The Ravenous Poor in Heath Era British Cinema.

Trying to establish small cycles of trends in cinema is a key discipline in understanding the medium.  When a theme can be seen to traverse genre but be defined by era, it perhaps states more of a sociological argument than simply an aesthetic or a narrative one.  A particular group of films recently began to collect together in my own memory but the reason as to what was connecting them was at first elusive.  It was outside of genre and aesthetics but more in the realms of portrayal that only evolved into an idea once I’d watched Gary Sherman’s Death Line (Raw Meat) (1972) for the first time; that early 1970s British cinema had a tendency to portray a ravenous type of the poor.

This isn’t especially surprising and is a trend that all but sums up the era of the Heath government. Gothic horror had moved to television and had become just as much of a norm as power cuts.  The more surreal and horrific end of cinema, however, found something else to align with, almost in a strange fight back against a range of different Conservative policies, most famously with Margaret Thatcher (then still only the education and science minister) cutting free school milk.  Heath’s government began the slow dismantling the state, almost in premonition of the extreme neo-liberal barrage of the 1980s (though ironically increased welfare spending).  Cinema seemed to react to this by characterising the poor as desperate, ravenous, but also seeking revenge; they were left on the heap whilst the government sought to fight more politically aggressive groups such as the trade unions and stay afloat in the bloodiest years of “The Troubles”.

All of the films seem to take note of this element of forgotten social groups but use them in distinctly different ways.  The earliest is Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971); a film set in the future but also one that forgets itself after its halfway mark and all but realigns itself in 1970s Britain.  In its opening scene of violence, Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his Droogs set upon a homeless Irishman singing drunkenly in a tunnel.  Later on in the film, after Alex has undergone his treatment and can no longer defend himself, he is recognised by this man and is attacked by a group of old, ragged, homeless people.

The image is interesting as, at least in aesthetic terms, it sets the trend for what this sociological group looks like.  They’re filthy and often linked to drink, wearing rags of brown clothing as they hobble along.  They are like a ramshackle hunting pack and it’s not unfeasible to suggest that they’re one step away from resorting to cannibalism; their tearing at McDowell hinting at a very urgent desperation for food.  It’s fitting then that the other film from the Heath era to show this in a non-horror genre also features McDowell as the victim.

In Lindsay Anderson’s satire, O Lucky Man (1973), the film finishes with McDowell trying to rouse a very similar group of people to rebel against the system that had just put him in jail.  He goes to their area of dwelling, full of metal bins on fire and again defined by the aesthetic of dirty, ragged clothing.  They are again violent towards him, solidifying the idea that they are a group that are collectively tragic but also dangerous with one aspect feeding into the other.  The fact that this group of people seem to be on the fringe of society, forgotten and left to their own devices, is the perfect final jab at Heath from Anderson.  Like almost every other film made by the director, the groups left out or even attacked by the governing body come together to fight off and simply release their angst and frustration at their social position.

Whilst directors like Kubrick and Anderson used this for narrative purposes (showing more about the politics of 1970s Britain through default), the ravenous poor were ready and waiting to be used for more horrific and pulp intentions of early seventies British cinema.

The first is the previously mentioned Death Line (1972) or Raw Meat as it eventually became marketed as in America.  Sherman’s film is about a group of lost miners who had been working on a new underground station.  They were lost presumed dead but unbeknown to the public and authorities, survived and became a Morlock-like race of ravenous, incestuous cannibals.  The film shows only one real survivor left of this race and follows his attempts to take people from Russell Square tube station to his lair.  It’s a strangely graphic film but also a humours one, mixing a Texas Chainsaw style larder aesthetic with the comedy of a mundane police department run by Donald Pleasance.

To the read the film in an academic way would perhaps undermine its B-movie nature but, taking its narrative at face value, Raw Meat presents a definite consequence to leaving people at the outer-ends of society to rot in poverty.  It’s perhaps fitting that the first victim the viewer sees of the underground dweller is a top government official with an OBE.  It’s even more fitting that he’s previously shown to be hunting around sleazy Soho looking for sex; the two characters have far more in common than is bearable.

Most famously in 1970s horror is the use of the homeless in Douglas Hickox’s Theatre of Blood (1973).  This time the ravenous poor have been coerced into helping a supposedly dead actor (Vincent Price) enact revenge on his bourgeois critics who always slated his performances in their reviews.  In this case, the social group really are presented as ravenous, enacting a revenge of their own on the richer elements of the London cultural elite as well as carrying out the will of the wronged actor in the most violent and gruesome of ways.  His plan only seems to come together because of his accidental slipping into their underworld; they rescue him and took him in, showing a kindness that belies their more violent urges later on.

In these four films, Britain in the early 1970s is always shown as a society of polars.  For the rich critics of Theatre of Blood and the businessmen of O Lucky Man to have their wealth, the natural by-product of this is an underlying social group of wronged and ravenous poor.  Whilst the aesthetic portrayal may be unkind and perhaps even diminutive, the fact that the trend all comes from cinema made under one government perhaps shows more about the country in the era than is perhaps comfortable to contemplate.

Adam Scovell

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