Growing up with the films of Stanley Kubrik

Clockwork Orange

For film-loving Baby Boomers there was one director who made iconic and yet very different films from the 1950s until his death in 1999. That was the brilliant Stanley Kubrik.

Costume from Clockwork Orange at the 2019 London exhibition on Stanley Kubrik (image: Tony McMahon)

In 2019, I went to an exhibition in London celebrating his decades of cinematic achievement and some of my iPhone snaps are here for you to peruse. A curious mix of Roman togas; eighteenth century courtly costumes and fashion from a space age future. All reflecting the very broad palette of his movies.

As a kid I watched the epic Roman slave revolt movie Spartacus with the late Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis plus a supremely malevolent Laurence Olivier. There were always sword and sandals moves on TV in the 70s like Cecil B DeMille’s 1949 classic Samson and Delilah or the Mervyn LeRoy directed Quo Vadis from 1951. But Spartacus was different – superior – and gripping from start to finish.

That was how Kubrik began the 1960s before giving us entirely different offerings such as the seedy tale of Lolita, the darkly comic Dr Strangelove parodying our fears over nuclear war, and then the overblown sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I hope this doesn’t sound callous because it isn’t intended to be but watching my mother’s gradual mental decline as a result of vascular dementia often made me recall the fate of the ship’s super-intelligent computer in Space Odyssey.

The scene, if you recall, is where the astronaut David Bowman removes one-by-one the “modules” that make up the mega-brain of HAL9000. And as he does so, the computer initially pleads for him to stop then its speech becomes more slurred until it stops to function. Any of you who have watched the effect of dementia will know what I mean.

Kubrik then gave us the nihilistic and very controversial A Clockwork Orange – a movie that was banned for years. The first time I saw it, in the sixth form, was at a friend’s house on a pirate video with Spanish subtitles. The grim, relentless violence carried out by its main protagonist, Alex, was believed to have inspired copy-cat incidents. Though I suspect the tabloids hyped this beyond any measure of reality.

Into the 1980s and we had this slew of Vietnam movies in 1987 with Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and Hamburger Hill jostling for position at the box office. At the time, I think most of us plumped for Platoon as the best of the lot. But it’s Kubrik’s Full Metal Jacket that has stood the test of time. Apparently, I’ve read, Vietnam veterans thought Hamburger Hill was the most realistic but who remembers that movie – apart from me?

What Laurence Olivier wore in Spartacus (image: Tony McMahon)

Meeting people from the 19th century

Many younger colleagues and friends find it completely crazy to think that people of our generation – and we’re not ancient yet – met people born in the 19th century.

When I was six years old, I met my great-grandmother in Portugal who was born in … 1884. That is mind blowing even to me now. There was also my grandmother’s second husband who was basically my grandfather as a child – born in 1899. He used to have a joint birthday every year in the 1970s and 1980s with a woman born in the same year. Sadly they have obviously both gone.

In my road as a kid there was a First World War veteran – also born in the 19th century. Part of his face had been burnt very badly and the greater part of one ear had gone. Upsetting to think back that he was referred to be crueller children as the “lizard man”.

Did you know people born in the 19th century?

My step-grandfather born in 1899 – impersonating Hitler in the 1940s

Anybody use a calculator like this in the 1970s?

Texas Instruments

This was the first calculator I ever owned. Made by Texas Instruments and possibly the last thing I ever got from that company.

Think this wizard piece of technology was from around 1978 and could do everything from long division to logarithms. But – we weren’t allowed to take them into exams. Infuriatingly, we still had to use “log books” to calculate logarithms and slides rules.

Anybody who remembers slide rules will know how fiendishly difficult to use they were. I hated them. Still shudder when I see one.

Hampton Court Palace and me – from 1970 to 2018

Hampton Court Palace

There are three periods of history I guess obsess the Boomer generation – the Romans, the Tudors and the Nazis. If you don’t believe me – check out most of the history channels and you’ll see I’m right. And when it comes to the Tudors, one monarch looms very large: Henry VIII.

In the 1970s, I was given a tatty old Victorian history book and by the age of ten could recite the six unfortunate wives of Henry VIII. In 1972, the actor Keith Mitchell played the king on his deathbed looking back over his life for a hit BBC series called, rather unimaginatively, Henry VIII and His Six Wives. I’m not sure I was allowed to view it on first transmission aged nine what with the beheadings and torture.

Nevertheless, my history-obsessed parents took me around various stately homes that included secret “priest holes” where Catholic priests would hide away during the Protestant Reformation. Those discovered could face the punishment of all traitors – to be hung, drawn and quartered. So – as a young child with an unhealthy love of ancient gore and villainy – I lapped these stories up.

Tony McMahon at Hampton Court Palace
Me at Hampton Court Palace in 1970

I’ve retained my Tudor obsession into middle age so I was delighted when an ITV programme – The Big Audition – invited me to play Henry VIII. They’d tracked me down through a history blog I run. And I got to dress up in a lovely but very heavy costume and wander around Parsons Green in London terrifying passers-by while Julie Walters commented on my new look.

Power cuts in the 1970s – my experience

The recent Coronavirus lockdown in many countries will have come as an unpleasant shock to millions of people – especially the young. To have bars, clubs, shops and meeting places closed by order of the government must seem very disturbing. But to us Boomers, there’s a ring of the familiar. And here’s why…

Because in the early 1970s we endured regular government authorised power cuts. This was a measure in the United Kingdom by the Conservative government of prime minister Edward Heath. He was locked in battle with the National Union of Mineworkers – an episode dramatised in the Netflix series, The Queen.

In order to conserve coal stocks and face the miners down, Heath ordered that energy consumption needed to be reduced. To achieve this – at a time when coal-fired stations provided most of our energy – he demanded that at certain times of the day, the lights should go out.

And I wrote about this in my Holiday Diary in 1972 (aged 8 or 9) – a journal we were ordered to keep by our teacher at school. Amusing to read how my piano lessons were cancelled (oh the horror!); the local swimming pool was freezing and we couldn’t go to Sunday school.

The latter was a particular relief – not being browbeaten by nuns in order to get my First Communion. Because I went to a state school – or “Protestant” school as our local parish priest called it – I had to endure an hour of the Sisters of Mercy (inappropriately named) every week. Thankfully, they couldn’t bully us without the lights on for some reason.

Then there were all the TV shows I had to miss. A serialisation of Ann of Green Gables – which clearly had me hooked. But mercifully, they still managed to screen the Cliff Richard Show with the UK’s Eurovision Song Contest entry for 1972 – The New Seekers singing Beg, Steal or Borrow. We lost that year.

What I don’t mention in the diary below is going to the local library and the whole place being illuminated by candlelight. Could you even imagine that being allowed now? Rows of highly combustible material with candles flickering on the shelves alongside. Different time.

SKAN – School Kids against the Nazis (1970s)

SKAN – School Kids against the Nazis – were briefly active in our secondary school handing out leaflets. This was the most famous leaflet of the lot. It showed a load of our favourite pop stars and told us they would be deported if the extreme Right got into power – because they had non-British backgrounds.

This sort of stuff was quite effective and it obviously made an impact on me because I held on to the leaflet in my scrapbook. Still think it’s a very visually compelling argument today.

Asking the Home Secretary to ban a demo

Home Office reply

In 1978, I was as concerned as many of my friends about the rise of extreme Right parties in London. I grew up in a suburb of east London and at the weekends would drive with my Dad to Petticoat Lane and Brick Lane for the street markets. On our way, I’d see posters on the wall that were so racist – I wouldn’t even reproduce them on this blog.

There were a lot of Jewish kids at my school back then (it’s now a Sikh private school – change of demographics in the area) and they were worried sick about the emergence of anti-Semitic groups. Cemeteries and synagogues were being attacked and areas like Hoxton – now very trendy – had become hotbeds of fascist skinhead activity.

So imagine my dismay when I found out that the National Front – the leading extreme Right group – was going to hold a demonstration in my London borough. In those days, it was nothing other than a huge provocation and show of strength to ethnic minority communities. There was no pretence of being anything other than utterly racist.

I was 14 and decided to write to the Home Secretary (equivalent of Homeland Security in the US or an Interior Minister in other countries) asking for the march to be banned. As you can see below – I got a rather discouraging reply. And the march went ahead. But hey – at least I tried!

Letter from the Home Office in 1978

The Anti-Nazi League carnival of 1978

Anti Nazi League 1978

It’s still a day I look back on as mystical and magical. On the 30 April 1978, I went on the Anti-Nazi League march from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park in the east end of London – and there, your humble scribed aged 15 at the time, saw The Clash and several other legendary bands play. What a time to be alive!

Though I should remove my rose-tinted spectacles at this stage of the blog post. Because it was also a time of racist attacks – especially on Asian people – unbridled bigotry in the tabloid press and the National Front (the main extreme Right party) doing well in local elections.

We had a handful of wannabe Hitlers at our school but they were rather pathetic suburban poseurs. But more worrying, the skinhead scene had been infiltrated by extreme Right groups and there had been some high profile murders.

So, a group of us went on the tube down to Charing Cross to join the demo in Trafalgar Square and a VERY long march to the Mile End district of London. Not sure you’d get anybody to march that kind of distance these days! But all that roller skating and cycling round on Chopper bikes meant we were always up for some exercise – especially in a good cause.

I actually got separated that day from the group and ended up marching on my own. There were so many people that it was useless trying to find my mates again. I have a small confession to make and that is I didn’t pay too much attention to The Clash on stage in Victoria Park and much preferred the Tom Robinson Band. I’ve been kicking myself ever since.

Tony McMahon remembers the Anti-Nazi League carnival in 1978

Fighting for kids’ films in the 1970s

Today in my fifties – I love the movies of the 1970s. It was the decade that gave us the Godfather, Exorcist and Apocalypse Now. But there was one problem being a kid at the time (aged ten in 1973), it was impossible most of the time to enter my local cinema.

Why? Because nearly all the movies were X-rated (the 18 rating today). Adults were well catered for at the flicks nearly fifty years ago. Porn, violence and bloodthirsty horror was available by the bucketload. But films that kids could watch were thin on the ground. We just weren’t box office as far as the local fleapit was concerned. In fact, we were viewed as something of a nuisance to be humoured in the school breaks – and not in between.

Well, a group of us at junior school decided we’d had enough. One of our two local cinemas – the art deco Plaza on George Lane in South Woodford – shut its doors in 1973 leaving only the Majestic, a much bigger cinema on the main road. But week after week, its three screens showed X-rated stuff and nothing else.

Me looking very serious behind the letter X

So, imbued with the spirit of protest of the times, we started demonstrating outside the Majestic on a Saturday afternoon. The cinema chain was called the ABC. Therefore, we painted on old rolls of wallpaper used as makeshift banners:

“ABC = X”

And other slogans. Weekend after weekend we stood outside. Within the glass doors the beleaguered cinema manager Mr Sergeant peered out chain-smoking on roll-ups with his slick-backed hair, waiting for us to give up and go away. But then the local newspapers started coming along to take photos of us and interview the young protestors.

And finally, BBC Radio London – as it then was – came round to my house to interview myself and co-founder of this protest movement, Ian Jefferies. Another co-founder, Neil Arnold, wasn’t around that day. But he needs to be name checked even after all these years!

Poor old Mr Sergeant took the whole matter up with this superiors at EMI – who owned the ABC chain – and amazingly they relented. So what did they offer us? Every weekend, they would bring back “Saturday Morning Flicks” – which had been a regular feature in the 1950s and 60s.

Out went the lame excuses about our health and safety and needing more staff to look after us – and in came movies and features we could actually watch. Don’t get me wrong – some of it was rubbish. But along we went with our whoopee cushions and stink bombs to cause mayhem at the cinema while slurping on our Kia-Ora “orange” juice (well, it was coloured orange and that’s all I can say).

A protest movement of young kids in 1973 and 1974 that demanded more U rated movies and less X rated films