David McGillivray is only a few years old than me, but I first became aware of him when I was in my late teens or early twenties and he was writing excellent film reviews for the British Film Institute’s Monthly Film Bulletin.
He quickly got involved in the 1970s British sex film industry, writing such epics as I’m Not Feeling Myself Tonight and The Hot Girls, then shifting into horror scripts for quickie film directors Norman J.Warren and Pete Walker and, later still, writing and producing his own films.
“I used to love being scared when I was a child,” he told me yesterday – Halloween – in Soho, “and I greatly enjoy frightening other people. I’ve only really ever been interested in sensation.”
“What was your best film?”
“Shorts or long?”
“Of the shorts, I’m very fond of one called Mrs Davenport’s Throat, which I made in Lisbon in 2005. It’s got a surprise ending that I don’t think anyone’s ever guessed.”
“You wrote and produced that?”
“Yes. It was inspired by those people at airports who stand holding cards with people’s names on. In my film, the eponymous Mrs Davenport goes up to a chauffeur who is holding a sign saying MRS DAVENPORT and goes off with him and we find out what happens to her. It’s not a pretty sight.”
“You said that with a smile.”
“It’s good fun.”
“And your favourite feature film?”
“I never watch any of my films apart from House of Whipcord. That was my first big one for Pete Walker. I saw it again at a horror festival in Edinburgh about two years ago and thought it stood up quite well.
“I was a very young writer – I was 25. I read an outline of the story and it was exactly the sort of film I had always wanted to write and Pete Walker got together a marvellous cast. It was terrifically exciting for me. Suddenly here I was part of the film business that I’d always been so fond of.
“I think House of Whipcord is Pete Walker’s best film, though some people prefer Frightmare.”
“He seemed to suddenly disappear off the radar,” I said.
“He just decided to stop working,” explained David, “and nobody really knows why. He had the money to continue and he could have gone on making films. He didn’t completely disappear: he ran a chain of provincial cinemas called Picturedrome for a while but now, as far as I know, he really is completely retired. I haven’t seen him since 1992.”
“Is he worthy of rediscovery?” I asked. “Or are his films just tacky?”
“I have said,” David told me, “that he was Britain’s most talented exploitation director. As soon as a Pete Walker film starts, you know instantly it’s his. He had a very distinct style. He was a talented storyteller. He knew how to include the exploitation elements. I think it’s a great shame he isn’t still working. He just decided he didn’t want to do it any more. He didn’t need to make money; he was very rich.”
“Rich from the films?” I asked,. “Or rich independently?”
“Rich from property,” said David. “He made a lot of money from his early films: little 8mm ‘glamour’ loops sold either by mail order or in newsagents, often under-the-counter.”
“Soft-core?” I asked.
“Oh yes, all very soft core. They were basically striptease films. He made a lot of money from those and then his early full-length sex films made money. There were several people in the same market – Harrison Marks and Stanley Long were two rivals. Pete’s early sex films were very successful. Then he started making his so-called ‘terror’ films, which were less popular. All of those people made a fair amount of money out of nudie and sex films.”
“When you were young,” I asked, “did you want to make art films?”
“No,” said David firmly. “I never wanted to do anything arty and I never have done. I’ve got no ability, I’ve got no taste, no style. I’m a hack.”
David’s current film production company is called Pathetique Films. It uses the slogan Curiouser and Curiouser.
“But you appreciate arty movies, so you have taste,” I told him.
“I’ve got no ability. I really haven’t,” he replied.
“But,” I said, “you can write and you’ve seen enough movies to know what images need to be edited together to have an effect, so you can work backwards and know what material has to be shot to create the end result you want.”
“This is like a conversation I was having yesterday, about the difference between art and design,” David said, holding up a teaspoon. “What is this? It has been designed to look good, but is it art or is it just design?… It is design.
“My films are not art. They’re just product designed to give people a bit of a thrill in whatever way is possible.”
“But what you’re describing,” I argued, “is a Shakespeare play – a commercial product that’s aimed at a specific audience – almost lowest-common-denominator. Shakespeare was creating something to give the plebs in the pit a laugh. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are there to give people a laugh in Hamlet; there’s blood all over the place in Macbeth; there are things flying around and thunderstorms and a shipwreck (or is it two?) in The Tempest. I’m sure if I went in a time machine and watched Shakespeare plays as seen by the original audience, it would be like watching a down-market farce or an exploitation movie.”
“Well, yes,” David agreed. “Shakespeare’s plays were aimed at ‘the ordinary folk’ and wouldn’t have been considered Art in their day. Maybe one day, long after we’re dead and gone, the public will decide that my films are Art.”
“But the public didn’t decide Shakespeare is art,” I said, “It was people who wrote books about him. Critics decide. Critics would say The Tempest is art and the movie Forbidden Planet is a commercial Hollywood science fiction product, but the film is based on the play.”
“Well,” said David, “I would call Forbidden Planet art, because it’s a wonderful creation and it works and it scared the living daylights out of me when I was 7 or 8. When the footprints appear in the sand, made by the invisible monster, I was so frightened I remember distinctly I couldn’t look at the screen and I hid my face in my school cap. That film had an enormous effect on me and it’s a very artistic endeavour indeed.”
“But looked at objectively,” I said, “Shakespeare is basically lowest common denominator sex, violence and comedy – much like The Bible in that respect. Reviewers thought Hitchcock’s Psycho was unforgivably down-market, repulsive and sadistic when it was released, yet people would probably think Psycho was a work of art now.”
“Definitely,” agreed David, “Well, any film by Hitchcock.”
“Or Michael Powell’s film Peeping Tom,” I said. “It was said at the time to be obscenely sadistic and it destroyed his entire career. But now it’s Art. I avoided seeing it for years because Time Out said it was a simile for the voyeurism of the cinema-going experience – It sounded unbearably arty and a load of wank. But, when I saw it, it IS a great film and, arguably, Time Out was right.”
“It’s not bad, is it…” said David.
“You must want to write Art,” I told him, “You want to create things and you want to create the best possible thing you can and that is Art and, if it has a big effect on a big audience like Harry Potter, then all the better, surely?”
“This is a very vexed issue,” replied David, “and goes back to what is and isn’t Art. I’ve really only ever wanted to create something that is going to have some sort of an effect on people. I don’t want to create something that’s going to be ignored, that’s going to sit on a shelf and not be seen. I don’t particularly mind what the critics say. I don’t care if they hate my stuff – and a lot of them do. All I want in years to come is for people to watch my films and enjoy them in the same way I enjoy the most rubbishy, churned-out second features. If I can create anything like Night of the Demon or, indeed, Night of the Eagle, I’d be very, very happy.”
“Well,” I said, “everyone’s making B films now – the Star Wars movies, the Indiana Jones movies, Quentin Tarantino’s movies. They’re all basically making crappy low-budget B films on a big budget – Crap becoming Art.”
“Yes,” agreed David, “they’re making wheat out of chaff.”
“They’ve making wheat out of chaff for chavs,” I suggested. “What are you making next?”
“It’s panto time,” said David. “It’s a very busy time. This year I’ve contributed to four. I don’t write them, I only re-write them depending on who’s in them. My regular employer is Julian Clary – I’ve re-written his pantos for several years and, through him, I’ve met other people like Nigel Havers. I’m just finishing re-writing Robin Hood, which is in Plymouth this year. And I’ve re-written part of Snow White for Gok Wan in Birmingham. I love panto. I think that’s my true forte.”
“You knew Julian Clary before the pantos?”
“Yes, I’ve worked with him for 31 years. I’ve never written an entire show. He’s known for his improvisation. He Julianises what I put together as, indeed, do other comedians I’ve worked for.”
“Paul O’Grady, Greg Proops, Angus Deayton…”
At this point, a man dressed in a white Halloween costume and wearing a Scream movie mask came into the restaurant where we were sitting.
“That is an example of the opposite of what we were talking about,” said David. “That is Art turned into crap… Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream now turned into one of the worst franchises in horror movie history…”