What was it about those two letters that used to intrigue me so much? I was about ten years old when I began to notice (and indeed obsess over) such things, so I suppose the year must have been 1971. At the time I was composing a long, complicated spy story called Manhunt, and to make the title look more official on the front of the exercise book in which I was writing it, I added the two letters at the end of the word, in tiny block capitals, subscript. Manhunt by itself looked a bit feeble, but ManhuntAA looked incredibly cool. Yes, it was a book I was writing, not a film, but why shouldn’t books carry censor’s certificates too? And it had to be an AA certificate, because that was the most alluring certificate of all. Officially, it meant that the film had ‘strong adult content’ and that ‘no persons under fourteen years can be admitted,’ but things were never that simple. U, of course, meant that the film would be bland, family-friendly. A (for adult?) hinted at something marginally more transgressive, worth checking out at any rate. X, for me at that age, was beyond the pale, far too intense and frightening a prospect. But there was something distinctly enticing about the AA certificate: it sprinkled a layer of enigmatic stardust over films I wouldn’t otherwise have been interested in, such as Michael Winner’s Lawman or the Danny La Rue vehicle Our Miss Fred – or, indeed, David Essex’s Stardust. These films were out of reach, but only just out of reach. Forbidden fruit hanging almost low enough to be plucked.
I knew that I wanted to read Offbeat as soon as I saw that it contained a chapter dedicated to the history of the AA certificate, from which I learned, incidentally, that it was introduced in July 1970 and dropped in September 1982 to make way for the 15 certificate still in use today. But 15 is such a boring name for a film certificate. It entirely lacks the quality that was the AA certificate’s hallmark: ambiguity. As Julian Upton writes in his essay in Offbeat, ‘the introduction of the AA certificate would be both permissive and restrictive.’ It confused exhibitors and punters alike and ‘would struggle to achieve parity with the other BBFC ratings’: for this same reason, it was to some of us the most fascinating of the four certificates, gesturing towards a cinematic hinterland in which there would probably be violence and probably be sex but both would be more oblique, more subtle, more understated than in X-rated films. The fact that the AA certificate was the signpost to this hinterland suggests to me that something was irretrievably lost from British cinema when it was abandoned. You might even say that the very existence of the AA certificate throughout the 1970s and early 1980s cast a spectral glow over British cinematic output, with the result that some of the strangest, most memorable, most oddly haunting films that Britain has ever produced fell within that period. The Wicker Man, Unman, Wittering and Zigo, Don’t Look Now, Death Line, Neither the Sea nor the Sand … Some of these were X-rated and some were AA, but all emerged during the fruitful, uncanny interval when the AA certificate transformed British cinema into an equivocal landscape of ill-defined borders and liminal spaces.
Meanwhile, on British television, equally strange things were happening. In retrospect, 1970s programme-makers seem to have been granted a degree of artistic freedom unimaginable today. This might have been because shows were not expected to look like feature films or to earn big export sales, so budgets were modest and the commissioning process could be much more laissez-faire; or perhaps producers back then were genuine visionaries. Whatever the reason, a number of truly adventurous oddities made it to the small screen, among the most famous of which are The Changes (1975), an apocalyptic children’s series adapted from Peter Dickinson’s novels; Children of the Stones (1977), another children’s series about a secret pagan society embedded within an isolated village; The Stone Tape (1972), a Nigel Kneale-scripted story about a building whose very fabric retains sinister memories; and Penda’s Fen (1974), a collaboration between David Rudkin and the director Alan Clarke in which a repressed Midlands schoolboy’s visions of Edward Elgar and King Penda threaten to unlock the secrets of his own sexuality. All of these productions are considered at length in The Magic Box, Rob Young’s hefty survey of occult British film and television. Young, who wrote the excellent Electric Eden (2010), a history of the British folk-rock movement which was almost contemporaneous with these broadcasts, finds that much of the British film and TV output of this era was born of an obsession with the past as a repository of national mythologies, and underpinned by a conviction that, unearthed and exposed, the British national character is weirder, more eldritch and more conflicted than anyone might have expected. For him, watching television means entering into a quasi-supernatural realm. This is the way he describes a TV set warming up after it has been turned on in the morning:
The eyeless screen of dawn. No cock is crowing. Instead, a clock’s serrated circle materialises on a blue sky … Second by second, time counts down like berries plucked from a branch. The scale eats itself away: the circle dwindles to the last few seconds and vanishes. Valves heat up and burn off the night’s dust. Ghost ions float towards the inner surface of the glass.
The watchers are out there, ready to receive.
This evocation of television viewing as something charged, numinous and phantasmal will strike a chord with many British people of Young’s (and my) generation, the late baby boomers and early Generation X-ers. We all have flickering memories of television programmes glimpsed or devoured on our parents’ black and white TVs. Two in particular have stayed with me for more than five decades. First of all there was The Singing Ringing Tree, which I must have seen on one of its first BBC broadcasts in the mid-1960s. Subsequent DVD releases have revealed that, in its original form, it was a dreadful piece of 1950s East German kitsch, underpinned by a gaudy soundtrack and filmed using some eye-blisteringly lurid colour process, but my generation didn’t see it that way. When we watched it at home it was in black and white, filleted into three discrete episodes and (most important of all) presented in a strange audio format whereby the narration – including stiffly delivered dialogue – was provided by the RP tones of Tony Bilbow, with the original German voices dimly audible in the background. The result was spooky enough, even before you took into account the trippy visuals, which included a talking bear, a malevolent dwarf and a giant goldfish, which had been trapped in a pool of ice after the enchanted garden where it lived had been cast into an eternal Narnia-like winter. These scenes haunted my memory and imagination for years afterwards, as did the equally disturbing imagery of ATV’s Escape into Night (1972). In this faithful adaptation of Catherine Storr’s novel Marianne Dreams, a young boy convalesces in a forbidding old house which is gradually surrounded by gigantic rocks, each equipped with a single luminous red eye, which close in on him as his illness progresses. The series went out at teatime on ITV but was more unnerving than most things broadcast after the watershed.
Most of the films and programmes I remember from this time are thoroughly documented and analysed in Young’s book: Hammer’s The Witches and The Reptile; the chilling Midwich Cuckoos adaptation Village of the Damned; the BBC’s Dead of Night series and its M.R. James Christmas ghost stories; Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital. In a way, Young is writing a new history of British film and television, an alternative to the more respectable version that has tended to focus on Loach and Leigh, Powell and Pressburger, Lean and Reed, the Boultings and Woodfall (although Tom Jones does get a long and interesting discussion here). Or at least, that’s the way this book might have been seen fifteen years ago. Now, in fact, many of the works he writes about have been canonised, none more so than the ‘unholy trinity’ of folk horror films made between 1968 and 1973: Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Wicker Man. Young acknowledges this at the start of the chapter he devotes to the genre: ‘Between 2012 and 2020,’ he writes, ‘I counted at least eight academic conferences in Britain on the subject of “folk horror”.’ He doesn’t attempt to define the genre himself, merely to ‘map out some of the key features’, although he does venture one helpful generalisation: ‘If folklore can be defined as ritual remembering, a mutable process via the oral transmission of culture through generations, then rural horror frequently demonstrates the effects when forgotten things, long buried, are caused to erupt suddenly upon an isolated community or individual.’
The impact of this sub-genre on the British cinematic imagination can be seen in the differences between Tony Richardson’s two Henry Fielding adaptations, Tom Jones (1963) and Joseph Andrews (1977). Both films are, for the most part, faithful to the spirit of their source novels, but in one extended sequence, Joseph Andrews offers a glaring exception. In Book III, Chapter 7 of the novel, Joseph, Fanny and Parson Adams agree to stay the night at the house of the local squire only to find that his intention is to ‘roast’ Parson Adams in front of his other loutish house guests. In the film, however (co-written, as it happens, by Allan Scott, who was also one of the writers on Don’t Look Now) this episode is infinitely more disturbing. The squire, nastily played by Kenneth Cranham, turns out to have a penchant not for gentle ribbing but for full-blown black magic rituals. Parson Adams is strapped to a chair, his head enclosed in an iron mask equipped with an obscenely phallic and pendulous nose, while Fanny is tied down and offered up as a virginal sacrifice to a troupe of depraved nymphets wearing nun’s habits which have been modified to expose their breasts. Down in the kitchen, meanwhile, a drugged Joseph is being mauled and slobbered over by a heavy-breathing, overweight wench caked in grotesque layers of make-up which make her look like a bloated sex-crazed ventriloquist’s dummy. The nightmarish icing on the cake is that Parson Adams is played by Michael Hordern – at the time the voice of Paddington Bear in the BBC’s cherished teatime adaptations – while the obese molester is none other than Janet Webb, the comedienne whose unexplained curtain calls used to round off the early BBC Morecambe and Wise shows. In this way the sequence effects a bewildering mash-up of family-friendly light entertainment and sinister folk horror, leaving the viewer adrift and disorientated. (A detour into a generic no man’s land which would make it all but inevitable that the film should be awarded an AA certificate.)
Young’s lucid and thought-provoking book is best seen as a guide to the new canon of British cinema. In this canon, the sense of ‘poetry’ that Truffaut (in one of his conversations with Hitchcock) found lacking in our cinema is abundantly present. The films where you find it were once considered marginal, but it’s there all right, staring us (and him) in the face, not in Brief Encounter or Look Back in Anger, but in horror films, ghost stories, absurdist comedies and fantasies for children. One way or another – Mark Gatiss can take a lot of the credit here – this new canon has been under construction for more than a decade, and it is only because Young casts his net so wide (taking in John Betjeman’s travel documentaries and the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony among other things) that his choices don’t end up looking a little predictable. For this reason Offbeat is a useful supplement to his book (though it’s much more than that) since the contributors are even more assiduous explorers of the British cinematic barrel, sometimes getting perilously close to the bottom but not quite scraping it. While Young writes at length about one of the acknowledged masterpieces of British cinema, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, an adaptation of Turn of the Screw, they turn instead to The Nightcomers (1971), a characteristically lurid offering from Michael Winner in which Marlon Brando and Stephanie Beacham take on the roles of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel in a sleazy, sex-filled prequel to James’s novella. Young rightly devotes several pages to Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, but Offbeat passes over it as being too well known and moves straight on to The Appointment, a completely forgotten horror film from 1980 in which ‘Edward Woodward comes the closest he ever would to reprising one of his most celebrated and enduring characters – Sgt Howie in The Wicker Man. Here, just as in Hardy’s wonderful folkloric tale, his uncompromising sense of duty, and his distinct lack of intuitive understanding of the things he cannot rationalise, both defines him and brings about his downfall.’
I must admit that the detail I found most exciting about The Appointment was this: ‘Although it was made available on VHS briefly in 1983, courtesy of the 3M label, all traces of the film have since vanished.’ There’s always something tantalising about the idea of a ‘vanished’ film – a film that exists only in a universe of pure, untrammelled possibility – and it was something of an anticlimax to find the complete movie on YouTube. Almost everything these days is retrievable, it seems. James Oliver draws attention to this in one of the useful contextualising essays interspersed through the book, writing that many of the films highlighted in Offbeat have become easier to view in the decade since the first edition was published, which is important simply because ‘film canons are made up of stuff that’s in circulation.’ He pays tribute to the BFI’s Flipside series in particular for resurrecting and restoring films such as Richard Lester’s The Bed Sitting Room (1969) and Don Levy’s Herostratus (1967).
Oliver also mentions the work done by the Talking Pictures TV channel, with the caveat that ‘poor prints, interrupted by adverts for cruises and incontinence pads, is a less than ideal way to appreciate these films.’ I find this a tad ungenerous; and, in any case, I would argue that in some ways this is the ideal way to appreciate them. Just as watching the Technicolor, German-language, feature-length version of The Singing Ringing Tree is somehow false to the experience of watching it on a tiny black and white set in your parents’ living room, so the release of a gleaming new print of, say, Ian Merrick’s The Black Panther (1977) restores everything about the film except for one vital element: its mystique – a mystique that, paradoxically, is destroyed by this very process. For me this film was only a dim, lowering memory. I remember driving with my mother and father past the ABC cinema in the Birmingham suburb of Selly Oak one rainy day in 1977, with the poster displayed outside, remember their fury at the existence of this film, this cynical attempt to cash in (as they saw it) on the story of the armed robber and multiple murderer whose reign of terror had cast a shadow over the North and the Midlands for the previous few years, culminating in the kidnap and killing of the Shropshire teenager Lesley Whittle. Of course their outrage made me desperate to see the film (although its X certificate prevented me), but so widespread was their reaction that it was withdrawn from circulation and remained unseen until the BFI revived it in 2012. And, although it is wonderful now to be able to view it at any time, and finally to understand that it was not a piece of cynical exploitation but a taut, intelligent portrait that captures the dismal texture of mid-1970s Britain as well as any Play for Today, something has nevertheless been mislaid: that aura of myth and mysteriousness that had surrounded it for more than thirty years, imbuing it with a deliriously seedy glamour. Pristine Blu-Rays and directors’ cuts are the best way of bringing forgotten films back into circulation, but in many cases they cannot replicate – in fact they are the very opposite of – the original viewing experience, key components of which were poor audio and video quality, absence of personal choice (we watched what we were shown), not to mention a frequent furtiveness and solitude.
Were these viewings really solitary, though? Sitting in an upstairs room in front of a portable television, desperately hoping that the obscure Judy Geeson film showing on BBC2 might contain some nudity, the 1970s teenager may well have felt lonely and isolated. But as the existence of books like Offbeat and The Magic Box reveals, we were not alone. A whole generation of viewers (mostly but not exclusively men) grew up watching the films of this era on portable televisions or in decaying fleapits. The same films, at the same time. That shady commonality of experience did not begin to fade away until the rise of the video recorder in the early 1980s: the same time, yes, as the abolition of the AA certificate, the waging of the Falklands War and the rise to popularity of Margaret Thatcher, with her fetish for personal choice, her insistence that social bonds are illusory and that we are all atomised individuals defined by competition. In performing these loving acts of cinematic archaeology, Young, Upton and their fellow detectorists are trying not just to recover our sense of community, our ability to bond with one another through shared experience and memory, but to identify what the specifically British version of that might look like.
This is a risky enterprise. Films like Witchfinder General, The Black Panther, Deadly Strangers and Frightmare offer an unsparing reflection of the crueller, darker, more nihilistic and misogynistic side of their era. We can understand them more fully now, thanks in part to books such as these, which are essentially investigations into our national character, seen through the lens of cinematic and televisual folklore. If the films themselves teach us anything, it’s that such exhumations can yield unpleasant results. What if your investigation leads, not to a charming tableau of children dancing round a maypole, but to a ritual burning inside a gigantic wicker man? What if that abandoned tube station is a haven for ravenous cannibals? What if that quaint Cornish village harbours a witches’ coven? What if the relic buried in the farmer’s field happens to be the claw of Satan? After all, Britain itself has been conducting a conversation – not always willingly – about its national character for a number of years now, and it has turned out that what lay buried beneath the soil was nothing like as benign as we hoped it would be.
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