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3:AM in Lockdown 28: Oscar Mardell

The Horns of Jericho
By Oscar Mardell.

Charley Says

Small mercies: I’ve received an email from David Collard (surely, the most generous figure in the game). “Future historians” it begins, “may well refer to the current state of things as the Phoney Plague”. And David is spot on (again). Aside from the obvious (what I’m anticipating is nothing akin to what my grandparents anticipated in ’39), the present situation feels oddly like the first two thirds of Humphrey Jennings’ Fires Were Started (1943), the unthinkable and the everyday, representation and reality, actors and civilians, all blurring seamlessly into an eerie sense of inauthenticity. But even when disaster comes, I think, things probably won’t feel real, still.

Every clip on YouTube is prefaced now with Public Information Films. Quickly, a version of echolalia sets in: I cannot process what these films convey, only how. And how is (almost) always the same: simple — often primary — colours; linear diagrams and geometric cartoons; sans-serif typefaces; glockenspiel backing-tracks; youthful, conversational voices, sometimes with regional accents. Their over-friendliness masks their deadly-seriousness, like some new-fangled J.B. Priestly — whom the BBC found so soothing that they employed him through the War to read the updates on the bombing. The reports would be better received, surely, if read by the affable Yorkshireman. My grandad got to meet him once — photographed him for a book jacket. Priestley paid him with a painting that he’d done of fishing boats, rocking in some tranquil harbour. I don’t think I’ll get to see my grandad after this. Mum says they’ve ordered in the morphine.

But people panicked. Not even Jennings’ own propaganda efforts — London Can Take It (1940) and Listen to Britain (1942) — sublime (and persuasive) though they are, could keep chaos contained. The whole “Keep Calm and Carry On” thing was, of course, an afterthought (don’t you fucking dare).

For which reason, I find myself returning to the golden age of Public Information Films: doubtless 1973-1978 — a bracket which includes Charley Says (1973), Lonely Water (1973), Apaches (1977), and Building Sites Bite (1978), and culminates in that (accidental?) masterstroke The Finishing Line (1977). These films have lately been the playthings of Hauntology — that weirdo strain of cultural history which does away with positivist assessments of the past and concerns itself instead with questions of ‘what might have been?’ (less interested in what has actually happened than in spectres of the future glimpsed in bygone eras). And it’s not exactly hard to see why that particular crowd should flock to these particular films: beneath their schlock-horror aesthetic, the PIFs of the mid-Seventies appear to herald a state authority which: a) treats young citizens with dignity, expecting from them the maturity to handle heavy themes and graphic violence; and b) cares deeply for their safety and wellbeing, and not just their potential as consumers. Outwardly, the old PIFs are deadly serious; underneath, they harbour genuine concern for the vulnerable. They’re inside-out equivalents of those that preface YouTube clips today. And this is probably why I am addicted to them now.

It’s also why the old PIFs had such a massive impact. Their signature sound (analogue, overdriven, grainy, foreboding) was extensively sampled by Boards of Canada, and by most artists on Box Records (The Advisory Circle, in particular). But my favourite is The Prodigy’s debut track ‘Charly’ — which samples the meowing of the safety-conscious cat from Charley Says. I put it on and make more tea and cat noises and think about how strange it was that I just happened to be at Keith Flint’s final gig — in Henderson.

After ‘Smack my Bitch Up’, The Prodigy were (wrongly) accused of inciting violence against women (that song doesn’t endorse Domestic Abuse any more than ‘Firestarter’ endorses Arson); but on ‘Charly’, I think, it’s clear that the group were committed to community wellbeing from the very outset (this, though, is true of the majority of Rave / Post-Rave — perhaps even why it was effectively criminalised under Thatcher). Beneath its confrontational exterior, ‘Charly’ longs for a state authority which places wholesome family values at the forefront of its agenda, for a government which genuinely wants you to ‘tell your mummy before you go off somewhere’. I should call Mum anyway.

Hauntological readings of The Finishing Line might tell us plenty about its hopes for the future, but they will seldom tell us very much about The Finishing Line. And this is a shame, because The Finishing Line is a goddamn masterpiece whose affect lies in far more than some yearning for brighter tomorrows. I watch it for the second time today.

The film begins with a schoolboy sitting on a railway tunnel, the words of his headmaster booming in his ears: ‘The railway is not the game field!’. ‘Yeah,’ the schoolboy wonders, ‘but if it was?’. What follows is a staging of that proposition: sports day is transposed onto the tracks, and schoolchildren compete in games with moving trains. Predictably, people get hurt — so hurt, in fact, that the film had to be substituted less than two years later by a slightly less graphic version called Robbie. I don’t bother to re-watch Robbie.

I re-read for the seventh time this week ‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson. A village gathers, everyone puts their name into a huge tombola, and the person who gets picked is stoned to death. To this day, it’s prompted more complaints to The New Yorker than anything else that magazine has ever published. Thank God I cancelled that subscription all those years ago.

What makes the story so disturbing is not the fatal violence per se, not even the way it juxtaposes fatal violence and community wholesomeness; what really rattles readers is the way the tale presents those things — violence and community — as mutually complicit phenomena. Society, the story seems to say, is never more united than when someone (else) is getting hurt.

I concede: The Finishing Line probably doesn’t mean to resemble ‘The Lottery’.

It probably means to shock its audience by forcing two completely separate phenomena — train injuries and sports day — into close proximity, a move straight out of Jennings, by the way, who did the same thing in The Silent Village (1943), transposing the Lidice Massacre onto the small Welsh Village, Cwmgiedd. It seems like a cliché, but it bloody works. Every time.

What The Finishing Line betrays is the mutual complicity between the two (i.e violence and community). By staging an idiotic and ultra-dangerous version of sports day, the film makes explicit what those of us who hated sports day have always understood: that sports day is inherently idiotic and inherently dangerous; that every sports day feels as enjoyable as sports-day-on-the-train-tracks; that there’s an element of senseless malice at the heart of just about every social gathering. Fuck, I hated sports day.

Covid-19 is nothing akin to a speeding train, but The Finishing Line is feeling weirdly relevant again, certainly more so than the films that preface YouTube clips right now. But its meaning is shifting still: every in-flesh community gathering, the film reminds us now — and not just sports day — is idiotic and dangerous, well-nigh certain death.

Stay at home. Read Shirley Jackson. Save lives. Hang out with your ghosts.


First posted: Friday, April 10th, 2020.

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