Rediscovered film gem: Tam Lin (1970)

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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…

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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”.

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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…

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The first indication that Tam Lin is going to be quite a trip: Jenny Hanley and Ian McShane playing frisbee. In slow motion.

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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?

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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.

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The hills of time…

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The village, with ‘local’ people…

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The place of simple, certain things.

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A beautiful transitional still.

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Fabia Drake as a wisewoman – her measured, taciturn look would later grace ‘A Jewel in the Crown’ and ‘A Room with a View’.

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Ian McShane’s Tam Linn (or Tom Linn for the 60s) is, like any self-respecting 60s hipster, a photographer.

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Under the surface…

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Janet finds her double-headed rose, a key feature of the folk tale, in a grocer’s barrow.

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One of the many misted or sunlit views of bridges on the borders.

And then the magic begins…

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Tam Lin
has been released as a Region 1 DVD in a restored print.

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Entertaining Josephine Poole

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When I first discovered Josephine Poole, it was through Billy Buck (published as The Visitor in the US) and Moon Eyes which I wrote about here and here. Not long after reading those two ‘books for young adults’ I found Yokeham, which I’d read was her ‘first novel for adults’ (it’s not, that was The Lilywhite Boys, which needs a post of its own). Published in 1970, it’s set around the house of the title, ‘a brave attempt at a Palladian Mansion’, and, in another good sign, the cover illustration is by David Gentleman…

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It’s a couple of years since reading, but I still have the atmosphere it left. This includes shades of Harold Pinter and Accident, and an incidental pair of sisters marooned in a hardly-visited Haversham-esque suite adorned with French sofas and pigeon droppings. The characters, if I attempt to explain the awkwardness of their situation and not the treatment, are akin to players in a rural episode of The Avengers – ones starved of any light from the swinging sixties, and cast by the local amateur dramatic group. Poole’s great skill is in exploring the dread of their predicament.

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Like Billy Buck, this book’s all about a Trojan horse visitor with the power to undo. Except, this time, Poole might be echoing Terence Stamp and Theorem (minus anything racy and Italian). It’s a gradual unravelling, under skies that are leaden, in air that’s damp and peaty.

There’s a bleak and frankly unsympathetic portrait of a portly gay gallery owner, yet in this lies part of Poole’s talent – a grisly dark humour in certain situations, not a million miles from Joe Orton. Maybe she’d enjoyed Entertaining Mr Sloane too:

The door opened and Mrs Horner steered a trolley of coffee and unwontedly elaborate biscuits into the room. When she had negotiated the tapestry pouffe and a nest of tables, she turned to him with moist cheeks, and rolling up her eyes exclaimed: ‘Oh, Mr Dando, you’ve made my Frankie such a happy girl! Mr Dando? Hark at me! Compton, I must call you now; and Compton, call me Mother!’

After this novel, Poole went back to young adult fiction, a part of her talent publishers chose to focus on and perhaps at times pushed her into a particular remit, but she has continued to write until recently. In the late 90s and 2000s there was a string of acclaimed stories alongside Angela Barrett’s beautiful illustrations: non-fiction with Joan of Arc, and Anne Frank, besides a retelling of Snow White.

In 2003 she produced Scorched, a return to her trademark setting deep in the Somerset landscape, rich with folklore, the heat of summer harvest and the cool harbour of ancient houses. She certainly hadn’t lost her touch, for this is a richly atmospheric, unsettling novel for young adults, with the indecipherable haunting effect of M R James and an almost Patricia Highsmith-like exploration of duality.

On the dustwrapper of Yokeham, Josephine Poole was asked to write about herself. Later in Scorched, she explains how the idea for the story came to her ‘as we were planting spring bulbs at the far end of the garden’, a perfect image.

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Anyone searching for Yokeham, which is long out of print, must be warned that the ISBN number seems to have at some point become muddled with something inexplicable but which seems to exist, being the autobiography of Gyles Brandreth. You have been warned. Check carefully first.

Robin Redbreast – villages that bite

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There’s a peculiarly British film and TV genre of the late 60s and early 70s which you could call ‘Pagan Village Conspiracy’. Nowadays, everyone recalls 1973’s film The Wicker Man. It’s legendary, as much a part of folklore’s history as Frazer’s The Golden Bough.

Viewed from the 21st century, the setting for these stories is a distant but parallel world. We can recognise the remnants still visible to us now, with their innocence that steps from the landscape and into our consciousness – the once-familiar street furniture, old pub signs, patterns, the set of a grandmother’s hair or the particular colour of a cable-knit jumper.

Today, there’s an aggressive sweep of modernisation throughout our built and natural landscape, not experienced so fully – arguably – since the remodelling of towns and cities in the decades after the Second World War. At such times, perhaps there’s an innate longing for something uncanny, something larger than the frenetic floundering of human progress. Will there always be something ancient and strange, or will we all walk bravely into a world as ordered as the edicts of corporate identity?

In many of these films, now over 40 years old, the city turns to the village and treats it as a pause button on ‘now’. But the village won’t behave as it’s supposed to. It snaps and bites at manicured hands.

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“I’ve come to take you to church…” Freda Bamford (left) and Anna Cropper in Robin Redbreast, 1970

Robin Redbreast was first broadcast just before Christmas 1970, as part of the BBC’s Play for Today series. Norah Palmer, played by Anna Cropper, buys a cottage in the country and modernises it. She intends to take time out from her media career in London and recover from a failed relationship. There’s a similar opening in the more visceral play The Exorcism (from the 1972 series Dead of Night) where Anna Cropper, again, is part of a couple who’ve left the city and given a full mod-cons makeover to a rural cottage.

In both plays something ancient and strange bites back. In Robin Redbreast, folk rituals appear, tiny splashes and ripples of the uncanny on the surface of the comfortingly familiar everyday world. In The Exorcism it’s something deeper and darker that rises, with a merciless swipe at the bourgeoisie. The souring of a fine Chianti is just the start of it.

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The Exorcism, an episode from Dead of Night (1972)

John Bowen, who created Robin Redbreast, also wrote 1977’s The Photograph for the Play for Today series. It’s another foray off beaten paths to the dark underside of rural charm. Anyone who’s heard Freda Bamford utter the words, ‘That’s country wine, that is’, will never feel quite the same about the joys of home brewing. (She appears to be reprising her role from Robin Redbreast as a salt-of-the-earth countrywoman.)

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“Country wine, that is…” Freda Bamford in ‘The Photograph’, Play for Today, 1977

There’s another PVC (Pagan Village Conspiracy) in an episode from Brian Clemens’ ITV series Thriller. From 1973, A Place To Die finds a doctor and his wife buying a picturesque rural practice, a new beginning as she recovers from an accident. The villagers fawn increasingly over ‘My Lady’ and soon the easy honest-to-goodness-ness is disturbed by strange gifts on the kitchen doorstep. While not in the league of John Bowen’s work, it’s a must for lovers of League of Gentlemen humour.

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An effective moment from ‘A Place To Die’ in Brian Clemens’ series ‘Thriller’: the village fool appears at the door, beckoning to strange ceremonies, the church tower behind him…

(On which point, Mark Gatiss’s BBC adaptation of M R James The Tractate Middoth is one to watch this Christmas.)

Worth mentioning here, though not a PVC, is Baby from Nigel Kneale’s series Beast. Another young couple, this time a vet and his wife (it’s the 1970s, in TV world women weren’t always allowed careers) buy a cottage, modernise and live happily ever after… For about three days actually, because there’s an occult relic in the kitchen cupboard. Baby is really not without its unsettling moments either.

BFI have recently released Robin Redbreast and Dead of Night (The Exorcism) on DVD. Thriller is available as a 43 episode box set, but YouTube is worth trying for A Place to Die. Beasts is on DVD. A Photograph is currently unavailable.

Holiday haul

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Summer holiday: all those unnecessary possessions spilling from boxes and cupboards and wardrobes and drawers reduced to camping stuff and a couple of bags of clothes. And nothing is missed, we’re just here in the present. There’s a lesson there I’ve patently failed to notice, because back home I’m shuffling a new hoard around and wishing I could just ingest everything like something from the movie eXistenZ

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Beginning with a superb Penguin from 1964: the cover is a still of Anne Bancroft from the film version which I saw a few months ago. A fascinating film, beautifully acted and shot, 50 years old and still relevant. (The write-up on the DVD has the slightly fatuous line ‘Jo Armitage has a breakdown in Harrods and her life begins to crumble’.)

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Just brilliant typography – and another film from the 1960s I saw recently. Carson McCullers has such evocative titles for her novels (like Tennessee Williams, and some might find it a little melodramatic) but a phrase like this always draws me to a book, which is partly something to do with how they look in print and how designers can work such magic with them. I haven’t read Carson McCullers before but I know I’ll love this. I had to wrestle and choose between this and The Ballad of the Sad Cafe in the same edition. I wish I’d just got both but was physically removed from the bookshop once it was clear I was about to spend the rest of the holiday budget and probably throw the camping gear out of the car to make room for these essentials.

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More 1960s paperbacks. To think there was a time when most books looked like this.

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Another evocative title that I’ve been looking for: The Weather in the Streets. I’ll just add this poster from the Transport Museum here, because it comes to mind every time I pick up the book…

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Notable to see Howard Spring recommending this, a bestselling and respected author that never made it to the 21st century. I’m looking forward to the ghostly short stories from Elizabeth Bowen, particularly after The Demon Lover.

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And lastly, some Leon Garfield. The cover of The Drummer Boy is by Antony Maitland. I was partly drawn to this by a walk to Easby Abbey in Yorkshire, passing a memorial to a drummer lost in the secret passage from Richmond to the abbey in the eighteenth century.

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Le Chien (1962)

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Today Whistles in the Wind is pleased to offer a ‘guest editor’ spot. I’m handing over now. Here she is…

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Although I’m tempted to Instagram the half loaf of multigrain bread I ‘lifted’ off the breadboard yesterday, and thus brag of my sophisticated lifestyle options, I’ve chosen instead to share a clip from one of my favourite films in the history of French cinema: Le Chien (1962), directed by François Chalais, and starring European superstars Rex, Elke Sommer and Alain Delon.

We join our hero after a long tussle with affairs of the heart. In this stunning denouement he has left Paris behind and sped off in his voiture, racing through the French countryside – will it be too late?

At this moment tails pause mid-wag, heads tilt and time is suspended as we wait for the only right and true outcome. Makes the end of Breakfast at Tiffany’s look like some tawdry afternoon made-for-TV schmaltzfest – and that had cats…

Shelagh Delaney, 1960

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Following on from the Billy Liar post and the theme of escape in the sixties, here’s playwright Shelagh Delaney talking about Salford in 1960. All of it is great, but from around 8.30 minutes in she starts to talk in particular about restlessness and the conflict of belonging/not belonging to a place. It’s again suggesting the ‘something more’ from Billy Liar’s and Liz’s discussion in the previous post.

Shelagh Delaney, Encore

It’s a great little film by Michael Winner for the BBC, and she seems to represent something wholly unaffected (or as much as you can be when being filmed) which is fairly rare then or now. ‘It’s presumptuous for me to talk about people like this, and to talk about the city like this,’ she says, ‘but the whole place is a curious, restless place… but right down at the bottom it’s secure as anything, like a rock… but for me living here is a peculiar thing… I couldn’t live here all my life, I’d be too restless.’

There’s such spirit that shines from her, even in just the opening scenes. Looking at other interview clips on YouTube, you can sense an undefinable wink in the eye at being put in situations where ‘something more’ just isn’t quite understood, whatever it might mean from one person to the next.