“Terror Grows Like Weeds In The Lollipop World Of Wynne…” (Original trailer).
Coming of age in a suburban backwater, under the heavy, dead hand of the Catholic Church, can be a crushingly dreary affair. Neither I Start Counting (1969) director David Greene, screenwriter Richard Harris nor Audrey Erskine Lindop, author of the original novel, would get any argument out of me on that score. Schoolgirl Wynne Kinch (Jenny Agutter, then 17, playing slightly younger) carries a torch that sustains her through the diurnal dullness of Dalstead (actually Bracknell) New Town. Like Calamity Jane, she nurtures a secret love, specifically a massive crush on her older stepbrother George (Bryan Marshall). Something else that “adds colour” (in the words of the film’s sensational publicity copy) to the drudgery of what passes for life in a New Town (not quite the hell hole depicted in the Slits track of that title, but getting there) is “a little blood”. Enter local serial killer (of young women), “The Dalstead Strangler”…
Imaginatively connecting a collection of circumstantial clues, Wynne concludes that George is the culprit and weaves his guilt into her increasingly elabourate fantasies. If anything, this conviction only increases her ardour. She fancies herself the only one who understands George (though in truth she understands precious little and when a measure of comprehension is later forced upon her, she suffers much on account of it), the only one who can protect and ultimately save him.
There’s got to be a good reason for what he’s doing, right? Little Jesuit Jenny even rationalises her shaky moral stance during internal discourses with JC himself.
As far as the neutral viewer is concerned, George is far from the only contender for Stranglerhood. Winsome Wynn’s other brother, Len (Gregory Phillips) is a budding libertine, dabbling in drugs and secretly salivating over his collection of Dalstead Strangler press clippings… and Simon Ward’s creepy “jack the lad” bus conductor (below) would be handed his P45 (and probably worse) today for the way he “flirts” with Wynne and her precociously provocative school pal Corinne (Clare Sutcliffe, who was actually about 25 when this was shot).
Some might take retroactive offence at the fact that the adventurous Corinne falls victim to the strangler while virginal Wynne survives, but as well trained Catholics, both of them would have known only too well that it’s possible to sin (and reap the wages thereof) in thought, word and deed. Wynne is only virtuous in the sense indicated by Plato and Freud, i.e. content to dream (and she daydreams plenty) about what the wicked actually put into practice. And when she gets sloshed, she attempts to step over that line with the alarmed George, to cringe-inducing effect.
So, what we got here… the sexual awakening of teenage girls, the murder of teenage girls, a wannabe accessory to murder (after the fact), (kind of) incest… it’s a good job David Greene (whose feature debut was the 1967 Lovecraft effort The Shuttered Room and who later found success in American TV productions) rather than a less tasteful director (and there’s never been any shortage of them) was entrusted with this material which, thus recounted, approximates a random sampling of subject matter from Homeric epics and the Attic Tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides… which is, I rather suspect, central to what Greene is trying to say here. Despite the promise of a new start and a new life in a New Town, Wynne and her dysfunctional family are no more free from the ghosts of their past (it’s in what remains of their dilapidated former home that Corinne ultimately contracts her fatal liaison and Wynne has her own encounter with the killer) than any of us are free from the consequences of fallen human nature. As it was in the palace of Agamemnon, so it is in Dalstead / Bracknell’s Point Royal…
… which is pretty much the point that Peter Shaffer and Sidney Lumet were labouring in Equus (1977), another film graced by Agutter’s presence. I Start Counting pitches its tone somewhere between the High Art of that one and the out and out Exploitation of Sidney Hayers’ Assault (1971).
Of course Blaise Pascal took a dissenting view of human history, arguing that it might have followed a completely different course had, e.g. Cleopatra’s nose described an alternative trajectory to the one it actually took. Had that eminent French philosopher lived to witness the cute cut of Ms Agutter’s pert proboscis, I’m certain he would have recast that particular aphorism.
This most captivating of British actresses has given so many splendid performances in so many quality films (see also our appraisals of Walkabout and An American Werewolf in London) that I can’t even bring myself to begrudge her the easy money she’s currently making in the BBC’s awful Call The Midwife. Agutter’s adeptly nuanced turn in I Start Counting (a picture which, with no disrespect intended to the rest of an admirable cast, she effectively carries), delivered at such a tender age, lays down an unmistakable marker for cinematic and stage glories to come (lovingly documented in Ian Taylor’s All Sorts Of Things Might Happen). Kudos, as ever, to the BFI for unearthing and reactivating this lost little gem of a thriller, scanned and restored in 2k from the 35mm interpositive.
Extras include (alongside the expected trailer and generous image gallery) an audio commentary by Samm Deighan and an interview with Agutter, in which she vividly recalls the film’s making and confesses to being a bit of a compulsive counter herself. In addition you get 40 minutes of writer Richard Harris reflecting on his long running career in cinema and TV and Chris O’Neill’s video essay Loss Of Innocence. The Children’s Film Foundation’s Danger On Dartmoor (1980), directed by David Eady and written by Audrey Erskine Lindop, shares some of the main feature’s thematic concerns and plot devices, as well as warning its audience of the perils inherent in foggy moors and remote natural splendour (subject on which Jenny Agutter would have been eminently well qualified to lecture its protagonists). There’s also a bunch of archive shorts bigging up the New Towns project and the jaw dropping cautionary tale Don’t Be Like Brenda (i.e. pregnant and abandoned)… it’s amazing that they were still making stuff like this in 1973! With the first pressing only comes a fully illustrated collector’s booklet comprising new writing on the film by the BFI’s Jo Botting and its cast and director by Jon Dear. Finally Johnny Trunk (of Trunk Records fame) profiles composer Basil Kirchin and readers of a certain age will remember the 1972 cover of ISC’s main theme by the divine Dusty (who’d already, memorably, closed her eyes and counted to 10).