I first came across Beryl Reid when I was a child. She starred in the kids programme Get Up and Go and appeared regularly on Blankety Blank. I knew nothing of her penchant for starring in brilliant examples of cult cinema. But as my love of all things cult and horror developed I got to see some of the best examples of her work within these genres.
The first of her cinematic endeavours that I saw was the very risque The Killing of Sister George (1968). This was shown one late night on Tyne Tees Television and as soon as I saw the scene involving George getting into a cab that two nuns were already occupying I knew that this was strange cargo and also quite brilliant.
One of the earliest British gay-themed films ever made, this tells the tale of June ‘George’ Buckridge, the soon-to-be eclipsed star on the TV soap opera Applehurst. We see her relationship with the Baby Doll-like Childie and also the interventions of television executive Mrs Crofts. But does Crofts have her own agenda?
This lesbian drama has the amazing tagline ‘The story of three consenting adults in the privacy of their own home’ which obviously mimics the mantra of liberals and homophobes alike regarding ‘the gays’. It’s also a reference to the wording of The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 decriminalising homosexuality.
There’s something aesthetically pleasing about Beryl Reid in all of the films and TV programmes I’ve seen her in. This film is no exception. She plays George and she dominates proceedings whenever she is on screen. Her character is irreverent, rambunctious and a sheer delight. She was ‘punk’ years before the punk movement actually erupted. Also, notice how she plays her rebellious character to perfection and got under the skin of George. This is very evident in her body language. No unconscious crossing of the legs or keeping them together when she sits down. She can manspread with the best of them. This is a headstrong woman who lives life on her own terms rather than conforming to societal norms regarding how a ‘lady’ should act.
A primary theme of the film is the power play within the character’s relationships. This is nicely shown in the ‘contrition game’ scene in which rather than being degraded by George’s task, Childie makes herself enjoy it thus taking away the power from George and being in control herself.
The film depicts its characters like human beings with all of their foibles rather than as freaks in a sideshow to be leered and grimaced at by ‘them there normal folks’. The film prompts a new discussion on societal perceptions of gay people in a Britain in which homosexuality had just been decriminalised (this was carried out in 1967- the year before this film was released).
The next film of Reid’s that was noteworthy for cult film fans was The Beast in the Cellar (1970).
Some kind of animal is attacking and killing the military at a nearby army base. A couple of sisters who live in the neighbourhood fear that it’s actually their brother Steven, who is locked in the basement of their house, who is actually responsible for the attacks.
This is a fantastic slice of horror by the British studio Tigon which was responsible for so many brilliant exploitation movies of the era. There is a prevailing atmosphere of quiet dread that builds throughout the film with the genteel and quaint lives of the sisters hiding their dreadful secret regarding their brother and his backstory. The film explains this near the end of the movie- Steven was violently maltreated by his father after his shell-shocked return from the First World War. When their parents both pass away, the sisters didn’t want their brother to become the vile man that their father became and so to make sure he isn’t called up for the Second World War they hide him in the cellar and keep him drugged (via his water supply) so that he is sedated and controllable. After the physical beatings by his father and after being locked up for so long, Steven has become feral and akin to some kind of wild madman with a hatred for the male members of the military whom he associates with his father.
There are some very good performances within the film but it’s Reid’s that shines the brightest and makes the film truly special. As Ellie, the sister who seemingly hasn’t progressed from when she was a child, she sinks into the character eerily well. From the scenes in which she reminisces about her father and the details regarding her family, it feels like you are watching a child instead of an adult. This works very well as it elicits a warmth from the audience regarding the character with a sense that the sisters carried out an extraordinary act in exceptional circumstances.
There’s also the theme of a dark family secret being hidden from view by the facade of the two ‘respectable’ spinster sisters that the film explores well. You’d never guess by the appearance of the women that they committed such a terrible thing to their brother.
These ingredients make for a very enjoyable film indeed.
The most far-out and trippy of Mr Reid’s excursions into all things cult was Psychomania from 1973. In this film she plays Mrs Latham, the seance-holding mother of the leader of a biker gang called The Living Dead(!) She holds the secret to how people can come back to life after they have willingly killed themselves and tells her son how to accomplish this which he does. He then passes on this knowledge to the other members of his gang who one by one take their own lives so they can come back and live forever.
This film can be seen to capitalise on several different film genres that were popular at the time- horror films, biker movies and also the kind of unreal entertainment for stoners to watch whilst they were off their bonces. This film can also be seen as genuinely countercultural.
There are many nods to an anti-authority sensibility within Psychomania with a scene in which the gang members are helped to escape from cells in which they are being held. The concept of ‘normality’ and the whole notion of domesticity also come in for a battering within the film. There are sequences in which we see the bikers terrorising locals in what looks like a New Town concrete open-air shopping centre. There is even a scene in which they ride through a supermarket whilst gleefully trashing it and running over shoppers.
And this is another reason why it was truly brave for a star like Reid to choose to star in such fare. Whilst other esteemed actors would only have starred in such a film if their career was on the skids, Reid didn’t look down her nose at this type of entertainment. Indeed, she accepted roles in these kinds of films and performed them with such zeal that it’s obvious she loved these quirky additions to her filmography. This reminds me of other actors who did this like Vincent Price and Donald Pleasance.
History judges all art and history has judged this film very well indeed. Even the BFI issued it on Blu-ray a few years ago which just goes to show how cherished it is in terms of British cinema. Ironically, such an outsider piece of popular culture should now be embraced by the cultural elite. But don’t let that put you off.
A fantastic time capsule of a movie with beautiful cinematography and is a daring depiction of a grisly topic (suicide) that is handled both darkly and humorously. Oh, and it has a soundtrack to die for.
These are just a few of the brilliant entries in Beryl Reid’s oeuvre. And there are plenty of others with her starring in a film adaptation of Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane, her recording of an album of music hall songs (really) and, of course, Get Up and Go which featured a cat from the Moon. And that’s why we salute her brilliance.