Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire

When a film isn’t granted video release, it’s either really good or really, really bad.  Having been made for TV, it’s safe to assume the powers that be deemed ‘Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire’ the latter.  This niche Film on Four production, first broadcast in 1986 on the small screen was the epitome of the eighties hybrid, combining dingy musical with sports-themed Western and a smidge of horror thrown in for good measure.

At just 13 years old, I was lucky enough to watch ‘Billy the Kid…’ on its first airing, having been allowed to stay up long past my bedtime on a school night and was completely entranced by this quirky, surreal film for weeks afterwards.  I had been so desperate to see it again that I wrote to Film on Four, having considered the possibility I’d imagined it completely.  It was only aired a handful of times – late at night on less-than-mainstream channels – after its debut hooked just 1.5M viewers.

The two main characters, Billy Kid (played by Phil Daniels) and Maxwell Randall (Alun Armstrong) find themselves at either end of a rival snooker table for the match of their lives – to determine which will retire from the game, having decided there isn’t room for both big-headed champions with such opposing styles in their six-pocketed world.  Quite possibly cast on looks as much as acting ability, the two are satirically based on the professional rivalry between a young, reckless Jimmy White and consummate professional Ray Reardon, with their respective cowboy/casual and vampiric physical appearances.  Both actors are equally blessed in a vocal capacity and carry their tuneful (and oddly uplifting) solos with gusto and passion, as do the supporting cast, which includes many well-known sitcom actors in an early role, such as Caroline Quentin and the late Kevin Lloyd.  A personal favourite of mine is the gloriously arrogant and OTT ‘T-O’ (The One), played by Bruce Payne.  He neither excels in acting nor singing, yet is likeably slick as the debt-ridden agent of Kid, desperate for his moment of glory.

Studio shot in grey and gloom and highlighted by a handful of George Fenton’s finest (my absolute favourite being ‘I’m The One’, effectively kicking off as a slanging match between Kid and his inefficient agent, rolling into a nostalgic run-down of all their exploits together), ‘Billy the Kid…’ appears to be made on an absolute shoestring, yet leaves you feeling wholly satisfied, particularly as the final scenes are panoramically filmed in crescendo fashion, to build the surreal tension of this potentially life-changing snooker match.  With early use of Steadicam technology, we’re able to feel some of Kid’s mental torture at the hands of Vampire Randall.

Directed by the mighty Alan Clarke, one wonders if this, his only collaboration with writer Trevor Preston, was akin to two rights making a wrong.  Clarke’s soaring successes with Scum and Made in Britain in the same era makes ‘Billy the Kid…’ seem like the poor relation and frankly, a bit of a damp squib in ratings terms.  However, this 90min phenomenon has become a firm favourite of mine and it even has a mini-cult following – I’ve been known to force a couple of pertinent scenes upon visiting friends, so they can experience the delight for themselves.  Its abrupt conclusion and Payne-serenaded end credits will leave you wanting to watch it again from the start.  Everyone should see it at least once and I would LOVE to see it on stage.

© Sam Wyld 2010

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