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A tribute to Margaret Forster (1938 – 2016): Remembering Georgy Girl from the Swinging Sixties.

(Editor's note: Hunter Davies's new autobiography, The Co-op's Got Bananas, published by Simon and Schuster on 7th April, is my Nostalgia book of the month in this issue...)

 

How sad it was to hear of the death of Margaret Forster at the age of 77 in February 2016. She was one of the most accomplished, popular and respected authors of the post-war era. Her output of fiction, non-fiction, autobiography, biography and feminist social history was maintained at high quality throughout a long career that started with her first-published novel in 1964.

 

Her death was all the more poignant because it left her husband Hunter Davies alone and mourning at the age of 80. Although he scaled great heights himself as an author and journalist, Hunter Davies always hailed his wife’s intellect and strength as being superior to his in every regard. He truly worshipped the ground that she walked on.

 

In London in the Swinging Sixties it seemed that Hunter Davies and Margaret Forster, married in 1960, were the epitome of a young, trendy, upwardly mobile married couple with the world at their feet. They each seemed to have the Midas touch: aged only in their twenties they each had seen a best-seller book become a box-office hit at the cinema. Georgy Girl was Margaret Forster’s second novel, published in 1965 and turned into a film in 1966. Hunter’s breakthrough novel was Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, published in 1967 and released as a film in 1968.

 

The publishers and promoters of those two books and films conveyed to the public a promise of permissive ‘sex romps’: beacons of the fast-emerging post-Chatterley society in which the fusty old customs and class barriers were being swept away. Women were being ‘emancipated’; taboo subjects like adultery and unmarried mothers  could be written about more explicitly.

 

Hunter Davies and Margaret Forster did on the surface of it belong with the 1960s and 1970s ‘Beautiful People’: a house in Islington; working and partying with the Chelsea set; editing the hip new Sunday Times colour supplement; writing a biography of The Beatles. But at heart they were a young couple that had met, courted and married in Carlisle, to which town they would later return to raise their family of three children and present themselves to the world as a hard-working, unpretentious and happily married couple. Margaret Forster was an unremittingly down-to-earth character who kept her private life in lock-down. Family and writing were the two essentials of her life and she carried them out without fuss or self-importance.

 

Georgy Girl – the book and the film

 

Georgy Girl (Secker & Warburg, 1965) was such an instant success as a novel that it was soon adapted as a film (Columbia Pictures, 1966). Lynn Redgrave made her lead screen debut as the virginal and frumpy title character. Alan Bates, James Mason and Charlotte Rampling were the main co-stars. The catchy theme tune by The New Seekers reached number 3 in the UK singles chart, number 2 in the USA and number 1 in Australia.

 

Much as I enjoyed and still enjoy watching the film I would beseech you to read the book. The writing is exceptionally fine towards the end of the story when the young lovers Georgy and Jos (Alan Bates) wrangle over the unsatisfactory state that their relationship has come to. Jos wants Georgy all to himself, but Georgy has stubbornly decided to shut him out of her affections and devote all her quality-time to Sara, the new-born baby conceived out of wedlock by Jos and Meredith. The bitchy, pouting Meredith (Charlotte Rampling) is Georgy's former flat-mate who has no interest in bringing up Sara and wants to have her adopted.

 

The dialogue crackles at this stage of the book, not least when Georgy receives pithy comment and criticism from her mother, from Peg (her neighbour) and from James (her guardian and would-be lover / husband – played by James Mason in the film).

 

The ride along the Thames in a riverboat is one of the key sequences in the relationship between Jos and Georgy. Jos persuades a reluctant Georgy to leave the baby in a nursery so that he can have Georgy's undivided attention for a whole afternoon. Jos wants to see if they can rediscover the spark of friendship that had caused him to give up on Meredith and to shack up with Georgy instead.

 

The afternoon is a disaster. Georgy is determined not to enjoy herself. Jos tries everything he can think of to woo her and get through to her but her heart has turned as cold as a stone. The two young lovers are isolated in their own frightened and uncomprehending private worlds. Georgy wonders why her longing for Jos has evaporated so soon after winning him from Meredith. I don't think I love you any more. I want to, but nothing happens. Jos despairs at women's apparent determination not to accept him for himself but to force him into a role that he doesn't enjoy. All anyone wanted to use him for was as a father. He vowed that for as long as he lived he would never sire another child for blood-thirsty women to devour. Jos ends up declaring that he will pack his bags and move out of the flat.

 

The film misses most of this. The riverboat ride is briefly seen, and there are snatches of the actual dialogue from the book, but the poignancy and insight is lost. Moreover, immediately after this, the film inverts, or omits altogether, the events and thought-processes that lead Georgy to the altar with James.

 

To me in the film, Jos is inconsistent and unconvincing as a character. Perhaps it doesn't help that Alan Bates often seems to look and sound like a cross between Tony Hancock and Harold Steptoe. Jos does have some good moments in the film that are variously embarrassing, funny or sad, and Bates plays these scenes with aplomb. But somehow, the film version of Jos seems sketchy and unrealistic. Does he fare any better as a book character? Not really. He still seems insubstantial. I'm forced to conclude that Alan Bates did the best he could with the role, but he was always on a hiding to nothing with Jos.

 

I can cite other sequences - not just the riverboat ride - where I would urge you to read the book because the film doesn't properly replicate Margaret Forster's plot or it doesn't do justice to the nuances of social and personal interaction that are so skilfully and sometimes poignantly conveyed in the book.

 

Swinging Sixties ‘Permissive Society’

 

Hunter Davies afterwards admitted that readers must have felt cheated if they had expected to find lots of raunchy and explicit sex in his book Here We Go Round the Mulberry Book. If you watch the film you’ll see why: there is some snogging and mild innuendo, but it was never going to cause notoriety for its leading stars Barry Evans, Judy Geeson and Adrienne Posta.

 

In Georgy Girl the sexual scenes and situations depicted by Margaret Forster in the book were forward and daring by mid-1960s standards, albeit they would seem tame and commonplace today. The sex scenes were muted and downplayed in the film. In fact as a museum-piece the film, while containing some glimpses of 1960s fashion (dolly-birds in miniskirts), prevailingly illustrates a London that in 1966 was still surprisingly drab and staid on the whole. Perhaps this impression is fuelled by the film having been shot in black & white, the generally dark light (even in daytime) in which the action occurs, and the cramped interior locations too.

 

As a portrait of the Swinging Sixties the film Georgy Girl looks positively antique if you compare it to Blow-Up, released just a year later in 1967. In Blow-Up colour, youthful swagger and hedonism hold sway. Meredith is the only character from Georgy Girl who (if colour were added) could readily blend in to Blow-Up. But while Blow-Up is vacuous, bored and cynical, containing some insufferably long drawn-out and pretentious sequences, Georgy Girl is engaging, appealing, fast-paced and witty.

 

Lynn Redgrave won the hearts of a generation of British cinemagoers who will always and ever think of her as Georgy Girl. Alas in 2010 Lynn Redgrave passed away at the age of 67: her other notable films included Tom Jones and Shine. And now in February 2016 we have lost Margaret Forster, leaving a stricken Hunter Davies to say “Goodbye to my Georgy Girl” and to lead the many tributes to a deservedly much loved and respected author.

Jerry Dowlen

March 2016

 

Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:

 

Remembering Saeed Jaffrey

Old Wine in New Bottles - "new" books by Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler & Agatha Christie

Remembering Ruth Rendell

Philip Larkin: His Maiden Voyage on The North Ship (1945)

The Catcher in the Rye and Billy Liar

Michael Holroyd

Erle Stanley Gardner

John Masefield

Bailouts

Antony Sher: The History Man

Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author

Computer Chess: The Imitation Game

P G Wodehouse

John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green

Daniel Abse

Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution

Wilfred Owen

Wolf Mankowitz

Bob Hoskins

Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam

The Story of Edith Nesbit

Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert

Rebels With A Cause

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...

 


 

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