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Adrift In Soho

Paul Green | filmcourt.ca

adriftinsoho.com »»

Written and directed by Pablo Behrens, from the novel by Colin Wilson


§ I’ve been looking forward to the general release of this remarkable film. For it’s based on a novel by a writer who’s always been significant for me, (even if my only personal encounter with him was bizarre, as chronicled in my CC review of his autobiography Dreaming to Some Purpose.

As a teenager I read Wilson’s semi-autobiographical Adrift in Soho a year or two after its appearance in 1961. I eagerly identified with protagonist Harry Preston, the young aspiring philosopher seeking authentic being in the dark labyrinths of Soho, learning to survive day to day on his wits, drinking with exotic characters like Iron Foot Jack and enjoying bedsit romance. It was a tempting rite of passage.

What I didn’t then realise was that the novel had begun as a joint project between Wilson, inspired by his youthful experiences in 50s Bohemian London, and his friend Charles Belchier, an under-employed actor best known for his role as the bandmaster on the deck of the Titanic in the 1958 movie A Night to Remember. Belchier had started a memoir based on his own Soho anecdotes but didn’t know to develop it. Wilson effectively bought out the material for a slice of the royalties and melded it on to characters and scenes from his play The Metal Flower Blossom, originally written as a comedy for his Soho friends but never performed. The book fuses all these elements to create a picaresque open-ended narrative and the latter part of the book focuses on an artist Ricky Prelati, his entourage of eccentrics and their shambolic attempts at communal living, which force Harry to reevaluate the Bohemian lifestyle and consider the true nature of freedom.

Colin Wilson: Adrift In Soho

The Image Speaks

Inevitably, writer-director Behrens excises many episodes and characters (including Prelati) in the process of creating a manageable cinematic narrative. But he adds a new dimension to the story by introducing two young members of the radical 1950s Free Cinema movement, who are documenting the lives of Soho denizens on the streets and in the pub ,using a precious 16mm wind-up Bolex. The manifesto of Free Cinema, founded by Lindsay Anderson is terse: ‘The Image speaks. Sound amplifies and comments. Size is irrelevant. Perfection is not an aim. An attitude means a style. A style means an attitude.’ Free Cinema created a new style of British documentary - low-budget, centred on ordinary people and everyday existence. Here the Free Cinema strand acts as a framing device in the film, adding an intriguing alienation effect as we flit between the characters delivering their confessions and rants in full colour close-up and their tiny flickering black and white images in the edit room. This eliminates voice-over monologue and gives us a direct face-to-face encounter with Harry’s reflections on consciousness and the purpose of existence. It also forms a plot arc, as one of the duo eventually becomes part of a crew covering the first Aldermaston march by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. To quote Behrens, ‘In the process of the discovery of Soho, the film moves from a fiction about a documentary to a documentary about a fiction.’

For Behren’s Soho is in some respects mythic rather than naturalistic and in funding terms closer to the ethos of Free Cinema. Operating on a relatively low budget of £2 million ($2.5 million dollars) Behrens didn’t have the resources to recreate the whole of 1950s Soho using sound-stage sets or CGI and he resisted the temptation of suggesting the period with vintage motor vehicles. Instead he has combined tightly composed shots and iconic imagery from contemporary Soho with sequences shot in the back-streets of Nottingham. Consequently a few minor anachronisms pop up, mostly unobtrusive in the flow of the action - although there is an awkward pan past a cafe cash register displaying decimal coinage.

In any case the overall chronology of the film is fluid, in a kind of dream time. Some times the pace is slowed and dialogue hangs in the air like coils of cigarette smoke while other sequences are frenetic or even hallucinatory. We are somewhere between 1956 and 1959, adrift in space and time, as the characters explore the psycho-geography of the zone, not as tourist flaneurs but as impoverished addicts to an invasive spiritual miasma - or pioneers of a new zeitgeist, the British Beat Generation.

Adrift in Soho (London)

‘You can make poetry’

The Free Cinema film makers exulted in the freedom to ‘make poetry’, outside commercial constraints . Certainly the poetic qualities of Adrift in Soho are evident from the start in Martin Kobylarz’s superb camerawork and Anthony Reynolds’ sparse eerie score as well as in the subtly muted colour grading.

We open with grainy aerial B&W footage of the West End, then misty grey imagery of streets and alleys. The iconography of the film is established: the churches in Soho Square, the markets and pubs, the neon signs of coffee bars, strip clubs and sex shops, nuclear test imagery.

As the screen changes to colour, a horse-drawn hearse heads for the Square, its progress tracked by Marcus (Angus Howard) on a Bolex assisted by his Free Cinema comrade Jo (Emily Seale-Jones). They walk the streets in search of images and vantage points, while nearby Doreen (Caitlin Harris), a young American student, buys bananas in the market. Night falls, a solitary sax player blurts and wails. Iron Foot Jack (Martin Calcroft), based on a real Soho character of the era, peers warily out of a doorway and clanks along the pavement. Out-of work actor James Compton-Street (Chris Wellington, in a bravura performance) hurries through the drifting smog to a pub where he documents the night life on charcoal and paper - not so much an artistic endeavour as a desperate stratagem for earning spare change from the drinkers. Harry Preston (Owen Drake) has been browsing in a bookshop, noting the presence of Wilson’s The Outsider on the shelves. Intercutting as montage throughout the film, Jo and Marcus capture the adventures of a camera going for a walk These vignettes include banter and bartering between prostitutes and customers, gay sailors kissing in the shadows, Iron Foot Jack hawking his dubious jewellery while declaring that ‘Soho ain’t what it used to be...’ Jo and Marcus run footage through their Zeiss Moviscope while declaiming the Free Cinema manifesto and joyfully dance around their cluttered edit room filming each other like youngsters unpacking their first iPhones, but still bound by the discipline of celluloid and the editing block, as well as their commitment to the idealism of Free Cinema.


The inciting incident arrives when Harry, quietly reading in a near-empty pub, meets Doreen, waiting for a posh date, and James, who chats her up while he sketches her , offering her a scratchy equivalent to a selfie. Jo and Marcus observe from the corner. Harry’s attraction to her is evident but his diffidence and introversion, nicely captured by Drake, is overwhelmed by James’ aristocratic manner, his ebullient theatricality and apparent self-confidence, especially when he performs for Marcus’ camera and claims to have ‘film contacts’. Later he admits that he and most of his acquaintances suffer from ‘Soho-itus - a venereal disease of the spirit.’ But it’s only as events unfold that Harry comes to understand the true meaning of the condition. Soho is also depicted as a laboratory in which the viral behaviours of the sixties are being hatched in a search for new values and authentic self-realisation. Sexual liberation, distrust of government, pacifism, rejection of consumerism, experimentation with drugs - all the themes are either explicit or encoded in the subtext of the film. There’s even a foreshadowing of seventies militant feminism, when Jo objects to Marcus filming burlesque dancers in a red-lit strip club , despite his insistence that this work pays for their social documentaries. An explicit political trope emerges when Jo meets Marty, a young working class Marxist (Olly Warrington) and splits from Marcus, who eventually becomes involved in making Krispy Rice commercials, while Jo finally joins a team documenting the CND demo.

Adrift In Soho film

“Let me show you Soho!’

James is the hyperactive Trickster who initially mesmerises everyone who encounters him, whether in the pub, coffee bar or greasy spoon cafe. While Harry broods about the meaning of ‘Sohoitis’, with a growing recognition that there might be ‘no exit strategy’ and yearns for Doreen, James seduces a young writer, played with beguiling innocence by Tori Hope. He claims to be a publisher who knows ‘Osborne, Wilson, Pinter and Dylan Thomas’. Soon her post-orgasmic cry of ‘Dylan Thomas!’ echoes across the Soho rooftops into the night sky. She’s unaware , of course, of his on-off relationship with Myra, a struggling actress, Unsurprisingly, James proposes a financial partnership with Harry, whereby each supports the other over a fortnightly cycle without working, using cunning and ingenuity, an arrangement that quickly becomes as stressful as a full time job, even when James busks the West End theatre queues with his comic monologues.

Yet Harry is also drawn to a more cerebral figure, the semi-vagrant self-styled ‘Count Robert De Bruin’ (William Chubb) who offers to sell him a first edition of the nineteenth century proto-surrealist novel Les Chants de Maldoror by Comte de Lautréamont. Its nightmarish scenes of horror and violence impress both Harry and James, who frequently quotes from the work, foreshadowing his final crisis. For beneath the drinking, partying and numerous beddings by James there’s a hint of an underlying angst, another foreshadowing of the next decade and the dread of nuclear warfare, as identified in Jeff Nuttall’s classic study of the 1960s, Bomb Culture. There are certainly sombre undertones in the ‘Anarchist Theatre’ cabaret that Harry visits. Based on an event that Wilson himself helped to organise, it includes a fragment of a lecture on Nietzsche and the Outsider, but a female poet (Hayley Considine) commands the most attention with a diatribe of self-hatred and nausea directed at her own bodily decay and a denunciation of society as ‘parasitical’. There’s a similar nihilism evident in a brief cameo from an unnamed artist perhaps based on Francis Bacon, ‘I prefer the visceral reality of a vomit...that’s why I’m in Soho... I may move out to suburbia and disfigure it...’

Even frenetic dancing in a jazz club under the spinning glitter ball seems propelled by a wild desperation, a ritual of Eros versus Thanatos. Despite James’ extroversion in the saloon bar in front of his entourage, extravagantly praising Harry’s ’genius’ as a stratagem to get him off with Doreen, he also dramatises his ambivalence about Soho, ‘you lover of the dilettante and the complete failure...what can you give me except nausea...’ Harry later admits that ‘happiness is a rare commodity here. The difference is that people are not looking for it. Soho is an enclave , keeping doubt permanently switched on.’ Trying weed to a party sound track of skiffle and bomb-protest folk , snorting coke in a strip joint as a dancer in a black leotard begins her routine, Harry shares some of James’ hedonism but confesses to Doreen that he has ‘found a thousand of ways of living - without actually doing anything.’

‘Maybe the present reality cannot be sustained for much longer...’

Behrens departs from the novel and sharpens its focus by bringing closure to the intertwined quests of Harry and James. Finally rejected by Myra, James admits he faces the void. He drifts into the strip club, where a dealer persuades him to sample LSD. ‘This will be the rage of the next ten years!’ But the dancer on stage is transformed from seductress to menacing nemesis, pointing an accusing finger.

He seeks refuge in the club toilet but can’t escape from the imploding reality of the trip or the impulse of self-annihilation. Enacting a scene for Maldoror he begins sawing away at his face with a knife. His mouth, so often his instrument of persuasion and seduction, is morphed it into a hideous gory parody of a grin, before he slowly bleeds to death on the stairs.

At James’ wake Harry reads the extract from Maldoror that features oral mutilation: ‘His laugh didn’t resemble that of human beings. He wasn’t laughing at all...’ Mourners return to the pub as Jo and Marty film the hearse trundling away. In the toilet James’ voice still echoes in Harry’s head but now he has a commitment. ‘I’m with someone.’ He has finished his book, and realises that he and Doreen are free to leave Soho.

Now Soho has been largely sanitised. As rents and local taxes have soared, many of the clubs and family businesses have been replaced by franchises while tourists vastly outnumber indigenous itinerants. The likes of Iron Foot Jack and the Count seem long gone. The social and artistic freedoms sought by Harry’s impoverished friends have been acted out across six decades. Wilson’s novel captured a culture on the cusp of change. Behren’s film evokes this seminal period with nuance, wit and moments of intense beauty.

©Paul Green July 2020

*Check out PG's website: https://www.paulgreenwriter.co.uk/poetry/ »»

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