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Don’t Look Now

British Cinema in the 1970s


Edited by Paul Newland


Bristol: Intellect, 2010

Paperback. 256 pages. ISBN 9781841503202. £19.95


Reviewed by Jo Fox

Durham University



If British cinema of the 1970s was once considered an ‘academic black hole’ [Shail in Patch, 255], a ‘forgotten decade’, then the recent spate of publications, notably those emerging from the AHRC-funded project at the University of Portsmouth led by Sue Harper, have surely redressed the omission. This project investigated whether 1970s British cinema ought to be dismissed as ‘a tasteless and undistinguished interregnum between the vibrant 1960s and the entrepreneurial 1980s, or whether it made substantial innovations in the area of film which have not been recognised hitherto’. Paul Newland’s volume, with its 19 essays on the more familiar productions of the period such as The Wicker Man, A Clockwork Orange and Tommy to the more obscure work of writer-directors such as Anthony Simmons and Barney Platts-Mills, asks similar questions: what was the effect of the withdrawal of American finance on British cinema in the 1970s? How did cinema reflect socio-political transformations? How should historians understand those ‘moments of crisis which forced artists and entrepreneurs to recognise that the old conceptual models needed refurbishment’ [Harper, 25], leading to re-invention and innovation? Just how ‘dark’ was the dark age of British cinema?

Naturally, the contributors are drawn to what the films might say of the 1970s—of immigration and race, of class identity, of gender, of social and economic dissatisfaction. For Andrew Walker, the passage of British cinema in this decade was mirrored by the changing political landscape: it was much ‘like the country itself: it had a residual energy, but in the main was feeling dull, drained debilitated, infected by a run-down feeling becoming characteristic of British life’ [Walker in Garvey, 179]. But just how far was film concerned with representations of the present as opposed to the past? Particularly striking about the volume as a whole is the continual historical reference points: from Glenda Jackson’s Elizabeth R [Williams] and Anthony Simmons’ evocation of Humphrey Jennings’ poetic realism [Dolan & Spicer] to Alf Garnett’s wartime experience in Bob Kellett’s The Garnett Saga [Garvey] and the intersection between past and present in advertising [Sargeant]. As Harper suggests in her keynote essay, while recognising its ‘fluid…, nebulous and… fleeting character’, perhaps there is more to be gained by interrogating not simply the ways in which ‘1970s films respond to the present and its discontents, but the way they deploy the past’ [27].  Harper also raises the question of chronological seep. What is meant by ‘1970s cinema’ when the specific characteristics of decades are in themselves difficult to define? Other essays, such as Peter Hutchings’ examination of visions of apocalypse, problematise cinematic ‘Britishness’. These are important themes prevalent, if not always explicitly confronted, in Newland’s volume.

It is possible to conclude from numerous essays in this volume that Walker’s pessimism regarding 1970s British cinema was overstated. While financial decline and a surfeit of poor productions may have been thought to haunt British film in this period, opportunity existed. Although crisis engulfed certain hitherto dominant genres, others flourished. Peri Bradley shows the 1970s to be ‘a pivotal era when the horror film began to develop in a particularly challenging manner that was a direct reaction to the political and social environment of the time’ [121]. Just as censorship inhibited open discussion and representation of discrimination, as Paul Newland’s essay on Franco Rosso’s Babylon shows (the film was given an ‘X’ certificate to prevent black youth becoming ‘confused and troubled’ [99]), the introduction of the minimum age of 18 for ‘X’ films ‘led to formerly forbidden subjects such as incest, rape, promiscuity and cannibalism being investigated in close and gory detail’, making ‘horror the ideal arena [in which to] confront the imposed restrictions on sexuality and its representations’ [Bradley, 123]. Just as the 1970s produced TV spin-off films which did not meet with critical acclaim [Garvey; P. Williams], it also gave rise to ‘dazzling originality… that burned bright through the gloom’ [Patch on Nicolas Roeg, 263]. And just as some film producers, such as Stanley Baxter, failed to adapt to the changed circumstances of the 1970s [Shail], new relations with television were forged [Rolinson; Garvey; Williams; Sargeant].

The volume ‘offer[s] a picture of the period which reflects both its fragmentary nature and helps to highlight the richness, diversity and peculiarity of 1970s film culture in Britain’ [17], and, in this, it is largely successful. However, this does not necessarily make for a coherent and satisfying volume that could have done more to address the central problems identified in Harper’s ‘terrain-mapping’ keynote lecture. There are some provocative and convincing essays—Harper’s address, Melanie Williams’ piece on Glenda Jackson’s ‘vernacular… film feminism’ [53], Vincent Porter’s analysis of regional film exhibition, and Amy Sargeant’s reflections on the relationship between film, television and advertising. However, on the whole, the volume reads too much like a series of papers (as opposed to fully developed essays). While publication may well have been timed to coincide with or even pre-empt some of the important work emerging on 1970s British cinema, it would perhaps have been better to allow time for some of the papers to have been developed and extended, responding to the methodological issues identified by Harper. Moreover, there is considerable variation in the archival underpinnings of some of the essays presented here. While some pieces are rich in new insights drawn from personal papers (such as the essay by John Izod, Karl Magee, Kathryn Mackenzie & Isabelle Gourdin on Lindsey Anderson’s O Lucky Man), others are less convincing for the historian. The volume is also marred by numerous typographical errors throughout, including, rather unforgivably, the misspelling of Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, from which the volume takes its title [twice on p. 37].

Newland’s collection, alongside other recent work, certainly demonstrates that British cinema of the 1970s is worthy of scholarly attention—its tensions and contradictions in a decade of disillusionment and uncertainly pose (perhaps irresolvable) problems for the cultural historian. Running parallel to the problems with which we are more familiar—uniqueness or representativeness, style and representation, periodisation, audience response and spectatorship—is the fact that, for many of us, this history is also partly ‘our own… it is our young selves we go out to meet, albeit in a shadowy form.’ As we move to the study of the more recent past, this is certainly an issue we must recognise.



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