An A-Z of Sightseers (2012 – Ben Wheatley), Aaaaaaaah! (2015 – Steve Oram), and Prevenge (2017 – Alice Lowe).
A is for the academy ratio:
Aaaaaaaah! is filmed in the academy ratio. This gives it a grounding in historical British television, but it has also become an increasingly popular choice for contemporary filmmakers – Andrea Arnold’s employment of it in Fish Tank (2009) and Wuthering Heights (2011) is particularly affecting. It has two major benefits: firstly, it can appear to heighten the frame, giving a sense of scale and space, and contradictorily, it can appear to entrap the actors in the image by boxing them in.
B is for balls:
Both Aaaaaaaah! and Prevenge feature moments of castration in their films; they acknowledge that for half of the audience, it will be a greater fear than death itself. Testicles are themselves funny; colloquially referred to as ‘balls’ they take an everyday word and transpose it onto something discreet and forbidden. The word itself becomes something powerful – particularly in the rhyme about Hitler’s reproductive organs that was taught to children. By mocking the Fuhrer’s absence of genitalia, power was snatched from his presence. In these comedy films, the castration emphasises the apparent weakness of the male victims.
C is for communication:
All three films play with the English language – easily recognised in Aaaaaaaah! in its use of guttural grunts, but Sightseers and Prevenge both choose to disembody dialogue over other images, often seen in the form of montage. It is an affront to the traditional British worship of the writer, and a powerful underlining of the visual nature of the medium in which they are working.
D is for dogging:
There is a moment in Sightseers where the lead characters are observed shagging in their caravan in a wet Yorkshire lay-by. Aren’t we all prone to dogging as we watch actors fuck on screen? If we’re being pretentious, we’d call it ‘voyeurism’ or ‘the male gaze’, but really… it’s dogging isn’t it? The vicarious thrill of it all…
E is for elderly:
If the death drive dominates the narrative of the three films, then the truest horror exists in old age, for this is the moment upon which we teeter on the precipice of oblivion. The elderly are consistently presented within Sightseers and Prevenge as objects of abuse and loneliness. They cling to meaning and purpose with a fragile tenacity, but the narrative will ultimately neglect them, and they become the detritus of cinema – glorified cameos.
F is for Frankie Goes to Hollywood:
Sightseers and Prevenge heavily draw on musical references to semi-kitsch tunes from the 1980’s – Prevenge slightly less so, perhaps due to budgetary restrictions. By using ‘The Power of Love’ by Frankie Goes to Hollywood in Sightseers’ climax they draw on a tradition of repurposing of the sacred for the secular. The three films heavily dwell upon pagan and Christian locations, grounding them in the mystical sense of geography that populates the British Isles. Frankie Goes to Hollywood were never shy from dealing with essential issues – sex, war, religion – and queering them through their chaotic eye. Similarly, our three films draw on the psychogeography of their settings, and present them through the neglectful eye of tourism, whereby places of outstanding personal, political and spiritual significance become gift shops.
Prevenge also uses music cues heavily influenced by the scores of John Carpenter. As such, it ties itself to the swathe of modern horror that draw upon his subtly-unfolding, widescreen sense of dread. The Guest (2014 – Adam Wingard) and It Follows (2014 – David Robert Mitchell) are key examples.
G is for guilelessness:
All three films are populated by innocents. In every case, they are exposed to cruelty, and resort to violence (of both physicality and language). Their naivete is not enough to help them function in the world, and unnaturally, the unremarkable nature of their clothes and hobbies and demeanour is wittily countered by the extremity of their actions.
H is for horror:
Whilst British movie horror has been traditionally represented by the technicolour, lavish Hammer corpus, the films hold a keener relationship with the horror of rural concerns, found primarily in The Wicker Man (1973 – Robin Hardy) and the work of M. R. James, whose stories were traditionally adapted at Christmastime. They portray innocents enraptured by the local customs and hidden secrets of the ancient English countryside. In their explicit representations of gore, the films also draw upon a more American tradition of horror (at its best found in the work of George Romero), perhaps indicating the gradual Americanisation of British culture, as we rapidly consume their films, television and pop music.
I is for ‘in England’ (a field):
The closest film in Ben Wheatley’s canon to the work of Lowe and Oram is A Field in England (2013), a similarly psychotic rural movie. It delves into man’s descent into violence and speaks to the unique leylines of mysticism that cobweb our landscape. It is however, a less successful film than Sightseers, feeling too forced, too deliberately ‘midnight-movie’ than the obsessive eccentricity that defines that genre of filmmaking.
J is for Jerusalem:
The first consensual murder in Sightseers is soundtracked by a recitation of ‘Jerusalem’ by the late John Hurt. ‘Jerusalem’ a patriotic fantasy of England; a revision of history where Christ (a living fiction) walks with sandaled feet through the faded greens and fallen leaves of England rather than the dust and heat of Palestine. In doing so, it firmly recasts the son-of-god away from a Jewish personage and into the white-skinned, great-abs vision of Christ perpetrated by middle England. England has always had an issue with Jewishness, from the medieval pogroms, expulsion of 1290, and anti-Semitic work of Chaucer and his contemporaneous Mystery Plays. By employing Blake’s mystical, visionary poem, Wheatley speaks to England’s greater sense of itself, one which would seek to eradicate the prominence of an entire race in order to better define its own ambivalent identify. Patriotism only exists in the minds of fascists and football fans.
John Hurt provides a premonition of pregnancy. He is responsible for performing the other great cinematic moment of foetal horror – that of the Giger-phallus erupting from his stomach in Alien (1979 – Ridley Scott). By spoofing this profound performance in Spaceballs (1987 – Mel Brooks) he underlined the vital links in creating tension between body horror and comedy.
K is for kookiness:
In 2016 Alice Lowe played a supporting role in Adult Life Skills (Rachel Tunnard) – an instantly forgettable, deeply twee film. Cinema has often sought to simplify and inoculate poor mental health by present it as ‘kookiness’. Trauma causes characters to have little quirks and habits (like burger-phones) rather than genuine peculiarities and troubles. The three films seek to recast this cinematic trope by ensuring that their lead characters are specifically unsettling and utterly strange. They are unsafe films as a consequence.
L is for Louise:
The ending of Sightseers seems to explicitly reference the great ambiguous finale of Thelma and Louise (1991 – Ridley Scott) – a film similarly about innocents who simultaneously pursue murder and companionship on a road trip. Wheatley shares a lot with Scott; both highly visual filmmakers who have actively sought to escape the social-realist drama that dominates (and ruins) the British cinema scene. Deciding to explicitly reference The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974 – Tobe Hooper) in one murder (backlit sunsets and creeping steadicam), Wheatley further develops this link; this was, after all, the film that Ridley Scott screened repeatedly in his preparation for shooting Alien.
M is for The Mighty Boosh:
Best described as fairytales for grown-ups, this imaginatively preposterous television series represents an abandoned version of television comedy. Both Lowe and Oram performed in guest spots on their series, and it stands out, alongside the shows directed by Steve Bendelack (The League of Gentlemen) and Edgar Wright (Spaced) as TV programmes with any sense of visual style (Bendelack directed the pilot version of Boosh and it is a substantially different beast of insane close-ups and dynamic performances loomingly made to camera). Paul King directed the main series The Mighty Boosh with a degree of wit; action was shot at a distance and cheapness was celebrated, particularly in his use of rear-projection. These stylish tics have continued, regardless of an increase in budget, into his feature film work Bunny and the Bull (2009) and Paddington (2014).
But The Mighty Boosh is a lost era, a stump on the tree of British television comedy. The comedy scene became dominated by blokeish, safe stand-up comedians, and any celebration of the strange moved off our television screens and into the cinema.
N is for Nuts in May:
Sightseers most obvious precedent comes in the form of Nuts in May, a television play by Mike Leigh from 1975. It similarly explores the repression of the British when placed in situations of social anxiety. Keith and Candice Marie in Nuts in May share the same myopias as Chris and Tina in Sightseers, and their disproportional hatred for the behaviour of others manifests itself in furious, though less violent, outbursts. By so heavily drawing on the work of Mike Leigh, they become an affront to traditional British creativity. TV and cinema in Britain has its roots in the theatre, and thus has placed far too much emphasis on the importance of a script, and by consequence, the role of the writer. Leigh, with his heavily improvised, actor-focussed approach, defies the prevailing ‘way-of-doing-things’ and asserts the primacy of the director. Lowe and Oram have incorporated a level of improvisation into their working method, and thus forged a distinct auteurist body of work; one that even defies established directors such as Wheatley.
O is for online:
Most of Lowe’s filmmaking is found online. Simultaneously, this has both allowed it to have a wider audience than any silent 8mm film could traditionally have had, but also ensure that it gets lost in the mix. The appetite for online video seems primarily to be vlogs – this is not to denigrate them, anyone under the age of 20 loves them and considers them vital, but they are essentially lightweight and ephemeral. This allows the feature film (Prevenge) to gain significance; its cinema release, supported by a publicly-funded body, ensures that her ‘voice’ can be heard further and louder.
P is for Partridge (Alan):
The history of British comedy films largely exists in adaptations of TV sitcoms. The relatively small size of the TV and film industry ensures that crossover between the two mediums is easily achieved. It is not always backed up with a creativity or imagination, with the majority of films feeling little more than episodes of a television series with a slightly larger budget. For every The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse (2005 – Steve Bendelack), there are a dozen The Inbetweeners Movie (2011 – Ben Palmer). Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013 – Declan Lowney) firmly falls into the latter camp. Steve Coogan’s Partridge, whom Lowe and Oram supported (with some filler sketches that were met with little more than nervous laughter at the Hammersmith Odeon) on the ‘Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge and other less successful characters’ 2008 tour, is a carefully composed study of little-England concerns in a socially-oblivious middle-aged man. Oram and Lowe’s characters often mine the same vein.
Their filmic work therefore moves distinctly away from a traditional British comedy skein, and into a more universal cinematic presentation. The closest precedent, though far more populist, is Shaun of the Dead (2004 – Edgar Wright). Wright was an executive producer of Sightseers, and his movie blended the curiously British mix of comedy, horror and social anxiety that our trilogy pursue. Though we’ve all forgotten now that our initial reaction to Shaun of the Dead was disappointment – it didn’t seem to be as good as Spaced. Oram and Lowe, with their background in more supporting roles, didn’t have the same high expectations, and thus their cinematic work can be met with less prejudice.
Q is for Q:
Most of British surrealist comedy stretches back to Spike Milligan. His absurdist blend of ridiculousness and death seems particularly relevant to our survey. He also aggressively believed in over-population, meaning he may have found some affection for the actions of our protagonists.
R is for Richard Ayoade:
The filmmakers’ closest contemporary is Richard Ayoade, who directed Lowe in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. His debut film, Submarine (2010), is a genuinely sweet coming-of-age tale that delicately navigates the self-aggrandisement and naivety of a teenage boy. Ayoade is a more explicitly European filmmaker, and his aesthetic, alongside his apparent inability to work with lower budgets, means his directorial career seems to be stalling. He currently languishes as a panel show contestant and host, and his statements on cinema, found within his deeply ironic Ayoade on Ayoade book, would serve him better if they seemed more sincere.
S is Stiffy:
Lowe was able to make Prevenge for a tiny budget over a protracted 11-day shoot because her cinematic training came via making a series of ultra-low budget short films for over ten years. Often directed by Jacqueline Wright, they demonstrate a variety of performance and form that speak to the creativity of their cast and crew. Shot in 2005, Stiffy (Jacqueline Wright) is the story of a man falling in love with a corpse. The roles are played by Oram and Lowe. The film is shot on 8mm, and provides a portent for the cruel mix of death and empty emotion that will dominate their feature work.
The films efficiency, experimentation and narrative imagination stem from the freedom provided by a negligible budget.
T is for Two Thousand and One: A Space Odyssey:
The other clear cinematic moment of simian interest is the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968 – Stanley Kubrick). The apes are similarly violent and territorial and whilst the protagonists in Aaaaaaaah! are more technologically advanced (and indeed much of the humour comes from their primitive behaviour clashing with modern life), they both represent how much of modern life is simply covering up our most base instincts. Oram deliberately references the framing of 2001: A Space Odyssey in his film’s most brutal moment, where an arm is savagely ripped off a corpse. It is held totemically as the bone/space station is seen in Kubrick’s film. But where for Kubrick this totem is a symbol of advancement (albeit advancement that is instigated by outside, alien influences), Oram’s totem is one of savagery. All three films underline the descent of ordinary citizens into violence, as if the only way to navigate society is through the physical dominance of others.
U is for underclass:
The films overtly draw on the worst tendencies of small-minded Englishness, and this is no more evident than in the overwhelming whiteness of the cast. Whilst both Aaaaaaaah! and Prevenge are more urban in outlook (and thus should be far more representative – Kayvan Vovak is a notable exception), even the Yorkshire of Sightseers is a more ethnically diverse environment than what we see on screen. The films have a curious attitude towards class as well; the homes of the protagonists are clearly lower middle-class, but many of the spheres in which they move (shitty pubs, caravans, pasta sauces) are associated with ‘lower’ classes. The whiteness and preoccupations link them with the British underclass; white, working-class people, tied to local communities, seeing industry leave them and fearful of change. None of the protagonists in the films are identified as having a career, and Chris in Sightseers is explicitly unemployed.
The movement within these occupations show performers who have a degree of understanding of social mobility – Lowe’s exposure to the refined world of Cambridge may be partly responsible for this.
V is for violence:
All three films rely on violence as a source of comedy. Fundamentally, this is because it is a proudly transgressive act, and a natural response to the tension built by such an act is to laugh. There is a similar trick pulled with the use of extreme language. Whilst the use of the word ‘cunt’ is more acceptable in England that in other Western countries, it still holds a power that many epithets have lost due to its denigration of the female reproductive organ. An immediate response of swearing can almost always guarantee a laugh; as such some writers, such as Graham Linehan, see it as an easy trick, and refrains from using it frequently.
W is for Wheatley, Ben:
Ben Wheatley has a career that is similar to Steven Soderbergh’s; they are eclectic filmmakers, never content to sit within genre, and yet the breadth of their respective careers amounts to more the individual films. Despite his American outlook towards content and form, he is producing a deep excavation of British storytelling. He has delved into the repression and familial tensions of suburbia, the hostility of rural England, and the saturated Ballardian concrete horror of the growing urban landscape. He has explored the comedy and crime genres – the cornerstones of British storytelling. He has even directed episodes of the great living fiction of the twentieth century, television’s Doctor Who.
X is for experimentation:
The foundation of these films lie in their roadtesting on comedy stages. They are not produced by beardy men sitting on laptops in Costa. There is a strange dichotomy in comedy; that the words spoken must be the product of a unique perspective on events, but simultaneously relatable to the assembled audience. Comedy aspires to be populist; if it is not initially so, the comedian will draw upon their strength of character to turn the audience around to agree with their perspective. It is a failure if nobody laughs. This is evident to anyone watching. Therefore, experimentation in the filmmaking will work within a narrow spectrum – that of what people find amusing. Modern American comedy films are almost entirely improvised; British films have a far narrower margin in which to operate.
Y is for the y chromosome (or lack thereof):
Prevenge seems a natural extension of Sightseers in that it moves the woman to the centre of the narrative. Their relative traumas have escalated; the death of a dog has been superseded by the death of a boyfriend. It is ultimately removing the male influence of the narrative, and a knowing subversion of the cinematic trope of male cinematic stars suffering from the death of a woman in their life as both motivation and personality.
This shift in ownership (it is not unimportant that Lowe writes, directs and stars in Prevenge) is naturally not reflected in the real world. Even an article in The Guardian conducted at the time of Lowe’s aborted BBC3 series Lifespam (the station has now been aborted itself) refers dismissively to the length of her skirt.
Z is for trailerZ:
I watched the trailer for Sightseers and loved the use of “The Power of Love”; in that moment I truly hoped that it would be used in the film itself. It was. In fact, not only did the trailer use the music cues from the film itself, it used nearly the entire narrative of whole movie bar the last few minutes of screen time. Most cinema trailers rely on oblique images of the stars within it soundtracked by slowed-down acoustic covers of Johnny Cash songs, but when you have no stars you can only rely on the film itself.