Monday, 5 April 2010

The A-Z of Britsploitation cinema: A is for Au Pair Girls (1972)

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A film with a title like Au Pair Girls might sound like it should be full of risqué domestic situations involving unsatisfied husbands and foreign home helps, but Val Guest’s film of that name is actually something a little bit stranger (if you want a film about an unsatisfied husband and indeed wife in risqué situations with a foreign home help then John Bown’s Monique will probably fit the bill nicely). Au Pair Girls does involve young women who’ve come from various countries to work in the homes of middle-class families, but for the most part their occupation’s pretty irrelevant. There are a few sitcom style moments with clumsy, colour TV-obsessed Anita (Astrid Frank) disrupting the calm, ordered suburban home of Catweazle’s Geoffrey Bayldon but these are quickly over with and the film concentrates on misadventures of its four protagonists which, with one exception, are all outside the home. The game-for-anything Anita’s from Sweden and adding to the popular stereotype of Scandinavian licentiousness is the equally uninhibited Randi from Denmark, who spends most of the film naked and whose name should give you a good indication of the film’s level of humour. Randi’s played by Gabrielle Drake, who was the main purple wig girl in UFO and later starred in Crossroads – she’s also the sister of cult folk singer Nick (it’s hard to imagine siblings with more different entertainment careers). The other au pairs of the title are the virginal German Christa (Nancie Wait) and vaguely Chinese Nan Li (Me Me Lay, whose name sounds like it could have been invented by either Ian Fleming or Carry On scripter Talbot Rothwell and whose career eventually consisted mainly of playing various native girls in Italian cannibal movies).

Au Pair Girls is an earlyish example of 70s sexploitation and as is often the case with the genre a lot of the fun of the film comes from its cast of instantly recognisable TV faces. As well as Bayldon and Drake there’s Johnny Briggs (the future Mike Baldwin) and Man About the House’s Richard O’Sullivan as potential suitors for Anita and Randi, Dad’s Army’s John Le Mesurier as O’Sullivan’s dad (he tells his son to piss off at one point, which is certainly not something you would ever hear Sergeant Wilson saying), and Are You Being Served?’s Mr Lucas and Young Mr Grace (aka Trevor Bannister and Harold Bennett). There’s also the first appearance for this A-Z of the wonderful Marianne Stone, possibly British cinema’s most prolific bit-part actress, great in a characteristically tiny role as Christa’s employer.

The film’s usually thought of uncomplicatedly as a sex comedy along the lines of the slightly later Confessions films, but generically it’s a bit more complicated than that. Each of the girls has her own adventure (there’s only two scenes in which they appear together, and none exchanges any dialogue with the others) and it’s not laughs all round. Randi and Anita’s stories are the kind of broad Carry On-style frolics that would quickly become the norm for British sexploitation: Randi and her employer’s son (O’Sullivan) have a (literal) roll in the hay when they're stranded on the way back from the airport, leading to Randi’s clothes getting soaking wet and a quest to find some new ones; Anita visits a casino and throws Briggs over for a Middle-Eastern Sheikh (played, bizarrely enough, by German actor Ferdy Mayne – probably best known to people who like this sort of thing as the head vampire in Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers – in a terrifyingly loud check jacket) and is eventually inducted into his harem.

The other two stories are a bit more serious - Christa is led astray by her employer’s wayward daughter (Lyn Yeldham) – who’s amazed to find that the German girl is still a virgin: ‘Intacto? Oh man, this is too much!’ and procures her for the remarkably unattractive pop star Ricky Strange (Steve Patterson) – who looks like he belongs in one of Hammer’s grunty prehistoric movies, throwing rocks at a back-projected lizard. This isn’t a turn-off for Christa though, and after watching Ricky gyrate and mime along to a surprisingly pleasant ditty at the generically-named nightclub Groovers (no exploitation film is really complete without a naff nightclub scene, I always feel) she’s lured into the hirsute singer’s bed after a minimum of protest. Feelings of guilt and shame ensue. This part of the film feels the sleaziest – it’s in the hypocritical ‘dire warning’ mode of exploitation cinema and strikes a completely different note to the knockabout exploits of the Scandinavians. It’s like a more concise version of films like Groupie Girl and Permissive with their alternate finger-wagging and lustful panting over the more sordid elements of the music business.

And there’s an entirely different feel again to Nan Li’s tale. Hired to work in a forbidding country mansion which feels a world away from the post-swinging London of most of the film, she’s the intended ‘playmate’ of childlike, mother-dominated pianist Rupert (Julian Barnes - not the novelist but the only attractive male in the film by a very long way). There’s almost an art cinema feel to this segment, with its wistful, melancholy quality (greatly enhanced by Me Me Lay’s sad-eyed expression throughout and the emphasis on children’s games) and the uncertainty of what exactly is going on – has Rupert’s mother actually hired Nan Li to seduce him? She certainly doesn’t look like she’s doing it for fun. Intentionally obscure or just poorly scripted – who knows? Sexual awakening taken care of, Nan quietly departs.

The Christa segment has an unpleasant edge to it, but for the most part there’s something oddly lovable about Au Pair Girls. The excellent and reassuringly familiar cast has a lot to do with this: The charmingly hapless Richard O’Sullivan, for example, is infinitely preferable to the smug sleazeballs that would often pass as heroes in later sexploitation comedies. The focus on women as characters in their own right (although not exactly three-dimensional ones) rather than as a succession of conquests for the male lead helps as well (not that the film has an especially progressive attitude to gender politics – its idea that sending all the girls to a harem is a happy ending isn't likely to be embraced by feminists). Intercutting the different stories makes sure none of them outstays their welcome, but the resulting jumps in tone from story to story are a bit disorientating, though Au Pair Girls still manages to be easily one of the most entertaining British sexploitation films of the 70s. Do bear in mind, however, the words of director Val Guest (probably a bit miffed at being reduced from high-profile sci-fi, crime and social problem films in the 50s and 60s to films relying largely on shots of swaying bottoms) ‘There is absolutely no violence or kinks. There are no lesbians, no queers and no whips. Nothing like that at all.’ Oh well, never mind.

Here's the original trailer, featuring the fabulously groovy theme song:

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous19 May, 2013

    Excellent blog, came for Xtro and stayed for the rest - some great films here that I had never heard of before. I'm surprised to see few people have commented on such entertaining and well-researched articles. Thanks especially for the info on Gabrielle Drake - Nick Drake's sister! Unbelievable, but true.