by DANIEL OLIVER
‘Who are they?’ I hear you all ask, crowds now swarming forward with an insatiable hunger to learn more. Well, I’ll tell you. The Flare Players were a loose collection of British acting talent destined for big screen stardom towards the end of the 1960’s.
Yes! Yes, them. Each had the swagger, the theatrical training and the looks (and then some) to succeed, but with cruel timing, film production in the U.K. began disintegrating just as their careers were in the ascendant.
Talent including Jon Finch, Pamela Franklin, Ian Ogilvy and others should, by rights, have had a major stake in the industry’s future. A proper appreciation of their strengths as performers, used responsibly by an industry taking the long-term view, could have halted the decline of British film in the following decade. This is not wishful thinking. To watch these actors and actresses at work is to witness genuine star quality.
All you need is a quick scour through the TV listings over a bank holiday, usually enough to turn up a British movie made between the mid 60’s to the mid 70’s. One of the Players will be there.
Centre-screen or hovering at the edge of frame, they disturb the memory: a voice, a face or some other physical attribute frustrating attempts to concentrate on the action. If not exactly a ‘lost generation’ of British movie actors, they were certainly the worst treated.
To provide some context, we need to return to the early 1960s, when American distributors, impressed by such U.K. successes as ‘Tom Jones’, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and the output of Hammer Films, decided to plough large amounts of money into subsequent production here.
Over time, British cinema began to batter the box-office with a stock of hard-loving, hard-living big-hitters (Caine, Christie, Harris, Rampling, Finney et al). As the basis of an unofficial ‘star-system’, they marked themselves out for export in much the same way that certain brands of whisky bear the Royal Warrant.
However, waiting in the wings as the decade progressed and possibly smoking something illegal lay a second wave of young British talent. These were the Flare Players (Our name for actors of the flared trousers era). Whether by accident or design, they came to embody the idea of a ‘counter-culture’ with greater conviction than their predecessors, an older generation markedly still in debt to its wartime upbringing.
The men, including Patrick Mower and Nicky Henson, drew upon new, hip definitions of masculinity. British film seemed genuinely involved in a dialogue with other cultural trends, including pop music (The Rolling Stones, The Kinks) and sport (Jackie Stewart, George Best). There were also other peripheral influences, all filtered through the lens of fashion.
The women had a more difficult time. At one end of the market, the dual franchises of Hammer and Carry On pumped out an endless supply of pneumatic nymphs. They possessed little nutritional value for an industry needing sustenance in the years ahead and did not, in short, represent an investment.
At the other end of the operation, performers such as Judy Geeson and Suzy Kendall continued a long-standing tradition of actresses being used as barometers for lifestyle and fashion trends. They were permitted to exhibit independence in financial and material terms but no more. This is perhaps because the producers of the time were predominantly male and preferred women who appeared, in a variety of ways, emotionally needy.
As a result of this, much of the female talent making its mark during this period exhibited a curious mix of self-possession and vulnerability. They signalled modernity whilst remaining steadfastly ‘feminine’. Reconciling these two conflicting forces would prove a challenge, though a challenge not always risen to.
However, despite various disparities, some first-rate talent shone through on both sides. Like natural heirs to British movie stardom, the Flare Players stood poised and ready to assume power…
And then events overtook them. The overweening hubris of some producers on these shores, fixed on those transatlantic injections of cash, resulted in a string of costly failures towards the end of the decade. Some of those titles, including ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ and ‘Performance’ have since been reappraised, but others, such as ‘The Magic Christian’ or ‘The Breaking of Bumbo’, remain awful, barely worth a bulb in the projector.
Almost overnight, American distributors withdrew any further backing from big British projects, closing down their offices and leaving studios empty. It seemed that just as the screen had begun to ‘swing’, the brightest of its future stars, on peering down, had found themselves dangling.
The best (or luckiest) of these thesps gained a foothold in what remained.
Either locally, on the continent or across the Atlantic, they were able against the odds to become bona-fide movie stars of genuine commercial clout. Some developed rewarding careers in television, both here and in the States. But the others struggled to keep themselves in work deserving of their talent.
This was their reckoning: for every Jenny Agutter, there was an Angela Scoular, for every Michael York, a John Moulder-Brown. The story of the Flare Players is the story of how the dice fell.
As a group, their faces and films are still with us, on television, DVD or at late-night screenings in ‘art-house’ cinemas. Strange then, given the constant regurgitation of our mass culture, that U.K. film in the 1970s remains something of a cultural blind spot in most evaluations of that decade.
If it is mentioned at all, it is usually to invoke the hideous spectre of the British Sex Comedy or the suburban slashers of Pete Walker.
With the aim of correcting that oversight, come with us now as we attempt to pick out those brave thesps who, unlauded, kept the British end up amidst a sea of smut and psychopaths. This isn’t just a series of potted biographies of these actors either; we aim to place them in the context, the movies, the shows and the culture of the time.
Come and meet the Flare Players…