Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Vamp or Not? Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire


I really don’t know where to start with this 1985 oddity that was directed by Alan Clarke. Firstly I’d better explain that this is a snooker movie, the green baize referring to the felt covering of snooker tables. Now this may not mean a lot to some readers, snooker as a viewer orientated sporting phenomena is, as far as I can tell, in the main a British obsession. In fact even in the UK many people cannot understand why someone would watch snooker as a sport – and I’ll admit that I am one of the sad individuals that likes to do so.

Phil Daniels as BillyThe film is more than that, it has East End gangster overtones. It is a musical, and very much has the look as though it were shot upon a stage rather than a film set. As a musical it is almost reminiscent of what it would be like if Blur produced a musical. That is really no surprise as Phil Daniels who plays Billy the Kid was on the Parklife single. Also it has vampires, or does it?

The MatchThe storyline is fairly simple. Billy the Kid is an up and coming snooker player whose manager, T.O. (Bruce Payne), is in debt to a mysterious man (possibly a loan shark?) known only as the Wednesday Man (Don Henderson). To pay off his debts T.O. is told to arrange a grudge match between Billy and nine times snooker champion Maxwell Randall (Alun Armstrong) – known as the green baize vampire.

To manoeuvre this, T.O. sets up a journalist (Louise Gold) to interview both players. Her report makes what Billy says seem libellous and Maxwell is going to sue. They decide to settle their differences on the snooker table with the stipulation that the loser never again plays professional snooker.

The personas of the two characters seem drawn from the personas the press draw around them. Billy is a cowboy obsessive and Maxwell is a vampire – the character was loosely based on snooker pro Ray Reardon who was described in the press as a vampire because of his looks. Things are not that simple as we shall see.

fangs to cameraWe first meet Maxwell in what appears to be a gothic castle. He rises from his coffin and bears fangs at the camera. Then he notices that his mouth tastes off and… sprays his mouth with mouth spray and we see a glint on the fangs. We hear “Cut” and realise that we are at an advertisement shoot.

The next time we meet Maxwell is at his home. He greets the journalist with large fangs in place but then removes them. It seems Eve Ferret as Mrs Randallas though his fangs, and those of his wife (Eve Ferret), are for show. Essentially he is living up to his media persona. Yet below the large fake fangs he seems to have smaller, but still very apparent fangs. Later Maxwell, in a rage about the article, states that he couldn’t spell Transylvania, never mind coming from there, and that he quite likes garlic. We could question whether the persona is coming apart.

Coffin tableThings become odder as we delve further into his house. He has a glass coffin snooker table with, what appears to be the dummy of a vampire, whom Maxwell claims is his father. His father is asked about his plans for the grudge match and the balls atop the table move by themselves, we assume offering assent.

So far, however, there is nothing to indicate that this is anything more than playing up to his media identity. However, in the match the cross in the eye was a nice touchwe notice a couple of things. Towards the end of the match, as Billy makes a comeback, we see Billy dazzle Maxwell with his spur. The reflection of the spur in Maxwell’s eye is a cross. This may only be symbolic but it is very clever and I was much taken by the scene. A similar form of symbolism is used when Billy is being beaten, and takes the form of the referee sprouting fangs.

glowing vampire eyesThe game ends in a blackball finish. As the black hurtles towards the pocket, struck by Billy, Maxwell’s eyes flash white and he stops the ball with his vampiric powers. Billy pulls out a six-shooter and fires, blowing the ball home. Again we are seeing something symbolic but the lines, in this movie, are always being blurred.

The film itself is one that has to be seen, if only because you will never have seen anything like it before. Perhaps it helped that I like snooker, but in honesty I think I’d have said the same anyway. However, that doesn’t clarify if the film is a vampire movie or not. Strictly speaking I would have to say no as the vampire is symbolic, but the use of the symbolism is so sublime that this becomes very much a case of the genre being used in alternative ways. Often we have seen the vampire used as a symbol of addiction, for example, but never as such a specific symbol, the personification of an individual one could almost say, as in this film – then again the film is unique. The Green Baize Vampire might not be the undead, but the symbolism causes him to be a vampire and thus causes the movie to be a vampire movie – just one of the most unusual you’ll ever see.

The imdb page is here.

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