The Orchard End Murder Review
Kent, 1966. Sidcup cinema usherette Pauline Cox (Tracy Hyde) met Mark Robins (Mark Hardy) one night. Looking to carry on from that first meeting, she agrees to watch him play cricket at the sleepy Kent village of Charthurst Green. Becoming bored partway through, Pauline wanders away through an orchard to the nearby railway track, where she meets the gatekeeper (Bill Wallis). He invites her in to share some tea and cake and there she meets his hulking assistant Ewen (Clive Mantle). Not a wise move...
Viewers of an age to be cinema-goers in the Sixties, Seventies and early Eighties will remember that you didn't just get the main feature after fifteen to thirty minutes of commercials and trailers. Sometimes you had a whole second feature but more usually there was a short film before the main one, some of those shorts pushing or overstepping the forty-five-minute mark some sources - such as the IMDB - recognise as the lowest end of feature-length. (This is a tradition that Disney and Pixar have kept alive.) Some of those shorts were dire: British Hustle, forty-four minutes of watching people dance in a disco, which I saw in support to Capricorn One, is particularly engraved on my memory for the wrong reasons. But the best shorts - or mid-length films or short features, whichever your prefer - are memorable in the best way, and this is an area of film history that could be explored more. Some of them have turned up as extras, especially on BFI discs. The disturbing yet also blackly comic The Orchard End Murder is the second such film to be released on disc by the BFI in their Flipside line as the main feature, following the 1984 fifty-minuter Sleepwalker, which was released in 2013.
Many such short films would try to avoid a UK X certificate (eighteen years and over, replaced by the 18 in 1982), as that would restrict the films they could accompany. The Orchard End Murder was clearly not one of them and was evidently made with the adults-only certificate in mind, and isn't afraid to show its young murder victim partially and finally fully nude. (More about the certification below.) To see this film in the cinema, you would have had to catch it as the support to another X-certificate release, the American horror film Dead and Buried, directed by Gary Sherman, at first in fifty cinemas in the ABC chain in the North-East of England from 1 November 1981 (a Sunday, oddly enough), then in the rest of the country on 11 July 1982, a split release that's also a thing of the past. The film was long enough to receive revenues from the Eady Levy on cinema tickets sold for the double-bill, though Dead and Buried was ineligible, not being a British production. As the pairing did well, that meant that The Orchard End Murder became by default one of the most successful British films of its year.
Christian Marnham was at the time mostly known for directing commercials. His producing partner Julian Harvey suggested making a half-hour short film to reduce their tax bill, though the final work was rather longer. A potential backer suggested a murder story set in the idyllic Kent countryside, and so Marnham wrote the script, inspired by a real-life murder case, and the film was set up. Shooting was over ten days in September 1980. The film has a sense of a calling card, Marnham is showing what he could do in his first fiction film. This is especially so after the opening credits when a crane shot takes in the village cricket match before descending to show Pauline and Mark making out in the orchard.
The cinematographer was Peter Jessop, who had worked with Marnham on commercials, though in the horror genre was known as Peter Walker's regular DP on Frightmare, House of Whipcord and others. Jessop's contribution is a large part of the film's effect, capturing the summer-turning-to-autumn feel of an unchanged part of England, but not missing an undertone of menace. This is something that Marnham's script builds up nicely too. An early line, “Look where your sweet tooth has got you now”, is addressed by the gatekeeper to a wasp stuck in a honey jar but could, with hindsight, apply to another character. The gatekeeper also can't bear “their titchy little waists and nasty throbbing little stingers”, which subtly hints that below his affability lurks a prurient misogyny.
The period setting means the film hasn't really dated. Its sense of period is a little shaky, though. Pauline's op-art dress is certainly of its time, but the radio news broadcast which tells us of the police search for the missing Pauline also reports the assassination “yesterday” of South African Prime Minister Dr Verwoerd and the launch “today” of the Polaris submarine – both of which happened in September 1966 but on the 6th and 15th respectively. At the end of the film, a woman complains about a train ticket costing “90p”, but Britain's currency didn't go decimal until 1971.
Tracy Hyde had become famous at the age of twelve by winning the title role in the 1971 film Melody (also known as S.W.A.L.K) but had mostly worked on television since then. She's a little wooden, and inevitably disappears from the film two-fifths of the way through, only reappearing as a sometimes unclothed corpse. On the acting front, the film belongs to the two male leads. Bill Wallis, sixty-three at the time of shooting, had been a character actor for a number of years, and he is excellent at suggesting some sinister depths behind a bluff exterior, and a character willing to act in self-interest when push comes to shove. Clive Mantle gives a sensitive performance as the hulking but not very bright Ewen. Although he's not a sympathetic character to say the least, the script and Mantle's performance do give a back story for Ewen: a childhood in and out of care, and an urge to violence, and murderous sexual violence (legally sexual assault, not rape as some have claimed), he isn't able to control.
There's an overtone of fetishism as well, given that his souvenir of the deed is to take away part of Pauline's stocking and suspender belt. This was Mantle's film debut, and a decade later he escaped the kind of typecasting as thugs and monsters many actors of his height (6'5”) and taller end up in, as Dr Mike Barratt, a regular on Casualty and later Holby City. The cast is filled out by some familiar character actors of the time. Playing a policeman, uncredited, is Rik Mayall in his own debut. Hyde left the acting profession in the later 1980s and Wallis died in 2013. Marnham's cinema career didn't take off as he must have hoped. As well as the commercials, he did some work for television and one feature film – the South African-shot Shannon Tweed vehicle Lethal Woman, also known as The Most Dangerous Woman Alive, from 1988. It went straight to video in the UK.
Times have changed, and the cinema industry has changed with it, and the viability of mid-length films like this one is much less than it was, at least in a bricks-and-mortar multiplex. BFI Flipside deserve credit for highlighting such under-trod pathways in British cinema history as these. There are a lot more short films worth rediscovering, and maybe one day we will see more of them on disc.
The Orchard End Murder is BFI Flipside release number 35, dual-format with a dual-layered Blu-ray and DVD. A checkdisc of the former was supplied for review. It is encoded for Region B only. According to the press release, the DVD is Region 2, dual-layered and in PAL format.
The main feature runs 49:43 on the Blu-ray (it will lose a couple of minutes to PAL speed-up on the DVD). This is the version that played in UK cinemas with a X certificate, and it still earns an 18 today. When the film was in post-production, it was shown to the BBFC for advice, and the Board advised that one shot would have to be removed for an X certificate. What was in the shot is not on record at the BBFC site but, according to Christian Marnham, it ran sixteen frames, or two thirds of a second. With that shot removed and the film finished, the BBFC passed the film with no further cuts. As that shot was removed from the negative – the present Blu-ray is transferred from that element – it may well not still exist. The Showman doesn't appear ever to have been submitted to the BBFC, and is exempted here as a documentary, but would likely get a 12 for some sexualised semi-nudity inherent in its subject matter.
The Blu-ray transfer is in the intended aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and is derived from a 2K-resolution of the negative, as mentioned above. There's definitely still damage on the GTO (the original cinema distributor) ident at the start, but the rest of the film looks very good. Jessop's cinematography is intentionally hazy in places to evoke that Indian-summer feel, but the colours look true. Grain is certainly noticeable, especially in some lower-lit dusk and nighttime sequences in the second half, but it is natural and filmlike.
The soundtrack is the original mono, presented in LPCM 2.0. There's some hiss on the track still, but dialogue, sound effects and Sam Sklair's music score are clear and well balanced. English hard-of-hearing subtitles are available on both The Orchard End Murder and The Showman, but not on any of the interview featurettes.
The Showman (25:46) was short documentary Christian Marnham made in 1970. It centres on Wally Shufflebottom, then in his sixties and an example of what was then a dying breed of fairground showman. His act involved a Wild West show and striptease, the scantily-clad young women concerned then taking part in a knife-throwing act, but fear not, Wally's aim was perfect. The documentary cuts between an interview with Wally and his wife, with footage of his act, recreated for the film. It's a somewhat melancholic look at a form of entertainment which was already becoming a thing of the past. Some viewers may wish to know that the musical accompaniment to his show is Gary Glitter's “Rock and Roll”.The Showman was shot in 16mm in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and the Blu-ray transfer is from a 2K scan of a 16mm print. Accompanying this short film is a brief (4:40) interview with Christian Marnham where he describes how he made the film.
Marnham provides a longer (37:26) interview, in which he describes his career, covering not just the two films on this disc but also Lethal Woman (of which we see a clip clearly originating from a VHS tape), a film which includes an actual rape scene, which Orchard End is sometimes erroneously said to do. He describes his approach to filming both, and has a few words in praise of Tracy Hyde for undergoing take after take, even when buried naked under apples on the day the weather turned. For people interested in film technicalities, he also describes how some of the shots in the murder scene were filmed with an under-cranked camera, first at twenty-two frames per second, then at eighteen.
Tracy Hyde next gives her own interview (11:19). This is again more of a career overview, as she spends some of the time describing how she gained the role in Melody and talks about her career both before and after The Orchard End Murder. Finally, David Wilkinson talks (12:28) about how, after ten years as a professional actor, he was beginning to move into film production and later distribution, despite Marnham's insistence that he should continue to act. His role as the cricket bat'sman (sic) was his last professional work in front of the camera. His experience in distribution gives him a perspective not often seen in disc extras like this, as he describes how a short film like this was viable then, when it wouldn't be now.
The BFI's booklet runs to sixteen pages, and is mainly devoted to an essay, “Red Riding Hood from Suburbia”, by Josephine Botting. This does discuss the plot in some detail (no spoiler warning, but the film's title is more than a little hint), and usefully describes the way the film industry existed at the time making films like this possible. Also in the booklet are film credits, notes by Vic Pratt on The Showman, transfer notes and disc credits.