Secret Rites: witchcraft night at BFI Flipside

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 – – you know it makes (no) sense!


Comment by Zen Master K on 2009-11-01 19:17:02 +0000

Agreed! Nude actresses are even more of a groove sensation than nude pagans!

Comment by The Real Tessie on 2009-11-01 19:36:27 +0000

Wow, I thought you’d just left me on a cashion to watch the TV while you were wasting time on Facebook and YouTube, I didn’t realise you’d sneaked out last night to catch some nude actress action at the BFI. Dude you are in double trouble!

Comment by raymond anderson on 2009-11-01 19:44:10 +0000

More Farsons I say and as for nudism:
“in 1990, Brian Behan retired from teaching and moved to Brighton, where he took up nudism and worked on a number of plays, most of which were staged in the town.”

Comment by Richard Meade on 2009-11-01 19:55:27 +0000

MMMmmm pendulous breasts, swollen pudendas and exposed buttocks That’s some good eye candy.

Comment by James McBean on 2009-11-01 19:57:52 +0000

Corruption may well be one of my favourite British films, so anything with Derek Ford’s name on it is a must for me. Secret Rites sounds well deserving of the BFI blu-ray/dvd treatment, along with Death May Be Your Santa Claus, which they have a print of.

Comment by Dave Kelso-Mitchell on 2009-11-01 20:33:15 +0000

It’s pretty well documented now how Crowley shadow-wrote Gardner’s ‘Book Of Shadows’ along Thelemic lines (in other words out of whole cloth).
An interesting book I would recommend is ‘The Pickingill Papers’ from Capel Bann Press, who are one of the more sensible publishers on these subjects.

Comment by The ghost on the coast on 2009-11-01 22:31:06 +0000

Alex Sanders and John Logie Baird both spent their twilight years in Bexhill on Sea….and Crowley ended his days just up the road in Hastings. Of the three, I’d say Baird was the most evil…he’s also the only one to have a Muswell Hill pub named after him. Spooky.

Comment by The Man in the Iron Mask on 2009-11-02 00:21:29 +0000

The most evil man to have ever lived in Bexhill on Sea is Eddie Izzard.

Comment by The Great God Pan on 2009-11-02 10:23:26 +0000

If you think Bexhill-On-Sea is a great place, aand clearly Sanders and Baird did, then you should visit Whalley in Greater Manchester!

Comment by Michael K on 2009-11-02 10:42:16 +0000

I’ve no time for ritualised nudity. It’s get them off, get them back on again and back to Tesco’s for some more midget gems. Anything else is masturbation

Comment by Far Out Fred on 2009-11-02 10:46:55 +0000

there are some sad characters who think occultists on acid equals chaos magick but actually chaos magick is a bore, occultists on acid actually equals a really good time without your clothes on!

Comment by Psychedelic Sid on 2009-11-02 13:22:46 +0000

I’m with Fred on this one, we call it acieed!!!!

Comment by Terry Garoghan on 2009-11-02 14:35:06 +0000

Brian Behan barely made it round three different pubs in Hanover, let alone the nudist beach.

Comment by This Is Not Rick ‘Rickrolling’ Astley on 2009-11-02 22:15:48 +0000

Well like I always say, the only thing better than a nude witch is a lesbian vampiire – and movie appearances by either are worth keeping abreast of! So check this one out kids:

Comment by The Man in the Iron Mask on 2009-11-03 00:46:56 +0000

Brendan Behan only made it around 3 pubs in Hanover because of all the work he was doing in hospitals. As the great fellow put it himself: The world is divided up into nurses and patients, and I’m a nurse.

Comment by Michael Roth on 2009-11-04 06:18:07 +0000

The worst faked orgasm ever committed to celluloid? Really? Now that’s a real achievement!

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