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Learn Your Craft: Legend of the Witches and Secret Rites on Blu-ray

  "Come, come, come to the sabbat, come to the sabbat - Satan's there!" so chanted prog rock band Black Widow on their 1970 single, which by no coincidence was the same year that director Malcolm Leigh's documentary film Legend of the Witches was released. Witchcraft was in the air at that point in time, as the hippy-dippy sixties turned to the me me me seventies, and self-actualisation was all the rage. This meant efforts like this and the following year's Secret Rites captured a zeitgeist, though largely only one that was in the pop culture, as while the adventurous would indulge in starkers ceremonies in the middle of a forest at midnight, most Brits would prefer to read about them in "shocking" exposés in the tabloids, or witness their influence on the horror genre. But were they getting witchcraft mixed up with Satanism?

That certainly appeared to be the case with Legend of the Witches, and the reason for that was down to the film's focus, a self-styled guru of the art called Alex Sanders who was attempting to make a name for himself in the London of the late sixties, a celebrity of what he termed Wicca, though few Wiccans would have gone along with his highly personal definition. His cult was a personality one, and select of his made up ceremonies were staged for Leigh's camera, some in the aforementioned woods at the witching hour, though others as a parody of the Catholic ceremony, which aligned his views with Satanism of the sort that would not have been out of place with the activities of another egotistical cult leader, Anton LaVey, across the Atlantic at his Church of Satan. But there was little new about that.

After all, cult leaders in various forms but sadly few variations in goals have been around ever since religion was invented, it's just that some are more successful at establishing themselves than others. In Legend of the Witches, despite the practices of the mainstream (if you like) witches being strictly nature-worshippers, and with ceremonies that may not be on as firm historical ground as they would like to believe, what they assuredly did not get up to was voodoo. Nevertheless, Sanders was seen sticking pins in wax dolls and we had a tour around a museum of curses, complete with said cursed objects, which pandered to the worst fears of the uninitiated and made plain Sanders had been more informed by horror movies than any intense study of his faith. Throw in a ghost hunt and a woolly lesson in witchcraft from a stern narrator, and you had more of a trash mondo movie.

Which is precisely what Secret Rites was, again starring Sanders who had teamed up in 1971 with exploitation expert Derek Ford to more or less replay what he had done with Leigh, only in colour and almost exclusively indoors. Despite Sanders' admonishment that the public view of witchcraft is a sensational and lurid one quite divorced from the facts, the film does open with a (supposed) spoof of those views as a Satanic orgy is in full flow, only stopped when the virgin sacrifice is whisked away by her cross-wielding fiancé (the witches behave like vampires in a Hammer horror). Was this intro Sanders' idea or Ford’s? Or did they concoct it themselves, either to get the misconceptions out of the way or to ensure punters stayed in their seats with his promise of yet more debauchery in the similar vein, or to recommend it to friends?

What this actually was turned out to be a set of rituals devised by Sanders under the premise that they were the real deal, and he was genuinely channelling some arcane forces and even god and goddesses by carrying them out. This self-styled "King of the Witches" was the most visible proponent of the art until Kevin Carlyon appeared on the scene a few decades later; by that time Sanders had passed on, his marriage to Maxine (also in these films) having hit the rocks shortly after these starring roles had rendered her his Queen. Anticipating the New Age movement, his endeavours were one step away from meditating on crystals or drinking herbal teas for natural insights, be that Wiccan or not, but Ford had a special interest in depicting those ceremonies, for the participants regularly got their kits off.

Ford knew what paid his bills and recruited what was apparently Sanders' coven to act out these rites he had pretty much invented himself, though after, he reassures us, reading lots and lots of books on the subject. We follow new member Penny, here introduced as a hairdressing assistant but in reality a model and budding actress (she would retire from this low level showbiz soon) who, if you were being unkind, could have been cast in the film because she was far more attractive than any of the other coven, as the novelty of nudity only takes you so far: it helps if the players are nice to look at. Accompanied by the psychedelic tones of "The Spindle" and apparently shot on a discarded set from Doctor Who, we are treated to much mumbo jumbo, serious faces (aside from the odd out of character smirk), and some of the worst dancing ever seen. Deep, man.

But put those discarded robes back on, for as these two efforts have been released on Blu-ray on the BFI's Flipside range, there are other goodies on the disc as extras, all related to the double bill. First up is a seven-minute short called The Witch's Fiddle, a simple folk tale (well, it would have to be very simple to fit that amount of time) where a man strolling along a country lane happens upon a witch struggling with a bundle of sticks, and goes to help. As a reward, the sticks are transformed into the titular violin and he meets some people he can play it to (presumably this chap has had lessons, unless his ability to play is a magical spell too). Three farmers are unable to stop dancing when the strings strike up, and when the wanderer meets a "lovesick youth" he helps him out with his romance. A product of the Cambridge University Kinema Club of 1924.

Next, a brief television documentary from Daniel Farson, once a household name in Britain thanks to his interviews and investigations for Associated Rediffusion (a 1950s ITV broadcaster). Here he questioned three people with some interest or experience in the subject of witchcraft, though what he does not mention was that the middle guest, Dr Gerald Gardner, more or less invented the Wiccan religion a few short years before, basing it on various bits and bobs of folk tales and invented rituals of his own devising. The first interviewee is Dr Margaret Murray, a ninety-something academic who condemns the practice as basically intimidation, over-imagination and messing around for secret nudists; you wouldn't like to argue with her. Lastly, Louis Wilkinson shares anecdotes about old pal Alister Crowley, not really a witch but inevitably turns up like a bad penny.

Third is The Judgement of Albion, a 1968 tribute to poet and artist William Blake, much renowned for his visionary nature by a certain section of the counterculture as if his hallucinatory experiences somehow tapped into a universal truth about existence, specifically humanity's relationship to nature and a higher being. Of course those drawn to witchcraft would hold Blake in high regard, and this twenty-six minute effort from Robert Wynne Simmons, best known for screenwriting folk horror touchstone Blood on Satan's Claw, draws parallels and makes contrasts between the artist's ideas (read out in narration by the likes of Anthony Quayle and Donald Sinden) and the city of London, Blake's home for some years. Growing increasingly apocalyptic in its imagery as it progresses, it also features a young couple getting their kit off - maybe Dr Murray had a point.

The last short on the collection is Getting It Straight in Notting Hill Gate, a 1970 slice of life doc from former Pink Floyd associate and future American television producer Jo Gannon. Starting with a great deal of sitar music, we were offered candid shots of the London area (where Sanders made his home and his coven, in case you were wondering at the connection), which at this time was a long way from gentrification and housed a wide range of immigrants and young Britons looking for somewhere cheap to live. There's an interview to advertise Release, a legal aid charity mostly for those on cannabis possession charges, where Caroline Coon is the project's biggest star name, though later psychedelic band Quintessence perform, and aficionados of the scene may know them. Mostly, it features engrossing sequences where they simply turned on the camera and wandered.

To finish off the package, there's an image gallery with contemporary publicity, and an audio commentary from Flipside producers William Fowler and Vic Pratt on Secret Rites, plus a vital, information-packed booklet. It should probably be mentioned the Legend of the Witches here is a longer cut than the one released previously on DVD.

Author: Graeme Clark.


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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018