I Start Counting Blu-ray Review
Wynne (Jenny Agutter) is fourteen, living in a tower block with her adoptive family in an English new town. She has a crush on her thirty-two-year old foster brother George (Bryan Marshall), something she’s remorselessly teased about by best friend Corinne (Clare Sutcliffe). Meanwhile, there has been a series of murders of young women in the locality. One day, Wynne finds a bloodstained sweater George has thrown away and she begins to suspect that he might be the killer...
Before home video, films which didn’t set the box office alight could make build up a following later on, sometimes on television showings at a time when you had to watch at time of broadcast or not at all. That was the case with I Start Counting. (Pedantic note: although many sources and publicity have an exclamation mark in the title, there isn’t one on screen.) It played in cinemas in a double bill but for many their chance to see the film was on one of its two BBC television showings, on 6 June 1977 and 28 May 1982. I saw the latter.
I Start Counting is a suspense thriller, with Wynne’s and our suspicion passing from one suspect to another. The film is written by Richard Harris (not the actor, and more of him below) and based on a novel of the same title by Audrey Erskine Lindop (and more of her below too). The novel is in first person. The film still sticks to Wynne’s perspective most of the way, but drops her narration.
It’s not hard to work out who the culprit is, and that person is one of the ones the film lets us suspect along the way. In this, the film is one of a wave of similarly-themed films which came out in the 1960s. However, the film puts a teenage girl at the centre, as amateur detective as well as potential victim, and it works just as well, if not better, as a story of her coming of age. Wynne is occupied with a blossoming sexuality which she hasn’t yet learned to deal with. The film also convincingly depicts her friendship with Corinne (Sutcliffe was in reality nine years older than Agutter), and the competitiveness and jealousy that exists below the surface. Corinne is keen to assert her authority over Wynne, pointing out that she is the older of the two by a few months, and the most sexually experienced – or so she says. Do we believe her?
Another reason for I Start Counting’s following is that it is a key teenage performance from Jenny Agutter, one of three films she made in the space of just over one year: this, Walkabout and The Railway Children, produced if not released in that order. She was sixteen, playing fourteen, in I Start Counting. It’s no doubt due to her acting – not least, her body language as well as the work of the make-up department – that she does look noticeably younger than she does in Walkabout, which began shooting in August 1969, two months after I Start Counting wrapped. The supporting cast is full of familiar names of the time, all used well.
Filming took place at Bray Studios with locations in Bracknell and its suburb Easthampstead. Bracknell was one of several “new towns” developed after World War II and the film plays off the sterility of the new concrete and glass as opposed to the older, more traditional buildings in the area – Wynne’s current tower-block home as opposed to her now-derelict old family home, for example Wynne and her family live in Point Royal in Easthampstead, built in 1964, now a Grade II Listed Building, once the epitome of modernity, now settled into tradition.
David Greene had been an actor who in the early 1950s had moved into direction, at first for television. While he could and did work in many genres, he had an affinity with suspense thrillers, and often put women and their concerns at the centre. Cinematographer Alex Thomson had entered the film industry in his teens and had been Nicolas Roeg’s longtime camera operator. He had just graduated to cinematographer with Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, and had shot Greene’s previous film The Strange Affair. He went on to a distinguished career, with an Oscar nomination for Excalibur and working for Roeg (Eureka and Track 29), Michael Cimino, Kenneth Branagh and others.
I Start Counting was released on 6 November 1970, only a month and a half before The Railway Children. (Walkabout followed in 1971, having been held back for that year’s Cannes festival.) You can sense that its distributor didn’t quite know what to do with this film, as it was put out on a very odd double bill with a war movie, Mosquito Squadron.
As it has been hard to see for a long time, I Start Counting is a film which has been on many people’s wish-list for a properly presented disc edition. Thanks to BFI Flipside it now has one in its home country.
The BFI’s release of I Start Counting is Flipside release number 42, a Blu-ray encoded for Region B only. The film was originally given a X certificate, which then meant sixteen and over, but with the revision of the BBFC’s certificates in 1970, it was rerated to the new AA, which restricted it to ages fourteen and up. It is now a 15. Danger on Dartmoor was a U originally and is now a PG, while New Towns for Old had a U on its original release.
I Start Counting had an American Region A release from Fun City Editions, which I reviewed here: This disc features that one’s remaster and has also brought over most of the extras as well as adding new ones. The only ones missing are Jenny Agutter’s brief introduction to the film plus the contents of Fun City’s booklet, and the stills gallery is different.
The transfer is in the intended ratio of 1.85:1, based on a 2K scan from the 35mm interpositive. Although my only previous viewing was on television, standard-definition TV at that, I’ve seen enough 35mm films, including those from the same period as this one, projected to say that the transfer does look like one, even down to minor colour-shifts in the grain. There’s some small but not distracting damage, small scratches and speckles, at the points where you would often find them in a film print, at the very ends and beginnings of reels, and cue dots appear at the end of the first two.
The sound is the original mono, rendered here as DTS-HD MA 2.0. It’s clear and dialogue, music and sound effects are well balanced. One improvement by the BFI over Fun City is that they have provided English hard-of-hearing subtitles, and I spotted no errors in them.
The extras begin with a commentary by Samm Deighan. She talks about the film in the context of other serial-killer films made during the decade, starting with, approximately, Psycho and Peeping Tom and morphing into the early 1972s with gialli which were far more violent, sexually violent in particular, and less sensitive than the present film. She also discusses the film’s dark fairy-tale aspects (spot the red cloak that appears in a scene near the end) and spends a lot of time on the themes of Wynne’s coming of age, and her complex and not always positive friendship with Corinne. She also gives overviews of the careers of the principal cast and crew. (One nitpick: Raw Meat is the US title of the British-made film Death Line, also shot by Alex Thomson, not the other way round.) An excellent commentary.
Jenny Agutter’s interview (20:24) devotes much its time to her career before and after the film, with a five-year hiatus as far as the cinema was concerned (stage and television work, due to the downturn in the UK film industry and hence fewer opportunities for her) before relocating to the USA and acting in films like Logan’s Run and Equus. She’s clearly fond of I Start Counting and in particular of David Greene, and that comes across. Also brought forward is “Loss of Innocence” (7:35), a video essay by Chris O’Neill, narrated by Tori Lyons, concentrating on the coming-of-age themes in the film. The film’s trailer (1:49), which misses Clare Sutcliffe from its cast list and unlike the film itself credits the screenplay to both Harris and Greene, concentrates on the thriller aspects with more than a hint of Wynne and George’s quasi-incestuous relationship.
The BFI’s own extras begin with two interviews done by videoconference. The first is “Worlds Within Worlds” (32:59) in which Jonny Trunk talks about his business of putting film soundtracks out on record, and in particular the work of I Start Counting composer, former jazz musician Basil Kirchin. Kirchin’s first film score was for Primitive London and he worked for David Greene on three films before descending into obscurity. The second interview is with screenwriter Richard Harris (40:02) who openly admits he was better suited for television than cinema as he didn’t think big enough for the latter. He had a long and prolific career and gives us an overview of it, including his work on I Start Counting, during which he fell out with David Greene.
The remaining extras are from the archive and more thematically linked to the main feature. The first three are grouped together and deal with the development of new towns post World War II. “New Towns for Old” (6:41) is a Ministry of Information short done in the form of a conversation between two men (obviously post-synchronised), written by Dylan Thomas, on the need for town planning. Six years later, and two after the passing of the New Towns Act, and in colour, Halas and Batchelor give us an animated guide to the changes in Britain’s urban landscape in “Charley in New Town” (8:34). Finally from this group is “New Town from Old” (10:46), 1959, which portrays the development of Hemel Hempstead as a New Town. This credits a narration by Wyndham Thomas which been lost – all there is on the soundtrack now is a music score.
“Don’t Be Like Brenda” (8:15) You can sense the wagging finger from the title alone. Don’t be like her and sleep around, ending up with an unwanted extra-marital pregnancy. Made in 1973, it feels like a work from at least two decades earlier – after the 1960s, it has a sense of trying to close a stable door after horses have long since bolted.
Audrey Erskine Lindop, writer of the original novel of I Start Counting, was a popular novelist of her day who, rightly or wrongly, has not lasted and is now almost entirely out of print. Some of her novels were filmed, and – without the Erskine in her byline – she was one of the screenwriters of Blanche Fury (1948). Her last screenwriting credit was as the writer, with Dudley Leslie (her husband), of the 1980 Children’s Film Foundation production Danger on Dartmoor (56:23). Young Louise (Debby Salter) and her two boy cousins Robin (Marcus Evans) and Jonathan (Simon Henderson) are thrown on their own resources when a violent criminal (Barry Foster) escapes, in this well-made thriller.
The final on-disc extra is a self-navigating stills gallery (16:55).
The BFI’s booklet, for the first pressing only, runs to twenty-four pages. It begins with “Rainbows in My Mind”, an appreciation of I Start Counting by Dr Josephine Botting (spoiler warning). This goes into more depth about Lindop’s writing career, in particular her previous novels and screenplays. This is followed by biographies of David Greene, Jenny Agutter and Clare Sutcliffe, all by Jon Dear. The booklet also has notes and credits for the extras, plus stills.