Saturday, 10 April 2021

Wynne’s World… I Start Counting (1970), BFI Flipside Dual Format out on 19th April

 

I Start Counting was a really good piece of work. … David Greene was a director who could focus so much on the drama of the piece, so you don’t get so hung up in period… but it is of its period. Jenny Agutter

 

I must confess that like an American obituarist who knew Emmy-winning director David Greene more for his esteemed TV work, I also expected I Start Counting to be something of a violence-heavy “slasher flick” but it is defies this lazy labelling. Based on Audrey Erskine Lindop’s novel from 1966, it is more Angela Carter than Get Carter, for, as the BFI’s Dr Josephine Botting explains in her excellent essay in the booklet, Greene took the interiority of Lindop’s story and translated it on screen via the extraordinary talents of Jenny Agutter.

 

The actress was just 16 at the time but wise beyond her years in portraying the 14-year-old Wynne Kinch who, almost ever-present, binds together a narrative based on her emotional state. We see the world through her eyes and it’s as close as you get to an internal narrative rendered through facial expression alone. There are no words, just what we read from Wynne’s lived and dreamed experience.


Jenny Agutter
 

This film is one of early-Agutter’s best and you can well understand why, as she says in the twenty-minute interview about the film included in the extras, it’s one she remains fond of. Not many of us can say the same about our 16-year-old output. This film was immediately followed by The Railway Children and then Walkabout but Agutter had been acting since 1964 and her experience shows. Close-up after close-up shows us the story through her eyes and we are left to pick up external cues that may or may not be exaggerated by her point of view.

 

The characters are drawn partially as an extension of Wynne’s perceptions. Is her adopted brother Len (Gregory Phillips) anything more than a weirdly obnoxious, drug-dabbling teen who just happens to be obsessed with the recent spate of murdered girls? There’s a great cameo from a young Michael Feast as Jim his slightly wasted drug buddy who turns up for dinner looking like he’s over-indulged on the Moroccan.

 

Then there’s older stepbrother George (Bryan Marshall) who is both an authority figure and Wynne’s crush; both alluring and unknowable for her as she perches at the top of the stairs to simply watch him get changed, the sexual subtext overridden by her desire simply to be with him. Can it be that the blood on the pullover she knitted for him means something far darker than her worst nightmare? In Wynnes world everything associated with her is an extension of her anxieties and preoccupations; she is learning how to exert a more adult perception on things that happen without and not within her.

 

Seventies breakfast


Mother, played by the eternally suffering Madge Ryan, holds the family together, ever serving, whilst Granddad (Billy Russell) is most usually seen cradling a mouse; to varying degrees both are seen out of the corner of Wynne’s adolescent eye; taken for granted but loved.

 

Whilst she longs to move forward and embrace a romantic future with George, Wynne cannot stop herself revisiting the past in the form of their old house, a ramshackle cottage on the edge of the woods, home to childhood comforts and a dark secret. The film was shot at Bray Studios in Berkshire and on location around Bracknell, one of the early “New Towns” and which features the octagonal tower block where the family have been relocated after their former home was compulsorily purchased. According to Dr Botting this is Point Royal in Bracknell, which is now Grade II listed as ‘one of the most distinctive architectural features in any of the English new towns’.

 

I remember the discussions as a child when my grandparents’ neighbours were moved from Victorian terraces in Liverpool to Everton Valley tower blocks. No one seemed happy about this at the time and, indeed, many of those blocks were gone within a generation.

 

Stevenage, Runcorn, Harlow? Nah, Bracknell.


The set design from Brian Eatwell is eye-catching with so much white in the family’s apartment, all pure and new in contrast to the earthiness and menace of their old house. This is a film about personal and social change and, lest we forget, about sexual development and the men who take an unhealthy interest.

 

Wynne and her best friend Corinne (Clare Sutcliffe) talk about sex a lot, pretending to know more than they do and to have done more than they have done; Corinne shouts jealously after Wynne that’s she’s “done it” seven times as her friend goes off on a supposed date. The bus conductor – Simon Ward in his first film – looks on with concern and, at one point tells Wynne that her dress is too short. The world was changing.

 

Back to the old house...


Charles Lloyd-Pack has a marvellous cameo as a priest talking at the girls’ school about sex education only to be faced with questions he’d really rather not answer. There’s an appearance by one Phil Collins as an uncredited ice-cream vendor – one day mate, one day… whilst Lally Bowers causes a brief stir as Aunt Rene at a family get together. The great Fay Compton, who made her first film in 1914, appears as Mrs Bennett, the family’s old neighbour for whom George is supposed to be putting up shelves.

 

Wynne discovers this deception and finds out that George has been seeing an older woman called Leonie (Lana Morris) … in her mind this all connects to his disposal of the bloodied jumper and she becomes ever more convinced that he is guilty of the murders and she is the only one who can save him…

 

It’s an atmospheric film that enjoys a sparkling score from Basil Kirchin with upbeat sunshine pop like the theme tune – sung by Lindsey Moore – mixed with some folk horror lines that wouldn’t be out of place in the bucolic Arcadia. At family breakfast we also have the pop of the day introduced by DJ Stuart Henry who’d moved on to FAB 208, Radio Luxembourg, in my day.

 

Jenny and Bryan Marshall

David Greene’s direction maintains a very disciplined focus on Wynne’s view and also doesn’t linger too long on the horror aspects thereby avoiding the above “slasher flick” epithet with ease and crafting something a lot more interesting to watch and something his lead actor is more than capable of sustaining.

 

Apart from the excellent booklet, with essays on Greene, Agutter and the now late Claire Sutcliffe from Jon Dear, there’s the usual wealth of BFI extras on the disc including:

 

Chris O’Neill’ video essay on the film Loss of Innocence.

 

Worlds within Worlds: The Musical Mindscapes of Basil Kirchin: an interview by Vic Pratt with Jonny Trunk, founder of cult label Trunk Records about the life and audio art of his friend Basil Kirchin, composer of the I Start Counting! soundtrack.

 

An Apprentice with a Master’s Ticket: Richard Harris on Writing for the Screen: the award-winning screenwriter looks back across the decades as he reflects upon his career, from The Saint and The Avengers to A Touch of Frost.

 

I Start Building – a series of short films from the BFI National Archive reflect the blissful thinking embedded at the heart of the New Town dream.

 

Danger on Dartmoor (1980), a Children’s Film Foundation complement to the main feature directed by David Eady, featuring a young girl and her friends contending with a dangerous villain on the prowl and a ramshackle old house. Includes Patricia Hayes, Barry Foster and Sam Kydd!

 

So, what are you waiting for? Head straight to the BFI online shop and place your order; you will not be disappointed. Another superb addition to the Flipside catalogue: films of their period but infused with timeless British quirk, strangeness and charm.


Clare Sutcliffe has a smoke
Fay Compton!
Confession
All mod cons...
The girls buy an ice cream from Phil Collins!
Lower right is a copy of The Pretty Things SF Sorrow, in this condition it would be worth £1000s now...


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