Saturday, 23 May 2009

School for Unclaimed Girls

'The Smashing Bird I Used To Know' promises much in the way of simple exploitative fun: it was made at the seamy end of the swinging sixties, it's partly set in a borstal for teenage girls, and the director was sleaze-meister Robert Hartford-Davis. Despite all these ticked boxes, however, it fails to either shock, titillate or entertain and drifts tamely and aimlessly to a supposedly devastating but actually equally pointless conclusion.

Nikki (Madeleine Hinde) is a teenage girl traumatised by the death of her beloved father in a fairground carousel accident. Reaching over to comfort his young daughter, Nikki's Dad fell off his own carousel horse and under the stomping hooves of Nikki's pretend steed which proceeded to pound his head until he pulled that funny, gormless expression that equates to severe brain trauma in films like this.

Naturally, the tragedy haunts her and we join the teenage Nikki at a pretty low ebb, tossing and turning and having psychedelic polarised flashbacks to the accompaniment of Bobby William’s spaghetti western type score and the sound of her Mum shagging gigolo on the make Harry Spenton (a perfectly cast Patrick Mower).

The only bright spot in her life is her relationship with Peter (Dennis Waterman) a young man with a white sportscar and a keen sense of propriety towards the 15 year old girl (‘ere, love, not outside the school’), but this is not enough to save her when the Mower Machine flares his massive nostrils in her direction and after a vicious struggle where the viewer is on the edge of their seat wishing Mower was wearing something other than a very short dressing gown, seedy Pat ends up with a knife in his belly, triggering more psychedelic polarised flashbacks and a complete mental collapse.

Waking from her fugue, Nikki finds herself in a remand home, surrounded by a variety of equally young and obvious female stereotypes: there’s a mixed up lesbian girl, a mixed up pregnant girl, a mixed up black girl and a lot of other girls that are so mixed up that they spend all of their time in the shower or walking around with their tops off. As remand homes go, it seems pretty relaxed and there’s plenty of opportunity for the girls to frug along to groovy music, and endless chances to shower and walk around with their tops off.

Presumably supposed to seem like a dreadful, dehumanising place, the home seems rather nice, and the various examples of bad behaviour wouldn’t be out of place in a moderately raucous episode of ‘Please Sir!’. After a pillow fight in which some topless girls are nearly hurt, Nikki escapes and makes her way to her beloved Peter only to immediately sit on a handy rocking horse and suffer a final polarised psychedelic flashback that leads to her realise that she has issues and should return to custody and get some help. Now, if only Peter will give her a lift in his very fast sports car on the busy, winding, narrow road back to the home…

The very definition of ‘meandering’, ‘The Smashing Bird I Used To Know’ never really gets anywhere and, after Nikki escapes from the remand home, loses all momentum completely until its hasty and equally pointless conclusion. A nice coda shows the fully recovered Mower working his murky magic on a fresh victim – the only character to emerge unscathed, like a cockroach after a nuclear blast.

Director Robert Hartford-Davis specialised in X-certificate films (the bizarre ‘Gonks Go Beat’ excluded) and went on to direct the awful ‘Incense for the Damned’ (also starring Hinde and Mower - which the BBC show once a year, presumably as some sort of in-joke) as well as the rather better ‘The Fiend’, before turning up in Hollywood to direct a couple of barrel scraping blaxploitation movies (‘Black Gunn’, ‘The Take’) and dropping dead from a heart attack in 1977.

An example of a psychedelic polarised flashback accompanied by Bobby William’s spaghetti western type score and the sound of Mower on the job can be heard here if you’re still interested.


dom said...

I read Dennis Waterman's autobiography ( called "Reminder" ) & he recalls that Hartford Davis said to him "I've auditioned 100 girls for this film & screwed half of them". "The Black Torment" is a genuinely good gothic horror & "The Fiend" has its moments, Tony Beckley was an under used actor. "Incense" could've been a very interesting film, but it was apparently tampered with as Davis took his name off the credits. Maureen Lipman was on "Room 101" & "Smashing Bird" was one of her choices, but she's pretty good in it I think. Davis' films are crude & uneven, but they have a certain rawness to them that is unusual. Peter Cushing described "Corruption" as "viciously sick", but I think he enjoyed himself!

K H Brown said...

Just watched this and enjoyed it as Marnie meets WIP, British exploitation style.

Find it weird that Hartford-Davis's name wasn't his real one, but that it makes him sound like a relation of the BBC TV Hartford-Davis today.

Finally, where is Zigo?