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The Keep Fit Craze

Set in an upmarket West London health club with ‘central heating and wall-to-wall fitted carpets’, this captivating Pathe newsreel time capsule from 1966 reveals an era when sportswear hasn’t been invented yet – so the guys are doing their exercises on the absorbent-looking shag in their undercrackers and vests. Or just undercrackers.

The equipment was probably expensive, top-of-the-range stuff back then but seems laughably inept by today’s standards. Those benches for instance look flimsy and the padding on them uncomfortably thin if you were to be pressing any kind of weight. They look more like fashionable furniture than practical workout kit.

The quaintest aspect though is the ‘mechanical wonders to waste away your waist’, including vibrating ‘slimming’ belts (with a helpful close-up of their effect on the older gentleman’s buttocks).

And the bum-scraping machine: a revolving barrel with knobbly bits you sit on. I have no idea what the health benefit was supposed to be, but I doubt the people who liked to use it were thinking about that.

These contraptions seem like a holdover from the 1920s and Laurel & Hardy shorts. The modernist, industrialised, utopian idea that you could automate weight loss – and that passively being jiggled about by machinery somehow broke down fat. Which is nonsense, alas. (Though some gyms did succumb to the vibroplate craze a few years back, which probably didn’t have much more science behind it than the bum-scraper.)

But the attractions aren’t all mechanical: this Kensington gym has ‘a full-time muscle man to make you feel at home!’ – the kind of service it’s difficult to find included in your membership nowadays. (Though admittedly the ‘full-time muscle man’ looks very part time by today’s aesthetics).

The skinny guy sitting cross-legged in a towel in the ‘Finnish sauna bath’ looks very much at home already. He’s clearly happy to be ‘really letting off steam’, as the voiceover puts it, with the guys. So much so I suspect he doesn’t bother too much with the gym.

And the blue-eyed 20–35-year-old man in specs being vibro-massaged by the strapping, hairy-chested Mediterranean-looking fellow seems to be seeing god – or experiencing his first orgasm. 

But my favourite 1960s gym-goer – the one that I would be sure to offer lots of advice to if I was a member – is the blond guy doing squats in a white vest and flip-flops near the beginning (0.18). He’s the spit of a young Richard Jaeckel, the famously beefy short, blond Hollywood tough guy character actor who often played Marines in 1940s-50s war films, such as The Sands of Iwo Jima.

I’m sure the sauna was busy whenever flip-flop guy was using it (his footwear suggests that he was a regular user). And that he enjoyed the undivided attentions of the vibromasseur.

After typing the above, Rolf, who organised the Palm Springs pool party, and was very much involved in the 1960s Hollywood homo demimonde, organising discreet soirees for the sympathique, reminded me that at forty – the age he was in 1966 – Jaeckel (who had a bit of a reputation, at least according to hearsay) looked about twenty-five. He also suggested that his agent probably prevented his name being used in the Pathe clip.

A Google search also reveals that Jaeckel was in the UK that year to film The Dirty Dozen, in Hertfordshire, just outside London.

Here he is, snapped with other members of the cast, arriving at Heathrow. With the same lips, smile and haircut as in the clip.

I should have known that the guy doing squats in flip flops couldn’t be British. His teeth were far too good for the 1960s.

I couldn’t help sharing with you another Pathe newsreel clip about Olde Worlde gyms, this one from 1957, about the pop singer Jill Day‘s gym in Earls Court, West London – where she works out in full make up, jewellery and sandals, with her dishy redhead ‘ex Australian Navy PTI’ partner ‘Rusty Hood’.

When not copping a feel of her musclemen patrons’ biceps, such as ‘Mr East Scotland’.

All watched over by a signed photo of Dirk Bogarde.

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