Story Of The Scene: 'Performance' Nicolas Roeg & Donald Cammell (1970)

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The Independent Culture

By 1968, the cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, who had distinguished himself with his work for François Truffaut (Fahrenheit 451) and John Schlesinger (Far from the Madding Crowd) had become a familiar figure in the Rolling Stones/Beatles/Robert Fraser/Chelsea demi-monde of Swinging London. In the summer of that year, he put his contacts to good use by making Performance with Donald Cammell, a painter who had recently reinvented himself as a scriptwriter. They moved into a house in Notting Hill, west London, and made one of the most groundbreaking films in British cinema.

The story of a gangland boss who improbably goes to ground in the crumbling house of a pop star played by Mick Jagger, it features two famous scenes involving the Rolling Stones frontman - then at the height of his powers. The surreal "Memo from Turner" sequence was a trippy fantasy in which Jagger donned a dapper suit and tie and started behaving like a gangland boss. But the scene that caused the most fuss was Jagger in bed with Anita Pallenberg and Michèle Breton. Mia Farrow was supposed to be the Breton character, named Lucy, but had broken her ankle.

A couple of large and powerful lights were aimed at the bed. Using a 16mm Rolex camera, operator Mike Molloy found himself under the sheets in what turned out to be a very long and very genuine sexual encounter between the three stars. "When I came up to reload the camera, Nic said: 'sod this, you're having all the fun', and dived under the bedclothes himself," he later told Quentin Falk of the Bafta magazine.

When the 10 rolls of film were sent to the lab for development, Roeg and Cammell found their production in trouble. The footage was dubbed pornographic and the lab deemed itself criminally liable for prosecution. Roeg's employee Chris O'Dell supervised the destruction of much of the material.

But some of the footage escaped the net, and according to one apocryphal source, was distributed in Holland as a porn film. The final bowdlerised version of the film (which still has four edits circulating - the cuts were ordered by Warners) was mostly finessed by Cammell after Roeg decamped to Australia to make Walkabout.

It remains something of an irony that Jagger's best and most memorable film role should be modelled on his friend and nemesis Brian Jones. Many years after the film's release, Jagger told author Colin McCabe that the myths still swirling around the film were "so good I can't deny them". Its themes still enthral British film-makers, drawn to its flavour of Kray-like gangsterism, urban decay and decadent rock stars.