John Samson

You can watch excerpts from all three films by the late John Samson on view here on YouTube—Tattoo, 1975, Dressing for Pleasure, 1977, and Arrows, 1979—and see for yourself how spectacularly dreary Britain was in the 1970s. Samson made these documentary-style films around the time Dick Hebdige was researching his seminal Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979), and you understand why both observers found these thriving subcultural scenes—gangs, fetishists, punks, teddy boys—so worthy of attention. The rest of this bunch of islanders, poorly dressed and eager to vote Margaret Thatcher into office in 1979, would never have guessed that their gray country would swing again in the 1990s. They’re not swinging here: It’s all bad food, dismal local pubs, and judgmental Tories making life difficult for the delightful protagonists of Tattoo and Dressing for Pleasure. These include the rubber-clad blonde working at Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s legendary shop Sex; the tattooist with the impressive 1990-style facial hair avant la lettre; the elderly gentleman wearing a black, zippered leather jumpsuit with incorporated boots. Samson never appears in his interviews, but instead lets his subjects talk, ostensibly remaining impartial to their self-presentation—but we know whose side he’s on. He adores them, allowing his subjects to represent themselves exactly as they want to be: funny, sexy, articulate, irreverent. He intuits the fine line they are treading—though anxious to dismantle the freakish labels they endure, they are eager to divulge in detail their interests (they patiently explain, for example, that animal-loving tattoo-wearers tend to request fierce jungle animals and fantastical winged creatures; cows and other field animals are rarely chosen). But they also want to maintain some mystique, some cherished outsider status. And how right they are: Every glimpse of the sleepy cultural milieu that they are escaping seems deathly.

Arrows, Samson’s portrait of forgotten darts champion Eric Bristow, is a mesmerizing look at parallel mainstream culture. Bristow was a national celebrity in the late ’70s when British television, desperate for content, regularly broadcast the tedium of darts. He is a charmless celebrity; friendless, out of shape, defensive. We see the world champ travel the country, alone and by train, to barren hotel rooms, playing in provincial working men’s clubs. You sense how inconsequential popular culture was, how vital in comparison
 the edgy margins of Britain were to 
everything that’s come after it.

The arty naïveté of some of Sam
son’s images—faceless, unmoving tattooed bodies filmed against an eerie
 black background, with a hypnotic
 sound track of experimental piano—
occasionally feels nostalgic, but most
 of the protagonists seem ahead of
 their time. Samson was originally a
political activist, defending the marginalized; he seems instinctively to
 have understood in both his political
 and film work that only in the under-
represented corners of Britain was 
life really continuing. How valuable, 
from this perspective, a present-day equivalent of Samson’s project like Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane’s Folk Archive, 1999–2005, which documents nondominant British culture from guerilla gardens to crop circles, starts to feel in the newly conservative Britain of today.

Gilda Williams