Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Bagpuss Wrong

Five weeks in and British Film Forever at least finally tried to behave like a proper documentary. The researchers had eventually got off their backsides and sourced enough behind-the-scenes footage and promotional material so that the programme didn’t solely alternate between talking heads and clips.

Of course it could be that Magic, Murder & Monsters: The Story of Horror & Fantasy was an improvement only because this is a genre that writer Matthew Sweet is a big fan of. The selection seemed to be far more subjective list than in any of the previous episodes.

Because the Hammer films so obviously dominated British film horror, preceded by the hoary melodramas with Tod Slaughter hamming it up for all he’s worth throughout the 1930s and 40s, there was always the danger of Magic, Murder & Monsters concentrating more on the production companies rather than the films themselves. Certainly the pretty low-rent, fly-by-night outfits like Amicus, Tigon British Film Productions and Peter Walker Productions received far more airtime than they probably deserved.

With Hammer Films famously set up home at Down Place, judging from the archive footage, Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg’s Amicus Productions operated from production offices at Shepperton that amounted to little more than large garden sheds laid out in rows like a miniature version of Stalag Luft III. While Amicus made portmanteau horror anthologies in the shadow of Hammer and Tony Tenser’s Tigon alternated between the horror of Michael Reeves’ The Sorcerers and Witchfinder General with sexploitation films, Peter Walker combined the two with sadistic glee.

If this is a “celebration” of British film then something is horribly wrong. Described by one commentator as being close to snuff movies, the likes of Walker’s unpleasant Frightmare appeared to be applauded for being the precursor to the “video nasties”. Is that really something we should be proud of?

Prior to the launch of The Summer of British Film, the Radio Times polled readers to find Britain’s favourite movies. In the Horror category, The Wicker Man topped the list. Yet in Magic, Murder & Monsters Robin Hardy’s marvellous cult classic got hardly a look in.

Tacked on to the end of a section about Hammer’s girl-on-girl bloodsucker trilogy that began with The Vampire Lovers, it lazily used the Ingrid Pitt connection, and concentrated on the nudity in the Anthony Shaffer-scripted film rather than the neo-Paganism. Once the terrible fate awaiting Sergeant Howie’s is revealed, a clip of the burning effigy and the islanders joyous rendition of Sumer Is Icumen In, in the hope their fallow lands will now bear fruit, is referred to in the still misjudged narration as them “singing the song from Bagpuss.” What the fuck?

Again there were startling omissions and strange additions. Where was Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now or Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves, made by Nik Powell and Stephen Woolley’s Palace productions? Why was An American Werewolf in London thrown so prominently into the mix over Dog Soldiers or 28 Days Later?

Its inclusion once again left hanging the question of what constitutes a British film. The narration admitted that The Innocents starring Deborah Kerr had been financed by 20th Century Fox but was “one of ours”, but in the case of John Landis’ comedy-horror film, saying that it draws on British horror traditions doesn’t seem to be good enough.

There was also the nagging question of Brazil and the "British" Harry Potter series of films. Billed as The Story of Horror & Fantasy, the fantasy part hardly got a look in. Raquel Welch in her fur bikini was brought up but there was no mention of the fact that in the mid-1970s Amicus came out with a trio of cheap and occasionally entertaining Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations – The Land That Time Forgot, At The Earth’s Core, and The People That Time Forgot. They were by no means great movies, but that hadn't seemed to be a requisite of the previous seventy-odd minutes.

Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky and Time Bandits certainly fitted the bill, made by Umbrella Films and Handmade respectively, but his dystopian masterpiece Brazil was paid for and made for Universal Pictures. A disturbingly skewed version of Orwell’s 1984, it might have been nice if Michael Radford’s Nineteen Eighty-Four had been flagged up, but that would have meant including science fiction.

Writers like HG Wells and Aldous Huxley prove Britain can produce thoughtful science fiction in literature. Somehow the British film industry can’t successfully translate the genre to the screen and has been omitted from the series. Although it hasn’t stopped the schedulers from screening, as part of the season, The Quatermass Xperiment (labelled as horror in the documentary) and Doctor Who and the Daleks yesterday and Things to Come this afternoon.

Jeremy Paxman rounded off his James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture by saying “[Television companies] need, in short, to rediscover a sense of purpose.” Too late for British Film Forever.


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