September 30, 2016

Voice Over (1981)

Comprising probably the strangest release in Flipside’s already ample canon since its inception less than three years ago, these two Welsh- yes, you read that right, cult enthusiasts, Welsh- films, which make up two thirds of the early output of yet another British director to later find greater fortune across the Atlantic, are also possibly the most mixed bag so far issued under that label’s aegis.

Earlier this year, the mid-1970s double-header Duffer/ The Moon Over The Alley (trust me, it really should have been the other way round) managed to both perplex and delight viewers: this DVD differs somewhat in that Repeater is listed as an extra, but the effect is still essentially the same. Except that in this instance, only one of the films is actually laudable and the other is perhaps best looked at as an experiment which failed. However, I should also point out that even taking such a judgement into account, this is still one release that I deeply welcome, both as a critic and a fan. For Voice Over, whilst slightly overlong (actually, the length itself doesn’t matter, it’s more what one does with it- oo er), is still one of the most fascinating productions of that ‘wilderness’ period of British cinema- the early 1980s, when, after the abolition of the Eady Levy, independent titles of its kind were rapidly becoming fewer and further between, forcing aspiring directors to look at alternative means resulting in some extraordinarily individualistic works. Indeed, neither film contained here would have existed without the intervention of the Welsh Arts Council- even though the main feature itself features at least one scene blatantly shot in London and could easily appear to be set there, with no character at any time displaying a blatant Welsh accent.

It’s also important in as much as that it gave early exposure to an actor who would go on to be recognised as one of the country’s premier character performers- namely Ian McNeice, whose distinguished career has since gone on to take in appearances in everything from TV series’ like Doc Martin and Dr Who to Hollywood fare such as Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, and is still growing and expanding in stature by the day, although to many without a wide knowledge of either medium he is still unfortunately destined to remain known as “that fat bloke”. And true to form, this is also the name of his character here: one Fats Bannerman, whose own seemingly bleak social life and squalid living conditions in an empty (pre-regeneration) dockside warehouse contrast sharply with the fictional content of his work as radio presenter and voice behind a weekly string of semi-Stanshallesque (without the surreal humour) spoken-word period dramas broadcast under the title Thus Engaged.

The series is popular, with a regular weekly listenership of several million, garners him awards and accolades (even at one point resulting in being called, allegedly, by Time Magazine) and is ably produced by his colleague/soundman ‘FX’ (John Cassady, whose involvement also links both films) but unbeknownst to Fats until some 20 minutes in when explained by a visiting journalist, the audience mainly consists of teenage students (and not the intellectual sophisticates he had imagined) who listen to it for kitsch reasons, something which not only greatly upsets him but, in cultural terms, both predates and foretells the smug “ironic” appreciation of art forms espoused by the insular “Shoreditch Twat” fraternity from the late 1990s onwards. This discrepancy is further expanded upon when the journalist also informs him that a professor of English Lit (exactly the sort of person he craves the approbation of) does study his texts, but only to see how much has been subconsciously plagiarised from Austen, Bronte, Elliot et al, and is ultimately hammered home when he is “picked up” in a bar by two drunken female listeners who make the outward pretence of being fans, but then proceed to rip the piss out of his writing for its asexuality, ridicule him, and physically attack him.

Galvanised by this contretemps into an attempt to “pep up” the series by introducing horror elements, he actually finds himself disenfranchised and criticised by his employers (even though the sensationalism results in even higher ratings, more awards and wider syndication) and begins to lose sense of his original focus and purpose, becoming more entrenched in fantasy, until one night he finds one of his former attackers- herself now the victim of an unspecified attack- traumatised, bloodied and bruised near to his home, and takes her back there, in an act of Samaritan charity, to receive first aid, subsequently allowing her to stay. That there should be very little dialogue or connection between the two protagonists is essential, as they have been thrown together by circumstances and would not choose to be in each other’s company, but more important is his misunderstanding of her name: when asked, she attempts to say “Bish”- also the real name of the actress, Bish Nethercote- but he hears it as “Bitch” and it is by this nomenclature that he refers to her from this point onwards, her presence in his surroundings altering the dynamic of his life (and his attitude to his work) further unravelling his mental state until eventually, their emotional disconnection erupts in an unexpected act of violent murder.

OK, it doesn’t seem much of a plot in itself when described in such a manner, but in its dissection of the ambiguous relationship between carer and patient, and examination (accidental or otherwise) of the blurred edges between friend and enemy, as well as reality and fantasised desire (in Fats’ mind, Bitch may one day turn into the companion he writes freely about, and has also secretly desired since the breakup of his marriage), it works on many levels- and offers the perceptive viewer much to dissect and wrestle with, as well as depicting cinematically the image of a London, Cardiff or other unspecified city in transition, the tweed-and-velvet leftovers of the (literally, in this case) radiophonic Seventies slowly trickling into the cold, metallic ambience of the disinterested Eighties.

Unfortunately for Monger, Cassady, MacNeice and presumably all involved (though Nethercote’s response remains unclear) it is these very qualities which also led to the film being condemned, castigated, decried and even picketed by radical women’s groups of the time at the Edinburgh Film Festival in a misguided- and quite arbitrary, as apparently the original target was Dennis Hopper’s Out Of The Blue until protesters were informed that the American actor/director would not be attending – blow for Radical Feminism. Ironically, Monger’s own need to defend his corner in this arena is mirrored by Fats’ own stance (“but it’s NOT trash!!”) toward his own producer Celia (Sarah Martin): a case of life imitating art if ever there was one. Looking back, even with the widest and broadest of viewpoints, it seems both unfair and ridiculous to single out Voice Over as a prime example of misogyny (although it’s undoubtedly misanthropic) and chauvinism simply because it deals with the attack, control and eventual killing of a woman, when anyone with a basic knowledge of cinema could easily reel off a list ad-lib of about fifty or sixty previous productions that could be considered far more culpable.

But this was 1981, and in the confused climate of post-punk, post-Thatcher, post-Toasties, post- everything Britain, with so many individuals keen to sublimate themselves into whatever ideological mass they found most self-applicable, common sense, as even an avowed nonconformist such as Dial House-dwelling Poison Girls’ frontwoman Vi Subversa freely admits in the liner notes to the band’s Statement box set, was often prone to flying out of the window. And in such circumstances, the artist, whilst ostensibly believing his or herself to be the one the roots radicals are rooting for, is often the first to suffer: check out the ridiculous furore, later retracted, caused within the four walls of Rough Trade Records over the supposedly “sexist” cover of Nurse With Wound’s 1979 debut waxing Chance Meeting On A Dissecting Table Of a Sewing Machine And An Umbrella for further proof. In any case, Fats Bannerman is most definitely, as anyone would see had they actually bothered to watch the film (which I suspect most protesters, as is so often the case in such matters, hadn’t) no misogynist- a confused, sad and lonely individual he may be, and McNeice does get to utter some deliciously disturbing dialogue when dressing Bitch (“into the tunnel goes the choo choo train” etc) in the best traditions of many a great Britsploitation movie (not that this is one, but the lineage is there), but his primary motivation, even whilst admittedly fuelled by a self-preservationist need to create an ideal mate out of a nothingness, remains one of care and sympathy.

He is also, as the liner notes (which also play host to some wonderfully detailed recollections from Monger and McNeice themselves) point out, the vulnerable and pitiful one in the partnership; as he sits drunk and naked in the bath under the gaze of his clothed onlooker, the age-old convention of male-female ownership is not only reversed, but destroyed, and by doing so, the film calls into bold focus the most recurrent fears- those of loneliness and inadequacy- faced by anyone of either gender. Furthermore, one can hardly accuse Monger of harbouring such sympathies when Repeater, the featurette herein, is blatantly told from a female perspective through the eyes of its principal character Marie (the stunningly glamorous Chris Abrahams, who the director actually discovered running a sweet stall in the local cinema), and not only depicts her as far stronger than the male players involved, but pretty much reduces them, even a young Alexei Sayle in the role of an interrogative policeman, to the status of mere ciphers.

On the minus side though, such qualities, positive or otherwise, are outweighed by the simple fact that Repeater just isn’t a very good film. It’s easy to see how and why it was made, and for a first feature it takes some very bold strides, but it falls too often into the trap of trying too hard to be an art piece- see for instance, the pointless and entirely unrelated (if amusing) talk-into-camera sequence involving Marie being berated by a local builder- and loses track of any linear plot. Its plus points stem largely from the fact that whereas Voice Over is ambiguous about its Welshness, the earlier film (most probably because it was the earlier film) makes explicit use of Cardiff locations, to the point of slowly panning up the high street (as an aside, a Taff friend of mine was overjoyed to see Baxendales, the newsagent/gift shop in which his mum had worked, brazenly displayed onscreen) and offering a tour of some of the city’s less salubrious pool halls, but contradictorily it also spends a fair chunk of its budget dragging its characters to Paris for no other discernible reason than that the budget allowed for it.

The plot, such as it is, concerns said woman walking into a police station and confessing a murder which she may or may not have committed, at the same time as Sayle and his colleague shambolically investigate another one which probably did: it then flashes back through her prior relationship with an assassin (Cassady again) but in no way explains who did what to who and when- or at least if it does, the viewer is so flummoxed by this point that they have given up and chosen instead to merely observe (enjoy would be stronging it a bit) the spectacle. As the title implies, the narrative makes some artistic attempt to come full circle, but if it does, it’s one drawn by Dali, as I was no wiser by the end than I was at the outset. Yet Monger should be applauded for at least attempting to do something different, however unsuccessfully, and both films, unavailable for too long (although not in any way due to the controversy surrounding them) and representing as they do part of the more outlying but no less valid threads of the web of British cinema, should be seen, even if in their (surprisingly for Flipside) un-remastered state: actually, the oft-cited theory that “cult” films often look better under such conditions is amply proven true in this case, the grainy prints lending them a moody underground cachet.

If Voice Over has shortcomings, they principally lie in its length (a few minutes’ judicious pruning could have easily tightened things up) and in that whilst the first thirty minutes unfold beautifully, the languid storyline between Fats’ initial discovery/recovery of Bitch and the eventual bloody climax doesn’t actually give the participants much to do. I also use the term “climax” widely here, as, like Little Malcolm And His Struggle Against The Eunuchs, released simultaneously last month alongside this disc, the film simply comes to a sudden stop without resolution, or, as my Mum (a woman of considerable cinematic education and bearing a fine pedigree in television work, but still of conventionally linear tastes) would say, “finishes up in the air” Still, at least it does finish, unlike Repeater, which makes much of its attempted allusions towards the laterality of Godard, Truffaut and their ilk, but never seems to even begin. And if truth be known, the failings of the earlier film only serve to highlight the triumphs, relative though they are, of the later one: perhaps Voice Over’s greatest strength is in its near-incomparability to any British picture that precedes it (with the possible exception of Alistair Reid’s excellent and underrated 1971 chiller Something To Hide, in which Peter Finch and Linda Hayden share a similar unlikely relationship) With regard to contemporaneous works, its closest relatives range from Tony Garnett’s Prostitute to Christopher Petit’s Radio On and even Val Guest’s mainstream yet bleak comedy Dangerous Davies, but I doubt very much whether its maker had seen any of them at the time of filming.

And while it is in no way a horror or exploitation movie, its nearest aesthetic similarities probably still lie in the grainy worlds of directors such as Reid, Robert Hartford Davies and Pete Walker (it certainly bears no relation the infinitely cheesier movies which brought Monger eventual renown, such as Waiting For The Light or The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down A Mountain) without ever succumbing to their genre classification. Had it been made earlier, perhaps the story might have been different: quite literally, then, a product of its time. Which is more or less where we came in- and hopefully an indication of an engaging aspect of what, in terms of Flipside’s output at least, may be yet to come.



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About Drewe Shimon

Drewe Shimon has written 61 post in this blog.

  • Dasheight

    Thank you for this review. Just saw the title for “Voice Over” and was looking for a plot description. Extremely informative review, sounds fascinating. I’ll give it a go.