During a recent interview, the director Arnold L. Miller described the reasoning with which he persuaded women who were filmed for the notorious 1961 documentary West End Jungle: “I told the girls they’d never grow old,” he said in 2009, “they’d always wanted to be on the stage or in a film, and now they could be.” Thus it seems fitting that the late writer, cinematographer, editor and director Stanley Long, who produced Miller’s exposé, is being similarly immortalised in a Special Collector’s Edition of a ‘journey into the…over-painted harridan face of the West End’. Long later directed sex comedy Adventures of a Taxi Driver (1976), and worked on V for Vendetta and Batman Begins (both 2005), but it was this, an unflinching gaze into London’s dark underbelly, for which he became most famous.
The film caused an almost wholesale chorus of disapproval, was refused a certificate and banned under the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) until only four short years ago. According to conversations with the production team, the censors reacted quickly to what they termed the film’s flagrant encouragement, even glamorisation, of the oldest profession. It was decried as an advertisement and promptly banned, which, as is so often the case, merely fuelled interest in West End Jungle, ‘the film that London cannot see!’
Prior to the 1959 Street Offences Act, approximately ten thousand prostitutes operated on the streets of Soho and Piccadilly. If apprehended by police, they’d be fined a maximum of 40 shillings: as one female narrator describes, “if they’d tried to pick us all up in one night they’d have had no time for the respectable crooks!” The Act sought to ‘scrub the streets of London clean’ by imposing heavy fines and even jail sentences upon those who continued to solicit on the streets. Portrayed, then, as an unstoppable epidemic, such women were naïvely expected to earn their living doing other, respectable, jobs. The inevitable outcome was the proliferation of new clubs, parlours, bars and basements marking the arrival of a more complex and covert jungle.
The camera pans across the streets of central London as they were in 1961, which makes for fascinating viewing in itself. Before the Act was passed, scores of workers line the pavements, stopping at car windows and disappearing down back alleys. Once enforced, long shadowy shots reflect the now deserted West End residential areas at the dead of night. And yet behind the closed doors and underneath the silence a new wave of sex work is beginning: the crew visit various new establishments where ‘the female form is used to prise the man and his money apart’. The women have moved from street to stage, staring blankly ahead as they dance the can-can and are watched by the ‘moist, avid eyes of the punters’. There’s some brilliant footage of such smoky backrooms as became so common, and the darkened windows from which the women now attempted to advertise themselves.
Given its age, it seems little wonder that West End Jungle presents a stark sexual double-standard, striking a tone much removed from that to which modern audiences will be accustomed. The moralising narration of David Gell stands at odds with the actual intention of the ‘exposition’: namely, to exploit the oft-repeated mantra that sex will, and always does, sell. It is condemnatory, more than once describing ‘irrevocable…degradation and self-disgust’; in this respect it cannot be termed an advert, but gratuitous cinematic lingering and the decision to stage some of the footage within the stripclubs seem to point to more base marketing strategies: it’s sexploitation through and through.
Far from focussing entirely on the working girls, we are introduced to the perceived ‘type’ of man who will pay for their services. Apparently a lonely and isolated individual, ‘craving companionship’ – someone not so far removed from today’s Spearmint Rhino clientele, in fact. There are some genuinely funny shots of punters being ludicrously extorted for tiny glasses of blackcurrant juice, for which they happily pay in return for the pleasure of brushing knees with a woman beneath the table. More sinister are the representations of well-dressed, respectable pimps lying in wait at train stations, on the prowl for innocent, ‘glamour-hungry bumpkins’. It’s all very Fanny Hill, and the next scene shows the bejewelled transformation of the newly-created cortesan knocking back the spirits and looking suitably world-weary.
There are also some great special features added, which certainly help to bring out the content of the film itself, including two rather wonderful newsreels. One bemoans the “downright obscenity” of the W1 bookshops and claims that “Paris has come to London” in the form of the ‘Raymond Revuebar’ in particular: there’s a sense the reporter would really much rather La Ville-Lumière stay on its own side of the Channel. Rather more bizarre is the 1981 documentary Skin Deep which explores the effects of intimate cosmetic surgery, as well as Marc Almond’s pop promotional video ‘Variety’, which uses iconic images from the documentary. Harold Baim’s Get ‘Em Off from 1976 examines the ‘great world of strip tease from glove to G-string’, bumping and grinding backstage at London’s top backstreet clubs.
The documentary delivers on its promise to uncover ‘the actual places of vice’, and in doing so provides insights into the experiences of prostitutes and their clients. It also reveals a quaint, antediluvian system of morality and sexual hypocrisy. And some nice shots of the bygone Old Smoke. Thoroughly worthwhile.
RELEASE DATE: 30TH APRIL 2012
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