STEVE POWELL: DRINKING AND SINGING UNDER AFRICAN SKIES

Nostalgia can be a powerful thing at times, an irresistible gravitational pull back to different places and faces and times. I bet I’m not the only one to ever sit on the net late at night and think “you know, I haven’t heard of (insert song or film title or whatever here) in years, I’ll have to look it up.” Sometimes this can be a bad move, as that classic film or song you thought was so great way back when turns out to be something best left to the golden fading haze of younger memory. But occasionally you come up with something extremely interesting, something you could never have expected when you began your innocent nostalgic trip down memory lane.

Which is the case here. In May 2003 I was overcome with an urge to see if I could find out any information about the 1983 shot-on-video film “GBH” (or “Grievous Bodily Harm” – it’s a British legal term for serious assault), which had been one of my select few favorites around 14 or 15 years ago, when I was really into underground and obscure films. And to tell you about this film, it’s necessary to tell you a bit about my own personal taste in movies from back then.

The films I personally loved were really strange, quirky, one-offs; you know the type I’m talking about, I’m sure. The kind of films that are a labor of love for their makers, who somehow managed to make one attempt at hitting the celluloid big time (not that “GBH” is a one-off, as I was to discover only last year) before disappearing back into obscurity. Films that, no matter how misguided, were/are an integral part of their makers’ psyche, cos they so accurately reflect their interests and desires and obsessions. And they’re all the better for it.

Among my own personal favorites were a small clutch of shot-on-video English films from the early-to-mid 80s: “Suffer Little Children”, “Invitation to Hell”…and “GBH”. Each of these films had/has their own unique appeal, but “GBH” was…how can I describe this…special somehow. It was a genuinely fun wee low-budget film, and contained a million instantly quotable lines. You could see that the cast, who weren’t taking it 100% seriously, just having a good time making it, and this good-natured-ensemble-having-a-ball vibe just shone from the screen.

This film became an instant cult classic with my friends and myself and we found ourselves quoting it (“Nobody tells Big Nick Rafferty when he’s had enough to drink!”) constantly. And it was the same with every guy I showed it to; they all took it to their hearts in different ways, and would wax lyrical about it. Remember one guy I knew telling me about showing his small cousin the film. Then, when they were playing some karate beat-n-boot-em-up videogame, his preteen cousin would shout “Now we’re really gonna work out!” (a classic line from the film that is shouted out just before two characters in the film fight) as he laid into his electronic attackers. And when you’ve got preteens quoting a shot-on-video film in the middle of a videogame session…you know you’re onto something special.

“GBH” tells the story of bouncer Steve Donovan (Cliff Twemlow, having a whale of a time acting here). He gets out of jail after serving a stretch for protecting the nightclub interests of Manchester nightlife mogul Murray (Anthony Shaeffer). Reluctantly starting working again for the man who screwed him over by not visiting him in prison, Donovan is dismayed to find out that Keller (Jerry Harris), a notorious hood, has been taking over clubs in the area, putting his apes in the door and netting a percentage of bar takings from the hostage club. When Keller’s men come for Murray’s place, The Zoo, Donovan has to fight them off with the help of his friend Chris (Brett Sinclair) to the disapproval of Donovan’s new love Tracy (Jane Cunliffe). After Chris is severely injured, Donovan goes crazy and kills most of Keller’s henchmen with a shotgun before being gunned down by the police himself at the end of the film.

I had always genuinely loved this film. “GBH” and Mad Foxes are two films that I will always have a special affection for. They were my own discoveries and were fun and mad and quotable, each unique in different ways. So. Back to the nostalgia trip. Last May I found myself looking up “GBH” on the net. I had not seen the film for years (can’t even remember what happened to my original copy of the film – think I sold it or something) and just idly thought I’d see if anybody out there in netland had anything to say about it. As expected, there really wasn’t too much information out there about the film, but I managed to get a good, solid lead and found myself being directed to the website of a karate school(!) in Manchester, England by www.google.com.

When I went to the site there was information about “GBH”. A 58-year-old martial arts expert, Steve Powell, who played one of Keller’s goons named Gregg in the film, runs the site and karate school. I remembered him (“I’ll smash the bastard!”) from my multiple viewings of the film when I used to have it. But what I found on his site truly surprised – and interested – me.

I had always thought “GBH” was a one-off film, because I never ever saw anything else with any of the same actors or director or whatnot. How wrong I was. On Steve’s site I found out that the same ensemble had made a dozen or so films together, being directed by a guy named David Kent-Watson. There were photos from horror and drama and nudity-filled beach-set exploitation films, many of them starring Cliff Twemlow, who had unfortunately passed away a decade before…and I got quite excited. This was a small, undiscovered area of British filmmaking (and other media – you’ll see what I mean shortly) I had never heard written or talked about before, and I wanted to know more. Plus I wanted to see if I could perhaps see “GBH” again, which would have been one of the coolest things in the world.

So I fired off an email to Steve, not really knowing what to expect. I told him I was a Cliff fan, that I loved “GBH” and remembered him from it, that I found his site very interesting, that I would love to get a copy of “GBH” if he had one, and that many of these other films he and Cliff had been in sounded interesting too. And the reply I got really stunned and touched me. Steve told me that I had uncannily contacted him just a few days after the 10th anniversary of Cliff Twemlow’s death. He had been Cliff’s best friend and that because I was a Cliff fan that he would send me a number of the films on video for nothing. I protested, saying I would pay for tapes and shipping, but Steve insisted.

So a few days later I found a copy of “GBH”, along with a load of other films on three videotapes dropping through my door free of charge, which was absolutely brilliant of the man to do for me. I found them all entertaining to different degrees, and it was truly great to see them, but none of them could ever take “GBH’s” place in my heart. Cliff was also the author of three books. He wrote two horror novels: “The Pike” and The Dogs of Kane, as well as “The Tuxedo Warrior”, which was an autobiographical tale of how he used to be a bouncer up-and-down the British Isles. Steve lent me his copy of this fine book, which I thoroughly enjoyed, thinking Cliff had a fun, good writing style (describing one shifty character as being like “a rat peering through a loo brush”, – ‘loo’ being an English world for toilet) and had led a very interesting life. It was clear that some of the material in “GBH” had been based on his real-life exploits in the doorman trade, and this lent the film some authenticity. Cliff sounded like quite the character, and as I learned more about him I genuinely wished I could have met him.

Over the past year or so I have kept in contact with Steve, sending him links for stories I have done for this site, and he has told me stories about his time with Cliff making the films, whose casts he still keeps in contact with. I was in Sweden on the 11th anniversary of Cliff’s death and got an email from Steve whilst there, noting the date. I sat in the hotel bar and raised a glass of dark beer to the man’s memory, and found it poignant and sad that Steve so obviously still misses his dear, departed friend. Hence this article.

I thought it would be cool to let Steve talk (by email) about his friend and their friendship to the world, and that the stories he told would be as entertaining and interesting to others as they had been to me. As you will no doubt agree, Steve has some funny, moving, excellent stories about Cliff (who even hung out with Richard Gere on his ranch in America after they met at Cannes one year) and himself, and his words will give you a glimpse into a small area of British filmmaking you will have never heard before.

Get the interview in part two of STEVE POWELL: DRINKING AND SINGING UNDER AFRICAN SKIES>>>




Posted on June 15, 2004 in Interviews by
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