Saturday, 30 April 2011

Hail, Behemoth!

'Blood On Satans Claw' starts brilliantly when a 17th century farm boy (he's about 30, of course) uncovers a grotesque looking skull in the field he is ploughing, complete with a single intact eye.  The rest of the film is pretty good too, produced on a shoestring by the under rated studio Tigon (also responsible for 'The Witchfinder General' and 'Virgin Witch' amongst others) but full of creepy moments and genuine shocks, as well as some authentic period detail and lashings of over-acting, furry hands, nudity and Satanic ritual.

It's one of the few British films which draws on our long, dark history of witchcraft, superstition and genuine belief in the occult. The trailer will tell you more, but my key note is that if you haven't seen this film, you should, you really should, 'tis mental.

The Blood on Satan's Claw

Strange Motives

'Witchfinder General' is a brutal experience from the first lynching to the last eye gouging and axe swing. Based on actual events, it was filmed in the beautiful countryside of rural Suffolk, mostly around the very pretty little village of Lavenham where I once had a memorable dirty weekend. When I remarked to my girlfriend that the film had been made there, she asked to see it. She was appalled by the violence and relentless grimness of it, and we split up shortly afterwards.

Described as an English Western by director Michael Reeves, it was received with anger and distaste by the critics (it made little Alan Bennett feel dirty, poor love) who obviously felt that the story of a man who tortured innocent women and then murdered them in the name of God and the state should have been a gentle rom com, perhaps starring Patricia Routledge.

Reeves was stung by the hostile reception and died of a barbiturates overdose shortly after the films release in circumstances that remain a mystery. My ex-girlfriend now works for Social Services in Norwich. She says 'Hi'.

Witchfinder General

Friday, 29 April 2011

Pictures Of New Towns

Stevenage in Hertfordshire was designated the first British new town in 1946. In 1967, Clive Donner filmed swinging sex comedy 'Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush' in the town, managing to capture most of the pedestrianised civic centre (the first in Britain) as it looked eight years after being officially opened by The Queen. Here are some shots that give you a flavour of the town's appeal.

For the record, a new town was not generally brand new, simply a small town with the scope to be extensively developed in order to help alleviate crowding in major cities and to tackle the post-war housing shortage. A good new town would provide a home from the cradle to the grave with all civic amenities, including varied employment, comprehensive transport links, schools, hospitals and housing, all contained within a planned, modern, controlled environment.

In one of the greatest examples of the presiding Labour governments curious and contradictory mix of liberalism and authoritarianism, the offer of greatly improved facilities, a home of one's own, all mod cons, etc. was not always well-received, and so many people were forcibly rehoused, with some long-standing working class communities destroyed forever.

I'm interested in new towns for many reasons, but their visual appeal, the mid-century modernist style which, fifty and sixty years on, now looks both miraculous and ridiculous, is something I like very much.

In 2001, parts of the Brad Pitt film 'Spy Game' were also filmed in Stevenage, with the town's massive GlaxoSmithKline research centre standing in for CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. I didn't know that until earlier today, of course, I don't really watch films like that.

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes

Derek Jacobi as Duckworth Drew of the Secret Service.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

We Must Build Upwards

Talking of New Towns (Bracknell, remember? If not, see below) here's a terribly informative 1948 film from the Central Office of Information explaining to working class people why they will all have to move and why they should like it.

The Charley character featured in a number of post war COI films, but then there was an awful lot of progress to report in those days. These days, the best you could expect is some muzak over the flashing caption 'you're fucked'.

Pantie Hose, 5/11

A selection of 'I Want What I Want' lobby cards.

I'm Different To Most Boys

About six or seven years ago, I picked up a tatty second hand paperback called 'I Want What I Want' by Geoff Brown. In it, a teenage boy called Roy is struggling with his over-riding desire to be a woman. When his unsympathetic Dad catches him in high heels and make up, Roy moves away to a rented room where, in anonymous solitude, he perfects his real self, Wendy. For a while he lives and dresses as a woman, making friends who have no idea of his true identity. When Wendy falls in love with a brutish games teacher called Frank, however, her secret life starts to unravel pretty quickly.

Overall, it was a slightly trashy but absorbing read. I even wrote a song about it for a friend of mine to perform. When I found out they'd made a film of the book, my head nearly exploded. Ridiculously, it has taken me until now to track a copy down and, although it's no masterpiece, it's a fascinating piece of work.

Made in 1972, it stars Anne Heywood in the dual (well, sort of) role of Roy and Wendy. Anne is slightly too mature for the role and doesn't look much like a man, to be honest, but then Roy is slight and finely featured. As Wendy, however, Anne uses her voice and some clever make up to pull off the difficult acting trick of being a woman who is a man who looks like a woman.

The film is choc-a-bloc with great period detail and transplants the books locations of Beverley and Hull to Bracknell and London. Bracknell was a new town (it's still under construction in some of the location shots), and can also be seen in other 'Island' favourites 'I Start Counting' and 'The Offence'. I might do a feature about it one day.

There is one crucial difference between the book and the film: on paper, it ends abruptly with the chillingly ambiguous sentence 'I fell down the stairs'; on film, there is something approaching a happy ending. That said, both versions feature a woman trying to cut her penis off.

Here's the trailer. It's in Spanish, but I rather like that about it.

Two final facts pertaining to the film: it was apparently the first mainstream film to include a sympathetic portrayal of a trans character , and Anne Heywood's real name is Violet Pretty, which is quite charming, especially as she was the 1950 Miss Great Britain.  

I Want What I Want

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Valerie Leon, Receptionist

Valerie pops up only briefly in 'The Italian Job', as a very helpful receptionist at the Royal Lancaster Hotel.

I Had To Flop

Another extract from Marc Bolan's 1977 TV show 'Marc', this time featuring expressive no hit wonder Denis Conly, ably supported by Marc's dance troupe, Heart Throb.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes

John Thaw as Lieutenant Holst, the Danish Detective.

Poly Styrene

Pop art punk group X Ray Spex are a favourite band of mine, so I was very sad to hear of the death of Poly Styrene, aged only 53. A unique talent and lifelong non-conformist, in keeping with her religious beliefs, I very much hope she is reincarnated soon.

Here she is performing 'Identity' in an outfit she appears to have borrowed from Dame Margaret Rutherford's weekend wardrobe. I miss her already.

The Tomorrow People: The Living Skins

'The Living Skins' was the last story in the penultimate series of 'The Tomorrow People'. The Ballboids are a parasitic alien race (actually, 'Prisoner' style weather balloons: you can see the knots) who travel from planet to planet attaching themselves to lifeforms, taking them over and then sucking them dry.

On Earth, they use the same strategy as the Denagelee in 'The Blue & The Green', targeting the most vulnerable and stupid people on the planet, i.e. teenagers, this time by way of a fashion fad for hideous (and carnivorous) plastic jumpsuits. As it's 1978, of course, a year where Rod Stewart got an affirmative answer to the question 'Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?', they almost get away with it.

What can stop them? Well, howzabout the sniffles?

For Vic Mars and Ian from Piper Gates, who both have their own reasons to fear this post.

Monday, 25 April 2011

The Tomorrow People: The Blue & The Green

The Tomorrow People’ has not aged well, but it’s a show that had a big impact on me as a child so the vestiges of that overcome the clunky drama, wobbly sets, poorly done chroma key effects and some truly awful acting. ‘The Blue & The Green’, from 1974, is a story that I remember as particularly frightening although, in my defence, I was only five and had a bit of a sheltered life.
The premise still sounds pretty good, though: in order to leave Earth, an alien species require the raw energy of human hatred, which they achieve by handing out different coloured badges (blue and green) which create two violently opposed factions. Viewed now, it’s terribly slow and very silly, but the depiction of an unravelling world where brothers fight over what’s on their lapel is suitably chilling, and the reports of riots and social disarray resonated with contemporary events, as well as the strikes, power cuts and three day week of just a couple of years earlier.
‘The Tomorrow People’ was a well conceived show sadly constrained by a shoestring budget and the requirement to appeal exclusively to a child audience. There are some truly dreadful stories, but, ultimately, it has a lot of charm and the haunting title sequence remains absolutely classic, an echo of my childhood that has resonated for nearly forty years.   

The Tomorrow People