The sheer, unrelenting misery of the British cinema experience in the early 1980s.
Like many things, it ended not with a bang but with a whimper. In this case, a whimper of pain from cinemagoers in the UK, for whom the words ‘full supporting programme’ offered the prospect of thirty minutes or more of tedium and irritation while you waited impatiently for the film that you’d paid money to see to finally appear.
The Great British Double Bill – something that we’ve celebrated already – was on its last legs at the end of the 1970s as tastes changed, films became longer and, most importantly, the government-imposed Eady Levy was increasingly abused – this levy, a tax incentive to encourage the production and distribution of British films, had resulted in some impressive supporting features during the 1960s and beyond, but by the end of the 1970s the industry was in a decline that even this support couldn’t halt, and at the turn of the decade, pretty much the only films benefitting from it were sex comedies and short supporting films, both of which became increasingly unambitious as time went on.
The latter had a life only because there was a tradition of supporting features in British cinema and such habits are hard to shake. As Hollywood films increasingly began to run for two hours, however, the room for another feature film on the bill – even one that just nudged past an hour – diminished – adding such a film to the programme would effectively bite into the number of daily screenings that were possible. A half-hour British-made short seemed a more agreeable compromise and tax incentive until the final removal of the Eady Levy in 1985 and a push-back against low-quality supporting programmes finally saw these films confined to history.
At the time, no one mourned their loss. It’s hard to explain to anyone who grew up in the years after 1985 just how awful an experience going to the cinema could be at this time. To see a film, you’d have to wade through endless commercials, the parping Pearl and Dean theme being a soul-destroying precursor of both regular TV ads and those ‘just around the corner from this cinema’ generic commercials that often consisted of little more than blurry photos of unappetising restaurants, grubby takeaways and downmarket nightclubs that a voiceover of varying levels of enthusiasm tried to persuade the cinemagoer to pop into on the way home. Then you’d get whatever piece of crap the distributors had decided to pair with the main movie, as well as lengthy breaks between everything in order for the cinema to flog you as much junk food as possible, sometimes offered by a disinterested usherette who would stand at the end of the aisle for several minutes before finally giving up. Eventually, the main feature would reluctantly be started, though by that point many of the audience had lost the will to live and, if the film in question was a family affair, the auditorium would be full of kids hopped up on sugary treats and impatience. Only the trailers for other movies offered some relief from this parade of misery, though by the time these appeared – always after the supporting film and the main ads – it was hard to work up any enthusiasm for them.
While some supporting films – like Black Angel, the mystical short that played alongside The Empire Strikes Back – have achieved cult status in their own right, even the best tended to feel like a bit of a slog when you were waiting for the main feature. Unlike ‘proper’ double bills, where the supporting film might well be as much an attraction as the main feature (especially it was an old classic now reissued as the bottom half of a pairing), these short supporting films were rarely even identified beforehand – at best, there would be the title of a film you had never heard of, but more often than not you’d just see the dreaded words ‘full supporting feature’ on the cinema listings. Either way, you generally had no idea just what sort of atrocity you might be in for. You also had no real idea of just how long the supporting film was – taking a gamble and turning up half an hour late was certainly an option, but cinema timings were often a lot looser back then, and you were painfully aware that most people would’ve shown up for the start of the full programme. Arriving late severely reduced your seating options and just wasn’t worth the risk.
Now and again, you were rewarded with a supporting film that was worth the effort. Airplane! was supported by Cry Wolf, a black and white spoof of Fifties horror films that had audiences roaring with laughter and set the main film up nicely; I caught moody ghost story The Lake with the Chuck Norris movie A Force of One; an inappropriate pairing, perhaps, but more welcome than some turgid travelogue about places you had no interest in visiting beforehand and even less interest in afterwards. As the British feature film industry declined, pretty much the only horror films being made at the end of the 1970s were shorts, some of which – James Dearden’s Panic and Diversion (which formed the basis of the later Fatal Attraction), the three shirts by Michael Armstrong and Stanley Long that eventually made up Screamtime and The Orchard End Murder – were quite impressive. But these were rare pleasures.
More often than not, you would either get a spot of film school experimentation (Knights Electric, a particularly numbing effort by Barney Broom preceded Videodrome in my local cinema), a concert film featuring a band you couldn’t stand or, most likely, some plodding and unenthusiastic documentary that made you feel like Malcolm McDowell undergoing the Ludovico Technique in A Clockwork Orange. No one – no one at all – wanted to sit through thirty minutes about The Dangerous Sports Club (a bunch of Hooray Henrys indulging themselves in wacky activities), but many people were made to. Even the people of Coventry probably didn’t care about Pete Murray Takes You To Coventry, a 1983 effort from the turgid production line of the shameless Harold Baim.
There was often not even the token gesture towards these films being actual attractions that the audience might in some way find entertaining. In the middle of one extraordinarily boring affair about some good cause or other, my local cinema actually turned the lights up so that charity chuggers could prowl the aisles demanding money from the captive audience. This was less entertainment, more a hostage situation that essentially punished you for having the audacity to want to see a movie. Could the cinema-going experience have been any more unpleasant? It’s no wonder that home video took off so quickly in the UK during the 1980s.
Time, of course, is a great healer and now there is some kitsch value to these old films. The legendary Telly Savalas Looks At Birmingham is justly famous, as the star of Kojak gamely tries to convince us that he is having a whale of a time looking at municipal buildings in the Midlands rather than sitting in a sound studio in Los Angeles counting his fee. Many of the short dramas have found new life and new audiences – because when you watch the films at home by choice rather than being forced to in a cinema, you can appreciate them more. Some might argue that the loss of the supporting feature has somehow diminished British film by taking away opportunities for filmmakers to get a start – but of course, there are more British indie films being made now than we could ever have dreamt of in the 1980s, and none of them involves a fading celebrity gushing over a new polytechnic building as if it was the eighth wonder of the world.
We should remember that the films that have been collected on BFI blu-rays or provide kitsch comedy for modern audiences are the rare exceptions, the cream of a very withered crop. The truth is that the programmers of the late 1970s and early 1980s were, for the most part, appalling – cynically produced filler that neither informed nor entertained and which we are better off without. Certainly, the iron grip that Hollywood blockbusters have on the UK cinemagoing experience is regrettable, and like many people I find myself wishing for the return of the classic double-bill – but the sluggish time fillers being ground out at the end of that era are not missed and we shouldn’t allow rose-tinted nostalgia for the best examples to blind us to how much of an ordeal simply going to see a movie became in the 1980s.
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