Shortly after I’d settled into my seat at BFI Screen 1 for the Flipside Halloween shindig, a ‘real-life witch’ came and sat next to me. I figured this woman was a Wiccan because she looked completely out of place among hordes of trash film fans. A few minutes later Geraldine Beskin from the Atlantis Bookshop joined her. Among many other things, I overheard the pagan immediately to my left make the following observation to her occult book dealing friend:
“A lot of people said they would have come any other night of the year but not tonight because they need to be alone to communicate with the spirits. It’s a shame. I’ll get my brazier out when I get home and I’ll still have plenty of time to see who’s running about…”
Eventually, Flipside’s mainstays Vic Pratt and Will Fowler did their comedy act. After this short introduction, it was straight into the films, starting with a ten minutes segment about witches from a BBC programme called Twenty-Four Hours. In this, Bernard Falk introduced Alex and Maxine Sanders in sky-clad action (i.e. ritual nudity) with their coven. Sanders was treated as a comedy item in this 1970 production and deadpan observations along the lines of him being ‘a former chemical worker from Chorlton in Manchester’ got plenty of laughs. At the time this was made, Sanders had perfected a piercing stare but otherwise appears somewhat lacking in the necessary charisma to be a really successful cult leader.
Next was a 25 minute TV programme from 1957 directed by Geoffrey Hughes entitled Out of Step: Witchcraft. This was presented by Daniel Farson, a Soho drinking legend in his own ‘rite’ (oops, I mean ‘right’)… as well as a TV personality of yesteryear, and an almost iconic gay figure to boot. First up, he interviewed an elderly Margaret Murray, whose unreliable and extremely far-fetched book The Witch Cult In Western Europe (1921) is the source of much modern paganism. She was followed by the hugely entertaining Gerald Gardner, whose bulging eyes and maniacal laugh when asked in a slightly veiled manner about nudity at his Wiccan ceremonies, were particularly pleasing. It was, of course, Gardner and his circle who synthesised Murray’s highly speculative claims with rituals cribbed from Aleister Crowley and freemasonry (and a few other things, including Gardner’s business and leisure interests in nudism) to create witchcraft as we know it today. Thus there is no reason to give any credence to the spurious assertions of modern witches – including Gardner and Alex Sanders – that their practices are the continuation of a pre-Christian tradition. The last of Farson’s interviewees was the writer Louis Wilkinson (AKA Louis Marlow), who was presented as a relatively sensible secular friend of Aleister Crowley with little sympathy for occult ritual or belief, but a deep personal knowledge of its most famous practitioner.
However, the highlight of the night was undoubtedly the screening of Derek Ford’s mockumentary Secret Rites (1971). The print from the BFI archives runs to 47 minutes, and while there are rumours of a longer cut, I have no idea whether a feature length version of the film actually exists. Ford is probably best known as the director of ultra-low budget British sexploitation flicks such as Groupie Girl (1970) and The Wife Swappers (1970): and while I love scenes in both these movies, they would definitely have benefited from being trimmed in terms of running time. In Secret Rites, Ford appears to have teamed Sanders up with some professional actresses, put them on a movie set (in Film House Studios) and run them through cinematic variations on some spurious Wiccan rites. As long as you are happy to accept everything is utterly fake, and Alex Sanders is the biggest flake of them all, then Secret Rites is a groove sensation (including the assertion at the end of the film that what you have just seen is completely ‘authentic’). As the rites get going and the robes come off, we are treated to some particularly trippy mirror distortions and a glorious soundtrack of psychedelic funk from the Spindle (as well as possibly the worst faked orgasm ever committed to celluloid). If you liked Luigi Batzella’s Nude For Satan, and I know I did, then you’ll love Secret Rites!
For the record, the credited ‘coven’ consists of Jane Spearing, Penny Beeching, Shirley Harmer, Tony Barton and Wendy Tomlinson. The narration is handled by Lee Peters – whose other credits include appearances in Michael Reeves’s Witchfinder General (1968) and the English TV series Dixon of Dock Green. I suspect that Penny Beeching is the early-seventies starlet of that name who can be seen in various episodes of Up Pompeii and The Morecambe and Wise Show. If anyone can pin this down for me, I’d appreciate it if they can add their information to the comments section below. The intonation of some of the ‘coven’, not to mention their suntanned breasts, certainly suggest to me that they are more likely to be actresses or models than ‘real-life witches’.
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!