THE GOLDEN UNICORN FILM UNIT 1964-73
Written by founder member W.B.J.(Joe) Higgins - September 2010
It began with THE ENEMY. Let me explain. Before the war, that's the '39- '45 one, I had looked in certain shop windows, longingly, at movie cameras. They seemed to be the source of something magical. Then I came from the hills across the Bristol Channel, when the war was over, to the great city on the River Avon, with somewhat more cash in my pocket. So I became the owner of one of those magic makers. It was a Standard 8mm - the width of the film was 8 millimetres. And lo, there was a society in Bristol, a group of folk who were owners or would be possessors of those cameras that took moving pictures. It called itself THE BRISTOL CINE SOCIETY. I took to it, as they say, like a fish to its own element. They met fortnightly, in the posh surroundings of the ROYAL HOTEL where coffee was, in the modern equivalent of ten and a half pence a cup. And today I have had a cup in Cambridge at £1.80 a cup!
There was a gentleman called RON ELSON, a member who had just joined the club so I joined too. We didn't know that the day would come when we two would be members with the longest service in B.C.S. Then later there was REG MIDDLE, the owner of a garage for car repairs, and he was, I believe the one who made the first contact that would become the Golden Unicorn Film Unit of the Bristol Cine Society, Reg, Ron, the sound expert, and myself. A fine trio of friends. The name of the group, the brain child of Reg, who named it after the Golden Unicorn on the roof of the newish Council House on College Green. The first “production” of these three (Reg and I certainly the beginners) again the idea of Reg Middle, was THE ENEMY, referring to TIME, not the late enemy of the recent war. The thing I remember of this was the day we shot a sequence outside the Bristol Royal Infirmary. On a Sunday morning, made difficult when the Council decided to bring up a tar-making machine for work on the nearby road. It produced a smokescreen worthy of a tank trying to get away from trouble.
Other films followed but a unique experience came when we wrote a letter to the Abbot of a Benedictine monastery near Gloucester telling him that we would love to make a film about the life of monks. What a surprise it was when a reply from the monastery was full of enthusiasm for the idea, followed by trips to Prinknash for talks and consultations. The resulting film proved a success, or so it seemed. The premiere was shown to the assembled community on a very cold, raw evening at the monastery, in which monks were allowed to light up pipes and cigars and we were all fortified by white wine and Roses chocolates. Really. This was followed by a film about their pottery, made at the request of the Abbot, to show in Macey’s shop window at the great store in New York. This was to advertise the Prinknash products which were to be sold hopefully over the other side of the great pond. Surely a successful step forward for the Unicorn.
So I later had little trouble in persuading my two friends to produce the next "blockbuster” a subject of great interest to me. The hero of the film, a doctor of Berkeley on the Severn was to be what would be a "costume" drama about the life of the discoverer of vaccination against the terrible scourge of 18th/ 19th century England and the world, SMALLPOX, Edward JENNER.
I found that very few people seemed to have heard of him, certainly not amongst school children or even teachers. Yet in his day he was described by a U.S. President as someone who would never be forgotten and by another great figure as the greatest Englishman of history.
We were swamped with help. The Vicar of Berkeley, the Rev. Gethin Jones, was wildly enthusiastic with our project, gathering villagers to turn out as extras. He also happened to live in the vicarage that had once been the home of Jenner himself as well as being the secretary of the Jenner Trust. We filmed the vaccination of the poor in Jenner's own hut in his garden and in the house. Reg drove us everywhere in his car and Ron did wonders with his choice of sound and of course music from his vast collection. The first showing of EDWARD JENNER took place on a Sunday evening, in the church after evensong, to a congregation of villagers including doctors (one of whom was at that time the world's authority on Smallpox and who had helped me write the script). I had spent a long time in Bristol Central Library reading two volumes written by Jenner’s own doctor of the life of Jenner. At that church showing of our film the projector screen was put up within a few feet of the tomb of our hero and his own family.
One further film produced by the little Golden Unicorn Film Unit must be mentioned since after entering it into a national (even international) competition for amateur films we received the notification that it had won a coveted award as one of the Ten Best films of 1970. It was entitled THE DONG, and based on the nonsense poem of Edward Lear, THE DONG WITH THE LUMINOUS NOSE. It was a fun film to make and we recruited children from my school and one of the masters played our idea of the DONG, who really sported a red painted extended nose with a lamp "within suspended" to let out rays of light when the Dong looked for his lost Jumbly girl. And for the record I must tell you about the glorious girls who in scantily dress and blue hands and green hair braved the cold of a beach where the girls came ashore with their boat with holes in it – a sieve.
We three and others went up to the National Film Theatre on London's South Bank for a showing of the TEN BEST, after which we celebrated in appropriate fashion in a London restaurant and where we spent the night a train ride out of London as guests of a lady who had been a TILLER girl, if any of you know who they were! Finally, as a Welshman I had a little further joy when we also won one the Welsh Seven with THE DONG.
We lost some years ago dear REG MIDDLE. Ron is still living in his home town, Bristol. And I have emigrated to ENGLAND after a time in Spain and The Golden Unicorn is now a memory but a fond one. And Bristol, where it all took place, holds a place in my heart. As does dear Reg who was a true producer of the films and Ron who was a marvel on the sound side of each production.
A "costume" drama about the life of Edward Jenner who discovered a vaccination process against SMALLPOX.
The Monks of Prinknash
The Abbot of the Benedictine monastery near Gloucester gave the unit complete access to all aspects of their life.
A fascinating insight into their community.
An office worker is frustrated with the public transport available. He buys a car only to find that car ownership brings with it a whole set of new problems.
Based on the nonsense poem of Edward Lear, THE DONG WITH THE LUMINOUS NOSE.
Won a coveted award as one of the Ten Best films of 1970.
Have you ever thought about what goes into making a loaf of bread? Ploughing, Harrowing, Sowing, Fertilising, Growing, Harvesting and finally to the Mill.
It's all here.
In an interview with Showman Henry Rogers, "We carried it all in for 17 shillings!"
An affectionate look at one of the last showmen families.
All six titles from The Golden Unicorn Film Unit can been seen here: (click the framegrab).