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Tuesday, 13 December 2011

SWIMMING IN THE DEEP END WITH JANE ASHER! ~ Deep End screening @BFI South Bank + Q&A with Cast



'Deep End': legendary Soho red light district/ public baths-trawling, perverted tease of a sex thriller - or captivating, quirky, nostalgic British comedy. You decide which end you wish to swim in here - the deep or the shallow.  

This long-neglected, rediscovered classic of Brit/ German filmmaking stars Jane Asher as the sultry, captivating girl-about-the-pool Susan and John Moulder-Brown as the new boy attendant Mike (master of all he shampoos) who gets bitten by Asher's boy-baiting and turns to near terror tactics to snare his adolescent obsession back.

There's driving, beat-ridden, gloopy psychedelic music from pop group Can during the terrific Soho-set meander in the middle of the film and some Cat Stevens to start us off with. We also get a school cross-country run
 gatecrash and an empty swimming pool drenched in blood red paint. By no means last (or least) the film has a terrific cameo from the heaving, white-towelling-clad bosom of the legendary Diana Dors - for a moment, a true public health risk.

Some in the audience laughed during the movie, others sat in awed silence. Jane Asher said at the Q/A following the movie that she was surprised at so much laughter, the film, she thought, was shot with a serious slant by poet auteur, and true cult director - Jerzy Skolimowski.

Moulder-Brown saw the humour as part of the deal from the start, saying he acted deliberately clumsy on set, to add knockabout comedy to the proceedings. In truth, with:

1. Asher's Susan flirting with her fiancée and teenager Mike,

2. A perverted PE teacher from a local school who decides a slap on the bottom is the best way to get his class of girls to dive in to the water,

and . .  

3. A wonderful, funny, aggressive turn from Diana Dors as a sexed-up sexpot of a bathhouse client clad only in a giant towel, dragging the new boy attendant into her motherly charms and using his head like a football while asking him whether he likes watching it or not (the football, I think) in a tour de force of quite decadent pathos and ribald bawdry,

- this is really a film where laughter is an excuse for coping with the strangest, most unsettling of things life springs on us; on a screen that can barely contain itself.

Personally, I sat there watching in awed silence with the odd smile, and even rarer snigger. It seemed the best way to approach such a disturbing, wild, poignant, unnerving movie that showcases London at the dawn of a new decade with such brain-searing, stand-out scenes as the jaded hot dog seller in Soho (played with determined salivation by a bobbing around Burt Kwouk of Pink Panther fame) asking if Mike wants any "mustard with that?" over and over again as Mike ventures (between-dogs) around a network of seedy strip clubs and a warren of claustrophobic corridors leading to 'models on the first floor' while covertly carrying a cardboard cutout of a scantily clad lady that may or may not be Susan around the red-lighted streets at night.


As well as Mike acting like a 15 year old headless chicken on heat in the film's middle filling Soho setpiece we get many other delights: the prostitute with a broken leg in plaster but still willing to please for a slightly reduced price (this scene was shot in Germany, not Soho at all, we find out at the Q/A later!); an attempt to find an engagement ring's diamond lost in the snow by boiling the snow down in a kettle in an empty swimming pool after closing time (sneaking in via the back window - the seductress and boy-lover first, closely followed through the round window by the worried boyfriend who Asher tells to 'piss off' while angrily jumping up and down in the empty pool) - and a funny, but unsettling scene where Asher drinks hot chocolate bubbling over with whipped cream in front of a far dowdier receptionist, telling the constantly glaring hawk of a woman that she (Asher) doesn't have to worry about drinking such things as calorie-ridden drinks because she is so slim it won't matter - unlike the receptionist (who in revenge sprays perfume in Asher's drink while behind them a man starts painting the green paint-peeling baths blood red, to symbolise the coming tragedy).

Some scenes are played for obvious comedy, especially Burt Kwouk's hot dog seller. Others less so. Be careful what you wish for. Mike's infatuation soon turns to anger as Susan plays games with him; in one scene as she sits in a Soho cinema with her man, watching 'The Science of Sex Part 2', she allows Mike to creep up on her in the seat behind, poking his hands between seats, running fingers over her black satin top - she smiles, loves it, until she unexpectedly turns to her boyfriend, tells him there's a "bleedin' pervert" feeling her up from the seat behind (a hilarious moment, so unexpected) and asks him to get the boy thrown out, which he does - the local constabulary calling Mike 'a perverted little monster', which he probably is (and at his age - 15 - probably should be; because what boy isn't at that age?).

Young Mike gets his revenge by walking in front of Susan's fiancée as the man walks home down the darkened streets around Susan's home one night; calling out to a passing bobby on the beat (and there seem to be lots of those in this movie) and telling him that there is a man following who 'tried to touch him up'.

Extra spoilery paragraph follows!

More madness and warning bells follow. Mike confronts Susan on an underground train going home from Soho, accuses her of being a dancer in the clubs and how he doesn't like that. Glass gets smashed, suddenly, the sweet boy with the nice legs and cute smile - Susan's plaything; the big tease and the big teased, gets nasty. So who is to blame here - who is villain? Who is villainess? And in the climactic sequence in the empty swimming pool, when blood and red paint splash with abandon over naked bodies; who is to blame? I don't think we ever really find that one out.

Now read on . .

Both Jane Asher and John Moulder-Brown praise Polish director Skolimowski in the Q/A following the screening. This surrealist; this lover of free form and improvisation in cinema - this man who sees himself as much as a poet as a film director. Both Moulder-Brown and Asher worked with Skolimowski again, on other movies. But he hasn't made a film in 17 years. Until a few years back. At the Cannes Film Festival screening of a new movie 'Four Nights With Anna', he commented: "To those who like me - I'm back. And to those who don't like me - I'm back".

Asher and Moulder-Brown recall having to improvise on set with Skolimowski, at one point using a poster for a campaign warning against teenage pregnancy featuring a mock-up picture of a heavily pregnant man. Susan cuts out the face on the poster and places the rest over Mike's body; asks him how he would feel - if he was the one getting pregnant? 'I haven't had to experience anything like that', he tells her. He's never got that far! The scene gets the biggest laugh of all. Asher tells the audience tonight that it was a hard scene to improvise, but the director kept telling her that there were plenty of other actresses he had screen tested who would be able to do the job if she couldn't. Skolimowski must have liked Asher, he invited her back for another movie after all.

'Deep End' is a strange beast; quirky, surreal, and set in the least expected of locations - that decaying, old-grass-green-painted, public swimming baths of old ("I thought it would be more white" - says Mike when he first walks in). Other nostalgic sights: the middle-of-nowhere school playing field and the bareness of that deep waterless pit (a trap from which there is eventually no escape; a haunting battlefield - otherwise known as the deep end of the empty swimming pool). There are other places that are part sanctuary/ part threat such as the standing space next to the hot dog stand that kind of becomes a temporary home base for Mike as he fumbles his way tentatively through Soho's red light district (to a young teenager; an alien planet in all but name).

Comedy or surreal horror then? It's hard to know what to think - it's certainly a film that is something of a time capsule; you can just sit back and admire those 'no petting' posters around the swimming pool, the posters for 'Carry On Again Doctor' or those promoting the use of contraceptives and how to avoid getting pregnant. It's even fun looking at the old bottles of shampoo that Mike reaches out for to wash his client's hair with - so many iconic brands from the past. For those who didn't grow up in the 70s and experienced the local bobbies tipping their hats to you politely or the old-fashioned swimming baths and the (back then) authentically seedy and slightly crooked red light district of Soho, now a place overrun by wine bars (less fruity nights than fruity wines) it may all seem a bit odd and quaint.

Maybe that's the point. Even back when it was made this film was odd and quaint as well as being sleazy, silly, surreal and shocking. Perhaps this is why the younger members of the audience at tonight's screening laughed loudest, and the group of older men and women I seemed to be settled among, looked on in silence; in awe. But in the final few reels of the movie - nobody laughed. Nobody. Sometimes all the best shocks come from a comedic build up, luring you into a false sense of cinematic security. Sex, on the big screen, even when not fully realised, has never seemed more ridiculous, more dangerous, more wrong, than when performed in the Deep End...

words: mark gordon palmer


  1. The kind of film that is not made today. It never telegraphs the next moment--you never know where you are being taken- which is the essence of 60s/70s filmmaking unlike the assembly lines of today. Moulder-Brown and Asher are fantastic in this.

  2. The two stars had a real chemistry on stage, all these years on, which was good to see. It's a wonderful movie, full of very unexpected plot twists and turns like you say Elliot, ~ agreed on that! I kind of hope it never gets a remake, although it would also be kind of interesting to see if a film as essentially, effortlessly twisted as this one (or as deeply rooted in a specific time and place) would ever be able to compete with modern cinema's often far more designer twistedness...:))