The Disappearance, a film by Stuart Cooper


If you’re an obsessive cineaste there’s a good chance you maintain a mental list of the films you’d like to see, the films you’d like to see again, and the films you’d like to see reissued on DVD. The vagaries of distribution and ownership often conspire to make older films fall out of sight even when they’ve been produced and promoted by major studios, have had TV screenings and so on. This was famously the case with five of Alfred Hitchcock’s features—Vertigo and Rear Window among them—which managed to remain out of circulation for two decades; more notoriously there was Stanley Kubrick’s neurotic embargo on any screening of A Clockwork Orange in the UK which meant that my generation of Kubrick-watchers had to make do with a variety of pirate VHS recordings.


Penguin edition, 1973. Photo by Van Pariser.

DVD reissues have chipped away at my “must see again” list with the result that Stuart Cooper’s The Disappearance (1977) recently found itself at the top of the catalogue. This film has never been as inaccessible as some: it received at least two TV screenings in the UK, and was available on VHS cassette for a time. There was also a DVD release although by the time I started looking for it the only available copies were secondhand ones commanding high prices. A year or so ago I read Derek Marlowe’s Echoes of Celandine (1970), the novel on which the screenplay is based, and as a result became more eager than ever to see the film again. Having finally watched a very poor-quality transfer of a VHS copy on YouTube I now feel sated, even if the experience was unsatisfying.

The Disappearance is one of those odd productions that ought to have all the ingredients to make a very memorable film but which never works as well as you might hope. The screenplay was by Paul Mayersberg, written between his two films with Nicolas Roeg, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and Eureka (1983); there’s a great cast: Donald Sutherland, David Warner, Peter Bowles, David Hemmings (who also produced), John Hurt, Virginia McKenna, Christopher Plummer; Kubrick’s cameraman of the 1970s, John Alcott, photographed the film shortly after winning an Oscar for his work on Barry Lyndon; the source material is very good: Marlowe’s novel is described as “a romantic thriller” but when the quality of the writing easily matches any literary novels of the period such a description makes it sound more generic and pot-boiling than it is.

Continue reading “The Disappearance, a film by Stuart Cooper”

Brecht and Bowie


While David Bowie is still making the news it’s worth revisiting Baal, an hour-long BBC TV adaptation of the Bertolt Brecht play broadcast in 1981. Bowie stars as the title character, a thoroughly disagreeable poet and café singer who ruins the lives of those around him. This caused a stir at the time more for Bowie’s presence than for the content although Brecht wasn’t exactly a popular choice for evening entertainment. Prior to this most of Bowie’s acting had been in films, with his television appearances being limited to song performances or chat show discussions. The Man Who Fell to Earth aside, I’ve been somewhat dismissive of Bowie’s acting at times, his accent and the sheer weight of his musical persona overwhelm whatever role he’s given, but he’s good in this. He throws himself into the role, and is more convincing than I remember him being a couple of years later in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence.


For many people Bowie will be the sole attraction in Baal but for me there’s also the presence of the great Alan Clarke as director and co-adaptor (with John Willett). Clarke directed the cult TV play Penda’s Fen in 1974, and was later responsible for a handful of other notable TV films including Scum, Made in Britain, Road, Elephant (1989), and The Firm, all of which are distinguished by a singular intensity and dramatic power the likes of which is usually only found in the best feature films. Compared to those plays Baal is a minor piece, filmed entirely in the studio, and made deliberately stagey to honour Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt. The cameras keep their distance from the performers, and Brechtian distance is also achieved by the use of split-screen, title cards, and Bowie’s direct addresses to the viewer. If this seems like challenging material for a general audience (never mind the singer’s fans) consider that Baal was broadcast in primetime on BBC 1 when there were only three television channels in the UK. This would not happen today.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Penda’s Fen by David Rudkin

The poster art of Vic Fair


The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976).

This weekend’s viewing was The Man Who Fell to Earth on Blu-ray, highly recommended for anyone who likes the film, Anthony Richmond’s photography looks better than ever. I’ve had this for a while on DVD and what’s notable about the old and new formats is that both UK editions use Vic Fair’s poster design as the cover art. It often seems a hit-or-miss affair whether the original poster gets used for home release. This tends to happen more with older films that have acquired an artistic reputation; the recent UK release of The Conformist by Arrow Films prints four different poster designs on the inlay, with the box enclosure having a clear window that allows one or other of the designs to be facing out. A great idea which makes owning the physical copy a little more worthwhile.

I’d known the poster for Nic Roeg’s film for years but until this weekend I’d never thought to find out who was responsible for the artwork. Vic Fair was a prolific artist for UK film releases during the 1970s and 1980s so this is a small selection of his work. Apparently he was so pleased with the Roeg poster that he signed it. As is often the case with film posters, there’s no record of the designers for these examples so we don’t know who was responsible for the type layouts.


Countess Dracula (1972).

The Countess Dracula art looks surprisingly similar to some of the promotional art that Roger Dean produced around this time for UK studios, Hammer included. A few examples appear in his Views book but it’s a side of his work that’s seldom seen or discussed. I recall being impressed by the Vampire Circus poster in the past (although the big cats look a little silly). One of the better Hammers of the 70s, with a cast including cult cutie John Moulder-Brown.


Vampire Circus (1972).


The Hireling (1973).

As with many posters of the 1970s, The Hireling is a great example of an approach that marketing departments would never allow today.


Castaway (1987).

Another Nic Roeg film, and another subtle design, possibly too subtle as I don’t recall seeing it used anywhere. First time I saw this was on the cover of a soundtrack album a few years back when I was putting together Jon Hassell’s website. There’s a piece of his music used in the film so we were trying to trace all the relevant cover art.

There’s more about Vic Fair and his contemporaries in British Film Posters: An Illustrated History by Sim Branaghan & Steve Chibnall, a book I think I ought to buy. If anything it may spare me the temptation to start collecting film posters again.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Petulia film posters
Lucifer Rising posters
Wild Salomés
Druillet’s vampires
Bob Peak revisited
Alice in Acidland
Salomé posters
Polish posters: Freedom on the Fence
Kaleidoscope: the switched-on thriller
The Robing of The Birds
Franciszek Starowieyski, 1930–2009
Dallamano’s Dorian Gray
Czech film posters
The poster art of Richard Amsel
Bollywood posters
Lussuria, Invidia, Superbia
The poster art of Bob Peak
A premonition of Premonition
Metropolis posters
Film noir posters

Derek Jarman’s Neutron


Tilda Swinton in The Last of England (1988).

John Dee turned up in Derek Jarman’s Jubilee after scenes from an earlier script about the Elizabethan magus were grafted onto the punk dystopia. Jarman’s career was to be littered with these unrealised projects, the strangest of which was Neutron, an apocalyptic science fiction film he was planning following the comparative success of The Tempest in 1979. The description he gives in his “Queerlife”, Dancing Ledge, is as follows:

There are six published manuscripts of Neutron, which zig-zag their anti-heroes Aeon and Topaz across the horizon of a bleak and twilit post-nuclear landscape. ‘Artist’ and ‘activist’ in their respective former lives, they are caught up in the apocalypse, where the PA systems of Oblivion crackle with the revelations of John the Divine. Their duel is fought among the rusting technology and darkened catacombs of the Fallen civilization, until they reach the pink marble bunker of Him. The reel of time is looped—angels descend with flame-throwers and crazed religious sects prowl through the undergrowth. The Book of Revelations is worked as science fiction.

Lee [Drysdale] and I pored over every nuance of this film. We cast it with David Bowie and Steven Berkoff, set it in the huge junked-out power station at Nine Elms and in the wasteland around the Berlin Wall. Christopher Hobbs produced xeroxes of the pink marble halls of the bunker with their Speer lighting—that echo to ‘the muzak of the spheres’ which played even in the cannibal abattoirs, where the vampire orderlies sipped dark blood from crystal goblets.

If that doesn’t whet your appetite I don’t know what would. Later drafts of the script were written with Jon Savage. If the film had been made it might well have been terrible, of course, but Christopher Hobbs, who worked with Jarman on later films, as well as on Velvet Goldmine and the BBC’s Gormenghast, would at least have made it look great. David Bowie is very good in The Man Who Fell to Earth but his acting is seldom as successful elsewhere. Steven Berkoff would have been a better bet but a Bowie film would have received far more attention. Bowie discusses his involvement in a 1999 interview here (and also slags off Velvet Goldmine…booo!).

All this was happening circa 1980 when Reagan and Thatcher had just begun their insidious reigns and the Cold War was moving into a new era which generated a great deal of apocalyptic anxiety. Jarman’s response to all of this materialised in 1988 with The Last of England, his bleakest film, and a work in which we can perhaps see some of the nightmare scenes which Neutron would have conjured. I’ve never liked The Last of England very much but it contains a few sequences worth savouring, especially shots of the luminous Tilda Swinton dancing through the wasteland devastation. There’s a fragment of that here with her ripping her dress to pieces accompanied by the voice of Diamanda Galás. Meanwhile, does David Bowie still have the production designs for Neutron? If so, when do we get to see them?

Previously on { feuilleton }
Mister Jarman, Mister Moore and Doctor Dee
The Tempest illustrated
In the Shadow of the Sun by Derek Jarman
Derek Jarman at the Serpentine
The Angelic Conversation
The life and work of Derek Jarman