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D: Alan Clarke / 89m

Cast: Phil Daniels, Alun Armstrong, Bruce Payne, Louise Gold, Eve Ferret, Richard Ridings, Don Henderson, Neil McCaul

There are some movies that seem to have been made expressly with the intent that they become cult items some time after their initial release. The world’s only vampire snooker musical, Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire is such a movie, a one-off that’s unlikely to ever be remade, rebooted, or given a sequel. It’s also very much a product of its time, a musical fable built around the real life rivalry between British snooker players Ray Reardon (the green baize vampire) and Jimmy White (Billy the Kid). Small in scale and very cheaply made, and dismissed by contemporary critics and audiences at the time, the movie has gained a certain caché over the last thirty-two years. Rarely seen these days, but available on DVD if you know where to look, the movie makes the most of its limited budget and if you’re in the right mood, offers a viewing experience that might just capture your interest.

The story is a simple one: Billy the Kid (Daniels) is an up and coming snooker prodigy. Just twenty years old, two years before he was discovered by T.O. (The One) (Payne), who now acts as his manager and promoter. Having made a name for himself, Billy is being touted as the next World Champion. He’s flash, he’s arrogant, he plays unsanctioned exhibition matches for money, and he’s as good as he says he is (maybe even better). His attitude earns him the ire of former nine times World Champion Maxwell Randall (Armstrong). A war of words erupts between them in the press, fuelled by manipulative journalist Miss Sullivan (Gold), and soon there’s talk of a challenge match.

T.O. brokers a deal with a loan shark called the Wednesday Man (Henderson) (T.O. is in his debt), and the match goes ahead with the added stipulation that whoever loses has to stop playing professional snooker. Randall shows off his prowess by winning the first frame with a maximum break of 147. He goes on to win the next seven frames, giving himself a seemingly unassailable lead of eight frames to nil, with the match being played over seventeen frames. During a break, Billy  – who’s in shock at how badly he’s faring – and T.O. discover something about the match that changes everything, and when play resumes, a lucky break gives Billy the opportunity to play his way back into the match. It all comes down to the final frame. Which player will be able to hold their nerve and win the match… and how will they do it?

Shot in what looks like the basement of an old abandoned cement factory, Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire is definitely one of the oddest movies you’re ever likely to see, but even with its low budget production values and its over-reliance on sports tropes – the talented newcomer with something to prove, the aging player who resents the newcomer’s apparent disrespect for him and the sport, the manager with financial problems who puts the newcomer’s career on the line, the journalist who foments discord as part of her own agenda, the shadowy figure (here the Wednesday Man) who pulls all the strings behind the scenes – the movie still has a charm that makes it an easy watch, and by the end you can see why it’s gained something of a cult following over the years, and despite being very rough around the edges.

A collaboration between two creative talents for whom this would not have been a predictable choice, the movie has a solemn, well-constructed screenplay by Trevor Preston, and highly stylised direction by Alan Clarke. Both men had backgrounds in more gritty and realistic TV dramas such as the excellent Out (1978 – Preston), and the controversial Scum (1977 – Clarke). Though the screenplay does play things “by the book” and follows a well established template, Preston strays far enough from the template on occasion to make the story more intriguing, such as providing Randall with a home where vampire-related paraphernalia gives rise to the idea that he really is a vampire, and it’s not just a nickname. Also, Preston doesn’t give Billy a girlfriend who’s there solely to tell him how good he is and cheer from the sidelines. And the inclusion of rival sets of fans for the players gives rise to a battle of the classes that should seem out of place, but isn’t at all.

For his part, Clarke keeps the characters hemmed in thanks to the claustrophobic nature of the various sets, and this gives the feel of their being in a pressure cooker environment, where every little slight and criticism is blown up out of all proportion, and emotions run more intensely than they would do otherwise. However, this does give the movie a very theatrical feel, with Randall’s living room looking like a stage set, and the setting for the match, with its spectators’ galleries on three sides, also giving the impression of watching a filmed play rather than a movie. Clarke thankfully compensates for this through the editing, and although the movie never shakes off this notion fully, Clarke’s staging and framing of the action helps smooth things over as well.

As a musical, the movie is on less firmer ground than it is as a sports tale, and though the inclusion of several well written songs (lyrics by Preston, music by George Fenton) gives the movie a boost from time to time, not all of them work as well as they should. The opening song, Green Stamps, will baffle anyone born after 1991, while Kid to Break‘s repetitive nature quickly undermines the intended potency of the song as a whole, which seems to have been written as the snooker equivalent of a football chant. Two songs do stand out though: the vituperative I Bite Back, with its chorus and vocal counterpoint from Eve Ferret (it’s also the one song that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Broadway or West End musical), and the exuberant Snooker (So Much More Than Just a Game), sung by the match’s flamboyant compere, Big Jack Jay (McCaul).

The performances are spirited and engaging, with Daniels wisely abandoning his usual cheeky chappie demeanour, and Armstrong hissing his lines with thinly restrained anger. Both actors are on good form, taking the bare bones of their characterisations and fleshing them out beyond Preston’s original intentions, and looking very comfortable and authentic at the snooker table. Payne, whose career has never really recovered from his being the bad guy in Passenger 57 (1992) (though he was very good indeed in it, better than Wesley Snipes), is the surprise here, giving gambling addict T.O. a much broader, more sympathetic reading than was probably on the page, and making him the most interesting character in the movie. One thing that should be noted though, is that none of the cast are particularly good singers, and their voices aren’t always up to the challenges of the songs, which is a pity as the ways in which they interpret them, are very good indeed.

Rating: 7/10 – much better than it looks (just ignore Clive Tickner’s murky photography), and sounds (Randall’s squeaky shoes are a distraction), Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire is quirky enough and original enough to warrant closer inspection and a better reputation; Clarke squeezes a lot out of Preston’s screenplay, the cast are all on fine form, the songs reflect and enable the narrative, and the whole daft nature of the material – which is taken very seriously indeed –  is exactly what makes it work as well as it does. (15/31)

NOTE: At the moment there’s no trailer available for Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire.

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