Mysterious Britain: Jane Arden, Jethro Tull and 1973

By Sean Kaye-Smith

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“Passionate play--------join round the maypole and dance (primitive rite) (wrongly)” – Ian Anderson (1973)

If the arrival of punk in the mid 1970s is to be regarded as a revolution, as it almost invariably is, at least in cultural terms, then like all revolutions it is reasonable to assume that it came to overthrow something. Some kind of unsatisfactory or moribund state was there to be defeated, consigned to history and triumphantly replaced. But what exactly was it in this case, this dying order? The popular choice seems to be musical: punk came to seek and destroy the old establishment of pop and rock acts which had been complacently wallowing in laser shows, empty bouts of ‘virtuoso’ musicianship and pompous pseudo-mystical lyrics. The usual suspects – Led Zeppelin, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Pink Floyd and their ilk – do seem to have been temporarily rattled by the two-chord epics and safety pins of the punk movement, but most soon reasserted themselves and continue to this day to sell vast quantities of units, even now in 2008 when most punk acts are either long gone or doing the nostalgia circuit. It seems astonishing that in these modern times it is still possible to go to a concert by Wishbone Ash or, say, Genesis, but it is.

In the cinema Derek Jarman did find exhibition space for his beggars’ operas and helped us to think about the nation in a new way which, inevitably, found inspiration in kindred spirits from the past, like Hogarth, John Gay and the magus John Dee, and the punk and post-punk world was tellingly captured in films like Chris Petit’s masterpiece Radio On (1979) and David Mingay’s Rude Boy (1980). But lazy journalism usually dictates the official history: punk supposedly came to save us from boredom and pretension and the punk ethic re-energised Britain’s cultural batteries. The 1970s were dying until punk arrived with its energy and iconography and the culture was revitalised. Well…maybe. But as Bono has said, punk was a great idea, but not a ‘sound’.

Maybe that is close to what was happening on the surface, and an adequate account of mainstream cultural developments, but for many people Britain in the 1970s was a rather strange place which punk barely touched on, never mind replaced. There were odd and powerful things going on before and after the punk revolution which tap into that ‘other’ Britain of eccentricity, magic and, often, darkness; those mysterious currents which help these islands live up to Matthew Sweet’s – in Shepperton Babylon – bold opening chapter heading: Strange England.

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If we look closely at, for example, 1973, we can find two ‘incredibly strange’ British films which, in vastly different ways, capture Britain at its most bizarre and unsettling. This was the year when, after causing an initial stir at the London and Edinburgh Film Festivals of 1972, Jane Arden’s magnum cinematic opus The Other Side of the Underneath found its way into the nation’s repertory cinemas on a limited release. Loved by some, such as George Melly, hated by others – come in Derek Malcolm – the film, labelled ‘a major breakthrough for the British cinema’ by the BBC’s David Will is now, amazingly, virtually lost. Interested parties are currently working to remedy this appalling situation.

Arden is a remarkable figure in post-war British culture; playwright, screenwriter, actor, director, poet, anthropologist and even singer- songwriter, her career is one of those rare ones which moved from the mainstream – Romeo and Juliet for the BBC, comedy scriptwriting in the early days of ITV – to the avant-garde and experimental in both theatre and film. A list of some of the people she worked with reflects the almost carnivalesque diversity and scope of her work: Charles Laughton, Sid James, Richard Lester, Joan Simms, Philip Saville, Albert Finney, Harold Pinter, David Frost, David de Keyser, Victor Spinetti, and so on. And yet it seems as though the nation’s critical establishment didn’t really know what to do with her and, since her untimely death in 1982, has virtually behaved as if she was never there in the first place. But Arden most certainly and emphatically was there. As so often testified to by those who worked with her, she was a fiercely intelligent and eloquent woman whose restlessly questing nature led her into intense explorations of inner and outer worlds. The Other Side of the Underneath unflinchingly examines the turmoil of woman’s mental breakdown and eventual renewal through startling imagery and disparate cinematic styles. Much of the film was shot in Arden’s native South Wales – she was born in Pontypool, described specifically as ‘a valley wedged between the gypsy mountains and the coal slag-heaps’. Powerful and emotive scenes of a rural carnival, a mining disaster, a striptease in a working men’s club, explicit sexuality, both lesbian and heterosexual, a female crucifixion, an alarming axe attack and a tableau of iconic archetypal women combine to dramatise the schizophrenic recollections of the troubled central character. As always with late Arden, The Other Side of the Underneath is brave, challenging and uncompromising work.

Arden wrote and directed the film – also appearing uncredited as the psychiatrist – making it the only British film in the 1970s to be solely directed by a woman, a groundbreaking fact in itself, but it did not lead to regular work in the film industry and bigger budgets. As it was Arden’s ideas quickly moved on from feminism and her fascination with the anti-psychiatry movement of Szasz and Laing towards a heartfelt desire for universal liberation from, amongst other things, the tyranny of rationalism. There is a sense in which Arden, later in her life, perfectly fits Charles Shaar Murray’s brilliant description of Jimi Hendrix as ‘a moth beating its wings on a window, a ceaseless attempt to break down the walls of heartache’, the proposition being, ‘There must be some kinda way out of here’. Sadly, in 1982 she found a way out which has left us bereft, and staring at a Jane Arden- shaped gap in the culture which has proved impossible to fill.

Also around this time, and often overlooked or ignored by the historians, many Britons were rediscovering their pagan past, and some were no doubt looking for it in Ms Arden’s gypsy mountains. As the film director John Boorman has said, we are forest people but, due to a series of historical turns, we have had a desert religion imposed upon us, causing a rather uncomfortable identity crisis which we have been struggling with ever since. In the early 1970s large numbers of people seemed to be keen to rectify the mistake, leading them into the woods and forests, the hills and dales and the neo-romantic contours of the British landscape. Whether in search of ley lines, stone circles, ancient hill forts or lost kings, the British seemed to be on a new quest for the rediscovery of their true identity which continues today – now seemingly led by the rock icon turned antiquarian Julian Cope! This search was reflected in the music, literature and cinema of the time and books like Colin and Janet Bord’s Mysterious Britain (Paladin 1974) sold in vast quantities. The extraordinary Edgar Broughton Band somehow managed to get their bizarre pagan exorcism Out Demons Out into the singles chart in 1970; but the competing tensions in the quest for ‘Britishness’, ancient and modern, are nowhere better reflected than in the work of the rock band Jethro Tull.

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Jethro Tull, in the principal guise of their leader and songwriter Ian Anderson, brilliantly combined quirky Ray Davies style social commentary with powerful explorations of the darker aspects of the British psyche, often, as with their 1977 album Songs From The Wood and Broadsword and the Beast (1982) with specific reference to Britain’s mythical, pagan past. In 1973 they made a film. It was part of their ambitious unbroken song cycle and stage presentation A Passion Play and was called, whimsically, The Story of the Hare Who Lost his Spectacles. In the stage performance and on the album A Passion Play the film came in the middle of the work, but on the current remastered CD of the piece the film is a welcome CD Rom extra. It is a short but remarkable film which, akin to, and yet in a totally different way from the work of Jane Arden, explores the madness and anarchy which is a powerful undercurrent in some significant British cultural traditions.

The film takes us into a Lewis Carroll type world of grotesque dancing animals, manic ballet dancers and a check-suited narrator (played by the artist Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond, at that time the group’s bass player) who seems to be lifted from a garish television quiz show. The mood is reminiscent at times of a possible nightmare shared by Beatrix Potter and Kenneth Grahame, or the unnerving ventriloquist sequence from the atmospheric Ealing horror film Dead of Night (1945) when Michael Redgrave’s dummy comes menacingly to life. The story itself is nonsensical in the more outlandish Edward Lear-style traditions of children’s literature and seems primarily to be a frame on which to hang strange visualisations and eccentric choreography. The film, and the A Passion Play album, could be the direct descendants of that odd Englishness to be found on the classic Beatles album St. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, particularly on the song For The Benefit of Mr. Kite. This is the England of the fairground, Punch and Judy, or the carnival gone slightly out of control, the clowns have taken over and the puppets have started to ignore their handlers; the screams may be for real and the ghost train could be just that. The laureate of this world of mischievous ancient spirits is Angela Carter, and the whole scenario could equally have been sparked by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s remarkable dance films : The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffman. Interestingly there is one sinister black and white scene in the film where one of the ballet dancers is chased up a flight of steps and into a dressing room by a threatening figure holding a long lens camera to his eye. This sequence seems to be a clear reference to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), in which a young psychopath films the deaths of his victims.

The film also jumps fluently between outdoor scenes set in a clearing in some woods and choreographed sequences on a theatre stage. This easy blend of natural and staged settings does seem to play, in a Brechtian sense, with notions of illusion and authenticity; at one point Ian Anderson himself walks into the film to deliver a clipboard to the narrator. As he turns to leave he glances knowingly at the camera.

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The remarkable thing is that this strange little film was seen by thousands, if not millions, world wide. In 1973 Jethro Tull were a major international rock attraction playing the world’s arenas; as has been said of The Beatles’ ‘White Album period, the avant-garde had gone mainstream, or, perhaps more accurately, vice-versa. This writer saw the film in July 1973 at a packed Wembley Arena on a gigantic screen at the rear of the stage when the musicians had temporarily left the room, in what felt at the time like the most surreal cinema experience possible. This was a band using the freedom given by their huge record sales and guaranteed vast audience to take risks and push back boundaries. A Passion Play and The Story of the Hare Who Lost his Spectacles were, inevitably, poorly received by many of the influential rock critics of the time and Jethro Tull, despite still having a huge following to this day, never risked being this experimental and challenging again. Frustratingly, in some of the laziest journalism and rock writing of all, they are now often lumped into the box with the meaningless label ‘progressive rock’, which seems to be the fate of most British bands who tried to make interesting music in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, particularly if they featured keyboards or woodwind instruments. Needless to say, there are now many pages on various websites devoted to explanations of what The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles, and A Passion Play as a whole, might mean.

As Jane Arden set off in search of other cultures and spiritual insights, Jethro Tull reverted to shorter songs and more conventional shows. But other remarkable works came out of 1973 to make it a memorably zany year: for example Lindsay Anderson’s brilliant study of the state of the nation O Lucky Man! was released to a bemused public, and back in the Ireland’s Wicklow Mountains after his Oscar ceremony summons for the mainstream hit Deliverance John Boorman was shooting his wonderfully mad Zardoz with Sean Connery and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth. Even the radically bizarre visions of Michael Moorcock found their way on to the screen in 1973 in The Final Programme.

Happily, as mentioned above, it is possible now to walk into any good music shop and buy The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles on the A Passion Play CD. As hinted above, Jane Arden’s legacy is much less accessible and it is a national issue that her work is primarily unavailable. The nation needs its visionary artists and Jane Arden was one of the best and bravest.


More information about Jane Arden can be found here.

Sean Kaye-Smith teaches Media and English at Ashton Park School in Bristol. He regularly watches King’s Lynn F.C.