“We tried to make an accessible film,” begins bassist Steve. “The tone of it’s light, watchable, funny. We’ve discouraged the tabloids – there are enough quotes to bury everyone on it, taken out of context, so we’ve been quite careful there. “As it stands,” adds Jarvis, “anyone could watch it, even people who might find our music distasteful. I’m not obsessed with sex, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that so often it gets written about in an idealised way or a ‘Carry On’ nudge-nudge way. Then again, I don’t think it would be so great if it was more open, like I imagine Norway to be, where they discuss it over the breakfast table.” – Melody Maker, 19 March 1994
For the first time in our story, Pulp have a little money to spend, and instead of blowing it on predictable rockstar excesses or wisely squirreling it away, they are going to use it on the making of a short film. Not a particularly pricy one, mind you, but a professional production all the same, and an enjoyable piece of work too, especially for what’s essentially just a series of famous people talking about how they lost their virginity.
An interview area was set up at Brittania Row Studio, where the recording sessions for His ‘n’ Hers were taking place, and Jarvis and long-term film collaborator Martin Wallace set up interviews with whoever they could get. A day was spent filming rude street signs, all found in the London A-Z, and a patch of grass in front of Clapham tube station. This square of lawn was supposed to be in Sheffield, but with a tight schedule there wasn’t time to go up there and film it. Fortunately this works in the film’s favour, adding an extra punchline, and it’s a pleasant surprise to find that it was an accident.
The film was completed in February 1994, and premiered at a screening at the ICA shortly afterwards. There’s not much of a place for this sort of thing on television or in the real world, but it was handy at least to have the film ready to extend the video compilation ‘Sorted For Films & Vids’ to feature length. To claim it’s an amazing piece of work would be to engage in hyperbole, but it’s cobbled together in a clever enough way to make a simple story interesting even on a hundredth viewing, and it’s a good introduction to a cast of characters, some of whom play a part in our story. Let’s have a look at them.
Not the star of Life Is Hot in Cracktown or a jewelry thief, Maurice Blake seems to have left no trace anywhere, and I have to assume that he’s a friend rather than a celebrity. He appears to be an old naval man – either due to his appearance (he looks basically like Uncle Albert) or his experience being with a prostitute, aged 22, presumably a common thing for sailors. He isn’t impressed with his story (“we only took off the lower halves of her clothes” “it was ok”) – but not enough to describe it in a particularly squalid manner – and it’s easy to share his lack of enthusiasm.
A year away from his death, Pulp encounter the legendary Vivian Stanshall in the defeated, resigned phase of his long decline, and while it’s a wonder that they managed to get him into the studio, he isn’t exactly in the mood for witty banter. Viv remains slumped morosely on a sofa, only occasionally slurring out the odd word for the entire interview. A shame, especially as he has a very odd story to tell. He was ten years old (ten!), wearing shorts, and of course he didn’t know what was happening at all. Whether this is a sad story, a funny one, or both, remains unclear. I just feel sad for the man, he’s too far gone to engage with anything.
An official friend of the group, Jo Brand had just about broken through into the mainstream of comedy in 1994 (the filming took place between the pilot episode of ‘…Through The Cakehole‘ and the start of its first series), and her story is told with her usual winning blend of disdain and relish. Essentially it’s a vignette from a Pulp song – a drunken encounter at a party, aged 15, led to a disappointing further encounter in the bathroom, with Jo’s head dangerously close to the pink toilet mat, and concluded with his mum coming in, catching them at it and threatening to tell her mum. Coming-of-age house parties, squalid sex in an inconvenient location, local social embarrassment; these are just what the film needs.
We’re (perhaps not so) swiftly approaching the Britpop explosion now, and here joining Pulp in the vanguard is Justine Frischmann from Elastica, another group who were just breaking into the top 20 for the first time, though in their case with only 18 months’ history behind them rather than 16 years. Her story isn’t particularly special – a pool hall, an older guy and a grubby flat – but it does offer a tantalising glimpse into the early life of a britpop A-lister, and that’s more than enough for me.
Terry Hall of The Specials and Fun Boy Three was flirting with the proto-britpop scene in 1994, releasing records with Damon Albarn and Ian Broudie, and cemented his involvement a year later by performing with Salad on The Help Album. His involvement here shouldn’t, then, come as much of a surprise, but it still does – Terry seems to be from another era, another 70s, and his lighthearted youthful fumblings are expressed in a very confident, matter-of-fact manner. It’s clear that he wasn’t a freak or a mis-shape, and that he has no regrets. This is nice for balance, but it’s a good job nobody else was so unflustered, or the whole premise would’ve been bound for the bin. Terry does have the best line of the film, however – “She was really into the Bay City Rollers, and it put me off a bit…. but not enough.”
At first glance, fashion designer Pam Hogg seems to be even less of a Pulp person than Terry, but she was apparently involved in acid house and post-punk bands, so maybe I’m wrong about that. On this evidence it’s hard to tell – she’s the most guarded of the contributors, and features the least – her screen time can’t be more than forty seconds. From this we can glean that she was 17, that it was disappointing, and not much else.
My favourite contributor, and perhaps yours too, is Robert Hulse, though as another non-celebrity he was also tricky to track down. He does seem to have two pages on IMDB, but that’s more of a hinderance than a help. What we can say for sure is that Robert turned up in 2002 in a fairly shoddy Martin Wallace short film called Five Ways John Wayne Didn’t Die, which also features Jarvis doing a half-hearted Darren Spooner, and since then he seems to have become director of London’s Brunel Museum, and can be seen here showing people through the Thames Tunnel.
Robert’s experience was intense and revelatory, and he is still close enough to capture it perfectly. He was 26, had been having “problems”, but finally made it on a wooden palette in a London Squat. “It was the most amazing thing that has ever happened to me. It was Blakean. The most extraordinary sense of Euphoria…. If I had a football rattle and a scarf I’d have run outside and told everybody.” Hearing someone talk candidly and openly about a great joy in their life is a rare treat, and more than any other interviewee, he makes the film work.
(Robert is commonly confused with Donald Parsnips, a character created by London-based artist Adam Dant, who was listed as an interviewee, but doesn’t actually appear in the film. Jarvis later wrote an introduction to his book, so they clearly know each-other, but that clears up precisely nothing about why he was cut. Any information on this point is very welcome.)
A number of years ago I has the misfortune to be teaching surly teenagers, and Vic Reeves‘ performance here is a good reminder of the reasons I swore never to do it again. Obviously embarrassed to be there and unable to step out of character, Vic misjudges completely and comes out with a string of nonsensical jokes about losing his virginity to the back of a car and wearing sacking instead of clothes. At the end there’s a brief moment of sincerity, where he expresses regret at a missed opportunity, but it soon passes. Fortunately his next appearance with Jarvis would be on Shooting Stars, where his surreal comedy has more of a place.
In 1993 Bob Mortimer had been upgraded from Vic Reeves’ assistant to his double-act partner for The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer, and a good thing too as he seems to know how to approach the questions a little better than Vic. Unfortunately he still doesn’t have a lot to say and feels uncomfortable saying even that. The episode was “grubby”, she wore tights and blue platform boots, he said “come on girl, let’s really get down to it” – and he says he can’t remember how old he was, but looks like he just doesn’t want to say. If time constraints hadn’t been so pressing perhaps Vic & Bob could’ve been properly primed before their interviews, and wouldn’t then look so out of place.
Andrea Oliver might not be exactly a familiar face to most, but she’s been there or thereabouts in British pop culture for more than three decades. Here she is performing with Rip Rig + Panic on The Young Ones, here she is presenting ‘Baadasss TV’ with Ice T, and here she is presenting a cookery programme with her friend Neneh Cherry. And her daughter is Miquita Oliver, so there’s that too. She has a normal enough story, but tells it well – one day, aged 16 or 17, she decides to lose her virginity, choosing a guy who was always after her, and taking him to the back of a car. It’s predictably disappointing, yes, but in her case she remembers enjoying feeling the power of her sexuality – it was “thrilling” – a different perspective among all the embarrassment.
The 80s may have been a quiet patch, but by the start of 1994 John Peel (who surely needs no introduction here) and Pulp had resumed friendly terms. A second Peel Session was finished, of course, and Jarvis and Nick would join him at Peel Acres for the launch of Different Class in 1995, eventually standing in for him while he was away for three days in 1997 and playing his anniversary concert in 2001. John’s relaxed, then, amongst friends, so is in full wry, relaxed anecdote mode, and slightly apologetic that he doesn’t have a better story. He was 21 years old, in a small flat in a Liverpool suburb with a girl he had no particular feelings for, and had been dreading it. The encounter was ‘untidy’ and he just seems glad to have got it out of the way so he could move on with the rest of his life – which is fair enough.
It’s odd to see famous, respected actors out of character for the first time – especially one who’s played as many strong women as Alison Steadman, who seems surprisingly shy in person – though it may just be a reaction to the subject matter. Having starred in Nuts In May, the Singing Detective, Abigail’s Party and P’tang, Yang, Kipperbang, I have to confess to being something of a fan of hers. Her story seems much more innocent and healthy than the characters in her films – she was with a long-term boyfriend, it was unplanned, but their mutual inexperience put them on an equal footing. It sounds very wholesome and fortunate, maybe more so than any of the other stories – except perhaps one.
It was only in the process of writing this that I discovered Sandra Voe is both “Mother” from Breaking The Waves, and Candida and Magnus Doyle’s actual real life mum. So good on her for agreeing to come down to London to talk about losing her virginity for her daughter’s band. Having said that, there’s nothing in the least bit sordid about her story – in fact, quite the opposite. In a scene straight from a Pre-Raphaelite painting, she tells us about being in the middle of a bed of wild flowers, next to a burbling stream with a boy who was leaving her village, and describes the experience as “exhilarating,” a “vivid memory.” Life in the Shetlands sounds pretty idyllic, though I understand it does sometimes get a bit cold.