The New European’s Editor-at-Large settles down to watch ‘Misbehaviour’ and examines the evolution of the Miss World contest.
When I recently listed on these pages ’20 things I miss in the lockdown’, cinema came in at No.11, well behind Burnley FC at No.1, but tucked in just behind live sport on TV.
So in normal times, we would have watched Keira Knightley’s latest film at our local Everyman. The coronavirus having shut down the cinemas, however, the roll-out of Misbehaviour was released through video on demand, and last week, my partner Fiona and I settled down to watch it with our daughter Grace.
Just as Bend It Like Beckham, which first made its star famous, was so much more than its ‘sports comedy rom com’ label, so Misbehaviour, though funny, dramatic and feelgood, is much more than the ‘feelgood comedy drama’ on the label.
It is also a significant historical film, sexism and racism central to the story; and for young feminist activists like Grace, as well as old stagers like me, it has an important message about campaigning.
There was an added personal element for me in watching the story, based on true events, of ‘women’s libbers’ disrupting the Miss World beauty pageant of 1970; because as a young Daily Mirror reporter in 1983, I was assigned to cover the Miss World circus organised by Eric and Julia Morley.
The film brought back so many memories, of the contestants with their mix of charm and beauty, innocence and terror; of flirting wildly, with Miss Paraguay and Miss France in particular; of the mumsy chaperones who ensured the flirting never got out of hand; of the tackiness behind the scenes, and the glamour that sparkled once the cameras were live at the Albert Hall; of the Morleys, brilliant at what they did, but unable to comprehend ‘women’s lib’ arguments against the whole spectacle.
‘God, was it really like this?’ Grace asked, as tape measures went around tits, waists and bums, and compere Bob Hope no less groped, goggled and innuendoed his way through proceedings. ‘It’s gross.’
Yes, it was like that. The girls were herded around like cattle, gawped at like cattle, and judged like cattle. But I had to confess that Miss World, created in 1951, six years before I was born, was so much a part of our childhood and upbringing, that it all seemed perfectly reasonable at the time.
Up at the top of the house are dozens of scrapbooks, into which my thousands of stories as a reporter were proudly glued. I dug them out to show Grace the pieces I wrote about Miss World in 1983. Oh my God! She was shocked, and I can see why.
She has spent her life thinking her Dad was a serious political figure, and suddenly she learns that he actually wrote this, in his ‘guide to the contenders’:
MISS PARAGUAY: If there were a separate title for Miss Sexy, it would go to flirty ANTONELLA MONTUORI, 21. She’s the cream of the South American beauties. Her constant flashing smile, sexy laugh and bubbling personality give her an edge over the others.
MISS FRANCE: Twenty-year-old FREDERIQUE LEROY from Bordeaux has attracted heavy betting. Brown-haired, brown-eyed, she’s been charming all week, with a typically French cute, sexy smile. She speaks three languages, including English, which will go down well in the interview.
On the day of the big event itself, due to be shown live on BBC1, I had a two-page centre-spread under the headline ‘Be your own Miss World judge’, with a sweepstake form, and a score card for the three judging elements – swimsuit, interview, formal dress.
Being a public service newspaper we gave the latest betting odds. Miss UK 5-1, France 7-1, Israel, Chile and Germany 10-1.
Then a panel on ‘what the Mirror experts think’. I went for Miss France to win, Miss Paraguay second and Miss India third. Photographer Brendan Monks picked Miss USA first, Miss France second, Miss Ireland third. Women’s editor Christena Appleyard tipped Miss Paraguay first, Miss Spain second, Miss USA third.
None of our choices made the top three. The bookies got it right. Miss UK Sarah Jane Hutt became Miss World and I ended up looking rather foolish, having confidently written hours earlier: ‘After spending 11 days with the 72 hopefuls, the Mirror’s verdict on Sarah is – no chance.’
Second and third behind Miss UK were Miss Colombia and Miss Brazil. My expert assessment of ‘South American beauties’ was not at one with the view of the judges.
By now, I am trying to stop Grace from seeing some of the other stories I wrote in the run-up. Miss Yugoslavia Bernarda Marovt ‘in hot water’ because topless pictures taken in the past had emerged, prompting Julia Morley to accuse the organisers of Miss Yugoslavia of ‘bringing Miss World into disrepute’.
‘She’s not even topless,’ Grace yelled as she grabbed the scrapbook, and studied the pictures of Bernarda in ‘skimpy black see-through outfits’ under a big Page 3 headline: ‘Miss Yugoslavia as viewers won’t see her on TV.’
I tracked down Miss Yugoslavia organiser David Husic who had an interesting line of defence: ‘I can’t see what the fuss is about. In our country it is perfectly normal to walk round topless. It is a very hot country.’
My favourite story though, headlined ‘They must think we’re drips’, illustrated by a photo of all 72 girls in Trafalgar Square dancing to Singing in the Rain and twirling umbrellas, was about the ‘IQ tests’ they had to do. I had a string of angry quotes from contestants – USA, UK, Austria, Germany – who felt their intelligence was insulted.
Here is the maths section:
6 + 7 = ? They were given five answers to choose from, including 13.
A bit harder, but not much, 3 x 8 = 12 x ?
And finally, ? – 1.3 = 2.2
Some claimed the tests were influenced by a computer firm which was among the sponsors, but ‘a Miss World spokesman’ insisted: ‘A girl will not lose just because these tests show that she’s thick.’
Reading it all again now, it really does underline how much the world has changed. And reading it with Grace, a feminist campaigner who can barely bring herself to believe her feminist Mum and tries-to-be feminist Dad lived and worked in that world, and tolerated it, underlines that further.
This is what makes it such an interesting film from the perspective of the campaigner. My favourite film about campaigning is probably Milk, in which Sean Penn plays Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected representative in the United States.
The arc of progress from gay man regularly being attacked and discriminated against, to gay politician feted for being the successful driver of legislative change on gay rights, is clear. But you cannot tell when the progress came. The change was not the legislation that eventually he got passed; that was the consequence of change, not the cause. It was campaigning that secured the change.
The women’s lib campaigners in Misbehaviour are a pretty motley mix, most of them living commune-style in Islington – where else? – refusing to watch TV or engage with the media, who are deemed to be part of the patriarchy against which they are rebelling. But Keira Knightley’s character, middle class mature student Sally Alexander, joins forces with mouthy working class Jo Robinson, played by Jessie Buckley, to see the possibilities to the wider cause in disrupting Miss World on its big night, with the world’s media watching and many covering it live.
There is a tension between the two women, because of their very different backgrounds and different approaches to the cause. But for me the key moment in the film is when it becomes clear they are both equally and powerfully driven by the insight that change only comes if individuals decide to make it come and then do whatever is necessary to bring that about.
What it took for Sally and Jo and their friends was the courage to enter the lion’s den, to make a noise, to be dismissed and derided by conventional views of the time, to be arrested and charged. The change they were fighting for didn’t come then. But that moment was a part of change over time.
There is a lovely end to the film when the famous faces of Knightley, Buckley and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays Miss Grenada, the first black winner of Miss World, give way to the faces of the real people they played, as they are today, in various stages of wrinkledom.
I did not know any of their names till I watched the film, and Keira Knightley’s name will doubtless always be better known than theirs. But they are a part of a big story, major change, which played a part in Grace growing up in a better world for women than her Mum did. That is how progress works.
Eric Morley died in 2000, but Julia is still alive, and so is Miss World. For the past six years, however, its UK broadcast partner has been London Live, and the Daily Mirror gave up doing Grand National style sweepstakes many moons ago. As for Miss Paraguay… I would love to know.