We’re in a hip East End Record Shop – a fitting venue for the headfuck that is about to follow.
It’s the launch of this excellent Double DVD from the BFI:
This is a collection old promotional films for pubs made between the 1940s and 1980s, and I’ll be writing more about the amazing collection of moving, educational and sometimes hilariously bad films in the Publican’s Morning Advertiser soon. (There was a good if over-pessimistic review in the Guardian this week.)
On launch night, Robin Turner, author of this excellent book and the DVD sleeve notes, tells us we’re about to get ‘a ghostly view of what pubs used to be like’, does a reading, and then shows us a heartwarming film of pub life in 1945 that was made for troops fighting abroad, to show them what they were fighting for. It brings a tear to the eye. Luckily the lights are down.
After a short break for another beer (Sambrooks is sponsoring the event) one of the chaps from the Pub History Society introduces the next film. It’s a short, experimental piece made in the early seventies for Guinness, basically looking at the production process, the care and attention that goes into a glass of Guinness, and was designed to be shown in cinemas. Guinness has an unrivalled pedigree of TV advertising over the decades, but this is another story – the film is fifteen minutes long. I’m suddenly very interested, never having come across it on any historical showreels in my time in advertising. The Pub History Man keeps repeating the word ‘experimental’.
“If any of you have tabs of acid, now is the time to take them,” he suggests.
There’s no need.
The next fifteen minutes shows what happens if you take the typical ‘making of beer’ film that every brewery has as part of its brewery tour, and you process it through a 1960s lysergic filter then broadcast it on Mars. It’s a film about how a beer is made, but it’s more interested in colour, shape and texture than narrative. Guinness has never made – and never will make – anything as bold, daring, experimental and pure batshit crazy as this short film ever again. And on balance, we should be thankful for that.
Bottles resemble aliens, the production line a spaceship. The popping of a cork is like watching Martians fucking. The printing of labels resembles insects eating. The manufacture of bottle tops a plague of crickets having an orgy.
Shit, we haven’t even got to the beer itself yet.
The bottling line is an Orwellian stew of rutting dead objects, filing to their doom as Arthur Guinness gazes on.
And then we’re onto barley growing, and it’s growing in a scary way, nature transmuted into a sinister force. Your instincts tell you that you must never go near that awful field. A combine harvester appears and turns the field into a concentration camp, a charnel house, the grassy final solution.
There’s brief respite when we get to the hop farms, where the jagged electronic soundtrack is replaced by a wonderful, soaring cor anglais over peaceful images of hop bines and oast houses. But hang on, what’s happening? Now the hop bines are dancing like tripping triffids, and the cor anglais mutates into squawking, mewling modern jazz.
Water is something creepy and dangerous. Barley malt is a plague of locusts, the malting process the work of these countless billions of insects.
Sparging offers us another brief interlude of beautiful visual poetry, but the results of the mash are landscapes devastated by nuclear war. As we prepare for the addition of the hops the music creates rising tension and fear, and then the boil is accompanied by a noise so terrifying this DVD should not have a PG certificate.
I can’t even bear to describe the timelapse imagery of yeast fermenting inside padlocked storage vats. Let’s just say I won’t be able to sleep for about a week.
These scenes are intercut with a glass of Guinness being poured, the familiar anticipation as the drink makes its way to you. Each time we cut to the glass we get monks chanting like they do on the Omen films just before someone gets cut in half or skewered by a spike. By the time you see a human hand raising the glass, you want to cry “Nooooooooo! Don’t drink that, it’ll turn you into Swamp Thing!”
We never see the drinker. But the film ends with multiple sighs of enjoyment that are cut artificially short – proof that this has actually happened.
Shaken, I turn to the sleeve notes. The film was written and directed by Eric Marquis and the music was by ‘experimental British composer’ Tristram Cary, who also did music for Dr Who and for Hammer Horror films. This makes a lot of sense.
Cary is no longer with us, but Marquis is, and fair play to the BFI, they not only track him down but publish the full details of their exchange with him. He begins by saying he has ‘little memory of it’, and describes it as ‘twenty minutes or so of clever-dicky images’.
The BFI then sends Marquis a copy of the film to refresh his memory, and he replies, “My first reaction has been reinforced (and multiplied). If you do not wish this disc returned I will cheerfully burn it and wish that all other copies extant could also be destroyed! I can only say that I am deeply ashamed of having had anything to do with the making of it. And you can quote me if you like.”
What better endorsement could there be?
Hats off to the BFI for pulling this collection together. Buy it now. Just make sure there’s no one of a nervous disposition in the room when this particular film comes on.