Friday, 4 November 2011

The Ballad of Tam Lin - RODDY McDOWALL - Director

Released 1970


The traditional ballad "Tam Lin", enjoyed a voguish revival in Britain in the late 1960's. It featured in the repertoire of three highly influential folk artists and inspired an imaginative but largely forgotten film. 

"The Ballad of Tam Lin", American-style.
It was a time when a renewed interest in folk music and pagan belief was percolating back through the left-leaning underground. Increasingly politicised listeners were looking to reconnect to an ancient authority more authentic than that proscribed by their elected reps (sound familiar?). The Christ-like Che shared bedroom wall space with proto-anarchist William Blake, whilst an outbreak of eastern spirituality offered glimpses of a surrogate utopia, long lost in ancient Albion. Popular novels sensationalised the Occult, whilst the myths of King Arthur coincided with the cult of Tolkein, with his talking trees, malevolent Trolls, Elfin Kings and all. It was a fantasy-parable but one conceived in a childhood idyll menaced by the very real perils of encroaching industrialisation and the horror of war.

The evolving cross-fertilisation of folk music across the Atlantic in the 1960's popularised this backwards quest for authenticity and meaning. Appalachian murder ballads, sea-shanties and work songs sung by the likes of MacColl, Seeger and the Clancy Brothers stirred the polemic-energy of the visionary Bob Dylan. His anthems were morphed into pop music by The Beatles and The Byrds, the latter band in particular acting as midwive to a generation of experimental West Coast musicians. Folk music was now anything from country and roots, through all shades of Americana and the blues.

1969 Island LP
It was against this backdrop that a group from London called The Fairport Convention, would record a string of increasingly impressive albums, peaking in 1969 with "Liege & Lief". This hybrid music was deeply influenced by the evolving sounds from America but with Sandy Denny's assertive and tradition-toned vocals it was a sound firmly rooted in the British folk-song firmament. That something so modern sounding could compliment something so old, served as the benchmark for what was to come and to this day it stands as the defining manifesto for the whole British folk-rock movement. The interpretation of the Scottish ballad "Tam Lin" sounds like a microcosm of the entire work, melding the anachronistic imagery to Richard Thompson's West Coast-style guitar breaks; a sound that manages to be both biting and languorous at the same time.


The ancient lyric of this ballad, adapted by Robert Burns in the 18th century, conveys a morality tale concerning the consequences of maidens cavorting with rakish men. A universal message found in folk tales throughout the world and one retold since time began. Our fascination for this version is wrapped up in it's telling and the strongly symbolic setting. Janet's virgin encounters Tam (or Tom) in a forest glade. Finding herself impregnated, Tam reveals himself as a mortal man imprisoned by the Faerie Queen. In order to free him she is instructed to pull him from his horse when the faerie court ride by. Their love is proved true as they withstand the shape-shifting torment that the enraged Queen curses Tam with.

"...run to the white steed and pull the rider down"
It's a story steeped in the Celtic night of Samain, or our adopted Halloween or All Saints Day (Day of the Dead). The night when bonfires are lit to renew life in the pre-winter earth, when all natural law is suspended and ghosts and demons are abroad. The faerie myths in the Scottish borderlands likened Elves to humans in their physical size, but gave them a compulsion to steal new born children and men. Their unassuming wisp-like nature hiding an ulterior hell-bent motive to strengthen their stock through interbreeding!  

Not long after Fairport's version was released, the traditional singer Anne Briggs recorded an unaccompanied variant of the song called "Young Tambling". A singer much admired by Sandy Denny, her compelling and austere recording draws the listener closer to the meaning of the ballad, making the girl's predicament all the more dramatic. Janet becomes Margaret, her seduction by Tambling is made explicit and she returns to the woods to find herbs to effect an abortion. It is only here that she is convinced to save Tambling and their child. It's a reminder of the subtleties and nuances of a story passed down through generations. A tale in many different forms, chopped and changed to give new emphasis and relevance to different audiences at different times.

Roddy McDowall on location.
At the same time the Pentangle, second-only to Fairport Convention in the folk-rock hierarchy, were tackling another variation of the song. Their version with additional orchestration by Stanley Myers was commissioned for a cinematic curio released in British cinemas in December 1970. The film "The Ballad of Tam-Lin" or "The Devil's Widow" maintained the premise of the fable but updated it to the present day. The Pentangle sang the tune at appropriate intervals in a narrative which subtly shifted the focus towards a decadent Faerie Queen portrayed by an ageing Ava Gardner. It would be the only film directed by American actor Roddy McDowall, made in between his appearances in the Planet of the Apes films. That he didn't make another film is a great pity as it's directed with an understated style, reminiscent of those unique films that only foreign directors seem to capture.

Ian McShane soon for the dead wood
Gardner, resplendent in spider-like eye make-up, revels in the role of Queen Bitch. Self-exiled from her court of beautiful young things, her lover Tom, played by Ian McShane, elopes with Vicar's daughter Stephanie Beacham. This propels the Queen into an existential malaise which sets in motion the eerie end-game. Using the malevolent mood of a drunken party-prank gone wrong, the film speeds towards a conclusion which toys with horror-film conventions. In this interpretation a caravan by the Forth Bridge, a fleet of sports cars and a deadly dose of hallucinogenics feature as iconic plot devices. Richard Wattis is a memorably creepy supporting Queen as the waspish Secretary Elroy whilst a sympathetic Cyril Cusack plays Janet's pastor-father. The other cast members including Joanna Lumley, Madeleine Smith and Jenny Hanley, all presumably biding their time between the next Hammer costume change, play the mindless hangers-on, circling in the Queen's orbit.

"...an angry Queen was she."
The film works and each member of the cast plays their role to perfection. McShane and Beacham transcend the legacy of their later TV roles and convincingly portray the innocence at the heart of the story. The washed-out 1960's are evoked by the flight from London and the end of the party literally leaves the guests in complete disarray.

The film was a forerunner to some contemporaneous Scottish pagan horrors. "Nothing But the Night" in 1973 suffered from convuluted plotting and an OTT performance from Diana Dors. However that film's star and producer Christopher Lee would make a triumphant return that year with the magnificent "The Wicker Man", a celluloid equivalent of "Liege & Lief" in terms of  influence and legacy.

McDowall returned to The Planet of The Apes but he also returned to this film collaborating with Martin Scorcese no less, on a 1998 restoration project. Unfortunately that version is proving as elusive to find as any other commercial version. However the film is available if you look hard enough and it really is worth the search.

Here's Tam's seduction of Janet.



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