© Handmaid Films / Python (Monty) Pictures / Orion Pictures
The death of Terry Jones last month prompted many tributes – obviously because he was a member of Monty Python, one of the most influential comedy teams of the 20th century, but also because he was a skilled (though underrated) film director. Indeed, a few of the tributes cited the Jones-directed Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) as being the funniest movie of all time.
I don’t know if it’s the funniest, but I’d surely put Life of Brian in my favourite half-dozen comedy movies. One interesting thing about the film is that it’s practically part of the DNA of modern British cultural identity. Lines like “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!” have become national catchphrases and Eric Idle got to sing the film’s climactic song Always Look on the Bright Side of Life at the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games. Yet at the time of its release, it was incredibly controversial.
Its tale of an amiable, innocuous oaf called Brian (Graham Chapman) born in the Holy Land at the same time as Jesus, and then getting continually mistaken for Jesus as he bumbles through life, put more than a few religious noses out of joint. In Britain, the film attracted the ire of the usual sanctimonious suspects: Mary Whitehouse, Malcolm Muggeridge, the Nationwide Festival of Light and Glasgow’s Pastor Jack Glass (a Scottish Mini-Me of the Reverend Ian Paisley). It was banned in various municipalities. The Welsh town of Aberystwyth was a particular hold-out – it didn’t get publicly shown there until 2009 when, amusingly, the town’s mayor was none other than the former actress Sue Jones-Davies, who’d played Judith Iscariot in the film.
And yet, despite it being such a hot potato, I remember being shown Life of Brian at the start of the 1980s, when I would have been about 15, on a big screen in the assembly hall of my school, Peebles High School. It was shown to an audience of a hundred or more pupils by one of the teachers. When I think about this now, and recall the censorious and disapproving mood of the time and how much the religious establishment detested the movie, I find this pretty amazing.
Life of Brian was shown as part of the programme for that year’s Peebles High School Film Club. The club was run by an English teacher called Dr Mike Kellaway. I have to say that these days when people my age gather in a pub in Peebles and Mike Kellaway’s name comes up in the conversation, it’s usually greeted with sighs, winces, shaking of heads and rolling of eyes because the guy had some serious failings, which I’ll talk about later. However, just now, let me relate the story of the Film Club, which I actually believe reflects well on Kellaway, or as he was also known, ‘the Doc’.
First, some historical and geographical context. In the 1970s Peebles was a small country town of several thousand people. It had its own cinema, the Playhouse, up until 1977. Then the Playhouse closed down and thereafter, if you wanted to go to see a movie in a cinema, you had to travel to Penicuik (10 miles away), Galashiels (18 miles away) or Edinburgh (21 miles away).
Your only other way to see films was to watch them on the era’s three terrestrial TV channels. Talk of cable and satellite TV still seemed like science fiction to most people, and concepts like the Internet, YouTube, online streaming and so on were incomprehensible. Miss a film at the cinema and you had to wait four or five years before it might appear on TV and of course you were still limited by what the programmers chose to show on their schedules, already congested with TV series. Also, there were no such things as DVDs and DVD players, and video cassettes had barely made an appearance – even by 1982, only 10% of homes in the UK owned a video cassette recorder. So in other words, if you were a film-lover in a Scottish country town without a cinema in the late 1970s and early 1980s you were, basically, screwed.
The Film Club was meant to address this problem. Membership was open to pupils from third year to sixth year. They paid a membership fee of a few pounds at the start of the academic year and got to see a film – sometimes two on a double bill – most Monday evenings during term-time. Occasionally, certain films would be for pupils in fifth and sixth year only ‘because of their adult nature’, as the club’s promotional leaflets put it. So Monday evenings at the school would usually see the assembly hall turned into a cinema auditorium. A big screen was erected at the front and Mike Kellaway, the Doc, would set up a projector on a table at the back. Into this projector were fed spools of film that he’d ordered from a catalogue designed for private film clubs like ours.
I joined as soon as I could, in 1978, and renewed my membership every year until I finished school in 1982. One thing that strikes me about the club now was that Kellaway was potentially walking on thin ice because some of the films he showed, like the aforementioned Life of Brian, could be accused of having content unsuitable for schoolkids. One way that he circumvented this danger was by opening the club’s membership to parents as well. You could get your folks to come to the school and watch the films with you. This was in keeping with the AA film certificate that existed in British cinemas up until 1982, whereby certain films were deemed “suitable for those aged 14 and older… those under that age must be accompanied by an adult.”
© British Lion Films / F.A.R. International Films
Actually, I don’t remember many Film Club members taking the Doc up on this offer and inviting their folks along. I certainly didn’t. Although I recall a guy in my third-year class bringing his mother with him to see one of the first offerings that year, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). Sitting next to your mum during the long, explicit sex scene that takes place between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in the middle of that film can’t have been much fun.
Thinking about it now, I suspect many of the films shown during those four years were ones close to the Doc’s heart. He’d have been a young man in the mid-to-late 1960s when a new generation of stars, writers and directors took hold of the reins in Hollywood and elsewhere: Robert Altman, Lindsay Anderson, Michelangelo Antonioni, Warren Beatty, Albert Finney, Mia Farrow, Jane Fonda, David Hemmings, Dustin Hoffman, Norman Jewison, Sidney Lumet, Malcolm McDowell, Roman Polanski, Nicolas Roeg, etc. It must have been great being a film-fan whose youth coincided with all this. Everyone in those films was radical and cutting edge on one hand and cool and beautiful on the other, and it was easy to imagine you were those things too.
Accordingly, the Film Club’s choices were frequently either socking it to the Man and His traditional conservative values, like If… (1968), Easy Rider (1969), M*A*S*H* (1970), Performance (1970) and Le Cage aux Folles (1978); or simply exuding a glow of youthful, affluent, liberal gorgeousness – usually American, occasionally French or swinging-1960s British – like Blow Up (1966), Un Homme et une Femme (1966), Barefoot in the Park (1967), The Graduate (1967) and Heaven Can Wait (1978).
Alas, having worked for many years as a teacher myself, one thing I’ve painfully learned is that to preserve your sanity and faith in humanity, you should not expose your pupils to your favourite things – films, books, music – and expect them to react with the same enthusiasm. Nothing is more depressing than playing your most cherished late-1960s Rolling Stones album to a class and then discovering that the little thickos think Ed Sheerin is better. So it was with the Film Club. Some of those films, which surely meant a lot to the Doc, we just didn’t get. It didn’t help that we were teenagers. We saw ourselves both as knowing, blasé hipsters and as tough, hardened cynics reared on the mean streets of, um, Peebles. If anything struck us as unintentionally funny, silly or lame in those films, we reacted immediately with jeers and laughter.
We were particularly unforgiving to any film that seemed old to us. There were notable exceptions, but I remember us barracking the black-and-white The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) and Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954). Samurai we didn’t like because we knew it’d been the basis for John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960), which we thought was much better because (1) it was in colour and (2) it didn’t have subtitles. Today I find it ironic when I hear middle-aged film buffs complain that modern kids are cine-illiterate and incapable of enjoying the classic movies they enjoyed in their youths, back in the 1980s. In fact, the gap between 2020 and, say, ET (1982) is three times greater than the gap between 1978 and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which we had such a problem with.
© Warner Bros.
Another film we were brutal towards was Franco Zeferelli’s 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet. The moment that Leonard Whiting’s Romeo first came onscreen wearing a pair of medieval tights, some tosser in the audience shouted: “Imagine gettin’ a hard-yin in those!” Thereafter, the crotch area of every male character’s tights was watched rigorously; and if we thought we spotted a slight curvature, we screamed with laughter.
With depressing regularity, when we got out of order, a disgruntled Doc would have to turn off the projector, switch on the lights, come down to the front and give us a bollocking.
Significantly, as my classmates and I progressed through four school grades, got older and acquired a little wisdom and maturity, we found our attitudes to the films changing. We were baffled by the non-linear structure of Roeg’s Don’t Look Now in 1978 (though fortunately it had Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie’s sex scene, and a good, graphic throat-slashing, to hold our interest). Yet four years later, we were discussing Roeg’s no-more-linear Performance in enthusiastic and hopefully intellectual-sounding tones. By 1981 I’d even asked the Doc if he could book David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) for next year’s Film Club – to which he replied, deadpan, “I think most people would find that one a bit obscure.” And as we grew up, we found ourselves getting increasingly annoyed at the braying, cackling third and fourth-years whom we had to share the club with. “Those stupid wee shites!” we raged on more than one occasion at the end of a viewing. “They totally ruined that film for us!”
Thankfully, there were plenty of films on the club’s programmes that everyone enjoyed. Comedies did very well. In addition to Life of Brian, we got Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Jabberwocky (1977), the Billy Connolly tour-documentary Big Banana Feet (1976), at least four Woody Allen efforts – Take the Money and Run (1969), Bananas (1971), Play It Again Sam (1972) and Sleeper (1973) – and at least three Mel Brooks ones – Blazing Saddles (1974), Young Frankenstein (1974) and Silent Movie (1976). The Doc was evidently worried about how we’d react to the later scenes of Blazing Saddles, when the film becomes increasingly ‘meta’ and characters burst out of its western setting and invade the settings of other movies, and he gave us a talk before it started and explained the anarchic effect Brooks was trying to achieve. However, we hardly noticed when Blazing Saddles broke the fourth wall because we were still guffawing about the much-earlier scene involving the campfire, the plates of beans, and the cowboys farting like mad. We were such sophisticates.
Also approved of were action / thriller movies, such as The Mechanic (1972) and Death Wish (1974), both of which were directed by Michael Winner – the Doc, though he had good taste in movies generally, seemed to have a blind-spot when it came to le cinéma du Winner. Curiously, the action movie I remember provoking the biggest and most visceral response during my four years in the club was, of all things, Peter Hyams’ Capricorn One (1978). The audience almost blew off the assembly hall’s roof cheering that film’s finale, when Eliot Gould and Telly Savalas swooped down in an old crop-duster plane and rescued James Brolin from the bad guys.
© Paramount Pictures / Shamley Productions
What I feel especially grateful for now was that the Film Club allowed me to see certain films where they ought to be seen, on a big, cinematically proportioned screen, as opposed to on a pokey little television set. I was four years too young in 1979 to see Ridley Scott’s X-rated Alien when it was released in cinemas, but the Film Club gave me the chance to see it in its full, terrifying immensity a couple of years later. That big screen also gave much, extra impact to Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971) – of which Stephen King once said, “In terms of ideas, the film is an idiotic mishmash. In terms of image… the film is brilliant” – and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), whose white backgrounds seemed especially suffocating on a large scale. Best of all, though, was seeing Stanley Kubrick’s epic 2001: A Space Odyssey in correspondingly epic dimensions. I felt I was hurtling alongside Keir Dullea through that stargate at the movie’s climax.
And not only did you get to see movies in large form – you got to see them in the presence of a lot of other people too. This could be a pain when many of those people didn’t appreciate the film, as I’ve said. When they did appreciate it, though, and the hall was filled with a shared and palpable sense of excitement, the experience was electrifying. I’ll never forget the terrifying final scenes involving Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin in Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark (1967), which caused everyone in the audience to jump six inches off their seats. Meanwhile, we shouldn’t have enjoyed Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) because it was old and monochrome and relatively bloodless. But it managed to scare the bejesus out us while we watched it communally. In fact, I feel privileged that I got to see Psycho on a big screen, with an audience, at a time when the film’s twist ending hadn’t yet become common knowledge.
As I hinted earlier, things didn’t end well for Mike Kellaway at Peebles High School. Shortly before I finished school, he was discovered to be in a relationship with one of his pupils. She was above the age of consent, but nonetheless he broke the bond of trust that’s supposed to exist between teachers and pupils and caused much hurt and embarrassment to his family and colleagues. Astonishing though it seems today, he was allowed in those more lenient times to quietly move away and start a teaching job in another part of Scotland.
I really wish I could say that was the end of it. However, years later, he took his own life after he was suspended at another school over allegations that he was in another relationship with a pupil. The investigation into these claims was dropped immediately after his death. And that’s all I know of the matter.
Anyway, in Peebles, when my contemporaries and I reminisce about school, Kellaway’s name sometimes crops up and inevitably the conversation turns to the scandal he was embroiled in. But occasionally we go on to discuss his Film Club and we agree that, whatever pain and mess he caused in his professional and personal life, he showed his pupils some great films, in optimal circumstances; and in some of those students at least, he encouraged a love of cinema. Look at me now, for example. I’m obsessed with films and rarely shut up about them. A good quarter of this blog, if not more, is devoted to the topic.
Incidentally, here’s a list of all the movies I recall being show at the Film Club between 1978 and 1982. But I’m sure there are a few gaps in my memory and a few omissions in the list…
2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), Airplane! (David and Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, 1980), Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), Allegro Non Troppo (Bruno Bozetto, 1976), Bananas (Woody Allen, 1971), Barbarella (Roger Vadim, 1968), Barefoot in the Park (Gene Saks, 1967), Big Banana Feet (Murray Grigor, 1976), Billy Liar (John Schlesinger, 1963), The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963), Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, 1974), Blow Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966), Le Cage aux Folles (Edouard Molinaro, 1978), Camelot (Joshua Logan, 1967), Capricorn One (Peter Hyams, 1978), Car Wash (Michael Schultz, 1976), The China Syndrome (James Bridges, 1979), Dark Star (John Carpenter, 1974), Death Wish (Michael Winner, 1974), Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971), Don’t Look Now (Nicholas Roeg, 1973), Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969), Every Which Way but Loose (James Fargo, 1978), From Russia With Love (Terence Young, 1963), Fun with Dick and Jane (Ted Kotcheff, 1977), The Graduate (Mike Nicholls, 1968), Gumshoe (Stephen Frears, 1971), Heaven can Wait (Warren Beatty, Buck Henry, 1978), Un Homme et une Femme (Claude Lelouch, 1966)…
If… (Lindsey Anderson, 1968), Jabberwocky (Terry Gilliam, 1977), The Jokers (Michael Winner, 1967), Kelly’s Heroes (Brian Hutton, 1970), Kes (Ken Loach, 1969), The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick, 1955), Lancelot Du Lac (Robert Bresson, 1974), Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970), Lord of the Flies (Peter Brook, 1963), Lord of the Rings (Ralph Bakshi, 1978), Macbeth (Roman Polanski, 1971), M*A*S*H* (Robert Altman, 1970), The Mechanic (Michael Winner, 1972), Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, 1975), Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979), Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976), Nosferatu the Vampyre (Werner Herzog, 1980), The Outlaw Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood, 1976), The Odd Couple (Gene Saks, 1968), Performance (Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg, 1970), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (Blake Edwards, 1976), Play It Again Sam (Woody Allen, 1972), Pleasure at Her Majesty’s (Jonathan Miller, Roger Graef, 1976), Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)…
The Quiller Memorandum (Michael Anderson, 1966), Rollerball (Norman Jewison, 1975), Romeo and Juliet (Franco Zeferelli, 1968), The Rose (Mark Rydell, 1979), Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968), The Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954), Silent Movie (Mel Brooks, 1976), Sleeper (Woody Allen, 1973), Snoopy Come Home (Bill Melendez, 1972), Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959), The Spy who Came in from the Cold (Martin Ritt, 1965), Stardust (Michael Apted, 1974), Take the Money and Run (Woody Allen, 1969), Tess (Roman Polanski, 1979), That’ll be the Day (Claude Watham, 1973), The Three Musketeers (Richard Lester, 1973), To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan, 1962), The Ultimate Warrior (Robert Clouse, 1975), The Vikings (Richard Fleisher, 1958), Wait Until Dark (Terence Young, 1967), The Wrong Box (Bryan Forbes, 1966), Young Frankenstein (Mel Brooks, 1974).