Monday, 25 May 2015

Adventures of a Taxi Driver (1976)

Any search for the ancestors of the 70s sex comedy would be bound to light on Clive Donner’s 1967 film Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush.  Cycling around the sparkling new streets of Stevenage (a surprisingly vivid setting) and lusting after every female in sight, the film’s hero, 17 year old Jamie McGregor (Barry Evans) is a prototype for the randy Jack the Lads who’d infest the nation’s fleapits in the next decade.  Scenes of him fantasising about the older women he delivers groceries to could almost be subtitled Confessions of a Delivery Boy.  But for the most part, fantasise is all Jamie does: his attempts to get his end away with an assortment of dolly birds are all frustrated, until he finally loses his virginity to the beautiful, seemingly unattainable girl (Judy Geeson) he wanted most of all – after which it becomes clear she’s not the girl for him after all.  The film ends with Jamie poised on the edge of growing up as he heads for university and a relationship with sensible Diane Keen.  His lustful ways, we’re led to infer, are just an inevitable teenage phase.

In the sex comedies of the 70s, men never surrender willingly to the passing of this phase .  There’s no better way of comparing their outlook with that of Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush than Adventures of a Taxi Driver, the first of three “On the Job” sexcoms from Stanley Long.  Made nine years later, it reunites four of Mulberry Bush’s young cast members.  Barry Evans (whose cheeky chappie persona was by now familiar from the TV sitcoms Doctor in the House and Doctor at Large) stars again, this time as cab driver Joe North.  As in Mulberry Bush, he keeps the audience aware of his thoughts by talking to the camera throughout (it gets a bit creepy at times here, with him informing us of his plans to seduce women who in reality would be able to hear every word he’s saying).  Judy Geeson again plays the unattainable girl who’s the summit of his ambition: though this time it’s simply because his friend Tom (Robert Lindsay) got there first.  Geeson’s character, Nikki, is a stripper, yet she’s one of the few women in the film who remains clothed throughout.  At one point Joe goes to pick her up from the club where she works in the hope of seeing her act, but misses it and instead sees her colleague Helga (Anna Bergman, daughter of Ingmar, who would star alongside Evans in the sitcom Mind Your Language from the following year.  She only has one line in Taxi Driver: “Ouija board? What Ouija board?”).  After a game of “strip spin the bottle”, Joe and Helga end up in bed, where they’re discovered by Joe’s fiancée Carol (Adrienne Posta).

As in Mulberry Bush, Posta (who also sings the theme song, which designates the hero as a “Cruising Casanova”) represents a fate from which Evans’ character is trying to escape.  In the earlier film she was the slow-witted, common-as-muck former classmate of Jamie’s, his abortive attempt at seducing her demonstrating to him how far up the social scale his grammar school education had taken him.  Here, her character’s only purpose is to drag Joe down, to entrap him in a clearly unwanted marriage.  Carol also keeps her clothes on, though the sense is that for Joe at least this is a mercy.  Despite her role as the conventional, marriage-minded girl, Posta’s look – cropped peroxide hair and Bride of Frankenstein makeup – is pure punk.  She looks, quite literally, a fright.
The final cast member of Mulberry Bush to turn up in these reduced circumstances is Angela Scoular[1].  As in the earlier film, she’s one of the girls who the hero dallies with along the way (though this time with considerably more success).  In Mulberry Bush she was a hoot as upper-crust featherbrain Caroline.  Here she’s given the generic role of a housewife customer who Joe ends up sharing a bath with, only for it to be interrupted by the premature arrival of her husband.  He’s a grey executive played by Brian Wilde (one of several sitcom stars making an appearance), who voices his disapproval of a colleague who “runs a Ford Anglia and doesn’t play golf” while Jamie hides underwater, almost drowning.  Other conquests during the course of the film include posh Prudence Drage and a suicidal young woman played by Jane Hayden, lookalike sister of Confessions of a Window Cleaner star Linda (as if to underline the point, her character’s called Linda).  Joe talks her down from Lambeth Bridge and takes her home to deliver his own brand of comfort.  Her husband turns up too – he’s played by Dad’s Army’s Ian Lavender. 

There’s also a “narrow escape” with female impersonator Bunny McQueen (Stephen Riddle), whose sex Joe only discovers when he reaches a hand up his skirt (the response to this is comparatively free of homophobia, Joe simply pondering to camera “I wonder if I could have him done under the trades descriptions act?”).  Intriguingly, Joe seems to fancy Bunny more than any of the actual women he meets.  Could his claim that Bunny’s (fake) breasts are the “most wonderfully shaped” be a subtle reference to the unrealistic expectations men have of women? (It’s unlikely).  Liz Fraser connects the Adventures films with their Carry On forebears (and also to the Confessions films, the next instalment of which she’ll appear in) as a gossipy prostitute who regularly sees clients in Jamie’s cab (one of the film’s rudest jokes has her going down on a city gent in the back of the car when Jamie has to brake quickly: the man’s anguished gasps are accompanied by a close-up of an advert for Jaws).

Adventures of a Taxi Driver is clearly a response to Columbia’s massively successful Confessions films (though made for a fraction of the cost), although Stanley Long played this down, insisting his films were based on “comic truth” rather than the slapstick of the rival films.  Disingenuous as this sounds, there’s some truth in it, particularly in the kitchen sink feel of the scenes at home with the North family (as far down market from the suburban, lower middle class McGregors as Adventures of a Taxi Driver is from Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush): resentful single mother (Diana Dors in full-on fishwife mode), thieving brother Peter (Marc Harrison, star of spooky kids’ show Sky, minus the wig and freaky contact lenses) and lawless baby sister.  What little plot the film features between its set pieces revolves around Joe leaving the family home to move in with Tom and Nikki, and becoming unwillingly involved with a gang of thieves that includes both Tom and Peter.  Evans makes a more engaging (and attractive) sexcom lead than most, in turn helping to make Adventures of a Taxi Driver more engaging and attractive than many of its contemporaries.

  •  Other familiar faces in the cast include On the Buses star Stephen Lewis in a brief cameo as a strip club doorman and Jack Haig, who’d later become best known as useless spy LeClerc in ‘Allo, Allo!, uncredited for his tiny role as a priest.
  • The film begins with a spoof documentary-style celebration of the London cabbie, with a voiceover from David Brierley, who’d stand in as the voice of robot dog K9 for the 1979-80 series of Doctor Who.
  •   Michael Armstrong, who wrote most of the film’s script uncredited, appears briefly  as a customer of Joe’s, while another key figure in British sexploitation, Pete Walker, has a cameo as a Rolls Royce driver.

[1] Several other young cast members from Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, including Christopher Timothy, Nicky Henson and the above-mentioned Diane Keen would also turn up in 70s sex comedies, though as with Robert Lindsay in Adventures of a Taxi Driver they were stopping off on the way to more respectable TV fame.

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