Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Midwinter Rites and Rituals

This is a slightly longer version of the essay included in the splendid Folklore Tapes release Calendar Customs III.

Midwinter is the low ebb of the year, the heart of the lifeless season when the sun describes a wearily flattened arc across the sky, it luminosity dimmed and wan, its passage brief. Shadows lengthen, the branches grow bare and bony, temperature drops and darkness prevails. The spirit sinks and a general sense of lassitude fills the soul. It is a season of shivering and sighs in which summer warmth and light become a hazy memory. There is a need for cheer, for hope and conviviality, for reminders of Spring’s renewal to come. Old midwinter rites and rituals, centring around Christmastide observances and celebrations, bring a little warmth and light into this chill time of scarcity and spiritual despond.

In the pre-industrial age, the pattern of the pastoral and agricultural year shaped the rhythms of human labour and rest. The midwinter period between December and early January encompassed weeks when there was little to be done save a bit of dung spreading. The holidays could extend from St Nicholas Day on the 6th December to Plough Monday, the first to fall after Twelfth Night. Plough Monday marked the recommencement of the agricultural year. It was a still interval of cessation during which the coming year could be contemplated and good fortune invoked through the observance of certain propitiatory acts (or the studious avoidance of others). Bells were tolled in various parishes on Christmas Eve to keep the Devil and his ill-doing at bay over the ensuing months. At All Saints, Dewsbury in Yorkshire, this involved sounding one clangourous knell for every year since Christ’s birth, spaced at even intervals between the hours of 10 and 12 (and thus requiring precise calculation). This feat was known as Ringing or Tolling the Devil’s Knell, a long funereal watch which, in keeping with the inversions characteristic of the season, was cause for celebration.

Wassailing was (and still, to an extent, is) a means of ushering in the luck of the new year. The word derives from the old Anglo-Saxon greeting ‘waes haell’, or ‘good health’. The standard response (although not necessarily in Anglo-Saxon England) was ‘drinc haell!’, or ‘I’ll drink to that’, presumably accompanied by the raising of a goblet or drinking horn and the hearty quaffing of its contents. Wassailers, who were predominantly women, would travel from house to house singing their wassailing song and bearing their wooden wassailing bowl (sometimes decorated with ribbons and evergreen boughs). The bowl was full of spiced ale with variant combinations of roasted apples, toast, nutmegs, sugar, eggs and cream; a dubious concoction, half drink, half bread pudding, sometimes known as lamb’s wool. The householder accepting the offered libation and offering food or other gifts in return would bring luck into their homes for the approaching year. The luck of the house was of particular concern at this time, what with the retreat into the domestic space in the face of encroaching cold and darkness.

Wassail songs are a species of celebratory folksong all to their own. A typical and particularly well-known one (largely due to its collection by Ralph Vaughan Williams) comes from Gloucestershire and the opening verse gives the general flavour, as well as revealing the wassailers on the occasion of the song’s recording to be male:
Wassail! Wassail! All over the town.
Our bread it is white, our ale it is brown:
Our bowl it is made of the Maplin tree,
We be all good fellows who drink to thee.
The renowned 17th century lawyer and scholar John Selden found the wassail ale very sour and grumbled about ‘wenches with wassells at New-Years-Tide’ who ‘present you with a cup and you must drink of the slabby stuff, but the meaning is, you must give them monies, ten times more than it is worth’. There was certainly an element of minor wealth redistribution to this and many midwinter traditions, and well-off men like Selden often found cause for complaint. Christmas might be a time of generosity and openness, but who were the deserving poor? And whey did they have to be so forward about claiming their share? Similar complaints were voiced about the annuities known as ‘boxes’ granted to tradesmen or those in the delivery trades on what came to be known as Boxing Day. The change of the day’s name from that of the first Christian martyr, St Stephen, to one marking what amounted to a holiday bonus charts a trajectory from the sacred to the secular and pecuniary which has been marked since well before the Victorian era. It was one reason why the parliamentarians banned Christmas.

This was an opportune season for the less well-off to earn a little extra in a time of scarcity and scant labour. They sold their entertainments, decorations and blessing (an possibly the cessation of their nuisance-making) whilst wielding the implicit threat of diminishing the luck of the house, or even of cursing the inhabitants on these spiritually charged days. The Scots, needless to say, were particularly good at the cursing part. A New Year song sung on South Uist whilst seeking hogmanay, or gifts, from local households had an extra verse in reserve should such generosity prove lacking:

The curse of God and the New Year be on you
And the scath of the plaintive buzzard,
Of the hen-harrier, of the raven, of the eagle,
And the scath of the sneaking fox,
The scath of the dog and cat be on you,
Of the boar, of the badger and of the ghoul,
Of the hipped bear and of the wild wolf,
And the scath of the foul polecat.

That’s some heavy duty scathing.

Another wassailing tradition involved the blessing of an apple orchard. The wassail bowl was filled with cider, some of which was poured onto the roots of the greatest tree, the apple tree man. Trees were beaten with sticks and a regionally varying species of cacophony conducted via pots and pans, gunshots or ‘apple howling’. Was this driving out evil spirits lodged in the wood or waking the trees? Or was it simply for the visceral and slightly illicit joy of making a right racket to echo through the night air at such a dank and lifeless time? Pieces of toast soaked in the wassail cup’s contents were also hung from the branches or wedged into their forks; an offering for the robin, always a cheerful symbol of the season and a bird of good omen. A Somerset wassailing song praises the tireless creature: ‘a poor little robin sits up in a tree/And all day long so merrily sings he/A widdling and twiddling to keep himself warm,/And a little more cider will do us no harm…’

Good luck and its opposite, ill-fortune, were attached to particular days. Christmas Eve, or Adam’s Day, was a day on which supernatural and demonic forces were in abeyance. Therefore, it was a good time for auguries and divinations (particularly as regarded fortunes in love), activities which might otherwise attract unwanted attention. Ghost stories have always been popular on Christmas Eve, a tradition extending into the TV age, with the glowing set replacing the suggestively flickering fire and bringing the chilling tales of MR James into warm living rooms. Perhaps there was a vestigial sense that this was a safe time for their telling.

If you were born on Christmas Day you would be blessed with a blindness towards ghosts and spirits. Holy Innocents Day on the 28th December, on the other hand, was a cursed date. Sometimes known by the vaguely unnerving name of Childermas, it marked the slaughter of the innocents by King Herod. It was considered unwise to begin any important task on this day; it would only come to ruin. Fishermen refused to go to sea, the washing went undone (you might be ‘washing away’ one of your kin) and it was generally best to do nothing and just sit it out.

The earthing of malignant magic seems to have spread to St Stephen’s Day (Boxing Day) if the tradition of hunting the wren was anything to go by. Particularly prevalent in Ireland and Wales, this involved the ‘wren-boys’ setting traps in the early morning and then displaying their prize in a specially made and decorated cage in a laddish parade through the town or village. At any other time of the year this would have been the height of folly. The wren was sacred, the king of the birds, a crowning which ironically acknowledged its tiny stature. To kill it would have invited great ill-fortune into the foolhardy hunter’s life.

That it was permissible and safe at this time is indicative of the inversions of the natural and social order which were a feature of the season. This delight in turning the world upside down also manifested itself in the appointment of Lords of Misrule in wealthy, noble or royal households or university communities to oversee, with their retinues of mock courtiers, the reign of merry chaos which brought life to the dark days. The Lord (or his regional variants such as the midwinter sovereign or Abbot of Unreason) was a burlesque version of his master, with gaudily regal robes and a degree of pseudo-authority, right up to the ability to stage ‘executions’ on a prop gibbet. The masters of the household would affect to serve their staff during the ‘misrule’ of the temporary Lord, albeit to a limited ceremonial extent.

In ecclesiastical circles there was a similar tradition of appointing Boy Bishops for a period extending from St Nicholas’ Day on the 6th (the Turkish saint having a particular connection with children) and Holy Innocents Day on the 28th. The Boy Bishops would lead some aspects of the services in their specially tailored vestments and go on tours of the surrounding parishes. In Bristol, the Boy Bishop of St Nicholas Church and his retinue were invited to a lavish banquet on the saint’s day. The tradition continues or has been revived in some areas. The Boy Bishop’s tenure at Hereford Cathedral is particularly renowned, and forms a major plot element in Phil Rickman’s novel Midwinter of the Spirit, featuring the diocesan deliverance consultant (or exorcist) Merrily Watkins. The first Merrily Watkins novel, Wine of Angels, begins with a night-time orchard wassailing which ends disastrously. Rickman knows his calendrical rites and customs.

The inversion of the natural order is also a central component of mummer’s plays, or mumming. These are generally enacted on Boxing Day, New Year’s Day or Twelfth Night. They are fixed routines which are carried out with ritualistic solemnity, the stock cast of characters stepping forward like mechanical figures ratcheting forth from a town clock’s doors to introduce themselves and deliver their lines. ‘In steps I’ say the likes of St George (or another hero figure), his foe the Turk (or some other adversary reflecting contemporary antipathies), Bold Slasher, the quack doctor, a fool named Tosspot and occasionally a dragon or, trailing a whiff of sulphur, Beelzebub. Roland Hutton likens the latter, with his club and frying pan, to the Irish god The Daghdha. In parts of the Westcountry the play was introduced by Father Christmas, who stood outside of the rote action and had a little more leeway to extemporise a commentary. An element of guising (the donning of disguise) was also involved. Participants would blacken their faces, turn their jackets inside-out, bedeck themselves with ribbons or strips of newspaper and indulge in cross-dressing. The centre of the ‘drama’ (although the proceedings were studiously undramatic) was the combat leading to the death or dire injury of St George or his foe, who was resurrected by the concoctions brewed by the doctor. Their comically self-evident inefficacy hinted that magic rather than medicine was at work here. It was a resurrection myth in capsule form, an invocation of the dormant powers of life and a rite to bring fortune and abundance in the coming months. The mummers took the routing round the houses, bringing luck to those who rewarded them and finding their way by and by to the local inn.

In the North-East, mummery was accompanied by sword dances, although the mumming aspect gradually faded away. The sword dances, using flexible blades or sometimes lengths of wood, culminated in the formation of a locked pattern in the form of a pointed star (a significant form?) or rose. This was usually lowered around the head of one of the attendant fools or cross-dressing ‘bessies’, offering a mock sacrifice where once the death might have been all too real.

Another form of ritualised drama taken round the houses over the Christmas period involved the parading of a horse’s head on the end of a stick, with the bearer hidden beneath a covering sheet. These heads were wooden in the case of The White Mare of the Isle of Man or the Poor Old Horse of Yorkshire and Derbyshire. But the Mari Lwyd of Wales was the bleached skull of an actual horse, its eyes glassy marbles, its hair strands of coloured ribbon. It was a nightmarish apparition, and one which haunts M.John Harrison’s Viriconium and Light novels and stories. The Mari Lwyd also goes through the pantomime of death and resurrection, and its difficult not to see a symbolic enactment of the seasonal cycles. The Hooden Horse of North Kent is accompanied by a team including a mollie, or transvestite, and its is still paraded through the streets of Whitstable, its health assiduously maintained by the Ancient Order of Hoodeners. I like to imagine the long-term Whitstable resident Peter Cushing observing the ceremony, perhaps even taking part, leading the Hoodeners with a solemnly purposeful yet kind and compassionate Van Helsing gaze.

A celebration in time of darkness requires light, and fires were indeed started with due ceremony. If Christ was the light of the world (John 8:12), then the fixing of his date of birth at the Council of Tours in 567 also served to usurp the claims of others to bring light into the world. The Mithraic celebration of divine birth in the world also fell on the 25th December, as did that of the cult of the unconquered sun, or Sol Invictus, which the Emperor Aurelian established as an official state religion which lasted between 274-323. With the Roman Saturnalia and Pagan solstice festivals also occurring around this time, it was good sacred territory to tactically stake out and colonise. There is inevitably a sense, however, if not of Pagan roots showing through, then at least of a continuity of human experience and spiritual need. The warmth and conviviality engendered by a fire or flickering candle flame serve as a reminder that the summer sun will be reborn.

In Stonhaven, near Aberdeen, fireballs were swung in small cages at the end of long chains or ropes, forming small, whirling meteorite trails through the evening air. Allendale has its flaming tar barrels, lit as the old year turns into the new and worn like Arthur Brown hellfire bonnets. It’s an enthusiastically revived and maintained carnivalesque tradition celebrated in the Unthanks’ beautiful song Tar Barrel in Dale. In a variant of wassailing traditions found in the border counties of Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, and similarly intended to bless the next year’s crop, twelve bonfires were lit in a circle on Twelfth Night, often with a larger central one – Old Meg as it was sometimes known. In Ross On Wye, an effigy was erected in the centre of the fires and burned.

Plough lights were kept burning in many parish churches, often glinting off the idle blades of the plough itself which was kept propped against the wall until Plough Monday. Candles also served to light the evergreens which were brought into the house – holly in the living room, ivy in the porch, and sometimes bay and broom as well. The ashen faggot was burned in Devon on Christmas Eve, a bundle of ash twigs which crackled and kindled one by one, marking the progress of the evening like an irregular clock. As each popped and hissed into flame, the onlookers would take the opportunity to stand up, loudly wish each other good cheer and pass around a large communal cup of cider.

The best known Christmas flame came from the yule log, however. It was a large log prepared over a lengthy period and giving off plentiful light as well as heat. It was to be lit from a piece of kindling saved from the pervious year’s log, and kept burning for Christmas Eve and Day to preserve the luck of the house. Richard Carpenter warmly depicts the yule log tradition in a Christmas episode of The Ghosts of Mottley Hall, although unfortunately the wood chosen is inhabited by an old elemental spirit which spreads discord and ill-humour through the house before being coaxed to its airy freedom. The word yule itself derives from the old Saxon, via Nordic languages: the Norse Jol, Swedish Jul and Danish Juul. These were words for the Scandinavian midwinter festival, suggesting further layers to the hybrid and ever-evolving native traditions.

The contemporary character of Christmas and midwinter festivities bears little resemblance to the old celebrations and observances. We have inherited wholesale the imports and reinventions of the Victorians, which themselves have been recast in hyper-commercialised late capitalist mould. The frenzy accompanying the season can sometimes seem to verge on the psychotic. But the genuine excitement many still feel indicates a certain continuity with the spirit our ancestors. There is a continuum of human experience, a need to find comfort and light in a time of darkness. Even with the pitiless and relentless glare of shopping centres providing the permanent, blazing illumination of a false sun, we are not fooled. We still need to be reassured that the true sun will return in radiant glory. The dying of the light is not permanent. There will be resurrection, new life, a new year with all that fortune may bring.
So a jolly WASSAIL! to you all.

Monday, 10 August 2015

The Damned

Here's the full version of an introduction I gave to a screening of The Damned as part of a 12 Hour science fiction film festival at the Bike Shed Theatre for Phonic fm. I had to cut it drastically to fit it into the alloted 10 minute time slot, but still went hopelessly beyond the limit set. Sorry. Concision is an art I have yet to master.

My choice of film is The Damned, a 1963 film directed by Joseph Losey and produced by the Hammer film studios. I’ve chosen it partly because of its relative obscurity, which hopefully means I’m introducing you to something entirely new. It’s not very well known even within the Hammer film canon, and the studio found it difficult to distribute at the time. It was actually made and ready for release in 1961, but didn’t find its way into the cinemas until 1963, truncated and squashed into the lower half of a double bill, coupled with Maniac, one of Hammer’s post-Psycho thrillers. This delay and the wariness of exhibitors was in large part due to confusion over exactly what kind of film this was, and how it could best be marketed. Is it a science fiction film or is it a ‘youth gone wild’ rock n roll movie? Is it an exploitation quickie or a European arthouse meditation in the mould of the Antonioni and Bergman films then making such an impact on the continent. It’s interesting that its release coincided with the completion of Bergman’s Through A Glass Darkly trilogy and Antonioni’s trilogy of films with Monica Vitti, both of which deal with similar themes of existential angst and disorientation in the shadow of the bomb and the Freudian tangle of human relations. The use of bleak, empty coastal landscapes in L’Aventurra and Through A Glass Darkly provides a strong continuity of mood with The Damned and they even share a symbolic use of helicopters.

But The Damned is also very much a genre film, a Hammer film. James Carreras, one of the pater familiases of the Hammer family business, would have been horrified at the idea that he had sanctioned the making of an art movie. The Damned is an anomaly in the Hammer filmography, an experiment which was considered an unqualified failure by the studio, and one never to be repeated. Looking back some years later, James Carreras summed up the reasons for this in a mildly expressed assessment which nevertheless encapsulated the company’s unswerving, hardline commercial priorities. ‘It’s not our cup of tea at all. Losey is a very eminent director and he has a great following among critics, and the film, I’m sure, was a good film. But unfortunately, you know, we can only judge it on results. Did it get its money back? And the answer is no, it didn’t’.

Joan leads the bikers through Weymouth
The very ambiguity about the nature of the film and the porous nature of its generic boundaries, which made it so difficult to place, created confusion amongst critics and put cinemagoers off, are the very things which make it such a fascinating watch in retrospect. It might challenge perceived notions of what constitutes science fiction, but science fiction it most certainly is. But it is a lot more besides. I also chose this film because of its reflection of contemporary fears and anxieties. There was moral panic over youth gang violence. This was sometime after the Teddy Boy scares and the trashing of cinemas showing Rock Around the Clock and just before clashes between mods and rockers on the beaches of Clacton and Margate in 1964. But the press-fuelled alarm was still present, waiting for the next incident to lend it form. There was also a sense of national disorientation in the receding wake of the ebb of empire. The complex psychology of the film expresses the confused stupor of a country no longer certain of its place in the world, and failing to come to terms with its vastly diminished influence. The hugely emblematic humiliation of the Suez Crisis had unfolded five years before the film was made. It had made it painfully clear to the British establishment that America was now the dominant force in the politics of the Western world. This dominance was also extending to the cultural sphere. The newly affluent youth were turning to American popular culture to forge their identity, which was increasingly at odds with the old establishment values of the British Empire and even of the post-war spirit of welfare state collectivism. This was the beginning of the consumer age, of a new form of status anxiety.

The sound of invisible death - the click and crackle of the geiger counter
There is also the pervasive sense of unease generated by the cold war and the threat of nuclear annihilation. This is where the science fiction element really comes into its own. Nuclear radiation had been a central staple of 50s science fiction cinema. Sometimes it was just a vaguely mumbled rationale for bringing on the giant monsters – Godzilla, ants in Them, an oversized spider in the self-explantory Tarantula. At other times it used to more subtle, metaphorical ends. The nebulous cloud which causes the protagonist of The Incredible Shrinking Man to begin his slow, lonely journey towards the microworld and into the infinities beyond. The pandora’s box in the delirious pulp noir Kiss Me Deadly. Hammer had made its own radiation picture, X the Unknown, a great little film which is punctuated throughout by the ominous popping crackle of Geiger counters, wands which effectively render death sonically visible. In The Damned, it is combined with another common science fiction theme of the time, that of the mutant child or children – part of a generation which potentially represent a new stage in human evolution. They are sometimes persecuted outsiders, spurned for their difference. At other times, they are a menacing threat.

Children of the Grave - These are the damned
In SF literature, examples include Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John (an early iteration from 1935), Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human, Edgar Pangborn’s Davy, Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End and John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos and The Chrysalids. The latter two are particularly relevant here. The Chrysalids even ends with another helicopter arriving like a deus ex machina to bring the ‘different’ children to a new and more civilised settlement where they will no longer be persecuted. The Midwich Cuckoos was filmed as Village of the Damned in 1960, the year before The Damned. The children here are malevolent in intent, the offspring of aliens who have, by unspoken implication, impregnated the women of a sleepy English village. They are capable of forming a gestalt mind which gives them enormous telepathic and telekinetic powers. The children in The Chrysalids are mutants in a post-apocalyptic world which has reverted to a pre-technological level, with an accompanying resurgence of superstition and persecution. The signs of their difference must be hidden lest they fall victim to this new form of witch-hunt. The children in The Damned fall somewhere in between these two breeds. They are exploited and kept in darkness – denied enlightenment in a literal and figurative sense as they are imprisoned in their shelter beneath the cliffs. But they are, through no fault of their own, also deadly to those not like them. They carry the poison of radiation, and live in an environment uninhabitable to ‘normal’ human beings. This is the tragedy at the heart of the film.

Strange Angel - King in the graveyard of St George's Church, Portland
I also chose this film because of its local setting. The locations here may be familiar to many of you. The Victorian seaside town of Weymouth and the cliffs and quarries of Portland Bill which loom above it. You can see Portland Bill from Exmouth or Dawlish on a clear day. There is a great deal of location shooting on The Damned (another reason why it was so expensive to make), and there are many incidental pleasures to be had. The steam train heaving up and down the quayside, the fashions of the extras and bypassers in the Weymouth town centre scenes, the general surreality of seeing familiar places incorporated into a fantastic fictional scenario. The 18th century Georgian church of St George’s is used to good effect, with Oliver Reed’s character King outlined leaning out from a memorial in the graveyard like some strange, demonic angel. The tombstones could be protruding from the bunker where the mutant children live, because their home is effectively a mausoleum; a cold modernist crypt to contrast with the clean classicism of the Georgian building above. The church is built from Portland stone, naturally enough, and there are also scenes set in the Portland quarries. These carry an ingrained symbolic weight, particularly when it comes to the climactic confrontations between establishment characters and the outsiders who have stumbled onto their activities. Portland stone has been used to build a good number of monumental buildings which represent different aspects of the Establishment, expressing entrenched and seemingly unassailable power. These include Buckingham Palace, the Palace of Westminster (the House of Lords and Commons), St Paul’s Cathedral and, going further back, The Tower of London. It was also used extensively in Exeter Cathedral.

Quayside steam
Joseph Losey was a director who appeared to have a particularly European sensibility, along with an acute insight into the workings of the British establishment and class system. It’s surprising then to discover that he was a Midwestern boy, born in Wisconsin in 1909. It’s an origin he shares with Orson Welles, and like Welles he began his career in the theatre and ended up a Hollywood exile. In the era of Roosevelt’s New Deal he was involved in many radical productions in New York; radical in terms of their progressive, leftist politics and in terms of their experimentation. He also directed a large number of plays for the radio, again with a distinctly leftist slant. Perhaps the height of his theatrical career was a collaboration with Bertolt Brecht on the exiled German playwright’s Life of Galileo, which starred Charles Laughton. Losey’s first film, made in 1948, was a fable about difference and persecution called The Boy With Green Hair. It shares The Damned’s unambiguous anti-war stance. It could also be read as an anti-McCarthyite allegory.

Clocktower bikers
As such, it was probably one of several factors leading to Losey being targeted by the McCarthy witch hunts in Hollywood. He was called to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, but decided to remain in Europe, where he was working at the time and avoid the grimly farcical and hysterically conducted proceedings which would inevitably ensue. As a result, he was blacklisted by Hollywood and remained an exile for the rest of his life. Looking back, he was sanguine about his fate, however. In 1983, a year before his death, he reflected ‘for some reason interviewers are always saying that the experience has left me embittered and this just is not the case. In a way my being blacklisted was one of the best things that ever happened to me because it forced me to go to Europe to continue my career as a filmmaker. Otherwise I might have stayed on in Hollywood, merely making money instead of making pictures I wanted to make’.

King by the clocktower
It also forced him to work within the bounds of genre pictures, and the tension between his coolly formal artistic temperament and the requirements of story and genre produced some memorable results. Before The Damned he has made several distinguished crime thrillers, including The Criminal, which starred Stanley Baker, one of his key actors. The Damned would have been much better served with Baker in the role of Simon. Losey was also slated to direct the Hammer SF picture X the Unknown. But the shadow cast by Hollywood in the wake of his blacklisting extruded its dark hand over the Atlantic through the agency of the film’s McCarthyite American star Dean Jagger, who objected to his participation.

Modernist cage
Losey’s leftist, anti-establishment leanings and concern with form and structure come through very strongly in The Damned. It is a film which works through contrasts, parallels and comparisons. The generic clash is one striking aspect of its structure, with the SF elements only introduced some way into the story. The locations and sets are also distinctly different but throw each other into clear relief. The bleak, fragmented cliffscape of Portland Bill and the long, empty sweep of Chesil Beach beyond are contrasted with the faded, peeling, formerly elegant Victorian façade of Weymouth town centre and seafront. The once-confident architecture of Empire is set against jagged cliffs and outcrops littered with blasted blocks of quarried stone which could be a vista from a pre- or post-human world. This is, after all, the promontory which extends the furthest southerly pseudopod of land on what is known as the Jurassic coastline, which begins further west in Exmouth. It’s an expanse of stratified bedrock steeped in deep time. The cliffs are in turn contrasted with the stark, cold modernism of the interior world beneath the cliffs in which the children are kept. This is the brittle, spindly modernism of the 50s – Festival of Britain modernism.

Feeling the rock - sculpture emerging from the geological spirit of place
The music also offers contrasts. James Bernard, whose strident scores for Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein and subsequent Hammer gothics did so much to define their mood, here produces something very different. A desolate, drifting, vaguely atonal flute melody which is reminiscent of the first of Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes or Gustav Holst’s brooding tone poem Egdon Heath. The latter comparison is particularly apposite given that Holst’s piece is an evocation of the bleak moorland which features in a number of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex novels and stories. Bernard’s restrained chamber music is contrasted with the brash rock ‘n roll song which blows it away when Losey’s roving camera takes us down into Weymouth. A rather tame, defanged piece in the Bill Haley mould, its lyrics nevertheless express the violence and menace which run throughout the film. Its inane melodic refrain is a recurrent motif, whistled by the bike gang as a kind signature tune and used as a call sign. The incongruous combination of jaunty ditty with the threat of violence is reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange, in which Malcolm McDowell’s Alex breezes through Singin’ in the Rain as he and his gang set about a vicious round of destruction, assault and rape.

King and Joan
The psychosexual interaction of the characters and the linguistic power games they play anticipates Losey’s collaborations with Harold Pinter in the latter half of the 1960s. At the heart of the film, and driving its initial narrative thrust, is the semi-incestuous relationship between Oliver Reed’s King and Shirley Anne-Field’s Joan, an edgy depiction of unhealthy obsession and arrested development. The two female characters in the film, Joan and Freya, both have or have had relationships with older men in which an element of ownership is involved. The artist Freya rents a cottage owned by her ex-lover Bernard, the scientist running a secret project nearby. Joan is intitially picked up by Simon, the American tourist, who thinks she is a ‘tart’. He becomes our nominal ‘hero’, although his behaviour makes him a far from noble one. He evidently still thinks she’s a tart when he takes her off on his yacht, an obvious status symbol which attracts her with its promise of further riches and luxurious pleasures. She is expected to pay for the privilege of being onboard, and he roughly embraces her in what amounts to an assault. The men of power, the scientist who has joined the military establishment and the rich American who has retired from the insurance business, both assume a proprietorial position of ownership. This is a man’s world dominated by male wealth, self-assertion and violence.

Bernard and Freya - a faded intimacy
Losey creates a multi-layered picture of British society, a series of refracting planes which demonstrate that its seemingly wildly disparate elements are in fact closely interconnected. This picture is encapsulated in the brilliant opening scene in which the camera glides up and around the clock tower, contrasting King and his gang with the memorial to King George III and drawing Simon, the American outsider, into their world – into England, in effect. King leads his gang, his ‘troops’, in mock military marches, and apes the chummy language and plummy accents of the establishment, satirising the breezy heroics and stiff-upper lipped stoicism of the war movies which filled the cinemas in the 1950s. King stands out from the rest of his leather-clad gang, wearing a stylish check jacket and swinging a tightly-furled umbrella with rigorous, square-bashing precision. He’s like a mod who has somehow found himself heading a band of rockers. The uniform of the gang who he marches through the streets echoes the uniforms of the military men in their secret, fenced-off base. Several times in the film, characters express their bewilderment at the seemingly mindless gang violence. ‘Why do they do it?’ they fret. It’s like the moment in The Wild One where Brando’s Johnny is asked ‘what are you rebelling against’, and he replies ‘what have you got?’ Losey shows how the gang violence is inextricably linked with the pervasive violence of society embodied in the military establishment. In the wake of the second world war it has now settled into the subterranean machinations of the cold war, its corrosive power still holding sway. The Edgecliff military base where Bernard’s secret project is housed has echoes of various secret military establishments in the West Country, most prominently Porton Down, home of the Chemical Defence Experimental Establishment. Rumours and accusations of human experimentation were attached to Porton Down for years. And it was here in 1953 that a young 20 year old airman called Ronald Maddison died after being exposed to the nerve gas sarin.

King as frightened chiid

King and Henry

The last ride
King is like a child, aping what he sees around him, absorbing the violence which is in the air. He rejects the adult world and adult sexuality, and wants his sister to do the same. ‘It’s you and me against the world, Joanie’, he says. When he meets the children (recoiling with horror from the touch of their cold, dead flesh) one of them, Henry, forms a close bond with him. There’s a sense of fellow spirits connecting. Henry is a little boy lost, and we imagine that this was how King was when he was younger. Henry clings to King’s side, even when the latter tries to push him away. He insists on trying to escape with King at the end, telling him that he doesn’t want to go back since ‘none of the others really like me’. The scenes with them both are really very touching. King and Henry (King Henry?) are, for all of King’s violence, two innocents in the face of the tyrannical, depersonalised control of the military. King becomes something of an anti-hero, leading the children into destructive rebellion, trashing the joint like Teds ripping the seats out of a cinema where Rock Around the Clock is showing. His instability becomes manifest as the radiation sickness takes hold, and his underlying vulnerability becomes affectingly apparent. By the end, we understand something of his violence and rage, and desire to distance himself from the world. His final stand is a defiant fuck you to the British establishment.

Freya and Sid

Freya on the brink - working to the end
If King is one of the film’s isolated outsiders, then Freya is another. She is the artist as natural outsider, and thereby perhaps a reflection of Losey’s own status. She is also an outsider in that she is a foreigner (again like Losey), her name that of a Nordic Goddess. At the end of the film she speaks of the children in almost mythic terms. She refers to Bernard’s plan ‘to set nine ice-cold children free in the ashes of the universe’. It’s as if she is talking about the Norse eschatology of Ragnarok, the final battle in which only nine gods will survive to live on in the blasted remains of the world. The nine children echo this mythic pattern. Freya lives almost literally on the edge, isolated in the cottage on the clifftop. In one highly symbolic scene, she and King wrestle at the very edge of the cliff. They are both on the brink, outside of society looking on from the borderlands. King is not stupid – his mimicry has wit and satirical bite. But his deeper feelings, his raging inner conflicts, remain unarticulated. Freya has her art, which can express both the personal and the universal, inner and outer landscapes. King, perhaps jealous of what he cannot speak, maliciously smashes a sculpture she has been working on. A potential communion of outsiders is broken at the same time.

Bernard with expressionist double (the night mare)

Bernard as man of power - the scientist as God
Bernard, the scientist, is another individual amongst the deindividuated, the uniformed and ranked. His name may be a nod to Nigel Kneale’s famous scientist character Quatermass, first name also Bernard (Kneale’s tribute to Bernard Lovell, the British scientist who set up the Jodrell Bank radio telescope). But unlike the doggedly anti-establishment Quatermass, this Bernard has allowed himself to be co-opted by the military, even if it is supposedly he who is in charge. Freya mocks him for this. She provides a voice of dissent, undermining the assumed authority of his newfound status. She tries to reconnect him with his soul. But she knows him well enough to realise that the attempt is ultimately futile. The air of melancholy and regret which suffuse their scenes together is an acknowledgement that they now inhabit separate worlds. And just as it means death to enter the vault of the children unprotected, so it is death to enter the professor’s world. He is in fact a figure of death. The major in his radiation suit is referred to as the Black Death by the children, but he is really just one of Death’s minions. The professor carries his own poison with him; A mental and ideological poison, born of despair but feeding on power.

Indoctrination machines

Remote learning
‘Civilisation’ is contrasted with the ‘barbarism’ of youth culture, classical art with modern. The children, in their modernist bunker, are force-fed a classical diet of ‘culture’ to prepare them for the world to come. By implication, they will begin as the old generation left off, building a new Empire on the model of the old. The aristocratic Captain Gregory, played by the absurdly plummy-voiced James Villiers (a one-note performer if ever there was one), reads them the poem The Prisoner of Chillon by Byron. They are far too young for the poem, but it encapsulates something of their tragic fate:
My hair is grey, but not with years,
Nor grew it white
In a single night,
As men's have grown from sudden fears:
My limbs are bow'd, though not with toil,
But rusted with a vile repose,
For they have been a dungeon's spoil,
And mine has been the fate of those
To whom the goodly earth and air
Are bann'd, and barr'd—forbidden fare.

Looking at the world for the first time

Looking at a flower as the monster approaches
The scene in which the children briefly leave their cavernous prison for the light and air is powerfully moving. Joan looks after Mary, one of the little girls, and they sit on top of the cliff looking out over the seemingly endless expanse of the sea. ‘Take a look Mary’ Joan says, ‘that’s the world’. Mary is frightened by its sheer enormity, the lack of enclosing walls, so Joan suggests that she hold on to a small part of it and picks a flower for her. It’s at this point that one of the military men approaches in his radiation suit and tears Mary away from Joan’s arms, herding her, along with the rest of the children, back into their Portland pen. The violence of the establishment becomes brutally evident in the pitiless manner in which the soldiers go about their appointed task – men in frightening costumes brandishing guns. These are the Black Death night visitors emerging from the rocks to carry the children away in broad daylight; Nightmares in the waking sunlight, undeniably real. They are dehumanised by their radiation suits, which make them look like shambling, thuggish ogres, picking up small children as if they intend to eat them. This might appear to be a Hammer film without monsters. But they come out in an attacking horde in this climactic scene. They just happen to be human.

Remote viewing

The film also depicts a world in which everybody is being watched. King watches over his Joanie, and his bikers become a lookout gang, whistling code signals to alert each other to the whereabouts of Simon and Joan. When King disappears, Sid (the most sympathetic of the bike gang, played by Kenneth Cope) takes it upon himself to continue the surveillance with his high-powered binoculars to find out where he’s got to. The military base is surrounded by watchdogs and guards. Freya is watched over by Bernard and his underlings in an attempt to shield her from dangerous (indeed fatal) knowledge, but also to monitor whether she has been exposed to that knowledge and thereby become a threat which needs to be dealt with. The children are watched by remote controlled surveillance cameras, and their only contact with the outside world is via a TV communication screen, on which the professor’s face looms with imposing largeness. Freya’s sculptures also watch and wait. Her angel standing on the cliff’s edge looking out to sea, where navy ships are moored; her bird perching in windowsills or crouching behind the professor’s shoulder. Finally, the helicopters are like technological realisations of Freya’s birds, smooth mechanoid hybrids of bird and fish and insect which hover over the outsiders, Simon and Joan, Freya and King, herding them towards their end. Helicopters were still a relatively novel technology at this time, and became a symbol of futurity, representing freedom (as in the Chrysalids) or an oppressive, harrying presence. The shadow cast by the helicopter at the end of Bergman’s Through A Glass Darkly provides the manifest outline of the spider god which the unstable Karin has been hallucinating during the film. In The Damned, the helicopters are another aspect of the depersonalised power of the establishment. Highly mobile surveillance machines which ensure that there is no longer any way of escaping the all-encompassing grip of authority, no matter how fast and wild you drive down the long, straight coast road.

Captain Gregory - not an art lover
The children are all terribly well-spoken. It’s as if they have absorbed the speech patterns of those who indoctrinate them. They are set against the deliberate and ritualised insolence and rough speech of the bikers, who do their best to get on the wick of establishment types like the Major, and succeed admirably. Captain Gregory, meanwhile, shows them the same patrician disdain and studied disinterest which he reserves for anything and everything. An acute awareness of class and the antagonism, resentment or deference which this creates is present at every level of society, on civvy street and in the military camp. Captain Gregory still exudes an aura of Imperial arrogance and entitlement. He may be lower in rank than Major Holland, but he assumes an air of inherent superiority. Any bully can push people around, he says, looking pointedly at the Major, but ‘a gentleman commands loyalty’.

Return of Fuseli's Nightmare

King as art critic - attacking the manifestation of his self

On the cliffs above the children’s bunker, the sculptures produced by the artist Freya Neilsen offer a modernist, expressionistic perspective on the contemporary world. These sculptures were actually the work of the British artist Elizabeth Frink. Her birds, horse heads and human figures seem to emerge from the rubble of the quarry, fierce, half-formed beasts assembling themselves from the rocky material around them. Like the children, these creatures seem to be waiting for the post-apocalyptic world. Will this be the forbidding fauna which awaits them when they emerge from the cave? Frink was loosely associated with a group of artists known as the ‘geometry of fear’ sculptors, although they were really a generation older than her. The title comes from the influential art critic Herbert Read’s comments about the British exhibitors at the 1952 Venice Biennale. He wrote ‘these new images belong to the iconography of despair, or of defiance…Here are images of flight, of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas, of excoriated flesh, frustrated sex, the geometry of fear’. Frink’s hulking male figures, like chthonic trolls turned to stone, are filled with brutish, threatening power. King, Oliver Reed’s gang leader, hates them. He confronts her piece Warrior which she made in 1954, a nude male figure with helmet fused to head as if it is a natural extrusion of the skull, with revulsion and disgust. It angers him. Perhaps it offers too clear an insight into his own soul. Joan, on the other hand, seems to instinctively find something instinctively right about them, feeling a natural, almost sensual connection, enjoying work which is an expression of female creation and imagination. Frink's staring horse head, again made in 1954, looks like the fearful apparition appearing from the shadows at the side of the bed in Henri Fuseli’s famous painting and print The Nightmare. This is one of the most famous of horror images, in which a malevolent imp crouches on the chest of a restlessly sleeping woman and glowers out of the frame, as if it has just noticed our watching presence. Her heavy angel with its stunted wings is destined never to fly, but to remain rooted to the rocks, gazing out from the brink of the land over the empty expanse of the ocean.

Cafe raptor

Bernard's familiar shadow
The sculpture we see with the greatest frequency, however, is The Bird. It is referred to in the film as the graveyard bird, forging a link with King when he perches on one of the grave obelisks in the churchyard later on. This sharply predatory creature, tensed for a killing swoop, was an early work of Frink’s. The Tate bought it in 1952 whilst she was still at art college. This is the work of a young woman, then, further bringing out the generational gulf which runs like a seismic rift through the film. The bird is associated with Bernard, the scientist at the head of the secret project which is preparing the chosen children for a post-nuclear future. It almost acts as his twisted familiar spirit. It denotes the primal violence and predatory ruthlessness lurking beneath his civilised exterior. Its presence subtly undermines his rationalism and the carefully reasoned justifications he presents for his monstrous actions. We see it framed in the window of the seafront hotel café where he meets his military colleagues (his major and captain). Its shadow also arcs over his shoulder whilst he addresses the children over the remote communication system. Art expresses the truthful spirit which lies beneath the blandly constructed surface of civilised behaviour.

Modernist prints
Mention should finally be made of the cast. Oliver Reed is definitely the standout presence here. He brings a nervy intensity and incipient instability to his role, making of King a real character rather than a two-dimensional thug. He wins our sympathy in way that Malcolm Macdowell in A Clockwork Orange never does. Reed was one of Hammer’s repertory actors in the early 60s, and it was with the studio that his career really took off. After a minor part in The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll, he had his first major starring role in The Curse of the Werewolf. After that he was in the smuggling thriller Captain Clegg opposite Peter Cushing; the pirate movie The Pirates of Blood River opposite Christopher Lee (with rogueish eyepatch); the swashbuckler The Scarlet Blade; and the post-Pyscho suspense thriller Paranoiac. All of which shows the sheer range of pictures Hammer were making before they turned to specialising more exclusively on the gothic.

State violence and youth violence - an uneven match
Kenneth Cope, the biker who features most prominently in the story, will be familiar to many as the white-suited ghost detective in the 60s TV series Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) and also as a Corrie regular in that decade. He appeared in the 1981 Dr Who serial Warrior’s Gate, the final part of the e-space trilogy, a favourite of mine with its Cocteau references.

Why? - Macdonald Carey
Macdonald Carey, who plays Simon, nominally the hero, was one of a number of American actors Hammer shipped over to star in their early films, one eye firmly fixed on US box office potential. They couldn’t afford the latest stars, so tended to go for actors a little past their prime. Most notoriously, this included the casting of Brian Donlevy as Professor Quatermass, a choice which Nigel Kneale abhorred. Carey was best known in the movies for his roles in westerns. But he was better known in the States for his starring role in the long-running TV soap Days of Our Lives.

His May to September romance with Shirley Anne-Field’s character is one of the least convincing aspects of the film. But perhaps it is supposed to be – a jaundiced reflection on the artificiality of romance. Shirley Anne-Field was in a number of key British films of the new wave or kitchen-sink movement, including The Entertainer and Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, and she also appeared in Alfie later in the 60s. Her role here is more reminiscent of her part in the 1960 film Beat Girl, however, whose US title Wild for Kicks tells us all we really need to know.

Trashing the joint - the children's rebellion
The marvellously named Viveca Lindfors, who plays the artist Freya, was a Swedish actor of stage and screen who moved to America after the war and appeared in a large number of films and TV shows over the next 6 decades. I know her from George Romero’s horror comic movie Creepshow, in which she plays the tipsy Aunt Bedelia, whose abusive husband comes back from the dead on the anniversary of his birthday to demand his cake. It ends up decorated with poor old Bedelia’s head.

One of the child actors, Nicholas Clay, pursued an acting career into adulthood and appeared in one of my favourite films. He played the noble, handsome but fatally human Sir Lancelot in John Boorman’s 1981 Arthurian fantasia Excalibur.

The Major and the Biker
Douglas Gamley, who arranged the Black Leather Rock song, later jumped the Hammer ship and attached his colours to the rival company Amicus, where he produced some rather more distinguished scores. He worked on Asylum, Tales from the Crypt, And Now the Screaming Starts, The Vault of Horror, From Beyond the Grave and The Beast Must Die (from rock ‘n roll to blaxploitation wah-wah funk), as well as post-Amicus pictures The Land That Time Forgot and The Monster Club (the first horror movie I ever saw in the cinema).

The Black Death
In 1963, the year of The Damned’s release, Joseph Losey teamed up with another of his key actors, Dirk Bogarde, and with the writer Harold Pinter. They made The Servant, the first of a number of pictures which would fully establish his reputation as an arthouse auteur, a central figure in 60s British cinema. The Servant was followed by The Accident in 1967 and the Dirkless The Go-Between in 1970, the last of his collaborations with Pinter. It has to be said, there were also a few stinkers along the way. His comic-strip adaptation Modesty Blaise, with Sir Dirk and Antonioni star Monica Vitti was generally considered a dismal failure, although its colourful pop art stylings still make it a visual pleasure to watch. Boom from 1968, with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor wearily going through their Tennessee Williams routine once more, has been chosen by trash director John Waters as one of the films to accompany his forthcoming season at the BFI Southbank. He describes it as ‘beyond bad, the other side of camp – a film so beautiful and awful there is only one word to describe it: perfect. If you don’t like this film, I hate you’. I wouldn’t go that far in describing The Damned. But I do hope you like it.