A few weeks ago I went to see an artist friend of mine (in Bloomsbury, of course – how fabulous can you get..?) and was a bit put-out to find that he’d been on a pilgrimage to S.E. London and hadn’t visited me. He explained that he’d had to go to Maryon Park in Charlton alone, so that he could get the full Blow-Up experience. A likely story… I trust that he was wearing slightly too-short tight white jeans, Chelsea boots and a heavy-lidded, vacant expression, though I suspect the fact that he went by train rather than in a convertible Rolls may have dampened the image.
I was far too embarrassed to admit to him that I had never, ahem, actually seen this seminal piece of 60s hip-o-rama, so I nodded sagely and made ‘intelligent’ local remarks,’ most of which involved wittering on about Mark being able to take pictures of sheep there these days (what’s worse – Bill tells me that it wasn’t even the same Park – see Comments…) It wasn’t going down well . What else was there to do, but quickly rent the DVD and do a spot of catching-up?
Watching it now, post-Austin Powers and High Anxiety, it’s difficult to stop just the tiniest smirk from creeping around phantasmagorical lips. Let’s face it – it’s the ultimate Swinging London Sixties cliche – complete with guardsmen in uniform, funky shots of Piccadilly Circus with guys in mini cars and dolly birds in mini skirts. But it also says something really rather interesting as far as we locals are concerned. I’ll get onto that.
David Hemmings’s vacuous airhead photographer (apparently based on David Bailey) drove me nuts, with his floppy haircut and dark-circled eyes. Maybe it was the casual misogyny, maybe it was his (or Antonioni’s) irritating habit of being sidetracked from the plot for the flimsiest of reasons – buying a boat propeller or romping with naked girlies in bits of sugar paper (some might argue not flimsy at all, of course) or smoking joints with his side-boarded mate Peter Bowles (Peter Bowles? Peter Bowles? How wrong is that?) But my artist friend was clearly impressed with it enough to trek out to South East London (and believe me that’s a trek for him…) so I stuck with it.
Now I know it’s all about the viewer and how they percieve the images they see before them – did the photographer actually witness a murder or was it all in his drug-addled imagination? The simple omission of the one scene that would prove it one way or another (the return to his ransacked flat after his non-discovery of the body in the cold light of day) is proof that Antonioni doesn’t want the audience to know the literal truth. I know that it’s full of the classic images of British cinema in the 60s and I know that it was cutting-edge for its day. Even worse, I know that I’m going to get beaten about my spectral tricorn by a good majority of you cinema fans – but frankly I was a bit bored.
It’s almost certainly a case of what I call “Hitchhiker” syndrome. If you listen to the original radio version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy now, it sounds horribly cliched. The modern listener has to take a step back and think this was the first. This is what all the other comedy sci-fis were based on. I’m sure that Blow-Up suffers from this – all the other 60s films/TV progs, doccos – and now spoofs – base themselves at least a little on Antonioni’s creation. Certainly all the art fans I know love it for that very seminal quality and I enjoyed it in its own way too, I guess – to a certain extent for the spotting where other films had been inspired. My trouble is that I’ve just got myself too plot-driven these days, watching too much Hollywood stuff, and the sundry tangents started to get to me.
Note To Self: Must get back to watching more art movies.
Something Blow Up does do though, is show a quality that South East London had then, which seems to have been forgotten. Now maybe I am, as my old college lecturer would have said, “reading too much into this,” but I’m beginning to think that places like Charlton and Woolwich were actually rather funky and alternative in their own ways – so very outre that they went full circle and became hip again. Charlton’s not actually owned up to in the film – Hemmings’s flat is in some anonymous mews in, what most would assume, is Chelsea – I have no reason to think it isn’t – but Maryon Park is implied to be just round the corner, with a cool ‘antiques’ (read ‘junk’) shop on the corner. I don’t know if that shop’s still there, (I’m sure someone will tell me) but I’ll wager it doesn’t sell propellers, busts and stags’ heads anymore.
Ok, it could have just been standing in for somewhere else, as Greenwich Film Unit is so keen to promote these days, but I get the feeling the funkiness went deeper than mere set-dressing.
I’ve been reading Iris Bryce’s A Tree In The Quad, the sequel to her wonderful Remember Greenwich which, while not being quite as compelling as its predecessor, does describe a Woolwich which was, almost impossible to believe now, a hub for the late 50s/early 60s Trad Jazz revival, the radio and television shop she owned with her musician-husband a magnet for duffle-coated beatniks and beardy hipsters, and the various music clubs they ran together meccas for jazz afficionados. I’ll get onto that book another day, but for now, maybe my artist friend was right. Maybe Blow-Up is more than a fabber-than-thou whimsy about a bloke who may or may not have witnessed a murder. Maybe, just maybe, it shows that all of London was cool then, not just the West End.
Of course it just might mean that the murders in the 60s were all in South London…
Following this entry being originally posted, Stevie went on a pilgrimage of his own. It would seem that the park, still spooky, continues to throw up strange and unexplained images. Did Stevie really step back to Jurassic times, or was it all part of some spaced-out trip? We may never know…