Michael Sarne – a pioneering British filmmaker of Czech descent

My guest for One on One this week is British director and singer Michael Sarne, who is perhaps best known for his number one hit in the early 1960s “Come Outside” featuring the late Eastenders actor Wendy Richards. Since then Sarne, has also worked extensively as a film director. His most notable pictures include the swinging-sixties romp Joanna, which was nominated for a Golden Globe, and the highly controversial, sexually explicit adaptation of the Gore Vidal novel Myra Breckenridge. As an actor, Sarne has also made numerous appearances on hit TV shows such as Moonlighting and Minder, whilst also working with many leading film directors, including a recent eye-catching role in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises. Sarne was in the Czech Republic last week to present Joanna and Myra Breckinridge as part of a special retrospective of late 1960s European cinema. In many respects, this was something of a homecoming for Sarne whose parents fled Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s after the Nazi occupation of the country:

Michael Sarne
I started by asking Mike Sarne how strong an affinity he still has with the country of his parents:

“My mother was from Břeclav, and she went to university in Prague. When the Germans came in 1938-39, my father left and then my mother joined him in London. They were married there and so I was born in England.

“But I have always kept a connection with Czechoslovakia, because I’ve had a kind of feeling for it. I’ve always been very attached to thinking about the place. My father used to tell me about the wonderful times he had before the War.

“Czechoslovakia was a very artistic, civilised place back then. And then, of course, things changed.

“My father was good friends with Jan Masaryk, so he used to tell me a lot about the Masaryk family and things.”

You first rose to prominence as a singer with the single ‘Come Outside’. How did that come about? As someone in their early 20s, you were quite young for someone at that time to have a number one hit...

“Well I was at university studying Russian and I had to supplement my income with little bit parts in films. I went to one agent who got me a job doing a bit of modelling. Then he asked me if I could sing and I told him I could. I had actually even been taking singing lessons.

“I sang Rogers and Hart, Rogers and Hammerstein, stuff like that. He said ‘OK, let’s make a record. What do you think?’ I told him I wouldn’t mind.

“The guy who had written what was supposed to be the A-side had also written a song called ‘Little Doll’. It went something like ‘Little doll, we’ve been jiving all night long...’

“It was supposed to with an American accent, but I thought that didn’t sound very real, so I suggested doing it in a cockney style.”

“I was thinking that it was about a guy who wanted to walk a girl home and feel her all over and get a goodnight kiss. That’s all we wanted in those days.

“We were like that in those days. Nowadays everybody has sex. Back then, sex was actually something way down the line. The first thing you did was have a feel and a kiss and so on...

“It was much more thrilling, I think. Now girls are so outrageous, it’s just so easy. The girls now all want to get laid and the guys would prefer to watch television.

“So I turned it into a cockney song like the ones I knew as a kid. And the manager said who could hear a girl answering what I was singing. So when I would be asking her to ‘come outside’ she would be asking ‘What for?’, ‘Why d’you want to take me outside’, ‘What do you want to do with me?’ and so on. And that’s how Wendy Richards got involved.

“When we eventually played it to the publisher, he said ‘I know what the A-side is!’ And we released it and it went straight to the top of the hit parade.

“To this day, I walk around the street and builders say to me ‘Alright Mike! Come outside!’ People talk to me in England like it was yesterday, even though it’s now forty or fifty years ago...

“It’s kind of entered the public consciousness. It’s weird...”

You were also very young when you got the chance to direct Joanna starring Donald Sutherland, which screened at Cannes and was also nominated for a Golden Globe. How did a man of 27 years of age get a chance to direct such a major film?

“I had been working as a fashion photographer for a while. And I met this girl called Joanne. She was someone who ended up sleeping with me. And, of course, she slept with other people.

“We weren’t in love or anything. Maybe nowadays people only go to bed with people they are in love with. But in those days, she’d show up at my place, y’know...

“Every time she’d be wearing a Chanel suit or something from Hermes... And I asked her where she got such fantastic clothes. She said ‘I hoist them’, meaning she stole them from shops.

“She would go into a shop, put on a Chanel suit and then cover it with something else, and walk out. She stored them all in a big suitcase in Victoria station...

“Anyway, one night we were sleeping together in bed. And, you know, sometimes when you lie in bed with a woman you talk together about very intimate things – your background, your life and so on.

“And she told me about her whole life. Based on that, I wrote a story about a girl called Joanna.

“She slept around with a lot of different guys. Not just me, but a lot of other people. She told me about this Greek millionaire she was in love with, a black guy she fell in love with and so on...

“I just soaked this up and wrote it down into a story. At that time Alfie had just come out, and I told the guys at 20th Century Fox that it was the story of the ‘female Alfie’

“By some sort of inspiration, I realised that that was a pitch: a one-line remark that made people go ‘Yeah!’

“Describing the idea as a female Alfie that was enough for them to say ‘OK, you’ve got a million dollars. Go out and make a film called Joanna.

“So I made a film about this girl who lived in this dream world, who liked wearing pretty clothes and had affairs with different men.

“She eventually met this guy, became pregnant and went away to country and had a baby, which is basically what actually happened to this person.

“But, of course, I fantasised it and turned it into a big spiel. I got very lucky because it ended up getting invited to the Cannes film festival.

“Unfortunately, the Cannes film festival collapsed in 1968. Here you were having the Prague Spring while in Cannes the whole festival was collapsing. Wonderful!

“I’m still cross to this day that this meant I didn’t get the prize I thought I was going to get. But anyway, it’s going to be shown now in Czechoslovakia and I’m really happy about that.”

Myra Breckinridge
You are here to present both Joanna and Myra Breckinridge to Czech audiences, many of whom will be seeing the movies for the first time. Do you think they will have a hard time making sense of these unorthodox films, especially when you consider the fact that the Western cultural milieu of the late-1960s might be completely alien to a lot of them?

“I hope that they may offer a glimpse into the past. Maybe everyone who goes into the cinema should take a telescope with them and look at the films as if they are something that is happening on the moon.

“Strange people behaving in a strange way... This is a different species of human beings that made this kind of film. Because it is weird. I look at these films myself now and think they’re weird.

“All I can say is that both films are a record of the times in which they were made.

“Joanna was made as a record of the 1960s – the colourful, romantic, crazy, silly sixties in London.

“Myra Breckinridge, in fact, is the last dying gasp of the 1960s before the cynical seventies closed in, and people said ‘Don’t be so romantic. Don’t be so crazy. And all the shutters came down as people said ‘Stop being so silly! Behave yourselves! We’re not like that anymore!’

“And that’s how the world changed...”