British Universities Film & Video Council

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Psyched-Up: Mind-Bending Films on 4 (1987-1992)

With the recent unprecedented multi-platform release (5th July 2013) of Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England, which has been variously described as “a psychedelic Western” (Sound on Sight), “a psychedelic Civil War-era chiller” (Movie Mail) and “a psychedelic trip into magic and madness” (Film4), it seems like a good opportunity to take a trip back to reassess some of the weird, wonderful and forgotten ‘fantasy’ films financed by Channel 4 over the years.

Discussing the work of Wheatley, alongside recent Warp X releases like Berberian Sound Studio (which combines echoes of Coppola’s The Conversation, Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Italian Giallo horror movies) and Film4’s upcoming A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (a ‘cinematic journey into the heart of ideology’ with philosopher Slavoj Zizek and filmmaker Sophie Fiennes as guides), Ben Walters of The Guardian recently observed that Film4 is at the heart of what is arguably “a bold new wave of British filmmaking: cinematically confident, generically tricksy, compelled by disturbing, ambivalent subject matter” (emphasis added). Can we identify precursors to this new wave, which share these attributes? With no further ado, here are some potential candidates, representing a tiny fraction of Channel 4’s history of funding and transmitting often adventurous low-budget films. This first survey (hopefully others will follows in the same series) deals with just the first five years (1987-1992), which seems in retrospect to have been a surprisingly fertile period for groundbreaking and no-holds-barred cinematic weirdness (on TV)!

Wings of Death (first tx 27th July 1987)

Let’s start with a short film (a kind of appetiser for the psychedelic sustenance that follows); a bold and visually imaginative recreation of the experience of cold turkey and nightmarish destitution. Made in 1985, Wings of Death received its television premiere on Channel 4 several years later, not as a Film on Four, but in The Eleventh Hour, the late-night strand for independent and experimental work, which was programmed by Channel 4’s Independent Film and Video Department (under the leadership of Alan Fountain).


Montage of stills from ‘Wings of Death’. Courtesy of Michael Coulson.

Wings of Death was jointly written and directed by Michael Coulson and Nichola Bruce, who had worked together since meeting as students at Hornsey College of Art in the 1970s, establishing Muscle Films for the production of experimental art films. Wings of Death came about because the pair wanted to make a feature film which could reach a wider audience than their art films.  Nevertheless, they stuck to their art school principles, evolving the film in a very innovative way by basing the film’s script on a poem, and by basing the film’s sets on a series of large paintings they had specially made. Film on Four script editor Walter Donohue, who was then on the British Film Institute’s Production Board, introduced the pair to the BFI, and went on to act as script editor and creative consultant on the film. Donohue’s longtime collaborator John Boorman was also a mentor on the film, providing support right ‘to the final cut’.

The film had other connections with Channel 4, as Alan Fountain provided a small grant and was interested in co- funding a larger project with Coulson and Bruce called Future Leisure (a futurist satire). In order to find the funds to pursue this larger project, the pair had to make a shorter film, albeit on 35mm – hence Wings of Death. The BFI also wanted Coulson and Bruce to start with a short film because they had a reputation for being visual rather than narrative filmmakers.

The film starred Dexter Fletcher as a young heroin addict who holes up in a seedy London hotel, either to review his life or to kick his habit (or both). There he is haunted by his idyllic  memories of courtship with a girl, by the horrors of withdrawal, and by a sinister little girl dressed as a nurse wandering the corridors, cutting open her doll “to see what’s inside” whilst winos and junkies prowl outside as flesh-eating zombies… As Michael Coulson noted recently (see Michael’s website for more details about the film):

We called Wings of Death a tragedy. The tragedy at the time was that it was easier for young kids to get heroin than get a job in the UK. So, the film was based loosely around the whole heroin thing that was going on, but we didn’t really want it to be a commercial against taking heroin. In the end, the BFI persuaded us to put in this opening sequence that made it more specific to heroin than we actually wanted it. We were told to go off and write a script. So we did. It was originally going to have more of a William Burroughs influence to it but as we wrote the script we also created a series of large paintings and the film became more Gothic in style. We built sets based on our paintings and filmed exteriors in the then very derelict streets of East London.

The film’s producer was none other than Paul Webster, who some years later would go on to become Chief Executive of FilmFour (between 1998 and 2004)! It was Webster’s first film as producer. Webster, who was working at Palace Pictures at the time, was instrumental in getting Wings of Death a theatrical release, encouraging the BFI to let Palace distribute the film in the UK. It actually played as support to Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, for which Palace had the distribution rights. Wings of Death was one of the last shorts to play as a support to a main feature in England, a practice which was the last residue of the A & B picture tradition which had provided space for British low-budget horror films (such as those from the Amicus and Hammer studios) in the 1960s and 1970s.

Born of Fire (first tx 14th April 1988)

A Field in England was not the first film funded by Channel 4 to mix occult mysticism with psychedelic horror. Born of Fire had achieved this back in 1986, although its mysticism was oriental (Islamic) rather than English. Like Wings of Death the film also took several years to be transmitted on Channel 4, presumably due to its own theatrical release. Directed and produced in 1986 by the Pakistani-born Jamil Dehlavi, Born of Fire is surely one of the strongest candidates for ‘weirdest film ever to have been funded by Channel 4’ (who contributed 88% of the film’s budget – £755,000 of £854,000). As an uncategorisable ‘Islamic art-horror’ film it seems likely that it was a beneficiary of the increasingly international scope of Film on Four during the mid-to-late 1980s (indeed at that time a world-cinema strand was developed entitled ‘Film Four International’) rather than the personal tastes of David Rose as Commissioning Editor, whose own preferences were for regional English settings and an amalgam of realism and fantasy rather than mind/genre bending fantasy.[1]

Although the film received both a theatrical and home video release in the 1980s, it has languished in complete obscurity since that time. Recently re-released with impeccable care and attention to detail by cult horror label Mondo Macabro in a widescreen format digitally transferred from the original negative, the film is beginning to find a new audience again. As Rodney Perkins recently opined in a review of the film for the world cinema website Twitch, the film’s obscurity is undeserved, because “Born of Fire is a rare hybrid of art house cinema and horror that delivers a strong dose of mind-bending surrealism”. The film has a rather bewildering and flimsy plot concerning a virtuoso English flautist (played by Peter Firth) who is drawn to Turkey in order to discover the secrets of his father’s death, who was mentored by the mysterious ‘Master Magician’. He is accompanied by a female astronomer who is investigating the effects of a disturbance on the sun’s surface – which appears to have caused the eruption of a long dormant volcano in Turkey (where most of the film is shot). It should be clear by now that this is one of those films almost impossible to describe in terms of plot! A synopsis similarly cannot convey the impact of the film’s imagery, including the strikingly weird mountain locations of tiered caves and calcified rock pools.

In fact plot and dialogue are somewhat superfluous, as Born of Fire sheds its narrative confines over time in favour of a hallucinatory visual approach akin to that of the legendary filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. This emphasis on poetic and surreal imagery links to the film’s supernatural themes, which are derived from the Islamic notion of Iblis or Shayṭan (aka the Devil). Iblis manifests himself through nightmarish imagery that keeps spilling over into the narrative until the film is completely suffused with hallucinatory images. A woman is ‘stoned’ to death by flowers instead of rocks; a vulture crashes through a car windshield on a rainy London night; the Iblis responds to a sung Muslim prayer by shooting flames from his eyes…

 Shadey (first tx 28th April 1988)

Shadey, broadcast just two weeks after Born of Fire, also has startling and disturbing elements. However, it is a very different film, suffused with black comedy and blasphemy rather than horror and mysticism. A star-studded, surreal and subversive spoof, directed by Philip Saville and scripted by the late playwright Snoo Wilson, it concerns the fastidious manager of a body-repair shop (played by Anthony Sher), who is gifted with miraculous talents. He can read people’s minds and witness current events without being present, and he can transfer these revelations onto 8mm film. Shadey confides his clairvoyance to Sir Cyril Landau (Patrick McNee), seeking to market his talents to raise money for a sex-change operation. However, Sir Cyril alerts British Intelligence, which orders its lead scientist Dr Cloud (Billie Whitelaw) to force the pacifist Shadey to ‘mind-film’ the current technological state of Soviet submarines. Ultimately Shadey manages to evade the clutches of MI5 and pursues his original goal to become a woman, culminating in a final scene in which Sher appears looking remarkably ladylike as the ‘post-op’ Shadey. Perhaps not so much a psychedelic film as a downright bizarre and transgressive example of ‘fervid filmmaking’ (see the recently published book of this name by Mike Watt, which has an entry on the film),[2] Shadey was fully funded by Channel 4 (at a cost of £959,000).

Silent Scream (first tx. 27th July 1992)

Finally, a film that can be described as a bona-fide forgotten classic (rather than an interesting and failed experiment as both Born of Fire and Shadey ultimately were).  Developed by BFI Productions and Film Four International, Silent Scream was the debut feature of David Hayman, the Scottish film and television actor best known for his roles in A Sense of Freedom (1979), My Name is Joe (1988) and the ITV police dramas The Bill and Trial and Retribution. Like Born of FireSilent Scream was only available (and scarcely available at that) on VHS until a recent DVD release (by the BFI in 2010) allowed the film to be rediscovered.

Based on the true story of Larry Winters, who was incarcerated for the murder of a Soho barman, the film eschews the bleak naturalism of Alan Clarke’s Scum (1978), offering instead a dazzling, visually impressive combination of crime drama, biopic and drug-induced fantasy. Winters was an intelligent but traumatised individual, brutalised by religious bigotry in childhood and the twin institutions of the paramilitary and prison as an adult. He was one of the first inmates of the Special Unit at Barlinnie prison, where prisoners are encouraged to express themselves through art. The film dramatises Winters’ fascinating writings and his drug use (both prescribed and ‘recreational’). Bill Beech, who wrote the film’s script, worked in Barlinnie and planned collaborations with Winters. As Ian Cooper has observed:

Part of Hayman’s achievement is the way in which the film elicits sympathy for Winters, without downplaying the gravity of his crimes, skilfully shifting from the subjective dreams and hallucinations of the protagonist to the objective reality represented by his long-suffering mother. Iain Glen delivers a riveting central performance and he was rewarded with a Best Actor award at the Berlin Film Festival … [Silent Scream is] a successful mix of gritty prison drama and psychedelic art movie.[3]

We can round off this blog with an anecdote which might provide some insight into the steely determination of Channel 4’s founding Chief Executive, Jeremy Isaacs, to build a new television station that was provocative, rebellious and passionate in its ethos, in the face of hostility from the Establishment and the right-wing tabloid press; for the channel to explore the dialectic between art and alienation through funding innovative film and drama.  The most famous graduate of Barlinnie was the violent criminal-turned-sculptor Jimmy Boyle, and, as noted earlier, Hayman actually starred in the television movie about Boyle (A Sense of Freedom) which was produced by Isaacs (himself a Scot, of course). When he moved into his original office in Charlotte Street, Isaacs hung a print from the film on the wall – David Hayman as Boyle, dirty, naked and alone in a cell, with his left arm raised in triumph. Isaacs later admitted to Ron McKay in 1985 not only that he had originally been unsure whether to hang a print of such a controversial figure, but also that he regarded it as some kind of a metaphor. Perhaps for Channel 4’s defiant refusal to jettison the hopes and ideals with which so many people had invested the notion of an ‘open’ Fourth Channel throughout the 1970s, or for its embrace of the controversial in the 1980s:

It was Boyle, he said, in the silent cell. And what he [Isaacs] was declaiming was that the cell was no longer silent. ‘In a way,’ said Isaacs ‘that’s what we’re about.’[4]

 Ieuan Franklin.

Many thanks to Michael Coulson and Nichola Bruce for providing information about Wings of Death.

[1] Having said this we must remember that Rose had commissioned Penda’s Fen (1974) when he was Head of Drama at the BBC Pebble Mill – a TV play (written by David Rudkin and directed by Alan Clarke) in which a middle-class pastor’s son has a bizarre series of encounters with angels, the composer Edward Elgar, and King Penda, the mythical last pagan ruler of England.

[2] Mike Watt, “Fervid Filmmaking: 66 Cult Pictures of Vision, Verve and No Self-Restraint” (McFarlane, 2012).

[3] Yoram Allon, Del Cullen & Hannah Paterson (Eds.), Contemporary British and Irish Film Directors: A Wallflower Critical Guide (Wallflower Press, 2001).

[4] Ron McKay, ‘Don’t Get Mad, Get 10 Percent’, Media Week, 8th November 1985.