Sunday, 23 November 2014
Coming across like a cash strapped Northern cousin of Dick Emery’s ‘Ooh… You Are Awful’ film, A Couple of Beauties offered a one-shot stab at film stardom to female impersonator Bunny Lewis, and is set right in the heart of the Mancunian club land and variety circuit that Lewis knew well. As with the Emery film, a crime thriller premise is what pushes its hero into a frock and high heels here. Lewis plays Bernie Lewisham, a barman who witnesses his boss being gunned down by gangsters in London, and as a result has to flee to his native Moss Side in Manchester with the bad guys in hot pursuit.
Rather than coming up with an effective way of doing a disappearing act, such as putting out a story that you’ve been garrotted by a contract killer then high-tailing it to a Greek island, Lewisham’s spivvy agent Tim Baxter has the idea that Lewisham should reinvent himself as a drag act under the name ‘Bunny Lewis’. An unorthodox scheme that would not only grant Lewisham much needed incognito but conveniently also keep him on Baxter’s books. Despite Lewisham’s protests “me in drag…no…cobblers…not bloody likely” a drag star is soon born, but while finding fame under a feminised version of his name might temporary keep him off the gangsters’ radar, Baxter’s plan has unforeseen consequences. For not only does Lewisham have to reign in his heterosexual urges around the female entertainers he rubs shoulders with in the clubs, he also finds himself the target of lechery and gets hit upon by a series of men played by the likes of James Beck, plus special guest stars Bernard Manning and Colin Crompton. Should Lewisham throw in the towel on the drag act and risk exposing himself to the gangsters, or keep up the pretence of being a woman and risk being exposed to Bernard Manning exposing himself. What is a boy to do?
Both director Francis Searle and co-producer Ronald C. Liles had form making B-level crime thrillers for the likes of Butchers Films in the 1950s and 1960s, and the early scenes in A Couple of Beauties tend to find them caught up in a time warp. The opening murder scene and its nightclub setting being especially ‘Butchers-esque’, a tone that spills on over into the subsequent run around London. Once the setting transfers to Manchester however, Searle and Liles get seduced away from their usual cinematic fare in favour of showcasing the type of variety acts that were doing the rounds in early 1970s Manchester. Namely a toothless toga wearing old goofball pretending to be Mark Antony in a Cleopatra themed turn (with Lewis dragged up as Cleo) and an all-girl pop band whose lack of rhythm and unemotional swaying about on stage is the film’s highpoint in terms of unintentional hilarity. All just evidentially an average night out on the town in Manchester back then, but a history lesson now in what people did for entertainment back in those pre-internet, pre-X Factor days.
As with Cliff Twemlow’s GBH (1983) which treaded similar Manchester nightlife territory, the settings and co-stars offer a window into the times and social circles its star moved in. Lewis’ showbiz connections being confirmed by the presence of James Beck and Pat Coombs –both reportedly close friends of Lewis- there to lend some much needed acting professionalism (Coombs’ take on a Northern accent is far superior to Becks). The songs performed by the girl group were co-written by none other than Kenny Lynch. Filling out the cast is ex-wrestler Tommy Mann, and Manning and Crompton. Mann is of the Milton Reid school of wrestlers turned movie heavies, only with a severe, scene stealing comb-over, and boy do Manning and Crompton look well pissed in this film.
Bunny Lewis: out of and in drag.
Lewis himself is the unlikeliest of leading man, and in truth as out of his depth as an actor as Mann, Crompton and Manning. Diminutive and baby-faced, as a man Lewis has a ‘cheeky cherub’ look to him akin to David Sullivan in the 1970s, but shatters that illusion every time he opens his mouth, revealing a voice that could only come from somebody ‘up North’. Given Lewis’ limited acting ability you get the impression the film can’t wait to get the opening crime flavoured scenes out of the way and push on towards getting Lewis into drag. Make no mistake, rubbish as he was as an actor, Lewis was obviously at the top of his game as a drag act. The ‘rabbit caught in the headlights’ nervousness to his performance completely disappears when he gets into women’s clothes.
It is a pity then that A Couple of Beauties’ storyline and its purpose as a vehicle for Lewis’ talents do occasionally butt heads and leave us with a main character whose behaviour is ermm amusingly inconsistent. Early scenes portraying Lewis as a butch, completely straight guy who is intimidated and appalled by the idea of having to camp it up in order to stay alive, only for him to mysteriously lose all these characteristics the moment he hits the stage. His stage act taking in jokes that sell him as a honorary sister to female audience members (“never buy one of these dresses, it’s like trying to walk with two legs down one knicker”), launching into a song that isn’t shy of gay sexual innuendo (“I see that look when I count to ten, while I just measure them for size”) not to mention tarting it up in the costume department. Lewis’ appearance mid-way thought the film, squeezed into a tight dress and mini-skirt and wearing an oversized blonde wig can’t help but make you think that a career side-line as Diana Dors’ stunt double was a missed opportunity. An obvious opportunity for comedy here would have been to have Lewis initially make a dog’s dinner of impersonating a woman- along the lines of say Bernard Bresslaw in Carry On Girls- but as the raison d'etre here was to capture Lewis’ act in the best light possible, it is a route the film prevents itself from exploring.
Assuming the film presents a reasonably accurate reproduction of Lewis’ stage act, it is a notably outrageous one. Taking into account it would have been played out in the rough and tough, pre-politically correct atmosphere of the Northern clubs, where the mere indication of male homosexuality was likely to have been met with the furrowed brows of audience members. “I just want to be myself in every way, you do what the man says, okay” is the message of Lewis’ musical number, which also takes in Lewis swooning over the prospect that “this great big world is full of different types of men” and suggestively acknowledging the microphone after delivering that “I just measure them for size” line, just in case anyone missed what was being implied there. Kudos to Lewis it must have taken balls to pull off that routine back then, even if the balls in question had to be kept well concealed.
Manchester Plays Itself.
Exploitation angles were available here but are never fully pursued, the girl band members only strip down to their underwear at their digs and the blue comedians in the cast are on their best behaviour. “No blue gags, we’re very particular here, I wouldn’t allow any bad language from anyone, artists or customers” points out a club owner early on in the film. Spelling out what appears to be the film’s own restrictions upon itself, whilst admittedly setting up one of the best visual gags in the film, when no sooner has the club owner laid down those house rules then who should wander into shot than Bernard Manning, no stranger to blue gags and bad language. In retrospect the film might have been wiser to just have gone for an X certificate. Without the armour of tits n’ asses n’ expletives, A Couple of Beauties had to do battle against the likes of the Carry On series in the arena of risqué, but family friendly comedy and doesn’t really have the funds or material to adequately take on the Carry On goliath. The jokes in the Cleopatra routine (“the other snakes wouldn’t let him hiss in their pit”, “kiss my asp”) sounding suspiciously like they’ve been napped from the script of Carry on Cleo. Moments in the film that do embrace honest to goodness vulgarity (“have I got time to go for a slash” asks Lewis after leaving the stage) and regional specific jokes (“she used to think of herself as Oldham’s answer to Raquel Welch”) could to interpreted as the filmmakers’ admission that their little film was never going to win favour with the knobs and the toffs, and play directly to a Northern club mentality.
A Couple of Beauties also suffered the unfortunate fate of being released in the midst of an unexpected slew of films about female impersonators, including Emery’s Ooh you are Awful, Danny La Rue’s Our Miss Fred and Reg Varney’s comparatively sober take on a drag queen’s lot that is the film adaptation of The Best Pair of Legs in the Business. After A Couple of Beauties, Lewis was rarely troubled by film or television again, instead enjoying success outside of the two mediums by continuing his nightclub act, owning his own club in Manchester and appearing in adult pantomimes like ‘Cinder’s a Fella’ and ‘A Puff in Boots’. It wouldn’t be until the early 1990s that Cliff Twemlow tempted Lewis back to the screen with a small role –not featuring him in drag by the way- in GBH 2: Lethal Impact (1991).
At its heart A Couple of Beauties is a harmless, uncynical end of the pier romp, whose only crime appears to be wanting to entertain everyday people, and maybe sneak a bit of Eady money into its handbag when no one is looking. Not that this nor its utter obscurity –it was unknown to even the most die-hard British film and comedy aficionados till a few years ago- prevented it from being trashed in ‘Truly, Madly, Cheaply’. A 2008 BBC2 documentary on Britain’s B-Movie legacy which predictably became uncomfortable with its subject matter once its focus turned to the more exploitative 1970s. “As you watch this film you can see the life haemorrhaging out of the B-Movie form” sneered the narration as clips illustrating the film’s Northern setting, use of transvestite humour and use of Bernard Manning were waved in front of a BBC2 audience in an attempt to extract a mortified response and sense of cultural shame out of them. Follow on clips of the sexual assault scenes from ‘Take An Easy Ride’, and references to a pair of films called ‘Dreams of 13’ and ‘The Younger, The Better’ (conveniently ignoring the fact that those two aren’t even British films) reeks of a hatchet job designed to give the uninitiated the false impression that 1970s British exploitation cinema was all about titillating rape scenes, jailbait fixations and Bernard Manning. A combo likely to alienate and drive a BBC2 audience behind the sofa, rather than pique their curiosity for the decade’s cinematic underdogs.
Going after A Couple of Beauties in that manner seems such a mean-spirited, cheap shot- the phrase ‘shooting fish in a barrel’ comes to mind- that you find yourself being pushed towards the more difficult, but decent path of standing up for the past, and coming out metaphorically swinging in its defence. The measure of a man is –after all- how tall he walks. The irony is that since that documentary went out we’ve seen the British public hoist ‘Mrs. Brown's Boys D'Movie’ to the top of the UK film chart for two weeks. Demonstrating that the public’s love affair with men in drag and so-called ‘low-comedy’ is alive and well in 2014, and not exactly the forgotten footnote to British cinema that Truly, Madly, Cheaply would have you believe. So maybe A Couple of Beauties gets to have the last laugh here after all.