Copping A Third Eyeful… LEGEND OF THE WITCHES & SECRET RITES, Reviewed.

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BD/DVD. Regions B/2. BFI. 18.

The disclosure of that which is occult (i.e. “hidden”) is an undertaking that’s always been contrary to mainstream culture and values (Mathew Hopkins, you’ll remember, held very definite views on such things during the Seventeenth Century) but the films under review here and their supporting extras examine that undertaking in the specific context of late ’60s / early ’70s counterculture (“Just a dream some of us had”, in the words of Joni Mitchell)… even more specifically, centred within the geographical parameters of pre-Julia Roberts Notting Hill. As such, these are quintessential titles within the remit of the BFI’s Flipside imprint.

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As the Age of Aquarius dawned over W11, the pretensions of significance claimed by films like Malcolm Leigh’s black and white Mondo effort Legend Of The Witches (1970) were indulged by the BBFC (give or take 2 minutes, 53 seconds of excised footage, thankfully restored in this release). Ostensibly an attempt to deepen understanding of The Craft, it’s not hard to work out the demographic at which this doc was actually aimed…

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“We saw naked people… huh huh huh huh huh”

Over moody nature shots, earnest narrator Guy Standeven relates the sustaining myths of Wicca and the influence that The Old Religion has continued to exert over British life and customs, in spite of relentless Christian attempts to expunge it. Along the way we learn that William The Conqueror was an adherent of Lucifer, that Robin Hood’s Merry Men constituted a coven (with Maid Marion as Hight Priestess) and what a chicken looks like after its been sliced open for the purposes of divination (put me right off my KFC, I can tell you).

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All of this serves, of course, as the hors d’oeuvre to the main course of nekkid sorcery, presided over by The King Of The Witches (nor was he any slouch in the self-promotion stakes) himself, Alex Sanders and his wife Maxine. There are diversions such as a visit to Boscastle’s impressive Museum Of Witchcraft And Magic (still going strong!) but the dirty mac brigade knew what they were coming for and no doubt, back in their local Jacey circa 1970, were reasonably satisfied with what they got. There’s an alarming lurch into “a scientific investigation” of “a haunted house” during the last third of the picture which one can only conclude was included to supply a bit more tit, bum and fluff justifying context and / or to pad the running time (which was already plodding) out to feature length, but director Leigh (who subsequently veered off into softcore sex comedy with, e.g. 1971’s Lady Chatterly Vs Fanny Hill before returning to documentaries of a rather more “respectable” bent) just about gets away with it.

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Derek Ford had no such qualms about his 1971 effort Secret Rites (a self destructing title, if ever there was one) which barely racks up 45 minutes (though in blushing colour, this time) while laying bare further rituals and rudeness, once again under the supervision of the never knowingly under-publicised Alex Sanders aka Orrell Alexander Carter aka Verbius. Various rumours concern heavy BBFC cuts or that there’s a  longer, stronger version of Secret Rites that was prepared for export markets but there has been much confusion with an identically entitled American Mondo effort and Ford was quite happy at the time to slot this short effort in as a supporting feature for the theatrical release of his Suburban Housewives (Italian Fotobusta below). The BBFC were cool with all of this, though curiously in the same year they refused certification to the palpably daft, decidedly entertaining but distinctly tame Virgin Witch (at least the Greater London Council got the joke and awarded Ray Austin’s sexploiter an ‘X’ for theatrical screenings in the capital).

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Secret Rites actually comes with the semblance of a plot, in which contemporary TV glamour puss Penny Beeching plays a hairdresser (though of course all of this is supposed to be fly-on-the-wall Reality) who decides that her life will be more meaningful if she gets into ritual magic (shades of Edwige Fenech in Sergio Martino’s All The Colours Of The Dark, 1972). We see her taking the tube to Notting Hill (passing a tasty Daughters Of Darkness poster on the way) for a drink in Alex and his acolytes’ local, where she convinces him of the seriousness of her intent (despite repeatedly mispronouncing his surname). Needless to say, plenty of naked rituals ensue (with a breathless, sportscasting like commentary ), notably an Ancient Egyptian one in a cellar decorated with multi-coloured tinfoil. Watch out for one of the celebrants trying to contain her giggles. Groovy sitar music from The Spindle… wall-to-wall early ’70s fashion statements… under and unclad chicks who all look like Stacia out of Hawkwind… and it’s over a lot earlier than you might have wished, with a “don’t try this at home, kids” sign off from Sanders.

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BFI releases always come packed with attractive supplementary stuff and here you get an audio commentary from Flipside curators Vic Pratt and William Fowler for Secret Rites… the 1924 short (i.e. 7 minute) The Witch’s Fiddle (it’s fair to say that film technology has advanced somewhat since 1924)… 26 minutes of visual collage cut to William Blake’s poetry in The Judgement Of Albion, directed in 1968 by Robert Wynne-Simmons, the writer of Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971)… Out Of Step: Witchcraft (1957), 14 minutes of Rediffusion TV filler in which roving reporter Dan Farson interviews “father of Wicca” Gerald Gardner, some old witch expert biddy and Aleister Crowley’s executor before winding things up with a spot of jitterbugging… and Getting It Straight In Notting Hill Gate, a 25 minute baby doc which delivers a time capsule portrait of NW11 when it must have seemed to alarmed Daily Mail readers that it was on the verge of mutating into Haight Ashbury. We get to see rather too much of house band local heroes Quintessence rehearsing, sashay past Oz’s editorial office and enter those of Release for a brief chat  with Caroline Coon. “We weren’t going to cut our hair just because The Fuzz were treating us like shit” she tells interviewer “Felix Scorpio” (is that Felix Dennis? Does anybody give a toss these days?) No director credited, probably because that would have been subscribing to hierarchical / patriarchal hegemony. Can you dig it? There’s an evocative image gallery, too.

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Let’s leave the last word to Quintessence…
“Things are great in Notting Hill Gate,
We like to sit and meditate.
But only you can know the reason why
They hide behind their own Third Eye”.

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“There goes the neighbourhood…”

… and if anybody out there does actually know why They are hiding behind their own Third Eye, or even what that means, I think we should all be told.

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