In 1968, I went to the cinema to see a controversial new British drama. Starring Beryl Reid, Susannah York, and the Australian actress Coral Browne, it was directed by Robert Aldrich, and based on the 1964 stage production of the same name. The reason it was controversial was because it had a Lesbian theme, including one short, and not very explicit love scene. However, even during the ‘Swinging Sixties’, such gay themes were rare, and most lesbian couples still referred to their partners as ‘flat-mates’, or ‘best friends’. Attitudes to the film resulted in an unusually harsh ‘X’ certificate for American release, and a battle with the UK censors who wanted to cut the love scene. By today’s standards, the sexual aspect of this film would be regarded as tame indeed.
Beryl Reid had played the role of June Buckridge in the stage play, and took the lead role of the character in this film. June is known for her part as ‘Sister George’, the community nurse in a long-running TV soap opera. A favourite of the nation, and the cast member who has been in the series since it started. June is a no-nonsense, hard drinking actress who is notoriously difficult, and always speaking her mind. She dresses in tweeds, smokes cigars, and makes no effort to disguise her sexuality.
Her long-term lover is Alice McNaught, called ‘Childie’ by June. Despite her age, she acts in a juvenile fashion, collects dolls, and dresses in girly clothes. June dominates her in a controlling fashion, monitoring her every move, all her phone calls, and constantly questioning her about anyone she meets.
But both her acting career and relationship with her lover are on the slide. The show’s producers are intending to write her out of the series, and her younger lover is tiring of her cruelty and overpowering control. Over the space of the short time shown in the film, life begins to unravel in the worst way for June, and she is on the brink of losing everything she cares about. One of the BBC executives responsible, Mercy Croft, takes pity on June, and tries to find her acting work in another show. After going to the house the women share, she becomes attracted to Alice, much to the annoyance of June. As the day dawns when June is to be written out, ‘The Killing Of Sister George’ of the title, events converge into the inevitable climax.
Forget any problems over the theme. 1968 was a long time ago now, and even the much-discussed love scene is nothing you would not see now on many TV dramas, or mainstream films. This is a fascinating look behind the scenes at the cut-throat world of the TV industry, the casualties of ratings battles, and the urge to modernise. It also examines same sex relationships in a sympathetic way, and looks at how similar they are in most respects to any others. Reid was born to play Sister George, and Coral Browne is outstanding as the TV executive who seizes the opportunity for happiness. Susannah York is just right as the not-so-young younger woman, an object of desire with little will of her own.
Some very nice London locations feature, including a party scene in ‘The Gateway’, a genuine Lesbian Nightclub. But most of the film is set-bound, and betrays its theatrical roots at every turn. That is not a bad thing, as it works very well here. An unusual and satisfying drama, and one that deserves a wider audience.
Here’s the whole film!