Georgy Girl: “the good, bad and ugly of Swinging 60’s London”
‘Georgy Girl Is Big!’ so screamed the tagline on the posters of Silvio Narizzano’s 1966 swinging London set film. It had two meanings of course and the first was to imply the nature of its central character Georgy; an ungainly selfless young woman, big of frame and of heart, played by an ebullient Lynn Redgrave. The second meaning addressed just how much of a hit the film actually was, successfully crossing all manner of media, from Margaret Forster’s bestselling novel to a film that proved lucrative at the box office to a hit pop song by The Seekers (with lyrics from Carry On star Jim Dale and music from Tom Springfield, brother of Dusty) that entered the top ten on both sides of the Atlantic. By the time the Academy Awards rolled around in April 1967, the film had scored four Oscar nominations; Best Actress for Redgrave, Best Supporting Actor for James Mason, Best Cinematography for Kenneth Higgins and Best Music for Springfield and Dale.
Viewed at the time, it’s inarguable that Georgy Girl was indeed big. Scoring $16, 873, 162 gross at the US box office, the film came in just behind Blow Up and Alfie, the other two vanguards from a country whose capital Time Magazine had just named ‘Swinging London’ – the ‘hip, happening’ place to be. American studios had set up base in the UK since the late ’50s, financially helping to nurture the British New Wave of social realism, but now – taking their cue from the burgeoning mood around London – they began to explore the formula, presenting something a little more eccentric and a little more carefree, on the surface at least. Viewed today, Georgy Girl delivers much of that swinging London vibe with its catchy, cheery and effervescent theme song, the Lennonesque caps Alan Bates habitually wears and every piece of Charlotte Rampling’s modish Mary Quant-designed wardrobe. But it’s also a potent brew of not only the kitchen sink dramas that came before it, but also the work that Ken Loach and Tony Garnett were doing at the time with the BBC’s groundbreaking single play series The Wednesday Play. Like those, Georgy Girl isn’t afraid to push the boundaries of what was previously considered acceptable for the screen and seeks to break many taboos with its explicit talk of virginity, unplanned pregnancies and abortion, and ultimately the defiance that newly emancipated women were beginning to show in their pursuit to break free from the limited traditional social roles afforded them.
Unfortunately there is a current trend developing that seeks to discredit Georgy Girl and you only need to glance at a few half star reviews on Letterboxd to see what I mean. To be honest, I think these critics who have an issue with how Georgy as an unorthodox, non-conformist woman is represented are missing the point. The film itself never demeans Georgy, it is only ever the characters in her orbit who do that. Even the iconic and seemingly innocuous song is there to serve as a Greek Chorus, vocalising the thoughts of others and Georgy’s own suspicions whenever she personally feels lacking or insecure. It’s true that the film doesn’t have an idealised happy ending as such (again, it’s even referenced in the song) but life isn’t about idealised happy endings; it isn’t today and it certainly wasn’t in the pre-feminist era that Georgy inhabits.
As a story, Georgy Girl is a film about the opposites our lives collide with and the compromises we are therefore forced to make together in an imperfect society. Everyone around Georgy is selfish at heart; her servant father (Bill Owen) views her as an embarrassment, fearing what his master Leamington (James Mason) may think of her unconventional looks and behaviour because of how it may reflect upon him personally, whilst her flatmate Meredith (Rampling) thinks nothing of standing her ‘best friend’ up for the night if a better offer (i.e. a man) comes around. This self-seeking nature will ultimately come to fruition when she abandons Jos (Bates) and their baby girl to pursue a more carefree life. The common theme of selfishness continues with Georgy’s two potential suitors too. In one jaw-dropping scene, the older man Leamington literally draws up a contract asking her to undertake the duties of a mistress and never once considers Georgy’s feelings about the matter. This is especially galling when you consider that she has known him all her life and that, just moments earlier, he freely admitted to having previously viewed her as the daughter he never had from his seemingly loveless union with his bedbound (and soon to expire) wife played by Redgrave’s mother, Rachel Kempson.
Then there’s Alan Bates as the live-wire Jos. Like Peter Pan, Jos has never (and will perhaps never) truly grow up. Because of this immaturity, Jos is self-centred and perpetually unsure of what he truly wants from life. At the start of the film he is in a relationship with Meredith, but only because she is conventionally attractive and because they initially share the same carefree patterns of behaviour – behaviour which Joss seems to grudgingly accept when Meredith sees other guys. So conditioned by society and what is perceived as desirable/attractive is Jos that he doesn’t seem to consider that he may have feelings for plain, unattractive Georgy until it is almost too late and, even then, his childlike whims means that a life together (and as a father to his daughter) is doomed to be impractical.
Standing apart from all these characters is, of course, Georgy, as an utterly selfless woman who cares so much more for others than she does herself. This is evinced by her disinterest in societies consumerist push to make her look her feminine best in contemporary fashions and it is ultimately vocalised in a key scene towards the end of the film. In it, Jos recounts the experience of seeing a man committing suicide by drowning before his eyes and doing nothing to help because he knew that he didn’t want saving. The difference between them – and in Jos’ view between Georgy and the rest of society – is that Georgy wants to save everyone, whether they want saving or not. It is this desire that ultimately sees her accept Jos and Meredith’s baby as her own and take the compromise of being Leamington’s wife rather than continue to ill-serve the child with the unreliable Jos. Again, many contemporary reviewers may balk at this unhappy ending, but it’s faithful to Georgy’s character; she wants to give the best to the child (it could be argued – and indeed is even given a voice in the song’s lyrics – that she only ever wanted to be a mother anyway, which makes her chosen profession of teaching movement and dance to children all the more revealing) and if that means settling for second best herself, then so be it. Besides, I feel that the real loser in this conclusion is Leamington. He may have the young girl of his dreams on his arm, but her ambivalence towards him is all too clear in the closing shot that sees her far more interested in cooing with the baby in the back of the wedding car than canoodling with her groom. No matter how tightly he drew up that contract or how will he conducted his play for Georgy, it’s clear that Leamington realises in that moment that he’s undertaken yet another loveless marriage and it’s rather glorious.
Of course, if it were made now, Georgy needn’t opt for compromise, as single-parent families are much more accepted in modern society, but it’s important to remember that in the 1960s such a life was near impossible. That’s why I cannot agree with the negativity some heap upon this film. I can see why it would be more satisfying to see Georgy defy society by realising her own self-worth and maternal capabilities enough to abandon Joss, jilt Leamington and head off into the sunset with the baby, but around the corner would be the very same social workers who tore the children from Carol White’s arms in Cathy Come Home, because that’s what life was like then. By all means, hate the period, but not the film. Georgy Girl is only ever reflective of its time, an extraordinary moment which – much like the various influences upon it – saw the demise of the old and the birth of the new.