British cinema isn’t all about Carry On, Ealing comedies, stiff upper lip war films, Hammer horror, Powell and Pressburger, James Bond, David Lean, Laurence Olivier and cracking Hitchcock thrillers…
British cinema? That’ll be Carry On, Ealing comedies, stiff upper lip war films, Hammer horror, Powell and Pressburger, James Bond, David Lean, Laurence Olivier, cracking Hitchcock thrillers, Trainspotting, Chariots of Fire, Michael Caine and the Beatles larking about. Well yes, that’s all certainly true – every single one of those, and more besides, would have to figure in any populist account – but this particular top ten isn’t interested in the fondly remembered and the well-known. The focus here will be on the back alleys and byways of British cinema, those neglected nooks and crannies that oftentimes prove richer and more fascinating than those held in higher esteem. What follows is not a list of ten forgotten classics, but rather a cross-section of titles demonstrating just how idiosyncratic and unique British cinema can be. Some of the selections are superb, others earn their inclusion simply for being so bizarre or representative of a much wider strain of film. The wartime propaganda film, the industrial sponsored short, the British sex film, animation, the one-off documentary – all are present and correct. And so this particular list is best viewed as an introduction, a means of discovering some of these far-flung corners and a demonstration that British cinema is so much more than those classics (and ‘classics’) which occupy the television schedules and the popular imagination. Just don’t expect to track down some of these titles quite so easily…
These Are The Men (1943, ds. Dylan Thomas & Alan Osbiston)
During World War II the Ministry of Information commissioned over 1400 films for propaganda purposes. The majority were extremely short either being newsreels or information pieces intended for the British housewife (demonstrating, for example, how to get the best out of her rations or how cheese could be a perfectly acceptable substitute for meat). Some, such as those produced by the Crown Film Unit, were feature-length, utilised real-life servicemen as their actors and offered up a grittier portrayal of life during wartime. Others, including this particular selection, were written by some of the top writers and poets of the time to lend their message of morale an additional edge: Graham Greene, EM Forster, Laurie Lee and more were all employed. Dylan Thomas was amongst the most prolific, scripting fourteen films for the MOI during the war years, though none quite so powerful as this one. Over footage edited from Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will we find a new soundtrack to the speeches of Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, et al, one that has them proclaim “I am a normal man: twice married, twice mad. Gangsterism, brute force, wealth for the few, cocaine and murder” or “I am Streicher, a lover of animals, a torturer and murdered of Jews” – yet still the crowd cheers and roars. It’s an astonishingly fierce and impassioned film, only twelve minutes in length, but quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen. (These Are the Men is available on DVD as part of DD Video’s Dylan Thomas: A War Films Anthology compilation.)
Ginger Nutt’s Christmas Circus (1949, d. Bert Felstead)
Think of British animation and you’re likely to think of Aardman, Halas & Batchelor (producers and directors of the UK’s first full-length animation, Animal Farm) or short films directed by a range of distinctive voices: David Anderson, the Brothers Quay, Joanna Quinn, and so on. What you’re unlikely to think of are films which blatantly followed the American model and bring to mind a midway point between Disney’s Silly Symphonies and Warner Bros’ Looney Tunes. Yet this is exactly what Ginger Nutt’s Christmas Circus does. One of a series of ‘Animaland’ shorts produced by ex-Disney animator David Hand (who had earlier directed Bambi), the look and the feel of the film is far removed from the quirky and idiosyncratic flavours so beloved of British animation. Indeed, the whole thing is really rather cute – a word I would never use in conjunction with the Quays, say. An assortment of talking animals perform at the titular circus, whilst our ostensible lead Ginger Nutt (a very smiley squirrel) deals with a gate-crashing parrot. It’s colourful, snappily paced, features some first class animation and, given the title, even throws in an appearance from Father Christmas. Watching the film nowadays you’d easily be forgiven for not realising its British origins at all. Until, that is, the “Made in Cookham-on-Thames, England” title card comes up in the closing seconds. (Ginger Nutt’s Christmas Circus has appeared on a handful of animation collections and can be found in variously poor quality versions on YouTube and the like.)
Captured (1959, d. John Krish)
The above image is taken from John Krish’s A Day In The Life: Four Portraits of Post-war Britain
John Krish has been receiving something of a rehabilitation of late. The BFI have issued a number of his films onto disc, whilst their recent touring programme A Day in the Life (compiling a quartet of his documentary shorts from the fifties and sixties) earned the director an Evening Standard Award for Best Documentary, almost thirty years since his retirement from the industry. Captured hasn’t caught this wave yet, which is a shame as it remains not only one Krish’s best, but also his hardest to find. The film was commissioned by the Army to show what a British soldier could expect from being captured and brainwashed during the Korean War. Shot as a drama-documentary, feature-length (or near enough, the runtime is approximately an hour) and without any of its actors being credited, Captured is one of the most claustrophobic films imaginable: bleak, sweaty, tense, black and white, shot using wide-angle lenses. It’s more reminiscent of an early Don Siegel or Sam Fuller ‘B’ movie than it is a traditional British war film (although Hammer’s Yesterday’s Enemy and The Camp on Blood Island, both in production around the same time, come closer than most), whilst the water torture sequence near the closing stages would have been unimaginable in a mainstream production. Indeed, Captured was listed as ‘restricted’ and seen only once (to the best of my knowledge) by the general public in 2004 as part of a Krish retrospective at the BFI Southbank.
Betcher! (1971, d. David Eady)
Betcher! isn’t a great film, but it does sum up one particular area of British filmmaking rather well. It was made to promote cycling proficiency to children and can thus be lumped in with all those celebrity-starring public information films the Central Office of Information put out in the 1970s (though the tradition went all the way back to the Second World War). In this instance the appeal is somewhat kitsch thanks to presence of a young Keith Chegwin plus Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits fame. The set up is simple: Chegwin, a very sensible cyclist, takes on the local loudmouth/show-off in a contest adjudicated by Noone (whilst sat in a tiny jeep). Needless to say Chegwin comes out tops and the other kid learns a lesson as do all of us in the audience. But in retrospect the message doesn’t really matter, rather it’s the little details that entertain: Noone shamelessly plugging a new tune; the succession of flared trousers; chopper bikes adorned with flags and tassels. There were undoubtedly better PIFs made during this time, not to mention ones fronted by bigger stars, yet Betcher! manages to perfectly encapsulate up their nostalgic appeal. (Betcher! is available on the BFI’s Stop! Look! Listen! DVD compilation or can be viewed in full on their YouTube channel.)
Dirty (1971, d. Stephen Dwoskin)
Stephen Dwoskin has been operating on the margins of British cinema for decades making numerous shorts and features yet somehow escaping the notice of the general public. In truth this shouldn’t be at all surprising given Dwoskin’s adherence to experimental forms whatever the running time. He’s been pretty well represented on DVD lately courtesy of the BFI’s Central Bazaar release (partnered with Laboured Party), Revoir’s 14-film anthology boxed-set and Lux’s Dyn Amo disc. Dirty is one of his shortest films and most easily available (the Revoir set, a British artists’ compilation from Lux entitled Shoot Shoot Shoot), though hardly what you call well known. It’s a work very much influenced by Warhol’s early ventures into cinema: a black and white short capturing two women on a bed with a wine bottle. Dwoskin effectively shot the film twice, once in camera and again when projected. He manipulates the speed of the image and occasionally pauses, asking us to both consider what is appearing onscreen and the materials themselves; Dirty could easily refer to both.
The Moon and the Sledgehammer (1971, d. Philip Trevelyan)
This is one of British cinema’s great one-offs. It’s a documentary about the Page family – father, two sons, two daughters – who live in seclusion in the Sussex woodlands not too far from London. They’re an eccentric bunch, bordering on the feral, somehow managing to eke out an existence by working on old steam engines and living off the land. In part the cult-ish audience that has grown up around the film is explained by their bizarre nature and highly quotable dialogue (Page Senior on kangaroos, apropos of nothing: “they can stand up and walk about, and pick a cup off a table and drink from it”). Yet such a following is also no doubt owing to the family portrait it offers: the tensions between father and son; the tenderness between brother and sister. Trevelyan doesn’t treat his subjects as freaks and his film is all the better for it; but that doesn’t prevent the Pages from demonstrating their freakishness time and again. (The Moon and the Sledgehammer can be purchased on disc via www.themoonandthesledgehammer.com.)
The Great British Striptease (1980, d. Doug Smith)
Easily the worst inclusion in this list, but also the most unlikely. In 1979 Doug Smith took his (video) cameras to the British Striptease Festival at the Blackpool Tower Ballroom. Bernard Manning served as compere, providing his usual racist gags in-between the acts and even a musical number with Su Pollard (who otherwise does little more than pick up the girls’ knickers). Of course, the whole thing is incredibly grubby and tawdry (the prize is a brown envelope stuffed with £500 in notes), but what makes matters worse is the fact that this isn’t really documentary. The whole film – which received a cinema release, blowing up the videotape to 35mm – has been clearly scripted and, indeed, is populated by vaguely familiar faces from the homegrown sex comedies of the seventies as opposed to the claimed amateurs. As such it can also be viewed as an awful end note in the saucy British cinema cycle – a genuine case of videotape killing off the real filmmakers. (The Great British Striptease was available on VHS, copies of which occasionally crop up on Amazon, eBay and so on.)
GBH (1983, d. David Kent-Watson)
More videotape, but this time with a clearer genre intent. GBH is a gangster movie starring Cliff Twemlow: former bouncer, musician, author, action star and a leading light in the now-forgotten 1980s ‘Mancsploitation’ scene. Indeed, it is so forgotten that titles such as GBH and its sequel GBH 2: Lethal Intent, not to mention Moonstalker, The Eye of Satan, The Ibiza Connection and more, most likely mean next to nothing. Yet this was a vibrant scene and very much a homegrown attempt at reproducing the thrills of the decade’s Hollywood blockbusters. No doubt their shot-on-video status precluded them ever genuinely competing with the likes of Schwarzenegger’s or Chuck Norris’ actioners (an independent US film such as Jim Van Bebber’s Deadbeat at Dawn would be a more accurate comparison point), but it remains fascinating that such films were made and did, in their own small way, find a minor following on VHS. The combination of macho dialogue, martial arts and massive machine guns – plus various eighties’ accoutrements – also make for terrific entertainment. Some would class GBH and its bedfellows as “so bad, they’re good”; others will be a little kinder. (GBH was available on VHS but has never made the transition to DVD.)
Mantrap (1983, d. Julien Temple)
Julien Temple has directed music videos (Culture Club’s Karma Chameleon, for example), music documentaries (The Filth and the Fury, Glastonbury), concert movies (The Rolling Stones At the Max), extended promos (David Bowie’s Jazzin’ for Blue Jean), a big-budget British musical (Absolute Beginners) and a hybrid fact/fiction take on the origins of a particularly successful British group (The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle). In 1983 he somehow managed to combine all of these efforts into one particular film, Mantrap, made in conjunction with the then-massively successful new wave/new romantic band ABC. Most of Temple’s music-related films are interesting for one reason or other, but none is quite so odd or ambitious as Mantrap. This is an almost-hour-long ‘featurette’ combining the ridiculous (within this narrative lead singer Martin Fry is a down on his luck gambler who joins ABC – who already have a massive European tour lined up – simply to return a favour!), the fanciful (the story proper involves spies and doppelgangers) and, what the fans really wanted, plenty of concert footage containing all the big hits from their The Lexicon of Love album. Indeed, such was the success of that album that Mantrap earned itself standalone VHS releases in the UK and the US, and even made it to Laserdisc. Yet in the years since it has disappeared into obscurity and remains known to only the most die hard fans or those with a long memory. It’s not a great film by any means, but again it is one of those genuine oddities that British cinema has the habit of producing time and again.
The Falconer (1997, d. Iain Sinclair & Chris Petit)
Not strictly a film as it was in fact a commission from Channel 4, yet The Falconer remains one of the most beguiling British productions of the past twenty years and really deserves to be more widely seen. It was the middle instalment in a trilogy of collaborations between author Iain Sinclair and filmmaker Chris Petit (arguably best known for Radio On), bookended by The Cardinal and the Corpse (1992) and Asylum (2000). Graphic artist Dave McKean was also involved in The Falconer and Asylum, adding a further layer to these unclassifiable blends of documentary and (increasingly) meta-fiction and science fiction. The focus of this particular entry was filmmaker Peter Whitehead, himself a director of difficult-to-see British cinema, from his Rolling Stones document Charlie is My Darling to 1973’s Daddy, a film which – much like The Falconer – blurs the line between straightforward documentary and fiction. Indeed, is this a portrait of Whitehead or pure myth-making? It’s part ego trip, part detective story, part of a bigger story as the entire trilogy would (albeit allusively) reveal. If this all sounds incredibly vague, then so be it: The Falconer deserves a fresh mind when going into it, and the likelihood is that your own interpretation will differ greatly from anyone else’s such is its multi-layered richness. (The Falconer has screened on Channel 4 a couple of times but never made it onto VHS or DVD.)
Written and compiled by Anthony Nield
Anthony has been writing about film for the best part of a decade. His particular obsessions are summed up nicely by this particular list: British cinema, experimental cinema, non-fiction, films that have fallen by the wayside. For further thoughts on these and more see his regular contributions to The Digital Fix (née DVD Times).
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