Living On Video

Films about characters with superpowers are quite popular, so I thought I’d watch one. The one I chose was Shadey (1985) starring Anthony Sher and some other top actors. Unfortunately this is hard to view nowadays, as it was never on disc and only a short clip is on YouTube. Luckily we have a VHS player that still works, so I got a copy of the US tape edition.

The stickers on the cover imply this is an ex-rental, so someone at some time thought it was worth making an effort to promote this as a classy British product. The cover image of Sher in what looks like bondage gear does not actually appear in the film.

The story begins with street life in Battersea, and then we hear a short opening monologue by Oliver Shadey.

SHADEY: It’s nice to be up early. I love the dawn. My mother used to say I’m lazy but it’s not true. I never got the taste for it till now. I need to get away to change a little, to move to a different part of the human race [laughs] There’s a girl I once saw, my destiny is to be with her.

He gazes at a calendar page, the image seems to flicker in to life when he touches it.

Very little of Shadey’s background is made clear. He is part-owner of a garage/repair shop in south London (the name Shadey is in the old and faded nameplate on one of the doors); we are told he is a undischarged bankrupt awaiting further court appearances. During a time of semi-isolation he has practiced and acquired great and special skills. When the car of the wealthy businessman Sir Cyril Landau (played by Patrick McNee) is brought in after a breakdown, he has a chance to explain he is able to telepathically detect matters of interest, and remotely view other places, and record what he sees on to film. He demonstrates this to Sir Cyril by knowing that he is interested in diamonds, and then creating footage of the Russians exploring a new find in Siberia.

Seeing that there is something genuine on offer here, Sir Cyril invites Shadey for a meeting.

Shadey has high principles – he won’t “work for foreign powers or military espionage”. What he wants is £12,500 so he can have a sex-change operation. Asked if he can see the future as well,

SHADEY: The future is not being offered to you. It comes to me only as interference.

But he does get premonitions of bad things happening.

Sir Cyril decides to sell on this new discovery to his chums in Whitehall, in exchange for some office space they’re giving up. He has problems of his own at this time – his wife Connie has deteriorated in to mental problems, being variously agoraphobic or hypermanic. His daughter Carol (played by Leslie Ash) is breaking in to the world of modelling, and gets a big chance performing in the video for some electro-goth band howling on a beach in Belgium, pursued by angry dwarves whilst men in gas masks gyrate hula-hoops.

Equally strange is the world of Dr Cloud (Billie Whitelaw) and Captain Amies (Bernard Hepton) who soon have Shadey strapped down in something clearly modelled on the conditioning lab in A Clockwork Orange. His wishes to avoid military work are quickly overruled and we have him investigating Soviet submarine bases in the Baltic, and also making no promises that he’ll get what he wants.

DR CLOUD: Why on Earth do you want to be a woman?

SHADEY: Because I already am.

Everywhere he goes now he’s getting captured in someone else’s lenses or video screens.

News of this great breakthrough isn’t secret for long, and both the Americans and South Africans are getting close to stealing away this top intelligence asset. But everyone near and dear to Shadey is breaking down, and he seems to have been already obsessed with Carol. It’s not hard to interpret the whole story as just the psychotic fantasy of a man whose life fell apart and he went bankrupt; there are plenty of elements for a David Lynch film here. Or Shadey’s paranoia could also be seen as a symptom of a chaotic world around him, as he listens to voices like the angry people at Speaker’s Corner we overhear at one point. A world where the authorities do nothing even when he’s given them a clear warning of a violent kidnapping about to unfold. Although sex-change is part of the plot it gets very little attention as a theme, except as an aspiration for radical transformation, which Shadey desires at the start. Shadey’s final transcendence of identity is to melt entirely into an image him/herself.

It’s not “howlingly funny” in the way that American VHS blurb insisted, but there is a charm and joy in Sher’s performance. Apart from some wibbly synthesiser soundtrack music it is not too much like a British Film Of The Mid 80s. Unless there is some contractual or rights issue, I do not see any reason why this can’t be re-released in the 2020s.

“Living On Video” was the name of a disco hit by Trans-X in the mid 80s.

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