Up the Junction, directed by Peter Collinson a year before he took on the classic Michael Caine crime caper The Italian Job, is a decidedly downbeat, quasi-documentary look at swinging sixties London that hems closer to the kitchen sink realities of the working class and the price of promiscuousness, than the fabulousness of free love and fashion, typical of rose-tinted contemporary recreations of the era.
A gang-of-gals movie, the complete opposite of Made in Dagenham, with none of that film’s social uplift, the far seedier Up the Junction seethes with cultural dissatisfaction and rages against the stifling curse of class, a female corrective to the wave of ‘Angry Young Men’ films that began almost a decade earlier.
While novels and plays were the basis for films such as Look Back in Anger, Billy Liar and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Up the Junction originated from a series of articles in The New Statesman by the screenwriter of Poor Cow, Nell Dunn, who detailed her experience of moving to Clapham Junction and living amongst wage earners while working in a sweet factory. These were later turned into a BBC TV film that was subsequently adapted into this film.
Polly Dean (Giallo starlet, Suzy Kendall) has no such ulterior motives other than escape. Fed up with the repressive high life of Chelsea and seeking the freedom to do and say what she pleases the other side of the river, in the film’s remarkable opening panning shot, she’s chauffeured from the swankier side of London, across the Thames to the industrial sprawl built up around Battersea power station. A river representative of the class divide, it might as well be an ocean, for in seeing how the other class lives, Polly soon finds herself in the equivalent of a foreign country. Later musical montages by Manfred Mann have her walking amongst the common people as if on anthropological safari, sequences suggesting the un-reality of the new life she’s attempting to build for herself and how she’ll never truly belong there.
Packing chocolate in a factory line of Fag Ash Lils, Polly is too poised and poshly well spoken to not stick out like a sore thumb amongst her married-too-young co-workers openly dishing about how awful those marriages are. Nevertheless, she’s soon accepted by slag sisters Rube (Adrienne Posta) and Sylvie (Maureen Lipman), who after a Friday night of boozily squawking in bars and belting out karaoke, routinely find themselves getting intimately acquainted with drunken brutes down back alleys “It’s not what you’re doing, it’s what you’re not doing” says Sylvie, evidently not too bothered about “who” either, her open legs policy putting her on the arm of a different bloke every time the girls go out.
The rampant randiness is not solely restricted to the young either. An early bar scene shows an older generation a few tables over, just as pissed up and sex mad – both opiates for 6am workdays and evenings scheduled around television turned up loud enough to block out the passing trains rattling their houses. Up the Junction could have just as easily been re-tiled “Up the spout”, all these optionless women getting pregnant in their teens, their offspring doomed to make the same mistakes and live the same life.
Despite the many options afforded her by obvious wealth, Polly starts renting a place of her own which is the epitome of sixties bedsit dowdiness. Drably clashing with the solid colours of Mod fashion, the film’s palette subtly underscores the tension between what the sixties represents and how it actually turned out. Even by the low-income standards of her friends, Polly’s place is pretty grim, the kind of old fashioned housing fit only for the “coloureds” being denied accommodation by a landlord when Polly walks into the office of a skivvy Italian real estate agent. These nationalities are a glimpse of how the capital would dramatically change in the subsequent decades, but other than talk of “Indian fellas” who we never see, the bawdy clamour of Up the Junction is a cockney cacophony of 99% white voices, speaking only in English and taking their lunch breaks in cafes that did egg and chips instead of falafels. Utterly unrecognizable from the London of today, watching Up the Junction is to travel back in time.
While looking to furnish her flat with only the most ordinary items, Polly meets Peter (Dennis Waterman), who like her is looking to escape in the opposite direction. He longs for the high life she so vehemently rejects, insisting she doesn’t want to be a societal parasite made useless and false by riches, happy instead to live off what she earns. Drawn together by their mutual desire for self-improvement, Polly and Peter are two people who want entirety different things, trying to reach each other like two magnets placed the wrong way round. When they do draw close, Kendall’s otherwise passive performance takes on a different intensity, capturing the importance of those deep, meaningful friendships in your early twenties after you’ve just left home for the first time and are attempting to make your way in the world.
How Polly makes her way in this one is to assume another identity, copying the look of her friends who’ve seemingly slipped in a puddle of eye shadow. Replacing her more cultivated cream-coloured clothes for lava lamp orange dresses and shearing off her beautifully natural tresses for a hair-sprayed beehive, watch carefully and you’ll see how in every scene after her makeover, costume designer Ray Beck dresses Polly like the twin of whoever she’s standing next to. The vaguely answered question of why Polly moves to Battersea is ultimately not as interesting as the note of condescension the film strikes in her steadfast refusal to acknowledge where she comes from, making her a rootless character who’s hard to root for.
First published by Vérité Film Magazine on April 30, 2014