Darkness falls fast in the woods. Unhampered by street lighting, car headlights and the pale hubbub of everyday urban life, twilight descends with the bare minimum of warning, and many a late woodland walk – begun in the syrupy sunlight of evening – has unexpectedly ended amid the sinister crackle of night-time.
In this inky blindness, the imagination moves faster than the feet. Leaves hiss, bracken rustles and every minor twig snap becomes a gunshot. The resulting thoughts are inevitable. Am I alone here? Or is there someone – or something – hiding in the trees?
Such thoughts are evoked with sinister precision on The Gone Away, the new album from Ghost Box Records co-founder Jim Jupp, recording – as ever – in his guise as Belbury Poly. The album was inspired by traditional tales of fairy beings lurking in the British woodland: not the floaty elemental spirits of J.M. Barrie and co, but the malevolent goblins of medieval folklore. It has a promotional video too, in which film-maker Sean Reynard assumes the guise of his 1970s daytime TV refugee Quentin Smirhes to explore these feelings of woodland paranoia with a somewhat hallucinogenic bent:
I was delighted to catch up with Jim Jupp for a long conversation about the album’s genesis:
Bob: Was there an initial spark of inspiration behind making an album about fairies?
Jim: I don’t think so… it was an element in the bag of spooky references that I’ve always had in my mind, with regard to Belbury Poly. And something that’s always intrigued me. I’d also got interested in recording music that was more electronic again, and accidentally ended up in the place where I’d started… it was how I worked on the first album I recorded for Ghost Box, The Willows. It was a return to some of those ideas and those styles.
You dipped into Simon Young’s Fairy Census to research this album, didn’t you? It’s great – just full of quite disturbing and very contemporary reports of encounters with strange things lurking in the countryside.
Yes, the Fairy Census was great to dip into at random. With a lot of the 20th century experiences that people had, there’s a whole strand of these “true believers” accounts… and you can tell that people want to believe in these nature elementals, these benign spirits and sweet little creatures. And they do see them. But the other strand, the more contemporary reports can be very weird. There’s one that sticks in my mind from the Fairy Census, where a family are walking along a path and are suddenly buzzed by a small, flying cube. And they run away, terrified.
It doesn’t seem to make any sense at all, but there are a lot of experiences like that. They people that describe them aren’t attempting to say “It was this, and it means this…” It seems to be a subject that comes more from the realms of madness, or from dreams.
I think we’ve all found ourselves stuck in the woods or in the countryside when the twilight has caught us unawares, and you suddenly find yourself feeling your surroundings are a little bit creepy. Have you had similar experiences, and did they find their way into the album?
Yes. You can be in the countryside, in a gorgeous place, and you suddenly get this odd mood of disconnected isolation. A sudden burst of fear. It doesn’t build up, it just hits you. I think it’s what they used to call “panic terror” in old, weird fiction stories…
Doesn’t it literally derive from the god Pan, and a feeling that he’s present, and watching you?
I think so, yeah. And there’s just something uncanny about natural landscapes sometimes. They can be overwhelming, particularly if you’re on your own.
But more specifically, there are a few things that stand out. Just… memories, and I don’t give any real credence to them. But I must have been about six or seven, and I woke up one morning and went downstairs into the family kitchen. And there was a tiny footprint on the table, about an inch long. That made a huge impression on me… “Right, these things they’ve been telling me about, fairies and the tooth fairy… they’re real! There it is!”
And later on, I thought… well, it was just a smudge on the table. But I still had this impression in my mind of this tiny, isolated footprint. And those odd memories, even though you rationalise them later, stay with you and haunt you.
I used to have a little man that came into my room when I was about three. He used to stick his around the bedroom door, and call my name in a really sinister, sing-song voice. He was like a puppet, and I knew he was called Fred. I was terrified of him, and used to run screaming into my parents’ bedroom. It happened on a couple of occasions. It haunted me for a long time, and I remember trying to explain to my Mum, a year or two later, that I was still scared of Fred coming back.
How I rationalise this is… well, it would be entirely in keeping with my Dad’s character, if he’d found a little puppet or doll somewhere, to stick its head around the door and try to spook me. But he totally denies it… and let’s face it, if he’d done it once, and I’d reacted with that kind of terror, he wouldn’t have done it a second time. He’s not a complete sadist! So to this day, I don’t know what Fred actually was. And my parents have no recollection of any of this.
[Laughs] Well I think the other thing with those kinds of experiences… there’s that stage between sleeping and waking. You’re half asleep, and you hear a noise, and sit up thinking somebody has just said something. I get that even now… I usually hear the front door opening or a window smashing. But of course it’s not happened. I think, as you wake up, your body goes into an “alert” mode, where you imagine – or even see – things. Maybe that’s where some of these entities creep in.
I hope so! We’ve talked about Arthur Machen before. Not only was he from the same town as you – Caerleon-upon-Usk, in South Wales – but he was also a believer in the fairy folk, wasn’t he?
I think so, and I think for Machen – and others writing in his era – there were two strands to fairy mythology. There was a big Celtic revival in the Victorian era, with Lady Wilde writing about Celtic mythology, and people like Yeats discovering their own Irish roots and writing poetry about that. But Machen, who was interested in history and archeology, believed in Euhemerism… and the idea that mythology could be explained by the survival of prehistoric people. So ancient, Neolithic people were here, in the British Isles… they’d been pushed to the fringes by Celtic incomers in the Iron Ages, but somehow they’d survived. Machen’s “little people” stories are about the idea that an ancient race survives underground and in the ruins. And literally inside the hills. You never really see the people in his stories, but they can squeeze through tiny gaps in walls and are somehow not quite human… just because they’re so ancient.
So he almost rationalised fairy tales, in a scientific way?
I think so. I mean, he took it further because, in his stories, they’re also supernatural beings. But I think, in the Victorian era, there had been a rationalisation of fairy mythology, and claims that these stories were actually about this ancient race. Similarly, there’s an idea that a lot of these stories are actually about outsiders, foreigners, maybe travellers. People that are mistrusted: there are stories about fairies abducting people, stealing things, and moving away.
So fairy folk tales could be an allegory for something more xenophobic?
How deeply did you delve into traditional folk tales?
A little bit. Where I live in Sussex, there’s a lot of fairy folklore. The fairies here are called “fairieses”, which is a very Sussex plural… ghosts also became “ghostses” and wasps are “waspses”! And that became mixed up with “Pharisees”, from the Bible. There’s a track on the album with that title, mis-spelt.
But the element of fairy folklore that interested me – and also partly influenced the titles – is that the stories also go: “My grandmother remembers that there used to be a boggart in that tree.” Right back to the Middle Ages, the stories are often that the fairies have left England, they’ve gone away. Hence the album title. And there’s a place in Sussex, on the Downs, not far from Brighton and Worthing – Harrow Hill. In the 1920s, there was a lot of archaeology on the hill forts around there, and local tradition said that this was the last place in England where fairies lived. And that they left when the archaeologists turned up. Which is a nice story about the passing of folklore, with science arriving to rationalise everything.
The publicity pictures for the album obviously emulate the lovely Cottingley Fairies photographs, from 1917. Where do you stand on those? They seem to have one foot in the tradition of dark folklore, and that idea of strange beings in the woods, but obviously – physically – they’ve got the look of J.M. Barrie‘s Tinker Bell. Where do they fit into the whole fairy aesthetic for you?
I think that’s an interesting period for fairy folklore. The early 20th century is when fairies morphed from being slightly malevolent goblin-like entities to being benign nature spirits. And, in literature, it’s often remarked that fairies have shrunk! In the olden days, the fairies were human-sized… they could carry you off – literally – or a man could marry a fairy princess. But these small nature spirits are, as far as I know, partly a result of children’s illustrations. At the turn of the 20th century, illustrations of the stories of the French author, Charles Perrault, were the first depiction of fairies as small, winged creatures. And that caught on with the theosophists, who saw fairies as nature elementals. And by the 1920s, theosophy was a big deal… actually, there’s a story about Walt Disney becoming a member of the Fairy Investigation Society, which was very theosophically inclined! And, from that point, when his name appeared in their membership roll, his animations were stuffed full of fairies. And they’re very much in that spirit of those nature elementals, perched on flowers and granting wishes.
Sorry, your question was about the Cottingley Fairies! [Laughs]. Yes, that’s where they come from… that was how fairies “looked” in that period, no question. Small, female beings with wings and floaty dresses. And these little girls were obviously obsessed with that. And I suppose it’s also a result of wanting to manipulate the media… it’s a very Ghost Box thing, of using collage to make things seem not what they are! And they took that a surprisingly long way. I think one of the girls stuck by the story and said “OK, some of these photos are fake… but not all of them…” [Laughs]
I always think the Cottingley Fairies feel like an oddly 1970s thing, too. They would regularly be featured as a story on programmes like Nationwide, and it was only in the early 1980s that the girls finally admitted at least some of the photos were faked.
Yeah, they were a standard feature in those bumper books of the supernatural. Along with the big, cowled ghost stood by the altar! The really spooky photo… I couldn’t look at that picture. It’s about nine feet tall, isn’t it?
The Newby Monk. I’ve never actually found the full story behind that photo! I mean, let’s hope it’s a fake…
Actually, while we’re on the subject of all this, can we talk about Erwin Saunders? It was you that tipped me off about these lovely Youtube videos, where a rather bumbling amateur investigator appears to discover tribes of pixies living in the woods. They’re wonderful, and I assume you discovered them in the course of researching the album?
Yeah, I asked Sean Reynard if he’d like to make the promo video for the album, and in having a few conversations with him about my view of the album, and how that could overlap with his weird little film world, I was digging around for “footage” – in air quotes – of fairies.
And I didn’t actually find much… there are photos that probably crop up in the Fortean Times, of blurred faces in trees, but they’re often just cases of pareidolia – seeing faces in nature.
But I wondered if there was a film equivalent, and in looking for fairy sightings I found Erwin Saunders. And the first one I watched, where he spends the first five minutes talking about his hair… I thought that was genuine! The films stand together as one huge piece of work, and if you watch them chronologically, you’ll be hooked. They almost work as a mini-series, they’re great.
How did you team up with Sean?
I’d seen the Quentin videos, and always loved them. I just got in touch with him, and asked if he was aware of Ghost Box, and if he wanted to work with us. We had our first chat on the phone about six months ago, and hit it off straight away. We had loads in common, and from our first conversation I thought – this is going to work. He really gets what we’re doing. So I asked him if he’d do a promo for the album.
The thing with Sean, and why it seemed to work for me with Belbury Poly… his videos are unsettling and disturbing, but they’re funny. And I like that approach. I think that’s part of the world of Belbury Poly. The music is unsettling at times, and a bit odd and creepy, but hopefully there’s a touch of humour there. I hope it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Do you think the humour of Ghost Box gets overlooked sometimes?
We don’t really labour the humorous elements… I mean it’s there, and there are sometimes a few gags in the titles. When Julian [House, Ghost Box co-founder] and I talking about our high-level concept stuff, it’s often done tongue-in-cheek. It depends on the project and the album. Sometimes it’s suitable for it all to be done in earnest, but even then it’s supposed to be fun. We’re not writing horror stories or generation some deliberately spooky world. Well… [laughs] perhaps we are. But there’s a light touch, I think.
You’ve got your ocarina out again on this album… that’s such such an evocative instrument for me. Possibly thanks to a childhood spent watching Vision On! Have you always played it?
No, I haven’t! I can’t remember how I stumbled upon it, I think I just saw a Youtube clip and thought – “That’s that thing! That’s an ocarina! I’ll get one and learn…” I mean I can’t really pick it up and play, but my approach to all instruments is that I’ll learn the part that I need to play for a particular track. I learn that, play that for a few weeks, record it, and then completely forget it. So the next time I pick up an ocarina, I probably won’t be able to play it at all. Same with the recorder…
I was going to ask about the recorder on the album! Did you play one at school?
No! This album is the first time I’ve played one! I spent a few months coming up with a few simple melodies, and thought… “Yeah, I can use this.” But I haven’t touched it for four or five months now, so I’ve probably completely forgotten all the scales I learned.
And what is the instrument on the track “Copse”? My God, it sounds like a crumhorn or something…
It’s a Mellotron! It’s the bassoon, played on a Mellotron. The idea for that track, which is the very darkest moment on the album, was to explore that idea of panic or terror, that sense of being watched or followed in the woods. But musically, it takes its cue from the Paddy Kingsland era of Doctor Who, and that whole period of the Radiophonic Workshop. The sounds are very dry and in your face, they didn’t use reverb and echo. There’s a lot of Early Music mixed with synth, too. So using the Mellotron Bassoon in a very dry, up front way seemed like an odd thing to do – but it’s what they would have done, and it captures a certain mood.
The album certainly has a very “medieval” feel to it at times… which, bizarrely, always seems to work well in an electronic context. It feels like a paradoxically natural combination! How does that work?
I suppose electronic music is often modal, in the same way that medieval music was, so there’s a single drone that runs throughout. So you can modulate that one chord, and weave melodies in and out… it’s the same with folk music. So I guess that connects with how a lot of electronic musicians work.
Did you have a storyline in mind when you sequenced the tracks? Is there a narrative to the album?
There’s always a narrative feel, but no particular story. The final track, ‘They Left On A Morning Like This’, was written and recorded as an ending to something. And the opening track, ‘Root and Branch’ is like a title sequence… in fact, it’s very much like the title sequence to Robin of Sherwood!
Ha, yes! The opening couple of notes are very Robin!
I’ve got an old Prophet synth, which they would have used in those days, and I just stumbled upon that little fanfare at the beginning and thought… “Good Lord”! [Laughs]. Mine is a very different piece of music, but I thought I would use the little palette of sounds that they would have used when they were recording that. And I like the way Robin of Sherwood was linked to folklore and nature… in a very Ghost Box way. Our folk influences, and the musical influence of the pastoral English tradition, are influences as received from old television and old records. They’re not quite from the source. So there’s a kind of inauthenticity about them, but hopefully they capture something, and tie in with the memories of those of us who didn’t grow up in the countryside, or steeped in the folk tradition. Which is most of us!
They both went hand in hand for me, really. I grew up quite a rural area, but Robin of Sherwood really struck a chord with me, and when I went to my usual woods I suddenly began to expect Herne the Hunter to appear from a cloud of dry ice. It was really quite a profound change in my attitude to the local countryside.
The other one with a similar atmosphere, from slightly earlier, is Excalibur. The John Boorman film. That era of myth coming to the screen is quite interesting… there are a lot of early VHS fantasy films, like Hawk the Slayer. That was something else on my mind, with a couple of tracks on the album. At that age, I was quite into fantasy stuff, and the Fighting Fantasy books…
Yes, the Fighting Fantasy books are inextricably linked to Robin of Sherwood for me. They seemed to cover similar ground, and I was obsessed with them both at the same time.
Yes, and me. Absolutely. For people our age, that was our folklore and our myth. It came through Role-Playing Games, video games and TV. It wasn’t told to us by our grandparents. But it was nonetheless exciting, and it’s stayed with us. So with my recordings, if I refer to “folklore”, I can only use the language I grew up with – and that might be a TV theme.
What was your favourite Fighting Fantasy book?
The Forest of Doom.
Yes, me too! It’s woodland again. I was obsessed with woodland.
I finished that one! The map all joined up and everything.
Yes! You know what, I spent the entire summer of 1984 mapping my Fighting Fantasy collection, and one of the most disappointing moments of my childhood was discovering that the map for Citadel of Chaos didn’t seem to fit together properly…
Is the world ready to hear this? [Laughs] That stuff’s popular again now, I guess because of Stranger Things… it’s quite hip now. The kids that we would have known, playing those games, aren’t the kids that are playing them now! But to me, when I see that stuff, I can hear this Berlin-school electronic music. It doesn’t have that heavy metal soundtrack that it had for many… it definitely has an electronic soundtrack. Have you heard of this Dungeon Synth stuff?
It’s a genre that I didn’t know about until a few weeks ago, when Stuart Maconie’s Freakzone did a feature on it. It’s a scene from the late 1980s or early 1990s, with homespun, hand-drawn, Xerox-ed tape covers that looked like DIY heavy metal album. All fantasy subject matter – wizards and dark towers. It was kind of New Age music, but much darker in tone. With bits of faux-medieval noodling. If you dig around on Youtube, there’s some quite interesting stuff… although a lot of it’s awful, as you can imagine! [Laughs]. I guess some of it began, or ended up, as video game music… it’s partly in that world. And I guess how that connects to what I’ve done with this album is just that idea of music as escapism. It references folklore, but it’s a fantasy. And hopefully – along with Julian’s graphics – we’ve created a self-contained world.
So The Gone Away is out on the 28th August, what have you got lined up after that? Will the new Beautify Junkyards album be the next Ghost Box release?
Yes, I think they recorded most of the album before lockdown began, then it’s been finished off and mixed remotely. And, in the last few weeks, João has been able to go into the studio with the engineer and finalise everything. So Julian is starting work on artwork, and it should be out in October in November.
Can you tell us anything about it? How’s it sounding?
It sounds lovely! The title is Cosmorama. I think, in the Victorian era, they had displays that were wraparound, 360-degree paintings, and people would pay to visit them. It would be the Battle of Trafalgar or the Palace of Versaille, and as close as you could get in those days to an immersive experience. And they were called Cosmorama.
But subject-wise, and lyrically, I think it’s more of a filmic album. There are hints of Italian giallo soundtracks. It sounds very nice, it’s a lovely album, and they’re so talented. Compared to most of us on the roster, they are proper musicians! [Laughs]. They know their craft.
We’re now heading towards the 20th anniversary of Ghost Box – do your earliest recordings almost have a sense of double nostalgia… nostalgia not only for the original 1970s experiences that they reference, but also the early 2000s, when they were released?
Maybe… I’m not so sure! I think, as you get older, your nostalgic buttons remain further back in the past. And “twenty years ago” is no longer as distant as it once was. For young people, “back in the day” can mean two years ago! I think what has changed for us, sometimes at least, are the references we dig into. Part of our DNA is library music, the Radiophonic Workshop, TV soundtracks… but hopefully we’ve broadened that out a bit. But I think the records still go after this mood of the misremembered past.
Is there a certain Ghost Box-ness that you can hear in things? And if so, what is it?
I wish I knew! I think Julian and I tend to agree, and we know straight away… I’ll sometimes get a demo and pass it onto him, and he’ll say “Yeah, I think that works too”. Or, if I’m in doubt, we’ll have similar doubts. It’s very hard to define. It’s to do with mood and atmosphere as much as it’s to do with musical styles, genres or production. And that can range from surreal humorous elements, to weird nostalgia, or even “Oh yes, this sounds like that old stuff…”. If we get where the artist is coming from, and we get their references, then it fits.
What wouldn’t you do?
I don’t know… I like to think there are elements from any genre that might work if they’re taken the right way. A lot of the things I listen to, I think “Oh, I’d love to have this on the label… but we don’t have artists like this.” You know, whether that’s rock music or soul music or more dance music, or something more contemporary that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with the label. Some things would fit, and there are some artists where I think “Oh God, yeah… they create this mood”.
And I guess some artists who can create that mood aren’t necessarily renowned for it. Paul Weller being the obvious example – I loved the EP he made for Ghost Box earlier this year. Are there other artists that aren’t obviously Ghost Box artists, but you think they possibly could be?
There are artists that I love personally… Panda Bear springs to mind, who I absolutely love. I’m a huge fan. His work, and the rest of the Animal Collective to a lesser extent, creates the same spark in my imagination that Julian and I are on the lookout for, for Ghost Box. There’s something about that deep nostalgia for a past that didn’t exist, and a yearning melancholy in his music that I love.
Would you approach him?
Definitely! If I had an “in”… maybe I’ll get a call now…
Thanks to Jim, as ever, for his time and company. The Gone Away is available to pre-order here…
If the most potent elements of a creative work are those left unseen and unstated, then The WhiteMountains – the first of John Christopher’s Tripods trilogy – should be dangerously intoxicating. Actual white mountains, for a start, are at a premium, only fleetingly glimpsed at the book’s conclusion. Even the Tripods themselves are restricted to fleeting cameos. But the existence of both – offering tantalising refuge and dire peril respectively – overshadow and drive the events of this languidly atmospheric novel.
The White Mountains was famously adapted into BBC1’s high-profile 1984 series The Tripods, a show that has always felt decidedly autumnal to me: onscreen and in real life, it began in late summer, but was swiftly subsumed by lengthening shadows, gathering mists and a bit of lingering resentment that it had stolen Doctor Who‘s slot. The premise of both book and series is not an unfamiliar one: in fact, it’s remarkably similar to that of Peter Dickinson’s near-contemporaneous novel The Weathermonger, reviewed last month. In the near future, mankind has reverted to a pre-industrial, almost medieval existence, with the remnants of more advanced 20th century technology lying overgrown and obsolete, a mystery to the generation whose ancestors have forsaken it. This near-apocalypse has been brought about by a global alien invasion: the Tripods are gigantic three-legged war machines who have enslaved and forcibly regressed the remains of a decimated human race.
This enslavement is enforced by the ritual of “Capping”. With major cities deserted, pockets of humanity are living out what seems – on the surface – to be a rather pleasant existence in small, rural communities. There are cakes galore. The fly in the ointment being that, every summer, a Tripod arrives to weld a metal mesh – the “Cap” itself – onto the skulls of every freshly-turned 14-year-old, rendering them effectively lobotomised: superficially content, but also unquestioning, subservient and both intellectually and emotionally compromised. Insert a joke about the football fans or political movement of your choice here.
When Will Parker, a free-thinking 13-year-old in the Hampshire village of Wherton, sees the effects of Capping on his previously headstrong cousin Jack, he begins to dread his own forthcoming Capping Day, and these doubts attract the attention of a travelling vagrant, Ozymandias. Feigning madness brought on by a failed Capping and loudly quoting Shelley and Shakespeare to baffled villagers, Ozymandias is – in fact – recruiting for a band of rebels planning to overthrow the rule of the Tripods. Inconveniently for Will, they’re not in Winchester or Southampton: they’re hiding in the French Alps, hence the book’s title, and the ensuing journey will be long and arduous, made all the more trying by the insistence of another cousin – the loud and boorish Henry – on coming along for the ride.
Crossing the channel on a trawler helmed by extravagantly bearded collaborator Captain Curtis, the boys are joined by a lanky, thoughtful French teenager, Jean-Paul – or “Beanpole” as he is swiftly nicknamed – who is concerned that Capping will curtail his own thirst for knowledge and passion for invention. He has taught himself English from pre-invasion books, built his own pair of wonky spectacles, and harbours ambitions of constructing a hot air balloon. In the absence of the latter, the boys form a mismatched trio and set out on foot along the length of France, passing through both an eerily deserted Paris and the idyllic Chateau De La Tour Rouge, where Will – overcome by a dangerous fever – is looked after by the generous, friendly Comte and Comtesse and their teenager daughter, Eloise. With whom he inevitably falls in love.
Those seeking boundless thrills and derring-do may come away disappointed. The White Mountains is not high-octane. In fact, it’s barely low-octane. In truth, if all references to the Tripods and the White Mountain freedom-fighters were excised from the book, it would still make for a substantial novella about three teenage runaways exploring rural France. The Chateau section in particular is more reminiscent of Alain-Fournier’s dream-like coming-of-age novel Le Grande Meaulnes than any of the science-fiction written by Christopher’s contemporaries. But when the darkness of the alien apocalypse intrudes, it is all the more shocking for its scarcity: sea-bound Tripods sink tug-boats on the English Channel for sport; Paris is filled with queues of rusted cars, the skeletal remains of their drivers still in situ. The remains of a “lost” 20th century future protrude into this new reality, too: the boys frequently travel along abandoned railway lines (“Schmand-Fair”) without every really understanding the nature of their original use, and delight in finding working wristwatches among the remains of a Parisienne jeweller’s shop.
And the most shocking of these dark intrusions: the caring, intelligent Eloise – as Will discovers, to his shock – has already been Capped. This, coupled with the Comte’s state intention to adopt Will as his son, leaves the youngster with an overwhelming conundrum: what is the price of freedom? Continuing on his journey to the White Mountains leaves him facing certain hardship and a likely early death at the hands (or stomping feet) of a vengeful Tripod. By contrast, the worst possible outcome of staying at the Chateau and accepting his own Capping are a life of opulent wealth, unwavering contentment and sun-drenched days spent sprawled on the ornamental gardens with Eloise. Ultimately, a single, shocking, unforseen consequence of Eloise’s subservience to the Tripods drives this temptation out of his mind, but the anguish of this moral dilemma – is happiness valid if it is artificially imposed? – is at the heart of The White Mountains. This more than compensates for the lack of rampaging alien hordes and, indeed, a conclusion that is little more than a gentle nudge to get a move on and read the next book in the trilogy.
POINT OF ORDER: I’m actually really fond of the TV series. The first series began airing the week after I’d started secondary school, and – like the book – unfolded at a languid pace, a little moment of weekly brightness during a period of my life that felt unsettled and uncertain. And my friend Bill Fellows plays Mortiz in the second series, and he’s a fine actor and a lovely chap. It’s all available here:
MUSTINESS REPORT: My 1984 reprint is slathered with imagery and branding from the TV series, and I bought it from a bookstall at a fund-raising day held by my school in autumn 1985, probably around the time the second series was airing. It’s a 1/10 on the Mustiness Front… my own books, naturally, smell only of lavender and unfettered youthful optimism.
(Originally published in Issue 60 of Electronic Sound magazine, December 2019)
Tim Bowness and Steven Wilson are back with the first no-man album since 2008… and it’s a return to their electronic roots, soundtracking a tale of tragic, fractured romance
Words: Bob Fischer
“In some ways, it’s the Star Trek mirror universe version of a traditional electropop love song,” says Tim Bowness, no-man‘s frontman. “With me as the evil Kirk, obviously.”
He’s talking about the opening section to Love You to Bits, the first no-man album in eleven years, and perhaps their most intensely conceptual to date: it consists of two, side-long suites (‘Love You to Bits’ and ‘Love You to Pieces’) that explore the tragic aftermath of a broken relationship from both parties’ perspectives, with a musical palette that leans heavily towards their synth-pop roots, albeit with typically eclectic diversions: there are strong nods to classic disco, 1990s dance and Eno-esque ambient pop, and even an elegiac brass band workout. It’s an album that has been seemingly nagging at the affable, thoughtful Bowness and his long-term musical partner Steven Wilson for decades.
“This album has its origins in that opening electropop piece, and that was written in 1994,” he explains. “Just as [second album] Flowermouth had been released, we were in a very optimistic state of mind, and we wrote two pieces. One of them was the beginnings of ‘Love You to Bits’, and the other was a track that eventually ended up on [2001 album] Returning Jesus, called ‘Lighthouse’. Both of them were in their infancy at that stage, short song fragments really, but in both cases we had quite ambitious ideas. So when we’d written Love You to Bits, immediately both of us thought… actually, this could be developed along the lines of something like the Georgio Moroder/Donna Summer disco epics of the 1970s. If you like, an electropop song with ideas above its station.”
“Love You to Bits was then developed over probably a period of 20 years, when we’d occasionally add to it, occasionally subtract from it, and there’d be various versions that would last anywhere between four and twelve minutes. The idea emerged again when Steven was mixing my last solo album, Flowers at the Scene… suddenly we had the appetite for it. And we thought – why don’t we finally make it what we always wanted it to be?”
The 30-year story of no-man, and the parallel individual careers of both Bowness and Wilson, makes for one of the most fascinatingly esoteric journeys in recent British musical history. Initially signed by One Little Indian, their 1993 debut album Loveblows & Lovecries – A Confession combined synth-heavy dream-pop and proto trip-hop to critical acclaim (Melody Maker described them as “conceivably the music important English group since The Smiths”), but its more experimental follow-up Flowermouth – despite improved sales and further plaudits – led to them being dropped from the label. “We opened the album with a ten-and-a-half minute rhythmless piece, and within the minute, the budget for our video had gone,” chuckles Tim.
Since then, Wild Opera , Returning Jesus , Together We’re Stranger  and the sublime Schoolyard Ghosts  have combined elements of jazz, prog, chamber-pop, electronica and various musical equivalents of the proverbial kitchen sink with immaculately seamless aplomb; and Bowness’ wistful lyricism and seductive vocals have provided a consistent touchstone. Both partners have enjoyed acclaim and success in their own right – Wilson as leader of prog goliaths Porcupine Tree, Bowness with the similarly experimental Henry Fool – as well as boasting a combined total of ten solo albums, again with a dizzying array of eclectic musical influences.
So an ambitious sense of scope is a quality that has never been lacking in their output, and if the music of Love You to Bits takes a cinematic approach – and the haunting, hymnal motif and spiralling string arrangements that recur throughout the album certainly evoke the work of the duo’s beloved John Barry – then the storyline too, detailing that devastating break-up in heartbreaking detail (“Leaving the lights on / Playing the old songs / Take midnight refuge in the past”) has similarly filmic origins.
“I quite liked the idea of looking at a relationship from… actually, three perspectives in a way,” explains Tim. “The two people who are involved in the relationship, plus that one perspective that’s shared. Where you can’t communicate, but you feel the same thing. And certainly during the time that the original songs were conceived, I was nearing the end of what had been quite a long-term relationship, so there’d have been elements of that feeding into the lyric. I’d also seen a film with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor [Divorce; His, Divorce; Hers, a 1973 TV movie] that was quite fascinating, in that it looked at the collapse of a marriage from both sides.”
“There was a line that I read in a Marguerite Duras book years ago…. I’m not even sure whether it’s true, but its supposedly a French aphorism: ‘In all relationships, there is the lover and the loved’. And in some ways I find that profoundly depressing. That was also some source of inspiration… that maybe, when we’re in the midst of extraordinarily deep, vivid feelings, perhaps it’s more one-sided than we think. Because you can never fully know how the mind of your partner works. So there was an aspect of that as well, attempting to crawl inside both minds. One of the characters is the lover, and the other is the loved… and is far more casually involved in the relationship. But there are shared feelings despite that.”
The album’s title is subtly and succinctly representative of the touching nature of this lyrical journey. “I love you to bits / I love you to pieces / I love like I don’t love you at all,” sings Bowness, and a phrase commonly used as a glib reassurance of affection suddenly takes on alarmingly destructive qualities. “It’s a banal title, but I liked its potentially cruel dual meaning,” he explains. “I’d like to think that both the lyrics and music have developed something unexpected and distinctive out of very simple and ordinary starting points. Finding personal meaning and creative possibilities in the seemingly trivial…”
“Peter Hammill’s work got to me at a certain stage in my life,” confirms Tim. “I had a fairly miserable adolescence, and music, film and literature very much became a comfort to me. And one of the albums at that stage that really spoke to me was Peter Hammill’s Over , which was all about the ending of certain relationships. He’d ended a long-term relationship with somebody called Alice, so half of the songs seemed to relate to that, but it was also about parents whose children leave home, about dealing with death… everything on the album was about something being over. And when I was 15, it was one of the most played albums in my collection, because it was so unflinchingly open.”
“And I guess in some ways it gave me the freedom to express intense emotions musically, because there had been so much honesty and openness in his work. So that was how I got into it… that album, and Van Der Graaf Generator’s Pawn Hearts . I found them both incredibly cheap one Saturday in Manchester and took them home, and by the time Match of the Day was on, I was a committed fan of them both.”
no-man are a band with curious origins; formed in 1987 when teenage musical entrepreneur Wilson read, in the pages of a fanzine, about Bowness’ work with Liverpool art-pop band Plenty, and wrote to his future musical partner, requesting a contribution to a DIY compilation album he was assembling. The ensuing phone call provided the basis for an enduring friendship. “We had a four-hour conversation on the phone,” remembers Tim. “I was based in Cheshire, he was based in Hemel Hempstead, and in the conversation we assassinated what we hated about contemporary music, eulogised what we loved, and then decided to meet up. And for one weekend in every month, we would meet at his studio in his parents’ house. He was still about 17 or 18 at this stage, and I would travel from Cheshire to Hemel Hempstead, and we would just write material.”
“From the off, it was a fantastic relationship. Again, that first time we met, we talked for about four hours. It could be anything – books, music and films that inspired us – and then we set about writing. And I think because both of us had extraordinarily eclectic tastes, anything went. And so within the first hour of meeting Steven, we wrote a seven-minute epic ballad that set a certain template for no-man, and we wrote a two-and-a-half-minute, extremely vicious – almost punk – funk piece. And then, over the next year and a half, I went there every month and we built up 30 or 40 songs.”
“The one thing that was always great about Steven – and still is – was that we could talk about anything without embarrassment, in terms of our musical taste. Donna Summer being a great example. Both of us would have loved the Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder productions of the 1970s. These were things that we thought we were fantastic pieces of art, and still do.”
Summer’s purple patch of late 1970s concept albums are a recurring feature of our conversation, and it’s easy to imagine how works like 1976’s Four Seasons of Love – detailing the year-long progression of a relationship that blossoms, blooms and ultimately fades – went into the melting pot of inspiration for Love You to Bits, both conceptually and musically. At one stage, the opening suite of no-man’s album clicks into a delicious, old school disco groove, all hi-hat and strutting bass, the very epitome of what Mark Ronson recently pithily described as “sad bangers”. The combination of the boldly creative and the unashamedly commercial, arguably at its peak during this particular mid-1970s sweet spot, is one that the duo have always seemed keen to explore.
“The mid-1970s to mid-1980s were our formative pop-loving years, and I think it was an exciting time to be brought up, because what you had was what I always refer to as the ‘creative mainstream’,” says Tim. “You had mainstream artists, whether it was Roxy Music, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Prince, Chic, even Fleetwood Mac… who were extraordinarily gifted and they were making music that communicated to millions: immaculately produced and beautifully written, but also heartfelt and creative. There were a lot of examples of truly groundbreaking music that was commercially communicative and quite experimental at the same time.”
“I think that’s always been a driving force in the music Steven and I have created, however old-fashioned that idea might be. Because I do think that since that point, you’ve had a far greater division between experimental music and commercial music. I suppose for us we always wanted to make music that managed to communicate in a big way, but also had genuine heart and a genuine sense of adventure.”
Love You to Bits succeeds spectacularly in both respects; the album is an affecting emotional journey as well as a focused, eminently accessible distillation of the diverse musical influences that the duo are always proud to acknowledge: in a subsequent e-mail, Tim is keen to namecheck Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Ashra, Jean-Michel Jarre, The Orb, Massive Attack and Underworld as further inspirations during the album’s gestation.
But, perhaps most importantly of all, it transcends these influences to sound specifically, and affectingly, like no-man.
“The writing was very spontaneous and organic and I genuinely hope that we’ve managed to create something uniquely no-man out of a collection of myriad disparate inspirations,” concludes Tim. “When it comes down to it, we always go with what feels right, and the writing and recording process is about realising our ideas and fulfilling our particular emotional needs.”
You have to love them. Although perhaps go easy on the bits and pieces.
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Congratulations, Will Pinfold! By sending over a second batch of drawings from your 1980s Fife childhood, you’ve instantly become Felt Trips’ most prolific contributor. The adventures of Will’s mid-1980s feline archaeologist Pussyana Jones were charming and wholesome, but by the late 1980s his soul had clearly been corrupted… by Dungeons and Dragons, (very) graphic novels and Iron Maiden’sSeventh Son of a Seventh Son. At the age of 13, he might have been slightly too young for the dubious delights of Merrydown Cider, but otherwise his lifestyle was a perfect mirror of my own sophisticated late 1980s social soirées.
From this giddy combination of influences came Will’s comic book “zombie detective” Steve Spector…
… and it’s over to Will for the full story:
“The story of a zombie detective tracking down those responsible for his murder may sound like a timeless one, but Steve Spector was a very 1980s concoction. He brought together various elements that, in 1988-89, my 13-14 year old self held dear: his occupation (‘occult detective’) was straight out of the role-playing game Call of Cthulhu, which I borrowed from the library aged 12 but unfortunately never actually managed to play with anyone. His appearance owed much to the fact that, like many kids of my generation, I whiled away unfeasibly long and boring periods of maths or geography by trying to draw Iron Maiden’s mascot Eddie on my school jotters. And the whole strip wouldn’t have existed at all without the late 1980s marketing drive that persuaded adults – as well as kids – to actuallybuy comics. The graphic novel/mature readers comics boom had its roots in the underground comix of the 1960s and 70s, but Steve Spector borrowed its would-be melancholy and noir-ish tone directly from Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s iconic The Killing Joke, while its penchant for gore and violence came from the horror fiction I was then devouring, specifically Shaun Hutson’s pulpy, gore-filled novels, and especially his 1989 zombie gangster opus Assassin.
A promising cross-pollination of zeitgeisty ideas then; the only fly in the ointment being that, alas, I was 13, and didn’t have the patience or skill to plan and write a sophisticated comic strip. And I couldn’t really draw very well either.
As with so many creative childhood projects, the real fun was in the planning and ideas stage, and it’s typical that – although a only couple of abortive Steve Spector strips were started – several (what seemed to me) highly finished covers were drawn. All of which, although I’m sure I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, mirrored in a childish way the less salubrious end of the ‘graphic novel’ market, where scrappy, unremarkable strips were collected and put into books with beautifully painted covers by artists like John Bolton and Dave McKean. I make no great claims for the covers of Steve Spector, but I took conspicuously more care over them than the actual strip itself.
Reading it now, it would appear that I had no real idea why our hero didn’t stay dead, or why he was buried with his hat and gun. These are the facts: the 23-year-old ‘occult detective’ is killed in a drive-by shooting in New York in 1947 and rises from the grave ten years later. This rotting zombie in a mouldering trench coat then looks up the details of his death in the ‘New York Public Library’, revisits his old office to look for clues, and drops in on his old secretary Kate who reminds him – at gunpoint – of the case he was investigating at the time of his death. Spector had been gunned down while examining a house where a client’s wife had ‘died of fright’ while the client was out of town on business. To cut a short story shorter, Spector tracks down this client who was, it turns out, working for a gang boss who was running a lucrative line in fake séances to con old ladies out of their money. Spector kills the client, sparking a war between himself and the gang. He then buys a car that looks suspiciously like Stephen King’s Christine (I have the feeling this is why it was set in the 1950s) and after a few gory killings, lines like ‘Steve! You’re alive…ish!’, and ever more bare-looking panels, I ran out of steam.
A second, much more carefully drawn origin story was started a year or so later, which seems to be set in the then-present (there are ‘punks’ and so forth, though Spector still wears his trench coat, scarf and fedora), but ‘better-drawn’ isn’t everything; the excitement of creation had gone and for all the apparent care taken over it, Steve Spector Mark II feels – appropriately perhaps – far more lifeless than his original 80s incarnation.”
Felt Trips is a collaborative effort. If anyone wants to contribute their own childhood drawings from the era, I would be utterly delighted – please drop me a line using the “Contact” link at the top of the page. A good quality scan would be perfect, but – if not – then a clear photo of your artwork, lying flat, is fine. And maybe a few words of explanation, too: when the drawings were done, how old you were, what inspired you to tackle those particular subjects? Thanks so much.
A clanking 16mm projector, a freezing cold parquet floor, ominously dimmed lights and perhaps even a uniformed policeman striding purposefully into the school hall. The inevitable augers of that most traumatising of school experiences: the screening of a Public Information Film. These crackling, washed-out warnings about the dangers of railway lines, busy roads and stagnant ponds became part of the fabric of our everyday 1970s unsettlement, and the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water joined the ever-increasing roster of nightmarish spectres seemingly queuing at the bottom of our beds on a ghoulish rota.
Perhaps the most disturbing of all was Apaches, from 1977. This 27-minute compendium of agricultural atrocities sees six children, lost in a very 1970s fantasy world of “cowboys and injuns”, routinely losing their lives on a dank, rain-sodden farm; picked off in turn by tractors, slurry pits and rat poison alike. It was screened in my school hall in the late 1970s, with the extravagantly-bearded Mr Douglas on hand to answer predictably tremulous questions afterwards. Like all Public Information Films from this golden era of disquiet, Apaches was produced by the Orwellian-sounding Central Office Information, a state body founded in 1946 to deliver these chilling missives to a largely unsuspecting public.
The British Film Institute have collected 23 vintage Public Information Films, including Apaches, onto a deluxe two-disc Blu-ray set, entitled The Best of COI: Five Decades of Public Information Films. I spoke to BFI curator and box set producer Patrick Russell about the contents of the set, and the history of the Central Office of Information. Here’s how the conversation went:
Bob: I’m very much of the generation that was shown films like Apaches in a darkened school hall from a 16mm projector. Was your own relationship with Public Information Films along similar lines?
Patrick: In that specific case, the relationship is identical! Seeing Apaches screened in the classroom is a very salient memory of mine. I was born in 1972, so I’m sure I couldn’t have seen it in 1977 when it was first released, but it did the rounds in rural areas for a lot of years. I reckon I probably saw it in 1979 or 1980, when I was seven or eight. And it’s a pretty indelible memory, to be honest. An official of some sort came along, presumably from the farm safety advisory service or some equivalent body, and the film was screened from a 16mm projector to a classroom full of children my age, in North Devon.
I remember it as being an extraordinarily traumatic experience. I’m not making this up, I swear to you… I vividly remember it. The terror through which we all went actually culminated in one boy developing a nosebleed during the screening. So my main memory of this event is seeing this poor boy being haplessly led out of the screening with a trail of blood behind him on the floor!
So you think this was an entirely psychosomatic nosebleed?
Well, who knows what the cause and effect relationship was? But he certainly had a nosebleed during a film that traumatised us all! So it’s a memory that’s drenched in blood: what happens on the screen is quite horrific given the age of the film’s target audience, and what was happening offscreen was pretty horrific as well. It was very traumatic, and I have whimsically wondered since whether my subsequent career in film archiving was somehow subliminally influenced by this. [Laughs]
But, more broadly than that, anyone of my generation brought up in the 1970s and 80s would have seen Public Information Films. Mainly not in that setting of a formal screening: more likely in those 30-45 second slots on TV. Those short films were screened to our generation more than any other content – they were, basically, the most-repeated content on television. So yeah, they’re very much part of the texture of our early lives, in a way that won’t apply to my kids’ generation.
Yes, one of the most traumatic aspects of these films is that we literally had no control over when we saw them. We watched TV constantly, and they would simply appear without warning. We’d often go straight from a rather fluffy piece of children’s television to the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, killing youngsters in stagnant ponds.
Exactly. There were three TV channels through the 1970s, and these films were very short, so they had a captive audience. Literally a captive audience in the case of school screenings. Unless you started bleeding profusely – in which case you would be led out! Therefore, by definition, they were a very powerful piece of communication that could potentially reach everybody, quite easily.
On this new set, you generally shy away from those shorter films in favour of the COI’s longer, more ambitious productions. What was behind that decision?
I think a few things fed into it. This is a Blu-ray, so it’s got to be cinematic: stuff that people can sit back, press play, and be enveloped by. There’s also the issue that a lot of the very short films are widely available. Often not legally, but they are! It’s not difficult to find a lot of COI fillers on Youtube, in varying levels of quality. And we’ve published some of those on our BFI player as well, which tend to be higher quality than the Youtube channels! So these very short films are particularly suited to online consumption, and are widely available online, whereas the longer films are perhaps more suited to Blu-ray. We started with people’s familiarity with the COI through those 1970s Public Information Film shorts, and used them effectively as a gateway drug into a much wider and more varied world of the COI.
Yes,the longer films show really show off different sides of the COI. It’s easy for our generation to associate Public Information Films with those famously traumatic warnings about death and danger, but I assume – in the early days at least – that wasn’t the entire remit of the COI, because the 1940s and 1950s films on this set are actually rather gently instructional… or even simply a “look at life”.
Yeah, the COI throughout its life had a broader remit than you might guess. It’s come to be associated in the public’s mind with the road safety films of the 1970s and 80s… and there was even quite a lot of variation within those, too. Some of them were terrifying, but some of them were humorous… and the famous Charley Says adverts, for example, were rather friendly. So even within that sphere, they could be very varied.
Basically, the COI was the successor to the MOI – the Ministry of Information – which was in existence during World War II. As a ministry, it was a government department, so it was quite powerful in terms of setting policy for information, as well as actually delivering it. And of course, the context for that was wartime propaganda, and information to be delivered to the Home Front. So they made propaganda films that were seen at home and abroad, interpreting the war effort, but they also made Public Information Films for cinemas… about food rationing, for example.
In 1946, the MOI was shut down and replaced by the COI, and the wording change is significant – it was an office, not a ministry. Not a government department. It was the state’s advertising agency, if you like. Any part of government that had a message that it wanted to communicate would take that message to the COI, and the COI would turn it into a project that would be delivered. And it didn’t only deliver films: it was responsible for posters, radio messages, etc… although the films are the best-known now.
So a government department would say “Hello COI, we need to have a film about…” Well, let’s take an example from the box set, Smoking And You, from 1963. “We’re the Ministry of Health, the Royal College of Physicians’ report about the dangers of smoking has been published, and we want to communicate this to secondary school children. We’re going to spend X amount of money on it, so that’s the budget. What can you do for us?”
And the COI would take that brief, and say “We could make a film that costs X amount of money, we’ll distribute it in the following ways, and we suggest the style of the film should be as follows…” And the COI, once the commissioning department had given them the green light, would then contract a production company to make the film. So it was quite a bureaucratic process really, and – getting back to your original question – in a sense, its remit was to communicate whatever the state wanted it to communicate, and that would come from different departments of government. Smoking And You, for example, came from the Ministry of Health, but other commissions could come from the Education Department, the Home Office, and so on. And actually – and this is the least-known part of the COI’s work – a lot of it came from the Foreign Office, and these were films not intended to be seen in the UK at all. There were intended to promote Britain abroad.
So the COI was as varied as the state itself. Obviously it tended not to do things that were very political… although it did occasionally get involved with things that were politically controversial, for example the Protect and Survive campaign… which was not ever fully actualised, but it was planned for. But most of it was apolitical stuff that the state needed to communicate to either the general public, or to targeted groups within the general public. Or to people abroad. Sorry, that was quite a long answer to your question!
I guess it’s all just very reflective of an era when information as a whole was less available than it is now. It’s very easy to watch a film like Your Children And You, essentially a basic guide to bringing up children, and find it rather patronising to modern eyes. But then they didn’t have Mumsnet in 1946…
Absolutely. I mean, it was a multi-media age to an extent: there was the cinema, and a world of non-theatrical screenings that the COI definitely plugged into, as well as newspapers, radio and magazines. So it was a multi-media world, but the “multi” was by no means as vast and diverse as it is now! One effect of that, I guess, is that messages from the government had greater cut-through than they would now. They were competing with fewer other information sources. And I guess another observation you could make, and this is debatable, is whether people were less sceptical or cynical about official institutional messages at that time than they would be now. Obviously you could play that debate out, particularly in relation to the COVID-19 crisis.
I was very much taken with the spirit of optimism that comes over in the 1950s and 1960s films. It’s a very post-war feeling… and it all seems to be enscapsulated in films like Brief City from 1952, with its glorious vision of a futuristic South Bank, and the brand new Skylon sculpture. And then Design For Today, from 1965, almost shows us a “lost future”… it’s a brilliant, jazzy, pop-art vision of swinging life in a beautiful high-rise apartment. Is that kind of glimpse into the British psyche of these respective eras a big part of the appeal of these films?
Absolutely. You can respond to these films at a very simple level – nostalgic, humorous, whatever – and that’s fine, but you can analyse them on lots of other levels as well. And given that these films show us how the government was positioning itself, and its messages to the public, they’re bound to tell us a lot about those eras… about things that the government is consciously trying to tell us, and things that it’s unconsciously reflecting.
So Brief City and Design For Today are both very good examples. They’re not that far apart in time from each other, and yet they’re redolent of totally different decades in terms of their aesthetic, their tone, and what they suggest. But as you say, what they do have in common is optimism. Now of course the government, for the most part, wouldn’t want to be putting out pessimistic messages – although you could make lots of counter-arguments to that, and pessimism creeps into some other films on this set! But yeah… Brief City shows The Festival of Britain. Which was a slightly artificial event, but it was designed to be a symbolic moment of national renewal, and I think what I draw from that film is something genuinely authentic and sincere. Perhaps I’m being naive, but it does give you the feeling that the people who made it, and the people who might see it, at least had half a belief in what it’s saying and showing.
Design For Today… now that’s a very zeitgeisty film, isn’t it? It’s Swinging London, basically! Made by Hugh Hudson, who went on to be a kind of enfant terrible of the advertising world before, for a while, becoming an extremely successful feature film director. And it shares the optimism of Brief City, but stylistically it’s so different. It’s not just the fact that it’s in colour, there’s also the emphasis on fast cutting, the absence of a commentary, the whole design theme… it’s neo-Modernism, basically. So absolutely, I completely agree… I’d be wary of naive readings of these films, where you don’t penetrate underneath and try to understand the anxieties, insecurities and the contradictions that might underlie what’s happening on the surface. But at the same time you absolutely have to look at what is on the surface, and understand what that says about the times in which they were made. And I think both of those films are particularly valuable reflections of their era.
Can we talk about those 1970s films in particular? By modern standards, they seem incredibly shocking: Apaches, obviously, but there’s also Building Sites Bite, in which two children repeatedly lure their cousin into a succession of grisly deaths, to great comic effect. I can’t imagine them being shown to such a young audience on 21st century television…
Yes, I tend to agree. That audience does get access to shocking content by other means, but I don’t think – in the context of public information – you’d get those films today. I think that would probably create a backlash in the media that would be unwelcome to those who had commissioned them.
Did that not happen at the time? Were eyebrows never raised in the 1970s?
They were sometimes. The one I’m most aware of is not actually a COI, it was a film made by British Transport Films called The Finishing Line. Do you know that one?
Yes, it’s horrible.
It’s very much from the same position, and from the same point in time, as those COI films. It was intended to discourage children from playing on railway lines, and the extraordinary narrative device that the film-makers came up with – to create a sort of surreal shock aversion therapy that I think it shares with Apaches – was a school sports day based around playing dangerous games on the tracks. And it results in massive amounts of death and injury. With that particular film, I have studied its reception, and it was hugely controversial. There was a debate about it on Nationwide, because some parents were so shocked by it. And it was eventually withdrawn.
I’m not aware of there having been such a debate about Apaches, and I don’t remember that I went home – after being traumatised that day – and said anything about it to my parents! And I suppose Dark and Lonely Water is a little bit different… it’s taking place in a dreamlike genre, to an extent, and using the power of metaphor.
What makes Apaches or The Finishing Line scary is that they mix the dreamlike world with a realist world that’s particularly uncomfortable. One of the extraordinary things about Apaches is… well, the storyline of the film is basically a bunch of kids on a farm, playing cowboys and indians. And one by one, they’re killed in horrible ways – by a combine harvester, by drowning in the slurry pit, etc. I think you described it in your Fortean Times review as being like the Children’s Film Foundation directed by Sam Peckinpah, and I would probably throw a little bit of Ingmar Bergman in there as well! But the really curious thing about it is that, each time one of them dies, they carry on playing there…
Yes! Stop going back to the same farm!
Exactly! So it’s a sort of fable, in a way. It’s a fairytale, but a fairytale that’s taking place in a very recognisable world. It’s exactly like the farms where I grew up in Devon, with kids just like me. So with that film, what I find disturbing is the mixture of metaphor and reality. Whereas Dark and Lonely Water is also very scary… but in a way, it exists within its own world. Rather than mixing its own world with the real world. Which is why I think Dark and Lonely Water was regularly shown on TV, whereas Apaches was intended more for specialist screenings. Although I believe it was shown sometimes on TV, by ITV franchises in rural areas.
I’ve come across people that have seen it on TV, but I don’t remember that myself.
I think it was probably shown on Westward TV, the ITV region where I grew up… or Anglia TV, for example. But it wouldn’t have been shown at all in London, where it was just totally irrelevant. This question of targeting was quite important to the COI. Some films were intended for the widest possible reach, basically the entire UK public, but other films were very precisely targeted – particularly towards certain age groups, but also towards sectors of the economy, and so on.
Again, this is why I say… you can enjoy these films on a very simple level, but when you dig into them, they’re quite complex things to analyse. They’re a little bit different to feature films and TV because they’re not just about entertaining and engaging: the government wouldn’t spend money on these films if they didn’t have a specific purpose in mind. So trying to understand what that purpose was, and also trying to investigate – or, in some cases, guess – how that purpose manifested itself through the production, from the original Civil Service requirement to the film-maker who actually made the film on the ground, is an endlessly fascinating subject.
Was there an element, though, of these films needing to work as short films in their own right? The one that I particularly loved on the set was Drive Carefully, Darling. As a Doctor Who fan, it was such a thrill to see Colin Baker, John Challis and Christopher Owen – the Earthman from ‘Meglos‘! – all in the same production, in such an engaging and actually rather chilling piece of film-making.
Absolutely! Now, interestingly, that film was directed by John Krish, who also directed The Finishing Line. I recommend anyone who doesn’t know about his career to dig into it… he made some brilliant social documentaries in the late 1950s and early 1960s, had a brief career in feature films in the mid-to-late 1960s, and then in the 1970s his main focus was making COI and other information films. He did these longer pieces, like Drive Carefully, Darling, but he also did a lot of thirty-second jobs as well. As well as commercial advertising.
To me he’s a good example of how the story of the COI relates to the story of the British film industry. The story of the British film industry is very complex and multifarious, and it’s always a mistake to just look at it in terms of feature films… and then the rest. Especially since the British feature film has always lumbered from periods of triumph to periods of crisis. Throughout that time, you’ve also got people making television, commercials, industrial and educational films… and people making COI Public Information Films. And the COI was, I think, a very important component of the British film industry. It provided work and money to a lot of directors, cinematographers, editors, writers and actors. It’s an important part of the story of the moving image in Britain.
And Drive Carefully, Darling, itself… I agree, it’s a cracker! It’s a funny one; it’s a film based on a bizarre concept, and that cannot have come from the commissioners in government. That will have come from John Krish and his colleagues at the production company. And I think the point of that film was to really get through to the experienced driver who thinks that he – and I think they would have been thinking of a “he” here, rather than a “she” – knows it all and doesn’t need any driving advice. Basically: “Get out of my way, government, I know what I’m doing!” This is a film intended to break down the complacency of that driver.
So they came up with this completely bizarre concept, which is to visualise the inside of the driver’s brain. Starring all the actors you mentioned! It’s a COI film, so the budget isn’t that high… [Laughs]. They obviously wanted to convey a futuristic, Star Trek-type high-tech environment, but they could only go so far within the COI budget. The film would have cost a few thousand pounds. But it’s such an incredible concept, and my experience of showing that film to people is that… well, as with a lot of COI films, they tend to laugh at the beginning at the slight campiness of it, but then get more and more caught up in the narrative. It ends with the death of these characters, and therefore the death of the brain, and the driver himself – who is obviously a surrogate for the over-confident male drivers who are watching the film. That scene is intercut with footage of his wife at home, getting ready for him to return… and a film which is made on slightly too low a budget, and starts off rather silly and camp, actually has you completely gripped by the end. If you were part of the target audience, you might have started off thinking “Oh, yeah…” but you’d have reached the end of it feeling slightly sobered.
Colin Baker’s performance at the end of that film is genuinely chilling. As the brain, he attempts to contact other parts of the dying body, which – one by one – fail to respond. Leaving the brain alone and panicking, conscious that the rest of the body has died around it. It’s horrible. I think it’s a great example of the COI producing not only something with a worthwhile message, but also a terrific short film in its own right. You could almost show Drive Carefully, Darling as an episode of a TV anthology series. It’s not far from being a Twilight Zone.
Absolutely. And the other thing that’s great about the COI films is their brevity. It’s not a very long film; in fact, it’s shorter than the average Twilight Zone. With the filler adverts, the classic Green Cross Code stuff that we talked about earlier, they were very much formatted in terms of length: they were 30 seconds, 45 seconds or a minute; or something like Dark and Lonely Water was an especially long one that would fill a whole advertising break. But once you get beyond that world, there was no set length for the films. They were the length they needed to be.
That’s something that I think is quite important from the film-maker’s point of view. There were disadvantages to working for the COI… they were notoriously tight-fisted when it came to allocating budget, and they were known to be very bureaucratic, of course… they would make you answer to every move, and they in turn were answerable to their clients within government. But the upside was actually that, if you could convince them of the creative concept, you might be trusted to execute that, at the length and in the style that you wanted. So that discipline of working with a brief, combined with the freedom of interpreting that brief, is a really interesting thing to study. More interesting, in a way, than a completely independent film-maker producing works of self-expression in their own time and with their own money. Of course, that’s a hugely important part of creative practice, but it’s interesting at the same time to look at films produced in prescribed circumstances, and see how that can drive creativity.
Speaking of the budgets, Public Information Films did a wonderful job of attracting big names of the day: not just actors, but pop stars, sports stars, TV presenters and so on. I spoke to the BFI’s Vic Pratt about the Children’s Film Foundation’s similar reputation for attracting big names on a budget, and he said actors felt that appearing in CFF films for basic rates was simply a nice, public-spirited thing to do. Did the same apply to Public Information Films?
I think so, yeah… I’d make the same assumption as you. I haven’t seen any primary source evidence on this, but I think it’s extremely likely.
And also, I guess… for a public figure, it’s never a bad move to have your face on TV on a regular basis!
Yes, especially on something that’s going to be shown over and over again!
On the subject of actors, can we show a little love for Richard Massingham here? For a long time, I simply knew him as “the man from the Public Information Films”… he appears in so many of the 1940s and 1950s films, in particular. But I’ve discovered from this set that he was quite an important figure in their development.
Oh, absolutely! I think it would be fair to say that Massingham was the first genius of the British Public Information Film. He wasn’t the first to make them: there was a film made by the government about the influenza outbreak after the First World War, long before the COI, so the Public Information Film goes back at least 100 years. But in terms of Public Information developing as a specific tradition with a specific form, Massingham was key to that. A lot of people will recognise him as “that guy…” and for sure, he’s got a brilliant cinematic face. And a very British one as, well – there’s a slightly quizzical, hangdog expression he masters. You have to see it! A brilliant face.
But he wasn’t just an actor, he was also a producer and director. He was a doctor, originally… but he’d dabbled in amateur film-making and found his way into the profession. And he really came into his own in the 1940s, when he ran his own production company and often appeared in short films – including Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases! What he brought to the Public Information Film was the British tradition of dark humour. And that continues to be a major facet of not just government information, but also the world of advertising, and of corporate messaging… sardonic humour is still one of the tools in the armoury. It’s often intended as a way of bringing the cynic onside. As a nation, we’re arguably quite iconoclastic and suspicious of our elders and betters… and I think the whole world has become more cynical about anything coming from official or corporate sources. So to offset that, you depict an everyman who appreciates the black humour of life. And I think that’s what Massingham does.
What A Life!, on the new set, is an extraordinary piece of film-making that takes that approach to extremes! It’s basically a Public Information Film, starring Richard Massingham, that confirms that life is appallingly dreary and depressing. And it ends with a failed suicide attempt.
What A Life! is a one of a kind! Anyone reading this interview who’s never watched this film… stop reading now, buy the Blu-ray, put it in the machine, don’t worry… Bob and I will wait. It’s an extraordinary dark masterpiece which, given that it was made as a piece of government communication to the general public, slightly beggars belief. I don’t know what would be the modern equivalent: Michael Gove commissioning Frankie Boyle to make a film about how Britain is going to the dogs due to Coronavirus and Brexit? It’s in that realm of unlikelihood.
There’s another actor who appears in it, Russell Waters, who was a character actor from a lot of feature films, and he was a Massingham regular. He does a good job in that one. But Massingham is the star of the film, and the basic premise is: Britain is going to the dogs. It’s the other side of the post-war moment to Brief City. The country was bankrupt after the war, rationing was continuing, and there was a faltering of national self-confidence. That’s what that film is addressing, and it has to show some empathy with that point of view if it’s going to address it. But I think most of us watching that film today would say that the empathy probably comes across more strongly than the antidote! Which is basically: “OK, everything is going to the dogs, but let’s have a laugh anyway”. I suppose it’s quite a British point-of-view. There’s that old World War Two aphorism that contrasts the American and the British point-of-view on life… the Americans say “The situation is serious but not desperate,” and the British say “The situation is desperate… but not serious!”
And I think that’s where Massingham is. In non-serious desperation. He was absolutely brilliant. A brilliant actor, but also a brilliant director and producer.
The film on the set that I find incredibly touching, heart-breaking even, is Never Go With Strangers. It deals with a truly horrible subject matter with such gentleness, and sensitivity to its audience. Is this a film that really strikes a chord with children of the 1970s?
Yeah, I think so. And it was also quite widely seen, although it was held back from TV for quite a while.
I think I saw that one at school: a policeman actually came to our school and introduced the screening.
I didn’t see that one at school… it was maybe starting to fade by the time I was in the target audience. But I think it was widely seen in schools, and I agree with you… it has a gentleness, and a certain warmth. But I think it’s also quite a stylish film as well: it’s a very elegant production. Again, I’m going to fly a flag for a director here: it was made by Sarah Erulkar, who perhaps should be better known than she is. She worked entirely in the field of short film-making, from the late 1940s through to the early 1980s, and she did a lot of stuff for the COI, and for industrial companies and charities. She was unusual, not just in being a woman film-maker at that time, but she was also Indian: born in India, and raised in the UK. That was completely unique in the film industry at the time. She had a great eye for camera composition: her films were very elegant, but in a self-effacing way.
And her work on that film was impeccable, as it’s a very difficult and sensitive topic. And I think the difficulty with any film about safety – particularly if it’s intended for children – is making it scary enough to move people out of their complacency without terrifying them so much that they can’t deal with it at all and completely shut down.
Now you could argue that some of the other films go too far with the latter…
Yes, and gave children a nosebleed!
Exactly! So that’s a debate you can have, but I think Never Go With Strangers is exemplary, because it absolutely treads that line. No kid watching that would go away unaware of the issues – it does hit them where it hurts, as it were – but it’s done in a way that doesn’t scare them off and turn them into gibbering wrecks. It really strikes the right balance.
It’s easy to see some Public Information Films as being quaint or silly, but Never Go With Strangers is done with genuinely caring intent to protect the very vulnerable, and I think that’s worth celebrating.
Yeah, absolutely. A lot of the films from this genre are intended to save lives, so yes… you can mock the period trappings of them, and with hindsight you can see things that we’ve learned since that might add others layers of interpretation, but actually the basic idea behind making these films was a very sincere and morally admirable one. Although we’ve quite rightly made light of the likes of Apaches and The Finishing Line, I don’t consider them to be exploitation films, in any meaningful sense whatsoever. At their core, I’m convinced, these are humanist films – their methods may be outlandish, but those methods were selected to connect with people, to help them, to protect them. And more generally with the COI, one of the things that I find moving about all these films is that they are all, in their different ways, public service film-making. Film-making paid for by the public, for the public good. And even though you can critique or analyse them, there is a kernel in there that is wholly admirable. Not a lot of money was made from these films, and massive reputations weren’t necessarily built from them, I just genuinely think they come from a good place. Let’s not be too cynical about their driving force.
I feel almost guilty about saying this, but there was a moment during the early Coronavirus lockdown when the TV was on, and I was pottering around the house, and I suddenly heard the immortal announcement: “This is a Public Information Film from the UK Government.” And I can’t deny it gave me a little frisson. Is there a case for re-establishing some form of the COI in 2020?
Right… this is quite complex! There’s an aspect of political history to this, as well as an aspect of communication theory. Firstly… it’s not that there are no Public Information Films being made. There are. In fact, during the Coronavirus period, people may have seen films from the government giving advice about handwashing and staying alert… possibly during ad breaks, but also online. Most of the ones I’ve seen haven’t been particularly creative in their style, but they have been made. Government departments have still commissioned films, just not through the Central Office of Information.
For example, if we talk about the issue of child safety: I’ve seen films from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command that are really taking the message of Never Go With Strangers into a very different social and technological era. Tackling things like grooming online, so it’s “Never Go With Strangers…” but in this case, the strangers are people that you meet on social media. Those films exist, but you won’t have seen any of them: the reason being that they’re not intended for you. Unlike in the 1970s, when almost everybody watched the same media, today they’re very demographically targeted. So those films will be shown in schools to particular age groups, or they might be distributed on Facebook or Snapchat. The idea of a commonality of experience in watching Public Information Films has gone, to some extent. Not withstanding things like the Coronavirus films, which are intended for everybody… but even then, the nature of the pandemic has meant that those messages are being updated on a frequent basis, so they’re not intended to have the sort of lifespan as the Charley Says or Green Cross Code adverts. Those films often ran for a decade, or even two. Those films are not being made now.
But the point is… the government has not stopped using film since it closed the COI… what it’s not doing is using one single, central agency. The cabinet office has a role in overseeing communications, but there are a lot of government departments or public agencies that independently come up with an idea for a film, and contract and direct a production company or an advertising agency to make it. And then, as I say, it might be distributed via a very targeted method. So the tradition of the Public Information Film as it existed from the 1940s through to the early 2000s is dead, but the practice of making Public Information Films isn’t dead – it just exists in a completely different form.
So is there a case for a new COI? It’s probably too political a question for me, as a public employee, to get into! But I guess you could say one of the positive things about the COI is that… because they were doing it, year in and year out, they really learned to understand their craft. And they really understood the film-makers that worked with them… who specialised in what, who could do a good job on this film or that film, how to distribute films effectively, and awful lot of best practice about the applied psychology of their audience: school-age children, for example. They definitely made some missteps along the way… and for every Charley Says, there’s a SPLINK! Do you know the SPLINK campaign?
Yes, with Jon Pertwee…
Exactly, and I’m not going to be able to recite the acronym, because it’s so bamboozling! It’s the most ridiculous, overwrought acronym! So that was a failed Public Information campaign. But the COI built up a case law, really, of what worked and what didn’t work. And I suppose you could argue that it dated from an era of co-ordinated central government that preceded an era when outsourcing became such a dominant aspect of government practice. So the COI was a creature of its time in that sense.
And in terms of releases from the BFI… will there be any more?
Well, we’ll see how it goes! This set is a distillation of a series of DVD releases that we did several years ago. We took the best titles… or those most appropriate for Blu-ray. But if it does well, and I hope it does, then we’d absolutely be interested in doing more. Any maybe we might consider some of the COI films that we haven’t previously released at all. Let’s see what happens!
In wartime Garmouth, a North-Eastern coastal town taking a pounding from the Luftwaffe, where are the battle lines being drawn? Interestingly, not necessarily between English and German forces, a relationship that becomes blurred on a very personal level as this gritty, complex novel unfolds. Rather, it is the conflict between childhood and adulthood that fuels the friction at the heart of The Machine Gunners, as a cell of resourceful, if occasionally misguided, teenagers seek to seize control of the war from their ineffectual adult peers.
And the grit is in evidence from Page One. “You remember that lass in the greengrocer’s?” muses the father of central character Chas McGill, wearily glugging a pint of tea in his ARP Warden’s uniform. “A direct hit. They found half of her in the front garden and the other half right across the house.” An unflinching tone is set, and reinforced when – following the latest relentless wave of bombings – 13-year-old Chas discovers, in a secret thicket of his favourite local wood, the severed tail of a downed Heinkel He-11, complete with the decomposing, fly-coated body of the rear gunner and an entirely intact and operational machine-gun.
At first intended only as triumphant booty to deflate his classroom nemesis and rival munitions hoarder Boddser Brown, the gun gradually becomes a totemic symbol of Chas’ disconnect from the adult world. He accumulates a team of mismatched accomplices, each facing their own degree of alienation; so his regular faithful sidekicks Cemetery Jones (inevitably, the son of the local graveyard-keeper) and the tomboy-ish Audrey Parton are joined by terrifying Glaswegian hard-knock Clogger – unleashed from a thankless existence staying with his Garmouth-based aunt, who only tolerates him for the extra rations – and the wily Carrot-juice, a boy unlucky enough to be born during an era when the vaguest suggestion of a reddish tint around the regulation short-back-and-sides was enough to earn an indelible, lifelong comparison to Britain’s favourite root vegetable.
But perhaps the most interesting recruit is the well-heeled Benjamin “Nicky” Nichol, whose life – even more than most – has been marred by tragedy. With his father dead, his mother has become consumed by the black market booze and sexual respite offered by a procession of sailors who have effectively turned their impressive town house into an unofficial billet. The effete, “puny” Nicky is singled out for systematic bullying at school, but his rambling, neglected, ivy-coated garden, complete with a giant Koi Carp that “only speaks Chinese” provides the perfect location for the gang’s prospective weapons emplacement. With the entire town now searching for the missing machine gun, these disparate children are united by a sense of common purpose and empowered by the snook-cocking one-upmanship of secretly keeping the weapon for themselves, and – indeed – their intention to defend the beleaguered town in a trigger-happy manner that seems inexplicably alien to the pre-occupied grown-ups of Garmouth.
At which point, said battle-lines between juvenile and adult worlds become rigidly defined, although neither party are without flaw. The town’s adult population ranges from the wearily defeated (Chas’ exhausted father, permanently asleep at the dinner table, and the kids’ teacher Stan Liddell, haunted by self-doubt and the unresolved trauma of World War I) to the bumbling and the corrupt (local copper Fatty Hardy, who “couldn’t catch chickenpox” and the Home Guard’s amoral wide boy Sandy Sanderson, constantly “winning” supplies). But the children too can be exploitative and cruel. When the boorish Boddser Brown draws near to uncovering the gun’s location, he is given a brutal beating by Clogger and Chas; and the gang’s impressive garden hide-out (itself gained by initially exploiting the friendless misery of Nicky) is built using purloined materials and the unwitting help of John, a trusting, muscular adult with severe learning difficulties, whose sole conversational gambit (“Where you going now?”) became an inescapable playground catchphrase following the transmission of the 1983 TV adaptation.
Nevertheless, the youngsters’ willful separation from their families and the community at large is both touching and evocative. Over the course of several months, they construct “Fortress Caparetto”, the ultimate childhood den, a bomb-proof, underground garden bunker filled with stolen supplies and makeshift beds, with the active machine gun concreted into place above the nearby beach, ready to defend Tyneside from the seemingly-inevitable coastal invasion. Clogger and Nicky become permanent residents and effectively (and excitingly) transform into “non-people”: the former informing the largely disinterested community that he is returning to Glasgow before seeking underground refuge to look after the latter, Nicky being erroneously presumed dead when an air raid destroys the house, killing his mother and her latest suitor. As gossip-obsessed neighbour Mrs Spaulding puts it: “Dead in their bed of sin they was. And a judgement I call it. Lying there without a stitch on, nor a mark on their bodies… God is not mocked!”. And those desperate for a supernatural frisson from their favourite Musty Books can derive a minor tingle from Nicky’s claim that he was tipped off about the oncoming tragedy by his dead father, returning in a prophetic dream.
The children are liberated in a way that seems impossibly exciting to anyone who, as an 11-year-old, ever dreamed of escaping the dreary confines of adult supervision and roaming wild in a life of permanent Swallows and Amazons abandon. Me, for one. Largely unmissed by pre-occupied parents and teachers, they build their own community inside the Fortress: a childhood utopia with its own duty rota and adolescent rulebook (“No peeing within fifty yards… penalty for splitting to parents, teachers etc is DEATH”); better-built than any local shelter, better armed than the local Home Guard. And the children themselves find that friendships forged partly from selfish convenience soon become touchingly profound. But it’s an idyllic respite savagely punctured when Chas mans the machine gun during another air raid, and the ensuing volley of fire is enough to send a passing Messerschmidt veering off course, where it is ultimately shot down by “Spitfires from Acklington” before plummeting into an unforgiving North Sea.
Events take a mildly outlandish turn when the plane’s injured pilot, the youthful Rudi, parachutes to safety and inevitably adopts Fortress Caparetto as a hideout, but this ultimately only serves to reinforce the increasingly blurred loyalties faced by the youngsters. Finding themselves duty-bound to care for the “enemy” pilot while keeping him permanently under guard, they forge a relationship with him that, in many ways, is closer than their relationships with their own indifferent parents. And the book’s intriguing moral dilemma becomes apparent: when the simple, partisan certainties of war are reduced to the most intimate, personal level of contact (and there are surely few more personal levels than co-habiting with your enemy in a tiny, underground bunker in a Tyneside garden) then were is your morality to be found, and how is your sense of responsibility compromised? In addition to being a thrilling depiction of adolescent disconnect, resourcefulness and comradeship, The Machine Gunners explores this conundrum with sensitivity, charm and brutally dogged candour.
POINT OF ORDER: Robert Westall was born and raised in North Shields, and Garmouth is a fictionalised version of the real-life Tynemouth. The 1983 BBC1 adaptation remains criminally unavailable on DVD, but it was filmed in Gateshead, partly on the childhood street of my friend and frequent collaborator Andrew T. Smith. Although (God help me) this happened before he was born. He recently discovered these photographs of the filming in the collection of his late Uncle Harry:
MUSTINESS REPORT: 2/10. My 1985 edition is, disappointingly, as fresh as a daisy. Only a couple of months underground with an injured German pilot, unable to bathe or even change out of his flying uniform, would add an acceptable level of must.
Reviews originally published in Issue 60 of Electronic Sound magazine, December 2019:
VARIOUS ARTISTS Scarred For Life (Castles In Space)
In 2017, square-eyed writers Stephen Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence publishedScarred For Life, a doorstep-sized paperback detailing the terrifying TV shows, films, comics, and – indeed – ice lollies that had blighted their 1970s childhoods. Count Dracula’s Secret, anyone? Now, musician and fellow telly addict Kev ‘Soulless Party’ Oyston has assembled luminaries from the hauntological world to produce material inspired by their own jumbled memories of the era, for an accompanying album whose proceeds are laudably heading to Cancer Research UK.
So Cult of Wedge contribute ‘The Gamma Children’, clearly the theme to some long-lost, spooky HTV series, almost certainly starring Simon Gipps-Kent; Pulselovers’ wistful ‘Nice View From Up Here’ is an homage to legendary Public Information Film stalwarts Joe and Petunia; and The Twelve Hour Foundation’s ‘Belmont’ is so redolent of some godforsaken daytime BBC Schools and Colleges module that it should, by rights, only be heard through the tinny speaker of a Rediffusion TV in a wooden cabinet. For extra verisimilitude, follow it up with ‘Programmes For Sick Days’ by The Bentley Emerald Learning Resource, which may be the finest-ever musical evocation of staring through a rain-soaked window while applying calamine lotion to chickenpox blisters.
Meanwhile, Vic Mars’ ‘The Time Menders’ is a bombastic, Farfisa-drenched nod to Sapphire and Steel; and The Central Office of Information contribute ‘Puzzled’, which sounds for all the world like the theme to some forgotten, pre-teatime BBC1 quiz show: I defy anyone over the age of forty to hear it without picturing cheering cub scouts, BBC Micro graphics, and Richard Stilgoe in a pastel-shaded sweatshirt.
There’s a poignant contribution too, from early synth enthusiast Carl Matthews, whose 1984 track ‘Be Like A Child’ rounds off the album. Carl’s life was tragically cut short by cancer, but he leaves an impressive body of work, including this wonderfully wistful piece; a delightfully analogue-sounding recording from a man who blazed a trail as a pioneer of the original era of cassette-based DIY electronica.
Elsewhere, Keith Seatman, Polypores, The Home Current and The Heartwood Institute join the fun… and terrific fun it is, too. To be listened to with a slight temperature, and a note from your mum excusing you from games.
THE HOME CURRENT An Evening With The Home Current (Castles In Space)
Can there be any more prolific and versatile composer of electronica than Martin Jensen? Danish-born, but now resident in Luxembourg, Jensen has produced four full-length albums and one mini-album in the last six months alone; running the gamut from the spiky 80s electropop of Civilian Leather to the poignant, wartime reflections of The Ardennes. This latest release, however, is a heartfelt homage to the late 1980s and early 1990s dance music that soundtracked his youthful adventures as a club DJ.
Composed from scratch as a seamless, hour-long mix, it acts as a companion piece to November’s Palermo Traxx Vol 2; both records evoking an era of throbbing, minimalist house music; of mysterious white labels and scrawled DJ feedback sheets. Jensen cites short-lived Copenhagen club night The Candy Jungle as a seismic influence on his musical tastes, and his clear love for this halcyon period of inventive dancefloor-fillers pervades every (delightfully old school) beat.
NEIL SCRIVIN This Has No Longer Been The Future (Fonolith)
Neil Scrivin has previously made haunted electronica (literally – previous album ‘This House Is Haunted’ was a radiophonic exploration of the 1977 Enfield Poltergeist case) under the nom-de-plumes of Phono Ghosts and The Night Monitor, but this more personal album is released under his own name; perhaps fittingly for what is clearly a heartfelt evocation of his 1980s childhood. Recorded in 2010 but unreleased until now, it continues themes explored on Scrivin’s 2007 album ‘Tomorrow’s World’.
So clattering Boards of Canada beats and woozy synths conjure fuzzy memories of both concrete new towns and summery daytrips to Jodrell Bank, and opening track ‘Back in 1980’ manages to be both wistful and joyous; its chanted mantra of “Disco, Bowie clones, Blitz kids” sitting atop a pulsating Frankie Goes to Hollywood bassline. Although the menacing, head-pounding ‘Roentgens’ – named, as owners of the Chernobyl box set will testify, after units of radiation exposure – hints at a more sinister side to the decade.
Paul Kirkpatrick‘s fourth studio album is a touching examination of the nature of memory, whose utilitarian titles (‘Memory One’, ‘Memory Two’, ‘Reconstruction One’, ‘Memory Three’) belie beautifully nuanced ambient explorations of childhood remembrance, regression therapy, fake memories, and dementia. Cellist Rachael Dawson also recites moving verses of poetry by Mary Oliver, Derek Walcott and Sandeep Kishore; in particular, her recitation of Oliver’s ‘In Blackwater Woods’, accompanied by Kirkpatrick’s immaculately arranged electronica, is both haunting and heartbreaking.
REPEATED VIEWING Nature’s Revenge (Spun Out Of Control)
The opening sounds of birdsong, subsumed by an ominous, orchestral swell, create the perfect tone for this meditation on a “woodland walk gone sour”. Since 2009, Glasgow’s Alan Sinclair has produced “synth terror” (his words) inspired by 1980s horror flicks, but Nature’s Revenge is brooding rather than horrifying; with ‘Magic Is All Around You’ even evoking images of playful tree spirits… until ‘Fell Runners Embrace The Void’ arrives to darken the mood somewhat. A hugely enjoyable and typically cinematic collection, with a glorious fantasy art cover.
I lovedGarth Marenghi’s Darkplace from the opening moments of Episode One. The wonky analogue synths of the theme music, the juddering film stock and terrible CSO of the title sequence: they captured perfectly an era when compulsively appalling horror anthologies were dotted liberally around the small hours of regional TV schedules. Written by and starring Matthew Holness as the titular deluded writer of schlock horror fiction, it brought giant, mutant eyeballs and extra-terrestrial broccoli to a nightmarish 1980s Romford, and made TV fixtures of its stars: Holness, Richard Ayoade, Matt Berry and Alice Lowe. A chat show sequel, Man to Man With Dean Learner, followed before Marenghi vanished back into the Hellmouth… seemingly forever.
Since then, Matthew Holness has forged a career as an accomplished and acclaimed writer and director. In his 2011 short film A Gun For George he portrayed Kent’s least-celebrated writer Terry Finch, in a hugely entertaining homage to the grittiest of 1970s British crime flicks. In 2012, he wrote and directed The Snipist, an unsettling depiction of a dystopian Britain in the midst of a rabies epidemic; and his full-length debut feature, Possum, was released in 2018. A stark, disturbing psychological horror, based on Holness’ own 2008 short story, it starred Sean Harris as a disgraced puppeteer forced to confront the spectres of the 1970s trauma wreaked by his abusive uncle – an intimidatingly seedy Alun Armstrong. Also featuring: a truly revolting spider puppet in a holdall.
I settled down for a long Skype chat with Matthew on a hot Friday morning in June. Here’s how the conversation went:
Bob: I wanted to start by asking about something I’ve read about, and I was intrigued to find out more – you met Peter Cushing when you were very small, didn’t you? When you were about six?
Matthew: That came out in an interview, and I realised I was probably a little bit older than that, actually. I misremembered it. I used to see him around the town quite a bit. Let me just show you what I’ve got here…
[Matthew vanishes from the webcam, and rummages on his desk]
….this is the autobiography of Peter Cushing that I had bought for me, and he’s written in the front. And I also saw him outside a bookshop in 1985, and I have his little autograph there… [at this point, he produces another slip of paper]. These are my most treasured possessions!
Where was this – in Kent, where you grew up?
In Whitstable, yeah. He was a long-term resident of Whitstable, and you always used to see him around. My little brother and I used to watch the Hammer films, at a younger age than we probably should have done. We used to tape them on a Friday or Saturday night and watch them the next morning. So he was a huge hero of ours, simply because… you know, it was Van Helsing living in our home town! And when we saw him outside this little bookshop, Pirie and Cavender’s, we were absolutely starstruck. And my mum very kindly took us up to him and introduced us as fans of his work. And he said “I do hope they’re watching the right films…” [Laughs]
I think he thought “Oh my god, these two little boys, seeing my horrific vampire films…”
I think the first Hammer film I saw was Dracula A.D 1972, and there’s actually quite a lot of grim stuff in that for a young kid. It did haunt me: the scenes from that film used to play in my head, over and over. Which is hilarious, because you watch it now and it’s such a tame horror film in many respects. But it’s got a nice atmosphere.
Oh, I love that film – just for the sheer 1970s-ness of it all. It’s ludicrous and brilliant. And I’m guessing Peter Cushing was probably expecting you and your brother to be Star Wars fans…
I think so. And I think we probably started talking about Dracula, and he went “Hold on…” [Laughs].
And then I saw him again when I passed my eleven-plus exam. For a little reward my parents asked “What would you like?”, and I said “I’d love the new Peter Cushing autobiography.”
He was signing them in WHSmiths in Canterbury, so we went. There was a long queue going into the shop, and my mum said “We’re getting this because my son’s passed his eleven-plus.” And that’s when he wrote out what, for a book signing, is quite a long message. I just thought that was lovely. He didn’t have to do that… I think he was just genuinely a very lovely man.
So where did that love of horror actually come from? Like you say, it’s a very young age to be discovering Hammer Horror films… you must certainly have been under ten at this point.
Yeah, I was ten in 1985, so I was watching them before then.
And they weren’t immediately accessible films – they were usually on very late on BBC2. You say you were taping them, but you must have known about them in the first place to want to do that. Where did that interest come from?
I think I was just always obsessed with that kind of stuff. And I suppose actually, back then, they did market horror to kids. The Ladybird books had the Mummy, and Frankenstein and Dracula, and Jekyll and Hyde. And these were books that weren’t dumbed down at all for kids, they weren’t palatable versions… the illustrations were actually quite grim. And you know, you could walk into any supermarket… I remember going into Safeways in Herne Bay and seeing the James Herbert and Stephen King covers; books where I just went: “What is that?” I was always just interested in this world that I wasn’t supposed to like.
Also, the video shops… there was so little on TV that your parents would take you to get a video from the local store, and you knew there was this area at the back with these absolutely horrific-looking covers. And even if you weren’t allowed to walk down that end, you stopped and peered through: “What is that one?”, you know! I think it’s just a natural thing, and in those days I don’t think anyone was too bothered about kids seeing that sort of stuff.
Certainly I remember lots of birthday parties with my friends where the after-games entertainment wasAn American Werewolf In London! The first time I saw that, I would literally have been about six or seven. It was a birthday party, and the older brother had got an illegal video. So I remember seeing all these horrific things at a children’s party… and weirdly enough, it was a party where we all got food poisoning as well. [Laughs]
Oh no!So were you not scared by these films?
Oh yeah, terrified. Absolutely terrified. I remember recording Alien, and my brother and I watching it the next morning, and being so frightened that we would forward-wind it five minutes, then rewind and actually watch that five minutes. Then we’d stop and forward-wind it again to see if anything shocking was coming up, then rewind and watch… that’s how I watched Alien for the first time!
So this all kind of ties into my vague theory that there’s a collision of cultural, sociological and technological influences that converge on the childhoods of kids that grew up roughly between 1965 and 1985. Lots of us who were children during that period seem to have had this quite profound feeling of vague unsettlement – not just from the pop culture of the era, but from the grit and grime of British life in general. Is that something you identify with? I definitely detect that feeling in a lot of your work.
Absolutely. Obviously, there are a million things going on in your childhood, but I can remember very strongly the general feeling of terror; of lying up in bed and hearing just the news bulletins. Just the music of the BBC news bulletins. And to be honest, I think kids today are going to have this, because – for example – my daughter got terrified of: “When’s Brexit happening? What is it? What will happen with Brexit?” And you know, we have to keep constantly reassuring her. “Don’t worry darling, Brexit isn’t this horrific thing…” Even though it is. [Laughs]
Who knows what kind of psychological impact that will have, but I think it’ll be something akin to what we had. Because there were just so many frightening things that we were party to… more than usual, because I don’t think people were that concerned about keeping their kids away from news bulletins. There was less of it to see, certainly: it wasn’t 24-hour news, so we didn’t get that rolling terror… but it was still there, and the bulletins were very sombre and serious.
And I think that extended to educational programmes. I remember getting very anxious, coming home from nursery school and seeing the educational programmes that were on for older children, and being absolutely terrified that this was the adult world I was heading into. They were speaking in languages I didn’t understand – “Learn French!” – and I just remember feeling terrified of the adult world… and finding school a frightening place. It just seemed grim, and very adult, and you were just waiting to be cast into this horrific arena… [Laughs]
I think it was also an era when the adult world and the child’s world collided in ways that maybe happens less these days. You might see a news headline that made it seem like nuclear war was imminent, and this would be two minutes after the end of Willo The Wisp.
That’s right, and that extends to things like Public Information Films. Throughout all programming, they’d just come on – I saw them all, and one in particular has haunted me for my entire life. And I tweeted a long time ago: “Has anyone seen this Public Information Film, because I can’t get it out of my head… but I can’t find it anywhere!” There had been DVDs of Public Information Films that had come out, but I could never find it. And then this year, someone found it for me and tweeted it to me, and I went: “Yes! I wasn’t going mad!” I’d got it into my head that this was some horrific thing that I’d half imagined, buried deep in my subconscious.
But it was there, and it didn’t do much good, actually… [Laughs]. It was taking, from baby to adulthood, one guy who is constantly eating too much and having people force food upon him. “Have another one! Have this! Just one more, we’re not having half measures here!” Do you remember that one? It ends with him in a hospital bed, with it bleeping, and his heart going… and this look… he knows that he’s staring the Grim Reaper in the face.
It absolutely terrified me. And that’s the sort of thing that was on during school educational programmes; during entertainment programmes. Just a very different environment that was particular to that generation, I suppose.
Did the look of TV during that era make a big impression on you? Lots of stuff that you’ve done has had that vintage film look, and I’ve spoken to so many people who have said that the experience of watching TV in the 1970s and 80s was quite different. It was fuzzy, the signal would drift in and out… Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace captures that perfectly, I think. The opening titles are slightly wonky and degraded… is that all an important part of capturing that feeling?
I think it depends on what you’re attempting to do. With that particular show, it was trying to present it as a realistic programme from that time. And I think in that situation, there’s always the argument of “Ah, we’ll just make it look like film, with a digital thing…” We did a pilot for Garth that was recorded digitally, then we tried to create a film look for it… but you can always tell. The suspension of disbelief, for me, is in seeing the almost dream-like world of film.
A classic case of this: there’s a horror film that came out in the 2000s called Session 9, which is a very good horror film and it’s directed very well, but it was one of the first films to use digital, and it just goes against it. It goes against the way that it’s been shot, and it goes against how the story and narrative is presented. So I can’t ever fully immerse myself in that story and believe it. Because if it had been shot on film… there’s something about that, having grown up in that environment. For me, it is that suspension of disbelief. It allows me to accept that this is another world, it’s another reality. If you have digital, it’s pure artifice for me. These are actors, there’s a crew there… it doesn’t feel real. It doesn’t have that quality.
And I suppose it depends very much whether you’re receptive to it or not. There are lots of people that don’t even think about that… but it does work on them subconsciously, I think. And as I say, we shot the pilot for Garth on digital and then tried to give it a film look… and it just didn’t work. It just didn’t feel like the real thing. But when we shot it on 16mm, there’s something about that that allows you to accept – although we’re perhaps not the right age in the interviews – that it’s a real show. Because it just looks like one. It is the real thing. And I find that if you just use the technology, it’s not that difficult to achieve an authentic look from the past. It’s just about knowing how it was done, and I suppose you have to have a bit of an eye for it.
Probably one of the big appeals of Darkplace is that, on a subconscious level, people can happily believe in it. Certainly people who grew up with TV of that kind. Parody is something that usually only really works as a sketch, and you have to have something far more than just laughing at what it is in order to take it any further. If it doesn’t feel like the real thing, then you are just watching an extended joke. I don’t know, it’s an odd one. I think there are plenty of shows that do parody very well, but for me it was about capturing that era of programming.
One thing I love about Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace is that it was broadcast on Channel 4… which would have been the perfect home for the show had it been real in the 1980s! It was so similar to the kind of genuine shows that I used to watch on Channel 4 as a teenager. Was it pure serendipity that that was where it ended up?
I think we were just fortunate… we won the Perrier Award, so we did have interest from the BBC. And it wasn’t straight to a TV series of our own: we did make a pilot, and we’d done a few things on some other shows – there was a pilot recorded by Avalon TV called Head Farm, directed by Stewart Lee. That was an hour-long attempt to do a comedy show – Johnny Vegas was in it, the Boosh were in it, and various other comedians from that time – and we’d done bits of Garth in that. So it wasn’t an immediate thing, and Channel 4 were always very supportive of us. They were great.
I mean, it wasn’t plain sailing… again, they didn’t want us to use film, because we’d never filmed before, and film is something where you just can’t afford to keep going. This is why I think digital is always preferred, because you can basically screw it up, and keep going. But that has it’s own attendant problems, because it entirely affects how you shoot something, and how much you think it through beforehand. And film is good for that, because film gives you a discipline – you have to figure out what you want to do.
But we had to give them a kind of “Anadin test”, recording the same scene on different formats. So we shot it on 16mm, we also shot it on digital, and then we played them to the execs at Channel 4 and asked them to pick the one they preferred. And they all picked the film. So, operating at a subconscious level, they knew that was the right one.
All of you on that show seemed to be coming from that position of remembering these “haunted” feelings from your childhood. I talked to Alice Lowe, and she remembered watching shows like Century Falls on Children’s BBC, and late-night horror films on BBC2. And I’ve interviewed Matt Berry for the radio, and we ended up talking about Ghost Box Records. Were you all coming from that shared background?
Well… not that we ever discussed with each other! None of us were interested in each other’s pasts at all! [Laughs] It’s just part of that generation, I guess. I don’t think Richard grew up necessarily watching the same things that I did… because he didn’t like horror, he wasn’t interested in it at all. I think Richard’s interests were very much Woody Allen and French New Wave, all that sort of stuff… which I wasn’t a fan of. So it’s odd, we started writing this thing together without really going for each other’s interests in that sense. Alice, I didn’t know hugely well back then… she was brought in at a later stage for our live shows, but again… yeah, we didn’t really chat about interests and pasts. We didn’t have those discussions, and we didn’t really consciously thing ever think about tapping into anything.
We filmed a version of Darkplace that was called Garth Marenghi’s The Told – that was the pilot I was talking about, shot digitally – but it was also something that wasn’t set in the past. It was attempting to be a modern show, for that time. And it just didn’t work. It was almost too serious. We were trying to overplay the seriousness to make it very, very pretentious, and it was just dull.
Alice said it was like a Lars Von Trier pastiche, which intrigued me…
Yeah, we were trying to make it like The Kingdom, I think. We’d watched that, and so were trying to make it look like a funny, over-serious version of The Kingdom. But it was just bland. There was some good stuff in it, Matt was very good in it… and the bits that we knew worked, there are actually little clips from those in Darkplace. During the graveyard shoot-out in Episode One… when Dean’s firing the shotgun, that’s from the pilot. Those bits are actually treated to look like film, and hopefully you can’t tell.
But we were a bit worried about how we were going to make it work… and Richard and I were huge fans of Police Squad. And we thought, OK… [pause] actually no, it wasn’t that! It would have been more to do with Spinal Tap: just the idea of placing it in the past, because then we had a framework that we could make more funny. We did a couple of tests – and these are on the DVD – of what the same scenes might look like if we set them in the past, and all of a sudden the fake sets and the whole Doctor Who production quality of it became very funny, because that was playing against the seriousness of what the characters were trying to achieve. And suddenly that was the joke: that absolute contrast between the shitness of what it is, and their aspiration. And I think we’d lost sight of that essential joke in the pilot.
That seems to be a consistent theme in your characters, and it’s one that I love – their opinion of their own talent is always way in excess of their actual talent itself. It’s certainly true of Garth! Is that kind of delusion one that you find especially funny?
I’ve always found that funny, yeah. When people reach too high! [Laughs] Because I think it applies to us all – we can laugh at that, because deep down we’re all terrified that we’re not quite who we think we are. We laugh because it’s one of our deepest fears, I think… and if we can laugh at someone else doing it then it makes us feel slightly better. And the thing is – it’s not like I dislike people for doing that. Particularly as I get older, it gives me great pleasure that people are reaching high.
I tell you what was the big inspiration for this… American Movie, with Mark Borchardt. That was one of the things I fell in love with. Have you seen it? There’s something so wonderful about it. That was one of the biggest inspirations for me, making A Gun For George. This was a point when I hadn’t directed before, and I didn’t know if I could do it, and I just watched that film over and over, simply because… for me, he had the absolute spirit of: “Well maybe I’ve got nothing, but I’m going to do it anyway.” And it’s that impulse to spur yourself onward, when maybe the entire world is waiting for you to fail or slip up. That, to me… I don’t think I’d have made A Gun For George without watching that film over and over and just thinking: “I’m going to do it, because he did it and I love these guys. I don’t care how shit it is, it’s worth something because these guys have just done it, they’ve gone and pushed themselves.”
So yeah, I find myself warming to that. It used to annoy me with certain writers, where I just thought: “But they’re writing crap! Can’t they see it’s crap?” And now I sort of look at it and go [positively]: “It’s crap! It’s great, though!”
I love pulp writers. I’ve always loved pulp writers. I discovered, when I was on holiday in Australia in 2004, that they were still publishing Cleveland Westerns, which were little digest pulp Westerns – they published eight a month. And I just swept them up. I think I have about 900 of these Westerns. And I’ve probably read 100-150 of them. You get through them in two hours, and they’re all basically variations on eight plots. There are eight Western plots, and each one is variation on that. You just fly through them.
One writer is called Paul Wheelahan, and he wrote 900 or more of these Westerns throughout the course of his life. At his peak, he would pump out one a week… they were only about 37,000 words, ten chapters. And those are the kind of writers I really admire, because they’re just writing for money. But then suddenly they’ll write one that is so much better than the other ten you’ve previously read, and you’ll think: “Oh, they’re really on fire for this one! I wonder why?” And that’s what I like discovering… those little pulp writers, where their heart and soul is coming out in something that’s just going to be discarded. No-one’s going to give it any time, and it’s just going to disappear in twenty years time.
And the thing that broke my heart this year is that Cleveland Publishing went out of business. They’d been publishing since the 1950s – same family – and this year they just couldn’t compete with online sales, and finally their distribution went down and the company went bust. And I was absolutely heartbroken, because whenever I went back out there I would just arm up with all these Westerns. I love them. They’re just great.
Have you really got 900 of them? Where do you keep them all?
I keep them in the eaves of my house, in plastic boxes. Because they’re all paper – they won’t stand up on a shelf, there’s no spine to them.
Have you got one there?
Yes, I can get you one! Hang on… [Matthew vanishes and rummages off camera again]. Oh, actually I don’t have one here. But I tell you what I have got… when they were selling up…
Did you buy a job lot?
…I did buy a job lot. Two job lots, in fact. But I also bought a piece of the original artwork for one of my favourites of theirs… this one I just love. It’s just great pulp art. [At this point he holds up a beautiful piece of original “Old West” artwork]
So all of that was very much an influence on A Gun For George. I was absolutely bowled over by these writers and their work discipline. And a lot of that went into A Gun For George.
I really wanted to talk about A Gun For George. You seem very keen to blur their lines between fiction and reality: I know you once did full interviews in character as Gareth Marenghi, and you also took Merriman Weir – the folk singer character from Man to Man with Dean Learner – out on tour, and played live. And with Terry Finch, your character from A Gun For George… I saw you claim at the time that there was actually a real Kent-based 1970s writer called Terry Finch, who indeed wrote a series of crime novels called The Reprisalizer, and I’m still not sure whether that’s true or not.
Yep. And it was lovely, because there was a guy in Kent who found that blog, and he really didn’t know… I think it’s that suspension of disbelief thing. People want to believe in these alternate realities.
And writing the Reprisalizer material… I was reading lots of J.G. Ballard at that time, and I was learning to drive so I became obsessed with cars and motorways and service stations; that whole area. I read this fantastic book called Food On The Move, about the history of the motorway service station. And what really came across from that book was that there were grand plans for this vision of a wonderful utopia, where we’d all be driving along wonderful motorways with beautiful service stations. I think that dream died within about three years; suddenly they realised that it wasn’t practical. And so you have these wonderful buildings that look like a dream of what Britain could have been. It’s that hauntological thing, the alternative future that we never lived in.
I didn’t know anything about this hauntology stuff at all when I was reading this, but it was working on me in a very natural way. And Ballard, I think, is particularly expressive of that – it’s all about what we aimed for, what we denied about ourselves, and what we’ve got in reality. This whole British thing, this madness of thinking we have this incredible Britain that achieves this, that and whatever… and just not realising what we actually are. You just know things are going to fail. Of course that app didn’t work. Of course! [Laughs]
And with Terry… partly, I suppose, it’s about always wanting to have been a writer who could just pound out those things. Those little novellas. And I think I just wanted to make him a real person, and to keep him a mystery. I haven’t done anything for Terry Finch for a while, but he’s safely in that past and I know I can always go back to him at some point and pick up where he might have been.
So for me, it was about living in these alternate versions of the past, and trying to create my existence in that time. I was only a kid, but I do remember the feel of that Britain. The feel of the cars that were square and not round, and had colours. I get this every time I watch films from that period… like Who Dares Wins. Those are my deepest, earliest memories of school: the feel of those cars, and the sound of them as you get in. One of the most wonderful things on A Gun For George was just driving that Allegro to set. I was driving the make-up artists to set in the Allegro, and all of a sudden we had the sound and feel of childhood. The make-up artist, My Alehammer… she fell asleep in the car and said “It’s these old cars… they just make you want to fall asleep, they’re so cosy”. It’s that general hum of the car, the noise.
And it’s weird, because on the one hand it’s nostalgia. And nostalgia… I kind of like, but you can’t just get nostalgic about stuff. That’s not reality. But there is something about wanting a better reality, I suppose. Or wanting a reality that’s not here, that we can’t have, but it’s haunting us… because we kind of wonder how would life be if it had gone that different way. Why can’t I live in that environment? I can see all the buildings, and what they were aiming for, but it isn’t there, and never was there.
That very melancholy view, of a past that wasn’t, is very much what fuelled A Gun For George. I love the idea of this author that wrote so much stuff, these great books that no-one has heard of… and no-one ever will. That interests me. I feel I would like to know about someone like that.
My relationship with nostalgia has changed – I’ve kind of exhausted my own personal nostalgia. There are only so many times I can get wistful watching 1970s Doctor Who. I actually get more of a frisson from other people’s nostalgia these days… things that were around at that time, but that I don’t remember or didn’t experience personally. And also… I have a weird nostalgia for the era that’s just slightly before my own memories begin. I was born in 1972, and that period of around 1972-1975 is one that I now find far more evocative than my actual childhood memories. I don’t know why.
Yeah. I think that’s true. With A Gun For George… that’s set in a period that I’m really not able to remember. In the late 1970s I was only three or four, but it is about wanting to be back there… whereas I should, by rights, be hugely nostalgic about the 1980s, which I’m not. Well, I sort of am a little bit, but only because – as my family and friends get older – I would love to revisit grandparents, things like that. But I don’t get nostalgic for that period at all. It’s the period just before that that I feel strangely nostalgic for. So yeah, I agree with you. I don’t know why or how that comes about, but it’s certainly something I can relate to.
Maybe because that period is a bit more out of reach? Once we’d hit the 1980s, we were able to record TV programmes… but I have memories of shows from the 1970s where… not only do I not know what they were, but I don’t even know if those programmes exist any more. They could have been wiped from an archive, and only exist in my head. There’s a longing for things that we no longer have access to, and may never be able to access again. That’s quite potent.
Absolutely, and there are certain films that capture that. I’ve just started watching, over and over, a film that I think maybe I like even more than Get Carter now. And that’s Villain, with Richard Burton. Which seems just to capture that seedy underbelly of the previous years: the Krays, all that very dark part of human behaviour. But now you watch it, and that opening shot, of a London that’s unrecognisable… it’s almost the cityscape that we’re feeling nostalgic for. There it is, shot on beautiful film stock, and it feels very much like the living past. It’s dreamlike… it isn’t a London that we will ever know or experience. And they weren’t trying to do that at the time, these are happy accidents that occur when the films resonate in ways that would never have been intended.
It’s odd, I always remember the DVD commentaries on some of The Sweeney episodes, and the guys saying “Yeah, they do stand up, these episodes, don’t they? It’s just the music… the music’s absolutely terrible. I’d be going back now and getting rid of all that!” And I was: “WHAT??! You can’t get rid of the music!” And that’s it… we feel differently to the people who actually made the music. They’re looking at it in a very different way to us.
Can I ask about The Snipist, the short film you made with Douglas Henshall? Set in a dystopian Britain where the population has been decimated by rabies, and Douglas plays a government sniper employed to pick off the potentially infected. You mentioned Public Information Films earlier, and I’m guessing The Snipist came directly from your childhood fear of those…
Yes. I don’t know how I got to make that in a way, because A Gun For George was pitched – and we got the commission for it – as being a crime version of Darkplace. It was supposed to be pure parody like Darkplace… and ended up, during the filming, being something a bit more serious. And the same thing happened with The Snipist. I think I pitched it as a comedy! Basically, Warp Films had a development deal with Sky and were asking if there was anything I could pitch. And at that stage, I said: “Yeah, I’d like to do some kind of humorous, post-apocalyptic thing.” And maybe that’s because I felt more comfortable it would get commissioned, because people knew the kind of stuff I’d done previously. But again, I don’t know at what point it went from being a comic thing to there being absolutely no humour in it! [Laughs].
I think probably it coincided with my obsession with Ballard at that point… I was trying to read everything I could. I was living in that headspace of Brutalist architecture. I was constantly trying to seek out areas that were forgotten: there’s a wonderful tower block in Margate, which I used for A Gun For George. Arlington House, it’s called… it’s got a Brutalist car park, exactly like a Ballard high-rise. A dead area, dead ground. It may be very different now, because I think Margate has transformed hugely since we were there. But at that point, I was obsessed with finding old, Brutalist buildings… and I was obsessing over old fonts. [Laughs]
And I just thought: “This is great, I can hopefully do a slice of post-apocalyptic 1970s dystopian TV.” Which I loved… Survivors, all that kind of stuff. And I was obsessed with the Public Information films, just obsessed with trying to capture that past a little bit… because the towers that we’d filmed in, these wonderful cooling towers in A Gun For George, they were detonated and destroyed around that time. I was just terrified that all these wonderful, Brutalist buildings were going, and I suppose I wanted to capture what I could of that, while I could. Whether or not that really came across in The Snipist, I don’t know… but that’s where my headspace was. We shot it on an old Air Force based that was used for filming, so it had a lot of bombed-out buildings… that’s what fed into that, certainly.
And it has Sir John Hurt providing the voice of the shadowy authorities – how was he to work with? I’m assuming you were in the voiceover studio with him…
Yeah, he was absolutely wonderful. I didn’t think for one second that we’d get him, but Peter Carlton at Warp had, I think, worked with him or his representatives at some point previously. He said “Look – I’ll lay the groundwork, and why don’t you write a letter to John? We’ll take it from there…” And I thought “Oh, he’ll never do this, but we’ll give it ago…” I wrote him a letter, and he got back, and yes… he was keen to do it. And he was wonderful. We recorded locally here, because at the time he lived in North Norfolk, and he actually came to a local studio where I sometimes do voiceovers. And it was just lovely. He came and said “Right, we’ll get this dusted off in about ten or fifteen, I should think…”
And I remember I looked at the producer, and the producer looked at me, like: “Yeah, we’ll see…” [Laughs] But he did it perfectly in exactly ten or fifteen minutes. And it was all useable, perfect stuff, and we went… “Wow.” He was wonderful, and I feel very privileged to have worked with him. He’s the voice of that kind of era… The Plague Dogs, and1984… he was just the perfect voice for that kind of show.
Another actor that I love is Clive Merrison, who you worked with on your 2016 short film, Smutch… in which you play an author haunted by a literal “ghost writer”. How was Clive to work with?
Oh, just brilliant. Again, just someone that I didn’t think we’d get in a million years. It was a very short shoot – only two days – so I didn’t get to really spend a great deal of time with him, but what time I did spend with him… he was wonderful. Just absolutely brilliant. One of those actors that is so unique, and just does whatever he’s required to do… brilliantly [Laughs]. I’ve been very, very fortunate with the actors that I’ve got to do these things, and he was great. I’d love to work with him again.
What was it that made you seek out Clive in particular? Any particular roles of his that you’re especially fond of?
Oh, I’d seen him in lots of things. I saw him recently in… what’s the Peter Jackson film?
It is, and he’s brilliant in it. And my partner Sarah, who does a lot of script editing – including on my films, she worked on Possum and The Snipist and A Gun For George – she’s been a lifelong fan of his. You know: “You’ve got to see him in this one, and this one! You’ve got to see him here…” He’s so strange, what he does, and no-one can replicate it. He is totally unique.
There’s a real otherworldly quality to him – is that present off camera, too?
Again, I didn’t really talk to him a great deal, simply because we were so busy trying to get everything in the can. He was just very quiet… and totally wonderful. Completely accommodating, and for someone like him to be put through a very fast, rushed, two-day shoot, when I’m sure he’d rather have been doing something else [Laughs]… he was great.
I do find actors of that generation are generally quite amazed when people our age have any idea who they are. I met Denis Lill last year, and when I started talking excitedly about Survivors, his reaction was essentially: “You’ve seen it? Really? Good god, it was 45 years ago!” These actors are heroes to us, and they don’t know it. It’s really touching.
Well, there are two guys in Fawlty Towers. We were watching a Fawlty Towers episode last night, and I’m a huge fan of Brian Hall, who plays Terry, the chef. I’ve always loved him, he’s possibly my favourite 1970s actor. Because even though he never really features in any starring roles, he – to me – encapsulates that era of TV and film
As does the chap who plays the guy in ‘Communication Problems’, the Mrs Richards episode, who comes in and gives Basil the tip about “Dragonfly”. We looked him up last night. Johnny Shannon! If you look him up on IMDB, he’s in every single show that you’d want to be in from that period. He always plays dodgy gangland figures… he’s in Performance, Slade in Flame, the two Sweeney films, the Sweeney series… he’s in pretty much everything. I’ll just read them out… Villain, Budgie, Something to Hide, Z-Cars, The Morecambe and Wise Show, the Jack the Ripper TV series from 1973, Armchair Cinema, Dixon of Dock Green, The XYY Man, The Dick Emery Show, Hazell… everything that you’d want to be in as an actor, he’s in all of them. And he’s got such a good presence, this kind of “Awroit, Mr Fawlty?” He’s wonderful. He is 1970s Man. Just brilliant, I love him.
I must ask you about Possum, which is such a darkly beautiful film in so many respects. Sean Harris is a disgraced puppeteer who returns to his run-down childhood home to be confronted by his uncle, Maurice – and is really haunted by the trauma of his earliest years, particularly the abuse that he suffered. It’s a very touching piece of work, and having now discovered that Get Carter is one of your favourite films – was that one of the reasons that you wanted to cast Alun Armstrong in it?
Well, you know what… we had a very difficult job trying to get anyone to play Maurice.
It’s not a sympathetic part.
No. And we had gone to Alun before, but he was busy – he was shooting in America. But we were about a week and a half away from filming, and we still hadn’t cast Maurice. So it was getting pretty desperate. And Natalie, our costume designer, came to our rescue because she was a family friend of his. She said “Have you asked Alun?”, and I said “Well actually, we have and he’s busy.”
She said “He’s actually back now… why don’t I just ask him, and see if he would have a chat with you about it?” I said “That would be amazing if you could, because we shoot in a week…” [Laughs]
And she spoke to him, and I had a call with him, and he agreed to do it. Because… well, any number of reasons, but one of the reasons he said to me was that he just loved the idea of being able to do a Norfolk accent. He hadn’t done one for so many years, and that – to him – was a great reason to do the part. He could really get into it that way. He actually talked to a vocal coach that he’d worked with previously, and got together with him to go through the accent.
And I was just too nervous, generally, to ever mention to Alun about him being in Get Carter. I just couldn’t. I didn’t want him to feel that I’d cast him because I was a fanboy, and I just didn’t think about Get Carter while we did it. Occasionally I’d look around and think, you know [mutters] “I can’t believe that’s Alun Armstrong…” but I just kept quiet about all that. Although I did mention it to him after we’d done the shoot, and he was absolutely wonderful. Whether or not he understands how revered that film is… who knows? But certainly that film, to people like us, is dreamlike. It’s that reality that we’ll never see, but it fills our heads and our imaginations so vividly. That version of Britain, at that time… the architecture, the mood, the feel. But I’m sure, to the people that were in it, it was just another crime film. You know what I mean? It’s odd.
To me as a North-Easterner, Get Carter is so evocative of the 1970s I remember. The scene that always transports me is the one where the Juvenile Bazz Band march past the row of terraced houses. That’s such an image from my childhood, and I’m never sure if even the idea of a Juvenile Jazz Band is a peculiarly North-Eastern thing. Did you have them in Kent?
We did have had lots of carnivals, and I remember seeing majorettes at those. I don’t see things like that any more… the carnivals are very different now. But there were always majorettes dancing, and bands… and I remember going down to Whitstable High Street for the remembrance service, and seeing all the old soldiers being very sombre. And not understanding at all… but that was very much the lived-in reality of our childhood, seeing this generation of people that had done all these things. And I can’t believe that I was standing around these people that had lived through this extraordinary period of history. It is weird, the vast changes that have occurred socially and culturally in our lifetimes. It’s very strange… I am at that point where I look back now and realise, you know… it’s like me being a child then and looking back to my parents’ childhood, the 1940s and 50s, and thinking how ancient that felt to me as a young kid. And we’re at that stage now. I show my daughter stuff, and say “Look! This was Daddy when…” and she just goes [bored] “Yeeaaaah…. why are you showing me this?”
Yes, the 1990s, eh? It’s the “old days” now. You’re right, and the older I get the more unbelievable it seems that the older people that we knew as kids had been born during the Victorian era. That just feels surreal to me now. I have a friend who, at one stage, was working on a book about game shows, and he was watching an elderly couple playing ‘Beat the Clock’ on Sunday Night at the London Palladium in the mid-1950s. And he suddenly realised that this couple, playing a TV game show, would have been old enough to remember the Jack the Ripper murders. The living links between those different eras now just seem beyond comprehension.
That’s right, and you see that in dramas from the late 1960s, early 1970s, where the old people are all wearing Edwardian clothes. They’re all wearing hats and Edwardian hairstyles… it’s that thing of never leaving the period when you were young. It’s like seeing an old Teddy Boy. You realise… my gosh, these are the people that were young at that time.
It’s funny… my grandfather was moving into a home recently, so we were going through some of the stuff in his house. And he’d kept all these old books, including… well, either his father or his uncle had left him a compendium of Strand magazines. And what was fascinating was that, as we looked through it, occasionally we’d find a flower that was pressed during Victorian times. And it’s got the date in the front, 1897 or something like that, and there’s one story at the front… one of these pre-World War One angst stories about some invasion that was going to happen. “Countries have fallen…”. And he’d scrawled, in the edges, “But never England!”
And you just think… this is a real document. It was really written, in 1897. And that always fascinates me, just seeing the past come alive like that.
I buy a lot of second-hand books, and I love finding books with writing in the front. “This book belongs to Debbie Wilson, 1977…”, you know. It’s just a lovely link to the past.Sorry, I was asking you about Possum!
Sorry, go ahead!
So, I’ve read this, and it seems amazing… is it true that Alun Armstrong and Sean Harris deliberately didn’t communicate with each other outside of their scenes in the film?
Yep. I mean, that was really part of Sean’s preparation for the role. He’s method, so he didn’t want them to interact as Sean and Alun. He wanted to keep them as Philip and Maurice. After the shoot, they certainly spoke, but for the film they were kept apart.
Is that fairly unusual?
I think so! [Laughs]
How was it for you as a director?
It was a huge change from what I’d done previously. Coming from a comedy background, the way that you direct comedians is very much about… “Oh, let’s do that again, try it this way.” But that doesn’t apply with method actors, or any actor, really. One of the things I had to learn, and this was true with Douglas Henshall as well [in The Snipist]… they don’t need you to go through and figure out how they’re going to do it. I realised that was the wrong way to direct, so that was a learning process for me… to get my head around how real actors go about filming. And when they’re in character, and what they need from a director to get the right kind of performance out of them. And particularly because Sean is method and because the subject matter of the film is so dark and challenging, that meant it was quite an intense shoot at times.
Obviously it’s a disturbing film, but there’s also a real stillness to it that I found quite beautiful and affecting. And again, I guess it goes back to those childhood experiences… it’s easy to assume that, because we were scared of things as kids, our entire childhoods were “Bang! Bang! Bang! Scary Stuff!”. But my memories of childhood are of things being frequently rather still and silent, and that’s where some of our scariest thoughts actually came from. Because our minds wandered. And I thought Possum really captured that. Was that something that you deliberately sought to evoke?
Very much. It’s interesting… it’s a film that really does divide people, and I think a lot of the criticisms against the film are down to its pace, down to its speed. And I don’t have a problem with films that take their time. Certainly if you watch a lot of World Cinema, you’re going to get lots of very slow, long shots! But I think that what you say is very true: we didn’t have 24-hour TV, we didn’t really have videos until some way through our childhoods, we couldn’t always afford the latest gadgets, we didn’t get computers until really very late; and really, you had a lot of time on your hands. We were in the garden, out on bike rides. And yes, I think that stuff probably did stay in our heads a little bit. If you saw Doctor Who, there was no way you were going to see it again for another week, and if – God forbid – someone else had plans and you didn’t see it, then… well, you didn’t see it.
And certainly with the film, and particularly with the character of Philip… he’s someone who has never escaped that point. The world has moved on, and every time he’s trying to be pro-active, to remove the burden upon him and solve his issues, he’s kind of punished for it. He can’t do anything. He’s got this overbearing, terrifying paranoia that maybe he’s done something he’s not sure about, and can’t quite remember… and he’s revisiting places. And for him, it’s very much about being trapped. Being trapped in your own head, in your own little world where no-one else is.
And I knew that people might move on from that and get bored, but I was trying to make it for the people that wouldn’t abandon him at that point. I never made it thinking “This is going to appeal to everybody.” I kind of knew it wouldn’t. And it was very important for me to be true to him, and to give that character a voice. So for me, if people abandoned him, I almost had that – “Well, screw you. I’m not interested in you. I’m more interested in Philip, so if you want to move on and leave him, fine.”
That does sound very pretentious! [Laughs] And know some people just say “Mate, it’s a slow film.” And I can kind of accept that. It isn’t a fast-paced horror film in that sense. But I just don’t find fast-paced horror films particularly frightening… unless it’s something like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, where it is about very real, physical threat. But certainly psychological ghost stories… they need time. Time to play, and time to get you into a certain psychological space.
But I think you’re right – we had a lot more time on our hands, just being by ourselves. We couldn’t be entertained all the time in the way that kids are now. We had to find our own entertainment, plus… you had kids going out, playing in woods and meeting dirty old men in macs. That happened, you know. We had one guy outside our school, and he just stood staring in, at all the kids in the playground. I remember there being a talk in assembly, saying: “We have a man who’s come to stand and look… nobody talk to him.” And it was a few days before he vanished. Horrific.
And the nature of the danger was never properly explained to us, was it?
I remember we had the Stranger Danger pamphlets, and we had a policeman come in, but they didn’t ever really say what might happen. It was very much: “Be aware of this, be aware of this”. It was the “dirty old man”. We accepted it as just another reality. Whether or not that has any part in our overall anxiety, I don’t know.
As with The Snipist and its use of Brutalist architecture, Possum uses the power of landscape to great effect – again, combined with that sense of stillness. Some of the shots actually reminded me of the use of landscape in the BBC’s 1970s M.R. James adaptations, in particular A Warning To The Curious. You filmed in similar locations, didn’t you? In Norfolk and Suffolk?
Yes, we filmed it up in Stiffkey Marshes. And all over North Norfolk to be honest, and in Norwich… but generally that same area where they made those films. Because they are so evocative, visually. So powerful. Particularly the opening shots of A Warning To The Curious, which are like a painting… I’m always trying to figure out how they did that, whether or not they filmed with a gauze over the camera, or with particularly grainy film, because it feels like something that’s not quite real.
The way that stretch of trees pushes out… if that was filmed digitally, that would have no effect. You’d say “Ah, trees! Some sea!” But the very fact that they shot it in the way they did, that takes you out of reality. It places you somewhere where something supernatural can be believed to have happened. All those things, I think, contribute. It’s very hard to create atmosphere, I think, and that’s why people resort to music. You have find ways to capture and evoke that feeling; you have to use everything you can. And the ability to manipulate the environment in which you’re filming, and allowing that environment to create the atmosphere… if you don’t acknowledge that then you’re really missing a trick.
Mind you, speaking of the music… I love the fact that you brought the Radiophonic Workshop on board to provide the soundtrack.
Again, another example of “We’ll never get them!”. I refused to believe that they would do it, actually. I really wasn’t even going to entertain it. But again, just really good luck… our music supervisor, Phil, worked with Warp Records, and they had the Radiophonic Workshop there doing an album. I actually wanted to license some Delia Derbyshire music… I wanted to license two tracks that they’d used in Doctor Who, in ‘Inferno’: ‘Blue Veils and Golden Sands’, and ‘The Delian Mode’. I’d always thought in my head: “That’s the atmosphere I want for this.” And Tommy – my editor – and I put them over a few sequences in the edit, and it just worked perfectly. And I said “I don’t think we can get any better than this – let’s see if we can license these two tracks.”
And that’s where Phil said: “Oddly enough, I’ll talk to the Radiophonic Workshop, because they’re at Warp and they’re working on a new album.” And then came back to say that they were quite keen to see if they could score the whole thing. And I was like… [overawed] “I don’t even want to think of that as a possibility at the moment…”
But their manager came along and watched the film, and said “I’ll need to get them all to see this…” because understandably, like anyone else who sees it on paper, they were a little concerned about the subject matter. They just wanted to know what I was doing with it, and that it wasn’t some exploitative piece of schlock. And I was just glad that they responded to it, and thought “Yes, actually – we feel like we can do something with this.” I think they liked that I was using the Delia Derbyshire music. It was just great… I’m hugely grateful to them, because they really just ensured that that atmosphere was locked in place.
There’s one particular bit of their score which, to me, just sums up why they were the perfect choice. There’s a scene where Philip comes in at the start of the film, puts his bag down, goes upstairs, comes back down… and the bag has disappeared. And he sees it on the kitchen table in the room opposite – it’s been moved by someone, or something. And you just hear this very, very faint mechanical thump. Like something industrial, from a very, very long way away. And that, to me, is exactly why they’re so brilliant. That’s not only scoring the film, but it’s also contributing to the story: the idea of this strange reality that, at the moment, is very far off… but it’s getting closer. Philip is inadvertently calling to something that’s coming to him.
They were just wonderful. And for me, they absolutely made the film.
Where did you find the house? It’s an incredible relic of the 1970s… I wasn’t sure if it was a set, but then we seem to see the exterior of the same house.
That was another crisis for the film, actually – along with the casting of Maurice. We hadn’t found the house while we were filming. Strangely enough, I think I’d made the mistake… in the script, it was a house that was found in woodland. Off the beaten path. Philip has to go through a stretch of forest to find it, and it’s all overgrown. But really, what I was writing was an American horror film house, I suppose. That idea of a cabin in a wood. We were looking all over, and there just aren’t any like that in the UK. They’re very old houses from the 16th, 17th, 18th century… that’s really all that ever got built in woods.
We just couldn’t find anything that felt right, but by that stage so many other things had clicked into place visually – in terms of trying to emulate the look and feel of Public Information Films from that period – that it suddenly became right to set it in an everyday house from that era. Just a normal semi-detached or terraced house… so it could have been anyone’s house that these horrific things were happening in.
We all have walked past one when we were young… there always was a house that was: “Well, we don’t really know the people there…”
Yes, with the garden all overgrown and the windows boarded up…
Yeah, exactly. And we found that house! And it looked exactly like that. It hadn’t been lived in for many years, and when we went in, this was the strangest thing… we actually found an old Haynes Manual for the exact same car that we were using at that point as Maurice’s car. It didn’t make the edit in the end… there was going to be a Public Information Film in the film originally, and it’s a shame we never got to film it. It was supposed to be a Stranger Danger film in which this car appears, and it turns out that it’s Maurice’s car. It was another way of showing Philip’s imagination blending two different things.
It was run-down, and it was exactly what we needed. And that was quite strange. Quite freaky.
The titles to the film are terrific, and were designed by Ghost Box Records‘ own Julian House.
Yes, I was very lucky. Tommy put me in touch with Julian, because he’d done a film that Julian had done the poster for. I absolutely love Julian’s posters, and I really wanted to work with him, but at that stage it was: “Well, you don’t really get to pick the poster. Don’t worry about that, just get on with editing the film.” And to be honest, if Tommy hadn’t pressed the issue, I don’t think we’d have got Julian. So that was another huge bit of luck, because he – like The Radiophonic Workshop – totally captured the tone we were after. The title sequences are just so evocative of that era. He’s done such brilliant work, just matching that style from Shadows – the children’s supernatural series. He’s absolutely wonderful.
And I have to ask – what’s your relationship with spiders like?
Not good! [Laughs] We’ve already had a few here this year. They came back a bit early…
Possum is a long way from the feel of Garth Marenghi – were you keen to move away from being seen as an out-and-out comedy person?
Yes… I didn’t enjoy comedy, in all honesty. I just grew tired of it very quickly. Making Darkplace was fun but Man to Man with Dean Learner didn’t really work for me. We had to compromise on what that series would be, because the channel didn’t want a second Darkplace. And so it felt very much like the show we should have done before Darkplace, rather than the other way round. And unfortunately, because it was poorly reviewed and received, it had a knock-on effect in terms of the work I was offered afterwards, which was pretty minimal, to be honest.
So I gave up pursuing a comedy career after that, and just concentrated on making individual projects. Again, making A Gun For George, I’d pitched it as a comedy because I thought that was the best way to get something made, as that was my background. I didn’t really think it would turn into what it ended up being – that happened gradually – but, once I was doing it, I thought: “Well, this is the stuff I really enjoy doing…”
But you know, comedy’s not something I’d completely abandon. I made Smutch, which I hugely enjoyed, so it is something I’ll delve into occasionally, I think. But I much prefer making serious stuff. Man to Man wasn’t rewarding in any way, though… there are certain parts: Merriman I enjoyed doing, and the final episode, with Randolph Caer – I was pretty pleased with that one. But it just felt like it wasn’t the right thing to be doing.
So what’s next for you?
Things have been put on hold a little bit with Coronavirus, and the lockdown, but I’m currently finishing the final draft stages of hopefully my next horror film. And it’s going out for casting at the moment, so we’ll hopefully piece that together and – as soon as we can – start shooting.
Can you give me any clues about it, or is it top secret?
I can’t at the moment, unfortunately! I’m a little bit superstitious about those things, so I’ll leave it for now. But it will be grimmer than Possum…
Thankyou so much to Matthew for his time and patience, and for a hugely enjoyable conversation.And, indeed.. to Alice Lowe for putting us in touch. Possum is now available on DVD and Blu-ray:
What happens when a recurring dream becomes so lucid and involving that it feels more like reality than the everyday? Does the dream – unsettling as it is – become a more valid state of existence than the dreamer’s waking life?
Such is the quandary at the heart of Marianne Dreams. When the lively, imaginative Marianne falls suddenly ill on her tenth birthday with a curiously unspecified malady, she is confined to bed: potentially for several months. And her freewheeling lifestyle of riding lessons and slap-up feasts is transformed instantly into a claustrophobic existence of inactive misery; her world reduced to the toys and books that surround her, and the visits of three central adults: her mother, her doctor, and hired-in private tutor Miss Chesterfield.
After three weeks of this torpor, and understandably desperate for distraction, Marianne pokes around in her late great-grandmother’s old mahogany workbox and finds a stumpy, knife-sharpened pencil with which she draws that staple of every 10-year-old’s artistic repertoire: a slightly wonky house, with a curl of smoke rising from the chimney. It has a door, four windows and a surrounding fence, with some clumsily oversized flowers and a small army of harmless rocks in the garden. So far, so typical of a myriad of idle childhood drawings made in crinkly sketchpads on listless, mid-20th century afternoons.
Until, that is, Marianne visits the house in her dreams.
And the lop-sided house, with its blank windows and towering, misproportioned flowers, becomes a disquieting reality, bathed in an eerie, unrelenting half-light. A reality that impinges further on her everyday existence when the dream repeatedly recurs, becoming a staple feature of Marianne’s sickly, hallucinogenic slumbers. And the dividing lines between her waking life and her dream state crumble completely when, in an empty bedroom of the house, she finds Mark, a similarly unwell pyjama-clad boy with the thin, immobile legs of a polio victim. A boy that, in the real world, is another of Miss Chesterfield’s private pupils.
The true nature of Mark’s presence in Marianne’s dream is left deliciously ambiguous. In their waking lives, they never meet, or even communicate – everything that Marianne knows about Mark and his deteriorating condition comes second-hand, from the anecdotes of Miss Chesterfield. So is the real-life Mark, subsumed by serious illness and increasingly unable to stay conscious, actually sharing a dream with Marianne, or is he merely her constructed interpretation of Miss Chesterfield’s stories? We never find out for certain.
What is certain is the impact of these dreamed encounters on Marianne’s real-life outlook, especially as she realises that a flourish of her great-grandmother’s pencil during waking hours can create new additions to the dream. At one point becoming understandably angry and frustrated with her ongoing illness, and jealous of sharing the attention of Miss Chesterfield with the real-life Mark, she viciously defaces her original drawing: blanking out Mark’s window with furious scribbles, and turning the rocks into terrifying sentinels with blinking eyes, “keeping him prisoner under constant surveillance.” When she discovers the inevitable repercussions of this passing tantrum in their shared dream state, she begins to realise the sense of responsibility that she must now bear for the helpless Mark (remorseful, she draws food, books and other distractions for her new-found companion) and – indeed – the true nightmarish qualities of the world she has created.
What follows is a masterclass of claustrophobic, deeply unsettling fantasy fiction: the most unsettling aspect of all being Marianne’s consumption by said fantasy, and her detachment from a real world that now feels utterly irrelevant compared to her and Mark’s desperate attempts to escape the house. The encroaching terror of the barely-sentient rocks (re-christened, chillingly as “THEM” or “THEY”) becomes a more pressing concern than their real-life illnesses, especially when THEY begin to transmit their malevolent, monosyllabic thoughts to the children via the crackly transistor radio that Marianne has drawn into existence.
Sleep is the portal here. When Marianne falls asleep in real life, she “awakes” in the dream; and – indeed – vice versa. And her descent into the dream state is depicted with the utmost poetry: “She didn’t just go to sleep – she dropped thousands of feet into sleep, with the rapidity and soundless perfect of a gannet’s dive.” Unlike Marianne, Mark is a permanent presence in the house: is this a reflection of his more serious illness and his steep descent into long-term unconsciousness? Does his loss of everyday wakefulness result in a sleepless dream existence? Again, the ambiguity is left hanging in the pale, oppressive half-light of the nightmare.
And it’s the distinctly unsaid that makes the story so potent: if the features of the nightmare world are dependent entirely on the drawings in Marianne’s sketchbook, then what exists beyond that? When Mark and Marianne escape the house, and set up a John Wyndham-esque “cosy apocalypse” homestead, barricaded into a lighthouse of her creation, what lies across the ocean that they wistfully gaze out upon? It’s a book filled with questions, and lesser authors might have unwisely attempted to provide logical, join-the-dots answers.
Nevertheless, it’s possible to draw a rational conclusion here: that the dream is a metaphorical reflection of Marianne’s feelings about her own illness – a nightmarish, sickly, twilit prison that mirrors her bedridden frustration – and that her escape from the house reflects her desire to return to the normal, carefree childhood that feels increasingly as though it belongs to a distant, impossible past. Catherine Storr’s achievement is in writing a story that leaves all interpretations open and valid, veering back and forth between the ennui of the humdrum everyday and the surreal, logic-twisting intensity of the nightmare with a dizzying aplomb that almost leaves us questioning our own sense of reality.
POINT OF ORDER: In 1972, ATV adapted Marianne Dreams into a six-part children’s series, Escape Into Night. It’s very good, and stars Patricia Maynard as Miss Chesterfield – she later married Dennis Waterman, and wrote the lyrics to the theme from Minder. It’s available here:
MUSTINESS REPORT: My copy is a 1981 paperback reprint with pages the colour of a ripening tangerine. At some stage, it has been withdrawn (or liberated) from service in a West Yorkshire school, because the inside page boasts faded stamps boldly proclaiming “CENTRAL SCHOOLS SERVICES” and “BRADFORD MULTIPLE COPIES SCHEME”. And, on the back cover, someone has written, in pencil, “BIO”… presumably either a reminder to buy washing powder on the way home, or a misguided attempt to place the book in the “Biography” section of whichever library or bookshop it was residing in at the time. Although this in itself further blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality, so feels entirely in keeping with the spirit of Marianne’s nightmares.
Last week, Felt Trips was proud to showcase “Horror Swamp” and the other fledgling Fighting Fantasy gamebooks produced in mid-1980s Fife by the 11–year-old Paul Gorman, with help from his primary school friend Will Pinfold. What Paul inexplicably failed to mention was that Will was already a veteran illustrator of his own solo publishing venture. A comic strip version of Indiana Jones as a cat. Called Pussyana Jones.
With the benefit of hindsight this feels like a glaring omission, so I’m relieved to report that Will himself, after reading said feature, elected to contact the Haunted Generation website directly with the full, unexpurgated story of this extraordinary creation. It is a story of unfettered childhood ambition, curiosity about the culture of ancient civilisations, David Yip in The Chinese Detective, and watching films backwards by rewinding rented VHS tapes.
Over to you, Will…
“Pussyana Jones, disappointingly, wasn’t some sexy James Bond, or a Blaxploitation-inspired femme fatale. He was just Indiana Jones as a cat, with buck teeth, drawn by two children from rural Scotland. There is not much depth to his story, but – unlike the strips themselves – there’s quite a bit of background.
With the passing of time, every detail of this story now sounds either quaintly surreal or just plain peculiar. Raiders of the Lost Ark was the first film I ever watched on video, after my parents rented a colour TV (a first for us, embarrassingly; I was an adult before I discovered that Bagpuss was pink and not ginger as I’d assumed) and a VCR from wherever it was you rented TVs and VCRs from in the early 1980s. I must have been eight or nine and strangely, I don’t remember having heard of Raiders of the Lost Ark or Indiana Jones before; I just remember the excitement of being in a video shop for the first time and seeing Harrison Ford’s face and ‘Executive Producer George Lucas’ on the case. I had very much heard of Star Wars. My younger brother and I campaigned successfully to rent it, and I think my sister chose The Watcher In The Woods, which gave me the creeps. I’m wary of seeing again in case it doesn’t – as it can’t – live up to the eerie atmosphere that it had in my memory.
I already had an interest in South America that was sparked – I think – by the Tintin books, The Seven Crystal Balls and The Prisoners of the Sun, but the opening section of Raiders… fuelled it further, and I remember getting excited about doing a school project about Aztecs and Incas but shamefully changing to planes instead (I liked them too) after classmates teased me about ‘Spaztecs and Stincas’. That’s kids for you. That first viewing of Raiders of the Lost Ark stayed vividly in my memory though, not just because of the film, but also because of the novelty of the situation. This seems unimaginably tedious now, but immediately after watching it my brother and I then watched the whole film in reverse, mesmerised by the melted Nazis reforming and the explosions putting everything back together. Odd kids, you’d think – but reversed footage was still a novelty and routinely used for comedy effects at that time. Which show was it that had a sketch where they demolished the wrong factory chimney then pulled up the plunger on the detonator to put it back up again?
Shortly after that experience, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was announced and excitement was running high. Spoilers were not an issue for 1980s kids, and part of that pre-release excitement was fuelled by reading ‘the book of the film’: a large format, simplified-for-kids re-telling of the movie, illustrated with stills. Do these still exist? The first of these that I remember reading was the Return of the Jedi Storybook, but most major U or PG-rated blockbusters had one. Even – somewhat optimistically – David Lynch’s Dune. I remember buying the Temple of Doom book from the Scholastic Chip Book Club – which my primary school participated in – and reading it from cover to cover, poring over the photographs and trying to copy pictures from it. My dad was an artist and there were always plenty of pens, pencils and paper around the house, so me and my brother were always trying to draw comics. We both loved superheroes, but also Tintin and Asterix, and I think at this point in 1984 I had a subscription to Marvel UK’s monthly (not great) Indiana Jones comic, whole my brother bought their similarly patchy Star Wars Weekly.
I don’t remember the genesis of Pussyana Jones himself. I think we just found the idea funny and – crucially – it was far easier to draw a cat than Harrison Ford. Pussyana mainly existed as set-piece pictures – like the Temple of Doom movie ‘poster’ – rather than in comic strips, but a couple of never-finished stories still exist. Interestingly, neither is a straight adaptation, although I think we started a Temple of Doom strip. One is the cover and first page of a dubiously-titled adventure called Deadly Rubber, wherein Pussyana travels to South America (no specific country given) to look for a gold relic called ‘The Skull of Torrepani’, placed in a temple by the long-extinct ‘Honcho Poncho’ tribe. It’s hard to say where the adventure was going. On the first page (a tough-to-read combination of felt tip and pencil), ‘Pussy’ – as he is known – decides to stay overnight in an old deserted rubber plantation, only to be ambushed by his dastardly enemy, a dog called Geloq… ‘inspired by’ Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Nazi-assisting French archaeologist René Belloq. But the chances are the artist had not thought any further ahead than that. I’m not sure why I kept it.
The same is true for the five-and-a-half pages of Summer Holiday?, a light-hearted romp in which Pussyana and his friend Meow Can have their holiday in Spain interrupted by – him again – Geloq. Meow Can was ‘based on’ the Temple of Doom character Wu Han. One consequence of reading about the film before seeing it was that (as with Star Wars and its toys) kids knew the names of characters who might barely register onscreen, and their importance was duly inflated. Wu Han (like Wedge in Star Wars) was a cut above most of these ciphers, because he was played by an actor I recognised; David Yip, then best known then for the 1981-2 TV show The Chinese Detective. Which I remember thinking was a cool show, although that’s all I can remember about it at this point. I guess my parents must have watched it.
In Summer Holiday? (seemingly just a prosaic title, but perhaps also pertinent is Cliff Richard’s then-20 year old film musical Summer Holiday, which I think every British schoolkid in the 1980s was familiar with), the action begins on the first night when Pussy and Meow (you have to bear with me here) decide to sleep in baskets on the floor and not in their beds – an unusual reference to their cat-hood. A wise move, since Geloq, posing as a waiter, somehow sets fire to their beds and locks the room. The two cats escape with their luggage and, after similar misadventures the following day, the scene abruptly changes (‘next day at New York’) and a new adventure begins, wherein Pussyana seeks a gold Buddha ‘somewhere in the Himalayas’.
What is, to the best of my knowledge, Pussyana Jones’s last adventure ends almost poignantly, when Pussyana, contemplating (I think , it’s hard to say from the scrawl) a meal, says, ‘oh boy, this is going to be good’ and then the story comes to a halt mid-page with ‘Soon’… and an empty panel. Presumably I got bored and forgot about it. Marvel’s Indiana Jones comic lasted only eleven issues, the last being in August 1985, and by the time of 1989’s (to me vastly inferior) film Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade I was in my teens and immersed in horror fiction, heavy metal and comics like The Killing Joke, Watchmen and Sandman. Pussyana’s day had long since passed and he became – as you can imagine – an embarrassing memory; but I kept his adventures anyway.”
Felt Trips is a collaborative effort. If anyone wants to contribute their own childhood drawings from the era, I would be utterly delighted – please drop me a line using the “Contact” link at the top of the page. A good quality scan would be perfect, but – if not – then a clear photo of your artwork, lying flat, is fine. And maybe a few words of explanation, too: when the drawings were done, how old you were, what inspired you to tackle those particular subjects? Thanks so much.