Made (1972): British Movie Night #1


Made (1972)

The name British Movie Night is borrowed from a series of dramas screened on Sunday nights on BBC2 early in 1981. Beforehand, a series called The Great American Picture Show had showcased films like Nashville – which I suspected I wouldn’t like due to its country and western musical background although that turned out to be a fantastic watch.

Made didn’t strike me as very promising either due to the presence of Roy Harper. In an age of New Order, Talking Heads and Grandmaster Flash, Harper struck the young me as a relic of the past, the sort of act that should have been outlawed years beforehand. Okay, I’m exaggerating slightly but I was pretty hardline back then. When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease? No thankyou. Even that title was enough to put me off.

Here he plays a singer/songwriter Mike Preston, already successful enough to appear on TV and be interviewed by Bob Harris, stay in swanky hotels and play shows in the States.

Roy Harper in Made

On Brighton beach, Mike meets single parent Valerie Marshall, a Londoner down on a day trip. Valerie is played by Carol White, a woman once dubbed the Battersea Bardot (even if she was from Hammersmith). Valerie’s youngish and good looking – although not as glammy here as she was in Dulcima – another film included in the British Movie Night series. She lives with her bedridden (and needy) mother, who suffers from Multiple Sclerosis. While acting as her part time carer, she also looks after her baby Scott and works as a switchboard operator.

Home is a grim council flat in a part of south-east London that fully embraced the whole brutalist architecture craze. Around the same time as director John Mackenzie was filming in Woolwich and nearby Charlton, Stanley Kubrick was shooting scenes in neighbouring Thamesmead for A Clockwork Orange. Both films represented Britain at the 33rd Venice Film Festival, along with Bill Douglas’s My Childhood, which won the Silver Lion Award for Best First Film. A Clockwork Orange was voted Best Foreign Film. Made won nothing.

John Castle & Carol White in Made

When a new priest in the area Father Dyson knocks on Valerie’s door, she’s glad to have the opportunity to chat with someone her own age and she’s delighted when he offers up the possibility of finding a home help to give her a hand looking after her mum. A friendship develops.

Dyson and Preston appear polar opposites. Dyson is a square. Preston is a rebel. The pair compete for Valerie’s affections. One with a hedonistic and hippyish philosophy, the other with organised religion. Another character Mahdav Gupta also comes into Valerie’s orbit. A fool and a fantasist, he attempts to win her over with a combination of flattery and atrocious poetry.

Of course, the priest and the singer take an instant dislike to each other. These rivals do have their good points. But both share a sense of moral superiority over anybody who dares to disagree with their worldview. Ultimately, Mike is self-obsessed, disguising his selfishness through his ‘alternative’ belief system. Dyson is controlling and insensitive.

They both want to use Valerie in different ways, but I don’t want to tell you too much more or I might ruin your enjoyment of the film if you decide to watch.

Roy Harper and John Castle in Made

Edinburgh born John Mackenzie isn’t into his full stride on directorial duties as yet but he does occasionally experiment with editing in a striking manner likely influenced by Nic Roeg. He certainly did a fantastic job in shooting one of the most disturbing scenes in British cinema as rival football fans fight it out while baby Scott is being taken out in his pram by Valerie’s babysitting pal June. A mini Battleship Potemkin by the Thames.

Made is far from perfect. Mackenzie later dismissed it ‘a bit of a mess’ and screenwriter Howard Barker considered it ‘a disastrous and painful experience’. The idea of reshoots became impossible when, in the wake of filming, Roy Harper was suddenly diagnosed with a rare medical condition known as Hereditary hemorrhagic telangiectasia (HHT), which left him incapacitated for months.

Most books that examine British cinema of the period such as Paul Newland’s Don’t Look Now: British Cinema in the 1970s fail to mention Made, although Simon Matthews devoted a page to it in his highly recommended 2016 book Psychedelic Celluloid. The BBFC foisted an X on the film, and few saw it in cinemas.

Made - Valerie & June

It is one of the most staggeringly bleak British films ever made. But it is also undoubtedly – cliche alert – a fascinating time capsule of early 1970s Britain, an era of power cuts and feather cuts, Ted Heath and T.Rex.

Interestingly, Marc Bolan is said to have turned down the Mike Preston role. He was likely too busy penning three minute pop classics and preparing to appear in Born To Boogie. This was likely a better way to make use of his creativity. It’s hard to imagine the bopping elf doing a better job than Harper and his superstar presence would have surely proved a distraction. Harper is pretty convincing on the whole, although he never acted in another film, concentrating on his music.

Director John Mackenzie went on to add The Long Good Friday and BBC Play For Today Just Another Saturday to his CV.

Carol White moved back to America after the film wrapped. It’s safe to say that Carol possessed more than her fair share of demons. Insecure and depressed, she tried to commit suicide for the second time. Her career never matched the promise of early dramas like Cathy Come Home and Poor Cow, although she is utterly authentic here and turns in a fearless performance. She made only three more films and was dead by 1991.

Four of the Roy Harper songs used during the film later featured in different versions on his 1973 album Lifemask. There’s also music composed by John Cameron who had previously contributed to a score to Kes.

Produced by Peter Jenner, who also has a small role in Made, and with Jimmy Page guesting on electric guitar, this is Harper’s Bank of the Dead (Valerie’s Song), which in Made was titled Social Casualty. Released in October 1972, here it is and I rather like it nowadays:

Sheba, Baby: American Indie #11

Leave a comment

Sheba, Baby

I’d guess that when Pam Grier assesses her long career, Sheba, Baby won’t be seen as a major highlight. She dismisses it in a couple of sentences in her autobiography Foxy: My Life in Three Acts.

So why bother posting about the movie? Well, it is Pam Grier. And it was the first blaxploitation movie I saw on the big screen. Yes, I came a very late to the party. Due to my age I should add.

Made by legendary independent American International Pictures and released in 1975, the film was one of many that Grier made for the company, the best of which were Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974).

But before Pam established herself as the queen of blaxploitation cinema, she had worked at AIP in a different capacity. She was a receptionist.

Pam Grier - Sheba, Baby x3

Here she plays Sheba Shayne, a Chicago based private eye who returns to her hometown of Louisville to help out her father. Andy Shayne is being pressurised by the local black mob into handing over the family’s loans company for a pittance. Or be killed.

And when I say loans company, don’t go thinking of some modern day payday loan rip-off merchants. This is an ethically run business on a quiet street corner with a staff of just two. They provide low-interest loans to ordinary members of the community. A true financial friend as they advertise themselves.

Three henchmen beat the poor fella up badly. Is this enough of a warning? ‘My company is not for sale,’ Andy declares the next day when phoned again by a gangster called Pilot. ‘Not Now. Not ever!’

Pops urges Sheba to leave him to face his own problems but predictably she doesn’t listen to what he has to say.

The local police advise Sheba against seeking retribution but predictably she doesn’t listen to what they have to say.

Her father’s business partner Brick warns Sheba that they’re not equipped to fight a ruthless crime organisation by themselves but guess what? Predictably she doesn’t listen to what he has to say.

After the beating, the hoods decide to escalate the pressure on Andy and in the words of a popular song of the time, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. They’re prepared to go to just about any lengths to take over this modest business from car bombings to opening machine gun fire inside the office.

Will Sheba possibly be able to wreak revenge on these lowlife criminals led by one dimensional generic bad guy Shark Merrill?

What do you think?

Pam Grier taking aim in Sheba, Baby

By 1975, when Sheba, Baby first hit cinema screens, blaxploitation was beginning to look a little stale. And Sheba, Baby looked a little tame. One contemporary advert might have claimed that she was hotter than Coffy and meaner than Foxy but the copywriter who came up with that line clearly hadn’t watched the film.

Compared to her two blaxploitation classics, Sheba, Baby can’t help looking like a retread but with more action and less violence – it was even given a PG rating (Parental guidance suggested).

Sometimes for Pam fans, you almost experience deja vu – such as when Coffy – sorry – Sheba infiltrates a party thrown by the crime kingpin by posing as an escort and then starts an attention seeking catfight.

It’s a good enough performance by Pam, displaying her usual charisma but sometimes her takes look a little rushed. On the plus side, unlike many modern-day women who take on action roles, Pam looks like she knew what she was doing. I bet she could kick the butts of all three of the latest batch of Charlie’s Angels without breaking sweat. Even today at 70.

Sheba and Pilot

The film has the feel of a speedily written script. Obviously, director and co-writer William Girdler was no slacker. In total, he chalked up a run of nine movies in six years during the 1970s. These included blaxploitation horror Abby, a blatant Exorcist cash-in and Grizzly, said to be the highest grossing independent film of 1976.

From Louisville himself, Girdler makes a pretty good fist of this, and he certainly knows how to film an explosion. It would have been interesting to see what he was capable of while working on a much bigger budget, but he sadly died in a helicopter accident in The Philippines in 1978, while scouting locations for what was to have been his next movie.

I wanted to like it more, but Sheba, Baby is entertaining though formulaic fun. An action romp with some comedic moments, such as the spectacularly over the top performance of Christopher Jay as a jive-talking, pimp suited hawker, and with a little romance – a subplot involving Sheba and old flame Brick.

Brick? Shark? Pilot? What is it with the names here?

Make sure to swallow your suspension of disbelief tablets beforehand or questions like where did Sheba manage to find a wetsuit at that time of night, might spoil the fun.

Saxophonist Monk Higgins supplies a very decent score and there’s a couple of tunes sung by Philly singer Barbara Mason, although I prefer her more Northern Soul sounding tracks like Keep Him and Don’t Ever Want to Lose Your Love.

The soundtrack album was released on Buddah and here is the title track:

The Wicker Man (1978 Novel): Folk Horror #4

Leave a comment

The Wicker Man novel

Until this week, novelisations of films are something that I’ve managed to avoid since the 1970s. I might have a copy of John Pidgeon’s Slade in Flame lying around somewhere but I’ve never felt the need to re-read it. That was the only one I know that significantly differed from its source material. It was much darker than the film, which was already considered by many too dark for young Slade fans.

As Allan Brown points out in his 2006 introduction to Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer’s The Wicker Man novel: ‘More often than not these are hack jobs, souvenirs, vestigial remnants of the days before videotape allowed enthusiasts to possess their own personal copies of films.’

We’re all familiar with comments on adaptations from literary sources along the lines of ‘It wasn’t as good as the book’, but I doubt that anybody has ever claimed a novelisation was better than the film it was based on.

Novelisations tended to come out in time to accompany the release of the film that they are based on, or just afterwards. Never before, as that would have given away too much of the plot. The Wicker Man was exceptional in that it wasn’t published until the summer of 1978, over four years after the initial release of the movie.

This was an ideal time for it to come out, though.

Late in 1977, Cinemafantastique magazine had dedicated the bulk of an entire issue to the film. And as it reported, earlier that year Rod Stewart, by then dating Britt Ekland, had offered a six-figure sum to buy what it called the ‘nudie movie’ and destroy it, in an attempt to keep his girlfriend’s nude scenes from being seen by audiences. This publicity was no doubt welcome for the film, even if the story bore little or no relation to the truth. The National Enquirer has never enjoyed a reputation as a bastion of truth-telling. Stewart totally denied the rumour later.

Around this time, Hardy and Christopher Lee both travelled over to America on a promotional tour . The movie began picking up a number of very good reviews as it made its way across the country. At Boston’s Orson Welles Theater – a cinema renowned for helping break non-mainstream movies – it proved a big box office success. The word was spreading. Deservedly so.

Robin Hardy in 2011

The novel starts with Sergeant Neil Howie of the West Highland Constabulary birdwatching with his schoolteacher fiancée Mary Bannock on the fictional Ben Sluie. Despite their shared passion for ornithology, this is no romantic afternoon for the couple outwith their working hours. He’s on the job, having been tipped off that someone wants to steal some rare golden eagle’s eggs. He catches the thief, rather courageously too.

Afterwards, he’s given a letter from a fellow officer sent from a concerned ‘child lover on Summerisle’ reporting the mysterious disappearance of a twelve year old girl Rowan Morrison, together with a photo of her. He agrees to investigate.

That same night, he spends further time with Mary. We learn about his religious beliefs. He is a strict Episcopalian, with a respect for other (established) faiths. He doesn’t hesitate in going out of his way to help a visiting Jewish couple from America find a good hotel serving as an example of this.

Engaged for three years already, Howie has never yet out any pressure on Mary to have sex. She is Presbyterian but less devout. Although far from any kind of feminist firebrand, she has read authors like Germaine Greer (then considered highly anti-establishment). Whether Howie would approve of this remains unsaid but I’m guessing he’d disapprove. Strongly.

She’s secretly assumed for some time that there will be no marriage between them until she converts to his brand of Christianity but that night he asks her to marry him with no question of any switch of denomination. She says yes and they agree to be wed in two week’s time.

As he walks home from Mary’s place, he decides to enter the Bull’s Head pub in his home town of Portlochie. But not for a celebratory drink. As it’s still open after closing time, the dutiful cop feels the need to make sure no more booze is served. This is a very Howie way to behave.

Summerisle is the ‘most distant isle in his precinct’, a place he has never visited before. Warmed by the Gulf Stream and picturesque, he feels as if ‘he had flown off the edge of his known world to some enchanted Arcadia’ as he gets ready to land in his police seaplane.

Not that he approves of privately owned islands, believing they encourage a laxness in their communities with regard to law abiding. On his arrival, this theory is soon reinforced.

They’re an uncooperative lot. He disapproves of their attitudes too, finding them course and far too fond of revelling in the local bar. As a man who strives to observe what he refers to as ‘God’s good teaching’, he’s shocked to come across a group of a dozen or so young couples having some houghmagandie outside the Green Man.

Howie even imagines that God has possibly led him here and ‘shown him these terrible but exciting images to test him.’ He considers arresting them all and charging them with indecent exposure in a public place but as he watches on, he also fantasises about giving Mary an orgasm like the ones some of the girls are experiencing.

Not surprisingly, once in Summerisle the novel closely follows the plot of Anthony Shaffer’s screenplay. Howie visits May Morrison’s shop with its chocolate hares that he thinks are rabbits. He quizzes the local schoolchildren over the disappearance of Rowan and is met with blank faces. And just like the film, he discovers too late in the day that an appointment with the Wicker Man has been made on his behalf.

The Wicker Man novel 1978

Is it worth a read?

If you’re a fan of the movie, yes, although even then it’s far from essential.

Obviously, it’s impossible for anybody like me – who’s seen the film multiple times – to read this without conjuring up visions of Edward Woodward’s portrayal of Neil Howie throughout. Whenever the name Lord Summerisle appears, I think of Christopher Lee. And when Howie hears Willow thumping the wall that divided her room from his and then slapping her own body as she sings, guess who I’m thinking of?

Answer: Britt Ekland and Britt Ekland’s body double.

Just as in the film, it’s easy to find Howie’s puritanism annoying. He’s a virgin and his knowledge of sex has been gained mainly from reading The Young Christian’s Guide to Sanctified Bliss in Marriage. Not a book I’ve
got round to reading yet myself.

He gives off an air of moral superiority but when quizzing Willow about the whereabouts of Rowan, the idea of ‘inflicting pain on her, to gain the information he so desperately needed, crossed his mind.’ The idea excited him.

This isn’t the only time he comes over as a hypocrite but on the page, Howie often comes across more favourably than he does on celluloid, even if he is still a hard man to like.

His love of birds certainly makes him more a more sympathetic character. This is shown from the very beginning with him seeking to protect the eagle and her eggs. And at the climax, while engulfed by flames and knowing he is about to die a painful death, he still manages to free some caged birds imprisoned in the giant wicker structure, ensuring they aren’t sacrificed along with him.

As novelisations go, I’d guess that this is one of the better examples, albeit I should point out that 1973’s The Wicker Man film is arguably a very loose adaptation of David Pinner’s 1967 novel Ritual. Confusingly, the 2006 American remake of The Wicker Man even credited Ritual as the original basis for the Shaffer screenplay on which it was based.

Not that I’ve ever felt the need to watch that one.

To further add to the confusion, Hardy claimed to have started writing the novel before Shaffer had finished his screenplay, although Shaffer always denied this. Whatever the truth of the matter, this is primarily the work of Robin Hardy and the co-authorship is down to him recycling much of Shaffer’s script’s dialogue verbatim.

Cowboys for Christ by Robin Hardy

Hardy returned to similiar territory in 2006 with his novel Cowboys for Christ.

Published by Luath Press, this is a spiritual sequel of The Wicker Man, dealing again with the clash between a pagan community and Christian outsiders – in this case two young fundamentalist Texans on a mission to Scotland to preach the gospel to the unGodly. The novel provided the basis for the 2011 film, The Wicker Tree which Hardy also directed.

For more on Cowboys For Christ, click here.