The first rule of Film Club: films start at 7.30, please be punctual
On Valentine’s Day, 1980, a couple of weeks shy of my 15th birthday, I saw my first “X” film. The visceral Philip Kaufman remake of Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers, I didn’t have to sneak in through a held-open fire door, wear a false moustache or lower my voice an octave, as per underage tradition (and as seen, for real, when I failed to get into Lings Forum to see The Exorcist that same year). I paid £1 to see it, legally, projected onto a modest screen before an auditorium of arranged plastic chairs at Northampton College of Further Education’s Arts Centre, courtesy of their members-only Film Society. (The campus was further north up the same Booth Lane that Weston Favell Upper School stood on. The school is now an Academy, and the College of Further Education is now Northampton College, redeveloped between 2009 and 2012.)
I loved my first Film Society experience and wrote the following haiku-like review of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers in my 1980 diary above a rough cartoon approximation of Donald Sutherland in his “footballer’s perm” phase, emerging from an alien cocoon: “Really good’n’gory. Nice pod scenes, rather horrific, creepy and ace.”
Like any 14-year-old, I was wracked with a confusing hormonal need to fit in and rebel at the same time. A glance at the customised cover of my 1980 diary reveals a serious schism. Between the cut-out Photostats of my favourite bands the Undertones and 999 are pics of Gene Hackman, The Elephant Man and Marilyn Monroe, plus the logo of the aforementioned NCFE Film Society. At that difficult and easily distracted age, I was a little bit films and a little bit rock and roll.
I was not yet a member of the NCFEFS when I saw Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers – part of a special, leafleted Spring ’80 Horror Films Season along with Piranha and The Return Of Count Yorga – but a guest of my friends Neil and Dave, a pair of what would these days be called nerds from the Trinity School side of town whom I’d fallen in with at Saturday morning art classes at “the Tech”, and whose trendy English and Communications teacher Mr Tilley had been their link to the Film Society. Without perhaps fully appreciating it at the time, Neil (feather-cut, rainbow braces) and Dave (Phil Oakey fringe, green v-neck) were to be my passport into a new world and, ultimately, a fast-track to adulthood. That Film Club, as we knew it, would one day help qualify me for a career in film criticism would have been purely abstract at the time.
It’s clear to me now: between the years of 1979 and 1983 I was half-punk, half-nerd. To neatly illustrate: in 1979 I’d begun to regularly buy two grown-up publications – the New Musical Express and Film Review. I had also become a devout disciple of Barry Norman and BBC1’s Film ’80, which morphed into Film ’81, Film ’82 and so on. In the final dark days before the VHS revolution, access to movies was controlled: you either saw a film at the cinema when the chains decreed it, or you saw it on TV after the usual five-or-six year gestation, and even then often cut for taste by the philistine broadcaster … unless you joined Film Club and transformed Tuesday nights for the best part of the academic year.
My 14-year-old desire to see Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers was salacious rather than academic: it was an “X” therefore I wanted to see what might be in it that qualified it to be one. (The “X” certificate seemed far more illicit than its prosaic replacement the “18”.) The NCFE Film Society, which I eagerly joined in September 1980, existed outside of such arbitrary, draconian restrictions.
Once you’d paid your flat membership fee (£7.50, or £6 for students, OAPs and “claimants”, which went up by a pound the following year), you were entitled to see all 36 films showing in the 1980-81 season and to sign in your own guests. A flash of your blue membership card also secured entry to and “unrestricted use” of the “Real Ale Bar” on film nights, where those of us at O-Level would comically nurse half-pints of shandy while making up nicknames for the more grown-up regulars. (“Stacy Keach,” we called one of them, for self-evident reasons, keeping up the cineaste theme.) Film Club was run by a tireless man called Frank Quigg, who we must assume worked at the college. I have a picture in my mind of a slightly less racy History Man type with elbow patches but I may be post-rationalising.
During that first, mouth-watering season I saw any number of films that would have been off-menu if I’d continued to live the life of casual grazer: Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (another “X”, excitingly), Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment (a landmark Cuban film set between the 1959 Revolution and the 1962 missile crisis with a prescient fractured narrative), Revenge Of The Creature in old-school red/green 3D, and the “lost” 1974 kitchen-sink drama Pressure, whose raw depiction of everyday life and separatist politics within the Trinidadian community in West London was quite the socio-political eye-opener. This was, I guess, the cinematic equivalent of roughage. Were it not for Frank Quigg, I might never have broadened my palate in this way.
Having paid my £6 I was committed to squeezing my money’s worth out of Film Club, and dutifully ticked off Summer Of ’42 (“ace Durex-purchasing scene,” according to my diary), Robert Altman curio Brewster McCloud (“a wonderful epic of weird and wit”) and the first part of a Bill Douglas double, My Childhood (“black and white poverty-o plot”) as the season built to its climax in April with Andrei Tarkovsky’s meditative 1972 Russian sci-fi landmark Solaris (“bloody subtitles”).
It would be easy to back-romanticise and rewrite my own underdevelopment so that Film Club’s steady diet of foreign movies had a profound effect and opened my mind to world cinema on the spot. It didn’t. I fell asleep during the 165-minute Solaris, awoke and snuck out before the end. (Not the last time I would nod off in a cinema, although that has more to do with the passing years.) While awake, I was exposed to some choice nuggets of exotic cinema at an impressionable age, from Japan (Nagisa Oshima’s Empire Of Passion) , Australia (My Brilliant Career), France/Italy (Marco Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe), Germany (Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu), and Argentina (Leopoldo Torre Nilsson’s The House of the Angel) … I’d grown up with Abbot & Costello and British comedies like What A Whopper on TV, and James Bond and Disney at the pictures, so this forced march of maturity was significant.
But never mind the quality, feel the width. In 1981, I saw a total of 121 films. I have this precise figure at my fingertips because, world-class anal-retentive that I undoubtedly was, I had started keeping a running tally. This was the year that the Collins family took delivery of its first VCR – a Philips V2000 with the double-sided cassettes, very much the cleansed ethnic group in the VHS-Beta war – which eased the hunting of films around the TV schedules and empowered Paul and I to pause and replay the best bits of Chinatown, Death Wish, Deliverance and other choice, late-nite items from the ragged pages of the Radio and TV Times.
The badge of honour was in seeing every film I could possibly see. You can sense by the way each one is logged in my diary – title, year of release, certificate, followed by still frankly juvenile assessment (“Chariots Of Fire, 1981, ‘A’, starring Ian Charleston, Ben Cross … that’s all the big stars out of the way!”) – that I am now under the factfinding spell of the big film encyclopaedias I’d started asking for as birthday presents or borrowing from the library: David Quinlan’s Illustrated Directory of Film Stars; The Illustrated Encyclopedia of The World’s Greatest Movie Stars and Their Films by Ken Wlaschin, both of which I pored over as if handling sacred scrolls.
I gleaned enormous, mathematical, savant-like satisfaction from the simple act of seeing multiple films in ad hoc double, triple or quadruple bills. During the Christmas holidays in 1981, for instance, I marked up six in one day, thanks to bingeing at the VCR with Bridge On The River Kwai, Carry On Doctor, Savage Bees, Superman, Superman II and Magic. At such a greedy rate, you can see how, the following year, my film total went up to 144.
In 1983, the year I turned 18 and cast aside the maroon blazer of the sixth form, I saw 175 films, which is I suspect a lifetime per annum record. Film Club, whose 1982-83 season was my last before heading off to London and to art college, helped plump up those impressive numbers. I never went to film school. But I didn’t need to. Here, on tap, were the likes of Tony Garnett’s directorial debut Prostitute, Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, further unsweetened black experience in Britain courtesy Babylon, Spielberg’s 1941, the seminal Richard Pryor In Concert … but it is sad in retrospect to see Tuesday nights at Film Club gradually displaced by rented videos, band practices and nights at the Bold Dragoon pub.
I let my subscription to Film Club lapse without ceremony or fuss. Too many distractions. But my tastes in cinema had been irrevocably converted to small-“c” catholicism by Film Club, and during the Christmas recess in 1983, I willingly sat down in front of the telly for my first Busby Berkeley musical, 1943’s Take Me Out to the Ball Game and 1969’s stunt parachutist drama The Gypsy Moths, mainly because I was on a mission to see the whole of Gene Hackman’s CV.
In 1995, I briefly became the Editor of Empire magazine; in 2000, I landed the job of hosting Radio 4’s weekly film programme Back Row; and, a year later, began writing about films for Radio Times, where I am still retained as Film Editor. I couldn’t have achieved any of this without my self-enforced early-80s cinematic education, enhanced and nourished for those three key years by the imaginative and varied programmes of Frank Quigg at the culturally Tardis-like Arts Centre. Unrestricted use of the “Real Ale Bar” had made me a man, even without my ever sampling any Real Ale.
This is what the Booth Lane campus of Northampton College (formerly Northampton College of Further Education) looks like, all redeveloped and funky, today.
This piece was originally published, in an even more comprehensive and discursive form, in the sorely-missed Word magazine in June 2011. Thanks to David Hepworth for commissioning it. However, in the letters pages of the following issue in July, a disgruntled reader (whom I won’t dignify with a name) complained in the strongest possible terms, describing my article as “the most boring piece I’ve ever read in a magazine.” Everyone’s a critic.