EIFF 2010: After The Wave

With the dust settling and awards presented for this years Edinburgh International Film Festival, one important aspect of the event which can be somewhat overlooked is the annual retrospective.  Instead of a more traditional focus on one particular film-maker, the 2010 EIFF programme presented an excellent overview of forgotten British cinema between 1967 and 1979.

Entitled After The Wave, this retrospective challenged the notion of British cinema in this period as being little more than saucy soft-core romps and sitcom spin-offs.  Produced in association with cinephile magazine Sight and Sound, the programme of films offered wide variety and displayed a country questioning its own identity in the years between British New Wave modernity and the Thatcherist era yet to come.

It was the sheer range of films on offer which defined the event.  There is quite possibly little to recommend on a cultural level for something like Michael Apted’s 1976 picture, The Squeeze, featuring an anglicised Stacy Keach as an alcoholic ex-detective investigating the kidnap of a wealthy industrialist’s wife and daughter. This film is as hard-boiled as seventies gangster capers could get.  Lashings of nudity, boozy degradation and shotguns doing serious damage, The Squeeze possibly belongs in a late night showing on ITV4 (where, coincidentally, I first saw it some years back).  If it was remade today, it would star Danny Dyer and do well on DVD.  But there’s guilty pleasure to be found in its relentlessly sleazy nastiness, and offers the chance to wonder at how the likes of Edward Fox and David Hemmings came to be in the same film as Freddie Starr.

More lasting worth was to be found in two contrasting films on aspiring British society within this period, Pressure (1975) and Private Road (1971). Horace Ove’s Pressure is of particular importance, being the first British feature film by a black director.  It follows young school-leaver Tony (Herbert Norville) in his attempts to find employment, constantly knocked back due to the colour of his skin before having to settle on a menial hospital porter job for which he is hugely overqualified.  All the while, Tony’s firebrand brother Colin (Oscar James) mocks his efforts while extolling him to join him in the local Black Power movement. 

Tony simply wants to be a part of the British society into which he was born, asking his brother “But what’s wrong with fish and chips and Gary Glitter?!” (a line which obviously gets a few unintended laughs these days).  Slowly, Tony’s aspiration is beaten, literally, out of him and he realises how heavily the cards are stacked against him.  Pressure’s message is ultimately a bleak one, but, while some of the acting is very much in the am-dram league, it has a fantastic reggae soundtrack and vibrantly evocative locations around Ladbroke Grove.

Private Road, Barney Platts-Mills follow up to his recently resurrected Bronco Bullfrog, also follows thwarted aspirations, admittedly of a somewhat more affluent white middle-class bent.  It follows the romance between up-and-coming writer Peter (a young and cherubic Bruce Robinson) and well-to-do wallflower Anne (Susan Penhaligon).  Their initial blossoming of love is slowly eroded by Anne’s domineering parents, drug-addled friends, the need to make money in a commercial environment and Peter’s lack of focus and, possibly, talent in his writing.  Platts-Mills skill in directing actors and tailoring their performances as central to his long takes make Private Road a minor masterpiece of early seventies British cinema, and its forthcoming release on DVD is long overdue.

One of the highlights of the retrospective was the presence of some of the film-makers.  Both Ove and Platts-Mills were present to take audience questions and showed modest pleasure at the rediscovery of his work.  One British director who needs no reassurance of his abilities is Ken Russell who appeared to introduce his 1972 classic Savage Messiah.

Detailing the tumultuous life and passions of sculptor Henri Gaudier in the early years of the 20th century leading up to the Great War, Savage Messiah was wildly overlooked at the time of its release, closing after five days in the West End.  It’s a vital volley of Russell at full blast, worth some serious re-appraisal, and to have the great man in attendance, ageing and stooped but still with a marvellously agile mind, made for a fantastic experience.

For me, however, the twin high points of the retrospective were the showings of two films which now seem scarily prescient.  Both are steeped in the traditions of satire, although one sweetened with humour considerably more than the other.  Peter Watkins’ Privilege from 1967 shows a United Kingdom governed by a coalition government which has turned an anodyne pop star Steven Shorter (played expertly by Manfred Mann’s Paul Jones) into an effective outlet for national unrest. 

Everything is channelled through Shorter.  He has to do everything from advertise a national apple glut to endorse religion so as to further appease his national fan base.  Shorter, however, is beginning to question his role and how much freedom he, or anyone else, has in this state.  Much of the satire in Privilege is blunt, angrily so, but it should effectively set a chill up your spine next time you see a politician cosying up to Simon Cowell.

Even more ominous, while also being hysterically funny, was The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer.  Made in 1970 and starring Peter Cook in his most Machiavellian role, the film follows Rimmer, a mysterious PR man, who slowly and methodically works his way to the very top of government, destroying everyone in his path while remaining lily-white and squeaky clean in everyone’s eyes.  On becoming Prime Minister, he resolves that the people should have more say in government decisions (The Big Society, anyone?) and proceeds to hold referendums on the most minute aspects of public life.  The British population announce their displeasure at having to make these decisions for themselves, and so Rimmer announces one final referendum.  Only then does the scale of his ambition become clear.

Watching The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer with a packed Filmhouse audience hooting with laughter and the director, Kevin Billington, in attendance made for a terrific afternoon and was my defining moment of the whole of this year’s festival.  A wonderfully witty script by John Cleese and Graham Chapman and a top notch cast including Arthur Lowe, Denholm Elliot and Ronald Fraser make it a must see for anyone interested in British cinema of this period. 

Beneath the laughs, however, were some serious points as to the future of British “democracy”, which may well only now be coming to fruition.  It was telling that the biggest laugh from the audience was when Rimmer announces to his newly elected Conservative government that Britain has no money left over from the previous Labour administration.  While they dine on fine meats and wines in a palatial country house, the Conservatives simply announce they’ll publicly declare themselves astounded and shocked at this state of affairs before “blaming it on the last lot”.  Ultimately, that explained why so many of these films felt so relevant.  They have so much to tell us about today and the tumult which doubtless is to come.

Further info on the Edinburgh International Film Festival