Back in the golden age of cinema-going, the ‘programme’ actually merited the name. Forget the 20 minutes of commercial bombardment that you get before the feature presentation today – in those days audiences were treated to a newsreel and extras with quaint names like ‘topicals’ and ‘interest films’ as well as narrative shorts.
But, as exhibitors became more canny and features got longer, this generous potpourri of entertainment was gradually whittled down, and the 1970s and early 80s marked the last gasp of cinema variety.
Back then, your chosen film might be part of a double bill or supported by a short. In the latter case, you generally didn’t know what you were going to see till the lights went down, adding to the thrill of going to the pictures.
You might be treated to a comedy gem, like the spoof travelogue Away from It All (1979), which went out with Monty Python’s Life of Brian. If you were unlucky you’d have to endure a documentary about yacht racing or skateboarding.
But every now and then a film would appear that defied expectations. The Orchard End Murder (1980) is one such title. The press notes describe it as “A ‘chiller’ set in the fecund Kent countryside: a macabre tale of a bizarre encounter between a cunning hunchback, a demented giant, a naughty little Red Riding Hood from suburbia – and death.” Set in 1966, it tells of a young woman bored of watching her boyfriend play cricket who wanders off to see what other diversions the countryside has to offer.
Most programme fillers seen at this time on British screens were produced or distributed by GTO Films, whose animated logo is preserved on the BFI transfer of The Orchard End Murder featured on the new Blu-ray release.
The company was run by Laurence Myers, a producer of imagination and intuition who gave several young directors a first step on the ladder, among them Julien Temple and James Dearden. Tax breaks in the form of the Eady Levy made production sustainable, the length of the film dictating the percentage of return from the box office takings. A film of more than 40 minutes counted as a ‘long short-feature’ and qualified for up to 50% of the profit generated by the headline title.
The Orchard End Murder wasn’t financed by GTO; instead the company purchased it outright and it was released in a particularly gruesome pairing with Dead & Buried (1981), a tale of a necrophiliac mortician who reanimates corpses. This US film was directed by Gary Sherman, who, 10 years earlier, had subjected audiences to cannibals terrorising the London underground in Death Line. According to the publicity material, this double bill opened in 50 cinemas on Sunday 1 November 1981 in the north-east of England via the ABC chain; Film Review Annual, however, records the release date as 11 July 1982, its appearance perhaps delayed in the south.
Despite the usual disclaimer at the end of The Orchard End Murder (“any similarity…is purely coincidental…”), the story has several parallels with an actual murder that had taken place 10 years before near the Kent home of its director, Christian Marnham. The film focuses on, and emphasises, the more lurid aspects of the case, prolonging the sequence of the disturbing attack and murder, and lingering on the victim’s naked body. The filmmakers were clearly aspiring to an ‘X’ certificate to appeal to audiences drawn to the current wave of grisly cinematic offerings.
Yet the filmmakers clearly had ambitions beyond mere shock and titillation, and the usually sniffy Monthly Film Bulletin recognised it as “a debut of some promise”, praising the “carefully textured camerawork” of Peter Jessop, which, it judged, gave it “an edge of the picturesquely sinister”.
Jessop had worked with Marnham on commercials but was also Pete Walker’s regular director of photography, so he had ample experience of creating an air of unease in seemingly benign surroundings.
For evidence of his skill, look no further than the film’s opening. In a dramatic crane shot the camera pulls away from a cricket match to soar over the road and descend into the adjacent orchard, briefly capturing a glimpse of a lurking figure before bearing down on a couple canoodling among the heavily-laden apple trees.
Also key to the film’s mood is the soundtrack, especially the quirky score by Sam Sklair. Another member of Marnham’s commercials crew, Sklair was an experienced soundtrack artist as well as an exponent of African-inflected easy listening.
His music is used sparingly in The Orchard End Murder and complements the action well, the perky theme giving way to discordant variations as the action turns darker and accelerating as the film heads towards its climax. Elsewhere, reassuring rural sounds – the buzzing of wasps, church bells, a clock ticking in the parlour, a farmer innocently whistling ‘English Country Garden’ – become menacing.
In its more thoughtful moments the film also offers some interesting reflections on English rural life, presenting the stereotypes (cricket match, polite but dull conversation, apple scrumping, steam trains on a railway branch line) before undercutting them by delving beneath to reveal its darker secrets.
When suburbanite Pauline strays from the path, literally and figuratively, she discovers that the countryside can be a menacing landscape whose inhabitants prey on the unsuspecting. Marnham transforms the Garden of England into the Garden of Eden after the fall. Pauline takes a bite of the apple and suffers the consequence; the ‘forbidden fruit’ taken from the orchard (“we’re not supposed to be here”) leads to her destruction.
By all accounts, The Orchard End Murder made a healthy profit on the back of the success of Dead & Buried, but Marnham, having sold the rights, got no share in it. Like many commercial directors before him, such as Alan Parker, Hugh Hudson and Adrian Lyne, he aspired to move into feature films, but by the early 1980s such a graduation was becoming harder to achieve – in the UK at least.
The Orchard End Murder is the product of a moment in British cinema history when opportunities existed not only for directors to experiment but for their work to reach a wide audience.