I last saw this bizarre artefact from the 1970’s on TV in the early 80’s, late at night, having wanted to see it since its release. Sadly, I couldn’t pass for 18 in 1973, and I despaired of ever seeing it. My memory of it from that long distant TV screening is perhaps understandably shaky, but my overall impression is the same as today, that of an undisciplined, sprawling chaotic ‘end of days’ picture which may be going nowhere, but has one hell of a time getting lost.
Based on the Michael Moorcock book, the action opens in a country like ours, a dystopian future familiar to cinemagoers of that long, and – some would say – deservedly forgotten decade, the 1970’s. Humanity has been largely wiped out, leaving only a few scientists and a cast of decadents to pick up the pieces. Our ‘hero’ (if we can use that term in such an unconventional story) Jerry Cornelius, played by Jon Finch, is a louche aristocrat, resplendent in a velvet suit and frilly shirt, driving his Rolls-Royce around aimlessly, under the influence of generous measures of whisky, scoffing chocolate biscuits and looking for all the world like a particularly dissolute Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen. Cornelius’ Byronic tastes carry further to his enthusiastic consumption of all manner of exotic pharmaceuticals, and his general love of luxury and home comforts that would make today’s Better Homes subscribers look like lightweights by comparison.
Cornelius drifts through a cast of off-the-wall characters, all keen to sell him whatever the current ‘in thing’ is. Whether they be the corrupt army officer, played with gusto by Sterling Hayden, acquiring armaments by illegal means, or Ronald Lacey’s creepy, pinball-addicted gangster, offering top-up supplies of strange drugs. We see a much-changed Trafalgar Square, with crashed cars taking up the fourth plinth, something Westminster Council might want to consider for a temporary exhibit. The café/night club scene is one of the film’s best, the place resembling a gigantic pinball machine, populated by dancing girls, clowns, gloriously depraved customers, all wasting what little time they have left in this palace of cheap thrills. Figures wrestle in white, chalky mud for the entertainment of the patrons, recalling the ‘Hungry Angry Show’ in the TV play of The Year of the Sex Olympics It is in this scene that the film gives away its 1970’s origins most easily, with an obvious resemblance to other films of the time; Tommy and A Clockwork Orange.
The Art Deco inspired sets and pop art references make this film a delight for the eyes, even if it’s tempered with a pain in the Gulliver … sorry, head, from the constantly shifting storyline. Armed battles are fought with ‘needle guns’, delivering a charge of psychedelics rather than deadly bullets, and three Magritte-like suited men appear, shadowing Cornelius to heaven knows what purpose.
The character of Miss Brunner is introduced, being played with considerable panache by Jenny Runacre, whom some of you may remember as the Queen in Derek Jarman’s Jubilee. Covered from head to foot in the pelts of innumerable dead cats, Fran freezes the air of any room she walks into, and it is at this point that I begin to feel that some filmmakers may have had more than a peek into this country’s future than they wanted. Fran’s resemblance to a certain former Prime Minister make uncomfortable viewing, and it is a sobering thought that her character’s model was, at that time, already gearing up for a stab at high office, from her role as Education Secretary. Fran’s appetites are no less voracious than Jerry’s, and somewhat more inventive, preferring the sexual favours of a stunning redheaded girl, to the dubious delights of designer drugs.
We learn that the characteristically inward-looking scientists have come up with a plan to replace and even improve upon the large section of the human race who are no longer with us, by utilising the knowledge in the preserved brains of former scientists in conjunction with their own, and designing a computer that will help in the creation of an androgynous being. Self fertilising, self reproducing, with no need for pairing up the sexes, as both are combined within one individual. The lucky couple to combine forces to create this homunculus will be Jerry Cornelius and Miss Brunner, assisted by some light and sound wizardry under the control of the inevitable misguided computer. If this is all beginning to sound like The Avengers on acid and aphrodisiacs, then your observation will prove well-founded as our intrepid lovers prepare for the ultimate sexual experience that is The Final Programme, and it suddenly morphs into some technological version of I Am Curious Yellow. I won’t spoil the ending by telling you the results of their labours.
With a talented cast, some stunning sets, and costumes by such luminaries of the fashion world as John Bates, Ossie Clark and Tommy Nutter, it’s hard to see how The Final Programme could have garnered so little media attention and been forgotten so completely by the fickle public. Was it the distinctly non-science fiction references, like Bonfire of the Vanities, or the confusing mass of storylines all going on at once? Was it the refusal to take the subject of the global apocalypse seriously, or the sheer silliness of the plan to produce an androgyne to repopulate the earth? Perhaps it was the changing nature of science fiction itself, soon to be given an almighty seeing-to by George Lucas and his ‘Star Wars’ phenomenon. Whatever it was that propelled The Final Programme into cinema oblivion, I can report that it didn’t deserve its place. Perhaps now, in an age when we are becoming more conscious of the effects our consumer society is having on our fragile planet, and with a world-wide recession still not beaten, the film’s chaotic message deserves a listen.
What made this Flipside screening so special, was the appearance of the author of the original story, the wildly successful Michael Moorcock, to comment upon the film. Confessing that the reservations he had on first seeing the press screening all those years ago have proved justified and have grown more numerous since then, Michael proved a likeable and good-humoured guest for Will and Vic Flipside to quiz. His low opinion of director Robert Fuest, (‘A bum director who wanted to be an auteur’ and ‘Couldn’t direct a number 14 bus’ were among his comments), then fresh from his success at directing the Dr. Phibes films, endure. Not meant maliciously, I am sure, Michael simply voiced his concerns about Robert, in particular, that he was not used to directing crowd scenes, tending to stick to two-character exchanges, and thus delivering an ending that omitted Michael’s powerful scene of humanity being led into the sea by a new Messiah. He went on to explain that his own script for The Final Programme was not used, just bowdlerised, and even star Jon Finch, a friend of Moorcock’s, told Michael at the time that he felt the script was directionless.
Further juicy snippets included the revelation that Mick Jagger was considered for the role of Jerry Cornelius, but he turned it down because it was ‘too freaky’. The book, written in 1965 but not published until 1967, was initially shelved for a similar reason. The ‘rock n roll’ connection to The Final Programme doesn’t end there, for, as some of you may know, Michael Moorcock was a great fan of the sci-fi obsessed 70’s underground rock band, Hawkwind, and for the eagle-eyed among you, they, and Moorcock, can be glimpsed briefly in the pinball arcade section of the film. We can only guess at what the film would have turned out like, if it had stuck close to Michael’s original book, as the pinball arcade/nightclub rejoices in the name of ‘The Friendly Bum’ and the character of Jerry Cornelius is even more sexually ambiguous than Jon Finch’s light-touch evocation. On initial cinema release, The Final Programme was paired with Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan actually a kung-fu picture, as support, but their positions were reversed half way through the run. Faced with a highly pertinent question from the floor about the inspiration behind Jerry Cornelius, which the audience member felt might have been David Bowie in ‘Ziggy Stardust’ guise, Michael was intrigued, but answered that he was in his Notting Hill neighbourhood one day, when he saw a man coming toward him, down Portobello Road. A rare instance of someone fitting the bill perfectly, perhaps?
I was hugely impressed with the Flipside for tracking down a print (however faded and scratchy) of this true 70’s oddity, but what made the evening irresistible was the appearance of Michael Moorcock, surely one of the most engaging and amusing guests to visit the NFT in recent years.
Originally posted 2011-03-28 11:59:10. Republished by Blog Post Promoter