House of Armstrong: Behind The Image

❉ We delve into a selection of maverick screenwriter Michael Armstrong’s published scripts.

In a 2015 conversation with Adrian John Smith* maverick screenwriter and British film industry veteran Michael Armstrong said of the film world:

“I think you find in this industry you get two sets of people who come into it: ones who come in to make money, and ones who come in because they’ve somehow got an ego problem of one form or another, and they go on the creative side, and they’re generally very f*cked up, and screwed up, and get screwed up.
The other lot, the only consideration is money. They’ve got no real… genuinely, I found there’s almost a contempt, deep down contempt for artists. It’s never admitted, it’s unspoken. It’s like racism! It lurks beneath the surface.”

For anyone who has met or worked with Armstrong, there is no doubt on which side Michael can be found, screwed up or not. Film historian and cultural commentator Matthew Sweet told We Are Cult in 2018:

“I see Michael as a doughty eternal optimist and true film-lover. He never saw it as a way to get rich. An art school film-maker who loved horror and unease and who managed to make films in the most unpromising economic circumstances…”

Paper Dragon’s collection of Armstrong’s original screenplays allow film fans to vicariously live through the story of that optimism and passion and those trying circumstances, as an idealistic crusader with a mischeivous sense of humour, in the embattered, embittered British film industry of the late 20th century where budgets were tight and financiers’ vision went no further than the bottom line: “Basically a good film was one that made money.”*

We Are Cult present a primer to the works of Michael Armstrong, taken from a sample of Armstrong’s scripts published so far: The Image (1964 -1967), Eskimo Nell (1975), A Star Is Dead (1977) and House of the Long Shadows (1983).

This collection of filmed and unfilmed screen plays in their original uncut texts and including all missing scenes and dialogue, allows readers to experience the films exactly as he originally intended them. Each of Armstrong’s screenplay books include a History of the screenplay, with various drafts of his screenplays followed with a Glossary of Terms and advice on how to read a script.

Armstrong’s film credits also include proto teen-slasher The Haunted House of Horror (1969, with the role of Richard originally written for David Bowie) and the classic exploitation horror Mark of the Devil (1970) which was marketed in the US with accompanying sickbags. He was also credited for the screenplay of Adventures of a Private Eye (1976) and as Associate Producer on Adventures of a Taxi Driver (1977). Armstrong was also responsible for co-writing Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce (1985) with Dan O’Bannon (Dark Star, Alien).

The Image (1964 – 1967)

“It got an X-certificate. I think it was the first short that got an X-certificate. For its violence, which in itself was extraordinary” – Michael Armstrong

Of all the titles in this collection, arguably the one of most historic interest is The Image, a 14 minute, dialogue-free horror short that was not only Armstrong’s first professional film but also marked the acting debut of David Bowie; first written in 1964, made in 1967 and quietly released in 1969 as a supporting feature for a distributors’ screening of All Quiet On The Western Front.

For Bowieologists and budding scriptwriters alike, this volume ekes out a surprising wealth of historical and biographical detail considering the brevity of its source material. Bowie chronologist Kevin Cann’s introduction places The Image in the context of Bowie’s subsequent, trailblazing career, while Armstrong’s essay on the film’s history doubles as a very personal autobiographical chapter on Armstrong’s beginnings – “I was a lost little lamb in those days, ready for the slaughter….”* – and the writer’s personal and professional traumas that fed into what would become The Image, along with career-defining meetings with BBFC head John Trevalyan, Olive Negus-Fancey of the infamous Negus-Fancey/Border Films stable, and another absolute beginner, 20 year old David Bowie, who was already working his not inconsiderable charm and sex appeal in every direction:

David was “always playing a cat-and-mouse game with you… He flirted, he really did” Armstrong told Bowie biographer Christopher Sandford.

The real ‘guts’ of this volume is the original 1964 treatment of The Image, the original shooting script, and the retooled script for the 1969 release, after the film’s original cut fell short of the minimum running time required to qualify for the Eady Levy (an indirect subsidy to support British film productions, axed in 1985). With no money left to film additional footage, Armstrong miraculously managed to create a new 14 minute cut from the existing footage, with help from Border Films’ editor Judith Smith. “When I finished The Image Judith put it together, and they called me and asked me to come in and fix it. Because I did fix it I was their golden boy, they adored me”, Michael told Adrian John Smith in 2015 *

The two treatments make for fascinating side-by-side comparison in how Armstrong tonally restructured the short film. The original treatment comes across as nothing less than a prototype of the unstoppable, almost supernatural ‘silent stalker’ of late 70s/early 80s slasher movies, unkillable and able to somehow materialise from A to B from the corner of the victim’s eye as best embodied in John Carpenter’s Halloween – at one point in the original script, The Boy (Bowie) is described as ‘The Shape’ just as Carpenter credited Michael Myers in the 1978 genre classic. The judicious retooling, which perhaps reflected Armstrong’s state of mind at the time, transformed the property from something “much more linear and straightforward in its storytelling” into – in the words of the script’s front cover – “a study of the illusionary reality world within the schizophrenic mind of the artist at his point of creativity”.

It’s a weird, macabre, spooky chamber piece that has enjoyed subsequent leases of life – including a run in the Piccadilly Circus Jacey Cinema at the height of Ziggymania, a 1984 NME mail order VHS release, and a rare screening at Notting Hill’s Electric Cinema in tribute to the recently deceased starman, alongside a panel with Armstrong, Kevin Cann, Paolo Hewitt and artist Mark Wardel who remembers:

Eskimo Nell (1975)

“If you’re looking back at the sex comedy era then Eskimo Nell is the one that says it all. It was my way of having some fun at the expense of the industry, arising out of frustration at the way distributors were treating sex films in Britain.” – Producer Stanley Long

In 1975, Armstrong wrote and directed Eskimo Nell, a satirical sex comedy based on his experiences with film producers and distributors, who in Armstrong’s eyes had a well-earned lowly reputation: “I don’t think they cared about film, as such… they didn’t know anything about them, and they didn’t quite know how they happened, it was a mystery… Basically a good film was one that made money.” he said in 2015 * “They say it’s wonderful, and then the first thing they do is change the damn thing. It’s ridiculous. There’s no respect on it.”

Ironically, Eskimo Nell saw life imitate art imitate life, with Armstrong’s original script dying the death of a thousand cuts:

“In Nell, the screenplay was modified, to be shot, and then what happened was that some wasn’t shot, and it was altered. Having said that, it doesn’t affect the film that bad… A lot of things in there, quite a large amount, were removed because the distributors were terrified that there would be lawsuits left, right and centre from all over the world. It was too close to real life. There were things that people were saying that people had actually said. Most of the dialogue was verbatim. They were terrified, ludicrously so, I might add. There was a whole thing about Barbara Streisand and her nose job. That all had to come out for starters! It’s incredible how much stayed in.”*

The veil between reality and satire became almost ricepaper-thin when Armstrong himself took a leading role in the film based on his own experiences:

“The heart of the film, originally, was about the lot of the writer, not the director. It ends up being a director’s story, and I end up playing the director! I was one of the ridiculous characters in it. If you look at the poor writer, the screenplay was about him. Chris (Christopher Timothy) just makes him an adorable geek, but originally he wasn’t. He was a lonely little soul battered by the director. If you look at the film it’s not about the director’s problems, it’s all about what happens to the screenplay”*

In both its original draft script and the commercial cut, Armstrong’s sly, mischievous humour jumps off every page of this knowing satire, of which CinemaRetro said:

Some of the comedy is dated, it often manages to be tasteless, and is probably offensive in its use of camp gay stereotypes, but the film gets away with it all thanks to the filmmakers’ irreverent attitude. Eskimo Nell is not only Britain’s best sex comedy, but also one of the finest satires of the film industry ever made.”

A Star Is Dead (1977)

“Michael’s A Star Is Dead script… is just as inventively comic as Eskimo Nell” – Frances Lynn.

A thick blue haze of cigarette smoke hovers menacingly
Over a club packed shoulder to shoulder with PUNKS.
A terrifying feeling of violence in the air.
This is not the conscious anger of the picket line;
This is the potentially explosive atmosphere of uncontrollable mob violence.

Of this collection, the biggest time capsule is Armstrong’s treatment for the unrealised (and prophetically titled) A Star Is Dead, Malcolm McLaren’s first strike at a Sex Pistols movie with Brit horror legend Pete Walker (Frightmare, House of Whipcord) selected as director. In Frightmares: A History of British Horror Cinema, Ian Cooper mused: “The marriage between Walker and the Pistols seems like a pretty strange one” and he wasn’t alone in thinking that.

Cooked up after numerous conversations with Malcolm McLaren, bur principally the aftershock of Armstrong and Walker briefly attending a gig where they found the audience far more terrifying than Rotten and co’s pantomime cavorting, A Star Is Dead was born: “a satire of an Establishment under attack from a new generation of teenagers”. The screenplay is an absolutely fascinating document, a Carry On Rock Follies reprise of Eskimo Nell‘s film-within-a-film structure as we see the Pistols (“hardly intended to be loveable”, Armstrong notes) being mooted for a family-friendly remake of The Three Musketeers.

This was Armstrong’s ‘Big Idea’, based on conversations with McLaren, taking the band “out of their nature home environment of the music business” in order to “expose them to a world in which they would be virtually defenceless: the film industry”. Essentially, A Hard Day’s Night on smack and black bombers, In his essay, Armstrong notes that, “the very core of the film lay in the dramatic conflict between Punk vs a ‘respectable’ movie establishment”, while admitting “(Peter Walker and I) knew that whatever I wrote would end looking like a 1950s Rank Organisation comedy in which the Sex Pistols were simply a replacement for Norman Wisdom or whoever, evoking laughter by wreaking havoc in every scene…. A tried and tested ’50s comedy structure”.

At any rate, A Star Is Dead is worth a grubby read and its stillborn status didn’t harm Armstrong’s relationship with McLaren, as detailed in a fascinating postscript to the script’s production diary, in which – among other things – the self-invented Svengali confesses to Armstrong, “You see, I envy people like you, Michael. You have so much to offer the world – unlike me. I don’t have any talent” while simultaneously pitching to Armstrong a multi-million pound adaptation of Les Enfants Du Paradis. Insights and details such as these make these screenplays more than worth the cover price.

House of the Long Shadows (1983)

“House of the Long Shadows … may very well be the best tribute every made to the golden age of horror and that makes it something very, very special.” – Bloody-Disgusting

House Of Long Shadows’ summit meeting of horror icons Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and John Carradine was a marriage made not in heaven, or hell, but Golan-Globus’ Canon Films: “… all Canon wanted were stars. People had wanted to put those four together but they had always said no, so Peter thought about [1932 Universal horror] The Old Dark House”, Armstrong told Adrian John Smith in 2015 *

The film has its admirers, of course, with Reece Shearsmith (The League of Gentlemen, Inside No.9) on record as praising House Of Long Shadows as “really and truly one of my favourite film scripts ever.”

As with the other productions in this script series, we are given unrestricted access to the original, uncut script: “Even with House of the Long Shadows that was written on set and went straight into production. I never even had a chance to rewrite or tidy it ourselves. It was only when I found my original screenplay that I found bits are altered, some of which by Canon who tried to make it into a horror film. I don’t think it was Pete Walker..”*

Alongside the original, uncut screenplay, complete with missing scenes, writing history, production notes and casting insights, this volume’s History of the Screenplay while, slimmer than other volumes, is aglow with Armstrong’s warmth for its iconic status as “an obituary to an age of classical horror that will never exist again” and “the sheer joy of seeing Vincent, Christopher, Peter and John bring the characters to life so flawlessly.”

Every page dancing with Armstrong’s distinctive tone, these are instructive texts, for anyone fascinated by the script-writing and film-making process, devotees of the British film industry during the hippy, glam and punk eras, and admirers of this mercurial maverick. One thing that comes shining through these texts is Michael Armstrong’s utter commitment and love for the artform and practice of script-writing, and he really believes in film. This is a man who was in it for life.

As film historian and documentary maker Simon Sheridan (Keeping the British End Up: Four Decades of Saucy Cinema, Respectable: The Mary Millington Story) told We Are Cult in 2018:

“Michael’s certainly unique in the story of British film. He stands out primarily because of his wicked wit, astonishingly expansive knowledge of movies and his exhausting library of showbiz anecdotes. They’ll never be another like him.”

And the fruits of that unique character are here for all to enjoy, in this range of paperbacks from Paper Dragon. Enter… the House of Armstrong! [fade to black]


❉ ‘Michael Armstrong: The Screenplays’ are available to purchase from Paper Dragon Productions’ Online Store. Selected titles are also available in an exclusive A4 hardback collectors’ edition which has a strictly limited print run, luxurious black cloth cover with gold foil embossing and sewn bound pages, individually numbered and signed by Michael Armstrong himself. Also available from Amazon.co.uk.

❉ Michael Armstrong is alive and well, and can be found Tweeting here: @AuthorisedMA

* All 2015 quotes from Michael Armstrong in conversation with Adrian John Smith have been taken from The Distribution and Exploitation of Popular European Film in British Cinemas, 1960 – 1975 (Adrian John Smith), University Of Sussex, 1 Feb 2018; accessed 29 December 2018: http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/76661/1/Smith%2C%20Adrian%20John.pdf

 

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