Friday, 7 January 2011

AFED #6: Seven Green Bottles (UK, 1975); Dir. Eric Marquis

One morning when I was at school in Epsom, circa 1989, we had a visit from an avuncular community support policeman who lectured us about the perils of delinquency. I say 'lecture', to be honest it was more of a relaxed chat and by and large we were such straight, middle-class kids there was little danger of us going astray. For my part a shoplifting incident shortly before moving to the area a few months earlier had pretty much made up my mind a criminal career didn't suit me, so he was preaching to the converted.

The centrepiece of the officer's talk was a short drama produced for the Metropolitan Police some years earlier for just such educational purposes. He apologised that it was a little dated but I recall thinking even then that it was precisely that which appealed to me.

A few years back I appealed on a British cinema website if anybody might help me obtain a copy, to no avail. You can imagine my delight, reader, when I discovered it was being included as an extra on the BFI's recent dvd release of Bronco Bullfrog.


Seven Green Bottles is the cautionary tale of a group of seven teenage boys and their criminal misadventures on the mean streets of west London. Like the childrens' song 'Ten Green Bottles' from whence the title was derived their number gradually reduces following a series of incidents which conveniently illustrate for us the slippery slope that leads from petty crime to borstal boy.

From truancy to vandalism, breaking and entering to shoplifting at Woolies, car theft to armed robbery; our bell-bottomed miscreants take us on a tour of seventies London, ever mindful that the 'old Bill' could be waiting just around the corner to curtail their jollies.

In the years that followed its first showing juvenile crime plummeted across Greater London as a chastised generation realised the folly of criminality. The capital was changed forever. Of course not. Looked at today the film's real value is as a time capsule of an age nostalgia inclines us to think of as innocent.

Not all of the boys meet with a bad end, it must be said. A couple simply get scared, or bored, and drop out, finding release in more wholesome pursuits. One joins Fulham FC's academy, prompting an uncredited cameo from Bobby Moore. "Look," the film is saying, "stick on the right path and you too could lift the World Cup" (and I don't mean steal it).

Ironically one of my classmates the first time I saw it, perhaps the most roguish amongst us, went on to make several appearances for Fulham.

In retrospect one can appreciate there's a rawness and authenticity to the boys' exploits that's atypical, certainly for kids dramas of that period. We were still a few years away from Grange Hill, although cop series The Sweeney had debuted earlier that year and one would guess it may have had some influence on the earthy dialogue (though no swearing of course) and location filming.

Admittedly the more didactic scenes where we're shown the perils of the judicial and penal system do hinder the effect somewhat, although the device of switching to show the action as a p.o.v. as the next 'bottle' is made to face the consequence of their actions proves quite effective. Overall its depiction of bleak council tower blocks and the intimations that many of the boys come from broken homes and/or with errant fathers lends it an almost Play For Today ethos, which is no bad thing.

However it's difficult to take any of it too seriously. After one of their group dies in a joyriding accident, a member of the surviving trio, Frog (played by a young Danny John-Jules) laments: "Pity Steve's dead innit? It was a good laugh though." We shudder at the realisation we're in the presence of callous hardened criminals, for whom even death is just an occupational hazard, before they then head down to the school to break in and steal some musical instruments. At the end the last surviving boy shows just how far it's possible to fall by robbing... a church!

So there you are kids. As the closing song reminds us: "You are what you do, you are what you are. Your future is you [sic] to make or to mar."

I hope you'll forgive if sentimentality betters my judgement, because not only did it bring back memories of seeing twenty-plus years earlier, but also it must have been made in the summer of 1975, meaning not far from where this was shot I was waiting to be born just a few weeks later.

Absolutely brilliant.

Update 20/09/2014

A few weeks ago I received the following email from the film's director, Eric Marquis...

Hello Richard. 

For the first time in my life (I'm 86 and counting) I clicked my name on Google, and was amazed to find what came up! There's hundreds of the buggers, mostly, it seems in Canada, but the two of interest to me include my son who is a DP working in UK. Currently shooting 'behind the scenes' on Tarzan. He's also on page 1. I'm back on the island of Guernsey - like an elephant - going back to birthplace to die.

Modest (as always), SGB was a far better film than Bronco Bullfrog.MY kids were about 12 years old, recruited off the streets of Notting Hill and, unlike 16 year-olds in BB, had had no association with theatre or film prior to their unrehearsed appearance in front of my camera (no learned lines! 3 of them were illiterate and had to be told what to say!, 4 had 'form' with the local police - who were incredulous to see them making a MET film on delinquency).

Your review of this movie made me cry with pleasure and nostalgia and I thank you for it. Of my 60-odd film output, it is my favourite. 

Kind regards, 

sincerely, Eric.

3 comments:

  1. When I was about 16 a bunch of us started to go to football with one of the stars of this. He was a football hooligan with a national profile. By then he was about 26 and at first I thought he was a proper geezer. All the guys my age would do whatever he said but one by one it had become obvious to virtually everyone he was a moron who wouldn't grow up and was going in and out of prison for fighting at football.

    When I was in my early 30's I would still see him now and again around Shepherds Bush on a Saturday with a bunch of youngsters looking for a fight after football. I don't live around there anymore but wouldn't be surprised if he is still at it.

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    1. Thanks for extra info, Anonymous. As you'll see from Eric Marquis' comment above the kids he cast were the real deal, so no surprise they had further brushes with the law.

      In the unlikely event any of the cast do get to read this then feel free to chip in.

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  2. I'm glad I found this review as I remember the film being shown in about 1984 at my local school. I've been looking for it on YouTube on and off for years now, not knowing what it was called. Happily I stumbled upon your page and clocked the title and found in online. Happy Days!!

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