[1 June 2010]
If you are looking for a person to guide you through the subcultural landscape of obscure ‘60s and ‘70s British cinema, you’ll be hard-pushed to find a more knowledgeable and affable companion than Kim Newman, the British film critic, writer, broadcaster, and all-round cult cinema specialist.
Kim Newman’s Guide to the Flipside of British Cinema is a light confection of a DVD, serving purely as a promotional aid for the BFI’s recently-released collection of alternative and largely forgotten British films – each given the Flipside moniker – that are not easy to categorize into neat, generic groups. If your appreciation of British cinema is no broader than Merchant Ivory costume dramas and Guy Ritchie’s contemporary gangster capers, you’d do well to check out this collection and enrich your cinematic palette.
The Flipside films are part of a terrifically eclectic group: an odd, alternative, rag-tag, but ultimately beautiful, set of mind-bending movies. Amongst the gems are a couple of early crime dramas directed by the horror and exploitation stalwart Pete Walker (including the lean and moody Man of Violence), the disturbing, surreal, post-apocalyptic black comedy, The Bed Sitting Room, which features a vast array of British character and comedy actors, including, bizarrely, many familiar faces from benign family sitcoms, and the strange and still-relevant allegorical tale Privilege, featuring Paul Jones as a reluctant, manufactured pop star, elevated to the status of messiah (For the full roster of Flipside films and their vast array of supplementary shorts and extras, check out the BFI website).
As Kim Newman’s Guide to the Flipside of British Cinema is essentially a taster DVD, the disc doesn’t have a main feature, but instead contains a titular documentary offering analysis and appraisal of the Flipside films, plus three additional shorts that embody the quirky spirit, vitality, and energy prevalent throughout the entire collection. Typically for the BFI, the transfer quality of the 35mm short films is marvellous, so the colours and tones are superb, the grain very minimal, and the streets of London – where all the films are set – are rendered in exquisite period detail.
The disc’s new and exclusive documentary is essentially a 37-minute interview with Newman, during which he talks eloquently about the artistic merit and the cultural and historical importance of the Flipside collection. His enthusiasm for seeing these films finally resurrected from half-forgotten celluloid shadowlands is infectious, and hearing him speak not just about the subject matter of the Flipside films, but also about their relation to many other movies and their place within British cinema as a whole, is very impressive and testament to his encyclopaedic film knowledge.
The first period short, Carousella (1966), is a tender and sympathetic 25-minute black and white documentary about female strippers working in Soho. A poetic film with a slight feel of social realism and the nouvelle vague about it, it is also bold and progressive enough to show the young dancers as astute, happy, romantic, and financially independent women (One of them is a doting mother of two toddlers). The film is also notable both as a very early work of John Irvin, who went on to direct such Hollywood films as The Dogs of War, Ghost Story and Hamburger Hill, and for offering a short glimpse of a very boyish-looking and embryonic The Who (credited here as The Who!).
The second short, Tomorrow Night in London (1969), is a five-minute tourism film that portrays night-time London as a colourful and seductive Vegas-like metropolis, complete with frenetic zooming and editing, swinging Herb Alpert-style musical excitement and sophisticated couples chatting over wine, supper, and cabaret. It’s only here and there that you see, fleetingly, the earthy and peculiarly London-centric sights (a South London funfair, Grenadier Guards on patrol, a Cockney pub), giving the impression that despite its specific locale, Tomorrow Night in London nevertheless represents a kind of ambiguous, international fantasy city that never was, an ad man’s dream come to life. I just wish I were old enough to have been there, even if it didn’t really exist like that at all.
The final short, and the only fictional piece, is The Spy’s Wife (1972), a modish half-hour drama about an adulterous London spy (the great Tom Bell) and the subterfuge he and his equally devious wife manage to propagate.
All flared trousers, roaring Porsches, knowing glances, hidden microphone bugs,and exotic-looking strangers with briefcases, The Spy’s Wife is very dated – both in terms of its narrative and aesthetics – yet it is nevertheless nicely constructed, with well-shot location exteriors (I live near London and got a real kick out of seeing how streets very familiar to me were looking back in 1972). The film’s story is fairly entertaining overall, although it is lightweight and not particularly intriguing (The big, expected denouement never comes, the finale instead fizzling out with an anti-climactic twist).
Amidst such dated stylistics, it is perhaps also interesting to note that this very specific 1960s and 1970s strain of sassy, bold, and self-conscious filmmaking – which has nowadays become a sort of shorthand language of thriller clichés – was already being partially parodied by this time, with Woody Allen’s Antonioni-inspired Italian segment of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (*But Were Afraid to Ask).
Overall, Kim Newman’s Guide to the Flipside of British Cinema is certainly worth a look. Newman’s love for the collection of films is clear, and he is thankfully erudite and passionate enough to argue convincingly that these works – although often strikingly weird and low budget – are nevertheless culturally important, and deserve to be seen again after years in the wilderness.
Just as the highly cine-literate Quentin Tarantino frequently extols the virtues of various forgotten, obscure, and alternative American movies, it’s great to have someone like Newman supporting similar British films. For all the reverence offered to far more famous British cult productions such as Get Carter, Performance and Withnail and I, the BFI, by giving new life to these forgotten gems, is ensuring they will now receive some acknowledgment and reappraisal within the canon of British cinema, whilst also reaching an audience again.
So, if this DVD motivates you to take a further look at some of the Flipside titles, then that’s certainly a good thing.
In addition to the four films discussed, there is also a collection of Flipside trailers and an illustrated booklet with essays and film credits, too.