Kim Newman's Guide to the Flipside of British Cinema Review
The BFI’s Flipside strand began life (and continues to this day) as a monthly slot at the National Film Theatre, now the BFI Southbank, specialising in the obscure and the marginalised. Here you could find such mouth watering prospects as the pairing of Dora Bryan and Dollar’s David Van Day in Stanley A Long’s 1983 short Do You Believe in Fairies?, or Philip Trevelyan’s 1971 documentary about an eccentric family living in the Sussex wilderness, The Moon and the Sledgehammer. As I write the next screening will be of Stuart Cooper’s 1971 feature Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs, a rare production credit for the Beatles’ Apple Corps and currently unavailable on DVD. Indeed, it’s this lack of availability which saw the BFI adopt the Flipside strand into a series of releases on disc. The 25th of May 2009 kick-started the series with the trio of Richard Lester’s The Bed Sitting Room and two ‘mondo’ docs from Arnold L. Miller, Primitive London and London in the Raw. Another six titles have appeared since, taking in directors as diverse as Gerry O’Hara and Don Levy. In all cases the films have appeared on both standard definition DVD and Blu ray with presentations far exceeding expectations, plus they’ve benefited from an array of carefully chosen extras: supporting features, thematically attuned short films, archive interviews with some of their key players, and excellent contextualising booklets.
Allocated the Flipside spine number of 000, and thus outside of the strand as a whole, Kim Newman’s Guide to the Flipside of British Cinema serves as a DVD sampler to the series. Priced at a more than reasonable £1.99, the disc is currently exclusive to HMV and the BFI website. The main event is the 37-minute documentary of the title, produced especially for this release, though it also comes backed up with John Irvin’s 1965 short Carousella (which originally appeared on the Primitive London disc), Gerry O’Hara’s The Spy’s Wife from 1972 (featured on the All the Right Noises disc) and another exclusive, the 1969 travelogue Tomorrow Night in London, a five-minute montage of the swinging capital put together by the British Travel Association. Rounding things off, and therefore upping the overall running time to a generous 111 minutes, is a trailer reel taking in seven titles from the current Flipside releases. Plus, of course, there’s the typically thorough booklet, offering articles on each of the attendant short films, stills, credits and acknowledgements.
The Newman doc was produced by the Nucleus Films pairing of Jake West and Marc Morris who, as well as issuing their own line of rarities onto disc (from the Kenny Everett comedy-horror Bloodbath at the House of Death to Jean-Claude Roy’s Scandalous Photos), have worked on DVD extras for the likes of I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle and various Anchor Bay boxed sets (Norman J. Warren, Pete Walker, the Scanners and Phantasm collections, etc.). As such Guide to the Flipside very much fits into the ‘special feature’ bracket: Newman as talking head discussing each of the nine discs to date, in order and with intermittent clips and poster art serving as illustration. And yet, as anyone who’s sat through one of his DVD introductions or listened to one of his audio commentaries will know, Newman makes for an excellent host. Full of enthusiasm and dishing out plenty of trivia, he sells the Flipside discs from a fan’s point of view, noting how even he has made discoveries through these releases. Indeed, even those viewers who can place the directors or certain cast members of the nine titles so far, or put them in a wider context of British cinema and gain some kind of footing that way, will no doubt have come up against something they simply didn’t know existed at least once since the first batch in May of last year.
Given the scope of titles released thus far (from minor Pete Walker thrillers to Peter Watkins’ only studio feature Privilege), Newman’s discussion is similarly wide-ranging. He draws the various films together as offering a “hidden social history of Britain” yet at the same time is able to see the massive differences between an educational piece such as That Kind of Girl, the “uncompromising Monty Python” of The Bed Sitting Room and the all-out artiness of Levy’s Herostratus. As such he can touch on everything from Aldermaston marches to the ‘mondo’ genre, from sitcom appearances to the inadvertent innovations some of these films were pretty much forced to make owing to budget limitations. Furthermore, Newman isn’t afraid to note the flaws or accept that not all of these films are going to be newly proclaimed as forgotten masterpieces. But he does recognise the fun that is to be had in watching them and the various interesting angles at which they can be approached. Indeed, whilst it may initially seem bizarre to find London in the Raw rubbing shoulders with various Ritwik Ghatak or Carl Theodor Dreyer titles in the BFI’s DVD catalogue, their significance is not to be underestimated.
The short Carousella is a case in point. It was banned outright by John Trevelyan’s BBFC for being a sympathetic look at the lives of the three strippers; Trevelyan described it as “a recruiting film” thanks to its lack of an outraged moralistic standpoint. Directed by John Irvin, prior to higher profile jobs on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and the forgettable Schwarzenegger actioner Raw Deal, the key credit is his earlier Gala Day (1963), a post-Free Cinema short which featured on the BFI’s 2006 boxed-set. As with the Free Cinema documentaries, Carousella shares a healthy air of intrigue thereby allowing its subjects an eloquence and treatment as people, not as a means of getting on a soap box. Furthermore the Free Cinema spirit allows for a nouvelle vague influenced sense of cinematic adventurousness: a boating trip in Cambridge with a couple of goofy American sailors; the interjection of a contemporaneous Kenneth Williams-voiced ad; the imaginative manner in which the dancers’ routines are captured on screen. And then there are the more elusive intrigues such as an early credit for Maurice Hatton, who would later go on to write and direct the Godardian Praise Marx and Pass the Ammunition, starring John Thaw and a possible contender for future Flipside consideration, or - to bring us back to Newman’s assertion that these films offer up a certain social history - an early glimpse of the Who taking to the stage in Soho.
By way of contrast, The Spy’s Wife offers up a short fictional piece from the early seventies. It was directed by Gerry O’Hara, one of the filmmakers the Flipside strand is helping to rehabilitate with these DVD releases. Prior to the All the Right Noises disc I’d been aware of O’Hara’s high standing as an assistant director (having worked with Laurence Olivier, Otto Preminger and Carol Reed amongst others) but never that impressed with those efforts on which he took the helm: Maroc 7 from 1967 (a film which used to screen regularly on the BBC when they would to broadcast an afternoon movie most weekdays at 6pm); the trashy Joan Collins vehicle The Bitch; the 1983 adaptation of Fanny Hill. Yet All the Right Noises demonstrated unexpected sensitivity around a potentially spurious material (Tom Bell’s extra-marital affair with an underage Olivia Hussey) and, similarly, The Spy’s Wife provides far more interest than should arguably be expected. A brisk little tale, barely 30 minutes in length, it was designed as a supporting feature - screening alongside Stephen Frears' Gumshoe - and has been pretty much forgotten since. The running time prompts comparison with various television anthology series of the time and indeed it very much plays out like one: a build up of intrigue, a number of offbeat characters, a cute punchline and an overriding sense that no-one’s taking this entirely seriously. Ultimately it may be a piece of fluff, but it’s an entertaining one at that and demonstration of how welcome these rare shorts have been across pretty much the entire Flipside range so far.
The last short, and the one which appears exclusively to this disc, is the hammond-and-horns scored travelogue Tomorrow Night in London. A brisk ride through the capital’s nightspots, taking in everything from street buskers to the Savoy, it does its job and little else. Once again, you can see the “hidden social history” side of things coming through, though it hardly justifies a purchase. Then again, the £1.99 price tag does just that.
Rounding off the disc we also find the trailer reel, one that serves to counterpoint some of Newman’s arguments. Whereas the elements which interest him are oftentimes drawn from a retrospective viewpoint, here we find the attempt to sell on more basic levels, be it sex, violence or comedy. In some cases this proves really quite misleading; I’m sure that when I watched The Big Switch a few months back it was nowhere near as exciting as its promo makes out. But then this is also part of the fun. In much the same way as the ‘grindhouse’ trailer compilations make for fascinating viewing of a bygone time, the reel here works as much as a means of enticing potential buyers into the Flipside strand as it does as a record a certain part of cinema’s past.
Kim Newman’s Guide to the Flipside of British Cinema comes packaged in a standard Amaray case, as per all Flipside discs today, and fits nicely onto a DVD-9. The main documentary is anamorphically enhanced (at a ratio of 1.78:1) and looks and sounds absolutely fine. Of course all it need do is capture Newman and his voice, and that it does perfectly. Unfortunately no optional subtitles are present, but this is a minor misgiving, especially when we consider the budget price. As for the various additions, both Carousella and The Spy’s Wife are as well presented as they were on their previous discs. Transferred in high definition from 35mm materials, visually they come across superbly (The Spy’s Wife has moderate instances of damage, but Carousella is really quite surprising in its level of clarity) as do the soundtracks. Tomorrow Night in London, on the other hand, was transferred in standard definition from a 16mm source and, in all honesty, that source isn’t in the best of conditions. Tram-lining is readily apparent and the colours don’t quite pop as they should, but no doubt this is the best we’re likely to see it. Incidentally, the booklet informs us that the print was taken from the VisitBritain collection which was recently acquired by the BFI so it shouldn’t be too surprising if similar shorts crop up on future discs. As for the trailers, again the quality is somewhat variable; The Big Switch and Permissive both look really quite wonderful, whereas others have become faded with age. Note, however, that both The Bed Sitting Room and Privilege are offered anamorphically enhanced, and also that any flaws in the presentations here should not be taken as indicative of those of the films themselves on their respective discs.
Finally, there’s the booklet to discuss. Totalling twelve pages, it offers up John Irvin and Tim Miller’s reminiscences on the production of Carousella and Vic Pratt providing brief contextualising essays on Tomorrow Night in London and The Spy’s Wife respectively. Also present are complete credits for Carousella and The Spy’s Wife, numerous production stills and notes on the transfers plus acknowledgements. Also worth noting is the mention on the disc’s inner sleeve of a number of forthcoming Flipside releases: Clive Donner’s Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, Guy Hamilton’s The Party’s Over, two from Barney Platts-Mills in the shape of Bronco Bullfrog and Private Road, James Hill’s Lunch Hour and Tony Garnett’s Prostitute. An enticing line-up.