Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but England are playing in a major football tournament at the minute, which means the vast majority of us are trapped in a vice-grip of patriotic fervour.
With this in mind, I thought I’d dedicate this chapter of Films and Things to the finest moving pictureshows Blighty has bestowed upon the world.
So make yourself a cuppa, inhale a Cornish pasty and settle in for a hearty cinematic helping of national pride… just don’t go taking to the streets screaming the national anthem cloaked in a St. George's flag or owt silly like that. Those proclivities are for perverts.
JOSEPH LOSEY, THE SERVANT – 1963
Alright, probably not the smartest choice to kick off a list of English kino with a film directed by an American, but in my defence, Joseph Losey had been living in London for ten years by the time he made The Servant AND it’s written by Harold Pinter, the finest postwar English playwright (in the opinion of this humble writer at least).
Justification aside, The Servant is the prickly tale of aristocrat Tony, who, after moving into an upscale London gaff, hires mysterious manservant Hugo to help him about the place. However, the dynamic between master and servant quickly becomes murky and skewed, and the two men quickly lock into a battle of wits that threatens to destroy them both, mentally, and more importantly, monetarily.
Middlebrow critics have often tried to pigeon-hole The Servant into the camp of ‘repressed homosexuality’ cinema, but anyone with a bit of sense about ‘em will clearly see that the film is a caustic and icy deconstruction of Britain’s unhealthy obsession with class. Which is still extremely refreshing to see, seeing as the majority of England’s cinematic output, past and present, has predominantly been stuffy period drama junk that looks back on the upstairs/downstairs days with rose-tinted nostalgia.
I’m not about to turn this section of Films and Things into some sort-of socialist diatribe, but I will say anyone who isn’t a minted toff will no doubt extract a lot of enjoyment from watching a posho’s pathetic dependence on servitude begin to resemble a crippling narcotic addiction.
Apologies to the few minted toffs reading this obviously.
TERENCE DAVIS, DISTANT VOICES, STILL LIVES – 1988
Here’s one for the Scousers in the audience – Distant Voices, Still Lives, Terence Davis’ ephemeral yet clear-eyed evocation of Liverpudlian working-class milieu.
Split into two parts and told in a dreamy, free-associative manner that’s sure to either irritate or enthral, Distant Voices, Still Lives, concerns itself with the life and times of a proletariat family, first living under an abusive patriarch in the 40s, then coming of age in the 50s, all based on the Terence Davis’ own experiences.
There’s plenty to commend the film on, from it’s bold and personal construction to Peter Postlewaithe’s superlative performance as a man who’s as brutal as he is warm and vulnerable, all the way over to the numerous soul-stirring musical numbers, but perhaps the film’s finest quality is its evocation of what a mid-century pub sojourn looked like.
Portly men yelling at their wives… smoke so thick you can barely make out the person sitting next to you… suppables with unappealing monikers like ‘Mackies’, ‘Black and Tan’ and ‘Rum and Pep’…
It’s easy to see why many consider this one of the best English films ever made.
ALAN CLARKE, THE FIRM – 1989
Now, I’m not one to judge other people’s taste in films, but if you’ve seen Alan Clarke’s The Firm and weren’t into it, I’d strongly argue the case for your immediate incarceration as precautionary measure for suspected crimes against Good Taste.
For those of you that somehow haven’t seen it, The Firm tells the story of Clive ‘Bex’ Bissel, an estate agent-cum-football hooligan (the worst profession and the worst extracurricular activity combined? Quite possibly) who burdens himself with the Herculean task of uniting England’s rival football hooligan factions into a ‘National Firm’ for an upcoming crusade in Europe.
For my money, Alan Clarke is the single greatest filmmaker these fair isles has ever produced.
For my money, Alan Clarke is the single greatest filmmaker these fair isles has ever produced. Consistently undervalued in his lifetime, Clarke spent the majority of his career making television films, something that doesn’t seem of a particularly esteemed pedigree in this day and age. But, as I’m sure some might remember, back in the 70s and 80s, the BBC and ITV were putting out some of the most forward-thinking and confrontational films of their day under the Play for Today and Tales out of School banners respectively.
His TV films were surprisingly far more controversial than most English silver screen fare, tackling hot-button topics most more commercially-minded filmmakers wouldn’t touch with a barge pole; the social malaise left in the wake of England’s adoption of neo-liberalism by Thatcher being one of his favourite punching bags. I could have included any of Alan Clarke’s films in this spot, but I’m convinced The Firm, unfortunately Clarke’s last film, is the perfect amalgamation of all these thematic and stylistic preoccupations.
Needless to say, the brew is a potent one indeed.
MICHAEL WINTERBOTTOM, 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE – 2002
Penultimately, we’re diving forehead-first into the wild world of Manchester’s hallowed and much-romanticised 70s-90s music scene with Michael Winterbottom’s kinetic 24 Hour Party People.
24 Hour Party People chronicles Factory Records’ meteoric rise and fall, and the genius at the centre of it all, Tony Wilson, perfectly portrayed by Steve Coogan. Or, in the eloquent words of New Order bassist Peter Hook, “a film about Manchester’s biggest c*nt (my mum reads these, sorry), played by the second biggest”.
The era of Factory Records was being mythologised pretty much as soon as it happened, and for good reason. From the death of Ian Curtis, to the miraculous rebirth of Joy Division as New Order, all the way over to the birth of English Rave culture and the ‘Second Summer of Love’, this epoch had no shortage of zeitgeist-defining moments.
Where 24 Hour Party People excels is in it’s simultaneous mystification and demystification of this period of time. Combining fact, heresy, urban legends and straight-up flights of fancy, tossed together with a decent dollop of postmodern flavour, the film perfectly captures the highs and lows of Factory’s reign, as well as a pretty warts-and-all portrayal of Tony Wilson himself.
In other words, it’s nice to watch a film about that age that’s full of nuanced contradictions, and isn’t just a lofty and exhausting harangue yelled at me by a rave casualty who looks like Nosferatu while I’m just trying to enjoy a quiet pint… you know who you are.
DANIEL & MATHEW WOLFE, CATCH ME DADDY – 2014
Rounding things off we’ve got a stone-cold contemporary classic from Brothers Grimm Daniel & Mathew Wolfe – the superb and merciless Catch Me Daddy.
Told with atmosphere and dread to spare, Catch Me Daddy is the nocturnal odyssey of Laila, who’s run away from her deeply-conservative family to spend her days getting stoned with boyfriend in a caravan on the Yorkshire moors. Unbeknownst to her however, her brother and some hired goons are in tow, seeking to bring Laila back to her father by any means necessary.
Catch Me Daddy is one such glimmer of hope in these trying times.
Ever since the advent of cinema, there’s always been a mob of unimaginative bores heralding its imminent death, whether that be the introduction of sound, colour, and the unfairly-maligned Smell-O-Vision. But, to be fair to the aforementioned bores, the last twenty years have not looked promising – indistinguishable ‘Extended Universe’ IP chokes the arteries of the multiplex, and nefarious streaming services have made actually going out to the cinema a lost art form. But amidst all this doom and gloom, there’s still those quietly whittling away on the side-lines, making kino that’s both original and interesting.
Catch Me Daddy is one such glimmer of hope in these trying times, especially in the realm of modern British cinema. Neither glib ‘kitchen sink’ drama or miserablist social realism, Catch Me Daddy plays like a John Ford Western, directed by Takeshi Kitano, who’s been binging loads of Lynne Ramsay films… if that makes any sense?
In layman’s terms, the Wolfe brothers have taken a mixed bag of influences and combined ‘em with their strong personal vision and made a film that’s both exciting and authentic, qualities missing from approximately 99% of new releases.
It’s been a while since we’ve heard from them, but I hope it’s not much longer until we see what else they’ve got up their sleeves.
Oh yeah, here’s an old interview we did with Daniel back in the day.
Right, that should just about wrap up this patriotic edition of Films and Things. Hope this humble article can offer some morsel of comfort in a few weeks when England are inevitably sent packing by Germany or whoever it is that ends up battering us.