Eskimo Nell - History: Part 1
Commissioned by Stanley Long for his company, Salon Productions, Eskimo Nell was written in 1974, and shot in April of the same year.
Long had started out as a cameraman, working on numerous films including Roman Polanski's Repulsion before achieving success as a low-budget independent producer in 1970 with The Wife Swappers, which ran for an unprecedented two years at the Jacey Cinema opposite Selfridges. He had followed it with a string of other commercial successes in the field but was well aware that these cheaply made sex films for the "dirty mac brigade" had a rapidly diminishing audience. In 1973 he attended a preview of The Sex Thief and saw it as a forerunner to where the future lay: namely, the well made sex comedy.
In January 1974, he contacted Drumbeat Productions who had produced the film and set up a meeting with its first time director, Martin Campbell, together with Armstrong who had written the screenplay from a treatment by Tudor Gates, under the pseudonym, Edward Hyde.
Like all producers in the exploitation market, Long knew that a film's success lay in its title. What actually happened on celluloid was of secondary consideration - and for him the ultimate title for a sex comedy had to be Eskimo Nell - the infamous, anonymous, unpublished dirty poem of the war years.
Neither Armstrong nor Campbell knew the poem. When Long found a copy for Armstrong to read, the problem about turning it into a film became obvious. The poem was nothing but a long string of crude comic verses depicting the different exploits two prospectors get up to in a whorehouse culminating in the seemingly impossible task of sexually satisfying the principal whore, Eskimo Nell.
Armstrong recalls: "There was just no way you could use any of it, let alone get a feature length story out of it. I thought back to Martin and I sitting there blankly in Stan's office, completely unaffected by his wild enthusiasm for the title and, suddenly, I found the situation very funny - and that gave me the idea for the opening scene and the genus for the story."
Armstrong quickly developed the idea into a script outline and, by the end of January it had secured a distribution guarantee from Barry Jacobs at Eagle Films who had distributed Long's other films. To protect the title of Eskimo Nell being stolen by a rival company, the film was announced under the working title, The Movie Makers.
Embarking upon the screenplay, Armstrong drew upon old wounds and past experiences to write a comedy where specific individuals, companies and attitudes within the British and American exploitation market were satirised almost to a point of libel. At the same time, Armstrong minimised customary requirements for the sex market to a point of virtual extinction.
While finding the script very funny, Jacobs expressed concern about the lack of actual sex scenes and the possibility of lawsuits due to many of the characters Armstrong had written being too easily identifiable as well-known industry figures. To alleviate his fears, certain names were changed and several dialogues modified. Also, purely for budgetary reasons, the end robbery was simplified.
Armstrong made the appropriate alterations and then, as with The Sex Thief - took on the job of casting director.
He had written the role of the director, Dennis, for himself and the role of Clive for Terence Edmond with whom both he and Campbell were keen to work again after The Sex Thief. Harris had been written for Brian Deacon - at the time, a highly regarded up-and coming British actor of stage, film and TV. Deacon was eager to play the role but, sadly, was unavailable for the shooting dates, so Campbell suggested the then unknown Christopher Timothy, who had already worked for Armstrong a few years earlier in his stage revue Etc... at the Arts Theatre.
Others were quickly added to the cast list: Christopher Biggins - for whom Armstrong had written Jeremy, Nicholas Young (later to star in The Tomorrow People), Christopher Neil, Stephen Riddle and Prudence Drage for whom he had written the part of Millicent Bindle.
The real turning point, however, came when Armstrong offered the role of Hermione to Katy Manning. Her regular character in Doctor Who had made her a major British name and, at the time, was starring in the West End hit comedy There's A Girl In My Soup with Derek Nimmo and Jon Pertwee. Manning loved the part of Hermione and agreed to be in the film. Immediately, her agent, Tim Stone, was on the phone to Armstrong, stating that he should have been consulted first as his client did not appear in low budget sex films. An angry exchange ended with Armstrong sending Stone a copy of the script. Later that day, Stone phoned back. He loved the script and now, highly supportive of the project, suggested another of his clients, Roy Kinnear, for the major role of the sleazy producer.
His suggestion threw the production into confusion. Campbell had been thinking of an up and coming comic, Mike Reid, for the role but Kinnear was internationally known and, currently, a very hot name as a result of The Three Musketeers and Juggernaut. He was, also, way outside the budget of the film.
For artistes like Manning and Kinnear to agree to appear in a low budget sex comedy was unprecedented. Long - seeing the film now moving towards a potential mainstream audience - decided to continue his gamble all the way and, personally, put up the additional monies needed.
With Kinnear in place, other highly respectable British names quickly followed: Diane Langton, Rosalind Knight, Richard Caldicot, Jeremy Hawk (John Cleese had been approached originally for the role) and Sheila Bernette - at that time one of the best known comic actresses on British TV for her regular involvement in the top-rated Candid Camera. Bernette readily agreed to appear in a cameo role after having pointed out that two short scenes for two different girls in the casting sequence were far funnier if run together as one. Similarly, from The Rocky Horror Show came the original narrator, Jonathan Adams and Rayner Bourton, the original Rocky. Most notably, the iconic film and Tony-award winning Anna Quayle agreed to appear as the temperamental opera diva in the Kung Fu musical section. With its casting alone, the film had already left its sexploitation origins way behind.
Shooting took it even further. Campbell, who had no intention of directing a sex film, now had all the ammunition he needed with both script and cast to aim for the mainstream market - and he had a producer who was behind him.
History (Part 2) >>
Eskimo Nell - History: Part 2
On April 22nd shooting began. Everything went smoothly although a few scenes and visual gags had to be curtailed or simplified due to the tight schedule.
At the end of shooting, Campbell turned his attention to editing the existing footage with the editor, Pat Foster (later to found the hugely successful Ritzy Cinema in Brixton). On the 31st of April, they presented their Rough Cut to Long and Jacobs.
Jacobs hated what he saw. He had expected a sex film for the "dirty mac brigade" and instead he had something, which would be virtually impossible to sell to that market. Long, on the other hand, although dismayed by his distributor's attitude, still clung to his belief in the film. To secure his position, however, he felt he now needed to take control of the situation. The result was a clash between himself and Campbell when Long took over creative control in the cutting room.
Leaving Long to commence the Fine Cut, Campbell and Armstrong moved back to Drumbeat at the beginning of June to start work on Tudor Gates's latest production, Three For All: Gates assigning Campbell to direct and Armstrong to cast, A.P. and work with him on the screenplay. Additional to this, Armstrong continued working with Long and Foster on The Movie Makers throughout July, shooting pick-ups and linking shots and working in the cutting rooms on the Final Cut of the film before his commitments to Three For All took over completely.
At the end of August, Armstrong returned from Spain where Three For All had been shooting to find Long and Foster preparing for a final sound mix.
Then a bombshell struck. Despite Long's secrecy over the film's intended title, he received news that a low budget Australian sex film had just been completed, entitled Eskimo Nell. Alarmed, Long determined to stake his claim first and immediately took out ads in the trade papers, announcing the completion of his film, Eskimo Nell.
Finally The Movie Makers had thrown off its cloak and revealed its true identity to the world.
Aware that any similarities between the two films would prove a threat to securing cinema exhibition, Long contacted the Australian producers who, to his further alarm, were already lining up potential distributors for their film in the UK.
This other Eskimo Nell had been produced by Don Carmody for Filmways, written and directed by Richard Franklin and starred Max Gillies as Deadeye Dick and Serge Lazareff as Mexican Pete in a comedy-drama concerning an old Westerner and his younger partner setting off on a Quixotic sexual quest to find the legendary girl of the title.
Relieved that the two films were completely dissimilar, Long was still concerned even when the Australian producers backed down and re-titled their film, The True Story Of Eskimo Nell.
Long knew that two films coming out more or less simultaneously with the same selling point in the title meant only one would succeed in the marketplace and he was determined to ensure his would be the box office winner. Now he was fighting against time to have his film in the cinemas first.
The first screening of Eskimo Nell took place for the cast and crew at the Hanover Grand Preview Theatre on September 16th 1974. Reactions to the film were ecstatic, revealing its potential for a mainstream comedy audience.
This potential was confirmed when one of the two major exhibitors, ABC (the other was Rank) saw the film and offered it a full Circuit Release, playing all their major cinemas across the country.
The offer was unprecedented: making it the first independent low-budget British sex comedy to breakthrough into the mainstream marketplace.
Jacobs, however, as the film's distributor was dismayed by the news. For the first time he would be unable to operate as he normally did with the cost of only a couple of prints and a few posters. Now he had to pay out for hundreds of prints, a nationwide advertising campaign and organise press screenings.
A Magazine Screening of the film on October 9th and a Radio & TV Screening on October 17th confirmed that the film was working - even to highly sceptical and jaded press audiences. What, also, became clear was that the film's satirically drawn characters were still highly recognisable despite name changes.
On the 7th January 1975, the Press screening was packed. Despite their customary disapproval and, in some cases, contempt for the exploitation market in any of its forms, the critics were completely surprised by the film's satirical swipes at the very market from which it had arisen and, especially relished recognising the familiar industry figures it lampooned.
With an overall good press, Eskimo Nell opened in the ABC flagship cinema, West End Scene 2 on January 16th. It was followed by a full North London release on January 19th and a full South London release on January 26th before playing across the rest of the country.
Mainstream audiences had not seen or heard anything like it before: with its liberal use of four letter words, full nudity, outrageous sexual gags and dialogues and its uninhibited send-ups of movies. On many occasions the audience's delight and laughter was so loud that it was impossible to hear the soundtrack. Word of mouth quickly spread and the film was held over for a second week in most situations and, in some cinemas, for several weeks.
As a post-script, The True Story Of Eskimo Nell (for certain territories re-titled Dick Down Under) did find a distributor in the UK and played in the sex cinemas to which Eskimo Nell would have been assigned had it not broken through into the hitherto unattainable mainstream. The history and ultimate fate of the two films perhaps showed more clearly than any other the enormous divide between the two marketplaces and their audiences.
Armstrong comments: "I've always had a soft spot for Nell. It's very gratifying to see it still seems to work today for a whole new audience - especially when so many of its contemporary targets and references are no longer familiar which means, inevitably, the film's satirical edge has become dulled. Likewise, dialogue and visual gags, which were considered outrageous, at the time, have now lost their shock value. Yet, despite all that, the film still makes people laugh and, somehow, seems to have survived through the generations. I think, like most vintage comedies, things which were once considered outrageous and risqué are now viewed as passé at their worst and charming at their best."
When asked about his performance as Dennis in the film, he replied: "The strangest thing about that is I keep forgetting I was actually in it. I did at the time when it first came out. I always sit in with audiences for the first few weeks to learn from their reactions what works and what doesn't, for future reference. Because I'm so used to the anonymity of being behind the camera, I'd tend to forget, when I've acted in a film, that I'm recognisable. So, going into cinemas to study reactions became a problem - because there was no way I could sit next to people, pretending to be just another audience member when I was up there on the big screen at the same time. I've experienced other actors having to deal with that problem when I've been with them but, for myself, I never really got used to knowing what to do or how to handle it when people would suddenly turn and stare at me - or, worse, accost me in the foyer or even the toilet or wherever. It's always made me have great admiration for movie stars who have to cope with that kind of thing every day of their lives. That kind of loss of personal privacy really isn't much fun because it means you can never really relax - not even for a second. You always have to be on your guard, on the defensive. Whenever I start having regrets about not having pursued an acting career further, I always remind myself of that and think...as much as I enjoy the actual job of acting, I don't really know if I'd enjoy the job of being famous...so, I guess I'm happier the way things worked out."
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