Screen London

❉ A provincial teenage girl’s longing for the capital city as portrayed in the flat-sharing sitcoms and bed-hopping films of the ’60s and early ’70s…

For as long as I could remember, growing up in 1960s Bristol, I’d been obsessed with living in London – IN A FLAT, WITH PEOPLE I’D ONLY RECENTLY MET! Other girls had posters of David Cassidy and Donny Osmond on the walls of their virginal chambers; I had a map of the London Underground. I dreamt of living a life less ordinary than those of my schoolmates, of making a lush living doing something I loved rather than follow my parents into factories, and I didn’t see how I was going to do this in my hometown. Not because Bristol was bad, but because it was so pleasant; there’s a reason why, despite its pockets of deprivation, the West Country is the place so many people choose to retire to. But being young and restless, I was seeking to flee from security into freefall – to be someplace where nobody knew my name, but where I could make them do so through my own fabulousness.

London was the obvious place in which to recreate myself. I liked what I saw of it in films and on televison and by the time I was ten it was the diverse and entrancing versions of freedom I’d glimpsed in Mary Poppins, Oliver! and The Double Deckers which made me determined to get there somehow and live my dream life as a London child belonging to a gin-swilling pickpocket gang, clocking off each evening to be coddled by a nanny who could do magic, with a London bus to roam around on at leisure. (Eventually, I was to build myself a life which actually exceeded this in terms of twisted kicks and cheap thrills.)

But no sooner did I have my perfect life-plan than adolescence raised its horny head. When you’re a child, freedom means coming home at 9 o’clock; when you’re a teenager, it means staying out all night with someone whose parents you’ve never met. Jackie magazine – even though its heroines were unfeasibly chaste – was my gateway drug into the world of dating, mating and love-hating and its golden years marked the time of my teens, from 1972 to 1979. At the start of the decade I was a shy provincial child who saw the sooty-eyed, storm-haired girls of the cartoon strips as unimaginably sophisticated; by the end of it, I was a leather-clad teenage reporter who saw them as hopeless hicks. By the time I entered my teenage years, when I looked at my map of the Underground, I thought of sex – I’d lie in bed beneath it interfering with myself like a trooper, dreaming of Angel, Bank, Cockfosters and beyond. The sex a girl would have in Bristol would make you pregnant and your game over, but the sex she’d have in London might well lead to any combination of fun, love and money.

Sitting in the dark as the black-outs of the Three-Day Week took hold, I was  cross to have missed the Sixties when the sun always shone and everyone was at it like Rudi Gernreich-clad rabbits. On those rare occasions when the television was working, I was keen on the contemporary ‘70s portrayals of London – Take Three Girls, Man About The House, It’s Awfully Bad For Your Eyes Darling – which showed youngsters LIVING IN FLATS, WITH PEOPLE THEY’D ONLY RECENTLY MET! And the theme from Budgie, by London’s louche laureate Ray Davies – “From the bright busy streets of the Charing Cross Road/To the dark little alleys in old Soho” – could make me cry with longing.

But my real connection to the capital came through the girls in the films of the Sixties I found on rainy weekend TV afternoons; Charlotte Rampling in Georgy Girl, Judy Geeson in Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush (which, confusingly, was shot in Stevenage), Jane Birkin and Gillian Hills in Blow Up and most of all Julie Christie in Billy Liar, in which she plays the hometown girl who attempts to free Billy from his moribund routine – literally, as he works for an undertaker. London looms large in his dreams of freedom but Billy falls at the final hurdle, and dashed hopes have never been more tragi-comically portrayed than when he chucks his chance rather than chance his luck by getting off the London train in order to buy a milk drink – the symbolism! – and thus decides to stick in a comfortable rut rather than take a punt on the adventure of a lifetime.

That would never be me, I swore as I stared at the TV through my tears – and it wasn’t. ‘Be good’ my dad said as my train to London pulled away from the platform when I was 17 and setting off to be a writer – and I was, if not in the way he meant. Due to an unfortunate predilection for wedding cake, I never got to live in a flat with people I’d only recently met, but in my longed-for London between the ages of 17 and 35 I experienced more fun, love and money than in all the flighty films and flat-sharing sit-coms I’d ever seen put together.

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