Anatomy of a Flipside: Part Three, How Do You Package a 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. This week: With the feature in place and ready to be rediscovered, what comes next...? (Photographs courtesy of Jill Reading.)
For the past 33 years Berwick Kaler has been the York Theatre Royal’s pantomime dame. He arrived in the city in 1977 to play an Ugly Sister and has stuck around ever since. The annual show, which Kaler writes and directs as well as starring in, has become a tourist attraction in its own right, each year attracting a total audience in the tens of thousands. Such is the success that the actor is now considered one of York’s adopted sons. He was granted the Freedom of the City in 2003 and received an honorary degree from its university a few months previous. Despite retiring from acting at the age of 65 he continues to devote his time to the panto with the 2011 production, Robin Hood and His Merry Mam, proving as popular as ever. Tickets went on sale almost a year in advance, and yet prospective audience members still feel the urge to camp out overnight to ensure their seats.
Prior to retirement Kaler would regularly combine the stage work with film and television jobs. He was particularly prolific in the latter and over the years would pop up in everything from Coronation Street and Heartbeat to Spender and The New Statesman. Long before such roles and guest spots, however, he was just another budding actor still in his teens. As a painter and decorator, fresh out of school and fresh out of Sunderland, Kaler had a chance encounter with Laurence Harvey and sought his advice. By the end of the sixties he’d established his first working relationship within the industry, although it’s not one you’d expect from a man now firmly established as the country’s most famous pantomime dame.
At the very start of his career Kaler could be found in front of the trusty Auricon camera of US filmmaker Andy Milligan, best known for his underground exploitation flicks. The New Yorker had spent eighteen months in London from 1968 onwards, during which time he made a downbeat two-hander by the name of Nightbirds and four horror movies. Kaler took the lead in the former and supporting turns in each of the latter. In The Body Beneath, for example, he was Spool, a hunchbacked Igor-alike companion to the film’s central villain. The later entries in the quintet required just a day or two’s work from Kaler but he was nonetheless the most regular British presence across the London features. Who better to contact, then, when putting together a Blu-ray edition of his first ever starring role and one of the horrors?
As with many a Flipside release, Nightbirds is in an interesting position. It’s a film which very few people have seen, let alone written about, and that effectively creates a blank slate for the DVD producer. For years Milligan was practically unknown, except to only the most obsessive of cult cinema fans. It was only with the arrival of Jimmy McDonough’s 2001 biography, The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Filmmaker Andy Milligan, that many were introduced to the man, which happily coincided with DVDs beginning to appear in the States. By early 2003 he had earned a mention in the pages of Sight & Sound thanks to Tim Lucas’ monthly Nozone column. The Video Watchdog editor pointed up the incongruity in his opening paragraph, comparing discussion of Milligan in “this venerable publication” to “shrieking an obscenity in church.”
Unsurprisingly, the BFI called upon both McDonough and Lucas when compiling Nightbirds’ booklet. McDonough was placed on introduction duties with Lucas responsible for an impressively meaty account of Milligan’s life and career. Nicolas Winding Refn, having instigated the entire project (see part two), provides the foreword. That leaves a sizeable gap in which to discuss the main feature in depth, its companion The Body Beneath, and Milligan’s time in London, all of which were taken on by Nightmare USA author Stephen Thrower. As with Refn, Thrower had himself been instructive in bringing a forgotten British feature to the Flipside (Despins & Dumaresq’s Duffer) and more recently has provided new scores to a trio of Peter de Rome shorts issued by the BFI. This is a man who knows - and loves - his cinematic underbellies.
And so, to return to Kaler, it was inevitable that Thrower would get in touch with York’s annual family favourite. The stories behind Milligan’s London excursion had never been told by those involved. Memories would have faded, no doubt, but still former associates were approached. As well as the director’s one-time leading man, Thrower also made contact with two other supporting cast members from The Body Beneath, Jackie Skarvellis and William Barrel (who also fulfilled various behind-the-camera roles on four of the films), plus the man who would briefly become Milligan’s British producer, Leslie Elliot. As with the vast majority of the UK, none had actually seen their work in its finished form. Kaler, in particular, was reluctant to relive his earliest movies; the world of panto has little in common with the sex-gore netherworld, after all.
Armed with a Dictaphone and DVD-Rs of those elusive features, Thrower not only got Kaler talking but also at some length. As a result he’d created a Flipside first: an audio commentary. Convention dictates a certain approach when it comes to this particular breed of special feature, one that Thrower didn’t adhere to. He and Kaler chatted away in the actor’s living room rather than a recording studio and with fresh memories of Nightbirds as opposed to the feature playing out in front of them. The end result was more obviously geared towards to being a conversation than anything which could be considered scene-specific, though that should never be considered a bad thing. The pair were never able to fall back on mere description (the bane of the audio commentary) and the discussion flows naturally. The only behind-the-scenes tweaks necessary were the removal of the occasional “um” or “ah” plus a slight spacing out to ensure Nightbirds’ 78-minute duration was better accommodated. Listening to the piece in full you’d barely recognise either modification.
The other extras effectively programmed themselves. The inclusion of The Body Beneath was dictated by Refn owning a 35mm print of this film too. However, given its easy availability in recent years, thanks to Something Weird issuing a US disc back in 2000, the decision was made to position it as a supporting feature. The Flipside favours the obscure and as such the rarely-seen Nightbirds was always going to be the main event of this release. Also in Refn’s possession was an original trailer of The Body Beneath, again thanks to his eBay purchase from McDonough (see part two). This particular addition came courtesy of a large reel of promos Milligan had once owned, though unfortunately Nightbirds’ trailer wasn’t quite so lucky. Instead this one was painstakingly recreated in-house at the BFI by technical producer Douglas Weir using the HD scans of the 16mm camera elements and a standard definition copy of the original (which had previously found its way onto an unrelated Something Weird disc in the US) as his guide. Those camera elements also allowed for two final additions once it become clear that their soundtracks were different to those on the release versions. Milligan’s Auricon camera captured sound as well as image meaning those original 16mm reels contained only the dialogue; the scores would have been added at a later stage. Thanks to Refn’s 35mm prints the BFI had access to the complete versions, but here was the opportunity to provide the viewer with something really quite unique: the chance to watch the films as only Milligan would have previously seen them
Whilst Thrower and others were penning their booklet essays, and the disc’s producers James Blackford and Sam Dunn went about ensuring another first-rate Blu-ray from the Flipside, word has gotten out amongst the fan community that the BFI were dedicating their attention to Milligan. There was some initial disbelief across the forums - who could have predicted these particular bedfellows? - but mostly a great deal of good faith. It also become immediately apparent that Refn wasn’t the only collector out there with offers of assistance soon coming in from fellow enthusiasts. Posters and production stills became available to supplement those from McDonough’s own collection, an unexpected occurrence given the obscurity of these films. Indeed, it’s remarkable in itself that two such low-budget features even went to the effort of production stills. Of course, the fact that they are soon to be illustrating Nightbirds’ packaging and accompanying booklet tells us two things: firstly, that Milligan definitely has his fans; and secondly, that so too does the Flipside. It’s a fitting tribute to the range that their unearthing of the rare and the forgotten has been repaid in kind.
Next week: How Do You Rate a Flipside? The films have been transferred, the booklet has been written and the extras are all in place. But how does this release fare as a Flipside?