Dismal on every level, this comedy short from 1971, shares a lot of similarities with Dick Emery's Ooh… You Are Awful feature film, in that it features a mix of drag queenery and gangsters, but it lacks the corny charm and even the relatively slim budget that Emery's production had.
A Couple of Beauties is essentially a showcase for 70s female impersonator Bunny Lewis (pictured above) who was a fixture in Manchester's club land and the working men's clubs of the North West at that time. The plot, such as it is, features Lewis as Bernie Lewisham (see what they did there?) a hapless barman in London who one night witnesses his boss being shot down in cold blood by gangsters. With the criminals keen to take him, their only witness, out of the picture, Lewisham flees the smoke for his native Moss Side, Manchester with the help of his agent Tim Baxter (Tim Barrett) who decides his best chance would be to hide in plain sight as a drag act called Bunny Lewis. As you do.
The inevitable wearisome tropes swiftly follow in the slender 28 minute running time; the initial protestations of wearing women's clothing, followed by the realisation that he's actually good at it (well who'd have thunk it?) and Bunny/Bernie having to reign in his sexual urges around the female entertainers he's billeted with between shows, as well as having to fend off the equally unwelcome urges of lecherous bar owners such as James 'Pte Walker off Dad's Army' Beck. Yawn.
Directed by Francis Searle, a Butchers Films and B-movies/shorts veteran, A Couple of Beauties is a deeply unattractive film, shot on such rotten film and against such gaudy low rent 70s backdrops as to put you in mind of culty pornos of the day, the kind of film Doris Wishman would be at the helm for. It looks like it, but it never once descends into pure exploitative fare, unfortunately. A shame as I think a more X rated approach complete with some boobs and bum might have made this a little more eyecatching - as it is this is terribly clean stuff with dialogue and gags that sound like they were raided from the reject bin of the Carry On offices. Searle tries to tack the plot onto proceedings but in reality all he is required to do here is point the camera at the stage of various working men's clubs capturing not only Lewis but also a dreadful all-girl pop band performing a song written by none other than Kenny Lynch and the frilly shirted, cummerbund wearing Bernard Manning and shambolic lanky streak Colin Crompton - two stalwart comics of the club scene who would go on to host the strange art imitating life series The Wheeltappers and Shunters Club; a programme keeping people in from their nights out at the social clubs by depicting, yup, a night out at a social club. (The North seemed to specialise in this kind of nonsense; by the end of the following decade the big draw post midnight was Pete Waterman's The Hitman and Her, which showed people at home what was going on at nightclubs around the region, though it always felt like it was just Mr Smith's, Warrington...clubs they could actually be in themselves if they just hailed a cab or jumped the bus) Like Wheeltappers, there's a kind of kitsch nostalgic value to A Couple of Beauties precisely because of this snapshot of entertainment from bygone times, as essentially - if you're from the north like me - you're witnessing what your grandparents and parents may have viewed themselves as a night out; only at least they got ratted on Double Diamond, had a face full of hot pot and a quick game or two of bingo out of it.
I can't say I'm a big fan of drag acts and Bunny Lewis does little to change this opinion. Babyfaced and short arsed, he's a natural drag queen but a poor and unengaging leading man with limited acting abilities that are on stark display in the opening plot heavy scenes that require him to play a barman fearing for his life. He's naturally on safer ground dragged up and performing his routine, something he could probably do in his sleep, which is the kind of act that was clearly outrageous for its time, complete with that weird kind of irony of having hard drinking, working class men positively lapping it up whilst promoting homophobic opinions elsewhere.
If A Couple of Beauties was intended as a platform for bigger and better things for Lewis, a chance to join the likes of Emery or Danny La Rue in the nation's hearts, then he was to be sorely disappointed. Though he remained respected by his peers, neither TV or film troubled him all that much and he continued to play the clubs and even own one in Manchester for the rest of the decade before resurfacing in the early 90s for a non-drag role in another slice of Mancunian B movie cultdom, Cliff Twemlow's GBH 2: Lethal Impact. He died in 2008 aged 71. Equally A Couple of Beauties faded into obscurity, there's very little online about it and wouldn't have known it even existed where it not for it appearing in the Talking Pictures TV schedules this week.