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Network Double Bills: Tarka the Otter and The Belstone Fox

  Network on Air's streaming service is continuing the idea of using the brand's extensive film library known as The British Film for a series of double bills, inspired by the way to watch movies that only started to be widely phased out in the nineteen-eighties. Before that, tradition dictated that if you attended your local cinema before then, you would be treated to a pair of films as a matter of course, plus advertisements, trailers and even short subjects to supply what would be regarded as a full evening's entertainment (or indeed a full afternoon's entertainment). One of these is a "nature red in tooth and claw" pair which compares the hunting of foxes with the hunting of otters.

First in the double is The Belstone Fox from 1973, which like the film that complements it, Tarka the Otter, has a sentimental reputation until you actually sit down and watch it, realising this is a lot more disturbing than you may have heard, or may recall. That Disney loosely remade it as The Fox and the Hound should indicate cuddly animal fun, but though there is an element of that, the rest is some grim melodrama pitting man against beast, and all because man softened his heart against beast one time. Eric Porter was that man, a master of the hounds which set out to chase and slaughter foxes on country lands, as has been tradition for centuries - at least until new laws were put in force to stop their dubious "fun" with a wide-ranging ban.

Not that this stopped the hunts completely, but The Belstone Fox is a vivid reminder of what they were like as a fixture of upper-class life in rural communities across The British Isles, and begins as it means to go on, with a vixen being attacked by terriers in her den by illegal hunters who smash her and her pups to death with spades. Fun for all the family, then. However, one has survived, and local son of the soil Bill Travers (also more famously in the director's lion movie Born Free) rescues the tiny creature to take to Porter, who has a brainwave he will regret years later when he suggests giving the pup to a nursing hound in his kennels. The fox, named Tag, grows to have a close bond with one of the dogs, named Merlin, where they become inseparable until Porter forces them apart.

After all, you cannot have one of the hounds as friends with one of the foxes, it's not the done thing, though Merlin has no taste for the bloodshed involved, preferring to lead the chase then let his fellows do the killing. Porter is initially amused at being, er, outfoxed by Tag, but after a while - and a humiliating pursuit one afternoon that sees the fox sending the huntsmen and women tumbling to the ground - he loses patience and becomes obsessed with destroying what was once his friend, but is now his nemesis. This is the film where the fox leads the hounds onto a railway line, and if you ever saw a gory public information film at school about how this is not a good idea for humans, imagine the carnage when the dogs meet their maker under the wheels of an engine. Illustrating the marked difference in what was aimed at family audiences in the seventies compared to decades later, The Belstone Fox is not for the faint of heart (though animal deaths were staged), and surprisingly given how it starts, is pro-nature all the way.

Then we have the intermission, commencing with a short French film called Fenetre 7,002 about skyscraper construction with hair-raising shots of workers balancing on girders about half a mile in the air. Once that has had you on the edge of your seat, you're invited to munch and gulp on the snacks and drinks, before the ads: electric cookers get a racy presentation (but not really), David Nixon shills for ice cream and American Ginger Ale is on the menu at a casino, somewhat improbably. Then trailers for a new (strictly seventies) double bill: Roger Moore in Gold, a mining action thriller, and old fantasy favourite The Land That Time Forgot - "Come back soon!"

For the main feature we have the aforementioned Tarka the Otter, another unsentimental nature movie from the very end of the seventies, 1979 to be exact, reminding you that Ken Loach's Kes in 1969 ushered in a selection of this type of lesson in how life could be hard, all acted out by animals (or mostly), and Watership Down was a must-read book and the cartoon considered perfect viewing for your kids. This one was also taking a leaf out of that book, or it would have had it not been taking a leaf out of its own book for this was a different literary adaptation, and detailed around a year in the life of the titular water creature. Much of this took place as it tracked Tarka around the waterways of its home, which as it was a peripatetic beast encapsulated anywhere from rivers to the sea.

We traced it from its mother giving birth to it to its growing up to its making friends with a lady otter, all the while seeking some tasty fish and eels to eat, though it was not averse to small mammals as well. Fair enough, you may think, that doesn't sound like anything a family brought up on David Attenborough documentaries cannot cope with, yet there was the matter of the human element, as with The Belstone Fox: there were hunters in the district who took a pack of hounds led by the sinister Deadlock with intent to kill. Tarka the Otter might as well have been Farka the Otter to this bunch, they were out for blood and our furry hero was on the menu - not that they were planning to eat Tarka, just slaughter him for as the narrator Peter Ustinov points out, they think he's vermin.

This was set in 1927, when otter hunts were a lot more prevalent than they are today, indeed otters are a protected species now and are only permitted to be killed if they are causing too much destruction to other wildlife and livestock. Therefore Tarka was a window back into a different age, when there was less care taken for the animals which led to its current protected status. There were plenty of shots of the creature going about its ottery business, but also those of other animals, such as the owls he shared his tree with, or the rabbits he chases by the sea, or even the dragonflies which indicate summer has arrived. It was all very bucolic, but the film has the Watership Down reputation of being too harsh for children, which is presumably why it's not often seen on television anymore, having been a staple of bank holidays along with Ring of Bright Water for more otter action. Certainly the ambiguous ending when Tarka finally battles Deadlock was pretty brutal and not for dog lovers, never mind otter lovers - look what an otter did to TV naturalist Terry Nutkins' fingers, after all. They don't mess about.

These double bills are a nostalgic in the right way rendition of the sort of evenings out of yesteryear that so many Brits would experience, and as the preserved (or restored) prints of the films are pristine, reminiscent of what they would be like to watch as new. Click here to join the Network website.
Author: Graeme Clark.


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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018