When he walked into a London art-house cinema in 1984 for what would prove to be the last public screening of now lost 1960s’ pop movie Popdown, little did Peter Prentice realize that over 20 years later he would find himself on a mission to not only track down a surviving print, but also save the film-maker’s entire archive…
“I first read about Popdown in Fred Dellar’s NME Guide to Rock Cinema (an indispensable reference book in its day), so I already had a pretty good idea of what to expect when I smuggled my cassette recorder into the Scala Cinema for the film’s last public screening – not with any intention of bootlegging the material, just something to make notes from when I got home.
“In those days there were very few publications catering for enthusiasts of what would later be termed ‘Freakbeat’, apart from Record Collector and a few isolated fanzines, so I kept a sort of scrapbook containing discographies; notes from old music papers; clippings etc. I threw the scrapbook out many years ago – a decision I have since come to regret because I remember next to nothing about the film today! In fact, if I didn’t have the audio recording to prove otherwise, I would have seriously doubted my presence at the screening at all!
“Popdown was a short, independently-produced pop musical shot entirely on location in the early months of 1968, for the most part in London. It was written, produced and directed by Fred Marshall, a 38-year-old American filmmaker then resident in the capital. Entirely self-financed, and costing something in the region of £40,000 to make, it was to be the first film in a long career.
“The film itself could best be described as a lighthearted look at Swinging London as seen through the eyes, or to be more precise, camera lens, of a pair of visiting extra-terrestrials played by Zoot Money and Jane Bates. It had no dialogue, apart from an opening and closing narration, and scenes were improvised largely on-the-spot; usually anywhere Fred and his guerrilla film unit could get away with setting up their cameras!
“The icing on the cake was an improbable musical soundtrack featuring, amongst others, Brenton Wood, virtuoso Brazilian guitarist Luiz Bonfa, and the entire 1967/68 roster of Giorgio Gomelsky’s Marmalade Records.
“A “fragmentary and undisciplined pop-culture collage, intermittently lively but consistently over-indulgent” was how the Monthly Film Bulletin described the film upon its eventual release in 1970 (ironically the year in which it was set), which I think is a pretty fair assessment. It had an extremely limited distribution, on occasion playing second fiddle to some of the biggest pictures of the day, and whatever critical reaction it did manage to garner was often disparaging. Not altogether surprising when you consider its running time had to be almost halved in order to obtain a theatrical release.
“In many ways Popdown was similar to the standard low budget pop fare produced in the first half of the decade. What makes the film so important from today’s perspective, apart from it being one of the quintessential Swinging London movies and a priceless snapshot of the period, is that it contains footage of some of the lesser lights of the late sixties music scene. Acts like Blossom Toes, Dantalian’s Chariot and the Idle Race; artists many now consider to be the equal of their better known contemporaries. I think connoisseurs of the mini-skirt might just find some merit in the film, too!
“I discovered the film was missing through the Missing Episodes forum. I couldn’t quite believe it at first, and it’s still something I have trouble getting my head round today. How could a film I saw as late as 1984 have been allowed to go missing? I had always assumed it was safely tucked up with the BFI or some such venerable cinematic organisation. Shows how naive I was!
“I set out to locate a copy but had very little to go on. Outside of my poor quality audio recording and the combined IMDb and BFI cast & crew lists there was nothing at all – no pictures, no documentation and no reviews. The film was a complete enigma.
“So, after making a few preliminary enquiries with New Realm, the film’s official distributor, I set about tracking down anyone and everyone connected with the production, sending out a raft of letters and e-mails and generally making a nuisance of myself. Something I’m good at!
“Some people were relatively straightforward to locate, others proved far more elusive. One or two took many months of painstaking detective work to find. There are still a number of key personnel I’m anxious to trace, in particular Jane Bates, Carol Rachell and editor Mike Foale; all three central to the film.
“From the outset my number one target was Fred Marshall who, after Popdown, had gone on to make one other film in London – a ten-minute short called Chelsea Bird in 1970 – before leaving for southeast Asia in the early seventies to begin shooting The Free Life, a film with an ambitious storyline based on Homer’s Odyssey. He continued to make and distribute films in Asia, predominantly in the documentary field. and it also appears he was something of an authority on Asian cinema, writing infrequent articles and reviews for some pretty heavyweight film journals, and contributing regularly to the annual Variety International Film Guide. By all accounts, he was an unforgettable character: A real one-off.
“Early on, I had come across a short on-line obituary for an Asia-based filmmaker of the same name, but had quickly dismissed it because it was completely at odds with the description of Fred given to me by Zoot Money – that of a wealthy playboy living the dream of being a movie-maker in Swinging London. It was only weeks later, when I discovered the deceased Marshall had made a film entitled Samba on the Lake, that I began to fear the worst (Popdown had numerous Brazilian connections). Later correspondence with several of his former colleagues in Hong Kong confirmed that it was indeed the man behind Popdown.
“While all this was going on I was sending out specially-tailored questionnaires to all and sundry, attempting to unravel the mysteries of the soundtrack, and doing further spadework in my quest for a print. I spent an inordinate amount of time in newspaper archives and film libraries (not to mention a small fortune on vintage film magazines and music papers) looking for the slightest reference to the film, or contemporaneous images of the cast. I had even begun to compile biographies and filmographies for all of those taking part.
“Then, towards the end of 2008, my letter campaign began to pay off. Both leading lady Diane Keen and Hollywood cinematographer Oliver Wood, two people I had considered well out of reach, contacted me within days of each other. Like everyone else who has been kind enough to respond to my incessant badgering, both were fully supportive and only too happy to share their recollections of the production. I must say that I have been completely bowled over by the level of goodwill I have received over the past ten months.
“In January came the first tangible results of my efforts: 18 rolls of 35mm negatives containing in excess of 500 black & white stills from the film, courtesy of the photographer Jak Kilby. This was followed in quick succession by the discovery of the film’s press book, which produced a number of fresh leads, among them a clue to the whereabouts of Richard de Clare, the film’s Executive Producer and Fred’s right-hand man in London; someone I had been desperate to contact from day one. As I had hoped, Richard was able to answer many of my longstanding questions concerning Fred Marshall and Popdown. He’s been brilliant, in fact.
“The discovery of the Fred Marshall film archive was a complete accident. I stumbled upon it as a result of a routine enquiry I had made into Fred’s activities in Hong Kong. You can probably imagine the sense of elation I felt when I found out that approximately 500ft of Popdown material had been located amongst the inventory. It meant that sleep was at a bit of premium for the next week or so while I arranged for payment and awaited shipment, but it was worth it!
“The inventory appears to contain material from just about all of Fred’s Asian productions in one form or another: 16mm, 35mm, VHS videotapes and Betamax, plus soundtapes. It also contains a few films that he used to hire out. I suspect some of the material may not be in great shape – some of it had to be thrown out several months ago because it was considered too badly mouldered to warrant further storage. I believe I now have all the Popdown material from the library, around 10-15 minutes if projectable. The material is currently in the capable hands of Chris Perry at Kaleidoscope, and everyone connected with the film is waiting to hear their verdict on its condition.
“The two main difficulties I’m presented with are time and funding. The warehouse storing the material is closing down later in the year and I urgently need to secure the funds necessary to have the library shipped to the UK (I have been given a rough estimate of £1,150 to have everything shipped over). Obtaining the Popdown material has all but cleaned me out financially (I have effectively taken a year off to work on this project), so I am looking for backing. I did try the BFI, but they were unwilling to offer any financial assistance. Ideally, I would like to keep the library together in one place, dependent on finding suitable storage.
“Ultimately, my long-term objectives for Popdown are threefold:
1 – To secure a DVD release for the film in any of its forms; be it the original 98m version, the 54m edit (before cuts) or the theatrically released 46m version (after cuts). Whether something can be done with the excerpts and the 500+ stills I found in January, I’m not sure. I remain hopeful a full-length print will one day be recovered and I’m working on it!
2 – To reconstruct the soundtrack with a view to a commercial release. A task made all the more difficult by Fred’s use of unreleased, undocumented, and sometimes unauthorised material. A number of tracks have still to be identified.
3 – To write the first full account of the film. It promises to be quite some story!
“With regards to library, I don’t know. It’s quite a cross to bear knowing that I’m the only person that stands in the way of a life’s work and the incinerator. Hopefully, a benefactor will come forward and save the films for future generations to enjoy. Then, perhaps, Fred Marshall will finally receive his due as a filmmaker. I’d like to think so!”