Mixing a daring coming-of-age narrative with a sleazy murder mystery, the British thriller I Start Counting (1970) represents an unusual amalgamation of genres. Featuring an early role for Jenny Agutter, in the same year as her breakthrough in The Railway Children, it concerns Wynne, a Catholic schoolgirl living in Bracknell whose life is beginning to get complicated. Aside from harbouring sadness over the move from her old cottage to a modern flat, she’s grappling with a mixture of guilt, curiosity and uncertainty over her feelings for her much older, adoptive brother George (Bryan Marshall).
To make matters worse, a series of killings is blighting the area where they live. Young girls are being targeted. Seeing scratches on George’s back while spying on him leads Wynne to believe that he’s the perpetrator. Will she protect the secret she believes he harbours, or is her adolescent understanding of the world putting her in unnecessary danger?
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The director of I Start Counting was David Greene, a Mancunian. He’d cut his teeth working in TV before a succession of British genre films, switching from horrors like The Shuttered Room (1967) to thrillers Sebastian (1968) and The Strange Affair (1968).
Made on the cusp of a new decade, I Start Counting provides a fascinating snapshot of the era in a number of ways. Like several films of the time, it depicts the new landscape of postwar housing developments alongside the lives of the new generation of youths inhabiting them. Both represent a determination to escape the dreariness of the postwar years, with the changing architectural landscape mirroring the shift that was happening between generations. Everything was alien and new, whether it was motorways or miniskirts.
For this reason, Greene’s film bears some similarities with films like Clive Donner’s Here We Go round the Mulberry Bush (1968) in its deliberate emphasis on the sprouting suburbia and the romantic dalliances taking place in these new concrete spaces. But whereas a film like Donner’s was almost propaganda in its promotion of the new suburbia, I Start Counting sounds a note of wariness. Wynne can’t shake the habit of revisiting her old house before its demolition, for example, much in the same way as she’s uncertain whether to be excited or nervous about approaching womanhood.
This streak of ambiguity brings the film closer to Joan Littlewood’s Sparrows Can’t Sing (1963), which likewise deals explicitly with the emotional fallout of changing spaces and the exchange of new personal amenities for a loss of community and continuity. As one character suggests to Wynne early on: “It’s a good job you didn’t come next week, the whole street won’t be here.”
The new freedoms of the era encouraged a daring approach to sexuality, but a darkness seemed to be unleashed with it. The saintly white bedroom seen in the opening shot of I Start Counting recalls the one seen in the contemporaneous Czech fairytale film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, which similarly tackles the complex undercurrents of puberty. I Start Counting also shares that film’s daydreaming quality, with Wynne prone to fantastical reveries as a result of her growing yet confused desire.
Even the mistake that kickstarts the narrative – Wynne sees the scratches on George’s back as the result of a violent rather than pleasurable encounter – is one born of naivety. It’s this naive world that’s literally demolished by the end of the film, when we watch the old house bulldozed into the earth. Adulthood is a brutal concrete tower.
The architecture also recalls other troubling narratives of the time. Greene’s film particularly foreshadows Sidney Lumet’s The Offence (1973), which likewise centres on the attacking of young girls around Bracknell. Lumet’s film follows Sean Connery’s jaded police detective as he tries to catch a similar criminal on the same turf. Connery’s character even lives in the same heritage-listed brutalist block, Point Royal, that Wynne moves to with her family.
The two films share a strange continuity through the architecture of their filming locations and their general atmosphere. Add the fact that the violent heist from the Richard Burton gangster film Villain (1971) takes place just around the corner and British cinema could easily convince us that Bracknell was a den of iniquity at the time.
With its mixture of light and darkness, as well as its natural period styling, I Start Counting remains a refreshingly innovative film. Just as he did in The Strange Affair, Greene takes a touchpaper subject and turns it on its head, making something that may at times feel uncomfortable and dated by its morality but also deeply original. It’s a perfect time-capsule of the society once promised of suburbia and the reality that came in its wake.
I Start Counting is now available as part of the Flipside series on BFI Blu-ray.
Originally published: 14 April 2021