Lost Classic: The System (Michael Winner 1964)

Hard though it is to believe, long before the lurid excesses of his Death Wish franchise, the bloated self-satisfaction of his Times restaurant reviews and the irritating ubiquity of his esure adverts, Michael Winner actually made films worth sitting through. One of them was released for the first time on DVD last year and is an interesting if belated and largely forgotten addition to the 60s ‘youth angst’ sub-genre. Calm down dear, it’s only The System…
For a film that has been ostensibly airbrushed from British cinema history, The System boasts some serious credentials; it was the first collaboration between Winner and Oliver Reed, a working partnership that would bear further and more acclaimed fruit in the form of heist movie The Jokers and again in I’ll Never Forget What’s’isname, a the portrait of alienation in swinging London. It also features some excellent black and white cinematography from a young Nicolas Roeg.
The System, renamed rather clumsily as The Girl-Getters for US theatrical consumption, steps inside the province of a group of young men headed by Tinker Taylor, a libidinous souvenir photographer played by Oliver Reed, who spend their summers working tourist locations by day and seducing young women by night. In The System we are privy to the point of view of Tinker and his colleagues as residents of the resort, complete with a hugely cynical assessment of the tourists that they prey on. At the beginning of the film Tinker educates a new member of his cabal by contemptuously referring to the tourists as ‘Grockles’ and defining them thus:
‘The Grockle is closely related to the Troglodyte. The troglodytes lived in a natural cave, stoned their grandparents to death and came out three times a year for food. A Grockle puts his grandparents in an old folks’ home, lives in a pre-cast concrete cave and comes out once a year to make a religious pilgrimage to the sea from whence he came. There he ceremoniously rolls up his trousers and dips his feet into the water.’
Tinker and his cohort are not so much predatory as they are parasitic. They shamelessly live off the people who visit the resort in both a financial and cynically recreational sense. At one point Tinker reflects upon his approach to the visitors when in conversation with an associate: ‘We must take what we can from the tourists, gather nuts against a hard winter’. Tinker’s photographer boss played by Harry Andrews reminds him that ‘we’re here to make memories’. Tinker’s response: ‘I thought we were here to make money’. To compound this cynical attitude Tinker’s wider moral code is brought into question early on in the film when he coolly advises a friend, whose girlfriend is pregnant, to talk her into having an abortion rather than settle down as a family, even offering him the address of an abortionist.
Yet despite this initially negative depiction Tinker is gradually revealed as a complex, restless individual and ultimately a sympathetic character who employs the roguish playboy persona to mask his loss of identity. He is not only trapped in the liminality of the resort but also caught in the space between class distinctions, belonging neither to the ‘Grockle’ set nor the Bourgeoisie, embodied by Society Girl Nicola, played by Jane Merrow, who captures then breaks his heart.

The System takes the superficial social melting pot of the resort with the reliance on its rapid throughput of visitors and seasonal limitations to ensnare the character in a situation of disengagement and powerlessness leading to his crisis of identity. This crisis mirrors the wider sense of disenfranchisement being felt by youths in the late 1950s and early 1960s. 1964, the year of The System’s release, saw much publicized violence among youths at a string of seaside resorts around the Bank Holiday weekends. Sociologist Stanley Cohen coined the phrase ‘moral panic’ in discussing the Media and political reaction of the time to these Mods versus Rockers riots. He and others perceived these contrived instances of journalistic hysteria and indignation as serving to reassert the dominance of an established value system at a time of anxiety or crisis.
So in its own quiet way the film came along at a pivotal moment, in more ways than one. Tinker Taylor can be regarded as the crossing point between Brighton Rock’s Pinkie Brown some seventeen years earlier and Quadrophenia’s Jimmy fifteen years later. Three youths living on the edge of society and drawn to the edge of the land, either for power, profit or in search of an identity. As the current summer season draws to an end a viewing of The System will offer a neat reflective vignette on the passage of youth amid the long shadows and the hard winters.

About the author

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, Jez has contributed to numerous film-related books, magazines and websites. He has co-edited three books in Intellect's World Film Locations series, covering Dublin, Reykjavik and Liverpool and has contributed pieces to many more volumes in the series. His monograph on John Carpenter's The Thing in Auteur's Devil's Advocates series of books was published in 2013. He is currently working on another book in the same series, concerning Ealing Studios' Dead of Night.

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