Magical Mystery Tour: What A Long Strange Trip It Was

It may have scandalised the Great British Viewing Public but Magical Mystery Tour was one of the longest, strangest, most groundbreaking trips of the 60s

All light entertainment is only one step away from surrealism.

Antony Wall: Editor of Arena

Anyone who didn’t live through the sixties will not know just what a big deal The Beatles were. They dominated every aspect of culture, and not just popular culture. They were mentioned in every TV show and sitcom, every news magazine programme, loads of documentaries were made analysing their effect on society, you could buy Beatles-related tat in every shop, they even turned up in Disney’s 1967 The Jungle Book in the four vultures (Disney wanted The Beatles to voice these characters but some reports claim they were unavailable and some claim Lennon was dead against it as it trivialised their music).

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The UK of the 60s was a very conservative country in its attitudes, beliefs and morals. Up until 1966 many people were prepared to accept The Beatles, as their music was amazing and appealed to a wide range of the general public, not just kids. But the UK was not ready to embrace psychedelia, surrealism or experimentation. Britain was a meat and two veg nation and you could keep your fancy French Nouvelle Vague and Italian Post Neo-realism, thank you. Films such as Antonioni’s Blow Up had just been released, Spike Milligan had been making bizarre and hilarious comedy for years and ground-breaking music had been created by The Beatles themselves on Sergeant Pepper. As Thunderclap Newman so rightly observed only a couple of short years later, there was definitely something in the air.

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The most brilliant 60s film of all…

And something had also been happening in the British film industry and much of it revolved around Dick Lester who directed The Beatles‘ first two films, A Hard Day’s Night and Help! Lester eschewed conventional narrative and loved to inject his films and TV productions with an anarchic humour and surreal look. His previous productions included the unconventional A Show Called Fred with Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers and The Running, Jumping Standing Still Film, a goon-like short comedy film also with Milligan and Sellers. As fans of off-beat comedy it’s easy to see why The Beatles saw Lester as a good fit for their first cinematic adventures. For Help! Lester brought in writer Charles Wood, who had co-written that most 60s of films The Knack…And How To Get It‘ in 1965 before going on to write the screenplay for Milligan and John Antrobus’s anti war surreal classic The Bed-Sitting Room. The Running, Jumping, Standing Still film, which was a favourite of Lennon’s and he brought in Dick Lester on the strength of this. One wonders if the band had brought in Lester to co-direct there might have been more of a structure or even editorial rigour to MMT, but, then again, it would not have been The Beatles‘ unadulterated vision. In fact, Dick Lester had advised The Beatles to write, direct and produce their next film after Help! themselves.

I remember vividly going with my mum and younger brother to see Help! when it was released in 1965 at the Astoria picture house in Corstorphine, Edinburgh. My mum would have been in her late 20s at the time and I know she quite liked The Beatles music, we even had a couple of Beatles LPs sitting on the radiogram at home. But we left the pictures with her thinking it was a lot of rubbish. The Beatles had started to leave many of her age group behind. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. They were beginning to move from pop to experimental and psychedelic rock, a move they would complete with the release of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967. And it was at this point in their career that things were changing profoundly in all sorts of ways. They were becoming the adult-orientated Beatles rather than the unthreatening cuddly mop tops so beloved by teenagers and many adults.

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They were at the peak of their creative and financial powers. They could do what the hell they wanted, when they wanted to do it, who they wanted to do it with. In short, they were invincible. And then Magical Mystery Tour began to hatch out in Paul’s mind. When Brian Epstein died just before MMT they no longer had this sounding board, an arbiter of what might be successful and what might not. Rumours abounded that the relationship between the Fab Four and Epstein weren’t great but one wonders if MMT would have got off the ground with Epstein on board or, if it had, it may have looked quite different. We will, of course, never know.

It’s generally accepted that it was McCartney’s brainchild and, mostly unknown to the general public, cracks had begun to appear in the band’s relationships. John was beginning to resent Paul trying to take over the direction of the band, Paul was unhappy that the other members were becoming so obsessed with the Maharishi, George was becoming very frustrated at the few songs of his that were being included on their albums and Ringo was starting to feel sidelined as he had not contributed much to the various projects over the past few years. Paul, therefore, thought that MMT, the music but particularly the film, would keep the other Beatles away from India and help them focus on a new creative venture, unfettered by producers, directors or managers, now that Epstein was gone.

The idea was influenced by a number of things. Paul had heard of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters while in San Francisco, a group of hippies who drove around the US in a psychedelic bus promoting the wonders of LSD. He also had fond memories of mystery bus tours from Liverpool during his childhood, as did all the Beatles. The idea of a mystery tour really appealed to him particularly as it could incorporate the changing social drug scene and the fact their experimentation with LSD was at its peak. The metaphor of a ‘magical mystery tour’, driving around the English countryside with a busload of strange and not so strange people, waiting for something to happen, improvising dialogue, making it up on the hoof and filming it all just sounded incredibly exciting. A druggy, psychedelic journey into the unknown with the filming rule book being thrown out of the bus window was what ensued. And what a long, strange trip it became.

Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters

The band had already laid down some tracks which the film was built very loosely around, and some of those tracks were crowbarred into the narrative. The title track was a Beatles classic, one of the Beatles’ best in my book, which was packed with witty drug references that only those ‘in the know‘ would get. It begins with John Lennon referencing the fairground barkers of Victorian times entreating the public to ‘Roll up, roll up!’, but what exactly was he suggesting we roll up? In the 60s many will have known exactly what he was talking about. ‘The magical mystery tour is waiting to take you away…‘ and he wasn’t wrong. As well as using sound footage from The Third Programme’s production of King Lear, The Mike Sammes Singers were also chucked in to provide laughter and exaggerated singing as well as a shit-kicking brass section. And don’t underestimate Ringo’s superb drumming! Other Beatles classics such as The Fool On The Hill, I Am The Walrus, Blue Jay Way and Your Mother Should Know pepper the film and appear in various often unannounced ways.

Paul McCartney was quoted as saying, ‘Magical Mystery Tour ‘.. was the equivalent of a drug trip and we made the film based on that‘. But it didn’t take a genius to work all that out and maybe this was one of the problems. Most ordinary people having no experience of LSD or drug culture, would just have seen it as a mess, and that wasn’t far from the truth, but, for me, it was no less enjoyable for being a mess.

The film was also packed with Beatles’ music old as well as new. At one point a fairground organ plays She Loves You, an orchestral version of All My Loving is heard and Hello Goodbye is played over the credits. Sixties band Traffic were commissioned to perform their psychedelic classic Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush, also the theme to a 60s film of the same name, but the footage was never used.

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The programme was originally offered to the BBC who couldn’t believe their luck and agreed immediately. Some reports claim other TV companies turned it down and Paul Fox, the Controller of BBC 1, says he made all the running to have the film broadcast. Here was something that could be put out at Christmas that would knock ITV out of the ballpark. They paid £10,000 for it and today that would be about £153,000. Not exactly a King’s Ransom and certainly not a lot to The Beatles who definitely wanted the film out there.

It was scheduled to be broadcast at 8.35pm on Boxing Day 1967, sandwiched between This Is Petula Clark (with a script written by Graham Chapman of all people) and Norman Wisdom film The Square Peg. On BBC2 more refined viewers could have watched a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Titipu starring the legendary Harry Worth, Hattie Jacques and, in a small part, a young John Inman and on ITV The Benny Hill Show followed by the film ‘Waltz of the Toreadors‘, a vehicle for Peter Sellers. In short, The Beatles were up against the TV establishment, so did they ever have a chance? Up against that it was always going to be better to fail with a bang than a whimper.

If that’s not classic sixties, I don’t know what is!

Despite Paul Fox claiming he didn’t see the film before it was broadcast, McCartney told of how the BBC cut the scene where Buster Bloodvessel romances Ringo’s Aunt Jessie on the beach. Why this was done was never properly explained says McCartney, other than it was ‘too weird‘.

Even that week’s Radio Times‘ write up about MMT is oddly vague, suggesting few people at the BBC had actually seen it.

Yes this is it. Probably the most talked about TV film of the year. It is by The Beatles and about The Beatles. The story? A coach trip round the West country reflecting The Beatles’ moods and launching a handful of new songs.

Radio Times December 1967

The quirky cast assembled for the film was certainly diverse and definitely interesting, reflecting the band’s offbeat sense of humour and nostalgic feelings.

First up, Victor Spinetti had become a Beatles mainstay having appeared in both A Hard Day’s Night and Help! as well as co-authoring the stage version of Lennon’s book ‘In His Own Write.’ The only actor to appear in all three Beatles films, he had supposedly been offered the part in A Hard Day’s Night because George’s mum really liked him. Spinetti appeared in many comedy programmes, most significantly in 1968-69’s It’s Marty with the great Marty Feldman. In the 70s he was also The Mad Jaffa Cake Eater in the TV ads. There’s Orangey!

Cult poet and performer on the harmonium Ivor Cutler had come to The band’s attention after being spotted on BBC 2’s Late Night Line-Up. He had been discovered in 1960 by Ned Sherrin and appeared in some unlikely variety vehicles such as The Acker Bilk Show. He was championed by John Peel who brought him to the attention of a younger listening public and his hang-dog demeanour and eccentric manner was exactly what MMT needed. Billed as Buster Bloodvessel, the name was eventually adopted by portly lead singer of Bad Manners, and to this day he is still Buster Bloodvessel. A MMT reference that still exists over 50 years later. Cutler is particularly good in his MMT scenes.

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Not Ivor Cutler

Nat Jackley grew up in the music halls and was an established comedy performer. According to Wikipedia ‘..his trademark rubber-neck dance, skeletal frame and peculiar speech impediment made him a formidable and funny comedian.‘ Sadly for Nat his featured performance sketch, Nat’s Dream, was cut from the final film but he appears in many crowd and interior bus shots. Out of all the characters and actors in this film I find him the most intriguing. The most experienced and traditional performer in the whole cast I would love to know what he thought about the whole experience. All I’ve ever read about him was that he found the unscripted nature of the whole project difficult. For someone with his background it must have been like performing on another planet.

The magnificent Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band (more on them later) was recommended by Paul’s brother Mike McGear (as he was known at the time). As a member of The Scaffold, who had had pop success in the late 60s and early 70s, McGear had worked regularly with The Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band many times. He knew they were the kind of musicians The Beatles would appreciate and such was the case. The Beatles became such fans that McCartney would eventually produce their huge No.1 hit ‘I’m The Urban Spaceman‘ as Apollo C. Vermouth.

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The magnificent Bonzos

Another interesting performer whose best bits ended up on the cutting room floor was accordionist Shirley Evans. Although hailing from Birkinhead it’s difficult to know why The Beatles decided to include a female accordionist in their psychedelic film. My feeling is it’s just because there was something about it that’s quite funny. Many of us grew up with a family member who played the accordion and many singalongs, particularly at New Year, were had. It’s an instrument that, even in the late 60s, had become very unfashionable, if it ever was fashionable, and it was probably the nostalgic quality of the instrument that appealed. And there’s something intriguing about an attractive girl playing it. John Lennon even wrote an instrumental track for her, Shirley’s Wild Accordion that, sadly, was never used in the film. The track was allegedly pressed but never released and is still much sought after by Beatles record afficionados.

Who could forget Shirley and her accordion?

Finally the photographer was played by restricted height actor George Claydon. In one scene he is under the camera blanket as he takes a picture of some of the trippers. He emerges from under the blanket with the head of 1966 World Cup mascot World Cup Willie. And it turns out he actually played this character during the ’66 World Cup. A lovely 1967 cultural reference and an excellent bit of trivia, I think!

World Cup Willie: The story of the 1966 mascot | FourFourTwo
Why was Willie wearing the Union Jack when he was England’s mascot?

A number of scenes filmed at the time did not make the cut after editing. One of them featured Music Hall favourite Nat Jackley in a sequence titled ‘Nat’s Dream‘ where we see him walking around Newquay and bumping into a bevy of bikinied beauties. It all takes place to an accompaniment from Shirley Evans on accordion playing the Lennon written ‘Shirley’s Wild Accordion.’ The scene, I think, is funny, old fashioned and wonderfully quirky culminating weirdly (how else?) in The Atlantic Hotel outdoor swimming pool. The other deleted scene featured Ivor Cutler on harmonium singing ‘I’m Going In A Field.’ For me, both scenes deserved to remain in the completed film and no explanation, to my knowledge has been given as to why they didn’t make the cut. At a neither short nor long running time of 52 minutes both scenes would have taken the film up to a more conventional 60 minute mark which would not have been a problem showing on TV or in the cinema. Can’t help but think they missed a trick there.

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A still from the deleted Lennon-directed episode, Nat’s Dream

My own memory of the film on that Boxing Night of 1967 is clear but short. There had been huge anticipation for the film and I remember being quite excited about it. Within a few minutes it became obvious this was not going to be another A Hard Day’s Night or even the more enigmatic Help! My clearest memory was of Ringo yelling at his Auntie on the bus and then it cutting to the scene in the restaurant with her, Buster Bloodvessel with John, who had had a dream about this scenario, as Pirandello the waiter, shovelling spaghetti onto their table and her giggling uncontrollably. Until I saw the film again many years later I was convinced it was crisps that were being shovelled on. But, back then I watched it on a small grainy-pictured black and white telly, as the vast majority of viewers did, and I’d never come across spaghetti that wasn’t out of a tin, so it was an easy mistake to make. It was at this point, however, my mum had had enough and switched channels, I have a feeling to the G and S Harry Worth operetta. I was quite disappointed as I had been loving the anarchy of MMT, and even at that young age, I appreciated seeing something that was just different from the usual formulaic tosh.

It’s not difficult to work out why the film was a complete flop in the eyes of the Boxing Day audience. The obvious reason was its unstructured, scattergun approach to narrative and much of its self-indulgence. Although not a problem for me, the great British Viewing Public were not ready for that, and probably still aren’t. To be fair, in those days ITV broadcast Harold Pinter plays at peak viewing times, but they weren’t that popular. Ken Loach had released Cathy Come Home the year before which had employed a naturalistic approach to narrative and even used non-professional actors and although completely different in tone, MMT had used similar techniques. Tony Barrow, the Beatles’ Press Officer at the time, had said that the film was made to be viewed in colour and BBC 1 did not broadcast in colour at that time. Only BBC 2 broadcast colour programmes but precious few people had colour receivers anyway. And he had a point. A deliberately psychedelic experience must be viewed in colour, that’s what psychedelia is all about. So viewers missed out on a huge, vivid, sensory element of the film. Whether that would have saved it from the savaging it received though, is unlikely. But had it been originally released in cinemas, this might have made a difference. It would have been predominantly younger people and Beatles’ fans who would have gone to see it and fewer older, more conservative viewers would have and maybe the criticism might not have been quite so brutal. In the early sixties one theatre critic described Harold Pinter as throwing a Molotov cocktail into the sherry party that was British theatre. I would argue that this is what The Beatles did to British television, only it was a huge spliff they threw in and most viewers didn’t know what to do with it.

It’s starting to happen…..

I believe that The Beatles had, inadvertantly, invented a new genre of film. A type of film where the narrative is fluid, where characters that seem to have little in common are allowed to shine, where nostalgia meets surrealism in the most striking of ways, where the comedy of juxtaposition is allowed to happen naturally, and where narrative sense isn’t the absolute aim of the artistic endeavour, all performed in an explosion of colour and unfettered joy. What we were watching was not unlike a British Fellini film. With some bizarre, offbeat and psychedelic but visually stunning Beatles-at-their-best musical interludes thrown in and we have an artefact that people had not seen before but would become commonplace in years to come.

I’m fully aware that I’m discussing this film over 50 years after its release and, of course, attitudes and approaches to film-making and viewing have changed massively. There’s also a chunky layer of nostalgia propping it up for people like myself. But this was how The Beatles wanted to be seen, wanted to be judged and share their weird vision with us. It subsequently influenced many future writers and film-makers. And it should be remembered that new genres are not defined in one moment but MMT certainly lit the blue touch paper for many of the looser narrative, more abstract films that followed.

There was a refined taste that existed within our society for the unusual, the strange, the drug-influenced fantasy. Not long after MMT, Monty Python’s Flying Circus was launched on an unsuspecting audience and, after a quiet opening period, exploded into our consciousness. Comedy would, thankfully, never be the same. And it’s no coincidence George Harrison was a huge fan of Python and Ringo even made an appearance in Monty Python, with Lulu of all people, in Series 3, Episode 2 on October 26 1972. In 1975 the Python team looked into the possibility of the almost forgotten MMT being the support film to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Although the two parties met on a few occasions and both were quite keen for it to happen, the idea fizzled out, which was a shame as the two films would have complimented each other beautifully.

And there’s another aspect to it that I don’t feel has ever been really developed. The British public thought they knew The Beatles personally, such was the Beatles stranglehold on popular culture, they also thought they owned The Beatles. The band were so ubiquitous that if they stepped out of line they were defying you. And such was the case with MMT. The public felt The Beatles were putting two fingers up at them, we’re The Beatles and we can do what we want and there’s nothing you can do about it! ‘Well, we’ll see‘ replied the Great British Public. The same happened when John went off with Yoko. The public hated that. Not only was she Japanese, but she was ugly and weird and we don’t want her in our family. Yoko was the most horrendously reviled and ridiculed person on British TV during the late 60s as she was not deemed good enough or beautiful enough or ‘normal’ enough for one of ‘our’ Beatles and she was, of course, blamed for splitting the band up. No wonder John decided to go and live in America. The same happened with McCartney. Linda was also thought to be below what he was capable of. Why couldn’t he have married that lovely British Jane Asher? And MMT was really the beginning of the backlash. The public didn’t want to see The Beatles change or progress, they just wanted their cuddly mop-tops. Maybe MMT was their way of saying ‘Fuck You.’ And who could have blamed them? This is why MMT is so essential and so brilliant. It was The Beatles from start to finish with no interference and it was where the more switched on, more sophisticated music fan was at the time in the UK and that’s why I love it.

The former NME writer Charles Shaar Murray summed it up for me. ‘Magical Mystery Tour evokes an era when society still seemed to be opening up rather than closing down‘, but, unfortunately for The Beatles, much of society was a long way from opening up, and in many respects it still hasn’t. But it was a magical trip for me and, as far as the critical savaging went, I don’t really think The Beatles gave a shit.

So for those who get it, just roll up, sit back and enjoy the trip.

Kubrick’s Smoke and Mirrors: 50 Years of The Shining

Savaged by the critics on release, Kubrick’s masterpiece The Shining is now the Ulysses of film analysis

More has probably been written about Kubrick’s 1980 classic The Shining than any other of his canon, even 2001: A Space Odyssey. But what is it that compels sad people like myself to be constantly analysing every scene, every character, every iconographic element, every shot, even things that are not necessarily there?

But isn’t this why so many films prevail and maintain their interest with the viewing public and why so many films become classics rather than those that sweep over you and you’ve forgotten everything about before you’ve left the cinema?

It’s a criminally overused word and I’d avoid using it if I could but The Shining encapsulates everything about the adjective ‘iconic’. For me, it’s one of the few films that is not only better than it’s source material but actually transcends its genre. It irritates me hugely when I hear people refer to it as a horror film. It’s so much more than that. So much so that I won’t even try to describe it generically. On its release so many critics dismissed it for not having ‘enough shocks‘, for being ‘too slow or plodding‘ in its narrative, characters who were ‘hard to connect with‘. It was more than 10 years before critics began to re-evaluate it and see it as a film that broke generic, narrative and technical boundaries and it’s why viewers are still discussing it today.

Stanley Kubrick only made 12 films in 45 years. Half of this number were made in his first 10 years as a major studio director between 1955 and 1964. But his output not only became increasingly complex in style and narrative but covered most genres including science fiction, historical drama, comedy, war, dystopian fantasy and, ok, horror (but in its widest possible context!). His blockbuster SF film which trumpeted the fact ‘genius at work‘, 2001: A Space Odyssey was like nothing ever seen before in cinema. Over 50 years after its release it still seems way ahead of its time. The success of 2001 meant Kubrick could pick and choose what his next project was going to be and, true to form, he surprised the film world by choosing a fairly obscure dystopian fantasy novel by prolific British writer and academic Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (much more on this below). The furore this film caused, particularly in Kubrick’s adopted home in the UK caused him to withdraw it within a year of its release. He went on to make the uncontroversial historical drama Barry Lyndon, again from a lesser known Thackeray novel which, although performing reasonably well financially, it was, at the time, seen as a critical failure. Like so many of Kubrick’s films, Barry Lyndon has been re-appraised in recent years and seen as much more of a success than it was when released.

After the critical maulings he received for A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon, Kubrick decided on a different approach to his next project. He was going to make a film that would have widespread appeal due to its subject matter but would bear heavily the unique Kubrick stylistic imprint. And after reading many, many horror stories (some for only the first couple of pages) he landed upon a recent Stephen King novel entitled The Shining. Here he could see possibilities but that meant jettisoning much of King’s original story and retaining, pretty much, only the conceit and general framework of the source material. This, of course, did not please Stephen King although, over the years, he seems to have made his peace slightly with Kubrick’s version. And so he should as Kubrick removed many of the silly fantastical elements such as topiary animals which come to life and much of the run-of-the-mill hotel backstory and created an atmosphere and narrative that still fascinates.

To begin with the poster for the film is as enigmatic as the film itself. Kubrick was big enough in the film world at the time to go for the best and it was to the legendary Saul Bass he approached to come up with something suitably cryptic. Bass was responsible for classic poster and opening credit sequences for some of the greatest films ever made. In fact, often Bass’s work is remembered when the film may not be. He’s even credited with directing one of the most famous and most brilliant scenes in the history of cinema, the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho.

And Bass didn’t disappoint in the esoteric stakes coming up with an image that didn’t even appear in the film. Bass’s original design was red and featured a pointillistic, cartoonish doll-like character but typically Kubrick liked the image but opted for a yellow rather than red poster. Recently I attended the Kubrick exhibition at The Design Centre in London. There they displayed a number of other designs Bass had come up with, many of which, to me, were considerably more effective than the poster chosen. But there’s no point in attempting to fathom why Kubrick made the decisions he did. You just have to assume he’s usually right.

Three rejected Saul Bass posters with Kubrick’s hand-written comments

I don’t intend in this blog article to even summarise the story of The Shining as, in the unlikely event of anyone reading this article, most people will have seen the film anyway or at least know what happens in it. My purpose is to highlight some of the elements which make The Shining a film that so people return to again and again and constantly reinterpret. So my approach, as usual, will be scattergun, rambling and sometimes abstruse but this is what The Shining brings out in people like me. And I couldn’t be happier about that.

The film begins in suitably Kubrickian expansive way with aerial shots of the Torrance’s yellow beetle car moving beetle-like across a vast Coloradan landscape. Kubrick used electronic composer Wendy Carlos again to create the dark, foreboding, brooding soundtrack which accompanies the main characters journey towards their winter caretaking stint at the soon-to-be desolate Overlook Hotel in the Colorado mountains. Carlos had created the futuristic soundscapes for Kubrick’s previous film A Clockwork Orange and The Shining would be her last collaboration with Kubrick as, according to her, too many compositions to accompany scenes in the film did not make it into the final cut. Anyone watching this film for the first time would be left in no doubt that these tiny characters were heading towards adversity given the tone and atmosphere built up by the musical opening.

The central character, Jack Torrance is played by Jack Nicholson who was Kubrick’s first choice for the role. Other actors to be considered included Robert De Niro, who it was possible to envisage as Torrance, Robin Williams, who it wasn’t, and Harrison Ford, who would have been more in keeping with Stephen King’s ideas for the part. Rather than Nicholson’s manic and menacing turn almost from scene 1, King wanted to see a decent character gradually deteriorate psychologically becoming a threat to his family through months of cabin fever in the Overlook Hotel and due to other types of supernatural influence. Nicholson’s performance was ridiculed as being overblown and hammy by many critics at the time but and one can’ t help but think that the meticulous Kubrick liked the idea of Nicholson’s, allegedly, coke-fuelled mania which just added to Torrance’s psychological collapse and descent into madness.

Jack’s first major appearance where he is interviewed for the job of out-of-season caretaker at the Overlook Hotel immediately sets the scene for the rest of the film. He’s informed of a brutal murder which took place around 10 years before when the caretaker, at the time, Charles/Delbert Grady, went mad and killed his wife and two young girls with an axe. From then on Jack’s mental deterioration and gradual homicidal path is brilliantly represented through a series of masterly images and set pieces, leading to a ground-breaking steadi-cam inspired denouement in the hotel’s freezing maze.

The interview scene is intercut with scenes of Danny talking to a character he refers to as ‘Tony’ who is ‘inside his mouth’ who ‘tells him things’. Through Tony, Danny can see into the future and possesses abilities ordinary people don’t. Tony tells Danny something so terrifying Danny faints in utter shock and we are made aware that this has to do with the place they are going to be spending the winter the Overlook Hotel. When they arrive there Danny immediately strikes up a friendship with the hotel’s cook, Halloran, who has the same abilities and calls it ‘shining.’ Halloran is able to see Danny has these abilities but also makes him aware of what might happen when he is in the hotel alone and warns him off entering room 237. Soon Danny is seeing disturbing images from the hotel’s past which link to what Jack was told during his interview.

Much of the debate about the film surrounds the question of whether the hotel is actually haunted by the ghosts of its bloody past or is it all happening in Jack and even Wendy and Danny’s heads. This is where Kubrick diverges significantly with King. In Kubrick’s Overlook events are open to interpretation, nothing is ever quite what it seems and often metaphorical.

One of the enduring and memorable images from the film is of the elevator doors in the main reception opening and a torrent of blood emerging from them. This is a nightmare Danny experiences on more than one occasion, a nightmare that foreshadows the terrible events awaiting him at the Overlook Hotel.

Another criticism of the film, according to critic Roger Ebert, is that it lacks a ‘reliable’ observer. Jack is clearly unreliable from almost the moment he enters the hotel, Wendy is too sensitive and almost afraid of Jack to be aware of everything happening around her and there is so much going on in Danny’s head that it’s difficult to know just what exactly is really happening at any point in the film. This, I believe, is exactly what Kubrick wanted, if the characters are confused and bewildered then so will the audience.

All three characters see the ‘ghosts’ of the hotel at different times. Danny sees them from almost the moment he enters the hotel and this is due to his supernatural abilities. But Jack’s spectral encounters take longer to happen and are more problematic. Does he really see ghosts or is it his deteriorating psyche that is responsible for these illusions or even his alcoholism? Kubrick, of course, deliberately creates these enigmatic confrontations.

Your money’s no good here Mr. Torrance

Jack’s first meeting is with barman Lloyd after being accused by Wendy of attacking Danny. Here we find that Jack may have a problem with alcohol after he relates the story of when he injured Danny when he was still very young. Lloyd plies Jack with whisky, ‘Your money’s no good here Mr Torrance.’ But is this merely Jack losing his grip on reality with his desperation for a drink fermenting his delusions. Is he really drinking alcohol or just imagining it? Later in the film Jack walks into the ballroom again and this time it’s populated by the ghosts of the guests of the hotel from many years ago. As well as encountering Lloyd again he literally bumps into Delbert Grady, the former caretaker who killed his family some years previously. A chilling conversation takes place in the blood-red toilet as Grady cleans up the drink he spilt on Jack. It is here that we as viewers begin to almost accept that Jack is in conversation with a murderous ghost as Grady warns him of Halloran coming to help Danny and Wendy. If Grady was a figment of Jack’s feverish imagination how would Jack have known this? Grady advises Jack euphemistically that maybe Danny and Wendy need ‘correcting‘. We , as viewers at this point, know exactly what Grady is suggesting.

Perhaps they need ‘correcting’…

These pivotal ‘ghostly’ scenes where Jack supposedly meets both Delbert Grady and Lloyd the barman feature two stalwarts of Kubrick films, Philip Stone and Joe Turkel. Both actors appeared in three Kubrick films, more than any other actor. Stone also appeared in A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon, Turkel in The Killing and Paths of Glory. Both play parts of chilling low-key menace.

A second similar question arises when Jack is locked in the food store by Wendy. He hears Grady outside once again encouraging him to bring Danny and Wendy into line. And eventually the door is opened for him. If not a ghost, who lets Jack out? A few theories have been suggested as to how Jack escapes from the store room. For me the most plausible is that Danny let him out. Maybe Danny knew that this was the only way he was going to stop Jack murdering his mother and him and leading him into the maze was the most effective way. So why didn’t Kubrick let us see Danny do this? For the same reason so many other events were cloaked in mystery. Of course the director wants to keep us guessing, hence the lack of a reliable narrator which is just too predictable for Kubrick. He wants us to be as bemused, bewildered and beguiled as the characters. So if that’s the smoke, what about the mirrors? You may well ask.

As Jack prowls around the corridors and rooms of the Overlook, each time he appears to encounter some sort of apparition, mirrors are very close by. In Room 237, in the toilet when he encounters Grady, at the back of the bar when he encounters Lloyd the barman and even on the shiny metallic door when he hears Grady outside the storeroom. So does this mean that these ghosts are real or are they just transpositions or reflections of his own crumbling sanity? Is the evil he is apparently confronting just the mirror image of his own psychological deterioration? In the novel Jack finds a scrapbook which includes news clippings and photographs of things that happened at the Overlook since its opening in 1910, he already knew about Grady and maybe Lloyd the barman was a former employee he read about. In the film we see, at one point, the scrapbook sitting on Jack’s work table but is never referred to. It seems as if Kubrick, once again, decided that this was too much of an explanation or backstory for the events that followed and that he’d prefer viewers to be left rather more in the dark.

And let’s not forget about Wendy. Despite being oblivious, seemingly, to some of the things that are happening before her very eyes, when the shit hits the fan and she is frantically looking for Danny through the dimly lit back corridors of the Overlook, she almost literally bumps into some of the ghosts of the hotel past. The elderly man with the wound in his head, the man in the bear suit performing something beastly on another tuxedoed guest suddenly appear to her. Why?

In the US version of the film she runs into the ballroom to be met with previous guests, maybe the ones that were partying when Jack stumbled into Grady, but this time they are all skeletons. Strangely, Kubrick cut this scene from the European version of the film. Once again, did he feel a European audience didn’t need to be hit over the head metaphorically with images showing the ghosts of the hotel revealing themselves to Wendy? The skeleton scene, for me, is a step back into Carry On Screaming territory and detracts from the brilliantly enigmatic aspects of The Shining.

This place is dead.

But the question still remains. Why did it take so long for Wendy to see these apparitions? At the start of the film Halloran suggested to Danny that ‘shining’ might run in the family. He said that his grandmother and he used to have conversations without even opening their mouths as they both had the shining. So where did Danny get it? Danny clearly tries to suppress his abilities. He’s almost embarrassed to admit it to Halloran and maybe Wendy has suppressed this talent until she became so stressed that her shining began to manifest itself and she started to see the ghosts of the hotel through her unfiltered perception. Or maybe Jack also has the shining, hence his ability to encounter the characters from the hotel’s past. It might also explain why he knew about Halloran’s return.

The man in the bear suit is puzzling. At first I thought it was a reference to an episode from King’s novel that happened many years before the Torrances arrived at the Overlook. A gangster who stayed there used to humiliate one of his hangers-on by making him dress up and bark like a dog with tragic consequences. However, the man, if it is a man, is wearing what looks like a bear suit. A perfectionist like Kubrick would not substitute a dog suit for a bear suit for no reason. However, Rob Ager at www.collativelearning.com makes a very compelling case for this being part of an elaborate series of clues planted by Kubrick to suggest that Jack had been sexually abusing Danny. Now this might seem a bit of a stretch but it’s worth checking out what this analysis by Rob Ager has come up with. Certainly food for thought.

Another aspect of the film which is far superior to the novel is the ending. In the novel one of Jack’s main roles as caretaker is to look after the antiquated heating system which, after his breakdown, is neglected leading to Danny and Wendy escaping from the hotel with Halloran’s help just as the boiler blows up killing Jack who was still in there. The film version ending features one of the great edits in cinematic history cutting from a long scene with jack bellowing like a wounded animal to a static daylight image of him frozen to death. Sadly, for me, the final slow zoom into the photograph on the wall of the Overlook reception, finally focusing on Jack’s doppelgänger in the July 4th 1921 ball, suggesting Jack has been there in a previous life (You have always been the caretaker…) almost ruins the ending completely. But not quite. It’s as if Kubrick felt he had to throw the audience some crumbs of explanation but he needn’t have bothered, although it probably placated some critics looking for ‘closure’ of some kind.

The film has been responsible for a number of interesting contributions to popular cultural. The phrase ‘All Work And No Play Makes Jack A Dull Boy‘ has become synonymous with the film. Jack has been hard at work on his new novel for weeks and even becomes aggressive with Wendy when she interrupts him one day. Jack then disappears from his desk and Wendy looks at the reams of typewritten sheets that he has compiled. To her horror very sheet has this same phrase written in different formations. It is at this point that she realises, although one suspects she always knew, that something has gone seriously wrong with Jack’s mind. Interestingly, other country’s versions used a different idiom to the English version. In Germany it was, rather mundanely, ‘Never Put Off Till Tomorrow What Can Be Done Today.’ Much more poetic was the Italian version: ‘The Morning Has Gold In Its Mouth.’ The French version was slightly more enigmatic: ‘One ‘Here You Go’ is worth two ‘You’ll Have Its’. Hmmm.

Every page typed out by Kubrick himself. Allegedly.

The scene in The Shining that everyone remembers is when Jack crashes through the bathroom door with an axe and announces ‘Heeeerrre’s Johnny!’ where a terrified Wendy cowers. When the film was released in the UK in 1979 few people would have recognised that phrase although everyone in the US would have. America’s biggest chat show was The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson with an audience of millions. This programme was not broadcast in the UK at the time although it was for a short time in the 1980s. Johnny Carson would be introduced each night by his sidekick Ed McMahon with a ‘Heeeerrrre’s Johnny! It was as familiar to American audiences as ‘Ooh Betty!’ was to British audiences in the 70s. Although if Jack had used that one instead it might have had a slightly different effect. Two (quite) interesting facts about this iconic scene. Firstly, Nicholson improvised the line at the time and amazingly for perfectionist Kubrick, he decided to leave it in, and secondly as Jack Nicholson was a trained volunteer fireman the door he chopped down was a real one and, once again, given Kubrick’s meticulousness, a great many doors were harmed in the making of this film.

For a film that was described by one critic as ‘A crashing disappointment..’ at the time is now one of the most analysed films in cinema history, Jonathan Romney of The Guardian was closer to the truth when he called The Shining, ‘..a palace of paradox.‘ For a film that was nominated for more Razzies than any other Kubrick title and nominated for no Oscars (the only Kubrick film not to be) it continues to fascinate and puzzle 50 years since its release. This article has only scratched at the surface of this Joycean maze and there are so many more elements that could have been explored but to paraphrase the Italian idiom changed in the film, The Shining has, and always will, have gold in its mouth.

Kubrick’s smoke and mirrors continue to confound.

Federico Fellini: His Life On Film?

What is it that defines visually a Fellini film?

When attempting to describe a particularly chaotic scene he had witnessed, a friend once said to me, ‘It was like a Fellini film!’ Now this friend was far from being a cineaste, only visited the cinema occasionally and hadn’t even been to Italy, but he instinctively knew what a Fellini film looked like. This is true of many people who would never admit to being familiar with Italian Neo-Realism or any other style associated with cinema from that part of the world. So how do so many people know what a Fellini film looks like?

Fellini would have been 100 years old this year and, in celebration, digitally restored versions of his films have been released and are being shown at cinemas all over the world. As I watched Fellini’s Roma and La Strada as part of this centenary retrospective, my friend’s comment all those years ago came back to me. It made me realise that Fellini is one of the few directors in cinematic history whose body is work is so distinctive that a single scene or even a single frame from any of his films could be displayed and it would be immediately obvious who created it. One could also say the same thing about Picasso, Dali or Velasquez, for example, but these artists created static images. To talk about a film director in such illustrious company is rare.

So what is it about Fellini’s work that is so visually distinctive? How do people, whose interest in cinema is merely superficial, know what a typical Fellini scene looks like? To state the bleeding obvious, it’s the meticulous staging of his films, but how is this extraordinary, idiosyncratic ‘look’ created? There’s more to that than meets the eye…

Needless to say, there is no one element that, above all, creates the Fellini ‘look’ and, in no particular order, I am going to consider some the ingredients that coalesce to construct what we describe as ‘Fellini-esque.’ The scope of this article, however, is not an attempt to explain or decipher what these images necessarily mean, many critics have done this in extensive studies, although certain elements are briefly considered. But this is about the ‘look’ of a Fellini film and it is the ‘look’ that provides so much excitement and pleasure for the viewer. And it is this ‘look’ that raises Fellini above so many other artists and why so many other directors and auteurs cite him as a major influence.

Fellini began working in films with that giant of neo-realist cinema, Roberto Rossellini, and this, inevitably, influenced his earlier films profoundly. One of the tenets of neo-realism was the use of non-professional actors, a principle that Fellini stuck with throughout his career. Although he worked regularly with his principle actors, the brilliant Marcello Mastroianni and his muse (and wife) Giulietta Masina, the bulk of his cast were just ordinary people. Fellini was known to hang out in Piazza del Popolo in his adopted Rome where he would find ‘interesting’ looking people and ask them to be in his film. Who in Rome would turn down Italy’s greatest director? Fellini loved ‘grotesques’. Not grotesque in the sense of ‘ugly’ but as ‘fantastic in the shaping and combination of forms.’ Fellini’s characters were rarely the chiselled, beautiful people that usually populate films but ordinary people whose faces told a story, people who had lived through difficult times, people who Fellini saw as being uniquely Italian.

This use of compelling and engaging characters influenced a whole raft of American and European directors including Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Nicolas Roeg and Pier Paulo Pasolini.

The way Fellini brought these characters together in scenes and introduced them to the viewing audience was also characteristic, large, long, sometimes round, often white-powdered faces suddenly lurching from the bottom or side of the frame to take up the whole screen.

His crowd scenes were often protracted and meticulously staged with a moving camera weaving and darting between the characters, often families, as they shout, bawl, eat, drink, fight, argue, dance, romance and perform. In these scenes the seething mass of humanity is the star, this is Italian life as Fellini sees it, the common denominator by which Italy is defined.

Fellini grew up in the 1920s in Rimini on the north east coast of Italy. Like most children at this time he was, of course, brought up catholic and this inevitably had an effect on him as nuns and priests feature in most Fellini films. His treatment of them is usually comedic and often surreal. The ecclesiastical fashion show in Roma is a classic satirical moment within his body of work. But pretty much any street or crowd scene will feature a bespectacled, grim looking priest or a gaggle of bewimpled nuns, for no other reason than they were ubiquitous in Italy at the time and had a profound influence on his early life, like all Italian children from this era.. Deliberate or not, they always added an element of comedy to any scene.

Fellini’s films are clearly autobiographical, but which elements of them are fact and which are fiction has been an ongoing source of debate. Fellini was always only too happy to muddy the waters on this subject and his treatment of the clergy is no different. Whether he was being critical about religion generally or just the Catholic Church is anybody’s guess. But it certainly made for hilarious cinema when a nun or priest suddenly darted into the shot in a typically Felliniesque scene for no apparent narrative reason. in a strange sort of way it has become comic because being a Fellini film, the viewer expects a nun or priest to suddenly appear unannounced.

Fellini claims to have run away to the circus when he was a child. Whether this actually happened, no one except Fellini himself really knows, but circuses and particularly clowns appear randomly and frequently in his films in a similar way to priests and nuns. He even made one of the first ‘mockumentaries’ about his obsession with clowns for Italian TV in 1970. Any Fellini film that failed to feature clowns in some way would be disappointing. But it’s Fellini. He doesn’t need a reason to feature them.

As so much of Fellini’s output is autobiographical, there are certain settings which feature in most of his films. Growing up in the coastal town of Rimini, beaches are a recurring setting in most of his films, particularly his early ones. In La Strada, for example, the film begins and ends on a beach. 81/2, La Dolce Vita and Amaracord all include scenes on beaches.

Empty night time Italian streets and piazzas are given prominence in many of his films. Often after a street has been heaving with action, humanity and life the central character is left alone to deal with their troubles, their melancholy, their dark night of the soul. With only stray dogs, a whistling wind and the harsh moonlight for company, the character reflects on their life as Gelsomina does in La Strada having run away from her harsh ‘keeper’, Zampano. The atmospheric nature of such a setting clearly struck a chord with Fellini whose tragic characters counterpointed the lively and animated nature of the crowd in the street earlier.

Related image

Strange marching brass bands, sometimes of sad looking clowns, appear unheralded and disappear again, almost punctuating important moments. In La Strada they appear in the middle of nowhere as Gelsomina sits feeling sad and sorry for herself but the musicians motivate her to return to Zampano’s act. In 81/2 they march up and down Guido’s huge white elephant of a set, partly referencing Fellini’s love of the circus and partly motivating Guido to try and move forward with his film.

Although not a visual element Fellini’s random manipulation of time is characteristic of his narratives. He may spend half an hour of a film relating the events of a few days and then jump three years ahead, for no obvious reason. Similarly, flashbacks are common and sometimes not always made obvious to the viewer. Fellini’s Roma, for example, jumps around with time, from the autobiographical past to the fictional present, and vice-versa, and back again. One might think Fellini is deliberately trying to blur the edges of time and place to create a Roma that is the one in his head, which is, of course, what the film is all about.

Fellini’s narratives can also be erratic, disordered, uneven and most certainly episodic. In Roma the young Fellini (or who we are led to believe is the young Fellini) has an encounter with a prostitute who fascinates him and he asks our out on a date and she agrees. How the date went or their relationship developed, if at all, is left unanswered. Throughout this film we jump back and forward from the main character’s (Fellini’s?) childhood to his adolescence then to the present and rarely making any sort of narrative sense. But isn’t memory just a series of disordered snapshots in our mind? His films are like this sporadic stream of consciousness and fascinating for it.

Stylistically, Fellini uses the camera to assault the viewer in the most exciting way. Extreme close-ups, aerial shots, POV shots, hand held cameras weaving their way through heaving crowds, jump cuts, long , long takes, deep focus and sweeping dolly shots pepper his films. A Fellini film can be an exhausting experience and often one viewing is nothing like enough. The meticulous mise en scene, scattergun dialogue and ultra-fast editing does not always allow the eye and brain to take in what exactly is happening in each scene. Also taking into account a Fellini film can be over two hours long, this is a mind-blowing amount of material to try and deal with in one sitting. A writer described Fellini’s films as ‘..a luxuriance of ..images‘ and, as mentioned at the start of this article, a single freeze-frame could be seen to encapsulate Fellini’s ouvre.

Fellini has been described by some commentators as ‘self-indulgent‘ and even ‘complacent‘ but in many ways, with a true auteur such as he is, these are desirable qualities and his films have never look dated or ‘uncool’. Quite the contrary. Whether their context and ideas are still relevant is, for me, irrelevant, but they look amazing and never slow down for a second. They are a visual carnival and at a time when we are being bombarded with super heroes weekly, what’s not to like?

Three years ago I was on holiday in New York and stayed at a fashionable hotel in the ultra-hip Lower East Side. In the lift (or elevator as they would say) a screen showed Fellini’s masterpiece 8 1/2 on a loop 24/7. As old films go, it doesn’t come much cooler than that.

Fellini would have approved.

A Clockwork Orange

..after 50 years, a film that is still way ahead of its time.

It’s hard to convey how irresistible the desire to see Kubrick’s film of Anthony Burgess’ novel ‘A Clockwork Orange’ was for an 11 year old boy just becoming aware of grown-up literature. The only problem: it wasn’t possible to see it. Even at 15 you had an outside chance of being allowed into the cinema if the lighting was poor and your parka hood was pulled up over your head far enough. Video and DVD was a long, long way off so at 11 there were two chances. Fat and slim. 

Of course the media obsession with the film, as it was with any film that skirted with the term ‘controversial’, meant plenty information to entice a pre-teenager who had just graduated on to reading the tabloids on a Sunday. Tabloids just loved ‘controversial’ films. It allowed them to take a moralistic high ground while salaciously giving every lurid detail of the sex, drug-taking, horror or violence of even the most mild of adult flicks at the local flea-pit. The Exorcist, Carrie and The Devils were three examples of films released in the early 1970s on which the tabloids poured opprobrium, described every ‘depraved’ scene and, obviously, increased the numbers of people at the box office massively. The Scottish Sunday Mail ran a double-page spread listing, helpfully, in painstaking detail, every ‘gut-wrenching’ (its words) scene for the delectation of Sunday readers. No such thing as a ‘spoiler alert’ in those days. And I particularly remember the Scottish Sunday Mail wiring Alan ‘Roughie’ Rough and his lovely catwalk model wife to a heart monitor and logged their reactions to the various shock scenes in Brian De Palma’s Carrie. The purpose, I would assume, was to show that even a Scottish international goalkeeper with supposed nerves of steel could nearly shit himself at certain scary moments in a film, so decent, god-fearing presbyterians could steer clear. In theory.  In reality it just made people flock to see the film, of course. Well, that was the science bit, for what it’s worth, but it does demonstrate tabloid newspapers’ love of and obsession with ‘controversial’ films of the era. 

To be fair, A Clockwork Orange actually comes across today as more disturbing because of its violence. As a society we have recognised certain types of violence, particularly towards women, as unacceptable but in 1971 references and depictions of rape, though not commonplace, were certainly more visible. Jokes about it would even be used in sitcoms. However, in the context of Burgess’ novel the violence represented in the film was intended to be shocking and to watch it now renders it probably even more disturbing than at the time of its release. Exactly what the author intended. Belonging to the Science Fiction genre, it’s set in a futuristic Britain where drugs are legal, people rarely leave their homes and violence within society has escalated. Like most Science Fiction stories it is a warning for the future. 

One of the few aspects of Kubrick’s film which fails, mainly because there was no way it could have succeeded in relation to the novel, is in the character of Alex, played by 20-something Malcolm McDowell. The first half of Burgess’ novel tells the story of ultra-violent Alex and his gang of droogs on a rampage of sex and violence. At the end of this section of the book the reader is shocked with the sudden revelation that Alex’s orgy of violence has resulted in the death of one of his victims, an old lady, and he has been arrested. It is at this point he confesses to the reader the horrifying truth, ‘And me still only fifteen.’ Here is Burgess’ warning, his reason for writing the novel and justification for the repulsive rampage of violence the reader has been subjected to. But in practical terms, this fictional narrative device could not really be depicted in the film, Malcolm MacDowell does not look anything like a fifteen year old, and social commentators did not have the intelligence to discern this.

In the early 70s there were many so called ‘controversial’ films released. It was a time of experimentation and a loosening of censorship rules. In fact, ‘censorship’ became ‘classification’ as films were seen as art and not just cheap flicks to excite the lower, uneducated classes for a couple of hours in a members-only fleapit. Therefore, films which dealt with more disturbing issues, such as violence within our automated society became a popular theme and depicted violence and sex in a brutally realistic way which the general public and ‘the authorities’, at first, found difficult to cope with. Some thought it was still there only to titilate and thereby hung the tale of A Clockwork Orange.

The violence, even though I hadn’t seen it, certainly didn’t excite me. What excited me, from what I could make out, was the futuristic look of the film, the representation of a dystopian society (something I still love) and, of course, the controversy. I still, obviously, am drawn to things the tabloids hate.

The film had been out for a few weeks before I’d even heard of it. Bizarrely, the first time I read anything about A Clockwork Orange was in the pages of Shoot, the adolescent football magazine, more precisely in Everton and England footballer Alan Ball’s weekly column. The content of this column was unstintingly dull. After he had given his ghost-writer details of Everton’s most recent match it was a desperate struggle to find anything else to say to reach the required 500 words. Often the interviewer will have asked Alan, so what else did you do this week? The terminally boring life of a professional footballer was laid bare in these columns but one week in 1971 Al and his lovely wife, Lesley, went to see A Clockwork Orange. His critical conclusion, summed up in a sentence, was that he ‘slept through it.’ The moral question of whether a top footballer should have been discussing, no matter how curtly, a film he had seen about teenage ultra-violence, drug-adulterated milk bars, under-age sex, gang warfare and rape is by the by, it was the 70s after all. But I do have Alan Ball to thank for alerting me to this cult classic. I immediately decided to find out about this film, why would Alan Ball be referring to it if it wasn’t culturally important? 

I began to notice the iconic film poster with a cartoonesque Alex brandishing a knife through a triangle, a naked woman kneeling below the apex (always irresistible to an 11 year old), an eyeball sitting on his outstretched arm and, most intriguingly, the bowler hat and false eyelash on one eye! The futuristic typeface added a further appealing element to the whole package. This was seriously alluring. 

My fascination was further enhanced (if that was possible) when I actually managed to see an extract from the film. STV, at this time, had a film review programme which was broadcast at 10.30pm once a week called Cinema. Presenters of this programme included Michael Parkinson, Clive James and Robert Kee, and I think it was Parkie who showed a clip of A Clockwork Orange much to my excitement. In those days, obviously, there was no video recording so the 20 second black and white extract featured Alex and his Droogs racing through country lanes in a stolen sports car, this absolutely classic Kubrickian moment is indelibly stamped on my memory. This moment only cemented my fascination with the film and my frustration of not being able to see it. 

I only have vague memories of the media outrage about the copycat violence which they claim broke out as result of young people having their minds ‘warped’ by the movie. It was certainly a particularly strong defence in cases of extreme violence at the time, irrespective of whether there was any truth in it. Buttoned-up Establishment British judges were only too happy to accept the possibility that some depraved modern film might be the reason for our kids’ aggression. Clearly society couldn’t be to blame.

 The ‘look’ of the film certainly did influence young people. I do remember Crombie coats, Doc Marten’s boots and even the occasional false eyelash manifesting themselves in our high streets. Most of them daft wee laddies (and a few lassies) who just thought they looked cool but would have run a mile if anyone challenged them to a ‘bitva’! The media shitstorm, however, was enough for Kubrick to withdraw the film in the UK in 1973 and it remained unshown publicly in the UK until the director’s death in 1999. Rumour had it that a cinema in Paris showed it throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s.

The film’s iconic resonance has been enshrined by the fact that so many images are as well-known now as they were then. Certain words from Nadsat have found their way into common usage, for example ‘horrorshow’, ‘ultraviolence and ’droog’. ‘Moloko’ which was based on the Russian word for milk, and in the film is a narcotic-filled milk drink, became the name of a successful 90s band, as did Heaven 17, whose name is mentioned and shown in the record shop scene when Alex meets two girls whilst browsing in the store. Echo and the Bunnymen’s record label was entitled ‘Korova’ after the milk bar frequented by Alex and his droogs and let’s not forget about Glasgow’s underground transport system punningly named ‘The Clockwork Orange’. 

As Kubrick preferred to work in the UK, many of the actors in his films were familiar faces to British TV viewers as well as film-goers. Philip Stone, who appeared in three Kubrick masterpieces (more than any other actor apart from Joe Turkel), a fine jobbing actor who had appeared in countless TV productions since the early sixties, played Alex’s dad. Stone’s performance clearly resonated with Kubrick as he went on to appear in Barry Lyndon and, in his crowning achievement, as the Overlook Hotel’s former caretaker, a role in which he excelled as the courteous but terrifying Delbert Grady. A Clockwork Orange was also a huge break for the young Warren Clarke as one of Alex’s droogs, Dim. Like Malcolm McDowall and Philip Stone, Clarke went on to work in a range of prestigious productions not least with Lindsay Anderson in O’ Lucky Man. The lovely Adrienne Corri, like Stone a stalwart of quality TV productions, played the brutally assaulted wife of the writer, Patrick Magee. It was the writer, Mr Alexander, who, in the novel, told of the idea of a clockwork orange, a speech which, oddly, failed to make it into the completed film. Magee was a favourite actor of the great Samuel Beckett who wrote one of his greatest plays, Krapp’s Last Tape, specifically for Magee. Also popping up in the film was John Savident, another prolific British actor who ended his professional life as Foghorn Leghorn-like butcher Fred Elliott in Coronation Street. Having played in Shakespeare productions, many Wednesday plays and, of course, in A Clockwork Orange, it is Corrie, sadly, he will be remembered for by most people. That said, he did appear in 714 episodes, I say, 714 episodes! Michael Bates, best known as Blamire, one of the original characters on Last of the Summer Wine, is excellent as the sadistic prison officer (‘Shut your bleeding’ hole!’). He also appeared in every episode of It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum but the less said about that… Miriam Karlin as the cat lady, who comes to a nasty end at the hands of Alex, was well known for The Rag Trade (with a young Reg Varney!) and a fledgeling Steven Berkoff as a copper are just a few of the familiar faces, many of whom possibly didn’t realise just how much their parts were going to cement their reputations in the years to come.

Why does A Clockwork Orange still fascinate nearly 50 years later? Because, like so many Kubrick films, it looks ageless but futuristic, depicting a parallel universe which hasn’t been defined by the fashions of the time but clearly showed a world that is still ‘ours.’ The electronic Wendy Carlos soundtrack, the meticulous whiteness of the sets, the flowing strangeness of the typefaces, the sweeping camera shots, Alex’s direct looks into the camera (unusual for the time), Burgess’ ‘Nadsat’ argot as spoken on the voiceover by Alex, all come together to create a representation of such stunning originality that only an auteur like Kubrick could have had such vision.

And above all, to the curious teenager, it was an ‘X’. That most fascinating of all letters whose cultural cache is so much heftier than the dull old literal ’18.’ Here was a tantalising world almost within touching distance that held secrets open only to adults, who we were to assume had the intellect and maturity to cope with such esoteric and supposedly disturbing subject matter. Kubrick’s dystopian vision proved too much, however, for an adult population weaned on the hypocritical outrage of the tabloids, Mary Whitehouse and so-called public-decency. But for a short time in the early 70s A Clockwork Orange was the most state-of-the-art, modern, challenging and iconic artefact of its age. 

Despite the fact the concept of a clockwork orange is never even mentioned in the film.