The lost worlds of British cinema: The horror

Wild Men of Wardour Street and the birth of the exploitation movie
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British cinema tends to be characterised through its most decorous traditions. What could be more British than a Merchant-Ivory picture? Certainly not the late Ismail Merchant (who was Indian), James Ivory (who is American), or their regular screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (who is German). Our native cinema might be as easily characterised by its savagery, its enduring and energetic commitment to violence, sadism, nihilism and despair. The evidence, however, has been consigned to the scrag bin of cultural history. "The more aggressive and excessive forms of British exploitation," concedes Ian Conrich in The British Cinema Book, "still await serious examination." These pictures have slipped from our grasp. The kind of cinema they represent, which once made up a large chunk of British production, had all but vanished by the early 1980s, a victim of home video and an unfriendly taxation regime. These films have suffered from long-term academic and journalistic hostility. Most interestingly, perhaps, many of their participants look back on their involvement with unease.

Richard Attenborough, for instance, insists that he accepted the role of the serial killer John Reginald Christie in 10 Rillington Place because wanted to make a statement against the death penalty. "I felt that steeping myself in this character," he wrote, "however unpleasant, would be worthwhile if, as a result, people were persuaded that hanging was not only barbarous, but could cause irretrievable miscarriages of justice." 10 Rillington Place, unfortunately, has only the most obvious observations to make on the issue. It is, however, a first-class exploitation picture. In Christie, Attenborough found his final and greatest horror role: his eyes shine like malignant hard-boiled eggs; he suffocates his victims with as much care as malice, with nothing but his hot little breaths on the soundtrack. It is the culmination of years of work in the field, and the peak of his acting career.

Attenborough was born for sleaze and terror. Observe him as Pinkie Brown in Brighton Rock (1947), elucidating his contempt for Carol Marsh into the microphone of a make-your-own-record booth, thrilled by the cleverness of this act of deferred cruelty. See him as a sweaty teenage mechanic in London Belongs to Me (1948), running from the scene of his crimes and whimpering, "Oh, Mum, I never meant to do it". Study his mock-heroic abduction of a little girl in Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964); the mildewed tenderness he employs in an attempt to assure her that she will come to no harm. ("Don't be afraid," he breathes, dousing his handkerchief in chloroform. "It's only a game.") Then compare the veracity and the energy of these performances with the pomposity of his directorial work: Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), an all-star travesty of Joan Littlewood's East End agitprop satire; Gandhi (1982), a lavish biopic of an ascetic life, which encouraged its audience to boo a chorus of Edwardian pantomime villains and congratulate themselves for their own liberalism; Cry Freedom (1987), a film whose arguments against racist oppression in South Africa were not amplified when Attenborough was caught on camera, closeted with Nelson Mandela, pleading the case of Nestlé - a Swiss multinational whose marketing of powdered milk has contributed to the deaths of thousands of young Africans.

How much better it would be if he was remembered as British cinema's most accomplished player of panic, selfishness and malice; its gentlest and most comprehensible monster.

Attenborough is not customarily considered to be an exploitation actor. No doubt he would shrink from such a label. Even the most iconic stars of horror cinema seem to have evolved difficult relationships with their work.

The career of Christopher Lee, for instance, incorporates the most canonical and literary permutations of British Gothic cinema and the most gleefully tasteless extremes of Poverty Row. Few horror actors can have exerted more influence upon the genre. His highly eroticised version of Count Dracula flavoured the work of an entire generation of Freudian Stoker scholarship. And surely it was Lee's body into which Philip Larkin imagined himself when, in 1960, he wrote: "Me and my cloak and fangs/ Had ripping times in the dark./ The women I clubbed with sex!/ I broke them up like meringues."

When I interviewed Lee in 2001, however, he seemed irritated by my interest in this part of his career. He told me that he had only continued to accept roles in Hammer's Dracula pictures because the company's chiefs pestered him with "hysterical phone calls" in which they confessed that they had use his name to pre-sell the productions to America. If he declined to put on the fangs and blood-red contact lenses, they argued, significant numbers of British actors and technicians would be put out of work. "And that's how they got me back," he insisted. "It's the only reason. It was a form of blackmail, really."

Things like this just seemed to keep happening to him. In 1969, he accepted a script entitled The Bloody Judge, a biopic of Lord Jeffreys, the noose-happy 17th-century Lord Chancellor, and was dismayed when it reached cinemas as Night of the Blood Monster (1970). Maybe he didn't detect the hint of profanity in the name of its director, Jesus Franco, or notice that his résumé included films such as Miss Death and Dr Z in the Grip of the Maniac (1966) and Prostitutes in Prison (1969).

Perhaps he had no way of knowing that Franco would cut from a shot of him gazing fixedly into the camera to a close-up of his female co-star's pneumatic décolletage, or that his speeches would be dubbed over an image of the bloodied buttocks of a naked actress.

"Do you realise how long it is since I've done a horror movie?" he demanded, not intending to wait for an answer. "The last one I did was To the Devil a Daughter in 1975. So why does the press refer to me as a horror actor? It's sloppy journalism. If you ask the press, or any casting directors, what Christopher Lee did when he was in America for 10 years, they haven't a clue. I hosted Saturday Night Live. It was their third biggest audience of all time. Fact. You can't fiddle those figures. And I did a hell of a lot of comedy in America. Fact. It's right there on the screen. Now, are you prepared to accept the evidence of your own eyes, or are you going to deny it? And they deny it."

Their denials - and mine - are explained by the presence of The House of Long Shadows, Stirba the Werewolf Bitch (1985), Curse III: Blood Sacrifice (1991) and Talos the Mummy (1998) on his filmography, and by the commonly held opinion that his involvement with the horror genre is infinitely more significant than his work on Police Academy 7: Mission to Moscow (1994).

During the 1950s, the conditions were created in Britain for the emergence of a new form of cinema. In January 1951, the "X" certificate was introduced by the BBFC. In 1957, a new Cinematograph Films Act made permanent an experimental tax scheme known as the Eady Levy, which paid back a percentage of a film's box office receipts to its producers, on condition that they ploughed the funds into further productions.

The following year, a former schoolteacher named John Trevelyan was appointed secretary of the BBFC, and became the first British censor with a genuine interest in film and a liberal attitude to what it might be permitted to depict. These developments took place against a background of falling cinema attendance and widespread doubt about the future of studio production in the UK.

Trevelyan's relaxation of the rules of censorship was not a gentle, even process. Conservative campaigners kept him within their sights. Alarmed by the success of Hammer's Dracula (1958), the novelist RF Delderfield attempted to rally opinion against the British horror film. "There can be no doubt," he affirmed, "that this steady tide of sadism presented on our screens and the equally repulsive cataract of violence and brutality flowing through our social life are intermingled."

According to Alexander Walker, Trevelyan's liberal treatment of Michael Powell's serial killer thriller Peeping Tom (1960) almost cost the BBFC secretary his job. The critics - Walker included - railed against the film: something that an enterprising distributor might have turned into an advantage. Unfortunately, Nat Cohen, the chair of Anglo-Amalgamated, the company handling Peeping Tom, pulled the film from the Plaza cinema, fearing that it would spike his chances of a knighthood.

Guy Hamilton and Anthony Perry, two survivors from the studio system, were the two film-makers fated to absorb the backlash. Perry, a graduate of the Rank Organisation, went freelance in 1959 to reinvent himself as an independent producer. In 1962, he secured the services of Guy Hamilton, a protégé of Carol Reed, to direct The Party's Over (1962), a piece about the beatnik life in Bayswater. Jack Hawkins and Peter O'Toole put up the money, Oliver Reed was the star, the Rank Organisation agreed to distribute the picture. Hamilton told Films and Filming that he was "tired of studio work now": the magazine's report from the set described a young team attacking a fresh, new subject with vigour and zeal. In July 1963, however, John Trevelyan refused to grant the film a certificate, objecting to a scene in which Reed's duffel-coated hero has sex with a woman whom he fails to realise has died of a drug overdose. After Trevelyan's ruling, the Rank Organisation reneged on its distribution deal: the film made it into cinemas with heavy cuts, and Perry and Hamilton's names were absent from the credits. "I always thought," confessed Hamilton, when I discussed these events with him, "that Trevelyan was the sort of censor who went around sniffing bicycle saddles."

It was unfortunate that Hamilton and Perry were dissuaded from making another picture of this type. Compared with many of their peers, they were imaginative and idealistic.

Harry Alan Towers, a legendary wheeler-dealer, had several tussles with the law, but proved as indestructible as the villain of the Fu Manchu films with which he made his name. In 1961, Towers was arrested in New York and charged with operating a call-girl ring for the benefit of UN diplomats. (Maria Novotny, a future bit-player in the Profumo affair, was alleged to be his principal asset.) The accused skipped bail and fled to Moscow, but two decades on the run from the New York authorities did not prevent him making imaginative use of the tax laws to finance the production of some 50 feature films - some of which were never screened in the UK because his creditors would have been within their rights to impound the negatives.

Towers shot Sanders of the River (1963) in South Africa with Richard Todd, hoodwinked Klaus Kinski into playing Renfield in Count Dracula (1970) by giving him a script with a fake title, and took Christopher Lee to Spain for Night of the Blood Monster and Eugenie ... The Story of her Journey into Perversion (1969) - naturally, the star insists that he had no idea he was appearing in a porn film.

Towers was cleared of the charges against his name in 1980, and is still in business today - in 2002, he attempted to persuade Monica Lewinsky to take the lead in a Viennese costume romance set during the premiere of The Merry Widow. Go to the website of his company, Towers of London, and you will be greeted by an invitation to invest in such productions. "I can't believe he's still alive!" whooped one of his former associates, when I informed him of the producer's recent activities. "Only the good die young, don't they?"

Of all these wild men of Wardour Street, it was Tony Tenser, the London-born son of Lithuanian immigrants, who wielded the most influence and exhibited the most brazen ingenuity. "The British film industry is gasping its last because there is no one like Tony Tenser to kick it back to life," wrote the historian and screenwriter David McGillivray in 1992. "He was the Irving Thalberg of the exploitation movie, and like the boy wonder of MGM, his career was too short."

In 1972, Tenser resigned from his own company, took a wife 27 years his junior, and moved to the Lancashire seaside resort of Southport to start a business trading in wicker chairs - like the circular number, one assumes, occupied by Sylvia Kristel in Emmanuelle (1974).

He still lives in the town, though he and his wife have separated. She remains in the modern townhouse they shared for 30 years, he has moved into the rest home across the road - an experimental shift that slowly hardened into a permanent arrangement. It was here that I met Tenser on an August day in 2003, in a tiny room as hot as a gecko's vivarium. A handsome, square-jawed octogenarian with a neat white moustache, he reclined on the quilt of his single bed and produced a boxed set of DVDs containing three films by Roman Polanski. The rest home had no DVD player, so we slipped the disc into my laptop and watched some interview footage of Tenser talking about his work on Repulsion (1966) and Cul de Sac (1967). He seemed pleased at his own reflection, but asked me to close the machine down when one of the carers brought tea in a battered stainless steel pot. "Like the furniture?" he asked, waving a hand in the direction of his white-and-gold wardrobe. "Jewish renaissance."

Tenser grew up with his parents and six siblings in a two-room tenement flat on Christian Street, Shoreditch. ("The name was a paradox," he said. "It had no Christians living in it.") The family scraped a living by sewing piecework for local tailors, but Tenser worked hard at school, was awarded a scholarship, officially declared the second-cleverest boy in the East End, and dispatched to grammar school, where the teachers and the fee-paying boys did not allow him to forget his charitable status. After the war, he joined the ABC cinema chain as a trainee manager, and earned a promotion when he reported his boss for claiming wages for non-existent staff.

At the Central Cinema, Cambridge, he developed his genius for the PR stunt. When his employers forced him to screen a hopeless Jerry Lewis vehicle, he put up posters outside the building, begging patrons to stay away, and broke box office records. For Challenge to Lassie (1949) he held a sheepdog trial, though he had to import the animals from Newcastle to sheepless Cambridgeshire.

When a second run of the Margaret Rutherford comedy The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950) was scheduled for the cinema, he pretended that ABC was trying to prevent him from screening the picture, and invited his audience to sign a petition in protest. Naturally, the campaign succeeded.

He continued to deploy this talent for ballyhoo when he moved to London to work as publicity manager for a small distribution outfit called Miracle Films. ("We tried to avoid the obvious catchphrase," he reflected. "If it's a good film, it's a Miracle.") He repackaged European horror pictures for double feature programmes, rechristening them with sensational new titles.

He brought Brigitte Bardot to London and coined the term "sex kitten". He commissioned a naked waxwork of the actress to go on display outside the Cameo cinema on Tottenham Court Road, told a journalist on the Daily Mirror that it was going to be stolen the next day, and arranged for it to disappear. (It was recovered after a few days and Tenser was rewarded with his photograph in the newspaper, standing at a bus stop, arm-in-arm with the mannequin.)

He imported Pierre Foucaund's comedy En effeulliant la marguerite (1956), retitled the film Madame Strip Tease, and persuaded a girlie-show impresario named Michael Klinger to send his employees to picket the cinema in their tittie-tassles.

From this stunt, a partnership was forged. Klinger was a former hotdog salesman and disc jockey, whose parents, like Tenser's, were Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe. His clubs were lucrative businesses, but Klinger hankered after legitimacy and asked Tenser to help him transform himself into a movie mogul. Tenser cautioned against entering production, and argued instead that the pair should exploit a loophole in the law that allowed for the exhibition of uncertificated films at private members' clubs.

In 1960, they leased the basement of a Soho office block, refitted the space with 170 seats and a projector, declared the Compton Cinema Club open, and persuaded John Trevelyan to become a founder member. With the censor on their books, they were virtually immune from prosecution.

The pair formed their own distribution company, importing foreign pictures, screening them uncut at the club, and offering expurgated versions for wider presentation. Encouraged by the success of this venture, Tenser acceded to Klinger's desires to go into production. In partnership with the owners of the owners of the Cameo chain of independent cinemas, they formed Compton Cameo Films. The firm's flagship house, the Cameo Poly on Regent Street, had screened the first X-rated feature in 1951. In 1896, when it was the London Polytechnic Institute, the building had hosted Britain's first public kinematograph show. In 1962, another landmark event took place in its auditorium: the premiere of the first collaboration between Tenser and Klinger: Naked - as Nature Intended, a cheap nudie flick starring a popular Soho model named Pamela Green.

A British sex comedy of the following decade offers a mischievous caricature of Tenser's professional practices. In Eskimo Nell (1973), Roy Kinnear plays Benny U Murdoch, a Wardour Street warhorse whose enthusiasm for his films is matched only by the unseemly lengths to which he is prepared to go to promote them.

Eskimo Nell parodies Tenser's appetite for the grisly processes of exploitation deal-making, but it also offers an illustration of his most cherishable quality: his willingness to take a chance on untested talents. Tenser rarely employed refugees from the studio system, nor did he allow himself to be bamboozled by big names. (When Orson Welles hoved into the office and invited him to invest in a production of Treasure Island, Tenser pretended that he was busy for the next two years, and allowed the honour of squandering money on this project to go to Harry Alan Towers.)

Instead, Tenser favoured a series of keen young directors and screenwriters, some of whom were barely out of their teens. He provided Roman Polanski with the cash to make his first English-language picture, Repulsion (1965) - a hothouse psychodrama in which a young Belgian manicurist sinks into a murderous, delusional state, and Cul de Sac (1966), an intoxicatingly bizarre comedy-thriller which looked back to the director's surrealist student shorts. Tenser wrote the cheques which allowed a brilliant, neurotic director named Michael Reeves to shoot The Sorcerers (1967) and Witchfinder General (1968), before an accidental overdose of sleeping pills dealt British cinema its most vicious blow since the death of Pen Tennyson. Tenser gave Michael Armstrong his first scripting assignment on Horror House (1969), aiding his promotion to the director's chair on Mark of the Devil (1970) - a notoriously gruesome exercise for which promotional sick-bags were distributed to patrons.

Piers Haggard was another beneficiary of this trust: before the BBC gave him the job of directing Dennis Potter's Pennies from Heaven, he turned in Blood on Satan's Claw (1970) for Tenser.

Let us not sentimentalise Tenser's motives. For him, all these pictures were properties to be sold as aggressively as possible. "An exploitation film is a film with a gimmick," he told me. "Something to get an audience in. Even Repulsion is a film with a gimmick. It's about a girl who's not getting any; she going mad and she's starting to hallucinate. That's a gimmick; that's something you can use to sell a film."

He liked Polanski and his peers for their cheapness as well as their zealotry. Filming on the street was customarily carried out guerrilla-style, without permission from local councils. (After blowing up the car in the last scene of The Sorcerers, Michael Reeves and his crew were forced to scatter to avoid being collared by the police.)

Small extravagances were discouraged. When Polanski was setting up the famous sequence in which Catherine Deneuve is pawed by a series of disembodied hands that push their way through the mortar of her hallway walls, Tenser haggled him down from 24 limbs to 16. The actor Roy Hudd recalls that when he played the part of a pickle-guzzling mortuary assistant in The Blood Beast Terror, he was told, "try to look bigger as you come towards the camera" to compensate for the inadequacies of the tiny forced-perspective set.

Tenser's business interests went beyond the production of bleak, existential horror pictures. In partnership with Michael Klinger - and under the aegis of his own companies, Tony Tenser Productions and Tigon Films - he also invested heavily in softcore sex flicks. Naked - as Nature Intended is a textbook example of the nudist camp travelogue.

John Bown's Monique (1969) is a creditably bittersweet sexual drama in which a married couple's suburban alienation is remedied by the arrival of a bisexual French au pair. (The final scene, as they all sit in bed, smoking fags, passing the wine and discussing abstract art - with somebody's knickers draped over the bedside lamp - is a sleazy genre's most winsome moment.)

However, What's Good for the Goose is notable only as Norman Wisdom's disastrous attempt to reinvent himself as a sex comedy star. Watching him standing in his tight little white Y-fronts in a comfortless hotel bathroom, psyching himself to have sex with Sally Geeson, is like attending the funeral of his career.