❉ A brilliantly made and superbly cast trio of films return from obscurity to thrill a new audience of cult film buffs.
During the first half of the 1970s, the British film industry wasn’t in the best of shape. Propped up by the James Bond franchise, Hammer films, a couple of independent horror film makers and some fairly low brow comedy, things had drifted quite far from those glory days when Ealing Studios and the Boulting Brothers were part of the silver screen’s rich tapestry.
It wasn’t that it was dead, of course, merely just…existing. There were still a few people at least trying to inject some new dramatic interest, and between 1972 and 1974, some enterprising friends – director Peter Crane and producer Michael Sloane, along with Nigel Hodgson and, latterly, David M. Jackson – produced three incredibly well constructed films under the company name The Pemini Organisation. The Organisation’s lack of budget meant that they had often to be very creative with very little, but that wouldn’t necessarily be a problem for someone with Crane’s youthful enthusiasm. However, despite being brilliantly made and superbly cast, Pemini’s films failed to set the world alight and subsequently drifted into obscurity.
Long considered “lost”, their trio of dramatic tales were rescued by the people at Powerhouse/Indicator in 2022, expertly cleaned up, and presented with a wealth of bonus features to thrill a new audience of cult film buffs. On paper, despite a stellar role call of faces – from Edward Woodward, Angharad Rees and the young Ray Brooks – it resulted in a set that, to the casual onlooker, wouldn’t necessarily appear to be the most exciting. But, as if often the case when a boutique label truly believes in something, the reality is somewhat different. The Pemini Organisation: 1972-1974 gives a fascinating glimpse of a brilliantly creative team at work. The three films provide a fine experience when viewed individually, but play even better when viewed as a complete body of work since, despite being very separate entities, the scripts feature a couple of loosely shared narrative threads, as well as character flaws that link the lead roles. Two of the films are also richly layered in a way that further rewards the viewer on the second or third watch.
Running to just forty two minutes, Pemini’s first outing Hunted (1972) is a tense and tightly wound two hander that, years on, is not only a perfect example of how to create massive drama from very little, but also of how to make something look very professional whilst shooting in a friend’s spare bedroom. The plot involves a man (Woodward, soon to turn in an unforgettable role in The Wicker Man) who’d like to rent an upstairs office for a day. When he’s told by the estate agent – played very naturally by June Ritchie (A Kind of Loving, The Mouse On The Moon) – that his request isn’t possible, he locks the door, produces a rifle and becomes increasingly hostile. The drama comes from Woodward’s easy gift for conveying anger without volume, and the tension is further increased by the scene basically playing out in real time, as a late morning gives way to a lunch break. The camera work is often fairly static, but that in itself helps the viewer to feel as trapped as Ritchie; the minimal movement draws everything ever closer to Woodward, seemingly about to go off the rails.
Hunted provides a great first glimpse at the Pemini team’s talents, and even though there’s sometimes a strong feeling of everything being done on the fly and of film makers almost learning on the job, that actually gives the film an extra charm. The cleaned up film stock – shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm – looks good for it’s age, but isn’t by any means perfect. It shows a lot of obvious grain, and even has a few frames inserted from a much inferior source after it was discovered the surviving reel had unrepairable damage. This never detracts from a superb tale of tension, though, or from the flawless performances supplied by the two leads.
The following year’s Assassin continues on a similar crime related thread, but plays far more traditionally as an eighty minute cinematic experience. Ian Hendry (Get Carter) plays the titular role, and at the point we meet him, he’s been called upon to take out a local politician. Just as Hendry won’t have been told why, or given a motivation beyond money, the audience are thrown into the story with no real explanation. This makes the film both exciting and somewhat uneasy. Hendry is surrounded by people and interacts with some of them en route to make his killing – including an unnamed young woman looking for a one night stand (played very sympathetically by Verna Harvey, That’ll Be The Day) – but often seems detached from those he meets. Although he’s given more people to work with, the bulk of the performance is actually far less engaging than Woodward and Ritchie’s earlier two hander. What it lacks in human interest, though, is made up for via a couple of plot twists, and the opportunity to see bits of London on film from a historical perspective. Without giving too much away, Assassin isn’t always an easy watch, but it’s a film that will certainly appeal to anyone who still gains pleasure from old episodes of The Sweeney, or any of Hendry’s screen roles. It’s fair to say that this low budget flick is no Get Carter, but between the lead turning in a very strong performance – it’s actually an amazing one for a man balancing work with escalating alcoholism – and solid support from Ray Brooks, Frank Windsor, Doctor Who’s Caroline John, and Edward Judd, it really holds its own..
Like Hunted, the surviving print of Assassin shows a lot of grain and has also been repaired in a couple of places by inserting frames from a much rougher source, but once experienced – and especially in tandem with the Woodward short on the same disc – there’s little doubt that fans of cult cinema will be glad to have seen it at all.
The Pemini Organisation’s third and final release, 1974’s semi-romantic drama Moments, doesn’t seem strongly related to the other films – at least not immediately – but close inspection uncovers elements that are already in place as Pemini tropes: a lead character (Keith Michell, All Night Long, BBC’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII) who is very much a loner, uneasy with the world, isn’t so different from Woodward or Hendry, even though Michell’s performance has far more finesse. Once again, a gun will also provide crucial to the plot. In addition, the film’s quiet and uneasy approach, delivered in the main as a confident two-hander, gives it a connection to the earlier Hunted.
The basic plot involves a man who returns to a happy place from his childhood, with a plan to commit suicide. He’s saved at the last moment by a knock at the door from a beautiful young woman (Poldark’s Angharad Rees) who slowly tries to convince him that the world is full of wonder. Through extensive dialogue, as the characters wander through the almost deserted hotel, we learn about Michell’s past, and also various things about the young woman, who rarely stops talking. Much like the later Before Sunrise, enough time is spent with the two leads for the viewer to really care about them. Keith’s particularly sad performance, once seen, is never to be forgotten, and providing a necessary balance, Angharad’s bubbly persona creates a truly beautiful character the viewer can fall for in record time – exactly what’s needed for a film that relies almost completely on dialogue to reel in the viewer.
For a quickly made, small budget film, ‘Moments’ looks absolutely beautiful. The domineering, empty hotel becomes a character in itself, almost in a future echo of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and a few flashbacks into Michell’s past – sometimes featuring his wife, played by Men Behaving Badly’s Valerie Minifie – are surprisingly effective. Although Hunted and Assassin are very strong examples of gloss-free crime fare from the era and are definitely worth investigating, it’s this beautifully made, strangely charming slow burner that essentially makes the Pemini set a keeper. It wouldn’t necessarily be fair to say too much more about the film itself; its gentle pace and subtle tone is best experienced first hand, but it’s fair to say that fans of “films about people” can expect to fall in love with this piece of old celluloid on first watch.
In addition to the films, a wealth of bonus features ensures this set is the ultimate history of a long forgotten film making team. Three feature length commentaries shared between Peter Crane and Indicator boss Sam Dunn cover the Organisation’s three year history in exhaustive detail, as well as looking into Crane’s later work in America, where he worked on BJ & The Bear and The Equalizer, as well as many other things. In the ultimate example of “jobs for the boys”, it’s revealed that Woodward got his Equalizer role as a favour from creator Michael Sloan due to not being paid for Hunted all those years earlier. During other parts of an extensive commentary, Crane is very open about the difficulties of working with Hendry, is very enlightening with regard to a battle with the censors over Hunted, and also occasionally drops into each film as it plays to give useful insights, creating the kind of fluid and natural listen that anyone with the slightest interest in a “nuts and bolts” audio experience will love. Although almost everything he says is massively credible, it’s hard to believe his claim that Moments was a box office failure due to IRA bomb threats, though; even if London hadn’t been targeted at the time, as a film, it seems a bit slow and arty to warrant any genuinely mainstream success. Of course, if this blu ray set belatedly makes it the cult classic it has long deserved being, it’s all for the good.
Various video interviews and pieces to camera flesh out the reminiscences, and although not all of these are revelatory after Crane’s brilliant commentaries, it’s great to see the faces of the key players. A half-hour piece with Crane is enjoyable, despite basically recapping some of the highlights from the audio with Dunn. The interviews with Michael Sloane and Nigel Hodgson are a little more interesting as they sometimes give a different viewpoint. Hodgson’s recollections of being in The Lebanon as a film student are briefly touched upon, but are never particularly enlightening. This is a pity, since a film he shot at the time also appears on the bonus features. His recounting of early meetings with Crane add nothing extra to Crane’s own memories but, eventually, it’s interesting to hear him speaking openly about working without a union on Hunted, and how June and Edward were amenable to Pemini’s somewhat…flexible approach to film making. An anecdote about Ian Hendry drinking in an airport (in a bar where he shouldn’t have actually been at the time) is particularly vivid and gives a pointed insight as to how big a problem Hendry actually had, and the story of how he met his future wife through the film making connections and became best friends with June Ritchie (a friendship that endured fifty years) is rather heart warming. Despite being a founder member, he’s also quite open about the fact that he wasn’t always much more than a glorified best boy, on hand to do the fetching, carrying and driving. In terms of interviewee, he’s great; he never seems to have an inflated sense of his relative fame or importance. Sloane’s memories, by contrast, are condensed into a very brief six minutes, but he still manages to add his own unique take on the Pemini history, sharing his particular fondness for Moments in particular.
A video interview with June Ritchie (conducted in 2022) fills a very friendly thirteen minutes with the veteran actress, who remembers her time on the film Hunted with a genuine clarity. In Woodward’s absence, she’s obviously the ideal choice to give an unbiased account of filming the low budget short. Despite working in less than ideal circumstances and not earning any money, she has nothing negative to say regarding her experience on set, and says her rapport with Woodward was very good. Among her many memories, she shares the secret that Woodward used “idiot boards” off camera to aid with his wordy script! Naturally, this is something that’ll make future viewings of the film feel a little different, though perhaps not as much as her likening the film’s set-up to the real life disappearance of Suzy Lamplugh.
The best of the on-screen interviews comes from Martyn Chillmaid, a lesser-known Pemini employee who worked as everything from director’s assistant, to stills photographer, pigeon handler and Ian Hendry’s wrangler. Obviously, the latter would prove to be an unpredictable job, and Martyn recounts his fear in losing the actor on a bus somewhere on Oxford Street when he was supposed to be available for important location work, and how it was difficult working with such an alcohol dependent figure. During a twenty minute interview, Chillmaid is enthusiastic and speaks as if its been a matter of weeks since he worked with the Organisation, let alone half a century.
Elsewhere during an extensive range of supplemental features, a feature length interview with Moments cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky, conducted by the BEHP in 1988, takes a similarly encompassing approach as their interview with Stanley Long (as found on Indicator’s brilliant Adventures… box set). It covers a range of topics from childhood, through his early years working within the film industry, and working on science-based documentaries. It isn’t really until Wolfgang recounts his work in India in the early 60s that things get vaguely interesting; unfortunately, a few fairly vague remarks about working overseas with an all Indian crew pique listener interest but aren’t really expanded upon. The same applies to his brief memories of working on Get Carter (d. Mike Hodges, 1971) – something that should have been of great interest. A couple of tales regarding working on Living Free (d. Jack Couffer, 1972) fare a little better, but that’s purely because any chat about semi-tame lions will automatically conjure some very vivid mental images. To give a further example of how the Pemini films were considered “lost” for many years, during this ninety minute interview, his work on Moments is not even mentioned…
A short selection of deleted scenes from Moments are nice to have, but in hindsight, they were perhaps best left on the cutting room floor. While two are extended versions of scenes that made the cut, a third would’ve made the middle of the film play very differently. Removed at the distributor’s request to achieve an A certificate, a six minute sex scene shared between the leading man and his wife, shown in flashback, plays rather artistically, but would have slowed down an already slow-ish piece. These cut scenes are presented in a particularly raw state, and with regard to the excised sex scene, Crane actually expresses amazement that Indicator have managed to source it for inclusion here, which should give an indication to its rarity value.
Perhaps the most interesting deleted scene relates to Hunted. Realising a forty minute film wouldn’t be amenable to American distributors, a lengthy prologue was filmed depicting Woodward’s character’s teenage years, and a hunting incident with his father, played by Paul Whitsun-Jones (The Quatermass Experiment). Unfortunately, the footage has been lost, but via the gift of still photographs and some very long memories, we are given a complete picture of what this entailed. Its location shoot in Scotland would certainly have given Hunted a much grander, less claustrophobic feel, and made it seem more expensive. Much like the sex scene in Moments, the film plays much better without it, especially considering the footage conveys an incident that is recounted very differently through Woodward’s own memory during the main feature. Perhaps it’s a case of “the memory cheats”, but more likely a case of the Scottish prologue being shot quickly some time later. [Despite being shot in 1971, it would take Hunted two years to be granted a certificate by the BBFC.]
Rounded out by a very short interview with Valerie Minifie remembering her time on the Moments set, interviews conducted with the composers of Pemini’s film scores and with the company’s set designer, and a featurette with Vic Pratt charting the all-too-short history of the Organisation, this double blu ray set leaves very little unanswered when it comes to the successes and failures of the brilliant independent company.
Overall, this two disc, three film set provides a fascinating insight into the work of a long forgotten creative team. The performances from the few household names present – especially Woodward, Michell and Rees – are absolutely marvellous, and the extra materials are equally impressive. Presented in a beautiful hard-bound case with an equally informative book (following the same model as Indicator’s excellent Corruption blu ray), it almost feels like a fetishist item for the discerning film buff. If you’ve been on the fence with regards to whether to shell out for this release, make no mistake, you really should pick it up at the earliest opportunity. You won’t regret it.
❉ The Pemini Organisation (1972 -1974) Limited Edition Blu-ray (Powerhouse Films/Indicator Series #PHILTD138) premiered 30 May 2022, BBFC cert: 15. RRP £29.99
❉ Lee Realgone has been a keen viewer of cult cinema for decades. He spends a lot of time watching Blu-rays from Indicator and Arrow. At other times, he does pretty much everything at the music website Real Gone. Find REAL GONE on Twitter at @realgonerocks. Like REAL GONE on Facebook at www.facebook.com/realgonerocks