Stipend holder, filmmaker Andy Kimpton-Nye delves into our production archives to discover how white working-class young men were represented in 70s British cinema.
As far back as I can remember I have been a big fan of film. On a visit to my local cinema at the age of 6 or 7, I was both thrilled and terrified by The Wizard of Oz. Into my everyday, small-town life came colour, escapism, fantasy and fear, yes, fear (whenever Margaret Hamilton appeared on screen as the Wicked Witch of the West, I had to cower behind open-fingers pressed tight to my face). Fascinated and, at times, frightened, I was hooked!
Fast-forward almost four decades to 2005 and, still as passionate about film as ever, I embarked on a journey to make my fourth film-related documentary, this time about the wonderful filmmaker Bill Douglas. I discovered the outstanding work of Douglas in my early twenties, whilst devouring independent (and, in many cases, experimental) British cinema of the 1970s and 1980s, from the likes of Alan Clarke, Terence Davies and Derek Jarman..
My journey to make a documentary about Bill Douglas inevitably led me to the University of Exeter, the home of the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum. As well as the museum striking me as a natural location to film parts of my documentary, I discovered it has the most amazing collection of film-related memorabilia (particularly pre-cinema artefacts) and archive material. I was captivated and have remained a big fan ever since, so much so that I donated all the rushes from my documentary, Bill Douglas: Intent on Getting the Image, to the Museum.
Fast-forward once more, this time to early 2017, when a visit to the museum’s website revealed a scheme offering ‘researcher stipends’ to study at the Museum, with the scope to make full use of their catalogue and archive items. Always on the look-out for a project, I was immediately inspired to create a new film project.
Through ongoing contact with the museum since 2005, I knew they had catalogue and archive material relating to the films of producer/director Don Boyd and producer/production manager Gavrik Losey. I also knew there was an absolute treasure trove of catalogue and archive material relating to the films of Bill Douglas. And, I knew, from first-hand experience as a film fan, that Boyd, Losey and Douglas had been involved with some of British cinema’s most memorable independent productions during the 1970s, such as The Trilogy: My Childhood, My Ain Folk, My Way Home (Douglas), That’ll Be the Day, Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs (Losey) and Scum (Boyd).
The Bill Douglas Trilogy (1972-78) is a searing account of a young boy’s progress in the world from growing-up in the most extreme poverty, in a small mining village outside Edinburgh during the later stages of WWII, to National Service in the early 1950s and emancipation through friendship and the Arts. It’s poetry, realism and the most intense personal vision all rolled in to one, and, despite that overly-serious sounding summary, not without wonderful moments of comedy and warmth. I first encountered the Trilogy in the early 1980s, when I was starting to devour cinema in all its guises and I have to confess, I hadn’t seen anything like it before.
Jim Maclaine (David Essex) and his band 'The Stray Cats' in That'll Be The Day (d.Claude Whatham, 1973)
Gavril Losey was associate producer on That’ll Be the Day (1973), which tells of a working-class grammar school teenager, Jim MacLaine, in late 1950s’ Britain, who yearns for something more than the drudge of a dull job and getting married before he’s had some fun. It’s a paean for the upwardly mobile working-class youths who struck out for self-expression at the tail in of the 50s and took the swinging 60s by storm. I was 14 when I saw it at my local cinema and ripe for conversion. I didn’t want to be in a rock n roll band like Jim, but I most definitely wanted something more than a small-town life of reading The Sun newspaper and settling down before my time.
Little Malcolm… (1974), produced by Losey is a real curio for me. I must have caught it at the National Film Theatre some time in the 1980s, when I was embarked on my own personal course of film studies. The location filming is wonderfully bleak at times (almost palpably so), John Hurt is excellent as the pathetic ‘little’ Malcolm of the title and its theme of how working-class alienation can lead to fascism is spot-on, but it doesn’t quite add up to the sum total of its parts. Intriguing, though.
Little Malcolm (John Hurt) and his gang in Little Malcolm and his Struggle against the Eunuchs (d.Stuart Cooper, 1974)
Scum (1979) is all about young working-class lads battling to survive the horrors of the borstal system. It sounds grim, but it’s brilliantly acted, brilliantly directed and, when all is said and done, rousing in-your-face drama. It was originally a TV play but was banned so Don Boyd’s film company made it into a feature film that could be seen in cinemas. I first saw it at a cinema in Turnpike Lane, North London, in 1980, when I was a budding young actor. All I can say is, I looked-up to it in so many ways.
Image from the filming of Scum, Director Alan Clarke is 4th from left. Photographer is Joe Pearce.
Press Book of Scum
As is only too evident, the lives of white, working-class male youth characters are at the heart of all these films. And, as I myself am white, male, from a working-class background, and a product of 1970s youth culture, the subject for my research idea seemed to choose itself. So, I submitted a proposal to do research on representations of white, working-class male youth in 1970s British independent cinema, to explore how those representations came out of the cultural, social, historical and political backgrounds of the time. (The British New Wave, in the late 1950s, post-WWII boom years, led to a dramatic rise in the presence of working-class characters in British films, such as Room at the Top, Look Back in Anger and A Taste of Honey. British cinema, British subjects and the British working-class were all the rage in the ‘swinging 60s’, and exploited to the hilt, in films such as Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner and Help! But, what was the story of white, working-class characters in British films in the 1970s?) Coming from a background of working in the Television industry, as well as being an independent documentary film-maker, I proposed to make a short audio-visual essay to sum-up my research. Some three weeks later, I was delighted to discover my proposal had been accepted and the fun part of the research process began.
Dr Phil Wickham, the curator at the museum, very helpfully advised me where to look on their website for relevant catalogue and archive material. I gleefully trawled through the wealth of material on offer and sent Phil a list of the collection items I was interested in researching. A bit like a child in a sweet-shop, I started by requesting hundreds of items, but then regained control and whittled this list down to something like 30 items. These ranged from book, magazine and newspaper articles on the work of Boyd, Douglas and Losey in the 1970s to archive correspondence, financial, pre-production, post-production, distribution and publicity paperwork, as well as stills, for the Douglas Trilogy, That’ll Be the Day, Little Malcolm… and Scum. Early in July 2017, I arranged my first visit.
Armed with a return train ticket from Clapham Junction to Exeter St David’s, and booked into the Premier Inn for a night’s stop-over (it’s just a stone’s throw from the railway station and a short walk to Exeter University), I set-off to explore the BDCM research material for two whole, glorious days. And, I wasn’t disappointed. Phil had arranged for all my requested material to be ready and waiting for me on my arrival at the Museum. I was given a short talk about the protocol surrounding use of catalogue and archive items. And then, it was a case of researching away to my heart’s content!
I came cross such gems as an excellent article in the Spring 1973 issue of Sight & Sound pinning down quite precisely the main themes running through That’ll Be the Day, which it outlined as being ambition for social mobility, the beginnings of the sexual revolution and the allure of rock n roll. I came across an intriguing letter in the archives relating to Scum where Roy Minton (the screenwriter) strongly expresses his dissatisfaction with the feature film adaptation of his original BBC script. This showed how committed Minton wanted to give an authentic feel to the drama, and how passionately he was against having this authenticity watered down, as it was integral to the film’s message. There was a post-production script for Little Malcolm… with a different end to the final film, which I asked Gavrik Losey (the producer) about when I interviewed him, to see if they had discussed at some point a less violent, more sanitised ending for distribution and exhibition purposes. There was an interview with actor/director Peter Mullan, in the 3 January 2004 issue of The Telegraph, on his admiration for the Douglas Trilogy. It was reading what Mullan had to say that made me realise just how deep Bill Douglas the artist had dug down in to himself, Bill Douglas the man, in order to create such a remarkably revealing depiction of life as a working-class boy and youth. To say I was more that satisfied with the research experience would be an understatement. It was heaven!
In late August and again in October, I went back to the museum to chase-up one or two bits of outstanding research. I’ve filmed Don Boyd (about Scum), Gavrik Losey (about That’ll Be the Day and Little Malcolm…) and Peter Jewell (about The Trilogy). I now need to sit down at my computer, open-up the Premier Pro editing software and cut my short audio-visual essay. This will bring my research to an end, but not, I hope, my association with the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, as I plan to visit again whenever the opportunity arises.
The finished audio-visual essay will be available for all interested parties to watch on my youtube site (400blowsAKN) and the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum website. I plan to submit it for screenings at cinemas and film festivals during 2018. If, and when, it gets screened, I’ll post details of the screenings on the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum’s website.
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