Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire (Alan Clarke, 1985)


AV_Inferno_DVD_.inddSet within a twilight labyrinth of concrete corridors and bunker-like rooms, director Alan Clarke plays out a musical grudge match between conflicting generations of master snooker players. On one side is Billy the Kid (Phil Daniels), a cocky young cockney decked out as an Old West outlaw. On the other is seven-time world champion Maxwell Randall (Alun Armstrong as the Green Baize Vampire), a bloodsucking traditionalist resentful of his young challenger. Manipulated by his manager T.O. (Bruce Payne as “The One”) and a scheming loan shark called the Wednesday Man (Don Henderson), Billy agrees to a seventeen-frame snooker match against Randall where the loser will put down his cue forever. Can Billy vanquish his foe or does the Wednesday Man have some more tricks up his sleeve?

Featuring music by celebrated composer George Fenton and inspired by the rivalry between true-life snooker players Ray Reardon and Jimmy White, Alan Clarke’s Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire is an uncharacteristic foray into fantasy by a British master of gritty realism. The result is an astonishingly strange and captivating work that resembles a musical adaptation of The Hustler if remade by Ken Russell.

Special Features:

  • New high definition transfers of the film in its 93-minute and 121-minute versions
  • High-Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard DVD Presentation
  • Original 2.0 and 5.1 Dolby Surround Options
  • Optional English SDH subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Making BTK – Extensive interviews on the film’s making with cinematographer Clive Tickner, composer George Fenton, production designer Jamie Leonard, costume designer Tudor George, and editor Steve Singleton
  • Shooting from the Hip, a brand new interview with Phil Daniels made especially for this release
  • Biting Back, a new interview with Alun Armstrong made especially for this release
  • Being #1, a brand new interview with Bruce Payne
  • Sullivan Reporting, a new interview with Louise Gold
  • Bride of the Green Baize Vampire, a brand new interview with Eve Ferret
  • Sports Life Stories: Jimmy White, an ITV documentary on Jimmy White, the inspiration for Billy the Kid
  • Archival interview with Ray “Dracula” Reardon, the inspiration for Maxwell Randall, on the eve of the 1981 World Snooker Championship
  • Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Michael Brooke

English director Alan Clarke is synonymous with social realist dramas made primarily for television, theatre, and, occasionally, film. David Fear recently called Clarke a “righteous poet of anger and volume” who pinballed “between stage realism and street-level regionalism” with a critical politics that happily embraced skinheads, hooligans, and addicts as reflections of a broken British culture. Naturally, it’s difficult to imagine the maker of gritty works like Scum (1977), Made in Britain (1982), and The Firm (1989) creating a musical fantasy about a snooker rivalry between a young cockney cowboy and a seven-time champion who is also a Bela Legosi-esque vampire. It may be even harder to believe that Clarke creates an astonishingly entertaining, singularly original modern musical from these discordant elements. Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire is a film that must be seen to be believed, and it’s a movie that is unforgettable once seen, such is Mr. Clarke’s wild ride.

Billy the Kid arranges a collection of stock characters around an approaching duel that culminates in a climactic face-off, a simple tale that could be unremarkable but for the outlandish ambitions and discordant components employed by Alan Clarke. T.O. (Bruce Payne playing “The One”) manages a rising snooker star who dresses like an Old West outlaw and goes by the moniker “Billy the Kid” (Phil Daniels). When T.O. falls into debt with an intimidating loanshark called the Wednesday Man (Don Henderson), his only option is to arrange a 17-frame grudge match between the Kid and the reigning champion Maxwell Randall (Alun Armstrong as the Green Baize Vampire).

T.O. fans the flames of a rivalry between Billy and Randall by hiring Miss Sullivan (Louise Gold), a journalist who provokes the pair into a match that puts their careers on the line. As Billy is only just starting out, T.O. objects to the proposal, but nevertheless accepts when the Wednesday Man suggests that the Green Baize Vampire will not be at his best during the match. Billy and T.O. are betrayed when Randall dominates the match in its early frames, running up a quick lead on the rising star and revealing the Wednesday Man’s double-cross. After T.O. comes clean to his beleaguered friend and the Green Baize Vampire finally shows some weakness in his game, Billy begins to mount his comeback.

Believe it or not, there are those who find things lacking in BTK, complaining about deficient character development, an absence of dancing with its singing, and a perception of drabness or cheapness to its sets. These people are, at best, humourless killjoys and, at worst, greedy bastards. For them, the sheer audaciousness of Clarke’s concept is not enough. Phil Daniels’ cowboy-attired cockney needs a fuller backstory; Alun Armstrong’s bloodsucking snooker maestro requires some moral awakening. Sequins and high kicks could enliven BTK‘s songs that are performed without footwork like those of lazy, undramatic opera singers. Lush theatrical lighting would dispel the film’s oppressive, subterranean atmosphere, something that presumably exists only due to the inattention of the movie’s makers. These are the complaints of people who lament the lack of a romantic subplot or even a wise-cracking sidekick, perhaps in talking animal form.  These are the complaints of assholes unable to find gratification in the simple joy of a Legosi-esque vampire who insists on wearing clip-on fangs over his own protruding incisors, a dystopian arcade called Supersonic Sam’s Cosmic Cafe (Supersonic Sam played by Zoot Money), or the performance of “Snooker (So Much More Than Just a Game)” by a tacky, pompadoured MC called Big Jack Jay (Neil McCaul).

BTK is an amazing, chimerical, utterly unique collection of random ideas pulled together into the strangest of films. It can certainly be enjoyed as an achievement in WTF extravagance, but BTK is a deceptively Alan Clarke-ian work of trenchant political resistance, one that hides social awareness by eschewing the social realist form in favour of excessive symbolism. In essence, Clarke presents a generational conflict along established socio-economic divides. Billy’s cockney accents marks him as a young member of the working class, as it does his supporters who sing “Quack Quack Quack” at the older, upwardly mobile middle classes that root for Randall. Costumed in the garb of a western outlaw, Billy resists snooker’s gentlemanly tradition in favour of American rebellion, braggadocio, and individualism. It’s no accident, then, that his opponent represents hegemonic authority as a parasitic, ostensibly immortal monster wrapped in a 3-piece suit and living in a sunless crypt of overwhelmingly bourgeois domesticity with his primped up, vampire wife (Eve Ferret). And it’s no surprise that BTK eventually reveals Randall’s position of privilege as aligned with a criminal underworld, buttressed by nefarious deals and shady support. Clarke’s decision to locate the film in an imposingly severe subterranean netherworld may be BTK‘s most impressive, least appreciated feat, creating a self-contained world of inescapable pressure and mausoleum-like gravity. (Originally conceiving of the film as an exultant array of location pieces, screenwriter Trevor Preston, already in the throes of depression, objected to Clarke’s hyper-stylized aesthetic so strongly that he essentially withdrew from the project.)

billy-the-kid-vs-the-green-baize-vampireWith Lionsgate holding the rights to Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire, it doesn’t seem probable that the film will find a hard media release on this side of the Atlantic, but MMC! is a place of dreams and so we hope some deal could be swung by Arrow Video. BTK is an uncommonly odd film mixing rock opera with genre film figures, pool hustling with brutalist architecture, Thatcherist criticism with gothic horror symbolism, and Arrow Video seems like a media label perfectly suited to embracing this horror-inflected hybrid. In recent years, Alan Clarke has been the subject of various retrospectives and BTK has been included in those programs, and so a decent print of the film may be available to pick up. After all, snooker is so much more than a game and Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire is so much more than movie.

Credits: This post was greatly aided by Michael Brooke’s essay for BFI Screenonline (and so he was chosen to provide an essay for the enclosed booklet) and Kevin Jordan’s discussion at Ravings From The Rubber Room. The David Fear quotes are taken from his article for Film Comment, “Close to the Bone: Alan Clarke.” The IMDB identifies two different running times for BTK, although I’ve only watched the shorter version and haven’t seen anything discussing the longer version. For this imagined edition, both versions cited by the IMDB have been included.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s