Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Psychedelia and the BFI

Far-out experimental voyages into the unconscious

Main image of Psychedelia and the BFI

Though the artist's quest for 'alternative' forms of consciousness can be traced back to 18th/19th century English visionaries like painter and poet William Blake and writer Thomas de Quincey (and, in other cultures, far beyond) the term 'psychedelic' - from the Greek psyche (soul) and delos (manifest) - gained currency in the mid-to-late 1960s to describe the experiences associated with hallucinogenic drugs (particularly LSD) and the music and art which evoked such experiences. In music, the psychedelic scene was particularly associated with San Francisco and with London, where it found its twin homes in the UFO club on Tottenham Court Road and Middle Earth at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm.

Such clubs and ad hoc 'happenings' offered a full range of sensory stimulations, supplementing the music with vividly coloured lights, projections and other effects, helping to inspire artists and musicians to collaborate or simply expand and grow more ambitious. While Paul McCartney began making experimental home movies influenced by experimental American work and the Beatles developed their Magical Mystery Tour film (ITV, tx. 26/12/1967), the once simple pop promo film began to take on a new, more distinctive identity. Peter Whitehead, unofficial documentarian of the underground London scene, was frequently hired to produce unusual images to accompany the latest wild sounds concocted in the studio by the likes of the Animals, Nico, the Rolling Stones and the Pink Floyd. Whitehead's assistant, Anthony Stern, was instrumental in developing the experimental techniques used in these films. Increases in speed, jolty frame work and overexposure blurring techniques play major parts Stern's San Francisco (1968). The film also uses a rare and unusual version of the much-eulogised early Pink Floyd freak-out, 'Interstellar Overdrive'.

The degree of experimentation with which musicians and their followers were prepared to engage was paralleled in a smaller but significant underground film culture, also largely based in the capital. This practice centred around unusual ways of producing and exhibiting film, often drawing inspiration from visiting American films and filmmakers, in time leading to the foundation of the London Filmmaker's Co-op and the Spontaneous Festival of Underground Films, both in 1966.

The British Film Institute funded a range of short experimental films during this period through its Production Board, which replaced the earlier Experimental Film Fund in 1966. Like much experimental work of the time, the films were shot on 16mm, a gauge originally developed for use by amateur filmmakers. Changes to the format, such as the development of faster stocks and the introduction of sophisticated lightweight cameras which satisfied a desire to get closer to life as it was lived on the street, were such that unorthodox filmmaking of high pictorial quality suddenly became more affordable. This development allowed the BFI to support a number of filmmakers, several of whom went onto show their films in underground venues such as the UFO and Middle Earth and the London Filmmaker's Co-op on Charing Cross Road.

Films, projections and music frequently collided, often in the context of the new underground venues. Mark Boyle regularly provided light projections at UFO and usually for the Soft Machine, the band he later joined on an American tour with Jimi Hendrix - indicating the importance of fusing the aural and visual. Boyle's 1969 film, Beyond Image, is set to a manipulated loop of Soft Machine music and is built from a film recording of convulsing and pulsating oils, similar to those he projected live at UFO and elsewhere. Here, however, he cut and reversed the images to expand on his usual presentation. Beyond Image was reputedly projected at the ICA in a 360-degree version lasting many hours. The film was not limited to normal cinematic presentation despite the BFI's involvement.

Jeff Keen made several films through the Production Board and similarly rarely showed them in the cinema. Keen had strong links with the London counter-cultural scene but actually lived in Brighton. His film Marvo Movie (1967) bridges the gap; concrete poet and London Filmmaker's Co-op founder, Bob Cobbing, provides the soundtrack while the images come from Keen's house and surrounding area. Marvo Movie and others were then shown in underground venues in Brighton, mainly in unlicensed shops after hours. Also part of the Brighton scene was Tony Sinden, who made several films with the BFI, including Arcade (1970) and Size M (1970).

As the times progressed, however, and the scene became more popular, clubs like UFO began to attracted 'weekend hippies', much to the annoyance of the more seasoned regulars who considered themselves more in tune with the political and philosophical directions of leaders such as Timothy Leary. The political power of 'turning on' and seeing society in a new way slowly crumbled under the weight of the movement's own idealism and the arrival of these new holidaying hedonists. By the end of the 1960s rock music came into its own as it morphed into full-blown circus and took the nation's youth into stadiums and the next decade. Meanwhile, experimental film refocused and went its separate way, becoming increasingly radicalized in parallel with the revolutionary politics of the time.

For Jeff Keen, this only served to demonstrate how little the changes in London affected Dr Gaz and the Cineblatz down in Brighton. His films were psychedelic in that they were bright, colourful and sometimes childlike, but they always contained something harder too. Keen had served in World War II and was now well into his forties; his palette and frames of reference ran deeper and darker than that those of the bright young things in London.

Meanwhile, the London Filmmaker's Co-op began to increase its output. Artists such as Peter Gidal and Malcolm Le Grice and others who'd previously been part of the underground scene refocused their attentions on the physical and experiential qualities of film and were soon joined by new filmmakers. The 1970s began with the first films to be funded by the Arts Council of Great Britain - reflecting a recognition of film as an art - and, paradoxically, The First International Underground Film Festival at the BFI's National Film Theatre.

William Fowler

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Beyond Image (1969)Beyond Image (1969)

An abstract psychedelic lightshow, to music by Soft Machine

Thumbnail image of Head Rag Hop (1970)Head Rag Hop (1970)

Vivid psychedelic short accompanying a bawdy boogie woogie classic

Thumbnail image of Marvo Movie (1967)Marvo Movie (1967)

Rapid-fire, surreal, pop-art curiosity by Jeff Keen

Thumbnail image of Meatdaze (1968)Meatdaze (1968)

Frenzied short cramming a full film programme into 10 minutes

Thumbnail image of San Francisco (1968)San Francisco (1968)

Pink Floyd-scored montage of the capital of psychedelic America

Thumbnail image of Size M (1970)Size M (1970)

Dark, hallucinatory experimental short by Tony Sinden

Thumbnail image of Solarflares Burn For You (1973)Solarflares Burn For You (1973)

A psychedelic journey from Cornwall to London and back again

Thumbnail image of White Lite (1968)White Lite (1968)

Dizzying psychedelic short, the third part of Jeff Keen's informal 'trilogy'

Related Collections

Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Keen, Jeff (1923-2012)Keen, Jeff (1923-2012)

Director, Writer, Cinematographer, Editor, Actor