‘Yesterday’s bohemian is now today’s trendy — yesterday’s avant garde is today’s kitsch.’ says Australian filmmaker and Oz pop artist Philippe Mora. And, you might add, almost bound to be the subject of a part-fact, part-fiction biopic riddled with schoolkid inaccuracies and embellishments and dragging writs in its wake. Biopics of the living or the recently living often encounter problems. The producers of Sylvia, in which Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were played by a longhaired Daniel Craig and miserable looking Gwyneth Paltrow, were unable to quote poetry pertinent to the narrative as the family refused permission. Hilary and Jackie a movie based of the life of Jacqueline du Pre also had its problems. The premiere was picketed by those who loathed its representation of the relationship between du Pre and her husband Daniel Barenboim and its producers were banned by Sony from using any of du Pre’s recordings. The transition to the screen of versions of relationships where some of the protagonists are still around to call foul is rarely smooth.
Although centred on a rude drawing of Rupert the Bear, the 1971 Oz trial and subsequent successful appeal against charges of obscenity created the free press as we know it today. However, like Factory Girl before it, Hippie Hippie Shake, Working Title’s film based on the events, is the latest rose-tinted, patchouli-scented vision to run into grown-up hippies armed with funds for ferocious lawyers: establishment ex-counter-culturalists adamant that they won’t be fodder for film-makers.
Hippie Hippie Shake purports to tell the story of Oz founder Richard Neville’s arrival in austere 1966 Britain, his friendships with every artistic Australian you can think of — from Germaine Greer (played by Emma Booth) who famously posed nude on its cover, to the artist Martin Sharp (played by Max Minghella) whose psychodelic art work created the Oz aesthetic. Naturally it’s set in ‘swinging’ London and features Sienna Miller as Neville’s astonishingly beautiful girlfriend, Louise Ferrier, opposite Cillian Murphy (best known for The Wind That Shakes the Barley) frolicking in and out of their kaftans, flares and beads. Adapted by Lee Hall (who wrote the hit film Billy Elliot) and directed by his wife Beeban Kidrun (who directed Working Title’s Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason), it’s based on Neville’s own colourful memoirs. Even so it’s hard not to groan when you read the unimaginative tag line: ‘The age of free love and flower power comes into full bloom’. Chill out man, however, is the hippie cliché so far most needed by the production and never more than now.
Before the cameras rolled, Germaine Greer advised, via the Guardian, the actress cast to play her to ‘get an honest job’ and described Beeban Kidrun’s style as ‘soft-porn’ (one invented scene apparently has Neville and Ferrier making love naked at Hampstead ponds). In July 2007, before shooting could start in September last year, Kidrun flew to Sydney to meet with real-life inspirations for her husband Lee Hall’s characters. Despite objections many were paid ‘research’ fees. Martin Sharp, who managed to secure some alterations and gave permission for a few of his images to be used, is said by friends to remain appalled by his portrayal. He is famously mild-mannered yet as written by Hall swears constantly and though the two were never lovers, one scene had him walk in on Germaine Greer having a bath, sticking his head round the door and propositioning her.
Back in London with an altered script, the production unit was hassled from arty and edgy but militantly policed Hackney (where 20 of its vehicles were clamped bringing the action to an expensive six-hour halt) to original Oz hang-out, Portobello Road, in now almost unrecognisably gentrified Notting Hill. As one of the film’s producers, Nicky Kentish Barnes, whose back catalogue includes the Working Title hit About A Boy and Woody Allen’s London trilogy, told me at the time: ‘It can be easier to use a parking meter than to deal with the borough council.’
According to reliable trade magazines, the film was scheduled for a UK release this month. In London a spectacular retrospective show of Philippe Mora’s work, at the west London gallery England & Co, opened a week or so ago, and was originally timed to coincide with the release. Working Title is adamant, however, ‘that the film was always scheduled for release in 2009’. Talk at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this month was that executive producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner weren’t happy with early rough cuts of the film. However, even more ominously than talk of run-of-the-mill post-production wobbles, are the rumours in London and Sydney that the release has been legally prevented and that Working Title have been given a ‘fright’ by Felix Dennis.
In the late Sixties Dennis was Neville and Anderson’s business partner, responsible for selling the magazine’s advertising space. All three were sentenced to a year’s hard labour in the 1971 trial. Subsequently with magazines like Maxim, Felix Dennis Publishing has made Dennis, Britain’s and indeed the world’s only millionaire poet, worth an estimated £284 million.
Speaking in London this week Dennis, who certainly has the means to cause the film’s makers a serious headache, refutes talk that he has taken any action. ‘I have not sued Working Title. I have not sued their distributor. I have not sued Universal. Yet. But I put aside £100 million before we entered this economic vale of death. I have a monstrous pile of cash, there are privacy laws in Europe and I know a lot of very good lawyers in the States.’ The script, which Working Title ‘grudgingly’ allowed him to see is, he says, ‘totally disgraceful. What they are doing is fundamentally wrong.
‘I won’t do anything in this country. I sat down with a QC and he said in this country you don’t have a reputation to defend. In this country I have led an extraordinary life. In other countries I have a blameless reputation.’ Dennis says that under pressure to make the film work, the plot has been significantly altered during the making. To create tension, Dennis is now presented as the lone evil capitalist: ‘I met the actor playing me,’ said Dennis this week, ‘and he said his part had been changed. He told me it was originally quite a big part and that now he was hardly in the film at all. I’m the bad guy. I am quote, unquote, the worm in the hippy apple.
‘This is nonsense, to create the plotline they are giving people motives that they didn’t have 37 years ago. Of 97 scenes 95 are pure invention and yet they are using our names — giving them lines that they never said and putting them in places they never were and in combinations that never existed.’ This was precisely Bob Dylan’s issue with Factory Girl. Through his lawyer, an intellectual property specialist, he expressed ‘deep concerns’ at being shown as implicated in Edie Sedgwick’s ‘tragic decline into heroin addiction’. The ensuing rows are an alarming comparison for Working Title.
For his part, Dennis says that his own reputation and feelings are not the issue but rather the exploitation of his friends. ‘I sought advice because I feel for people who are not like me, and don’t have the money to defend themselves. If you were old and ill and frightened, you would take the devil’s shilling but that doesn’t make the devil any better,’ says Dennis. ‘What they are doing is wrong. They are not making a documentary. This is Hollywood history.’ Phillipe Mora, who like Gre
er has not given the film-makers any help, concurs: ‘I think part-fiction, part-true is a waste of time — reality is fantastic enough — people usually fictionalise to avoid being sued which is not a good reason, in my view, to distort and falsify history.’
Working Title was initially Britain’s only commercially successful independent film company. In 1999, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner signed a deal with American studio Universal, worth a reported $600 million. It is responsible for a string of international hits set in Britain and, while the thought of being misrepresented to a potentially huge global audience cannot be pleasant for anyone involved, it is, on the other hand, easy to see why the trial and the era attracted them.
‘Sexual intercourse began in 1963’, wrote Philip Larkin, ‘Between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles first LP.’ The Oz trial was arguably even more epoch-making. It was the Chatterley trial that was the precedent for the defence of Richard Neville and his partners. Their QC was John Mortimer, assisted by a then 22-year-old Geoffrey Robertson, who at the time was still a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. ‘The Chatterley trial fought for freedom for great literature. In a way this was even more important because it was fighting for freedom for all literature, good or bad, and it did free the press to write about sex and drugs in an honest way.’ One of the first beneficiaries of the successful appeal was the Sun which immediately began a British institution with its Page Three girls.
For Robertson, the trial (and in particular the outcry when the defendants hair was cut) was ‘a generational clash of fairly major proportions’, events of serious legal and socio-historical significance. It’s seen as a zeitgeist moment now: did it feel like one at the time? ‘Yes, I think it did. There was a great sense that we were crusading for openness, and honesty and less hypocrisy.’ For his part, Robertson is one of a handful of participants not to have had a sense-of-humour failure over their possibly cartoonlike representation: ‘I can’t wait to see if I get to sleep with Sienna Miller,’ he jokes. ‘I ran into some of the people from Working Title a couple of months ago and gave them a shock. They said we’ve been watching rushes of you all day, and we can’t believe how old you look.’
In response to my queries and requests for interviews with the production team, Working Title this week reiterated that the plan was always for the film to be released in 2009 but admitted, ‘We don’t have a release date yet.’ ‘Only a British judge could ever have been dumb enough to think that Felix Dennis was anything other than Donald Trump in loon pants,’ said one former Oz writer this week. As a globally successful film powerhouse, it’s astonishing that Working Title didn’t think about this too.