Unknown Pleasures

By Sean Kaye-Smith


The extraordinary career of British film-director, screenwriter, playwright and actor Jane Arden came to an abrupt end twenty-five years ago with her sudden death in December 1982.

Jane Arden remains a unique figure in British post-war culture: there does not seem to be another artist whose career remotely resembles hers, nor anyone subsequently subjected to the same degree of neglect. Arden acted in mainstream film, television and theatre, wrote for television, including television comedy, penned plays for the London stage and, later, produced radical, experimental, multi-media theatrical productions. While working on the latter she returned to cinema to write, perform in and direct (or co-direct) a series of challenging films, and also wrote the book, You Don’t Know What You Want, Do You? which defies categorisation, being arguably poetry, a social manifesto, a monologue for the stage or even an experimental short story. For her last film, Anti-Clock’ (1979) Arden also wrote and performed the soundtrack.

Arden’s work spans many arenas; she worked with some of the key players in British culture, notably Harold Pinter, Charles Laughton, Albert Finney and Alan Bates, and even with iconic figures from the anarchic, Barthes-admired ‘Carry-On’ series, such as Sid James and Joan Sims. But she also inhabited the fringe worlds of experimental theatre and her later films have an ‘underground’, or even at times ‘punk,’ aesthetic. And yet, as Geoff Brown and Robert Murphy say in their Jane Arden/Jack Bond entry in Film Directors in Britain and Ireland (ed. R. Murphy: BFI 2006) for all her ‘energy and fury’, there is ‘scarcely any footprint left’. This situation is both inexplicable and hugely regrettable.


Iain Sinclair is correct when he says that ‘the official map of the culture, at any time, would always fail to include vital features’ (Rodinsky’s Room by Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain Sinclair: Granta 1999) and Jane Arden is one of those missing vital features. A RADA-trained actor who appeared on BBC television in the late 1940s in Romeo and Juliet, Arden then appeared in two British thrillers, Black Memory (Oswald Mitchell 1947) and A Gunman Has Escaped (1948 Richard M.Grey). Presumably, with her haunting good looks and RADA-acquired skills, some kind of starlet career, a la Diana Dors, or perhaps Sylvia Sims, was a possibility, but Arden wanted to write, and had things to say. Like Maya Deren, who was ten years her senior and who also did radical work in a number of different media, she had a restless interest in other cultures, their rituals and belief systems and she began to travel. These explorations continued throughout her life; she was also the mother of two sons.

Arden reappears in the 1950s to begin the theatre, television and film career described above. Her major preoccupations seemed to centre on social and psychological issues. Although she did write comedy, her dramas are usually hard-hitting dissections of human relationships and involve the exploration of emotional and mental landscapes and, often, their breakdown. The appearance of the anti-psychiatry movement in the 1960s, most often associated with R.D. Laing, David Cooper and Thomas Szasz, and the corresponding emergence of radical feminism, combined with Arden’s fascination for other cultures and social patterns, seems to have pushed her into ever more adventurous areas. Her notion that to be a woman in modern Western society was inevitably to be ‘mad’, and that such madness needed to be embraced before a renewal could take place, informs much of her work.


The inevitably out-of-print play Vagina Rex and the Gas Oven (1969) is described by Simon Callow, in his book Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor (Mandarin 1988) as ‘neo-expressionist…bold and uncompromised’. Arthur Marwick, in his monumental study The Sixties (Oxford 1998), discusses the play in connection with the multimedia Arts Lab, co-founded in London by Jim Haynes; where he states:

Perhaps the most important single production there was Vagina Rex and the Gas Oven by the writer director and actress Jane Arden. Employing strobe lights and other multimedia effects, this alternately surreal and mystical montage explored a woman’s attempt to come to terms with her own sense of inferiority imposed on her by society. The Arts Lab could quite justifiably represent itself as the focal point of the underground.

Arden was clearly using effects and radical staging to explore her provocative themes and to push the concept of a theatrical production into new areas. Similar responses have been engendered by her film The Other Side of the Underneath (1972). Based on her own play Holocaust, which was also the name of a feminist theatre group she had formed earlier, the film caused a stir at film festivals, including the London Film Festival, around that time. Its powerful and violent imagery, which explores the mind of a ‘schizophrenic’ woman, led surrealism expert George Melly to call it ‘a most illuminating season in hell’. Arden’s film, not surprisingly, challenges the label ‘schizophrenia’ and suggests that the real issues are in society’s taboos and repressions. David Will, on BBC Radio – quoted in the 1972 London Film Festival programme – was under no doubt as to the film’s importance; he states “Jane Arden’s film The Otherside of Underneath represents a major breakthrough for the British cinema.” He goes on to show his understanding of Arden’s need for a radical aesthetic: “It is certainly not inconceivable that the ideological struggles of women’s liberation will be reflected aesthetically in a rejection of the traditional modes of cinematic expression”.


Will found the film “a shattering’ experience”, while the distinguished drama critic Michael Billington considered it to be ‘much the most ambitious, challenging British experimental film since ‘Herostratus’’. With these kinds of endorsements one might reasonably expect, in view of the endless material of very variable quality reissued on video and DVD in the last two decades of format wars, to be able to buy a remastered copy with copious extras from any well-stocked megastore. Sadly no; there is, amazingly, no copy of the film in the National Film and Television Archive at Berkhampstead. Equally disturbing, Contemporary Films, the last known distributors of The Other Side of the Underneath, have no idea where the original negative is, or the whereabouts of any existing prints, and are now reluctantly regarding it as a ‘lost’ film.

In conclusion, Jane Arden was clearly an adventurous, difficult artist who often tackled very challenging subject matter in a variety of media; Clive Hodgson is absolutely right when he says, in his tribute to her in the July 1983 National Film Theatre Bulletin, that in December 1982 the nation suffered ‘the loss of a unique sensibility’. To explore the reasons for her neglect would require another article. Doubtless she did not expect to steal too many viewers from Disney or Coronation Street, but the need to restore her legacy is a national issue.

Thanks to Tracy Granger and Sebastian Saville for the stills.

Sean Kaye-Smith teaches Media Studies at Ashton Park School in Bristol. He has written articles for The Media Magazine and supports Norwich City.