It’s 1978. Or 1979. Or 1980… it doesn’t really make any difference. What’s important here is that I’m ill, and off school, languishing in a somnambulent haze of measles or mumps (again, delete as applicable), lazily crinkling the orange cellophane on a glass bottle of Lucozade, and allowing the sparse pleasures of midweek daytime television to wash over me. There will, of course, be Crown Court and Programmes for Schools and Colleges. There may even be the illicit pleasures of Farmhouse Kitchen or Paint Along With Nancy. But nothing evokes the woozy nostalgia of childhood malady more potently than the austere, discordant opening titles of Picture Box:
Produced by Granada TV from 1966 to 1990, and presented for almost the entire run by Alan Rothwell, a deceptively gentle actor with an under-appreciated granite edge (it’s an impressive CV that can include both a stint as genial sidekick to Humphrey Cushion in Hickory House, and a year as doomed heroin addict Nicholas Black in Brookside), the programme made an indelible impact on a generation of small children already rendered vulnerable by the lingering effects of spots, sniffles and calomine lotion. Inside the ‘Picture Box’ itself were tales from around the world, all imported by Granada on crackly 16mm film, all introduced by Rothwell, and all preceded by that iconic, unsettling title sequence: a combination of music (Manège, by French sound sculptors François and Bernard Baschet) and the unsettling footage of the rotating box itself, a sequence that Ghost Box Records‘ Jim Jupp once described to me as “the central image we had in mind when we came up with the name and the mood of the label.”
In 2016, I was tipped off about a magnificent spoof version of the Picture Box titles, a “found footage” extension of the opening sequence in which the handle of the mysterious, revolving apparatus is revealed to be cranked by an outlandish figure from the darkest realms of deep archive TV. A sinister, moustachioed individual with a medieval fringe and a skin-tight, mustard-coloured sweater. And black underpants.
Tight, black underpants.
Oh good god, the underpants.
It all reeked of sinister 1970s academia, of smoke-filled common rooms in brutalist polytechnics; of whiskered (and whiskey-soaked) duffers diligently explaining the intricacies of “Water – An Amorphous Form”; presenting long-lost Open University modules on drizzle-soaked Tuesday afternoons, all BBC2 and almond slices.
It made me laugh like a drain, and I loved it.
It transpired to be the work of writer, film-maker and performer Sean Reynard, who – since then – has given his sinister handle-cranker a name (Quentin Smirhes) and cultivated a cottage industy of short, viral films, all spoofing the dustiest corners of the 1970s regional TV archive; where puppet choirboys are taught the rudiments of medieval instrumentation, where disembodied fingers poke from Heath Robinson birdboxes to the wistful, wobbly strains of Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1; where the whispering, be-permed “Gentle Jeff” phones Facebook to softly request a “like” on “Samantha Wright’s photo of a baby eating a lemon.”
I’ve become entranced by it all, and was delighted when Sean agreed to a natter about this beautifully strange body of work. On, appropriately enough, a drizzly Tuesday afternoon. Although, disappointingly, I don’t think either of us were suffering from mumps or chickenpox. I did have a touch of hay fever, though.
Bob: Where did the character of Quentin come from? He’s such a perfect encapsulation of the figures that would pop on TV during our childhoods. Did you have anyone in particular in mind when you created him?
Sean: Quentin came about after I’d read an article on Facebook about euphemisms for sexual intercourse… all from the 15th century! The phrases tickled me so much that I was compelled to say them out loud, and the voice that I used was the voice of Quentin. He must have been lurking in me all along. I had no particular person in mind, I just knew that the flowery terminology required a clipped upper class accent. This was the time when the ‘Vine’ app started… remember that? You could record youself for six seconds, and loop it. So I immediately pranced about the house in my wig, spectacles and St Michaels paisley dressing gown delivering sentences like “Dance The Paphian Jig”, “Grope For Trout In A Peculiar River” and “Take A Turn Among The Cabbages.” The mustard jumper came later.
I feel that I’ve probably subconsciously channelled all three Goodies into one person, with a soupçon of Brian Sewell, perchance. Who knows?
Did you realise at that stage that Quentin had long-running potential?
I’d never planned in my life to have a “character”. But because he feels so easy to do, and he’s so part of me… he’s the dark, neurotic, twisted f***-ed up side of me! I don’t know how he came about, but he just lurks under the bed, like Bob from Twin Peaks… staring at me. And I realised that he was a character that I actually enjoyed doing.
The first time I ever saw Quentin was in your brilliant spoof titles to Picture Box. Those titles (and music) seem to be a disquieting memory of so many people. Was it the same for you? Why do you think we found them so unsettling?
They have a haunting atmosphere. And it’s conjured by such a simple sequence, an antique French jewellery box revolving and glistening in the dark, accompanied by the sound of the Cristal Baschet – obviously an instrument that no one had any idea about then, really. And they still don’t, to this day. It was all very reminiscent of Victorian austerity and secret rooms, and shadowy corners. A sense of warm claustrophobia, slightly anesthetised, and then the formidable head of Alan Rothwell with his relentless, hooded eye contact. And his obligatory “Hellooooo”…
When did it strike you to incoporate Quentin into those title sequences?
I’d always wanted to film a wider pan of those titles, and see the whole set-up. My original plan was to have some kind of deformed dwarf turning a crank handle, but that didn’t happen. Then I went to a props store and saw an old gramophone, and thought “Ah! I’m going to use that, and I’ll have Quentin as the person turning the crank!”
Before that, I’d been looking for motors that would re-create the precise RPM of the Picture Box titles, so I had all that set up, and then the gramophone had the wooden horn, and I had another piece of antique furniture… I just faked it really, to make it look like some sort of wind-up contraption. And then I taught my wife at the time… (Sean is laughing infectiously at this point) Aw… I was there in my underpants, directing Justina – who was on the couch – to get the right bloody distance away, so she should zoom in at the right time. And I was telling her off like Quentin – “No! Do it again!” – and the whole living room was blacked off with material… (laughs)
I wanted to make it as perfect as possible, to fool people into thinking they were just watching Picture Box, before the reveal where it becomes more distorted and haunting. People have asked: “Where did you get the box from?” Well, I researched it a lot…
Hang on, you actually found an exact replica of the box from the title sequence? I assumed that was a clever splice or edit, or some kind of other technical jiggery-pokey…
I own the Picture Box, it’s on the mantlepiece! It’s an antique, French, bevelled glass jewellery box. If you’re lucky, you’ll get one with a red cushion. The one that I got is a reproduction from Australia, and I ended up getting my sister to make a silk cushion for it. I’ll take a picture of it, and send it to you! I keep fake worms in it.
Quentin seems very fond of ‘early music’… crumhorns and the like. Was traditional folk music something that made an impact on your childhood? It seemed to be curiously commonplace on the childrens’ TV shows of the 1970s.
I suppose, subconsciously, it must have. I was also exposed to Shakespeare by my parents, as each year we’d visit Stratford-Upon-Avon and I became obsessed with doing brass rubbings of kings and queens in gold, silver and especially copper crayons. And in my teens, my friend’s father used to build medieval instruments in his spare time and sit in his study listening to early music, and I wanted to be him.
I had a fascination with experimental music in my early twenties and started to build sound sculptures and adapt conventional instruments. I feel I’ve now brought the two worlds together. Hence my Crumtrombone, which expresses milk.
You seem to have a slight fascination with the Kings Singers, too. Where did that come from?
I tend to remember things that most people try to forget. Memories of The King’s Singers, The Cambridge Buskers, The Houghton Weavers and Skellern… I searched for the Kings Singers on Youtube and became obsessed with their Madrigal History Tour. They’re Quentin’s favourite. Their attire is most fetching.
[I have very vague memories of The Madrigal History Tour, broadcast on BBC2 on Sunday evenings, throughout May and June 1984. The Radio Times entry for the first episode, Sunday 13th May 1984, promises…
“The Ducal Palace, Mantua, is the starting-point for this expert series about the ‘pop’ music of the High Renaissance. With a selection of songs that range from the light, witty and erotic to the passionate and heartfelt, The King’s Singers outline the rise in popularity of madrigals and show how they became the rage of Europe. Emma Kirkby and the Consort of Musicke, directed by the series’ musical adviser, Anthony Rooley, perform additional examples. The programme also offers a panorama of the 16th century as a prelude to the ‘tour’ which begins next week in France.”]
Many of your films capture a feeling of stillness and slowness that really sums up my memories of 1970s TV. Do you have any specific memories of that feeling?
Yes, being half asleep on the couch with German Measles, refusing to eat my Heinz lentil soup, with Crown Court on. Covered in calamine lotion. I want to know why they don’t put programmes for ill kids on TV anymore. Or maybe they do? I don’t have an ill child.
I think I managed a two-week skive once. My mum had this old lady who came round to look after us, called Mrs Wolf. She was brill. She taught us how to make birdboxes in the cellar and finger bobs. Maybe Quentin’s obsession with birdboxes came from Mrs Wolf? I’ve never thought of that until now.
I’m increasingly convinced that many of our “haunted” memories of the 1970s stem from the fact that childhood illness was much more commonplace. Most of us contracted some combination of the “big three” in the 1970s and early 1980s… measles, mumps and chickenpox. And they required lengthy spells off school, woozily dozing in front of unsuitable Open University modules, or impenetrable schools programmes for much older childen.
When I made my 3-2-1 film, people told me it reminded them of this exact feeling. A dream-like state, dropping in and out of consciousness thinking you understand what’s happening, then slipping back into a trance-like fever dream. I’ve always wanted to capture that feeling, and this is how I’d like to continue with my work. Childhood memories tend to be a distorted interpretation that we try to cling onto as adults. I reflect quite heavily on these things in my work and hopefully other people will relate to them too… although it’s very personal. Poignant things like the colour and texture of your auntie’s purple carpet, and looking at the dust floating in the sunlight as the Granada start-up music comes on, and you quaff Quosh from your gnawed yellow beaker. Sorry, I’m actually answering this as if I’m having a bloody fever dream!
Has that feeling of “slowness’ gone from TV now, do you think?
It’s difficult to compare stuff from the past to stuff from the present. We’ve all been moulded to speed up our attention spans, so even watching an episode of The Sweeney on Gold… it feels like it’s been on for three f***ing hours! Saying that, I thought 3-2-1 went on all night in the 1980s.
I still have a fondness for a slower pace. We don’t have time to breathe these days. I much prefer a story that is allowed to take the required time necessary, to gather nuances that we seem to skirt over these days. I think this is the reason things felt creepier or more psychologically damaging… today’s sped-up techniques are merely relying on the “shock” factor. It’s like smacking your kids, as opposed to politely instilling fear and low self-esteem in them. I have no idea what I’m on about now… sorry, what was the question?
What’s your own background as a film-maker and performer?
I started playing the bass in bands in St Helens, then continuing to make music at Art College in Sheffield. I got involved in the improvised music scene there and produced sound installations and sculptures. I moved to London in 1996 with some friends – including Tom Meeten – and realised I enjoyed making comedy videos with him slightly more than the seriousness of making experimental music. Saying that I found many improvised music performances extremely funny, even though they were deadly serious.
We would sometimes play around pretending we were Eastern European avant-garde sound artists in Brockwell Park, wiring up trees and passing rooks’ thoughts through an oscilloscope. I moved to Berlin in 1998 and continued making music, but was steered more towards making films. I would regularly visit London to continue making sketches with Tom and he would visit me whenever possible. Over time, I went my way, and he went his. I had numerous screenings and installations in Berlin and became more involved in the art scene rather than the comedy scene. I was in Berlin, don’t forget!
I moved to Sydney in 2007 and continued to make short films, but also started to get into creating images in Photoshop, as that was a quicker method of getting my ideas out. Moving back to London in 2009, I continued to make predominantly Photoshopped work – with the odd film exception – until the Vine app came about. And that tricked me back into making films again. Short, daft, spontaneous and experimental… just what I needed. After a while I realised a few repeat offenders keep appearing, particularly Quentin Smirhes. I’ve lost most of that material as Vine ceased to exist and, stupidly, I didn’t save them all.
Can you talk us through some of your other characters? What can you tell us about Gentle Jeff, for example?
Basically I dress up, or find a wig, and “Viola!” a new character happens. Jeff happened by accident… I suppose I was channelling the spirit of Bob Ross, with a suggestion of Jeff Lynne. And just a really, really, really, nice, cuddly, positive and content man. He’s the lighter side of me. I should visit him more often, as I fear Quentin will one day send me to the loony bin! And as for Erm Man…
Are Quentin and his friends beginning to take over your life a bit?
Yes, doing this can take over a little so I need to lock him in the cupboard for long stretches. But he likes it in there. Its quiet and warm, and he thrives on the occasional moth.
Any plans for future films or projects?
I have many new ideas and projects for the future, both for Quentin and for other stuff. And I need to complete a film that I shot over a year ago, called MidWiffery. Imagine The King Singers, cross-dressing, in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. On DMT. I intend to complete that in the next few months.
Thanks to Sean for a delightful chat… he’s @raghard on Twitter, and his Youtube channel is here:
And, although this is largely unconnected to Sean (and, indeed Quentin), thoughts of 1970s illness, and time off school, prompted me to search for episodes of Paint Along With Nancy on Youtube, and I’m thrilled to report that a few minutes of La Kominsky’s finest HTV hour have turned up, below. So “just be happy to get something that looks human” as you poke another hole in the crinkly cellophane on your Lucozade bottle…