In 2014, Brighton Film Festival produced an adventurous programme themed around the 50th anniversary of local resident Ann Quinn’s experimental novel Berg. I was asked to introduce two films that echoed the beatnik, boarding house milieu of the era as seen through a female lens: Michael Winner’s 1963 West 11, adapted from Laura Del-Rivo’s 1961 novel The Furnished Room and Bryan Forbes’ 1962 The L-Shaped Room, based on Lynne Reid Banks novel of the same name from 1960. Both of these films were shot in the area of London where I have been resident for the past three decades, Ladbroke Grove and I was very familiar with them, having referenced their source novels in the research for my novel Bad Penny Blues, which is set in the neighbourhood as it was between 1959-65. The movies played to a packed house at the wonderful Duchess of York Picture House, celebrated for the high-kicking pair of legs that adorn its façade. The following text is taken from the talks I gave.
These two films are adapted from the debut novels of two remarkable young women. Both depict a world on the cusp of enormous change, teetering in that strange, monochrome space between the end of the ration book Fifties and the technicolour Swinging Sixties to come. Along with Ann Quinn, whose novel Berg inspired this strand of Brighton Film Festival, the fact that Laura Del-Rivo and Lynne Reid Banks were both young women is a significant part of that social flux. The previous generation wouldn’t have known anything like these two – Laura working in an artists’ collective in Ladbroke Grove, Lynne one of ITN’s first women reporters. But, as the novels from which the films West 11 and The L-Shaped Room were drawn attest, we hadn’t reached Utopia yet.
Because of my writing activities, I have had the privilege of meeting both of these women over the past few years and have learned from them some things I’d like to share with you today. I think these will be of interest, because there are so many thematic links of which the two writers were, at the time, surprisingly unaware.
The film West 11 sticks very closely to its source material in everything but title. Laura Del-Rivo’s original 1961 novel was called The Furnished Room. Lynne Reid Banks’ The L-Shaped Room had been published the year before, but, despite the success of both of these similarly-titled evocations of life in bedsit land, Lynne and Laura never actually met. However, Lynne did pay one fateful visit to the house at number 24 Chepstow Villas W11 that was occupied by a collection of beatnik writers, artists and actors and provided her with the blueprint of the room central to her novel’s vision. Though their paths on that occasion did not cross, this was the same house that Laura was by then living in.
Born in 1934 to middle-class parents in the stockbroker suburb of Cheam, Laura Del-Rivo escaped to London at the end of the Fifties. Living in a succession of drab little rooms like the one depicted in the film, she worked as a bookseller, an artist’s model and waitress in Soho cafés and coffee bars. It was through one such establishment on Rathbone Place – that legendary leyline for writers such as George Orwell and Dylan Thomas – that she made the acquaintance of the by then notorious author of The Outsider, Colin Wilson, who secured her a much better room to live and work in at 24 Chepstow Villas. Now, this was an address that had already accommodated the influential underground writers Bill Hopkins and Alexander Trocchi, the actor Dudley Sutton, whose stage work with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop and film roles in The Boys and The Leather Boys are definitive of this era, and before them, the two Scottish artists, Roberts Colquhoun and MacBryde, whose furious exploits inform both Julian Maclaren Ross’ Memoirs of the Forties and Daniel Farson’s Soho in the Fifties.
The influence of Wilson’s brand of New Existentialism can be felt throughout The Furnished Room, but just as strong is Laura’s desire to get as far away from her convent girl roots as possible. Like an angry avatar of her questioning teenage mind, Laura’s protagonist, Joe Beckett, is a man who has lost his vocation to become a Catholic priest and now drifts through a twilight existence in the lodging houses of Ladbroke Grove, wondering if there is some way he might shock himself back into feeling again. This is the W11 whose cheap rents attracted both West Indian immigrants and RCA art students, and whose Portobello Road market was at the centre of the biggest red light district in London. Oswald Moseley’s fascists and a serial killer of prostitutes haunted streets below which, in a warren of speakeasies known as shebeens or mushroom clubs, upper class conmen popped pills with the rude boys and the cast of the Profumo scandal assembled to seek their illicit kicks. Filmed on the very streets it portrays, you’ll notice a very youthful David Hemmings in the gang of hooligans who pick on Finlay Currie’s elderly Mr Cash outside his room in Powis Square, a scant few steps from what would, at the end of the decade, become rich musician Turner’s hippie hangout in Nic Roeg and Donald Cammel’s Performance.
Beckett is played to perfection in West 11 by the sad-eyed Alfie Lynch, himself a working class Roman Catholic East Ender who had graduated to screen through the Royal Court and the Theatre Workshop, as a man losing his mind within a circle of cold-hearted women and dangerous male conspirators. It’s a scenario reminiscent of the parallel, pre-War West London of Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square and like Hamilton, Laura has a nose for a particular type of villain: the smooth, military-fashioned confidence trickster, real life versions of whom, such as John George Haigh and Neville Heath, both stalked their prey in this part of London during the 1940s. Laura named hers Dyce, and described him as: ‘the fake major in the Tudor roadhouse who slaps you on the back and asks you to cash his cheque.’ You will see him made flesh by the dastardly Eric Portman, who, with his arched eyebrows and the smile of a man with a permanent bad odour dancing just beneath his nostrils, was born to play this particular species of charming cad.
Beckett’s fate is sealed at a bottle party in the midst of this landscape. Publically and humiliatingly dumped by his feckless art student girlfriend Isla Barnes, he is making drunken overtures towards Georgia, a once ravishing but now fading beauty, wonderfully evoked on screen by the ever-reliable Diana Dors. But his attempts are quashed by the arrival of Dyce, who in the twinkling of an eye, persuades her of his superiority as a suitor, while at the same time, sizing Beckett up as a likely prospect for a much darker scheme.
Despite Beckett’s instinctive misgivings, Dyce manages to lure him into a web of conspiracy by exploiting the latter’s aimlessness, faithlessness and unwillingness to conform to a menial life. Casually mentioning a rich, elderly Aunt with a supposedly weak heart, Dyce sets in motion the very idea Beckett had been contemplating, as he explains to Dyce in the novel:
“Nihilism is a claustrophobic state; a prison. I think crime can be an attempt to break out of the prison; a dynamite to blast the walls… The nihilist wants to feel, so he strikes at life in order that life might strike him back… Of course, murder is the only absolute crime…”
It was Daniel Farson who coined the term ‘Angry Young Men’ to sum up the prevailing mood for contemporary social realism that had coursed through the worlds of literature, stage and film since John Braine’s Room at the Top and John Osbourne’s Look Back in Anger had successfully transferred from the Royal Court Theatre to the screen in 1959. These films kickstarted a new wave: Karel Reisz’s adaptation of Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was a smash in 1960, closely followed by Tony Richardson’s production of Angry Young Woman Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey in 1961. The Furnished Room was published in that same year and was immediately snapped up by another young director looking to stamp his mark on the scene, the then 27-year-old Michael Winner.
West 11 was the youthful Winner’s first significant major movie project, following on from a series of shorts, including Some Like It Cool, a nudie cutie shot at Longleat under the auspices of local magistrate and landowner the Marquis of Bath; a dalliance with Gilbert & Sullivan called The Cool Mikado starring Frankie Howerd; and a Billy Fury promotional musical Play it Cool. Despite all this allusion to coming straight from the fridge, however, Winner was astute enough to know he needed more authentic help in upping the actual cool ante of this adaptation. So he turned to a genuine Angry Young Man.
Keith Waterhouse had already had a fruitful early Sixties, combining success as a newspaper journalist and author with a burgeoning career as a stage and screenwriter. Worldwide fame would greet his 1963 adaptation of his own novel Billy Liar for director John Schlesinger, but at this point in time, he had already notched up two remarkable scripts, written in collaboration with his childhood friend from Youth Club in Leeds, Willis Hall. With their keen ears for dialogue and empathy for a diverse range of characters, their outstanding work on Bryan Forbes’ Whistle Down the Wind in 1961 and Schlesinger’s A Kind of Loving in 1962 perfectly fitted the mood of the times. All three of these films are now rightly considered classics of this cinematic golden age. However, Waterhouse’s memory of turning The Furnished Room into West 11, as retold on his 1995 memoir Streets Ahead, is, as he admits, slightly hazy:
“West 11 was based on a novel by a hippie writer with the exotic name of Laura Del-Rivo, who accepted £1,000 for the screen rights and at once took off for South America, never to be heard from again,” he claimed. “At this distance (it’s) memorable for two things – first, the refusal by our producer, Danny Angel, to countenance the casting of James Mason on the grounds that he was old hat and the still-novitiate Julie Christie on the grounds that she was a b-movie actress; and secondly, the fact that we never once set eyes on our director, Michael Winner, whose third production it was – in fact, the film was showing in the cinemas before we even knew it had been made.”
Two of Waterhouse’s claims were verified when, three summers ago, Michael Winner appeared at the Portobello Pop-Up cinema to introduce his work to a new audience. I was lucky enough to be there, delighted at last to be able to see a film I had been searching for fruitlessly for years, ever since I began researching a novel based in this time and this place called Bad Penny Blues in 2007. I knew West 11 had been directed by Winner and scripted by Waterhouse and Hall but even Winner hadn’t known where to find a print, and it was only the dedicated detective work of Pop-Up curator Tim Burke, who found one in the BFI vaults, that enabled us to see it. Winner was clearly delighted by the reception he and his film received from the local audience and revealed his own memories of the production in true, understated fashion.
Yes, he said, the producer did refuse to let him cast James Mason as Dyce and Julie Christie as Ilsa Barnes, the latter because, in Danny Angel’s opinion, Winner only fancied her for the role because he was “a fucking homosexual.” But Laura Del-Rivo did not disappear to South America. In fact, she stayed much closer to home, running a market stall on the Portobello where I had been buying pairs of tights and socks for nearly 30 years without ever realising the woman with such good taste in hosiery was in fact Britain’s first female beatnik author and a woman at the very centre of the world I had been trying so hard to conjure back myself.
Winner got Laura up on the stage and promised to buy her dinner, an offer that, I’m afraid to say, the old roué never did make good on before his death in 2013. And, in typical modest fashion, Laura claimed that all of the good lines in the film came from Waterhouse and Hall. Which isn’t true either. Since then, Five Leaves Press have reissued Laura’s original novel and, on reading it, I found that most of the best lines were ones she had written herself that had been lifted unabridged. Next February, Network will finally be rescuing the film from obscurity by releasing the DVD of it. It has been an extraordinary journey and I only hope you will enjoy discovering the secret world of West 11 as much as I have.
This picture from 1962 that occupies a very similar terrain to West 11: you’ll see plenty of the same locations in Bryan Forbes’ cinematic vision of Lynne Reid Banks’ original novel. Both these films explore the secret worlds that exist inside a boarding house, but whereas West 11 is a dark study in human folly, The L-Shaped Room manages to find the good in all its cast of misfit characters. Like the book it was based on, this is a film shot through with compassion.
Native Londoner Lynne Reid Banks wrote the novel while she was working as a reporter for ITN, one of the first young women to be admitted to the newsroom. She used it to explore a pivotal issue of her generation. Her central character, Jane, is in a position that no unattached career girl would want to find herself in as the Sixties began.
“Seven years before abortion was made legal and a year before the pill first arrived in Britain, she is one month pregnant.”
Which is why she finds herself, as the novel begins, on a dreary street in Fulham. Jane he has already visited the sort of Harley Street doctor that could make her problem go away for the sum of sixty guineas; an experience that left her determined to keep her baby. But her widowed father’s reaction to her news has brought her to this unfamiliar neighbourhood, and the door of a cut-and-shunt boarding house, with prostitutes in the basement, chipped sinks and flickering lights, run by beady-eyed landlady Doris.
Doris’s gaze rests knowingly on the waistband of Jane’s skirt as she shows her to her crudely partitioned bedsit. Crammed inside the L-shaped room are a gas stove; a wash-basin; a table scarred with cigarette burns; a camp bed, a lumpy armchair and a mantelpiece over a gas fire, adorned with two plaster Alsatians. Its aspect fills Jane with fear and dread. But there is more consolation than she could imagine to be found in the community of fellow social outcasts she discovers within Doris’s domain. The first one she meets is a scruffy young man, acerbic and self-depreciating in equal measure. Toby Coleman is a would-be Angry Young Man who can’t quite finish his first draft. On the other side of the flimsy partition in Jane’s room is West Indian jazzer John, her first sighting of whom, black face pressed against the window of their dividing wall, terrifies Jane and forces her to dissemble her own prejudices. Together, John and Toby help Jane to turn her grim abode into somewhere worth living.
The tarts in the basement offer her another window on a forbidden world. When, in an attempt to measure her own fall from grace against those that sell sex professionally, she ventures downstairs, Jane finds her older namesake – memorably played by Pat Phoenix – not nearly so hardbitten as she had imagined. Then there is Mavis, the curious spinster on the ground floor. A Cockney ex-wardrobe mistress, Mavis is always listening in to conversations on the hallway telephone. When she overhears Jane talking to a doctor’s receptionist, Mavis creeps up the stairs to offer her another way out of her predicament, some special pills to be downed with gin. With such a beautifully rendered cast and tender exploration of societal taboo, it is little wonder that Reid Banks’ book was attractive to a film industry fired up by the work of Toby’s real life contemporaries. The L-Shaped Room followed such notable British New Wave hits as Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Tony Richardson’s A Taste of Honey onto the screen in 1962, under the direction of the multi-talented Bryan Forbes.
Forbes, a grammar school boy from West Ham who had trained at RADA and then served in the Intelligence Corps during the War, had already made a name for himself as an actor in such quality films as Basil Deardon’s 1959 The League of Gentlemen. He formed the production company Beaver Films with his friend and fellow actor Richard Attenborough, in order to write, produce and direct the sort of movies they wanted to see. Their first effort, scripted by Forbes and starring Attenborough in the lead was The Angry Silence in 1960, which explored thorny issues of industrial dispute and espionage. Their second, and first with Forbes as director, was the 1961 classic Whistle Down The Wind, starring Hayley Mills, Alan Bates and an extraordinary cast of northern schoolchildren getting the very most from Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall’s exquisite script.
Forbes wrote his own adaptation of The L-Shaped Room in which several of the central characters – most notably, Jane’s father – are done away with. By casting the French actress Leslie Caron in the title role, Jane herself is necessarily altered and she no longer has a career in PR. Toby also transforms, from London Jewish into a Yorkshireman – an echo, perhaps, of Forbes’ previous collaborator, Keith Waterhouse – though Tom Bell nonetheless still embodies all the moody ambivalence of the book’s character. Lynne Reid Banks was not over fond of the movie. “Not that the characters were less interesting in the film, perhaps even more, but I felt them so real in my imagination that I didn’t like them being altered,” she has said. But there are a couple of masterstrokes to Forbes’ vision. Firstly, he relocates Doris’ boarding house to Ladbroke Grove, which works better a place in which class and race divisions are altering than the mainly white working class area around North End Road where the book was set. Incomers first started arriving to W11 from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago in 1948, when, seeking to boost its post-War workforce, the British government encouraged Commonwealth citizens to settle in ‘the Mother country’. However, the Windrush generation, named for the ship that brought them into Tilbury Docks, had a very cold welcome. Years of resentment boiled over in the race riots of 1958, which played out in the streets of Ladbroke Grove.
Until the Street Offences Act came into force the year after, these same streets also had the biggest population of prostitutes in all of London. Taking advantage of them were the osteopath Stephen Ward, who first introduced Christine Keeler to high society; and the serial killer Jack The Stripper, who murdered eight girls with links to the Profumo scandal between 1959-65, in one of London’s most disquieting unsolved crimes. But the room that inspired Lynne to write her story was actually located at 24 Chepstow Villas, W11. This was slap bang in the middle of the territory of Peter Rachman, the Polish landlord and consort of Keeler whose name is now synonymous with slum dwellings, but who was one of the very few that would allow black tenants in his properties. Laura Del-Rivo lived here, along with fellow writers Colin Wilson and Bill Hopkins, though, despite all the similarities between their books, Lynne and Laura never actually met. Relocating to the Grove also allowed Forbes to set the pivotal scene where Jane falls in love with Toby at John’s jazz club from the West End to the sort of shebeen where all these factions would really have come to forget themselves. John, portrayed by the American Brock Stevens, plays the trumpet here rather than guitar, part of a brilliant soundtrack by John Barry, the future James Bond man, at the beginning of his long film career. Although most of John’s scenes from the book do remain in tact, there is one further major alteration. As hinted at by his fondness for needlework and cookery, John in the book turns out to be gay. In the film, it is Mavis, played to tear-jerking perfection by veteran actress Cicely Courtneidge, who hides a lavender secret. Altered from a costumier to a retired actress, her East End roots pansticked with Received Pronunciation; Courtneidge’s Mavis is a more sympathetic, melancholy character than the original and feels more authentic, as if she is based on someone Forbes really knew. Her Christmas Day rendition of ‘Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty’ would later be appropriated by The Smiths, those Eighties plumbers of the kitchen sink, on the opening to The Queen Is Dead LP.
Whatever the author’s reservations, though, Forbes’ sensitive adaptation and the luminous central figure of Leslie Caron as Jane do tribute to the strength of Reid Banks’ often beautiful but never sentimental book. The L-Shaped Room lingers far longer in the memory than later explorations of similar themes, such as A Touch of Love in 1969, based on Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone, and even Peter Collinson’s enjoyable 1968 film of Nell Dunn’s novel Up The Junction. Perhaps because it forever captures that black-and-white, bomb hit and gas lit world, whose compromised inhabitants nonetheless dared to dream.