Between a recession and the government/union conflicts that led to the Three-Day Week, Britain didn’t get off to the most auspicious of starts in 1974. The turbulent year would also see two general elections, a state of emergency in Northern Ireland, and the collapse of several major companies – no wonder that punters were heading to the pictures in search of escapist fun. Blazing Saddles and The Sting were among the highest box-office grossers, though the huge success of 1973’s The Exorcist had also created a renewed appetite for horror.
British film saw an increase in horror production, with Amicus and Hammer busy producing the likes of The Beast Must Die, as well as sitcom spin-offs such as Man About the House. Sex comedies also had a bumper year, including the phenomenal success of Val Guest’s Confessions of a Window Cleaner, while the Carry On crew delivered Carry On Dick, which would be Sid James’s swansong after a whopping 19 films in the series.
While under-funding and studio decline were felt, some superb British films were still being made in the challenging climate. In particular, a renewed interest in rural stories yielded striking work, developing a distinctive strand of folk cinema. Several international co-productions also demonstrated the industry’s glossier potential, while on television Play for Today continued to go from strength to strength, allowing writers and directors greater freedom and authenticity. Ranging from pagan pastorals to romantic spy dramas, ambitious sci-fi to talky theatrical adaptations, the films highlighted below testify to the richness of the year’s British cinema, which both captured the moment but also produced works that remain fresh today.
Director: Harold Pinter
Focusing on a few hours in the life of an English literature lecturer in meltdown, Simon Gray’s play Butley premiered in the West End in 1971 starring Alan Bates and directed by Harold Pinter. Subsequent revivals have featured Nathan Lane (2006) and Dominic West (2011) in the title role, but Gray’s play still very much belongs to its original performer.
Happily, Bates’s performance is preserved in all its acerbic glory thanks to this plain but effective filming of the play by Pinter for the American Film Theatre series. The static quality of the material isn’t overcome, but the portrait of the rivalries and insecurities of academia still rings true, and Gray’s dialogue retains its pungency and wit. Ably supported by a cast including Jessica Tandy, Richard O’Callaghan and Susan Engel, Bates captivates, savouring the put-downs but also capturing the wounded core of a man seemingly set on sabotaging himself.
Director: John Boorman
“Praise be to Zardoz!”
Although widely trashed upon release, John Boorman’s sci-fi extravaganza now stands as the very definition of a cult classic. Developed when the writer-director’s plans to adapt The Lord of the Rings fell through, this futuristic fantasy draws on myriad sources, including Tolkien, T.S. Eliot and L. Frank Baum, to create its own brand of intricately plotted, highfalutin hokum.
With some spooky AI resonances, the film takes place in 2293, in a world where the population is divided into ‘Eternals’ and ‘Brutals’. The latter include a band of Exterminators who kill at the orders of their god, Zardoz. When one of these Exterminators, Zed (Sean Connery), transgresses the divide, a confrontation between the groups results. Boorman’s dialogue clunks, but what counts in this trippy concoction is the visual imagination that the filmmaker and his collaborators bring to the piece – whether it’s Zardoz spewing ammunition to devoted followers or the ponytailed Connery charging around in that iconic costume. The result is a wild ride. “Stay close to me, inside my aura!” Connery’s Zed instructs. Can you resist?
Director: Alan Clarke
The rural turn of 1970s British TV and cinema reached a visionary apex in Alan Clarke’s film of David Rudkin’s script, commissioned for TV’s Play for Today strand. When compared with current television drama, Penda’s Fen seems to come not so much from another era as from another dimension. Encompassing dream and vision, with cameos for Elgar and the pagan king who gives the piece its title, Clarke’s film charts the awakening of Stephen (Spencer Banks), a Worcestershire teenager with deeply conventional views on religion, the sanctity of the family and… TV programming.
As Stephen’s worldview is challenged and changed by the realisation of his queer desire and a revelation about his own history, Penda’s Fen digs deep into Britain’s past, deconstructing national and personal ideologies in a way that still feels subversive today. Clarke matches Rudkin’s florid dialogue with a supple visual style that conveys Stephen’s maturing perceptions, planting seeds for work by auteurs including Derek Jarman and Terence Davies in the process. An unforgettable – and just possibly life-changing – example of a lost radical tradition in British TV, Penda’s Fen remains a glorious liberation.
Director: Stephen Weeks
An exceedingly English time-hopping supernatural mystery (albeit shot almost entirely at Bangalore Palace in India), Stephen Weeks’s excellent film features Murray Melvin, Larry Dann and Vivian MacKerrell as three university acquaintances who reunite for a shooting weekend at a country estate inherited by Melvin’s character. While there, one of the group starts experiencing visions of past events, including the incarceration in an asylum of a mysterious ancestor (Marianne Faithfull).
Ghost Story evokes M.R. James’s supernatural tales, managing its movements between time periods as effectively as its scares, which include the appearance of a disturbing doll predating Chucky, Annabelle and M3GAN. With an incongruous jaunty score adding to the odd atmosphere, the film has more serious things to say as well, touching on class issues, incestuous desire and the Victorians’ treatment of the mentally ill. Adding to the cultish joy is a rare appearance by MacKerrell in a memorably surly role; the actor would be the inspiration for Richard E. Grant’s Withnail in Withnail & I (1987).
Director: Ken Russell
“Why is everyone so literal these days?!” The complaint made by Robert Powell’s Mahler to an over-eager journo early on in Ken Russell’s film suggests Russell’s own response to critics who viewed with scepticism or abhorrence his increasingly wild fantasias on the lives of historical figures. Mahler was intended to be the first in a series of six films on composers made by Russell for David Puttnam’s Goodtimes company, but in the end only this one and Lisztomania (1975) were produced.
That’s British cinema’s loss, as Mahler is one of Russell’s best biopics – big, bold, inevitably a bit barmy, but frequently touching the sublime, from its startling opening dream sequence onwards. Moving to the passionate rhythms of the music, the film is structured in a ‘rondo’ form that takes as its ‘theme’ the ailing Mahler’s return train journey to Austria and as its ‘variations’ flashbacks to various incidents in his life, from his childhood and marriage to his Catholic conversion. The film is also worth (re-)watching in tribute to Georgina Hale, who died in early January, and whose highly stylised performance as Alma provides some of the most resonant notes in a work that is, in part, a portrait of a marriage.
Director: José Ramón Larraz
“I have a feeling something is about to happen, something final in which I will be involved,” states a character early on in José Ramón Larraz’s psychological horror. And so it proves, when (as in Ghost Story) an invitation to a friend’s country estate turns into an unnerving journey into a disturbed consciousness. It opens with an erotic woodland encounter and an image of a floating corpse – sex and death are, as often, much on the Spanish director’s mind here. But unlike his immediately subsequent Vampyres, Symptoms is exceptionally quiet in its first half, drawing the viewer in gently before the shocks start.
Larraz’s film was the UK’s 1974 Cannes entry, but was ‘lost’ for many years before being rediscovered in 2016 and reissued to much acclaim. The plot is straightforward, and some clichés about the destructiveness of non-normative desire are of their time, but the sensuous style creates a hypnotic atmosphere of unease. And in a role originally tipped for Jean Seberg, Angela Pleasence is a haunting presence throughout. The film’s influences stretch from Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), but Symptoms remains its own distinctive thing, with weird and wild descendents including Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy (2014) and Alex Garland’s Men (2022).
The Tamarind Seed
Director: Blake Edwards
This absorbing Cold War romantic thriller is among the best, and most underrated, of the films that Julie Andrews made with her husband Blake Edwards. Andrews plays a Home Office PA, smarting from the end of an affair, who’s holidaying in Barbados when she meets Omar Sharif’s seductive Soviet attaché. Chat about contrasting ideologies and island history inevitably gives way to romantic feelings, but, with her employers alarmed by the encounter, it’s not long before the pair find themselves embroiled in international intrigue.
With its Bond-evoking title sequence, a lush John Barry score, and Andrews dressed by Dior, the film suggests superficial gloss, but it’s actually perceptive and low-key, with elements of le Carré-esque tartness to Edwards’ script (adapted from Evelyn Anthony’s novel), especially in the depiction of the suspicions and betrayals happening within the British camp. Here, Sylvia Syms shines in a blistering performance as an adulterous wife discovering the extent of her husband’s (Dan O’Herlihy) own deceptions.
Director: Peter Hall
For most, the challenge and pressure of taking over from Laurence Olivier as artistic director of the National Theatre would be more than enough to occupy one year. But, while in the process of doing just that, Peter Hall also undertook an ambitious film project: a loose adaptation of Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village.
In bringing Blythe’s study of everyday life, past and present, in a Suffolk farming community to the screen, Hall employed non-professional actors and intercut the action between the lives of Akenfield’s contemporary inhabitants and those of their ancestors. The result is a poetic multi-generational portrait of English country life, enhanced by Ivan Strasburg’s wonderful cinematography, an extensive use of voiceover, and the strains of Michael Tippett’s ‘Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli’ on the soundtrack.
Murder on the Orient Express
Director: Sidney Lumet
Albert Finney’s only outing as Agatha Christie’s Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot gained the rare approval of the author, who declared Sidney Lumet’s film of her 1934 mystery novel to be one of the very few adaptations of her work that she enjoyed. Christie did, however, express disappointment with the size of Finney’s moustache in the film, undoubtedly inspiring Kenneth Branagh to take ‘tache spectacle’ to the next level when he took up the Poirot mantle in 2017.
Lumet’s film, scripted by Paul Dehn, is by far the superior adaptation, though, providing an exercise in dynamic visual storytelling from its opening sequence – depicting a Lindbergh-esque kidnapping – onwards. It also makes fantastic use of its outstanding ensemble cast, among them Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Perkins and Wendy Hiller. Indeed, as compelling as the mystery plot is, the film works best as a deluxe actors’ showcase, and kicked off the 1970s run of starry Christie adaptations.
A Private Enterprise
Director: Peter K Smith
Widely regarded as the first British Asian film, Peter Smith’s A Private Enterprise stars Salmaan Peerzada as Shiv Verma, an Indian immigrant in Birmingham whose ambition to set up his own business selling souvenir novelties creates tensions with family, friends and colleagues.
Provided with a small budget by the BFI Production Board, the motivation of Smith and co-writer Dilip Hiro was to honestly explore the issues faced by the immigrant community at the time. But the film is also very much a character study, and Peerzada’s fine, subtle performance keeps us attuned both to Shiv’s hopes and his sense of outsiderness – whether he’s dating an English student (Diana Quick) or visiting the materialistic family whose daughter is a candidate for an arranged marriage. Family and community conflicts are sketched with humour, intelligence and a Mike Leigh-esque eye for social awkwardness – though the film’s final notes are quietly melancholy. An important precursor to the wave of 1980s and 90s British Asian films, A Private Enterprise remains less celebrated than it should be; it’s surely ripe for a re-release.