If you didn’t grow up in the U.K., it’s not always easy to learn about the backwaters of its cinematic history. Most cult film addicts know the basics — Hammer films, the work of Pete Walker, Amicus anthologies, etc. — but as with any country’s cinema, there’s a host of lesser-known but equally deserving obscurities that film fans from other countries would love to learn about. Headpress has stepped up to tackle this chore with Offbeat — and the resulting reading is as addictive as it is informative.
Edited by Julian Upton, Offbeat describes itself in its subtitle as “British Cinema’s Curiosities, Obscurities And Forgotten Gems.” It focuses on the period from 1955 to 1985, the era where British government policies helped provide funding for domestic filmmaking until they were swept away by the Thatcher administration. This era saw the country’s most prolific outpouring of commercial filmmaking — and this tome diligently scours that output for the forgotten entries that reveal interesting things about the filmmakers and how the U.K. shaped their approach and attitudes.
The majority of the book is devoted to detailed reviews of films, with the entries devoting three to four pages to each title. There are occasional well-known titles — historically important items like Deep End, Privilege or That’ll Be The Day — but the selection of titles takes great pains to illuminate the overlooked corners of the better known filmographies. For example, the entries on Hammer films bypass the usual Dracula and Frankenstein fare to devote time to the bank heist thriller Cash On Demand or Nigel Kneale’s non–Quatermass work.
There are also essays that illuminate themes and unique subgenres that run British filmmaking of this era. For example, there are chapters on the cycle of ‘50s/‘60s British swashbuckler movies and a chapter on how David Sullivan, a Bob Guccione-styled sultan of skin magazines, made a cycle of highly controversial softcore sex comedies in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. The most interesting of these essays is a chapter on how British films in the ‘60s and ‘70s dealt with themes of teen sexuality in an overheated, lolita-fetishizing way that wouldn’t be tolerated today.
However, Offbeat isn’t just a compendium of the obscure for obscurity’s sake. Upton and the other contributors to this volume, which include Headpress co-founder David Kerekes and luminaries like Kim Newman, use the lesser-known fare they discuss as a way of cueing the reader in to what these films say about the culture that spawned them and the filmmakers who created them. There’s a consistently high standard of quality to the writing here, with a focus on research and contextualization that adds a real depth to the exploration of so-called throwaway films.
For example, the reviews of Permissive and Goodbye Gemini reveal the existence of an “anti-Swinging London” subgenre that showed the downside of this supposedly chic era. Elsewhere, a review of Michael Winner’s The Jokers explores his oft-forgotten early era as a hip filmmaker while also pointing out how it contains trace elements of brutality that would come to define his later work. A particularly memorable moment is a review of Lindsay Shonteff’s How Sleep The Brave that doubles as an exploration of his underachieving yet doggedly prolific career — and why his films are so tough to watch.
In short, Offbeat is likely to show cinematic trainspotters just how much there is to learn about the cultish side of English filmmaking. By prowling the late-night t.v. listings and dusty video store shelves, Upton and his collaborators have created an alternative history of their country’s filmmaking that says as much about the England of 1955–1985 as it does about the films themselves.