I loved Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace from the opening moments of Episode One. The wonky analogue synths of the theme music, the juddering film stock and terrible CSO of the title sequence: they captured perfectly an era when compulsively appalling horror anthologies were dotted liberally around the small hours of regional TV schedules. Written by and starring Matthew Holness as the titular deluded writer of schlock horror fiction, it brought giant, mutant eyeballs and extra-terrestrial broccoli to a nightmarish 1980s Romford, and made TV fixtures of its stars: Holness, Richard Ayoade, Matt Berry and Alice Lowe. A chat show sequel, Man to Man With Dean Learner, followed before Marenghi vanished back into the Hellmouth… seemingly forever.
Since then, Matthew Holness has forged a career as an accomplished and acclaimed writer and director. In his 2011 short film A Gun For George he portrayed Kent’s least-celebrated writer Terry Finch, in a hugely entertaining homage to the grittiest of 1970s British crime flicks. In 2012, he wrote and directed The Snipist, an unsettling depiction of a dystopian Britain in the midst of a rabies epidemic; and his full-length debut feature, Possum, was released in 2018. A stark, disturbing psychological horror, based on Holness’ own 2008 short story, it starred Sean Harris as a disgraced puppeteer forced to confront the spectres of the 1970s trauma wreaked by his abusive uncle – an intimidatingly seedy Alun Armstrong. Also featuring: a truly revolting spider puppet in a holdall.
I settled down for a long Skype chat with Matthew on a hot Friday morning in June. Here’s how the conversation went:
Bob: I wanted to start by asking about something I’ve read about, and I was intrigued to find out more – you met Peter Cushing when you were very small, didn’t you? When you were about six?
Matthew: That came out in an interview, and I realised I was probably a little bit older than that, actually. I misremembered it. I used to see him around the town quite a bit. Let me just show you what I’ve got here…
[Matthew vanishes from the webcam, and rummages on his desk]
….this is the autobiography of Peter Cushing that I had bought for me, and he’s written in the front. And I also saw him outside a bookshop in 1985, and I have his little autograph there… [at this point, he produces another slip of paper]. These are my most treasured possessions!
Where was this – in Kent, where you grew up?
In Whitstable, yeah. He was a long-term resident of Whitstable, and you always used to see him around. My little brother and I used to watch the Hammer films, at a younger age than we probably should have done. We used to tape them on a Friday or Saturday night and watch them the next morning. So he was a huge hero of ours, simply because… you know, it was Van Helsing living in our home town! And when we saw him outside this little bookshop, Pirie and Cavender’s, we were absolutely starstruck. And my mum very kindly took us up to him and introduced us as fans of his work. And he said “I do hope they’re watching the right films…” [Laughs]
I think he thought “Oh my god, these two little boys, seeing my horrific vampire films…”
I think the first Hammer film I saw was Dracula A.D 1972, and there’s actually quite a lot of grim stuff in that for a young kid. It did haunt me: the scenes from that film used to play in my head, over and over. Which is hilarious, because you watch it now and it’s such a tame horror film in many respects. But it’s got a nice atmosphere.
Oh, I love that film – just for the sheer 1970s-ness of it all. It’s ludicrous and brilliant. And I’m guessing Peter Cushing was probably expecting you and your brother to be Star Wars fans…
I think so. And I think we probably started talking about Dracula, and he went “Hold on…” [Laughs].
And then I saw him again when I passed my eleven-plus exam. For a little reward my parents asked “What would you like?”, and I said “I’d love the new Peter Cushing autobiography.”
He was signing them in WHSmiths in Canterbury, so we went. There was a long queue going into the shop, and my mum said “We’re getting this because my son’s passed his eleven-plus.” And that’s when he wrote out what, for a book signing, is quite a long message. I just thought that was lovely. He didn’t have to do that… I think he was just genuinely a very lovely man.
So where did that love of horror actually come from? Like you say, it’s a very young age to be discovering Hammer Horror films… you must certainly have been under ten at this point.
Yeah, I was ten in 1985, so I was watching them before then.
And they weren’t immediately accessible films – they were usually on very late on BBC2. You say you were taping them, but you must have known about them in the first place to want to do that. Where did that interest come from?
I think I was just always obsessed with that kind of stuff. And I suppose actually, back then, they did market horror to kids. The Ladybird books had the Mummy, and Frankenstein and Dracula, and Jekyll and Hyde. And these were books that weren’t dumbed down at all for kids, they weren’t palatable versions… the illustrations were actually quite grim. And you know, you could walk into any supermarket… I remember going into Safeways in Herne Bay and seeing the James Herbert and Stephen King covers; books where I just went: “What is that?” I was always just interested in this world that I wasn’t supposed to like.
Also, the video shops… there was so little on TV that your parents would take you to get a video from the local store, and you knew there was this area at the back with these absolutely horrific-looking covers. And even if you weren’t allowed to walk down that end, you stopped and peered through: “What is that one?”, you know! I think it’s just a natural thing, and in those days I don’t think anyone was too bothered about kids seeing that sort of stuff.
Certainly I remember lots of birthday parties with my friends where the after-games entertainment was An American Werewolf In London! The first time I saw that, I would literally have been about six or seven. It was a birthday party, and the older brother had got an illegal video. So I remember seeing all these horrific things at a children’s party… and weirdly enough, it was a party where we all got food poisoning as well. [Laughs]
Oh no! So were you not scared by these films?
Oh yeah, terrified. Absolutely terrified. I remember recording Alien, and my brother and I watching it the next morning, and being so frightened that we would forward-wind it five minutes, then rewind and actually watch that five minutes. Then we’d stop and forward-wind it again to see if anything shocking was coming up, then rewind and watch… that’s how I watched Alien for the first time!
So this all kind of ties into my vague theory that there’s a collision of cultural, sociological and technological influences that converge on the childhoods of kids that grew up roughly between 1965 and 1985. Lots of us who were children during that period seem to have had this quite profound feeling of vague unsettlement – not just from the pop culture of the era, but from the grit and grime of British life in general. Is that something you identify with? I definitely detect that feeling in a lot of your work.
Absolutely. Obviously, there are a million things going on in your childhood, but I can remember very strongly the general feeling of terror; of lying up in bed and hearing just the news bulletins. Just the music of the BBC news bulletins. And to be honest, I think kids today are going to have this, because – for example – my daughter got terrified of: “When’s Brexit happening? What is it? What will happen with Brexit?” And you know, we have to keep constantly reassuring her. “Don’t worry darling, Brexit isn’t this horrific thing…” Even though it is. [Laughs]
Who knows what kind of psychological impact that will have, but I think it’ll be something akin to what we had. Because there were just so many frightening things that we were party to… more than usual, because I don’t think people were that concerned about keeping their kids away from news bulletins. There was less of it to see, certainly: it wasn’t 24-hour news, so we didn’t get that rolling terror… but it was still there, and the bulletins were very sombre and serious.
And I think that extended to educational programmes. I remember getting very anxious, coming home from nursery school and seeing the educational programmes that were on for older children, and being absolutely terrified that this was the adult world I was heading into. They were speaking in languages I didn’t understand – “Learn French!” – and I just remember feeling terrified of the adult world… and finding school a frightening place. It just seemed grim, and very adult, and you were just waiting to be cast into this horrific arena… [Laughs]
I think it was also an era when the adult world and the child’s world collided in ways that maybe happens less these days. You might see a news headline that made it seem like nuclear war was imminent, and this would be two minutes after the end of Willo The Wisp.
That’s right, and that extends to things like Public Information Films. Throughout all programming, they’d just come on – I saw them all, and one in particular has haunted me for my entire life. And I tweeted a long time ago: “Has anyone seen this Public Information Film, because I can’t get it out of my head… but I can’t find it anywhere!” There had been DVDs of Public Information Films that had come out, but I could never find it. And then this year, someone found it for me and tweeted it to me, and I went: “Yes! I wasn’t going mad!” I’d got it into my head that this was some horrific thing that I’d half imagined, buried deep in my subconscious.
But it was there, and it didn’t do much good, actually… [Laughs]. It was taking, from baby to adulthood, one guy who is constantly eating too much and having people force food upon him. “Have another one! Have this! Just one more, we’re not having half measures here!” Do you remember that one? It ends with him in a hospital bed, with it bleeping, and his heart going… and this look… he knows that he’s staring the Grim Reaper in the face.
It absolutely terrified me. And that’s the sort of thing that was on during school educational programmes; during entertainment programmes. Just a very different environment that was particular to that generation, I suppose.
Did the look of TV during that era make a big impression on you? Lots of stuff that you’ve done has had that vintage film look, and I’ve spoken to so many people who have said that the experience of watching TV in the 1970s and 80s was quite different. It was fuzzy, the signal would drift in and out… Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace captures that perfectly, I think. The opening titles are slightly wonky and degraded… is that all an important part of capturing that feeling?
I think it depends on what you’re attempting to do. With that particular show, it was trying to present it as a realistic programme from that time. And I think in that situation, there’s always the argument of “Ah, we’ll just make it look like film, with a digital thing…” We did a pilot for Garth that was recorded digitally, then we tried to create a film look for it… but you can always tell. The suspension of disbelief, for me, is in seeing the almost dream-like world of film.
A classic case of this: there’s a horror film that came out in the 2000s called Session 9, which is a very good horror film and it’s directed very well, but it was one of the first films to use digital, and it just goes against it. It goes against the way that it’s been shot, and it goes against how the story and narrative is presented. So I can’t ever fully immerse myself in that story and believe it. Because if it had been shot on film… there’s something about that, having grown up in that environment. For me, it is that suspension of disbelief. It allows me to accept that this is another world, it’s another reality. If you have digital, it’s pure artifice for me. These are actors, there’s a crew there… it doesn’t feel real. It doesn’t have that quality.
And I suppose it depends very much whether you’re receptive to it or not. There are lots of people that don’t even think about that… but it does work on them subconsciously, I think. And as I say, we shot the pilot for Garth on digital and then tried to give it a film look… and it just didn’t work. It just didn’t feel like the real thing. But when we shot it on 16mm, there’s something about that that allows you to accept – although we’re perhaps not the right age in the interviews – that it’s a real show. Because it just looks like one. It is the real thing. And I find that if you just use the technology, it’s not that difficult to achieve an authentic look from the past. It’s just about knowing how it was done, and I suppose you have to have a bit of an eye for it.
Probably one of the big appeals of Darkplace is that, on a subconscious level, people can happily believe in it. Certainly people who grew up with TV of that kind. Parody is something that usually only really works as a sketch, and you have to have something far more than just laughing at what it is in order to take it any further. If it doesn’t feel like the real thing, then you are just watching an extended joke. I don’t know, it’s an odd one. I think there are plenty of shows that do parody very well, but for me it was about capturing that era of programming.
One thing I love about Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace is that it was broadcast on Channel 4… which would have been the perfect home for the show had it been real in the 1980s! It was so similar to the kind of genuine shows that I used to watch on Channel 4 as a teenager. Was it pure serendipity that that was where it ended up?
I think we were just fortunate… we won the Perrier Award, so we did have interest from the BBC. And it wasn’t straight to a TV series of our own: we did make a pilot, and we’d done a few things on some other shows – there was a pilot recorded by Avalon TV called Head Farm, directed by Stewart Lee. That was an hour-long attempt to do a comedy show – Johnny Vegas was in it, the Boosh were in it, and various other comedians from that time – and we’d done bits of Garth in that. So it wasn’t an immediate thing, and Channel 4 were always very supportive of us. They were great.
I mean, it wasn’t plain sailing… again, they didn’t want us to use film, because we’d never filmed before, and film is something where you just can’t afford to keep going. This is why I think digital is always preferred, because you can basically screw it up, and keep going. But that has it’s own attendant problems, because it entirely affects how you shoot something, and how much you think it through beforehand. And film is good for that, because film gives you a discipline – you have to figure out what you want to do.
But we had to give them a kind of “Anadin test”, recording the same scene on different formats. So we shot it on 16mm, we also shot it on digital, and then we played them to the execs at Channel 4 and asked them to pick the one they preferred. And they all picked the film. So, operating at a subconscious level, they knew that was the right one.
All of you on that show seemed to be coming from that position of remembering these “haunted” feelings from your childhood. I talked to Alice Lowe, and she remembered watching shows like Century Falls on Children’s BBC, and late-night horror films on BBC2. And I’ve interviewed Matt Berry for the radio, and we ended up talking about Ghost Box Records. Were you all coming from that shared background?
Well… not that we ever discussed with each other! None of us were interested in each other’s pasts at all! [Laughs] It’s just part of that generation, I guess. I don’t think Richard grew up necessarily watching the same things that I did… because he didn’t like horror, he wasn’t interested in it at all. I think Richard’s interests were very much Woody Allen and French New Wave, all that sort of stuff… which I wasn’t a fan of. So it’s odd, we started writing this thing together without really going for each other’s interests in that sense. Alice, I didn’t know hugely well back then… she was brought in at a later stage for our live shows, but again… yeah, we didn’t really chat about interests and pasts. We didn’t have those discussions, and we didn’t really consciously thing ever think about tapping into anything.
We filmed a version of Darkplace that was called Garth Marenghi’s The Told – that was the pilot I was talking about, shot digitally – but it was also something that wasn’t set in the past. It was attempting to be a modern show, for that time. And it just didn’t work. It was almost too serious. We were trying to overplay the seriousness to make it very, very pretentious, and it was just dull.
Alice said it was like a Lars Von Trier pastiche, which intrigued me…
Yeah, we were trying to make it like The Kingdom, I think. We’d watched that, and so were trying to make it look like a funny, over-serious version of The Kingdom. But it was just bland. There was some good stuff in it, Matt was very good in it… and the bits that we knew worked, there are actually little clips from those in Darkplace. During the graveyard shoot-out in Episode One… when Dean’s firing the shotgun, that’s from the pilot. Those bits are actually treated to look like film, and hopefully you can’t tell.
But we were a bit worried about how we were going to make it work… and Richard and I were huge fans of Police Squad. And we thought, OK… [pause] actually no, it wasn’t that! It would have been more to do with Spinal Tap: just the idea of placing it in the past, because then we had a framework that we could make more funny. We did a couple of tests – and these are on the DVD – of what the same scenes might look like if we set them in the past, and all of a sudden the fake sets and the whole Doctor Who production quality of it became very funny, because that was playing against the seriousness of what the characters were trying to achieve. And suddenly that was the joke: that absolute contrast between the shitness of what it is, and their aspiration. And I think we’d lost sight of that essential joke in the pilot.
That seems to be a consistent theme in your characters, and it’s one that I love – their opinion of their own talent is always way in excess of their actual talent itself. It’s certainly true of Garth! Is that kind of delusion one that you find especially funny?
I’ve always found that funny, yeah. When people reach too high! [Laughs] Because I think it applies to us all – we can laugh at that, because deep down we’re all terrified that we’re not quite who we think we are. We laugh because it’s one of our deepest fears, I think… and if we can laugh at someone else doing it then it makes us feel slightly better. And the thing is – it’s not like I dislike people for doing that. Particularly as I get older, it gives me great pleasure that people are reaching high.
I tell you what was the big inspiration for this… American Movie, with Mark Borchardt. That was one of the things I fell in love with. Have you seen it? There’s something so wonderful about it. That was one of the biggest inspirations for me, making A Gun For George. This was a point when I hadn’t directed before, and I didn’t know if I could do it, and I just watched that film over and over, simply because… for me, he had the absolute spirit of: “Well maybe I’ve got nothing, but I’m going to do it anyway.” And it’s that impulse to spur yourself onward, when maybe the entire world is waiting for you to fail or slip up. That, to me… I don’t think I’d have made A Gun For George without watching that film over and over and just thinking: “I’m going to do it, because he did it and I love these guys. I don’t care how shit it is, it’s worth something because these guys have just done it, they’ve gone and pushed themselves.”
So yeah, I find myself warming to that. It used to annoy me with certain writers, where I just thought: “But they’re writing crap! Can’t they see it’s crap?” And now I sort of look at it and go [positively]: “It’s crap! It’s great, though!”
I love pulp writers. I’ve always loved pulp writers. I discovered, when I was on holiday in Australia in 2004, that they were still publishing Cleveland Westerns, which were little digest pulp Westerns – they published eight a month. And I just swept them up. I think I have about 900 of these Westerns. And I’ve probably read 100-150 of them. You get through them in two hours, and they’re all basically variations on eight plots. There are eight Western plots, and each one is variation on that. You just fly through them.
One writer is called Paul Wheelahan, and he wrote 900 or more of these Westerns throughout the course of his life. At his peak, he would pump out one a week… they were only about 37,000 words, ten chapters. And those are the kind of writers I really admire, because they’re just writing for money. But then suddenly they’ll write one that is so much better than the other ten you’ve previously read, and you’ll think: “Oh, they’re really on fire for this one! I wonder why?” And that’s what I like discovering… those little pulp writers, where their heart and soul is coming out in something that’s just going to be discarded. No-one’s going to give it any time, and it’s just going to disappear in twenty years time.
And the thing that broke my heart this year is that Cleveland Publishing went out of business. They’d been publishing since the 1950s – same family – and this year they just couldn’t compete with online sales, and finally their distribution went down and the company went bust. And I was absolutely heartbroken, because whenever I went back out there I would just arm up with all these Westerns. I love them. They’re just great.
Have you really got 900 of them? Where do you keep them all?
I keep them in the eaves of my house, in plastic boxes. Because they’re all paper – they won’t stand up on a shelf, there’s no spine to them.
Have you got one there?
Yes, I can get you one! Hang on… [Matthew vanishes and rummages off camera again]. Oh, actually I don’t have one here. But I tell you what I have got… when they were selling up…
Did you buy a job lot?
…I did buy a job lot. Two job lots, in fact. But I also bought a piece of the original artwork for one of my favourites of theirs… this one I just love. It’s just great pulp art. [At this point he holds up a beautiful piece of original “Old West” artwork]
So all of that was very much an influence on A Gun For George. I was absolutely bowled over by these writers and their work discipline. And a lot of that went into A Gun For George.
I really wanted to talk about A Gun For George. You seem very keen to blur their lines between fiction and reality: I know you once did full interviews in character as Gareth Marenghi, and you also took Merriman Weir – the folk singer character from Man to Man with Dean Learner – out on tour, and played live. And with Terry Finch, your character from A Gun For George… I saw you claim at the time that there was actually a real Kent-based 1970s writer called Terry Finch, who indeed wrote a series of crime novels called The Reprisalizer, and I’m still not sure whether that’s true or not.
Well, that’s good! [Laughs]
I’ve found online evidence of a Terry Finch Appreciation Society, run by a man called Frank Barrow…
Yep. And it was lovely, because there was a guy in Kent who found that blog, and he really didn’t know… I think it’s that suspension of disbelief thing. People want to believe in these alternate realities.
And writing the Reprisalizer material… I was reading lots of J.G. Ballard at that time, and I was learning to drive so I became obsessed with cars and motorways and service stations; that whole area. I read this fantastic book called Food On The Move, about the history of the motorway service station. And what really came across from that book was that there were grand plans for this vision of a wonderful utopia, where we’d all be driving along wonderful motorways with beautiful service stations. I think that dream died within about three years; suddenly they realised that it wasn’t practical. And so you have these wonderful buildings that look like a dream of what Britain could have been. It’s that hauntological thing, the alternative future that we never lived in.
I didn’t know anything about this hauntology stuff at all when I was reading this, but it was working on me in a very natural way. And Ballard, I think, is particularly expressive of that – it’s all about what we aimed for, what we denied about ourselves, and what we’ve got in reality. This whole British thing, this madness of thinking we have this incredible Britain that achieves this, that and whatever… and just not realising what we actually are. You just know things are going to fail. Of course that app didn’t work. Of course! [Laughs]
And with Terry… partly, I suppose, it’s about always wanting to have been a writer who could just pound out those things. Those little novellas. And I think I just wanted to make him a real person, and to keep him a mystery. I haven’t done anything for Terry Finch for a while, but he’s safely in that past and I know I can always go back to him at some point and pick up where he might have been.
So for me, it was about living in these alternate versions of the past, and trying to create my existence in that time. I was only a kid, but I do remember the feel of that Britain. The feel of the cars that were square and not round, and had colours. I get this every time I watch films from that period… like Who Dares Wins. Those are my deepest, earliest memories of school: the feel of those cars, and the sound of them as you get in. One of the most wonderful things on A Gun For George was just driving that Allegro to set. I was driving the make-up artists to set in the Allegro, and all of a sudden we had the sound and feel of childhood. The make-up artist, My Alehammer… she fell asleep in the car and said “It’s these old cars… they just make you want to fall asleep, they’re so cosy”. It’s that general hum of the car, the noise.
And it’s weird, because on the one hand it’s nostalgia. And nostalgia… I kind of like, but you can’t just get nostalgic about stuff. That’s not reality. But there is something about wanting a better reality, I suppose. Or wanting a reality that’s not here, that we can’t have, but it’s haunting us… because we kind of wonder how would life be if it had gone that different way. Why can’t I live in that environment? I can see all the buildings, and what they were aiming for, but it isn’t there, and never was there.
That very melancholy view, of a past that wasn’t, is very much what fuelled A Gun For George. I love the idea of this author that wrote so much stuff, these great books that no-one has heard of… and no-one ever will. That interests me. I feel I would like to know about someone like that.
My relationship with nostalgia has changed – I’ve kind of exhausted my own personal nostalgia. There are only so many times I can get wistful watching 1970s Doctor Who. I actually get more of a frisson from other people’s nostalgia these days… things that were around at that time, but that I don’t remember or didn’t experience personally. And also… I have a weird nostalgia for the era that’s just slightly before my own memories begin. I was born in 1972, and that period of around 1972-1975 is one that I now find far more evocative than my actual childhood memories. I don’t know why.
Yeah. I think that’s true. With A Gun For George… that’s set in a period that I’m really not able to remember. In the late 1970s I was only three or four, but it is about wanting to be back there… whereas I should, by rights, be hugely nostalgic about the 1980s, which I’m not. Well, I sort of am a little bit, but only because – as my family and friends get older – I would love to revisit grandparents, things like that. But I don’t get nostalgic for that period at all. It’s the period just before that that I feel strangely nostalgic for. So yeah, I agree with you. I don’t know why or how that comes about, but it’s certainly something I can relate to.
Maybe because that period is a bit more out of reach? Once we’d hit the 1980s, we were able to record TV programmes… but I have memories of shows from the 1970s where… not only do I not know what they were, but I don’t even know if those programmes exist any more. They could have been wiped from an archive, and only exist in my head. There’s a longing for things that we no longer have access to, and may never be able to access again. That’s quite potent.
Absolutely, and there are certain films that capture that. I’ve just started watching, over and over, a film that I think maybe I like even more than Get Carter now. And that’s Villain, with Richard Burton. Which seems just to capture that seedy underbelly of the previous years: the Krays, all that very dark part of human behaviour. But now you watch it, and that opening shot, of a London that’s unrecognisable… it’s almost the cityscape that we’re feeling nostalgic for. There it is, shot on beautiful film stock, and it feels very much like the living past. It’s dreamlike… it isn’t a London that we will ever know or experience. And they weren’t trying to do that at the time, these are happy accidents that occur when the films resonate in ways that would never have been intended.
It’s odd, I always remember the DVD commentaries on some of The Sweeney episodes, and the guys saying “Yeah, they do stand up, these episodes, don’t they? It’s just the music… the music’s absolutely terrible. I’d be going back now and getting rid of all that!” And I was: “WHAT??! You can’t get rid of the music!” And that’s it… we feel differently to the people who actually made the music. They’re looking at it in a very different way to us.
Can I ask about The Snipist, the short film you made with Douglas Henshall? Set in a dystopian Britain where the population has been decimated by rabies, and Douglas plays a government sniper employed to pick off the potentially infected. You mentioned Public Information Films earlier, and I’m guessing The Snipist came directly from your childhood fear of those…
Yes. I don’t know how I got to make that in a way, because A Gun For George was pitched – and we got the commission for it – as being a crime version of Darkplace. It was supposed to be pure parody like Darkplace… and ended up, during the filming, being something a bit more serious. And the same thing happened with The Snipist. I think I pitched it as a comedy! Basically, Warp Films had a development deal with Sky and were asking if there was anything I could pitch. And at that stage, I said: “Yeah, I’d like to do some kind of humorous, post-apocalyptic thing.” And maybe that’s because I felt more comfortable it would get commissioned, because people knew the kind of stuff I’d done previously. But again, I don’t know at what point it went from being a comic thing to there being absolutely no humour in it! [Laughs].
I think probably it coincided with my obsession with Ballard at that point… I was trying to read everything I could. I was living in that headspace of Brutalist architecture. I was constantly trying to seek out areas that were forgotten: there’s a wonderful tower block in Margate, which I used for A Gun For George. Arlington House, it’s called… it’s got a Brutalist car park, exactly like a Ballard high-rise. A dead area, dead ground. It may be very different now, because I think Margate has transformed hugely since we were there. But at that point, I was obsessed with finding old, Brutalist buildings… and I was obsessing over old fonts. [Laughs]
And I just thought: “This is great, I can hopefully do a slice of post-apocalyptic 1970s dystopian TV.” Which I loved… Survivors, all that kind of stuff. And I was obsessed with the Public Information films, just obsessed with trying to capture that past a little bit… because the towers that we’d filmed in, these wonderful cooling towers in A Gun For George, they were detonated and destroyed around that time. I was just terrified that all these wonderful, Brutalist buildings were going, and I suppose I wanted to capture what I could of that, while I could. Whether or not that really came across in The Snipist, I don’t know… but that’s where my headspace was. We shot it on an old Air Force based that was used for filming, so it had a lot of bombed-out buildings… that’s what fed into that, certainly.
And it has Sir John Hurt providing the voice of the shadowy authorities – how was he to work with? I’m assuming you were in the voiceover studio with him…
Yeah, he was absolutely wonderful. I didn’t think for one second that we’d get him, but Peter Carlton at Warp had, I think, worked with him or his representatives at some point previously. He said “Look – I’ll lay the groundwork, and why don’t you write a letter to John? We’ll take it from there…” And I thought “Oh, he’ll never do this, but we’ll give it ago…” I wrote him a letter, and he got back, and yes… he was keen to do it. And he was wonderful. We recorded locally here, because at the time he lived in North Norfolk, and he actually came to a local studio where I sometimes do voiceovers. And it was just lovely. He came and said “Right, we’ll get this dusted off in about ten or fifteen, I should think…”
And I remember I looked at the producer, and the producer looked at me, like: “Yeah, we’ll see…” [Laughs] But he did it perfectly in exactly ten or fifteen minutes. And it was all useable, perfect stuff, and we went… “Wow.” He was wonderful, and I feel very privileged to have worked with him. He’s the voice of that kind of era… The Plague Dogs, and 1984… he was just the perfect voice for that kind of show.
Another actor that I love is Clive Merrison, who you worked with on your 2016 short film, Smutch… in which you play an author haunted by a literal “ghost writer”. How was Clive to work with?
Oh, just brilliant. Again, just someone that I didn’t think we’d get in a million years. It was a very short shoot – only two days – so I didn’t get to really spend a great deal of time with him, but what time I did spend with him… he was wonderful. Just absolutely brilliant. One of those actors that is so unique, and just does whatever he’s required to do… brilliantly [Laughs]. I’ve been very, very fortunate with the actors that I’ve got to do these things, and he was great. I’d love to work with him again.
What was it that made you seek out Clive in particular? Any particular roles of his that you’re especially fond of?
Oh, I’d seen him in lots of things. I saw him recently in… what’s the Peter Jackson film?
Heavenly Creatures! What a film that is. That’s very dark and disturbing.
It is, and he’s brilliant in it. And my partner Sarah, who does a lot of script editing – including on my films, she worked on Possum and The Snipist and A Gun For George – she’s been a lifelong fan of his. You know: “You’ve got to see him in this one, and this one! You’ve got to see him here…” He’s so strange, what he does, and no-one can replicate it. He is totally unique.
There’s a real otherworldly quality to him – is that present off camera, too?
Again, I didn’t really talk to him a great deal, simply because we were so busy trying to get everything in the can. He was just very quiet… and totally wonderful. Completely accommodating, and for someone like him to be put through a very fast, rushed, two-day shoot, when I’m sure he’d rather have been doing something else [Laughs]… he was great.
I do find actors of that generation are generally quite amazed when people our age have any idea who they are. I met Denis Lill last year, and when I started talking excitedly about Survivors, his reaction was essentially: “You’ve seen it? Really? Good god, it was 45 years ago!” These actors are heroes to us, and they don’t know it. It’s really touching.
Well, there are two guys in Fawlty Towers. We were watching a Fawlty Towers episode last night, and I’m a huge fan of Brian Hall, who plays Terry, the chef. I’ve always loved him, he’s possibly my favourite 1970s actor. Because even though he never really features in any starring roles, he – to me – encapsulates that era of TV and film
As does the chap who plays the guy in ‘Communication Problems’, the Mrs Richards episode, who comes in and gives Basil the tip about “Dragonfly”. We looked him up last night. Johnny Shannon! If you look him up on IMDB, he’s in every single show that you’d want to be in from that period. He always plays dodgy gangland figures… he’s in Performance, Slade in Flame, the two Sweeney films, the Sweeney series… he’s in pretty much everything. I’ll just read them out… Villain, Budgie, Something to Hide, Z-Cars, The Morecambe and Wise Show, the Jack the Ripper TV series from 1973, Armchair Cinema, Dixon of Dock Green, The XYY Man, The Dick Emery Show, Hazell… everything that you’d want to be in as an actor, he’s in all of them. And he’s got such a good presence, this kind of “Awroit, Mr Fawlty?” He’s wonderful. He is 1970s Man. Just brilliant, I love him.
I must ask you about Possum, which is such a darkly beautiful film in so many respects. Sean Harris is a disgraced puppeteer who returns to his run-down childhood home to be confronted by his uncle, Maurice – and is really haunted by the trauma of his earliest years, particularly the abuse that he suffered. It’s a very touching piece of work, and having now discovered that Get Carter is one of your favourite films – was that one of the reasons that you wanted to cast Alun Armstrong in it?
Well, you know what… we had a very difficult job trying to get anyone to play Maurice.
It’s not a sympathetic part.
No. And we had gone to Alun before, but he was busy – he was shooting in America. But we were about a week and a half away from filming, and we still hadn’t cast Maurice. So it was getting pretty desperate. And Natalie, our costume designer, came to our rescue because she was a family friend of his. She said “Have you asked Alun?”, and I said “Well actually, we have and he’s busy.”
She said “He’s actually back now… why don’t I just ask him, and see if he would have a chat with you about it?” I said “That would be amazing if you could, because we shoot in a week…” [Laughs]
And she spoke to him, and I had a call with him, and he agreed to do it. Because… well, any number of reasons, but one of the reasons he said to me was that he just loved the idea of being able to do a Norfolk accent. He hadn’t done one for so many years, and that – to him – was a great reason to do the part. He could really get into it that way. He actually talked to a vocal coach that he’d worked with previously, and got together with him to go through the accent.
And I was just too nervous, generally, to ever mention to Alun about him being in Get Carter. I just couldn’t. I didn’t want him to feel that I’d cast him because I was a fanboy, and I just didn’t think about Get Carter while we did it. Occasionally I’d look around and think, you know [mutters] “I can’t believe that’s Alun Armstrong…” but I just kept quiet about all that. Although I did mention it to him after we’d done the shoot, and he was absolutely wonderful. Whether or not he understands how revered that film is… who knows? But certainly that film, to people like us, is dreamlike. It’s that reality that we’ll never see, but it fills our heads and our imaginations so vividly. That version of Britain, at that time… the architecture, the mood, the feel. But I’m sure, to the people that were in it, it was just another crime film. You know what I mean? It’s odd.
To me as a North-Easterner, Get Carter is so evocative of the 1970s I remember. The scene that always transports me is the one where the Juvenile Bazz Band march past the row of terraced houses. That’s such an image from my childhood, and I’m never sure if even the idea of a Juvenile Jazz Band is a peculiarly North-Eastern thing. Did you have them in Kent?
We did have had lots of carnivals, and I remember seeing majorettes at those. I don’t see things like that any more… the carnivals are very different now. But there were always majorettes dancing, and bands… and I remember going down to Whitstable High Street for the remembrance service, and seeing all the old soldiers being very sombre. And not understanding at all… but that was very much the lived-in reality of our childhood, seeing this generation of people that had done all these things. And I can’t believe that I was standing around these people that had lived through this extraordinary period of history. It is weird, the vast changes that have occurred socially and culturally in our lifetimes. It’s very strange… I am at that point where I look back now and realise, you know… it’s like me being a child then and looking back to my parents’ childhood, the 1940s and 50s, and thinking how ancient that felt to me as a young kid. And we’re at that stage now. I show my daughter stuff, and say “Look! This was Daddy when…” and she just goes [bored] “Yeeaaaah…. why are you showing me this?”
Yes, the 1990s, eh? It’s the “old days” now. You’re right, and the older I get the more unbelievable it seems that the older people that we knew as kids had been born during the Victorian era. That just feels surreal to me now. I have a friend who, at one stage, was working on a book about game shows, and he was watching an elderly couple playing ‘Beat the Clock’ on Sunday Night at the London Palladium in the mid-1950s. And he suddenly realised that this couple, playing a TV game show, would have been old enough to remember the Jack the Ripper murders. The living links between those different eras now just seem beyond comprehension.
That’s right, and you see that in dramas from the late 1960s, early 1970s, where the old people are all wearing Edwardian clothes. They’re all wearing hats and Edwardian hairstyles… it’s that thing of never leaving the period when you were young. It’s like seeing an old Teddy Boy. You realise… my gosh, these are the people that were young at that time.
It’s funny… my grandfather was moving into a home recently, so we were going through some of the stuff in his house. And he’d kept all these old books, including… well, either his father or his uncle had left him a compendium of Strand magazines. And what was fascinating was that, as we looked through it, occasionally we’d find a flower that was pressed during Victorian times. And it’s got the date in the front, 1897 or something like that, and there’s one story at the front… one of these pre-World War One angst stories about some invasion that was going to happen. “Countries have fallen…”. And he’d scrawled, in the edges, “But never England!”
And you just think… this is a real document. It was really written, in 1897. And that always fascinates me, just seeing the past come alive like that.
I buy a lot of second-hand books, and I love finding books with writing in the front. “This book belongs to Debbie Wilson, 1977…”, you know. It’s just a lovely link to the past. Sorry, I was asking you about Possum!
Sorry, go ahead!
So, I’ve read this, and it seems amazing… is it true that Alun Armstrong and Sean Harris deliberately didn’t communicate with each other outside of their scenes in the film?
Yep. I mean, that was really part of Sean’s preparation for the role. He’s method, so he didn’t want them to interact as Sean and Alun. He wanted to keep them as Philip and Maurice. After the shoot, they certainly spoke, but for the film they were kept apart.
Is that fairly unusual?
I think so! [Laughs]
How was it for you as a director?
It was a huge change from what I’d done previously. Coming from a comedy background, the way that you direct comedians is very much about… “Oh, let’s do that again, try it this way.” But that doesn’t apply with method actors, or any actor, really. One of the things I had to learn, and this was true with Douglas Henshall as well [in The Snipist]… they don’t need you to go through and figure out how they’re going to do it. I realised that was the wrong way to direct, so that was a learning process for me… to get my head around how real actors go about filming. And when they’re in character, and what they need from a director to get the right kind of performance out of them. And particularly because Sean is method and because the subject matter of the film is so dark and challenging, that meant it was quite an intense shoot at times.
Obviously it’s a disturbing film, but there’s also a real stillness to it that I found quite beautiful and affecting. And again, I guess it goes back to those childhood experiences… it’s easy to assume that, because we were scared of things as kids, our entire childhoods were “Bang! Bang! Bang! Scary Stuff!”. But my memories of childhood are of things being frequently rather still and silent, and that’s where some of our scariest thoughts actually came from. Because our minds wandered. And I thought Possum really captured that. Was that something that you deliberately sought to evoke?
Very much. It’s interesting… it’s a film that really does divide people, and I think a lot of the criticisms against the film are down to its pace, down to its speed. And I don’t have a problem with films that take their time. Certainly if you watch a lot of World Cinema, you’re going to get lots of very slow, long shots! But I think that what you say is very true: we didn’t have 24-hour TV, we didn’t really have videos until some way through our childhoods, we couldn’t always afford the latest gadgets, we didn’t get computers until really very late; and really, you had a lot of time on your hands. We were in the garden, out on bike rides. And yes, I think that stuff probably did stay in our heads a little bit. If you saw Doctor Who, there was no way you were going to see it again for another week, and if – God forbid – someone else had plans and you didn’t see it, then… well, you didn’t see it.
And certainly with the film, and particularly with the character of Philip… he’s someone who has never escaped that point. The world has moved on, and every time he’s trying to be pro-active, to remove the burden upon him and solve his issues, he’s kind of punished for it. He can’t do anything. He’s got this overbearing, terrifying paranoia that maybe he’s done something he’s not sure about, and can’t quite remember… and he’s revisiting places. And for him, it’s very much about being trapped. Being trapped in your own head, in your own little world where no-one else is.
And I knew that people might move on from that and get bored, but I was trying to make it for the people that wouldn’t abandon him at that point. I never made it thinking “This is going to appeal to everybody.” I kind of knew it wouldn’t. And it was very important for me to be true to him, and to give that character a voice. So for me, if people abandoned him, I almost had that – “Well, screw you. I’m not interested in you. I’m more interested in Philip, so if you want to move on and leave him, fine.”
That does sound very pretentious! [Laughs] And know some people just say “Mate, it’s a slow film.” And I can kind of accept that. It isn’t a fast-paced horror film in that sense. But I just don’t find fast-paced horror films particularly frightening… unless it’s something like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, where it is about very real, physical threat. But certainly psychological ghost stories… they need time. Time to play, and time to get you into a certain psychological space.
But I think you’re right – we had a lot more time on our hands, just being by ourselves. We couldn’t be entertained all the time in the way that kids are now. We had to find our own entertainment, plus… you had kids going out, playing in woods and meeting dirty old men in macs. That happened, you know. We had one guy outside our school, and he just stood staring in, at all the kids in the playground. I remember there being a talk in assembly, saying: “We have a man who’s come to stand and look… nobody talk to him.” And it was a few days before he vanished. Horrific.
And the nature of the danger was never properly explained to us, was it?
I remember we had the Stranger Danger pamphlets, and we had a policeman come in, but they didn’t ever really say what might happen. It was very much: “Be aware of this, be aware of this”. It was the “dirty old man”. We accepted it as just another reality. Whether or not that has any part in our overall anxiety, I don’t know.
As with The Snipist and its use of Brutalist architecture, Possum uses the power of landscape to great effect – again, combined with that sense of stillness. Some of the shots actually reminded me of the use of landscape in the BBC’s 1970s M.R. James adaptations, in particular A Warning To The Curious. You filmed in similar locations, didn’t you? In Norfolk and Suffolk?
Yes, we filmed it up in Stiffkey Marshes. And all over North Norfolk to be honest, and in Norwich… but generally that same area where they made those films. Because they are so evocative, visually. So powerful. Particularly the opening shots of A Warning To The Curious, which are like a painting… I’m always trying to figure out how they did that, whether or not they filmed with a gauze over the camera, or with particularly grainy film, because it feels like something that’s not quite real.
The way that stretch of trees pushes out… if that was filmed digitally, that would have no effect. You’d say “Ah, trees! Some sea!” But the very fact that they shot it in the way they did, that takes you out of reality. It places you somewhere where something supernatural can be believed to have happened. All those things, I think, contribute. It’s very hard to create atmosphere, I think, and that’s why people resort to music. You have find ways to capture and evoke that feeling; you have to use everything you can. And the ability to manipulate the environment in which you’re filming, and allowing that environment to create the atmosphere… if you don’t acknowledge that then you’re really missing a trick.
Mind you, speaking of the music… I love the fact that you brought the Radiophonic Workshop on board to provide the soundtrack.
Again, another example of “We’ll never get them!”. I refused to believe that they would do it, actually. I really wasn’t even going to entertain it. But again, just really good luck… our music supervisor, Phil, worked with Warp Records, and they had the Radiophonic Workshop there doing an album. I actually wanted to license some Delia Derbyshire music… I wanted to license two tracks that they’d used in Doctor Who, in ‘Inferno’: ‘Blue Veils and Golden Sands’, and ‘The Delian Mode’. I’d always thought in my head: “That’s the atmosphere I want for this.” And Tommy – my editor – and I put them over a few sequences in the edit, and it just worked perfectly. And I said “I don’t think we can get any better than this – let’s see if we can license these two tracks.”
And that’s where Phil said: “Oddly enough, I’ll talk to the Radiophonic Workshop, because they’re at Warp and they’re working on a new album.” And then came back to say that they were quite keen to see if they could score the whole thing. And I was like… [overawed] “I don’t even want to think of that as a possibility at the moment…”
But their manager came along and watched the film, and said “I’ll need to get them all to see this…” because understandably, like anyone else who sees it on paper, they were a little concerned about the subject matter. They just wanted to know what I was doing with it, and that it wasn’t some exploitative piece of schlock. And I was just glad that they responded to it, and thought “Yes, actually – we feel like we can do something with this.” I think they liked that I was using the Delia Derbyshire music. It was just great… I’m hugely grateful to them, because they really just ensured that that atmosphere was locked in place.
There’s one particular bit of their score which, to me, just sums up why they were the perfect choice. There’s a scene where Philip comes in at the start of the film, puts his bag down, goes upstairs, comes back down… and the bag has disappeared. And he sees it on the kitchen table in the room opposite – it’s been moved by someone, or something. And you just hear this very, very faint mechanical thump. Like something industrial, from a very, very long way away. And that, to me, is exactly why they’re so brilliant. That’s not only scoring the film, but it’s also contributing to the story: the idea of this strange reality that, at the moment, is very far off… but it’s getting closer. Philip is inadvertently calling to something that’s coming to him.
They were just wonderful. And for me, they absolutely made the film.
Where did you find the house? It’s an incredible relic of the 1970s… I wasn’t sure if it was a set, but then we seem to see the exterior of the same house.
That was another crisis for the film, actually – along with the casting of Maurice. We hadn’t found the house while we were filming. Strangely enough, I think I’d made the mistake… in the script, it was a house that was found in woodland. Off the beaten path. Philip has to go through a stretch of forest to find it, and it’s all overgrown. But really, what I was writing was an American horror film house, I suppose. That idea of a cabin in a wood. We were looking all over, and there just aren’t any like that in the UK. They’re very old houses from the 16th, 17th, 18th century… that’s really all that ever got built in woods.
We just couldn’t find anything that felt right, but by that stage so many other things had clicked into place visually – in terms of trying to emulate the look and feel of Public Information Films from that period – that it suddenly became right to set it in an everyday house from that era. Just a normal semi-detached or terraced house… so it could have been anyone’s house that these horrific things were happening in.
We all have walked past one when we were young… there always was a house that was: “Well, we don’t really know the people there…”
Yes, with the garden all overgrown and the windows boarded up…
Yeah, exactly. And we found that house! And it looked exactly like that. It hadn’t been lived in for many years, and when we went in, this was the strangest thing… we actually found an old Haynes Manual for the exact same car that we were using at that point as Maurice’s car. It didn’t make the edit in the end… there was going to be a Public Information Film in the film originally, and it’s a shame we never got to film it. It was supposed to be a Stranger Danger film in which this car appears, and it turns out that it’s Maurice’s car. It was another way of showing Philip’s imagination blending two different things.
It was run-down, and it was exactly what we needed. And that was quite strange. Quite freaky.
The titles to the film are terrific, and were designed by Ghost Box Records‘ own Julian House.
Yes, I was very lucky. Tommy put me in touch with Julian, because he’d done a film that Julian had done the poster for. I absolutely love Julian’s posters, and I really wanted to work with him, but at that stage it was: “Well, you don’t really get to pick the poster. Don’t worry about that, just get on with editing the film.” And to be honest, if Tommy hadn’t pressed the issue, I don’t think we’d have got Julian. So that was another huge bit of luck, because he – like The Radiophonic Workshop – totally captured the tone we were after. The title sequences are just so evocative of that era. He’s done such brilliant work, just matching that style from Shadows – the children’s supernatural series. He’s absolutely wonderful.
And I have to ask – what’s your relationship with spiders like?
Not good! [Laughs] We’ve already had a few here this year. They came back a bit early…
Possum is a long way from the feel of Garth Marenghi – were you keen to move away from being seen as an out-and-out comedy person?
Yes… I didn’t enjoy comedy, in all honesty. I just grew tired of it very quickly. Making Darkplace was fun but Man to Man with Dean Learner didn’t really work for me. We had to compromise on what that series would be, because the channel didn’t want a second Darkplace. And so it felt very much like the show we should have done before Darkplace, rather than the other way round. And unfortunately, because it was poorly reviewed and received, it had a knock-on effect in terms of the work I was offered afterwards, which was pretty minimal, to be honest.
So I gave up pursuing a comedy career after that, and just concentrated on making individual projects. Again, making A Gun For George, I’d pitched it as a comedy because I thought that was the best way to get something made, as that was my background. I didn’t really think it would turn into what it ended up being – that happened gradually – but, once I was doing it, I thought: “Well, this is the stuff I really enjoy doing…”
But you know, comedy’s not something I’d completely abandon. I made Smutch, which I hugely enjoyed, so it is something I’ll delve into occasionally, I think. But I much prefer making serious stuff. Man to Man wasn’t rewarding in any way, though… there are certain parts: Merriman I enjoyed doing, and the final episode, with Randolph Caer – I was pretty pleased with that one. But it just felt like it wasn’t the right thing to be doing.
So what’s next for you?
Things have been put on hold a little bit with Coronavirus, and the lockdown, but I’m currently finishing the final draft stages of hopefully my next horror film. And it’s going out for casting at the moment, so we’ll hopefully piece that together and – as soon as we can – start shooting.
Can you give me any clues about it, or is it top secret?
I can’t at the moment, unfortunately! I’m a little bit superstitious about those things, so I’ll leave it for now. But it will be grimmer than Possum…
Thankyou so much to Matthew for his time and patience, and for a hugely enjoyable conversation. And, indeed.. to Alice Lowe for putting us in touch. Possum is now available on DVD and Blu-ray: