Alice in New Town: ‘I Start Counting!’ (1970)

❉ This coming-of-age thriller is a must-see for fans of Britain’s curious and thought-provoking film history.

“Seen here Bracknell is ultra clean and full of innovation and promise. It is a work in progress that has the ambition and desire to be the modern utopia planners dreamed of… The New Town represents the future and the determined belief that the future has to be a better place. Of course, watching it through the lens of the 21st century with all that we know of callous underfunding, neglect and disregard, we know that the New Towns presented no such thing – their reality is as sobering as the one Wynne must face up to.”

At long last! After years in the wilderness – where it was only available to buy via washed out bootleg DVDR’s on various film collector websites – the BFI’s Flipside label has dusted down David Greene’s 1969 coming-of-age thriller I Start Counting and given it the Blu-ray release it has deserved for so very long.

But why was this adaptation of Audrey Erskine Lindop’s 1966 novel of the same name consigned to the wastelands of British cinema history? Well, I think for many the film was deemed too controversial for present day tastes. I Start Counting tells the story of Wynne, a fourteen year old girl played by the then sixteen or seventeen year old Jenny Agutter. Like many girls her age, Wynne is discovering her sexuality – but it just so happens that part of this natural awakening is an infatuation she has developed for her older, adoptive brother George (Bryan Marshall). Adding to the difficulties that this tumultuous wave of complex emotion raises is the fact that a psychopathic murderer is on the loose, terrorising the young women of the very modern New Town of Bracknell where Wynne and her family live. And when Wynne discovers a blood stained sweater that George has disposed of, she begins to suspect that he may well be the perpetrator of these horrific crimes.

Unfairly then, I feel that I Start Counting was wrongly lumped together with more problematic, exploitative fare like Alastair Reid’s film Baby Love, also from 1969. That film starred Linda Hayden as a Lolita-like schoolgirl who uses her sexuality to manipulate both of her adopted parents. Whilst it would be wholly naive to believe that teenage girls of fourteen or fifteen aren’t discovering or even experimenting with their sexuality and whilst Reid’s film – indeed, any film – has every right to explore the burgeoning sexual awakenings of a teenage girl, in Baby Love‘s case Reid immediately hampered himself by casting Hayden, who was only fifteen at the time the film was made. As a result of this decision, a lot of what may be an interesting, valid exploration of the time of flux which every young woman experiences is immediately lost because the charge of whether the film is exploited a minor – with its subject matter and required nude scenes which Hayden performed – inevitably arises. Whilst I Start Counting manages to navigate these waters by depicting Wynne’s growing maturity in a rather sweetly winsome manner, one which is not (barring the odd lingering shot of hemlines or knickers) intentionally salacious or sordid, the issue remains that Agutter herself was only a year or two older than Hayden, and the film remains controversial enough as a result as to presume that this is the reason it has been so long overlooked.

Of course, the film wasn’t wholly forgotten. In 2000, the author David Peace chose to reference the film’s broadcast on television in the second novel in his Red Riding Quartet, 1977. In the context of Peace’s novel and his overall style and thematic interests, the decision to reference the screening of the film felt so right on the page that one could forgive Peace for using poetic licence – except that he actually wasn’t; the BBC Genome site confirms that the film was shown by on BBC1 on Jubilee night, Monday June 6th 1977 at 10:50pm, one of only two broadcasts the film enjoyed on the BBC, the other being Friday 28th May 1982 in exactly the same timeslot. It’s easy to see why Peace, a novelist who likes to poke around in the dark, hidden corners of late twentieth century British society long enough to stir up and invoke nightmares, would be a fan.

From a screenplay by Richard Harris, the film plays out at a purposefully somnolent pace, often like a half-waking dream. This atmosphere is helped enormously by the softly textured cinematography of Alex Thompson and the flimsy, fragile theme song written by Basil Kirchin and performed by Lindsay Moore. Jenny Agutter plays her character of Wynne with the great wistful air of an ingénue, a little girl with feelings too big to comprehend. As the only Catholic in the family, she endeavours to come to terms with her illicit desires through the church and her school, but finds no answers from either.

There’s a pleasing and understated Alice In Wonderland motif that the film seems to want to draw comparison to. Like that classic of children’s literature, I Start Counting also focuses on a girl on the shifting sands of childhood to maturity and it’s important to remember that Lewis Carroll’s works have often been theorised as a metaphor for female sexual awakening. Like Alice, Wynne has her own White Rabbit in the shape of a stuffed toy, given to her as a birthday present by George when she was a child. These romantic daydreams essentially come crashing down around Wynne when the maturity that goes hand in hand with sexual awakening sees her discovering the harsh realities of life.

That reality is of course the series of sexually motivated murders that are occurring in the town. Whilst Wynne may secretly harbour desires for her adoptive brother, she also equally fears that he is responsible for the crimes. Believing that George may be suffering psychologically from the death of his fiancée some years previously, Wynne feels she can forgive him for whatever he may have done, and even save him, if they embark upon the relationship she dreams of. Confiding in her more vivacious friend Corrinne (Clare Sutcliffe, in fine comedic support), she secretly begins to follow him in an attempt to find out the truth. If anyone had the balls today to depict a fourteen year old schoolgirl falling for her thirty two year old adoptive brother then I Start Counting has the kind of plot that would be perfectly serviceable for an ITV miniseries, but I cannot imagine it being played out with the same integrity or indeed charm

The sense of dreams, the future and sobering reality, are also echoed in I Start Counting‘s setting of Bracknell, Berkshire. Designated a New Town by Attlee’s post war government in 1949, it was originally planned to house 25,000 people over 1,000 hectares. Designed on the neighbourhood principle, the New Town would concentrate neighbourhoods of no more than 10,000 within five minutes walk away from local amenities such as a parade of shops, schools, pubs, community centres, a business space and a church. The town was founded on pedestrianisation, with the construction of a ring road around the town centre, and the segregation of industrial areas from residential areas whose estates – rather interestingly – possessed only names, as opposed to a name and the traditional ‘Road’, ‘Street’, ‘Avenue’ titles.

Several British films have chosen New Towns as their location; Stevenage for 1968’s Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush is a memorable example, with Boston Kickout from 1995 presenting a gritty update, whilst Bracknell would go on to serve as the setting for Sidney Lumet’s ultra-gritty 1973 thriller The Offence starring a post-Bond Sean Connery. But it’s interesting to note that I Start Counting depicts the New Town pretty much as their town planners originally considered them. The Bracknell of Greene’s movie is a clinical affair, with Wynne living with her adopted family in a modern tower block flat decorated in the stark, gleaming white of a TV advertisement.

Bracknell: Broadway 1971 (Attributed to Charles Minchell) via Bracknell News. Image may be subject to copyright.

There’s a nice little touch regarding the flat’s door handles coming off, suggesting that such freshness is not without teething problems but, as abodes go, it’s a great contrast to the family’s former home in the Old Town – a cottage earmarked for demolition to make way for further progress. Wynne may be approaching maturity, but she isn’t about to let go of her childhood just yet and she repeatedly returns to this derelict childhood home in an attempt to connect with her memories of the past, including a series of elliptical flashbacks to a half-understood trauma that involves George.

Seen here, Bracknell New Town is ultra clean and full of innovation and promise. It is a work in progress that has the ambition and desire to be the modern utopia planners dreamed of. Fast forward to Lumet’s film just four years later and Bracknell is depicted as a failed and crumbling, empty wasteland devoid of community spirit. Of course both films have their own agenda when depicting the town, and as much as The Offence needs a setting that mirrors the festering wound that is Sean Connery’s cop character’s damaged psyche, I Start Counting is a film that possibly needs to paint its environs as progressive, one that looks to the future as much as it does to Wynne’s oncoming adulthood. Indeed, even the murders that have occurred in the course of film are said to happen in or around the Old Town’s Common. The New Town represents the future and the determined belief that the future has to be a better place. Of course, watching it through the lens of the 21st century with all that we know of callous underfunding, neglect and disregard, we know that the New Towns presented no such thing – their reality is as sobering as the one Wynne must face up to.

Co-starring Simon Ward, Lana Morris, Madge Ryan, Gregory Phillips, Billy Russell and Michael Feast in a role not a million miles away from the one he would go on to play in Private Road two years later, I Start Counting is a must-see movie for fans of Britain’s most curious and thought-provoking film history. The BFI’s release is packed with extras including Richard Harris looking back over a career that included not just this movie but also many of the great episodes in The Avengers series, a retrospective on the music of Kirchin from Jonny Trunk, a selection of archive films on the New Towns programme, a 1980 CFF production, Danger on Dartmoor, penned by Audrey Erskine Lindrop, a 1973 cautionary short on the perils of teenage promiscuity entitled Don’t Be Like Brenda, a video essay from Chris O’Neill, a commentary by Samm Deighan, trailers and an image gallery, and the star herself, the divine Jenny Agutter, reminiscing about her experiences making the film.

Special features

❉ Feature newly scanned and restored in 2K from the 35mm Interpositive
❉ A Kickstart: Jenny Agutter Remembers I Start Counting! (2020, 20 mins): a new interview with the actress
❉ An Apprentice With a Master’s Ticket (2021, 40 mins): acclaimed screenwriter Richard Harris looks back over an eclectic career in television and film, ranging from ❉ The Avengers to A Touch of Frost
❉ Worlds Within Worlds (2021, 33 mins): Jonny Trunk, founder of cult label Trunk Records, revisits the life and art of ambient music pioneer Basil Kirchin
❉ I Start Building (1942-59, 25 mins): a selection of rare archive films recalling the ‘New Town’ dream
❉ Danger on Dartmoor (1980, 57 mins): plucky kids face peril in this full-length Children’s Film Foundation bonus feature, written by Audrey Erskine Lindop
❉ Don’t Be Like Brenda (1973, 8 mins): the perennial problem of teenage promiscuity is explored in this cautionary film designed for adolescent viewers
❉ Loss of Innocence: a video essay on I Start Counting! by filmmaker Chris O’Neill
❉ Audio commentary by film historian Samm Deighan
❉ Theatrical trailer
❉ Image gallery
❉ Newly commissioned sleeve artwork by Matt Needle
❉ Illustrated booklet with an essay by Dr. Josephine Botting, a curator at the BFI National Archive, and biographies of David Greene, Jenny Agutter and Clare Sutcliffe by Jon Dear (FIRST PRESSING ONLY.)


❉ BFI Flipside presents release No. 042: ‘I Start Counting!’ (Cat. no. BFIB1416) released on Blu-ray for the first time in the UK on 19 April 2021. 105 mins. English language, with optional hard-of-hearing subtitles BBFC Cert. 15. RRP: £19.99. BFI DVD/Blu-ray releases can be ordered from home entertainment online retailers or from the BFI Shop (online only at present) at https://shop.bfi.org.uk/

❉ Mark Cunliffe is a regular contributor to The Geek Show and has written several collector’s booklet essays for a number of releases from Arrow Video and Arrow Academy. He is also a contributor to Scarred For Life Volume Two: Television In The 1980s, now available to buy in paperback, £19.99, and as a full colour Ebook (PDF format) £6.99.

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