Independent cinema exhibition in 1960s Britain: Compton Cinema.
Article Type:
Motion picture theaters (Social aspects)
Motion pictures, British (Exhibitions)
Motion pictures, British (Social aspects)
Motion pictures (Exhibitions)
Ahmed, Michael
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Name: Post Script Publisher: Post Script, Inc. Audience: General; Trade Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Business; Business, international Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Post Script, Inc. ISSN: 0277-9897
Date: Summer, 2011 Source Volume: 30 Source Issue: 3
Event Code: 290 Public affairs Canadian Subject Form: Movie theatres
Product Code: 7830000 Motion Picture Theaters NAICS Code: 51213 Motion Picture and Video Exhibition SIC Code: 7832 Motion picture theaters, ex drive-in; 7833 Drive-in motion picture theaters
Geographic Scope: United Kingdom Geographic Code: 4EUUK United Kingdom

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In 1964 the managing director of the Compton Cinema Club, Tony Tenser, gave an interview to the cinema trade journal Kinematograph Weekly. Tenser began with the following declaration:

This demonstrates Tenser's approach to working within the British film industry during the early 1960s and the importance to him of showmanship, marketing and the promotion of a film as a saleable product. Tenser, along with his business partner, Michael Klinger, saw the importance of taking advantage of the many avenues available to the company in the marketing of their films. And they would approach the business of exhibiting, distributing and producing films in Britain in a way very different from the mainstream British film industry.

The early critical and scholarly narrative of the history of British cinema was (and sometimes continues to be) described in disparaging terms. British cinema is regularly compared poorly to its counterparts in the American, French or Italian industries, prompting Alan Lovell to write in 1969 of "The British Cinema: the Unknown Cinema" (Lovell 5). Several attempts have been made since then to re-evaluate British cinema and to repudiate Francois Truffaut's oft-cited remark that there was "a certain incompatibility between the terms 'cinema' and 'Britain'" (Barr 1986 1). Perhaps the most succinct reply to Truffaut has been made by the British director Stephen Frears, "Well, bollocks to Truffaut" (Lovell 5). A re-evaluation has led academics such as Ian Aitken to argue for the importance of the British documentary movement and how it "can be considered a touchstone for debates on the nature and achievement of British cinema" (177). (1) Other important aspects of British cinema include the relationship between literary adaptations and cinema and British Social Realism, which are explored in John Hill's excellent introduction, Sex, Class and Realism.

This early academic emphasis on establishing a British cinema that is comparable to, for example, Italian Neo-Realism, the French New Wave or classical Hollywood cinema has invariably led to an incomplete interpretation of the British film industry. These discourses are of course complex and outside the scope of this essay, but they give an indication of the struggle that British industry has had, and continues to have, in terms of an understanding of a national cinema and the contribution that British films have made to society, culture and national identity.

The desire to view British cinema as an industry worthy of critical and artistic consideration has therefore resulted in a privileging of a certain type of film and the elevation of a small group of filmmakers, directors and producers. For example, a great deal of critical and scholarly attention has been paid to the relatively small output of films that became known as kitchen-sink dramas, films that heralded the British New Wave of the late 1950s and early '60s. The British New Wave embraced narrative social realism matched with the authenticity of a documentary visual aesthetic, an emphasis on explicit sexual themes, location shooting and naturalistic dialogue.

Peter Hutchings has argued that the first film of the New Wave was Room at the Top (Clayton 1959) which was based on the best-selling book by John Braine. The film became an instant success on both sides of the Atlantic (Hutchings 305) and was quickly followed by an adaptation of Alan Silitoe's account of Northern England working class life in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Reisz 1960). Other films in the cycle include, A Taste of Honey (Richardson 1960) A Kind of Loving (Schlesinger 1962) and This Sporting Life (Anderson 1963); however, despite the successes of these films, the cycle was fading by 1965. The kitchen-sink dramas were either adaptations of famous novels of based on successful stage plays; the films brought to British cinema previously taboo subjects like abortion, illegitimacy and unmarried mothers, as well as a franker approach to the depiction of adult sexual relationships.

Recent scholarly work has led to the exploration of films and filmmakers that had previously been largely ignored, for example the horror films of Hammer Studios, the 1940s' melodramas of Gainsborough Studios and the broad, ribald comedies of the Carry On ... series that ran from the late 1950s to the mid-'70s. (2) Despite this re-evaluation, the primary dominant critical discourses remain tied to social realism and the literary aesthetic, resulting in the marginalization of other filmmakers and filmmaking practices in Britain. This essay is therefore an attempt to shed light onto an area of the British film industry that has been previously ignored, shunned or forgotten. It will examine how two men, Tony Tenser and Michael Klinger, established an independent cinema club in the heart of London and how they developed and exploited the British market place, it will also analyze the development of Compton from an independent distributor of low budget British and European films into an independent exhibitor and producer of films that blurred the line between art cinema and popular cinema, between prestige or worthy cinema and low budget exploitation cinema. Compton Cinema reflects a less-aired aspect of the British cinema-going experience during the 1960s.


The British film industry prior to World War I had flourished and although, as Charles Barr has argued, "there was no such thing yet as a 'national cinema' ... the new medium was explored as energetically and imaginatively in Britain as anywhere in the world" (2009 145). However, shortage of investment in the British film industry and the wide-scale distribution of films from Hollywood prompted a crisis within the industry. By the mid-1920s the once vibrant British film industry was "facing oblivion" (Glancy 59), the lowest point being 1926 when only thirty-six British films were made--in comparison to the release of six-hundred and twenty American films. In order to protect the British film industry, the UK Government passed dedicated Acts in 1927 and 1938.

The 1927 Cinematograph Films Act was designed to stimulate production in the British industry; it stipulated that "a certain proportion of films distributed and exhibited in Britain had to be British in origin" (Chibnall 1). In effect a quota was established (the Act was subsequently known as the "Quota Act"). Initially a quota of 5 per cent British product was set for exhibitors and 7.5 per cent for distributors, eventually rising to 20 per cent for both exhibitors and distributors within ten years.

The unintended consequences of the Act continue to be the subject of academic and critical debate. On the one hand American studios increased their investment in the production of British films; however, these films were often made quickly and cheaply in order to fulfill the terms of the Act. The resulting films were often deemed to be of low quality, lacking "any artistic or technical merit" (Glancy 58), they were pejoratively referred to as quota quickies. Nevertheless, Steve Chibnall has argued that the Act "did unlock American finance for the uncertain business of British film production and stimulate a mushroom growth of indigenous film companies" (Chibnall 2). Working on quota quickies also provided work and a training environment for young British filmmakers, perhaps the most prominent being Michael Powell. Intended to address these quality issues, the 1938 Cinematograph Films Act introduced a minimum cost test to encourage Hollywood to invest in more expensive films.

After the Second World War, British cinema faced a drastic fall in audiences. The UK Government responded by introducing the Eady Plan--or Eady Levy--which was an entertainment tax on the purchase price of cinema tickets. Money from the Eady Levy was made available for the production of British films. Although the Eady Levy was intensely disliked by cinema exhibitors, the financial assistance to film producers arguably kept the domestic film industry from disappearing without a trace during the 1950s.

It was during this uncertain and unstable period that Tony Tenser and Michael Klinger decided to embark on a career in the British film industry. They would not only open several independent cinemas throughout the United Kingdom, but would also become important distributors of both popular, low culture films and mainland European Art films. They would also establish careers as film producers, responsible for making an extraordinary range of films in Britain, as well as introducing the directorial talents of Roman Polanski to Western European and international marketplaces.


Tony Tenser was born in London in 1920; he had been involved with the British film industry since the age of twenty-five, when he became a trainee cinema manager for the Associated British Cinemas (ABC) chain (Hamilton 9). Cinema managers at that time were responsible for marketing and promoting films at a local level. Tenser's abilities swiftly led him to become "one of ABC's brightest stars" and won him the title of "Cinema Manager of the Year for 1949" (Hamilton 9). Tenser's early reputation prompted Kinematograph Weekly's description of him as "an experienced cinema manager and publicist with a flair for enterprising showmanship" ("Count on Compton"). An example of Tenser's flair for showmanship was demonstrated when, as head of publicity for the independent distributor, Miracle Films, he had been responsible for promoting ... And God Created Women (Et Dieu ... crea la femme, Vadim 1956), starring Brigitte Bardot. When initial interest in the film began to fall, Tenser arranged with Michael Klinger to borrow several of Klinger's dancers from the Gargoyle Club, a local strip bar, to walk through London's West End during lunchtime to demonstrate against the film. As a result "receipts went through the roof" (Hamilton 9-10).

The London born Michael Klinger, coyly described as having "an interest in the entertainment world" ("Count on Compton"), owned several London strip clubs, but was keen to shift into mainstream entertainment. Following Tenser's successful promotion of Vadim's film, he suggested that they invest together in "a private cinema, a 'members only' club" (Hamilton 10). Tenser knew that a private cinema would not have to follow the restrictions imposed by the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) and so could "show its clientele whatever films they liked" (10).

The BBFC was established in 1913 by the British film industry. It carried no legal status, "its function being to either classify or cut or reject films submitted to it" (Robertson 1). The certificates awarded to films served only as a guide to local authorities to denote whether a film was suitable for adults or children. Local authorities still retained the right to decide which films would be shown within the local district. This anomaly has its origin in the 1909 Cinematograph Act, which gave local authorities the right to control cinema licenses on the pretext of health and safety regulations. However, the wording of the Act also allowed local authorities to "act as censors of film content" (Richards 67). The BBFC was thus established to deter over six hundred local authorities from individually censoring of banning films within their districts, nevertheless, the right of local authorities to censor or ban films still existed in the 1960s.

In 1960, London's first new post-war cinema was opened--the Compton Cinema, at 60-62 Old Compton Street, Soho ("Count on Compton"). The Cinema's first presentation was Private Property (Stevens 1960), a film that was initially refused a certificate by the BBFC, therefore fulfilling Tenser's earlier promise to offer "whatever films they liked" (Hamilton 10). Because the Compton Cinema operated as a private club, it could circumvent the censorship restrictions placed on a film by the BBFC and offer content that was a great deal more extreme and explicit. Another, more prominent example of the type of film Compton offered to its members was The Wild One (Benedek 1953) starring Marlon Brando, which had previously been banned outright by the BBFC.

Membership of the club cost ten shillings a year and the purpose-built cinema in the basement seated a little under 200, with ticket prices ranging from seven shillings and six pence to twelve shillings and six pence (Hamilton 11). To put this fee into context, the average British weekly wage in 1959 was eleven pounds and two shillings (there were twenty shillings in a pound), therefore the annual membership cost was well within the means of Compton's patrons.

The decision by Tenser and Klinger to invest in the British film industry at a time when cinema admissions in the UK were declining could have been perceived as a risky business strategy. Kinematograph Weekly reported frequently on the decline in cinema audiences and noted the annual fall; for example, the "total cinema admissions for 1961 were 449,114,000, a drop of almost 14 per cent on the 521 million admissions for 1960" ("News of the Week"). Although by the beginning of 1962 the decline had dropped to 11 per cent, previous records from the same source had recorded falls of 17 per cent in 1957 and 20 per cent in 1959.

As cinema audiences continued to decline, so too did the number of cinemas, a trend that had begun during the early 1950s; for example, "4,851 cinemas were open in 1951; by 1956 this had dropped to 4,391 and by 1960 to 3,034" (Hill 37). Two companies dominated cinema ownership in Britain at that time--The Rank Organization and ABC. Rank, which had started as a production and distribution company in 1938, had gradually acquired a chain of cinemas during the war; ABC, which had formed in 1933, had also embarked on an acquisition policy, steadily consolidating its stock of British cinemas during the 1930s. After the war, these two companies gradually established and strengthened their hold on the most profitable cinemas in Britain. By 1963 these two companies, although owning only 21 per cent of cinemas, accounted for "42 per cent of all seats sold" (Walker 244). John Hill has also noted that out of the 1,357 cinemas closed between 1956 to 1960, "only 103 belonged to Rank and 55 to ABC," as a result "while Rank and ABC owned 20.3 per cent of cinemas in 1950 by 1960 they had increased this to 24.2 per cent and by 1962 to 26.7 per cent" (Hill 38).

The dominant position that Rank and ABC held over the development of the British film industry at this time was extremely damaging. As the filmmaker Norman J. Warren explains, "Rank owned Pinewood Studios, Rank Laboratories, Rank Distributors; if you had a film it was almost impossible to get it shown if Rank didn't like it; the monopoly position was not good" (Warren). Warren's sentiment was echoed in the trade press at the time by the Federation of British Film Makers: "since the early 1940s the power exercised by the Rank and ABC combines has struck all those who have studied the industry ... except in the case of films which are made at an exceptionally low cost or which have prospects of exceptional overseas earnings, financial disaster results unless a booking is secured on either Rank or ABC release" ("Memorandum"). It was a point that film critic Penelope Houston argued at the time: "without a circuit release, through the Rank Organization or Associated British, no first feature made in this country ... stands any real hope of getting its money back" (Houston 26).

The dominant position that Rank and ABC held within the industry, and the impact that this had on the films exhibited in Britain, presented additional problems. Between them, these two companies were only required to exhibit "104 new movies a year" (Walker 243), based on the number of cinemas they owned. Although legislation had been set up to protect the distribution and exhibition of British films in the UK, the "traditional links" (244) that Hollywood studios had with Rank and ABC led to a disproportionate amount of Hollywood films being given a circuit release. As a result British filmmakers increasingly found that their films were unable to obtain a contemporary release. This led the independent film production company, British Lion, to complain in October 1963 "that a number of British films were stuck in the pipeline because Rank and ABC were giving preference to films they had a financial interest in" (Murphy 106).

Tenser's commitment to establish a new cinema was therefore also based on a requirement to guarantee an exhibition outlet for the type of films that Rank and ABC were failing to screen in their cinemas. Following the opening of the Compton Cinema Club in 1961, Tenser and Klinger created Compton Films, a distribution company that supplied a steady stream of "product for the special market of so-called specialized cinemas catering for a public with a taste for continental films" ("Count on Compton"). Another distribution company was set up later that year called Compton-Cameo which was closely associated with the Compton Cinema group.

The majority of films distributed by Compton were primarily mainland European films that had been re-titled for the British market, including the Italian gothic horrors of The Spectre (Lo spettro, Freda 1964) and The Castle of Terror (La vergine di Norimberga, Margheriti 1964); or Italian/French co-productions like the sword and sandal mini-epics Ulysses Against Hercules (Uliss contro Ercole, Caniano 1964) and War of the Trojans (La leggenda di Enea, Rivalta 1964). These films were offered to exhibitors as double-bills in combinations that in today's market would appear to be unusual; for example, Compton's production of Saturday Night Out, a "drama of sailors on a 14-hour furlough in London," was released with The Spectre, "a story of the occult," and War of the Trojans, offering "spectacular thrills and a cast of thousands," was supported by The Chimney Sweeps (Birch 1964), "a new slapstick British comedy" ("Our Promise"). Although the combination of an epic mythological melodrama and a parochial British comedy might appear unlikely, it reflected Tenser's "policy of acquiring product to cater for the wider range of exhibitor requirements and public tastes" ("Count on Compton"). Offering a range of different products on the same exhibition bill was part of a deliberate business strategy by Tenser and Klinger.

In 1963, Tenser and Klinger, embarked on an extensive expansion plan that included the establishment of branch offices in Glasgow, Newcastle, Cardiff, Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, Dublin and Belfast, plus two offices in mainland Europe and one in New York. These offices were "staffed by first-class managers," with a remit to "maintain close personal contact with the requirements of exhibitors throughout the country" ("Compton-Cameo Puts"). Expansion also included the purchase and reopening of cinemas throughout Britain and the building of new cinemas, including a six hundred seat cinema, the Scala, in Birmingham and a three hundred and fifty seat cinema in London's Oxford Street ("New, Smaller Cinemas"). By 1964 Compton had increased exhibition spaces by three more cinemas and had acquired and converted the famous Windmill Theatre in London. Compton's rapid expansion was extraordinary at a time when the mainstream Rank and ABC exhibitors were closing cinemas of converting them into Bingo and dance halls.

The decision therefore to expand into film production, "with the determination to produce pictures with strong appeal, economically and efficiently" ("Count on Compton"), would appear to be an even more extraordinary and potentially perilous move.


The success of the Compton Cinema Club and the group's distribution strategy--under the name Compton-Cameo--led Tenser and Klinger to believe that shifting into film production was the next logical step. Compton's tentative move began with the financing of a film called Naked--As Nature Intended (Marks 1961). Klinger had approached George Harrison Marks, London's "most notorious photographer" (Long 58), to direct the film, which also starred Marks' wife, the glamour model Pamela Green. Naked--As Nature Intended was made to exploit the market for nudist films, a genre that had started in Britain with the production of Nudist Paradise (Charles Sanders 1958) and which was in-turn the British response to the release of an American nudist film Garden of Eden (Nosseck 1954)--a film that had previously been banned by the BBFC. Naked--As Nature Intended was granted an "A" certificate by the BBFC, which deemed it "suitable for practically all types of audience" ("Reviews"); it became a very successful film for Compton and showed for months at the Compton Cinema Club, resulting in queues winding through the streets of London's Soho district. Following the success of Naked--As Nature Intended, Tenser and Klinger formed the film production company Compton-Tekli, funding the production of films "by ploughing back profits into the business" ("Count on Compton"). The partners were not alone in setting up an independent production company; there were already several British independent film producers operating during the 1960s; however Compton was almost unique in that the business was vertically integrated (i.e. they controlled production, distribution and exhibition, along the lines of the major American film studios before the 1950s). (3)

Tenser ado valued the promotion and marketing of a film during the distribution process: "Compton-Cameo is keenly aware that film promotion plays a most important part in the achievement of the most successful results at the box-office." Accordingly, the group now included a "full-time exploitation section" within its publicity department. The purpose of this section was to give exhibitors "advice of the benefit of a visit by a qualified exploitation representative." The service also provided a "full range of advertising and accessory materials suitable for every possible situation." Tenser reinforced this viewpoint when he referred to the publicity campaign for an upcoming release of Monsters of the Stone Age. (4) The campaign promoted "mobile touring displays featuring huge cut-outs of prehistoric monsters, stone-age men and special throwaways" (all "Compton-Cameo Puts").

Despite the financial success of Naked--As Nature Intended, the "limited market for the beach ball and bums movies was already drying up" and by the end of 1962 the burgeoning teenage audience "didn't want their films bland or coy, they wanted films exploring issues, provocatively and intelligently" (Hamilton 21). The choice of That Kind of Girl (O'Hara 1963) as Compton's first feature length film was revealed in an interview by Tenser just as the film went into production: "It's a new wave drama with a very strong subject and we're working closely with the censors"; in addition, the picture is "not cheap or sensational" ("Production"). Tenser's use of the term "new wave" is interesting because he may have wanted to reposition Compton as a producer of quality pictures, and so follow in the footsteps of independent film companies like Remus Films Ltd. that had been responsible for Room at the Top, the film that had kick-started the British New Wave.

An additional factor that contributed to Compton's choice of That Kind of Girl was the popularity of "X" certificate films with young audiences. The X certificate was introduced by the BBFC in 1951 to allow films with adult themes to be produced, but restricted to audiences over the age of 16. The certificate was initially applied to "foreign films, which often contained more sex and violence than was permitted in British films"; (Richards 72) however, local authorities continued to retain the power to disregard BBFC classifications. A survey in Edinburgh, carried out in 1963, looked at the cinema tastes of 5,000 schoolchildren; this sample represented one third of the city's children between 14 and 18 years old. The children stated they would "prefer to go to the cinema rather than watch television because television does not show the X type of film, but they like comedy best of all" ("Cinema Survey"). The survey carried out by the Extra-Mural department of Edinburgh University also discovered that seventy-eight per cent of the children looked at the film category before they would attend the cinema and "they went to see sex films as 'no one ever explains anything to you'" ("Cinema Survey").

The X certificate had gained a reputation, "some local authorities ... seemed to think that X films were salacious films," although the "X certificate merely indicated that they were not suitable for children" ("CEA Branch Reports"). For some cinema managers working within the mainstream cinema circuits of Rank and ABC, this attitude towards X certificate films was a problem that was compounded further by the reluctance of Rank and ABC to exhibit the films, believing (incorrectly) that this would reduce potential audiences and therefore the box-office takings (Walker 44-5). Compton, conversely, recognized the value of the X certificate films in bringing audiences back into cinemas; the company had no qualms about exhibiting films that Rank and ABC were reluctant to show. As an independent distributor and exhibitor, Compton made every attempt to take full advantage of the appeal of the X certificate for cinema audiences. For example, before the release of Compton's second feature The Yellow Teddybears (Hartford-Davis 1963), the company showed the film to City Education Authorities in order to obtain endorsements. After a private showing in Birmingham, the newspaper headlines the following day included, "Schoolgirls have X-film lesson on Life!" and "The Girls who Took an X-Lesson at the Cinema Yesterday" (Hamilton, 28), thus ensuring that the film was a hit at the box-office.


That Kind of Girl was based on a story outline by Jan Read, who had previously worked on Basil Deardon's crime/social problem film The Blue Lamp (Dearden 1950). Read also worked on Grip of the Strangler (Day 1957), a film featuring Boris Karloff as a psychologically disturbed reporter who learns that he is the infamous Haymarket Strangler. Read therefore neatly incorporates two strands of late 1950s British film genres, social realism and lurid horror. Tenser, encouraged Read to add "distinctly exploitative elements: promiscuity, rape, venereal disease and ... political unrest" to the script (Hamilton 21). The explicit themes of the British New Wave also allowed Compton to embrace themes that had previously placed their films firmly within the exploitation market. That Kind of Girl, despite Tenser's previously noted assurances that the film would not be "cheap or sensational," was subsequently advertised as "The Shock Film of the Year" (24).

That Kind of Girl relates the story of ah unfortunate Austrian au-pair, Eva, who is working in the home of a middle-class suburban English family. The film depicts Eva's sexual encounters with three men, Max an anti-nuclear protestor, sleazy Elliot, and Keith who is also engaged to the sweet, virginal Janet. Elliot, jealous of Eva's relationship with Keith, attempts to rape her. Following the attack, Eva learns that she has contracted a venereal disease, presumably from Elliot. As a result, everyone whom Eva has come into contact with is informed and the film clearly places the blame, not on Eva's attacker, but on her promiscuity. The film succeeds in conflating the controversial subject matter of casual sexual encounters with a safe and conservative morality that sought to warn and educate. However, as Eric Schaefer has argued, with reference to classical American exploitation, the moralizing in exploitation films would take the form of both expose "concentrated into titillation" and education which was "reduced to a brand of moralizing pedantry" (Schaefer 41). Eva's promiscuity enabled the filmmakers both to titillate and to express revulsion at the character's behavior; it also offers a warning, via the doctor in the film, of the dangers of unsafe sex.

That Kind of Girl generated a mixed reception in the press. The Daily Cinema refers to the film as a "grisly, but fairly sober-minded warning of the dangers of casual promiscuity" and a "highly exploitable 'X' message picture for specialized halls." The main character, Eva, is also referred to as a "daft au pair" (Daily Cinema), which gives an indication of some of the attitudes towards sexually active women at that time. The Monthly Film Bulletin review calls the story "sheer melodrama, running the weird gamut of anti-nuclear demonstration, striptease, pre-marital intercourse, rape and improper use of the telephone" ("That Kind of Girl"). Kinematograph Weekly refers to the film as a "clinical melodrama" and a "damaged goods story" ("That Kind of Girl"), once again placing the blame upon the character of Eva, making her the author of her misfortunes. The success at the box-office of That Kind of Girl led Compton to continue with its program of investing in film production; as a result, its next film, The Yellow Taddybears (Hartford-Davis 1963), became Britain's first sexploitation film.

The Yellow Teddybears was based on a newspaper story about a school in North London. In the original story, a group of girls would, after having sex, wear a yellow golliwog as a visible display of their actions. The original title was The Yellow Golliwog and there are conflicting accounts as to why the title was changed for the film. John Hamilton has argued that the BBFC advised Tenser that golliwog could be deemed racist and so Tenser was asked to change the wording to the less racially-charged teddybears (Hamilton 25). However, this is disputed by Peter Newbrook, the film's cinematographer, who believed that Compton's lawyers contacted Robertson's, a successful UK marmalade manufacturer whose brand marketing included a variety of golliwog dolls. Although there is no documentary evidence of a threatened law suit, Robertson's "didn't like the idea of their product being associated with an exploitation film" and so the title was changed (Newbrook). The imagery of the golliwog, had it been used as the film's title, might well have made the film even more notorious.

In the UK, The Yellow Teddybears gave Compton another financial success, with reports extending from "Box Records Smashed" at the Cinephone, Birmingham, through "The Tills are ringing!! For the film that hit the Nations headlines" at the Chequers, St Albans, to "Highest Opening for 5 years" at the Essoldo, Newcastle Upon Tyne and "2nd Highest Opening for 5 years" at the Essoldo, Watford (all "Compton Cameo"). The film was ah undoubted success on the British independent circuit and led to more queues outside the Compton Cinema Club.

Despite the success of the That Kind of Girl and The Yellow Teddybears the choice of Compton's next film, Saturday Night Out (Hartford-Davis 1964), is a curious one. It appears to be inspired not by the type of films that had proved so successful in screenings at the Compton Cinema Club, but by a tendency to try to emulate the critically acclaimed kitchen-sink dramas of the British New Wave. Nevertheless, the exploitation elements of the film were highlighted in the poster campaign whereby the sultry figure of actress Caroline Mortimer, her leg resting at right angles against a doorframe, looks alluringly towards the viewer as the sweaty, distressed-faced Inigo Jackson tries to escape. It is a deliberate attempt to foreground the sleazier aspects of the film.

Saturday Night Out, while appearing to offer something similar to kitchen-sink drama, actually offers a curious amalgam of social realism, sordid exploitation, two very different love stories, a tepid crime story and a nod to the burgeoning teenage pop industry.


Tony Tenser's promotional campaign for Saturday Night Out was launched "with one of the largest promotion and advertising campaigns ever mounted by an independent company" ("Saturday Night Out Gets"). The music magazine Record Mirror carried a "competition inviting the winning entries to a 'Saturday Night Out' date" with The Searchers, the pop group that appeared in the film; the story was also serialized in Top Boy magazine ("Saturday Night Out Gets"). A showmanship competition in Kinematograph Weekly was announced "for managers for the most comprehensive campaign embracing many products detailed in a special promotion supplement" ("Special Screening") and one of the film's actresses, Francesca Annis, promoted the Spring outfits of the clothing company Lewis Separates. The world premiere of Saturday Night Out was held at the Rialto in London. The tickets available to the public sold out and "disappointed patrons remained in queues at the entrance, hoping to catch sight of the celebrities" ("Saturday Night Out Premiere").

Despite its reasonable reviews, Saturday Night Out is ah example of a film that Compton found difficult to market on the independent circuit as an exploitable product. Lacking a literary or theatrical source, the film failed to offer the critical prestige of other films of the British New Wave. Schaefer has argued that "classical exploitation films centered on some form of forbidden spectacle that served as their organizing sensibility--at the expense of others" (Schaefer 5). Unfortunately Saturday Night Out fails to have an "organizing sensibility" (5) that can be easily exploited and while the film is enjoyable to watch, the shock factor of earlier Compton films is noticeably absent.

Compton's next film, The Black Torment (Hartford-Davis 1964) was clearly marketed as a horror film in imitation of the Italian horror films distributed by Compton--films in turn inspired by the period gothic horror films of Hammer Studios. Although The Black Torment was not as successful as the company had hoped, it did not stop Compton from placing confidence in a relatively unknown director, Roman Polanksi. Polanski's first film for Compton, Repulsion (1965), at last gave the company a measure of critical respectability and financial success, both in the UK and, more importantly, internationally.

The critical and commercial success of Repulsion opened doors to the American film industry, but in the UK, the British film industry continued to resent Tenser and Klinger's success. Although Polanski's second film for Compton, Cul-de-Sac (1966), was another critical success internationally, at the domestic box-office the film failed to excite UK audiences and Polanski left Compton to find greater success in Hollywood. Robert Hartford-Davis, Compton's other star director, had also left the company, following his work on The Black Torment, to set up the independent production company Titan, partly the result of on-set disputes with Tenser. Therefore, at the point where Tenser and Klinger might have made the shift into larger budgets and wider international success, the company was forced back into smaller, easily exploitable products like Secrets of a Windmill Girl (Miller 1966), a film notable for the scanty costumes of its female dancers, and the science-fiction horror film The Projected Man (Curteis 1966), the publicity material for which features extensive photographs of the partially-clad British starlet Tracey Crisp.

By 1966, Tenser had left Compton to set up the independent production company Tigon, which produced landmark British horror films like Witchfinder General (Reeves 1968) and Blood on Satan's Claw (Haggard 1971). Klinger tried to develop Compton into a larger filmmaking company but was unsuccessful. He found greater success as a film producer on projects such as the Michael Caine features Get Carter (Hodges 1971) and Pulp (Hodges 1972). Compton was absorbed into the Cinecenta group of independent cinemas and the Compton Cinema Club continued to exist as a private club, obtaining brief notoriety in 1975 when Pasolini's notorious film Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) was shown uncut. Within twenty-four hours of the film opening it was seized by the police and Curtis Elliott, distributor and owner of the Cinecenta film clubs, was arrested and charged with "keeping a disorderly house," (Matthews 221) an appropriate coda for the end of an era.


Today there are no cinemas in Old Compton Street and the site of the Compton Cinema Club is now a restaurant catering for up-market theater-goers. The strip clubs, sleazy night clubs and newsagents specializing in under-the-counter photographs, have been replaced by trendy wine bars and pubs, licensed erotic booksellers and teenage-friendly night clubs. The Gray Fox pub, the location--according to British director Norman J. Warren--of numerous 1960s' small-time filmmaking deals, has long since closed down. And although the heart of the British film industry still beats in nearby Wardour Street, there is the feeling that something is missing.

The films that Tenser and Klinger screened at the Compton Cinema Club were special because they were an attempt to offer an alternative to the mainstream entertainment that was being offered by Hollywood through the cinemas owned by Rank and ABC. Although Compton's films may have been critically derided at the time, they were made in an attempt to bring audiences back to the cinema when mainstream attendance was shrinking rapidly. Tenser and Klinger recognized that the film industry was just that: a business--it therefore needed to be treated as such. They saw no paradox in viewing film as a commodity as well as an art form, as long as the product was exploitable and would appeal to their customers. Whether the film was Hartford-Davis' teenage sexploitation drama The Yellow Teddybears or Polanski's psychologically complex Repulsion, the films were given equal time and money in terms of promotion, marketing and exhibition. If people continued to return to Compton's cinemas to watch a particular film, then it would enjoy an extended run.

The variety and range of films available at the Compton Cinema Club was extraordinar; there were very few cinemas in Britain where audiences could watch a British gothic horror like The Black Torment, Samuel Fuller's exploitation expose of American mental institutions, Shock Corridor (Fuller 1963), or Roman Polanski's bizarre Cul-de-Sac within the same establishment. The Compton Cinema Club exhibited a diet of rich and exciting film products, an offering that today's cinemas largely fail to deliver, despite multiplex screens and the advances in digital technology delivery. The Compton Cinema Club offered an important alternative to mainstream exhibition in Britain and the films and filmmakers who worked there remain part of a British cultural heritage that deserves to be re-examined and re-evaluated in order to broaden our understanding of British cinema.


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--. "Before Blackmail: Silent British Cinema." The British Cinema Book 3rd Edition. Ed. Robert Murphy. London: BFI, 2009. 145-54.

"CEA Branch Reports." Kinematograph Weekly (9 March 1961). 33.

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Newbrook, Peter. Unpublished interview with the author. 6 February 2009.

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(1) See also Higson, and Hood.

(2) A later entry to the cycle, Carry On Columbus (Thomas 1992), was a critical and commercial flop. Many of the original Carry On ... team had died or refused to appear and the movie remains a poor epitaph to a much-loved British film series.

(3) For an introduction to the American film industry during this "golden era," see Gomery.

(4) It is unclear whether this is an unreleased film, or an alternative title for either Colossus of the Stone Age (Maciste Contro i Mostri, Malatesta 1962) or Monster from ah Unknown World (Maciste Nella Terra dei Ciciopi, Leonviola 1961); both films were distributed by Compton in 1963.
We have fulfilled our promise
   to provide highly commercial
   and exploitable programmes for
   theatres everywhere, and even more
   important ensured that the right
   promotion has been executed to
   ensure that maximum results have
   been attained. ("Our Promise")
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