1976: Where was British cinema in the year punk exploded?

Anarchy and agitation arrived in UK record shops in 1976. At the cinema, not so much…

22 August 2016

By Neil Mitchell

Not Now, Comrade (1976)

Britain, 1976: second-division Southampton defy the odds and beat Manchester United to lift the FA Cup, Harold Wilson resigns as prime minister, Concorde makes its inaugural commercial flight and the nation experiences record-breaking temperatures and a prolonged drought.

It was also the year that punk was officially born on these shores, as The Damned released ‘New Rose’ and The Sex Pistols unleashed ‘Anarchy in the UK’ on an unsuspecting public before shocking middle England with their expletive-ridden appearance on Thames Television’s Today show.

The fuse had been lit and an emerging subcultural movement was to wipe away the illusion that the youth of the day were happy with their lot. Not for these kids the banal frivolity of glitter rock, the staid, regressive sitcoms clogging up the TV schedules or the flailing belief that Britannia still ruled the waves. In its myriad manifestations – from the bands to the filmmakers, the artists and style icons – punk flashed the Vs to tradition, conformism and the cultural gatekeepers of the era.

While the sounds on the radio and the fashions on the street were showing the way forward in terms of DIY spirit, confrontational expression and the alienation felt by many of the younger members of British society, was there anything in our homegrown cinema that year to suggest it too was embracing, reflecting or critiquing both punk and the state of the nation?

Carry On England (1976)

Initially, a cursory glance at the films made and released in Britain in 1976 would suggest not. It’s fair to say that (like the decade as a whole) 1976 was not a vintage year for British films, the by then ailing Carry On franchise’s 28th entry, Carry On England (directed by Gerald Thomas), lasted only three days in some cinemas. In retrospect, the sad death of Sid James that same year is perhaps symbolic of a shifting of the ways, Carry On England’s utter commercial failure also signalling that cultural appetites were changing.

To the Devil a Daughter (1976)

Among the many forgettable releases that moviegoers endured in 1976 were the soft-core, sex comedy Adventures of a Taxi Driver (Stanley Long), Hammer’s tired Dennis Wheatley adaptation To the Devil… a Daughter (Peter Sykes) and Ray Cooney and Harold Snoad’s misfiring spy caper Not Now, Comrade.

Bugsy Malone (1976)

There were some high points among the bland period pieces and by-the-numbers family films, however, with Alan Parker’s kids musical Bugsy Malone, Richard Donner’s US co-produced horror flick The Omen and Jack Gold’s demythologising First World War aerial drama Aces High standing out as at least offering something of interest within their respective genres.

The Eagle Has Landed (1976)

While The Eagle Has Landed (John Sturges), The Cassandra Crossing (George Pan Cosmatos) and Peter R. Hunt’s Shout at the Devil all delivered intrigue, action and spectacle, to varying degrees of critical and box office success, none spoke to or represented the emerging generation and their growing sense of disillusionment with a socio-political climate of rising unemployment, economic uncertainty and simmering racial tensions.

Shout at the Devil (1976) poster

It is, of course, difficult for a medium such as film to instantly capture the zeitgeist, reliant as its practitioners are on the lengthy process of funding, making, selling and distributing their works. Lurking amid the mainstream actioners and Z-grade sexcapades, however, there were stylistic and thematic glimpses that displayed a punkish attitude in a number of diverse films from equally diverse directors that reached British audiences that year.

In terms of identification, the literally otherworldly, alienated Newton (David Bowie) in Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth offered up a figure that at least shared the sense of isolation and disconnectedness from the world around him that many of punk’s followers would recognise. Similarly, Roeg’s thoughtful, stylish exploration of social and cultural values, aligned with his fondness for surreal, obtuse and/or non-chronological imagery, must have struck a chord with budding filmmakers wishing to create their own unique, uncompromising works in an industry in which it is notoriously difficult to maintain artistic control.

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

That same streak of individualism and punk’s DIY attitude coursed through the career of cult director Pete Walker, who managed to deliver two slices of low-budget horror/exploitation in 76, House of Mortal Sin and Schizo. Largely reviled and slated by the critical cognoscenti, Walker’s films did, though, catch the eye of one Malcolm Mclaren. The punk guru hired Walker to direct a planned documentary about The Sex Pistols entitled A Star Is Dead, a project that was eventually binned in the wake of the band’s tumultuous split.

James Kenelm Clarke’s once notorious no-budget sexploitation movie Exposé, which would subsequently be drawn into the video nasty furore of the early 80s, can also be seen to display an aesthetic and technical attitude to filmmaking in keeping with how punk would develop across various mediums.

While Dorothea Gazidis’ documentary Pride of Place, shot by Kim Longinotto and focused on the strict regime of a girls’ boarding school, and Never Too Young to Rock (Dennis Abbey) – a glam rock musical set in a dystopian present where pop music is banned from TV – were wildly different films, they both revolved around disaffected youth, combating repression and cross-generational angst; themes that punk would push to new extremes.

Two more stylistically, aesthetically and thematically different films released in 1976 stand out as being the most culturally significant of the year in relation to the burgeoning punk scene: Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane and Horace Ové’s Pressure. Jarman’s bold, homoerotic portrayal of the life and martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, told entirely in Latin, and Ové’s grittily realistic vision of the inter-generational and societal struggles of a West Indian migrant family living in 70s London both challenged the socio-cultural status quo on and off-screen.

Pressure (1975)

Sexual persuasion, persecution, dominant cultural mores and outsiderdom are explored in both Jarman and Ové’s individual tales, stories whose themes – and their respective visualisations – spoke to the then present generation’s own issues and its need for artistic expression. Jarman would, of course, soon follow up Sebastiane with the iconic punk flick Jubilee (1978), an episodic, alienating and fittingly anarchic vision of a nation in disarray that managed to upset not just the moral majority but also one of punk’s foremost figures, Vivienne Westwood, who claimed it misrepresented the punk scene.

Sebastiane (1976)

Over the next few years to the dawn of the 80s, the punk and post-punk music scene itself would be documented and fictionalised in the likes of Don Letts’ The Punk Rock Movie (1978), Julien Temple’s short parody Punk Can Take It (1979) and his Sex Pistols mock-doc The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1980), Rude Boy (Jack Hazan, David Mingay, 1980) and Brian Gibson’s Breaking Glass (1980).

Other notable British films to have shared some combination of the confrontational themes, aesthetic style, no-frills attitude and political viewpoints of the punk movement to see the light of day by the turn of the next decade included Ron Peck’s Nighthawks (1978), Alan Clarke’s Scum (1979), Jane Arden’s Anti-Clock (1979) and Franco Rosso’s Babylon (1980). The films most closely associated with punk may have come after 1976, but the punkish attitude displayed in a handful of the year’s releases were a clear signifier of what would follow.

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