Sunday 26 November 2023

The Archers’ final shot… Ill Met by Moonlight (1957), BFI, Cinema Unbound, film on film

Though they would work together again, this was the last film Powell and Pressburger made through their Archers production company and as with the first of their collaborations it was a war story shot in black and white. Much had changed in the intervening 18 years and, unusually for the pair, this was not an original story but one based on the memoires of W Stanley Moss who was indeed involved in the successful kidnap of the German general Heinrich Kreipe, commander of the German forces on Crete. Kreipe was successfully shipped off to Egypt and only released in 1947. He was reunited with his kidnappers on a Greek television programme in 1972… and, an educated man, much like the British officer who led the audacious mission, Major Patrick "Paddy" Leigh Fermor the two apparently remained friends. Kreipe perhaps was a real-life example of one of the Archers’ “good Germans” exchanging Latin quotes with Paddy during his capture.


For today’s screening there was much delight when we arrived to find that the last two members of the cast, Dimitri Andreas (80) who played the young Niko and George Eugeniou (now 92) who played Charis, introduced the film in an interview with Jo Botting, Curator of the BFI’s National Archive. Both men were still passionate about their director’s work, it was Dimitri’s first film and he had been introduced to Powell by George as he was looking for a boy who had experience with goats. He has gone on to have a long career in film, incredible how the World can turn with one chance encounter, but seeing his youthful energy you can understand what Powell saw in him and why his talent has endured.

George Eugeniou, Jo Botting and Dimitri Andreas

George Eugeniou also shares this disposition and talked not only of Powell but also his involvements with Joan Littlewood as a member of her theatre company and then his role in Sparrows Can’t Sing (1961) one of the classics of kitchen sink drama and her only film. He featured in small parts in both Pressburger’s Miracle in Soho as well as Powell’s Peeping Tom and is still angry at the way that film effectively ended the director’s mainstream career in this country, especially when compared with Hitchcock’s more clearly exploitative Psycho. George founded the Theatro Technis Company Limited in 1957 and has dedicated most of his career there with the aim of presenting "radical and total" theatre aimed at breaking down barriers between nationalities, religions, genders, sexual orientations, classes, ages and languages. The Technis is still a vibrant presence based in Crowndale Road in Camden and more details can be found on their site.

It was a privilege to see both men and to learn of the impact the film and the Archers had on them and, as Dimitri then came and sat beside me in Row D, to watch them on screen, 67 years ago, on the BFI’s 35mm copy was the kind of surreal treat you only get on the Southbank; the audience and the filmmakers watching film as history, history as film…

Dirk Bogarde and George Eugeniou

George plays one of the local Cretan resistance fighters, mountain “wolves” waiting to prey on the fat German sheep who populated the valleys during the occupation. Major Patrick "Paddy" Leigh Fermor (Dirk Bogarde), also known to the locals as Philedem, after a traditional Cretan song he liked so much his comrades used it as his nickname. He’s undercover travelling to one of his Cretan contacts to discuss his audacious plan of abduction with a local (Wolfe Morris) who suggests that commandeering the general’s car is the only chance even though this will mean passing through numerous roadblocks.

Another British officer, Captain W. Stanley "Billy" Moss (David Oxley) arrives on the island and we get to meet the rest of the team, Captain Sandy Rendel (Cyril Cusack), who hasn’t washed for six months, Zoidakis (a barely recognisable Michael Gough with huge moustache), car-spotter Elias (John Cairney), Yanni (Paul Stassino) and the excitable Charis (George Eugeniou). Plans are made and the team lies in wait, stopping the car with Paddy and Billy dressed in German police uniforms before knocking out the driver and driving off with the General (Marius Goring) squashed under three men in the back seat.

Dimitri Andreas

They successfully evade capture, speeding through the road checks – 22 in all – and escaping to the hills before the Germans realise that their commander is missing. Now the adventure really starts as the small unit has to escort the General at altitude across the hills to rendezvous with a British boat. On their way they encounter a young boy, Nico (Dimitri Andreas) who helps them pull the general along on a donkey – Geneva Convention dictating that capture generals deserve appropriate travel provision – runs local errands and ends up playing a crucial role.

Along the way, there’s ample opportunity for Goring and Bogarde to trade glamour and tonality, whilst the cinematography of Chris Challis is of course splendid although what we’re seeing is not Crete but the Alps Maritime in southern France near the Powell’s hotel; how the crew musts have loved humping their heavy cameras up to those “views”.


At the crucial point neither of the British officers knew the morse code to contact the Royal Navy motor launch ML842 and they had to wait for another officer – in this case Sandy – to turn up and show them how. I have seen this listed as an example of the film’s shortcomings but it’s absolutely the case. The gods were with the Cretans and British that night.


Dirk and the actual Paddy...

Powell vs Pressburger…

As with their previous film, The Battle of the River Plate (1956), the fourth most popular film in Britain in 1957, Ill Met also did good box office being the seventh – the films were released just six months apart - and yet the cracks were certainly appearing between the two creators and, more to the point, around them. Powell described it as one of The Archers' "greatest failures” in Million Dollar Movie (Heinemann, 1992) and partly blamed Emeric’s script although he was also disappointed in Dirk Bogarde, a great actor but “a charmer… as subtle as a serpent, and with a will of steel.” Dirk gave the film a lighter tone and didn’t follow direction, drawing the other actors with him, all except regulars Goring and Cusack one imagines.


For his part, Kevin Macdonald quotes his grandfather in The Life and Death of a Screenwriter (Faber, 1994), about the contract dilemma they faced with John Davis, a situation which would restrict their independence but would guarantee more productions. He’d become a good friend of Leigh-Fermor and whether this made him over-think the script is anyone’s guess but he and Powell just could not agree on the film’s narrative objectives. Macdonald mentions that the location was a constant issue, chosen partly because of the difficulties in Crete at that time but also to assuage Powell’s then girlfriend. Dirk Bogarde is quoted on the intensity of the ill-feeling which impacted the entire set and film editor Judith Buckland was amazed that the bitter disagreement she saw did not ruin the men’s friendship.


At the end of the day, what we saw on screen still has moments of magic, Goring know the score and gives good General (he had made it to Colonel in the war) whilst Bogarde couldn’t help but give a Byronic twist to the Englishman on an daring mission – he had also served in the army from 1943, mainly as an intelligence officer. David Oxley is less convincing as Captain Bill Stanley Moss but his role is less well developed, yet he’s likeable enough as are the rest of the troop* in what stands as a celebration of a remarkable action.

And, returning to the opening interview, there’s no denying the inspiration the experience gave to two young actors who would both go on to make their mark!

* There are also two small parts for Christopher Lee and David McCallum, the former speaking as a German police officer and the latter pointing meaningfully in silence at the more code signal on the beach…


Saturday 25 November 2023

Wild at heart… Gone to Earth (1950), BFI, Cinema Unbound, film on film

For me making Gone to Earth was as happy an experience as a return to childhood…

Michael Powell, though Kentish to his core, also had forebears in Worcestershire and Wales and in the second volume of his autobiography, A Million Dollar Movie, he wonders why the myths of these past generations are more potent than our own childhood memories at least when concerning his ability to recreate the atmosphere and feeling on screen. He felt he hadn’t put enough Kent into A Canterbury Tale, whereas he was more satisfied with the atmosphere of this film made on location and with plenty of Shropshire folk. Perhaps it’s just easier working with myths especially in a film with a simpler story and fewer characters than ACT?

“When Esmond Knight roared, ‘Drop that dratted fox, gurl!’ or ‘Put ‘un in a coffin!’ it was the very tone and accent of my father’s bailiff, Joe Wood, whom he bought with him… to Kent.”

The landscape is remarkably well photographed by Christopher Challis and has a beautiful warmth on the BFI’s 35mm National Archive print, Technicolor bringing out the full flavours of striking Shropshire valleys and stark rolling hills, the complex contours of the bleed between England’s lush green and Wales’ abundant granite grey. This sense of place gives the film a character quite unlike anything else Powell and Pressburger produced and the swirling score from Brian Easdale is as heart wrenching as anything he produced for them.

Jennifer Jones and Foxy

The pair were also delighted with their star, American Jennifer Jones who, despite struggling a little with the accent, gives a performance of raw power, almost a part with the starkness of the countryside and her character Hazel’s choice between the carnal Squire Jack Reddin (tooth and claw…) played by David Farrar and the civilising pastor Edward Marston played by Cyril Cusack. Jones is as free as Pamela Brown in IKWIG, but, unlike Catriona Potts, she has yet to understand who she really is, being certainly a child of nature and the land as her protectiveness towards her pet fox shows, yet still unsure of human convention.

"What a beautiful woman, great-hearted girl, inspired actress, restless soul!"

Michael Powell

I haven’t fully appreciated Gone to Earth, an adaptation of Mary Webb's novel Gone to Earth (1917), until tonight’s screening with a packed NFT3 mostly rapt in appreciation of the visual delights on screen, apart from the odd guffaw at Farrar brooding from his high horse! Jones is indeed stunning, acting with a physicality matching her characters’ wildness and well-cast according to members of my party who have read the book which is, they both say, as much a celebration of and call to protect nature as it is about women’s role in rural society.

David Farrar

By gum Hazel, you’re…jam… you’re butter…

Jones is wild as the wind in the early stages, dressed almost in rags running the pathways across the rolling landscape barefoot before emerging in more” conventional” womanly form in the fine green dress she buys from Much Wenlock on market day. Her cousin Albert (George Gole) is struck almost dumb by her appearance describing her first as “jam” and next, the ultimate compliment, as butter! His mother is less impressed and won’t let her niece stay the night affronted by her look and resemblance to her gypsy mother. A fox amongst so many tightly wound chickens.


Trudging home barefoot she bumps, quite literally, into Squire Reddin racing along with his horse and trap. He offers her shelter whilst drinking her in with his eyes and getting her to put on a dress owned by his dead wife, he peers at her as she tries it on and is lost in lustful reverie, announcing to himself that deciding “she’ll do”. Reddin is almost a recluse in the book and whilst clearly taking part in the rural community of fox hunting broods mostly alone with his long-suffering manservant, Vessons (Hugh Griffith) the two locked in something like a proto-typical Steptoe and Son relationship. Vessons tries to protect her from the Squires animal desires only to later turn against her when she’s finally brought into the house supplanting his role, upsetting their balance. Why does she not belong?

Cyril  Cusack

Hazel accompanies her father to the local fair and the newly arrived vicar Marston is transported. He’s played by the protean Cyril Cusack, here, a kindly but naïve Christian man who doesn’t quite know how to save the woman who strikes him so firmly. In the book the local community come to love Hazel but here she exposes the hypocrisy not just of the so-called good man of the town but Marston’s mother.

Marston wants to “save” and civilise her and she is placed in clothes that gather up to her neck, constraining her within polite expectations and formality, the costume design from Ivy Baker and Julia Squire plays an even bigger role than usual. Hazel sings with beautiful eloquence yet she talks only in short, stabbing sentences that remind me of Paul Auster’s character in City of Glass who grows up in isolation only learning to speak when finally exposed to the outside world. Hazel is more expressively confident in caring for her Foxy than with people although she grows more fluent as she engages with her twin paths of possibility.

The couple are married and yet even as this happens and Hazel is subsequently baptised in a pond near the church, Reddin is always nearby, sneering from his horse and doing everything but twirl his moustache. Truth is, he’s just as entranced by Hazel as Marston and as the fight to capture her heart both fail to realise that they are both biting off more than they can chew.

For her part, Hazel seeks advice from beyond this realm and following her mother’s scribbled book of folklore and magic, takes herself atop God’s Little Mountain and recites a magical incantation as she pledges herself follow whatever nature reveals as her choice. She wants to hear the faerie music and, suddenly through soft gusts of wind is carried the mysterious sound of a harp. The camera cuts away to reveal her father playing someway off, but she believes the coincidence and makes no attempt to rationalise the moment.

This is a supreme Powell and Pressburger moment… subtle but clear and part of a story that blends characters and countryside in ways that are just a magical realist step away from either Black Narcissus or The Red Shoes: there’s the same passion, struggle with human nature and men struggling to control women. You can waste too much time trying to rank their films and if this film has been in the lower reaches for many it can only be because it just doesn’t quite have the story dynamic to match those truly great films. Whatever, it is still The Archers in their prime if not at their very best.


The writer and director, by Powell’s own account, agreed suspecting that the film was “not great, or even big, by their american producer David O. Selznick’s standards…” but they underestimated his affection for their star (he was besotted) and he announced he was going to take over the film and upset by a perceived lack of screen time for Jones, had the film re-cut and partially re-shot by director Rouben Mamoulian and retitled as The Wild Heart*. According to Powell, this was only after he’d shown it to King Vidor, William Wyler and Josef von Sternberg all of whom admired the film and did not want to work on it.

Selznick unsuccessfully attempted to sue Korda's company for not keeping to the spirit of Webb's novel, and in the end London Films was given the British rights to the film, while he retained the American rights which is why both versions can be seen now. It’s certainly an irony that the only way to get a Blu-ray copy of Gone to Earth is to obtain the US Kino Lorber disc of The Wild Heart which has the original – and far better – film as an extra. It looks slightly anaemic in comparison with the 35mm we saw tonight so hopefully, someday, we’ll get a domestic release with the depth and vitality this film deserves.


Tuesday 21 November 2023

Peeping Emeric… Miracle in Soho (1957), BFI, Cinema Unbound

“The more I saw of the district the more extraordinary it began to appear to me… I soon realised that, as with most places in the world today, the unusual events and happenings in life were taken for granted…” 

Emeric Pressburger


I was all ready to go with the angle that, by some act of cinematic synchronicity, both Powell and Pressburger turned to the subject of Soho when, towards the end of their collaboration they started dating other filmmakers. But no… although in some ways yes. Pressburger had originally written what became The Miracle in St Anthony’s Lane about a group of German exiles in Paris in 1934 before changing it to London after migrating here. The script was sold and resold during the 30s but it only made it to screen in 1957 directed by Julian Aymes and not his partner for almost two decades.


Powell thought the story lacked substance and that they had covered some of the ground in films like AMOLAD and Blimp leaving, as Kevin Gough-Yates suggested in Sight and Sound (Dec 1995), only the bare bones of the idea of a special love and two people connecting almost immediately in an almost mystical way. Whether or not there is an actual miracle in the film is open to debate and if there is, surely it’s the way that John Gregson’s character Michael Morgan, decides to stop running and open himself up to the risk and possible reward of a life with Belinda Lee’s Julia Gozzi, an Italian immigrant who is due to move on herself with her family to Canada.


Seeing so many of Pressburger’s films in such a short space of time in this Season of All Seasons, his interest in the immigrant experience is clear and even across a span of 22 years his intentions with this film were, as always, to show how immigrant communities find common ground and grow together united by faith, retailing, hospitality and everyday human experience as well as the inevitability of road works. They’re also united by the GPO or Royal Mail as it’s now known with local postie, Sam Bishop (the protean Cyril Cusack who, only last Monday, was pure evil, scheming the downfall of That Elusive Pimpernel) who also doubles up as local Salvation Army captain. He's such a good observer of character and motivation, you see exactly why he was fascinated by Soho's mix of people.


Cyril Cusack's postie maintains order

The impact of Michael Morgan is felt even before he arrives as a vengeful husband arrives to deck one of the workmen, also called Michael, in the mistaken belief that he’s the man who was making merry with his Suzie. Then a young woman called Maggie (young Billie Whitelaw!) arrives in search of Michael, who tells her she’s misunderstood their relationship “this is the way it was with us…” he says, she has deceived herself as he’s never less than frank about his golden rule of engagement, one purely based on the location of his work and nothing more… besides, he’s already got his eyes on the tight sweater of barmaid Gladys (Barbara Archer).


Michael is part of a group of workers called in to re-lay the tarmac on St Andrew’s Lane, a made-up street in a studio-bound Soho. The massive sets, designed by Oscar-winner Carmen Dillon, evoke a London of time just past – lots of familiar brands in the pet shop but with long gone beers in the pub: you’ll have to go to The Coach and Horses on Greek Street, or the Edgar Wallace off Fleet Street to see still-extant advertising for Double Diamond and other lost ales.


It’s a street full of the new influx of immigrants who helped build Britain from the thirties onwards, who opened restaurants, hairdressers, dance studios and shops of every type to bring vibrancy to the streets. There’s a harmony in the film’s Soho that may not have been entirely matched by contemporary reality but Pressburger wasn’t just an optimist he had been welcomed by this country as had many others. It’s a lost world in many ways but surviving from this time there is still the French House, Bar Italia, Maison Bertaux (from 1871) and a few others.

John Gregson and Barbara Archer


Michael sets about hammering the old road up and befriending his workmates whilst arranging to view Gladys’ sweater in closer quarters. He has to make a quick exit as they are interrupted by the arrival of her boyfriend Filippo Gozzi (Ian Bannen at his most un-Scottish) an intense young man who manages a wine merchants and is intent on marrying Gladys. Filippo is part of an Italian family whose father (Peter Illing) plans on moving them all to Canada to find a new life. Daughter Mafalda (Rosalie Crutchley) is the eldest and resolved to marrying a convenient man whilst youngest Julia (Belinda Lee) is still to be disappointed by life – she is not ready to compromise.


Naturally Julia catches Michael’s attention and the question will be whether she will be just another “best girl in the street” for the itinerant Romeo or whether he’ll finally be brought to ground and, even if he is, will anything stop her joining the family exodus to Canada?


Viewed on its own terms and without the baggage of Archers expectation, Miracle is a very likeable and effective film and, filmed almost entirely on Carmen Dillon’s huge sets in Pinewood’s Stage A, there’s a cosiness that focuses on the human interactions and which suggests that this is more fantasy than reality whereas Peeping Tom’s staged settings have the opposite effect entirely. Emeric was looking to show diversity in action bound by the commonality of experience, Michael was digging deeper into the psych of cinema’s creators and the audience, making voyeurs of us all just like Hitchcock. That said, I’ll take on anyone who says Peeping Tom is any more vicious than Psycho; Alfred was always more perverse than Michael.


Belinda Lee

There are good performances from Crutchley, Bannen and Cusack as you’d expect whilst Belinda Lee is charming enough to anchor any wanderer’s affections.  Scouser John Gregson pushes the envelope on his natural likability and, whilst his Irish accent frequently deserts him, he’s spot on as decency takes hold. There’s also an interesting relationship with his own father, played by granite-faced Wilfred Lawson, the kind of tough-hearted man that survived work and war with an unyielding hardness that took generations to soften. Michael might well be a softer lad than he thought and as he sits alone on a Saturday night listening to the radio broadcast of the classical concert Julia has gone to, his old man scoffs, drinking his tea from his saucer. The film has "class" too, Pressburger knew "us" so well.


The presence of regular collaborators, cinematographer Christopher Challis and composer Brian Easdale adds to the Archers’ feel but as with any well-tuned duo, it feels like there’s something missing and for all Powell’s efforts on Tom, most of the films he would make without Pressburger would feel that way too. I’m looking at you, The Honeymooners and you The Queen’s GuardsMiracle in Soho as sweet a film as Peeping Tom is a disturbing one; different aims and different outcomes… one heart-warmingly good film, the other a terrifying masterpiece that shook British critical opinion to the core and saw Mr Powell out of the director’s chair for all too long.


We watched the BFI’s gorgeous National Archive 35mm print which, despite a few issues here and there with the sound, ran through the gates in a very satisfying way. When was the last time this film was screened on film? When will it be shown again? Thank you BFI!



Sunday 19 November 2023

The caped crusader… The Elusive Pimpernel (1950), BFI, Cinema Unbound

I had agreed to do it, but my heart remained unconvinced… I hate remakes! 

Michael Powell


In her informative, and witty introduction, the BFI’s Bryony Dixon explained the troubled gestation of a film most of those involved weren’t that keen to make. The story had been very successfully filmed by Alexander Korda in 1933 and by Samuel Goldwyn were keen on a Technicolor remake whilst Korda was keen on a further pay out on the rights. But apart from Powell and Pressburger’s wariness, David Niven also didn’t want to do it, fearing he couldn’t match technique of the previous Pimpernel, Leslie Howard, in effectively playing two characters.


I watched The Marvels (2023) with my son over the weekend and it does occur to me that Baroness Orczy’s character is one of the original superheroes, a man of almost uncanny wit and intelligence whose secret identity is to play a buffoonish nobleman, Sir Percy Blakeney, who’s own wife doesn’t even suspect that he is the man rescuing French aristos from La Guillotine.


Bryony said that there are not many prints around and at one time even Powell thought it was a lost film but luckily it does survive and today the BFI were presenting a good Technicolor print with lovely colours even if there were one or two issues with the sound but this is what our analogue fetish is all about. The film also doesn’t appear to have been available on home media since the VHS era… hopefully that will be rectified for, whilst it’s not an Archer’s classic, it’s certainly a well-made and delightful film: Mr Niven may be no Leslie Howard but he is the very best David Niven and that is quite enough for this good humoured romp through post-revolutionary France.

Cyril Cusack


Korda did not agree and quoted the French navet, meaning a turnip, feeling that this film was perhaps a Super Navet – Super, Super Turnip. P&P’s Hollywood screening with Goldwyn also did not go well, as the great man walked out on them, leaving his wife to pass on his legal threats. By all accounts film failed to cover anything like its production costs which is not surprising given that it wasn’t released in the US for another five years… studios barely releasing non-confirming product is not a new thing in Tinsel Town.


Time, and our familiarity with the film maker’s style have worked in favour of our deeper appreciation of the film. There are fabulous locations with chateaux in Loire Valley and Mont St Michel, especially near the end as the quick tides confound Chauvelin’s men surrounding the rock. Despite their reluctance, the filmmakers had a good time making the film, enjoying the locations and the wine and it shows in the good humour of the cast.


This is certainly a film more sinned against than sinning… and some would have you believe the same for The Marvels although there’s nothing quite as outlandish as that film’s super heroics in the Pimpernel’s world in which the laws of physics and drama are firmly adhered to. By day, Sir Percy and by night, or other time requiring it, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and the whole of France know his name.


Margaret Leighton

All revolutions are started by idealists. Some of them end in… runs across the date 1792 written in running blood red as the camera shifts to the view of La Guillotine slicing another aristo’s head off. IN the midst of this great terror the legend grows of a man who is staging daring rescues of certain nobles, The Scarlet Pimpernel. Immediately Powell and Pressburger show us an audacious rescue with Mr Niven quite unrecognisable as a rustic hag. His band have created a trap for the revolutionaries and lock them in a tower as they rescue a family.


Cut to a band of revolutionary troops guarding the Loire who dare this invisible adversary to cross. They meet an old crone (or similar but acceptable modern term) and let her pass with her cart full of melons only for a squadron of French troops to arrive in seeming hot pursuit, but it’s another bluff as these are more of the SP’s men, forcing their way past the checkpoint to safety and to England!


Now we meet the scheming Chauvelin (Cyril Cusack) who has managed to apprehend Armand St. Juste (Edmond Audran) a French MP but who has a sister Marguerite Blakeney (Margaret Leighton) married to a useless Englishman Sir Percy Blakeney (David Niven). Chauvelin tries to exert power over St Juste but is shocked to see a message from the Pimpernel taped to the bottom of his glass. They may seek him here, but he's always there...


Bustin' some rhymes

Now, in a possible nod to Blimp, we find Sir Percy in the steam baths at Boodles Club in London where he annoys the old generals and English gentry with a poem he has made up about the mysterious masked man:


They seek him here

They seek him there

Those Frenchies seek him everywhere

Is he in heaven or is he in… well

That damned elusive Pimpernel


None of the older gentlemen are impressed with this fop but meanwhile he’s organising his men in a back room just as the old soldiers discuss how he and his kind need to be enlisted to see real action. But Blakely is not the brightest popinjay in the smart set, that’d be the Prince of Wales (Jack Hawkins, playing against type) who arrives in the latest fashion only to be deflated as Blakely tears into the design from all angles.


We cut back to France and another massed attack on noble property and another audacious rescue by the Pimpernel’s men – should that just be The Pimpernels – high up on the balcony of a gorgeous castle – leading the aristos to safety whilst their leader, dressed as a French fop, leads the hoards away… before making like Fairbanks, shimmying down a long curtain and disguising himself again.

Part Chaney/Part Fairbanks?

These action sequences are well wrought and show a different aspect of Powell’s filmmaking and Pressburger’s writing too; no matter how frivolous the storyline, they prove here that they can be just as entertaining as their peers; the film has a very satisfying scale and a good turn of pace and the humour from Pressburger’s script is handled very well by British actors almost made in Niven’s image, Patrick Macnee, Terence Alexander and Robert Coote.


There’s also good chemistry between Margaret Leighton as Marguerite Blakeney and Niven as her husband; she doesn’t know of his double life but there’s a reason for that and the newly arrived Comtesse de Tournai (Arlette Marchal) refuses to speak to her as she, like everyone else, believes she betrayed her class at the earliest opportunity.


Well, that, and many other things we will just have to find out as the game between the Pimpernel and Chauvelin is played out right to the bitter end.

A Brian Easdale score also helps to uplift this film and, whilst it is not top-quality Archers it is without doubt as good as many such capers and is fun throughout, especially on 35mm!



The shock of the old… Short Sharp Shocks Volume 3, BFI Flipside 47

“Dead letters, sir. Doesn’t that sound like dead men?”


The BFI’s ongoing mission to explore strange old worlds continues with another splendid set of shocking shorts for the Flipside series. What we have here are two Blu-ray discs of strangeness and charm ranging from Orson Welles in Ireland to Dexter Fletcher’s junkie dreams via a very disturbing slice of “found-footage” horror. As a whole the stories twist and turn in delightfully unexpected ways, and each leaves its mark even in the most relaxed of viewing environments: a home invasion of unexpected impacts.


As with the previous two sets, BFI Flipside series that revisits the heyday of the supporting programme, with a series of very off-the-beaten path British short films presented in High Definition for the first time, all the better to absorb the uncanny atmosphere of three decades and more of filmmaking in the inner reaches. As before there’s a fabulous booklet* and extras including specially commissioned interviews with some of the directors of these films.


Michael Laurence amd Orson Welles take a trip

Return to Glennascaul (1951) kicks off in fine style with Mr Welles being interrupted on the set of Othello to recant the strangest of encounters in the darkened roads of western Ireland. Written and directed by Hilton Edwards it is a tidy tale that was nominated for an Oscar for Best Short Subject.


We find Orson driving through some mean weather on a dark and tempestuous night when he comes across a man (Michael Laurence) who’s car has broken down. He offers a lift and the man accepts before describing a similar road-side incident some years previously when he’d been invited for a cup of tea or something stronger… by a mother and daughter who lived in a large house near his own. After staying longer than he wanted to he returns the following morning to find his uncle’s cigarette case which he’d left on their mantlepiece only to find the building dilapidated and long empty… and more mystery awaits.

John Laurie

Strange Stories (1953)

Here are two odd tales told by John Slater (later Detective Sgt Stone of Z-Cars!) and Valentine Dyall, the first of which is an adaptation of The Strange Mr Bartleby a short story written by Herman Melville after Moby Dick and which was later turned into a film with John McEnery as the titular Bartleby and Paul Scofield as the man who employs him. Here John Laurie is the man who would “prefer not to” after being recruited by Norman Shelley at his solicitor’s office. There’s an added character in a young woman (Naomi Chance) who employs the lawyer to track down a missing man. It's an eerie tale and Laurie is perfect as the inscrutable and exasperatingly alien Bartleby.

There’s a second story with a young couple, Charlie (Colin Tapely) and Marie (Helen Hunter) attempting escape to Tasmania after the accidental killing of a man they owed money to. Whilst the captain of the merchant vessel they book is suspicious it’s their own paranoia and guilt that makes the journey a painful one.

Strange Experiences: Grandpa’s Portrait and Old Silas (1956)

These are two, blink and you’ll miss them minisodes – as no one calls them – featuring the urbane Peter Williams sat in a comfy chair reading these tales of the mildly unexpected.


George Votsis in old Covent Garden

Maze (1969)

Things get decidedly groovier 13 years later with this free-running tale of mysterious London connections all soundtracked by a band made up of members of the legendary prog band Family. The music is fab as are the locations as we follow a series of ace faces, an immigrant dishwasher (George Votsis) starts from Covent Garden when it was still a vegetable market, through the West End to a restaurant where a blonde woman (Stephanie Cleverley) who we’d seen arguing with a man near Bow Street, is finally reconciled. It’s a very neat construct and was put together by Bob Bentley for his degree show at the Royal College of Art’s Film and Television School.

There’s so much going on it’s a delight of atmosphere and expectation its rediscovery heralded by Bentley: It is a wonderful thing to share this ancient film. I had imagined it lost in the labyrinth itself, never to be seen again, but it has re-emerged from the subterranean depths and into the light, like Proserpine, Empress of Hades.


Skinfliker (1973)

Disc two gets off to an uncomfortable and hard-hitting start with Tony Bicât’s experimental film about the kidnapping and killing of a government minister by a group of dissidents, who aim to document everything on camera in an echo of mythical “snuff” films as well as a precursor of the ‘found footage’ horror genre.

It’s got rough edges and an uncomfortable restless energy that reflect the almost banal humour of the situation and the protagonists’ amateurish terrorism, all the more frightening and neither they nor we know if they’ll be able to follow through.

The film itself went through a similar test with Bicât challenged by the BFI who asked if he had any experience of film making; “I said I’d seen a lot of films. ‘So why should the BFI Production Board give you money to make Skinflicker?’ Because, I said, I love the script and only I know how to make it.” Turns out he was right and you won’t forget this in a hurry.


Banal tortures, boardering on the slapstick and yet...

COI: Broken Bottle and Don’t Fool Around with Fireworks (1973)

As is often remarked, it’s amazing that my generation survived into adulthood what with all the dangers to life constantly highlighted by public information films. The titles speak for themselves and we did take heed… hence the people at the BFI wouldn’t be around to tell the tales via Flipside!

We also had to worry about boot boys, skinheads and large groups of lads by the chippie but some risks stood out for themselves.


The Terminal Game (1982)

We’ve been worried about AI for a lot longer than the Daily Mail might suggest and this slice of near-sci-fi shows just why as a computer programmer investigates a colleague’s suspicious death against a backdrop of irresponsible big business and uncontrollable new technology… Geoff Lowe, you saw the future and it doesn’t work…

Some great locations here too including the darkly sentient St Alphage House on the Moorgate to London Wall Highwalks, now mostly lost to new buildings as we keep on building forward.

Music is provided by the excellent Colin Towns who I saw playing keyboards with Ian Gillan in 1982!!


St Alphage's Tower, looking increasingly like a computer

Wings of Death (1985)

This is the short that first impressed Derek Jarman with the exceptional Dexter Fletcher whom he subsequently cast in Caravaggio, although he clearly failed to watch him in Bugsy Malone and Stephen Moffatt’s The Press Gang!

There are echoes of Chatterton in the opening shot, as Nichola Bruce and Michael Coulson’s film explores the fevered dreams of the young addict played by Fletcher as he tries to escape his fate. It’s fraught with a twisted magical realism that bears comparison with Lynch as well as Jarman, as Fletcher’s character finds weirdness in everyone, he meets even the little girl playing with her “dead” dollies on the stairs, and the hotel receptionist eating like a pig and resembling his mother.

It's a standout on the set and reminiscent of so many shorts that accompanied longer films up to this time, often at the Scala in Kings Cross and which would leave us slightly out of joint as we staggered back into the night air after a viewing, a little bit more eager to get home than when we arrived…

Dexter Fletcher


Shockingly special features!!

A Vandyke Production: Roger Proudlock and Strange Stories (2023, 7 mins): the BFI’s Vic Pratt looks back on the tiny post-war independent film company that produced Strange Stories

Getting Lost (2023, 20 mins): interview with Bob Bentley, writer and director of Maze

Touch a Nerve (2023, 26 mins): interview with Skinflicker director Tony Bicât

Actor Henry Woolf’s personal pencil-annotated copy of the Skinflicker script by Howard Brenton

A Game of Two Halves (2023, 28 mins): interview with The Terminal Game writer and director Geoff Lowe

Playing Music (2023, 8 mins): renowned composer Colin Towns looks back on his score for The Terminal Game

The Terminal Game original trailer

Wings of Death: Behind the Scenes (2023, 7 mins): co-director Nichola Bruce’s chronological edit of her 8mm footage of the shoot

Flying High (2023, 31 mins): the directors of Wings of Death look back on the film

Rare photographs taken on the set of Wings of Death by Steve Pyke

Image galleries for Maze, Skinflicker, and Wings of Death

Newly commissioned sleeve artwork by renowned illustrator Graham Humphreys

*First pressing only: Illustrated booklet with an introduction from the BFI’s Vic Pratt, William Fowler and Josephine Botting, an essay on Skinflicker by Sarah Appleton, notes and credits for each film and for the special features


So, yet another must-watch set and you must-buy either direct from the BFI’s online store or the shop itself on the Southbank.


Always look on the Flipside of life!