Category: Film

O Lucky Man Part Two

Brian Duffy, belligerence and how not to take things lying down


I have had this film kicking around in my memory for a week or two now, in one of those I don’t know why but I suddenly feel inspired by the soundtrack moments, the film being O Lucky Man an early 70’s culty comedy/drama with Malcolm McDowell – sort of Clockwork Orange meets Abigail’s Party – a surreal endeavour to understand a young man’s ideals being swayed or engineered by cultural messages of capitalist behaviour. Out of the blue I found myself humming parts of the songs and unless I had been receiving subliminal brain messages and the film is on tv next week.  I can offer no explanation even on the general daily level of subconscious stuff absorption, as to why I would think of it.


After too much time spent  Youtube-ing the film and all its songs. I dragged myself over to the tv (yes it still seems like I am in Christmas festivities couch mode – but reality is I trapped a nerve in my shoulder so any exaggerated movements other than remote controls etc., are not a place I want to go). So I was very pleased to see something on my radar of tv likes and switched to a beeb preview of the London photographer Brain Duffy ( he of the David Bailey, Donovan triangle) talking about his recent show of surviving photos spanning his career in the 60’s and 70’s.


I noticed something about his on screen personality that I have certainly seen before in friends and the like –not very often, but when you do you certainly notice; he came across as one of those belligerent, defiant types the ones who are sometimes difficult to be around especially if you are on the receiving end of their usually very dry wit! But boy do we need people like that.

So with a few decades distance between us, together with the tv screen, I voyeuristically took in the programme. One thing surprised me even for someone who it seemed would play devil’s advocate just for the hell of it, was his reference  to “some sort of social engineering” on talking about his wayward adolescent behaviour, being taken in hand by a special college of education  who introduced him and various other difficult lads to the Opera, Ballet and the arts in general, with them subsequently becoming full of enthusiasm for it, enough for the lads to consider art school – and for those familiar with Brian’s impact on photography the rest is history.


But what went through my mind on hearing the words social engineering, I thought, yeah right come on! even though this is the sixties and you are/were one of those defiant maverick types to describe your introduction to the arts as social engineering is a bit rich. Dostoevsky life, Kafka’s works and whole swathes of society’s past could have the term social engineering attributed them – but not a sixties east end photographer on the cusp of going to art school.


I thought it had always been a given that art students rebel against the thinking of their lecturers as a sort of rite of passage, a necessary act in order to establish your own agenda and not follow the sheep, either that or proving you are a petulant ego-centric primmer donna. So I understood the lean toward the shock factor in his attitude but I guess at the time he went to college things were still steeped in old etiquette on recovery from the Second World War and he would have been at just the right time and place to become one of the new vanguards of the new.


Later on it clicked, on someone suggesting that the song Poor People from O Lucky Man was a suitable song for credit crunch times; It’s the timing, we are one- two- three years in? depending on your in depth knowledge, of all things financial and meltdown, that, the story of O Lucky Man, Brian’s belligerence, my general preoccupation with fairness and ethics buzzing in my bonnet at the moment, and the random way these things came together.


Poor People for me is sort of a sad/pathetic angry lament; Malcolm McDowell’s realisation that there was only one way for him to go, I say angry because the whole premise of the film was about lack of choice but at the same time offering untold freedoms and wealth if the status quo were adhered to, so, angry as in no choice and the resignation to that. This is where Brian Duffy’s belligerent attitude strikes me as being even more relevant today, the song Poor People is wider than credit crunch music, as is Duffy’s war baby, east ender art school lad defiance, in the face of old ideals.


How much of what happened recently has been addressed as being unfair? apologies and real gestures have been attempted but to any measurable benefit of fairness? time to move on indeed. However much Duffy’s belligerent attitude was seen as being defiantly obnoxious he was also defending his sense of self. Today that has become almost politically incorrect de facto, we can take up causes and fight other people’s battles at the drop of a pc key but when it comes to our own lives and livelihoods we manage a moan and then carry on with our lot. Admittedly some people’s lot has been so fraught and time scarce that anything more than managing a moan would have been physically impossible, but surely there are still a lot of people of Duffy’s ilk able to offer some sort of irreverent insights and foresights. I just hope that Duffys attitude, is not totally lost and relegated to the pc bin marked bully  – if put under a microscope most of his attention and bite was just what was needed in response to working in a sometimes privileged and exclusive environment of advertising, fashion, music and art.


Bullies want control – he didn’t and it seems he couldn’t give a damn – a typical slice of his attitude  posted by The Guardian this month “By the 1970s, he was doing most of his work in advertising – with people he didn’t like, on briefs that bored him. “The more I got into it, the more I ­realised I was hanging out with things I was diametrically opposed to. And they wanted me to keep a civil tongue up their rectum.” Resigned he was not and subsequently successful he was, on his own terms. O Lucky Man indeed – or maybe the luck was more of his making.

Pop Will Eat Itself

Every little helps…


Enfant Terrible was a word used to describe people like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin during their rise into the public consciousness. For centuries there have been people in the arts ‘making waves’ or shocking the establishment, and these type of tag-names help reinforce the effect. There is, though a lot of distance between someone like Damien Hirst and the tortuous life of Dostoyevsky. Maybe that is because we live in more ‘stable’ times – the threat of the establishment smothering the life out of anything that purports to go against the grain is less likely now – isn’t it.


Isn’t it? or is it? as Robert McCrum aptly put the other day there is a deal of difference between being ‘disloyal’ and ‘complicity’. Shazia Mirza was also banging on about the amount of petty hate that’s flying around these days –  like the venom spouted toward Jedward, Tiger Woods, Jordan and various people who have very little real effect on our lives, and certainly not worthy of the vitriol given to that of Hitler, say, or Pol Pot. It seems that for most of us the minutiae of detail we seem to absorb on a daily basis deserves the same amount of hurrumphed response of a Victor Meldrew clone in full swing.


And the arts are no less affected; the last time I recall the arts having a really momentous avant-garde moment (apart from Mr Rushdie’s singular attempt and as opposed to active ’disloyal’ people protests like that for the Poll Tax/Criminal Justice Bill etc). At the last count saying something ‘incompliant’ was in the days of punk – and even that was really about making your own crap music in your bedroom – but you know – in general up till then apart from blues, or rock and roll type stuff, for main stream popular music the affordability and ‘knowhow’ was the reserve of a few.


When I heard of Sam Taylor Woods new film ‘Nowhere Boy’ (I couldn’t miss it really being in lieu of its release) I winced thinking about the press responses to ‘an artist doing a film’ and not just that ‘an artist doing a film about a treasured icon’.

The usual knee jerk reaction to most artists encroaching on different territory is ‘go back to what you do best’ etc etc., ‘jack of all trades master of none’. True, there is something very relevant about being a master at what you do best. But Sam Taylor-Wood is a visual artist, she has done many short films, photographic pieces, and emotional visual forays into unchartered territory – not necessarily in a shocking way either. No the wince factor for me came when I saw she had done what looked like an emotionally heavy look at the early life of John Lennon – and why not, indeed  she got the backing of Yoko Ono to use the song ‘Mother’ after she had seen a special screening of the film. But the iconic nature of John Lennon and how he touched many in some way by his life if not his death, I’d hazard a guess that if you didn’t like his music or even the public persona and were over 9 you would at least respect the talent and genius.


So it didn’t surprise me when sifting through some of the early comments about this film that aside from the usual arty spats between critics, there was an element within the press who were somewhat disgruntled that she had chosen to show him as anything other than a perfect example of how a budding rock/pop star should behave. Sacrilege sprung to mind as I read one review, well all I could think of was the response to Steve MQueen’s foray into feature film a couple of years ago (he too a visual artist) with ‘Hunger’ about IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. A barrel of laughs it was never going to be and indeed Nowhere Boy does not have to have the precursor to be the ‘happy go lucky art school cheeky boy made good’ subsequently being shot down, thus delivering us with a ‘righteous tear fest’. Life isn’t like that but for some reason going against the grain by ‘telling it like it is’ albeit an interpretation, is nothing short of defamation – of what though? the rose tinted idea? – Robert McCrum talked of artists today being fearful of risk – vulnerable to propaganda and being prisoners of conventional wisdom. This is a sobering and true sentiment – as is Tom Paine’s ‘we must guard even our enemies against injustice’.


So if I hear the baying crowd rallying around some petty injustice of idyll whether it is a Middle England preserve or whatever – Sam’s film will remind me that ‘disloyalty’ and risk are part of the wider issue of Not being compliant – so that, without wanting to sound too dramatic, the Dostoevsky’s of the future do not have to suffer the same fate again.

As Neil Young sang in the 70’s, Rust Never Sleeps; so however ridiculous and irrelevant the concept of going against the grain may seem today, falling into step with the crowd is still a one-way ticket, not least for creative originality (and god knows how difficult it is to create something absolutely and completely original).

Graham Greene passionately believed in playing devil’s advocate and ’being a piece of grit in the state machinery’. With popular culture now as state of the art if not art masquerading as entertainment, however small the ‘disloyal’ gesture made it will go some way to ensure the imploding nature of complicity doesn’t take hold – every little helps.