I’ve been a fan of Roy Harper since my mid-teens, but a few years before I’d consciously heard his music, I’d already seen Harper in a rare TV showing of the remarkably unknown Made – his only acting appearance and a curious hybrid of kitchen sink drama and post-hippy idealism. The film left a surprising impression on me at the time – there were moments that, upon watching it again, I realised were burned into my memory. Long wallowing in obscurity, it’s good to see the film getting a new lease of life. Because while far from perfect, this is a fascinating slice of early 1970s British reality.
The film is basically a snapshot of a period of time and change in the life of one young woman, Valerie (Carol White). The film opens with her rejecting a would-be lover and being chased through a grim council estate by feral kids – a sign of the bleak, aggressive Britain that the film depicts throughout. Her mother in in hospital dying, and Valerie is left with her small baby (the father having long since vanished). Into this rather dour domestic world come three men. There’s Mahdev (Sam Dastor), the shy yet worryingly persistent Indian work colleague who invites her for dinner and then effectively attempts to rape her; the new priest Father Dyson (John Castle), who first appears on the scene to lend a kindly ear, but who seems to be increasingly controlling and determined to convert her, not just to Christianity but also to his world view; and Mike Preston (Harper), the folk rock star who she bumps into on a day out in Brighton and begins a casual, no-strings affair with.
These three relationships all take something from her without giving very much back. Mahdev – who is shown as more pathetic than malicious, desperate for love and unable to understand ‘no’ – places her on a pedestal and wants her to be his wife; later in the film, when she is feeling low, Valerie goes to visit him to enjoy casual sex, but this backfires as he becomes overly possessive. Father Dyson, n the other hand, seems a nastier piece of work – outwardly friendly and a classic ‘liberal’ vicar (she first joins him on a day out with delinquent youths who Dyson excuses as they terrorise other train passengers) but ultimately judgmental and controlling – it’s never quite clear if he desires Valerie or simply feels jealous about any other man having her, but he is clearly determined to bring her around to his world view.
Mike is probably the least unsavoury of the men in her life – he is, at least, upfront about not believing in marriage, love or any of that jazz, and she seems happy to accept their relationship on that level – he’ll be around when he is around, but his work will take him away most of the time. As he points out during a confrontation with Dyson, “at least I make her happy for a while”. Yet it still feels as though he is taking more than giving, especially when he finally writes up her life as a song – leaving her behind but using her for his own ends. Valerie’s emotional reaction to the song is suitably ambiguous – is the betrayal of privacy, or simply being brought face to face to the tragedies of her life that makes her break down? That’s for the viewer to decide.
And at this point, she’s had a lot of tragedy to deal with. Her mum has died, alone in hospital as Valerie assumed the ‘urgent’ call was the latest of many cries for attention. More devastatingly – and in a scene that has lost not of its grim, shocking inevitability – her child has been killed, caught up in one of the relatively low scale football riots that were weekly occurrences in the 1970s as her friend June (Doremy Vernon) pushed the pram home past the football ground. Shot with a bleak, horrible sense of panic and with an utterly shattering final moment, this scene is daring and monstrous – and you can barely imagine anyone having the nerve to film something similar now. It’s one of the scenes that point to the naivety of Mike’s Sixties hangover hippy ideals in a darker, bleaker world that was never touched by flower power. The football hooligans would probably have little time for his philosophies.
Carol White, once the Battersea Bardot but perhaps more accurately the queen of British miserablist cinema (she’d made three films for Ken Loach by this point) was about to have a career collapse even more dramatic than its rise, driven by substance abuse issues, but she is on good form here, emotionally raw and unconsciously needy, seemingly a magnet for would-be saviours. She has that curious early 1970s dowdiness – again, the slap in the face reality check against the idea that the era was all Carnaby Street fashions – and an interesting mix of vulnerability and toughness that sometimes becomes a hard, cruel face. When she ends up calling Mahdev a “stupid black bastard”, it’s less about racism – she’s just slept with him, after all – as a calculated way of hurting him and making him leave her alone. It’s the reaction of someone coarsened by a hard world and caring little for the feelings of others who don’t care about hers.
Harper apparently has little time for this film, but it’s hard to see why. He is hardly acting, but instead seems to be playing a version of himself – it’s pretty clear that in the scene where he is interviewed by Whispering Bob Harris, it’s Roy Harper, not Mike Preston giving the presumably improvised answers. It’s his philosophy on display. As such, his performance is interesting – while playing a role, he hardly seems to be acting at all, and what might otherwise feel like awkward, stumbling line delivery and corpsing here feels entirely authentic. I’ve no idea how much of Howard Baker’s original screenplay dialogue survives in Harper’s scenes, but I’m guessing that it is just the general feel rather than the full text.
Directed with a documentary feel by John Mackenzie (later to make The Long Good Friday amongst others), Made is not exactly cheery viewing – though it’s more fun and cinematic than the work of his realist contemporaries like Loach, Mike Leigh and even Alan Clarke. Harper’s presence adds a certain novelty value, and his music – much of which was later to appear in different version on the album Lifemask – is excellent. And the film is as odd a choice for a rock star to make as he was a strange choice of rock star to pick as an actor. The results, however, are better than they should be, and Made is an unsung Brit realism film that is well worth seeking out.