Mirror on our past
As a time capsule of Australian culture in the early 1970s, Alvin Purple is an important part of the nation’s film history, writes Catharine Lumby
WHEN Alvin Purple premiered in December 1973, I was getting ready to enter First Form at Newcastle Girls High. Newcastle, NSW, was then a largely working- class city, its economy fuelled by coalmining, steel production and the dockyards. Post- war immigration had seen successive waves of Italians, Greeks, Serbs, Croats, Lithuanians and many others come in search of jobs.
In the early 1970s, television came in two channels and one colour. I watched the Whitlam campaign in It’s Time T- shirts and saw a new government sweep to power in safari suits. Overnight, politics was blow- dried, groovy and fond of insanely loud ties. ( Black- and- white TV has some advantages.)
In 1973, Suzi Quatro’s Can the Can and 48 Crash were topping the charts on the local radio station ( I listened on my Sing- O- Ring radio, an enormous plastic bracelet you wore around your wrist to the beach and twisted open to tune). A poster of Quatro in a tight zip- up leather jumpsuit was soon to replace a simpering David Cassidy on my bedroom wall. The unbelievably raunchy Australian soap Number 96 was still in the works.
Mainstream pop- cultural references to sex were largely of the British nudge- nudge school: programs such as Are You Being Served? , The Benny Hill Show , The Dave Allen Show and the Carry On movies.
In 1973, nice girls kept their legs together and their options open. What those options were was never entirely obvious to most of us, although in my house it was made clear that a good education was the Way Out. Of what and to where I wasn’t really sure.
Lounging on the hockey field, sunning our baby oil- coated legs, the good girls dreamed of surfer boyfriends with peroxide- blond hair and a Sandman panel van. Actually daring to get into a panel van was a different matter. We’d all seen the bumper stickers: Don’t Come Knocking If This Van’s Rocking, and Don’t Laugh, Your Daughter’s in Here. Girls who got into panel vans ended up pregnant and expelled. As far as we knew, they deserved it.
For us, women’s liberation was still a distant thunderstorm gathering on the horizon. My only memory of Germaine Greer from this period is a TV interview with her talking about her marriage to a man called Paul. She got my attention because she talked about his sex appeal. I’d never heard a woman — outside the hockey field — actually admit to sexual desire.
The most frustrating thing about being a bookish teenage girl with the usual desire to fit in is that you’re far too self- conscious to crack the cool group and do the bad stuff. Watching Greer with her wild hair, fabulous legs and f . . kyou attitude, I remember thinking she might just be the real exit sign, the Way Out.
Just before Christmas, Alvin Purple , a sex comedy and at the time the highest grossing locally made film, hit Australian cinemas. It was one of several films, such as Bedroom Mazurka ( John Hilbard, 1970), a Danish softcore porn movie, and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s art- house adaptation of medieval bawdiness, The Decameron ( 1971), that grown- ups were discussing in hushed tones over fondue and after- dinner mints.
Alvin — directed by Tim Burstall and with Graeme Blundell in the title role — was different. We’d all seen the ads and it looked intriguing.
For a start, it was R- rated. We were too young to try sneaking in but there were plenty of references to the movie in the papers and on TV. We thought the star was a spunk and the ads made it clear there was plenty of bare flesh on parade. Alvin appealed to us because he seemed approachable, sweet, clueless and interested in girls. He actually seemed as hesitant about having sex as we were.
I wrote Alvin on my pencil case in purple Texta, with a heart over the I. By the time the TV series screened in 1976 and the Alvin narrative was accessible to anyone under 18, I was in a Sydney boarding school and reduced to reading Harold Robbins by torchlight. I didn’t think about the Alvin phenomenon for many years.
Then, in the early ’ 90s, writing my first book, Bad Girls, I found myself revisiting the same period, trying to understand how the various strands of sexual liberation and feminist revolution intersected and diverged in early ’ 70s Australia. I remembered the impression the movie had made and scraped up a video copy. Watching it was like opening a time capsule. It was all there, everything I remember living through and sensing: the nudge- nudge humour, the anxiety about where female sexual desire fits into heterosexuality, the electricity of burgeoning cultural and political change.
With the benefit of hindsight, it struck me that Alvin Purple is a film that not only has a central place in Australian film culture, it’s an important cultural text. It reflects and refracts so many of the cultural, political and sexual anxieties and realities of its time. It’s an important film.
Blundell’s characterisation of Alvin stands up after all these years and Burstall’s capacity to make a coherent feature film on such a small budget is remarkable, even if many aspects of the script and humour are dated. My interest in Alvin Purple is in its legacy as an emblematic Australian film and in what it tells us about one of the most exciting and dynamic moments in Australia’s cultural, political and social history. Edited extract from Alvin Purple by Catharine Lumby. Published on June 26 as part of the Australian Screen Classics series ( Currency Press, $ 16.95).
Putting sex on the screen: Anne Pendlebury and Graeme Blundell in Alvin Purple
Poster child: Promoting the film in 1973