difficult-to-describe device is the way the audiences and local challengers to Bristow are foregrounded.
In the poetic documentary (Humphrey Jennings, Herzog) the challenge the film-maker faces is how to maintain a core realism, how to recite the poem without pretension. John was helped hugely by Bristow’s warmth of personality – his cockiness is revealed as showbiz bravura. But it also requires a very sure directorial hand and a deliberateness of what your cameraman focuses upon. It’s in the detail – the wideness of the framing of audience shots which make it less likely they are interpreted as caricature, and the intentional downplaying of the show-off one-dart finish where Bristow throws away the other two darts.
Arrows went out on general release across the UK in 1981 with The Long Good Friday, which we thought was an inspired conjunction.

To read our review of Dressing for Pleasure, click here.

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