Absolute Bollocks – The Rise And Fall Of Absolute Beginners

absolute beginners

Absolute Beginners could be said to be the British film industry’s Apocalypse Now, but only in the sense that it was a profligate, monumental, spiralling out of control mess, helmed by an arrogant and foolhardy auteur. The difference between the two over time though, is that one turned a profit and became an apocalyptic cult, a Cannes-do success. The other sank Britain’s Goldcrest Films and Palace Pictures, and is forever derisively known as Absolute Bollocks.  This is the story of  that film.

This misjudged “Cool Britannia” (before the term was coined) folly languishes fondly in the memory palace of cine-masochists only, hard to find on DVD, and a stranger to the warmth of TV broadcasts. Colin McInnes’ slim 1958 source novel captured the true pulse of the rebellious and raucous scene then bubbling beneath the still blitzed and dingy rain curtain of London’s Soho. Via the eyes and lens of it’s unnamed protagonist (retroactively named Colin in the film), a teenaged photographer after the zeitgeist, MacInnes showed his readers the real Soho, fudged on the screen of the days juvenile flicks. Here were the queens, pimps, pretty boys and prostitutes, pornographers, tarts and Teddy Boys – a riot of colour and spectacle, dreams and delusions, a spectacle that culminates in the very real Notting Hill race riots.

absolute beginners 1

In 1985 Goldcrest Films, riding the crest of  Chariots Of Fire‘s Screenwriter Colin Welland’s call to arms (“The British are coming!”) embarked on the risky simultaneous production of three expensive and prestigious films – American War Of Independence tale Revolution, budgeted at $15 million; The Mission, a drama about 18th Century Jesuits deep in the South American jungle, at $17 million; and Absolute Beginners, estimated around $8 million. Eager young turks Palace Pictures were to distribute, themselves riding high on the surprise success of Neil Jordan’s The Company Of Wolves. The smell of money was in the air, and London was the new Hollywood, but not for long…

The first surprise to everyone was that Absolute Beginners was to be a big, bold and brash rock musical (of sorts), and the relatively inexperienced Julian Temple was to direct. Stephen Wooley, co-founder of Palace pictures, stated it was the very idea of the film as a musical that attracted him. Temple stated, “I felt when I started making movies that music was a way of making British movies work worldwide because it was that thing at that time that fascinated the rest of the world about England.” The director had already made several pop promos and filled roles and cameos in the film with artists he had previously collaborated with, such as Sade and Ray Davies of The Kinks. The Style Council also performed, Paul Weller having been highly influenced by MacInnes’ novel, a template for the resurgent Mod scene. David Bowie performed the major song of the same name, on condition he got a large part. Although the film would be about the ’50’s, it seemed it wouldn’t be altogether of the ’50’s. Temple: “I wasn’t trying to please a few old jazzers.” 

A major press campaign was launched to attract investors support, a gassing and puffing up that didn’t stop once the cameras started rolling.  Temple felt that “By needing to get this level of publicity to validate Absolute Beginners as a film, we created this monster that by the time we had finished was out of control.”

Absolute beginners colin

The film was mostly made on massive closed sets at Shepperton Studios, with hundreds of choreographed extras, filmed in a technicolour day-glo widescreen style, like Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday on Ritalin. Its closest antecedent and contemporary were Francis Coppola’s disastrously Quixotic One From The Heart, and Walter Hill’s Streets Of Fire respectively.  The main problem with the film is its lack of cohesion – there’s little plot to speak of, and its protagonist Colin (Eddie O’Connell) and Patsy Kensit as “Crepe” Suzett, his flighty object of affection, were unknown, and hopelessly out of their depth. The musical numbers often faded away, unfinished, bleeding into the action, and most resembled extremely expensive pop promos, especially Bowie’s number as ad man Vendice Partners, and Ray Davies’ elaborate cut-away “Quiet Life” song.

absolute beginners 2

The script (five writers chipped in) was never locked down, and Temple refused to work from a shot list, leaving it to the last minute for the muse to inspire him. About the only thing in the film that the major players agree is of any real worth is the elaborate opening tracking shot, tracing Colin through the night-time melting pot of Soho.  Stephen Wooley, like Francis Coppola, has his own “little by little we went insane” quote:

“The costume people spent money like it was going out of fashion. It’s always the same on a big-budget movie. Nobody’s guilty, everyone gets inspired by the director and wants to make his vision. And spend a lot of money. It was worse here because there’s a feeling: ‘this is a big movie, it’s got David Bowie, we can spend money’.”

If Coppola had the problem of President Marcos recalling his helicopter pilots to fight the rebels in the Phillippines interior, leaving his film high and dry in the midst of his big set piece, Absolute Beginners too had a similar problem, though on a comically smaller scale. Veteran jazz performer Slim Gaillard didn’t turn up one day. The crew discovered he’d been working simultaneously on another film. Wooley:

He’s so excited, he doesn’t even bother to tell his agent. He needs the money. And we’re fucked. I figure that Gun Bus is probably in better shape than we are so I find out where it’s shooting, we go down to the set and during the lunch break kidnap Slim, just bundle him into the car.”

Many veteran character actors peppered the film, often unsure of what was going on. Lionel Blair is a boy-mad impresario. Steven Berkoff plays Oswald Mosley in all but name (“The Fanatic”), reeling off his speech in rhyming verse. Irene Handl told author Christopher Fowler, at the time a leading film marketer, “I had no idea what I was doing on the film. I’ve got one line of dialogue – “Smell my broom.” – What does that mean?” It’s hardly Smell The Glove” is it?

When the original US deal for Absolute Beginners was struck with Orion, it was calculated in dollars. While the exchange rate shot up, the costs remained in sterling, and as mentioned earlier, departments were spending like there was no tomorrow. Orion was originally to cover 90% of the budget. By the time all was done, that barely equated to 60%. Combined with a disastrous reception, the film was dead in the water, even after Julian Temple was locked out of the editing room.  Along with the derided Revolution, Absolute Beginners brought down both Goldcrest and Palace Pictures. Patsy Kensit remains sanguine:

absolute beinners patsy

“We probably thought we were inventing the future – it was easy to feel that ambitious in those times. In the end, we made a film that not enough people wanted to see.”

 

 

 

Originally posted 2015-01-08 20:39:20. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

Read and post comments on this article