Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s film Performance is now viewed as a classic of 1960s cinema, although on its release it was a critical and commercial failure. Designed to confuse, shock and titillate in equal measures, it proved to be controversial before it had even reached the BBFC, with the film’s own production company demanding heavy cuts from the young directors.
Performance is very much a period piece that draws upon two opposing visions of 1960s London; the hippy counter culture - epitomised by Mick Jagger’s role as the reclusive rock star Turner - and the criminal underworld – embodied within James Fox’s portrayal of the sadistic East End gangster thug Chas. BFI Screenonline accurately claims that “Performance tells a simple story in complex terms.” The first half of the movie concentrates on Chas’s life in the gangster underworld, culminating in him being forced into hiding from the mob after killing a man who he is supposed to be protecting. This leads to him assuming a false persona and becoming one of Turner’s lodgers; an assortment of libertarian social misfits. This mismatch of values leads to a bizarre psychedelic drug-induced merging of personalities, with Turner and Chas physically and mentally confronting their own alter-egos. In retrospect Performance can be seen as ahead of its time; the film’s confusing narrative, roving camera and fragmented editing style – techniques that would become significant hallmarks of both directors’ future work – were groundbreaking but proved to alienate much of the film’s audience.
Warner Brothers, the US studio who financed the UK production, were expecting a Rolling Stones equivalent of The Beatles’ A Hard Days Night (1964) with the inclusion of Jagger attracting a large youth audience. When they viewed the film the Hollywood executives were confused and disgusted by what they saw, deeming it to be too experimental and sexually perverse.
One executive, referring to one of several scenes that take place in Turner’s bath, famously commented that “even the bath water is dirty” and the wife of another reportedly vomited during a test screening! In an attempt to make the film more marketable Warners insisted on twenty minutes of cuts which would remove much of Chas’s back-story and introduce Jagger to the narrative sooner, resulting in an even more confusing plot. Realising that the film was a now an unsalvageable mess Warners made a decision to shelve it for almost two years. The studio’s distain for the movie was so well known that a rumour furiously spread that Warners had in fact destroyed the film’s negative.
When Performance finally arrived at the BBFC for classification in October 1970 the film had suffered further cuts. The then director of the Board, John Trevelyan, had had concerns about the realistic depictions of violence within the movie when he had previously viewed a rough-cut of the film. However, many of those scenes had now either been removed or reduced. Also some of the more explicitly sexual material - particularly the ménage à trois between Jagger, Anita Pallenberg and Michèle Breton– had already been reduced. Even so, Trevelyan was still concerned enough to insist on sixteen more cuts to various scenes of both sex and violence.
However, it was the infusing of the two that proved to be the most controversial; in one sequence Cammell and Roeg cross-cut between scenes of Chas indulging in rough sex with a woman and scenes of him receiving an oddly sexualised yet brutal whipping at the hand of Joey Maddocks (Chas’s future victim). Cammell intended the scene to act as an insight into the animalistic nature of Chas’s personality and his masculine relish for violence, but Trevelyan was adamant that the sex be removed from the scene. According to Cammell, the director protested that removing the sex would reduce the scene to a ‘sadistic side-show’, to which Trevelyan allegedly replied “so be it”. The BBFC passed the film with an X certificate – for adults only.
The film was met with general indifference when released in UK cinemas in the early 1970s, but managed to pick up a cult audience at midnight screenings and finally took on classic movie status in the 1980s. In 1984 Performance was released on video and was submitted to the Board with most of the previous BBFC cuts reinstated, although the material Warners excised was still missing, presumed lost.
The most complete cut of the film was submitted to the BBFC by the BFI in January 2004 for a cinema release. Interestingly, the examiners who viewed the work agreed that - despite the fact that the film was 34 years old - the violence, sex and drug taking still required an 18 certificate. However, this time the film threw up an entirely new issue – that of the age of the actress Michele Breton who, due to her under-developed semi-naked physique, was thought may have been under eighteen during the filming of the sex scenes. This concern was in light of the new Sex Offences Act 2003 that redefined a child as being a person under 18 years old, (previously defined as under 16) and the Protection of Children Act 1978 (POCA). Information on Ms Breton’s date of birth proved to be extremely difficult to find – she had only starred in three films, Performance being the last. In this event the then director of the Board, Robin Duval, viewed the work and considered the images alongside the legal advice that the Board had received on POCA. He concluded that because Breton is not seen actually taking part in any of the sex scenes and ostensibly appears as a bystander to the action, there is no issue regarding the age of the actress. He also stated that “the sight of bare breasts of a 16 year old should not itself be a concern” under the newly raised threshold of POCA.
In 2006 Warner Brothers finally released Performance on DVD. Once again the BBFC passed the work 18 uncut, accompanied by the consumer advice ‘contains strong violence and drug use’.