‘Designed, written and directed by Robert Fuest’: the ordering of this tripe credit says everything about the approach taken by ex-TV production designer and artist Fuest to his tripped out screen adaptation of Michael Moorcock’s mid-sixties New Age fantasy science fiction novel “The Final Programme”, the first of the author’s ‘freaky’ series of Jerry Cornelius books to mix a druggy Age of Aquarius rainbow mysticism with dystopian time hoping sci-fi action-adventure. Early in his career, while working as a production designer on the initial videotaped seasons of British pop spy series “The Avengers”, Robert Fuest decided he wanted to move into directing, having experienced first-hand how his friend Peter Hammond had brought his unique creativity to work on these black and white, recorded-as-live shows. His earliest screen efforts were rewarded with a return to “The Avengers” some years later during its ‘Tara King’ colour film series era in the late-sixties, for which he directed a total of seven episodes. The high point of his feature films career came with the two comedy horror Dr Phibes movies he made with Vincent Price in the titular role – colourful, immaculately designed art deco adorned masterpieces of campy strangeness, which suited down to the ground Fuest’s particular knack for conceiving his films almost entirely in terms of their visual appearance. Hence the design credit taking precedence here over both the writing and the direction appellations.
On the face of things no-one could be better suited to bringing Moorcock’s warped underground fantasy vision to life on the big screen, yet the young author hated Fuest’s handling of his work and was so traumatised by the experience of seeing his novel so ham-fistedly translated that he couldn’t write for a year afterwards, and he still claims that he would have preferred for the film to have never been released at all. In fact, after being generally received by everyone involved at the time as a monumental disaster, it ended up being put out as a double bill with “Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan”, Moorcock wryly claiming that the latter film soon gained lead feature status after just a few weeks of general release! The film was also extensively re-edited for its US release, where it was known under the title “The Last Days of Man on Earth”. The clash between Moorcock and Fuest seems to have been largely a generational one, as evidenced by the author’s attempts to persuade the appalled producers to let Hawkwind ‘compose’ the score. In the end the group’s only involvement with the film comes during its colourfully surreal pin-ball themed nightclub sequence, when they can be briefly glimpsed in the far background of shot, along with the author of the original novel himself.
It’s easy to see how the particulars of Moorcock’s peculiar vision have been boiled away to their drab basics in the screenplay once budgetary considerations have had their say, revealing the plot to be basically a cartoonish James Bond spy-fi spoof (despite Fuest’s protestations that the film’s hero was nothing like Bond) but ignominiously stripped of its larger-scale ambitions and done on the cheap. Yet the high camp, pop art aesthetic in the designs and costumes that Fuest uses to tart up what remains of the scenario furnish it with a stronger cult appeal today than it was able to muster at the time. The MacGuffin driven comic plot takes place against a backdrop in which mankind teeters on the edge of a civilisation-ending catastrophe, in a dystopian far future where piles of junked cars litter Trafalgar Square and mad American military personnel such as Major Wrongway Lindbergh (Sterling Hayden, essentially reprising his role as General Jack D Ripper from “Dr Strangelove”) issue their deranged orders as de facto warlords operating from abandoned Government whitehall buildings in the absence of any official authority. It concerns a secret cabal of elderly scientists who are out to create the next stage in the evolution of humanity from their high-tech base in the wastes of Lapland: a self-replicating hermaphrodite that unites the sum total of human knowledge (compiled on a super-computer hooked up to the world’s best brains, kept ‘alive’ in laboratory vats of coloured liquids!) in one all-purpose super-being who is destined to become the new Messiah, born of the Age of Science.
In order to complete this project designed to unite crackpot eugenic science with ancient religious mysticism and in doing so bringing to an end the current Dark Age, the team needs a reel of microfilm that has been stashed away in a vault at the centre of a remote English mansion belonging to the initiator of the programme, Professor Cornelius. The problem is, with the recent death of the Professor, the mansion has fallen under the control of his wayward drug-addicted son Frank (Derrick O'Connor) and is full of far out ultra-modern rooms laced with hallucinogenic booby-traps conceived to stop his beautiful sister Catherine (played by the young future “Superman” star Sarah Douglas in her first screen role) from escaping his degenerate clutches. Using the borderline incestuous obsession the Professor’s other son, dandyish Nobel prize-winning philosophical physicist Jerry Cornelius (Jon Finch, “Frenzy”), still has for his imprisoned sister (who is kept permanently drugged up in a comatose state by Frank) formidable bi-sexual predator Miss Brunner (Jenny Runacre – who looks here like a ravishing cross between Servalan from “Blake’s 7” and a member of “Top of the Pops” dance troupe Pan’s People), persuades the reluctant spy to help her team penetrate the mansion’s defences and retrieve the microfilm by promising to help him to rescue his Sleeping Beauty-like sister at the same time.
According to the author, none of the cast could make head nor tail of any of this by the time it had been filtered through Fuest’s simplifying screenplay, and they had no idea what sort of a film they were supposed to be making or how to play it, in the end fixing on Moorcock’s comment that it was meant to be humorous and deciding en masse, about halfway through the production, to pitch their performances for laughs. In fact, the tongue-in-cheek sensibility is clearly the same as that which carries the “The Avengers” and earlier sixties attempts at pop art cinema such as Joseph Losey’s “Modesty Blaise”. In the absence of a budget big enough to accommodate much of the more involved content of the novel, Fuest settles on a simple espionage plotline and pure cartoon flavoured artifice – disorientating sets of retro futurist design, outrageous costumes, fantastical makeup and ludicrously flamboyant characters who Inhabit a world that is an outrageous, dreamlike Fellini-esque Big Top nightmare of hallucination while at the same time posing as a satirical comic book sci-fi piss-take of action series clichés. The pleasures of the movie lie not so much in the oh-so-seventies hip mixture of cod eastern philosophy, scientific humanism and science fiction technological craziness, though, as in the palpable unreality induced by the art obsessed detail in the sets and the persona-defining statement that is being made by the cast’s fab clobber, which is designed by Ossie Clark and John Bates, with suits made in Savile Row by John Nutter.
One can very well see how this was commissioned off of the back of Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” as another attempt to capture similar dystopian flavours, depicting a drab seventies vision of lawlessness and chaos in a futuristic Britain of fancy dress and garish colours, gilded by a little Hindu philosophy on the side. The outlandish nightclub sequence in which Finch’s Cornelius accompanies cult starlet Julie Ege (Miss Dazzle) to a multi-coloured nightspot full of arcade games, with décor that mimics the layout of a giant pin-ball machine, predates and almost certainly influenced Ken Russell’s rock opera “Tommy” (Russell visited Fuest on the set during production) but Fuest being of an older generation than Moorcock, his vague, unconvincing stab at fostering a New Age sensibility half-heartedly imported from the novel, feels less than serious -- and the whole thing feels actually like it more comfortably dwells in similar territory to one of the ITC action series of the Jason King variety, or Pertwee era “Doctor Who”.
This becomes most apparent in the depiction of the character of Jerry Cornelius himself, played by Jon Finch like a Byronic, dandified Oliver Reed sporting a healthy crown of King Charles curls along with a flamboyant white ruffled shirt (hand-made in Chelsea the press book helpfully informs us), leather driving gloves and thigh-length, black velvet smoking jacket. The fabulously attired and coiffured Finch is depicted driving Cornelius’s 1930s Buick through a Home Counties wasteland full of gangster-suited scientists (headed by Graham Crowden as the eccentric Dr Smiles) and pin-ball playing assassins. His look has clearly subsequently become one of the main influences on that of Mike Myers’ Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, but Finch tops it off with surreal details of characterisation such as Cornelius’s black nail polish (in the days long before this became a piece of de rigueur Goth fashion), a black dyed rose decorating his lapel and a quirky taste for chocolate digestive biscuits (his flat’s cupboards are full to bursting with them!) and a diet of black coffee and Russian cigars; while the character’s weapon of choice is a high-tech dart gun that fires needle-like projectiles tipped with poison.
Jenny Runacre’s Miss Brunner meanwhile, occupies a role that is part-way between the traditional glamorous-but-deadly action series female sidekick (like Cathy Gale or Emma Peel) and untrustworthy, Cruella de vil-like dominatrix vixen -- stylishly sashaying between intelligent jump-suit wearing, computer programming heroine who saves the immaculately dressed hero’s skin on numerous occasions while maintaining her stylish crimped hairdo and perfect glam-era makeup; and a devious deva-ish, fur-wearing mastermind with the strange unexplained power of being able to absorb the skills of anyone she makes love to: developing the piano-playing abilities of her gorgeous red-headed protégée Jenny (Sandy Ratcliff) after a lesbian tryst in her Peter Blake-designed rainbow coloured apartment, and internalising the know-how of the deceased Professor Cornelius’s assistant Dr Baxter (Patrick Magee) after seducing him during a picturesque sojourn to Turkey in search of Frank, after Jerry’s brother escapes a bungled attack in the labyrinthine corridors of the Cornelius Mansion during the previous attempt to retrieve the microfilm back in England.
“The Final Programme” rises above Fuest’s abortive attempts to capture the complexity of the futuristic, pan-dimensional world building sampled in Moorcock’s work, and now functions best if you forget about the rudimentary plot and enjoy it purely as an aesthetic spectacle from the last days of the first wave of what critic Tim Lucas has called Continental-Op: the kind of outré films in which cartoon plots full of retro ideas of ‘the future that never was’ are played out in a spy-fi world where secret societies operate out of pristine white-walled laboratories inside underground caverns, and the heroine beds her man in a circular rotating bed with inflatable pillows, wearing a transparent, pleated nightgown with ‘love’ embroidered across the chest in pink. Numerous British character actors such as Harry Andrews (Cornelius’s faithful butler) and Welsh actor Hugh Griffith (Cornelius’s guru Dr Hira) flesh out the cast and there’s even a brief appearance by comedy actress Sandra Dickenson (“The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”) as a waitress.
The final minutes are completely barmy as Miss Brunner couples with the specimen chosen by the final programme to fulfil the destiny of the human race, in a psychedelic, solar-induced merging of bodies that produces a Bogart-quoting, tailed troglodyte offspring with protruding teeth that lurches across the waters in pursuit of ‘a tasty world.’
This new UK DVD release from Network Distributing offers a passable if less than perfect transfer, available in both the theatrical aspect ratio of 1.75:1 and an un-matted 1.33:1 ratio that provides more visual info at the top and bottom of the screen. Extras consist of an English and Italian trailer, an alternate Italian opening sequence and an image gallery of stills with, best of all, the full original press book viewable in PDF file form, accessible from your computer.
By no means as successful as it could have been, “The Final Programme” is nevertheless a consummate demonstration of Robert Fuest’s genius for futuristic-surrealist cinematic visions, highlighting the all dominating importance of art direction to his conception offilm-making. A recommended cult classic of fantastic cinema.