The latest release from BFI’s Flipside imprint (“which rescues weird and wonderful British films from obscurity and presents them in new high quality editions on DVD and Blu-ray”), Christian Marnham’s The Orchard End Murder (1980) garnered shedloads of Eady Levy money during the early ’80s on account of its outings as a program filler for the likes of Dead And Buried (originally) and A Nightmare On Elm Street (which is where I dimly remember catching it, or the last reel or so of it, first time out).
This 50 minute thriller, set in 1966 and allegedly based on a true case, follows the fatal misadventure of one Pauline Cox (Tracy Hyde) who gets bored watching her new boyfriend (Mark Hardy) playing cricket on an idyllic village green and wanders off into the lush Kent countryside in search of distraction, only to meet her end in that eponymous orchard. A real pippin in her summer dress, Una Stubbs hairdo and Mary Quant eye lashes, Pauline is quite scrumptious as she moves among the bowers, indeed she proves irresistibly a-peel-ing to the local sex killer (OK, enough of the apple gags already). We’re led to believe that’s this is going to be the creepy, hunchbacked local station master (prolific character actor Bill Wallis), who improbably lures her into his garden of unearthly gnomic delights for a cup of tea…
… but it turns out to be his hulking, dim-witted side-kick Ewen (future Casualty stalwart Clive Mantle), with whom he’s got an “Of Mice and Men” kind of thing going on. Ewen doesn’t just tell Pauline about the rabbits, he bashes one to death on the table where she’s taking tea and promptly skins it. Initially repelled, Pauline – whom we’re clearly intended to view as “a bit of a goer” – rapidly warms to his muscular presence. Perhaps his rabbit casserole is off the menu but this girl might just be able to find room for his tongue in cider. She acquiesces to his initial advances only to pull away abruptly, announcing that she’s off to reunite with her boyfriend. Hell hath no fury like a dim-wit spurned and Pauline’s resistance crumbles when Ewen strangles her with one of her stockings before secreting the corpse under a pile of rejected apples (knowing how they feel, I guess)…
OK she dies (not far into the picture) but this revelation really isn’t much of a spoiler, given the film’s title. The balance of it concerns the exact nature of the relationship between Ewen and the station-master, also their farcical attempts to dispose of Paula’s body (interrupted by Ewen’s periodic retrievals of it so he can play house with his dead dream girl). Director Christian Marnham describes TOEM as a black comedy and I guess, if anything, I’d liken parts of it to some of the more eye-watering moments from Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972).
Marnham benefits from a solid cast and some tremendous camera work (witness the impressive opening crane shot) from Pete Walker’s favoured cinematographer, Peter Jessop, beautifully rendered in the BFI’s characteristically spanky BD transfer. Praise is also due for Sam Sklair’s vaguely jazzy, occasionally Goblinesque OST.
By mining myth, fairytale and folklore (allusions range from the Garden of Eden to Little Red Riding Hood) Marnham parlays, from his humdrum albeit beautiful setting, a passion play of some considerable emotional power, unearthing the pagan processes that lurk beneath the pastoral platitudes of vicars consuming cucumber sandwiches on neatly manicured cricket greens. The film’s tacit condemnation of Cox’s free loving ways (consistent with the contemporary “have sex and die” ethos that then had people queueing around the block to see slasher movies) and the way she does seem to lead Ewen up the garden path before he cracks and kills her, plus the film’s apparent concern to elicit some sympathy from us for sex killers and necrophiles, all make for dodgy sexual politics more troubling than anything in Dead And Buried. In the event, the BBFC extracted a mere 2/3 of a second (!) from TOEM (Marnham remembers it being picketed by feminists, though) while Gary Sherman’s film went on to become, ludicrously, an offical “video nasty”. Go figure…
Needless to say, this disc comes complete with an impressive set of extras. While TOEM was the first film appearance for both Mantle and (uncredited as a policeman) Rik Mayall, it was the last (whatever it says on IMDB) for David Wilkinson (as Mark Hardy’s piss-taking cricketing buddy). Now working in distribution, Wilkinson looks back on the vagaries of thespian fortunes during a 13 minute interview and admits “I fancied Tracy… we all did… but she wasn’t having any of it”. The still very desirable Ms Hyde gets a similar amount of time to ponder the ups and downs of the actor’s life (she was prematurely touted for stardom after taking the juvenile lead in Warris Hussein’s Melody aka S.W.A.L.K. in 1971). Hyde has nothing but good things to say about her experience on The Orchard End Murder, which she cites as a cautionary tale for young women.
Chris Marnham, who cuts (shall we say) quite a theatrical figure, talks interestingly for half an hour or so about The Orchard End Murder and although it failed to lift him out of the commercials milieu, he announces that he now has two feature projects ready to go. He also gives a brief introduction to his 1970 short (included as another of this disc’s extras), The Showman.
Ah yes, The Showman… just when I’d convinced myself that the eager BFI beavers who turn up wacky bonus material for these Flipside releases could never top the rocking vicar and his chapter of Christian bikers in their release of Don Sharp’s Psychomania here comes The Showman, a profile of the astonishing Wally Shufflebottom and his travelling Wild West Strip Tease Show… if that doesn’t sound like a rattling good night out to you, you’re probably reading the wrong blog here. Scantily clad go-go dancers shake their money makers enthusiastically to the tinny strains of Gary Glitter’s Rock And Roll while Wally (literally) drums up trade from the passing ’70s clad thrill-seeking reprobates. Mrs Shufflebottom (once a trapeze artiste but now clearly built for ticket booth duties rather than flying through the air) takes their money and we enter with them to witness further non-PC delights as Wally unleashes volleys of knives (some flaming, some not), axes and tomahawks around the dancing dolly birds’ semi-naked forms… that’s entertainment!
Commenting on the logistical difficulties of making this documentary milestone, Marnham reveals: “We blew just about every electrical supplier in the village of Billericay”… wow, talk about going above and beyond the call of duty!