Melodramatic times: ‘The killing of Sister George

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On Thursday evening I had no appointments visible in my imaginary diary (imaginary in the sense that my personal calendar is in my head – I will probably get a text later, telling me how I have disappointed someone for not showing up for something I had agreed to). An evening of televisual entertainment stretched out before me.

After Eastenders –why is the dim member of the boyband Blue behind the bar at the Vic by the way? Where is my Danny Dyer? – I turned on the Youtube. it has has a nifty little feature which suggests what I might enjoy watching – based on my previous viewing habits. Along with all the usual suggestions for Dolly Parton and Kate Bush videos, I spotted a link called ‘Boy George: The 1970s – save me from suburbia’. That looked palatable.

Of course it was. It was an account of how David Bowie and punk music and fashion saved adolescent Georgie from the grey world of Eltham in that economically deprived decade. During one of the interviews he mentioned that his Irish mother – she’s from Crumlin in Dublin – had left a copy of the play ‘The killing of Sister George’ in his sock drawer as  a not too subtle sign that she supported her gender bending teenage son. Just like a good Irish Mammy, she wouldn’t say this out loud in case the Pope heard her, but she’d display her intentions regardless.

I had heard of that play. In fact several years ago when my memory was slightly impaired in Amsterdam I had seen the film version. That had been some time ago. It was time to revisit it.

Lesbian melodrama is a recommended means of amusing oneself of a Thursday evening .

What a film. Made in 1969 it stars Beryl Reid; Susannah York and Coral Browne. Reid stars as June Buckridge who plays the role of a beloved village nurse called Sister George, in the television soap opera ‘Applehurst’. This character dispenses homespun wisdom and medical advice to the locals. In real life June (who everyone calls ‘George’ ) is a cigar smoking, gin-swilling butch lesbian living with her younger lover Alice ‘Childie’ McNaught – a lady poetess and shop girl. Childie bears the brunt of George’s alcoholic rages and sadistic urges. After a script dispute with the show’s director George storms off the set, gets rip-roaringly drunk and decides to take a taxi home. Hopping into a London black cab she discovers it is occupied by two Irish catholic novitiate nuns. She proceeds to assault them.

The next night while drinking gin at home she receives a visit from the show’s producer – Mrs. Mercy Croft – a fiercely glamourous woman with a glint in her eye. She warns George that unless her on-set behaviour improves (and she writes a letter of grovelling apology to the Mother Superior of the nuns) she will be fired. Relieved to be keeping her job, George drunkenly invites Mrs. Croft to a nightclub that evening. To the Gateways Club – a real life spot that was the longest running lesbian club in history from the 1930s to the 1990s and the place where Dame Pam St Clement (who played Pat Butcher on Eastenders) took her first tentative steps into the Sapphic world). George and Childie will be performing a Laurel and Hardy tribute on this particular evening. Filmed in the actual club and featuring the venue’s clientele as extras it is fascinating to watch.
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Mrs Croft arrives at the club and informs George that her character in the soap is to be killed off – to be mown down by a truck in a public service message about road safety. George goes berserk. Mrs Croft takes Childie out of the club to protect her from George’s fury. With promises of producing her poems, she seduces Childie in graphic (for its time) scene. The sex scene is scored by loud, ominous, gothic horror music – Mrs Croft being the predatory lesbian swooping in on her prey.

Having lost her job and her girlfriend, Mrs Croft offers George a consolation prize – to voice the role of Clarabelle the Cow on an animated children’s series. Clarabelle will be a “flawed but credible cow” because “otherwise children wouldn’t believe in her”. George is not best pleased. To put it mildly

I absolutely love this film. On the one hand it is incredibly dated and offensive in its portrayals of these characters. Then again  this was fifty years ago – at the very dawn  of the modern Women’s Lib or Gay Lib movements. The character of George may be a monster but she lives her life entirely on her own terms and makes no apologies to anyone. At one point when George is berating Childie for some perceived transgression, Childie screams at her “Not all of the girls are raving, bloody lesbians, you know.” George coolly replies, “That is a misfortune that I am well aware of.”

The film was adapted from the stage script of the same name by Frank Marcus. It was directed for film by Robert Aldrich (who five years earlier had directed Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in the hag-horror classic ‘Whatever happened to Baby-Jane?’). It is wildly over the top and stage-y, and in no way can it be described as progressive. But Beryl Reid dominates the screen in an absolute inferno of a performance. The character of Mrs Croft is almost demonic – you just know she’s a wrong ‘un the moment she appears on screen. The actress who played her – one Coral Browne – was a famed stage actress and rampant lesbian – who married twice. Both were lavender marriages – where a lesbian would marry a theatrical man. Her second marriage was to the rather camp horror-film legend Vincent Price.

If you are looking for a socially aware film showing the valuable contributions made to the world by the lesbian community, then this is not your film. But for a scenery-chewing camp melodrama then this film will be hard to beat.

Mesmerising. Highly recommended.

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