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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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

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