Roddy McDowall’s 1970 retelling of the Ballad of Tam Lin, like its counterpart The Wicker Man, had a troubled release and was destined to rot away in a vault. It was Martin Scorsese who rescued and restored a print for VHS in the 1990s.
A delayed release in the early 70s (as The Devil’s Widow) dated the mod look and it was dismissed by critics: a surface glance might file it away as a swinging vision of camp Hammer Horror.
For a start, its lead is Ava Gardner, in one of those difficult horror roles given to pre-1960s stars – navigated to perfection by Deborah Kerr in The Innocents but usually always ending in disaster never mind how hard the trying (an example might be Joan Fontaine’s 1966 effort The Witches with its promising village setting).
But it’s actually quite a witty, intelligent film with some really beautiful cinematography and solid performances. As McDowall’s first and only film as director, it’s brimming with ideas and techniques, some of which aren’t exactly successful (cue a particularly awkward and entertaining stop-frame segment), but it all adds up to a fascinating spectacle to enjoy on many levels.
McDowall appears to have taken the original material seriously: the locations and landscapes are authentic, filmed around Selkirk in Scotland – specifically Ettrick Forest and Tranquair House. The soundtrack features songs by electric-folk icons Pentangle, including a superb version of Tam Lin, and a couple of beat arrangements apparently supervised by Stanley Myers (who orchestrates girl-with-the-sun-in-her-hair embellishments elsewhere).
What the world looks like through the Devil’s Widow’s sunglasses.
That’s not to say Tam Lin isn’t awash with late 60s stylistic excess, but these exaggerated visions of modern are eery in themselves, and contribute to the success. It’s not nostalgia any more, but a glimpse into the axis-tilt of a parallel universe, an acid-filter processing metaphors for experimentation and otherness. McDowall apparently called Tam Lin a swansong for the sixties.
An early role for Withnail and I’s creator Bruce Robinson (right) as Ava Gardner’s jilted (and typically well-spoken) elf.
The cast includes many familiar stalwarts of British Cinema (in later years, if not at the time). We’ve got Sinead Cusack, her father Cyril, Magpie‘s Jenny Hanley (OK, not exactly a cinema stalwart), Fabia Drake and Joanna Lumley…
Joanna Lumley setting a blueprint for a career. When the Devil’s Widow gets a little irritated with her coven, Lumley announces, deadpan, “Life is an illusion therefore nothing is permanent. I think I shall go to Sweden”.
The Fairy Queen’s cavalcade weaving through the Scottish borders to her castle: at Halloween one of her elves/imprisoned mortals is given as a tithe to hell…
The first indication that Tam Lin is going to be quite a trip: Jenny Hanley and Ian McShane playing frisbee. In slow motion.
If this vision had evolved on a different path to the 21st century, John Lewis would advertise similar glockenspiel and cocktail frenzies instead of barbecues. Hang on a minute, they do, don’t they?
Stephanie Beacham (as Janet, the vicar’s daughter in brown and heroine of the original ballad) delivers a puppy to a member of Ava Gardner’s coven: “She’s not having him! She’s doped or something!”
There are, however, many qualities that make Tam Lin a classic of folk horror, modernity giving way to the ancient in the best traditions of its golden age.
The hills of time…
The village, with ‘local’ people…
The place of simple, certain things.
A beautiful transitional still.
Fabia Drake as a wisewoman – her measured, taciturn look would later grace ‘A Jewel in the Crown’ and ‘A Room with a View’.
Ian McShane’s Tam Linn (or Tom Linn for the 60s) is, like any self-respecting 60s hipster, a photographer.
Under the surface…
Janet finds her double-headed rose, a key feature of the folk tale, in a grocer’s barrow.
One of the many misted or sunlit views of bridges on the borders.
And then the magic begins…
Tam Lin has been released as a Region 1 DVD in a restored print.
These are really just notes – I was thinking about how we try to make sense of exhibitions, how much our own personal reference points guide what we take from them, how we challenge or absorb ideas, or rush to define, interpret or misinterpret, see what we want to see or not… it’s not an opinion of the exhibition, just an attempt to gauge how our own reference points filter information…
‘English Magic’ intrigues me as a title because it taps into my fascination with folklore and slightly arcane takes on history and landscape… I’m getting pictures of Shakespeare’s Prospero, maybe John Masefield’s Box of Delights and Herne the Hunter, paganism and druids. There’s something possibly Tudor, like Dr Doctor Dee, or Derek Jarman’s films touching on similar themes shared by Peter Ackroyd with their dreamy analysis of British art and literature and folklore.
Leaflets, guides/poster image for the exhibition – the pink image is a detail showing William Morris returning from the dead as a colossus to throw a luxury yacht into the waters. Morris is used as a political revolutionary in the exhibition, drawing on his beliefs that art and design should be accessible to all (though his products were bought by the wealthy).
The design of the promotional material is pastel pink and green… not sure what that says… it could be quite retro-nostalgic bake-off village fete competition styling, but there’s a huge hawk glaring out which I think will have set the context of my initial thoughts – wild England, which makes me think of Richard Jefferies (because of his Victorian after-the-flood apocalypse novel After London: Wild England). I’m quite precise here because it’s a whole cultural/historical area I’m really drawn to. I’m quite excited about what I’m going to find.
Film: Ooh-oo-hoo ah-ha ha yeah
The first room is darkness, a video playing – just about to start again – and various spot-lit taxidermy victims: owls and hawks. I love owls and hawks, but part of me is not reading this as I once would, because of the obnoxious turning of ‘wildness’ into a high-street shopping/interiors experience which seems ubiquitous now. (I say obnoxious, but that’s not true; there is some beautiful wild imagery and it’s wonderful to see deer and owls and foxes and nature influencing design… but then you read something like ‘If you love the wild outdoors trend, want antlers but not keen on hunting, you’ll love these plastic resin antlers!”, a paradoxical statement that has integrity and no integrity at the same time…).
The film opens with amazing footage of owls and hawks, tethered hunting birds in a pastoral landscape – it’s all high-definition detail, breathtaking in the way it captures feather and claw and expanse of wing in slow-downed movements, and that wizard-like power of watchfulness in the eyes… and a barn owl’s legs are indeed a thing to behold. Dust sparkles in the air and I wonder if it’s intentional that the eerie, almost medieval drone of the soundtrack is broken by the noise of families feeding and possibly whelping outside in the cafe. But nothing detracts from the innate power of the birds themselves.
Next up is footage of four-wheel drive range rovers being crushed in a scrapyard, an abandoned Victorian redbrick building (could be a school, a hospital, a factory?) in the background. I enjoy this because I don’t like these four-wheel tanks, don’t see the need for them if you’re not dealing with farming terrain or large equipment on a regular basis. To lazily generalise, they’re a symbol of an aspirational, ersatz country life associated with weekend homes whose value puts housing out of the reach of workers in rural communities.
This dissolves into the inflatable Stonehenge, which appears with the skyline of Canary Wharf’s financial centre in the background, and there’s May Day celebration as everyone cartwheels and does handstands. It’s pagan abandon/freedom. I can’t help, though not sure I want to, but think of Danny Boyle’s opening of the Olympic ceremony, which suggests a refashioning of an idea of ‘old England’, one that’s tied in with pop culture – I’m off on a tangent thinking about Michael Bracewell’s 1997 book England is Mine: Pop Life in Albion from Wilde to Goldie, with its fantastic image of Malcolm McDowell deep in a forest in a sparkling blazer, an image full of Lindsay’s Anderson’s political might from the film If…. Then I’m thinking about the book Electric Eden which explores similar ideas of an ‘old England’ in folk music from the 60s/70s.
The scene clears, Stonehenge deflates and the soundtrack winds down before breaking into footage of the Lord Mayor’s show. Various costumed dignitaries are beaming, seemingly benign, from the horse-drawn carriages. Two wicker giants, Gog and Magog, are paraded – so I’m thinking of The Wicker Man and 1970s ‘folk horror’ momentarily (but who will be sacrificed?) before getting lost in the knowing observation of details of the Lord Mayor’s show flowing thick and fast – there are parades from the military, financial institutions… it’s redolent of the gathering of parents at the school Speech Day in the closing scenes of If… before McDowell and his revolutionaries take over. In my head, I’m somewhere in the early 1970s. I was a baby at the time, so this is really a second-hand experience through film and TV and all sorts of media. I didn’t live it, but the ‘memory’ of this time is made real because I grew up in the landscape it created.
One image is particularly effective to me: a pair of bridled carriage horses are resisting their role, teeth and nostrils flaring, eyes rolling, as a costumed handler attempts to bring them under control, so any footage from any riot is echoing around too, but also the birds from the opening – both the hawk and horses are tethered, but who is ‘tamed’?
As the film closes (amid footage of the recording of the celebratory soundtrack by an English/Trinidadian steel band) it’s back to the hawks and owls, and you realise you’ve been sitting on a crushed range rover.
Lines and lines and lines, as Tubbs would say
Next up is a room which I’m not surprised to find given the time I’ve gone to in my head… here is David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tour and the troubles in Northern Ireland (a series of photos line the walls, all taken in the time period of the tour). A vast image on the opposite wall traces lines across the country linking all the places Bowie played. It’s like a map of railway tracks (I think I remember a quote on the wall about Beeching and closing railway lines in the 60s, but can’t confirm that so may be wrong). It’s also like a map of ley lines. So I’m thinking of a map of latent pagan undercurrents, pop music as escape and, at the same time, restrictions on people’s options for travel (particularly those on the fringes).
This all ‘exits via the gift shop’ (pains me to quote Banksy, so why do it…) and here I get my first full view of the key image of the exhibition, unfortunately on a postcard. It’s a flying hen harrier with a range rover in its claws, and I buy two. For me the hawk represents an old, unfettered wild Albion, a latent ancient strength that will see out the excesses symbolised by the range rover. In other eyes it may be ‘We’re coming to get you’ – after all, the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft is not that far from the museum.
That’s the end of Part One, as the rest of it is upstairs labelled ‘Part Two’: the hen harrier with the range rover is huge on the far wall and explains the shooting of two such birds over the Sandringham Estate on a day Prince Harry was shooting. There were no prosecutions as the carcasses of the birds could not be found.
When this is past, a merry crew,
Bedecked in masks and ribbons gay,
The Morris Dance, their sports renew,
And act their winter evening play.
The clown turned king, for penny praise,
Storms with the actor’s strut and swell,
And harlequin, a laugh to raise,
Wears his hunch-back and tinkling bell.
Old customs! Oh! I love the sound,
However simple they may be;
Whate’er with time hath sanction found,
Is welcome, and is dear to me,
Pride grows above simplicity,
And spurns them from her haughty mind;
And soon the poet’s song will be
The only refuge they can find.
Verses by John Clare (1793-1864)
Wishing a Merry Yule to followers old and new, and thanks for reading: the thoughts, comments and likes are really appreciated…
Winter light, early afternoon at St Peter’s Church, Tiverton, 2013. A gallery of hassocks, appreciated by someone enough to raise them from the ancient floor so they can greet visitors with all the flourish of a medieval pageant. The subjects are wild and varied, many birds and even Saint George tackling a dragon. In particular their are owls. Many owls. (Currently owls are all over our high streets, from stylised 1970s versions staring saucer-eyed from tea towels to teapots, doorstops, notebooks… this is definitely the decade of the wild wood. If only people loved the real thing as much.)
Only in winter. They’re the most convincingly shy owls I’ve met.
I wish you could buy this kind of light as an electric bulb.
At one end of the church is this wall painting, a pristine postcard from the early seventies, a trail through centuries of townspeople. It’s folk art perfection with more than a hint of medieval heaven and hell. There’s so much to see – from the artist’s effort to write the times into the face of each decade to the turn of each head. And it ends in louche, 1970s perfection. You can almost read a quiet, assertive knowledge in the girl’s face: ‘Look how far we’ve come’. Where did we go?
I could almost be going home to watch the 1973 Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special, for here’s the Queen Mother. In this corner of Devon she’s still graciously doing her thing.
The Free Design, Close Your Mouth It’s Christmas, 1969
Since when did Christmas smell of donuts?
Britain has imported the German Christmas Market in recent years, which could be an echo of Prince Albert delighting Queen Victoria with his festive tree in the 19th century. Except of course the British get it a bit wrong. In our version it seems to have become a good idea to pack town squares and cathedral greens with scores of garden sheds. They’re filled with the half-made contents of an out-of-town hobby/craft warehouse and a heap of burgers and donuts. Does this make it a special time of year? Like hell it does.
GPO poster by Hans Unger, 1962.
Real Christmas isn’t Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. It’s Black Friday and Cyber Monday. How we all thrill as the UK media now jumps lemming-like into the abyss and tells us how EVERYONE is buying their presents in these 48 hours.
It’s true, they scream. A woman broke her wrist in Asda in the struggle for bargains! Don’t we realise that people EVERYWHERE have filled their homes with flat-pack garden sheds, the contents of that out-of-town hobby/craft warehouse and at this very moment are stuffing their lusty vacuum-cleaner mouths with donuts and burgers – at the same time! Don’t worry about Santa’s little elves in the online shopping warehouses on their night-shifts: they’re smiling through the pain.
A Christmas present does not demonstrate love. It’s just moving currency around different bank accounts.
There are other ways to appreciate the people in your life, but a present saves time – precious time – when we could be eating burgers and donuts in front of the cathedral.
Close Your Mouth, It’s Christmas can be experienced here on Youtube – an inspired title, because while ‘Shut Your Mouth’ is elegantly negotiated to avoid offence, the result is more like the pronouncement of some omnipotent, easy-listening deity.
Fine Horseman is a song from Anne Briggs’ 1971 album The Time Has Come. It was originally a composition by Lal Waterson, which she didn’t record herself until later, adding extra verses in the process. I think Anne Briggs’s interpretation is definitive – it’s such…