Anatomy of a Flipside: Part One, What is the Flipside?

Throughout May the Digital Fix will be taking a behind the scenes look at one of this month’s BFI Flipside releases, Andy Milligan’s 'Nightbirds'. In weekly instalments we’ll be tracing the disc’s course from conception to production, explaining how and why this film was chosen for release and the various problems (and solutions) the DVD team faced in bringing it to a home audience. Each step will be accounted for, from transferring the film elements and selecting the extras to putting together the booklet and the packaging. But first, an introduction to the Flipside, its history and its ethos…

The Flipside debuted on the 5th of March 2007. It was Tintin Night at the National Film Theatre, a full three hours of rarities dedicated to the Belgian boy reporter. The archives of the BBC and London Weekend Television had been trawled for snippets relating to his creator, Hergé, and they were topped off with a little-known live-action adaptation made in France during the early sixties. To add to the sense of rediscovery, not to mention the heady whiff of nostalgia, Tintin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece screened with its ultra-rare English-language dub, unheard on these shores since it was shown, just once, on the Beeb during a 1978 Bank Holiday. The press release explained that the Flipside would “seek out film and TV that is weird, wonderful, offbeat and rare” - in the months that followed Tintin was joined by episodes of long-forgotten children’s television, British ‘mondo’ documentaries and a tribute to the US underground filmmaker George Kuchar. But that’s a mere sampling.

Five years later and the monthly screenings are still going strong. The National Film Theatre has since become the BFI Southbank, yet the Flipside remains exactly the same. At the time of writing the next slots are being devoted to Battletruck, a piece of dystopian science fiction out of New Zealand, and a trio of short British horrors that once played as supporting featurettes and have languished in obscurity ever since. Londoners have all the fun, it would appear, but the Flipside also exists outside the walls of the Southbank. In 2009 the BFI introduced the range into their Blu-ray and DVD output where it has since become a key component. As with the big screen showings there is a similar emphasis on the “weird, wonderful, offbeat and rare,” although some of the rules are slightly different.

Whereas the Southbank showings have demonstrated an international flavour, the BFI discs opt for a strictly British focus. Some of the selections to date may have been directed by non-Brits or partially financed (even partially filmed) overseas, yet they possess a certain intrinsic ‘British-ness’ nonetheless. Just as important is a placing of the spotlight on films which have previously been unavailable in any home video format. There have been exceptions in this case, though I suspect few bemoaned their ability to upgrade Lindsay Shonteff’s Permissive from VHS to Blu-ray or to see Peter Watkins’ Privilege issued onto disc in its director’s native country. Less emphatic is the time period which the Flipside encompasses. Whilst the vast majority of titles hail from the sixties and seventies, toes have been dipped into the forties, fifties and eighties.

These boundaries - some solid, some sketchy - have allowed for a great deal of unsung British cinema to see the light of day once more. Filmmakers such as Barney Platts-Mills and David Gladwell can finally receive their due. Others, like Gerry O’Hara, can be afforded reconsideration now that their more personal projects are available alongside the genre films and the for-hire jobs. Performers have benefited too, with The Party’s Over offering up some of Oliver Reed’s finest work or Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs doing much the same for its entire ensemble, one that includes John Hurt, David Warner and John McEnery. Some titles were notable purely on their own merit: the singularity of Requiem for a Village; the audacity of Herostratus; the sheer out-there nature of Joanna.

As with the Southbank screenings, each title also comes with its supporting miniatures. Herostratus, for example, was backed up with a collection of early shorts from its director Don Levy. That Kind of Girl, on the other hand, went down the thematic route and had accompaniment in the form of two short documentaries centring on nuclear disarmament and the Aldermaston March, plus The People at No. 19, a late-forties drama about the burden of syphilis on a young married couple. Also present was an archive interview with producer Robert Hartford-Davis. Much like the main features many of these additions hadn’t been available since their initial screenings. More importantly they also fed into, and crossed over with, the BFI’s bigger project of remapping and re-evaluating British cinema.

There was a period when the BFI would be referred to on various specialist message boards and forums as ‘British Film Ignored’. Their initial DVD output, much like their VHS output under the name of Connoisseur Video, was heavily (though not exclusively) geared towards the arthouse market. Of course, the landscape was different back then and Connoisseur were not only one of the first but also one of the few labels to put their efforts into making the films of Godard, Bertolucci, Tarkovsky, Resnais and so forth readily available in the UK. The BFI haven’t forgotten their home video roots - as their ongoing Yasujiro Ozu collection is clearly demonstrating - but there has been a definite shift of priorities over the past few years. Specialist labels like Connoisseur are far more prevalent nowadays than they were during the VHS era and as such the need to cater almost exclusively towards an arthouse market has understandably diminished.

What we’ve been seeing of late is a greater attention to, and interest in, home-grown filmmaking. Key areas in British documentary have been thoroughly explored through themed collections (on everything from shipbuilding to ancient folk traditions), giant boxed-sets and whole series of volumes devoted to specific production houses or practitioners. Similarly, forgotten or unsung directors have been receiving their due. Jane Arden, Bill Douglas, Jeff Keen, John Krish, Kenneth Macpherson, Stephen Dwoskin and Richard Woolley are just some of the filmmakers treated to deluxe editions of their work. Mention too should be made of the Adelphi Collection and its unearthing of various B-films from the 1950s, as well as Ken Russell’s The Devils - sometimes even the high-profile works need rescuing.

The Flipside releases are very much a part of this project. With their additional short films in particular they’re able to interconnect with these other collections and editions. The People at No. 19, that syphilis drama present on That Kind of Girl, was also a part of the sex education compilation, The Birds and the Bees. Another of the volume’s selections, ’Ave You Got a Male Assistant Please Miss? accompanied Permissive. Not that it’s a simple case of recycling the same titles. For example, the BP-sponsored films James Hill made in the late fifties and early sixties find a perfect place alongside his early feature Lunch Hour, but would sit just as well on the mammoth four-disc account of industrial filmmaking, Shadows of Progress. Producer-directors such as Eric Marquis and Derrick Knight, both profiled in that boxed-set, similarly show up on Flipside shorts, whilst the men behind two of the strand’s main features - Arnold L. Miller and Stanley A. Long, responsible for Primitive London and London in the Raw - find another of their sixties documentaries on an upcoming survey of the British pub on film. Such crossover is rife and looks set to continue.

Connections to the non-Flipside features, the likes of Stephen Dwoskin’s Central Bazaar or Jack Bond and Jane Arden’s Anti-Clock, aren’t quite so firm. There is a definite kindred spirit, however. You could argue that the Dwoskin or Richard Woolley’s Brothers and Sisters or even Kenneth Macpherson’s Borderline (despite being released in 1930) have a certain ‘Flipside potential’. They are just as “weird, wonderful, offbeat and rare” as the official entries in the series, in some cases even more so. The fact that I can put my finger on a term such as ‘Flipside potential’, no matter how subjective it may be, is a telling one. In just three years as a DVD/Blu-ray range, the Flipside clearly has an identity. You could never say you know what you’re going to get - the selections are far too unpredictable and divergent for that to ever be the case - but that, in its own way, is exactly the point.

Such brand recognition has brought with it some high profile endorsement. Ben Wheatley, director of Kill List, declared the Flipside “a window onto a time in British cinema when real artists stalked our land.” Shaun of the Dead’s Edgar Wright dubbed the selections “the missing heirlooms of British cinema.” Nicolas Winding Refn, the man behind Bronson and Drive, compared the range to “finding lost treasure” and has regularly thrown in enthusiastic nods in its direction during interviews. With the upcoming induction of Andy Milligan’s Nightbirds into the Flipside, Refn’s involvement has become more than that of an enthusiastic advocate. But we’ll be discussing that next week…

Next Monday: How Do You Make a Flipside? Nicolas Winding Refn’s love of Andy Milligan and offbeat cinema creates a new - and exceedingly rare - entry in the series.

For Digital Fix reviews of all of the Flipside releases to date simply click here.

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