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Winner's 'rom com' was a shocker for the Bay

By Herald Express  |  Posted: January 31, 2013

  • canny: Michael Winner with Torquay Times reporter John Ware, left, and Richard Shears (now with the Daily Mail in Australia) at the old ABC cinema in Torquay at the film's premier

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A 'ROMANTIC COMEDY' was the cover description for a daring Swinging Sixties film shot around Torbay by Michael Winner, who died last week.

In fact it was a rather raunchy 'teenage sex' drama about a group of lads on the pull, complete with nude bathing and violence.

But the canny Winner knew he would not receive so much co-operation from locals, especially the authorities, if the true theme of The System was known.

The 1960s may have been the start of the age of free love, dope, more freedom for 'teenagers', and garish clothes, but in the early part of the decade not much of it had really infiltrated to South Devon, where many stuffy and highly moral attitudes were still quite prevalent.

By current standards The System is quite tame, but 50 years ago it was rather risqué, and even almost obscene in some eyes. It even had trouble with the film censor.

As a young reporter on the long-gone Torquay Times and other Devonshire Press titles, I covered the making of the film during what, from memory, seemed like the long, hot summer of 1963. And I found romance as well, with one of the extras.

It was all great fun and Winner, being an ex-showbusiness journalist, was a master at the publicity game, and would provide some great quotes — many of them off the record anecdotes about the behind the scenes antics of some the cast, led by the hard living and drinking Oliver Reed. The director was a great showman and very approachable.

We published a front page splash when filming had finished, with the headline 'WILL THIS FILM SHOCK TORQUAY?'

It probably did upset a few, but in truth I can't remember any mass protests or calls to have it banned in Torquay. Most thought it was all great fun.

Whatever the reaction, it did give a huge boost to the tourist industry, shot entirely on location in the area, and still does to this today. The System — retitled 'The Girl Getters' for American release — can be seen on television now and again, and has become something of a cult movie. It was probably one of the first films to give a realistic portrayal of young people in that period.

After everything was in the can, Winner said he thought a few people in Torbay would be upset, 'but what it portrays more or less goes on in all seaside towns during the summer'.

When shooting began, he bizarrely complained about the attitude of some people in Torquay, compared with the helpfulness of Paignton folk!

"When they realise the cameras are pointing in their direction, a lot of people just stand and stare and wave, which completely spoils it for us," he said. Hundreds of extras were used, and scenes were shot across the Bay, including the old 400 Ballroom, the verandah of the Palm Court Hotel — where dancers from the Princess Theatre summer show sat around in bikinis, one of them becoming my fiancée — Paignton harbour, and the South Hams.

The original screenplay was the first by Brixham writer, the late Peter Draper, who admitted the theme of the film might shock a lot of people.

But he was in philosophical mode when he commented: "People should be shocked to remove their complacency, and be forced to adjust to a new set of values.

"It is often painful to be forced to see reality, but the shock is a necessary one."

The System, with a budget of £140,000 — chicken feed today — introduced a lot of new actors, who went on to bigger things, including Jane Merrow, Julia Foster, Harry Andrews, David Hemmings (Blow Up), John Alderton (Please Sir) and Derek Nimmo (All Gas and Gaiters).

For a young reporter, covering the antics of Winner and his team was a glamorous change from the usual dull round of council meetings, courts, annual dinners, and compiling the Uncle Bob kids' column!

A lot of it is all bit vague now, but as the saying goes 'if you can remember the 60s, you probably weren't there!'

The plot revolved around a group of lads, led by Reed as a beach photographer, whose sole aim was to trap and seduce as many girls as possible during the summer.

While the traders made their cash, the boys made it with sex.

Nothing much seems to have changed over the years!

JOHN WARE

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