Why everyone should want to see Zeta One

Is Zeta One the worst British film ever made? Nick Gillies thinks it's time we cut it a break...

If you look at a history of Tigon Films you will usually see Zeta One “described by Loaded as the worst British film ever made”. I wrote that article. I was wrong. Zeta One is a film everyone interested in film should see.

Yes, it’s an awful film, but the worst? I don’t watch horror, and friends who do tell me it has a long way to go. But when a film has Lust for a Vampire‘s Yutte Stensgaard playing a boring game of strip poker, there is something seriously wrong.

With so many good films out there, why see a bad one? Firstly, because its flaws are so obvious that you can see what goes into good films without you noticing. Secondly, it shows that proper films are a team effort. In particular, there is material for an entire course on the importance of the continuity girl. Also, where it does get it right it still gets it wrong. When there is a naked girl in a chair, you shouldn’t be thinking “This may be the best Finnish furniture film ever made”, as I did. Lastly, there is a missed merchandising opportunity, which is the 21st-century way to think of Yutte Stensgaard’s bottom.

Zeta One was originally a cartoon strip in a lad’s magazine. Although it had been created only because Playboy was vulnerable due to its strip – Little Annie Fanny – looking dated, Cort saw beyond that to the success of the French sci-fi comic Metal Hurlant, and its Barbarella, basis of the successful Vadim film. However, Zeta One lacked the latter’s story-telling verve.

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Tony Tenser, the Chief Executive of Tigon, should have noted this when Cort approached him to turn it into a film. That he didn’t was probably due to the huge success he had had with another unknown director, Michael Reeves and Witchfinder General.

Tenser gave Cort a budget of œ60,000. In fairness to him, it’s all there on the screen. The Beautiful All-Girl Aliens have delicious shorty nighties, and there is a wonderful contrast between them and their amazon warriors. The latter are right toughies.

Notably the lovely Valerie Leon, so made up that I didn’t recognise her, and wrote in my notes ‘looks as if she did it during a lunch break at the abattoir’. This was amazing, as she wears only bikini bottoms and nipple armour, and she is a very fit lass.

Like so many sexploiters of that era it had some stars from mainstream acting, such as James Robertson Justice. He seems to quit the production in disgust – he is the principal villain yet is never killed or captured, and one ‘fill’ is done by another actor’s voice and hand.

By the time Cort had run out of money he had some 60 minutes of incoherent film in the can. It sat on a shelf for 18 months before Tigon decided to try and recoup its money by adding scenes explaining the plot. Yutte Stensgaard was recruited as a Beautiful All Girl Alien spy, with the Miss Moneypenny job, sent to debrief the hero.

It’s these scenes which make it difficult to know who to blame for the debacle. The continuity girl credited on the film, Lorna Selwyn, has persuaded the Internet Movie Database to remove her name from its crew list. The IMDb was probably right.

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Lorna Selwyn had a good solid career at a time when British film and TV prided itself on the quality of its tradespeople. She worked on several Hammer films, and on TV series like The Avengers. Producers like these wouldn’t have hired her if she wasn’t good.

The parts of the film she was in have astounding errors, it’s true, but they are not the continuity gaffs that are in the added scenes: not just the classic ‘disappearing rug’ but a spectacular scene where we are asked to accept that the furniture is changed while the hero is making love to a Beautiful All-Girl Alien.

The problem Selwyn had was a runaway director. At the climax of the film, for example, the hero is rushing to confront the villain. Selwyn spotted that in the next scene, already filmed, he was wearing fisherman’s waders. But now he was wearing shoes.

What a normal film would have to do is re-shoot the previous day’s filming without the waders. With money running out Cort had the hero slip in a ditch and at that crucial moment in the story go back and put on waders. What is worse is that Tigon wanted to use all the film they had, to make it feature-length, so they kept the scene.

Nor can he be blamed for the editing. In a piece of unrivalled crassness the hero sets out to drive from London to the villain’s Scottish country house after we have seen Robertson Justice telling a captive Beautiful All-Girl Alien he will hunt her down with dogs for sport, and giving her a one-minute start. This means that the hero covers the 300-odd miles in a minute and a half, including wader-changing time. Of course, the roads weren’t as busy in 1970…

No-one at Tigon films will own up to directing the inserted scenes explaining the story. That’s not surprising. They do something that should be impossible: Yutte Stensgaard’s breasts are on-screen and it is teeth-grittingly boring. The need to add length to the film means the scene goes on and on for more than 12 minutes, without adding anything to the plot.

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In the Loaded article I described Yutte Stensgaard as ‘both lovely and serene: serene to the point of catatonia’. That was cheap, arrogant journalism, a real Giles Coren, and I’m ashamed. But cinema people do take the simplistic line that who is beautiful is serene. British cinema crushed her talents. In TV series like The Persuaders and Jason King she was allowed to show vivacity and humour, and comes across much better. And she has a bottom.

Tigon missed an opportunity to make some serious money from merchandising. The company could have done what Athena’s ‘Tennis Girl’ poster did a few years later. The film is worth buying just for Stensgaard’s full backal, walking towards Eero Aarnio’s Ball chair (best remembered as Number Two’s throne in The Prisoner). It is an iconic shot of the beginning of the 1970’s. She has ironed-straight blonde hair and the definitive, loveliest bottom of the era. I don’t care how politically correct you are, it’s impossible to look at the screen without imagining her walking down the street ahead of you wearing hipster jeans.

But that brings us back to what’s wrong with the film. It would never have beaten the Tennis Girl, because the lighting of the scene is purely functional, with no thought to enhancing it at all.

And in turn that brings us to the film topping my list of Finnish Furniture Movies (quite a short list: the only other one is Billion Dollar Brain): There is an old movie saying that if the paying customers are looking at the furniture in this scene, the movie’s in trouble. By the way, for all you Scandinavian furniture fans, Zeta One also has Saarinnen’s ‘Tulip’ table and chairs, and a rare glimpse of another Aarnio design, the ‘VSOP’ dining chair.

The fact is, though, this is un film de Michael Cort, even though a large chunk was shot by someone else. He did not get anything out of his crew. The lighting is unmemorable, the camera angles are pedestrian, he didn’t listen to Lorna Selwyn, and he didn’t ensure that he had an experienced executive producer. After that, not having any sort of script is almost a given.

The film is out on DVD, on the Jezebel label. It costs less than an Athena poster, and is worth it just for the iconic shot of Yutte Stensgaard and the ‘ball’ chair. And any cineaste will learn more about how films are structured than anything short of buying an entire library of Pauline Kael books.

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Above all, for any 20-year old with dreams of directing and some cash, this is a film more important than Citizen Kane: it’s the definitive reality check.