• Rock! Shock! Pop! Interviews Filmmaker James Kenelm Clarke

    British filmmaker James Kenelm Clarke is best known for writing and directing the notorious Video Nasty The House On Straw Hill, but there’s a fair bit more to his work than that, including some fun collaborations with Fiona Richmond among others. With House having now finally received a worthy home video release from Severin Films, James took the time to talk to R!S!P! about his life and work.

    Rock! Shock! Pop! - You’ve worked not only as a director but also as a producer and soundtrack composer. Give us a bit of background on how and why you got into the film industry?

    James Kenelm Clarke - I became a director and producer through default. I started out as a composer at the age of eighteen having only got two A-levels, and clearly not clever enough to go to university. I just had to earn a living. But I’d made a film at school (Leighton Park – qv: David Lean, etc.) and it was quite good. And I also wrote the music for the film as well.

    By the age of twenty I was writing music for most of Anglia Television’s plays, lots of production music and I also wrote the signature tune for Associated-Redifusion’s weekly current-affairs programme “This Week”. But, media-mad, I always wanted to work with film, which lead me to, maybe, the biggest career mistake of life. Sir John Woolf (qv) asked me (I was working for him as a composer at the time) what I really wanted to do. I could have simply said; “compose music for the movies”. He was then a very big-time movie producer. Instead, I told him of my inner passion, so he sent me to Anglia Television as a researcher. The rest is history. Sometimes I ask my grandchildren: what would have happened if I’d stayed as a composer?

    R!S!P! - One somewhat obscure credit in your filmography is 1974’s Got It Made which stared Lalla Ward, who I know from a couple of Doctor Who serials and Hammer’s Vampire Circus. What can you tell us about this and what was she like to work with?

    JKC - Lalla Ward was a very gifted actor indeed and she gives such heart-felt performance in “Got It Made”. She was a pleasure to work with. Incidentally I am desperately looking for a print of this film, as the BFI want to release it on DVD. Any help very welcome indeed!

    R!S!P! - Of course, you’re probably best known for House On Straw Hill, which you made in 1976. Where did the idea come from for this picture, which you also wrote?

    JKC - “The House On Straw Hill” was produced out of desperation. I had just sunk all my money into “Got It Made” – which, though lovely and is probably very fashionable now, made me broke as a result, and I had to make a commercial film to save Norfolk International Pictures. I took my cue from Brian Smedley-Aston who has just made “Vampyres”. He came onboard as the producer, and we’ve been friends ever since. The budget was £50,000.

    R!S!P! - The film has been the subject of some controversy over the years, particularly in its native England. How did you feel when the film was banned by the BBFC? How do you feel the cuts that were mandated when it was eventually released affected the movie?

    JKC - We had the usual in-fighting with the censor on “Straw Hill”. I was not aware of the glare of publicity that surrounded the film at that time. We simply made the cuts that were necessary and did them as effectively as possible. Brian Smedley-Aston, apart all his other talents, is a top film editor.

    R!S!P! - That picture top bills Udo Kier, a ridiculously talented actor who is known to be a bit of an eccentric. How did Udo come on board and what was he like to work with?

    JKC - Udo Kier was cast because he was something of an up-and-coming name at that time. But I made a fundamental mistake when casting and directing him. He had a charming light German accent – as you would expect. I should have kept him as a German in the film – instead of re-voicing him as an American. Bad thinking on my part. He was a joy to direct – full of ideas and deserves the success he currently enjoys.

    R!S!P! - The film also famously features the lovely Linda Hayden. She’s gone on to speak rather ill of the movie and doesn’t appear to be at all fond of it. Was this obvious on set when you were directing her or did this change of heart occur after the production was finished? Why do you think she feels this way, have you ever talked to her about it?

    JKC - Linda Hayden. The last thing that Linda wanted to do was make was a sexploitation film – what actors do? It’s different now – it’s almost chic to do this sort of stuff, but the climate was very different then. But she accepted the part and that was that really. There were always masturbatory, lesbian scenes in the script (I have a bound copy of my copy!) and she knew this. They are very tame now. Nonetheless Linda and I always remained friends – I think because she realised that there is a kind of gritty integrity in the film – which made it wholly different from other sexploitation films of the time. She was a very talented actress – that goes without saying.

    R!S!P! - House On Straw Hill also marks, to the best of my knowledge, the first collaboration you had with infamous sex pot Fiona Richmond. Had you known her before casting her in this movie and how was she to deal with?

    JKC - Fiona Richmond was the product of that mythic casting director, Miriam Brickman. It was Miriam’s idea to get her in and Miriam felt that with good direction we could get away with it. I think we did an adequate job. But … she came with boyfriend Paul Raymond’s money, and Brian and I had a very tough job raising the budget for “Straw Hill”. He wrote us a nice cheque

    R!S!P! - Fiona headlined your next directorial effort, a biopic of her life entitled simply Fiona. How accurate was this to her actual story? Was the goal here to craft an interesting ‘documentary’ or to sell the type of sex film that she was known for in the day? How much of ‘Fiona’ is her and how much is a made up persona meant to move copies of skin magazines and sell movie tickets?

    JKC - “Hardcore” was Paul’s idea, but we simply (with writer Michael Robson) did our own thing. – the Anthony Steel sub-plot etc. was all ours. But Fiona’s father really was a vicar. I met him. “Hardcore” was cast by Miriam Brickman as well. She really was a campaigning, pioneering casting director, who loved helping young film-makers. She’s a piece in herself. She invented so many young British Actors – from Julie Christie onwards... to Alan Bates and Albert Finney.

    R!S!P! - You worked with both Hayden and Richmond again in the 1978 comedy Let’s Get Laid. This was quite a departure from the two films you made before it, as it was played pretty much strictly for laughs with some welcome sexy bits thrown in. Why the shift in tone, was this for purely commercial reasons or was there a conscious effort to work on lighter, saucier material?

    JKC - With “Let’s Get Laid” we were all getting (I had a great film-making team then at Norfolk International) a little tired of sex, and this was us trying to construct our escape route. It didn’t work. Paul (who financed the entire film) wanted more sex in it, and I had to subsequently shoot the extra fantasy sequences.

    R!S!P! - You made another comedy in 1983 called Funny Money and then in 1988 another called Going Undercover after which you stopped directing. Why the decision to step away from the camera and what have you been up to since?

    JKC - I produced “The Thirty-Nine Steps” in 1979, and had a marvelous time doing it, but suddenly (oh woh is me!) wanted to direct again. “Funny Money” and “Going Undercover” were the result of this crisis.

    R!S!P! - How do you feel about the cult status that has surrounded some of your films over the years and the fan base that some of them, House in particular, continue to attract?

    JKC - I think the cult status of “Straw Hill” is because it was not the usual sexploitation film of that period. It was different - there was a cultured edge to it. But I often ask Brian what would have happened if he had directed it, and I had produced it. He remains a remarkable film-maker.

    R!S!P! - Anything else on the horizon? Anything else you’d like to let our readers know about?

    JKC - Brian and I are currently preparing “The Unfinished Man”. Script by Barry Langley. We have asked Umberto Passolini to direct it. Christopher Figg is the Producer.

    R!S!P! - That’s great, thanks for doing this James and best of luck with the upcoming production!
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