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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Rediscovered film gem: Dulcima (1971)

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Network DVD have just released the 1971 film of H E Bates’ novella Dulcima (a story from a collection of three called The Nature of Love). It’s a well-deserved and long-awaited release for a film which has had something of a cult status.

It’s an undiscovered gem for several reasons. The cast is excellent: John Mills, who I would guess was fresh from his Oscar-winning performance in Ryan’s Daughter, and Carol White, the acclaimed actress from Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home and Poor Cow.

It’s also an incredibly beautiful snapshot of an unselfconscious rural Gloucestershire in the early seventies – not the contrived ‘chocolate box’ prettiness of today. The photography revels in the height of full summer down dusty tracks, and the dream-lives of the trapped.

dulcima001The story is H E Bates at his best: natural and earthy, sensitive to a rural reality, fatalistic as Hardy (creating a working-class version of Bathsheba Everdene in the process).

Dulcima Gaskain is a down-trodden ‘daughter at home’, the drudge for a family of ten, who sees a way out keeping house for Mr Parker, a ramshackle widower. Her bank balance creeps up and she begins to access the world she has glimpsed in her magazines, a sunlit, soft-focus world of hairspray, eyelashes and Terence Stamp look-alikes from knitting patterns. (Carol White and Stuart Wilson are indeed the Terry and Julie of the meadows, reminiscent too of 90s Britpop, like a less simian Liam Gallagher teamed with Sarah Cracknell.) The score is by the composer who worked on The Railway Children, and soars and shimmers like the lemonade light through the trees.

Of course, when her dreams are in reach, Dulcima’s gentle wiles can’t support their consequences.

There was a documentary about Carol White some years ago called The Battersea Bardot, and there’s always a tinge of melancholy to her performances. It’s ironic that a fair few blonde, beautiful actresses of the time strived to escape the sexist crap of the era and be judged for their ability alone, whereas Carol White was given unglamorous roles at which she excelled and for which she was respected, but longed to be the typical film star. There’s something great in the fact that she begins Dulcima in a typecast role, scrubbing floors, but emerges later with all the trappings of a Julie Christie romantic lead. So much further potential never realised: not long after her career floundered, and she died young at 48 in Florida.

Network DVD have done a wonderful job producing a great, clean print of the film, which won an award for director Frank Nesbitt at the Berlin Film Festival in 1971.

earned director Frank Nesbitt a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1971 – See more at: http://networkonair.com/shop/1977-dulcima.html#sthash.wowH2nAN.dpuf
earned director Frank Nesbitt a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1971 – See more at: http://networkonair.com/shop/1977-dulcima.html#sthash.wowH2nAN.dpuf
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There’s also a fantastic cameo role by ‘a polecat with a bit of ferret in him’ (right, Stuart Wilson on left). Uncredited – where was the actor’s union back then?

 

 

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.

Christmas 1973 – and so to church…

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St Peter's, Tiverton

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.)

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Only in winter. They’re the most convincingly shy owls I’ve met.

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I wish you could buy this kind of light as an electric bulb.

St Peter's Church, Tiverton

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?

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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.

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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 a sparse, ambiguous and otherworldly recording, full of half-light and the scent of peat and old bracken.

Into the greenwood…

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Public information films were a sudden shore of calm in the advertising on 1970s TV, in a way that’s unthinkable today. I’ve got a particular memory of one that has haunted me for a long time.

In my mind I can feel warm summer sun, the kind you can breathe into your lungs. I was hovering between that in our recently tacked-on 1970s conservatory (or ‘sun lounge’, complete with artificial-fibre orange curtains with archetypal flowers) and the coolness of the living room where the TV was on.

It appeared on screen in the way that aliens suddenly communicate via a TV in sci-fi films, but this was more like something beamed in from the ancients. The leisured, actorly voice – rich and full – spoke over the stillness of a path through the forest, half-lit in sunlight. And there were acorns carved into the trees; an arcane symbol that would take us away from today and down a rabbit hole past centuries.

Thanks to Rob Young’s book Electric Eden (more of which later), I’ve relived that moment again, knowing what to look for on Youtube. And here it is…

It’s a beautiful film – evocative of so many markers of the daydreams of our island, from silent stones to willow trees and swans, or the opening scenes of Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I would have been already fascinated with the legend of Robin Hood at the age I saw it – introduced by this version below from Dean and Sons, where the sun was always golden through the oaks…

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What or where would Robin Hood be now? There was a great book in 1998 by Michael Bracewell called England is Mine: Pop Life in Albion, which had a fantastic cover image of Malcolm Mcdowell as a seventies pop hero lost in the forest (taken from brilliant Lindsay Anderson’s film O Lucky Man, ‘sequel’ to ‘If…’).

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Back in the mid-1990s this book brought together many of the strands of the films and music I was drawn to (taping sixties and seventies movies broadcast during the night on Channel 4 or ITV, when Jarvis Cocker and Pulp ruled the airwaves). It brought out the mythology: the bells that chimed from the Countryside Commission film food-mixered with anyone from Virginia Woolf and E M Forster to David Bowie, Pink Floyd and The Jam.

Rob Young’s Electric Eden follows the national trail further, far greater in depth, breadth and vision than the title and marketing would suggest. I’ve seen it at music festivals over the last couple of years and never bought it because I thought it was just a history of bands. It’s packed with beautiful observation and writing, with the quality of Ronald Hutton’s folklore histories or Peter Ackroyd’s visions. I’m kicking myself for what I’ve been missing, and there’s so much to see or listen to in here I expect to be bankrupt by Christmas…

Electric Eden

I’m also wondering if this book wasn’t by Danny Boyle’s side when searching for a framework for his Olympics ceremony (in the introduction, landmarks of the nation’s consciousness are pinpointed as the Industrial Revolution and the First World War…).

For more beautiful greenwood images, try Diana J Hale’s blog and the post The Rarity of the Everyday.