In trying times, a little optimism can go a long way. And a fun, upbeat and nostalgic slice of music can be delightfully transportative: especially when it comes from a band who, for long periods of the last two decades, seemed like they might never work together again.
Plone‘s 1999’s debut albumFor Beginner Piano was among the first wave of deliriously retro-futurist electronica to herald the dawning of a new and fascinating movement, and their friendship with fellow Birmingham-based pioneers Broadcast and Pram placed them at the centre of what felt like a very West Midlands-centric scene. But a mooted (and at least partially-recorded) 2001 follow-up never saw the light of day, and then everything went disappointingly quiet. Mike Johnston worked with the ZX Spectrum Orchestra and the Modified Toy Orchestra; Billy Bainbridge was a co-founder of the rather wonderful Seeland. And, according to Wikipedia, third member Mark Cancellara is now working as a “DJ and magician’s assistant”.
However, in 2020, Ghost Box Records casually announced that Johnston and Bainbridge were returning with a surprise, but utterly welcome, third instalment of the Plone saga. Or is it, officially, the second? It doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that the new album, Puzzlewood, is glorious. An utterly life-affirming collection of grin-inducing instrumentals that evoke delicious memories of vintage library music, of Test Card F on rainy Tuesday afternoons, of long-forgotten Childrens’ Film Foundation flicks and grainy teatime dramas about bird sanctuaries. I defy anyone to listen to the whole giddy confection without imagining exploding chemistry sets and pokey, street-corner sweetshops alike. It’s wonderful, and it comes – appropriately enough – in the kind of luridly colourful packaging only previously associated with Lolly Gobble Choc Bombs or Bazooka Joe’s Bubble Gum.
In late March 2020, I spoke with Mike and Billy live on my BBC Radio Tees show. It was a Wednesday night, and the plan had been to link up with them both live from their regular midweek meeting, but – two days into Coronavirus lockdown – that clearly wasn’t possible. Nevertheless, they were charming company and great fun. Here’s how the conversation went…
Bob: I thought it was really sweet that you said normally get together on a Wednesday night. But obviously you can’t right now! Is it a while since you’ve seen each other?
Mike: A couple of weeks now, I think?
Billy: Yeah, Mike was due to come round this evening, but we thought it was best if he stayed away…
The album is lovely. And I know you couldn’t have planned it this way, but it’s a very heartwarming, fun and upbeat album – just what we need at the moment. Was it always your plan to make such a positive-sounding album?
Mike: Yeah, it was. I think that’s at the heart of the Plone sound really, that optimism. And you know, circumstances have come around to a point where optimism can be quite useful!
It’s been twenty years since the last official Plone album. Had you always intended to reconvene at some point, or has this come slightly out of the blue?
Mike: I think the release feels like it’s come out of the blue, but we’ve been working on the album for quite a while. There was a patch after the second album when we didn’t work together for a while – for quite a while – and then we started working on this one in about 2011, something like that. Maybe even a bit earlier. And then we kind of slowed down… but then, a few years ago, we started up again, and started meeting up regularly on our Wednesday nights.
Billy: I think the Wednesday nights were a success really, weren’t they?
Mike: Yeah, we found the right day of the week, that’s what it was! The midweek hump is what we needed.
It breaks the week up, I guess! So some of these tracks do actually go back to 2011, then?
Mike: I think so, yeah. Actually, there are a couple from earlier that were left over at the end of the second album, from around 2001. A couple of tracks hanging around from then that we picked up again, and started working on.
You mentioned that second album, which has become something of a great “lost” album. So it was 1999 that your debut album For Beginner Piano came out..?
Billy: Yeah, 1999. I remember… (laughs)
It’s nice that you had to think about that for a while!
Billy: It’s a long time ago! In the last century…
Then there were rumours of that second album, but it’s never actually had an official release. Do you want to tell us the story in your own words of what happened?
Mike: (Laughs) Do we have to? Go on, Billy…
Billy: It was around 2001 that we delivered the album, and it kind of got rejected by Warp Records. And that was kind of when the band split up. So we didn’t really want to look at it, or listen to it, for some time, I think. It is a bit of a tragic story in that respect. But I think enough time has elapsed for us to feel that we could maybe put it out there.
I think the odd bootleg has emerged here and there, but really? There is now a possibility that it might get an official release?
Billy: We’ve remixed it and remastered it. There’s still a bit of work to do to pick the right mixes, that sort of stuff, but there is a general intention to do something with it.
You weren’t tempted to carry any of it over onto Puzzlewood at all?
Billy: Mmmm… no.
Mike: No! (Laughs). No, it was good working on something relatively new, I think. And not being in the shadow of an album that had been unreleased for so long. Which we kind of think of as an artifact rather than an album, because – when we handed it in – it wasn’t really finished. We just had to hand something in at the time. So what was actually going to go on the album hadn’t really been finalised. There were more tracks than were going to be released. So, as Billy says, we’ve spent a bit of time remastering it, bringing it all up to speed. And obviously technology has moved on a bit, and it’s possible to rework it into something that’s more like what we wanted at the time.
Honestly, I’d be intrigued and thrilled to hear it. As for Puzzlewood itself… I was going to ask about the the title, which is a famous area of woodland in Gloucestershire. Was it a location that particularly spoke to the pair of you?
Mike: I don’t think I’ve ever actually been to it! Not that I can remember.
Billy: As the name of a wood, it’s brilliant…
Mike: Yeah, but I’ve never been there. So it’s got an air of mystery…
I’ve never been there either, but I’m a huge Doctor Who fan, and I know it’s been used as a location!
Billy: Yeah, we didn’t find out about all this until after we’d come up with the title… (laughs)
So was it just a place name that you knew and thought was particularly appropriate for the album?
Mike: Yeah, it was more like that, really. I mean, we’d gone through a list of interesting place names that either one of us had been to. Also, we were just looking at… kind of rambling names. Interesting woods, or obscure bits of the countryside.
Can tell us what else was on the shortlist?
Mike: (Laughs) No!
Billy: Go on, Mike…
Mike: I can’t remember off the top of my head, but I’ve still got the list somewhere!
A list with a load of names crossed out, apart from – presumably – Puzzlewood at the bottom?
Mike: You can probably find out the list of names that I came up with by looking at a map of the West Midlands, and trying to find the most ridiculous or most interesting names. They’ll be on the list!
I’m always intrigued by track titles on instrumental albums, and I usually think there’s a story behind them. So there’s ‘Watson’s Telescope’ on Puzzlewood, and I’ve spent my afternoon googling around this! Watson & Sons were indeed British telescope manufacturers from the mid-19th century until the 1940s. Is that track a tip of the hat to them?
Mike: It’d be good to say yes at this point, wouldn’t it?
Billy: (Laughs) Yes! Just say yes!
Aw… I had this glorious mental image of one you both owning old Watson & Sons telescopes when you were kids. So is that just a random title again?
Mike: Yeah. But I’ll go with your story, Bob.
Billy: Yeah, we’ll start using that… (laughs)
Can I ask a little bit about the early days of Plone? You came out of Birmingham in the 1990s, and it was a time when other Midlands artists like Broadcast and Pram were experimenting with similarly retro-sounding electronica. Did it feel like you were part of a scene at the time?
Mike: I think we felt like we were amongst friends, which was kind of great. There were lots of gigs happening, and some good venues where local bands could play. So yeah, it did feel like a bit of a scene, and you know… Birmingham isn’t a huge place, so it’s kind of easy enough to bump into other bands.
Did you all know each other from the start, or did you start making this kind of music independently before realising that other artists at least had similar inspirations?
Mike: I would say that we started making music straight after moving to Birmingham, and then – through the music – met other people, at gigs and also at DJ nights. And gradually we met the other bands. I think, very quickly, we met Pram, and then Broadcast a bit later.
It felt like a really exciting time. I keep talking about this, but I remember the first time that I heard Boards of Canada – a track on called ‘Roygbiv’ on a free CD sellotaped to the front of the NME. About 1999. And it was a real watershed moment for me: “My God, other people have these feelings about my childhood! Those feelings of watching Programmes for Schools and Colleges on a rainy Tuesday afternoon with a slight temperature. It was revelatory moment to realise that other people were not just remembering these feelings, but actually taking inspiration from them…
Mike: Yeah, I’ve always had that rosy nostalgia for that kind of Schools Programming. I remember at school when the teacher would wheel out the television, or maybe even the VHS, and show us some programme or other, and I’d think: “Oh, thank God! We don’t have to listen to the teacher any more. We can watch telly, we’re good at that!
For bonus points, a television in a wooden cabinet…
Mike: Yes, exactly – probably locked.
Did all of that come with a love of library music as well, then? That really comes over in your work. I could never understand as a kid why the music that we heard on TV, with the test card for example, didn’t seem to be thought of as “proper” music…
Mike: Yeah, it was really good! It was kind of there without us thinking about it, or finding out about it… it was being put into our brains. But there was some pretty good stuff, and I suppose the Radiophonic Workshop kind of epitomises that sort of sound. But, as you say, there were also all those library records as well.
The Radiophonic Workshop weren’t even credited as individual musicians for a while! It must have made them all the more intriguing.
Mike: Yeah, it made it sound like the music was being made in a laboratory. Very mysterious.
Was it easy to get hold of the gear when you started out, then? All those analogue synths are worth a fortune now, but were people actually chucking them away in the mid-1990s?
Mike: Well, we used to go down to the music shops in Birmingham, and they would have all the latest 1990s gear set out. But in the corner of the room – or in a separate smaller room, shoved in the corner – were the analogue synths. Probably not the classic ones, but analogue nevertheless. And they were reasonably priced at the time. They hadn’t become cult items or anything like that. But of course… a lot of these synths didn’t have MIDI, which was the big watershed, really. It made them seem like they were useless, but they were far from that. They were very beautiful-sounding instruments.
Is there something really inspiring about working from a limited musical palette like that? You’ve been part of the ZX Spectrum Orchestra and the Modified Toy Orchestra, both making music using very simple computer chips and bits of old toys. Is there something about those limitations that can inspire a bit of creativity?
Mike: Yeah, definitely. I was more heavily involved with the ZX Spectrum Orchestra… with the Modified Toy Orchestra I was just playing live, really. But the ZX Spectrum Orchestra… that was a kind of deliberate attempt to eke as much as possible out of a very limited palette, yeah. I agreed to work on that project because I’d always really wanted to learn Machine Code programming! I have strange ambitions, and that was one of them…
There’s nothing wrong with a bit of Z80 Assembly Code. Let’s not be embarrassed about these things.
Mike: It’s on my CV… and has no real world application at all!
And how did the link with Ghost Box Records come about? It feels like a natural fit for you. Were Jim Jupp and Julian House people that you’d known for a long time?
Billy: I didn’t really know Jim until I sent the tracks off, really. But I was aware of the label, and a fan of the label, so I always thought they would be ideal if we were to release anything again. So we sent quite a few tracks off to them, and it was fairly straightforward, really. They loved the stuff.
The album has beautiful artwork by Julian House, too.
Billy: That’s right, he’s done a fantastic job with that.
I believe it’s based on the Jonny Trunk’s book Wrappers Delight, I think he took that as a bit of inspiration!
Mike: I love the colours on it…
And with that, we drifted into a conversation about the potential unavailability of the Puzzlewood vinyl during an ongoing lockdown situation, but – a month on – it’s a relief to report that the album is now available in physical and digital formats from: https://ghostbox.greedbag.com/buy/puzzlewood-black-vinyl/
And thanks to both Mike and Billy for a fun conversation, and – indeed – indulging my crackpot theories about the origins of their track titles. And I felt a little guilty about not getting around to discussing Seeland with Billy, so let me offer up this wonderful 2009 single as belated recompense:
As well as this regular blog, the Haunted Generation is also a bi-monthly column in the Fortean Times magazine, rounding up new releases and forthcoming events. This was the most recent feature, from issue 391, dated April 2020.
THE HAUNTED GENERATION
Bob Fischer rounds up the latest news from the parallel worlds of popular hauntology
“It’s that ‘end of summer’ thing,” says Keith Seatman. “All the holiday-makers have gone, and you can see the grassy bits on the beach again. It can be eerie, and it can be wonderful. As soon as dusk falls, anything at the funfair looks weird…”
There is something deliciously otherworldly about the nature of the British seaside resort: the clanging fairground rides, the gaudy lights of the amusement arcades, the legacy of “Kiss Me Quick” sauciness and mystical, end-of-the-pier soothsaying. These memories are distilled almost overwhelmingly on Keith’s new album Time To Dream But Never Seen, an extraordinary, hallucinatory evocation of a childhood spent in Southsea, Hampshire.
“The summer holidays would kick in, and for the first few weeks you’d be on the beach, down the fair, and on the pier,” he remembers. “Then you’d hit the middle… and the last few weeks had this weird feeling of impending doom.”
The album is structured to reflect this progression of the school holidays: from fizzy, sun-fuelled excitement, to mid-August ennui, to the chilling, autumnal melancholy that the adult Keith now finds so affecting. It’s swathed in tootling fairground organs, psychedelic sound collage and the feel of vintage BBC Radiophonic Workshop experimentation: perhaps appropriately, given that one of Keith’s childhood playgrounds was the now-derelict Fraser Gunnery Range, the imposing naval establishment used as a location for the 1972 Doctor Who story, The Sea Devils.
Elsewhere, regular collaborator Douglas E Powell (whose own splendid folk album, Overnight Low, is out in April) provides a hypnotic spoken word interlude entitled ‘Speak Your Piece’, seemingly a list of arcane, rural aphorisms: “Never toil on Sunday, the Good Lord tells us so / Save your back ’til Monday, and I’ll give you seeds to sow.” It all coalesces to form an utterly intoxicating concoction, and it’s available now from the Castles in Space label.
Keith’s album comes complete with glowing sleeve notes from Jim Jupp, co-founder of the legendary Ghost Box Records, and there are exciting developments on the Ghost Box front, too. April sees the release of Puzzlewood, the long-awaited new album from Plone. This Birmingham-based outfit were exploring retro-futurist sounds as early as the 1990s, and even their own history has a delightfully appropriate fuzziness: although Puzzlewood is described as their third album, the second has never officially materialised, despite countless nebulous rumours and bootlegs.
Regardless, Puzzlewood is a terrific comeback. A gloriously melodic homage to a golden age of library music (I defy anyone to hear ‘Years and Elements’ without imagining the BBC’s iconic Test Card F, bridging the gap between Open University modules), it’s refreshingly joyous and upbeat. Vintage synth sounds leap around playfully, and there are nods to the earliest days of computer gaming too: ‘Sunvale Run’ sounds for all the world like the theme music to some jolly 1980s arcade game; perhaps not surprisingly given that core member Mike Johnston was also a founder of the ZX Spectrum Orchestra. As ever with Ghost Box releases, Julian House’s accompanying artwork is perfect; and its lurid sweetshop qualities were apparently inspired by the vast collection of vintage ephemera amassed by Stockport man John Townsend, as immortalised in the new book Wrappers Delight (see FT389:66 and FT390:36-39).
Also attracting my attention recently: Parapsychedelia, a trans-Atlantic collaboration between Cumbria’s Heartwood Institute and California’s Panamint Manse. Taking the spirit of 1970s psychic research as its inspiration (track titles include ‘Zenner Cards’ and ‘Precognition’) this new album effortlessly weaves woozy analogue electronica and skittering beats around evocative soundbite samples. “Only now are we beginning to understand the strange and mysterious powers that exist in all of us…” crackles opening track ‘Clairvoyeurism’, instantly transporting me back to unsettling Tuesday evenings in front of Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World.
And I can also recommend After Lights Out by Capac, a collaboration with Northampton poet Tom Harding, and a wonderfully atmospheric ambient/spoken word exploration of the strangeness and disquiet of the night-time. “The room, the moonlight, the chair by the window, waiting as if for a ghost…” deadpans Harding, on ‘Night Noises’. Magnificently, the physical release comes in the form of an MP3 player embedded within a matchbox, complete with accompanying candle… which we are invited to light in a darkened room for the ultimate nocturnal listening experience. The perfect album for anyone who has lain awake at 3.30am, desperately attempting not to over-think the mysterious creaking coming from the airing cupboard.
The new edition of the Fortean Times, Issue 392 (dated May 2020) is out now, and looks like this:
Identity is at the heart of The Diddakoi. Is there an intrinsic aspect of all of our personalities, forged by a combination of background, upbringing and cultural heritage, that is essentially non-negotiable? A core part of our beings so immutable, even from a tender age, that no degree of outside influence can alter it – and neither should it try? The plight of six-year-old Kizzy Lovell, a troubled gypsy girl marooned in a snooty, resolutely middle-class English village, suggests so.
And the touching irony at the centre of Kizzy’s plight is that the Romany heritage so integral to her identity is not enough to win the full acceptance of her own community. As a “Diddakoi”, she’s actually a half-gypsy, the daughter of a traveller father and an Irish mother; and as such finds herself an outcast from both her own extended family and from the population of the village that she is reluctantly forced to call home. Living in a traditional gypsy wagon, and spending the winter in the orchard belonging to kindly local toff Admiral Sir Archibald Cunningham-Twiss, she is effectively marooned in this rural bolthole when her guardian, actually her 100-year-old great-great grandmother, suddenly dies. In accordance with gypsy tradition, the wagon is burned to the ground by a small legion of unfeeling cousins that arrive to oversee the matter, and Kizzy’s only other companion – her beloved elderly horse, Joe – is decreed ready for the knacker’s yard, where “they’ll sell him for the hounds… he’ll be torn up.”
Understandably terrified, Kizzy takes Joe and attempts to escape, making it as far as Admiral Twiss’ ancestral home, Amberhurst House. Struck down with pneumonia after a freezing, sobbing night on the doorstep, she is slowly and touchingly nursed back to health by the Admiral himself, assisted by his old Navy batman Peters, and Nat, the “bow-legged groom” who runs the Amberhurst stables. The latter gleefully providing Joe with a loving and secure home, too. For a time, being cared for by three unlikely adopted guardians who never attempt to question or compromise her gypsy heritage, Kizzy finds blissful happiness. But once her recovery is complete, she finds the weight of village opinion – fuelled by racism, bureaucracy and occasional outbreaks of sheer brutality – to be heartbreakingly overwhelming.
And the book is brutal. When Kizzy is forced to attend the village primary school, typically cruel childhood teasings – instigated by Prudence, the stuck-up daughter of vile local busybody Mrs Cuthbert – escalate into a truly shocking scene in which she is ambushed by fourteen of her classmates and beaten to unconsciousness in a deserted alleyway. This is after a local magistrates court, with Mrs Cuthbert sniping from the sidelines, has decreed that Admiral Twiss, Peters and Nat (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary) are unsuitable candidates to look after a small girl, and that an alternate foster family – or, indeed a children’s home – must be found.
Luckily for Kizzy, she finds herself living with one of the more tolerant villagers, Oliva Brooke: a vaguely bohemian singleton with a possibly romanticized view of the traveller lifestyle, but nevertheless a woman with boundless reserves of the patience and understanding required to look after a child who is understandably traumatised by grief, culture shock and her appalling treatment by the village at large. And she’s more understanding than most of Kizzy’s offbeat behaviour – as she pragmatically points out to the court hearing, “You can’t expect to have table manners when you haven’t a table.”
For as long as children’s literature has existed, what so few books have successfully captured is the sheer anger of being a child. Even those of us lucky enough to have enjoyed stable home lives have experienced it: the frustrating powerlessness of childhood – fuelled by the rigid boundaries of both family and school life – can easily spill over into blind, incoherent fury. Rumer Godden captures brilliantly those heart-thumping, head-swimming moments when the red mist descends, while tempering them touchingly with every child’s longing for the comfortably familiar. In Kizzy’s case, the waft of woodsmoke, the feel of her old clothes and – most moving of all – the touch and smell of her beloved horse, Joe. This noble, elderly beast is effectively her comfort blanket, and is the subject of a scene that unexpectedly reduced me to tears. It’s always the animals that get me right there.
I’m utterly unqualified to comment on the depiction of 1970s traveller communities in the book, but it felt – to this outsider – like it walked a commendable line between respecting the culture while steadfastly refusing to sentimentalize. But the depiction of Kizzy – her pride, her longing to be independent, and indeed her loyalty to that non-negotiable Romany identity, all that she has left of the life she once loved – is universal, and brilliant. And while the book’s conclusion is perhaps a little too pat and perfect, it would be hard to deprive such a vividly-drawn character of the happiness she deserves.
Point of Order: 33 years before writing The Diddakoi, Rumer Godden penned Black Narcissus, the inspiration behind Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s controversial 1947 film of the same title. And, in early 1976, The Diddakoi was adapted by the BBC into a six-partchildren’s serial, retitled as Kizzy. It’s a fine and faithful dramatisation, with a young Miriam Margolyes as a member of Kizzy’s extended family:
Mustiness Report: 8/10. Perfect. My copy has ripe, yellowed pages that smell reassuringly of woodsmoke and horses.
“Down in the meadow where the wind blows free, in the middle of a field stands a lightning tree…”
For my money, there are few more evocative 1970s TV themes than the title music from Follyfoot. Combining an unsettlingly rustic folk lyric with joyously choral harmonies and just a soupcon of freewheeling pop magic, it’s the perfect introduction to Yorkshire TV’s popular family drama of the early 1970s. A warm-hearted but frequently wistful tale of a secluded farm that provided a rest home for retired horses, and – indeed – a communal retreat for the gang of teenage misfits that lived and worked there.
The theme was performed by Birmingham-based folk band The Settlers, who – by 1971, when they recorded the song – had already been together for the best part of a decade. Comprising Cindy Kent on vocals, Mike Jones on guitar, John Fyffe on banjo and Mansel Davies on bass (replaced in 1965 by Geoff Srdzinski), they had become familiar figures on both radio and TV, lacing traditional folk music with a beguiling pop sensibility.
Since leaving the band in 1973, Cindy Kent has enjoyed an extraordinarily eclectic career. She became a radio presenter and producer, working for the BBC, LBC, Capitol and Premier Christian Radio, and – since 2008 – has been an ordained priest: the Rev Cindy Kent MBE, no less! After driving listeners to distraction by playing The Lightning Tree repeatedly on my BBC Tees Evening Show, I couldn’t resist attempting to track her down for an on-air interview, and was delighted when she agreed to come on the show. She’s great fun… here’s how the conversation went:
Bob: Tell us about The Lightning Tree… it was a song written by TV producer Francis Essex, who I always assumed must have worked on Follyfoot. But he didn’t… however his brother Tony did!
Cindy: That’s right, it was Tony who was the producer, but he’d obviously shared the idea of the programme with Francis. Francis happened to come along to the Royal Festival Hall in London, where we did our annual concert, and the song that we used to end the show with was an amazing version of Rhythm Of Life, from Sweet Charity. Very much like The Swingle Singers, with that “dobedoo” idea going on in the background! He went home and wrote The Lightning Tree based on our version of Rhythm of Life. And then they got in touch and asked if we’d do it… and well, why not? So we went to London, recorded it… and then thought no more about it, to be honest.
We thought “That’s fine… it’ll happen or it won’t.” And we then went off on a cruise… when I was with The Settlers we’d do a couple of cruises a year, as a kind of paid holiday. And we got a telegram – remember telegrams? – from our manager saying “It’s just entered the charts, you’d better learn it!”
And we thought “Oh, for goodness sake – who’s got the lyrics?”. We were scrabbling around! But people still remember it today. I’m amazed. It’s a long time ago, isn’t it?
I just think how fabulous it is that it was written specifically for you by somebody who’d seen you playing live! What a flattering thing to happen.
We were really flattered, I must admit. This guy was there in the audience, he went home and wrote it, and the rest – as they say – is history.
So did you have much contact with the cast and crew of Follyfoot? You mentioned to me that you came up and did a photoshoot at the farm itself. Was it near Harrogate somewhere?
It was somewhere in Yorkshire! Yes, They took over a farm and had us all sitting in a tree. How they got me up into the branches of a tree I’ll never know, because I’m not very good with heights! But there’s a picture that exists, I think on the Follyfoot website, of the four of us. And then there are pictures with Desmond Llewellyn – Q from the James Bond films – and Steve Hodson, the lead guy; and Gillian Blake, who played Dora. That was our only interaction with them, although I did meet Steve Hodson a few years later, because my late husband was a record producer, and he produced a single with Steve! So we had that connection.
Did you ever see much of the series, or were you always on tour?
I watched a few of them… we were often in transit, though. I think it went out at an odd time, and we were usually travelling to a gig. And, of course, these were they days before we had video recorders. But it went out all over the world… in fact, I did a cruise last year at Easter, as a chaplain, and I met a lady on board who ran a dancing school. And she said – “I’m so pleased to meet you – we worked out a whole routine for The Lightning Tree with our dance group!” It’s the song that keeps on giving, really.
Did you get to see the dance routine?
I’d like to see it! It wasn’t me dancing, that’s for sure… [laughs]
What do you think it is about the song that has made it so enduring?
Do you think it’s maybe the fact that people liked the series? I mean, I love M*A*S*H, and whenever I hear the theme to that, I’m there watching. So it’s that combination… the early 1970s were a fun time to be around, and the song transports a lot of people back to their younger days, of sitting around on an evening watching a nice programme on the telly. It didn’t have anything that your Gran wouldn’t want to watch, and it was well-produced and acted. Just one of those fun things to be part of. I think it’s great that people still remember it, to be honest.
Can I ask about The Settlers as a band… when did you first start, around 1963 or 64?
1963 we started, yeah. Mike and John met at a teacher training college in Birmingham, they were going to be teachers. One of them from Burton-on-Trent, and one from Fleetwood in Lancashire. They met up, started singing in the bar, and then went along to a folk club in Birmingham, near to where I used to live, and got up and did their three or four songs. And at the end of the evening they both came over, and chatted me up! Which was quite fun, really. So we all went off to the local coffee bar, which was what you did in the early 1960s, and they got the guitar out, and I joined in.
I went to a few gigs, and on one occasion they’d done their three or four songs – which was all they had – but the audience was shouting for more, and they called me up onstage and said “Come on – do that song we were messing about with the other night”. What a way to get onstage! So I took my cardigan off and got up… and then they couldn’t get rid of me, really. It was good fun, and we entered a talent competition where we had to have four people, so we got a bass player in, and it went from there.
Were we very fortunate… we won the talent competition, and part of the prize was… you know, getting everything in one place. It was like the kids today with The X Factor: we got a recording contract, a TV audition and a radio audition, all as part of that prize. It was a really good start.
So were you from that folk background as well, then? It sounds like you were going to the folk clubs, too…
I was just there in the audience. I just love live music. I came from a musical family, Dad had a fabulous bass voice and sang in a choir; Mum was a soprano and sang in a local choir, too. My sister was absolutely amazing… not only could she sing and play piano, but she was the youngest member to be admitted into the City of Birmingham Symphony Choir. She was only 16. And so we used to sit around the piano, and singing was second nature. And at the local church, I was always up there singing.
The folk clubs were a natural progression, and were great. You heard some really good stuff. You heard some awful stuff as well to be honest, some people who should never have been let near a stage! But there were people who got up and went on to be really quite famous, and it was a good time to be around. It was when the Beatles and all the Liverpool sound was starting… it was a really creative time, and great to have been part of it.
I was going to ask about that combination of folk and pop music. Obviously the folk scene was hugely healthy at the time, and people like Bob Dylan and Paul Simon were coming over to play at Martin Carthy’s folk clubs in London…
That’s right, it was an emerging sound. People were getting to know it. We, in fact, got hold of Blowin’ in the Wind… somebody had done it in America, but nobody had done it here. We were with Decca Records, and we took it to a guy who was quite famous, Dick James… who turned down lots of people and made lots of mistakes in his musical career! We said “We want to do this as a single,” and he said “Nah, it’s not commercial enough…”
But we were never really a folk group as such. We took folk songs, and made them a bit more poppy… rather than standing there with our fingers in our ears and a glass of beer in the other hand.
You brought a folk approach to pop songs as well. You did a lovely version of The Beatles’ Nowhere Man.
That was a single, yes. That was quite good for us, I remember we did it live on The Morecambe and Wise Show… and I mean live, to millions of viewers. Looking back, it must have been quite terrifying! Yeah, it was a nice song to do, and it suited our three-part harmonies.
How were Eric and Ernie to work with?
Oh, they were just amazing! They used to do lots of rehearsal throughout the day, and almost every time they did a sketch it was slightly different each time. They were honing it, and we just sat there watching.
I’ll always remember… I think we did the Lightning Tree with them as well, and I was wearing a bright red outfit, a see-through skirt with hotpants and a boob tube, and I had long, bright red fingernails, and make-up and all the rest of it, just waiting in the wings to go on. They came off at the end of a sketch, and Eric walked past me and said… “Shouldn’t you go and get changed? You’re on in a minute!” They were just great fun to work with. A brilliantly talented pair.
I love your 1966 single, Till Winter Follows Spring. And I’ve just discovered it was the first lyric you ever wrote!
It was, yeah! Mike, who is sadly no longer with us, wrote a lot of tunes and often wrote the lyrics as well, but on this particular occasion I took the tune away, and… well, listening to it again, I think it stands the test of time a little bit. It’s an eternal theme, isn’t it? Another way of saying “I’ll love you forever.” But yeah, it was a nice one. You’ve brought back lots of memories!
Good! Honestly, it’s a lovely wistful song. Can I ask about some of your other TV work? In 1969, you worked up here in the North-East on a show called Life With Johnny, for Tyne Tees…
Oh my goodness, that really is going back! Yes, Cliff Richard and I went to the same church. And we did a lot of work with him: we did concerts on the continent, and at the Albert Hall, and tours all around the UK… both supporting, and doing our own thing. And he was asked to do a TV series by Tyne Tees, in the religious slot. It took a different parable each week – say, the Good Samaritan. And Cliff played a guy called Johnny, who had three girlfriends – I was one of them, Una Stubbs played another, and there was a lady called Linda Marchal, who you will never have heard of… but you’ll know her by her pen name, which is Lynda La Plante! She played the other girlfriend. We had two weeks each… I was the one that was very serious and wanted to get married and settle down, Una was the one who wanted to spend all his money, and Linda was the nice girl who got him in the end.
Una Stubbs actually sang a song in that show where she mimed to my voice! And I tell you what… it’s the weirdest thing to see someone moving their mouth, and your voice is coming out. It’s almost like you’re dead! I can’t tell you what a very strange feeling that was.
But yes, we did that for Tyne Tees, and we wrote about 30 songs, I think. A guy called David Winter, a clergyman who went on to be head of religious broadcasting for the BBC, wrote all the lyrics and dished them out to the five of us, and each week we’d meet and compare notes. Sometimes we’d put John’s verse to Cliff’s chorus or whatever, and I wrote my very first tune! A song called Love Is More Than Words, which is on Youtube. I was quite pleased with that, it was a love duet that Cliff and I did. That was great, writing all those songs. We had a great fondness for Tyne Tees: lovely people, and a lovely company to work with. They were fabulous to us over the years.
The other curious thing about Life With Johnny: playing Cliff’s dad was William Hartnell, the first Doctor! He didn’t do that much work after leaving Doctor Who in 1966, he wasn’t a well man…
No, I don’t think he was. It wasn’t a very taxing part, but it was nice to have him on there. There was a guy from Coronation Street as well, Mike Baldwin… Jonny Briggs! Several people cropped up in it over the course of the series, and there were dancers opening and closing the show… in fact, if you type Life With Johnny into Youtube, it’s there. How people get hold of these things I don’t know, but new clips seem to appear from time to time. Those were the days!
How’s Cliff to be around?
Yeah, he’s great. We became really good friends over the years: I toured with him, and we did some solo things together. What you see is what you get with Cliff. He’s lovely, and all the problems he’s had just lately… I actually went into court and sat with him. That’s all over, and thank God he’s come out of the other end. That must have taken its toll on him.
But yes, he’s great fun, and wherever we went he was mobbed. He’d land at an airport and there’d be thousands of people there. There’s one lovely little story which I was quite chuffed about: we met up at Manchester airport, the four of us and Cliff and a couple of other people, all going to somewhere in Europe for a concert. And this one guy approached ther group with his autograph book and pen, and Cliff was stood there… and the guy walked straight past him, came up to me, and said “Could I have your autograph, please?”
Cliff didn’t mind at all, but it was very funny!
You were telling me about another TV show called Sing Out, from 1973…
Yes, Sing Out With The Settlers. That was another six-part series, half an hour, and it was us with lots of different people. They’re probably awful, perhaps I’d be better off not seeing them, but it would be so nice if they did exist somewhere! They’ve never turned up on Youtube, and it was in the days before VCR so nobody had a recording of them, but it would be so good to get hold of some, just to have a look. In fact, I don’t know if all of Life With Johnny exists. There’s probably some library somewhere, festering away in a basement…
I have a curious feeling a lot of the Tyne Tees archive is at Teesside University…
I would be indebted to you forever if you could find those!
You’ve had a very accomplished career in radio, as a presenter and a producer, did all of that start essentially because you were doing lots of TV and radio work with The Settlers? Did you get a feel for it?
I did… when the Settlers ended in 1973, we all went our separate ways. Mike formed The New Settlers, and that went for about a year with three new people. John decided to move into the pub trade, and he had several pubs, mostly up in the North East. Ending up at the Dunstanburgh Castle Hotel, which is absolutely stunning – half an hour south of Holy Island. Geoff married a Dutch girl and moved to Holland, he became a piano tuner… he had to go back to college, and he loves doing that. He was the most talented musician out of all of us.
And I decided I’d quite like to go into radio. David Winter, who I mentioned earlier, said “Come and do a few things on the Sunday programme” [on BBC Radio 4], so I used to review pop-gospel albums and things. It was a great way of dipping a toe into the water. And then I moved onto my own series, Gospel Road on Radio 2. One of the series was presented with Cliff, and we went around the country discovering new talent. I did a couple of series on Radio 1 too; so I went from Radio 4, to Radio 2, to Radio 1. I’ve never done Radio 3, I must come up with an idea for Radio 3!
And then I was in at the birth of commercial radio, which was absolutely fantastic. I was with LBC, I was with Capital. I was with Radio Hallam in Sheffield doing my own late night show, that was great fun up there. And then Premier Christian Radio, when that first started, they asked me if I wanted to do it – 25 years ago this year! I was the first presenter they ever signed up. It was great fun to be in at the birth of all of that in this country. To try and do something that was different, they way the Americans have done it. And 25 years on, I think we succeeded.
What’s your proudest moment in radio?
Oh my goodness, you should have given me a bit more warning! 9/11… I’m not sure I was proud of it, but I was doing the Afternoon Show. Half an hour before I went on air was when the first plane hit, so we abandoned all the normal music we were going to play and I was there talking to all sorts of people on the screen in front of me, saying, “On Line 4 is somebody from such-and-such a charity, they’ve been working out in New York, and their principal guy is on the phone…” And sometimes, at the end of the interview, I’d just say to the person: “Would you say a little prayer?” Not with all of them, just with some. And I was able to tell our listeners what was going on, because I was getting the feed from IRN and BBC and everything else that was coming in. I was on air for about five hours straight. I’ll never forget that… adjusting what you’ve got in your head, reacting and thinking on your feet.
But the nicest thing was, the next day I got an e-mail from a lady in America who – this is weird, isn’t it – had been listening to a British radio station, to something that was going on in her country, and she just wanted to thank me for getting people to pray. She said it was so lovely to hear other people pray, and all she had to do was say “Amen”. And I treasure that e-mail, it was one of those moments when you just feel that you’re in somebody’s life, and you’re making a difference.
There’s a real responsibility to those moments. I’ve been on air when other big news stories have broken, and there is a feeling of… people are getting this from me, and I’ve got to get it right, and be sensitive and respectful.
You do. I had it with Princess Diana, that was the other one. First thing in the morning… I heard the news at 4am getting out of bed, got into the car to go in, and rang around everyone that I could think of – in some cases breaking the news to them – to record comments. I was in the studio for ages, I was on air for about five hours, drove home about eight hours later, and on the way home I was listening to the radio and suddenly found myself crying. Because it was sinking in that Diana had died. I’d been running on pure adrenaline, and it hit me really hard as I was driving home, thinking “Oh my goodness…”
They actually used to get worried at Premier, when I went, in that something was about to happen. “Check the obits…!” [laughs]
You’re clearly a devoted Christian, and – in fact – are now the Rev Cindy Kent!How did it all happen?
Who’d have thought it, eh? That the girl in a mini-skirt bashing a tambourine would end up being a vicar? There are a few of us… there’s Richard Coles from The Communards, and a couple of others that have gone from being a pop star to being a priest.
Was your faith a big part of your upbringing, then?
I think so, yeah. We always went to chapel from me being a toddler, and it just became part of my life. And at about 15 or 16 it became very personal. I took it on board for myself and just said to God: “OK, here I am… use me, do whatever it is”. And the story unfolded, and went on from there, to me doing what I do now, I guess.
When did you start to feel the pull to actually become a priest yourself?
I don’t know… I woke up one morning and thought “I think I want to be a deacon”, which was the first stage in those days. And then I rang up my local bishop, who I knew really well because I’d used him on Capital Radio, and said “I think I’m being called to be a deacon… but I’m not really sure what that is!”
And he said “Ah, I’ve been expecting this!” I said: “Oh, really? I haven’t!”
So you go forward to a selection conference, and you have to pass exams, and I mean… I was dreadful as a child at school, so the thought of doing anything academic filled me with the screaming ab-dabs. But by the grace of God I got through it, and ended up being ordained, and yeah… it was really good. It’s been a great journey: I had my own church in North London for six years, and then I retired and moved to the Isle of Sheppey, nearly four years ago.
And have you stayed in retirement?
No, don’t be daft! It’s nice to be able to do things, and when I came down here I got what they call “permission to officiate”… which means that you do the job, but you don’t get paid! So I help out at the local church, doing services and things, which is lovely. If I’m going to be at the service anyway, I might as well lead it. I’ve met a load of people, made some great friends, and I’ve got the sea at the bottom of my garden. I sit watching it from my living room. Well… it isn’t really the sea, it’s the end of the Thames, but we don’t mention that!
But there are boats and ships going up and down all day, the tide goes in and out… it’s just the most idyllic place, and I absolutely love it. But if you’d told me, back in 1900-and-frozen-to-death, that this is what I’d be doing in 2020, I would have gone “What?!!!”
And are you still singing live?
I do the odd gig locally, yeah. We’ve done a couple at the beautiful little theatre here on the island, the Criterion, and that’s great. And of course I teach people the chorus of The Lightning Tree – not that you have to really teach it, they seem to know it – and they all join in. The worst thing about that song, though, is that all five verses begin with the same words: “Down in the meadow where…” something happens. And it’s a case of trying to remember which one you’re on! [laughs] I’m constantly singing “Down in the meadow where… mumble mumble mumble…” What happens next? I don’t know!
I’m going to play some more Settlers to finish… can I play Major to Minor, from 1967?
Oh my goodness, Tony Hatch produced that! It was Kenny Everett’s favourite record of the year when it came out. Great lyrics, it was a very clever song that Tony Hatch wrote, he was our producer at the time. It’s a shame it wasn’t a proper hit, it was what they call a “turntable hit”… everybody played it and loved it, it just didn’t sell! But it is a good song, and a nice one to close with…
Thanks so much to Cindy for her time, and for being such a good sport. You can say hello to her on Twitter, she’s here…
Like many a traditional ghost story, it begins in a graveyard on a dark and stormy night. Teresa “Tess” Willetts and David Ray, teenage classmates in an early 1970s Black Country comprehensive, have been drawn together by an unlikely coincidence while working on a local history project. Bespectacled, Bach-loving, academically-minded David has noted an interesting inscription while on a previous recce to the churchyard: In Memory of Abigail Parkes, Departed This Life, 10th December 1860. The sparkier Tess points out that – hanging in her hallway at home – is a “sampler”, a square of Victorian embroidery with a religious motto, adorned with the same name. Together, on a filthy late November journey home from school, they return to the gravestone for a closer inspection, and find a chilling addendum, hidden by the long grass: Aged 17. Innocent of All Harm.
So begins a ghost story with a fascinating twist: the immortal soul of Abigail Parkes is certainly influential, but equally relevant to the story is the living soul of Tess Willetts, who narrates the book in the first person. She is seized by an all-encompassing compulsion to investigate Abigail’s death, teaming up with David to discover that – on a similarly foul and freezing winter’s evening – Abigail drowned in the local canal, and the subsequent inquest recorded a verdict of suicide. Profoundly affected by this, to even her own surprise, Tess sets out to disprove the official version of events.
Abigail, it transpires, was the daughter of wealthy local mineworks owner Henry Parkes, and – at the time of her death – was in the midst of a torrid class-divide romance with grimy-faced collier David Caddick, much to the predictable fury of her father. And, as connections between Abigail and Tess’ lives begin to emerge in chilling fashion (not only were they distantly related, but the abandoned “Fiery Holes” mine itself is responsible for the dangerous subsidence of the Willetts’ council house… and so on), Tess is faced with a terrible revelation: if, as Abigail’s fate suggests, love leads to suicide, then what implications does that have for the increasingly strong feelings she holds for her own David?
The extent to which Abigail’s spirit presses and manipulates Tess is left, as with so many books of the era, delightfully ambiguous. But the dilemma in which Tess is placed is clear-cut, and sees her typically teenage worries (essentially, finding the new company of bookish David to have more depth than her long-standing “down the shops on a Saturday” friendship with schoolmate Val) transformed into much darker concerns. If, as seems apparent, her life is inextricably linked to that of the doomed Victorian girl, then proving that Abigail did not take her in life in the throes of a lovelorn depression becomes just as important for Tess’ future as it does for Abigail’s troubled spirit.
The book is bleak. Quite literally – the entire narrative is subsumed by the slate-grey oppression of winter, seemingly every scene soaked by perpetual torrents of Black Country rain. The “water” of the title is integral. In fact, you’ll probably never find a better literary evocation of the foul weeks before the respite of Christmas sparkle; those late November days of frozen, sodden-coated darkness on the silent walk home from school. Writer Edward Chitham is a Black Country man himself, and something of an authority on the area’s history and heritage; he peppers the book with local dialect (“Yourn looks a bit tatty to me”) and – brace yourselves – even passing references to West Bromwich Albion (“the best team out”, according to Tess). Although none are explicitly mentioned, I spent much of the story overcome by thoughts of the Three-Day Week, Slade singles and Jeff Astle with mutton-chop sideburns. It wasn’t an unpleasant experience.
Added to which, there’s a lovely sub-plot in which Tess begins to appreciate the difference between academic and empirical thinking: the head versus the heart, if you like. It’s struggling classmate Tracy Dobbs who provides the unexpected profundity. “Clever folk don’t like ghosts, dreams, anything,” she says. “See them seagulls up here… I bet if I asked at school this morning how many folk saw seagulls on their way to school, the whole lot’d say no. They know seagulls are what you see at Weston or Rhyl. They don’t believe in seagulls inland, and they’m not able to see ’em…”
So Tess’ more soulful, intuitive approach to life (and the detective work required to uncover Abigail’s date) contrasts with David’s, and causes tensions, but the two are eventually able to reconcile their differences and work together as a charmingly unlikely double act. The reveal of Abigail’s actual fate is heartbreaking, and the book’s final chapters are shocking… but with a poignant and hopeful conclusion. It all makes for another rich, intelligent and touching children’s book from a golden age of fiction for young readers.
Point of Order: Ghost In The Water was adapted into a one-off BBC drama for children, first broadcast at 4.40pm on New Year’s Eve 1982, and released on DVD by Simply Media in 2018. It works as a nice, creepy ghost story for TV, but perhaps inevitably loses some of the rich character detail that makes the book so affecting. It does have a nicely unlikely bit of casting for a Black Country drama, though: playing the part of Tess’ mother is Jane “Ivy from the cafe” Freeman, of Last of the Summer Wine fame.
Mustiness Report: 3/10. Mine is a fragrant 1982 reprint with a cover that ties into the BBC adaptation. The pages are nicely yellow, but a quick dip in a Black Country canal would add a welcome extra level of must.
The experience of watching the TV incarnation of Lizzie Dripping, following its 2017 DVD release, resulted in possibly the broadest gap between my expectations of a previously unseen TV programme and the nature of the show itself. What I imagined: a goofy, knockabout comedy in which a young girl befriends a funny witch, pitched somewhere between Catweazle and Rentaghost. What I watched: a beautifully melancholy meditation on the passing of childhood, and an anxious teenager’s fear of the future. This book, an adaptation of the series (or possibly vice-versa: the publications and broadcasts were pretty much concurrent, and the chronology is a little confusing) develops the latter themes in delightfully downbeat style.
Lizzie is an imaginative, rather wistful girl whose name, we swiftly discover, is actually Penelope Arbuckle – “Lizzie Dripping” being a common, affectionate Nottinghamshire nickname for a girl who is “dreamy and daring at the same time”. Her home village, Little Hemlock, is caught on that very 1970s cusp between traditional rural life and encroaching modernity, evoked perfectly by her father’s recent career switch from traditional blacksmithery to modern plumbing. This telling leap from shodding carthorses to installing central heating almost epitomises Lizzie’s worried state-of-mind: she finds the changes in both family and village life, and her own increasing maturity, to be the source of simmering anxiety, and turns to a mysteriously-materialising witch for respite and advice.
Yes, indeed – a bona fide witch, who literally appears from nowhere in the autumnal village churchyard, and whose relationship with Lizzie is mercurial to say the least. She is by no means malevolent, but neither is she entirely friendly, and the spells she casts at Lizzie’s behest have frequently unexpected consequences. Her nature is left deliciously ambiguous – there is no evidence that the witch doesn’t exist in physical form, but the fact that she interacts with Lizzie alone throughout the course of these stories suggests the real sadness at the heart of these tales: Lizzie has invented an imaginary, supernatural friend as a funny, whimsical coping mechanism, one last blast of childhood fun before the adult world sweeps her away forever.
The book draws together five loosely-linked short stories, most of which are infused with Lizzie’s reluctance to make the leap into adolescence. In ‘Lizzie Dripping and the Orphans’, she is overwhelmed with sadness at the prospect of surrendering her battered toys (“the one-eared rabbit called Loppy… the beautiful tin teapot with painted sunflowers”) for a local jumble sale, torn between losing the precious memories attached to them all, and helping the “ragged orphans” who run barefoot through her nightmares.
‘Lizzie Dripping’s Black Sunday’ sees her charged with the responsibility of looking after baby brother Toby; the “little fat lamb”, as their mother affectionately nicknames him. Dreamily pushing around him around Little Hemlock in his pram, she ponders the nature of adulthood (“What if I was grown-up, and married, and Toby was mine?”) before leaving him alone, in a barn, impulsively deciding to join the village kids on an afternoon blackberrying expedition. The witch is nominated as unlikely child-minder (“If he was to yell, I could spell him off again”) as Lizzie unthinkingly abandons her grown-up responsibilities.
And in the following story, ‘Lizzie Dripping Runs Away’, she goes a step further: attempting to desert Little Hemlock herself on the advice of the internal monologue that peppers the book, an always-unspoken diatribe against the adults that she feels treat her unjustly. Including, sometimes, her own parents. “She doesn’t really love me at all, you can see that” thinks Lizzie, after a ticking-off from her mother. “Toby’s all she cares about. Wouldn’t care two pins if it was me that was lost.”
But it isn’t the people themselves that really concern Lizzie: it’s change. They are a loving family, in a beautiful village with a gentle, supportive community, but Lizzie is simply overwhelmed by the arrival of her baby brother, her parents subsequent shift in focus, and the responsibility that Toby’s presence has introduced into her own life. “This is my childhood,” she ponders, in ‘Black Sunday’. “And soon it won’t be my childhood any more.” And for a moment, the book tells us, “the world seemed unbearably empty and sad”. Lizzie, we are left to assume, conjures the witch from her overactive imagination as a desperate measure to stave off this emptiness, and the book and TV series alike capture this quintessentially teenage uncertainty with a sensitive and affecting lightness of touch.
Point of Order: Initially commissioned as a one-off Jackanory Playhouse drama broadcast on 15th December 1972, Lizzie Dripping returned to BBC1 for a a further four episodes in March 1973, and another five in February 1975. Six years before she joined Blue Peter as regular presenter, Tina Heath played the title role, and rather marvellous she is, too. The witch was played by Sonia Dresdel, who had been a hugely acclaimed stage actress in the 1940s, and all location work was filmed in Helen Cresswell’s home village of Eakring, Nottinghamshire.
Mustiness Report: A nicely mature 5/10. My copy is a 1979 hardback reprint, with pages the colour of straw and a nicely battered dust jacket. Also: the vintage BBC logo on the front cover makes my heart sing.
Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, I began to stumble upon subtle suggestions that actual other people may have experienced the same hazy feelings of vague, oddly reassuring disquiet that had helped to define my own childhood and teenage years. The discovery of Boards of Canada – via a free CD, sellotaped to the front of the NME – was certainly a revelatory moment. And on TV, Peter Serafinowicz and Robert Popper’s immaculate spoof of 1970s schools and science programmes, Look Around You, gave me a frisson of hilarious, head-swimming nostalgia; as did Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, Matthew Holness and Richard Ayoade’s brilliant pastiche of low-budget, late-night 1980s horror. Both shows not only captured perfectly the style and tone of their respective targets, but also their production aesthetic: the crackly 16mm film, the clunky edits and deliciously wonky analogue synths.
Starring alongside Holness, Ayoade and Matt Berry in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace was Alice Lowe, brilliantly assuming one of the dual roles that defined the series’ “show within a show” conceit. Alice played actress Madeline Wool, who in turn portrayed Dr Liz Asher, a medic in the Darkplace hospital with hilariously destructive psychokinetic powers. Since then, she has become one of the most in-demand performers on TV (The Mighty Boosh, The IT Crowd, Little Britain, Horrible Histories, Sherlock, Black Mirror… it’s a very long list), and her BBC Radio 4 show, Alice’s Wunderland, unfurled a gentle tapestry of woozy, almost psychedelic comedy onto the airwaves; a hallucinogenic trip though “the Poundland of magical realms”.
In recent years, she has launched a successful cinema career: co-scripting and starring as a homicidal caravan enthusiast in the brilliant horror-comedySightseers, and then writing, directing and taking the lead role in the ingenious Prevenge, the darkly comic tale of a heavily-pregnant serial killer who believes her crimes are being directed by the voice of her unborn child.
Alice was genuinely seven months pregnant with her first daughter, Della, when Prevenge was filmed in 2015, and – when I spoke to her in early 2020 – was enjoying some quiet time at home following the birth of her second daughter, Sadie. I’d noticed (on Twitter, inevitably) that she’d been reading the blog, and was impudent enough to drop her a message asking about the possibility of an interview. What I wasn’t quite expecting was the incredibly entertaining 90-minute Skype that that followed, so good grief… thanks Alice for indulging me so generously. And apologies if I’ve held up production of the next film, Timestalker.
Here’s the full conversation:
Bob: Are you writing at the moment?
Alice: Yes, working on a few TV and film projects. My next film as a director has been postponed because of my second pregnancy – and coronavirus. It’s going to be more of a challenge obviously, as I’ve never actually made a film with a baby. I’ve made a film when I was pregnant, but never with an existing child!
Is this the new film, Timestalker?
Yeah. That’s next on my slate for shooting. I’m also writing a Delia Derbyshire biopic…
Wow! Really? You should speak to Drew Mulholland, he knew her late in her life, and has some good stories. He was telling me she once got special Delia Derbyshire snuff commissioned from one of the country’s last remaining snuff factories!
I read your interview online! But yeah, I met some of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop people, like Dick Mills. And they said she was a different person to different people, and she had lots of different sides to her. And you think… how the hell do you encapsulate that? With some of the stuff that you find out about her, you think… was she on the spectrum? Which wouldn’t be that surprising when someone’s got that level of genius. But at the same time, she was really sociable, and she had this personality that people were really drawn to. She’s an interesting figure to try to sketch out.
The reason I got interested in her was that she was born in Coventry, like I was. And I only really started getting interested in her when I was doing my radio show because I wanted to make a show that was like the creepy children’s series from the past. And when I write, I like to listen to stuff that I think complements what I’m writing. So I started listening to lots of Delia Derbyshire and BBC Radiophonic Workshop stuff.
And once I found out her story, I started overly identifying with her! Because I saw parallels with the work that I’ve tried to do over the last twenty years, and how I’ve felt quite often that I would be overlooked in terms of what I was contributing. And that sort of happened to her, so it resonated with me. And I felt… “Oh, I understand her!” But I don’t know if I do… the more I find out about her, the more of it I don’t understand.
But I do think that if you’re writing a biopic about someone, you can only come at it from your own personal perspective: that’s what’s going to bring the emotion to it. I think all biopics are coloured by the opinions of the people who make them.
The fact that she actually stopped making music has always intrigued me. She lived up here in the North-East for a while, didn’t she?
Yeah. But it’s funny, because you talk to Dick Mills about that… she got married to a miner’s son that she met in Cumbria, and that lasted for two years. But I mentioned that to Dick, and he had no idea. For someone supposedly so close to her, he was like: “Did she? Yeah, that sounds like the sort of thing she’d do…”
And I thought “Gosh, how weird…” She obviously cut off a lot of people from her life. But that’s kind of what the film is about, about her withdrawing from music and why she withdrew from it. So it’s kind of a psychological piece. If I was trying to be truthful to every single detail, it would probably make a really boring film. So it’s trying to get to the bottom of what’s actually compelling about her as a person, I think.
Have you been working on this for a while?
I was touting it around for years, trying to get it made. It’s something that I’ve been working on for maybe six years, But I never took it to the level of researching it too much, because I just didn’t have the money to be chasing people around the country. But finally, I’ve got the backing for it now. It hasn’t been greenlit yet, but it is something I’m working on.
People just kept saying “Why has no-one made a film about this woman?” And I was a bit like “I am! I am making a film about her!”
I would take it to BBC Film, and they would say “We don’t think there’s enough of a story”. And I’d say “Well, there’s that film about a man who drives a bus…”
If you can make about a man driving a bus, you can make a film about a female composer.
Plot is overrated anyway. Some of my favourite films are films where nothing really happens. It’s all about character…
…and atmosphere. Mine too. But also, I do think you can make a plot out of anything, and you can make as story out of anyone. They don’t have to be saving the world for it to be an interesting story.
This all ties in neatly with us chatting for the blog, because obviously it’s called “The Haunted Generation” and I think the music and sound made by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop played a big part in the slightly unsettled feeling that many of us remember from our childhoods. Is that “haunted” childhood feeling one that you can identify with?
Hauntology is something that I only really, really, really recently found out about. A friend mentioned it to me and said “Do you know about hauntology?” My friend’s really into it. And I said “I have no idea what you’re talking about…” I found it really difficult to grasp what she meant. But when I did actually start thinking about it, I thought “This is something that’s had a huge influence on me…” I’d just never put it together. But yeah – I do like stuff that has a flavour of the past, without really consciously knowing why.
I was definitely into a lot of weird children’s TV shows. I watched Century Falls. I’m slightly too young to have seen things like Children of the Stones the first time around, but I watch those now. But definitely I was obsessed with the weird and the spooky… anything that was slightly folkloric. That’s the other thing that people are obsessed with now, isn’t it? The Folk Horror stuff. That was definitely one of the things that I was really into.
I also remember, when I was about 17, I was really into Portishead. And it was the time that The X Files was on, and it was huge. And I remember my friend had just passed her driving test, and we went for a drive around the countryside, in the dark. Vaguely looking for lights in the sky, in an X-Files sort of way, listening to Portishead in the car! And I remember saying “I think something’s coming that is going to really change everything. I feel like there’s something new coming…”
And really, what I think I was talking about was my own future (laughs). I was 17, and of course everything was about to change, because I was about to go off to university. But there was just something about that particular era, a sort of spooky feeling that that music gave me, and a sense that there was something exciting on the horizon that was spooky and dark and weird.
That’s wonderful, and I’m thrilled that you talk about the 1990s in that way, because there’s a temptation to assume these childhood feelings are restricted to the 1970s. And I’ve been trying to work out whether kids of the 1980s and 1990s – and beyond – had them, too. And I’m discovering more and more that they did.
Well, I mean… Portishead were all about film references and the Radiophonic Workshop, so for me the 1990s was when people started getting really interested in this stuff from the past. I dunno… you look at David Lynch, and he was obsessed with the 1950s, so you could say that what he does is hauntology as well, just from an earlier period. That sense of drawing on the past is always uncanny and spooky, and can go into a fairytale realm.
Yes, particularly when you’re inventing bits of the past that could have happened then, but they didn’t. But when you experience them, it kind of feels like they did. Sorry, that started out as a coherent sentence then kind of drifted away…
No, I know what you mean. And that’s what I read that hauntology was… when I looked at the Wikipedia page, I was like, “What? I have no understanding of what this means!” But the friend who drove me around in her dad’s old Audi was the friend who, 20 years later, pointed out what hauntology was. And it just made me think about my influences, and this patchwork of memories that we have. I think most creative people draw on their childhood all the time. Because that was when you were most powerfully affected by stuff, when everything seemed so much more vivid.
It’s funny discovering that you weren’t aware of this stuff until recently, because there were two TV shows that I saw in the early 2000s that made me think – “That’s it! That’s that feeling of watching TV as a kid, and feeling slightly creeped out by it all!” One was Look Around You, and the other one was Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace…
So none of this was on anybody’s mind when you were making Darkplace? It’s pure serendipity that it has that feeling?
I dunno, maybe hauntology gives a respectability to these things! I remember at the time, Channel 4 saying “We don’t want anything set in the past…” and I think they can still be a bit like that. I might be putting words into other peoples mouths here, but I think with something like Raised By Wolves, they said “It can’t be set in the 1980s…”
And when you look at Sex Education, which isn’t set in the 1980s, but it is very 80s in its feel, you sort of ask – why would you make that decision? People love stuff that’s set in the past. They always have. Sometimes it’s budgetary, but quite often that’s the thing that makes something stand out, and makes people love it… that it’s got that strange, eerie nostalgic quality to it. And I think now, if you said to Channel 4, “Oh, it’s nostalgic, there are all of these things that have been set in the past and been proven to be successful…” Maybe there’d be more force to that now. I don’t know.
Was it a battle gettingGarth Marenghi’s Darkplace on air, then?
I don’t know… I didn’t write it, so I wasn’t party to those kinds of meetings, but I would hear about them. There was a pilot that was very, very different. It was very serious, like a Lars Von Trier pastiche. And then they decided that was the wrong way to go with it, and that people wouldn’t get it, so made it into a much more 1980s thing.
But I mean… it didn’t get recommissioned! And I think it cost a lot as well. It was shot on film for a start, and I don’t know how they managed to persuade Channel 4 that that was the way to go. I think it was probably more expensive to do it on film then that it would be now… it’s coming back into fashion now, so there are more places where you can get it processed. Back then, it was like – “What?” It was probably the last TV show to be shot on film.
I think that adds so much to it, though. As soon as you see the opening titles to Darkplace, with the juddery film look, and the wobbly synth soundtrack… it’s just so transportative. And I know you’ve made short films [Sticks & Balls and Stiffy] on Super 8 as well. Is format important in conjuring these feelings?
It’s funny isn’t it? I love the results that you get from shooting on film, but I would never let it make or break a project. Richard Ayoade or someone would be a bit more “I’m not doing this unless it’s on film!”. I would never be like that, I’m more “I’ll do what I can to get it made…” (laughs). Which is just the way that it’s had to be.
But my next film, we are shooting on film. Which is scary as well, because if things go wrong it’s so much more expensive, and if you make a mistake it’s an expensive mistake. Hairs in the gate, and stuff like that! But I do think, with something like Darkplace, the reason it has aged well is down to some of those aesthetic decisions. They elevate it above something where, in the grade, they stuck on a grainy finish to make it look like film. You can always tell when it’s not quite right.
And also, I think it lends a different aesthetic. I just did a film called Eternal Beauty, with Craig Roberts directing, and he said something really interesting: that it lends a different atmosphere to the shoot. You’re working in a more old-fashioned way. It’s a bit more hallowed. Every time you do a take, it’s a bit more… “Hold your breath! Is it going to work?” It adds a bit more magic to the performances, because you know you’ve got a limited number of takes, and it can be – “Guys… this one’s got to work, we don’t get to do it again”.
And that can add a really interesting quality. The Super 8 stuff that I’ve done, we only had one take for each thing, and it was edited in camera. So you only get one go, and everybody nailed it. It’s really interesting, the adrenaline you get… it’s almost a bit more like theatre, in a way. And I really enjoy that, that aspect of it. But it can be terrifying! Super 8 is cheap, that’s fine, there’s nothing to lose, really. But doing it with a big budget film, with big costumes, and horses and carriages… that’s more terrifying.
Ha! So have you got horses and carriages on Timestalker?
Yes! (Laughs). Well, at this point there are some in the script… but there might not be in the finished film! It might be – “What were we thinking?”
I remember talking to Frances Castle from Clay Pipe, and her saying that her memories of watching TV as a kid were of the picture being slightly fuzzy, and the signal drifting in and out… it’s the analogue aesthetic, I guess. Which I now find really evocative. And I know people now try to contrive that, using old film stock, or old tape stock if it’s music…
Toydrum, who did the soundtrack for Prevenge, use old machines, and have a studio where they’ve got some of the stuff that Delia Derbyshire was using. The EMS VCS3, or whatever it is! I have to know all this stuff, and it’s the sort of stuff I hate… I’m the least technological person in the world, and I’m having to learn about these machines. I’m like “Oh god, I hate this…”. But that is the world that she inhabited!
But they’ve got these machines, and I love it all. They can make really unique sounds that you can’t get elsewhere. And I do love all that, because I’m very analogue as a person. I’m technologically rubbish. I’ll be that person that will build something by hand rather than using the technology at my disposal.
I directed an advert recently, and they said “Oh, you could do a storyboard for us…”. And most people would use an app, or get a storyboard artist, but I just do drawings! I’d rather do drawings and scan them into the computer, in that old-fashioned way. It’s not that they’re brilliant drawings, it’s just… that’s the only way that I understand how to do stuff. By hand. That’s why I like Delia Derbyshire, because to an extent that’s what she did. These laborious tasks, where she’s sellotaping things together. That’s how she understood how to make something… as a very physical act.
I went to see a talk with Brian Hodgson and David Vorhaus, who did White Noise with Delia Derbyshire. They got some young composers to talk too, and it was just so interesting… they’d talk to David Vorhaus and he’d say “I got a length of drainpipe and found this material that was like rubber, but not rubber, and then I built this machine by hand, and soldered some circuitry together…”
And then they’d go to the young composers and say “How did you make your song?” And they’d say “Erm… with my laptop. I’ve got Garageband…” and they’d look quite embarrassed, because they’d realise “My God… I have it on a platter, making this music”. It was interesting.
I don’t how we’ve got onto this, we’ve just drifted!
No, it is interesting! I interviewed David Cain from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop back in 2012, and he said that he basically lost interest in making music when everybody started playing keyboards. For him, it was about invention, and the technical challenge of cutting bits of tape into half-inch strips and sellotaping them back together down the corridor…
That was exactly Delia, and that’s what’s in the film. That was what I became really interested in: people who became disenfranchised by technology, really. Even though they were once technological before their time. There’s an irony. I’m toying with putting this line in, where Delia says “People have been telling me I’m the future for years, and then suddenly I’m the past…”
I think any creative can understand that. Especially in comedy, which is a young person’s game, similar to music. Someone can be really fashionable, then suddenly they’re the most old-fashioned thing that you can think of. They were part of a period of time that was deemed fashionable, like with The Young Ones or something, then there was a point where everyone just went “Oh, they’re old hat”, even though they were the coolest thing, cutting edge, doing everything that was interesting at that time. By default, there’s suddenly a point where it’s like “Right, everything that was so cutting edge and interesting about you is now old-fashioned”. And it’s just the tragedy of that… it’s horrible. It feels so cruel.
And it’s often through no fault of their own. Their art hasn’t deteriorated in any way, it’s just that their audience – or the media – have become less interested.
Yeah, people have moved on. And then the irony is that people do return to it… but that person might have died by that time. It’s all those sorts of things that I think are really interesting.
It’s why I’ve moved into film, I think… I wanted to do something that had a bit more longevity. That I felt was a bit more timeless. I think TV and comedy can push you into a remit of writing something that’s of its time… you’re under pressure to write something that’s fashionable at that point. And I’ve never been interested in that. I’ve always been – “How do we make this more timeless? How do we make people want to watch this in ten years time?”
That was my whole thing with Sightseers. I wanted it to be something that people still get in ten years time, and not a comedy that feels of its era. You can’t say you want something to be a classic, but… I wanted it to be a classic! And I think that’s why film appeals to me, really. Telling stories that feel bigger, and more universal.
I was going to ask about Sightseers. I guess you’d dabbled with things that had horror elements before, but Sightseers felt like a bigger move in that direction. You’ve mentioned the creepy TV that you’d watched as a kid, were you an out-and-out horror fan as well?
Yeah, massively. When I started doing Darkplace, I’d been doing theatre stuff that was sometimes a bit scary, and sometimes a bit funny, and sometimes a mixture. And when I started working with Matt and Richard, they’d be talking about Children of the Corn or whatever, and I’d go “Oh is it that one? I’ve seen that…”
And they’d say “You’ve seen that?” And I’d be like… “Yeah, it was on BBC2 at 11pm, years ago!” I’d watch anything. Any horror that was on. I’d look at the paper and circle the Dracula films that were on, and whatever Godzilla film was on afterwards. That’s what I would watch until three o’clock in the morning. I was always obsessed with horror. But that’s not why Matt and Richard wanted to work with me. They were like: “How have you seen all this horror? You weird woman…”
I think we might have watched the same screenings! I remember watching Children of the Corn on late-night telly, sometime in the 1980s.
That was the weird hunting ground, wasn’t it? BBC2, and Channel 4. Channel 4 on a Friday night used to be amazing. I used to watch Four-Mations, then a double bill of weird old horror films or monster movies.
I remember them showing Godzilla films on a Friday, after Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out! In about 1990…
Yes, and that’s all I was doing – I wasn’t going out! That was a good night for me, watching a Godzilla film. And then maybe some weird comedy on BBC2 on a Thursday night. And they might have a weird film on after that, as well.
The nice thing is, you can see all of this in your scripts. Obviously there are horrific elements to what you do, but they’re combined with these beautifully-written observations of everyday life. Sightseers has been compared to Nuts In May, and I can totally see that. And in Prevenge, there’s the contrast between the horror and your character’s day-to-day life, going for job interviews and looking for a flat. Does that fascinate you? That veneer of everyday existence, with the darkness beneath it?
Yeah, I love that. I love British comedy, and to me comedy comes from characterisation and class tension, and all of this observational stuff that I’ve grown with up. Victoria Wood and Julie Walters and Alison Steadman. But also, I really love visual stuff that’s cinematic. So it’s getting a mixture of those things… if it was just observational stuff, I would be bored. I like there to be splashy events: you mix in the observational stuff with splashy events! And then people are surprised… “Oh, I thought this was going to be a chat between two people, but then someone’s head has been chopped off…”
And I think I’ve always done that. My mum and dad recently… (laughs) Well, they live in a total hoarder’s palace of stuff, but for some reason they were clearing out, and they found this book. And they said “It’s you telling these stories, all about these mice…” And I vaguely remembered it. I had these little toy mice who had clothes, and they lived in a shoebox, and I’d built a little house inside the shoebox for them. Very Bagpuss-esque!
And they said: “Yeah, it’s all these stories about the adventures of these mice, and it’s lovely… and then at the end, they all get slaughtered in a bloodbath!”
Ha! Ha! How old were you when you wrote this?
(Laughs) I don’t know! I had no recollection of that bit! It sort of rang a bell, but yep… that would be the only way to end it.
All the clues were there! This is your next project. An Oliver Postgate-style animation of this…
My mum and dad thought it was funny, but at the same time they were quite disturbed, I think! Every time I make a film, my mum goes: “Is there murder in it…?”
“Erm… yeah. There is… sorry…”
I just imagine her at Book Club, wondering “How am I going to break it to them? How am I going to break it to Barbara that she’s not going to enjoy this film either?”
So, speaking of Sightseers, did your parents take you on caravanning holidays as a kid, by any chance?
We did go on camping holidays. We couldn’t afford a caravan, but we did have a tent! But yes, I think my mum was horrified. She was really worried that the mum in Sightseers was based on her…
You did go on caravan holiday recces for Sightseers though, didn’t you? You and [co-writer and co-star] Steve Oram?
Yeah, Film 4 paid for us to go away in a caravan together. And it was actually really useful, because we really annoyed each other, then put that into the script!
I’ve never been on a caravanning holiday, and I’ve no intention of ever going on one…
Going on one with someone that you’re not in a relationship with is really weird.
It’s quite intimate, I imagine!
Yeah, you’ve got a little, thin partition between your room and theirs. It was fun, actually… and it was really useful, because we used exactly the trip that we went on in the film. Steve’s dad is a very keen walker, and he devised that route for us. We said “This is the sort of thing we want to do, and this is the sort of landscape we want…” and he put a route together that I would recommend to anyone as a holiday! Ending with these spectacular views in the Lake District that were so filmic, but nobody ever actually uses them for films. Well, they might use them for a Beatrix Potter film…
I love Ben Wheatley as a director. How was he to work with on Sightseers?
So much fun. It was one of those filming experiences that spoils you a little bit. When you have a good film experience, and you’ve been doing it for 20 years – I’m showing my age here – you see young people working on the production having so much fun, and you just want to say to them that it’s not always like this! (Laughs) “This is a good one. The next one that you do, will be ‘Oh… it’s not always that brilliant…'”
He’s funny, and his crew are just really nice, like a family. You laugh a lot, and have a lot of fun, it’s just so relaxed. When you’ve worked with lots of different directors, you start to think: this is how I prefer to work. And that is how I prefer to work. He doesn’t really tell you what to do, he doesn’t really give you any direction, he just sort of says… “Do it again!” Which means you have to trust your own instincts really, and that’s the way that I direct as well.
I’m not going to tell people what to do, I want them to use their instincts and get in the zone. As an actor, when someone gives you notes – and I try to say this to young directors that I mentor – you can get overloaded. All that you get as an actor is “I’m not doing it well enough”. And you start to cerebralise your thinking. But you shouldn’t be thinking as an actor… you should just be being the character. And the more someone talks to you about policing that character, the less you’re going to be in character.
Have you veered towards the Mike Leigh approach, of not scripting too closely, just creating the characters and seeing where they go?
Well, that’s how I write… improvising the characters. And then I encourage the cast to do that, too. But it really depends… with something like Prevenge, you’ve got to work with people who’ve improvised before, and have that as part of their skill set. Because people can take it the wrong way, they think “improvisational” means actually writing a completely new scene. Quite often, you really just want them to do the script, but loosened up a bit. Armando Ianucci has that approach as well – “We’ll do one on the script, and then one off the script.”
Basically you’re doing the script, but putting it in their words… “Relax, don’t worry about remembering each exact word, just make sure that it has the same meaning.” So you’re sort of paraphrasing. It makes them relaxed, and they’re remembering the meaning of the scene a bit more, and starting to own it a bit more. So yeah, I’m all for that.
To me, it’s like – why wouldn’t you do that? You get funny people, and you’re going to say to them “I don’t want any of your special, funny magic?” You’re going to veto it? Some people do. You work on stuff where people are like: “Exactly the script please!” And sometimes the results can be fantastic. If it’s a good script, it doesn’t really matter.
But I can’t help but think; “I could have done a bit more with that. I could have brought a bit extra that would have made some moments.” And that’s what I consider my job to be, as an actress. I’m not Judi Dench, I’m not a Shakespearian actress, but what I do is come in and bring a bit more to it, because I’m a writer. And I add something that maybe they hadn’t thought of before… a little extra moment, you know. So why wouldn’t I employ that from other people, as well?
I guess making any film is a hugely collaborative process. You want everyone, including the actors, to bring their own skill sets to it.
If you think about it, you get a costume person to design the costume; you don’t draw the costume yourself and say “This is exactly what I want, and I want it this colour.” You go “Oh, I want it kind of green…” and they show it to you. It’s collaborative, it’s back and forth. So why shouldn’t acting be like that as well? You’ve got to hand it over to people and say “This is yours…” and you get better results from that. You’re just a manager, really, as a director.
And the great joy must be when you get something fantastic back that you weren’t expecting at all?
Often those are some of my favourite bits: “Oh my God, this person has made it even better than I could have imagined”. That’s when you get really excited and realise that it’s more than the sum of its parts. It’s like “Thank God all these people have come and made this thing much better!” (laughs) And you’re grateful for it.
Sometimes, it’s a time thing. A lot of people have asked me if Prevenge was really improvised… and actually, weirdly, it was probably less improvised than Sightseers, because we just didn’t have the time, and we had such a tiny budget. But I don’t think it particularly shows. Maybe it’s just a psychological feeling that it gives people, the feeling that they’ve got the freedom to improvise and play around.
You mentioned your Mum’s horrified reaction to some of the films you’ve made… will you show Prevenge to your daughter when she’s old enough?
It was so weird… last night, someone had given her this book called Little Leaders, which was all about women who’d changed the world. And one of them was Maya Deren, who was a film-maker. And basically my daughter is like – “I really like Ada Lovelace, can I meet her?” And I said “She’s dead, she died 200 years ago…”. And she said “I don’t want her to be dead!” This led to her flicking through the book and saying “Is she dead? Is she dead? And me going “Yes.. yes… yes…” (laughs) “They’re all dead!” She’s only four…
Anyway, we got to Maya Deren and I said “Oh, a film-maker… that’s what Mummy does.” And she said “Are you? Are you a filmaker? Have you made a film with me in?
“Yes… I have, actually…”
“Can I see it?”
And I said “One day…”
She asked what she looked like in the film, and I said “Well, it was before you were born, and you were a baby in it. You were in my tummy.”
And she said “Was Sadie in there as well?”
Literally, this was the first conversation we’ve had about the film!
It’ll pop on BBC2 at 11pm one night…
And she’ll be like: “What the hell is this…” She doesn’t really know what I do. I mean, she was there for the edit of Prevenge, she was a tiny newborn baby, but I don’t think she really knows that I’m an actress. And these days, you see people onscreen all the time. She sees my face on Facebook, or a photo of me on a screen, so to see my face on television… I just don’t think her mind would be that blown by it.
Yes, I guess kids see people they know on screens every day now… I’d never really thought of it that way.
Everybody probably thinks their parents are famous! Not that I’m even famous… but I am on TV. Horrible Histories, that would probably freak her out!
Can I ask about your radio show, Alice’s Wunderland? There’s one episode in particular that I love, and it ties in with lots of things that we’ve talked about. It’s the episode with the ghost of a child who has died in 1977. And everything is in there: there are Public Information Films, creepy school assembly songs, pantomime dames… was that episode a nice way of chucking all of your favourite scary 1970s things in there?
Yeah, basically! I did three series, and I’d done that character as a sketch in the second series. And I thought – “My God, I love this character, and I want to do more with it.” Because it just seemed like it existed of its own accord. I thought “I know exactly how this child talks.”
You know when they used to dub children with adults voices? They thought children couldn’t act, so they’d get some woman to be the voice of a little boy and she’d just be [tiny, squeaky voice] “Ooh, I want to do this!” And you’d think… that’s not a child, that’s just a woman pretending to be one. It just seemed like a funny world to tap into.
I was a bit worried that the BBC would say we couldn’t have a child that was a ghost, because maybe he’s been murdered or something… but they didn’t at all! [laughs] But that was the thing about my radio show… I used it as a sketchpad really, for loads of ideas. Even arguably Timestalker came from an idea in the radio show. It’s so easy on the radio, it’s not going to cost you anything to be really ambitious. You can set anything anywhere, and do whatever you want. So it was just this sort of blank slate, doing whatever ideas I wanted to do. There was loads of stuff that came up where I thought: I’ve got to do something else with that. That’s what was so fantastic about it, it was just a free hand.
When I first got the commission they asked who I’d like to write the show with, and I said “Can I… write it by myself?” And that’s really unprecedented! I said I don’t see why shouldn’t… if I can write a sitcom by myself, it’s only the same amount of content. So to me, that was a real joy. And I knew then that it was going to be about all the weird sketches in my head. What we were talking about earlier, really… weird stuff from my childhood, and hauntology. I was trawling my mind for stuff that I wanted to write about but had never really had the opportunity to. Usually because there was some commissioner saying: “Will people be interested if it’s set in the 1970s? Will young people like it if you mention David Bowie? They might not know who he is…”
But with this I just had completely free reign to do what I wanted. It’s a very unusual situation to be in.
The use of language in it always reminds me a little bit of Professor Stanley Unwin. Was he somebody that you had in mind?
Yeah, he was definitely one of the influences! Joel Morris and Jason Hazeley script-edited it, and Stanley Unwin was one of their suggestions. But yeah, that was fun to write. And also this thing of… writing something that had a sort of poetry to it. I wanted the whole show to be about sound, basically. Which was another thing that Radio 4 were unused to! I said “It has to be about sound if it’s a radio show, doesn’t it?” And they were: “No… why would it be?” It was a radical idea!
I asked if I could have a composer, as I had a friend who wanted to compose some original music for it, and they were like: “What? No, we don’t have the budget for that!”
So there were lots of things that I’d gone against the grain to ask for, but luckily they allowed me to have them. I had a brilliant couple of producers who fought for those decisions. I wanted there to be a sense of craft about the show. The poor producers, who were also really the directors – they just don’t get that title in radio for whatever reason – would sometimes have 100 sound cues for a 28 minute show. They had to layer them on, and make it sound spooky and brilliant and exciting. Normally they might have four! On a sketch show where someone’s just talking into a microphone, basically…
I think all of my favourite things in any media create their own world, and invite you into this strange realm, and that’s what Wunderland did. It was lovely.
Well, It was great fun to do.
Can we talk about your upcoming film, Timestalker? I’ve read that it’s about a woman who keeps being reincarnated…?
Yeah! People keep asking me about my time-travel film, and I say – it’s not really about time-travel! It’s about reincarnation. I don’t want to talk about the plot too much, but it’s a sort of rom-com, really. It’s set over seven different periods in time, with an ensemble cast. I’m in it, I’m playing the lead, but I really wanted it to have the feel of a fun gang show. Like a modern Carry On! That’s what I’d like to do, make modern Carry On films, where all the same people come together and have fun.
But yeah, it’s quite crazy, and it’s one of those things where I think people are going to struggle to describe it as any genre. It’s almost like a 1980s high-concept film… I started thinking that people don’t make Ghostbusters or Desperately Seeking Susan any more. All these films that are just fun. I wanted to make something slightly lighter… although it’ll probably end up being so dark! [laughs]
I’ll say “I just want to make something light and funny”, and people will say “This is the least light and funny thing I’ve ever seen in my life”
“Really? Oh dear…” And then all the mice got slaughtered. [laughs]
So that’s my problem! So I literally was… “God, there’s so much stuff going on in the world, do I really want to make another dark film? Because I think Prevenge was really dark. Darker than Sightseers, and quite nihilistic in a way. I don’t want to make anything as dark as that, so hopefully it’s just going to be a fun ride.
Who’s in it? Tell me one name!
I can’t, really! We haven’t made any formal announcements yet. I’m in it!
Changing tack, what’s your relationship with nostalgia like? I was thinking recently that I really can’t get to grips with 1990 being 30 years ago.
Do you think that everyone feels like this at the beginning of a century? That the end of the previous century was recent? Because the century’s still quite young, it fools you into thinking we’re still living in 2002.
It does! It didn’t occur to me until about the 29th December 2019 that it was the end of a decade! It doesn’t feel like we’ve had “proper” decades for a while.
No! I know, it crept up on people – suddenly was asking “What are the ten best films of the decade?” I think we’re so distracted by so many other things that people didn’t make a big fuss about it. I don’t know whether it’s because I’ve just had a baby, but I felt like this New Year, there was the least celebration ever…
I think people were just dreading what 2020 was going to bring.
Yeah, the election happened, and I was just… screw it, let’s just stay at home. I’m not even going to say Happy New Year to someone, because what’s the point?
I can’t work out if it’s just because I’m getting old that the decades don’t seem to have any real defining character any more, or if they genuinely don’t. I’m now the age that my dad was in the late 1980s. So did my dad feel that the 1980s were a really bland, dull decade? I’ve got a feeling that he might have done. Whereas to me, it was like – “Wow! The 1980s have been amazing!”
Oh, bless him. It’s like that with the 1960s, isn’t it? Because my mum and dad always way “Well, we were never offered any drugs…”
Yes, mine too! Not in 1960s Middlesbrough.
And you think, for people living in the suburbs or whatever… did the 1960s really happen to them? Or were other people having more fun at that point? I don’t know… I’m sure they do have character, each of the decades. Because I always thought that the 1990s had no really distinctive features, but now I do. It’s just taken me this long to get to that point.
I realised this when I saw some clips of Sex and the City, which I used to watch. And the biggest shock was that now, everybody dresses like Miranda. They put her in the worst clothes… she dressed like a man in these horrible, asymmetrical, architectural clothes, and everybody dresses like that now. It’s really weird, she could be now. Whereas back then I thought – “Everyone is else is so pretty, but they put her in these horrible clothes!” And that’s when I realised that that‘s going to be a defining thing of this era, women dressing exactly like men.
For ages I wondered how you would parody the 1990s. You know, if you want to set something in the 1970s, you give people flares and long hair and tank tops. But how would you do that for the 1990s?
I think it’s stuff that’s sort of… horribly normal! [laughs]. Like strappy things… oh, I don’t know. It does exist.
Because I have such a busy social diary, I watch old game shows on Challenge TV. And if there’s a 1990s edition of Bullseye – and I’m really giving away my lifestyle here – I can immediately spot that it’s 1990s, as opposed to 1980s. But I can’t put my finger on what I’m actually identifying.
I think it was an era when being normal was really prized. If you think of Oasis or something… it’s kind of anti-student, that Paul Calf thing. Anything frilly or bourgeois was looked down upon; being artistic was frowned upon in a way. It was the era when I used to go to Glastonbury, and it was still filled with people with dreadlocks and tie-dye, still a counter culture thing. But there was an anti-counter culture thing at that point, too. It was like “normcore”…
Yeah, even though Blur’s music was often experimental, they still went through a phase of wearing tracksuits to greyhound meetings.
Yeah, you could be a goth, or into grunge or something, but it would be making a statement to do that. Whereas now, you can be at work with piercings and pink hair, and no-one blinks an eye. But back them, if you made those choices, it was deviant. I remember a female friend getting a tattoo of a tiny bluebird on her shoulder in about 1995, and it being greeted with absolute shock by the rest of us. “What? A tattoo? Why?” It’s extraordinary, in hindsight.
“You’ve ruined yourself!” (laughs)
You’ve clearly been immersing yourself in “haunted” culture recently. Who has caught your eye, or ear? I think I’ve seen you waxing lyrical about Sean Reynard‘s films, particularly his Quentin Smirhes stuff.
He’s an old friend of mine actually, I’ve known him for years. There’s an actor called Tom Meeten, a comedian and writer, he’s in a film called The Ghoul. He was at art college with Sean, and introduced me to him years ago. Sean lived in Berlin for years, but he’d come over to London for a bit, and we’d see him, then he’d go back. And when he started doing his videos, it was like – “Oh my God!” I’d always known he was talented, and he’s a really good actor, but I didn’t ever feel like he’d made a palatable version of what he does. And that’s what he’s cracked with Quentin… people are latching onto it. Regardless of whether they’re interested in hauntology or not, it’s still crazy and funny and interesting. And so it’s gone a bit crazy for him, because he’s been making stuff for years… but it would be 28-minute short films! It’s quite difficult to get people to commit to that. Although he did an amazing one about Kate Bush…
I haven’t seen that!
Oh, we’re both obsessive Kate Bush fans. It’s worth watching, it’s very funny. So he’s been making stuff for years, but he hadn’t really found a format for it that took off. But I’m really pleased that he has now, and the interview that you did with him – that was the most serious that I’d ever heard Sean! Normally I’ll post something on Facebook, and he’ll put some sort of weird comment underneath. But he was actually intellectualising his process – it was really interesting.
I’d never spoken to him before, and I did wonder how much I was going to get out of him…
He’s fully trained as an artist, which I forget about… but yeah, he actually knows what he’s doing! [laughs] Any music that you’ve been particularly drawn to?
I’ve been listening to Aldous Harding. Visually, as an artist, I think she’s brilliant. I love the videos, and my daughter loves them as well, which is really weird. She keeps saying “Mummy, I want to watch Zoo Eyes again!”
It’s a kind of overlapping community, isn’t it? There’s sort of a Venn Diagram of people who know each other, and who work with each other in different ways. Which is interesting, because those collaborations bring about new stuff, I think. And that’s why I say I’m interested in hauntology, but it’s not something I’ve exclusively pursued. Because I didn’t really know about it! It is an interesting world, and you want to know who’s involved in it, but without feeling there’s a set of rigid rules that you have to commit to.
You have to be sparing with nostalgia too, I think. If a piece of music transports you to 1979, but you listen to it constantly in 2020, then it’ll quickly start to remind you of the events of 2020 just as much it does 1979…
It’s really comparable to a smell. When you smell something that you haven’t smelled for years, it triggers a memory. But if you wore it every day, it wouldn’t have any power any more. And I think that is the hauntology thing… it’s like a sixth sense, like a tingle. If you do it too much, it doesn’t work any more.
Completely, that’s why I’m a little cautious sometimes. My favourite stuff from this genre has one foot in the past, and uses the past as an inspiration, but is trying to do stuff that’s new, too. Like Sean’s films… even if you’d never seen any 1970s TV, they still work as pieces of art.
Yea, definitely. And it’s also making stuff unconsciously without trying to obey a rigid set of rules: it’s just come to you and you don’t really know where it’s come from. You don’t analyse it too much. I think that’s why Aldous Harding is so interesting – you know that she’s probably influenced by folk music and films, and there are a lot of film references in her music, but you don’t get the sense that she’s obeying any rules. That’s what makes it so surprising; the films she makes are often quite at odds with the music. They can be violent or scary, and the music’s so not.
Have you seen her live?
I haven’t. Sean is a big fan, and went to see her live, but I was just a bit too pregnant on the last tour! I was like… “I don’t want to leave the house.”
I’m like that most of the time and I’m not pregnant.
I’m like that most of the time too, I just had a better excuse this time…
Thanks so much to Alice for being amazingly generous with her time, and for a fascinating natter on a rainy Tuesday afternoon. Why are Tuesday afternoons always rainy? She’s here on Twitter, if you’d like to say hello.
The past, bleeding into the present. It’s a staple premise of countless classic childrens’ tales, from the simplest of goofy ghost stories to the rich, folkloric intrusions of Alan Garner and Susan Cooper. Penelope Lively’s beautifully lyrical debut novel includes a fascinating twist: when subsumed by the echoes of its own traumatic history, the isolated Cotswold village of Charlton Underwood also finds itself overwhelmed by the unwelcome encroachment of 1970s modernity.
Hemmed into the centre of this cultural pincer movement are practically-minded Welsh schoolboy Peter Jenkins and his more whimsical sister, Mair. Freshly arrived in the village, where their father has been installed as the new headmaster, they swiftly find themselves straddling the social (and literal) boundaries between the archaic ways of the “old village” (“Looks as though it’s been asleep for a couple of hundred years” muses Mr Jenkins Snr, with typical parental naivety) and the patios and sprinklers of their own, freshly-built housing estate, pointedly located on the other side of a dividing main road.
One drowsy summers afternoon – and Lively’s descriptions of the weather and landscape are poetry in themselves – Peter and Mair learn of the village’s grim history when their dog, Tar, vanishes into the tangled, off-limits woodland that borders the remote World’s End Farm. Here, they discover the ruins of an abandoned medieval village, Astercote, whose 14th century inhabitants were wiped out completely by the Black Death, and whose remains – and a mystical chalice, whose presence in the woods purportedly ensures the disease will never return – are guarded by the seemingly sinister figure of Goacher.
Despite giving the initial impression of having stepped out of the 14th century himself (he eyes Mair suspiciously as a potential witch, and is seemingly unfamiliar with the sound of a passing aeroplane), this is cunning sleight-of-hand: Goacher is, in fact, the eldest son of the local Tranter farming family, an unspecified childhood illness having left him with considerable learning difficulties. Befriending the children, he confides that he lives in morbid fear of the Black Death’s resurgence, a fear that itself – with delicious irony – becomes highly infectious when both Goacher and the protective chalice mysteriously disappear.
What follows is a remarkable depiction of the effects of mass hysteria. As word ripples through “old” Charlton Underwood of the chalice’s absence, isolated incidences of commonplace illnesses – beginning with the Tranters’ daughter Betsy contracting mumps – are seen as the inevitable return of medieval plague. The rational reassurances of the everyday are swiftly and terrifyingly swept away: accusative white crosses are soon painted on the doors of any resident with so much as a mild sniffle. And, once the news reaches the haughty pages of a local newspaper, the village finds itself beseiged by a deluge of rubbernecking visitors – media and general public alike – all intent on mockery and ridicule.
At which point, irrational health hysteria darkens into outright paranoia. An impromptu roadblock is erected overnight to further isolate the old village, and the inevitable, by-the-book reaction of both the local council and police force only serves to reignite the community’s deep-seated resentment of “outside” authority. “Half them’s really frightened of what they think’s happening, and the other half’s forgotten what all the fuss is about and are just enjoying having a go at Them… everyone who isn’t Us”, observes youthful district nurse Evadne; a woman caught, like the children, in the uncomfortable liminality between tradition and modernity; she is the daughter of a village woman and a visiting US serviceman, increasingly struggling to counter the scared superstition of her home village with the rational medical science of her chosen profession.
Everything about Astercote is beautifully judged, beautifully weighted, beautifully depicted. It captures the very real tipping point when an almost pre-industrialised way of rural life still extant in the mid-20th century (although the Tranters have a tractor, they have no electricity) was finally wiped out by the 1960s housing boom, the explosion of social mobility, and the march of the mass media. But it also evokes the freewheeling spirit of a very 1970s childhood (the children, of course, take it upon themselves to recover the missing chalice, largely unemcumbered by parental concern) and it captures with poetic detail a soothing sense of pastoralism. “The wood hummed and sang, life flickering and rustling at every level: insects underfoot and at knee-height, dappled moths, bees, butterflies, birds above and around…” Oh, my flinty heart has melted.
And although the ghosts of Astercote never literally materialise, the gentle hints of the otherworldly that breeze through the story are all the more haunting for their subtlety. Mair, when her conscious guard is down, experiences nebulous “memories” of the village’s medieval plight; she is subsumed by fleeting but overwhelming feelings of empathy with the doomed locals, and occasionally hears the sounds of marching cattle, and distant bells from the now-ruined church. These profound experiences deepen her sympathy for the fears of the 20th century villagers, and Evadne too claims to have picked up on these faint, psychic echoes of the village’s tragic past. But ultimately it’s the power of story that lends Astercote – both the village and the book itself – such potency. And good grief, what a story it is.
Mustiness Report: A reassuring 8/10. The pages of my copy boast a yellow pallor and a sulpherous tang impressive enough to grace the shelves of Astercote Central Library itself. It also has two library stamps from Wrenn School in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, boldly marking it as due for return on 2nd February and 18th August 1983. I hope whoever borrowed it on either occasion enjoyed it as much as I did, 37 years later.
Over the course of three solo albums on the superlative Clay Pipe label, Jon Brooks has created music with a very distinct and affecting sense of place. The first, 2012’s Shapwick, took inspiration from the eerie calmness of a night-time detour through this sleepy Somerset village; while follow-up 52, from 2014, was a touching evocation of a childhood spent at his grandmother’s house (as Clay Pipe boss Frances Castle once said to me, with no little admiration: “He was trying to create the sound of lichen in his grandmother’s garden pond.”)
2017’s Autre Directions, meanwhile, was a beautifully sparse reflection on the almost-somnambulant pace of life in rural France. “As the village church clock tolls, it strikes home a simplicity,” explained Brooks himself, in the album’s press release. “A purity of existence that couldn’t really exist elsewhere.”
His new Clay Pipe album, How to Get to Spring, also captures a sense of purity: this time, the simple pleasures afforded by the fading of the winter months, and the empty skies and gentle warmth of the oncoming springtime. In early 2020, with so many of now us temporarily deprived of the physical space and restorative powers of the countryside, the album feels both poignant and reassuring; and its eight perfectly-weighted tracks chart, with Brooks’ characteristic poise and elegance, the journey from grey, snow-flecked hillsides to bone-thawing April sunshine.
In early March, I spoke to Jon about the album, and the forthcoming re-pressing of Shapwick, for my BBC Radio Tees show. Here’s how the conversation went:
Bob:Congratulations on the album… is the springtime a particularly evocative time of year for you?
Jon: I think it’s always a time of hope, and new growth. So this album is about that: it’s offering a kind of quiet hope, really.
I always feel slightly unusual in that February is one of my favourite months, which sometimes raises eyebrows. January can be harsh, but in February you get buds appearing on the trees, and those lovely days of hard ground and clear skies.
I’ve always loved that time of year as well. From February to April is a really, really good time. And that’s where the album goes, really… it’s “how to get there”.
I was going to ask if there was a chronology to the album?
I think so – it was definitely written in that way. It goes through a hard winter into early spring, and then into mid-spring, yeah.
I get the impression that you spend a lot of time outdoors… has this album been inspired by your ramblings around your local hills and forests?
That certainly has an influence, yeah. I’m out every day, because I need that headspace, and I need time to come up with the ideas. When my brain switches off, out in the woodland, I tend to get ideas. I’m not thinking about anything in particular, so that’s when things happen.
Whereabouts do you go walking?
I’m in Derbyshire, so I walk around nature trails and meadows. There are loads of fairly lost places around here, where you just don’t see anyone.
On the verge of the Peak District, then…
Yes, basically. It’s lovely, actually – it’s very cool.
My version of your Peak District is the North York Moors… and I find, in walking there, that it’s not just the fact that you’re out and about in beautiful countryside, but that you don’t have anything else to concentrate on. All you have to think about is putting one foot in front of the other, and walking. Do you deliberately go and try to find that mental state in which to be creative?
Yes, definitely. Because although I’m quite a connected person with technology and so forth, I leave my phone at home when I go out. And I really just switch myself off, and open myself to what’s going on around me. And I think that puts you into a different mental state. I think that’s where I get a lot of inspiration from, and I think certain things can bubble to the surface. And you make mental notes, and come back and perhaps write something. Or you make some notes on a new concept. That’s how it works.
How do you go about translating those feelings into music, then? Given that you don’t take a phone with you, can you compose in your head as you’re walking, and then work on it when you get back?
I seem to be able to. And something I’ve also done a lot more of recently, especially with this album, is writing down key words. So I would have a certain word that I felt had come to the surface, and I’d write that down, and then write around that. I’d say – “How does that word feel? How does it sound in the mouth?” And then just go from there. From fairly abstract things really, to trying to describe a word in sound. I really love doing that.
That’s fascinating, there’s almost an element of synaesthesia to that.
Well, I do actually have that as well.
Yeah, I’ve had that since I was a kid. It’s quite distracting in a way, because I’m also a sound engineer and a mastering engineer. And I “see” sound. So, in order to use my ears, I have to try and switch that off… because I can actually see things like waveforms, and colours, and various things. It’s quite an odd one!
I had it in a very minor form as a teenager. The Velvet Underground’s third album, the one with ‘Candy Says’ on it, has a really distinctive guitar sound, which I assume is Lou Reed’s arpeggio. And, as a 17-year- old, I saw that guitar sound as little blue metallic tubes that I was travelling down. It happened with a couple of other albums too, but it was a very fleeting thing, and I’ve often I’ve wanted it back! So you see physical things like that: colours and shapes?
Yeah, I do. Actual colours and shapes, and with various sounds and frequencies they can take on different forms. I’ve always had it, it’s never gone away.
Did you just assume as a kid that everyone had it?
I think I probably did when I was really small. You don’t really think about it – you just think “this is normal”.
I guess it can be a blessing and a curse! Obviously you want to switch it off sometimes… but I guess the essence of creativity is sometimes finding those strange connections. If you’re a comedian, it’s the punchline that nobody sees coming; if you’re a musician, it’s finding a new sound, or the direction of a melody. Is there an element of needing your brain to work in different ways sometimes?
I think so, yeah. I wear a lot of different hats in the studio, and I go from mode to mode. So in certain modes, you need more of that, and less so in others. Thankfully, I’m kind of trying to train myself into… not being able to switch it off and on, but going more in the direction of trying to control it a bit. Because I’m a bit of a control freak! (Laughs)
Do you find your state of mind not only affected by the landscape, but also by the way in which the weather changes that landscape? I think I’m definitely a different person in the autumn to how I am in the spring.
Yeah, I often feel very different at different times of year. I’m very in tune with the weather, and it really affects me and the way that I write. And obviously it affects the way that I conduct myself outdoors: in winter, you’re wrapping up, and that has its own feeling. I’m very in tune with all that, which I’m very pleased about – because I love different seasons. It’s seeing the change from one season to another, and thinking – ah, I don’t need to be quite as wrapped up today!
My favourite times of year are the times when the weather is changing from one season to another. I love all seasons equally, but after a while they get slightly wearing: and I love the change from spring to summer just as much as I love the change from autumn into winter.
Yeah… I used to not really like summer. I used to think I was just a winter person, but honestly – I’m not. I really do enjoy it, and I enjoy those changes, like you say.
There are some intriguing Gaelic song titles on this album… there’s ‘Fonn’ – that’s a Gaelic word, isn’t it?
It is, it’s a word for melody.
I wanted to ask about a couple of others… there’s a track on there called ‘Siorraidh’ – what does that mean?
It’s a specific kind of melancholy. I liked the sound of the word. A lot of this album was conceived on the Isle of Skye. I was travelling around, seeing different words everywhere, and I was noting them down… I took a notebook around. And it was a word that I just really liked the sound of, and I thought – I’m going to write something around that.
Where did you see it, can you remember?
I can’t, actually. It might have been in a cafe, or on a sheet of paper somewhere. Because I’m often going round different places, and if I go into a cafe and they’ve got handouts or little leaflets, I’ll take those and put them in my notebook. You find inspiration in these things.
Do you keep the notebooks wih you at all times? Do you have one at the side of the bed in case you dream something interesting?
Yeah, absolutely. I’ve got several of them. Loads of notebooks. I’m a notebook fiend!
Definitely a physical notebook, and not a phone?
Definitely physical. I like the act of writing, and… I’ve got different pens… (laughs) I’m terrible like that. Absolutely terrible.
Do you doodle as well?
Yeah. Drawings, and little diagrams. There’s all kinds of stuff in there. No-one gets to see it either, it’s kind of secret.
I know a few people that do the same. I’ve got a friend called Scott Turnbull, he’s a lovely and rather eccentric actor and writer, and he thinks that if he doesn’t make a page of notes and drawings in his notebook every day, he’s let himself down creatively. And within that page there might be one idea that he can use. He’ll pick something out of it.
Yeah, you’ve got to do an awful lot of that really, to get one idea. But it feels worth it for that one thing that stands out, and you think, actually… I can do something with that.
I assumed that you’d been to the Isle of Skye actually, because I googled the album track ‘Neist Point’ and discovered that’s where it was! Do you want to describe Niest Point to us?
Yeah, there’s a lighthouse there, and there’s quite a long walk all the way around it. And to get to it, you’ve got a load of steps. It’s a long way, a good walk. I was there for most of the day, and I just thought the atmosphere around it was amazing. You look out to sea, and… that’s pretty much all you can see. Just water. You feel really small in that place.
I was just really taken by how I felt there, and also… on the inside sleeve, there are various Polaroids of trees, and all of those trees exist on Skye. It’s all about making these temporary connections with nature, and somehow giving them a life after you’ve left them alone and got back in the car and driven off. So there’s a lot of that going on… and one of those trees was at Neist Point.
Talking about your connection with nature – and with place and landscape – I was delighted to see that your album Shapwick, from 2012, is being reissued on vinyl. It’s genuinely one of my favourite albums, and it’s meant so much to me over the years. Can you tell us a bit about the story behind it… this was another journey you were making, wasn’t it?
It was… I was coming back from a holiday in Devon, and there was an incident on the motorway – I think it was a rugby club that had caught fire – and we were in backed-up traffic, standing still for hours. And we decided that, as soon as we could get off the motorway, we’d take a detour. This was at night time, and it was completely dark. And there was a little village called Shapwick… we were driving through it, and I was just completely taken with how the car headlights looked as we went though the village. And I noted it down – at the time I was using my phone to take notes – and I just made a quick note: “Shapwick… sounds like a good album title”. And I kind of imagined how the village would feel, and the various things that would happen in it.
So as soon as I got back, I pretty much started writing stuff around that, and it became an album. And now I feel very old, because it’s been reissued for the third time! I’m really glad that it’s coming out again, because people still ask about that record.
I find that it’s a record that makes a genuinely emotional connection with people. It has a very personal resonance for me, but there’s clearly something in it that really speaks to a lot of people. Do you ever know what these things are, or do you just put the music “out there”, and see where it goes?
I don’t think you ever can know, really. Because everyone’s got their own take on it. But what I ty to do, with every record I make, is put a lot of human emotion into it. And that can take various forms, but I always want to create something that someone is going to connect with. Rather than just being… well, you know, I’d hopefully never make a bland record that doesn’t appeal to anyone. They’re going to appeal to different people, but the ideas is to try and create something that someone, somewhere is going to really connect with. And if I can do that, I’m doing my job properly.
Did you actually stop in Shapwick, or did you just drive straight through it?
No! We literally drove through. I’ve never been there.
I do love the idea of the village now having this kind of second identity, and a second history. It’s like when towns and villages are used as locations for films and TV shows… you’ve created a kind of fictional Shapwick, which I really like.
Exactly, yeah. I think, years ago, I read something about Brian Eno being quite into taking places on maps, and imaging what those places were like. That always fascinated me, that idea. And as I started to explore the place, I was thinking: “What does this place feel like? And what could go on there? Who are the characters?”
And I go off into my own world, and people become characters, and incidents become fictional things that can turn into music.
Can I ask about something on the album that has tormented me since it came out?
Go on, then. If I can answer…
Who is the man talking about bats? I can virtually quote him word for word…
Ah! Yeah, he was fabulous! I went on a bat walk, a guided walk around a nature reserve one evening, and he was the bat expert. He had all the equipment to listen to bat calls… it was fabulous, I still remember that night. He was such a character, and I just happened to have my audio recorder on me – because I carry one of those everywhere – and I recorded him speaking and I thought: “You are absolutely brilliant, you’re going to feature on a record one day…”
Does he know he’s on it?
(Laughs) I don’t think he does…
It might be a lovely surprise for him one day! If ever I end up using the word “but” in the middle of a sentence, I usually do it twice… and that’s come directly from him.
(Laughs) Yeah, he was really, really good.
You’ve recorded under lots of different guises, and done lots of collaborations… I guess lots of people will know about your work with Ghost Box as The Advisory Circle. Does it feel like you have very distinct musical personas?
Yeah, definitely. I’m just interested in lots of different things, and I can never just stick to doing one thing. I would get so bored. I probably collaborate a lot less now, but I’ve done a fair amount of that in the past – I’ve done collaborations with Friendly Fires as The Pattern Forms, and we did an album together, that was good fun to do. But even on my own, I do different projects all the time, and from one day to the next I never know what I’m going to be doing.
Do you start composing with a particular persona in mind, or do you just make music generally? And if it sounds like an Advisory Circle track, then that’s what it becomes, and if it sounds like a Jon Brooks track, then it becomes that instead…
Sometimes, yeah. I try and let things take the lead, and then I’ll just go with it, rather than trying to control it too much. You kind of get a feel after a while, of – “is this going to be an Advisory Circle track, is this going to be a Clesse track” or whatever it is, and you can then develop it in that direction, and just go with it. But I love doing different things, I always do.
It stuck me that you work with two labels with a very striking visual identity. Clay Pipe has Frances Castle’s wonderful artwork, and Ghost Box has Julian House, whose work I love, too. Is that visual element important to you?
Incredibly. I’m very into visual graphic design. And I’m just incredibly lucky, working with Frances or Ju, that I always get a sleeve that I’m really happy with. Their work, I always think, is half the record. It’s not just about the music, it’s about everything else around it. And when I give something to Ghost Box, or to Frances, and when I see the artwork, it becomes a record. And it starts to sound like a record, because I’ve got the artwork. That’s the only way I can describe it.
It must be a lovely feeling when you first unpack the finished product…
Oh god, yeah. It’s always exciting. It was like that with the last Ghost Box thing I did, Ways Of Seeing … that was in a gold foil sleeve, and I was like… “Ah, right OK… this is really good, what he’s done.”
The number I’ve times I’ve tried to wipe my thumbprints off that sleeve, though…
(Laughs) Oh, I know. Just get one of those polythene covers on it…
I used to do that with my schoolbooks! So what have you got planned next?
Just experiments at the moment. Obviously I’ve been getting this album finished, but now I want to do wildly different things. I’ve been doing loads of experiments, and seeing where it all goes, and the exciting part is not knowing. You just don’t know where you’re going…
Thanks so much to Jon for his time and conversation. The above interview was conducted in mid-March, before the Coronavirus lockdown was implemented, so the the vinyl editions of both How to Get to Spring and Shapwick have been temporarily delayed. However, digital copies of the former are available to buy here: