This was originally commissioned for A Leading Film Website as part of a series they were running on whether the thrill of queueing outside a cinema had been consigned to history by Netflix or something. It didn’t make it into the final piece, and judging from what did, I imagine they were looking for a little less contentious and a little more about a big crowd of people singing ‘Star Wars’ to the tune of the Star Wars theme while waiting to see Star Wars. Maybe it was a little off-topic in fairness, but even so, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that even now, A Clockwork Orange has still not shaken off the murky chill of notoriety that surrounded it for far too long. Almost as if they felt it was a malenky lomtick sinister.
I later included this in a longer version with much more background on my longstanding moviegoing relationship with the much-missed 051 Cinema in Can’t Help Thinking About Me. In fact there’s a lot more in Can’t Help Thinking About Me about old-skool cinema visits and the various associated hi-jinks, mishaps, snack preferences and very occasionally something about watching the actual film itself. You can get Can’t Help Thinking About Me in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
This is the story of how I didn’t see a movie.
A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick’s controversial – not least with the author himself – 1971 big-screen version of Anthony Burgess’ acclaimed novel, had caused a vivid furore on its release, and by the end of the decade had been withdrawn from UK distribution at the director’s request. There have been wild stories of threats and protests outside the Kubrick family home from ‘anti-violence’ protesters, though it’s also worth remembering that the film was used as a political football by moralising blowhards like pretty much no other before or since; including, to Burgess’ great frustration, one James Wilson Vincent Savile. What an excellent arbiter of socially responsible behaviour he turned out to be. Anyway, whatever the reason, withdraw it Kubrick certainly did, and with home entertainment still really only in its infancy, this meant that – for UK audiences at least – A Clockwork Orange pretty much disappeared off the face of the planet.
As you can imagine, this made A Clockwork Orange a very intriguing prospect indeed to any self-respecting young student of the weird and lurid corners of cinema history. Surreally stylised and futuristic photos in books about ‘Sci-Fi Films’ were a nagging reminder of its tantalising unavailability. It stood almost alone as a movie that had been a huge hit one minute then basically erased from history the next, while older cousins and more verbose rock journalists hinted at a secret knowledge of it that you weren’t allowed to share. Even the row about its content and suitability seemed more exciting than it maybe should have warranted. The fact that even if it had been available, I would have been too young to actually see A Clockwork Orange was neither here nor there – I was as obsessed with it as others were with A Nightmare On Elm Street or Predator. I read the book, I listened to the fantastic soundtrack album, I even cut out and kept a Guardian article about the RSC’s stage adaptation starring Phil Daniels as Alex. There was just one small but significant flaw with this fanaticism – I hadn’t actually seen the film itself.
There were rumours, of course, that it was widely available on ‘pirate’, but it always seemed to command the sort of sums of money that you didn’t particularly want to be handing over to shifty teenagers on street corners, especially when you’d already seen the woeful quality of some of their more easily affordable wares. And so it was that, long after I’d seen Twisted Nerve, Peeping Tom, The Magic Christian, Supervixens, Cannibal Apocalyse, Vampyros Lesbos, The Trip, Monte Carlo Or Bust!, Psychomania, 200 Motels, Two-Lane Blacktop, Every Home Should Have One, The Rise And Rise Of Michael Rimmer and many other tantalisingly elusive doodles in the margin of cinema history, A Clockwork Orange remained my one big Halliwell-troubling box to tick. Yet despite the occasional frowning in a newspaper article accompanied by a badly-cropped version of that photo of Alex at the wheel of a car, it was still nowhere nearer becoming available.
Then, one day, a rumour began to circulate amongst members of a local Cinema Club that they were going to stage a secret – and not even remotely Kubrick-approved – screening of an under-the-counter print of the film to mark their tenth anniversary. Whether they ever actually intended to or not nobody really knows, as some ingrate prat promptly leaked the story to an illiterate muck-raking grief-porn-peddling chip-on-regional-shoulder local newspaper, who went predictably condemnatory crazy with the story – no prizes for guessing which photo they used to accompany it – prompting the cinema to issue a strenuous denial that they’d ever even considered it. Was this all a clever double-bluff, though? Was it worth running the risk of missing out on an actual chance to see it, and subsequently having to administer a self-kicking worthy of Alex and his Droogs? There was only one way to find out – to turn up on the supposed date and time and see if they were actually showing it away from prying smudgy-newsprint eyes.
As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one who’d had that idea. A sizeable crowd had gathered outside the suspiciously darkened venue, made up primarily of studenty types holding cineaste-friendly impromptu discussions, nervy-looking lone gentlemen with an apparent disdain for washing their cagoules, and a small army of people in boiler suits and bowler hats. Oh, and a reporter, who was pleasingly blanked by everyone she attempted to speak to. As the night set in, the weather got colder, and it became increasingly obvious to anyone with a shred of sense that there was nobody actually inside the building, the Droogs seized their moment. A flurry of brolly-rapping on the determinedly shut doors and shouts to the effect of “but the slovo did viddy that the film would be on all horrorshow” did nothing to change the situation, so they started to indulge in in-character jostling of fellow would-be patrons instead. Once they began to loudly decry the arrival of ‘the millicents’, it really was time to give up and go home.
So, that’s how effective banning films really is in terms of preventing copycat violence. Of course, there was also the time someone threw a full carton of Kia Ora at my head, but that’s another story. And I actually saw the film that time too.
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You can find an expanded version of this feature, with much more about cinema foyer tomfoolery and other decidedly non-cineaste-appropriate antics, in Can’t Help Thinking About Me, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. It’s the best way to spend your deng!
62-39 Was His Number is a look back at another memorably rowdy cinema visit – on this occasion watching Jailhouse Rock in an audience full of ageing but voluble Elvis Presley fans still fond of a reckless jive in the aisles; you can find it here.
You’re Weird, Ronald is the tale of the time ITV showed a nasty, sleazy shlocky movie in the middle of the afternoon when children could have been watching – and were; you can find it here.
You can find further tales of the 051 Cinema and its eclectic repertoire of movies – and in particular the mid-nineties True Crime oddity The Young Poisoner’s Handbook – in Looks Unfamiliar with me as the guest, which you can listen to here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.