❉ An appreciation of a mostly forgotten British teen movie notable for Ray Winstone’s big screen debut and its New Wave soundtrack.
As the 1970s began to draw to a close, British cinema found itself returning to youth oriented drama as a form of valid entertainment. It had turned out some brilliant films depicting the foibles of teenage anxiety in the late ’60s, of course, from Clive Donner’s Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush, to Beat Girl, and To Sir With Love, but as the ’70s gained momentum, it was a cinematic subgenre that became overlooked. Sometimes it felt as if the UK film industry during that decade was fuelled by wall-to-wall sex comedies and obsessions with Satanic cults, but 1979 brought something of a sea change. It’s likely an influx of new, vibrant British actors breaking through around that time made young drama within UK cinema an easier sell, but whatever the instigator, it became a strand that was of interest to both film makers and audiences again.
Over the years, much has been said and written about the era’s bigger successes – Quadrophenia, Gregory’s Girl and even Breaking Glass – but there’s one youth-based tale from the turn of the decade that has been largely forgotten. Step forward, That Summer!.
A 1979 film bankrolled by Columbia Pictures, That Summer! provided the first appearance on the big screen for a young Ray Winstone, possibly not realising that he’d already been typecast. At the point we meet his character, Steve, he’s about to be released from a remand centre (if this already sounds familiar, both of Raymond’s other screen ventures later that year – Alan Clarke’s notorious Scum, and Franc Roddam’s much-loved Quadrophenia – either depict the young actor as someone within the remand system, or likely to find his way there in the near future). It’s his last day, but he’s not let go before he’s told he has a natural aptitude for swimming. It could have been anything, but the everyday nature of that sport provides the film with an easy fix in terms of both a relatable drama and the possibility of triumph over adversity. And its obviously going to be far more interesting than a film about carpentry.
A couple of early scenes set Steve’s strong-willed character in place, and one in particular shows the young man at odds with his dad (played by John Junkin in a very brief appearance). In addition to obvious generational tensions, it has another future echo of Quadrophenia as the sight of Steve tinkering in the yard isn’t too far removed from the more famous shots of Jimmy and his scooter. However, as That Summer! finds its feet, the similarities lessen, and with the action relocating to Torquay for the remainder, the film branches out into a world of curiosity where Steve is determined that his past and his angrier side will not hamper his chances of success, either in getting a job, or becoming a sporting hero.
From here, the film is a visual treat; huge sweeping shots of the harbour and cliffs act regularly as scene setters, but the feeling of space and big new horizons doesn’t diminish the feeling small town drama where our central characters, on working holidays, wander the small back streets, chat in darkened doorways, or have their own anxieties heightened in the local pub. The exteriors suggest freedom; the interiors, meanwhile, sometimes represent an everyday prison, both physically – for the film’s two female leads, new jobs as hotel chambermaids are almost as restrictive as the factory jobs they’ve left behind – and sometimes emotionally, too, with the pub’s central point as a place of tension.
Steve’s journey to greatness is paved with the troubles of a fraught 19 year old. He encounters a young woman, Angela, also new in town, who will soon become his casual girlfriend. Played flawlessly by Julie Shipley (also making her big screen debut after being a regular in the Thames TV drama Rooms), she often provides him with a welcome distraction, but as always with young romance, there’ll be tears before bedtime. Or, in Steve’s case, a reason to release a lot of pent-up anger by fighting. He’s also antagonised by a Scottish lad and his mates, who are all too quickly painted as shouty and one-dimensional, which could have set That Summer! on a spiralling path of terribleness, but as the film rolls on, it turns out that they, too, harbour some fairly dark demons.
If the set up of obvious sporting hero versus the neighbourhood bully seems a little too much like an hangover from a ‘70s Children’s Film Foundation filler, it’s not entirely without reason, since British-based American director Harley Cokeliss is best known for helming two of that film unit’s best loved productions, The Battle of Billy’s Pond (1976) and the award nominated Glitterball (1977). (Cokeliss later went on to helm cult British horror Dream Demon, starring Jemma Redgrave in her cinema debut). For the first half of the film, his no-frills, quick and easy directing style suits the material in hand; he seems at ease when letting what little action there is play out very naturally, but That Summer!’s second half might have benefited from a more dramatic director and/or a better script.
In terms of a couple of its sub plots, That Summer! tries hard but never offers anything particularly striking. Angie’s inexperienced and naïve friend (Carol, played by Emily Moore, The Spoils of War) stumbling through a new holiday romance and losing her virginity to Tony London (The Elephant Man) now seems a little heavy-handed and obvious, but for its target audience at the time, it probably played a little better. Likewise, scenes with Carol and Emily working as chambermaids could’ve been a little more interesting. As they are, they seldom do more than show the girls’ relative boredom or fill time until the next set piece or drama hurtles their way… usually with a Scottish accent.
For all of That Summer!’s fairly predictable plot points and standard teen angst fare, it features great performances from almost all concerned. The Scottish lad Tam (played by Jon Morrison, Dream Team) is a little one-dimensional, but his mate Georgie – doing very little to hide an addiction to “uppers” that leads to a near bungled pharmacy burglary in another future echo of Quadrophenia – is far more interesting. Andrew Byatt (CFF’s The Big Catch, Radio On) genuinely looks like someone who’s near to desperation and breaking point during the film’s second half. David Daker (LWT’s Villains, Dick Turpin) is the perfect pub landlord, and Michael J. Jackson (Sweeney 2) gets a reasonable amount of mileage out of little more than a walk on as a hoity toity hotel manager.
Despite the film’s strong points, however, That Summer!’s final set piece featuring the much-discussed swimming competition itself doesn’t always live up to the film’s more adult dramatic promise. Having been fitted up over the pharmacy burglary, Steve is placed under arrest on the beach at the point where his race is due to begin, but he runs into the sea and swims for his life, figuring that might just buy him some time. The shots of Winstone and other actors swimming in the sea have a feeling of scope, but it doesn’t necessarily equate big screen action. The editing style and increased focus upon whether the police will catch the bad guys and allow our hero to complete his race are pure CFF in tone, visual aspects and pace, and in some way’s that’s Harley’s own style coming to the fore. If you imagine this as an adult take on such a child friendly device, it just about works, but if you’re in any way looking for sophistication or anything deep and meaningful, then very much not.
The film’s abrupt ending – not giving any resolution to the characters’ relationships as they stand, or giving the merest hint of what Steve plans to do now the race is over – is cast even more from the CFF mould. It’s a bit like “The race is over, you can all go now!”, which could be equally applied to Sammy’s Super T-Shirt, or Dennis Waterman in Go Kart Go. Surely, even the least discerning audience of cinema going twenty-somethings deserved a little more in 1979? After all, Mulberry Bush is relatively open ended, but we at least get the satisfaction of knowing Jamie McGregor is off to college, even if our imaginations are left to run riot with regards to his future exploits.
In some ways, though, despite some obvious flaws, That Summer! is as relevant now as it ever was. Its themes of social group tension, of competition – whether in a sporting context, or sheer one-upmanship among friends – and of wanting to attract other people for hopeful sexual encounters, are the same for every generation of twenty year olds. In other ways, it remains a snapshot of the era in which it was created; there are glimpses of unpleasant racist graffiti, a couple of outdated attitudes (including a casually used disability slur) and a soundtrack that, had the film been made just eighteen months later, would have been very different indeed. As it is, the latter point is no bad thing: with liberal use of Boomtown Rats, Ian Dury and Elvis Costello songs, the casual musical backdrop is every bit as much about the fashion of the era as the actors’ clothes. It’s hard to imagine any other time when a first date dance would be depicted with Patti Smith’s classic Because The Night, or Nick Lowe’s now drastically underplayed I Love The Sound of Breaking Glass would be chosen to underscore scenes of wandering friends.
Although many of its social themes are universal and timeless, That Summer! is still best viewed as nostalgic piece, of sorts. With more than a glimpse of a seaside town still in an era of deck chairs and hired paddle boats, and moments spent with people drinking brown booze in now retro establishments, it shows Torquay as it was. Parts of the landscape haven’t changed too much over the years, and the film doesn’t portray a huge amount that could be easily rose-tinted, but with the now gone Pickwick pub and 400 Club prominently featured, there’s enough to cause some peoples’ nostalgia radars to flutter.
That Summer! was once considered pretty much lost, and remained unseen for years. It wasn’t really until Harley Cokeliss presented a remastered print of the film at the Bradford International Film Festival in 2012 that it became of genuine interest once again. For film fans in the US, it streamed on Sony’s Crackle service, but for UK audiences, the film has remained far too elusive for far too long. With its brilliant soundtrack, famous faces propping up the cast, and its distinctly British tone, it really deserves a loving send off by BFI Flipside or Indicator. There’s plenty here those guys could make even better with a visual essay and/or commentary from Vic Pratt, for example. In a just world we’d see it happen, but since this is part of the Columbia archive owned by Sony, the chances of a physical release from a UK-based boutique label are likely non-existent.
At the time of writing, the film can be viewed on YouTube, in a less than pristine VHS rip – but, short of a miracle, that’s about the best you can hope for. If you do have the opportunity to revisit it, though – or more likely experience it for the first time – even in these not entirely ideal circumstances, you should still take the time. It’s the only real way That Summer! is going to build any kind of cult following.
❉ ‘That Summer!’ made its theatrical debut in the UK on 3 August 1979. Produced by Film and General Productions and distributed by Columbia Pictures. Director: Harley Cokeliss. Running time: 94m. Currently unavailable on home video. The original soundtrack album was released 25 May 1979 on yellow vinyl by Arista Records (SPART 1088) and used copies can be found on Discogs.
❉ Lee Realgone has been a keen viewer of cult cinema for decades. He spends a lot of time watching Blu-rays from Indicator and Arrow. At other times, he does pretty much everything at the music website Real Gone. Find REAL GONE on Twitter at @realgonerocks. Like REAL GONE on Facebook at www.facebook.com/realgonerocks