Tag Archives: British cinema

Billy Liar

billy liar
Billy Liar

Format: DVD + Bly-ray

Release date: 6 May 2013

Distributor: Studiocanal

Director: John Schlesinger

Writers: Keith Waterhouse, Willis Hall

Cast: Tom Courtney, Julie Christie

UK 1963

98 mins

Billy Liar (1963) stars Tom Courtney as Billy Fisher, a young man with an overactive imagination struggling to come of age in an industrial Northern city. He looks to escape his dead-end job at a funeral director’s, his tangled love life and his oppressively ordinary family by escaping to London to become a scriptwriter. But what makes Billy Liar a masterpiece of British Cinema is that it is not a classic Bildungsroman –a ‘how I became a writer/artist/filmmaker story’ – but a tragedy. It is the story of a flawed character striving to better himself, doomed to failure and to retreat into his imagination. It is also a painfully funny comedy.

Billy is a product of class confusion. Having passed his eleven-plus and received a grammar school education, he finds himself alienated from his working-class parents, even though they live in a semi-detached house. He has none of the work ethic of his father or the know-your-place-in-society of his mother. ‘I’m not ordinary folk, even if she is,’ claims Billy. The class conflict is internalised by Billy as he flits between accents, from a parody of well-spoken RP to a Yorkshire brogue full of thees and thous. His two fiancées also emphasise this conflict: Barbara is a nice but boring and unimaginative girl who Billy calls ‘Dwarling’ as they make plans for their cottage in Cornwall; Rita, a mouthy waitress who demands an engagement ring, claiming ‘You don’t handle the goods unless you intend to buy.’ Although he aspires to that classic middle-class dream – a job in the media – he is not prepared to work for it.

Whatever you call it, either the British New Wave or kitchen sink realism, the brief period from the late 1950s into the 1960s (from Jack Claytons’s 1959 film Room at the Top to 1969’s Kes, by my reckoning) produced some great moments in British cinema. The films are wonderfully written. A concurrent literary movement, especially in the theatre, brought a mix of social conscience, comic wit and a new urge to tackle difficult issues to film writing. Many of the films were based on current plays or books by Keith Waterhouse, John Osborne, Alan Sillitoe, Shelagh Delaney and others. Yet despite their origins on the stage and page, kitchen sink films are very cinematic. Many of the directors had previously worked in documentaries and as part of the Free Cinema movement, which spawned Lyndsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson. Their films were strongly influenced by French poetic-realism and a particular love of Jean Vigo.

However, John Schlesinger was never really part of the Free Cinema movement. He had made documentaries, but had also worked in television directing episodes of Danger Man. Thus Billy Liar is less self-consciously ‘poetic’ and less gritty realist than A Taste of Honey (Tony Richardson, 1962) or This Sporting Life (Lindsay Anderson, 1963), and although a little slicker (at times looking like an Ealing comedy, with darker humour) and more openly ‘entertaining’, it is a brilliantly directed film. For a movie in which so little happens, the dramatic pacing is excellent – Hitchcock would struggle to put so much suspense into someone buying milk before catching a train. The performances are all exceptional, with Courtney’s distracted nervousness as Billy nothing short of brilliant.

From its opening travelling shots of British housing estates, from semi-detached to terraced houses, to rows of flats, the use of locations is stunning. Largely shot in Bradford, we see the city as it modernises, with wrecking balls bringing down the old and cranes building up the new. New supermarkets are opening – the world is changing. As the celebrity ribbon-cutter Danny Boone says, ’It’s all happenin.’ The fantasy scenes, however, were shot in Leeds, creating a somewhat lesser Kansas versus Oz dream/reality contrast.

Schlesinger’s reputation has suffered over the years, culminating in his Party Political Broadcast for John Major, a grammar school boy who dreamt of becoming Prime Minister. It is tempting to subsequently look for evidence of this conservatism in his earlier works. His outsiders and anti-establishment characters are rarely rewarded at the end of films (1965’s Darling, 1969’s Midnight Cowboy and of course Billy Liar) and are all certainly flawed characters. Billy and Darling’s Diane are incredibly selfish – Billy stops to pull faces at himself in a mirror when he is supposed to be hurrying to fetch his grandmother’s medicine. ’You’re idle and you’re scruffy and you’ve no manners,’ Billy’s mum tells him. But Schlesinger should be applauded for allowing such flawed heroes, and certainly for allowing the heart-breaking ending, which is amongst the greatest in cinema. Dreams are for dreaming, it tells us, not achieving. Anyway, if Billy had made it to London he would have spent the next 20 years writing sit-coms for Leonard Rossiter.

The results of achieving your dreams can be seen in Schlesinger’s following film, Darling, which stars Julie Christie playing almost the same character as in Billy Liar. Liz, the free-spirited, handbag-swinging object of Billy’s desires, shows him the possibilities of escape and adventure. She has ’been all over’, even as far as a Butlin’s Holiday Camp and Doncaster, we learn. In Darling she makes her entrance (although now called Diane) swinging her handbag as in Billy Liar. She goes on to become the ‘Happiness Girl’ and an Italian princess, and thoroughly miserable.

In some ways Billy Liar is a film very much about the post-war period, the war still colouring Billy’s imagination. In his dreams he is Churchill, or a general leading the victorious marching armies of Ambrosia, or simply machine-gunning his boss. And yet the film’s appeal is timeless; Morrissey putting Tom Courtney on a record sleeve and air-machine-gunning the Top of the Pops audience helped another generation discover this classic, and I’m sure there are enough good-for-nothing daydreamers around now for it to continue to resonate with audiences.

I once watched Billy Liar with a girl I was trying to impress. ‘And you can relate to this loser!’ she exclaimed at the end. ‘It’s much worse than that,’ I told her, ‘this is the closest I’ve come to seeing myself in a film.’ It is a film for us underachievers, that shows what is means to grow up intelligent, imaginative, semi-educated and bone-idle.

Paul Huckerby

Watch a clip from Billy Liar:

You’re Human like the Rest of Them: The Films of B.S. Johnson

Fatman_on_a_Beach_(1974)_pic_3 (1)
You're Human like the Rest of Them

Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 15 April 2013

Distributor: BFI

Directors: B.S. Johnson, Mike Newell, Michael Bakewell

Writers: B.S. Johnson, Alan Burns, Samuel Beckett

Cast: William Hoyland, Anne Hardcastle, Bill Owen, B.S. Johnson

UK 1967-1974

160 mins

Throughout the 1960s until his suicide in 1973, the author B.S. Johnson produced some of the most startling pieces of literature, using a unique combination of formalism and social realism. He has been described repeatedly as a ‘one-man avant-garde’, and his literary works have been slowly reintegrating themselves into the public and academic consciousness, thanks in no small part to Jonathan Coe’s biography Like a Fiery Elephant (2004). His film work, however, has, until now, remained obscure and mostly unobtainable. Influenced strongly by James Joyce in both literary and cinematic terms, Johnson followed his predecessor in the belief that cinema provided an opportunity to truly match form with content, and not only allow innovation in new media, but refresh the parameters of the old medium also. Now, the BFI have collected his extant film work for release on DVD and Blu-ray, with additional extras provided by the British Library.

The centrepiece is the titular You’re Human like the Rest of Them (1967). It is one of the more traditional narrative pieces contained in this collection, adapted from a previously-written dramatic verse piece. In order to maintain the poetic rhythm, Johnson uses a staccato style of filmmaking, with David Lord’s military drum-beat accompanying jarring cuts and abstract montage interpolations. The only young man in a physiotherapist’s clinic, the teacher Haakon (William Hoyland), watches with disdain as the matronly nurse (Anne Hardcastle) chastises the older men for not caring for themselves properly. The camera jolts between a blackboard illustration of the spine and the dour, resigned faces of the men, as Haakon realises and begins to rail against his inevitable slide towards mortality. Returning to an undifferentiated indifference from his colleagues and pupils, the title becomes a rallying cry: ‘You are human, just like the rest of them, and the only thing certain is that you will die.’

Paradigm (1968) also confronts issues of mortality, but is more daring in its exploration of the distinction between cinema and literature. It is a masterpiece of fictive linguistics, intended to show, as Johnson himself put it, how ‘the older you get, the less you have to say and the more difficulty you have in saying it.’ Hoyland once again gives the human face to Johnson’s theories, in characters analogous to the five stages of man. Atop various levels of an abstract pastel structure, a distorted Modernist staircase to nowhere, he gives an impressive performance despite the lack of an intelligible script, from a boyish, naked Hoyland, confidently addressing the camera with his gleeful babbles, to a pensive silence at the culmination of the piece, as an aged, drawn man on the cusp of death.

The collection also includes Johnson’s agitprop work, documenting TUC protests against the Industrial Relations Bill, in Unfair! (1970) and March! (1970). There are also numerous tributes to Johnson’s literary influences, from the animated calligrammes of Up Yours Too, Guillaume Apollinaire (1969), a montage piece set to Samuel Beckett’s work in Poem (1971), and a documentary, On Reflection: B S Johnson on Dr Samuel Johnson (1971). Johnson’s last film work, Fat Man On a Beach (1974), was completed shortly after he took his own life. An homage to Porth Ceiriad in Wales, it consists of little more than Johnson’s engaging conversation with himself, ruminating on his experiences with the bay, and slapstick asides. Contrasting the warmth and humour here to his manner of death, the last shot, of the crew departing by helicopter as Johnson walks alone into the sea, is little short of heartbreaking.

Emily Kawasaki

Seven Psychopaths

Seven Psychopaths

Format: Cinema

Release date: 5 December 2012

Venues: UK wide

Distributor: Momentum

Director: Martin McDonagh

Writer: Martin McDonagh

Cast: Colin Farrell, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell

UK 2012

110 mins

Martin McDonagh is one of the most talented wordsmiths working today, as well as a very accomplished director with an uncanny sense of framing. His previous film, In Bruges, was a modern masterpiece: funny, intelligent, moving and violent, its script was of a calibre we don’t see very often nowadays. So to say expectations were high for his follow-up would be a massive understatement.

To an extent, Seven Psychopaths is a true wonder. Focusing on struggling screenwriter Marty (Colin Farrell), who is stuck in an eternal writer’s block and drinks heavily, the film tells the story of his involvement with an assortment of oddball characters. After his seemingly inept friend Billy (a terrific performance from Sam Rockwell) and his associate Hans (Christopher Walken, underplaying it beautifully), decide to kidnap the shih tzu of violent mobster Charlie for ransom, events escalate and get out of control, which might give Marty just the inspiration he needs…

As per his previous work , McDonagh’s strength are his characters: he is blessed with the ability to write funny, authentic dialogue that fleshes out this assortment of murderers, madmen and alcoholics. However, Seven Psychopaths lacks the structure of his previous work and wanders off in all directions. Instead of the story tightening its focus, the audience is treated to ever more growing digressions, which hurts the film because there simply is not enough time to bring all the loose ends together in a sensible fashion. The meta elements of the script constantly threaten to derail the film, especially in the third act – there’s a point in the last quarter where the self-conscious cleverness becomes almost too much to bear.

Perhaps the problem is with the unholy amount of characters that McDonagh tries to put on the screen. His desire to give each one enough screen time is to be applauded; however, with an ever-increasing number of flashbacks and stories, the film begins to feel more like a sketch show and less like a coherent story.

The film is set in America and it’s hard not to wonder whether this change of location may play some part in the sprawling script: McDonagh tries to bring in almost every cliché about L.A. to then turn them swiftly upside down. It’s as if he feels the need to settle into this new location by levelling it down and then re-building it as his own. A commendable attempt perhaps, but not one that works completely.

However, these can be considered minor complaints about a film that stands head and shoulders above most of what Hollywood can produce. McDonagh proves time and time again that it is his characters that matter to him, and through them draws the audience into his weird universe where almost anything can and will happen.

Seven Psychopaths is worth a watch if only to see McDonagh bring his magic touch to the strange deserts of America – a weird and whacked-out journey from which nothing and no one can emerge as expected.

Evrim Ersoy

The Devils

The Devils

Format: Screening of the director’s cut

Part of Ken Russell Forever

Date: 19 March 2012

Time: 8pm

Venue: BFI Southbank

Format: DVD of UK original X certificate version

Release date: 19 March 2012

Distributor: BFI

Director: Ken Russell

Writer: Ken Russell, John Whiting

Based on The Devils of Loudun by: Aldous Huxley

Cast: Vanessa Redgrave, Oliver Reed, Dudley Sutton, Michael Gothard, Christopher Logue, Graham Armitage

UK 1971

109 mins (screening) / 107 mins (DVD)

Ken Russell’s 1971 film deliberately sets out to shock and does so with a verve and an integrity of purpose that few films can equal. The shock does not simply reside in its subject matter of religious hysteria, taken from the Aldous Huxley book The Devils of Loudun and a 1961 play by John Whiting, also based on the Huxley book, but arrives in a 360-degree arc. There is the disgusting body horror of the plague, the soundtrack by Peter Maxwell Davies, hell-bent on giving an aural rendering of Pandemonium, and the radically shifting tone of the film, which lurches from low comedy to high tragedy, often in the same shot.

It is 17th-century France and Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) conspires to have the battlements of various French towns torn down. When Baron De Laubardemont (played by Tinker from Lovejoy, Dudley Sutton) tries to carry out the orders in Loudun the charismatic but deeply flawed priest, Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), intervenes, having been given control of the town by the dying Governor. Unfortunately, Grandier has made a series of powerful enemies, including the Baron, a pair of conniving quack doctors and a noble, whose daughter Grandier has impregnated, and Grandier is set for a fall. This promptly happens, when rumours of his secret marriage to Madeleine (Gemma Jones in her debut) incense the local convent. Unwittingly, Grandier has become the object of the nuns’ repressed lust, and a specific dream object of Vanessa Redgrave’s hunchback Sister Jeanne. During a hysterical outburst, Sister Jeanne names Grandier as being party to a demonic possession of several of the sisterhood. The reenactment of the hysteria is itself hysterical, and of course Russell leaves himself open to the criticism that he ‘goes too far’. But thank god. His camera doesn’t just show an orgy of cavorting nuns, but leaps right in and takes part. With a disapproving priest masturbating under his cassock the camera starts a delirious zooming in and out, in and out, in and out until … oh… my.

Listen to the Electric Sheep show Ken Russell: ‘All Art Is Sex!’ on Resonance 104.4 FM on Friday 16 March, 5pm.

Aside from the orgies and the enemas and the frolicking nuns and what not, Russell has great fun with the satire. One of the quacks, Adam (Brian Murphy, famous as George from George and Mildred), while assisting in the exorcism, comments, ‘nice day… bit chilly, but still…’ to Sister Jeanne. A disguised King Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) also assists and in the process exposes the whole thing as a sham, but rather than denounce the rock’ n’ roll exorcist (a fantastic performance by the tragically wasted Michael Gothard), he sees it as all part of the fun. After all, his monarchy is based on an empty box of sorts and he shows himself to be a keen fan of the theatre. ‘Enjoy yourself,’ he tells Sister Jeanne.

The tragedy comes with Grandier’s fall. Oliver Reed is magnificent. His Grandier is carelessly witty and licentious and yet convincingly heroic. In the shambolic comedy of the trial, he maintains a credible dignity and indeed begins to rise to grandeur. Only Reed could deliver the line ‘Go away, De Lauberdemont, you grow tedious’ while he is being tortured and make you at once laugh and feel crushing sorrow. His tormentors and Russell refuse him every consolation, and in a particularly horrific moment his illegitimate son is held up so the ‘lucky bastard can watch his father burn’. Of course, as the flames climb high it is no longer Grandier who burns, but all of Loudun and us as well.

The film looks wonderful - sets designed by Derek Jarman - and the healthy punkish nihilism, the anger, is as relevant today as it ever was. We could have a paean to what might have been, if Warners hadn’t so hated the film and if Oliver Reed and Russell had formed a collaborative partnership similar to Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog that somehow balanced their crazy talents, but as one of the most outstanding 70s films to come out of Britain, I am simply thankful that it is at last (almost all) here.

The Devils is released on DVD by the BFI in its original UK X certificate version. BFI Southbank will screen the director’s cut of The Devils on March 19. For more details of the season, please go to Ken Russell Forever.

John Bleasdale

Double Take: Shame


Format: Cinema

Dates: 13 January 2012

Venues: UK wide

Distributor: Momentum Pictures

Director: Steve McQueen

Writers: Abi Morgan, Steve McQueen

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale

UK 2011

101 mins

Two of our writers share their views on Shame in a double take review of one of the most anticipated films of the year.


Steve McQueen’s second film, after his astonishing debut Hunger, surely places him at the forefront of British cinema. Despite McQueen’s day job as a renowned video artist, there is no tricksy-ness to his film, no radical inventiveness. Rather, his images reveal his artistic validity by dint of patience. Shots are held. We don’t watch this film, we stare at it. The tale itself could easily be a soap opera melodrama: Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a successful urbanite living an almost antiseptically perfect life in Manhattan, which is put at risk by his compulsive sex addiction and by a visit from his messy (but altogether more conventionally promiscuous) sister, Sissy, played with thrift store charm by the ubiquitous Carey Mulligan. So far, so sensationalist, as we see the would-be Michael Douglas being serviced by high-end prostitutes, prowling the streets and bars, and masturbating with painful frequency. His inability to look at a woman without immediate sexual desire makes his sister’s visit uncomfortable, if not dangerously complicated. This is not only sex without love, it is sex that is mutually exclusive to love, the opposite of intimacy. And yet, at the same time, as Hunger eschewed straightforward political argument, so Shame, despite its title, avoids a merrily reductive morality. Fassbender’s performance is at once comic and tragic, ferocious and sensitive, strange but remarkably common, the brutal buffoonery of the male face in orgasm. John Bleasdale


One of the most talked about films on last year’s festival circuit, Steve McQueen’s Shame could have been a great movie. While Fassbender puts in a terrifically compelling performance, Mulligan is given much less to work with - her character is the ditsy, manic-depressive blonde, needy and demanding, desperate for attention, leaving endless messages for men that she’s slept with, not understanding that all they wanted from her was sex. While she has a few great scenes - and one in particular, already notorious - her character is a cliché that’s been seen and done before. Predictability is the problem with the film as a whole. The nearly wordless opening and closing scenes that bookend the film are incredibly powerful, but there are times when the dialogue is frustratingly flat, and the depiction of corporate New York and its club scene are too reminiscent of the early 90s and American Psycho. There is real tension in the tormented relationship between Brandon and Sissy, while his uncontrollable, violent outbursts are a shock, but the screenplay just isn’t quite strong enough to make the whole a truly remarkable film - what’s frustrating is that it comes so close. Sarah Cronin

An Unflinching Eye: The Films of Richard Woolley

Illusive Crime

Format: DVD

Release date: 28 March 2011

Distributor: BFI

Director: Richard Woolley

Titles: Kniephofstrasse (1973), Drinnen und Draussen (1974), Illusive Crime (1976), Telling Tales (1978), Brothers and Sisters (1981), Waiting for Alan (1984), Girl from the South (1988)

UK 1973-1988

450 mins

Maintaining its commitment to preserving the disparate underbelly of our post-war national cinema, the BFI has just released a 4-disc DVD box-set of the all too brief output of Richard Woolley, another auteur that never was.

After studying structuralist aesthetics at the Royal College of Art, Woolley won a scholarship to Berlin in 1973, where he joined a group of ‘undogmatic Marxists’ concerned with the angst of capitalism and the inequalities of sexual politics. A determined avant-gardist, he made a few Godardian shorts and let his spare room to Takahiko Iimura, who he says taught him how to make money from being an artist - make it cheap!

Returning to the UK in the mid-70s, Woolley’s first featurette, Illusive Crime, was part funded by Yorkshire Arts, though its geography is far removed from Emmerdale. Filmed mainly in one location, the narrative develops over 12 revolving shots, with non-sync dialogue and off-screen action. The camera, often static and locked off, observes from a distance. It was shot on Ektachrome reversal stock, and there’s an apology/disclaimer at the front of the film for the slight imperfections and edge fogs on the print available here. Beginning with a long typewriter explanation of the film’s exposition, complete with sneezing and spelling corrections, it’s a voyeuristic exploration of a faceless rural housewife as she is sexually assaulted by the police, who believes her to be guilty of the non-existent event of the title, and dismissed as hysterical by her returning husband.

Telling Tales, Woolley’s first full-length feature, continues his exploration of gender and class politics. A middle-class couple bicker on the verge of divorce, while their servant couple grind their coffee and fetch the bottle openers. Framed through faraway doors, the film suggests that ultimately there’s little difference between both parties, all susceptible to money and greed. With Brechtian deconstruction, colour flashbacks and manifesto texts sometimes delivered direct to camera, it becomes a bleak comedy of manners.

In 1980 Woolley got his ‘proper’ break with Brothers and Sisters, a 35mm film funded by the BFI and inspired by the Yorkshire Ripper murders. A more conventional, realist film with professional actors and a quasi-whodunnit plotline, though retaining Woolley’s fondness for framing through doorways and his recurrent class and feminist themes, it achieved a wider distribution, but ultimately suffered from straddling the line between commercial and art-house. A final film, Girl from the South, followed in 1988, about a poor little rich girl who dreams of Mills & Boon, falling for a poor black boy who loves Elgar.

Strangely, by moving to a cosier and more accessible narrative form, Woolley became exhausted by directing and years of frustrated script development (the 1984 short Waiting for Alan is a reference to the Channel 4 commissioning editor). In the 90s Woolley turned to education, setting up the Northern Film School in Leeds, and then to music, and more recently has published three novels. An interview with Woolley on each disc extra includes an amusing anecdote about his encounter with R.W. Fassbinder. In his moment, Woolley had ranked alongside Peter Greenaway and Terence Davies in the pecking order of that elusive, contradictory category, British Auteur, and this box-set is a tragic reminder of how the UK gatekeepers have always missed the boat when it comes to nurturing a cinema of the left-field.

Robert Chilcott

Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment

Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment

Format: DVD

Release date: 17 January 2011

Distributor: Optimum

Director: Karel Reisz

Writer: David Mercer

Cast: David Warner, Vanessa Redgrave, Robert Stephens, Irene Handl

UK 1966

93 mins

Morgan Delt is a troubled artist. His muse has deserted him. His wife has deserted him. His politics have deserted him. Even his sanity is deserting him. Morgan is a suitable case for treatment. Karel Reisz gave Morgan treatment - cinematically speaking - in 1966.

Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment, or to give it the shortened American release title, Morgan! is an adaptation of an original 1962 television play by Wakefield-born Marxist writer and painter David Mercer entitled A Suitable Case for Treatment (starring Ian Hendry as Morgan and Keith Barron). Morgan is a script steeped in Marx and more importantly, the theories of R.D. Laing, whose claims included that the roots of schizophrenia were to be found in the family, and by extension, in society. He developed ideas of anti-psychiatry and claimed, for example, that ‘madness’ could be seen as a sane response to an insane world and argued such positions as: ‘Who poses the greater threat to society: the fighter pilot who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima or the schizophrenic who believes the bomb is inside his own body?’

These ideas of Laing’s set in store a whole ideological wave among counter-culture ‘rebels’ in search of individualism, essentialism and anti-bourgeois life choices in the 60s. The generation who had just missed the ‘angry young men’ were now in thrall to the ‘it’s-ok-to-be-crazy in this insane world which our parents made’ attitude - a disposition that many misfit 60s characters displayed. The cultural battle cry was for authenticity of experience.

Concurrent with this anti-psychiatry of Laing’s was the interest in the disorientating effects of an LSD trip, which were likened to episodes of madness and were considered to be an entry point through the ‘doors of perception’. A cycle of visionary, anti-psychiatric, psychotropic oddball anti-hero films emerged in the mid-1960s to early 1970s, among them: Marat/Sade (1966), The King of Hearts (1966), The Trip (1967), I Love You Alice B. Toklas (1968), Catch 22 (1970), Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1970), End of the Road (1970), Family Life (1971, script by Laing and Mercer), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying those Terrible Things about Me? (1971), The Ruling Class (1972), Harold and Maude (1972) and later, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975).

Morgan comes at an interesting intersection of filmic cycles in British cinema; cycles in which Czech-born director Karel Reisz had immersed himself. Reisz was, along with Lindsey Anderson and Tony Richardson, a veteran of the short-lived Free Cinema movement, which sought to bring a more poetic realism and a nouvelle vague-ish tone to socially concerned British commercial cinema. The Free Cinema movement had emphasised the marginal, the communal and the youthful in its documentary mode of filmmaking in films such as We Are the Lambeth Boys, Mama Don’t Allow, O Dreamland and Every Day Except Christmas. Free Cinema was itself much influenced by the Griersonian mode of documentary filmmaking as well as the British ‘social problem’ films, which had developed in the 1930s with works such as The Citadel and There Ain’t No Justice and carried on after the war with Cosh Boy, The Lost People or Good Time Girl.

This conjunction of cinematic verisimilitude and fictional narrative caused several of the Free Cinema directors to accept the challenge thrown down by Richard Hoggart in Sight&Sound to ‘expand the legitimacy of the limits [they] had imposed themselves… and take the opportunity to bring the “public” life of a young person into the “personal life” - to extend the “film essay” type of Free cinema project into the imaginative breadth and deeper artistic intentions possible in a full-length feature film’. So taking this on board, along with the ethos of location shooting, Reisz went off to Nottingham to shoot Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, which became part of the canon of British New Wave (Social Realist or Kitchen Sink School) films, a cycle that had begun with Jack Clayton’s 1959 film, Room at the Top, and ended with Lindsey Anderson’s 1963 This Sporting Life. By that time, a wholly different zeitgeist dominated: Tom Jones, James Bond, the pill, ‘youth’, Beatles, Pop Art, Mod style, Swinging London, Carnaby Street, working-class mobility and, most important of all, the return of American investment. Soon, all of these youthful subcultures were to be blended and then superseded by the utopian ideal of an opted-out counter-culture replete with its own gurus and heroes such as Theodor Rozsak, Timothy Leary, Norman O. Brown and the aforementioned R.D. Laing.

With all of these influences and cultural winds in the air - and at the tail end of a cycle of Swinging London films - Reisz entered into the world of Laing and counter-culture cinema with Morgan. The tagline for the film makes the proposition clear: ‘Can one charming madman save the only thing in the real world that’s lived up to his best fantasies?’ Having opted out of the relatively sane world of art-making and gallery commerce, the working-class Morgan (David Warner) is in the throes of an existential, post-divorce mental breakdown. Still obsessed with his wife Leonie (Vanessa Redgrave), he spends most of the film stalking her, erratically appearing in her house and interfering in her new relationship with a very bourgeois gallery owner, Charles Napier (Robert Stephens), Morgan’s art dealer.

Morgan’s fractured personality soon regresses and becomes fixated on a new alter ego - that of a gorilla. He dons an ape costume and enacts the creature’s sounds and movements, which helps him to function in what he has come to believe is a more authentic, less complicated, primitivist mode of existence. It is a coping mechanism by which he can navigate and manage the ‘mad’ world of bourgeois respectability and repressive behaviours. He feels that only his mother, an unreconstructed Stalinist, has any genuine values, but she feels that Morgan is a sell-out. She refuses to ‘de-Stalinise’ and reminds Morgan: ‘Your dad wanted to shoot the royal family, abolish marriage and put everybody who’d been to a public school in a chain gang. He was an idealist, was your dad.’

A failure as an activist son, a failure as a bourgeois husband, a failure as an artist and a failure as a respectable member of society, Morgan’s anguish - and protest - takes the form of living in a car covered with Soviet propaganda posters outside of Leonie’s house, creating hammer and sickle shapes in a dog’s coat, pulling a gun on Napier, hectoring a policeman with a rant about Trotsky’s death, kidnapping Leonie with the aid of his dad’s wrestler friend, blowing up - not fatally - Leonie’s mother with a bomb hidden under the bed and dressing up as a bellowing gorilla. He gate-crashes and wrecks Leonie’s wedding day to Napier by scaling the walls of the building in full ape regalia, í  la King Kong, hoping to scoop up Leonie, his Fay Wray.

Morgan’s disturbed character lurches from sweet and charming naí¯f to thundering, raging gorilla beating his chest and trumpeting his fury. The film uses intercuts from Tarzan and King Kong films to make montages that emphasise the extent of Morgan’s fantasy life. At one point he muses: ‘If I’d been planted in the womb of a chimpanzee, none of this would have happened.’ The real world is to Morgan a jungle, as it seemed for many in the counter-culture. In the 60s, action and individual expression were more highly prized than motivation or conformity.

The characterisation of Morgan Delt is handled superbly well by David Warner - although it was Vanessa Redgrave who was nominated for a best actress award. In one of his most memorable and iconic roles, he brings a great deal of sympathy and warmth to the character - a character who should be seen as preposterous, annoying, disturbing and downright dangerous, and entirely undeserving of our empathy and support. Yet support and empathy his audience gave him, and Morgan is one of the great characters in the annals of counter-culture anti-heroes. The fact of his being creative - a mad artist type - gives him further cultural cachet. More than a relic of the period, Morgan is an interesting insight into the zeitgeist of the counter-cultural 60s.

In the final chapters of the film, Morgan (the gorilla), after trashing the wedding party escapes and ends up hallucinating on a Thames barge, finally being unceremoniously dumped on a bank side pile of scrap metal where he has his major and final psychotic episode. In the next scene, we see him in a countryside insane asylum working in a flower bed where he is busy planting a hammer and sickle garden shape. He receives a visit from his beloved ex-wife, who informs him that she is pregnant with his baby. Like the man said, ‘The freak shall inherit the earth’.

James Evans

Down Terrace

Down Terrace

Format: Cinema

Release date: 30 July 2010

Venues: ICA Cinema (London) and selected key cities

Distributor: Metrodome

Director: Ben Wheatley

Writer: Robin Hill, Ben Wheatley

Cast: Julia Deakin, Robert Hill, Robin Hill, Mark Kempner, Michael Smiley

UK 2009

89 mins

Bill and his son Karl are members of a seemingly normal family living in a terraced house within a nondescript suburb of Brighton. Following an acquittal from an unspecified court case, the two return home to the familiar staple of chores to be completed, tension between the family’s women to defuse and their own tempestuous relationship to address. Beneath this surface, however, lies a far more sinister and interesting truth; the members of this family are career criminals, and are now on a blood hunt for whoever grassed them up.

Welcome to Down Terrace, the feature debut from Ben Wheatley. Far from being merely an episode of The Sopranos directed by Mike Leigh as many reviews have suggested, the film is a fascinating look at the mechanics of a family, focusing on the little things that at once enthrall and irritate, exposing harboured truths and the ties that bind people together. Blazing arguments are abruptly ended by bursts of perfectly timed humour and assumptions about characters are turned on their head at the least predictable moments. Wheatley’s script, co-written with star Robin Hill, is a brilliantly original take on the familiar British crime genre, infusing each character with depth and compassion. We care deeply for each of these characters, which increases s the impact of their irrationally violent reactions towards others. A particular scene of pure visual humour resulting from a sudden action from Karl typifies this perfectly.

It comes as no surprise that Robert Hill (Bill) and Robin Hill (Karl) are real-life father and son, sharing a painfully realistic chemistry that’s as heart-wrenching as darkly amusing. An ex-hippie and regular drug user, Bill is prone to twisted philosophical musings that are highly enjoyable, and at times it’s difficult not to sympathise with the familial and professional weight on his shoulders. Karl is also blessed with some unfortunate situations to challenge his ever-shredded nerves, not least an ex-girlfriend who turns up at the door bearing his child. While plot devices such as this could possibly be viewed as contrived, they perfectly highlight the domestic pressures that bear on the family to the same extent as their illegal exploits.

Featuring a host of familiar faces from cult British comedy, such as Julia Deakin and Michael Smiley, combined with non-professional actors, the film is undoubtedly a lo-fi affair, though at no point is it hindered by its budgetary constraints. More so, the claustrophobic atmosphere is largely achieved through the film’s almost singular setting of the family home (the Hills’ real-life home, no less), and a sense of realism is attained through the use of minimal crew and equipment.

In a genre that boasts as many forgettable flops as Michael Caine or Bob Hoskins classics, it’s refreshing to see a film that finds something original to say without relying on clichéd one-liners or stock characters. Down Terrace has already proven itself to be a hit across the festival circuit, winning Best UK Feature at last year’s Raindance among others.

The Raindance Film Festival runs from September 29 to October 10 in London. More details on the Raindance webiste.

James Merchant