The Unremitting Awfulness Of The Full Supporting Programme

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. Monty Python produced their own supporting features for The Life of Brian, including a bitingly spot-on fake travelogue Away From It All (and of course offered up The Crimson Permanent Assurance with The Meaning of Life, perhaps the only supporting feature now officially part of the main film). 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.

Telly Savalas did not spend his vacations in Birmingham.

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.

DAVID FLINT

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6 comments

  1. Agreed as if memory serves right, I cannot actually remember making a single visit to a cinema in the whole of the 1980’s, during my youth when I should have been happy but for various reasons turned out to be the unhappiest period of my life. There were very few cinemas around where I lived at the time, and I was never persuaded to go a pay a visit for a night out as they were becoming increasingly run down and crumbling due to lack of funds for refurbishment; what with bored staff and tedious support ‘teasers’ and adverts alongside a big budget Hollywood feature, this wouldn’t have made my miserable life at the time any more palatable in that dismal decade, so I’m relieved I never put myself through such an ordeal!

  2. It wasn’t only the UK that had inappropriate double bills. I was at uni in Australia in the late 1970s and we decided to go and see “Alice In Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Comedy”. The support feature was an hour long documentary about South African wild flowers. I have managed to get a copy of Alice, but the doco eludes me!

    You still have to sit through endless commericals at the cinema. I think it is worse today, as the ads are the same ones screened on TV. In the past you used to get special cinema ads. BTW I like “Asteroid”, the Peal & Dean theme.

    1. The P&D theme is indeed a great piece – I always loved the mash-up of that and Whole Lotta Love that Goldbug did. But at the time it just signalled extra misery. We have the same situation with commercials in cinemas here – now i’s just the awful, smug crap you see on TV. Between this and the ever-expanding concession stands – not to mention arcade games in the lobby – the cinema really does feel like a ferocious machine designed to part you from as much money as possible, with the films seemingly an afterthought and possible inconvenience, given that they stop people spending for a couple of hours.

      1. I’m not sure what’s worse, an identikit modern cinema or out local which is in a converted theatre in what was originally a medieval building (now grade 1 listed). Screen 1 used to take up the entire theatre space until some bright spark came up with the money making scheme of cutting it in half to get an extra screen.

        As it’s part of a chain they of course insist on showing all the latest blockbusters rather than the smaller indie films that would probably work better. Their approach to sound seems to be the louder the better, probably to disguide the poor quality equipment in use.

      2. I quite approved of our local Classic cinema’s double screen, as it allowed both the big new titles and double bills of sex, horror and general Eurotrash to exist side-by-side. Of course, it went to make way for an anonymous multiplex (itself now demolished).

        The thing I find most depressing is when arthouse cinemas become identical to the majors, giving over weeks of screentime to the latest Bond or Marvel movie. I get that it helps make money to support the smaller films… but it still feels off, especially when some of those smaller films don’t get shown at all.

  3. This piece has thrown up the anti-Dennis Norden, I won’t use the term ‘toxic nostalgia’ as far too trendy. The horror genre double bills were great even ones appearing for just one day but the full supporting program since the B movies seem to have disappeared which the cream of pops up on Talking Pictures tv, it was always a case of the hideous travelogue, thank for pointing me in the direction of Telly Savalas looks at Aberdeen.

    But much worse were the local adverts now reading twitter hard to believe the film Meteor had different film supporting programs in different regions, now without sounding too region centric (north west UK cities) the hellish restaurant ones with that jangly music and that guy pouring a pint of god knows what, and that one ‘For all your scrap metal needs come to potato wharf’, or the Silk cut one that went on forever, now I know PIPS was a great music venue lots of subcultures the Bowie room etc members of groups went there but that advert ‘PIPS behind the Cathedral’ repeated again and again.

    Lots of journalists and fans write about 42nd street but our cinemas were more post war more a can of condensed milk to whiskey and cola, hard to believe some of these places existed used the Cinema Treasures website so for copyright reasons I will quote author Ken Rose who stated this about a cinema on Oxford Road (along from where the three David’s did the transgressive film event at Festival of Fantastic films r.i.p Gil Young) ‘ In August 1973, it was re-opened as the Film Theatre, and was soon re-named Jacey Film Theatre, screening art house films. This venture failed and it was re-named Cameo Cinema, and specialised in sex and horror films, but in school holidays, it screened family Disney films. The Cameo Cinema was closed on 22nd October 1981, and was later demolished.’

    Whether the cinema experience was better than going to some square box, being told where to sit and having to sit through adverts for cars you can’t afford is up for debate but a bit like pubs lots of these art deco places gone the Futurist cinema in Liverpool left to rot demolished 2016, Think the Abby cinema in Liverpool saved from demolition, Think the Adelphi cinema in Moston Manchester just knocked down it was a bingo hall then a DIY store.

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