By Claudia Siefen

Ladies and gentlemen, I should like to give you my rendering of an old Scotch ballad.’ He coughed and it echoed round the bowl. He took up his stance like a Victorian tenor, with his hand inside his coat. His moustache looked very small, in the middle of his moon for a face. The dog settled again, with one ear cocked. She and the sheep had seen some odder things than this, up on the hill, when Peebles had had a drink. Pink, meantime, with his hands clasped behind his back, listened attentively. He seemed to be glad of a pause, at dawn, before getting more deeply entangled in what he called the process of predestinate tragedy. He smiled as Peebles sang, rather well: … 

It was in 1961 when Bristol-born scriptwriter and director John Lee Thompson achieved international fame with The Guns of Navarone, exemplifying his visual style and his use of suspenseful narrative. The film brought him to the attention of Hollywood, as he was nominated for an Academy Award, finally leading Thompson to his first Hollywood production, Cape Fear, which got its release one year later. It was also in 1961 that the novelist James Kennaway published his short story “Household Ghosts”. Kennaway was born in Perthshire, Scotland, in 1928 and worked as an editor for a London publishing firm. His turbulent relationship with his wife is documented in “The Kennaway Papers”, published after his death. Kennaway wrote several screenplays, three of them based on his own novels. He suffered a heart attack and died in a car crash in 1968.

Lee Thompson had already been involved in the stage production of Kennaway’s “Country Dance” (1967)  and bought the rights of Kennaway’s second novel. M-G-M vetoed his return to Perthshire to film the movie, so Southern Ireland became a suitable financial proposition near to the facilities of Ardmore Studios. The film’s star Peter O’Toole felt at home there too, for he worked in the halls of that studio during the production of The Lion in Winter, directed by Anthony Harvey in 1968. This time O’Toole played the part of Sir Charles Henry Arbuthnot Pinkerton Ferguson – familiarly known as Pink – the last in a line of Scottish noblemen, a character who refuses to change with the times, not wanting to bow to the inevitable.

Kennaway wrote the part of Hilary, Pink’s beloved sister, for Susannah York, his cousin. York accepted the part in this sort of nice family production, if once is willing to take a look at the rest of the cast and check a few examples: Michael Craig played Hilary’s husband Douglas and worked with Thompson in Yield to the Night, Harry Andrews is found in Ice Cold and played the local farmer Crieff, and Mark Malicz from Before Winter Comes played Benny, the Pole.

As Thompson remembered “O’Toole was going through a very heavy drinking period, and there were times when it was difficult to work with him. He was arrested one night, and the producer Ginna had to go to the police station to get him out.” Howver, Thompson felt O’Toole gave an excellent performance for this “film of dialogue”, since the dialogues of Kennaway were very strange; an acquired taste, almost poetic, with a very particular rhythm.

Country Dance had also an outstanding crew: Ted Moore, director of cinematography, is now well known as a member of the “Broccoli” family, as he is responsible for Doctor No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, Diamonds Are Forever (right after Country Dance), Live And Let Die, and The Man With The Golden Gun. Film editor Willy Kemplen already worked with Thompson in Before Winter Comes, he then edited The Looking Glass War, The Breaking of Bumbo, Under Milk Wood, Siddartha. Art director Maurice Fowler worked with O’Toole the year before in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and he is now known for his masterly work in Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, ten years later. Composer and conductor John Addison was known for an approach to scoring favored small ensembles, often with single instruments being associated with specific characters: Tom Jones, Torn Curtain, Seven Days to Noon, Sleuth, A Taste of Honey, he also wrote the theme music for TV-series Murder She Wrote.

In spite of some reservations about the appeal of Pink and his sister Hilary, Country Dance represented the sort of filmmaking that critics of that time valued, but failed to attract a large audience. Because of this, after its small opening in spring 1971 at the Ritz Cinema in London, it played mostly in art houses.

She was three up and two to go, pet, but I beat her on the bye. And that is not counting her lost pill. I beat her on the bye; so I did.

“Mummy”, says Sir Charles Henry Arbuthnot Pinkerton Ferguson (a wiry and pale Peter O’Toole), “left me the most extraordinary amount of phenobarbital.” “Mummy” also left him emotionally dependent on his sister Hilary (a blonde Susannah York) who can’t bring herself to leave the family dairy farm, taking up residence with her husband. Hilary is not only afraid her brother Pink will attempt suicide again, but she herself enjoys their manic squabbles and their sharing of the afternoon booze, topped off by a nice hot tub with a toy duck in the bathwater. Interestingly enough, that duck was not the only thing Pink and Hilary shared in their childhood: in some iteration, one wonders if the themes of sibling incest aren’t being presented as a benign coping mechanism for a major childhood trauma. Pink depends on his sister’s love; it is protection he wants, not a physical relation. Later, Hilary’s resistance to staying with her brother seems as much about her own physical needs as it does about resisting Pink’s attentions.

In order to understand this “incest” ordeal in time of the release of the film, we need to set things in context: In 1969, while legal changes were clear-cut, there was a lot of controversy about how far sexual attitudes and behaviors genuinely changed in the 1960s. The idea of a “sexual revolution” is strongly contested. It is tempting to compare the sexual habits of the 1960s with those of the upcoming century, reaching the conclusion that the older generations were naively well behaved. Judgements about the 1960s, including drugs and alcohol abuse, need to be made in terms of what happened before and after. One could find that more liberal laws on divorce, abortion and homosexuality were passed in Britain in the late 1960s, only making an impact in these decades. The pill only became easily obtainable for everyone from 1974 when it was provided on the NHS. The rate of marriage declined from 1972 at the same time that more unmarried couples decided to live together, and Alex Comfort’s “Joy of Sex”, published in 1972, became an instant bestseller. Most writers of sex manuals up until 1972 were middle-aged white men with some scientific or medical background, strong “religious” convictions and traditional views of marriage and sex. Women should play a passive role; they should embrace the sexual demands of their husbands while accepting their primary role in life as wife and mother.

I remember your face, white, and your eyes looking darker than I’d ever seen them as you hung on to Stephen, pushing your face against his arm. When you did look at me it was with hatred. Or is that quiet accurate? With something resembling hatred, something a little sulkier. I can’t get nearer it than that. And remembering it now, in a bright neon-lit laboratory, it’s like something out of a dream. It was as if we were in a huge, unhaunted night club on the outskirts of Berlin. The wooden beams and the music lead me to Germany. The square mirror, the instruments in the corner and the giant nooses above added a macabre touch to excite the macabre; these take me to Hamburg or Berlin.

From the marriage of a brother and sister in Daniel Defoe’s “Moll Flanders” to the sexually charged relationships in Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park” a remarkable number of English novels predicate their plots on the tabooed possibility of incest, situating the context of changes in class and kinship organization that were taking place in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in the context of the accompanying emergence of modern cultural ideologies and forms. So maybe with the shift from patriarchal to egalitarian models of familial order, a transformative moment in the cultural construction of incest has been marked? Considering incest narratives in the light of discursive transformations and of contemporary debates surrounding incest and its definition in religion, moral philosophy, and the law, the English Novel shows how stories about incest served as sites for both the production and the critique of modern notions of gender and sexuality.

He is up to, your view, crass as you are, crudely as you put it, may, in the long term, be a correct one, biu I was thinking in more subtle, immediate and realizable terms, this being my excuse, you should excuse my folly, give us a kiss, nuts, give us a kiss, buy us a drink, certainly, read this and everything, my dear, read this and tell me what you think.

So, what about the possibility that a sexless relationship could also offer unprecedented safety and warmth? It’s almost impossible to think in today’s sexualized societies, a place where looking for security in a place where society expects sexual activity and forbids it by law is a daring, yet daunting task.

Country Dance aka Brotherly Love (1971)
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Screenplay: James Kennaway, based upon his play “Country Dance” (1967) and his novel “Household Ghosts” (1961)
Photography: Ted Moore (in Eastman Color.)
Music: John Addison / Scottish music: Jimmy Blue and his Band
Editing: Willy Kemplen
Art director: Maurice Fowler
Production: Robert Emmett Ginna
With: Peter O’Toole, Susannah York, Michael Craig, Harry Andrews, Cyril Cusack, Judy Cornwell Jack Baird, Robert Urquhart, Mark Malicz. Lennox Milne, Jean Anderson, Peter Reeves, Desmond Perry, Helen Norman, Tom Irwin, Harry Jones.