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The Final Programme (1973)
Director: Robert Fuest

review by J.C. Hartley

I was always a 'great reader'. "He's a great reader," they used to say, usually when the Sun was melting the asphalt, and my peer group were swimming in the sea and raiding orchards. But for long periods in my life I didn't read a thing. It used to bother me. I was supposed to be the 'great reader', the one with a literary bent, but often my friends read more, and more widely, than me, and also seemed the better writers for it. Not now of course; not a day goes past without finding me, fast asleep, with an open volume of literary criticism in my lap. As for the writing...

It must have been the fifth year at school, which would make it around 1973, when we had to spend some time in the library, reading. I probably messed about, as was my wont, but three books were brought to my attention, selected by others, which were to have a lasting effect on me. One was a collection of the paintings of Rene Magritte, we were already very impressed by Salvador Dali, a large reproduction of whose Metamorphosis Of Narcissus hung in the stairwell of a shop in Carlisle, but Magritte, in time, with his northern European irony, probably had a more lasting effect. The second book was Enderby Outside (the second volume of Anthony Burgess' Enderby sequence). I don't know why this book had announced itself to someone, it probably contains rude words or scenes of a sexual nature, but we all read it and I became seriously hooked on the works of Burgess, until some time in the mid-1980s when I finally tired of what I saw as the author's reactionary conservatism.

The third book was Michael Moorcock's The Final Programme, and thus began a life-long bromance with Jerry Cornelius. Oh yes, we also avidly devoured Gore Vidal's Myra Breckinridge, and the sequel Myron, for we were of that generation, inspired by the example of David Bowie, into interrogation of its own sexuality. Somewhere along the line Jerry got merged with my other style-icon, Peter Wyngarde's Jason King, and I haven't fastened my shirt-cuffs since.

I grew up in my grandmother's house and, as a teenage boy; much of my time was spent in preventing her, and other female relatives, from seeing inappropriate stuff on the tele. I remember leaping to my feet and fiddling with the contrast, while blocking the screen, when the delightful Prunella Gee stripped off in Shabby Tiger; I remember my anguish when my mum and aunt witnessed the 'Dirty Vicar' sketch in Monty Python, I remember shifting uncomfortably in my seat, while watching a film programme, in which the photo shoot for the poster for Three Into Two Won't Go involved a model posing full-frontal; my gran said it was 'interesting'. Happily, when that same film show revealed the making of a movie version of The Final Programme I was over the moon.

Time is out of joint. Three Into Two Won't Go was released in 1969, The Final Programme was published in 1969, the film version was released in 1973, I was in the fifth year in 1976, and films didn't appear on TV in those days until about six years after their release, so I saw both Three Into Two Won't Go and The Final Programme on TV. When The Final Programme was in production, and featuring on a film show, I can't have read it, all my anticipation was retrospective. Michael Moorcock didn't like the film. He said something like; it had everything going for it except a good director and a good story. Jerry says a similar thing about Kubrick in, I think, The Condition Of Muzak; "His films have everything except a good director."

Originally a set-designer, Robert Fuest made his name in British television directing episodes of Tara King-era The Avengers in 1969. From there, he made And Soon The Darkness (1970), written by Brian Clemens and Terry Nation. This film received short shrift critically; I remember it as being rather unpleasant but with plenty of tension, however latterly its stock seems to have risen with DVD release in 2008, and a remake (And Soon The Darkness) in 2011. The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971), and Dr Phibes Rises Again (1972), with the great Vincent Price, were critically acclaimed for their camp horror delights, but The Final Programme was panned, as was satanic-cult nonsense The Devil's Rain (1975), driving Fuest back to television.

Where did The Final Programme go wrong? Well, Hawkwind ended up on the cutting-room floor for starters. The film shoots like an ambitious TV episode of something. Society is supposed to be on the brink of collapse, war has been rumbling on forever, this much is true to the Cornelius canon, but we are told it and not shown it. A skeleton cast dance around each other in some admittedly tasty locations, but where is everyone else? Jerry in London walks along the embankment past the Thames piled high with rusting cars, but there are no people; it's like 28 Days Later without the plot justification.

After his recently-deceased dad is cremated on a funeral pyre in Lapland, Nobel-prize-winner Jerry Cornelius (Jon Finch), is approached by Dr Smiles (Graham Crowden), and Miss Brunner (Jenny Runacre), to retrieve some microfilm related to the late scientist's work. Jerry must break into his father's house and take on his junkie brother Frank (Derrick O'Connor), who is holding their sister Cathy a prisoner. In the resulting shoot-out Cathy is killed. Jerry and Miss Brunner pursue Frank to some exotic location where the latter is despatched. Miss Brunner retrieves the microfilm, and having discovered that Jerry is the perfect specimen to join her in the Final Programme, an experiment to create a genius-level hermaphrodite to be the New Messiah, she persuades him to join her in Lapland.

Too much talk, not enough action. A vague sense of improvisation, or incredulity, attends the delivery. By trying to be sophisticated the film misses out on the capacity for camp that might have rescued it, the kind of appalled can't-look-away sensation that accompanies viewings of Modesty Blaise (1966), and Casino Royale (1967). There are some totally pointless scenes such as the one where Jerry tries to buy napalm from nervy hit-man Shades. Their meeting takes place in an arcade where Shades berates the pinball machines for being fixed, and girls on rollerblades sweep around the set to raucous music; the whole function of the scene appears to be to afford Julie Ege's cameo to display her impressive cleavage.

Miss Brunner has developed the power to absorb people to gain their knowledge and abilities; there are a couple of decent puns around this fact, done to death by adding another spoken reaction that destroys the original joke. Moorcock was right of course, the film did have everything going for it, a great cast certainly, but the blame has to be laid at Fuest's door. He wrote, directed and designed it; The Final Programme should have been shown to George Lucas as an 'awful warning' before he embarked upon The Phantom Menace.

The film's ending is an embarrassment; wounded Jerry is taken into the heart of the scientist's machine where, bathed in solar radiation, he struggles with Miss Brunner for ascendancy over the programme. He emerges as a hairy Neanderthal doing cheap Humphrey Bogart impressions. I remember being shocked when I read the ending of the novel. Jerry is transformed into a giant hermaphrodite and strides across Europe leading humanity to a lemming-like destruction. I was a science fiction fan, the thing that had drawn me into the book, 'The Testament Of G. Newman, Major, USAF, Astronaut', "203 neatly numbered pages of manuscript" reading 'Ha ha ha ha ha ha etc.' like some perverse riff on Tristram Shandy, seemed compromised by this exotic finale. But within a year or so I was painting my toenails; so it goes. I still love Jerry.

The Final Programme DVD

The Final Programme - region 1

copyright © 2001 - Pigasus Press