What is the greatest film ever made? Most of the class stare silently into the middle distance. Some students text; others scrawl malformed nothings on their desks. Still, a few hands are raised. Citizen Kane (1941), recites an obedient scholar of online Greatest Films lists. Stalker (1979), ventures an enlightened connoisseur of the cinematic arts. Pulp Fiction (1994), dares one iconoclastic enfant terrible – the only film he has seen that was older than himself. You are all wrong, laughs the wise old professor. The correct answer is Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire.
But it is not easy to explain why Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire is the greatest film ever made. It takes some doing.
The plot itself is quite simple. Cockney cowboy-LARPer Billy Kid and bourgeois literal-vampire Maxwell Randall are unfriendly snooker rivals. Billy’s spiv manager, The One, owes money to a dangerous loanshark, the Wednesday Man. As payment, the latter demands that The One arrange a grudge match between Billy and Maxwell – a match on which the Wednesday Man hints he can make a great deal of money. The One obliges, asking shady reporter Miss Sullivan to write an article that will goad both players into agreeing to the match. When Maxwell demands a contract stating that the loser can never play professional snooker again, The One is troubled, but the Wednesday Man reassures him, saying that the match is fixed. The players convene at Big Jack Jay’s snooker club, where Billy and Maxwell are supported by their diametrically opposed communities, respectively the Vidkids (working-class goth gamers) and the Vipers (upper-class opera fanatics). After Maxwell destroys Billy in the opening frames, the Wednesday Man reveals that the match isn’t fixed after all – he set the whole thing up, even suggesting the contract to Maxwell in the hopes of destroying Billy’s career for his own nebulous personal reasons. One ball away from victory, Maxwell slips up, and Billy recovers. When Billy is about to pot the final frame’s deciding ball, Maxwell openly uses his powers to freeze it in mid-air, leaving the crowd reeling in shock and awe. Billy calmly draws his pistol and fires the ball into the pocket, securing his future in the world of snooker.
It’s a tale as old as time itself.
We’ll call it BtKatGBV – a marvellously distinctive and tactile initialism when spelt in titlecase. (It’s unpronounceable, though, so one generally ends up calling it Billy the Kid in conversation; the DVD liner notes try calling it Baize, which doesn’t quite work.) The BFI article on BtKatGBV, the most authoritative online source to discuss the film, refers to it as “undoubtedly the only vampire snooker musical ever made.” This line, which is quoted by virtually every other article or blog post about the film – yes, all four or so of them – actually sells BtKatGBV rather short. Firstly, it’s not just a “vampire snooker musical”, it’s an allegorical anarchist leftist Brechtian theatrical rock-operatic absurdist surrealist brutalist Expressionist neo-noir punk gothic dystopian kitchen-sink magical-realist Art Deco vampire gangster snooker musical Weird Western science-fiction comedy horror fantasy drama film. Granted, some of these terms apply more than others – it follows certain of them structurally, explores others aesthetically – but none of them are incorrect; this really is the kind of film we are dealing with here. As the producer Barry Hanson succinctly puts it: “It didn’t explain the game, it didn’t explain its existence really, it explained fuck all.”
The film’s most obvious asset is its visual style. BtKatGBV takes place in a setting that is simultaneously the literal (subterranean) and figurative (criminal) London underworld. This is a universe of dark and interlocking rooms, corridors, hallways, and passages, all of which seem to go on forever. These locations are alternately cramped and vast – sometimes even feel both at once, somehow. Individual homes and venues are often cluttered with detail, but the public spaces between them – the alleys and back rooms, the liminal places – are so sparse and vacant they could be mistaken for theatre. Other locations, like the street corner where Billy patronises the homeless or the opera house frequented by Maxwell, are huge and cavernous, and convey the vague impression of a roof or ceiling, regardless of whether they’re indoors or out. There is an exterior to this labyrinthine warren, but it’s a howling abstract void. When we do see characters “outside” – such as when they’re driving – they’re usually being battered by gale-force winds, and beset by flickering white and green lights that somehow illuminate the characters and their vehicles but nothing else. Zero effort is made to make it appear that Billy’s car or Maxwell’s motorbike are moving: the vehicles simply sit still on a dark stage as lights flash and clouds of dry ice billow past, until they arrive at their destinations, like passengers on an elevator. Travelling in this world is like taking a spacewalk. Not since The Cabinet of Dr Caligari has a film presented audiences with a world so shamelessly artificial, so utterly uninterested in appearing real. If you pause the film on any frame, you know that everything you see is artificial – as created as animation. Like Caligari, the world is not only unreal, but actively hostile to the idea of realism: the whole point is to look as strange and phantasmagorical as possible. And despite all this, the world of BtKatGBV feels distinctly lived-in, countering the dreamlike fantasy with a level of grime and decrepitude redolent of actual human experience.
BtKatGBV resembles the BBC’s I, Claudius in its decision to shoot all its scenes, including those set outdoors, in a studio. It resembles the four-dimensional tesseract scene at the end of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. It resembles the layered, subterranean grid of rooms an abused child finds in his own subconscious in Edmund McMillen’s The Binding of Isaac. It resembles the fractal, recursive architecture of the chthonic Eternity in Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. It resembles Jorge Luis Borges’s Library of Babel, with its lattice of hexagonal chambers holding an infinitude of books. Perhaps more than anything else, it resembles the London Below of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, with its dramatisation of psychogeography, the idea that inhabited places have a buried depth; that every city remains drenched in its past, stained by the lives and times of those who have gone before. The subterranean aesthetic renders this buried history literal – it is a perfect setting for a mythic, allegorical story about an epochal cultural shift. Then again, there’s no way to be sure the characters actually are underground – they could just as easily be inside a vast structure of some other kind, like a gigantic high-rise. Or Starship UK.
The tenebrous snooker underworld of BtKatGBV is subject to a Manichean battle between two forces, each of them transcendent in their own way. On one side are the Vidkids: the young, impoverished working class, who live on the fringes of society and spend their time at Supersonic Sam’s Cosmic Café, a sort of grimy arcade deli; the figurehead of their community is Billy. On the other side are the Vipers: the ageing, wealthy upper class, who frequent the opera; the pillar of their community is Maxwell. As such, the conflict that Miss Sullivan (working for The One, who in turn is working for the Wednesday Man) stirs up between Billy and Maxwell isn’t just a battle between people – it’s a battle between peoples. Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire is the story of this conflict. Both the café and the opera house appear to be physical spaces (or at least what passes for such in the Billyverse), but they also seem to function as mental spaces, existing at something of a remove from the rest of the film; in this sense, they anticipate the Black and White Lodges of Twin Peaks.
A great deal of the film’s strength comes from the way that it takes its absurd concept relatively seriously. It’s not a dour or humourless experience – there are about as many jokes as you’d expect in an average drama film – but most of the laughs come from the tension between the ridiculous concept and the straight-faced execution. Different viewers will laugh at different moments, because the film never falters in its commitment to seeing its utterly strange story through – there are no self-aware punchlines, no winks to the camera. The world is so strange and obviously fake that it’s funny even to pause and consider what it must actually be like for the characters who live there.
The film’s cast of characters are generally excellent, though some are excellent only in rather particular ways. The casting of Phil Daniels as Billy can perhaps be criticised: he doesn’t quite have the irresistible roguish charm the script seems to expect of him. A bigger problem is that Daniels simply isn’t a very good singer. But an underwhelming lead isn’t necessarily a fatal flaw for a film – consider The Matrix, where Keanu Reeves’s quiet, mild, ligneous performance allows space for his more charismatic co-stars to shine as their colourful and vibrant supporting characters. Daniels does considerably better with the film’s dialogue, delivering line after line of Preston’s ornate slang-knotted vernacular to gloriously petulant effect. While BtKatGBV thankfully isn’t one of those claustrophobic “sung-through” musicals, where every line of dialogue is set to its own tossed-off snippet of music and the songs never get the chance to establish their discrete identities, the film does have a nicely porous barrier between lyrics and dialogue: some songs really are sung, but others are delivered in a sort of half-spoken singsong manner, a little like Lou Reed. This has the advantage of letting some of the film’s lesser musical talents off the hook. The cast’s vocals aren’t all technically impressive, but they are all very characterful, and Daniels’s fantastic cockney accent does a lot of work.
Certainly the more impressive of the film’s eponymous duo is Alun Armstrong as Maxwell, the Green Baize Vampire. Where Billy is a relatively simple hero, Maxwell is genuinely (and literally) a very layered character – a supernatural vampire disguised as an upstanding human Englishman who stoops to playing a fictional vampire persona in television advertisements. While Daniels occasionally seems like he’s going through the motions – perhaps because the film only really asks him for insouciant cockiness, plus one five-minute segue into numb anxiety – Armstrong acts as if he genuinely expects this film to be the centrepiece of his showreel, giving a genuinely committed and dynamic performance. He’s no more a professional singer than Daniels, but the film favours him with an even better proportion of its sing-song dialogue, and he can hold a note better, too. Armstrong takes us through the manifold layers of Maxwell’s masks and personas: the leering, cartoonish Count of his media appearances; the entitled, preening actor who sexually harasses the women over whom his fame places him in a position of power; the ageing celebrity whose desperately insecure jealousy of an up-and-coming snooker player pushes him into blustering, manic, rabid psychosis; the sinister, macabre creature of the night who drapes himself in the trappings of the vampire as an ironic, knowing affectation, embracing his dark and secret heritage by concealing it under its own simulacrum; the implacable, hypnotic presence who embodies Billy’s worst fears; the squirming, perspiring wreck who senses his own nightmares closing in about him; and, in the film’s final moments, the shamelessly preternatural monstrosity, his eyes like radiant silver, a living rupture in thought and logic and the natural order, triumphant and then nakedly afraid.
But vampires are typically the best part of whatever they’re in. One of the film’s more surprising highlights is Bruce Payne’s portrayal of The One. A tall working-class English conman with dirty-blonde hair and a grimy trenchcoat, The One is a vision of Rodney possessed by Del Boy. Shady and manipulative, he stays one step ahead of his supernatural foes using only his charm, wits, and sexuality. He excels at plate-spinning, deftly weaving from faction to faction, always playing his allies and enemies against each other; and while his deceptive behaviour might put his relationships under strain, deep down he has a heart of gold. The One, in other words, is the most accurate screen portrayal of John Constantine we will ever see. (Given that we never find out The One’s real name, it’s not inconceivable that he’s literally John Constantine, and that the whole film is part of a long-game grift to take down a powerful vampire in London Below.)
The One might well have started out as a straightforwardly mechanical element of the script, serving the plot function of setting the film’s events in motion. He’s not represented in the film’s extremely high-concept premise, and has nothing to do with its core cowboy-vs-vampire iconography. Payne, however, is excellent in the role, giving a considerably more lively, committed, and engaged performance than Daniels does in his. He’s also a surprisingly strong singer (easily the best of the film’s non-professionals), with a bizarre mockney accent that means some line deliveries that achieve quotability through sheer lilt. We follow The One through his anxieties and his triumphs, and we feel and believe them more deeply than Billy’s. (Daniels actually did originally audition for the part of The One, and while I genuinely wouldn’t alter a single frame of this film, I can’t help but wonder if it might’ve worked a little better if the actors had switched roles – Payne would have made an extraordinary Billy.)
Indeed, The One is arguably the film’s main character. I don’t mean this in a clickbaity “Twelve Reasons Why Thanos Is The Real Hero In ‘Avengers: Infinite War’ – Number 27 Will Shock You” kind of way, but in an actual meaningful structural way. The fact that The One is a more complex, dynamic, and driven character than the eponymous hero doesn’t necessarily make him the film’s protagonist, but the fact that he’s the one who drives the plot and instigates every significant event in the film kind of does. The One is introduced only moments after Billy (who’s only said five words by this point), and is immediately the more alive character – a cracked mask of conflicted pride and panic where Billy is blankly cool and impassive; a man sinking into debt to psychotic gangsters while Billy wins money easily. Emotionally, Billy is insulated from events by his own ego, but The One – despite his self-mythologising nom de plume – is quite vulnerable. Where both Billy and Maxwell have straightforward and unwavering desires and motivations, The One is torn between his self-destructive gambling addiction, his mortal fear of the Wednesday Man, his lust for fame and fortune, and his deep dedication to Billy. At the film’s outset, Billy is already a successful snooker player – it’s The One who’s in trouble, and The One who claws and connives his way to a better life over the course of the story. He’s the only character in the film to experience any kind of inner conflict. Quite simply, The One is the beating heart of Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire. He’s with us right up until the ending – indeed, he stays in the film longer than Billy does, and gets to perform the final song during the end credits. The film could just as easily have been called Billy the Kid and The One, or even – to quote his big song – The One Who’s Gonna Take You to the Top. In an interview given at the time of the film’s release, Payne offers an intriguing interpretation of the character: “I play a man who – I feel – exploits himself more than he does anyone else.” Like a classical tragic hero, The One carries the seed of his own downfall: his compulsive lust for the thrill of the game, be that gambling with his own money or the fortunes of others, is his hamartia. He needs someone to save him.
Another highlight of the film is the reporter Miss Sullivan, played with extraordinary dedication by longtime Muppets performer Louise Gold. Another minor character who exists mainly to perform a mechanical plot function, Miss Sullivan is surprisingly compelling character, developing throughout the film in bizarre and entertaining ways that never settle into convention.
Broadly speaking, Miss Sullivan fulfils two roles in the film. In the first half, she is very much a human character: a curious, amoral journalist seeking to play Billy and Maxwell against each other for her own gain. In these early scenes, she is clipped and guarded; her agenda is murky, and yet she seems wryly amused by the macho posturing of her interviewees. She also takes no bullshit: when a leering Maxwell harasses her by invading her personal space, she threatens to cut off his hand, and he backs down, removing his fake fangs to play off his behaviour as an in-character joke. (Whether she was literally planning to dismember him, and whether he believed that she believed he was a real vampire, is ambiguous; as a result of the numerous diegetically nested performances, many of the film’s scenes can be read in a multiplicity of ways, and some verge on the impenetrable.) From the film’s midpoint onwards, however, she is effectively an embodiment of snooker itself: effervescent and thrilled, with no higher purpose than orchestrate and bear witness to the best greatest game of her generation. The former Miss Sullivan communicates entirely though dialogue, the latter Miss Sullivan entirely through song. These two modes don’t quite mesh into a coherent character, but that’s part of why she’s so utterly fascinating. She’s ostensibly a neutral observer, but clearly dislikes Maxwell and sympathises with Billy, even as she manipulates both; the cross on her necklace confirms her deeper allegiance.
Mrs Randall, played by cabaret performer Eve Ferret, is another excellent supporting character. The wife of Maxwell, Mrs Randall is a scatterbrained, sickly sweet opera singer who carries a poodle at all times. It’s evident that, unlike most of the cast, Ferret was chosen primarily for her singing ability – unfortunately, she doesn’t get a song of her own, but she does feature prominently in two others.
The film leans heavily on the class subtext of the vampire myth, making it so explicit and literal that it becomes a source of comedy. The vampire’s erotic dimension, meanwhile, is sublimated to some degree – Maxwell isn’t attractive or romantic in the way that most versions of Dracula are, but he is still a sexual predator. In his very first scene, we see him grope his female make-up artist, and in his next scene makes as if to try the same on Miss Sullivan until she frightens him off. There’s no indication as to whether Mrs Randall knows how her husband treats other woman, but it’s doubtful that she’d care: she’s utterly besotted with him. Granted, she does laugh as she reads Billy’s mockery of Maxwell, but it’s clear that this is simply a sign of how secure she is in her relationship – he needs her as a calming, jovial presence, just as much as she enjoys his fierce emotionalism. Mr and Mrs Randall are totally simpatico: in a circuitous way, there’s something almost touching about the purity of this terrible woman’s dedication to this creature who’s even worse than she is. (In an odd proto-Simpsons cutaway joke, we see her driving to the match by motorbike, with Maxwell sitting in the sidecar, rather suggesting it’s her who wears the trousers in the relationship.) Unlike the silently servile and submissive Brides of Dracula, Mrs Randall is a supportive and caring partner. She’s Maxwell’s version of The One.
And her poodle is his version of Egypt. One of the film’s more subtly entertaining characters, Billy’s taciturn minder, is played by the glowering Richard Ridings (perhaps better-known as the voice of Daddy Pig, progenitor of Peppa). Egypt is a man in a perpetual state of quiet exasperation. Although he’s the first character we actually see, he appears to have no deep emotional investment in the film’s events – he just works here. A weary, practical, and slightly dim-witted worker trapped among a cast of capricious lunatics, he serves as a straight man and comedic foil, quietly landing some of the film’s best jokes. When Maxwell is lining up a potentially match-winning shot, Egypt sagely whispers, “He’s on the pink”, and the look of utter contempt that crosses The One’s face is one for the ages. (It’s just a pity they didn’t cast Ridings in Archer’s Goon.)
Although Billy’s nemesis might be Maxwell, the real villain of BtKatGBV is the Wednesday Man, the shadowy gangster puppetmaster who orchestrates their rivalry for his own mystifying reasons. The character is played by Don Henderson (Gavrok in Delta and the Bannermen), who gives one of the film’s most sophisticated performances, exuding a sense of menace and power despite the fact that all we ever see him do is stand in empty rooms with his two minders. (Given that the Wednesday Man is working with Maxwell, it’s unclear why he coerces The One into employing Miss Sullivan to goad Maxwell into a rage rather than simply instructing Maxwell to challenge Billy, but hey, everyone needs a hobby.)
The characters of BtKatGBV are generally very readable. Most are riffs on self-explanatory archetypes, and the vast majority simply express their innermost thoughts and feelings through ostentatious song. From the moment he appears, accompanied by a sinister ambient wind-chime soundscape, the Wednesday Man is a stranger presence, more difficult to understand. The film’s other characters are motivated by a cartoonishly straightforward class conflict, but his drives are more abstract. The Wednesday Man is obsessed with time, and more specifically with timekeeping. He carries a gold pocket-watch which he checks regularly (and which chimes with an electronic version of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March #1). He insists that The One must repay him on a Wednesday, quadrupling the debt to punish his slightly lateness. As we later learn, the Wednesday Man doesn’t even care that much about money, betting £50,000 on Billy – whom he fully expects to lose – just to lull The One into a false sense of security. When he demands that the match must also take place on a Wednesday, it’s unclear whether he’s making an ironic joke about his own name or actually has some sort of metaphysical connection to that day of the week – this is the sort of film where both are genuine possibilities. If nothing else, the Wednesday Man goes to show that the writer had one hell of a knack for thinking up brilliant names.
Discussing BtKatGBV in terms of authorial intent is quite complex, as it was rather a creatively diffuse production: several figures can arguably be considered its primary author. The first is the screenwriter, Trevor Preston, best-known for his work on gritty crime series like The Sweeney, but also for fantasy television such as the Doctor Who knock-off Ace of Wands. The second is the director, Alan Clarke, a legend in the British television industry, with a string of TV films displaying a remarkable level of consistency both in technical finesse and in theme. The third is George Fenton, the composer who set Preston’s lyrics to music, and who consequently dominates the 40 most important minutes of this 90-minute film. The fourth is the production designer, Jamie Leonard, since everything we see in BtKatGBV is designed and crafted, and he’s the one who did the designing and crafting; but the cinematographer, Clive Tickner, must also be regarded as a key contributor, given how important his stylised lighting and presentation of the film’s world is. In short, precisely who deserves to be damned or canonised for this thing is open to debate. That said – and without wanting to buy into the myths of “auteur theory” – it makes the most sense to discuss the film in terms of Alan Clarke, since he was certainly the greatest television-film director of all time.
For the most part, Alan Clarke’s films are harsh, bleak, deeply empathetic works of kitchen-sink realism. They examine the intractable problems of the British class system, and portray the constant irruptions of violence between those with power and those without. Taking a sociological eye to a series of profoundly flawed, disaffected underdogs, Clarke achieved his greatest notoriety with a string of acclaimed crime dramas including Scum, The Firm, and Made in Britain. He virtually never wrote his own scripts, but he was clearly so selective about which projects he wanted to direct that his filmography feels just as cohesive and thematically focused as that of any writer-director – it’s a remarkably coherent body of work. There’s generally little to no music – no score to hold our hands and tell us when to feel happy or sad. Clarke’s shot composition is often resolutely low-key and matter-of-fact, but this is counterpointed by his very real technical skill: you might reach the end of a gripping dramatic sequence before realising it consists of one immaculately-choreographed long-take.
Characteristically dishevelled and quite clearly working-class, Clarke was an unusual presence at the BBC, where he spent most of his time as a director. Nonetheless, he was highly popular with his collaborators, maintaining throughout his career a chancer’s humility and a deep-rooted opposition to authority. Clarke made almost sixty films in his life, but only three of them were features, and one of those was called Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire; he never really received the respect he deserved from outside the industry. His friend Mark Shivas joked that he’d be famous if only his name were Clarkovsky, which Clarke found quite amusing.
Clarke’s most distinctive trademark is that he likes to show his characters walking – a lot. It’s equally important, however to note that his camera is usually moving with the same velocity and direction. After discovering the Steadicam with 1983’s Made in Britain, Clarke used it for virtually everything he filmed – sometimes even static shots. We’re not just watching his characters walk, we’re walking with them: rather than moving across the screen, they remain effectively static while the world moves around them. David Fincher uses the same technique a fundamental part of his directing style, but where Fincher synchronises his camerawork with all somatic movements, often subtle, Clarke uses this specifically for walking, and his characters don’t just amble along, either – they bustle hurriedly, as if movement and life were the same thing. They are not settled components of their own worlds. (In the scene where Miss Sullivan interviews Billy, Clarke seems to parody his own walking-fetish by stretching it to its breaking-point: the characters perform two brisk, purposeful circuits of the film’s large square corridor set, ending up exactly where they began.)
Retrospectives, articles, and documentaries about Clarke’s life and career tend to rush past BtKatGBV, when they mention it at all. It’s as if those who want to build Clarke up as a proletarian artist hero consider the film an embarrassment or a liability; something to be brushed under the carpet for fear it might reflect poorly on Clarkovsky’s proper serious kino for Guardian-reading grown-ups.
Luckily, there is one exception: Richard Kelly’s 1998 book Alan Clarke – an oral history of the director’s life and career, consisting primarily of transcribed interviews with Clarke’s collaborators – includes a chapter on BtKatGBV. This is our main source of information about the film’s production, and offers some fascinating insights. Barry Hanson hired George Fenton to compose music for the television series Out, which was how Fenton met Trevor Preston; they first collaborated on songs for the show. Later, they worked on the series Fox, co-writing further songs. Preston had always been a fan of snooker – “both the game and milieu”, according to Fenton, which certainly shows in BtKatGBV. He told Fenton about his idea for a musical snooker film, inspired by particularly great match he’d seen (more on that later). Fenton was hesitant, doubting it would ever get made, but got on-board when they met with a producer and the film started looking like a possibility. BtKatGBV was made on a budget of £2.7 million, financed using a convoluted tax loophole that was quite popular among the ITV companies at the time. (Amusingly, this loophole required by definition that the film would have to be sellable overseas – it’s hard to imagine what the distributors thought they were getting themselves into, but when they eventually saw the footage, they were horrified.)
Fenton, as the only major contributor whose thoughts are available in any detail, provides by far the best and most insightful account of the film’s production, particularly with regard to Trevor Preston’s clash with Alan Clarke: “Trevor saw the characters and the world of Billy the Kid as possessing a tremendous amount of style. And I think he imagined that the film would be much more opulent in some ways, that the realism of it would have an intrinsic glamour. It was written and prepared with the idea of going on location. So there would have been cityscapes, rainy streets, urban squalor, faces in car windows – that’s Trevor’s world. His work is a celebration of the more bizarre, eccentric side of the underworld, which he knows pretty well. And, clearly, when Alan became the director, that was discarded, because Alan decided to shoot it all on a set… It’s no secret that Alan and Trevor just didn’t see eye to eye over it, and that was a great tragedy. I think Trevor thought that Alan had squandered its richness in some way and that, had it had that richness, it would have been infinitely more successful… Alan saw the realism of Trevor’s script and wanted to contain the surrealism so that he could manage the tone of the picture. Whereas Trevor didn’t want that under control, he wanted it to be extravagant.”
Apparently, Preston intended the film to be a relatively big-budget production, with plenty of location photography. Presumably, the “outdoor” scenes would have been filmed on actual streets. One can imagine the Cosmic Café sequences being shot in an actual lavish arcade; Maxwell’s home as a gothic mansion rather than a trio of small windowless rooms; the climactic match taking place in a venue like the Sheffield Crucible rather than a grey little room. Considering the lavish spectacle that was apparently scripted, we can forgive Preston’s distress at the cramped, stark, bleak final result; but Clark’s decision to reimagine the setting was a bold and striking one in its own right. This film is not some diminished, reduced version of a more-complete script: it’s just very different, in a meaningful and additive way.
The very idea of “an Alan Clarke musical” is almost unfathomable in itself, let alone as part of BtKatGBV‘s shopping-list of mad genres. Judging by his other work, one would have expected Clarke to shoot the film entirely on location, aiming for a realistic aesthetic, with any supernatural elements manifesting as brief magical-realist intrusions. Where most filmmakers generally shoot on a healthy mixture of sets and location, it’s almost as if these two ways of working and their attendant aesthetics were like oil and water in Clake’s mind – as if he felt the need to purge his surreal-stagecraft instincts in a few short bursts, getting it out of his system in films like Danton’s Death, Baal, Psy-Warriors, and Stars of the Roller State Disco, so that he could spend the rest of his time shooting intensely realist films entirely on location. BtKatGBV, for better or worse, ended up being one of those fantastical studio oddities.
Clarke’s theatre background is evident in his skilful use of restrictive surroundings. Many of his films take place in cramped, labyrinthine environments – prisons, council estates – which serve as microcosms of larger society; he wheels his Steadicam about decaying urban spaces in 360 degrees until the very walls seem part of the Kafkaesque authoritarian nightmares that the characters find themselves living. With BtKatGBV, Clarke took an expansive open-air script and transformed it into another of his claustrophobic Kafkaesque underworlds – this one constructed purely through stagecraft. While we can see why Preston objected, this change still services his original themes, consolidating the scripted drama into a pressure-cooker setting.
Although retrospectives tend to gloss over it, I would go so far as to venture that, of all Alan Clarke films, BtKatGBV is the most Alan Clarke. In most other cases, Clarke made films set in the real world, generally with very realistic and domestic stories – the sense of personality bursts through in the contrast between the intense, violent melodrama and the taut, coolly detached camerawork. While his collaborators attest that Clarke was wryly funny in person, most of his films are bleak and brutal – his humour tends not to be noticeable in his subject-matter, but to shine through in the contrast of content and form. BtKatGBV is the only time Alan Clarke created an entire world.
The songs were rehearsed for two or three weeks at Fulham Town Hall, culminating in an excellent run-through. “It seemed absolutely great,” says Fenton, “like any musical when you suddenly realise there’s something there. It was such a positive feeling – everybody was up that day, it was the best day.” In terms of production, it was downhill from there. Towards the end of the first week, the company sent supervisors to keep an eye on Clarke, who was using more film stock than had been agreed (he was notorious for demanding more takes even at the best of times, and Fenton says he shot “billions of feet” of snooker action). Clarke responded by lining up the scheduled shots as normal, then calling “tut”, which he patiently explained to the alarmed cameraman was a combination of “turnover” and “cut”, and therefore used no footage at all. Apparently, this continued for quite some time; the supervisors, unsure how to deal with this obstinate refusal to engage with them, eventually gave up and went home. Daniels had real difficulty with the scene where Billy, learning of The One’s betrayal, declares “What a winkle” and goes into hysterics; eventually, Clarke had to resort to pulling faces while repeatedly zipping and unzipping his fly just off-camera in order to bamboozle Daniels into laughing. When the crew were filming Miss Sullivan’s interview with Billy, one of the lighting grips had a heart attack and dropped dead on-set.
Clarke’s long-time producer, Margaret Matheson, recounts, “Billy the Kid was sort of shrouded in the psyches of the people involved – especially Alan and Trevor, both of whom were quite dark at that time. Trevor suffered from serious depression, and he was quite seriously ill. So he wasn’t participating fully in the process, and was quite difficult. And George, who’s ever calm and smiling and bubbly and delightful, was somehow not enough to tip the balance.” Whether Preston’s depression was linked in any way to Clarke’s radical reworking of his film is unclear.
After production wrapped, Clarke had real difficulty assembling the film, particularly because the music was not yet in place, so he asked Fenton to join him in the editing room. As a result, the musical sequences were edited not to the songs themselves, but to Fenton’s mental projection of the songs would be. When it came time to write the incidental score, Fenton asked Clarke for his input on where and how to place the music; the director of the musical replied with the immortal words, “I’m not sure, I’ve never had any music in my films.” Fenton says that when he assembled the score alone and showed it to him, Clarke “just nodded and said, ‘Yep, yep, yeah.’ He was as bewildered as any of us by this stage, thinking, ‘How on earth did I get myself into doing this?'” Films this convoluted, unapologetic, and loaded with iconic characters are usually adaptations of famous stories or instalments in long-running series, but this one sprang fully-formed out of nowhere, like Athena from the brow of Zeus. None of the people involved could possibly have understood what it was they were ushering into the world.
To fully understand BtKatGBV, we also have to understand Alan Clarke’s longstanding obsession with the works of Bertolt Brecht. Born in 1898 Germany, Brecht was a modernist playwright and committed Marxist. Eschewing concepts such as realism and “suspension of disbelief”, Brecht’s plays actively, repeatedly remind the audience that they are watching a story which was written and performed deliberately, with specific political purpose. The most influential element of Brecht’s “dialectical theatre” mode was the “defamiliarisation effect” – a technique whereby the audience are discouraged from identifying straightforwardly with the characters, in an attempt to make them consider the drama’s events more objectively and thoughtfully. Seeking to illuminate the strange and arbitrary nature of the things we take for granted, Brecht used historical events to comment allegorically on current affairs, and often incorporated music and song into performances. Above all, he wrote with a goal: to activate the audience politically, however possible.
It’s not difficult to see why Clarke would gravitate towards Brecht’s work: the two men shared a similar sort of left-wing anger, a drive to apprehend the cruelties and injustices of life on a societal, structural level rather than just a personal one. In 1982, Clarke made an experimental TV version of Brecht’s play Baal – a baffling curio which stars David Bowie as a grotesque vagabond in prewar Germany, features fourth-wall-breaking banjo interludes, and alternates between conventional theatrical scenes and split-screen sequences that discretely juxtapose white Mind Robber abysses with painted skies. It appears that Clarke, three years later, saw BtKatGBV as an opportunity for a Brechtian homage, and reworked the project partly as an excuse to develop some of the techniques he’d experimented with on Baal, now with Fenton serving as the Kurt Weill to his Brecht. (Fenton had previously worked on an unrelated Brecht adaptation, writing music for a production of Mother Courage and Her Children. Interestingly, one interview has Bruce Payne referring to Fenton and Preston as “real Brecht-freaks”, so maybe the Brecht influence was already incipient in Preston’s script before Clarke got his hands on it, but given how everyone else seems to stress Clarke’s Brecht obsession, it seems likelier that Payne misspoke.) There’s no split-screen in BtKatGBV, but the unashamed visual artifice, the predominance of static direct-to-camera songs, and – perhaps most distinctively – the overall impression of a world composed of theatrical sets which are separated by a vast abstract void are all taken from Clarke’s Baal, recycled and refined for vampire-snooker-musical purposes.
But unlike the theatre, or a multi-camera studio-bound television programme, BtKatGBV does have a physical fourth wall – it’s fully capable of showing us 360-degree environments. Granted, the film’s characters frequently break that fourth wall, but not by looking off the stage towards the audience – the audience, embodied by the camera, is on-stage with them. This is what happens when you transpose confrontationally artificial Brechtian techniques from the abstract realm of the theatre to the tangibly representative medium of film: rather than fading safely to nothing at the edge of the stage, the artifice refracts outwards across an entire diegetic universe. BtKatGBV is as estranging as a film can be: in the midst of its absurd neon stagecraft world, nothing feels or works the way we know it, and everything can be seen and questioned anew.
The surreal imagery of BtKatGBV is complemented by an equally bizarre and wildly eclectic soundtrack. While you probably won’t hear them on Top of the Pops (alas), the films includes a selection of genuinely great tracks, each with a vividly distinct tone, soundscape, and often even genre. Fenton – actually quite an acclaimed composer, later known for his work on Gandhi – matches the film’s bizarre visuals with an equally weird and inventive score; and Preston provides the lyrics, infusing the songs with the same baroquely earthy EastEnderisms that animate the dialogue. There are eleven songs, and they’re varied and fully-formed enough that I can imagine any of them being someone’s favourite (or rather, I could if this film actually had eleven people who’d heard of it).
Fenton’s understanding, in line with the film’s Brechtian underpinnings, was that the music should sound as if it were being performed by a pit band, and that “everything would emanate from that one little line-up, which meant it would have a kind of sound”. There are only seven credited musicians – a saxophonist, guitar and bass players, a drummer, a violinist, someone on synthesiser, and Fenton himself on piano – so the soundtrack maintains a generally consistent prog-synthpop-jazztronica texture even as it jumps from genre to genre. If someone said that something “sounds like Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire“, you would kind of understand what they meant (though there’s not a lot of things you could say that about, except maybe Blackstar).
The film’s first song, “Green Stamps”, is performed by Billy right after he wins his match against Floyd, another player. The jump-cut from Billy’s trick-shot victory is magnificently jarring: five and a half minutes in, we’ve nearly forgotten we’re watching a musical, and suddenly Phil Daniels is singing loudly as he walks brutalist a brutalist theatre street. (It looks, I’m sorry to say, quite a lot like the repair-shop from which the Doctor stole his TARDIS.) BtKatGBV is generally quite a dark and murky film, but this sequence in particularly underlit – frankly, one can understand why a frightened normal person might switch over at this point, tragic loss for them though that would be. Followed by a spotlight, Billy stalks this darkened street, introducing us to three silent figures: a drunken tramp, a homeless woman, and a thief. One by one, he hands them each a wad of money, and moves on. Evidently Billy likes to play at being Robin Hood, but he’s not seeking glory here: no thanks are offered, and the only witness is Egypt, who watches these proceedings in stony silence. “Green stamps / Gree-een stamps”, Billy implores Egypt, gesturing mockingly at the hobo. “Try his life on for size / Brown-paper bottle and cardboard eyes”. The music is darkly whimsical, sounding almost like a Jewish folk song.
While “Green Stamps” is compellingly weird, Daniels’s quavery, underpowered performance doesn’t quite do it justice, getting the film off to a slightly weak musical start. The term appears to be a reference to Green Shield Stamps, a gift-voucher scheme introduced in Britain in the 1950s, but the film’s characters seem to use it as a derisive metonym for money itself. (Warning: side-effects of hearing Phil Daniels wail the words “green stamps” eleven times, each with a slightly different balance of bitterness, irony, smugness, regret, and satisfaction, may include the phrase echoing through your mind every time you see, touch, or think about legal tender of any currency, and/or anything that happens to be coloured green.) While Billy sings his melancholy final lines, we cut to The One, hurrying from his poker game with the Spook to his meeting with the Wednesday Man, in one of the film’s subtler thematic moments (not that that’s saying a huge amount): even as Billy freely throws his money away, the person closest to him sinks inexorably into the debt that will change both their lives forever.
BtKatGBV is still struggling to get going with its second musical number, “Poker Song”. At just under a minute and a half, this is the film’s shortest song by far. After The One is dumped on the street from the Wednesday Man’s car (a bit confusingly, since they were in a room above an alley a moment ago), he gets to his feet, dusts himself off, and sings a brief dirge about his troubles. “Three queens a sweep / Thought I had him beat / Face white as a sheet / Then the Spook stripped me naked with four sevens”. Although The One wasn’t present for Billy’s song, he reprises it: “Poker! Sews bells on your brain / Green stamps / Gree-een stamps…” Hearing the same words again so soon makes it immediately clear that Bruce Payne is a considerably better singer than Daniels, while the song’s more orchestral accompaniment imbues his vocal acrobatics with the sense of a condensed epic.
But the film really comes into its own with the third song, “Supersonic Sam’s Cosmic Café”. In an extraordinarily feverish, hypnotic sequence, Egypt escorts Miss Sullivan to Billy’s favourite haunt for their interview. We find Billy flanked by the Vidkids – fifteen filthy, pallid goths, all standing in a pitch-dark low-ceilinged chamber, their faces illuminated only by the ghostly light of their massive blank arcade cabinets. (Yes, BtKatGBV predicted LAN parties.) The song is an epic, sweeping electronic anthem for this place – the Cosmic Café – and the downtrodden, disaffected subculture it has accrued. It begins, curiously, with a story – not about Supersonic Sam or Billy Kid, but about another, very minor character. “Asthma Joe was kinda slow when he was at school”, sings Billy in the midst of this symmetrical milieu, maintaining eye contact with the camera. “Couldn’t read, couldn’t write, all he used to do was fight / Then a friendly alien whispered in his ear / S-S-C-C / S-S-C-C”. The initials are whispered by the Vidkids, who serve as backing vocalists, hoarse and rough but perfectly synchronised. We learn the story of Joe’s first visit: “Through the wall, down the stairs, he was summoned to this caff / Sat right down, looked around, thought, What an iffy gaff / The lights, the sound, all wraparound, spooky but sublime / His logic boards said, This is nice – away from all terrestrial strife / This place electrified his life”. Brilliantly, the lines from Joe’s perspective are delivered by Joe himself – a stern young man in the chorus supporting Billy, who allows Joe to take over to recite his own (jarringly sophisticated) lines. Next, Supersonic Sam himself (playing at one of the nearby consoles) joins the song: “Supersonic Sam’s Cosmic Café / The ace space noshery / Welcome, tattooed humanoid, to our East End asteroid / We gather that you’re unemployed”. To which Joe replies, frowning, “Well, who the sod ain’t these days?” (We can see that one of the aforementioned tattoos is on Joe’s neck, and depicts a bird; obviously Morrissey’s uncharacteristically cheerful “A Swallow on My Neck” is a prequel explaining how he got it.) In a brilliant touch, the Vidkids pre-chant some early lines’ near-final words, syncing up with Billy as he reaches them: “(summoned, summoned, summoned, summoned) summoned to this caff“. It’s as if they’re wired into Billy – extensions of his will.
Sam, in contrast with his clientele, is played by middle-aged character actor and Big Roll Band founder Zoot Money, whose powerful voice and actual singing ability adds some welcome variety at this point. He enters the room partway through the song – wearing, in a complete non-sequitur, a red clown nose. “Sam was in the circus,” notes Egypt. Although Preston’s presumably envisioned the venue as resembling an actual café, the set looks more like a small underground car-park, and the only beverage on offer is a green concoction that looks more like a highly alcoholic novelty shot. “Thunderjuice,” says Egypt, “from Sam’s still.” All of which is merely the elaborate perfect set-up for Miss Sullivan’s truly immortal line: “What is the precise nomenclature of this extraordinary little recherché beanery?”
It is worth pausing to consider the sheer weirdness in play here. Billy welcomes Miss Sullivan to the Cosmic Café by performing a factual, historical song about the day that Asthma Joe (evidently a regular patron) first visited and encountered Supersonic Sam (the proprietor), and Billy leaves space in his performance for Joe and Sam to deliver their own lines. They are reprising their roles as themselves for a live impromptu performance-art performance that recreates the day they met in order to illustrate how amazing their café is, while their entire community serves as an unearthly, angelic choir. The Vidkids’ hobby isn’t strictly social, but the film clearly conveys the sense of communal belonging these people feel as they carve out their niche in an uncaring world. This is BtKatGBV at its most fully Brechtian: in addition to the film’s baseline of intense artifice, we have a combination of song, a direct address to the audience, and an open celebration of working-class culture as both aesthetically and socially superior to the mainstream elite.
Miss Sullivan does not appear to enjoy her first taste of thunderjuice. It’s only a long moment spent studying Billy’s congregation, silently judging their performance, that she decides to knock it back, wordlessly accepting the sacrament of the Cosmic Café.
The song is dense with odd throwaway lines and references that hint at a larger, stranger, more science-fictional world. Joe learned about Supersonic Sam’s when “a friendly alien whispered in his ear”: was this “alien” just a patron of the Cosmic Café, using the community’s sci-fi terminology, or was it an actual extraterrestrial? It’s later confirmed that vampires exist in this world – are there aliens too? Is this actually one of those Shadowrun kitchen-sink fantasy universes? Either way, it’s quite elegant how the film links the Vidkids with aliens – since the Vipers are clearly associated with vampirism, that adds “weird vs gothic” to the long list of cosmic dichotomies hinging on the battle between Billy and Maxwell. The idea that Supersonic Sam’s can be found “through the wall, down the stairs” seems to suggest that the café is not accessible from normal space, adding to the sense that it’s slightly askew from the rest of the world, even by BtKatGBV standards. “The lights, the sound, all wraparound, spooky but sublime”, meanwhile, is pretty much a mission statement for the film itself.
The fact that Supersonic Sam’s is a videogame café is never actually mentioned by anyone in the film, so the association between this hobby and the patrons’ politics is only obliquely hinted at: “Supersonic Sam’s Cosmic Café / The one and only place to be / While you lot watch the idiot box we’re warping through the great cosmos / Aboard an asteroid’s delight”. It seems the Vidkids regard this withdrawal from wider society as an act of rebellion – a way to escape material destitution and unemployment by retreating into a communal dream of science-fictional adventure.
George Fenton’s main complaint about collaborating with Alan Clarke was that Clarke basically did not choreograph the songs. Reader, it shows. When characters in BtKatGBV sing, they don’t dance – they pace about, or square up to each other, and this physical straightforwardness really accentuates the absurd intensity of these people singing at each other in these cramped brutalist environments. According to Fenton, “Supersonic Sam’s Cosmic Café” was scripted to involve “an orgy of screens and lights and things”, but Clarke stripped this down almost to nothing: the filmed version consists of Billy and the Vidkids standing in a darkened room, lit only by their indistinct screens, which means that the burden of making the sequence interesting lands heavily on the song itself. However, as Fenton puts it, “Alan’s way was kind of mesmeric” – this low-key, repetitious staging isn’t an oversight, but a purposeful aesthetic choice, and one which imbues the sequence with a hypnotic strangeness quite unlike any affect in the toolkit of your average film musical.
While we never get so much as glimpse at the game (or games) that the Vidkids are playing, beyond the nondescript MIDI bleeps and the lights that flash across their faces, there are some obvious possibilities. At one point in Billy’s grandstanding song, he declares “We’re here to guard the human race / There ain’t a poodle in the place / Triffids to reptile hyperspace”. Without corresponding on any specific level, the alien-invasion framing points to Space Invaders. Later, Sam refers to the café as “our East End asteroid”, which points to, well, Asteroids. Evidently the clientele’s taste skews towards late-1970s sci-fi arcade games.
As for the ultimate goal of the café patrons, one girl sings that their notional asteroid is “Twenty zillion pounds of thrust / Heading for Aquarius”, which invokes the idea of the Age of Aquarius – the astrological belief that humanity is on the brink of moving from one cosmic epoch to another, and that all suffering and conflict will soon be a thing of the past. This reflects the film’s wider themes of generational conflict and the overthrow by youth of an old, decrepit order, as instantiated by the rivalry between Billy and Maxwell.
“Earth’s a tiny speck of dust / You’re mutants in a sad circus / Thank God it’s you down there / Not us”, concludes Billy – smug, sneering, but still likeable because we know it’s all a lie. The penniless outsiders stake their ironic claim on infinite, astral majesty even as they stand huddled in a cramped and dingy basement, grinning back at the death’s-head of neoliberalism. There’s something admirable about this scene’s ferocious refusal to connect with the rest of the film: Billy praise of the Cosmic Café is pure poetry and metaphor; he never mentioned the place before, and once the song is over, he never refers to it again. Snooker, videogaming, and being a cowboy are each presented as the singular cornerstone of Billy’s life, but zero attempt is made to reconcile these obsessions or explain how or if they relate to one another. It’s as if our hero simply has parts of his life that are his alone – an inner life that’s beyond the story, and not for us to know about. (Well, I suppose Asteroids is a little bit like snooker?)
The next song, “I Bite Back”, is our second outright masterpiece. Mrs Randall is dusting the living-room, not a care in the world, when Maxwell comes storming into the room with a newspaper, just having read Billy’s attack on him in Miss Sullivan’s article. He is naturally apoplectic: “Oh, that East End misfit! That teenage toerag! That juvenile, jumped-up jack-the-lad! I’m gonna rip his heart out… and make him eat it… publicly!” In an utterly bizarre transition, the husband and wife turn wordlessly to the portrait of Dracula which hangs above their fireplace; as the church-organ overture begins, the camera zooms in on the portrait, and Dracula’s eyes glow silver-white. We then cut directly to the stage of a vast Art Deco opera house, where Mr and Mrs Randall stand in their own spotlights, the fourteen other Vipers forming semi-circle in the background. Maxwell has put on a suit jacket, but he’s still holding the paper as if he’s just seen it – we might actually presume that this scene is happening inside Maxwell’s mind, if not for the fact that we’ll see this location used as his base again later.
“I drive a Jugula / I’m an ordinary creature”, Maxwell insists softly. “I may appear bizarre / With my predatory features / But when little boys make noises of a defamatory nature / I bite back!” A grandstanding, Wagnerian musical number, this song provides a glimpse into the tortuous paradox of Maxwell’s mind: we witness the conflicts between his desire to maintain a respectable bourgeois image, his motivation to play into his profitable vampiric media persona, his need to conceal the fact that he is actually a literal vampire, and his hunger to destroy Billy Kid at any cost. This latter, of course, wins out in the end. Armstrong not being a singer, the operatics are provided by Ferret and the chorus: Mrs Randall encourages her husband warmly, unwaveringly – “Maxwell, mon amour / Maxwell, je t’adore!” – while the Vipers chant “He bites back!” again and again, egging him on into madness.
In one of the film’s best jokes, Maxwell’s vicious sung tirade against Billy is interspersed with brief cutaways in which The One and Miss Sullivan – whom we have never seen together before – are waltzing, in a dark room, while she asks him if he’s satisfied with her article and Maxwell’s reaction. The dramatic irony of The One and Miss Sullivan scheming together while Maxwell – egged on by his wife and the Vipers – storms about the stage of his vast theatre, growing increasingly, furiously grandiose and triumphalist, truly is something to behold. When Miss Sullivan playfully inquires as to The One’s plan, we realise she’s not actually a fully informed co-conspirator – and, indeed, she’s only mildly curious as to what purpose she’s serving. “I’ll keep you abreast of developments,” he promises. “That is part of our arrangement,” she agrees. The One is evidently bribing Miss Sullivan for her journalistic services, but we know he has no money, so we have to ask: is he paying her in sexual favours? That appears to be the implication! We only see Bruce Payne and Louise Gold interacting on-screen for 37 seconds, but their Gomez-and-Morticia chemistry is instantly riveting – it’s a real pity this bizarre relationship isn’t explored any further, though part of the scene’s brilliance is how casual and perfunctory it is. (Still, I’d like to see The One and Miss Sullivan Are Dead.)
Billy’s lengthy, detailed offensive tirade includes only one reference to Maxwell’s vampirism – towards the end, Billy calls him “the Green Baize Vampire”, in a throwaway manner that suggests it’s already a common nickname. Revealingly, this is also the only part that Maxwell actually seems to register: evidently his selling-out to the advertisement industry is something he’s insecure about – something he knows is hypocritical of him, considering his professed beliefs that the sanctity of this gentlemen’s game is being corrupted by the influence of television – so of course that’s the part he zeroes in on. Maxwell furiously denies insinuations that he possesses various vampiric traits, many of which are not even recognisably vampiric: “I don’t have albino alligators living in me bath / I never bit a Bible salesman – well, only for a laugh! / And it says here that when I dine, me meals glow in the dark?” Did Billy make such claims off-screen, or have these rumours about Maxwell’s vampirism long been accumulating, only for Billy’s offhand remark to be the last straw? Ironically, Maxwell’s response to being called a vampire is to become much more obviously a vampire. “I Bite Back” echoes the classic domestic-abuser’s order to “look what you made me do”; likewise, it’s quite prescient of the internet-era fascist’s claim that attacking conservatives will only “drive them further to the right”. Maxwell categorically denies being a vampire while also blaming those who call him a vampire for his vampiric retribution.
“I Bite Back” continues the film’s Brechtian themes, but in a slightly different way to “Supersonic Sam’s Cosmic Café”: this time, the characters are literally on a stage, complete with explicitly theatrical lighting and mise en scène. However, the metafiction aspect is interestingly counterpointed by the fact that neither Maxwell nor his wife ever address the camera or audience: it’s as if breaking the fourth wall is somehow sacred, a capability possessed only by decent characters with pure motivations.
The next song, “I’m the One”, is another fantastically catchy and memorable entry. The One, still suppressing his amusement at the interview, arrives at Billy’s flat to tell him and Egypt the news that Maxwell is planning to sue. However, they quickly get side-tracked into a catty argument about who is whose boss. “Bit different to the clobber you was wearing when we first met,” says The One to Billy – the BtKatGBV version of “This reminds me of a song…” However, where a more conventional film might have used a flashback to show our heroes’ first encounter, BtKatGBV goes for something much weirder: an impromptu, word-for-word re-enactment. In much the same way that “Supersonic Sam’s Cosmic Café” told the story of Sam’s meeting with Joe, complete with Sam and Joe performing their own lines, now “I’m the One” tells the story of The One’s meeting with Billy. It happened, we learn, two years ago, at a snooker dive bar called Violet’s. Billy was eighteen, hustling, and about to get himself hurt; The One was twenty, quick-witted, and opportunistic. Their back-and-forth reminiscences are accompanied by Fenton’s old-timey saloon-piano score – the song itself feels improvised, as if it’s emerging naturally, accidentally from the conversation. It’s not unlike the story of the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me”: The One lords it over Billy, claiming credit for everything Billy’s achieved since they met.
The country-music feel fits the setting of the performance, if not the setting of the events: Billy’s home is covered with cowboy and Western paraphernalia – buffalo horns on the wall, a miniature shooting gallery, a one-armed-bandit snooker-cue-holder. At no point does he discuss or attempt to justify his love for this stuff; it’s simply who he is, an arbitrary aesthetic in which he cloaks himself. Is Billy taking the piss? We genuinely don’t know.
This scene is fascinating to watch – not just because it’s a good song conveying interesting information, but because of the sheer density of layers it allows the performances to explore. The song doesn’t advance the plot at all – it consists purely of an exploration of the characters’ dynamic and history. Billy and The One recreate their first meeting in such detail that, when it’s over, we feel like we’ve actually seen it. But the version we do see has an additional layer of ironic context that comes, Pierre Menard-like, from the distance between the characters and their own experiences. Billy responds wryly, with mock exasperation, as if they’ve done this a thousand times before – all the musical numbers in this film have a comedic dimension, but with this one it seems like everyone’s having a laugh even diegetically. He even joins in the storytelling a couple of times, at one point even performing some of The One’s smarmy lines, imitating his skeevy mannerisms and rhetorical tics: “ENTER: T.O. Looking sharp. Checks the action. Moves to the jump. A cup of your, ah, finest Darjeeling, my good woman, and perhaps a little light refreshment to tit-illate the tonsils – the speciality du maison.” Their narration of their own first meeting sounds partly like they’re performing a readthrough of a script – complete with set descriptions and stage directions – and partly like they’re commentating a snooker match. While we might assume that they’re recreating their encounter line-for-line, it’s also entirely possible that they’ve streamlined and enhanced it – maybe even lightly fictionalised it. (Egypt, the sole audience for this double-act, sits on the couch for the entire duration of the scene, brilliantly conveying the surreal boredom of watching your boss and his manager perform a detailed duet about how they met.)
The meeting already feels legendary as it’s recounted to us. “They call me… The One. Tee… Oh,” he declares. “Fancy yourself, don’t you?” asks Billy, seeing right through the grandiose lie, yet still intrigued. (The character is actually referred to as “T.O.” throughout the film, with the sole exception of this moment; I just prefer to call him “The One” because sentences with full stops in the middle piss me off, and “TO” would look a bit too prepositional.) The One continues the story, telling how he bribed Billy to throw a game, leading to them becoming fast friends, with The One teaching Billy his worldly ways, turning his raw snooker talent into success. As the song approaches its climax, the electric guitar takes over and it shifts from saloon muzak to 1980s rock anthem, as if The One can no longer contain his feelings. “I’m the one / Who’s gonna take you to the top / Where everything you touch will turn to gold / And I’m the one who’ll be there right behind you, kid / The youngest, fastest, smartest, richest / Youngest, fastest, smartest, richest / Champion of the world”. For most of the song, Clarke’s minimalist choreography gives the actors nothing to work with physically, and they compensate in their own ways – Payne stealing the scene by playing up The One’s mercurial, twitchy, mannered body language, and Daniels (on slightly less sure footing, like a lead singer stranded on-stage during an instrumental solo) trying to find different ways to smile at The One’s litany of reminiscences and in-jokes.
But we’re still circling the elephant in the room, which is that The One is quite clearly in love with Billy. For much of the film, Payne and Daniels play their characters as standoffish, but here that tension stands revealed as the roleplay that it is: this song shows the deep affection and intimacy at the core of the relationship. They practically glow at each other. “I love that kid,” The One later tells the Wednesday Man, before course-correcting: “He’s like a brother to me.” Indeed.
To be clear, the film is not explicit about this. However, it’s entirely possible that the possible subtext at least crossed the mind of the director – Clarke had a career-spanning sympathy for queer characters, which fits with his more general fascination with repressive, authoritarian forces and systems, and those want to escape or overthrow them. As early as 1972, Clarke directed Under the Age, a film about a night in the life of a trans barmaid. Penda’s Fen, Clarke’s only fantasy film other than BtKatGBV, focuses on the coming-of-age of a gay teenager – with some dream sequences that are quite startling for 1974 – and links the protagonist’s “mixed” sexuality to his status as a kind of hybrid neo-pagan messiah. (Indeed, the scene where the boy’s sexual awakening is represented as a straddling incubus might be the most iconic moment in all of Clarke’s work – if you’ve ever stayed up reading threads about horrifying supernatural experiences, you’ve seen it in gif form.) The homoerotic is also a major theme in the borstal drama Scum, whose central character persuades another boy to be his “missus” for the duration of their imprisonment, insisting all the while that he’s “no poof”. Meanwhile, the macho football hooligans in The Firm mockingly refer to each other as girls so often that it starts to look pathological – they call each other “sweetheart” and “love” and “darling” jokingly; kiss each other on the mouth ironically; the poor lads wouldn’t need football at all if they realised they could just ride each other. Meanwhile, Rita, Sue, and Bob Too – Clarke’s third and final cinematic release – is a rare and early example of a positive mainstream portrayal of polyamory. The One’s relationship with Billy, I think, fits a larger pattern here.
There’s no overt romance in this film, as such – no open sexuality, no stated desire. Indeed, its studious avoidance of the subject sits a little strangely with its otherwise archetypal storytelling – the fact that there’s no girl for our underdog hero to love from afar and eventually win is unusual in this genre. One scene pointedly begins with the sound of a woman’s enthusiastic moaning, only for the joke to be that Mrs Randall just really enjoys giving her husband a pre-match shoulder-rub. But to say that there’s no sexuality here is another way to say that everything is sexuality – it’s just sublimated into the game everyone’s obsessed with, displaced onto snooker itself, into the physical and performative pleasure of the sport, with all its deferred pleasure and domination and thrusting cue-and-balls action. This is no accident: the film is conscious enough of its eroticisation of snooker to make a joke about it later, with Big Jack Jay, who looks at a snooker table the way Tex Avery’s wolf looks at that girl. Also note the rather suggestive way Billy cleans his cue while making eye contact with The One during the climax of Jack’s song. There’s even something vaguely queer about the characters’ broader community, the Vidkids – an illicit, persecuted alternative subculture who meet in secret clubs, communicate in their own jargon-heavy dialect, and thrash together onanistically in the darkness.
Now, I’m not necessarily suggesting that the characters are in a relationship (though that’s a possible reading), or that either or both of them are aware of their feelings, or even that The One’s passion is entirely reciprocated (though they do reminisce about a time they shared a hotel room; perfectly innocent, I’m sure); but it’s clear that the dynamic between Billy and The One is much more intense than friendship. The One’s given name – as he reminds us, repeatedly, at the top of his voice – is literally his vow of dedication to Billy; his identity is subsumed in this goal utterly, inextricably. (That is, unless his legal name is D’wahn Hoosgunnataykyootoothetopp-Wayrevrythingyootutchwilturntoogold, which, considering the rest of the film, cannot entirely be ruled out.) On closer inspection, there’s even something faintly somatic about that promise – The One emphasises first how Billy is the youngest champion, as if he’s particularly keen on Billy’s youth and physique for some reason. (“I’m the one who’ll be there right behind you”, eh?) Admittedly, The One does seem to be involved with Miss Sullivan, but we also know that his interactions with her are purely to advance his plans for his future with Billy. (Of course, it’s entirely possible that The One is simply bisexual, which would also support the John Constantine hypothesis.)
The whole of BtKatGBV is build on dichotomies and binaries. Maxwell and Mrs Randall exist in a state of codependent conservative heteronormative married life; we know that Billy and The One are their opposites in every way. The logical conclusion is obvious. Billy’s vanity licence plate reads “KID1”, but we know who that “1” really stands for – what that juxtaposition really means.
The next song, “BtKatGBV (Practice Practice Practice)”, is the film’s real musical highlight. Coming once the match has been finalised and agreed upon, it’s a sort of 1980s power ballad sung by Miss Sullivan, the best character: “Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire / Meet in thirteen days / The scene is set, the talking done / The gloves are off, the money’s on”. Though the sequence regularly cuts back to Miss Sullivan, it consists mainly of footage of the players training. We see Billy practising at his Old West flat, with The One and Egypt standing by to give moral support, but also at the Cosmic Café – a snooker table has been brought in, and the Vidkids have arranged their arcade cabinets around it. Meanwhile, Maxwell is keeping pace, supported by his wife at their vampiric lair and by the Vipers at the opera house, where they stand in formation around an on-stage snooker table, politely clapping Maxwell’s trick shots. The chant, “Practice, practice, practice”, is recited by the bohemian Vidkids and the socialite Vipers in unison: Billy’s and Maxwell’s goals are the same. This is the eye of the storm.
Clarke films the song similarly to “Supersonic Sam’s Cosmic Café”, but if anything, “Practice Practice Practice” is even more mysterious: Miss Sullivan stands in a dark void, lights flickering across her face, and zero attempt is made to communicate where she is or to whom she’s talking. Indeed, she manages to describe specific shots that Billy and Maxwell are practising, despite not seeming to be present with either of them: “That’s the champ, he’s tangoing with a safety play / The kid is shooting from the hip, banging off the baize / Maxie whacks it blindfold, his radar expert-set…” The only diegetic reading that comes close to making sense is that Miss Sullivan is actually also a broadcaster, working in television or radio, and that her song is a news report about the upcoming match. Another possibility is that she’s simply talking to us, the audience; and since she has the honour of being the only character to actually say the words “Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire” – indeed, this is the only time anyone actually says “Billy the Kid” – that feels about right.
Having drifted slightly, the film refocuses on its Brechtian aspect, cutting between marvellously artificial theatrical environments and a character singing directly to us, like a Greek chorus narrating events. Billy performed “Supersonic Sam’s Cosmic Café” to Miss Sullivan, who served as our point of view during that sequence, but Miss Sullivan herself requires no such intermediary – outdoing Billy, she really does sing directly to the audience.
The song’s central paradox is clear from its title: on the one hand, it’s the film’s title theme, tasked with capturing its tone and atmosphere, but on the other, it’s the score to the mid-film training montage, a very specific moment with a particular purpose. The lyrics attempt to synthesise both roles, with Miss Sullivan weaving from grandiose, sweeping delight at snooker itself to the nitty-gritty details of the training regimes.
It’s difficult to overstate how good Louise Gold is here, playing what could so easily have been a forgettable minor character. She’s a great singer – certainly the best in the film – and handles the song’s dual nature well, deftly shifting between ethereal enrapturement and low, snarling enthusiasm, never losing her faint trace of amusement at the absurdity of her circumstances. It’s an incredible performance, and not just in terms of the vocals: she somehow manages to make Miss Sullivan seem mischievously amused at her part in engineering this rivalry, but also genuinely exhilarated by the momentous events she’s been privileged to help set in motion. The one moment she breaks eye contact with the camera – early in the song, when her breathless, winning glee tips over into demented laughter – is simply one of the best moments in the film.
A close reading of BtKatGBV shows that everything leading up to Miss Sullivan’s song takes place over a 24-hour period. (If we’re attentive, we can see that the film’s “streets” are lit more evenly during the “day”, and sparsely – sometimes red – at “night”.) The match with Floyd and the game with the Spook take place on a Wednesday evening, with The One rushing to pay his debt before midnight; this means that The One goes to Miss Sullivan that Thursday morning, that she interviews Maxwell at noon and Billy soon after, and that she quickly writes up her article for the evening paper. The practice montage takes place over the following thirteen days, and the remainder of the film is set on the big Wednesday, meaning that Miss Sullivan’s song neatly divides the film into two discrete acts. (Sorry, Syd Field.)
Needless to say, the film didn’t get a proper soundtrack album, but bizarrely, two songs did somehow get released as an actual single on 7″ vinyl. The record’s A-side is “Practice Practice” – which must have been nice for Louise Gold, who consequently gets top billing – with “S.S.C.C” as the B-side. Good choices – they’re certainly among the film’s best songs. The most interesting thing about this single, however, is the credits for the supporting performers: the backing singers at the Cosmic Café and the opera are referred to, respectively, as “The Vidkids” and “The Vipers”. Although I’ve been using these names, they never actually appear in the film or its credits, so it’s impossible to say whether they originated in the script or were simply coined to avoid having to pack individual credits for the thirty-odd performers onto the record. Either way, they’re fantastic names, perfectly capturing both the goofy retrofuturism of the Cosmic Café and the venomous, ancient evil of Maxwell’s people, as well as hinting at the strange, inexplicable commonalities of these two groups. (Confusingly, the record credits Fenton and music producer Ray Russell as co-writing the lyrics of both songs with Preston, so it seems that Preston’s screen credit as sole lyricist might not be entirely accurate.)
Sadly, this record is basically the only BtKatGBV release apart from the film itself. Well, that and the surprisingly wide range of publicity photos, which give us a nice look at the fantastic sets and costumes that the film’s murky cinematography sometimes makes it difficult to appreciate. For some reason, these photos are available for purchase in high resolution from various stock-image sites. Presumably they were taken because some poor fucker involved in the production actually thought the film might be a success.
The streak of absolute bangers is arguably broken with the next song, “Snooker (So Much More Than Just a Game)”. The second half of the film takes place largely in Big Jack Jay’s, a snooker club. Jack himself, played hilariously by Neil McCaul, is the owner and compere, a weirdo and eccentric even by the film’s standards: when the crowds arrive, he steps into the arena with his iridescent green suit and Morrissey pompadour, and introduces the players via a passionate, manic song about the greatness of snooker. Everyone in BtKatGBV is obsessed with snooker, but Jack makes the rest look like casuals.
It’s essentially a cameo appearance (or would be if McCaul were a famous singer or actor, which he’s not) – Jack shows up before the match, sings a song about the greatness of snooker, and vanishes without so much as a single line of proper dialogue. McCaul isn’t a very good singer, but this sort of works to the film’s advantage: after BtKatGBV has so thoroughly built up its two supportive, consolidated communities – one good, the other evil – seeing both sides of the café/opera divide unite to cheer this manic, wired creep’s shrill, nasal, frankly fetishistic snooker anthem is so surrealistically cathartic that it’s almost moving. Any Father Ted fans willing to squint very hard might also recognise Big Jack Jay as a younger version of Father Terry from “A Christmassy Ted”. Presumably his overenthusiastic love of snooker eventually landed him in trouble, but he joined the priesthood and managed to sublimate his passion safely into lingerie. It looks a bit like snooker pockets if you use your imagination.
Jack is the only character in the film who dances, as well as the only one who uses a microphone. Oddly, this makes his song feel both greater and lesser than the others at once. “Snooker” is the only track in the film that has a logical diegetic reason to exist – Jack is an entertainer running a club, so he incorporates some song and dance into his intro routine. What makes this touch of realism amusing is that the song actually contains a lot of detailed information about the players, their backstories, and the nature of their rivalry, so we actually feel as if Jack must have spent quite a while carefully writing it beforehand. On the other hand, Billy, Maxwell, The One, Miss Sullivan, and Mrs Randall – along with, to an extent, the Vidkids and the Vipers – have no need for microphones, instruments, or music equipment: as the chosen central characters of a musical, they have the innate ability to transform their thoughts and emotions into perfect songs that spontaneously warp reality around them. Poor Jack has no such powers – he’s like an extra who’s clawed his way to a lead role through sheer verve and enthusiasm. But despite – or perhaps because of – this, he’s the most beloved character in the world of BtKatGBV, the only one whom literally everyone knows, likes, and respects. Perhaps we should all try to be more like Big Jack Jay.
For the most part, BtKatGBV presents a world where the middle class does not exist – where millionairdom and the dole are the only two states of existence possible. Jack, however, describes himself as “A self-made man who’s comfortable / At the dog-track or the opera” – the only being neutral enough to host this duel. It seems he’s the same sort of homunculus as Stewart Lee, calibrated to be the most perfectly middle-class man in Britain.
While it’s a fun sequence, the song simply isn’t conventionally good the way that the last few were – like “Green Stamps”, it’s weird enough to be memorable but not actually very enjoyable as a piece of music. Jack’s genuine, pure love of snooker is truly infectious: as the song goes on, it picks up momentum, gaining particular power when the Vidkids and the Vipers find themselves joining in, unified in something for the last time. It’s enough to make even the most evil characters smile in spite of themselves. (For the most part, BtKatGBV avoids the naïve bothsidesism of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis – later scenes make it quite clear that the Vidkids are decent people, and that the Vipers are reactionary bullies – so these brief moments where the two groups find some commonality are touching rather than grating. The film condemns its profiteering capitalists and gangster antagonists, but it never suggests their passion for snooker is anything but pure – that is unassailable.) We also get some especially great moments when the song incorporates references to earlier ones, using them as a form of diegetic theme music, similar to the songs played when boxers or wrestlers step into a ring. When Maxwell is introduced, the Vipers chant “He bites back!”, which sounds like a credible sports tagline; but when Billy steps out, the Vidkids chant “Supersonic Sam’s Cosmic Café!”, as if the community’s name is self-evidently Billy’s theme – it’s nicely brazen.
Jack’s lyrics are the closest the film comes to actually discussing why everyone loves snooker so much: “Cricket’s dull, golf’s a bore, squash is posh and bruising / Football’s foul, horses lose, Olympic Games – confusing / But snooker! / Snooker… / Snooker! / Snooker!!! / Ooohhh… / Snooker, snooker, snooker / So much more than just a game / It’s as they say, a way of life, a world within a frame”. And there is something “universal” about the game – how the rigidly perfect set-up, like a singularity, explodes into entropy to form a unique and complex world; how the balls vanish one by one, like particles sputtering out as heat death draws near, restoring the green abyss so that the cosmic cycle can begin anew. But the film doesn’t make this explicit: its analysis halts as if snooker is as fundamental as breathing; as if questioning it is impossible. Jack’s love of the game is – at least as played by McCaul – ultimately a joke. His bug-eyed leering, ecstatic gurning, and delirious enthusiasm, while fun, don’t actually communicate much – he remains more caricature than character.
The idea of a film about snooker (let alone a musical-vampire-etc one) may appear wilfully obscure or ridiculous to modern eyes, but BtKatGBV didn’t seem quite so absurd at the time, as snooker was one of the most popular sports in mid-1980s UK. The BBC’s snooker programme Pot Black – introduced in 1969 specifically because the game worked so well with the newly-introduced colour television – did a great deal to popularise the sport, and was still running at the time of the film’s release.
The film’s snooker action is totally convincing: Daniels and Armstrong were coached by professional player Geoff Foulds, and perform all of their own shots, including the difficult and elaborate ones – no stunt-doubles here. The way Clarke films the snooker, however, is one aspect of BtKatGBV that hasn’t aged so well. It’s perfectly fine if you’re accustomed to the game’s rigidly isometric presentation on programmes like Pot Black, but subsequent developments in snooker television – the standardisation of the multi-camera set-up, dynamic, swooping camerawork, slow-motion replays, and even computer visualisations – leave the film feeling a little static and inert. You can get considerably livelier and more engaging snooker cinematography on BBC Two. (If there’s one real oversight in the film’s use of the game, however, it’s that it glosses over its strategic and mechanical elements – nobody ever even gets snookered, for instance.)
Regardless of its popularity, it’s not difficult to see why Preston was drawn to snooker and its milieu: it’s just a really weird, interesting game. The emphasis on strategy, geometry, and multiple interacting “pieces” positions snooker closer to chess than to sports which prioritise athleticism or quick action (though snooker involves those, too, in its own stately way). Snooker combines the endless physical and kinetic possibility of ball sports with the discrete and deliberate pacing of turn-based tabletop strategy games – it is, strictly speaking, both of these things at once. It is entwined, in a much more obvious way than most games, with the ideas of the random and the infinite: where there are twelve ways to start a chess game, there are an effectively unlimited number of ways to start a snooker frame, and every one of them will result in a genuinely unique state of play, never before seen. People joke that incompetent politicians are secretly playing “4D chess”, but snooker, in its full Newtonian majesty, actually does come pretty close to being chess with an extra dimension: the Z-axis, though tricky, is playable terrain, and balls can legally be bounced over one another – even, in some exceptional flukes, along the top of the cushion – in ways that would seem absurd in the context of conventional turn-based board games. (Perhaps this is the reason for the black-and-white chequered floor in Big Jack Jay’s.) There’s also a strongly theatrical element to the sport – with two players and a referee in a room rather than two entire teams diffused across a pitch, it’s resembles football less than it resembles wrestling (that is, if wrestling were near-silent and invited studied viewing and psychological commentary). The sheer weirdness of focusing on such a parochial and complex game – rather than billiards or pool, like the vast majority of cultural depictions of cue sports – imbues BtKatGBV with a great deal of personality, and is a perfect emblem of its structural and thematic commitment to obscure brilliance. It also has to be mentioned that snooker is excellent on a purely aesthetic level, and features the most semiotically dense arrangement of spheres this side of the Kabbalah. When HP Lovecraft describes Yog-Sothoth as “a congeries of iridescent globes”, I cannot help but see a set of cosmic snooker balls, laid out for play.
After an opening frame in which Billy is demolished by Maxwell, when all hope seems lost, the soundtrack rebounds with “Kid to Break”, a brilliant, horror-tinged anxiety anthem which is also the film’s most impressive visual set-piece. Between frames, the players sit facing another, together for the first time in the film. Billy is petrified, but Maxwell smiles widely, mesmerisingly, unsettlingly, like a villain in a David Lynch film (the Mystery Man in Lost Highway, if we’re being specific, though the music and blocking here is more like a Black Lodge scene). It appears that Maxwell is using his vampiric powers to place Billy into a state of hypnosis: the light changes, lowering us into a green abyss scanned by roving, delirious spotlights, the starfield of glitter embedded in the grey walls glimmering strangely. It’s clear we’re now in a different headspace. Throughout this scene, the two sides of the audience engage in a psychic tug-of-war, the Vipers taunting Billy into despair and the Vidkids attempting to restore his focus. Billy goes to the table, but the balls are gone, and the Vipers begin singing a slow, eerie, mocking chant: “Kid to break / Kid to break / Frame four, kid to break / Yellow, green, brown, blue, pink, black / Max has got him kicking like a pig in a sack”.
This song gives us some of Preston’s finest, most vivid lyrics, as Billy attempts to grapple with his nightmare: “Policemen in the pockets / The balls are out on strike / Dracula plays marbles with your eyes / The game is out-of-order / Your brain tied in a knot / And the fingers on your hands feel like ten knives / You’re walking underwater / Your throat is dry as rust / Your confidence has just been cauterised / Personality disorders / Your cue twists like a snake / The vampire’s going to bite you down to size”. Although Daniels plays the sequence as dead-eyed and blank-faced, singing only feebly, Billy’s tormented, hollow despair is painted vividly for us by that cavalcade of unique, weird, yet instantly clear metaphors, which effectively and authentically communicate the feeling of being trapped in an awful, illogical dream. All the while, the Vipers repeat their taunt, again and again, in different tones: “Kid to break / Kid to break / Frame four, Kid to break”.
It’s a shame that Preston’s depression caused him to withdraw from the production of BtKatGBV, but it seems that it also enabled him to imbued the script’s bleaker moments with a crushing emotional reality. Fenton also works wonders here: his delicate, eerie use of violin is genuinely a little unsettling, recalling the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and at several points he manipulates the performers’ vocals so that they soar into high-pitched shrieks towards the end of lines, sometimes echoing eerily afterwards. More than anything, however, “Kid to Break” resembles “The Trial” from Pink Floyd’s The Wall, which was released eight years earlier. The overall concept and structure – a song alternating between a frail defendant and his vicious, mocking, and operatic prosecutors, as his nightmares are literalised, come true, and surround him – is almost exactly the same. Billy’s line about marbles seems to confirm that the song was indeed inspired by Pink’s own despairing mental breakdown: “Crazy / Toys in the attic / I am crazy / Surely gone fishing / They must have taken my marbles away”.
Alan Clarke was a thematically and politically coherent storyteller, but he was also a technically skilled director. One of his signature techniques was to shoot extremely long takes, the most iconic example probably being Lesley Sharp’s intense stream-of-consciousness walking monologue in Road, which lasts for almost four and a half minutes. Since BtKatGBV is set in a cramped labyrinth, it doesn’t provide much opportunity for that sort of thing (apart from Miss Sullivan’s interview with Billy, which was probably why the film’s square-corridor set was constructed in the first place). In “Kid to Break”, however, Clarke really gets to indulge his fascination with long-takes, using them (along with unsettling lighting and a wide-angle lens) to create an oneiric atmosphere conveying the existential terror of Billy’s predicament. The sequence contains two astonishing long-takes. The first, which lasts three minutes and twenty-three seconds, follows Billy as he stands and walks to the snooker table, pulls back to reveal that it’s empty, glides up to the taunting Vipers, descends to show us Billy’s traumatised self-pity, then rockets up to focus on the Vidkids, who sing to Billy like loved ones trying to wake a coma patient: “You need another bad frame, boy / Like a fish needs a bicycle / Max is cooler than a marble tombstone / Hot as the devil’s hoof / He’s powdered the table with doom dust / And he’s wearing Count Dracula’s shoes” (?!). Finally, we glide back down to show Billy’s horror as the frame is given to Maxwell, with the balls having somehow returned. The tone is so dreamlike, and the camerawork so gentle, that the viewer hardly notices this has all happened in a single take. When this display of technical mastery ends, the momentum is carried by the drama: we cut to Maxwell, who strides to the table, triumphantly reprising “I Bite Back” and weaving its lyrics into “Kid to Break”. In what might be the film’s most openly crazy moment yet, Maxwell openly uses telekinesis to pot two balls.
Although Clarke’s initial spell has been broken, the scene gives us another long-take, this one two minutes and ten seconds in duration – Maxwell stalks over to harass a cowering Billy, speak-singing some colourful threats to the song’s now-quasi-military beat: “So, you spiky little squirt / You pathetic little tit / Think that you can beat me? / Your epitaph is writ / I’ll pulverise you publicly / I’ll crack you like a flea / There can only be one number one / And that number one is me!” (An hour into the film, this is the first – actually the only – time we ever see the hero and villain interact directly.) The vampire returns to his seat, not having taken a shot, and the referee announces that Maxwell has won the sixth frame. In the same shot, the camera drifts up to the audience: horribly, the Vidkids are now laughing at Billy (even The One and Egypt), leaving the leering, malevolent Mrs Randall to perform a haunting solo opera rendition of the chorus, her voice almost like a theremin, evincing the same joy she showed as she sang Maxwell on, but now with a cruel edge: “Kid to break / Kid to break / Frame six, Kid to break…” We drift back down to Billy, whose sanity seems to be dissolving; the referee smiles widely, revealing fangs, and it’s genuinely unclear whether this is part of Billy’s hallucinatory episode or Maxwell has actually bitten him. Billy, seeming not to notice, sings to himself: “It’s time for true confessions / Your back’s against the wall / You’re five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten frames behind / And it’s Kid to break”. (One gets the sense that the entire sequence would ideally have been a single extreme long-take, but perhaps that wasn’t feasible; in any case, it was probably worth splitting it in two to allow for those SFX shots showing Maxwell’s powers.)
“Kid to Break” ends, quite abruptly, with The One shaking Billy awake in his dressing-room. Billy blearily asks what the score is, and is told he’s eight-nil down. All of which raises the question: how much of “Kid to Break” actually happened? Was it a hypnotically-induced hallucination, a horrible mid-session fever-dream, a metaphorical representation of the experience of absolutely tanking the first half of a snooker match, or some combination of all three? Did Maxwell simply block Billy’s ability to see the balls, with everything else playing out as we saw it? Obviously, the Vidkids didn’t really laugh at Billy, and presumably Maxwell didn’t actually use his telekinesis quite so openly. That is, unless he also hypnotised the audience, either to make everyone support him or to blind them to what he was doing, in which case the entire sequence could well be literal – or as literal as the rest of the film, anyway. The irresolvable weirdness here, of course, is that BtKatGBV is a trippy allegorical fever-dream in general – that’s just how this film operates on a baseline level – so it’s very difficult to parse when it multiplies that by attempting an even more non-literal sequence.
After all that borderline psychological horror, the film needs a bit of a breather, which we get in the next song, “Quack Quack”. While Billy and Maxwell are in their dressing-rooms for the mid-session break, the Vidkids and the Vipers are at opposite sides of Big Jack Jay’s bar, each group keeping to their own. Their spatial positioning here even matches their location on the political spectrum – the Vidkids on the left of the room, looking like Siouxsie and the Banshees, and the Vipers on the right, looking like the attendees at the Overlook Hotel ball. Inevitably, the class tension boils over – into song! When the Vipers drink to “Maxwell Randall, OBE. A real snooker player, eh? And a gentleman,” one of the Vidkids derisively taunts “Quack, quack”. This does not go down well with the Vipers, so the Vidkids repeat the taunt as their foes spontaneously sing Daily Mail comments across the room. “Very funny / Quack / Think you’re funny / Quack / No more lip from you / Quack, quack / Take no notice / Think they’re clever / I know what I’d do / Quack, quack / National service / Tan their arses / Throw them down the pits / Quack, quack / Cut their hair off / Scrub their faces / Cover up their whatsits”. The music in this first half of the song, with the Vidkids taking the lead, is heavily orchestral – grandiose and ominous.
After a brief cutaway to a dialogue scene with Billy and The One, the song continues, with the Vidkids now articulating their response properly. In contrast to the Vipers’ generalised attacks, the Vidkids pick out two specific members of the Viper group and tear them down with withering descriptions of their lives. First they single out one of the male ringleaders: “Bald at thirty / Bites his nails / Joined the SDP / Buys French lettuce / Gets all saucy / Famine fruit pays free / Bites o’clock / Check the payslip / Grovel to the boss…” Most of these lines don’t actually refer to any particular upper-class stereotypes, seeming more like snide aesthetic condemnation, but the Vipers are visibly unsettled by this sudden shift from obstinate taunting to articulate specifics. The Vidkids don’t even need to insult the Vipers – they just describe them flatly, like when you reply to a creep on Twitter simply by posting a screenshot of their profile photo and bio.
As the Vidkids switch their focus to another of the instigators, some of them resume the “quack” taunt, now as an underscore to the mockery: “Mock log fires (quack) / Carbon rollers (quack quack) / Cleans her teeth six times a day (quack quack) / Friday night is hanky-panky (quack quack) / Twice a week on holiday”. The ease with which the Vidkids switch between barely lexical nonsense, cutting insight, and finally both at the time serves as a fantastic power move, demonstrating how quick and clever their rhetoric is but also communication how little they care to engage the Vipers at their game in the first place. The Vipers are easily agitated, their facade of English properness disintegrating into a foaming gammon rage at the mildest antagonism; when the Vidkids reclaim their dignity with precision and control, the Vipers are too embarrassed even to look at each other. The ornate, vivid directness of Preston’s dialogue really shines here, and the film deftly takes the opportunity to weave specific personal drama with general comedy – brilliantly, the fifteen-second cutaway in which The One confesses his crime actually functions as a drop in the song, with Billy’s incredulous “You went for a fix?” leading right into the Vidkids’ reprisal. “Quack Quack” is the film’s least important song – could be removed without affecting the story at all – but it’s a deceptively fun bit of padding, enriching the broader thematic system of BtKatGBV by giving the spotlight to the chorus. How many musical films devote entire songs to nameless non-speaking extras?
The film’s climactic sequence is set to another fantastic song, “It’s the Fame Game”. When the vampire’s onslaught reaches the ninth frame, it seems that all is lost. “You’re finished,” mutters Maxwell, lining up an important shot. “Flash young bugger.” (Famous last words – he doesn’t speak again in the film.) When Maxwell pots the deciding pink, it really does seem like it’s over – until the cue ball goes in-off. Seizing this impossible opportunity, Billy wins his first frame. This reversal of fortunes ushers in a triumphant musical number in which Billy, seemingly struck by a premonition, sings a second-person present-tense account of the day, later in the year, that he will eventually become the snooker world champion: “As you’re walking through the hotel / The sugar mice all stare / They nudge each other, whisper / I’ve seen him somewhere / Were it on the telly? / He’s that cocky cockney kid…” It’s as if Billy is in a trance: where before he could not even see the balls, now he pots them effortlessly, unstoppably, as he sings himself into a better life. His descriptions, for the most part, are actually very mundane: “Outside the doorman winks / As you step in the limousine / You’ve kept the driver waiting / But he smiles like Vaseline / There’s only one hand on his watch / Egg stains on his tie…” But this just serves to ground this transcendent song with a measure of realism – we feel that all of this really is destined, that it really will come to pass. Has there ever been a more perfect depiction of imposing one’s will on the world than singing while scoring a break in snooker? The montage compresses large spans of time, skipping past many shots and jumping from one frame to the next, but Billy’s five-minute song never misses a beat. Gloriously, there is literally no way to parse this that makes diegetic sense – it’s almost as if the characters themselves experience the match as a montage. (In true Brechtian fashion, there are a couple of shots in which we can see a crew member standing on the edge of the screen; one of these has Daniels pull off a very impressive – possibly even accidental – stunt where a red ball bounces from one corner pocket into another, which presumably couldn’t be reshot.)
The most significant influence on “It’s the Fame Game” is probably the Beatles’ best song, “A Day in the Life” – specifically the middle section by Paul McCartney, which also consists of a second-person present-tense stream-of-consciousness monologue about someone going about mundane everyday activities and travelling through an English city, culminating in an abrupt transition to the sublime. It’s all very Joycean.
Considering that this is the climactic battle, there’s something strangely powerful about the decision to set it to such relaxed, cheerful music. “It’s the Fame Game”, along with Daniels’s sublimely confident performance, is so joyful that the tension of the previous scenes is totally, completely deflated – if anything, we’re actually more nervous for Maxwell, thanks in part to Armstrong’s excellently panicky performance. Maxwell brutalises Billy for the first half of the match, and Billy utterly destroys Maxwell in the second – the momentum of this film really does turn on a dime. If there’s a flaw in this resolution, it’s that nothing specific actually happens to enable the personal growth that Billy’s transition from despair to omnipotence clearly symbolises – there’s no evident reason for him to be useless one moment and brilliant the next. A slightly more conventional film might have had The One shout something from the sidelines, reminding Billy of some progressive value and breaking him out of his fugue. However, the raw, unapologetic arbitrariness of Billy’s last-minute change has a certain atavistic appeal – the psychologically tortured modern protagonist is galvanised, becoming classically, mythically, perfectly heroic. Billy wasn’t a particularly complex character, but those traits and contradictions he did have are erased, cleansed, resolved into perfection.
It seems to me that this is also, in an odd way, quite psychologically realistic, particularly in light of Preston’s state of mind. Depression is not always something that the sufferer can logick their way out of; and there is something to be said for seizing those moments where one’s brain chemistry happens to be favourable. Sometimes there is no argument, no logical case that will make a person all right – sometimes all you really can do is hope. Billy does not grow to become a better person, or learn thematically convenient lessons, in the way that is conventional for film protagonists. But then again, not many of us do.
The one-dimensional nature of the nominal hero isn’t really a problem, since we understand that the match is a clash of communities rather than individuals. The constant back-and-forth chant of the Vipers and the Vidkids, “Maxie! Maxie! / Kid, Kid, Kid!”, never lets this slip from our minds. The One and Miss Sullivan are considerably richer characters than Billy, so their contributions to the final song go a great way towards making us root for him.
The last time we saw The One interact with Billy, they were locked in Killing Joke rictus laughter, leaving the extent to which Billy had forgiven him for attempting to fix the match behind his back unclear – an unsatisfying note on which to leave the story of their relationship. Now, though, in the midst of “It’s the Fame Game” – as Billy’s friends begin to realise he’s actually in with a chance – the song swerves into a reprise of “I’m the One”. Standing unbidden, he sings triumphantly: “I’m the one who’s gonna take you to the top / Where everything you touch will turn to gold!” Billy’s last words with The One were about how the promise of latter’s name was a lie, but now we see The One reaffirming that promise, sincerely, gloriously – not only has Billy forgiven him, he’s saved The One’s identity. It’s an incredibly cathartic moment.
Next, we hear the melody of “Practice Practice Practice” re-emerge, and Miss Sullivan stands to reprise her own song, as if the events unfolding before her are too exhilarating to merely watch: “It’s the classic confrontation / The generation game! / The vampire’s hits are yesterday / If the kid can win the frame!” This moment is a particular highlight of Gold’s performance, a showcase for her incredible energy – it’s as if she’s performing the song with her entire body. She’s also a goth now for some reason. I really do think Miss Sullivan is the best character in cinematic history.
The lyrics towards the end of the song, during the penultimate lull in the action, include some of the most genuinely beautiful imagery in the film: “The crowd goes quiet, you’re introduced / You step into the light / Fifteen million snooker fans / Are watching you tonight / Unfinished thoughts flash through your mind / Like torn telegrams / You win the toss / You chalk your cue / Breathe in deep – you’re on”.
Several songs in BtKatGBV serve to expand the story beyond the confines of its on-screen action. Where “Supersonic Sam’s Cosmic Café” portrayed Joe’s first meeting with Sam, and “I’m the One” re-enacted Billy’s first encounter with The One, now “It’s the Fame Game” does the same thing, but for a future event – the day Billy becomes world champion. Billy is singing about something we’ll never see, but because his description is accompanied by vaguely comparable on-screen events, we feel as if we’ve seen it – the impact lands. It’s a similar device to that used by Martin Scorsese at the end of The Color of Money, or Damien Chazelle at the end of Whiplash; if a story provides enough details about what will happen depending on its ending, it can end satisfyingly on its climactic action, with no need for a denouement. Ending a story with the climax might not always be the best choice, but it is always a powerful and impactful one; certainly it’s the approach which best stimulates the audience’s imagination, asking us to write our own ending and participate in deciding the story’s overall meaning in a way that neat tied-up-with-a-bow resolutions don’t. It’s enhanced films as different as The Karate Kid and David Cronenberg’s The Fly.
“It’s the Fame Game” gives us what might be the film’s single most ridiculous moment (which is saying a lot), as well as its most thematically daring. When Billy, playing better and better, leans confidently across the table, we see that the spur on his cowboy boot is rotating like a circular-saw blade, reflecting the snooker-hall spotlight directly into Maxwell’s wide and frightened eyes, where the light refracts into the shape of a cross. (The spur itself is shaped like a little leg, which has a tiny boot of their its, the spinning blades radiating from it like medieval-art halos.)
The cross of light is not the only Christian reference in the film. When Billy sings the glory of the Cosmic Café, he declares, “Thank God it’s you down there / Not us”, but this seems like a figure of speech. When Billy is exasperated at The One, he says “Oh, Jesus,” and when Maxwell is whipping himself into a vindictive rage at Billy, he sings, “By Christ, I’m gonna teach ya”; but these are mere colloquialisms. In “Quack Quack”, the Vipers decry the Vidkids, saying that they “Don’t want to work / Don’t give two shits / And they don’t believe in God”, but it’s clear that their own Christianity is nothing but a signifier of class and tradition – they attack the poor for skipping church, but the most honoured member of their own community is a literal unholy monster. Other times, however, there’s a frisson of real religious power. After the referee declares the fifth frame Maxwell’s, Billy cries out, “They’re crucifying me, T!” When he looks up to see his friends laughing down at him, renouncing him in his moment of pain and humiliation, it’s a genuinely crucifixional moment; we almost expect Billy to ask why The One has forsaken him.
Make no mistake: the subject of Christ’s sacrifice is being invoked here. We are being told that the incarnation of God took place in this strange world of cramped subterranean cities – that the Holy Spirit suffuses this universe of dingy arcades and crumbling theatres. Of course: what else is diegetic Brechtian stylisation on film but an affirmation of intelligent design? The film’s conflict is a fractal of dichotomies. The individual: Billy Kid vs Maxwell Randall. The persona: Billy the Kid vs the Green Baize Vampire. The icon: cowboy vs vampire. The medium: video games vs opera. The culture: low vs high. Poor vs rich. New vs old. Urban vs rural. South vs north. Hustling vs acting. Punk vs establishment. Youth vs decrepitude. Weird vs gothic. Life vs death. Billy the Kid vs Dracula. Now we’re essentially being told that this snooker match, this rivalry between Billy and Maxwell, goes all the way to the top – that this is, in some sense, a film about the conflict between God and Satan.
The cross manifests twice – both times during moments where the music crescendos. The first time, Billy looks smug, but the second, there’s an instant where he glances back at Maxwell, startled, as if he’s been afforded a momentary glimpse, an understanding of the story of which he has become a part. The vampire is transfixed by the cross, horrified, paralysed. Both Billy and Maxwell generally think and act like human beings – in ways we can relate to and understand – but in these climactic moments they stand revealed as avatars of tremendous forces, ancient and terrible. The Holy Spirit has descended upon Billy; its fire guides his every shot. God is on the side of the Vidkids.
In the story of the crucifixion, the creator of our world enters it, experiences life as we know it, and allows himself to be tortured, debased, and destroyed. This is why the icon is so immensely powerful: that simple pair of intersecting lines reminds us of the moment that a perfect, all-powerful being of grace and mercy willingly underwent the gruesome, traumatic experience of human life. That’s why this symbol gives believers strength in times of need, and that’s why the forces of darkness are so repulsed by it: it’s a reminder of a selfless, mysterious, sublime love and forgiveness, whose nature they perceive as utterly incomprehensible and overwhelmingly frightening. This is the ultimate audacity of Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire: it reveals itself, in its final moments, to have been a film about Jesus Christ. More than that: could Billy Kid actually be the Second Coming?
“The name of the game is survival”, sings Billy, smiling serenely as he misses the last black ball of the final frame. “Survival / Survival”, chant the crowd. (It’s a callback to the first song, though it’s a pity no-one sings about green stamps this time.) There can be no greater testament to Alan Clarke’s mastery of the craft than this: even after “It’s the Fame Game” has deliberately jettisoned all tension from the film, the following scene – the black-ball finish – is as taut and gripping as any in cinematic history. The following two minutes feature absolutely no music or dialogue. We experience every second of Maxwell’s desperate final safety shot, and every breathless heartbeat of Billy’s grandstanding five-cushion finisher (itself prefigured by the five-cushion exhibition shot with which be defeated Floyd at the start of the film). Despite its liberal use of stock genre elements, BtKatGBV maintains such a web of ambiguities regarding the nature of its world that we genuinely have absolutely no idea how it will end. The final shot seems to go on forever, the black ball rolling and rolling, captured via staggered low-framerate slow-motion. We seem to see everyone in the audience, on the edges of their seats, biting their nails, not daring to breathe. The ball rolls towards the corner pocket.
And then, suddenly, the moment towards which the last ninety minutes have been building. Maxwell rises to his feet, strange light falling across his face like a character in a 1930s horror film. The church-organ score is deafening, blinding. Maxwell reaches out, channelling psychic energy, and the ball stops in mid-air, surrounded by blue energy, hovering in the mouth of the pocket. The Vidkids, the Vipers, and even the Wednesday Man look on in shock – eyes wide, jaws dropping, all factions equally awed and speechless. Unlike the earlier displays of telekinesis, there is no possibility of showmanship or hallucination: in these final moments of the film, it’s finally confirmed that Maxwell is literally, actually a vampire, and genuinely uses his powers to win snooker matches. Finally abandoning all efforts to keep the truth secret, Maxwell turns to face Billy, revealing a fanged lunatic grin, his eyes shining like moons (a genuinely chilling and brilliant special effect – I have no idea how it was achieved).
Billy, completely unfazed, points a pistol at Maxwell, who recoils in fear. (After what we’ve just seen, it’s remarkable that the film actually manages to make the gun feels like an escalation.) In retrospect, it was always going to come to this: Billy’s target practice at his private shooting gallery was almost literally Chekhovian. But he’s not truly violent: serenely, Billy turns the gun towards the levitating ball and fires it into the pocket. The crowd erupt – the Vidkids cheering and hollering in delight, the Vipers roaring in outrage and indignation. I’m not sure what’s funnier: that it took them exactly twenty seconds to witness, process, and move on from the revelation that the supernatural is real, or that they apparently consider neither telekinetically stopping a ball nor shooting one with a gun to constitute an obvious foul. It’s as if snooker itself has become totally irrelevant, the last two moves being made according to a symbolic higher logic, with Billy’s gunslinging pitted purely and directly against Maxwell’s vampirism. The transition achieves a genuine sublime chill.
And yet, this blank-eyed monster – with the same hammy grin he gave when we first saw him on that advertisement shoot, hiding his true nature in plain sight – is distinctly lesser than the rounded performance Armstrong has given throughout the film. There’s always power in the moment – too rare to be called a storytelling convention – where the mask of a complex, human villain is torn away to reveal a shallow, cartoonish stupidity underneath. Judge Doom reveals the Toon; Myotismon reveals VenomMyotismon; Colin Farrell reveals Johnny Depp. There’s something genuinely quite politically astute here, I think: fascism so often wears a veneer of sophistication, but there’s always that gibbering, ridiculous knot of intellectual failure at its core. This should be done more often.
“Frame to Kid!” announces the referee, shouting over the roars of the crowd. “Bill Kid wins the match… by nine… frames… to eight!” The delirious church organ crescendos as Billy blows the dust from his cue-tip, the film cutting to black as if he’s just blown out a candle in the dark room. It’s a perfect brick-drop.
Films, in general, tend not to do much with their credits sequences. This is strange, given that credits are such a fundamental structural component of the filmic text – enframing it on both sides, guiding us in, ushering us out. The early-2000s superhero formula – in which closing credits are not the end of a film but generally a buffer for (a) an additional scene hinting at an upcoming film, (b) a throwaway comedic scene, or (c) both of the above, with one positioned halfway through the credits instead – was an interesting development, but quickly grew tiresome as it became a genre convention. A much better model to follow is BtGatGBV, which features the best end-credits sequence I’ve ever seen. Plenty of films have a song specially written and recorded for their end credits, but it’s rather less common to have the singer on-screen, alone, standing in a featureless black void as the credits roll past. That’s how BtKatGBV ends – with The One’s final song, “Black Lines, White Cadillac”.
Clarke films this fascinatingly: The One stands in the same billowing, flickering void that was used for “Practice Practice Practice”, smiling into the camera, but the camera is positional almost directly above him. What’s more, this is an unbroken long-take that lasts for two and a half minutes. Vindicated, triumphant, and gleeful, The One begins a song which mythologises Billy: “He’s from Sound and Picture City with its sonic overload…” He stares directly into the camera for the duration of the song – The One has ascended to the level of Billy and Miss Sullivan, those characters graced with the power of direct audience communication. Like “Supersonic Sam’s Cosmic Café” and “I’m the One”, this is a song about events that occur off-screen and outside the film’s setting; like “It’s the Fame Game”, it’s about Billy’s destiny.
With its lurching, ominous piano melody and wailing, unearthly electric-guitar riffs, “White Lines, Black Cadillac” has a deeply strange tone. It’s as if the whole film was a story told to us by The One, and we’ve finally caught up. The sense is that what we’ve just seen is an origin story – that Billy is now rocketing towards fame and fortune, and will have many other adventures: “He’s a wolf in wolf’s clothing, he’s a bad lad on the run / He’ll only get to heaven when the angels carry guns…” After this triumphant, bombastic opening, the song relaxes – turns sultry, languid, weird. “We’re on our way, way way way, way / The road will turn to gold / When we drive / That black Cadillac / White, white / Black Cadillac…” The One repeats these words again and again, in slightly different orders, slurring his delivery, gradually trailing off into silence.
This is a dark, epic song about a snooker hotshot and his ambiguously gay manager driving their Midas-wheeled Cadillac into an unknowable future. Significantly, the tone leaves us unsure whether this is an entirely good thing. The One, leering in the darkness, seems unsteady, intoxicated, drunk with victory – still in the white suit he wore to the match, as if this is the same night – with a leering grin that he holds for a good twenty seconds after the song ends. Billy Kid… is becoming. And The One is his treacherous harbinger and apostle: his Peter, his Judas, his John the Baptist. Something is slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.
The song suggests the image of painted white lines on tarmac, whirring past in the night – the precise closing image of Lynch’s Lost Highway, actually. Perhaps there’s also a joke here about the credits themselves – white lines on their way across a black surface – or how they follow the snooker match’s white-on-black finish. But considering the fascination fame holds for the film and its characters, we have to wonder whether at least some of those “white lines” might actually be cocaine. This would explain its darkly ambiguous tone, and it’s not like it wouldn’t resonate with other elements in the film: consider the Cosmic Café, where scrawny, pale, working-class British twenty-somethings are spaced out in urban squalor, rejecting employment because they know they can have an amazing time in an empty room, imagining themselves hurtling through space, physically together but mentally in worlds of their own. It’s entirely possible that a drug subtext was intended – a year later, Clarke was making Christine, a minimalist drama about teenage heroin addicts; and in Richard Kelly’s book, Danny Boyle concedes that he’d never have gotten the chance to direct Trainspotting if Clarke had been alive to do it. Perhaps BtKatGBV, in a sense, is Clarke’s version of Trainspotting – much more so than the joyless, suburban Christine. The switch from heroin iconography to cocaine iconography articulates Billy and The One’s transition from poverty to riches, and how the problems experienced in one mode of life can resurface in another.
The philistine urge to skip credits never even occurs to us. Not a single second feels dispensable, even on a rewatch. The film’s final ten minutes in particular have an incredible rolling momentum – if you see Billy pot that pink, you are guaranteed to be glued to the screen till you see the company logos. (Incidentally, it turns out that one of the two hairdressers who worked on the production was named Patti Smith. That’s presumably not the Patti Smith, but Christ, who really knows with this film?)
One of the weirdest aspects of the film, of course, is the fact that it’s based on real events. Preston was inspired by an actual specific snooker match: the 1981 UK Championship quarter-final between Jimmy White and Ray Reardon. White was a relative newcomer on the snooker scene, young and a quick shot, whereas Reardon was a seven-time world champion approaching retirement. But what really elevated this clash was surely the iconography: despite his affable manner, Ray Reardon was strikingly vampiric in appearance, and was nicknamed Dracula by the media. White and Reardon had played each other before – and would again, in higher-profile matches – but this is the one that inspired Preston: as in the film, it was a seventeen-frame match; as in the film, the young challenger won nine frames to eight. The bones of a great bizarro snooker film were already there: all Preston needed to do was find a suitably mythic hero archetype to match his vampire villain. I suspect that the 1966 exploitation film Billy the Kid Versus Dracula was an influence on the basic concept here.
One obvious way to read the film, then – at least for an audience familiar with the events that inspired it – is as allegory. Billy is Jimmy White; Maxwell is Ray Reardon. In the physical realm, White and Reardon are involved in an actual, mundane snooker rivalry, while on the spiritual, immaterial plane of ideaspace, their avatars act out a heightened, mythic, fantastical reflection of the same conflict. On some level, this is clearly the intent – Preston’s earlier work includes adaptations of overtly Christian-allegorical texts such as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and The Pilgrim’s Progress. Allegory is a disputed technique – some will say that reading a work of fiction as a direct and straightforward metaphor for a specific sequence of real-world events is reductive. But this rather depends on one’s perspective: from where I stand, the most notable thing about White and Reardon is that they inspired Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire. The 1981 UK Championship quarter-final may well have been a good match, but there’s much more to BtKatGBV than that. No, what the film really hinges on is a cultural transition – a moment in which one way of living and being is superseded by another. The only overt stakes are some money and the players’ pride and careers, but the final scene potentially escalates this to revolutionary, society-reshaping levels: can the Vipers survive the public exposure of literal supernatural evil at the heart of their community, or does Maxwell’s defeat truly spell the end of the old capitalist order? The film ends abruptly, leaving us to make up our own minds. In any case, the selection of snooker as class-war battleground is an apt one: the game was devised by imperial British soldiers stationed in India, and it carries within it that stain of colonialism. It might seem odd to present this war for the soul of snooker in 1985, but the film’s political concerns are much broader – the social mores of snooker are merely its chosen instantiation of them. BtKatGBV is a revenge fantasy for the underclass of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain – it’s as if Inglourious Basterds were made at the height of World War II.
BtKatGBV isn’t quite a revolutionary work, but nor is it merely reformist. Billy hands his winnings out to homeless scavengers, but this is a patronising lark, never mentioned again. There is no direct call to action for the audience. This is a film whose idea of praxis is shooting a Tory vampire’s levitating snooker ball out of the air.
None of this is to say that Ray Reardon – a perfectly nice man, by all accounts – ever did anything to warrant being made a symbolic receptacle for the crimes of the British Empire. He was simply a snooker player who looked like a vampire; it worked too well not to do it. In the film, Phil Daniels’s Billy bears a passing resemblance to a young Jimmy White, but Alun Armstrong’s Maxwell is astonishingly accurate to Reardon, to the point that it’s difficult to tell them apart without close examination; the casting and make-up job are truly impeccable.
Metropolis, High-Rise, BioShock: heightened allegorical conflicts in decaying enclosed urban spaces are a great tradition in genre fiction. But the openly non-representational nature of the duel at the heart of BtKatGBV raises interesting questions about the film in general: should we take any of what we see literally? Or are the visuals entirely metaphorical – a literary device, a simplification, standing in for some reality about which we can only guess, like the mesmerised inhabitants of Plato’s cave? Is the film’s world a shadow of ours, or is it the other way round? In the BtKatGBV publicity materials, Clarke attributes the nature of the film’s universe to the characters themselves, drawing an almost Ballardian connection between interior and exterior, between character and architecture: “it isn’t a recognisable world of a council estate … It’s grubby, it’s seedy, it’s mean, but the characters within it have theatricalised the environment in which they live”. It seems to me that the smoothed, abstracted simulacrum that is the film’s world may have been extrapolated from the script’s central characters, and their own nature as simplified, exaggerated caricatures of two real people. The phantasmagorical “Kid to Break”, then, does again to BtKatGBV what BtKatGBV itself does to the White/Reardon rivalry. Even though BtKatGBV is probably the single Alan Clarke film least like how Trevor Preston actually envisioned BtKatGBV, there is still some species of synchronicity between Preston’s mannered, convoluted cockney dialogue and the artificial, crafted quality of Clarke’s sets. The film revels in its own artifice, which is another way of saying that it’s a film about creation, artistry, and – inevitably, given its medium – filmmaking itself. As Miss Sullivan sings: “Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire / A midnight matinée”. In a sense, the match is the film, and we its entranced audience.
We see Maxwell as an actor before we see him as a snooker player – the advertisement’s director chides him, “Very average, Maxwell, very average.” Billy also wears a cinematic costume, but where Maxwell only performs as a vampire occasionally, it seems Billy is in-character 24/7. Both the hero and villain are actors, in their own way. With the theatricality of BtKatGBV making its sets feel like theatre stages, it’s easy to miss that they look even more like, well, what they are – film sets. The Wednesday Man presides over the whole affair like an obsessive micromanaging filmmaker, directing his cast and crew to craft the aesthetic-political experience he finds most pleasing. “Extraordinary. Brilliant. A generation confrontation,” he says in his high-concept pitch to The One. “A shootout. The wily old sheriff and the brash young gunslinger. It has poetic overtones. The punters will go potty.” Maxwell exploits his vampiric image for money by starring in vampire-themed advertisements. Implicitly, the real reason he perceives “vampire” as slander is that his public vampirism is something he does for money, a symbol of his vacuous materialistic pursuit of wealth. (The fact that he’s literally, actually a vampire is unrelated to this, except in so far as it explains why he looks like a vampire, giving him the image that he’s exploiting.)
“I’ll bloody tell you where bloody snooker’s bloody going: to the bloody dogs,” says Maxwell to Miss Sullivan. “The twenty-percent men have moved in with their smiles like wet soap and their five-hundred-pound suits. Television’s done it. Ten years ago it was still a gentlemen’s game. Now it’s a bloody circus.” Billy and Maxwell share a contempt for television, but their reasons are opposite: for Maxwell, television’s democratisation is radical and dangerous, but for Billy, the “idiot box” is old-hat, something he and his subculture have already transcended. Any yet, Maxwell is a paid participant in the television industry that he claims to despise. Perhaps this is the core of Maxwell’s hatred for Billy: Maxwell knows that he has sold his integrity, sacrificing it to the television industry for money, but Billy retains his dignity.
The evils of advertisement, and the different ways the central characters respond to them, are more important to the film than a cursory viewing reveals. Billy is decrying the industry as early as “Green Stamps”, where one of the homeless trio to whom he donates his winnings is a woman who appears to have lost her mind as a result of ad-driven spending: “Shush, you know who / This is, don’t you? / Tattoo her brain with greed / They pour out their patter, the video spivs / This you like! This you want! This you need”.
Interestingly, there’s some evidence to suggest Maxwell might not share the background of his bourgeois supporters. All the Vipers we hear, including Mrs Randall, speak in perfect Queen’s English. However, Armstrong basically uses his own native Yorkshire accent, and indeed, Maxwell even mentions that he was born in Batley Carr. The north of England is, according to stereotype, poorer and less educated than the south; and considering how heavily BtKatGBV leans on stereotype, the peculiarity of Maxwell’s accent may well mean something. Is Maxwell a social climber – a cuckoo in the Vipers’ nest? Did he marry into money? Does he, perhaps, need those advertisement royalties to maintain his Viper lifestyle? If so, this casts Maxwell’s hatred of Billy in another light: in the young, up-and-coming, working-class snooker hotshot, he may well see an image of his own past self – a period in his life that he has repressed, a source of shame.
This drama of projection and self-hatred – a more complex dynamic than the film’s surface narrative – also extends to the Wednesday Man. During the mid-session break, he pays Billy and The One a visit, revealing that he orchestrated the match and why: “Detestation. I hated you two from the moment I saw you. The way you dress, like a stolen car. The way you play, like a thief. Those reptiles you bring with you. And the way you laugh. Always laughing. Laughing at everyone and everything. I resisted my natural inclination to terminate you because I needed something more… psychologically fulfilling: your total humiliation.” It’s clear (thanks to Preston’s oddly beautiful similes) that class is a factor here, but this hatred seems purer than Maxwell’s – neither personal nor societal, but aesthetic and spiritual. Most characters in BtKatGBV have straightforward human motivations, but the Wednesday Man appears to operate according to a more abstract logic.
Don Henderson plays the character with something close to his own native Essex accent – an inflection shaped by overspill from London’s East End, and associated with the socially aspirational, its clipped rhythm seen as an attempt to suppress the speakers’ working-class origins. His role as the spider at the centre of the criminal underworld does suggest a certain kinship with our heroes – particularly The One, whose own manipulative nature could lead him to become like the Wednesday Man if left unchecked. Is the Wednesday Man an East End escapee, compelled to destroy anything that reminds him of his own past? Or is he something more?
The Wednesday Man seems to transcend the film’s class dichotomy even as he embodies it, his obsession with punctuality and timekeeping an expression of a deeper dedication to rules and hierarchy. The Spook tells The One to “remember the White Rabbit”, though it’s unclear whether this refers to The One himself (who’s running late) or the Wednesday Man (who’s got the pocket watch). The scene where Maxwell is rendered dumb and immobile by the tolling of a church bell is an early clue that the vampire is also subject to the Wednesday Man’s temporal rules – that the two villains are in league. What’s less clear is whether the Wednesday Man sees himself as the author of those rules or merely their instrument.
“Do you know who I am?” the Wednesday Man asks Egypt outside Billy’s dressing-room. It’s a multivalent question. Most of the film’s characters use nicknames or pseudonyms, or simply go without names entirely – it seems simply to be part of the culture in this colourful underworld. In the case of the Wednesday Man, however, his chosen epithet is utterly obscure.
Or is the answer right in front of us? The film’s hints at a Christian cosmology do not preclude the possibility of other entities, and there are some distinct mythological resonances in the Wednesday Man – a godlike, all-seeing presence throughout the film, sometimes mingling and fraternising with lowly humans, other times looming above their proceedings from a throne on high, or a chamber which seems to exist within this world’s excuse for a sky. There’s something almost occult about his staking money on the foe he intends to see lose – an act of wilful, sacrificial self-harm, intended to bring a spiritual reward – and the silent, dark-suited minders who loom at his sides like ravens. And then, of course, there’s the name. Could the Wednesday Man be Odin?
The film received its brief, limited theatrical release in May 1986. (It was rated 15, presumably for the cursing.) It received scattered, mixed reviews, with some critics cautiously praising for its uniqueness, and sank without trace at the box office. It was only later, when it became an occasional broadcast on Channel 4 (starting April 1987), that a handful of people actually got to see it, and fewer still of these were enlightened enough to appreciate what it was doing. BtKatGBV was experienced, for the most part, as a television film – just like almost all of Clarke’s other creative output.
In 2006, much to the surprise of the film’s several fans, it actually received an official DVD release. Unfortunately, it seems that not much time and money was put into preparing it: it’s a subpar transfer – a significant problem for such a visually dark film – and has no commentary tracks or special features. But perhaps there’s something to be said for this experience, given that it more closely reproduces the feeling of catching some weird film one night on Channel 4 circa 1990 and having no way to examine it properly or learn anything more about it for the foreseeable future. With no subtitles to guide us through the muddy audio, most of the songs and dialogue scenes have at least a few unintelligible lines, especially when it comes to the denser, more energetic performances and choruses. As a result, most people who try to quote the lyrics or dialogue fuck up in various, often unique ways, which is as annoying as it is charming; in accordance with this grand tradition, I’ve probably made plenty of mistakes here – I just hope my garbled quotations are at least entertaining, and make sense in their own contrived fashion. Some lines, though, are so brazenly mystifying that one wonders if Preston even wants us to understand what these characters are talking about. During Miss Sullivan’s interview with Billy, Egypt interjects, “They call her Slack Alice. She’s got a mouth like a clown’s pocket.” Truer words.
The review sections on the film’s IMDb and Amazon pages provide an endearing glimpse into the lonely fun of being BtKatGBV fan prior to the internet. There aren’t many reviews, but those are generally very personal, highly enthusiastic, and sometimes actually quite thoughtful. A recurring pattern emerges: someone chances across the film on Channel 4, becomes obsessed, records it on VHS (or Betamax), and rewatches it till the tape is worn out around their favourite songs, but never actually encounters another person who has so much as heard of it – not, that is, until discovering the IMDb and Amazon pages circa the early 2000s. Those who didn’t get a chance to record it, meanwhile, wondered if BtKatGBV had ever been anything more than a dream.
A particularly interesting criticism is made by IMDb user garethm-2, who says that “the real snooker world was throwing up its own unparalleled sporting drama at the time, be it the black ball finish in the 1985 World Championship between Dennis Taylor and Steve Davis or, more to the point, the riveting rivalry between Davis and Alex Higgins who really were like chalk and cheese. One had a squeaky-clean image, the other was a lovable rogue with a penchant for vices and they both hated each other’s guts. The rivalry between Maxwell and Billy… could never evoke the same passions… [Daniels] reels off a few cocky taunts but he’s far from the booze fuelled, authority-hating and downright rude figure that Higgins was. The whole thing feels like little more than your token pre-match jibing session….” He notes that the class-conflict dimension is handled well, but that “a far better illustration of this would be to witness the audience reaction when Higgins and Davis crossed cues in front of 3,000 people in the 1985 Masters at the Wembley Conference Centre.” Fair enough.
In another review, IMDb user Nick Wass claims (without citing any source) that Clarke “attempted to work in many more optical special effects”, but that “most of these were taken out in the final cut – a pity as some were so tongue in cheek that they might just have given the film a better chance of gaining a cult following”. Even more tantalisingly, IMDb lists two cuts of the film – the standard 90-minute version and a two-hour “special edition”, allegedly released or broadcast in 1994 – but provides no other information or evidence regarding this version’s existence. Is it really out there, somewhere? Well, we can dream.
In her 2016 book Feeling Film: A Spatial Approach, the academic Beth Carroll uses BtKatGBV as a case-study, arguing that the haptic experience provided by musicals challenges the “ocularcentrism” of film theory, and suggesting that BtKatGBV uses its audiovisual spaces in a way that achieves an “embodied tactile spectatorship”, even despite its Brechtian defamiliarisation effects. The research for the book also produced a rather wondrous by-product: a 3D animatic recreation of the “Supersonic Sam’s Cosmic Café” sequence. As far as serious examination of the film goes, however, that’s pretty much it.
How can it be that BtKatGBV, self-evidently the greatest film ever made – actually, no, let’s commit to this, the pinnacle of the human civilisation – seems to be totally unknown and unknowable? There are no commentaries, no behind-the-scenes documentaries, no warring radical interpretations. The songs have no covers, no remixes. There no conventions, no cosplayers, virtually no screenings; no fandom, no fan-art, no fanfiction. “White Lines, Black Cadillac” doesn’t feel like an ending, but a beginning: where is the string of increasingly weird and desperate sequels it seems to promise? Where’s the direct-to-video one where Billy has to play against a Frankenstein or something? Where’s the one where Billy and Maxwell reunite decades later for a rematch, or the one where an aged Billy finds himself in Maxwell’s position, targeted by a new generation of player? Scorsese chose the wrong cue-sports drama to revive. I want to see Billy X, set on a space station; I want a disastrous Platinum Dunes reboot trilogy that gets washed away ten years later by an authentic back-to-basics sequel to the original; I want a “Treehouse of Horror” version. In a just world, Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire would be a household name – its aesthetic would be a universally recognised stock style, like vaporwave or German Expressionism. There should be a Psychonauts level using it. A Kingdom Hearts level where Sora, Donald, and Goofy team up with Billy and The One to thwart Maxwell’s revenge and unlock a summonable Miss Sullivan. A game that does for the BtKatGBV aesthetic what Cuphead did for rubber-hose animation. Put Billy Kid in Smash Bros.
No, the film has no sequel. It does, however, have a sort of twin: BtKatGBV is not the only bleak 1985 British fantasy-comedy film about one man’s rebellion against an authoritarian right-wing ruling class, set in an alternative-universe dystopian present where nature is completely occluded by a heightened inescapable grimy brutalist Art Deco version of London, and featuring musical numbers, psychological torture, lengthy dream-sequence fake-outs, a turquoise-grey palette, a title beginning with the letter “B”, and Don Henderson in a supporting role. I am speaking, of course, about Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, the second-greatest film ever made. BtKatGBV and Brazil are such close cousins – tonally, visually, aesthetically, politically – that I can’t imagine anyone loving one and not the other, which makes it all the more puzzling that one is massively acclaimed and popular while the other languishes in obscurity.
Brazil takes place in a basically plausible city, a version of London dominated by Art Deco and brutalist aesthetics – when we glimpse the outside world, we see skies and fields and desolate landscapes. In BtKatGBV, it’s ambiguous where there’s any outside world at all – the labyrinthine warren of stark, afunctional rooms and corridors seems to extend infinitely, disrupted only occasionally by those flickering, howling voids that bear no clear spatial relation to the structures, and where we sometimes see characters, but which we never see them enter or exit. There are moments, however, that come perilously close to intersection: the establishing shot of Big Jack Jay’s, with Billy’s car and Maxwell’s motorbike parked in the mist on an Art Deco street corner, looks like it could be just round the corner from Sam Lowry’s tower block. Maybe it is. In Brazil, ducts are everywhere, inescapable, the tentacles of an all-permeating capitalist monstrosity. In BtKatGBV, there are no ducts to be seen – unless we’re inside them.
One of the very few pieces of media that I genuinely think might have been influenced by the film is another Gilliam project, Nike’s Secret Tournament, which focuses on a football championship held in a hidden arena within gothic industrial ship. The emcee, played by Eric Candona, looks, acts, sounds, and functions eerily like a mixture of Big Jack Jay and the Wednesday Man. The advertisements are scored to an Elvis remix, which puts me in mind of another spiritual descendant of BtKatGBV: the horror-comedy western Bubba Ho-Tep, in which an aged Elvis Presley, having faked his death, must join forces with an elderly black man who may or may not be John F Kennedy to defend their retirement home from a reanimated Ancient Egyptian mummy. Like BtKatGBV, it begins with an absurd mashup premise but manages to achieve genuine pathos through sheer unrelenting commitment to the emotional lives of its characters. In a startling bit of synchronicity, the evil mummy, apparently wanting to be American, dresses himself in cowboy gear – just like Billy, an Old World creature striving to capture the dreams of the New. Another heir to BtKatGBV is Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton’s unlikely masterpiece, Super Mario Bros, which gives the platforming series an astonishing interdimensional saurian-cyberpunk origin story. The way in which the film’s Dinohattan relates to Manhattan is rather like the way the London of BtKatGBV relates to the London of our world. Matthew Holness’s metafictional hospital sitcom, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, is another text that seems like it might genuinely have been influenced by BtKatGBV: the driving scenes in the show-within-the-show look exactly like those in the film – the same utter void for a background, the same combination of stylised vehicular fixity and photonic-sonic bombardment. Years later, the creator cast Alun Armstrong as the villain in his 2018 horror film Possum – perhaps Holness really is one of the seven chosen people who actually saw BtKatGBV. It’s also worth mentioning that Andy Harris, the art director of BtKatGBV, was later responsible for the excellent production design of Hellraiser II: Hell on Earth, whose stygian labyrinth bears a striking resemblance to the world of our favourite vampire snooker musical.
But the closest thing BtKatGBV has to a real narrative sequel is – in all seriousness – Blur’s 1994 single “Parklife”. In the music video, Phil Daniels appears as a double-glazing salesman, with an assistant played by Blur’s Damon Albarn. We’re essentially shown a day in the life of this odd couple as drive through a suburb, flogging windows door-to-door – Albarn singing the chorus and providing backing vocals, Daniels performing the spoken-word verses, an impenetrably eloquent mixture of mundane observations and choice advice, all delivered in his assured cockney accent: “Confidence is a preference for the habitual voyeur of what is known as / Parklife!” Despite the band’s vague (blurry?) intention to satirise the encroaching Americanisation of the UK, the song remains fluffy and feel-good, never coalescing into any clear meaning.
The overall effect is that “Parklife” flows alarmingly well from the ending of BtKatGBV, with the ironic subversion common to good sequels: it’s as if the snooker thing didn’t really work out, forcing Billy to find another way to pay the bills, trading in the white Cadillac for a bronze Ford Granada. We can almost imagine “Parklife” as the opening sequence of a feature-length sequel in which Billy is dragged back into the (literal and figurative) underworld of snooker. Really, the only downside is that they didn’t go all-out and get Bruce Payne in – with Albarn in his place, it just seems like The One is ageing backwards. (Granted, the business card of the character in the video does say “Phil and Damon”, but in the world of BtKatGBV, names are plastic at best.) Parks, those other green and artificial expanses, are really not all that different from green-baize snooker tables; here it’s as if the interior artifice of BtKatGBV has been displaced onto the exterior artifice of “Parklife” suburbia.
The film has a rather strange relationship with Dracula – more specifically, with the 1931 Universal Pictures version of Dracula. Maxwell has a portrait of Bela Lugosi as Dracula hanging on his living-room wall, but since the characters stare silently at the portrait rather than discussing it, it’s unclear whether they know Lugosi’s Dracula as a fictional character or a historical figure. Is Count Dracula a real personage in the world of BtKatGBV – a vampire killed by Edward Van Sloan’s Abraham Van Helsing some decades earlier? If so, BtKatGBV is a sort of surreal entry in the Universal Monsters shared universe – Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein wasn’t the end after all. At one point in “Kid to Break”, while Maxwell is boasting about his superiority, he yells out a non-sequitur: “When Count Dracula played billiards / He drove his guests insane!” This brilliantly weird line gestures at an entire alternative history in which vampirism and cue sports apparently have a cultural association longstanding and well-known enough to mention in passing. In the film’s final moments, Armstrong channels the rigid glower of Lugosi’s performance, regressing or ascending to the Platonic ideal of the cinematic vampire – assisted by make-up and lighting, the effect is really quite stunning.
Further complicating things, Dracula is not the only cue-sports-playing vampire whose shadow looms over Maxwell’s life. In one of the film’s weirdest, most memorable moments, when The One visits the vampire’s house, he finds Maxwell standing by his late father’s mausoleum – which, naturally, is located indoors and upstairs, made of transparent glass, lit by white neon lights, and has a black marble surface which doubles as a snooker table. “My father,” say Maxwell. “The greatest snooker player who ever lived. He taught me one thing above all else. A cardinal rule… The game is more important than any single player.” Much like the Lugosi dummy used to portray the dead Dracula in Dracula’s Daughter, we never get a good look at Maxwell’s father, but as far as we can see, he looks just like his son – a classic Universal vampire. The scene raises some interesting questions: was Maxwell born a vampire, or was he bitten? Is this the body of his biological father, his vampiric sire, or both? Are this film’s vampires mortal, susceptible to death by ageing, or was the late Mr Randall slain by a vampire-hunter?
After proposing that he and Billy make the match more interesting by staking their professional careers on it, Maxwell turns to the corpse and asks, “Do you concur, Father?” With a ghostly whoosh, the cue ball zooms across the table and pots a red. The One faints from shock. All of this raises a few questions.
To what extent are the characters of BtKatGBV aware that they live in a supernatural world? The film never milks the tension of whether Maxwell really is a vampire – in fact, it often seems almost aggressively indifferent to the question. In the next scene, The One is fine, and doesn’t seem like he’s just had his understanding of the world radically undermined (and indeed, the same thing shocks him again at the end of the film). Perhaps he rationalises it as Maxwell using magnets to play a prank on him. Then again, The One does attempt to greet the dead vampire, but it’s unclear whether he thinks that Maxwell’s father is merely relaxing in his vampire bed; that all dead vampires are sentient and capable of communication through Ouija snooker tables; or that the body is a dummy and Maxwell is playing a prank on him. Maybe everyone knows about the existence of vampires, but not about the existence of telekinesis, or that vampires remain conscious after death. It’s even possible that the dead vampire isn’t sentient, and that Maxwell is using his genuine psychic powers to play a practical joke by quietly moving the ball himself. Committed to keeping its characters’ beliefs as shifty and ambiguous as their reality, this scene is a microcosm of BtKatGBV itself: there are a million valid interpretations, and none of them make any kind of sense.
Both of the film’s eponymous characters idolise and model themselves on a legendary figure – Count Dracula for Maxwell, William Bonney for Billy – but there’s a sense that Maxwell is also living his father’s life, whereas Billy has no known family or father-figure to instruct him. There’s a quietly tragic subtext here. Billy has created himself in the last two years, deciding his own interests and persona – bound neither by father nor bloodline, he was free to consider the entire sweep of history and select his identity. It’s even possible that he chose the name Billy, and adopted the surname Kid only after The One addressed him as such. When we see Maxwell reflect on the living corpse of his father, we realise he never really had that choice.
The film is suspicious of the idea of authenticity in general. Maxwell is a real vampire, as was his father. Billy, however, is ostensibly a fake cowboy: he was presumably born around 1965, grew up in the East End of London, and appears to have based his gunslinger persona entirely on media portrayals of a time and place he never knew. When Billy draws his pistol and shoots the black ball into the pocket, it’s a spectacular statement that the chosen self is more important and powerful than any blood inheritance. “It’s not how we’re born, but our choices that define us” is one of the film industry’s stock morals, but BtKatGBV has a slightly more complex message: some people may well be defined by their origins, and cannot transcend them, but that’s not a reason to let them off the hook for their behaviour.
“It was an odd film for Clarkey to make,” says Daniels, “not the straight-down-the-line reality he normally did. I mean, Eve Ferret on a motorbike with the poodles – and Alun Armstrong really being a vampire and me really being Billy the Kid, it just had a nice twist to it.” This last detail is certainly a novel interpretation of the story – is Daniels simply misremembering, or merely referring to Billy’s supernal gunslinging abilities, or is he actually saying that his character is somehow literally William Bonney? Time-travel? Cloning? Possession? It’s difficult to say, as the actual Billy the Kid is never even mentioned. It could be that “Billy Kid” is a nickname given in reference to the character’s cowboy persona; it could be that it’s a real name, preceding his persona in a case of nominative determinism; or it could, I suppose, be that he really is the goddamn outlaw Billy the Kid. In 1985 Art Deco brutalist London. Singing while snookering vampires.
The film has a strange preoccupation with the idea of greenness. Both Billy and The One refer to money, derisively, as green stamps – the title of Billy’s first song – and the opening sequence presents their games of snooker and poker, each against its green-baize surface, as somehow equivalent. The “thunderjuice” distilled by Supersonic Sam, apparently the only drink available in his café, is also a luminous green. The working-class characters are frequently referred to as “reptiles” – usually as an insult, sometimes as a compliment – even though it’s the rich characters who are called the Vipers; it seems there’s something green and scaly about everyone in this world. While multi-word compound modifiers are generally not hyphenated correctly, perhaps there’s a reason Maxwell is the “Green Baize Vampire” (which means “a vampire who is green and associated with baize”) rather than the “Green-Baize Vampire” (the proper way to refer to “a vampire associated with green baize”, which is presumably the nickname’s intended meaning). Asked about modern players, Maxwell replies, “Undisciplined, unprincipled, and exhibitionist – one of them’s got green hair,” using the colour as a metonym for all that he despises. But Maxwell himself is, in another sense, green with envy. The One, meanwhile, makes much of Billy’s youth – the events narrated in “I’m the One” took place when Billy was very green indeed, in the sense of being inexperienced with the game. In a world devoid of nature, where the environment seems not even to exist, the task of representing the verdant and vital falls on snooker itself. The closing song, “White Lines, Black Cadillac”, centres again on colour – it’s as if the whole film has been an alchemical Great Work: a project to transmute tar into gold.
It’s a shame the same level of thought wasn’t given to the colour of the cast, as BtKaGBV is sporadically quite racist. The Wednesday Man’s minders are both East Asian, but they never speak so much as a single word, serving only as exotic mute strongmen. More troublingly, our actual sympathetic characters are casually racist on several occasions throughout the film. In his “Poker Song”, The One gets off to a bad start by referring to the Wednesday Man’s minders as “Two yellow devils, Chow and Min / Eat live dogs, drink bamboo gin”. I’d have gone with Huginn and Muninn, but oh well. When negotiating a bet with Maxwell, The One says, “Fifty K – that’s a lotta jungle,” which seems like cockney rhyming slang for “money” by way of a racial slur. Later, when the Wednesday Man pays a visit to Billy’s dressing-room, Egypt takes one look at the minders and deadpans, “We didn’t order a takeaway,” which I suppose is at least a reasonably well-constructed racist joke. The Wednesday Man himself is white, but his strange goatee invokes Fu Manchu, while his inscrutable esoteric values and the ambient wind-chime music in his scenes are further suggestive of orientalist stereotypes.
The film’s only black characters are Floyd, whom Billy easily defeats in the opening sequence, and Floyd’s girlfriend; he has one line, she has none. Billy doesn’t even blink in the next scene, when Egypt remarks, “That black prat couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a coal shovel.” Not great, Preston! Quite why Billy’s white bodyguard is named Egypt in the first place is never explained, though it wouldn’t surprise me if it was another racist in-joke. The ethnicity of the Wednesday Man’s minders seems to verge on some sort of political commentary – in the decades following the film’s release, snooker’s popularity would grow massively in several East Asian countries, particularly China and Thailand – but it’s difficult to see quite what the filmmakers were going for here. The saving grace is that the racist jokes are incidental rather than structural – they’re things the characters occasionally say, and they are unfortunate, but they don’t impinge on the core of the film. Talons of Weng-Chiang this is not.
We never see the sky in BtKatGBV. We never glimpse any vegetation, nor any body of water; there is nary a photon of natural light to be found. However, there are moments where the boundaries of these rules are tested. We think we see clouds racing across a crimson sky outside the windows of Maxwell’s castle, but this is soon revealed to be a projection, false even within the falsehood of the diegetic world. In another near-exception, the opening credits are superimposed on a matte painting – a field of stars. Is this what Billy and Egypt would see if they turned their eyes to the heavens? Our entire understanding of this universe hinges on this question; but we have no answer. Indeed, this starfield looks a lot like the opposite end of the film, where the grey-green walls of Big Jack Jay’s are flecked with silver sparkles. After all, there’s no real evidence that BtKatGBV even takes place in a Copernican universe – maybe the stars themselves are false, as in the cosmology described by O’Brien in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The nature of stardom is perhaps the film’s core thematic concern: as the climactic song tells us, snooker is “the fame game”, but “the name of the game is survival”. Beneath Billy’s lust for celebrity is desire for a chance to live, something he champions for everyone, and that is what the Vipers want to keep for themselves.
(On the subject of credits, the film’s logo is perfect: an elaborate construction of metal, fonts spanning futurist to gothic, the letters’ chrome surfaces reflecting the iconic colours of snooker – a steel-blue bat cresting the “Y” of “BILLY”, a red ball dotting the “i” of “vampire”. The logo does, as has been pointed out, look like an Amiga title screen. As I said: perfect.)
One consequence of the vagueness of the film’s world is that it’s very tempting to imagine explanations for it. For example: BtKatGBV takes place in a universe where Earth fell to the great Martian invasion at the turn of the century; led by the Artilleryman, the survivors retreated underground, uniting in their love of snooker to keep the British spirit alive till they can capture and reverse-engineer a Fighting-Machine. Less fancifully: since BtKatGBV was produced at the height of the second Cold War, it’s possible that its subterranean aesthetic speaks to the anxieties of that time. Perhaps some sort of apocalyptic event has rendered the surface world uninhabitable, and the survivors have been driven into underground shelters, which have since been expanded into the cavernous labyrinth of the film. Perhaps it’s a sequel to Dr Strangelove, and the characters are the children of those who survived the nuclear holocaust by retreating into their bunkers. Maybe magic and horror were unleashed on the world by the bomb itself, as in Adventure Time and Twin Peaks, and now everyone is trapped deep underground, like the inhabitants of Zion in the Matrix films. (Speaking of which: at the end of Reloaded, Neo learns that he is not the sole saviour of humanity, and that there have already been several figures known as The One. You don’t think…?)
The Bechdel test is only useful as a tool for measuring trends, and has no utility when it comes to qualitative criticism of an individual text. However, since people treat the test as categorical, it’s always interesting when films skirt very close to passing; and BtKatGBV practically grinds along the event horizon. The film has only two speaking female characters, but they’re both great: Miss Sullivan and Mrs Randall. The former is named only in the credits, while we only know the married surname of the latter – is this sufficient for Bechdel purposes? The two women share a single scene: as Miss Sullivan waits to interview Maxwell, Mrs Randall ambles about the living-room, singing wordlessly to herself, and calls her husband, telling him not to keep the young lady waiting. In a moment which seems designed specifically to troll anyone who likes seeing women talk to each other, Mrs Randall turns to Miss Sullivan, gives a sickly sweet laugh that shows off her fangs, and walks out of the room. (It’s never clarified whether she has been turned into a vampire by Maxwell, is wearing clip-on fangs to play into her husband’s media image, or both.)
There’s no denying that the film has some peculiar gender politics. When Billy is driven to Big Jack Jay’s, he is accompanied by two blonde girls who gaze longingly at him in the back seat. Silent and desultory, they follow Billy to his dressing-room, where they pose dramatically, wearing red-and-black dresses that invert each other’s patterns, as if they’re one person divided in two. They sit opposite Miss Sullivan in the middle box area throughout Jack’s song, but mysteriously vanish before the match begins, leaving the spot to the Wednesday Man’s right hand conspicuously vacant for the rest of the film. Snooker groupies are a strange and unreliable breed.
Most attempts to understand BtKatGBV by comparing it to other musicals fall short. Films like Quadrophenia or Absolute Beginners might seem relevant at a glance – they’re weird, came out around the same time, and even share prominent cast members with BtKatGBV – but if we want to find its true brethren, we have to go back to the mid-1970s.
It’s strange to equate films with opposite levels of popularity, but The Rocky Horror Picture Show really is one of the closest things to BtKatGBV. Richard O’Brien’s orgiastic tale of musical horror and extraterrestrial transvestism, where whitebread heroes are destroyed and rebuilt by a colourful cast of subcultural degenerates and genre-cinema cosplayers, shares a great deal of its DNA with our vampire snooker musical. The image of Maxwell’s father, his dead body inside the glass mausoleum, is a clear lift from the film’s dinner scene, where the characters find Eddie’s corpse under the glass table. And let’s not forget Phantom of the Paradise, Brian De Palma’s glam-horror rock-opera which transplants The Phantom of the Opera into a 1970s record studio, adding an eclectic Paul Williams soundtrack and a satanic backstory. Rocky Horror and Phantom of the Paradise have long been mentioned together; I would cautiously propose BtKatGBV as the third film in the trilogy. (Another decidedly relevant film, though nowhere near as good as those three, is Shock Treatment, the actual sequel to Rocky Horror. Like BtKatGBV, it was originally envisioned as a major location shoot, but industrial action meant the film had to be reworked hurriedly to take place entirely within a television studio.)
Another obvious influence on BtKatGBV – a science-fiction series whose shadows the film can neither acknowledge nor escape – is Doctor Who. The film’s basic set-up – an intense but simplistic conflict between a group of impoverished anarchists and a malevolent ruling order with a supernatural secret, with both sides represented by a handful of members, all occurring in a rather unconvincing and stagey world where everyone has a British accent – is such pure and textbook Doctor Who that you almost expect Billy to turn a corner and bump into a little Scottish man with an umbrella and a panama hat. And make no mistake, even though the film predates his debut by two years, it is the Sylvester McCoy incarnation who’d fit here. BtKatGBV is a perfect aesthetic, tonal, and political match for the Seventh Doctor – it’s right at home alongside serials like Paradise Towers, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, and particularly The Happiness Patrol. Doctor Who thrives on juxtaposition, and BtKatGBV is one of the few texts that can give it a run for its money in that respect. (Indeed, it just so happens that one person is directly responsible for the creation of both: after producing the initial series of Doctor Who, Verity Lambert produced Out and Fox, the shows on which Preston and Fenton began and continued the collaboration that developed into BtKatGBV.)
I also believe there’s a more specific connection to be made between BtKatGBV and the Doctor Who mythos, but brace yourself: this will involve handling some contagious Deep Lore. While Maxwell is frothing through his interview with Miss Sullivan, he begins a very strange remark. “While I live and breathe, I swear by the Great Six-Fingered One, that nauseating, no…” The clock on his mantel strikes twelve, and suddenly Maxwell falls still and silent. A church bell strikes in the distance, a great wind is heard, and Miss Sullivan – looking, for the first time, slightly afraid – makes a swift exit. Maxwell’s rather vivid oath has no evident link to vampire lore, which raises an intriguing question: who could this entity be? There are a number of six-fingered individuals in human myth and culture, some of whom are better candidates that others – presumably Maxwell is not swearing by the book version of Hannibal Lecter, for instance. The implication, I think, is that this is some kind of vampire god – that Maxwell is aligning himself, as a vampire, with some specific six-fingered legendary figure. Since the vampire-myth starter-kit does not include a standard origin story for the creature, some writers feel tempted to provide their own takes; and the vampire’s gothic nature situates it within a basically Christian cosmology, which places certain expectations on any attempt to imagine the origins of the breed.
According to the second Book of Samuel, the Philistine champion Goliath was one of four brothers – sons of a giant known as Rapha – who were slain by David’s Israelite forces. For one brother, who is left unnamed, Samuel provides a distinctive description: “And there was yet a battle in Gath, where was a man of great stature, that had on every hand six fingers, and on every foot six toes, four and twenty in number; and he also was born to the giant. And when he defied Israel, Jonathan the son of Shimea the brother of David slew him.”
If we go back to the Book of Genesis, we also learn that the Nephilim – an ancient race of giants – were created when angels succumbed to lust and consorted with human women: “And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose… There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.” Since this coupling provides a very clear, primal moment in which a monstrous supernatural bloodline enters the human species, it seems to me that linking the Nephilim to the origins of vampirism makes good aesthetic sense. The relationship between the antediluvian Nephilim and the postdiluvian Rephaim is obscure, but this is a body of myths we’re dealing with, so a certain level of symbolic flexibility is permissible.
BtKatGBV takes place in a world where the Christian God is real and vampires exist. If the Great Six-Fingered One is, as I am suggesting, the nameless giant mentioned in the second Book of Samuel, the implication is that vampires are linked in some way to the giants of old. Now, the idea of linking angels to giants and so to angels is not unique to this film. Plenty of sources discuss the relationship between vampires and angels or Nephilim – it’s just that most of these are occult conspiracy-theory websites. The way in which the internet has empowered New Age spiritualists, Flat and/or Hollow Earth theorists, and biblical Creationists to proclaim their revelations to the world is a beautiful thing, but frankly there are rather too many of them – when every half-baked speculative supernatural theory you can imagine has already been detailed in an unwell person’s manifesto, there’s no fun in finding weird connections. More interestingly, however, there is one properly good science-fiction series which gives an intriguing treatment of vampires as descendants of Nephilim.
Lawrence Miles’s Faction Paradox series, which developed from a line of Doctor Who novels, revolves around a War between two cosmic, time-travelling forces – the decrepit but all-powerful Time Lords of the Great Houses, and the mysterious, implacable force known only as the Enemy. However, this takes place against the backdrop of another, more ancient conflict: the War in Heaven. In Faction Paradox, the structured universe came into existence only when the Great Houses imposed the rules of time and history on the chaotic primordial cosmos. However, in the process, an accident occurred – the fabric of reality was torn, and the Yssgaroth entered history from the outside.
The best instalment in the Faction Paradox series is probably The Book of the War, a multi-author grimoire structured as an in-universe, tangent-heavy encyclopedia of the Great Houses’ conflict with their Enemy. It’s a phenomenal piece of work – a formal experiment that eschews character and drama to facilitate an intense barrage of raw sci-fi concept. The relevant entry tells us: “By their very nature the Yssgaroth represent something primal, something bestial, an atrocity which can no longer be tolerated by the continuum. An anathema to all forms of life and all forms of meaning, they manifested themselves as a vast stem of bloody thorns, tearing the flesh from whole worlds; as a bleeding, eyeless lamb on a divine throne; as an endless skin of desperate, all-devouring faces; as an Old Testament abomination made up of wings and leather and shredded muscle, blind and screaming, forever biting off its own features.” It’s left pointedly ambiguous whether the Yssgaroth is a race of individuals or a single superorganism, and it’s similarly unknown whether the Yssgaroth is actively malevolent or simply what matter happens to be like in a different, incompatible reality.
More relevant here, however, is what happens when the Yssgaroth infects living creatures. The hybrid entities which result from this corruption are known as the Mal’akh. The book’s entry on these creatures, which opens with the same Genesis quotation cited above, suggests that the story of the Nephilim is a garbled account of the time those Great House members infected by the Yssgaroth fled their people for the lesser worlds. As befits the pathogenic nature of their origin, the Mal’akh vary greatly from one specimen to the next, from the inhumanly beautiful to the hulking, monstrous, and debased; but all must feast on the blood of the living to survive.
The concept of the Mal’akh, spawn of the Yssgaroth, can accommodate every conceivable permutation of the vampire. From the strigoi of Romanian folklore to the aswang of Philippine mythology; from the degenerate, murine Count Orlok of Nosferatu to the superhuman libertines of Anne Rice’s stories; from the staid, gentlemanly Bela Lugosi Dracula to the boundlessly physical, unkillable Christopher Lee Dracula; from the campy vamp-faced creatures of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the ancient, metamorphosing nobles of The Legacy of Kain. With its primordial source and variable, evolving effects, the Yssgaroth works as a perfect origin story for the vampire myth, encompassing all versions at once, revealing them as fragments of a great and cosmic extraterrestrial darkness. And that, if you’ll indulge me, is the best explanation I can find for a vampire who defers to an entity known as the Great Six-Fingered One. I’ll grant, however, that out of all the consequences of the Time Lords’ letting the Yssgaroth into the universe, Billy’s clash with Maxwell may well be the weirdest. (Incidentally, I know that Lawrence Miles is one of the chosen few who actually caught BtKatGBV on Channel 4 back in the dark times, because he’s said so on his blog – which is where I first heard of it. While I wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to suggest that BtKatGBV is the secret keystone of the Faction Paradox mythos, perhaps there is something there.)
When Billy and The One have their argument about the contract, Billy warns him, “You better jump the red, T.O.!” Billy is saying that, by telling Maxwell the game was cancelled, The One has metaphorically snookered himself with an unwise shot – now he has to escape that position by renegotiating with the Wednesday Man. The line raises the question: to what extent does the form of BtKatGBV match its content? In Through the Looking-Glass, each episodic event in Alice’s adventure corresponds to a specific move in a chess game, with each character she encounters representing a chess piece; the arc of the story dramatises her journey from pawn to queen. BtKatGBV is not so meticulous, but there are glimmers of the same approach. The opening scene, with its juxtaposition of snooker and poker, establishes the metaphorical green-baize surface on which the action will take place. Miss Sullivan’s song to the audience serves as a neat mid-session break. The Vidkids and the Vipers each have fifteen members – a key number in snooker, where the players spend the bulk of each frame attempting to pot fifteen red balls and fifteen coloured balls between them. The question of just who is playing this figurative game, however, is an open one: the conflict between Billy and Maxwell, who take alternating pot-shots at one another in the media before they ever reach the table, is the most obvious diegetic parallel; but The One’s conflict with the Wednesday Man is more complex, more strategic, and more genuinely snooker-like, right down to the triangular formation the latter makes with his minders in his brutalist lair. In any case, it’s undeniable that the ending scene derives a great deal of its power from its unification of form and content, with the metaphorical black-ball finale merging perfectly with the literal black-ball finale. (Floyd’s line about the White Rabbit does rather indicate that the Alice books were on Preston’s mind when he wrote the film, so perhaps the link is deeper than it seems: is it a mistake to try to describe the subterranean dreamscape of BtKatGBV when we can simply say it takes place in Wonderland?)
Incidentally, BtKatGBV is not the only story to use the sport in this metaphysical manner. Jerusalem, the 2016 novel by Alan Moore, is an immensely intricate and layered metafiction revolving around what is essentially a game of snooker. More precisely, Moore gives us the concept of “trilliards”, a cosmic cue sport played by angels in a higher dimension. Trilliards involves a vast number of balls, each of which represents a human being, with every glance or kiss or cannon corresponding to an event in that person’s life. The story’s instigating event (if it’s correct to use such a term for what is essentially a non-linear collection of 30-odd novellas, with a mixture of heaven, hell, and time-travel rarely encountered outside the Bill and Ted series) is an immensely complex and underhanded trick shot by the angel Uriel in a match against Gabriel; this shot represents a Northampton boy’s untimely choking to death on a sweet, and sets him on a psychedelic adventure across the four-dimensional afterlife, culminating in his miraculous resuscitation (most of which actually happened in reality to Moore’s brother, the interstitial fantasy escapade being the writer’s sole addition). Considering the film’s allegorical logic, is the match between Billy and Maxwell something like trilliards – a game whose moves represent events playing out on another plane of existence?
It’s become a clichéd complaint, endlessly made and repeated, that “cyberpunk isn’t punk any more” – that the genre has decayed into pure aesthetic fetishism, losing the anti-authoritarian counter-cultural animus that the suffix originally denoted. Similar complaints are rightly made about steampunk, though that subgenre was always an ahistorical ethnonationalist fantasy at its core; steampunk was never really punk. Still, there’s no use resisting the fluctuation of meaning. In the context of science fiction, the suffix “-punk” has come to connote not anti-authoritarianism but alternative-universe settings predicated on aesthetically specific fictional technology. In general use, “cyberpunk” means “cyber-tech world”, “steampunk” means “steam-tech world”, and so on. The political dimension is ultimately optional; “cyberpunk” is only “punk” in the sense that “to decimate” means “to eliminate a tenth”. This neutering is even more obvious in the smaller, more derivative, less thought-through subgenres – solarpunk, dieselpunk, or, God help us, clockpunk. If people are going to run away with this terminology, then let us go one step further. Let us put an epilogue on this whole sorry business by taking it to its logical conclusion. Let us do snookerpunk.
Accepting that “-punk”, in practice, simply denotes alternative-universe fiction which centre particular technologies, then snookerpunk signifies texts which present worlds permeated by the aesthetics and rules of snooker. Other cue sports are also acceptable, in the same way that non-steam-related high-tech Victoriana generally qualifies as steampunk. A good snookerpunk story should incorporate the themes and logics of snooker into its constructed world, but the very best snookerpunk stories – like the very best cyberpunk or steampunk stories – should retain the initial spark of anti-authoritarian fire that ignited this whole web of quasi-punk subgenres in the first place.
Clearly, BtKatGBV is to snookerpunk what Neuromancer is to cyberpunk: the ur-example, the seminal text, seamlessly weaving the genre’s eponymous aesthetic with its political ideals – the gold standard against which all snookerpunk shall be measured. Granted, the film isn’t science fiction in the conventional sense, but its diegetic world is so wholly artificial – evidently built, yet unlike anything our technology actually could build – that it affords the film the genuine science-fictional dimension that all good “-punk” microgenres apparently require. BtKatGBV offers us a universe as drenched with snooker as the Blade Runner universe is with corporate android espionage. It’s not an example that many have followed, true, but in a way, that only makes it all the more precious. Besides, any genre that can accommodate both Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire and Alan Moore’s Jerusalem is already a rich one.
The film seems curiously preoccupied with the idea of the afterlife. During his heartfelt performance, Big Jack Jay sings, “When I die and go upstairs / Stand at Saint Peter’s gate / There’s one thing that I’m sure of / Heaven’s covered in green baize”. Whether he imagines heaven as a single gigantic snooker table or a more complex living-environment which merely happens to be coated in the same fabric as one is left open to interpretation. It’s also unclear whether he thinks this world of pure snooker is his own personal paradise or everyone’s, but it’s difficult to find a character in the film who would be disappointed with such an afterlife. The final song even closes with the image of streets paved with gold, recalling the biblical description of the New Jerusalem. Gloating over Billy’s victory, The One sings, “He’ll only get to heaven when the angels carry guns”, curiously focusing on the cowboy aspect rather than the snooker one, emphasising the totality of Billy’s actualisation rather than its method. Determining whether he’s claiming that Billy is immortal or that Billy will restructure the angelic hierarchy according to his aesthetic preferences is left as an exercise for the reader.
The film’s heavenly subtext is introduced quite early on. After losing his poker game with the Spook, The One hurries to meet the Wednesday Man, arriving at the designated alley to find it empty. He turns, pacing uncertainly, and suddenly hears a noise behind him: a hidden trap door has slid open, casting a shaft of golden light, and a ladder is descending slowly to the ground as a heavenly, angelic chorus chants the name of the game: “Survival / Survival”. The One climbs to find himself in a space that’s both cramped and sparse, the floor and low ceiling both concrete, with concrete pillars draped in opaque construction-site plastic. At the far end of the space stands the Wednesday Man, flanked by his silent minders and blazing halogen lamps on tripods, the film’s lighting exposed in brazen Brechtian fashion. Later, while he threatens The One in the same room, the Wednesday Man nods to the side and says, “Twenty-two floors.” Unless I am severely mishearing and/or misunderstanding the scene, the implication is that they are actually in some kind of skyscraper, and that The One will be defenestrated if he refuses to arrange the match. “The great eye, concrete,” says the Wednesday Man. What is going on in this film?
Big Jack Jay’s description of heaven as being “upstairs” is interesting in this context: if heaven is like the surface of a snooker table, does that mean that the world of the living – the world in which the film takes place – is, in some sense, the inside of a snooker table? Is that the truth of this murky-green artificial world? When the righteous die in the world of BtKatGBV, do they ascend to the green plains of paradise by clambering up a pocket?
Edmund Burke wrote that the beautiful and the sublime are two distinct affects, opposite poles of a dichotomy – the beautiful being intricate, delicate, and detailed, like a snowflake or a Fabergé egg; and the sublime being terrifying, majestic, and overpowering, like a stormy sea or the night sky. The truer a dichotomy rings, of course, the more tantalising is the impossible synthesis on which it hinges. China Miéville, after outlining his own distinction between the gothic and the weird, presents the fascinating concept of the “skulltopus” – the notional fusion of those two poles, which “imply one another yet resist syncrex”. Part of what makes settings like that of BtKatGBV compelling, I think, is that they represent a syncrex of the beautiful and the sublime – rooms and chambers that are small and ordinary enough to grasp fully, but repeated across an infinite space. Fractal, labyrinthine, and captivatingly beautiful, the universe of BtKatGBV is clearly something that was constructed – that was built by human hands – but it’s totally impossible to imagine human hands constructing it. It’s the thrilling paradoxical frisson of Kubrick’s monolith extrapolated to an entire world. An eternal universe is crafted using nothing but a few expediently-lit sets and the power of suggestion. The lights, the sound, all wraparound: spooky but sublime.
Of course, from a four-dimensional perspective, everything would look like an endless fractal warren of chambers and spaces repeating into infinity. This is a point that Moore makes in Jerusalem, when the hero reaches the timeless afterlife known as Mansoul, gets the opportunity to look down at his house, and sees his past and future frozen forever in a sprawling tableau of repetition, this moment – along with every other – always having been inevitable, part of an infinitely complex but entirely predetermined story. Intensely episodic and cyclical stories apprehend this aspect of the human experience better than almost anything else. This aesthetic of enclosure – this feeling of stagey, all-encompassing artificiality – is characteristic of much low-budget studio-shot 20th-century live-action media. Perhaps the enduring appeal of the traditional multi-camera studio sitcom can be attributed partly to the fact that it’s what domestic human life, when considered from an objective, timeless perspective, would actually look like: the same few people in the same few rooms, again and again, like cells in a reel of film, as far as the eye can see.
While BtKatGBV is clearly part of Clarke’s career-spanning political project, it also has particular resonances with certain of his other films. In the BBC version of Scum, Phil Daniels appears as a minor character who not only uses the terms “poxy” and “fancy yourself”, but also gets battered across the face with a sock full of snooker balls. Two years later, Clarke brought back almost the entire original cast for a big-screen remake, inadvertently imbuing the brutal prison story a surreal – but oddly fitting – cyclical, purgatorial quality. In retrospect, these scenes of Daniels getting beaten with snooker balls can be recognised as a recurring premonition of BtKatGBV. Indeed, since Daniels’s Scum character, Richards, is a petty-criminal cockney teenager locked up a borstal in the late 1970s – all of which absolutely fits with what we know of Billy’s life – it’s tempting to believe that he actually is Billy. He does say that he has big plans for when he gets out. Maybe all those snooker balls to the head rewired his brain.
Clarke’s experimental anthology film Road, made three years after BtKatGBV, culminates in a sequence where four impoverished people gather in an abandoned Lancashire house to hold a sort of primal therapy session in which they lament the state of their lives. One man, seeming almost possessed, roars out his stream of consciousness: “Blastoff! Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickock, Jesse James, Buffalo Bill, Billy the Kid, Doc Holliday, Eddie, Eddie, Eddie the hero! This is it, let it out, sow it below, let go, throw, glow, burn your giro…” Clarke didn’t write the script, but assuming he hadn’t repressed his memories of making BtKatGBV, I’d like to think he got a kick out of directing an intense dramatic scene where a working-class Englishman invokes the name of Billy the Kid as a godlike figure who can give him strength. (There’s more evidence of a connection: Clarke said that the success of Road lay in how “the actuality of the real environment … in its semi-derelict form” was “an expression of how [the characters] felt internally”; as Dave Rolinson notes in The Television Series: Alan Clarke, this strongly recalls the director’s description of BtKatGBV.)
At the end of The Firm, when the hooligan leader is killed during a gang conflict, his followers are not dissuaded but galvanised. One of them has a realisation: “If they stop it at football, right – stop the ruckus at football – we’ll go boxing, we’ll go snooker, we’ll go darts…” The line was apparently ad-libbed, but it gets at an essential truth: in Clarke’s films, sports are isomorphic, interchangeable – the point is never the nature of the specific game, but the way it warps people and communities around it. The tense sequence earlier on where the hooligan gangs meet to trade insults closely resembles the comically specific unrehearsed patter traded by the Vidkids and Vipers in “Quack Quack”, and suggests that for Clarke – himself a fierce fan of the sport – football may well have been his way into the headspace needed to direct BtKatGBV.
A year before BtKatGBV, Clarke directed Stars of the Roller State Disco, an absurdist dystopian drama set in a job centre which is also both a teenage disco and a rollerskating rink. It’s Scum on wheels, with an absolutely headache-inducing level of Clarke’s trademark character-tracking shots. The film, while not nearly as good, does anticipate closely the genre-shredding madness of BtKatGBV, as well as its sense of enclosure and artifice – it was shot entirely on one large set. However, it also gives us a glimpse of something to which BtKatGBV never even alludes: the outside. In Stars of the Roller State Disco, the eponymous job centre has a single exit. When the mechanical door whirrs vertically open, an incredible stream of pure white light pours in, dazzling the disaffected teenagers inside. The film takes place over the course of one day: the hero’s girlfriend comes to visit in the morning, and leaves at night. We never see what’s outside the door. But maybe, somewhere, there’s a door Billy Kid could find, too.
It’s not totally impossible to imagine that there’s a real world out there. John Hurt first played Quentin Crisp in 1975’s The Naked Civil Servant, a largely studio-bound television play. When he reprised the role for 2009’s An Englishman in New York, the expectations and realities of biopic production had changed so drastically that the sequel was barely even in the same medium. Compared to the documentary aesthetic of the second film, the mannered artificiality of the first feels like another planet; and yet they are clearly one unified story, each half needing the other to form the whole. Is the entire world of BtKatGBV a surreal subterranean nightmare, or just London? Is all this weirdness localised, like the Bellona apocalypse in Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren? Has it ever changed, and might it change again? There is some evidence of leakage between the expressionist labyrinth and some sort of beyond – after all, if Billy can refer to Maxwell as “Mad Max 3”, that does sort of mean there’s a film industry. And deserts. We can imagine, if we like, that BtKatGBV shows only one side of its world – that it’s a heightened, stylised portrait of one time and place, and that if a character ran long and far enough, they might find themselves in something resembling our Earth. We can imagine something that might have made Trevor Preston happy.
For the most part, the cast and crew seem to have forgotten BtKatGBV; the majority never mention it again, and those few who do seem to regard it as a curio, an amusement, of no real importance. “I know it wasn’t the greatest film on earth,” says Phil Daniels, “but I always thought it was a much better film than it was ever given credit for.” A great quote for the Blu-ray cover.
The cult of BtKatGBV are scattered to the four winds, few and far between. Someone in the film’s Amazon reviews section says that, when he met Alun Armstong in “back in Nineteen Fish’n’Chips” and told him it was his favourite film, Armstrong advised him to see a psychiatrist, then gave the poor soul his copy of the original script. In one interview, director Ben Wheatley and musician Jim O’Rourke speak warmly of the film’s invigorating madness. When Louise Gold was auditioning for the snooker-themed play The Nap, the writer Richard Bean told her he had a copy of BtKatGBV at home, leading Gold to comment, “He’s possibly the only person in the world who has seen it!”
“I know that people who like it – love it,” George Fenton tells Richard Kelly. “There are four or five nutcases out there who think it’s the best thing ever. And currently somebody, theoretically, is going to do a theatre show of it. Let ’em have a go.” Although that noble attempt to expand the franchise in 1998 didn’t materialise, Clarkovsky’s secret classic remains fertile and vital – a treasure-trove of stylistic invention, an unlikely triumph of wild artistic convergence, an unsolvable Escher puzzle-box that’s infinitely larger on the inside, the only text to constitute its own coffee-shop AU.
God bless you, Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire, you mesmeric masterpiece. You justify Creation.