As Summer reluctantly hoves into view the nights get lighter and the weather warmer, a 9pm Film Night becomes harder to sustain, as movie watching is surely a pursuit that lends itself to darkness and the sense of cosiness you get when it’s pitch dark outside and an icy wind is scouring the streets. It was with a bright sun streaming through the blinds that Chris C and I settled down with a customary mug of tea each to watch Poor Cow (1967), Ken Loach‘s first foray into cinematic territory after starting his career in television.
As we’re taking our first sip of Yorkshire Tea (the best there is) Ken thrusts us headlong into a graphic birthing scene. Carol White, playing the ironically named Joy, is having a baby, presumably courtesy of her petty crook husband Tom (John Bindon). Unfortunately Tom can’t be there because he’s a 60’s thug and he has other things to do like casing joints or looking for a thinner tie or something.
Tom is abusive and treats the child as an inconvenience. Joy deserves better and she’s promised a comfortable life when his gang’s next big job comes off. Of course it doesn’t come off, and after a scuffle in a street full of shoppers a policeman holds Tom’s face against a rain drenched pavement. He’s sent to prison, giving Joy the chance to set up with Dave (Terence Stamp), a petty crook. Hang on, haven’t we been here before?
Stamp is charismatic, good looking and kind to Joy and little Johnny. In a weird break from the London flip-side of the swinging 60s, in which most of the drama takes place, the family go on a camping holiday to the Welsh countryside. Joy and Dave make love under a waterfall. At this point in the real world it’s just getting dark outside and we’re into a can of beer each.
Dave eventually also ends up in the slammer and it’s revealed what an unpleasant criminal he actually is, unless you consider locking an old lady in a bathroom while you slap her about a bit and rob her house quite reasonable. To pay the rent and feed Johnny and herself, Joy is encouraged by a female mate to pose in a baby doll negligee for a photography club of drooling middle aged men, some of whom it transpires don’t even bother putting film in their cameras. Loach spends quite a long time on this particular scene. Just saying.
At the seaside and in London pubs, like Hogarth’s prints Loach’s camera catches members of the non-acting public and lays their characters bare. A grimace, a gap toothed smile or a nonchalant shrug is enough, and just enough to expose a kernel of truth. There is a real skill in the creation of a collective human milieu in which to root the story of this woman and her tribulations. All to a Donovan soundtrack too.
Loach is undoubtedly an expert at filming drama with a documentary eye. The scenes of backstreet London, washing hanging limply between tenements and children playing in gutters, achieve a real beauty because of their brazenness and considered framing. There is no affectation, it seems real and unfiltered. Unfortunately Goddardesque intertitles pop up every now and again, often poorly spelled, an unforgiveable lack of attention to detail. A common device in French cinema, they seem needlessly pretentious in this very English film and add nothing to the rhythm and forward flow.
The original novel was by Nell Dunn. Loach had previously adapted one of her other works, Up The Junction for television. Such was Terence Stamp’s fame at the time that he reputedly turned up on set in a Rolls Royce. Joy’s first husband Tom was played by dodgy actor and real life gangster John Bindon. Famous for provoking fights and being an associate of the Krays he was acquitted of the murder of Johnny Darke in a Fulham pub in 1978, but it effectively ended his acting career and he died of AIDS in 1993.
Carol White carries the entire film with a sympathetic and wholly believable portrayal of a woman whose bad choices never carry her forward, but leave her treading water in a world of damp rooms and unreliable men. She temporarily loses Johnny at the end, but on finding him again on a derelict demolition site her true colours shine through. The constant spur to carry on is her own flesh and blood in the form of this child and his future.
White’s real life was plagued by tragedy and bad choices too. She had problems with alcohol, drugs, shoplifting and suicide attempts. She died in Florida in 1991. A television film of her life called The Battersea Bardot was shown in 1994.
And now it’s dark.