Charlie Bubbles (1968)

Charlie Bubbles was Albert Finney’s one and only shot at directing film. Though written by Shelagh Delaney, a fellow Salfordian who had shot to fame around the same time as Finney thanks to her play A Taste of Honey, which fitted as neatly into the kitchen sink movement as Finney’s breakout star turn in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, the directorial touches, pace and narrative structure of Charlie Bubbles suggest that it is a film that was inspired more by European Cinema, the films of Antonioni and Fellini, than it was by the social realism that its creative talents made their respective names in.

I’m not quite sure why Finney only ever directed once in his career, but I can sense that this was a very personal project; one that he simply had to direct and so, perhaps once done, he never truly felt the need to do so again. In a contemporary interview at the time, he refers to it as semi-autobiographical for both him and Delaney; working class Salfordians made good, yet perhaps have struggle to come to terms with their good fortune. “Do you just do your writing now, or are you still working?” one character innocently asks Finney’s titular success story.

The film tells the tale of a very successful man indeed, in this case a writer, who came from humble beginnings in Salford and who is now, as we are introduced to him in the film, at the height of his fame. Despite this, he’s feeling detached and bored, displaying all the indicators of a man clearly craving something, yet just what it is he desires he does not know.

Now compare this to Finney who, by the late 60s, was a very successful man, in his case an actor, who had come from humble beginnings in Salford and who, perhaps at the time, was feeling detached and bored and craving something; the chance to direct.

The film is a perfect snapshot of the ’60s as we may recall or imagine them. For me, having lived all my life in the very same North West of England that is depicted here. I am familiar with the deserted, desolate and demolished streets against the industrial landscapes that Finney’s Bubbles drives his Rolls Royce down whilst his excitable American secretary (Liza Minnelli in a great little performance) takes snapshots of anything and everything of interest from the passenger seat. She’s the definitive tourist. Indeed, another little treat for anyone from the North or those with long memories is seeing a host of familiar faces from the region crop up throughout the film; Yootha Joyce of Man About the House and its spin-off George and Mildred, Bryan Mosely of Coronation Street and Get Carter, Joe Gladwin of Last Of The Summer Wine and those twee iconic Hovis ads, John Ronane of Granada’s police series Strangers and Arthur Pentelow, Mr Wilks, of what was once Emmerdale Farm.

But that is not to say this film is purely a nostalgia fest. Far from it, because although on the surface the ambling narrative may seem to say little, what we have here is a very prescient piece on the nature of fame and celebrity; something which today’s Britain all too easily obsesses over as its public clamour for navel gazing reality fly-on-the-wall television featuring ‘celebrities’ who have well exhausted and stretched their fifteen minutes of fame.

However, Britain of the late ’60s was markedly different in that it was a time when to be famous you had to have talent and people would appreciate you on such merit. These were the days, long before the rise of the idiots, when we were more obsessed with class than celebrity culture, so to be a someone you really did have to achieve.

But at what price fame?

Charlie literally lives his life in a bubble. He is constantly detached, viewing events of his life from behind glass, as beautifully witnessed when, having returned ‘home’ to the North for the weekend, he takes his son to a Manchester United game (again one for the nostalgia lovers; seeing a late ’60s Old Trafford) They watch in splendid isolation, in an airless and clinical private box. There is also the scene of him at home, with his bank of TV screens, closed-circuit television displaying every room and action in his house as much one feels for voyeurism as it is for security. The desire to full integrate and fully interact seems totally beyond him, he seems out of place with his peers and out of place with where he came from, notably in his attempts to connect with his ex-wife Lottie, played by Billie Whitelaw. It becomes rather poignant and in the end he literally just drifts away, alone.

However, even that escape is an indicator of his entitlement. There’s no such escape for Billie Whitelaw’s Lottie, ensconced by Charlie in her Derbyshire cottage to exist virtually at his beck and call as she brings up their son alone and makes more jam than anyone could ever eat in an attempt to stave off boredom and the sense of an unfulfilled life.

Mention of Whitelaw in the film reminds us that Delaney-devotee Morrissey is clearly a fan of Charlie Bubbles, for he used the image above to adorn the cover of The Smiths EP/single ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’ and ‘How Soon Is Now?’

In short, I would truly recommend this film to anyone who enjoys ’60s cinema and who likes a message in their movies. Don’t be fazed or put off by the seeming lack of events the film provides; the message is there, but you have to reach inside and look with your own eyes, to interact with it, something which Charlie himself finds constantly elusive and impossible to do.

4 thoughts on “Charlie Bubbles (1968)”

  1. I have a bit of a backlog now of films you’ve recommended but not seen this one either and it sounds as if I really need to. Have given up on trying to kick start our businesses as just not possible when we have to stay at home and social distance. Think I’ll just have a bit of a wallow in old black and white movies. Or is it in colour?

    Hope you’re ok Mark? You’ve been a little less prolific than usual and you are missed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Alyson, this one is in colour. A really interesting curio. I subsequently learned that Finney and Delaney were having a bit of a thing when making this too. I’m OK thank you. With this new blog I’m making a conscious effort to only post when I feel I have something worth writing about, so it may mean it may be less productive some days or weeks. Rest assured I’m OK though, been writing reviews for The Geek Show that I’ll share once they go ‘live’ as well as working on something for Arrow video.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s ok – We are not alone. My husband is a silversmith and I run a holiday let business, neither of which are needed at present. Slipped through all the safety nets but as I say, loads out there in a much worse position. I feel guilty for not having a more worthy job at the moment but just how it is.

        Take care.

        Liked by 1 person

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