Musty Books: “Marianne Dreams” by Catherine Storr (1958)

What happens when a recurring dream becomes so lucid and involving that it feels more like reality than the everyday? Does the dream – unsettling as it is – become a more valid state of existence than the dreamer’s waking life?

Such is the quandary at the heart of Marianne Dreams. When the lively, imaginative Marianne falls suddenly ill on her tenth birthday with a curiously unspecified malady, she is confined to bed: potentially for several months. And her freewheeling lifestyle of riding lessons and slap-up feasts is transformed instantly into a claustrophobic existence of inactive misery; her world reduced to the toys and books that surround her, and the visits of three central adults: her mother, her doctor, and hired-in private tutor Miss Chesterfield.

After three weeks of this torpor, and understandably desperate for distraction, Marianne pokes around in her late great-grandmother’s old mahogany workbox and finds a stumpy, knife-sharpened pencil with which she draws that staple of every 10-year-old’s artistic repertoire: a slightly wonky house, with a curl of smoke rising from the chimney. It has a door, four windows and a surrounding fence, with some clumsily oversized flowers and a small army of harmless rocks in the garden. So far, so typical of a myriad of idle childhood drawings made in crinkly sketchpads on listless, mid-20th century afternoons.

Until, that is, Marianne visits the house in her dreams.

And the lop-sided house, with its blank windows and towering, misproportioned flowers, becomes a disquieting reality, bathed in an eerie, unrelenting half-light. A reality that impinges further on her everyday existence when the dream repeatedly recurs, becoming a staple feature of Marianne’s sickly, hallucinogenic slumbers. And the dividing lines between her waking life and her dream state crumble completely when, in an empty bedroom of the house, she finds Mark, a similarly unwell pyjama-clad boy with the thin, immobile legs of a polio victim. A boy that, in the real world, is another of Miss Chesterfield’s private pupils.

The true nature of Mark’s presence in Marianne’s dream is left deliciously ambiguous. In their waking lives, they never meet, or even communicate – everything that Marianne knows about Mark and his deteriorating condition comes second-hand, from the anecdotes of Miss Chesterfield. So is the real-life Mark, subsumed by serious illness and increasingly unable to stay conscious, actually sharing a dream with Marianne, or is he merely her constructed interpretation of Miss Chesterfield’s stories? We never find out for certain.

What is certain is the impact of these dreamed encounters on Marianne’s real-life outlook, especially as she realises that a flourish of her great-grandmother’s pencil during waking hours can create new additions to the dream. At one point becoming understandably angry and frustrated with her ongoing illness, and jealous of sharing the attention of Miss Chesterfield with the real-life Mark, she viciously defaces her original drawing: blanking out Mark’s window with furious scribbles, and turning the rocks into terrifying sentinels with blinking eyes, “keeping him prisoner under constant surveillance.” When she discovers the inevitable repercussions of this passing tantrum in their shared dream state, she begins to realise the sense of responsibility that she must now bear for the helpless Mark (remorseful, she draws food, books and other distractions for her new-found companion) and – indeed – the true nightmarish qualities of the world she has created.

What follows is a masterclass of claustrophobic, deeply unsettling fantasy fiction: the most unsettling aspect of all being Marianne’s consumption by said fantasy, and her detachment from a real world that now feels utterly irrelevant compared to her and Mark’s desperate attempts to escape the house. The encroaching terror of the barely-sentient rocks (re-christened, chillingly as “THEM” or “THEY”) becomes a more pressing concern than their real-life illnesses, especially when THEY begin to transmit their malevolent, monosyllabic thoughts to the children via the crackly transistor radio that Marianne has drawn into existence.

Sleep is the portal here. When Marianne falls asleep in real life, she “awakes” in the dream; and – indeed – vice versa. And her descent into the dream state is depicted with the utmost poetry: “She didn’t just go to sleep – she dropped thousands of feet into sleep, with the rapidity and soundless perfect of a gannet’s dive.” Unlike Marianne, Mark is a permanent presence in the house: is this a reflection of his more serious illness and his steep descent into long-term unconsciousness? Does his loss of everyday wakefulness result in a sleepless dream existence? Again, the ambiguity is left hanging in the pale, oppressive half-light of the nightmare.

And it’s the distinctly unsaid that makes the story so potent: if the features of the nightmare world are dependent entirely on the drawings in Marianne’s sketchbook, then what exists beyond that? When Mark and Marianne escape the house, and set up a John Wyndham-esque “cosy apocalypse” homestead, barricaded into a lighthouse of her creation, what lies across the ocean that they wistfully gaze out upon? It’s a book filled with questions, and lesser authors might have unwisely attempted to provide logical, join-the-dots answers.

Nevertheless, it’s possible to draw a rational conclusion here: that the dream is a metaphorical reflection of Marianne’s feelings about her own illness – a nightmarish, sickly, twilit prison that mirrors her bedridden frustration – and that her escape from the house reflects her desire to return to the normal, carefree childhood that feels increasingly as though it belongs to a distant, impossible past. Catherine Storr’s achievement is in writing a story that leaves all interpretations open and valid, veering back and forth between the ennui of the humdrum everyday and the surreal, logic-twisting intensity of the nightmare with a dizzying aplomb that almost leaves us questioning our own sense of reality.

POINT OF ORDER: In 1972, ATV adapted Marianne Dreams into a six-part children’s series, Escape Into Night. It’s very good, and stars Patricia Maynard as Miss Chesterfield – she later married Dennis Waterman, and wrote the lyrics to the theme from Minder. It’s available here:

The book was also adapted into a 1988 film, Paperhouse, which takes a few more liberties than the TV series, but I rather liked it. It’s here:

MUSTINESS REPORT: My copy is a 1981 paperback reprint with pages the colour of a ripening tangerine. At some stage, it has been withdrawn (or liberated) from service in a West Yorkshire school, because the inside page boasts faded stamps boldly proclaiming “CENTRAL SCHOOLS SERVICES” and “BRADFORD MULTIPLE COPIES SCHEME”. And, on the back cover, someone has written, in pencil, “BIO”… presumably either a reminder to buy washing powder on the way home, or a misguided attempt to place the book in the “Biography” section of whichever library or bookshop it was residing in at the time. Although this in itself further blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality, so feels entirely in keeping with the spirit of Marianne’s nightmares.

Felt Trips: “Pussyana Jones” by Will Pinfold

Last week, Felt Trips was proud to showcase “Horror Swamp” and the other fledgling Fighting Fantasy gamebooks produced in mid-1980s Fife by the 11–year-old Paul Gorman, with help from his primary school friend Will Pinfold. What Paul inexplicably failed to mention was that Will was already a veteran illustrator of his own solo publishing venture. A comic strip version of Indiana Jones as a cat. Called Pussyana Jones.

With the benefit of hindsight this feels like a glaring omission, so I’m relieved to report that Will himself, after reading said feature, elected to contact the Haunted Generation website directly with the full, unexpurgated story of this extraordinary creation. It is a story of unfettered childhood ambition, curiosity about the culture of ancient civilisations, David Yip in The Chinese Detective, and watching films backwards by rewinding rented VHS tapes.

Over to you, Will…

“Pussyana Jones, disappointingly, wasn’t some sexy James Bond, or a Blaxploitation-inspired femme fatale. He was just Indiana Jones as a cat, with buck teeth, drawn by two children from rural Scotland. There is not much depth to his story, but – unlike the strips themselves – there’s quite a bit of background.

With the passing of time, every detail of this story now sounds either quaintly surreal or just plain peculiar. Raiders of the Lost Ark was the first film I ever watched on video, after my parents rented a colour TV (a first for us, embarrassingly; I was an adult before I discovered that Bagpuss was pink and not ginger as I’d assumed) and a VCR from wherever it was you rented TVs and VCRs from in the early 1980s. I must have been eight or nine and strangely, I don’t remember having heard of Raiders of the Lost Ark or Indiana Jones before; I just remember the excitement of being in a video shop for the first time and seeing Harrison Ford’s face and ‘Executive Producer George Lucas’ on the case. I had very much heard of Star Wars. My younger brother and I campaigned successfully to rent it, and I think my sister chose The Watcher In The Woods, which gave me the creeps. I’m wary of seeing again in case it doesn’t – as it can’t – live up to the eerie atmosphere that it had in my memory.

I already had an interest in South America that was sparked – I think – by the Tintin books, The Seven Crystal Balls and The Prisoners of the Sun, but the opening section of Raiders… fuelled it further, and I remember getting excited about doing a school project about Aztecs and Incas but shamefully changing to planes instead (I liked them too) after classmates teased me about ‘Spaztecs and Stincas’. That’s kids for you. That first viewing of Raiders of the Lost Ark stayed vividly in my memory though, not just because of the film, but also because of the novelty of the situation. This seems unimaginably tedious now, but immediately after watching it my brother and I then watched the whole film in reverse, mesmerised by the melted Nazis reforming and the explosions putting everything back together. Odd kids, you’d think – but reversed footage was still a novelty and routinely used for comedy effects at that time. Which show was it that had a sketch where they demolished the wrong factory chimney then pulled up the plunger on the detonator to put it back up again?

Shortly after that experience, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was announced and excitement was running high. Spoilers were not an issue for 1980s kids, and part of that pre-release excitement was fuelled by reading ‘the book of the film’: a large format, simplified-for-kids re-telling of the movie, illustrated with stills. Do these still exist? The first of these that I remember reading was the Return of the Jedi Storybook, but most major U or PG-rated blockbusters had one. Even – somewhat optimistically – David Lynch’s Dune. I remember buying the Temple of Doom book from the Scholastic Chip Book Club – which my primary school participated in – and reading it from cover to cover, poring over the photographs and trying to copy pictures from it. My dad was an artist and there were always plenty of pens, pencils and paper around the house, so me and my brother were always trying to draw comics. We both loved superheroes, but also Tintin and Asterix, and I think at this point in 1984 I had a subscription to Marvel UK’s monthly (not great) Indiana Jones comic, whole my brother bought their similarly patchy Star Wars Weekly.

I don’t remember the genesis of Pussyana Jones himself. I think we just found the idea funny and – crucially – it was far easier to draw a cat than Harrison Ford. Pussyana mainly existed as set-piece pictures – like the Temple of Doom movie ‘poster’ – rather than in comic strips, but a couple of never-finished stories still exist. Interestingly, neither is a straight adaptation, although I think we started a Temple of Doom strip. One is the cover and first page of a dubiously-titled adventure called Deadly Rubber, wherein Pussyana travels to South America (no specific country given) to look for a gold relic called ‘The Skull of Torrepani’, placed in a temple by the long-extinct ‘Honcho Poncho’ tribe. It’s hard to say where the adventure was going. On the first page (a tough-to-read combination of felt tip and pencil), ‘Pussy’ – as he is known – decides to stay overnight in an old deserted rubber plantation, only to be ambushed by his dastardly enemy, a dog called Geloq… ‘inspired by’ Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Nazi-assisting French archaeologist René Belloq. But the chances are the artist had not thought any further ahead than that. I’m not sure why I kept it.

The same is true for the five-and-a-half pages of Summer Holiday?, a light-hearted romp in which Pussyana and his friend Meow Can have their holiday in Spain interrupted by – him again – Geloq. Meow Can was ‘based on’ the Temple of Doom character Wu Han. One consequence of reading about the film before seeing it was that (as with Star Wars and its toys) kids knew the names of characters who might barely register onscreen, and their importance was duly inflated. Wu Han (like Wedge in Star Wars) was a cut above most of these ciphers, because he was played by an actor I recognised; David Yip, then best known then for the 1981-2 TV show The Chinese Detective. Which I remember thinking was a cool show, although that’s all I can remember about it at this point. I guess my parents must have watched it.

In Summer Holiday? (seemingly just a prosaic title, but perhaps also pertinent is Cliff Richard’s then-20 year old film musical Summer Holiday, which I think every British schoolkid in the 1980s was familiar with), the action begins on the first night when Pussy and Meow (you have to bear with me here) decide to sleep in baskets on the floor and not in their beds – an unusual reference to their cat-hood. A wise move, since Geloq, posing as a waiter, somehow sets fire to their beds and locks the room. The two cats escape with their luggage and, after similar misadventures the following day, the scene abruptly changes (‘next day at New York’) and a new adventure begins, wherein Pussyana seeks a gold Buddha ‘somewhere in the Himalayas’.

What is, to the best of my knowledge,  Pussyana Jones’s last adventure ends almost poignantly, when Pussyana, contemplating (I think , it’s hard to say from the scrawl) a meal, says, ‘oh boy, this is going to be good’ and then the story comes to a halt mid-page with ‘Soon’… and an empty panel. Presumably I got bored and forgot about it. Marvel’s Indiana Jones comic lasted only eleven issues, the last being in August 1985, and by the time of 1989’s (to me vastly inferior) film Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade I was in my teens and immersed in horror fiction, heavy metal and comics like The Killing Joke, Watchmen and Sandman. Pussyana’s day had long since passed and he became – as you can imagine – an embarrassing memory; but I kept his adventures anyway.”

Thanks, Will. And his blog is here…

Felt Trips is a collaborative effort. If anyone wants to contribute their own childhood drawings from the era, I would be utterly delighted – please drop me a line using the “Contact” link at the top of the page. A good quality scan would be perfect, but – if not – then a clear photo of your artwork, lying flat, is fine. And maybe a few words of explanation, too: when the drawings were done, how old you were, what inspired you to tackle those particular subjects? Thanks so much.

Electronic Sound: Reviews (Issue 59)

Reviews originally published in Issue 59 of Electronic Sound magazine, November 2019:

British Interrail
Castles In Space)

In which everyone’s favourite fictional Italian disco producer provides a high-tempo soundtrack to… discounted British rail journeys for EU residents? The alter ego of Bristol-born, Berlin-based Anton Maiof, Maiovvi is a Dario Argento-obsessed playboy with a penchant for spooky film scores, but this is a joyously upbeat collection: the eminently danceable ‘Stable Mirror’, in particular, is a New Order-style banger that may yet have grizzled Haçienda veterans reaching for their dusty glow sticks.

Those of us marooned in the provinces during the late 1980s club explosion might find retro, beat-laden workouts like ‘Post Modern Morals’ evoking hazy memories of Sol lager and The Hit Man and Her rather than the Manchester superclubs, but – regardless of where your dancefloor mojo was honed – this is a giddy concoction, liable to make anyone whose teenage years involved the occasional smiley-faced T-shirt feel decidedly misty-eyed.

Available here:

The Sleepers
(Spun Out Of Control)

This Brighton singer-songwriter has peppered her delightfully downbeat vignettes of everyday melancholy with the occasional vintage synth, but here throws herself into full John Carpenter soundtrack mode, with an instrumental concept album whose premise – that of a worldwide sleeping sickness, and a dangerous cult seeking out the victims – sets the tone for an enjoyably dark and suitably woozy musical journey. ‘Run’ even hints at Mark Snow’s X-Files theme; perfect for a case that Mulder and Scully would surely relish.

Available here:

Interview with Hattie Cooke here:

The Quietened Journey
(A Year In The Country)

Stephen Prince’s multi-media project A Year In The Country explores the links between folk, electronica and a rather otherworldly pastoralism, this new compilation tasking its contributors with creating musical explorations of abandoned roads and railway lines. The likes of Field Lines Cartographer and Grey Frequency evoke heartbreaking radiophonic dreams of overgrown sidings and crumbling platforms, and Pulselovers‘ ‘Woodford Halse To Fenny Compton in Five Minutes’ somehow contrives to make a hypnotic, Krautrock synth anthem the perfect celebration of pre-Beeching steam travel. Joyous.

Available here:

Interview with Stephen Prince here:

A Clockwork Orange

The irrepressible Mulholland – whose 1999 Mount Vernon Arts Lab album The Séance at Hobs Lane helped define 21st century hauntology – is in prolific form, and his third album of 2019 soundtracks Anthony Burgess’ novel in suitably sinister style. Trademark sound manipulations expertly create ominous slabs of music concrète, the eight-minute ’84F’ perfectly evoking the draughty menace of chief Droog Alex’s teenage prison cell. A limited cassette release on this perfectly-formed micro-label, laudably dedicated to electronica with a literary inspiration.

Available here:

Interviews with Drew Mulholland here:

Electronic Sound – “the house magazine for plugged in people everywhere” – is published monthly, and available here:

Musty Books: “Carrie’s War” by Nina Bawden (1973)

As a very small child in the 1970s, I was vaguely uncertain as to whether the Second World War was still ongoing. It seemed to be referenced everywhere: on TV, we watched Dad’s Army, Secret Army, Danger UXB and The World At War. The shelves of Mr Murray’s newsagents were stocked with Commando and Victor comics, and my Mum – only in her mid-thirties at this point – often recounted her childhood memories of Anderson shelters, and tanks rolling through Middlesbrough town centre. The war seemed tangible and “of the now”; a vivid scar on both the psychology of the nation and its still-recovering landscapes. We all knew the derelict buildings, the wastelands and water-filled craters, the everyday reminders of where the bombs had left their mark.

The war left its mark on Carrie Willow, too. A wistful, recently widowed fortysomething at the beginning of this book, holidaying in Wales with her three young children, she finds herself revisiting both the overgrown valley that provided respite during a traumatic spell as a wartime evacuee, and the feelings of grief and guilt that have dogged her ever since. Nervously, Carrie begins to tell her children the story that forms the main body of the book: how, thirty years earlier, she and her younger brother Nick had been evacuated to a rather down-at-heel (and curiously unnamed) Welsh mining town, becoming inextricably embroiled in the fortunes of two very contrasting households.

And those two feuding families are at the heart of the story. Carrie and Nick find themselves living with dour grocer Samuel Evans and his meek, put-upon sister Lou… and oh, is there any more archaic a 20th century domestic arrangement than two adult siblings sharing a house? Evans aggressively dominates his younger sister, his devout Christian faith manifesting itself as doctrine of extreme austerity that extends to any who cross the threshold. “Dirt and sloppy habits are an insult to the Lord,” the children are told, forbidden from visiting their bedrooms during the daytime for fear of wearing out the stair carpet.

As Christmas approaches, however, Carrie and Nick find respite. Dispatched to fetch a goose from Druid’s Bottom, the woodland valley farm occupied by the Evans’ ailing (and ostracised) older sister Mrs Gotobed, they find themselves almost passing through a theological and ideological portal. As they descend the valley at dusk, Carrie even feels it: “Deep in the trees or deep in the earth… something old and huge and nameless.” She hears the landscape sigh – “a slow, dry whisper” – and there are later suggestions that Druid’s Bottom still bears vestiges of the “old religion”. This manifests itself in the form of Mrs Gotobed’s housekeeper Hepzibah Green, a warm-hearted “wise woman” who welcomes the children into a haven of warmth, food and hospitality.

Mrs Gotobed herself, disowned by Mr Evans for marrying into the wealthy mine-owning family that he blames for their father’s death, is magnificently languid and indulgent. Terminally ill, and largely confined to her bedroom in Druid’s Bottom, her dying mission is to wear, in turn, each of the 29 opulent ballgowns that her late husband bought for her throughout their marriage. A distant cousin, Mr Johnny, is also resident in the house: a young man with severe learning difficulties, barely able to speak, dismissed an as “idiot” by Mr Evans but cared for at Druid’s Bottom by a surrogate family keen to keep him secluded from an uncaring 1940s society that would otherwise have him “locked up.”

Druid’s Bottom’s has its own resident evacuee, too: the bookish, iconoclastic (and magnificently-named) Albert Sandwich. Hints of deeper feelings begin to flourish between Albert and Carrie, further pulling her and the increasingly rebellious Nick away from their official adopted carers, and creating increased tension between the households. Tensions exacerbated when Lou finds romance with a billeted American soldier, leaving her “as good as damned” – at least according to her furious elder brother. Who, by this stage, is actually beginning to elicit our sympathy as an increasingly isolated figure: convinced that his frugality and over-protectiveness is for the benefit of all, he is unable to comprehend the hostility it provokes in those nearest to him.

And if the book has a central theme, it is indeed the influence of our respective belief systems on our lives, and – indeed – the lives of those closest to us. Recurring bereavements (his parents, his wife, effectively his older sister and even his faith in the local mining community) have left Mr Evans dependent on his Christian beliefs for both support and reassurance… but equally, a curious superstition attached to Druid’s Bottom proves to be a lynchpin of the more ethereal and arcane beliefs pervading the Gotobed household – and, indeed, the source of a lifetime’s worth of guilt for Carrie. For the house plays host to a human skull, reputed to be that of an African slave who cursed Druid’s Bottom to destruction should his mortal remains ever be removed. And when a furious and confused Carrie, her spirit broken by the tempestuous feuding that follows Mrs Gotobed’s death, does just that – and in a pretty permanent way – she departs the valley convinced that her rash actions have had a devastating effect on both households.

And so, Carrie’s war stays with her. And so did the events of this book on me. Written with elegant sparseness, it’s a supremely touching depiction of childhood trauma during an tumultuous period of history, and the book’s conclusion is both redemptive and utterly, utterly heartbreaking. There is no more destructive and lingering an emotion than guilt, and the lifting of Carrie’s needlessly prolonged self-torment as her story snaps back to the contemporary 1970s provides tangible, tear-jerking relief – while leaving us unbearably sad at the wasted decades that her wartime experiences have instigated. An extraordinary book.

POINT OF ORDER: Carrie’s War has been adapted twice for TV by the BBC… once in 1974, available on DVD here:

And again in 2004, as a one-off TV movie broadcast on New Year’s Day. It’s available here:

Predictably, I’ve only seen the 1974 series, but it’s a very faithful and beautifully-made adaptation of the book, and well worth investigating.

FURTHER POINT OF ORDER: How many 20th century children’s books begin, like Carrie’s War, with the main protagonists arriving at the story’s primary location on a steam train? There are bonus points available for further examples.

MUSTINESS REPORT: My 1976 paperback edition has a truly classy waft of vintage must, and also a wonderful relic on the inside cover. Here, a sticker proudly declares that, in June 1977, the book was awarded by Carlisle Road Presbyterian Church’s Morning Sabbath School to Wendy Rutherford, for winning First Prize in their “Answering” competition. Exactly 43 years on… Wendy, are you out there? Get in touch.

Felt Trips: “Horror Swamp” by Paul Gorman

If you want to go north, turn to 356. If you want to go south, turn to 197. If you want to spend fifteen minutes discovering how two eleven-year-olds from Fife spent their final year at primary school trying to forge a Fighting Fantasy gamebook empire at the expense of their local education authority, read on…

By the mid-1980s, the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks were providing a vital childhood escape route from the humdrum of the everyday. Their relentless invasion of grey-painted classrooms, musty school libraries and cluttered adolescent bedrooms helped transport a generation of kids from the torpor of dreary geography homework to the perilous swamps, forests and deserts of Allansia; where goblins, warlocks and green-eyed skeletons were swiftly dispatched with the swish of a sword and the roll of a die. The Forest of Doom was my personal favourite, and – for the first few months of 1984 – it was rare that my ten-minute bus journey to Levendale Primary School didn’t take a swift detour past Yaztromo’s Tower.

Many of us tried to create our own Fighting Fantasy books from scratch, spending our weekends and school holidays swearing softly at over-complicated flowcharts or – more likely – just drawing the pictures and the cover, and wishing the accompanying 40,000 words of rip-roaring swords ‘n’ sorcery adventure would somehow just magic themselves into existence. Possibly with the help of Yaztromo. Among them was Paul Gorman, who had quite clearly read this…

…. and was keen to have a crack at creating his own, suspiciously similar-looking alternative. Over to you, Paul:

“1986, and our final year of Primary School. While the rest of the class were tumbling and stretching their way to BAGA Gymnastic qualifications, four of us – myself, Will, Rick and David – spent our afternoons designing, drawing and (sometimes) writing our own ‘Swords & Sorcery’ adventure gamebooks.

In the same way that rip-offs are diplomatically advertised as ‘being in the tradition of’ an original work, so our felt-tip, biro and Tipp-Ex efforts were ‘in the tradition of’ Fighting Fantasy

We began with plans for four books: one each. Rick’s Volcano of Terror led the way. Mine, with a cover directly copied from the Fighting Fantasy book Scorpion Swamp, was the second in the series and was called Horror Swamp. Then came David’s Key to Freedom and Will’s Caves of Time.

Will devised the battle mechanism: toss a coin, twice. If both times it turns up heads, you win! One of each? ‘Keep trying!’ Brutally hard as far as gameplay goes, but brilliantly simple to remember.

And we knew how to promote them, too. My Robin Hood series (inspired, of course, by Robin of Sherwood) promised an ‘epic new adventure’, and the strapline for Caves of Time was ‘Get the treasure, not easy!’

These weren’t mine and Will’s first attempts at writing a book. A few years earlier, we had (no doubt like many other kids our age) shamelessly ripped off Star Wars with a joint effort at a story – illustrated, and which we fully intended to make into a movie – called Star Battle. The heroes were called Luke and Wedge, the robot sidekicks looked strangely familiar (but it wasn’t a complete copy because look! One of them hovers!) and the baddy was called CyclaVader.

But back to the gamebooks…

It quickly became clear that conceptualising (as we would never have called it) was the fun part. We must have planned over thirty books between us. Some existed only as placeholder numbers in the series; some had titles; some had covers. Very few were written to completion: the breadth of our imagination was, alas, matched only by the narrowness of our talents.

Among many others, I planned (or at least drew the cover for) a pirate adventure whose title was supposed to suggest the illicit thrills of high seas gambling, but Dealing with Death unfortunately sounded more like a self-help guide.

Ambition met reality when I sellotaped two jotters together for a sci-fi epic called Starship Disaster. I was particularly proud of the cover, but my enthusiasm died once I realised I could never hope to fill the 800 paragraphs that the two jotters demanded.

I have to add a quick, belated word of acknowledgement for the authority that unwittingly funded our creativity: North-East Fife District Council Education Department. Apart from the first four, for which we were given encouragement by our teacher Mrs. Birrell, every jotter we used thereafter was filched from the school’s stationery cupboard.

David lost interest early on and Rick a little later. I assumed for a long time that mine and Will’s interest in gamebooks petered out by the end of primary school, but a deeper dig in the attic has shown a more advanced cover by Will (always the best artist among us) for a proposed omnibus edition of my Golden Sword series, under the new ‘imprint’ of ‘Gamebook Developments’. It’s dated 1987, by which time we were in high school, and I have no memory of it at all.

Soon afterwards we discovered what we assumed was more grown-up fantasy (Tolkien, Terry Brooks), and then the 1980s horror boom. This, almost predictably, led to me and Will writing short stories ‘in the tradition of’ Stephen King and James Herbert with our series of ‘Uncanny Tales’. But that’s another story…”

Thanks Paul! His excellent ‘Into The Gyre’ blog is here…

And here’s Will…

Felt Trips is a collaborative effort. If anyone wants to contribute their own childhood drawings from the era, I would be utterly delighted – please drop me a line using the “Contact” link at the top of the page. A good quality scan would be perfect, but – if not – then a clear photo of your artwork, lying flat, is fine. And maybe a few words of explanation, too: when the drawings were done, how old you were, what inspired you to tackle those particular subjects? Thanks so much.

The Haunted Generation in the Fortean Times – Issue 393

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 393, dated June 2020.


Bob Fischer rounds up the latest news from the parallel worlds of popular hauntology

“I think it’s always a time of hope, and new growth,” says Jon Brooks, discussing his new album How to Get to Spring, a beautifully melodic and meditative evocation of his favourite season. “So this album is about that. It’s offering a kind of quiet hope, really.”

During the ongoing Coronavirus lockdown, many of us have found ourselves pining for our usual connections with the natural world, and landscapes that both soothe and exhilarate. How to Get to Spring offers blissful musical respite, inspired by Jon’s walks around the remote trails of his native Peak District and a life-affirming journey to the Isle of Skye. “I really just switch myself off, and open myself to what’s going on around me,” he says. “And I think that puts you into a different mental state. That’s where I get a lot of inspiration from, and certain things can bubble to the surface…”

The album is a gentle, elegant musical journey; deliberately structured to drift gracefully from the hard ground and clear skies of January to the pink blossom and bone-thawing sunshine of early May. Stately piano compositions like ‘Dreaming and Further Still’ are swathed in reassuring breaths of woozy electronica, and ‘Neist Point’ adds softly-strummed guitars and a subtle Celtic influence, appropriate for a piece inspired by this remote Hebridean outpost. “I just thought the atmosphere around it was amazing,” says Jon. “You look out to sea, and… that’s pretty much all you can see. Just water. You feel really small in that place.”

The album is the latest of Jon’s solo recordings to be released by Clay Pipe Music, and the label is also reissuing a vinyl edition of his haunting 2012 album, Shapwick [FT 354:34]. This latter collection – influenced by a night-time motorway detour through the titular Somerset village – melds elegiac piano with the sounds of wistful music boxes, vintage radiophonica and field recordings, and is utterly mesmeric. Meanwhile, Jon’s extensive recordings as The Advisory Circle are available from Ghost Box Records.

 Taking similar inspiration from evocative landscape are an exciting quartet comprising best-selling writer Robert Macfarlane, artist Stanley Donwood, film-maker Adam Scovell and musician Drew Mulholland. Macfarlane and Donwood are the men behind Ness [published by Hamish Hamilton, 2019], a beautiful, delicately-illustrated prose poem set amidst the eerie topography of Orford Ness, the shingle-covered shard that clings to the Suffolk coastline. Commandeered by the MOD as a secret testing site throughout both world wars and the ensuing Cold War, this curious outpost also plays host to the “Black Beacon”, an experimental 1930s radio tower, and – in more recent years – has been protected by the National Trust as a fragile nature reserve.

It’s perhaps no surprise that such a psychogeographical goldmine has triggered a chain reaction of artistic responses. Hot on the heels of Ness’ publication came Adam Scovell’s similarly-titled film adaptation (visit, setting Macfarlane’s prose to artfully-shot and hugely atmospheric 8mm footage; its grainy glimpses of abandoned military facilities and windswept beaches feeling themselves like flickering transmissions, echoing through the decades. And Drew Mulholland’s soundtrack to the film, titled A Haunting Strip of Marshland, is scheduled for release by the Castles In Space label in August. Its throbbing, electronic soundscapes effortlessly evoke his lifelong love of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and Mulholland is also a grand master of manipulated field recordings: parts of the album were even recorded on cassette tapes dotted with the remains of ground-up lichen, native to the Ness. 

And, for further bucolic delight, I recommend Copsford, a new album by R.B. Russell. Released to celebrate the 100th anniversary of journalist Walter J.C. Murray‘s rejection of modernity, and the resulting year that he spent living in a run-down house in the Sussex countryside, it’s a minimalist but tunefully tender collection of atmospheric instrumental pieces. Murray’s written account of his year of isolation – also titled Copsford – was published in 1948, and bespoke hardback editions are available from Russell’s own Tartarus Press publishing house. The album, meanwhile, can be downloaded from

Kudos also to Brighton synth queen Hattie Cooke, whose album The Sleepers has previously graced these pages [FT 387:69]. Hattie has curated the rather wonderful Help Musicians Compilation, a collection of original material on her newly-forged Patch Bae Records label. Intended to raise funds – via the Help Musicians UK charity – for artists whose livelihoods have been threatened by the Coronavirus lockdown, the album is a splendid miscellany of atmospheric electronica and synth-pop from the likes of Polypores, Repeated Viewing and Rupert Lally. Head to  

Issue 394 of the Fortean Times is on the shelves now, and you can also subscribe here:

Electronic Sound: Reviews (Issue 58)

Reviews originally published in Issue 58 of Electronic Sound magazine, October 2019:

Cotswold Stone
(Castles In Space

For an album inspired by an idyllic upbringing in the medieval town of Burford, Cotswold Stone has a curiously transatlantic feel: the evocative schoolroom sounds of maracas and recorders are entwined around clipped synth-funk rhythms and sensuous, yacht rock saxophones. Never have impressions of Bourton-on-the-Water sounded more cinematic. But it’s a delightful confection, suggesting that main man Mat Handley’s 1970s Famous Five-style exploits in the Oxfordshire countryside were the perfect aperitif for an evening of John Carpenter films on BBC2.

Now based in South Yorkshire, Handley even seems to be harking back to his own childhood electronica experiments; he has spoken of sitting “in the cupboard under the stairs, with my Jen SX1000.” The album expertly juggles this musical and personal nostalgia; my stand-out track being the wistful ‘Autumn Arrives Again’, where gently-plucked guitars and a wash of reflective, analogue synths evoke perfectly the dreadful moment when the ‘Back to School’ displays appeared in your local Woolworths.

(Interview with Mat Handley here…)

(Spun Out Of Control)

Is everyone familiar with the contribution of Amanda Grayson to 20th century popular culture? She was, as any self-respecting Star Trek fan will tell you, the human mother of Mr Spock, who followed her heart to live on the desert planet of Vulcan after falling in love with the planet’s ambassador to Earth. Jan Borré ‘s album – released for Cassette Store Day – eschews any temptation towards sci-fi kitsch, instead using her story as the basis for a downbeat and moving instrumental exploration of alienation and disconnect.

Young Belgian composer Borré has worked with Spun Out Of Control before, on the soundtrack to horror film Where The Skin Lies, and his cinematic style is evident here, too. He has a striking gift for melody, with memorable, melancholic synth lines rising frequently from the ambience, and – as in the case of magnificent Side 2 opener ‘The Northern Claw’ – occasionally precipitating an explosion into celebratory, beat-laden ‘banger’ territory.

(Hibernator Gigs)

Hailing from Ohio, Dave Gibson and Travis Kokas have previous form as garage rockers, but Firesides finds the sweet spot between that very pastoral school of Canterbury prog (they happily admit the album’s sleeve is an homage to Caravan’s 1971 opus ‘In the Land of Grey and Pink’), and British library music with a whiff of long-forgotten Open University modules. Tracks like ‘Electron Waltz’ and ‘Space Junk’ are awash with vintage Moogs, and sometimes even find a delicious Krautrock groove.

Cold War on The Rocks – Disco and Electronic Music from Finland 1980-1991
(Svart Records)

The legacy of synth pioneer Jori Sivonen – who died in July – sets the tone for this hugely enjoyable collection, with the opening three tracks (including ‘Jupiter’, purportedly named after his beloved Roland Jupiter 8) all bearing his melodic handiwork. Elsewhere, Mika Sundqvist and Jokke Sepp explore galactic synth sounds, and Visual’s ‘Big & Beautiful’ was sequenced on a Commodore 64. The upbeat, disco-fuelled schlager feel occasionally evokes memories of 1980s Eurovisions, but some of us are rather partial to that.

PULSE: Fariña

Who they?

Mark Brend, Matt Gale and Cliff Glanfield formed Fariña in 1995, gaining acclaim for their albums ‘Three People’ and ‘Allotments’; epic collections of filmic, bittersweet chamber pop redolent of peak-era Scott Walker and Ennio Morricone. There were, quite frankly, trumpets. After splitting in 2005, the trio have reunited to record a soundtrack EP to Mark’s debut novel Undercliff, a gently beguiling tale set amid the post-hippy fall-out of 1972, in which a listless divorcee finds himself drawn into the world of sinister religious cult The Olive Grove.

Why Fariña?

It means ‘flour’ in Spanish, I believe,” says Mark. “We just liked the sound of the word.” Unlike their two albums, The Undercliff Suite EP is entirely instrumental, with a more experimental, post-rock feel, perhaps suggesting a bold new direction for a band who seem warmly receptive to longer-term collaborations. “Reforming Fariña just seemed like a natural, logical step,” adds Mark. “I don’t recall us even discussing it that much. We just started writing together and it was if the intervening years hadn’t happened.”

Tell us more…

As Mark is keen to stress: “The music is an attempt to capture the atmosphere of aspects of the book, rather than soundtrack them in a literal sense.” Appropriate then, that the EP is quietly unsettling, with soothing, jazz-tinged brass and folk club accordion floating elegantly across beds of vintage synths provided, perhaps predictably, by Electronic Sound contributor Mark. And it culminates in the beautiful, hymn-like ‘Resurgam’, evoking images of Sir Hubert Parry let loose upon a MicroKORG.

(Interview with Mark Brend here)

Electronic Sound – “the house magazine for plugged in people everywhere” – is published monthly, and available here:

The Children’s Film Foundation, Vic Pratt and the BFI

There are thirty of us: tiny children, an excitable rabble of tank tops and pinafore dresses, all sitting in the lotus position on a freezing tiled floor as the hall lights are dimmed and the curtains drawn, blotting out the last of a pale winter’s afternoon light. Our school’s whirring 16mm film projector clanks into life, and – on a portable screen sandwiched between the metal shutters of the dinner hatch and the wooden “apparatus” of torturous indoor PE lessons – another world appears.

Our transportation is heralded by the chimes of Big Ben, the fierce hissing of ornamental fountains and the merciless, giddy assault of a recklessly headstrong logo that scatters a startled flight of pigeons across what we later learn is Trafalgar Square, half a universe away in London. Christopher Herbert claims he’s been there, once. Our weekly school “Film Club” has begun, and the traumas of the school day are relieved by mini-movies that soothe but also sometimes submerge us with their own concerns: films where children our own age are drawn into terrifying crime capers and unsettling supernatural shenanigans, all produced under the auspices of the Children’s Film Foundation.

For the last decade, the British Film Institute have been stalwart keepers of the CFF flame, releasing a string of themed collections of these deliciously evocative films on DVD. In 2019, an extravagant nine-film set emerged, the Children’s Film Foundation Bumper Box proving so successful that a second volume was issued in March 2020. I spoke to curator of these releases, writer and film historian Vic Pratt, about the latter of these box sets for my BBC Radio Tees show. Here’s how the conversation went:

Bob: Are these releases a real labour of love for you, Vic? You’re a child of the 1970s after all…

Vic: I am, I grew up going to see these kinds of films at Saturday matinees and holiday camps, and they have an effect on you that you never quite grow out of.

My experience of the Children’s Film Foundation is watching these films at school. We had an after-school “Film Club” where you could pay 50p and watch them projected onto a screen in the school hall from a rather rickety projector. Were they farmed out to lots of schools?

Yeah, there were umpteen 16mm prints produced of these films, and they were ferried around schools all over the country – and abroad as well.

And Saturday morning cinema clubs as well? I know the ABC Minors cinema club in Middlesbrough had a great following in the 1960s – and it’s own song!

Yeah, my dad was in the Odeon Club, so they were a rival of the ABC Minors, really! The Saturday morning pictures started up in the 1950s, and they went right through to the 1980s, when they were wiped out by TV, and programmes like Swap Shop and Tiswas. All the kids would stay at home instead, slumped on the sofa instead of going to the cinema on a Saturday morning.

But yes – they used to have a Children’s Film Foundation film, maybe an episode of a Flash Gordon serial, maybe a Mr Magoo cartoon, something like that. It was quite a fun package for kids in those days.

Have I got this right – was the Children’s Film Foundation established with public funding, to give British kids what was perceived to me wholesome entertainment?

Absolutely, yeah. This was a kind of benevolent mission started out by Lord Rank, who was in control of the Rank Films empire in the 1950s, and he joined forces with a very eccentric lady called Mary Field, who made educational films. They decided to team up and create this kind of pan-industry initiative together, to produce wholesome films. Because everyone at that time was worried about horror comics – things like Tales From The Crypt. In the early 1950s, there was a flood of American entertainment into the UK, and this was supposed to be a wholesome alternative to this trans-Atlantic filth!

You can see it actually, because when you watch the earliest film on this set, Treasure at the Mill from 1957, it’s very “jolly hockey sticks” in its feel… do you want to talk us through it a bit?

It’s based on a story by Malcolm Saville, who was a very famous kid’s writer at the time. He wrote a series of books called the Lone Pine series – they’re mysteries in the Enid Blyton mould. So this was one of his efforts for the Children’s Film Foundation, and it’s about a search for treasure in a charming country village. It’s very much early-era CFF, where all the kids are very smart and polite and well-dressed, and they all wear tank tops and big woolly socks. Like Just William and the Outlaws used to wear! It’s very polite, but it’s great fun. It’s the kind “slow cinema” that maybe we don’t have for kids any more.

The interesting thing about it is the artist Henry Pettit – he’s in it, and is essentially playing himself. Was it filmed in his actual house, too?

Yeah, he’d renovated an old mill, which was his artist’s studio. This guy… not only had he illustrated the Malcolm Saville series, he used to draw comic strips for magazines like Playhour. You can actually see a kid in the film reading a comic with one of his stories in it, so there’s a bit of product placement there!

Aren’t they his own kids, too?

Yeah, that’s right – the whole family are in the film, although they dubbed some of the voices! The girls in the film were very upset when they turned up to the premiere, and it wasn’t their voices in the film. But that happened in those days – that was how they used to do it.

Wings of Mystery from 1963 is on there as well, and it’s one for Dad’s Army fans… Arnold Ridley is in this, teaching Judy Geeson how to race pigeons.

This one’s pretty remarkable. First of all for Private Godfrey’s amazing North Country accent… which isn’t especially authentic, it has to be said. But also, he looks older than he did in Dad’s Army! This was shot before Dad’s Army, but he looks about 20 years older. How did that happen?

It’s a curious story… it starts off feeling very Northern kitchen sink, and then it becomes a story about industrial espionage. Which I wasn’t expecting at all.

No, it’s a weird one. It was shot on location in Sheffield – at least, bits of it were – but it also turns into one of those Edgar Wallace crime films, those B-picture mysteries that you got in the early 1960s. It’s a very strange film, but a very entertaining one.

It is… and as a huge fan of Catweazle and Robin of Sherwood. I knew that their writer, Richard Carpenter, had done some acting in his early life, but I’d never seen him in action. But he’s in this, with quite a big role… and he’s really good!

It’s quite a surprise, isn’t it? He’s a long way from Dick Turpin here. It’s great to actually see him.

There do seem to be some Children’s Film Foundation productions that stand head and shoulders above the rest in people’s memories, and one of them is Go Kart Go, also on this set… starring a very young Dennis Waterman.

Yes, and Frazer Hines of course, who went on to be Jamie in Doctor Who. They’re rival gang leaders racing go-karts in early 60s Harrow-on-the-Hill, which is quite something. Also in this film, they’re trying to redress the balance of sexism in some of the CFF films, so there’s a young girl called Squirt, and she wants a go-kart just as much as the boys. And when her dad says he’s going to get her a toy pram instead, she shows how cheesed off she is driving a model truck over her dolly’s head! So stick that, Daddy. She’s not happy about that.

What do you think it is that makes some CFF foundation films stick in the memory more than others? This really does seem to be a film that people have enormous fondness for.

I think it hits all the right marks for a Children’s Film Foundation film. You’ve got great acting from the kids, and they’ve got great lines. It’s funny, it’s entertaining, it’s shot on location on the streets… and it really gives you that evocative air of youth gone by. It sums up the times… the fashions are great, they’ve all got leather jackets and cowboy boots. And there are great co-stars, too… Cardew “The Cad” Robinson as a postman, and Wilfrid Brambell from Steptoe and Son – doing a junkman act too, and they even play music when he comes on that sounds just like the Steptoe and Son theme! I think all these things stick in the mind, and this is one of the true Children’s Film Foundation classics.

I have a pet theory as well… I’m sure I recall seeing clips from Go Kart Go over and over again on Screen Test...

Yes, with Michael Rodd!

And didn’t Brian Trueman take over after a while?

Yeah, he did! That was latter-day Screen Test, wasn’t it?

Yes! And I’m sure they showed clips from Go Kart Go on Screen Test all the time, so I wondered if that had maybe cemented it in peoples’ consciousness, too.

Yeah, absolutely. They had a special deal with the Children’s Film Foundation that meant they could license clips much more easily than they could from other studios, because they were home-grown British films. They didn’t have to pay the license fees they would have had to pay for Star Wars or something… so that’s why you got loads of CFF films on there.

It was a cheap option for the BBC, essentially?

Absolutely, and do you remember – they’d show you a clip, and you’d have to do a comprehension test afterwards, and answer questions about it?

Yes! And do you know… about four years ago, there was a night at the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle where Michael Rodd appeared in person for a Screen Test night, and we all had to play along answering questions about the clips he showed. It was amazing.

Crikey! It must have been like meeting a god. The gods walking the Earth! Did you meet him? Did you speak to Mr Rodd?

I did! I shook the hand of Michael Rodd, and he’s very bit as charming and erudite as you would imagine.

It’s lovely to hear he’s still around. Fantastic.

I have to say as well, this set has laid to rest a forty-year mystery for me. One of my earliest memories of watching Children’s Film Foundation films at school is of me being terrified by a scene in which a darkened corridor appears to have a ghost at the end, slowly moving towards us. It’s only at the last minute that we realise it’s a real person, and when I watched this set… it’s from the first five minutes of A Ghost Of A Chance, and it’s actually Ronnie Barker.

Crikey. Was this the first time you’d seen it since?

Yes. For years I’ve wondered what the film was, and it’s absolutely, definitely that. So thankyou, Vic Pratt.

I’m glad we could help you, Bob. This is what we’re here for – to trigger the memories that have been repressed.

It’s public service at its finest. And what a cast that film has. Any British comedy film of 1968 would have been proud to boast a cast that included Ronnie Barker, Bernard Cribbins, Terry Scott, Patricia Hayes… and Jimmy Edwards and Graham Stark, playing the ghosts. I can’t imagine that the Children’s Film Foundation was paying fortunes here, so was it a case of actors wanting to be involved because they thought it was worthwhile?

Yeah, they really did this for the sake of it. They wanted to do something for the kids, to put something back into the film industry, and they did it for minimum union rates. They didn’t take royalties, they just took a flat fee, and some people in particular turned up again and again because they really believed in what they were doing.

Cribbins is a bit of a regular…

Cribbins turns up all the time. He’s a really nice link to now, really – one of the few people who’s still around from this set.

One of the most heartwarming things about modern life is that Bernard Cribbins is still us, and appears to be thriving.

Yes, wonderful.

Did the Children’s Film Foundation change over the decades? When you watch the films on this set in chronological order, A Ghost of A Chance feels more like knockabout comedy than films from even four or five years earlier. Did attitudes relex a little?

Absolutely. In the early-to-mid-1960s, when Mary Field left, there was a relaxing… not just of acting regulations for kids, but also of the kind of kids they had in the films. So they were grubbier, more urban, and there were also kids from more diverse and ethnic minority backgrounds. They were all appearing in these films, and they were allowed to speak with their own voices. And to grow their hair a bit longer, and to wear jumpers instead of smart jackets. It was a real sea change, and they tried to keep up with the times – because there was some criticism of the Children’s Film Foundation, that it was all for kind of posh, smarty pants, middle-class children. But, to their credit, they really tried to revamp things in the 1960s and 70s.

It gets very Cockernee in the mid-1960s!

It does go quoite Cocknoy! Sort of Pearly Kings, Dick Van Dyke cockney.

There’s another kind of progression that you can see in a film like The Sea Children, from 1973. I’d never heard of it, but I’m so glad you dug it out. It’s such a strange film, and I know it’s become a bit of a cliche to say “it was the 70s, they were all on drugs”… that’s very disrespectful to a lot of very creative people. But I think we had to have at least lived through psychedelia for a film like The Sea Children to exist. It’s so odd.

Yes – just like on the first box set, which had Mr Horatio Nibbles, about a giant rabbit, this is another of those post-psychedelic Children’s Film Foundation films. It’s a kind of eco-science-fantasy… shot in Malta as well, which is very exotic for the CFF, it was very rare that they went on location. It’s about these kids trying to save the Earth… there’s a mining project going on, and they’re trying to avert the eco-disaster that we all know is imminent, right?

Yes, even in 1973. And they find an Atlantis-style world undersea, populated by children dressed as Aztecs, all quite imaginatively dubbed…

Well they all speak at really high speeds, and the kids have to use a tape recorder to record their voices, then slow it down so that they can understand it. It’s pretty amazing stuff. And there’s an interview on this box set with Simon Fisher-Turner, who went on to work with Derek Jarman. He’s in The Sea Children, and is now a very noted film composer, doing all kinds of weird soundscapes. And that’s his tape recorder! The first time he ever used his tape recorder was in The Sea Children.

To play his voice back at normal speed? That’s actually his own tape recorder in the film?!

Yeah, they improvised that on set, because they didn’t have a gimmick. I spoke to him about it… it just so happened he’d brought his tape recorder with him.
That is fantastic. And then we go back to one of those films that really seem to have stuck in people’s consciousness, and that’s Sky Pirates, with Bill Maynard. Can you talk us through this one, Vic?

This one’s a real corker. People have been writing into us saying “Please put Sky Pirates on this one!” This is the bloke out of Heartbeat, and he’s an old World War 2 Battle of Britain pilot who teams up with some kids to foil a jewel robbery using model aeroplanes. It was released in the year of Concorde’s first commercial flight, so it was very timely – and I don’t know about you, but I was going down to the model shop buying a plastic model of Concorde. The models in this film were actually bought in the shop that was down the end of my road when I was a kid in the 1970s!


Yeah, yeah! It was on the edge of Hounslow, West London – where I was born – and that’s where I got my plane-spotters guide in 1976.

What was the shop called, can you remember?

Radio Control Supplies Hounslow Ltd.

They knew how to give shops snappy names in those days, didn’t they?

Wouldn’t that make you want to go in there? It was run by guys that used to wear those brown janitor’s coats and ties behind the counter. Like Mr Arkwright in Open All Hours. And the guys that did the planes in this film also did the helicopter sequences in The Spy Who Loved Me. That’s quite a cool pedigree.

Do you get people requesting their favourite films for these sets, then?

Yes we do, and we’d like more of that. So please encourage everyone to suggest titles, if you would! We’re always looking for new suggestions.

What a rod for your own back you’re creating here, Vic. This could get out of control.

No, we want it! I’m on Twitter. Twitter me! Send them over, we don’t mind. There are more than 400 Children’s Film Foundation films in the catalogue, so we’ve barely scraped the surface.

The later films on this set are revelation: they’re really quite thoughtful. The Mine and the Minotaur, from 1980, is set in Cornwall, and it’s a story about art-smuggling. And it’s very gentle and absolutely beautifully shot. The cinematography is wonderful.

Absolutely. And it’s got some pretty good library music grooves, too! It’s quite a cracker. It has kids that are cleverer than the coppers foiling the smugglers, who are very well-spoken, posh Cornwall types. All shot down in Lamorna Cove in Cornwall, so it’s got that really nice, picturesque quality to it.

It’s funny you should mention the coppers – I was going to ask about the way in which adults are portrayed in Children’s Film Foundation films. In the earliest films, the authority figures are absolutely that… the policemen are clever and trustworthy and they solve the crimes, and the parents are generally quite understanding figures. But once you get into the 1970s, it’s the kids that the clever ones. Teachers, parents and even the police are shown to be a bit stupid and bumbling. Was that just reflection of how kids were changing over the decades?

I think it’s a reflection of how kids were changing and how adults’ ideas of kids changed as well. It’s weird when you look at these films now: the kids are all driving around in cars without seatbelts on, they’re going underground without their parents… it’s such a shift in how we look at kids. And yes, they were helping the police to solve the crimes by the 1970s and 80s, absolutely.

There’s an amazing scene in The Mine and the Minotaur where two kids are almost killed by a Maserati that’s racing around the country lanes of Cornwall… and then their Mum basically says “Yeah, that’s fine – get in with that complete stranger, and go for a ride in it.”

Good Lord, yeah. What on Earth was going on there? And then you see the kids in a tent, and their mum and dad nip off down the boozer and just leave them there! Crikey.

I think my favourite film on this set is actually the final film on it: from 1981, it’s called Friend Or Foe, and it has a lovely performance from John Holmes, who went on to play Gonch in Grange Hill. It’s about two Second World War evacuees who befriend the German bomber pilots that have been downed in their local woods. It’s such a thoughtful piece.

This is one of the ones that got shown on TV in the 1980s after the end of the Children’s Film Foundation. It got repeated on TV a couple of times, and we’ve had so many requests for this one, because it really is a very good film. It came right at the end of the CFF’s output, and got a very limited release. All the critics said it was fantastic and it won all sorts of awards, but very few people got a chance to see it. It never got a proper release – the Conservative government of the time had pulled the funding for the CFF, and it looked uncertain whether the film would get finished at all. Other bodies had to step in to help finish it. The CFF carried on for a few more years, but this was one of the very last. And one of the very best.

Is that later period a little underappreciated, then? Possibly because it’s slightly after many people’s peak period of watching these films?

Absolutely. There are a lot that people haven’t seen, but that they’d really love. There’s one called Gabrielle and the Doodleman, with Windsor Davies… all kinds of good films from those last years that I hope will see the light of day one day.

And so much of the appeal of these films comes from the little glimpses into lost eras. Do you find yourself freeze-framing 1960s shop fronts and old cars? 

Absolutely – if you look at one of the extras on these sets, there are these little films cald A Letter from The Isle of Wight, A Letter from Wales… there’s A Letter from Ayreshire. I’m a big comic collector, and you see a kid getting a sixpenny issue of a Roy Rogers comic from 1954, and I had to freeze frame and check which issue it was, and cross reference it. I couldn’t believe it! Seeing a 1950s cowboy comic in mint condition! And then he folded the cover…

Sacrilege! Did you have the same issue yourself?

My dad’s got it, but it’s very tatty. He loves Roy Rogers comics. He’s the last man standing.

And are future Children’s Film Foundation DVD releases in the offing?

I hope so. Assuming that everyone rushes out and buys this one. Tell your friends how great these are, and hopefully we’ll see another set next year…

Thanks to Vic for his time, and a delightful conversation – as ever! The Children’s Film Foundation Bumper Box Volume 2 is available here:

And Volume 1 (featuring Mr Horatio Nibbles) is here…

Felt Trips: “Doctor Who Top Trumps” by Christopher Naylor

Unsettling. Impassive. Slightly… well, haunted. The face of Tom Baker in that iconic 1970s Doctor Who opening title sequence left an indelible impression on so many of our childhoods. The more sensitive of TV viewers even found it scary, but Tom’s penetrating stare nevertheless provided the gateway to a giddy cavalcade of teatime thrills: the Doctor’s daring battles with Daleks, Zygons and Cybermen proving the perfect Saturday accompaniment to fishfingers, marrowfat peas and Mr Kipling’s Cherry Bakewells. Preferably not all on the same plate.

Watching from the safety of his Chelmsford home was four-year-old Christopher Naylor, whose love of the show inspired him to create a beautiful piece of DIY artwork – his own Doctor Who Top Trumps! And incredibly, 45 years later, Chris has actually become part of Tom Baker’s TARDIS team. In March 2021, prolific audiobook producers Big Finish will release Return of the Cybermen, an audio adaptation of the original Gerry Davis script that was extensively rewritten to become the 1975 TV story Revenge of the Cybermen. It stars Tom Baker as the Doctor, Sadie Miller as Sarah Jane Smith… and Christopher Naylor, recreating the late Ian Marter’s role as bold and burly companion Harry Sullivan.

Over to you, Christopher…

“It’s hard to put my finger on my first memory of Doctor Who, although I have a vague image of staring out at the street light through the rippled glass of our front door one night, and imagining myself being taken into Sutekh’s sarcophagus time-tunnel from The Pyramids of Mars.

But I do know that every Saturday, from Grandstand all the way through to Parkinson and beyond, the television was on all day – and always on BBC1, so my awareness of Doctor Who must have faded in gradually. By 1976 – the year from which these frantic scribbles date – I was four, and the show had seized my imagination completely, terrifying and thrilling me in equal measure. I really did hide behind the sofa every Saturday night as the opening titles burst onto the screen. Tom Baker’s Doctor was a hugely important part of my childhood – I adored him, and the show soon took a central place in my life. I had a long (albeit brown) scarf, and a wardrobe to stand in for the TARDIS; during lunch breaks at school I would play at being the Doctor or Harry Sullivan with my best friend Steven Packer, and the following year I failed to win the Silver Jubilee Fancy Dress competition in my home-made Dalek costume.

Even at that age I was always drawing – I still am – so it was inevitable that I’d turn my pencil to the Doctor. I can’t remember the origins of this particular masterwork, but I seem to have been attempting to create some sort of Doctor Who Top Trumps. Tom is the most easily recognisable, and clearly the one I have spent the most time on – his hat and scarf are definitely in evidence. There’s a suggestion of a frilly shirt on the top left, so that must be Jon Pertwee; the dark bob haircut at top right indicates Patrick Troughton, which leaves William Hartnell at bottom right. Well, at least he gets a TARDIS. The whole thing seems to have been scrawled on the back of a Cornflakes packet and hacked into pieces with a pair of safety scissors.

Back then, I longed for the Doctor to land his TARDIS in my back garden and take me with him on his adventures. But somewhere along the way, I worked out that the Doctor and his friends were actually actors, and an idea slowly grew that maybe I could join in by becoming an actor too…

Cut to forty-something years later – and two decades into my own acting career – and I found myself working for Big Finish, the wonderful company who make Doctor Who audio dramas with many of the original actors from the television series. Including the legendary Tom Baker himself. Just to be in the same room as my childhood hero was more than I could ever have expected, so I could hardly believe it when their producer, David Richardson, asked me if I would play Tom’s classic companion, Harry Sullivan.

Working with Tom has been a delight – he’s really everything I had hoped and expected him to be. I was very nervous before I first met him, but he was funny and generous, and of course, wildly eccentric. I remember him making everyone laugh by remarking, ‘Isn’t it terrible about Brangelina?’, as they’d just broken up!

I had to contain myself when I first heard his voice through the headphones – suddenly it was 1976 again. It’s been a real joy to work with him, and to hear him say ‘Hello Chris!’ when I arrive at the studio is still hard to comprehend. It’s almost as good to hear him call me Harry over the headphones…

I can’t believe my luck, really. I still have to pinch myself. But I think if you told the four-year old Christopher back in 1976 that one day he would be the Doctor’s companion and travel through space and time in the TARDIS, I have a feeling he would say, ‘Yes, quite right,’ and then turn back to his cornflakes packet and carry on scribbling.”

Thanks, Christopher!

Return Of The Cybermen, starring Tom Baker, Sadie Miller and Christopher Naylor (above), is released in March 2021, and available to pre-order now from the Big Finish website:

 Felt Trips is a collaborative effort. If anyone would like to contribute their own childhood drawings from the era, I would be utterly delighted – please drop me a line using the “Contact” link at the top of the page. A good quality scan would be perfect, but – if not – then a clear photo of your artwork, lying flat, is fine. And maybe a few words of explanation, too: when the drawings were done, how old you were, what inspired you to tackle those particular subjects? Thanks so much.

Musty Books: “The Weathermonger” by Peter Dickinson (1968)

BBC1’s disturbing 1975 teatime drama The Changes has become something of a set text for those of us keen to explore our collective childhood disquiet. Introduced by typically understated continuity announcers as a “serial for older children”, it depicts a bleak, dystopian Britain in the throes of a sudden and inexplicable revolution against machinery and technology. The merest presence of a car, telephone or TV set drives the bulk of the populace to blind fury, and the tiny pockets of humanity immune to this outbreak of mass hysteria are persecuted (and frequently executed) as witches in a late 20th century Britain that has reverted en masse to medieval beliefs and practices.

The series was based on a trilogy of novels by Peter Dickinson (who had previously developed Mandog for BBC1’s teatime strand) although, curiously, the novels tell the story of The Changes in reverse order. The final book, The Devil’s Children (1972), chronicles the events that kick off the TV series. The Weathermonger, despite being published first, essentially finishes the story and provides an intriguingly mythic and mystical explanation for the “Changes” themselves. An explanation impossible not to reveal when discussing the merits of the book itself, so anyone fearful of spoilers (for either book or TV series) should consider this ample warning to immediately smash up whatever device they’re using to read this article and revert to a basic agrarian lifestyle instead. Or, failing that, abandon Musty Books for the Felt Trips section of this website, which has some lovely drawings of 1970s Daleks and a friendly village policeman.

The Weathermonger begins in characteristically bleak fashion. Stranded on a tiny island in the middle of Weymouth Bay, 16-year-old Geoffrey – suffering from amnesia – and his 12-year-old sister Sally are awaiting execution by drowning, imprisoned there by the baying, spear-jabbing mob watching gleefully from the beach. Their crime? They are amongst the tiny minority immune to the “Changes”, and Geoffrey has been discovered attempting to restore the engine of his uncle’s boat Quern to working order. Giving a strong hint that this national outbreak of mass Luddism has a distinctly magical origin, he uses his acquired powers as a “Weathermonger” to engineer their escape. Each town, it seems, has a highly-paid resident capable of controlling the weather by the powers of thought alone, and – until his fall from grace – this has been Geoffrey’s exalted position in Weymouth. Using his ability to create a diversionary sea fog, Geoffrey takes Sally on a desperate swim to safety, miraculously reaching the boat unscathed and setting sail for the unaffected safe haven of France.

Here, they are persuaded by the French authorities that their unique position (young, wealthy, immune to the “Changes” and able to control the weather) makes them the perfect candidates to investigate once and for all the source of the British revolt against modernity. French satellites have detected concentrations of outlandish weather in specific areas of the UK*, one of which – on the Welsh border – corresponds with a note from the siblings’ Uncle Jacob urging them to investigate rumours that the whole strange kit and kaboodle has its origins in that area, down “Radnor Way”.

And, so to Powys! Sailing up the Solent, Geoffrey and Sally return to Britain, steal a 1909 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost from the Montagu Motor Museum at Beaulieu Abbey, and embark on what is essentially an action-packed road caper, across 223 miles of British countryside teeming with witch-hunting mobs, wolves and freak weather conditions. All of which are irresponsibly omitted from the AA Route Planner guide that I used to calculate the distance. There are, predictably, moments of great peril along the way, and also – interestingly – suggestions that Sally is less keen than her older brother on restoring the technological and industrial status quo. She remains immune to the “Changes”, but is scared and disturbed by the whizzing traffic that she encounters in France, and her doubts even begin to make the stolid Geoffrey wonder whether their mission is merely an act of child exploitation on the part of the French authorities.

But the book’s most affecting aspect is an ingenious reversal of the premise of so many children’s books of the era. Instead of presenting a contemporary Britain haunted by elements of a forgotten past, The Weathermonger depicts a medieval Britain haunted by elements of forgotten modernity. The ruined carriageway leading to the “Necromancer’s Castle” now identified as the source of the “Changes” is the overgrown remains of the M5 motorway, charred by magical thunderbolts. Elsewhere, there are mentions of both fishfingers and a pivotal character’s 1959 holiday on the Costa Brava; and I was both jolted and delighted by a passing reference to the Reader’s Digest. There are some folk memories that even a darkly magical anti-technological apocalypse is unable to effectively erase.

This combination of the magical and the mundane reaches its apotheosis at the book’s climax, and spoilerphobes still recklessly ploughing through these ramblings despite my earlier warnings really should choose this moment to chuckle at the charming 1970s Dalek featured elsewhere on this website. For the unwitting source of Britain’s reversal to medieval mores is revealed to be the Arthurian wizard Merlin, accidentally awakened in a long-buried chamber by one-time Abergavenny chemists shop owner Mr Furbelow, who now acts as “seneschal” to his mythical master: guardian, steward and – effectively – drug-dealer.

The well-meaning Mr Furbelow, we discover, is keeping Merlin deliberately hooked on morphine to dampen his senses, a process he began in the hope of steering the mercurial wizard’s limitless powers towards goodness: intending to use his magic, for example, to “stop these wicked wars in the Far East” and – touchingly – to bring the late Mrs Furbelow back to life. Instead, the half-awake and hopelessly addicted magician has merely created, from the magical ether, a strange, medieval haven in which he feels comfortable; with both Merlin and Mr Furbelow unaware that the effects of the spell have spread beyond the remote valley in which they have set up surreal, dysfunctional home.

The revelations are audacious but touching; fantastical and yet affectingly mundane. Geoffrey and Sally’s attempts to explain the trauma of morphine withdrawal – in Latin – to the grateful eight-foot Merlin, thoughtfully turning over a hypodermic syringe in his gigantic hands, make for one of the strangest and loveliest scenes in children’s literature, and provide a fitting conclusion to a book that thrives on both both disorientating contrast and a delightful sense of the contrary.

*They should try living on Teesside for a fortnight.

Mustiness Report: My 1970 paperback edition has pages the colour of a moderately healthy urine sample, and in the opening chapter a previous owner has crossed out in pencil some of the more challenging words. “Piffle”, “dratted” and “defenceless” have all met with disapproval, as has an entire section comparing Geoffrey’s shaky legs to “those toy animals with zippers that women keep nighties in”. Nighties, clearly, are works of wickedness that must be destroyed. The book is unscathed from Chapter 2 onward though, so maybe our disgusted reader gave up at that point and looked at some nice drawings of Daleks instead.