Words: Daniel Scott.
The cultural landmarks of the late 1960s and early 70s are so picked over that it’s rare to uncover anything significant to add to the story.
John Pearse features in pretty much all the accounts of Swinging London and the 1960s Counterculture. With Nigel Weymouth and Sheila Cohen, Pearse opened the King’s Road boutique Granny Takes a Trip in February 1966. For the following three years, Granny’s was one of the most renowned fashion boutiques, whose clothes were worn by all the hip glitterati of 60s London.
John currently resides as an esteemed tailor working out of an elegant 18th century building in Soho’s Meard Street.
Until recently, I knew nothing of his work as a filmmaker. I was first made aware of it via The Quietus who announced that The Cinematic Film Club planned to show John’s film The Moviemakers at a pub in Dalston, in September. As with many films of this era, it has its pretentious moments and the plot is clearly not the main objective but I came away with the firm belief that this film is a significant addition to the canon of films of that era. In theory, it is a murder mystery but the film works brilliantly beyond any plot you might struggle to follow. Significantly, it offers a really refreshing take on the much clichéd visual vocabulary of Swinging London. Austin Powers this ain’t.
I met with John in his peaceful Soho premises to hear more about the film. The film itself is strange but nothing like the story of how it came about.
Where were you in 1971?
In London, shooting that film. Granny’s was over for me in ‘69. I was very interested in joining the Living Theatre, run by Julian Beck.
What did you want to do with them?
Just hang out and make love to their women! To participate. There was a man making a film about them, called William Berger, a star of spaghetti westerns. He said, ‘If you are ever in Rome, look us up.’ I was driving to Marrakesh with Michelle Breton, the protagonist of Performance [indeed the third person in the bath with Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg] in a convertible Ford Consul. I went to Rome on a whim and looked up William Berger. I had no business, was disillusioned with London, the fashion business, a burnt out case. Also had a band Hapshash [and the Coloured Coat], which imploded rather like the Sex Pistols, in Amsterdam, after a terrible gig in the Paradiso.
I didn’t realise Hapshash played live?
We didn’t much. We had Nigel [Waymouth, John’s partner in Granny Takes a Trip], Michael Mayhew [poster designer], Donovan’s drummer John Candy, Mickey Finn [of T-Rex]. I played psychosis on a phone-fiddle, wired into an amp. Used to make hideous sort of feedback, like the Velvet Underground.
Was it improvised?
Everything was improvised, including the album [the first Hapshash album, on red vinyl and produced by Guy Stevens, who later produced Mott the Hoople and the Clash]. Spooky Tooth made the backing tracks, so all us nutters could chant on top and ring jingle bells.
So music didn’t offer you what you were after and London and fashion were over for you?
I’d kind of burnt my bridges, so all I could do was to go to Italy. Late’ 69. I went to stay at the Bergers’ house and was never asked to leave – no one was ever asked to leave. Donyale Luna [the first African American to grace the cover of British Vogue in 1966] was there, who was in Fellini’s Satyricon. Others of the Warhol contingent – Viva, Allen Midgette – were there. I thought I can make movies too! Also there was Mario Schifano, the agitprop artist [and lover of Marianne Faithfull], but it was cinema that got to me.
So you had a rather intimidating entree to the world of film?
No, I had the best schooling I could have. Was there for about a year.
What was the catalyst for you coming back?
Because there was a producer saying I’ll produce your film, if you can get Keith Richards to do the soundtrack.
I’m guessing this was a kind of reply to Mick Jagger’s involvement in Performance?
I guess. Keith agreed to do it. Can’t even remember what the script was. So I came back to London, bought all this black and white stock. [The actual soundtrack for the film is jazz and blues, nothing contemporary].
Where were you living?
I just used to doss with friends, then Holbein House in Chelsea, on Pimlico Road. There was a short film festival which included a film shot by Sandy Daley with Robert Mapplethorpe and his lover called ‘Robert Having his Nipple Pierced’. Patti Smith did the voiceover. Inspired by this, I decided I would go to New York, take this film stock and become part of the underground movement there. I did live in the Chelsea Hotel for a while and the first person I met in the lobby was Patti Smith.
So was she known then?
Not at all. She had done a few readings but said she was scrubbing the steps of the offices of Rolling Stone adding ‘But I’m gonna make it big one day.’ So I had the idea of making a film with her, sitting on the wall of the Women’s House of Detention in Greenwich Village. A wonderful dialogue would take place – your lover would sit at her window and Patti could sit on the wall and tell her the news. She was into the idea but she had some politics with Sandy Daley so it didn’t happen. So I went off to San Francisco for a month then returned to London having seen Brewster McCloud. Early Robert Altman. It gave me the germ of an idea about flying [the film features a recluse who builds a pair of wings and attempts to fly].
Flying literally or psychologically?
Psychologically. He built wings in the movie. There was also Flesh, Trash and Heat, all of which had gone into my psyche. I had met Warhol, who wasn’t very interesting. At that time, Paul Morrissey was the force, holding court in Max’s. I thought I’d go home to London and make a film there. Hot off the plane, I went to see dear Michael White, the impressario:
‘I need £500 for a movie.’
‘What is it?’
‘It’s a murder mystery’.
I was working with an editor, Nigel Lesmoir-Gordon, who had just made a film with Donovan [and also Syd Barrett’s First Trip ].
Who’s gonna be in it? To start with, my wife to be, Florence Nicaise, who I’d fallen in love with her in Positano. I went to Michael to ask for money. He loved the rough cut and paid for it.
How much was scripted and how much was improvised?
Bit of both. We knew what we were doing. Florence was all scripted because she couldn’t speak any English. Barney Platts-Mills – he made Bronco Bullfrog – played the producer in our film. Nicky Samuel was Nigel’s wife and the richest girl in the world, part of the Samuel Dynasty – her father bought up most of London after the Blitz. Her brother Nigel financed IT and used to deliver copies to Granny’s in his Aston Martin and also funded the Black House too. He’s in the film.
This is classic radical chic – posh people wanting to support the underground?
Absolutely. Charlie Thomas –an art spiv who could sniff out a Tintoretto in Bonhams at 1000 paces – played the cop. He was a notorious drunk and great friend of Freud. Didn’t last much longer after the film. Also, some of the filming was in the flat where Barbara Daly, the heir to the Bakelite fortune, was killed by her son with who she was having sex (made into the film Savage Grace, starring Julianne Moore).
If you were asked to describe the film in 24 words or less?
A requiem for the King’s Road. At the time though, I was sincere and thought I was making a genuinely commercial movie. The film has some great period details and London scenes about London: and early answerphone the size of a briefcase; amazing chrome phone booths in Heathrow – indeed being able to drive right up to Heathrow arrivals and even film inside. Also, Battersea Power Station smoking away.
It has the mix of the magic that we were told is Swinging London but it also taps into the banality of life too. One scene has an actress smoking a post coital cigarette while she’s watching wrestling on the television. She’s doing something that most of the country would have thought was rather a daring thing – having sex with somebody who wasn’t her husband and also, shock horror, in the afternoon – yet watching the wrestling, classic dreary 1970s television.
What were you expecting would be the reception to the gay sex scene?
It came about because of Jimmy Vaughan, the distributor of Kenneth Anger and Warhol films seeing the film. There was a scene with me and Gala Mitchell, the Kate Moss of her day [and the girl on the back cover of Lou Reed’s Transformer]. She takes her dress off but you don’t see anything. So Jimmy says, ‘Can we have some real sex?’ So I said, ‘I’ll fucking show you.’
Now your look in the film is very different to Nigel’s. You have Nigel with his long hair yet you have a grown out crop which reminds me of early 70s Lou Reed.
Yes, I had two haircuts- long at the beginning then short – very much going away from all that velvet look I was known for.
Did you feel it was a rejection of the paisley, the florals, the flares.?
I liked the fact that we looked sharp, not much hippy stuff. Some of the women’s frocks were Ossie Clark but pretty restrained. The other clothes were the artistes’ – whatever they turned up in.
In the film, it doesn’t look like the 70s were going to be much fun?
Yes, it was the 3 day week. We filmed in Augustus John’s old studio where the lights would suddenly go out.
Where did you think it would sit alongside that era’s other films?
It was so badly received, it could not sit anywhere! It was screened at the 1971 London Film Festival and was panned:‘Drug induced rubbish’;‘Warhol films are cheap this year’. Really putting the knife in. The only good review was by George Melly.
What happened after the London Film Festival?
Nothing. I’m with Florence and I’d started writing. I did a script with James Dearden, who did Fatal Attraction, which we couldn’t get arrested for. I knocked off a short film with Florence, called Jailbird – I was working in a factory at the time, cleaning machines. Film shot in Westbourne Grove and in Lot’s Road. Jailbird did end up as supporting feature for Caligula, some years later
I made another film called Maneater, about a man whose marriage is breaking up. Filmed in beautiful 35mm colour – around 1976 – but no one took it up.
It sounds like the ultimate frustration to have made these films yet without any outlet for them?
Yes, the decade goes by with aborted projects. I’d quit tailoring. I’m unemployable. I then decided to have some shirts made and try to flog them to Steve Winwood of Traffic and people like that. Then I bumped into a guy at a party who said, ’John, you made me a suit in 1967 – could you make me another one?’ That’s when I started again, working from home in Maida Vale.
I also did do three videos for Tom Robinson- War Baby, Don’t Take No For An Answer, Back in the Old Country.
Then my last 35mm film was intended to be Bimbo in Limbo, with Mariella Frostrup as an ingénue. Started a rough cut but couldn’t get funding. Final commission was a sub porno movie within a movie called The McGuffin. Charles Dance plays a film critic who falls in love with a girl at Rome airport who turns out to be a porno star. I’d shot this little clip for it. That was the very last thing.
Meanwhile, I’m getting more tailoring work, from Jack Nicholson and others. Then my friend opened a bookshop in Meard Street in Soho – Barnes Books – in 1985/6. I took the basement, assuming it would be my film production office. But I had a rail of clothes which was more popular than my film work – a group of girls from Vogue came in and distracted me. I was broke. Then I got a call from Derek Hill, who was supposed to be the distributor of Moviemakers and had the New Cinema Club. Derek announced that there was going to be a fourth TV channel so we sold the film to Channel 4. In 1986, it was screened very late at night, introduced by a woman as ‘a very moral piece of work.’
What was the reaction to the screening?
A few insomniac night porters in Earls Court might have seen it. But later on I made dvd copies which I offered for £10 from the shop, with this new artwork, and we have sold millions. Then the guy (William Kerbek of The Quietus) wrote very nicely about it and we had that nice screening (at the Duke of Wellington in Dalston) and that’s where we are now.
DVD copies of the film can be purchased for £10.00 directly from John at 6 Meard Street, London W1F 0EG or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org