Thursday, 10 January 2019

Confessions Time...

I've written before about the Confessions series of bawdy comedy films from the 1970s but really only from the perspective of the effect they had on the slightly more innocent Carry On films we all cherish. The Confessions films have suffered the same fate as the Carry Ons in that they have frequently been looked down on, written off or just plain criticised.

However these films all featured a superb range of actors and provided entertainment to the masses during years when perhaps the country sometimes didn't have that much to laugh about. What interests me a great deal about these films is how they represent the changing face of British society. By the time Confessions of a Window Cleaner burst onto cinema screens up and down the land in 1974, censorship had been relaxed and a whole new generation were much more liberally minded. 

Looking back at Window Cleaner now, sure it's dated but a lot of that is due to the time in which it was made. The 1970s haven't aged well in many ways! Is the film more innocent from the perspective of 2019, given what we see on our screens every evening in terms of sex, violence and everything in between? Well, possibly. A lot of it can be put down to good old fashioned fun and most of the naughty bits are played for laughs. However part of me struggles to forgive the rise of the Confessions films for what they did to the Carry Ons over at Pinewood. That is quite unfair I know, as X rated cinema was booming out all over the place at the time and the Confessions films were merely the most commercially successful chain amongst many. British society was moving forward apace in the mid 1970s anyway, so clearly Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas thought it best to move with the times or die a slow death. Sadly the latter happened, probably because of Carry On England and Emmannuelle's boobs and bums rather as a result of anything else.

Back to Confessions of a Window Cleaner. For a start I don't think Robin Askwith has ever received the credit he's due either as a leading man or as an actor. Having spoken to him at length on the phone a year or so ago, there's much more to Mr Askwith than meets the eye, and quite a lot did meet our collective eye during the making of these films! Before the Confessions films, Robin was making his way in a huge array of different productions and had already established himself as a favourite of the legendary director Lindsay Anderson. The Confessions films changed his life, gave him mass appeal and most definitely changed the course of his career. It's probably true that not many other rising stars at the time would have had the bare-faced cheek (as it were) to take on such a role but Robin grabbed the opportunity with both hands. Frequently.

Window Cleaner, the first in the series of four Confessions films came from a novel of the same name, written by Christopher Wood. This was a common theme in cinema at the time with many big screen outings coming from this form of adaptation. Confessions of a Window Cleaner broke the mold in British comedy by capitalising on many elements of a more traditional era of entertainment. Confessions cleverly blended aspects of traditional sitcoms and other big screen comedy adaptations, also a popular trend at the time. With the likes of Dad's Army, Please Sir and Bless This House all heading to the big screen, Confessions clearly looked to capitalise on the success of all this. 

In many ways Confessions of a Window Cleaner was the domestic sitcom with a bit of a naughty twist. The family home at the centre of the film could have come from any number of domestic comedies on the BBC or ITV at that time. The family ups and downs and the cliched characters the actors portrayed also fit that mold. And casting the likes of Bill Maynard and Dandy Nicholls as the parents in Window Cleaner was clear signposting to another, more traditional form of entertainment. The film also reached out to a wider audience by starting a trend which went across all four Confessions films - casting big name, well-respected actors in guest starring roles. These actors never really engaged in any of the saucy goings on, in fact I'm sure their scenes were shot on different days from Robin Askwith romping around naked in a load of bubbles. 

In Window Cleaner, the peerless Joan Hickson and John Le Mesurier had major supporting turns as the upper crust parents of Timmy's love interest Elizabeth, played by Linda Hayden. Joan was no stranger to bawdy comedies, having played supporting roles in five Carry Ons, most recently Carry On Girls the previous year, however a sex comedy is not exactly how we imagine the future Miss Marple. Le Mesurier was a much respected actor who had been seen in countless classic British films by the mid 1970s and was still a main part of the eternally popular Dad's Army cast on the BBC. Also involved, albeit briefly, is the superb Richard Wattis, probably best known for his ongoing role in the BBC sitcom Sykes and a recurring part in the St Trinian's films. 

These actors added class to proceedings and given some of the other content, it was probably needed to reassure some of the films' backers and the audience at large. It clearly worked as Confessions of a Window Cleaner was a huge success across the country, playing in cinemas endlessly and making a huge profit, especially given how cheaply the films were made. Window Cleaner was, as I'm sure you'd expect, reviewed pretty harshly by the vast majority of proper critics in the posh press at the time. And while the stigma of these films as cheaply made, sexploitation comedies persists to the present day, modern day and much respected academics are reappraising the Confessions films and their content. It is clear to many that these films offer up much more than meets the eye. 

Window Cleaner creates the template for the all the films that followed. A cheeky, geeky young man, the average guy in the street if you like, gets embroiled in all sorts of exploits with the entirely female range of customers he meets on his job. The endless sexy set pieces are spliced with domestic comedy situations to give the whole thing more of a grounding but I'm pretty sure that's not really want the audience of the day paid their money to see. While Window Cleaner was pretty explicit, at least when it came to what the young actresses were asked to reveal time and time again, it's all so very British. Compare Window Cleaner to some of the films released in continental Europe at the time and it's probably all very tame. The fact remains that audiences and society were much more comfortable with the emphasis being on the young women than any of the men. That might be a topic for another time though!

Robin Askwith writes and speaks of his time making Window Cleaner with great affection and to his credit, has never tried to shy away from the films or what they did for his career. He's a charming, erudite and fascinating man and a great presence in the flesh (!) having seen his one-man show. He carries these films so well and I can only really imagine him in the lead as Timmy Lea however for me, it's also a shame they did so well. I'm sure playing Timmy across four films meant that other parts were suddenly out of his reach (again, no pun intended).

So do I have affection for Confessions of a Window Cleaner? Yes I guess I do. Some of it makes me uncomfortable, viewing it from a modern vantage point, however it remains far less shocking to me now than many mainstream productions released on us today. An interesting moment in time and a snapshot of Britain during a very interesting era. 

I'm going to use this blog as a springboard to write in more detail about each of the four Confessions films, talking more about the plots, the actors involved and my thoughts on everything in between. So I hope you'll check back for those in the days ahead.

You can follow me on Twitter @CarryOnJoan and on Instagram

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