Julia Callan-Thompson & the swinging London film scene

I imagine there must be many autobiographical accounts of working as a film extra in London in the sixties, although I can’t recall reading any. Looking at the film industry from the bottom up strikes me as considerably more interesting than the recent obsession with celebrity focused accounts of the movie world. My mother, Julia Callan -Thompson,  briefly took up extra chores in the mid-sixties and she ran them in tandem with attempts to establish a modelling career. She found her way onto the fringes of the London film world through a friend called Annette Monaghan. Annette had grown up two streets away from my mother in Newport and relocated from south Wales to London to train at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. In London, Monaghan adopted the stage name Annette Foley. My mother had arrived in London in 1960 to pursue a beatnik lifestyle and accompanied Annette to a film audition circa 1964 just to keep her company. The producer auditioning Annette said he’d employ my mother too if she got an Equity card, which she did.
One of my mother’s first film jobs was working as an extra on the historical movie Becket. It starred Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole and John Gielgud. The film was adapted by Edward Anhalt from a Jean Anouilh play and directed by Peter Glenville. Despite being nominated for a bunch of film awards, the movie is actually a camp romp in which sado-masochism and homo-eroticism are delightfully evoked through lush visuals and barbed dialogue. In the film, Thomas a Becket comes across as a Saxon version of St Sebastian, and the blatantly sexualised whipping of Henry II in Canterbury Cathedral is used as a framing device for the entire story. The first shot of Henry shows him arriving at Canterbury with a tolling bell swinging in the frame. After detailing his friendship and estrangement from Thomas in a series of flashbacks that last for over two hours, Henry is finally shown taking pleasure in his punishment and afterwards he gaily thanks the church officials who’ve lashed him. Archbishop Becket’s murder is just as stylised and heavily eroticised. The dialogue in Becket mixes Machiavelli and Clausewitz with high camp. For example, Becket telling Henry II that he should have no illusions about his popularity because the crowd cheering him have been paid to do so.
My mother, who mainly worked as a Soho nightclub showgirl and hostess, was used to staying up until the small hours and sleeping late. Film work, even when she was only employed as an extra, required her to get up at the crack of dawn. While my mother had long harboured a taste for amphetamines, the car already loaded with extras that would arrive at 6.AM to take her from Ladbroke Grove to Elstree increased their immediate usefulness. In an undated note she told our family back in Wales: “Apologies for the long silence – but I’ve been working every day – yesterday was my first day off working on the film Casino Royale, a send up James Bond – lots of people working on it. Peter Sellers, David Niven, Ursula Andress, George Raft etc. – not grumbling because the money is so good but will be glad when it’s finished so I can have a rest.”
The original Casino Royale was so star filled that my mother doesn’t bother to list all the celebrities appearing in the movie. Among those omitted from her roll call are Orson Welles, Woody Allen, Daliah Lavi, Joanna Pettet, Deborah Kerr, William Holden, Charles Boyer and one of the most famous faces of French cinema at that time, Jean Paul Belmondo. The film had five credited directors: John Huston, Ken Hughes, Val Guest, Robert Parrish and Joe McGrath. It was very loosely based on the James Bond book Casino Royale, with comic innuendo largely replacing novelist Ian Fleming’s extreme sado-masochistic fixations. While elements of the trouser dropping humour on display are patently English, overall the film has a pan-European feel with the sparse plotting and international cast bringing to mind Roger Vadim’s similarly camp late-sixties confection Barbarella. In both films scantily clad female ‘eye candy’ (hence the hiring of my mother as an extra) brighten up a series of exotic and often high tech locations. Casino Royale’s arch-villain Woody Allen is creating doubles of world leaders and various spies in an attempt to take over the planet. The soundtrack is by Burt Bacharach. There are many bedroom and bathroom sequences, including slinky shots of Ursula Andress exotically costumed and filmed through a fish tank. Casino Royale is a thoroughly enjoyable period piece, replete with speculation about bad guy Woody Allen being a junkie and various other heavily sign-posted drug references.
In another undated note  my mother wrote to our family: “…have finished working on Casino Royale, did three days this week on a Dirk Bogarde film called Accident and will be working on a Laurence Harvey film Spy With A Cold Nose tomorrow, so I’ve been pretty lucky with work this summer – unless something really great happens I’m planning to winter in Paris – anyway if I do decide not to stay in London – will come and see you all before leaving…”
In Joseph Losey’s Accident, love triangles among the Oxford University set provide a vehicle for a lingering exploration of guilt, repression, thwarted desire and emotionally restrained but nevertheless excessive drinking.  In striking contrast, Spy With A Cold Nose was a spoof espionage movie about a dog that had been bugged and presented as a gift to the head of the Soviet state. Directed by Daniel Petrie, the film starred Laurence Harvey, Daliah Lavi and Lionel Jeffries. Harvey plays a sex obsessed society vet blackmailed by the security services into assisting them; his character appears to be modelled on Profumo Scandal fall guy Stephen Ward who was a sex obsessed society osteopath. To underline the Profumo Scandal parallels, one scene in Spy With A Cold Nose is set in a hostess club.
To the best of my knowledge, after 1966 my mother stopped working as an extra on London film productions, although she does turn up on documentary footage of countercultural events including The 14 Hour Technicolor Dream and Alex Trocchi’s State of Revolt. I know she worked as an extra on some Bollywood movies in 1968, but to date I’ve not managed to unearth the titles of these epics.
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!


Comment by Edward Ball on 2009-07-10 12:03:41 +0000

Beautiful piece – your mother lived thru and experienced some very exciting times in the bristsih film industry. Those sort of accounts are ones you really want to hear – “waht was he like, what was she like?” breaking down the myths, yet reenforcing others…explains much of the dna-coding of your good self o)

Comment by Jahsonic on 2009-07-10 12:07:38 +0000

Looking at the film industry from the bottom up strikes me as considerably more interesting than the recent obsession with celebrity focused accounts of the movie world.
I agree, have you read Sleazoid Express: A Mind-Twisting Tour Through the Grindhouse Cinema of Times Square by Bill Landis, Michelle Clifford ?

Comment by Michael K on 2009-07-10 13:18:20 +0000

Trippy, your mum is hot!

Comment by Justin on 2009-07-10 14:07:11 +0000

Thanks for some great, entertaining insights in your article. Julia Callan-Thompson fully deserves her own mention on the Internet Movie Database http://uk.imdb.com/

Comment by Graham Rodney on 2009-07-10 14:49:32 +0000

Wow, that’s a wide ranging of movie styles from just a few Brit movies!

Comment by Dave Vanian on 2009-07-10 18:53:21 +0000

Wot? No horror movies? Feel my pain!

Comment by CNN on 2009-07-10 18:57:48 +0000

Ever considered remaking any of these films, playing Julia’s roles yourself? Could be a groove sensation…

Comment by Christine Keeler on 2009-07-10 20:00:45 +0000

I didn’t have much luck with the movies or modelling either….

Comment by J. J. Johnson on 2009-07-10 20:48:04 +0000

That’s a blog that swings, and it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing….

Comment by Bee on 2009-07-10 23:00:50 +0000

buzz buzz buzz…

Comment by raymond anderson on 2009-07-10 23:19:45 +0000

the sixties was one big mother but ye cannae shove yer granny off the bus

Comment by Johnny ‘Guitar’ Waston on 2009-07-11 00:15:25 +0000

Trippy, Julia Callan is a real mother for ya!

Comment by Lux The Iconoclast on 2009-07-11 13:20:12 +0000

Images, especially moving images, are deceptive…. to connect with the Demiurge you really need to focus on a clear understanding of language…. images are the evil spawn of demons…

Comment by Andy Warhol on 2009-07-11 20:10:05 +0000

The beginning of Accident could almost be one of my films.

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