Thursday, 5 January 2017

20 stunning UK film posters - before photos and desk-top publishing ruined everything

The Hireling (1974) Design & illustration: Vic Fair
Once upon a time, we were surrounded by paperback covers, film posters and LP sleeves most of which had been lovingly hand-crafted by professional illustrators...

...They were all men, they were almost invariably from working class backgrounds, and they had learned their skills on the job. Many of them were freelancers, and, as none of their work attracted government subsidies, they only survived on talent and hard graft. (Most were British, but a handful of extraordinarily talented Italians moved to Britain in the late '50s and '60s.) They seem to have been an unpretentious lot, perfectly aware that the purpose of their labours was to flog stuff. Nevertheless, they added romance, glamour, mystery and excitement to our lives by giving us their own interpretation of the material they were marketing. In the process, they often presented an idealised version of the book or film they were advertising. The covers and posters frequently captured what the films or book should have delivered, but often failed to - but that was okay: we knew the score.
The Getaway (1972) Design: Arnaldo Putzu
This all began to change in the late '60s, when publishers increasingly opted for photographic rather than hand-drawn cover art. For instance, the great Sam Peffer, whose distinctive artwork had enlivened hundreds of paperback covers (at £60 a pop), was forced to move into the film poster business in the early '70s (where he specialised in sex comedies). However, cinema attendance was in rapid decline, the British film industry was (deservedly) shrinking, and cinemas were closing everywhere - but a sufficient number of illustrated posters were still required to keep a small army of craftsmen in work. Then disaster struck in a variety of forms in the early-to-mid '80s, spelling doom for traditional illustrators.
Cromwell (1970) Design: Eric Pulford, Illustration: Arnaldo Putzu
In his outstanding British Film Posters: An Illustrated History, Sim Branaghan examines a number of factors that led to the death of the hand-illustrated quad (i.e. big landscape-format) British film poster, including:

- The appearance of purpose-built multiplex cinemas, where - because there many more films to advertise - space for huge, old-fashioned posters was at a premium.

- The invention of computer desktop publishing, which allowed any talentless Tom, Dick or Harry to spew out advertising material - only Tom, Dick or Harry couldn't draw or paint, so photos became the order of the day.

- According to at least one of the old-school illustrators, the next generation of "illustrators" emerging from art schools at that time couldn't draw or paint either, having never been taught to do so - but they could handle a computer keyboard like nobody's business.

- Hollywood stars were increasingly given the contractual right to the final say on posters, and they preferred photographs of themselves rather than an artist's interpretation of what they looked like.

- When videotapes became popular, the poster illustrators often found themselves producing cover artwork for spectacularly dreadful, imported, straight-to-video schlock. Unfortunately, their artwork was so good and the films were so bad, that the public finally lost patience with the old-style hyperbolic promises of Thrills! Terror! Shock! Passion! etc., and, as a result, posters for proper cinema films became distinctly more muted.
The Shootist (1976) Design: John Raymer, Illustration: Roger Coleman
Illustrators who might have expected to move on to LP covers found themselves scuppered by the eclipse of vinyl records by CDs.
One Million Years B.C. (1966) Design & illustration: Tom Chantrell
Whatever the reasons for the decline, modern film posters tend to be boring. I just looked at a website featuring the "best film posters of 2016" and was surprised to find some traditional, hand-drawn illustrations,  only to discover that these were examples of "fan art" - i.e. nothing to do with the production company or the distributors. This - along with the profusion of retro fan-art paperback covers online (there's a definite vogue for giving new books a Sam Peffer makeover) - suggests that I'm just one of many who feel that something is now missing from their lives.
Sweeney! (1976) Design: Frank Langford (?), Illustration: Eddie Paul
While I overwhelmingly prefer the films featured in my previous post, Ealing Studios' frightfully "arty" film posters won plaudits - but did they sell tickets?, as films - I much prefer the posters on this page as posters (mind you, I'm not sure the style of the next poster would have worked for  The Lavender Hill Mob):
Hell Drivers (1957) Design: Eric Pulford, illustration: Angelo Cesselon
I'm one of the few people in the UK who didn't adore The Long Good Friday (1980), but I absolutely loved Tom Chantrell's poster:
When Renato Fratini created the poster for Waterloo  in1970, he was charging an eye-watering £1000 per job - but he was paid a record-breaking £2000 for this masterpiece. No wonder: 
I really wish I hadn't bothered seeing the dreary 1978 remake of The Lady Vanishes - I'd much rather have watched the cracking movie promised by Eric Pulford's poster:
And I don't remember The Chalk Garden (1964)  being quite this enthralling:
Design: Eric Pulford, illustration: Renato Fratini
But I do remember Mad Max (1979) being just as good as Tom Beauvais suggested it might be:
Similarly, Driver (1978), was none too dusty (Design: Eddie Paul, illustration: Brian Bysouth).
I've never seen Eagle's Wing (1976) - actually, I'd never even heard of it - but I bet it wasn't a patch on Vic Fair's poster (the quad version is even better, but I can't find one at a sufficiently high resolution):
Silver Bullet (1986) - another Vic Fair triumph - wasn't in the same league as the poster (apparently the illustration was only intended as a preliminary rough - but who cares?):
Gosh, this 1951 poster for Disney's The Story of Robin Hood (designer unknown) makes it look like fun!: 
While The Emerald Forest (1985) was enjoyable, the poster (Design: Vic Fair, Illustration: Brian Bysouth) was definitely superior.
John Stockle was responsible for this gentle, sensitive 1958 poster for The Camp on Blood Island, which was banned by London Transport. (Keep yer shirt on, mate -  I only said I wasn't in the mood for sushi!)
I have a feeling photos might have snuck into this poster for Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) - but S. John Woods is forgiven, because it works:
I'll end with one of the greatest of all British quad movie posters. This iconic (yes, I think the word is acceptable in this context) 1963 poster for From Russia with Love was designed by Eddie Paul and illustrated by the great Renato Fratini: 
Sim Branaghan has done great work in documenting the work of Britain's unlauded and (no doubt) underpaid movie poster illustrators. I reckon this would be an ideal subject for a BBC Four documentary - just as long as it isn't presented by Lucy Worsley in a variety of silly costumes. 


  1. First, Lucy Worsley is beyond criticism. She has the sexiest upper lip since Gloria Grahame. And these Killer Kirby Grips....

    Second,"...the covers and posters frequently captured what the films or book should have delivered, but often failed to". Very insightful.

    I don't know if it is related but brilliant impersonators have the ability to make their often dull, uninteresting, humourless celebrity subjects really funny - for example, I always found Norman Wisdom and Rolf Harris seriously unfunny and creepy, but impersonations of them always had me rolling in the aisles. Ditto Eddie Waring. Perhaps it is just me?

  2. I'd never realised that about impersonators, but you're dead right. Mike Yarwood and the repellent Hughie Green is another example: and Yarwood, despite being a Tory, made that drab little dweeb Harold Wilson oddly lovable. Contrariwise, impressionists can also reveal their subjects' faults - Spitting Image destroyed David Steels' career, and I'll never forget the way Rory Bremner bucked the trend of making Jimmy Savile seem human by starting his impersonation with the words, "Dear Jim, You sad man."

    Lucy Worsley? Really?? Oh dear.