Meathook Cinema Hall of Fame- Kes (1969)

Meathook Cinema Hall of Fame- Kes (1969)

I was brought up in Yorkshire and still live here (I just got lucky, I guess…) but even I have a problem with the Barnsley accents in Ken Loach’s masterpiece, Kes. Thank God for subtitles and online Yorkshire dialect translators.

Billy Caspar is a 15-year-old youth who is due to leave school soon. He is permanently dishevelled, looks unwashed and is smaller than everyone else in his class. He always seems to be in another world, maybe because his existence in his grim 1960s town is so brutal. He discovers a nest of kestrels and early one morning steals one as a pet.

Billy and his kestrel quickly become inseparable as Billy trains and cares for it.

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Kes is nothing short of astounding. A film that was made just after the boom in ‘kitchen sink dramas’, it blows my mind that a film featuring characters with the broadest Yorkshire accents would eventually be so revered that it would be released on the prestigious Criterion label when it was released on home media.

Billy is daydreaming his way through life but is approaching a critical juncture. He is due to leave his soul-destroying school life and is due to enter the equally vile world of work.

Kes (the name he gives the kestrel) gives him a purpose in life and shows that there are things that fire his interest and can even win him admiration and attention (witness the impromptu presentation he gives on his newly found passion to his English class). It’s a cruel irony that the horrific event that occurs near the end of the film (I’m not going to ruin it, but I will warn you that it’s one of the most upsetting scenes I’ve ever seen in a motion picture) occurs just after his meeting with a school careers advisor. We literally see Billy’s hope, his newly found sense of freedom and his passion snuffed out in one fell swoop. It’s devastating.

Whilst there are plenty of fantastic performances by already established actors (Lynne ‘Ivy Tilsley’ Perrie, Brian Glover), it’s Ken Loach’s insistence on using ‘real’ people who had never acted before that is the revelation here. Kes feels 100% authentic on every imaginable level.

Loach’s greatest find when it came to authenticity and real people being captured on film, was the casting of David Bradley as Billy. Bradley’s performance is nuanced, multi-layered and, most of all, utterly captivating. It’s one of the best performances I’ve ever seen in a film and one of the most audacious and brilliant casting decisions also.

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David Bradley and director Loach on set

I’m so glad that the sheer brutality of the dark years when corporal punishment was permitted in school has been captured here also and shown as the archaic practice it really was. If you don’t feel a twinge of emotion at the youngest boy’s reaction to getting the cane then you don’t have a soul. Corporal punishment in schools was outlawed in the UK in 1986, the very year I entered a secondary school. My timing was impeccable. I could still sense that some teachers were gutted that physically punishing a child had been made illegal and that their real reason for being a teacher had been taken away from them.

Kes is beautiful but don’t forget to switch on the subtitles. Loach says that for the American release of the film, some parts were dubbed to try to make some speeches a bit more understandable for those not from South Yorkshire. But even this didn’t work. One American film executive said that he had a better chance of understanding Hungarian films than he did of Kes.

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 24- Horror Hospital (1973)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 24- Horror Hospital (1973)

When I saw that Robin Askwith headed the cast of this British 70’s horror flick I instantly thought of the brilliant bawdy comedies The Confessions series which he starred in and were delightfully mucky and low-brow. Perfect for the era. If Mr Askwith could prove a huge hit with the sexploitation brigade surely he could score big when it came to another low brow form of entertainment, the horror film.

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Horror Hospital and The Corpse Grinders- what a double bill!

Here he plays Jason Jones who works in the music industry but after his manager rips off one of his songs he decides to escape via a company offering getaway breaks (‘Hairy Holidays’!) and heads away from London and the music scene. He meets a girl on a train and they get on handsomely. She is even going to the same ‘health farm’ that he is headed to.

And so the adventure begins. Even the ticket collector at the station they arrive at is like someone from a Hammer horror film. However, this holiday destination is actually a hospital in which the residents are wayward hippies and permissive types who are then lobotomised.

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The resulting adventure is part horror film, part groovy campathon which it accomplishes with relish. There is a cast of various oddball supporting characters that are just as entertaining as the main players and there are great touches such as the car fitted with a huge knife that shoots out to behead anyone brave enough to try and escape.

This film captures a great time in British film when films were made for the young with their content being just as boundary transgressing as the youth of the day themselves. Hence genres such as bawdy, racy comedies and bloody (but humorous) horror was the order of the day. A golden era.

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As lurid as the paisley underpants Askwith wore in the Confessions movies.

***and a half out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 16- House of Whipcord (1974)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 16- House of Whipcord (1974)

It’s 1974. A French starlet who isn’t averse to modelling with no clothes on is seduced by an enigmatic young man who asks to take her home to meet his parents. However, his home appears to be some kind of old institution like a long forgotten prison. And this is exactly what it is. His mother is the sadistic Governor of her own prison where her son takes flagrant examples of the new ‘permissive’ society so that they can be punished and even executed because of their lax ways.

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This is Within These Walls on steroids. I love the fact that there is a notice at the start of the film that reads “This film is dedicated to those who are disturbed by today’s lax moral codes and who eagerly await the return of corporal and capital punishment.” This is obviously a film that is parodying and sticking up two fingers to the puritanical types who didn’t like that the society of the time was becoming more permissive and free, the ‘Bring Back Hanging’ brigade. Britain was moving away from it’s more conservative ways and some weren’t happy about this as they flocked to fill the letters pages of every national newspaper. Precedents were falling and were set to fall even further as during the 70’s. One prime example of this movement that directly affected film was Mary Whitehouse and her Caravan of Light both of which would try to get exploitation films like House of Whipcord banned. Whitehouse was massively active during the Video Nasties furore that would occur during the next decade.

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But within the film’s duration there are currents of dissent as prisoners held at the institution secretly plan to overthrow the evil wardens and hopefully escape this kangeroo prison. This film adheres to but also subverts the conventions of prison genres but especially the ‘women in prison’ genre and only excludes lesbianism which maybe for the time in Britain would have been a step too far for that still conservative time. Had it have been included then the film may have fallen foul of the BBFC. The theme of an uprising is one of the prime tropes of this genre and I love that this was so brilliantly depicted. But I also love the result of this which ironically delivers back to the prison the woman who had successfully escaped.

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Special mentions go out to Barbara Markham as the deranged Governor and Sheila Keith as one of the sadistic wardens. House of Whipcord was called Flagellations abroad. Quite. 

Another Pete Walker masterpiece. Now, can we have a Blu Ray boxset of his back catalogue please?

****and a half out of *****

 

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 14- Schizo (1976)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 14- Schizo (1976)

This is another Pete Walker horror sleazefest (hooray!!!)

Figure skater Samantha is about to get married to wealthy businessman Alan. Her mother’s former partner has just been released from prison and starts stalking her, travelling from the North East to London to accomplish the job.

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‘Hello? Police? I think I’m being stalked…’

This film mines into the whole phenomenon of being followed, peeping toms and was ahead of it’s time in depicting stalking which wasn’t widely known about at the time.

The film also gives Hitchcock-esque psychological explanations as to what schizophrenia is (again, a term that was relatively unknown by many at the time) to help the audience better understand what they are going to see and the kind of mental condition which would drive the killer to carry out their plans.

But is all as it seems? In a word- NO! The film keeps us guessing as to the killer’s identity right up until the end and takes us on a voyage through 70’s locales to do so with impeccably decorated flats and the London streets of the time (again, Walker is so good at capturing the time and place that he sets his films within. Here we get gorgeous snapshots of a bygone era and a time capsule of London in 1976 whether it be the exterior of King’s Cross railway station, the inside of a supermarket or the grimy flophouses cum hostels of N1).

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The cast are all fantastic especially Lynne Frederick as Samantha and an early appearance by Stephanie Beecham as her best friend Beth. There’s even John ‘Johnny Remember Me’ Leyton and Queenie Watts in supporting roles.

Watch out for the literally eye-popping clairvoyant meeting scene which is both terrifying and very funny. Walker also has the ability of making something truly scary and unnerving but bookending this with dark observational humour. The character of Joy embodies this perfectly.

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Another Walker masterpiece. He really is worthy of more praise and to be reappraised as the King of 70’s British Horror.

****and a half out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 11- The Sorcerers (1967)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 11- The Sorcerers (1967)

A Tigon film from 1967 regarding Marcus, a doctor (played by Boris Karloff) who practices hypnosis. His wife Estelle is also part of his practice as they search for a suitable subject for their experiments. Step forward swinging 60’s hip-cat Mike Roscoe (played by future Saint Ian Ogilvy) who Marcus picks up in a Wimpy bar (it sounds well dodgy, eh?!) Roscoe follows Marcus back to his house and his hypnosis machine whilst being promised good times with no consequence before Marcus uses the machine on him.

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After undergoing the hypnosis machine (this sequence is very aesthetically pleasing. Think of the inner sleeve portraits of the band from The Velvet Underground and Nico album with the projectiles of dots over their faces and you’re almost there) we learn that Marcus and his wife are able to experience whatever Mike is experiencing (but this is a double-edged sword as any physical injuries that Mike sustains will also be inflicted on the couple) with the pair being able to influence this by planting thoughts in Mike’s mind to force him to do whatever they wish.

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But with such an ability to control someone’s life there comes great responsibility and you will learn the controller’s true intentions and characters. Marcus becomes almost like an angel on Mike’s shoulder whilst his wife Estelle becomes the opposite and it isn’t long before she’s forcing him to beat up and even murder those around him. She even destroys the hypnosis machine when Marcus suggest deprogramming Mike’s current mentally malleable state.

This film is terrific but I knew it would be as it’s directed by Michael Reeves who made the similarly amazing Witchfinder General (aka The Conqueror Worm in the States). A fantastic premise, engaging characters but also very poignant as London life in the 60’s is captured beautifully from the ‘new’ of the hip clubs Mike resides in through to the ‘old’ of the streets, pubs and newsagents of everyday life. This film is like a time capsule and photographed handsomely.

The cast are uniformly brilliant but it’s the covertly evil Estelle, the Lady Macbeth of the film who steals the show. Her performance is astonishing as her face and eyes seemingly mutate and become more evil as her character does.

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A classic.

****and a half out of *****

The Balance of Power- Scum (1977 and 1979)

The Balance of Power- Scum (1977 and 1979)

It’s amazing when a TV programme or a film conveys a message that is so powerful that it faces strong and vicious opposition from the higher echelons of the day who seek to suppress it.

Play For Today was a BBC1 drama anthology series that ran from 1970 until 1984. Alan Clarke directed an episode about life in a borstal- now known as young offenders centres. The programme was the first time the general public had seen inside one such institution and the disturbing events therein that unfolded in this episode. The programme fully depicted the brutality, racism and dehumanisation of its charges not to mention its warders. This was hardly a glowing commendation for the borstal system. However, the programme-makers shot this drama with no interference whatsoever from the powers that be in the Beeb.

That was until just before the programme was due to be shown. There were suddenly rumblings from up above and a diktat received by the programme-makers that cuts needed to be made to the drama prior to it being televised. Producer Margaret Matheson states the appropriate cuts were made and whilst they weren’t happy doing this, they were still proud of the programme in its trimmed state. It was still powerful and still hit its mark artistically.

But then the programme was pulled from broadcast. Matheson said that Scum was even listed in The Radio Times which shows how close to broadcast it was when it was pulled. Matheson also said that there was a change in personnel with Bryan Cowgill, the controller of BBC1 being replaced by Bill Cotton. Scum’s writer Roy Minton would later refer to the TV play version of Scum as The Billy Cotton Banned Show (Cotton’s father used to host The Billy Cotton Band Show years before).

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The titles for the 1977 Play For Today programme

A screening of the TV play had been organised in Soho for the day after it was due to be televised but this was before the BBC had pulled the plug. However, this viewing still went ahead. In fact, because the work had been banned by the BBC the screening was extremely well attended and seen as an opportunity to see something forbidden and risque. Afterwards, various members of the audience had approached the programme-makers to express how great it was and that such an important work should be seen by as many people as possible. There was a clause in force that if the BBC didn’t show a piece of work within a certain amount of time the rights lapsed out of the BBC’s control and so when this happened it was decided that a film of Scum would be made instead. The film would be almost the same as the TV play including many of the cast and crew except that the scenes that were cut would be now left intact. More importantly, one person who was at this screening would end up producing the film version of this TV drama, Clive Parsons.

So, what had frightened the executives at the Beeb so much that they decided to shelve the play from being shown?

The plot of both the TV play and the film Scum concerns a young prisoner, Carlin being transferred to the borstal that the programme is based in. The ‘Daddy’ (the toughest prisoner who is in charge of the other prisoners) of the borstal is named Pongo Banks and is shown to be in cahoots with the screws (wardens) of the borstal and is depicted to be a bully as he actively terrorises and intimidates anyone who he sees as weaker or different. The Daddy, working in tandem with the system, makes the Borstal experience an even more dehumanising one for the majority of the inmates and also the few decent screws working at the institution.

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The quad poster for the film version of Scum

Carlin was the Daddy at his previous borstal and has been transferred because he beat up two officers in retaliation. Thus he arrives at this borstal already with a reputation with both the screws and Pongo and his gang both desperate to prove that they are in control on their turf and to prove that they are more powerful than he is and that he should know his place. Carlin is forced to share a dorm with Pongo and his acolytes and is given a beating by all three after lights out.

However, Carlin then takes over. This scene of Carlin taking control from both Pongo and pals and the bent screws who they were working with has now gone down in cinema history. It’s almost operatic in its power. The line ‘I’m The Daddy!’ has now entered the popular vernacular in the same way ‘You talkin’ to me?’ has.

The power has now been taken away from the bent officers- and they’re not happy about it. With a prison or borstal in which the bent screws and bent Daddy work in tandem, brutality can prosper unchallenged so much easier. With a fairer head inmate in control who also has a healthy disregard for authority, the officers and system, in general, will get a much harder time with a ‘them vs us’ mentality now replacing the old regime.

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The original 1979 issue of Films and Filming that featured Scum on its front cover

Another challenger to authority and the system is the character of Archer. He decided early on that he was to learn the rules and regulations inside out and give the officers and prison department as hard a time as possible- even if it means he serves his full sentence. He becomes vegetarian, refuses to wear leather boots and converts to Islam to rile the Christian Governor. One particular scene involves him trying to illustrate to an officer that some of them are just as institutionalised as some of the inmates. Unfortunately, this goes badly wrong.

Archer is a thorn in the side of the authorities. He becomes a close friend and supporter of Carlin from Day 1. Carlin is courted by the housemaster (the borstal system seems to be run along the lines of a public school- which is ironic) as they see that he has taken control of the inmates. To reap the rewards of his new status, Carlin seems to go along with this to get the best for himself. He asks for a single cell and gets it only because of his Daddy status. But there’s a feeling that Carlin is not only going along with this to make his stay much easier but also to make sure that the other inmates have a more humane stay rather than him running the borstal in conjunction with the screws as Pongo and his goons did.

There’s a feeling that if the authorities step out of line with Carlin he will intervene and give them what for. And indeed this happens- in brutal style. A prisoner named Davis is raped in the borstal greenhouse and then commits suicide by slitting his wrists in his cell. These two events were also willfully ignored by the guards on duty- one officer even watched the rape with sadistic glee and only intervened when the borstal gardener is seen to be approaching.

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He then lets the rapists go free and admonishes the victim. When the victim is in his cell he rings the bell and complains of nightmares to the officer who responds. This officer then ignores any more calls for help from Davis who then ends his life.

This sees the prisoners take part in a riot instigated by Carlin over the treatment of Davis. Carlin and the inmates have taken away the reins of power from the officers and prison authorities over this tragic event and are letting it be known that they have gone too far. They take over the dining room and destroy everything inside it.

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The next scene is one of Carlin, Archer and another inmate, Meakin being dragged bleeding and barely conscious into solitary confinement. The prisoners exerted their power and now it’s been reasserted by the authorities in the way it knows best- through violence and brutality.

This power struggle is a staple of the prison genre but in this case, life seems to imitate art. Just as Carlin and crew are intent on engaging in a power struggle for control with their captors and superiors, the programme-makers seem to have had to endure the same. Authority in the guise of the BBC and Billy Cotton had spoken and expected that to be the final word on the matter.

Whilst the film version was almost identical to the Play For Today version there was one scene that was omitted. This scene saw Carlin ask a fellow prisoner to be ‘his missus’– a practice in which inmates would have a male sexual partner but only for their stay in detention. These inmates are also known as ‘gate gays’ in prison/borstal circles. This scene was left out of the film version of Scum as it could be argued that Carlin would be less of a role model to certain sections of the audience because of it. Writer Roy Minton says that he felt it was a massive flaw of the film that the scene was left out as it shows a vulnerability to Carlin’s character. He also states that it was the actor depicting Carlin, Ray Winstone who persuaded Alan Clarke to omit the scene from the film.

However, as the film was a runaway success at the box office its power to upset members of the establishment was never diminished. The film was televised for the first time on the 10th June 1983 on the new ‘radical’ TV channel Channel 4. Its transmission upset no one except for one person: Mary Whitehouse.

Whitehouse was a campaigner who detested what she saw as the increasing wave of sex and violence within the media. She wanted a promotion of traditional Christian values in the arts, especially within film, video and television. As you can tell she didn’t exactly like social change.

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Mary Whitehouse (second from right) and friends picketing something they don’t want the public to see

She found out that when Channel 4 televised the film version of Scum, a copy of the film hadn’t been sent to every member of the IBA (Independent Broadcasting Authority- a regulatory board) to see if it was suitable for broadcast. The decision regarding Scum’s transmission was solely handed to the board’s Director General who was also one of the founders of a prisoner’s trust. He stated that he thought Scum was ‘a serious dramatic work based on tensions and violence that are a feature of a closed prison society’. He also thought Scum needed to be seen by a wider audience. Whitehouse won the first private case against Channel 4 but lost on appeal when the case reached The House of Lords.

The previous year in 1982, The Criminal Justice Act eradicated borstals and replaced them with youth custody centres. This new system was hoped to be less brutal and inhumane than the borstals it replaced. Was this because of Scum? It may well have been.

Both the TV play and film versions of Scum are examples of gritty and uncompromising art that certainly pull no punches. They are now available uncut on DVD/Blu ray and serve as a reminder to the audiences of today that the not too distant past was tough on many levels and that serious lessons could be learnt from those times. Scum was such an important piece of work that social reform of the system it portrayed followed not long after its release. And all this from a TV play/film that the powers that be didn’t want audiences to see.

There are still many people who would love to see the brutal borstal system brought back and that a ‘short sharp shock’ is what the youth of today deserve. There was even a reality TV show centred around this idea. There are also members of the public whose first impulse on seeing something they don’t understand or approve of is to say ‘this should be banned’. The spirit of Mary Whitehouse certainly lives on. Be careful what you wish for.