Charlie Bubbles is the most personal and affecting film of the late 1960s for me. It suffered distribution difficulties at the time and was considered a failure – not least by its principal creator Albert Finney who directs and stars. It was one of the first films produced by Memorial Films, the company set up by Finney and Michael Medwin who acted as producer of Charlie Bubbles. For a long time it was unavailable in the UK (it was shown in the US in 1968, but only in festivals I think) and it was not until 2008 that a Region 2 DVD was released. The IMDb response to that release encourages me into thinking that its reputation is now being improved. (It has since had a Blu-ray release from Indicator in the UK.) The script was written by Shelagh Delaney, another creative talent from Salford, born only two years after Finney and here with her third film writing credit.
The film’s narrative is quite simple. Charlie Bubbles (Albert Finney) is a successful writer living in London with a housekeeper and butler and a PA/Secretary in the form of an American student (Liza Minnelli) who hopes to develop her own writing career. He is clearly disillusioned with the way things have turned out and decides on a trip back to his roots in Salford to visit his estranged wife Lottie (Billie Whitelaw) and his son Jack, now living in a farmhouse in Derbyshire. The trip is not really a success and the film has an open ending leaving the audience to wonder what happens to Charlie (and all the other characters).
The film is split into three sections, designated by location. In the first we see Charlie in London, in the second on the journey north in his Rolls and in the third his ‘adventures’ in Manchester and the Peak District. The tone and style of these three sections varies considerably. The opening section seems at one point to suggest that the film will be part of the ‘Swinging London’ cycle, with comedy scenes featuring Charlie’s old mate played by Colin Blakeley. The second phase is the most anonymous, characterised by a long and ominous standoff in a garage in Hendon and then in a deserted motorway service station. The third is both nostalgic about Manchester and Salford and positively rural in Derbyshire.
Everything about this film is personal for me. I saw it in, I think, 1970 at the Hendon Classic, then a good cinema for waifs and strays on release (the BBFC entry is for 1970). For the previous three years I had travelled by train or on the night bus from London to the North West, visiting home from university. I thought I understood what Finney was trying to say. It would be 20 years before I faced the inevitable and moved back North, missing London but knowing I’d chosen to reconnect with my roots. In the first flush of appreciating movies as the centre of my cultural life in 1970 I thought Charlie Bubbles said it all.
There are several key scenes that had a big impact. The first is the stop in the motorway café in the middle of the night. Everyone disses the motorway services these days. They have no real attraction except that the driver gets a rest. But back in the 60s I remember we drove from Blackpool just to see one of the first at Forton on the M6 south of Lancaster. Just like airport buildings, these places were ‘modern’ and exciting then. Stopping at these services was part of the experience of travelling home on the night bus from London (or hitching). They were sites which seemed to mark the change of environment from South to North. British travellers will remember the sign on the M1 which read ‘Hatfield and The North’ or mainly just ‘The North’ – it really was moving from one culture to another. In the service station Charlie meets a character played by Yootha Joyce, an earlier RADA graduate known for working-class roles on TV but who here plays a woman who appears to have moved into upper middle-class circles. In a highly stylised scene, Finney the director seems to use the clash of cultures between this character and her group with both Liza and a young RAF man played by Alan Lake (a lad from Stoke, another RADA graduate who married Diana Dors in 1968) as a kind of exercise in non-communication, but which is still loaded with potential meanings. Finney the actor is completely distracted during the whole scene and into the next when he gives a lift to the young man.
The second key moment is when Charlie in his Rolls tours those parts of Manchester and Salford that have yet to be redeveloped after wartime bomb damage. These are the same streets and large areas of wasteland featured in the BBC documentary Morning in the Streets (1959) and which also feature strongly, in a different setting in Newcastle, in the sitcom Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads (1973-4) and in Jack Gold’s Liverpool setting for The Reckoning (1969). I remember too, visiting a friend in Liverpool to watch the World Cup together in 1970 and drinking in pubs which stood alone among the ruins of streets of back-to-back houses. Here’s a clip which also includes a marching band – oddly reminiscent of a scene from the short documentary Spare Time (1939) by Humphrey Jennings which caused a minor furore at the time (Jennings was accused of patronising working-class culture).
The third key moment is Charlie in the new Piccadilly Hotel in the centre of Manchester meeting an old friend of his father (played by the great Joe Gladwyn, another Salfordian) who is now delivering room service. Again, this is an uncomfortable scene in which Charlie is embarrassed when tipping the older man. Immediately after, he faces an awkward encounter with Liza who has told him she has family in Salford and wants to research the community. Behind these hotel scenes lies the issue for the successful young men (all men at that time and women might might be affected differently), like Finney himself, who felt uncomfortable returning to their roots. The same issues were well-presented in the Nigel Barton plays written by Dennis Potter for BBC Play for Today in 1965.
The fourth moment is when Charlie arrives at Old Trafford having picked up his son. They end up in the equivalent of the modern ‘executive suite’ where the son feels uncomfortable and separated from the real fans and the players on the pitch (see the still at the head of this post). For many working-class lads in the UK, one of the rites of passage in those days was being taken by your father to support your local team. In the sixties this still meant standing on the terraces, perhaps sitting on his shoulders or standing on a stool in one of the less crammed parts of the ground. Manchester United were still a local team for Salford in 1966 when the film was shot. The scene in the box eloquently displays Charlie’s lack of understanding and Jack’s realisation that his father has failed him. The point is emphasised visually in Lottie’s house back in Derbyshire with the estranged father as isolated as possible in the room.
These moments are all very real to me and I’m sure other readings of the narrative will be possible, though the experience of returning to family and old friends must be universal. But what should we make of Finney as director and star? It can’t be coincidence that Finney in 1966 embarked upon this kind of questioning narrative after the enormous success of his breakthrough on the screen with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and Tom Jones (1963). In 1966, Finney was just 30. Did he feel already that his time had past as the iconic figure of a young man from ‘the North’? Was he conscious of what the Beatles and the mergence of British pop culture meant? He seems very ‘old’ as Charlie and the open ending of the film (which he approaches with a big cigar in his mouth) suggests that he is undergoing some form of very early mid-life crisis. Finney himself, as Keith pointed out recently, was also interested in his stage work and had already begun to work in international cinema. His other film (as an actor only) for Memorial Enterprises was Gumshoe in 1971. Written by another northern writer Neville Smith and directed by Stephen Frears it shares some elements with Charlie Bubbles, but doesn’t have the same ‘personal’ resonance.
After a third viewing I’ve found many more nuances in Charlie Bubbles and it seems to me a very fine film. Billie Whitelaw is under-used but powerful when she appears and Liza Minnelli, in her first film role for the cinema screen is very good. Her vitality and perky intelligence show up well in her interchanges with Charlie. I’d have liked to have seen Finney direct more films, but watching some of his later interviews I think I understand why he didn’t. When scholars discuss 1960s British cinema I think they should pay more attention to Charlie Bubbles, it has a lot to say.
Here’s a distinctly odd trailer which avoids presenting the ‘real’ Charlie and tries to fit the film into a more conventional mode.