Belbury Poly, Jim Jupp and Ghost Box Records

Darkness falls fast in the woods. Unhampered by street lighting, car headlights and the pale hubbub of everyday urban life, twilight descends with the bare minimum of warning, and many a late woodland walk – begun in the syrupy sunlight of evening – has unexpectedly ended amid the sinister crackle of night-time.

In this inky blindness, the imagination moves faster than the feet. Leaves hiss, bracken rustles and every minor twig snap becomes a gunshot. The resulting thoughts are inevitable. Am I alone here? Or is there someone – or something – hiding in the trees?

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Such thoughts are evoked with sinister precision on The Gone Away, the new album from Ghost Box Records co-founder Jim Jupp, recording – as ever – in his guise as Belbury Poly. The album was inspired by traditional tales of fairy beings lurking in the British woodland: not the floaty elemental spirits of J.M. Barrie and co, but the malevolent goblins of medieval folklore. It has a promotional video too, in which film-maker Sean Reynard assumes the guise of his 1970s daytime TV refugee Quentin Smirhes to explore these feelings of woodland paranoia with a somewhat hallucinogenic bent:

I was delighted to catch up with Jim Jupp for a long conversation about the album’s genesis:

Bob: Was there an initial spark of inspiration behind making an album about fairies?

Jim: I don’t think so… it was an element in the bag of spooky references that I’ve always had in my mind, with regard to Belbury Poly. And something that’s always intrigued me. I’d also got interested in recording music that was more electronic again, and accidentally ended up in the place where I’d started… it was how I worked on the first album I recorded for Ghost Box, The Willows. It was a return to some of those ideas and those styles.

You dipped into Simon Young’s Fairy Census to research this album, didn’t you? It’s great – just full of quite disturbing and very contemporary reports of encounters with strange things lurking in the countryside.

Yes, the Fairy Census was great to dip into at random. With a lot of the 20th century experiences that people had, there’s a whole strand of these “true believers” accounts… and you can tell that people want to believe in these nature elementals, these benign spirits and sweet little creatures. And they do see them. But the other strand, the more contemporary reports can be very weird. There’s one that sticks in my mind from the Fairy Census, where a family are walking along a path and are suddenly buzzed by a small, flying cube. And they run away, terrified.

It doesn’t seem to make any sense at all, but there are a lot of experiences like that. They people that describe them aren’t attempting to say “It was this, and it means this…” It seems to be a subject that comes more from the realms of madness, or from dreams.

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I think we’ve all found ourselves stuck in the woods or in the countryside when the twilight has caught us unawares, and you suddenly find yourself feeling your surroundings are a little bit creepy. Have you had similar experiences, and did they find their way into the album?

Yes. You can be in the countryside, in a gorgeous place, and you suddenly get this odd mood of disconnected isolation. A sudden burst of fear. It doesn’t build up, it just hits you. I think it’s what they used to call “panic terror” in old, weird fiction stories…

Doesn’t it literally derive from the god Pan, and a feeling that he’s present, and watching you?

I think so, yeah. And there’s just something uncanny about natural landscapes sometimes. They can be overwhelming, particularly if you’re on your own.

But more specifically, there are a few things that stand out. Just… memories, and I don’t give any real credence to them. But I must have been about six or seven, and I woke up one morning and went downstairs into the family kitchen. And there was a tiny footprint on the table, about an inch long. That made a huge impression on me… “Right, these things they’ve been telling me about, fairies and the tooth fairy… they’re real! There it is!”

And later on, I thought… well, it was just a smudge on the table. But I still had this impression in my mind of this tiny, isolated footprint. And those odd memories, even though you rationalise them later, stay with you and haunt you.

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I used to have a little man that came into my room when I was about three. He used to stick his around the bedroom door, and call my name in a really sinister, sing-song voice. He was like a puppet, and I knew he was called Fred. I was terrified of him, and used to run screaming into my parents’ bedroom. It happened on a couple of occasions. It haunted me for a long time, and I remember trying to explain to my Mum, a year or two later, that I was still scared of Fred coming back.

How I rationalise this is… well, it would be entirely in keeping with my Dad’s character, if he’d found a little puppet or doll somewhere, to stick its head around the door and try to spook me. But he totally denies it… and let’s face it, if he’d done it once, and I’d reacted with that kind of terror, he wouldn’t have done it a second time. He’s not a complete sadist! So to this day, I don’t know what Fred actually was. And my parents have no recollection of any of this. 

[Laughs] Well I think the other thing with those kinds of experiences… there’s that stage between sleeping and waking. You’re half asleep, and you hear a noise, and sit up thinking somebody has just said something. I get that even now… I usually hear the front door opening or a window smashing. But of course it’s not happened. I think, as you wake up, your body goes into an “alert” mode, where you imagine – or even see – things. Maybe that’s where some of these entities creep in.

I hope so! We’ve talked about Arthur Machen before. Not only was he from the same town as you – Caerleon-upon-Usk, in South Wales – but he was also a believer in the fairy folk, wasn’t he?

I think so, and I think for Machen – and others writing in his era – there were two strands to fairy mythology. There was a big Celtic revival in the Victorian era, with Lady Wilde writing about Celtic mythology, and people like Yeats discovering their own Irish roots and writing poetry about that. But Machen, who was interested in history and archeology, believed in Euhemerism… and the idea that mythology could be explained by the survival of prehistoric people. So ancient, Neolithic people were here, in the British Isles… they’d been pushed to the fringes by Celtic incomers in the Iron Ages, but somehow they’d survived. Machen’s “little people” stories are about the idea that an ancient race survives underground and in the ruins. And literally inside the hills. You never really see the people in his stories, but they can squeeze through tiny gaps in walls and are somehow not quite human… just because they’re so ancient.

Arthur Machen

So he almost rationalised fairy tales, in a scientific way?

I think so. I mean, he took it further because, in his stories, they’re also supernatural beings. But I think, in the Victorian era, there had been a rationalisation of fairy mythology, and claims that these stories were actually about this ancient race. Similarly, there’s an idea that a lot of these stories are actually about outsiders, foreigners, maybe travellers. People that are mistrusted: there are stories about fairies abducting people, stealing things, and moving away.

So fairy folk tales could be an allegory for something more xenophobic?

Yeah.

How deeply did you delve into traditional folk tales?

A little bit. Where I live in Sussex, there’s a lot of fairy folklore. The fairies here are called “fairieses”, which is a very Sussex plural… ghosts also became “ghostses” and wasps are “waspses”! And that became mixed up with “Pharisees”, from the Bible. There’s a track on the album with that title, mis-spelt.

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But the element of fairy folklore that interested me – and also partly influenced the titles – is that the stories also go: “My grandmother remembers that there used to be a boggart in that tree.” Right back to the Middle Ages, the stories are often that the fairies have left England, they’ve gone away. Hence the album title. And there’s a place in Sussex, on the Downs, not far from Brighton and Worthing – Harrow Hill. In the 1920s, there was a lot of archaeology on the hill forts around there, and local tradition said that this was the last place in England where fairies lived. And that they left when the archaeologists turned up. Which is a nice story about the passing of folklore, with science arriving to rationalise everything.

The publicity pictures for the album obviously emulate the lovely Cottingley Fairies photographs, from 1917. Where do you stand on those? They seem to have one foot in the tradition of dark folklore, and that idea of strange beings in the woods, but obviously – physically – they’ve got the look of J.M. Barrie‘s Tinker Bell. Where do they fit into the whole fairy aesthetic for you?

I think that’s an interesting period for fairy folklore. The early 20th century is when fairies morphed from being slightly malevolent goblin-like entities to being benign nature spirits. And, in literature, it’s often remarked that fairies have shrunk! In the olden days, the fairies were human-sized… they could carry you off – literally – or a man could marry a fairy princess. But these small nature spirits are, as far as I know, partly a result of children’s illustrations. At the turn of the 20th century, illustrations of the stories of the French author, Charles Perrault, were the first depiction of fairies as small, winged creatures. And that caught on with the theosophists, who saw fairies as nature elementals. And by the 1920s, theosophy was a big deal… actually, there’s a story about Walt Disney becoming a member of the Fairy Investigation Society, which was very theosophically inclined! And, from that point, when his name appeared in their membership roll, his animations were stuffed full of fairies. And they’re very much in that spirit of those nature elementals, perched on flowers and granting wishes.

Cottingley

Sorry, your question was about the Cottingley Fairies! [Laughs]. Yes, that’s where they come from… that was how fairies “looked” in that period, no question. Small, female beings with wings and floaty dresses. And these little girls were obviously obsessed with that. And I suppose it’s also a result of wanting to manipulate the media… it’s a very Ghost Box thing, of using collage to make things seem not what they are! And they took that a surprisingly long way. I think one of the girls stuck by the story and said “OK, some of these photos are fake… but not all of them…” [Laughs]

I always think the Cottingley Fairies feel like an oddly 1970s thing, too. They would regularly be featured as a story on programmes like Nationwide, and it was only in the early 1980s that the girls finally admitted at least some of the photos were faked.

Yeah, they were a standard feature in those bumper books of the supernatural. Along with the big, cowled ghost stood by the altar! The really spooky photo… I couldn’t look at that picture. It’s about nine feet tall, isn’t it?

The Newby Monk. I’ve never actually found the full story behind that photo! I mean, let’s hope it’s a fake…

I think that was one of the photos that they analysed on Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World, and obviously there was some rational explanation… [Laughs]

newbyghost

Actually, while we’re on the subject of all this, can we talk about Erwin Saunders? It was you that tipped me off about these lovely Youtube videos, where a rather bumbling amateur investigator appears to discover tribes of pixies living in the woods. They’re wonderful, and I assume you discovered them in the course of researching the album?

Yeah, I asked Sean Reynard if he’d like to make the promo video for the album, and in having a few conversations with him about my view of the album, and how that could overlap with his weird little film world, I was digging around for “footage” – in air quotes – of fairies.

And I didn’t actually find much… there are photos that probably crop up in the Fortean Times, of blurred faces in trees, but they’re often just cases of pareidolia – seeing faces in nature.

But I wondered if there was a film equivalent, and in looking for fairy sightings I found Erwin Saunders. And the first one I watched, where he spends the first five minutes talking about his hair… I thought that was genuine! The films stand together as one huge piece of work, and if you watch them chronologically, you’ll be hooked. They almost work as a mini-series, they’re great.

How did you team up with Sean?

I’d seen the Quentin videos, and always loved them. I just got in touch with him, and asked if he was aware of Ghost Box, and if he wanted to work with us. We had our first chat on the phone about six months ago, and hit it off straight away. We had loads in common, and from our first conversation I thought – this is going to work. He really gets what we’re doing. So I asked him if he’d do a promo for the album.

The thing with Sean, and why it seemed to work for me with Belbury Poly… his videos are unsettling and disturbing, but they’re funny. And I like that approach. I think that’s part of the world of Belbury Poly. The music is unsettling at times, and a bit odd and creepy, but hopefully there’s a touch of humour there. I hope it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Do you think the humour of Ghost Box gets overlooked sometimes?

We don’t really labour the humorous elements… I mean it’s there, and there are sometimes a few gags in the titles. When Julian [House, Ghost Box co-founder] and I talking about our high-level concept stuff, it’s often done tongue-in-cheek. It depends on the project and the album. Sometimes it’s suitable for it all to be done in earnest, but even then it’s supposed to be fun. We’re not writing horror stories or generation some deliberately spooky world. Well… [laughs] perhaps we are. But there’s a light touch, I think.

You’ve got your ocarina out again on this album… that’s such such an evocative instrument for me. Possibly thanks to a childhood spent watching Vision On! Have you always played it?

No, I haven’t! I can’t remember how I stumbled upon it, I think I just saw a Youtube clip and thought – “That’s that thing! That’s an ocarina! I’ll get one and learn…” I mean I can’t really pick it up and play, but my approach to all instruments is that I’ll learn the part that I need to play for a particular track. I learn that, play that for a few weeks, record it, and then completely forget it. So the next time I pick up an ocarina, I probably won’t be able to play it at all. Same with the recorder…

I was going to ask about the recorder on the album! Did you play one at school?

No! This album is the first time I’ve played one! I spent a few months coming up with a few simple melodies, and thought… “Yeah, I can use this.” But I haven’t touched it for four or five months now, so I’ve probably completely forgotten all the scales I learned.

And what is the instrument on the track “Copse”? My God, it sounds like a crumhorn or something…

It’s a Mellotron! It’s the bassoon, played on a Mellotron. The idea for that track, which is the very darkest moment on the album, was to explore that idea of panic or terror, that sense of being watched or followed in the woods. But musically, it takes its cue from the Paddy Kingsland era of Doctor Who, and that whole period of the Radiophonic Workshop. The sounds are very dry and in your face, they didn’t use reverb and echo. There’s a lot of Early Music mixed with synth, too. So using the Mellotron Bassoon in a very dry, up front way seemed like an odd thing to do – but it’s what they would have done, and it captures a certain mood.

The album certainly has a very “medieval” feel to it at times… which, bizarrely, always seems to work well in an electronic context. It feels like a paradoxically natural combination! How does that work?

I suppose electronic music is often modal, in the same way that medieval music was, so there’s a single drone that runs throughout. So you can modulate that one chord, and weave melodies in and out… it’s the same with folk music. So I guess that connects with how a lot of electronic musicians work.

Did you have a storyline in mind when you sequenced the tracks? Is there a narrative to the album?

There’s always a narrative feel, but no particular story. The final track, ‘They Left On A Morning Like This’, was written and recorded as an ending to something. And the opening track, ‘Root and Branch’ is like a title sequence… in fact, it’s very much like the title sequence to Robin of Sherwood!

Ha, yes! The opening couple of notes are very Robin!

I’ve got an old Prophet synth, which they would have used in those days, and I just stumbled upon that little fanfare at the beginning and thought… “Good Lord”! [Laughs]. Mine is a very different piece of music, but I thought I would use the little palette of sounds that they would have used when they were recording that. And I like the way Robin of Sherwood was linked to folklore and nature… in a very Ghost Box way. Our folk influences, and the musical influence of the pastoral English tradition, are influences as received from old television and old records. They’re not quite from the source. So there’s a kind of inauthenticity about them, but hopefully they capture something, and tie in with the memories of those of us who didn’t grow up in the countryside, or steeped in the folk tradition. Which is most of us!

They both went hand in hand for me, really. I grew up quite a rural area, but Robin of Sherwood really struck a chord with me, and when I went to my usual woods I suddenly began to expect Herne the Hunter to appear from a cloud of dry ice. It was really quite a profound change in my attitude to the local countryside.

The other one with a similar atmosphere, from slightly earlier, is Excalibur. The John Boorman film. That era of myth coming to the screen is quite interesting… there are a lot of early VHS fantasy films, like Hawk the Slayer. That was something else on my mind, with a couple of tracks on the album. At that age, I was quite into fantasy stuff, and the Fighting Fantasy books…

Yes, the Fighting Fantasy books are inextricably linked to Robin of Sherwood for me. They seemed to cover similar ground, and I was obsessed with them both at the same time.

Yes, and me. Absolutely. For people our age, that was our folklore and our myth. It came through Role-Playing Games, video games and TV. It wasn’t told to us by our grandparents. But it was nonetheless exciting, and it’s stayed with us. So with my recordings, if I refer to “folklore”, I can only use the language I grew up with – and that might be a TV theme.

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What was your favourite Fighting Fantasy book?

The Forest of Doom.

Yes, me too! It’s woodland again. I was obsessed with woodland.

I finished that one! The map all joined up and everything.

Yes! You know what, I spent the entire summer of 1984 mapping my Fighting Fantasy collection, and one of the most disappointing moments of my childhood was discovering that the map for Citadel of Chaos didn’t seem to fit together properly…

Is the world ready to hear this? [Laughs] That stuff’s popular again now, I guess because of Stranger Things… it’s quite hip now. The kids that we would have known, playing those games, aren’t the kids that are playing them now! But to me, when I see that stuff, I can hear this Berlin-school electronic music. It doesn’t have that heavy metal soundtrack that it had for many… it definitely has an electronic soundtrack. Have you heard of this Dungeon Synth stuff?

I haven’t!

It’s a genre that I didn’t know about until a few weeks ago, when Stuart Maconie’s Freakzone did a feature on it. It’s a scene from the late 1980s or early 1990s, with homespun, hand-drawn, Xerox-ed tape covers that looked like DIY heavy metal album. All fantasy subject matter – wizards and dark towers. It was kind of New Age music, but much darker in tone. With bits of faux-medieval noodling. If you dig around on Youtube, there’s some quite interesting stuff… although a lot of it’s awful, as you can imagine! [Laughs]. I guess some of it began, or ended up, as video game music… it’s partly in that world. And I guess how that connects to what I’ve done with this album is just that idea of music as escapism. It references folklore, but it’s a fantasy. And hopefully – along with Julian’s graphics – we’ve created a self-contained world.

So The Gone Away is out on the 28th August, what have you got lined up after that? Will the new Beautify Junkyards album be the next Ghost Box release? 

Yes, I think they recorded most of the album before lockdown began, then it’s been finished off and mixed remotely. And, in the last few weeks, João has been able to go into the studio with the engineer and finalise everything. So Julian is starting work on artwork, and it should be out in October in November.

Beautify Junkyards

Can you tell us anything about it? How’s it sounding?

It sounds lovely! The title is Cosmorama. I think, in the Victorian era, they had displays that were wraparound, 360-degree paintings, and people would pay to visit them. It would be the Battle of Trafalgar or the Palace of Versaille, and as close as you could get in those days to an immersive experience. And they were called Cosmorama.

But subject-wise, and lyrically, I think it’s more of a filmic album. There are hints of Italian giallo soundtracks. It sounds very nice, it’s a lovely album, and they’re so talented. Compared to most of us on the roster, they are proper musicians! [Laughs]. They know their craft.

We’re now heading towards the 20th anniversary of Ghost Box – do your earliest recordings almost have a sense of double nostalgia… nostalgia not only for the original 1970s experiences that they reference, but also the early 2000s, when they were released?

Maybe… I’m not so sure! I think, as you get older, your nostalgic buttons remain further back in the past. And “twenty years ago” is no longer as distant as it once was. For young people, “back in the day” can mean two years ago! I think what has changed for us, sometimes at least, are the references we dig into. Part of our DNA is library music, the Radiophonic Workshop, TV soundtracks… but hopefully we’ve broadened that out a bit. But I think the records still go after this mood of the misremembered past.

Is there a certain Ghost Box-ness that you can hear in things? And if so, what is it?

I wish I knew! I think Julian and I tend to agree, and we know straight away… I’ll sometimes get a demo and pass it onto him, and he’ll say “Yeah, I think that works too”. Or, if I’m in doubt, we’ll have similar doubts. It’s very hard to define. It’s to do with mood and atmosphere as much as it’s to do with musical styles, genres or production. And that can range from surreal humorous elements, to weird nostalgia, or even “Oh yes, this sounds like that old stuff…”. If we get where the artist is coming from, and we get their references, then it fits.

What wouldn’t you do?

I don’t know… I like to think there are elements from any genre that might work if they’re taken the right way. A lot of the things I listen to, I think “Oh, I’d love to have this on the label… but we don’t have artists like this.” You know, whether that’s rock music or soul music or more dance music, or something more contemporary that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with the label. Some things would fit, and there are some artists where I think “Oh God, yeah… they create this mood”.

And I guess some artists who can create that mood aren’t necessarily renowned for it. Paul Weller being the obvious example – I loved the EP he made for Ghost Box earlier this year. Are there other artists that aren’t obviously Ghost Box artists, but you think they possibly could be?

There are artists that I love personally… Panda Bear springs to mind, who I absolutely love. I’m a huge fan. His work, and the rest of the Animal Collective to a lesser extent, creates the same spark in my imagination that Julian and I are on the lookout for, for Ghost Box. There’s something about that deep nostalgia for a past that didn’t exist, and a yearning melancholy in his music that I love.

Would you approach him?

Definitely! If I had an “in”… maybe I’ll get a call now…

Thanks to Jim, as ever, for his time and company. The Gone Away is available to pre-order here… 

https://ghostbox.greedbag.com/buy/the-gone-away/

And a further chat with Jim Jupp, about the album and also his youthful musical adventures, will be published in Issue 69 of Electronic Sound magazine, available in September: 

https://electronicsound.co.uk/

Patrick Russell, the BFI, Public Information Films and the COI

A clanking 16mm projector, a freezing cold parquet floor, ominously dimmed lights and perhaps even a uniformed policeman striding purposefully into the school hall. The inevitable augers of that most traumatising of school experiences: the screening of a Public Information Film. These crackling, washed-out warnings about the dangers of railway lines, busy roads and stagnant ponds became part of the fabric of our everyday 1970s unsettlement, and the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water joined the ever-increasing roster of nightmarish spectres seemingly queuing at the bottom of our beds on a ghoulish rota.

Perhaps the most disturbing of all was Apaches, from 1977. This 27-minute compendium of agricultural atrocities sees six children, lost in a very 1970s fantasy world of “cowboys and injuns”, routinely losing their lives on a dank, rain-sodden farm; picked off in turn by tractors, slurry pits and rat poison alike. It was screened in my school hall in the late 1970s, with the extravagantly-bearded Mr Douglas on hand to answer predictably tremulous questions afterwards. Like all Public Information Films from this golden era of disquiet, Apaches was produced by the Orwellian-sounding Central Office Information, a state body founded in 1946 to deliver these chilling missives to a largely unsuspecting public.

The British Film Institute have collected 23 vintage Public Information Films, including Apaches, onto a deluxe two-disc Blu-ray set, entitled The Best of COI: Five Decades of Public Information Films. I spoke to BFI curator and box set producer Patrick Russell about the contents of the set, and the history of the Central Office of Information. Here’s how the conversation went:

Bob: I’m very much of the generation that was shown films like Apaches in a darkened school hall from a 16mm projector. Was your own relationship with Public Information Films along similar lines?

Patrick: In that specific case, the relationship is identical! Seeing Apaches screened in the classroom is a very salient memory of mine. I was born in 1972, so I’m sure I couldn’t have seen it in 1977 when it was first released, but it did the rounds in rural areas for a lot of years. I reckon I probably saw it in 1979 or 1980, when I was seven or eight. And it’s a pretty indelible memory, to be honest. An official of some sort came along, presumably from the farm safety advisory service or some equivalent body, and the film was screened from a 16mm projector to a classroom full of children my age, in North Devon.

I remember it as being an extraordinarily traumatic experience. I’m not making this up, I swear to you… I vividly remember it. The terror through which we all went actually culminated in one boy developing a nosebleed during the screening. So my main memory of this event is seeing this poor boy being haplessly led out of the screening with a trail of blood behind him on the floor!

So you think this was an entirely psychosomatic nosebleed?

Well, who knows what the cause and effect relationship was? But he certainly had a nosebleed during a film that traumatised us all! So it’s a memory that’s drenched in blood: what happens on the screen is quite horrific given the age of the film’s target audience, and what was happening offscreen was pretty horrific as well. It was very traumatic, and I have whimsically wondered since whether my subsequent career in film archiving was somehow subliminally influenced by this. [Laughs]

But, more broadly than that, anyone of my generation brought up in the 1970s and 80s would have seen Public Information Films. Mainly not in that setting of a formal screening: more likely in those 30-45 second slots on TV. Those short films were screened to our generation more than any other content – they were, basically, the most-repeated content on television. So yeah, they’re very much part of the texture of our early lives, in a way that won’t apply to my kids’ generation.

Yes, one of the most traumatic aspects of these films is that we literally had no control over when we saw them. We watched TV constantly, and they would simply appear without warning. We’d often go straight from a rather fluffy piece of children’s television to the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, killing youngsters in stagnant ponds.

Exactly. There were three TV channels through the 1970s, and these films were very short, so they had a captive audience. Literally a captive audience in the case of school screenings. Unless you started bleeding profusely – in which case you would be led out! Therefore, by definition, they were a very powerful piece of communication that could potentially reach everybody, quite easily. 

On this new set, you generally shy away from those shorter films in favour of the COI’s longer, more ambitious productions. What was behind that decision?

I think a few things fed into it. This is a Blu-ray, so it’s got to be cinematic: stuff that people can sit back, press play, and be enveloped by. There’s also the issue that a lot of the very short films are widely available. Often not legally, but they are! It’s not difficult to find a lot of COI fillers on Youtube, in varying levels of quality. And we’ve published some of those on our BFI player as well, which tend to be higher quality than the Youtube channels! So these very short films are particularly suited to online consumption, and are widely available online, whereas the longer films are perhaps more suited to Blu-ray. We started with people’s familiarity with the COI through those 1970s Public Information Film shorts, and used them effectively as a gateway drug into a much wider and more varied world of the COI.

Yes, the longer films show really show off different sides of the COI. It’s easy for our generation to associate Public Information Films with those famously traumatic warnings about death and danger, but I assume – in the early days at least – that wasn’t the entire remit of the COI, because the 1940s and 1950s films on this set are actually rather gently instructional… or even simply a “look at life”.

Yeah, the COI throughout its life had a broader remit than you might guess. It’s come to be associated in the public’s mind with the road safety films of the 1970s and 80s… and there was even quite a lot of variation within those, too. Some of them were terrifying, but some of them were humorous… and the famous Charley Says adverts, for example, were rather friendly. So even within that sphere, they could be very varied.

Basically, the COI was the successor to the MOI – the Ministry of Information – which was in existence during World War II. As a ministry, it was a government department, so it was quite powerful in terms of setting policy for information, as well as actually delivering it. And of course, the context for that was wartime propaganda, and information to be delivered to the Home Front. So they made propaganda films that were seen at home and abroad, interpreting the war effort, but they also made Public Information Films for cinemas… about food rationing, for example.

In 1946, the MOI was shut down and replaced by the COI, and the wording change is significant – it was an office, not a ministry. Not a government department. It was the state’s advertising agency, if you like. Any part of government that had a message that it wanted to communicate would take that message to the COI, and the COI would turn it into a project that would be delivered. And it didn’t only deliver films: it was responsible for posters, radio messages, etc… although the films are the best-known now.

So a government department would say “Hello COI, we need to have a film about…” Well, let’s take an example from the box set, Smoking And You, from 1963. “We’re the Ministry of Health, the Royal College of Physicians’ report about the dangers of smoking has been published, and we want to communicate this to secondary school children. We’re going to spend X amount of money on it, so that’s the budget. What can you do for us?”

And the COI would take that brief, and say “We could make a film that costs X amount of money, we’ll distribute it in the following ways, and we suggest the style of the film should be as follows…” And the COI, once the commissioning department had given them the green light, would then contract a production company to make the film. So it was quite a bureaucratic process really, and – getting back to your original question – in a sense, its remit was to communicate whatever the state wanted it to communicate, and that would come from different departments of government. Smoking And You, for example, came from the Ministry of Health, but other commissions could come from the Education Department, the Home Office, and so on. And actually – and this is the least-known part of the COI’s work – a lot of it came from the Foreign Office, and these were films not intended to be seen in the UK at all. There were intended to promote Britain abroad.

So the COI was as varied as the state itself. Obviously it tended not to do things that were very political… although it did occasionally get involved with things that were politically controversial, for example the Protect and Survive campaign… which was not ever fully actualised, but it was planned for. But most of it was apolitical stuff that the state needed to communicate to either the general public, or to targeted groups within the general public. Or to people abroad. Sorry, that was quite a long answer to your question!

I guess it’s all just very reflective of an era when information as a whole was less available than it is now. It’s very easy to watch a film like Your Children And You, essentially a basic guide to bringing up children, and find it rather patronising to modern eyes. But then they didn’t have Mumsnet in 1946…

Absolutely. I mean, it was a multi-media age to an extent: there was the cinema, and a world of non-theatrical screenings that the COI definitely plugged into, as well as newspapers, radio and magazines. So it was a multi-media world, but the “multi” was by no means as vast and diverse as it is now! One effect of that, I guess, is that messages from the government had greater cut-through than they would now. They were competing with fewer other information sources. And I guess another observation you could make, and this is debatable, is whether people were less sceptical or cynical about official institutional messages at that time than they would be now. Obviously you could play that debate out, particularly in relation to the COVID-19 crisis.

I was very much taken with the spirit of optimism that comes over in the 1950s and 1960s films. It’s a very post-war feeling… and it all seems to be enscapsulated in films like Brief City from 1952, with its glorious vision of a futuristic South Bank, and the brand new Skylon sculpture. And then Design For Today, from 1965, almost shows us a “lost future”… it’s a brilliant, jazzy, pop-art vision of swinging life in a beautiful high-rise apartment. Is that kind of glimpse into the British psyche of these respective eras a big part of the appeal of these films?

Absolutely. You can respond to these films at a very simple level – nostalgic, humorous, whatever – and that’s fine, but you can analyse them on lots of other levels as well. And given that these films show us how the government was positioning itself, and its messages to the public, they’re bound to tell us a lot about those eras… about things that the government is consciously trying to tell us, and things that it’s unconsciously reflecting.

So Brief City and Design For Today are both very good examples. They’re not that far apart in time from each other, and yet they’re redolent of totally different decades in terms of their aesthetic, their tone, and what they suggest. But as you say, what they do have in common is optimism. Now of course the government, for the most part, wouldn’t want to be putting out pessimistic messages – although you could make lots of counter-arguments to that, and pessimism creeps into some other films on this set! But yeah… Brief City shows The Festival of Britain. Which was a slightly artificial event, but it was designed to be a symbolic moment of national renewal, and I think what I draw from that film is something genuinely authentic and sincere. Perhaps I’m being naive, but it does give you the feeling that the people who made it, and the people who might see it, at least had half a belief in what it’s saying and showing.

Design For Today… now that’s a very zeitgeisty film, isn’t it? It’s Swinging London, basically! Made by Hugh Hudson, who went on to be a kind of enfant terrible of the advertising world before, for a while, becoming an extremely successful feature film director. And it shares the optimism of Brief City, but stylistically it’s so different. It’s not just the fact that it’s in colour, there’s also the emphasis on fast cutting, the absence of a commentary, the whole design theme… it’s neo-Modernism, basically. So absolutely, I completely agree… I’d be wary of naive readings of these films, where you don’t penetrate underneath and try to understand the anxieties, insecurities and the contradictions that might underlie what’s happening on the surface. But at the same time you absolutely have to look at what is on the surface, and understand what that says about the times in which they were made. And I think both of those films are particularly valuable reflections of their era.

Can we talk about those 1970s films in particular? By modern standards, they seem incredibly shocking: Apaches, obviously, but there’s also Building Sites Bite, in which two children repeatedly lure their cousin into a succession of grisly deaths, to great comic effect. I can’t imagine them being shown to such a young audience on 21st century television…

Yes, I tend to agree. That audience does get access to shocking content by other means, but I don’t think – in the context of public information – you’d get those films today. I think that would probably create a backlash in the media that would be unwelcome to those who had commissioned them.

Did that not happen at the time? Were eyebrows never raised in the 1970s?

They were sometimes. The one I’m most aware of is not actually a COI, it was a film made by British Transport Films called The Finishing Line. Do you know that one?

Yes, it’s horrible.

It’s very much from the same position, and from the same point in time, as those COI films. It was intended to discourage children from playing on railway lines, and the extraordinary narrative device that the film-makers came up with – to create a sort of surreal shock aversion therapy that I think it shares with Apaches – was a school sports day based around playing dangerous games on the tracks. And it results in massive amounts of death and injury. With that particular film, I have studied its reception, and it was hugely controversial. There was a debate about it on Nationwide, because some parents were so shocked by it. And it was eventually withdrawn.

I’m not aware of there having been such a debate about Apaches, and I don’t remember that I went home – after being traumatised that day – and said anything about it to my parents! And I suppose Dark and Lonely Water is a little bit different… it’s taking place in a dreamlike genre, to an extent, and using the power of metaphor.

What makes Apaches or The Finishing Line scary is that they mix the dreamlike world with a realist world that’s particularly uncomfortable. One of the extraordinary things about Apaches is… well, the storyline of the film is basically a bunch of kids on a farm, playing cowboys and indians. And one by one, they’re killed in horrible ways – by a combine harvester, by drowning in the slurry pit, etc. I think you described it in your Fortean Times review as being like the Children’s Film Foundation directed by Sam Peckinpah, and I would probably throw a little bit of Ingmar Bergman in there as well! But the really curious thing about it is that, each time one of them dies, they carry on playing there…

Yes! Stop going back to the same farm!

Exactly! So it’s a sort of fable, in a way. It’s a fairytale, but a fairytale that’s taking place in a very recognisable world. It’s exactly like the farms where I grew up in Devon, with kids just like me. So with that film, what I find disturbing is the mixture of metaphor and reality. Whereas Dark and Lonely Water is also very scary… but in a way, it exists within its own world. Rather than mixing its own world with the real world. Which is why I think Dark and Lonely Water was regularly shown on TV, whereas Apaches was intended more for specialist screenings. Although I believe it was shown sometimes on TV, by ITV franchises in rural areas.

I’ve come across people that have seen it on TV, but I don’t remember that myself.

I think it was probably shown on Westward TV, the ITV region where I grew up… or Anglia TV, for example. But it wouldn’t have been shown at all in London, where it was just totally irrelevant. This question of targeting was quite important to the COI. Some films were intended for the widest possible reach, basically the entire UK public, but other films were very precisely targeted – particularly towards certain age groups, but also towards sectors of the economy, and so on.

Again, this is why I say… you can enjoy these films on a very simple level, but when you dig into them, they’re quite complex things to analyse. They’re a little bit different to feature films and TV because they’re not just about entertaining and engaging: the government wouldn’t spend money on these films if they didn’t have a specific purpose in mind. So trying to understand what that purpose was, and also trying to investigate – or, in some cases, guess – how that purpose manifested itself through the production, from the original Civil Service requirement to the film-maker who actually made the film on the ground, is an endlessly fascinating subject.

Was there an element, though, of these films needing to work as short films in their own right? The one that I particularly loved on the set was Drive Carefully, Darling. As a Doctor Who fan, it was such a thrill to see Colin Baker, John Challis and Christopher Owen – the Earthman from ‘Meglos‘! – all in the same production, in such an engaging and actually rather chilling piece of film-making.

Absolutely! Now, interestingly, that film was directed by John Krish, who also directed The Finishing Line. I recommend anyone who doesn’t know about his career to dig into it… he made some brilliant social documentaries in the late 1950s and early 1960s, had a brief career in feature films in the mid-to-late 1960s, and then in the 1970s his main focus was making COI and other information films. He did these longer pieces, like Drive Carefully, Darling, but he also did a lot of thirty-second jobs as well. As well as commercial advertising.

To me he’s a good example of how the story of the COI relates to the story of the British film industry. The story of the British film industry is very complex and multifarious, and it’s always a mistake to just look at it in terms of feature films… and then the rest. Especially since the British feature film has always lumbered from periods of triumph to periods of crisis. Throughout that time, you’ve also got people making television, commercials, industrial and educational films… and people making COI Public Information Films. And the COI was, I think, a very important component of the British film industry. It provided work and money to a lot of directors, cinematographers, editors, writers and actors. It’s an important part of the story of the moving image in Britain.

And Drive Carefully, Darling, itself… I agree, it’s a cracker! It’s a funny one; it’s a film based on a bizarre concept, and that cannot have come from the commissioners in government. That will have come from John Krish and his colleagues at the production company. And I think the point of that film was to really get through to the experienced driver who thinks that he – and I think they would have been thinking of a “he” here, rather than a “she” – knows it all and doesn’t need any driving advice. Basically: “Get out of my way, government, I know what I’m doing!” This is a film intended to break down the complacency of that driver.

So they came up with this completely bizarre concept, which is to visualise the inside of the driver’s brain. Starring all the actors you mentioned! It’s a COI film, so the budget isn’t that high… [Laughs]. They obviously wanted to convey a futuristic, Star Trek-type high-tech environment, but they could only go so far within the COI budget. The film would have cost a few thousand pounds. But it’s such an incredible concept, and my experience of showing that film to people is that… well, as with a lot of COI films, they tend to laugh at the beginning at the slight campiness of it, but then get more and more caught up in the narrative. It ends with the death of these characters, and therefore the death of the brain, and the driver himself – who is obviously a surrogate for the over-confident male drivers who are watching the film. That scene is intercut with footage of his wife at home, getting ready for him to return… and a film which is made on slightly too low a budget, and starts off rather silly and camp, actually has you completely gripped by the end. If you were part of the target audience, you might have started off thinking “Oh, yeah…” but you’d have reached the end of it feeling slightly sobered.

Colin Baker’s performance at the end of that film is genuinely chilling. As the brain, he attempts to contact other parts of the dying body, which – one by one – fail to respond. Leaving the brain alone and panicking, conscious that the rest of the body has died around it. It’s horrible. I think it’s a great example of the COI producing not only something with a worthwhile message, but also a terrific short film in its own right. You could almost show Drive Carefully, Darling as an episode of a TV anthology series. It’s not far from being a Twilight Zone.

Absolutely. And the other thing that’s great about the COI films is their brevity. It’s not a very long film; in fact, it’s shorter than the average Twilight Zone. With the filler adverts, the classic Green Cross Code stuff that we talked about earlier, they were very much formatted in terms of length: they were 30 seconds, 45 seconds or a minute; or something like Dark and Lonely Water was an especially long one that would fill a whole advertising break. But once you get beyond that world, there was no set length for the films. They were the length they needed to be.

That’s something that I think is quite important from the film-maker’s point of view. There were disadvantages to working for the COI… they were notoriously tight-fisted when it came to allocating budget, and they were known to be very bureaucratic, of course… they would make you answer to every move, and they in turn were answerable to their clients within government. But the upside was actually that, if you could convince them of the creative concept, you might be trusted to execute that, at the length and in the style that you wanted. So that discipline of working with a brief, combined with the freedom of interpreting that brief, is a really interesting thing to study. More interesting, in a way, than a completely independent film-maker producing works of self-expression in their own time and with their own money. Of course, that’s a hugely important part of creative practice, but it’s interesting at the same time to look at films produced in prescribed circumstances, and see how that can drive creativity.

Speaking of the budgets, Public Information Films did a wonderful job of attracting big names of the day: not just actors, but pop stars, sports stars, TV presenters and so on. I spoke to the BFI’s Vic Pratt about the Children’s Film Foundation’s similar reputation for attracting big names on a budget, and he said actors felt that appearing in CFF films for basic rates was simply a nice, public-spirited thing to do. Did the same apply to Public Information Films?

I think so, yeah… I’d make the same assumption as you. I haven’t seen any primary source evidence on this, but I think it’s extremely likely.

And also, I guess… for a public figure, it’s never a bad move to have your face on TV on a regular basis!

Yes, especially on something that’s going to be shown over and over again!

On the subject of actors, can we show a little love for Richard Massingham here? For a long time, I simply knew him as “the man from the Public Information Films”… he appears in so many of the 1940s and 1950s films, in particular. But I’ve discovered from this set that he was quite an important figure in their development.  

Oh, absolutely! I think it would be fair to say that Massingham was the first genius of the British Public Information Film. He wasn’t the first to make them: there was a film made by the government about the influenza outbreak after the First World War, long before the COI, so the Public Information Film goes back at least 100 years. But in terms of Public Information developing as a specific tradition with a specific form, Massingham was key to that. A lot of people will recognise him as “that guy…” and for sure, he’s got a brilliant cinematic face. And a very British one as, well – there’s a slightly quizzical, hangdog expression he masters. You have to see it! A brilliant face.

But he wasn’t just an actor, he was also a producer and director. He was a doctor, originally…  but he’d dabbled in amateur film-making and found his way into the profession. And he really came into his own in the 1940s, when he ran his own production company and often appeared in short films – including Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases! What he brought to the Public Information Film was the British tradition of dark humour. And that continues to be a major facet of not just government information, but also the world of advertising, and of corporate messaging… sardonic humour is still one of the tools in the armoury. It’s often intended as a way of bringing the cynic onside. As a nation, we’re arguably quite iconoclastic and suspicious of our elders and betters… and I think the whole world has become more cynical about anything coming from official or corporate sources. So to offset that, you depict an everyman who appreciates the black humour of life. And I think that’s what Massingham does.

What A Life!, on the new set, is an extraordinary piece of film-making that takes that approach to extremes! It’s basically a Public Information Film, starring Richard Massingham, that confirms that life is appallingly dreary and depressing. And it ends with a failed suicide attempt.

What A Life! is a one of a kind! Anyone reading this interview who’s never watched this film… stop reading now, buy the Blu-ray, put it in the machine, don’t worry… Bob and I will wait. It’s an extraordinary dark masterpiece which, given that it was made as a piece of government communication to the general public, slightly beggars belief. I don’t know what would be the modern equivalent: Michael Gove commissioning Frankie Boyle to make a film about how Britain is going to the dogs due to Coronavirus and Brexit? It’s in that realm of unlikelihood.

There’s another actor who appears in it, Russell Waters, who was a character actor from a lot of feature films, and he was a Massingham regular. He does a good job in that one. But Massingham is the star of the film, and the basic premise is: Britain is going to the dogs. It’s the other side of the post-war moment to Brief City. The country was bankrupt after the war, rationing was continuing, and there was a faltering of national self-confidence. That’s what that film is addressing, and it has to show some empathy with that point of view if it’s going to address it. But I think most of us watching that film today would say that the empathy probably comes across more strongly than the antidote! Which is basically: “OK, everything is going to the dogs, but let’s have a laugh anyway”. I suppose it’s quite a British point-of-view. There’s that old World War Two aphorism that contrasts the American and the British point-of-view on life… the Americans say “The situation is serious but not desperate,” and the British say “The situation is desperate… but not serious!”

And I think that’s where Massingham is. In non-serious desperation. He was absolutely brilliant. A brilliant actor, but also a brilliant director and producer.

The film on the set that I find incredibly touching, heart-breaking even, is Never Go With Strangers. It deals with a truly horrible subject matter with such gentleness, and sensitivity to its audience. Is this a film that really strikes a chord with children of the 1970s?

Yeah, I think so. And it was also quite widely seen, although it was held back from TV for quite a while.

I think I saw that one at school: a policeman actually came to our school and introduced the screening.

I didn’t see that one at school… it was maybe starting to fade by the time I was in the target audience. But I think it was widely seen in schools, and I agree with you… it has a gentleness, and a certain warmth. But I think it’s also quite a stylish film as well: it’s a very elegant production. Again, I’m going to fly a flag for a director here: it was made by Sarah Erulkar, who perhaps should be better known than she is. She worked entirely in the field of short film-making, from the late 1940s through to the early 1980s, and she did a lot of stuff for the COI, and for industrial companies and charities. She was unusual, not just in being a woman film-maker at that time, but she was also Indian: born in India, and raised in the UK. That was completely unique in the film industry at the time. She had a great eye for camera composition: her films were very elegant, but in a self-effacing way.

And her work on that film was impeccable, as it’s a very difficult and sensitive topic. And I think the difficulty with any film about safety – particularly if it’s intended for children – is making it scary enough to move people out of their complacency without terrifying them so much that they can’t deal with it at all and completely shut down.

Now you could argue that some of the other films go too far with the latter… 

Yes, and gave children a nosebleed!

Exactly! So that’s a debate you can have, but I think Never Go With Strangers is exemplary, because it absolutely treads that line. No kid watching that would go away unaware of the issues – it does hit them where it hurts, as it were – but it’s done in a way that doesn’t scare them off and turn them into gibbering wrecks. It really strikes the right balance.

It’s easy to see some Public Information Films as being quaint or silly, but Never Go With Strangers is done with genuinely caring intent to protect the very vulnerable, and I think that’s worth celebrating.

Yeah, absolutely. A lot of the films from this genre are intended to save lives, so yes… you can mock the period trappings of them, and with hindsight you can see things that we’ve learned since that might add others layers of interpretation, but actually the basic idea behind making these films was a very sincere and morally admirable one. Although we’ve quite rightly made light of the likes of Apaches and The Finishing Line, I don’t consider them to be exploitation films, in any meaningful sense whatsoever. At their core, I’m convinced, these are humanist films – their methods may be outlandish,  but those methods were selected to connect with people, to help them, to protect them. And more generally with the COI, one of the things that I find moving about all these films is that they are all, in their different ways, public service film-making. Film-making paid for by the public, for the public good. And even though you can critique or analyse them, there is a kernel in there that is wholly admirable. Not a lot of money was made from these films, and massive reputations weren’t necessarily built from them, I just genuinely think they come from a good place. Let’s not be too cynical about their driving force.

I feel almost guilty about saying this, but there was a moment during the early Coronavirus lockdown when the TV was on, and I was pottering around the house, and I suddenly heard the immortal announcement: “This is a Public Information Film from the UK Government.” And I can’t deny it gave me a little frisson. Is there a case for re-establishing some form of the COI in 2020?

Right… this is quite complex! There’s an aspect of political history to this, as well as an aspect of communication theory. Firstly… it’s not that there are no Public Information Films being made. There are. In fact, during the Coronavirus period, people may have seen films from the government giving advice about handwashing and staying alert… possibly during ad breaks, but also online. Most of the ones I’ve seen haven’t been particularly creative in their style, but they have been made. Government departments have still commissioned films, just not through the Central Office of Information.

For example, if we talk about the issue of child safety: I’ve seen films from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command that are really taking the message of Never Go With Strangers into a very different social and technological era. Tackling things like grooming online, so it’s “Never Go With Strangers…” but in this case, the strangers are people that you meet on social media. Those films exist, but you won’t have seen any of them: the reason being that they’re not intended for you. Unlike in the 1970s, when almost everybody watched the same media, today they’re very demographically targeted. So those films will be shown in schools to particular age groups, or they might be distributed on Facebook or Snapchat. The idea of a commonality of experience in watching Public Information Films has gone, to some extent. Not withstanding things like the Coronavirus films, which are intended for everybody… but even then, the nature of the pandemic has meant that those messages are being updated on a frequent basis, so they’re not intended to have the sort of lifespan as the Charley Says or Green Cross Code adverts. Those films often ran for a decade, or even two. Those films are not being made now.

But the point is… the government has not stopped using film since it closed the COI… what it’s not doing is using one single, central agency. The cabinet office has a role in overseeing communications, but there are a lot of government departments or public agencies that independently come up with an idea for a film, and contract and direct a production company or an advertising agency to make it. And then, as I say, it might be distributed via a very targeted method. So the tradition of the Public Information Film as it existed from the 1940s through to the early 2000s is dead, but the practice of making Public Information Films isn’t dead – it just exists in a completely different form.

So is there a case for a new COI? It’s probably too political a question for me, as a public employee, to get into! But I guess you could say one of the positive things about the COI is that… because they were doing it, year in and year out, they really learned to understand their craft. And they really understood the film-makers that worked with them… who specialised in what, who could do a good job on this film or that film, how to distribute films effectively, and awful lot of best practice about the applied psychology of their audience: school-age children, for example. They definitely made some missteps along the way… and for every Charley Says, there’s a SPLINK! Do you know the SPLINK campaign?

Yes, with Jon Pertwee…

Exactly, and I’m not going to be able to recite the acronym, because it’s so bamboozling! It’s the most ridiculous, overwrought acronym! So that was a failed Public Information campaign. But the COI built up a case law, really, of what worked and what didn’t work. And I suppose you could argue that it dated from an era of co-ordinated central government that preceded an era when outsourcing became such a dominant aspect of government practice. So the COI was a creature of its time in that sense.  

And in terms of releases from the BFI… will there be any more?

Well, we’ll see how it goes! This set is a distillation of a series of DVD releases that we did several years ago. We took the best titles… or those most appropriate for Blu-ray. But if it does well, and I hope it does, then we’d absolutely be interested in doing more. Any maybe we might consider some of the COI films that we haven’t previously released at all. Let’s see what happens! 

Thanks to Patrick for his time, and for such a fascinating insight. The Best of COI: Five Decades of Public Information Films is available here:

https://shop.bfi.org.uk/best-of-the-coi-2-disc-blu-ray-set.html

And there is a full review of the set in the Haunted Generation column in the current edition of the Fortean Times, dated August 2020.

Matthew Holness, Possum, The Snipist and Garth Marenghi

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:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Possum-DVD-Sean-Harris/dp/B07JX4SHR1

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!

Really?!

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:

https://shop.bfi.org.uk/dvd-blu-ray/children/children-s-film-foundation/children-s-film-foundation-bumper-box-vol-2.html#.Xu3bBGhKiUk

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

https://shop.bfi.org.uk/dvd-blu-ray/children/children-s-film-foundation/children-s-film-foundation-bumper-box.html#.Xu3bJ2hKiUk

Polypores, Azure and Stephen James Buckley

Descending… deeper… deeper… deeper…

Listening to a Polypores album is an incredibly immersive experience. More so than ever in the case of new album Azure, which employs a gentle tide of modular synths to create the feel of a fantastical ocean paradise; a tropical realm of ancient, submerged cities awash with Polynesian chants and rhythms. “I imagined this to be the music that the sunken stone heads from Easter Island would have on their record players,” claims Preston-based Stephen James Buckley – aka Polypores – in the album’s press release. “A relaxation tape for dolphins…”

The album is a companion piece to 2019’s Flora, also released by Castles in Space, and now gaining a welcome vinyl reissue. Flora was a similarly fantastical exploration of an otherworldly woodland, where trees and vegetation grow to outlandish sizes, and Stephen and I talked about it last summer – you can read our conversation here.

This week, I spoke to Stephen again to ask about the inspirations behind Azure. Here’s how it all went:

Bob: When we talked about Flora last year, you mentioned it had been partially inspired by the blistering hot summer of 2018. And now Azure has an aquatic theme, and the album’s PR mentions that very rainy weather at the end of 2019 as a partial influence! Is it fair to say you find the elements rather inspiring?

Stephen: I think it was a combination of things. I now tend to do stuff that’s a lot more led by the music, so I’ll just mess around and experiment and then say “Hmm… this seems to be following that kind of theme.” Rather than sitting down and saying “Right, I’m going to make an album that’s inspired by this.” But looking back, I think a number of things fed into it. I distinctly remember listening back to one of the tracks that I’d recorded – which actually didn’t end up on the album – and we’d had torrential rain for about two weeks, and I was just imagining what it would be like if Preston was submerged. The imagery of it. And from there, I thought… “Oh, that’s a thing…”

And then I searched for a lot of imagery of sunken cities. I was looking very much at images of sunken stone heads, Easter Island statues, things like that. And all the different theories about Atlantis, and the various places where it could be located. And a lot of the sounds I was making were quite Pacific-sounding; tuned percussion and Polynesian-sounding choirs were coming out. So once I decided things were heading in a water-based direction, I started immersing myself more in literature, both fiction and non-fiction, and documentaries: anything to do with the sea. Just trying to get my head in that place.

I found a fantastic book, actually – I’ve got it out, just so I could remember the title! It’s called The Ocean Almanac, and it’s by Robert Hendrickson. It describes itself as “A Copious Compendium on Sea Creatures, Nautical Lore & Legend, Master Mariners, Naval Disasters, and Myriad Mysteries of the Deep”. It’s a massive book that I found in a tiny little second-hand bookshop in… somewhere in Yorkshire. I think it might have been Harrogate. It’s just full of both real life and fantasy: mermaids and sea serpents and krackens, but then all these weird facts about the ocean, and about fish and the water. That was really a great book to be reading around that time, and it fed into the whole thing.

So when the album was finished, it seemed – not necessarily intentionally – to have a cohesive feel to it, and to fit together in that way. So I suppose there was some intent involved, but also a fair bit of chance and just letting things happen. Letting my head absorb things. It’s almost like a computer: you feed input into me, and then the music comes out. But that input doesn’t necessarily have to be musical input… I feel like everything I absorb and experience is processed in some way, and I just have to decide how it comes out.

I remember when we talked about Flora, you mentioned the animated French film La Planète Sauvageaka The Fantastic Planet – as an influence on the album’s aesthetic. I’d never seen it in full before, so I watched it and thought it was extraordinary! Were there any similarly specific influences on Azure?

There weren’t necessarily whole films, but there were certainly images or certain scenes from films that fed into it. Weirdly enough, there was actually a computer game that I used to play on the Amiga in the 1990s called The Secret of Monkey Island. I don’t know if you remember it, it was a point-and-click adventure…

Oh, did you sample a bit of music from it?

I did, yeah! It’s set in the Caribbean, and you’re a young lad called Guybrush Threepwood, trying to train up to be a pirate. It’s all quite tropical-sounding, and there are parts of it where you go underwater. So when I sent Nick [Taylor, sleeve designer] images for the artwork, almost like a mood board of imagery, it was on there. Even though you only spend a couple of minutes underwater, it really stuck with me.

I’m trying to think if there was anything else… I’m looking at my DVD collection now! One of my favourite underwater films is The Water Babies, from 1978. I loved that when I was a kid. All the background parts are hand-drawn animation… a bit like The Fantastic Planet, actually. These strange, beautiful worlds where you’ve got weird squids! Again, it’s a very vague influence, and it’s not like I sat down and watched it all, but these things seep in and become part of your palette.

Is it important for you to have that fantastical element? Flora wasn’t just about walking through woodland, it was about walking through huge, oversized alien woodland.

I think so. Not with every album, but that’s what I wanted to do with Azure. Not so much to make a sequel to Flora, but certainly to do something that had a fantastical interpretation of an environment. Making it into something that’s almost larger than life. And I suppose with Azure I was making music that sounded very water-like to me, and my imagination just goes off on one because I’ve watched way too many science fiction and fantasy films… [Laughs]

The last time I saw you, you were actually wearing a Krull t-shirt…

There you go! It does probably influence the way I think as an adult. I was reading a study the other day that said how science fiction and fantasy actually change the way you think: they make you think more critically and more imaginatively about certain things. And I think that’s benefitted my life in the long run. I suppose it just allows you to think about things in a certain way, and to consider certain things: a lot of sci-fi is “What if”, you know… “What if people could travel back in time? What if we swapped bodies?”

And I think with Azure… I didn’t want to do another Flora – that would be way too easy, and I’d be bored – but I liked the idea of doing something for the same label, Castles In Space, that tied into Flora a little bit. And maybe there’ll be a third one with a different element! Fire, water, wood…

Are you a bit of a prog rock fan? The combination of your music and Nick’s artwork gives off a very prog aesthetic, I think. It all sometimes makes me think of Roger Dean‘s floating islands on those Yes album sleeves…

Yeah, there’s some prog stuff that I absolutely love. It’s not classic prog, but I really like a prog-metal band called Mastodon. They did an amazing album called Crack The Skye, it’s one of my favourite albums of all time. It’s a concept album about a young quadriplegic boy who uses astral projection to travel outside of his body, but he flies too close to the sun and it burns the golden umbilical cord that connects him to his physical form. So he’s sort of lost in the ether, then a bunch of 17th century Russian mystics contact him and guide him back down to his body.

Blimey.

[Laughs] I love the aesthetic of that stuff. It’s not a million miles away from fantasy is it, really? If you like fantasy books and films then listening to prog feels like the next progression. It’s something I dabble in rather than being massively into, and I don’t claim to have a massive knowledge of it, but I certainly love certain aspects of it, and there are certain albums I really dig.

Did I read that you were listening to Iron Maiden quite a lot while you were working on Azure?

I was! It’s a weird one, that. I used to love them when I was about fourteen. And again, it’s not far from being fantasy…

The one for me is Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, which – again – is pretty much a prog album in all but name.

Seventh Son is an incredible album! I love that, it’s my favourite Maiden album. If ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ was on that, it’d be the perfect album! Seventh Son is the one I listen to the most, it’s fantastic – just the whole concept behind it. I think that’s why I like Mastodon actually, because they remind me of that period of Iron Maiden. I love that record: right down to the repeated motifs connected to ‘The Clairvoyant’, stuff like that. It’s great conceptually, but also there are some proper singalong bangers on that album, too – ‘Can I Play With Madness’! It’s great to listen to when you’re cooking. Cooking and listening to Iron Maiden puts me in a good place.

Are you quite a good cook, then?   

I enjoy cooking, I’m not sure how good I am! I’m not as good as my partner, but I’m better than I was two years ago.

What’s your culinary speciality?

Curries. I do a lot of different curries. And I’m very much a one-pot man. I do one pot in large portions so I’ve got a lot for the freezer, for later. I like to experiment with different spices, and I’m learning a lot. One of the guys I work with, Mark – actually, he records under the name Field Lines Cartographer and has an album coming out on Castles In Space – he’s a good friend of mine, and he often gives me tips. He’s the curry master. I’ll say to him “Mark, what’s this spice for?” And he’ll stroke his beard and give me some sage advice.

Sage advice would be about herbs, not spices. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. That’s a terrible pun.

It was quick, and I think the important thing about puns is not how good they are, but how quick they are.

You normally have to wait a few days for me! I was actually trying to work out how to bring your love of cooking back to your love of music, and I think I can do this: if you’ve learned to cook over the last couple of years, then you’re clearly open to developing new skills. And one other new skill you’ve developed is learning to play the modular synth – which you’ve used for the first time on Azure.

Yes! I think making music in general is a similar process. Especially with synthesizers, and especially with modular synthesizers. You’ve got a number of different ingredients, and you’ve got to choose how much of a certain sound to put in. And each tweak you make is like putting in a spice.

Oh, this is good…

There are a lot of musical cooking analogies I could make! The list is endless… you put too much lemon in, and it’s fucked! But I suppose the difference with music is that you can go back. If you mess up when you’re cooking something, you’re stuck with it, really. But yeah – it is quite similar. And the modular stuff has really blown my mind in terms of experimentation. That’s one of the things I enjoy most in life, again that idea of “What it?”…

“What if we walk down this path, and see where this takes us? Let’s find out where this goes…”

I really enjoy that when I’m out walking, and when I make music it’s the same principle. “What happens if I plug this into here…” And with a modular synth, that’s what you have to do. That’s how you work, rather than everything being set up and prescribed. Modular is a blank canvas… it’s like Lego. It’s like musical Lego. I was a massive Lego fan when I was a kid, and this is exactly the same. A normal synth is a toy that’s pre-built, but a modular synth is like a Lego kit. You can build it in a way that’s the same as on the box, but you can also take it apart and make a whole new thing. That’s why I enjoy it so much – it brings up a whole new set of co-ordinates. You’re working on a completely different axis, with whole new dimensions of composition and texture. It’s been an amazing experience for me, and it’s one of those things that’s never complete, I’m constantly buying and selling new things. It’s ever-evolving.

Can you send me a picture of your modular synth to put on the website?

Absolutely, yeah.

Does it look like a telephone exchange?  

Pretty much! I’ll send you one once we’re done.

Is there a timeline to Azure? The opening track is called ‘Bathysphere’, which I know is the large spherical container that early 20th century divers used a lot. So is that track a depiction of us descending underwater? And then we head on a voyage of discovery as the album progresses?

That’s what I think. It wasn’t necessarily my intention, but that’s what happened! To be honest, with Bathysphere… it’s a word that I’ve always loved, and I’ve always wanted to do a track called ‘Bathysphere’, I’ve just never really had the opportunity. But this album gave me that opportunity. But yeah, I imagine that track taking place in some kind of cove, or bay. It’s evening, and it’s dark, but there are lights all around the bay and on the cliffs. And the Bathysphere descending underwater is where the journey begins, taking you through all these places. And then ‘Source’, the final track… I imagine that’s you coming out onto an island where there’s a stream that runs down to feed the ocean. Again, just very vague and pretentious ideas!

They’re not pretentious! ‘Among Sunken Stone Heads’ is such a beautiful and evocative title. You mentioned Easter Island, did you particularly have those statues in mind when you wrote track?

I was going to call that track Rapa Nui, but I thought no – that’s a bit too on the nose! I thought I’d make it a little bit more vague it could apply to any heads, not just the ones on Easter Island.

You mentioned Nick Taylor as well, who designed the artwork for both Flora and Azure. Your music and his imagery fit so well together… how does the collaborative process with Nick work?

Well it works brilliantly, for a start! Usually, I send him the complete album, and then I put together a few images and give him a vague idea of what I’m looking for. He’ll then listen, and have a look around, and send me back a few images. And I’ll say “I like this one, and this one, and this one…” And from there he goes off and does his thing, and nine times out of ten what he comes back with is almost there. I might ask for a minor change to the colour, but he generally gets it 99% there the first time. I sometimes feel like I’m making soundtracks to Nick Taylor artwork.

Oh, that’s lovely!

It’s almost like it works backwards. It’s great working with Nick. He’s a nice guy as well, as you know… you met him – well, both of us – at the Delaware Road event last year.

We threw ourselves around the dancefloor at 3am to a Steve Davis DJ set. What a night that was. Did you have a good weekend?

Yeah! It was mad. I had a very tender head the next day, but it was great. The highlight of my year.

I’m just gutted there obviously hasn’t been an event where we can all meet up again this year.

Castles In Space are doing an event, aren’t they? In October… they asked me to play it, but it was on a weeknight, which is difficult. It means taking two days off work. But Field Lines Cartographer is playing it, which is great… it means he’s got an opportunity, after I did Delaware Road last year. I’m not bitter.

What else are you working on? You seem to be popping up everywhere at the moment, on lots of compilations in particular.

I’ve been extremely busy. Until a couple of weeks ago my partner wasn’t here, so I was just on my own for nine weeks! So I made a lot of music. It’s hard to keep track of… I’ve got stuff coming out over the next couple of months on various labels. I think I’ve got an album coming out every month for the next three months. So there’s a lot more to come, and I’m currently working on a release for Woodford Halse, Mat Handley‘s label. I promised ages ago I’d do an album for him, so I’ve got a few ideas together and things are taking shape. I’m still trying to find the focal point for the album, but eventually I’ll stumble on a track and say “This is the one… this is what the album is going to sound like”. And then everything else will work around that.

So that’s what I’m doing at the moment. Just experimenting and trying out new things and new ideas. I’m very much into “granular sampling” at the moment. It’s like sampling on a micro level. You take tiny snippets of sounds and play around with them. You end up finding sounds within sounds. You can take a second of, say, a Beatles song, and you hone in on that, and move around within that second. And there are whole other melodies and textures that you would otherwise have missed. It’s like working with sound on a molecular level. It’s like you’ve got a magnifying glass, and it’s bringing all kinds of things to the table that I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to play with.

That’s really interesting, and I always like your keenness to take on new influences. Which reminds me: I meant to say Azure actually has a curious New Age feel to it places…

Yeah, definitely. A lot of the music I was listening to around that time was New Age kind of music… there are some great compilations on Light in the Attic records, which got me started. I listened to a couple of those, and from there I explored other artists. There’s so much of it on Youtube from the 1980s and 1990s. Some of it’s kind of cheesy, but I suppose what I wanted to was… rather than be influenced by something, and do something in that style, I’m more into taking elements of it and making my own version. So it’s the Polypores version of New Age music, not New Age music as such.

And I think that’s what I’ve done with a number of different genres. A case of dabbling here and there. This is going to sound massively big-headed, and I’m in no way comparing myself to him, but it’s similar to what David Bowie did. He’d take elements of funk or pop or drum and bass and he’d do his own version of it. Which I suppose is kind of what I do, except I’m nowhere near as good as David Bowie. I’m not claiming in any way to be on his level.

No, that’s going to be my headline. “I AM THE NEW DAVID BOWIE – STEPHEN JAMES BUCKLEY”

[Laughs] I think people assume that I have a massive ego because I release a lot of music and talk a lot, but that couldn’t be further from the truth! I say these things taking the piss: “Look at me, I am the David Bowie of electronic music”, and people think I’m being serious. But I’m actually mocking myself. But then before you know it, you’ve got a reputation…

I’ll put it on the record that you’re a modest and unassuming kind of chap.  

Please do! But no, you know where I’m coming from… it’s back to the cooking, and the ingredients. You can make food that’s Indian style, but it’s got halloumi in it. It’s like that.

Thanks to Stephen for giving up his Tuesday afternoon for our chat. He is a modest and unassuming chap, and Azure is available here:

https://polypores-cis.bandcamp.com/album/azure

And Flora, now reissued on vinyl, is available here:

https://polypores-cis.bandcamp.com/album/flora

Glen Johnson, Second Language and Textile Ranch

A dash of electronica, a soupçon of folk, a delicate hint of the avant-garde… the piquant flavours of the Second Language label are a finely-balanced combination. Formed by Piano Magic frontman Glen Johnson, State River Widening/Ellis Island Sound mainstay David Sheppard and future Home Current electronica wizard Martin Jensen, the label was launched in 2009 with the release of Johnson’s own album Tombola. Recorded under the nom-de-plume of Textile Ranch, this eclectic collection provided an opportunity to depart from Piano Magic’s trademark brand of melancholy pop, and to explore more experimental, electronic avenues.

Since then, Second Language has gained plaudits for albums by the likes of Mark Fry, Sharron Kraus and Oliver Cherer, and a reputation for creating a unique label aesthetic, combining music and design to immaculately tasteful effect. The latest release is the new Textile Ranch album, Ombilical, another incredibly atmospheric collection of ethereal electronica, and a work of which Johnson himself, in his own press release, boldly states: “I don’t consider anything here to be finished.” He goes on to cite the playfully unorthodox ethos of the 1960s Fluxus art movement as an influence on his approach to the album.

(Photo: Josh Hight)

On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in May 2020, I enjoyed a long and langourous conversation with Glen about both the new album, and the history of a label whose ethos he sums up as “a rainy, wet night in Brussels, in 1982.”

Here’s how the conversation went:

Bob: Can we start by talking a bit about Ombilicial? You’ve been very open about it having a difficult gestation, and you having recorded a couple of different versions of it before settling on the one that you’ve released…

Glen: Yeah, that’s correct.

I started the label with the Textile Ranch album Tombola, and at the time I was just going to put out Textile Ranch records. And I basically e-mailed the Piano Magic fanbase, and said “Look – I’m going to make this electronic record. What do you think about donating money, whatever you can afford, and I’ll make a track for you and put it on the album?” So, you know, we’d have a track called ‘Sketch for Bob Fischer…’

And people started sending me money! I’d get £100 for one CD. And then, over the years, Piano Magic went out touring, and electronic music – which I’ve always loved – got pushed to the side a bit. But when Piano Magic finished in 2016, I went back to Textile Ranch, and started working on the new record. But it took me a while to get my mojo, and the stuff I was making was all just a bit dark, and I just wasn’t very pleased with the whole thing.

I think it was collaborating with people that got my creative juices flowing. Working with Oliver Cherer and Amanda Butterworth and Ola Szmidt… and just saying to people, “Do you fancy doing a little turn?” It started blossoming really quickly, and I realised then that I’m a collaborative person. I need other people to bounce off.

And I ended up with this version, which I’m really pleased with. And other people seem to be too, so it worked out.

And yet, even in the press release, you describe it as a “unfinished” album, which I rather like. For years, I’ve had a quote by George Lucas rattling around my head, which is essentially – “films are never finished, they’re just abandoned”. Is that the case with all creative endeavours?

Exactly. Is anything really finished?  It’s something I’ve thought deep and hard about recently, and I don’t know whether anything is. But if you are to survive as an artist, you have to put something out there – or just fade into obscurity. Although arguably true artists are the ones that don’t release anything, they just stay in and make music or do paintings for themselves, and never make them commercially available.

And I’m kind of on a line between the two, to tell you the truth. Because I don’t particularly make money from music, and I really enjoy the creative process a lot. I’m very hands-on with my label, and my music, and working with other people. That’s what I enjoy. The bullshit – you know, the promo and the marketing, all that stuff – is very unfulfilling, ultimately.

But yeah, the whole Fluxus thing that I mentioned in the press release… it’s the process of making the art that’s the fulfilling thing. Finishing something is probably the most boring cap that you can put on anything.

Knowing when something is “finished” is a very difficult decision to make. It can creep up on you, without it being a sudden triumphant moment. It can just be a dawning realisation that what you’ve created is probably “ready”…

I think there’s also the thing, when you’re a musician, that in the back of your mind you’ve got another project lined up. You’re thinking “If I can just put this to bed, I can get on with this potentially much more exciting project that’s backed up behind it.” And of course when that one comes to the fore, you end up with the same problem.

And, if you’re like me, you have six projects all backed up in a line.

Exactly. But in a way, that’s what I want to be. I want to be an octopus. And particularly now, in lockdown, it excites me to have my hand in six recipes at the same time!

Have you made six recipes at the same time?

(Laughs!) No, I should try that. When I’ve done my blog, I’ll try cooking.  

I liked your referencing of the Fluxus movement, which championed the idea of art having an “unfinished” quality. That movement had a real element of playfulness, which I can also detect in your work as Textile Ranch. Did you specifically intend to have some fun with this album?

Textile Ranch was always lots of fun, and when I started twenty years ago my biggest influence was a band called Disco Inferno, who were a late 80s/early 90s band that were really into samplers. Not the Paul Hardcastle end of things, but trying to push music into the future by – instead of having a kick drum and a bass to start a track – scratching on a cheese grater. That would be the basis of their groove, and then they’d put some guitar on it, and then some birdsong in the middle. It was kind of a cacophony, but melodic at the same time. And Textile Ranch came out of that playfulness with samples.

But there’s also my love of Kraftwerk, which I hope you can hear on the record. I’m a huge Kraftwerk fan, even the pre-Autobahn stuff.

And a thread of melancholy runs through some of Ombilical, which probably harks back to Piano Magic. It’s all those things – playfulness, Kraftwerk and melancholy. And sampling, which is a lot of fun.

I think playfulness and melancholy can sometimes unexpectedly go hand-in-hand, with delightful results. Before we started recording, we were talking about the affecting TV that we enjoyed as kids, and I always come back to Bagpuss – which absolutely encapsulates a sense of playful melancholy.

Yeah, and do you remember the Moomins TV series? That’s a completely melancholy programme. And the books…  you’d have a squirrel that died after three pages. This isn’t a kid’s book, this is a Finnish kid’s book! Creatures are going to die at some point. And I loved all that as a kid, I’d read it thinking: “This squirrel’s dead. What the fuck?”

But with all that stuff, including Bagpuss, I think there was a very late 1960s and early 1970s melancholia. And to things like Crown Court and Armchair Theatre, that I used to watch during my lunch breaks from school. Even the Tyne Tees or Anglia TV idents were kind of creepy. That’s my youth, right there.

I’m flattered you brought up Tyne Tees without prompting! Are you pandering to my North-Eastern origins here?

Ha, no! But when I got older, and into electronic music, I found myself thinking “Actually, this stuff sounds pretty melancholy.”

Isolationist, actually.

Yes, but in a way that I now find oddly reassuring, and I’m still trying to untangle why I now find the melancholy disquiet of my childhood very comforting. I guess, in the end, because it came to naught. Ultimately, despite the unsettling nature of the era, I had a nice childhood with no great trauma to speak of.

Were you a sociable child?

I was quite shy, but I had friends. It was just a pretty ordinary, perfectly pleasant childhood.

I actually can’t remember much of the first ten years of my life. I was a complete loner, and it’s put me in good stead for the rest of my life. I prefer being on my own, basically.

Are you an only child, like me?

No, I’ve got a brother. He’s the one who got me into decent music – he’s four years older than me, and he had a record player. He used to work in a factory, and he’d send me to record shops with £50… he’d say “Go to Revolver in Mansfield, and buy me these records”. And it would be an Echo and the Bunnymen 7″, or Kilimanjaro by Teardrop Explodes… it was that sort of period. And I’d bring this stuff home, and before I got back from work I’d play it all on his stereo. Before he could. And I’d read his NME and his Sounds and his Melody Maker.

How old were you at this point?

Around 12. And I was making electronic music pretty soon after all that.

Really? Did you have a little keyboard?

Do you remember Tandy, the shop? That was my heaven. I’d go there, and say to the bloke “What’s this?” And he’s say “It’s a contact mine… you stick it on a surface, and plug it into your amp, and you can bang on the surface and make a percussion sound.”

And I’d day: “Oh, I’ll have one of those!” It was 99p or something… I’d take it back, stick it on a kitchen chair, and I’d be banging it with a wooden spoon, all put through an amp. And my mother would say “What are you doing?”

I’d say: “Well, I’ve been listening to Cabaret Voltaire…”

There’s a vintage Texas Instruments Speak & Spell machine on Ombilical… was that yours from being a kid as well, then?

It’s not, I’ve got three of them. One is French, which is great! I picked them up from car boot sales, probably ten or fifteen years ago. But I started off on a Casio VL-Tone… the keyboard you hear on the Human League’s Dare, on ‘Get Carter’.

And on Trio’s ‘Da Da Da’! It’s got a calculator attached too, hasn’t it?

Yes, they’re great. There’s a sound called “Fantasy” on it, which is the one on ‘Get Carter’, and that’s the best sound. It’s amazing, and you can’t find that on any other synthesizer.

Can I ask about a couple more tracks on Ombilicial? ‘Death and the Seahorse’ is a track I love. It’s you narrating a dream about a seahorse that has a brush with mortality, and again it has that sense of playful melancholy to it. Was that based on a genuine dream?

It was, yeah – I’m a big dreamer. I always have been, and I don’t know why. Sometimes when I wake up I write them down, and when I’m making a track I’ll dig them out. Before I was in a band, I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to write short stories. I was particularly obsessed by that almost surreal type of fantasy – there’s a writer called Barry Yourgrau, an American guy who looks a bit like John Waters. He did this book called A Man Jumps Out Of An Aeroplane Wearing Dad’s Head. The first story in it is about a bunch of guys standing around a cow, and one of them is bet that he daren’t climb inside it. But he takes the money and climbs in through the cow’s arse. He’s inside the cow, and the cow is saying: “What the fuck is going on? Why is this guy climbing inside me?”

His mates outside say “OK, you won the bet. Come on out.” And he basically says, “No, I’m staying here”. So that’s about the level of my dreams!

Do you keep a notepad by the pad?

I do, actually.

I used to do that. I’ve got a few write-ups of utterly bizarre dreams I’ve had over the years, and I wish they were all as coherent as ‘Death and the Seahorse’! I love those “epic” dreams, those sagas that go on for hours.

But do they go on for hours? Or do they just seem to? Apparently it’s that period after you get up for a piss at five o’clock in the morning… you get back into bed and that’s when you get the R.E.M. sleep. That’s the point when you have those crazy, massive Big Fish type dreams.

And can you tell me the story behind ‘How I Sit At The Piano?” It samples what sounds like a fascinating conversation.

It’s from a famous… well, a very well-viewed Youtube video of a catatonic shizophrenic patient in the 1960s. I saw it two years ago, and it’s amazing. The guys is being interviewed, he’s in a psychiatric institution and he’s asked why he thinks he’s in there. And he says: “Well, it’s how I sit at the piano.”

Phenomenal. What an answer. I think there’s more to it than that, and when you watch the video you’ll get more of an idea. I think it’s more to do with him being perceived as overly camp when he was sitting at the piano.

Oh gosh, so it was deemed that he needed psychiatric treatment for that?

I think it was probably the way people perceived homosexuality at the time. He’s a fascinating character to watch and listen to, and I just cut up little sections of his interview.

Which I’ll be doing with this one too, and turning it into a track… [laughs]

Feel free! Can I ask about some of your collaborators on this album? Amanda Butterworth, who records as Mücha, contributes vocals to a couple of tracks. How do you know Amanda?

I liked her music. I chanced upon an album she made [The Colour of Longing, 2016], a very beautiful album, and I loved her voice. I just contacted her and said “I love what you’re doing”… I’m one of those people that will just say “Do you want to work with me?”. I’ve worked with Vashti Bunyan, Brendan Perry from Dead Can Dance, John Grant, Alan Sparhawk from Low… and I’ve basically just reached out and said “Want to do something?” And they’ve all said yes, which is great.

We actually did five tracks that day, there are three that haven’t been released yet. I think we worked together really well.

I think I used this word in my review for Electronic Sound, and I meant it as a compliment… she’s got an aloof quality to her voice. ‘Skeletons’, in particular, she sings beautifully, and her performance has a distant quality, which works perfectly.


If you liked ‘Skeletons’, you’ll love her album.

And do you go back a long way with Oliver Cherer?

We go back to Myspace. We’re good friends, me and Ollie. At the peak of Myspace, I’d be on there until four o’clock in the morning, talking to people… I’d be talking to some Polish guy who runs a little electronic collective or something, and I’d say “Send me some files, and I’ll add something to what you’re doing.” And it was like that with Ollie, I think. He was making electronic music when I first talked to him, so we ended up swapping music, and twenty years later we’re still really good friends and I’m still releasing his music. And he plays on my stuff… always trumpet! I’ll ask “Can I have some trumpet?” and he’ll say “I can’t play the trumpet…” (laughs). “Well, just blow into it!” He’s a musical polymath, he can play anything. He’d play the kettle if you gave him a kettle.

There’s a picture of his music room on the blog somewhere…

Yeah, it’s amazing. He’s in Hastings, and when I go down there he’s always got something new. I went there once and he had a massive Hammond organ. I said “Where did you get that?”, and he said “Charity shop, just down the street.”

“Well how the fuck did you get it home?”

He’s got rid of that now, but he’s got tons of stuff. Xylophones and musical saws.

Franck Alba from Piano Magic is on the album, too…

Yeah, I’ve known Franck for a long time. A long-term guitar and piano-player, and he lives in Crystal Palace, like me. He’s not particularly into electronic music, so I was just teasing him, really; “I dare you to play on some of this mad shit!” And he’ll just plug in and do it, and I cut and edit what he plays.

Ola Szmidt is on there, too. What can you tell me about Ola?

Ola is a really interesting singer, and flautist and electronic artist. She won the Steve Reid Innovation Award few years ago and I found out about her through that, really – I liked what she was doing, some really interesting stuff with electronics. I actually asked her to make mermaid sounds on the album. Which reminds me of… do you know what Morrissey once asked Mary Margaret O’Hara? 

On ‘November Spawned A Monster’?

Yes, that story where he said “Go into the vocal booth and give birth”. And that’s exactly what it sounds like. And that’s what I had in mind when I asked Ola if she could be a mermaid. And she did it perfectly.  She sounds like a mermaid.

You mentioned that you’d once worked with Vashti Bunyan, and I love her work to bits. I interviewed her for the radio a few years ago…  

Isn’t she lovely?

She was fabulous. It was when her album Heartleap came out, and – having got the impression she was quite shy – I wasn’t sure how it would go, but she was so sweet and modest and lovely.


All of those things.

How did you make contact with her?

She was obviously away from the music scene for thirty years, and when I was in Piano Magic I signed a publishing deal with a guy called Paul Ramsden, who ran Spinney Records. And he told me that he’d just reissued Just Another Diamond Day, by Vashti Bunyan. He gave me a copy and said “Go away and listen to this, because she wants to work with people. She wants to come back.”

So I listened to that album, and it blew my mind. I don’t know if you know Mark Fry’s Dreaming With Alice album? It’s that same thing: “How did this get made? What was going on?” I phoned Paul and said “Can I write something for her?” And he said “Yeah, have a go.”

So I wrote a song for her. I just got really pissed, wrote this song, demoed it, burned it onto CD – this was back in 2000 – posted it to Vashti in Edinburgh, and then two days later the phone rang. “Hello Glen, this is Vashti Bunyan… I love your song and I want to sing it.”

She came down to London, and we recorded it in Joe Boyd‘s studio. He had this little demo studio in Notting Hall Gate. And there was pool table in there, so me and Vashti had a couple of rounds of pool. She was really good, actually.  

Who won?

I think she did. And then it came to recording, and she said “Can you close the curtain around the vocal booth?” She hadn’t recorded a song in thirty years. And I was sitting there with the engineer, and he turned to me and said; “Is she singing?”

I said “I don’t know…” but we turned up the fader as far as it would go, and we could just hear her. And she sounded exactly as she had thirty years earlier. She hadn’t changed at all. Super quiet. We kept pushing up the faders. And we did a couple of tracks, she’s on two Piano Magic Songs. She’s probably the nicest person I’ve worked with, hands down. She’s lovely.

So that was literally the first time she’d been in a studio since 1970?

She’d been in touch with Devendra Banhart, and with Animal Collective, but the first recording she did was with Piano Magic, yeah.

I went to see her live in 2014, she was playing in The Band Room, which essentially is a converted barn in a tiny hamlet on the remote North York Moors. Me and my friend David drove out there, got there early, parked up outside the venue, and she was soundchecking inside. We just sat in the car listening to this extraordinary voice, thinking… “God… it’s Vashti Bunyan. She’s in there!”

It was a really emotional experience. Imagine sitting in the dark on the moors, hearing Vashti Bunyan’s voice coming from inside a barn…


That’s how you should hear her, I think! Nothing will ever better that experience. And she works with a great guitarist called Gareth Dickson, who has done a track for the next Second Language release. I love his stuff, he’s got a bit of Nick Drake about him. His solo stuff is very beautiful and very melancholy.

Can I ask about the origins of Second Language as a label? I found an old interview with you, where you talked about – as a teenager – your attempt to launch a cassette-based label from your parents’ house. So running a label has clearly been an ambition for a long time, I guess?

That’s in the Ian Preece book that’s just come out, Listening to the Wind – you should definitely read that! There’s a section on Clay Pipe, and one on Second Language. And yeah, I reminisce about this… I’m from a very working class family, we lived on a council estate in a pit village on the Notthinghamshire/Derbyshire border. Near Alfreton. There’s nothing there, and nothing happens, but I was into weird electronic music. And I thought – “I want to start a record label? How do I do that?”

And I put an ad in the back of Record Mirror, saying “EXPERIMENTAL AVANT-GARDE MUSIC WANTED FOR NEW LABEL”. I was about 13, and was heavily influenced by Some Bizarre records. Their first compilation album on that had a very eclectic bunch of freaks on it, and I wanted to do something like that!I thought “Oh, hardly anyone will respond…”

But the postman just kept coming and coming. Bags and bags, it went on for weeks.

Were these cassettes?

Yeah. And I’d play them all, all the way through, then I’d write back to these bands and say “Wow!” They were all amazing to me. I thought everything was amazing. And then I got to the difficult point of… well, how do you start a record label? What do you do? I had no idea. So it sort of petered off… until I was 35. [Laughs]

I interviewed Martin Jensen for Electronic Sound a couple of months ago, and he seemed to suggest that the birth of Second Language was at least partly influenced by his love of birdwatching.

Yeah, it was partially that! He was into his birds, and me and David Sheppard… well, our big thing was Les Disques du Crépuscule, that early 80s Belgian label, and Durutti Column. Me and David were really big Durutti Column fans, and we wanted to start something that was in that style: very romantic, very pro-European. That romance has been lost, or steamrollered by the whole fucking Brexit farce, but lots of British people love the idea of Europe. The romanticism of the continent. That would sum up the label for me: A rainy, wet night in Brussels, in 1982. That’s Second Language for me.

So Martin’s interest in ornithological things, obscure Belgian labels and Durutti Column… roll that all together, and you’ve got Second Language.

Some of your first releases were fundraising releases for the Birdlife International charity, weren’t they?

We did three, Music and Migration. They were really good, very eclectic, and very much like Les Disques du Crépuscule’s compilations.

I hate doing this, but if could pick out a Second Language release that you were especially proud of, and that really summed up the ethos of the label, would what it be?

I can pick two if you like? There’s Oliver Cherer’s most recent record, I Feel Nothing Most Days. Which really sounds to me almost like the first Ben Watt solo album on Cherry Red, and that’s so much what we wanted for the label. And then the first Mark Fry album on Second Language, I Lived In Trees. It’s just beautiful, and I still play it very regularly. That also encapsulates the whole sonic ethos of the label.

But there are too many, honestly. I love everything we’ve put out.

I wanted to ask about Topic Records as well, which is a legendary label – the oldest independent label in the world, in fact! And, as well as running Second Language, you’re also in charge of Topic. How did that happen?

I work for a music distribution company called Proper Distribution, and within that there are a few in-house labels. One of which is Proper Records, and then there’s Navigator, which is a folk label. And then a few years ago, David and Tony from Topic approached us and said “We need someone else to take over the day-to-day running of it… we’re sort of exhausted”. So we volunteered, and I was the person to do it. And I’m not a folkie, but I think there’s good music in all genres, and I knew the historical legacy of Topic. And I’ve gone on to forge relationships with the main players: Martin Simpson, Norma Waterson, Martin Carthy, Eliza Carthy… and you get to know them. Even Anne Briggs, I met Anne Briggs last year.

So I found myself at the centre of this folk empire really, and that’s the day job!

The Carthys are lovely. A couple of years ago, I drove Martin back home to Robin Hood’s Bay from a gig in Middlesbrough, and when we got there, he invited me in for a cuppa. So, as a bit of a folkie myself, I found myself in the surreal position of watching the late film on BBC2 with Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson.

Brilliant. He’s got some amazing stories, Martin. He’s told me some crazy stuff about being on tour with Danny Thompson! They’re all great.

So what’s next for Second Language?

I’ve got this amazing compilation coming out. It should be July or August – I’ve been working on it for a long time. Various people have been contributing tracks, and collaborating for it, too. So Ollie is on it quite a bit, I’m on it, Mark Fry, Pete Astor, David Sheppard who founded the label with me and Martin. I wanted to do a compilation that really encompassed what I thought the label was really, really about. And get to the core of that. And there are some really interesting curveballs, too.

We have subscribers to Second Language too, and the subscribers get an album and a bonus EP, and there’s always lots of interesting stuff on the bonus EP.

So that’s the next thing. It’s an album called Avenue With Trees, and it’s very much about pro-continental, European romanticism. That’s what it sounds like to me. 

Thanks to Glen for his time and conversation. Ombilical is available here:

https://textileranch.bandcamp.com/album/ombilical


And the Second Language website is here:

https://www.secondlanguagemusic.com/

Tom Harding, Capac and After Lights Out

Clocks tick. Floorboards creak, water pipes grumble. Tinnitus throbs like a whistling kettle, and thoughts intensity: niggles become crises. Orange streetlamps, eventually, are dimmed by silver dusk. The relentless, clanging alertness of insomnia is a sensory assault, an agonising void in which the miniscule becomes mighty.

The exaggerated emotions and heightened sensibilities of the sleepless night are encapsulated evocatively in After Lights Out, a collaboration between Northampton poet Tom Harding – who reads verse from his own nocturnally-themed collection Night Work – and musical collective Capac, who provide a sensitive selection of ambient musical accompaniment. It was an alliance mooted after Capac‘s Stuart Cook heard Tom’s poetry recitals on the Nocturne podcast, and was struck by the inherent musicality of his verse.

I asked Tom about the background to both Night Work, and After Lights Out:

Bob: The obvious question to ask – do you suffer from insomnia yourself?

Tom: I’ve suffered from insomnia periodically over the years. I thought I’d got it licked but the recent lockdown seems to have summoned it back, and I understand there are a few people in the same boat.

So are you able to use the night-time creatively? Did you actually write lots of the poetry on this album during the small hours themselves?

The poems in this collection cover a ten year period. The early ones I wrote in my twenties, when I would think nothing of staying up until 4am writing, even when I had work the next day. The thought of that now makes me shudder. In recent years, sleepless nights have been caused by my three-year-old. I’ve written a lot of poems on my phone while my son slept on my shoulder, and it reminded me of how intimate the hours are between midnight and 4am.

I always think there’s a mental mindset during a sleepless night that exists at no other times of our lives: and I’ve tried hard to describe it – that combination of exhaustion while being deluged with uncontrollable thoughts. Do you have similar feelings?

In recent years I’ve been conditioning myself to ignore my thoughts… something that’s easier said than done. When you’re young, you treat your inner voice as being somehow holy, as if it’s the essence of who you are, and you ignore its message at your peril. But this can lead to an over-reliance on the thinking mind. Thoughts are little dictators of the mind, and if you’re not careful you can spend your conscious life falling victim to fictitious narratives of your own creation.

It’s very freeing when you realise that your internal monologue doesn’t need to be trusted, that it’s less like your immortal soul and more like a panicky flatmate or a broken radio. The noise of daytime often drowns it out, but at night-time it leaks in.

There are mentions of spiders on this album – are you an arachnaphobiac, by any chance?

Yes, that must have crept in somehow. It wasn’t a conscious addition. Some of my most panic-stricken memories are of lying awake, conscious there was a spider in the room.

And a related stab in the dark… there’s the recurring phrase “Spider and I” on the album too, which is the name of a track on one of my favourite albums, Brian Eno’s Before and After Science. Was that a deliberate reference?

No… strangely, I know the song but I hadn’t made that connection. I like that album a lot. Nice to tie a spider’s web between the two.

And on the off-chance… have you ever suffered from hypnagogic or hypnopompic hallucinations? I do sometimes, and again… it’s always spiders. I wake up screaming in the bathroom sometimes.

I have something, but I’m uncertain of its name. I know that I’m awake, so I’m not being fooled as you might be by a hallucination. Instead it’s a type of vivid and spontaneous imagery that emerges when I shut my eyes in the hour before sleep. I brought this up recently with my family, thinking everybody must have this – but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I take it to be the dreaming mind warming up. Kind of like the trailers, before the main show.

There’s a recurring sound motif of controlled breathing on the album: did that come from Capac, or from you? Just interested, as I remember as a kid trying to get to sleep by breathing very slowly and deliberately, and I still do that sometime…

That’s all Capac and it’s a great motif, I agree. I practice mindfulness, and following the breath is central to this. It’s the first place I go to, and the anchor I base it around. It allows you to crawl out from under the chaos and fly above it. The challenge is to allow your body to relax enough, so that your conscious mind doesn’t try to control the breath.

I also love your encapsulation of the heightened sensory experience of sleeplessness: ‘Night Noises’. What do you tend to hear when you can’t sleep? And do you convince yourself that it’s something far more sinister than the reality?

We live in a quiet neighbourhood, so it’s mostly owls or cats and the odd distant siren. We lived for a long time above a four-way street in North London, so what we often heard in actuality was as bad as our imaginations.

The album is based on your poetry collection, Night Work – so how did the collaboration with Capac come about? I read that Capac’s Stuart Cook heard you on a podcast – did you know him prior to that?

No, Stu had listened to the Nocturne podcast and heard me on there. One good thing leading to another.

[NB Nocturne is a really rather delightful “audio essay” podcast exploring different aspects and notions of the night-time… the episode featuring Tom dates from January 2019, and can be found here:

https://nocturnepodcast.org/quiet-transmission
]

So did you have to adapt any of the poems to suit the musical approach, or are they pretty much as you originally wrote them?

Only in the sense that Capac focused on, and drew out, certain lines. I love what they did.

And how did the collaboration work on a practical level? Did you record your readings first, and the music was built around them – or vice versa?

I gave Stu a selection of my readings and a year later he produced a finished album. It was a very light touch from me, which works from my point of view, as close collaborations can often be quite challenging.

Did the musical setting bring out meanings to your work that even you hadn’t thought about? Have you thought about any of your poetry differently after hearing it in a musical context?

The biggest kick is when someone picks up on a line that resonates with them. It resurrects poetry that’s long dead to me, either through over-analysis, self criticism or forgetfulness. Such as The ‘Spider And I’ line. And, among other things, it’s made me want to try some more musical collaborations.

And fabulously, physical copies of the album came in a matchbox, with a candle. Have you listened to your own album by candlelight yet, as suggested?

Yes I have… it was beautiful!

Thanks to Tom for his time. After Lights Out, released on the This Is It Forever label, can be bought here:

https://capac.bandcamp.com/album/after-lights-out-with-tom-harding


And Tom’s own website is here:

http://www.tomharding.net/

Thanks also to Tom for allowing the reproduction of a full poem from his Night Work collection:

Night Music

All night not sleeping
but tossing and turning over
some unfavourable thought,
I lie listening to the bones of the house
creak like the inside of a piano

Who’s awake at this hour?
Just the mice rolling their life’s luggage
across the attic floor,
running the gauntlet
between the suitcases and heavy coats,
little refugees sailing
their slim luck in the dark.

How heavy the world must sound
creaking and heaving about them,
the house caught in turbulent night winds
like a ship settling in
the dark waters of a flood.

And, as an addendum, this is the review of After Lights Out that I wrote for issue 64 of Electronic Sound magazine. Which is well worth subscribing to, you can do it here.

CAPAC
After Lights Out with Tom Harding
(This Is It Forever)


Insomniacs and arachnophobes alike may find this a little raw. International collective Capac collaborate with poet Tom Harding on a beautifully unsettling evocation of the troubled thoughts and sounds that accompany chronic sleeplessness. ‘Night Work’ pulses like an anxious heartbeat in the darkness; ‘The Spider’ suggests the patter of spindly legs across skirting boards. Horror soundtrack pianos tinkle, and Harding’s narration is wearily deadpan. “A book upturned on a page I’ve read, and re-read, a thousand times…” An album where the dawn feels perpetually out of reach.

Jim Jupp, Intermission and Ghost Box Records

Sometimes, we all just need a break.

Amid the trauma of the global pandemic, collectively hemmed into an ongoing international lockdown, it’s become increasingly important to find distraction, relief and respite. So kudos to Ghost Box Records, who – seemingly out of nowhere – have conjured the appropriately-titled Intermission, a timely and soothing compilation of original material. Comprising brand new tracks from pretty much the entirety of the label’s current roster, and the unexpected but sensational return of one old favourite, it appeared without fanfare on Friday 8th May; not referencing the current crisis as such, but – to paraphrase label co-founder Jim Jupp – “responding” to it.

From Jim’s own Belbury Poly to co-founder Julian House’s Focus Group; from new recruits Plone to steely trouper Jon Brooks and his trusty Advisory Circle, the mood evoked by all is one of calm reassurance. The gentle beats of Pye Corner Audio are present and correct, as are exotic transmissions from the continent: Germany’s ToiToiToi and Portugal’s Beautify Junkyards. Clay Pipe founder Frances Castle offers analogue solidarity in her guise as The Hardy Tree, chanteuse Sharron Kraus brings a wistful folk sensibility, and her regular collaborator Justin Hopper unifies this blissful musical panacea with thoughtful and touching narration.

And then, yes… there’s the return of that old favourite. We’ll come back to him.

Digital copies of the album ordered through the Ghost Box website have temptingly different artwork to the regular edition, and also benefit Médecins Sans Frontières, the international humanitarian and medical organisation. The ever-genial Jim Jupp joined me to discuss Intermission, and other recent Ghost Box releases – as well as offering a few tantalising glimpses into the label’s future.

Bob: The last time we spoke properly was back in January when Paul Weller’s EP, In Another Room, was just about to be released on Ghost Box. Was that rather a frantic time?

Jim: It was, and we had a few technical hitches – I think even you had tweets about it, from people asking where they could get it! But I think we got there. We covered the audience as best as we could, and we did an extra batch that went to Japan only, because we’ve got a sub-distributor in Japan, and they were desperate. Fans of anything in Japan are Super Fans, they really wanted it! So we did an extra batch for them, approved by Paul’s people. But it’s still there on digital, rolling away, and we’re very happy with it.

And Paul’s forthcoming album features a song called ‘Earth Beat’… which is reworking of your song ‘The Willows’. That’s quite an honour…

It is! While we were talking about the EP, and while he was putting down the first ideas for that in the studio, he was listening to more of our back catalogue. And he texted me and said “I’ve been listening to a tune of yours and singing along to it, and I think I can work it up into a song – would that be alright?”

And I said (Laughs – and in a squeaky, schoolboy voice) “Yes! Course it would!”

So he did a rough demo, pretty much over the original recording, and it worked. It fitted straight away. Luckily, I still had the separate elements of the recording, the stems. With a lot of projects from that long ago, I wasn’t so organised and I didn’t keep them… I didn’t know what I was doing so much. But for some reason – thank God – I had all the parts for that tune, so I was able to get them to his studio, and they were able to rework them into a new tune.

So is that a Weller/Jupp composition, then?

It is, I get an album credit! It’s split between me, Paul and the guy who sings backing vocals, Col3trane – he wrote a middle eight for it.

And then a couple of weeks ago you released Plone’s album, Puzzlewood, which seems to be an album that everybody really loves. And it’s their first official album since 1999! Had you been aware that they were making new stuff? When I spoke to them, I think they said that it was them that approached Ghost Box, rather than the other way around…

They did. I was aware that they were up to stuff, but I think they’d got to a stage with Plone material where they thought: “Oh, nobody’s interested any more.” Then about two years ago, Billy had some side projects that he was working on – with somebody else, not Mike – and he said “Would Ghost Box be interested in these?” And I said “Yeah… it might be something we could look at for a single or something.” He said “OK, leave it with me and we’ll bat it about…”

But then, a few mails later, I mentioned that – years ago, early 2000s – somebody had sent me a CD bootleg of the “missing” Plone album. And I said: “Are you still doing Plone material? What happened to that album?” And he said “Yeah, we’ve got absolutely loads of stuff.” And he sent me links to, actually, about three albums’ worth. Some of which you can hear on Puzzlewood, and some of which dated from just after the missing album.

I said “There’s loads of great stuff here, Billy… can I cherry pick, work them into an album and sequence it, and you can polish those tracks up?” He said “Yeah, absolutely.” They’re very humble fellows. I think… I didn’t appreciate, and they didn’t appreciate, the amount of love in the room for Plone. They generate this sort of warm, fuzzy feeling, and there were a lot of fans that were really pleased and excited.

It’s nice… Boards of Canada were my first inroad into “this” stuff, in around 1999, but I was aware of Plone around that time as well – I probably heard them on John Peel’s show. This kind of music really seems to make a profound impact on people, but the artists themselves can be completely unaware that they’re held in much regard at all.

Yes, Boards of Canada, and Plone as well, were almost the first wave of that hauntological thing: “Oh yeah, the kind of music that I heard on the telly when I was ill! Other people know about this!”. They were the first people to connect with that, really. And Broadcast, of course.

Was the beginning of lockdown a worrying time for Ghost Box? It looked for a little while as though you might not be able to give Puzzlewood a physical release.

Yeah, the first few weeks of lockdown were scary. For everyone, of course, but in terms of the business and the label it was a worrying time. The Plone record was due; it was being manufactured and it was all paid for, and it was one of the biggest projects that we’d done in terms of outlay and capital. We did a lot of units, we did the special coloured vinyl… we knew it would be popular. And a lot of our money was tied up in it! We didn’t even know if it would arrive… and then our distributor, The State 51 Conspiracy, closed their doors. But luckily we were able to co-ordinate with them, and they’re kind of up and running again with a skeleton crew. Just part-time, so they’re struggling with the backlog of orders for retail, and for our shop and for the other labels they handle. So it’s not ideal, but they’re heroically forging ahead.

It’s been difficult, because they’re in a fairly central London location, and people have to get into work. That’s one of their biggest problems, aside from social distancing in the warehouse.

So was your vinyl essentially trapped in the warehouse where that amazing Midsummer Night’s Happening was held last June?

That’s their office and venue space, but the warehouse is just down the road from there. And yes, it was trapped there! It was a hairy few weeks, because we didn’t know what would happen. But we decided to stick to the release date, and if there’d been no physical product, we’d have taken pre-orders and done what we could when we could.

Mainly because, when I talked to the guys, we decided it was a timely record. It’s a cheerful, feelgood record, simple as that. And, as it’s turned out, I think that’s been quite timely, and people have loved it because of that. And things just came together at the last minute, so we could get physical product out there to the shops.

Which is important, as I think the physical object is a huge part of the Ghost Box aesthetic. I remember you saying to me at the time that you were having to be a digital-only label for a while, and you didn’t sound hugely enthusiastic…

Absolutely. But yeah, that was the prognosis at the time!

Let’s talk about Intermission… was the idea of a compilation of new material from your roster of artists something you’d been thinking about anyway? Or did it suddenly strike you that said artists might suddenly have a bit more time on their hands?

It was partly that… and no, I hadn’t previously considered it. It wasn’t on our release schedule, or in our plans at all, until lockdown began. And it was during the period that I’ve just been talking about when I thought: “We could be out of pocket, we could have serious problems, we have to do whatever we can on the digital side to keep the label rolling, and to keep a trickle of income coming for the artists.” It was something. So I got in touch with everybody, and said “How quickly can you give me a track, or a couple of tracks?” And everybody was up for it.

So the first impulse was survival, and a bit of income. But… as State 51 came back online, and we got a bit of physical product back online, and the Plone release went ahead successfully – against all odds! – I thought “We’ll keep doing this, but we probably ought to give something back as well.” So we did the charity version, too. You can choose just to buy it the normal way, and it’s a few quid for the artists and musicians, or you can give all the money to charity by buying it from our own shop.

And did you walk a fine line with your approach to it? Ghost Box kind of operates in its own unique, parallel world, and I wondered if you made a conscious decision as to how much of the “real” world you wanted to intrude? Justin Hopper’s narration on the album, while not specifically mentioning the Coronavirus, certainly alludes to recent events.

The brief that I gave to everyone was that it was a response to the situation, perhaps, but in no way was it about the situation. So, you know… what are you feeling, creatively? Where’s your head at? Just do that. And I spoke to Justin about how we might frame it, because we had the idea straight away that he would almost be the presenter or narrator of this thing, tying it together. And it was his idea to do a kind of Twilight Zone Intro and Outro…

Yes! That’s exactly what it is!

He’s a big fan of old Twilight Zone, as am I, and Rod Serling lived in Justin’s home town, Binghamton. And there are a couple of old Twilight Zone episodes where Justin knows the exact location… there’s one [the episode ‘Walking Distance’] that he talks about, where a guy goes back to his old picket-fence home town, and his mother and father are still alive, and he sees himself playing with the kids in the street. And Justin grew up round there, and knows those roads and streets really well.

So it was something that had been knocking around in his head. And the impulse at the moment… well, everybody seems to be scurrying to nostalgia, and their safe place, and perhaps their childhood memories. The impulse is to watch lots of old TV and listen to old music, and do the hobbies that made you happy when you were younger.

So I had the title “Intermission” – which is a very broadcast-y, TV, cinematic take on things, very much the Ghost Box world. It’s a break in normal services. Normal services will resume shortly! “Intermission” sounds aloof and high-handed, but kind of reassuring. So Justin took that word and thought of the idea of memory being a safe place; the little pauses and quiet times of the past that you remember. So his Intro and Outro allude to that, in this Rod Serling kind of way. And his longer piece in the middle, ‘Recreation Park’, about a park near his house that he remembered from being a kid, is a similar thing. Harking back to a particular childhood memory, simple as that.

And generally, the message I put out to everyone was sort of… tread a middle ground. Which I think they did anyway, I didn’t need to ask. I said we didn’t want any dark, dystopian drones here, and neither did we want relentlessly upbeat happy stuff. As it happens, we’ve got both on there, a bit! (Laughs) But generally, I think it all hangs together. There’s a theme of calm, of waiting, of “What’s going to happen next? It’ll be nice when this is over…”

It’s a very soothing album. And I like how Justin, who is a fairly recent recruit to the Ghost Box world, has quickly become such an integral part of it. Is it nice to have a “voice” that you can use on recordings – literally, a spokesperson?

It is! It’s entirely accidental, but he’s perfect for us. For a few reasons. He’s kind of become the “anchorman” of Ghost Box. Conceptually, it’s a bit like an old TV channel, and he’s the voice of the broadcasts. And it was good for us the way it played out… the obvious route would be to have a plummy English voice, but the fact that Justin – because he’s American – is a slight outsider to this world kind of makes a weird sense. He’s got a great performing and reading voice and a way with words, and he gets what we’re trying to do with Ghost Box. He understood straight away what this compilation was, and what the mood should be. And when he suggested the Rod Serling thing, he said “I won’t make it too much like that…”

I said “No, no! That’s brilliant, do Rod Serling! Make it sound like you’re standing in front of a weird backdrop smoking a cigarette!” And that’s what he did, and it was perfect.  

Just looking through the album here… after Justin’s introduction, you’re straight into a new Advisory Circle track. Jon Brooks is on a rich run of form at the moment, isn’t he?

He really is at the moment, he’s doing really well.

And blimey – Roj is on it as well! The first new recordings for eleven years, since his Transactional Dharma of Roj album? That was a lovely surprise!

That is the surprise! And it was a surprise to us all. I included him in the request, as I always do when we’re saying “What’s next? What’s everybody doing?” and Roj said “Ah yeah, I’ll get on that…”

And bless him, he’s absolutely brilliant, his work is always good, but he’s so particular about his sound. Strangely, this track has a sort of Joe Meek vibe to it, it’s slightly in that world, and I think he has the slight mania about his work that Joe Meek had. He’s never quite there, and he’s never happy! He’s almost delivered two completed albums to me in the last six to eight years, but it’s never quite been right. He says “Give me a few more months…” and then he starts again. [Laughs]. But for this, I said “Come on Roj, just do it…” and he put this together. I don’t know if it was something he was already working on, but I know he’s got loads and loads of great material, so we’re hoping this kind of inspires him to get cracking on the album.

Anything other tracks that you’d like to pick out yourself?

Oh, it’s very difficult for me to do that! I mean, mine is obviously the best track… [laughs]. No, it’s very interesting – some of the tracks came together during lockdown, but mine was already in the can, because that’s a track taken from my album – which will hopefully be out in a couple of months. We’re working on the artwork now. The Beautify Junkyards track was what they’d managed to do in the studio, because they’re working on their album… but, sadly, because that’s very much a studio album with lots of people involved, that’s had to stop. They don’t record at home.

Sharron Kraus’ track… that was interesting. I mixed that one, because she’s got a good recording set-up, but her stuff is very often finished in a studio environment. So I said “Record as best you can, get contributions from other musicians as best you can, and I’ll produce it at home.” So we managed to turn that around quite quickly, and do it remotely like that. But yeah, everybody did really well. As you can imagine, getting musicians to do something for a deadline is… [laughs] never easy! But everybody did wonderfully, and turned in tracks on time. I moved the deadline a couple of times, because I wasn’t ready…

But everybody delivered really good work. The other part of the brief was: even though we’re in lockdown, and we’re doing this quickly, keep up to your usual standards. They’re all very talented people. And they all did, they all did something that they’d be pleased to put on one of their own albums. It was great.

Good to see Frances Castle on there, recording as The Hardy Tree. I always think there’s a nice symbiotic relationship between Ghost Box and Clay Pipe.

Absolutely, and yes – that’s a lovely piece of music. I’d been talking to Frances just generally, about logistics and how she was coping during lockdown, and it’s just nice to exchange ideas with other labels and like-minded people. So yeah, it was lovely to have her on board for this.

And you’re literally dropping the album from nowhere, on Friday 8th May?

We are. We’re not having the usual pre-orders and promotions period. I’ve told people like yourself, and other radio people and journalists, but I’m not making any official announcements. We’ll do it live on the day. It’s just a different way of doing things, and we thought – “Why not?” Let’s get it together, get it ready, and get it out there with no fanfare. And see how it goes. Making it easy for ourselves, really.

Can you see it transferring to a physical format at some point, when all this madness is over?

Definitely. And if the madness drags on, we’ll try and do it anyway. We’ve got the Belbury Poly album next, but because the Beautify Junkyards album might take a little longer than anticipated, we might get onto a physical version of Intermission after that. Late summer, autumn sort of time.

And how’s the Belbury Poly album sounding?

I’m very happy with it. Jon Brooks has just mastered it, so it’s good to go. All finished. The hardest thing for me was… I’d finished the recordings, and gone back to the mixes a thousand times and got them ready, but I always have problems titling everything. Because there’s this conceptual baggage that Ghost Box records tend to have, and I wanted to get that right! The mood, and the feel of it. But I think I have, and I’m just starting to talk to Julian about artwork, and get the first rough ideas of what it might look like.

And I always do this to you… give me a track title.

Erm… let me think of one that captures the mood… [long pause, with the occasional sound of tormented anguish]. Well the album title is The Gone Away.

That’s a bit John Wyndham!

There’s a track called ‘The Gone Away’ as well. Given the circumstances, I had a bit of a wobble about that, but then I thought; “No, it’s nothing to do with it…”

It would never have struck me as having a connection to the current situation.

No… and some of the material is slightly dark for Belbury Poly, but I thought “No… I’m going to stick to my ideas and concepts.” There’s another track called ‘Magpie Lane’, which is very much inspired by the Advisory Circle track ‘Escape Lane’, and it steals a bit of Jon’s melody and builds it into a sort of… semi-acoustic folk thing.

Long before the lockdown, didn’t the album have a working title of The Parson’s Illness, or something similar?

The Parson’s Malady! That was the working title. And I don’t mean to be flippant about things, but you’ve got to laugh sometimes – that’s the only way to survive. So when the lockdown started and the situation was ongoing, that was generally how I was coping – by referring to it all as “The Parson’s Malady”…  

Thanks so much to Jim for his time, and splendid company, as ever. Intermission is available now, and can be bought here:

https://ghostbox.greedbag.com/buy/intermission-35/

Plone, Puzzlewood and Ghost Box Records

In trying times, a little optimism can go a long way. And a fun, upbeat and nostalgic slice of music can be delightfully transportative: especially when it comes from a band who, for long periods of the last two decades, seemed like they might never work together again.

Plone‘s 1999’s debut album For Beginner Piano was among the first wave of deliriously retro-futurist electronica to herald the dawning of a new and fascinating movement, and their friendship with fellow Birmingham-based pioneers Broadcast and Pram placed them at the centre of what felt like a very West Midlands-centric scene. But a mooted (and at least partially-recorded) 2001 follow-up never saw the light of day, and then everything went disappointingly quiet. Mike Johnston worked with the ZX Spectrum Orchestra and the Modified Toy Orchestra; Billy Bainbridge was a co-founder of the rather wonderful Seeland. And, according to Wikipedia, third member Mark Cancellara is now working as a “DJ and magician’s assistant”.

However, in 2020, Ghost Box Records casually announced that Johnston and Bainbridge were returning with a surprise, but utterly welcome, third instalment of the Plone saga. Or is it, officially, the second? It doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that the new album, Puzzlewood, is glorious. An utterly life-affirming collection of grin-inducing instrumentals that evoke delicious memories of vintage library music, of Test Card F on rainy Tuesday afternoons, of long-forgotten Childrens’ Film Foundation flicks and grainy teatime dramas about bird sanctuaries. I defy anyone to listen to the whole giddy confection without imagining exploding chemistry sets and pokey, street-corner sweetshops alike. It’s wonderful, and it comes – appropriately enough – in the kind of luridly colourful packaging only previously associated with Lolly Gobble Choc Bombs or Bazooka Joe’s Bubble Gum.

In late March 2020, I spoke with Mike and Billy live on my BBC Radio Tees show. It was a Wednesday night, and the plan had been to link up with them both live from their regular midweek meeting, but – two days into Coronavirus lockdown – that clearly wasn’t possible. Nevertheless, they were charming company and great fun. Here’s how the conversation went…

Bob: I thought it was really sweet that you said normally get together on a Wednesday night. But obviously you can’t right now! Is it a while since you’ve seen each other?

Mike: A couple of weeks now, I think?

Billy: Yeah, Mike was due to come round this evening, but we thought it was best if he stayed away…

The album is lovely. And I know you couldn’t have planned it this way, but it’s a very heartwarming, fun and upbeat album – just what we need at the moment. Was it always your plan to make such a positive-sounding album?

Mike: Yeah, it was. I think that’s at the heart of the Plone sound really, that optimism. And you know, circumstances have come around to a point where optimism can be quite useful!

It’s been twenty years since the last official Plone album. Had you always intended to reconvene at some point, or has this come slightly out of the blue?

Mike:  I think the release feels like it’s come out of the blue, but we’ve been working on the album for quite a while. There was a patch after the second album when we didn’t work together for a while – for quite a while – and then we started working on this one in about 2011, something like that. Maybe even a bit earlier. And then we kind of slowed down… but then, a few years ago, we started up again, and started meeting up regularly on our Wednesday nights.

Billy: I think the Wednesday nights were a success really, weren’t they?

Mike: Yeah, we found the right day of the week, that’s what it was! The midweek hump is what we needed.

It breaks the week up, I guess! So some of these tracks do actually go back to 2011, then?

Mike: I think so, yeah. Actually, there are a couple from earlier that were left over at the end of the second album, from around 2001. A couple of tracks hanging around from then that we picked up again, and started working on.

You mentioned that second album, which has become something of a great “lost” album. So it was 1999 that your debut album For Beginner Piano came out..?

(Pause…)

Mike: Yeah…

Billy: Yeah, 1999. I remember… (laughs)

It’s nice that you had to think about that for a while!

Billy: It’s a long time ago! In the last century…

Then there were rumours of that second album, but it’s never actually had an official release. Do you want to tell us the story in your own words of what happened?

Mike: (Laughs) Do we have to? Go on, Billy…

Billy: It was around 2001 that we delivered the album, and it kind of got rejected by Warp Records. And that was kind of when the band split up. So we didn’t really want to look at it, or listen to it, for some time, I think. It is a bit of a tragic story in that respect. But I think enough time has elapsed for us to feel that we could maybe put it out there.

I think the odd bootleg has emerged here and there, but really? There is now a possibility that it might get an official release?

Billy: We’ve remixed it and remastered it. There’s still a bit of work to do to pick the right mixes, that sort of stuff, but there is a general intention to do something with it.

You weren’t tempted to carry any of it over onto Puzzlewood at all?

Billy: Mmmm… no.

Mike: No! (Laughs). No, it was good working on something relatively new, I think. And not being in the shadow of an album that had been unreleased for so long. Which we kind of think of as an artifact rather than an album, because – when we handed it in – it wasn’t really finished. We just had to hand something in at the time. So what was actually going to go on the album hadn’t really been finalised. There were more tracks than were going to be released. So, as Billy says, we’ve spent a bit of time remastering it, bringing it all up to speed. And obviously technology has moved on a bit, and it’s possible to rework it into something that’s more like what we wanted at the time.

Honestly, I’d be intrigued and thrilled to hear it. As for Puzzlewood itself… I was going to ask about the the title, which is a famous area of woodland in Gloucestershire. Was it a location that particularly spoke to the pair of you?  

Mike: I don’t think I’ve ever actually been to it! Not that I can remember. 

Billy: As the name of a wood, it’s brilliant…

Mike: Yeah, but I’ve never been there. So it’s got an air of mystery…

I’ve never been there either, but I’m a huge Doctor Who fan, and I know it’s been used as a location!

Billy: Yeah, we didn’t find out about all this until after we’d come up with the title… (laughs)

So was it just a place name that you knew and thought was particularly appropriate for the album?

Mike: Yeah, it was more like that, really. I mean, we’d gone through a list of interesting place names that either one of us had been to. Also, we were just looking at… kind of rambling names. Interesting woods, or obscure bits of the countryside.

Can tell us what else was on the shortlist?

Mike: (Laughs) No!

Billy: Go on, Mike…

Mike: I can’t remember off the top of my head, but I’ve still got the list somewhere!

A list with a load of names crossed out, apart from – presumably – Puzzlewood at the bottom?

Mike: You can probably find out the list of names that I came up with by looking at a map of the West Midlands, and trying to find the most ridiculous or most interesting names. They’ll be on the list!

I’m always intrigued by track titles on instrumental albums, and I usually think there’s a story behind them. So there’s ‘Watson’s Telescope’ on Puzzlewood, and I’ve spent my afternoon googling around this! Watson & Sons were indeed British telescope manufacturers from the mid-19th century until the 1940s. Is that track a tip of the hat to them?

Mike: It’d be good to say yes at this point, wouldn’t it?

Billy: (Laughs) Yes! Just say yes!

Aw… I had this glorious mental image of one you both owning old Watson & Sons telescopes when you were kids. So is that just a random title again?

Mike: Yeah. But I’ll go with your story, Bob.

Billy: Yeah, we’ll start using that… (laughs)

Can I ask a little bit about the early days of Plone? You came out of Birmingham in the 1990s, and it was a time when other Midlands artists like Broadcast and Pram were experimenting with similarly retro-sounding electronica. Did it feel like you were part of a scene at the time?

Mike: I think we felt like we were amongst friends, which was kind of great. There were lots of gigs happening, and some good venues where local bands could play. So yeah, it did feel like a bit of a scene, and you know…  Birmingham isn’t a huge place, so it’s kind of easy enough to bump into other bands.

Did you all know each other from the start, or did you start making this kind of music independently before realising that other artists at least had similar inspirations?  

Mike: I would say that we started making music straight after moving to Birmingham, and then – through the music – met other people, at gigs and also at DJ nights. And gradually we met the other bands. I think, very quickly, we met Pram, and then Broadcast a bit later.

It felt like a really exciting time. I keep talking about this, but I remember the first time that I heard Boards of Canada – a track on called ‘Roygbiv’ on a free CD sellotaped to the front of the NME. About 1999. And it was a real watershed moment for me: “My God, other people have these feelings about my childhood! Those feelings of watching Programmes for Schools and Colleges on a rainy Tuesday afternoon with a slight temperature. It was revelatory moment to realise that other people were not just remembering these feelings, but actually taking inspiration from them…

Mike: Yeah, I’ve always had that rosy nostalgia for that kind of Schools Programming. I remember at school when the teacher would wheel out the television, or maybe even the VHS, and show us some programme or other, and I’d think: “Oh, thank God! We don’t have to listen to the teacher any more. We can watch telly, we’re good at that!

For bonus points, a television in a wooden cabinet…

Mike: Yes, exactly – probably locked.

Did all of that come with a love of library music as well, then? That really comes over in your work. I could never understand as a kid why the music that we heard on TV, with the test card for example, didn’t seem to be thought of as “proper” music…

Mike: Yeah, it was really good! It was kind of there without us thinking about it, or finding out about it… it was being put into our brains. But there was some pretty good stuff, and I suppose the Radiophonic Workshop kind of epitomises that sort of sound. But, as you say, there were also all those library records as well.

The Radiophonic Workshop weren’t even credited as individual musicians for a while! It must have made them all the more intriguing.

Mike: Yeah, it made it sound like the music was being made in a laboratory. Very mysterious.

Was it easy to get hold of the gear when you started out, then? All those analogue synths are worth a fortune now, but were people actually chucking them away in the mid-1990s?

Mike: Well, we used to go down to the music shops in Birmingham, and they would have all the latest 1990s gear set out. But in the corner of the room  – or in a separate smaller room, shoved in the corner – were the analogue synths. Probably not the classic ones, but analogue nevertheless. And they were reasonably priced at the time. They hadn’t become cult items or anything like that. But of course… a lot of these synths didn’t have MIDI, which was the big watershed, really. It made them seem like they were useless, but they were far from that. They were very beautiful-sounding instruments.

Is there something really inspiring about working from a limited musical palette like that? You’ve been part of the ZX Spectrum Orchestra and the Modified Toy Orchestra, both making music using very simple computer chips and bits of old toys. Is there something about those limitations that can inspire a bit of creativity?

Mike: Yeah, definitely. I was more heavily involved with the ZX Spectrum Orchestra… with the Modified Toy Orchestra I was just playing live, really. But the ZX Spectrum Orchestra… that was a kind of deliberate attempt to eke as much as possible out of a very limited palette, yeah. I agreed to work on that project because I’d always really wanted to learn Machine Code programming! I have strange ambitions, and that was one of them…

There’s nothing wrong with a bit of Z80 Assembly Code. Let’s not be embarrassed about these things.

Mike: It’s on my CV… and has no real world application at all!

And how did the link with Ghost Box Records come about? It feels like a natural fit for you. Were Jim Jupp and Julian House people that you’d known for a long time?

Billy: I didn’t really know Jim until I sent the tracks off, really. But I was aware of the label, and a fan of the label, so I always thought they would be ideal if we were to release anything again. So we sent quite a few tracks off to them, and it was fairly straightforward, really. They loved the stuff.

The album has beautiful artwork by Julian House, too. 

Billy: That’s right, he’s done a fantastic job with that.

I believe it’s based on the Jonny Trunk’s book Wrappers Delight, I think he took that as a bit of inspiration!

Mike: I love the colours on it…

And with that, we drifted into a conversation about the potential unavailability of the Puzzlewood vinyl during an ongoing lockdown situation, but – a month on – it’s a relief to report that the album is now available in physical and digital formats from:

https://ghostbox.greedbag.com/buy/puzzlewood-black-vinyl/

And thanks to both Mike and Billy for a fun conversation, and – indeed – indulging my crackpot theories about the origins of their track titles. And I felt a little guilty about not getting around to discussing Seeland with Billy, so let me offer up this wonderful 2009 single as belated recompense:

Cindy Kent, The Settlers, Follyfoot and The Lightning Tree

“Down in the meadow where the wind blows free, in the middle of a field stands a lightning tree…”

For my money, there are few more evocative 1970s TV themes than the title music from Follyfoot. Combining an unsettlingly rustic folk lyric with joyously choral harmonies and just a soupcon of freewheeling pop magic, it’s the perfect introduction to Yorkshire TV’s popular family drama of the early 1970s. A warm-hearted but frequently wistful tale of a secluded farm that provided a rest home for retired horses, and – indeed – a communal retreat for the gang of teenage misfits that lived and worked there.

The theme was performed by Birmingham-based folk band The Settlers, who – by 1971, when they recorded the song – had already been together for the best part of a decade. Comprising Cindy Kent on vocals, Mike Jones on guitar, John Fyffe on banjo and Mansel Davies on bass (replaced in 1965 by Geoff Srdzinski), they had become familiar figures on both radio and TV, lacing traditional folk music with a beguiling pop sensibility.

Since leaving the band in 1973, Cindy Kent has enjoyed an extraordinarily eclectic career. She became a radio presenter and producer, working for the BBC, LBC, Capitol and Premier Christian Radio, and – since 2008 – has been an ordained priest: the Rev Cindy Kent MBE, no less! After driving listeners to distraction by playing The Lightning Tree repeatedly on my BBC Tees Evening Show, I couldn’t resist attempting to track her down for an on-air interview, and was delighted when she agreed to come on the show. She’s great fun… here’s how the conversation went:

Bob: Tell us about The Lightning Tree… it was a song written by TV producer Francis Essex, who I always assumed must have worked on Follyfoot. But he didn’t… however his brother Tony did!

Cindy: That’s right, it was Tony who was the producer, but he’d obviously shared the idea of the programme with Francis. Francis happened to come along to the Royal Festival Hall in London, where we did our annual concert, and the song that we used to end the show with was an amazing version of Rhythm Of Life, from Sweet Charity. Very much like The Swingle Singers, with that “dobedoo” idea going on in the background! He went home and wrote The Lightning Tree based on our version of Rhythm of Life. And then they got in touch and asked if we’d do it… and well, why not? So we went to London, recorded it… and then thought no more about it, to be honest.

We thought “That’s fine… it’ll happen or it won’t.” And we then went off on a cruise… when I was with The Settlers we’d do a couple of cruises a year, as a kind of paid holiday. And we got a telegram – remember telegrams? – from our manager saying “It’s just entered the charts, you’d better learn it!”

And we thought “Oh, for goodness sake – who’s got the lyrics?”. We were scrabbling around! But people still remember it today. I’m amazed. It’s a long time ago, isn’t it? 

I just think how fabulous it is that it was written specifically for you by somebody who’d seen you playing live! What a flattering thing to happen.  

We were really flattered, I must admit. This guy was there in the audience, he went home and wrote it, and the rest – as they say – is history.

So did you have much contact with the cast and crew of Follyfoot? You mentioned to me that you came up and did a photoshoot at the farm itself. Was it near Harrogate somewhere? 

It was somewhere in Yorkshire! Yes, They took over a farm and had us all sitting in a tree. How they got me up into the branches of a tree I’ll never know, because I’m not very good with heights! But there’s a picture that exists, I think on the Follyfoot website, of the four of us. And then there are pictures with Desmond Llewellyn – Q from the James Bond films – and Steve Hodson, the lead guy; and Gillian Blake, who played Dora. That was our only interaction with them, although I did meet Steve Hodson a few years later, because my late husband was a record producer, and he produced a single with Steve! So we had that connection.

Did you ever see much of the series, or were you always on tour?

I watched a few of them… we were often in transit, though. I think it went out at an odd time, and we were usually travelling to a gig. And, of course, these were they days before we had video recorders. But it went out all over the world… in fact, I did a cruise last year at Easter, as a chaplain, and I met a lady on board who ran a dancing school. And she said – “I’m so pleased to meet you – we worked out a whole routine for The Lightning Tree with our dance group!” It’s the song that keeps on giving, really.

Did you get to see the dance routine?

I’d like to see it! It wasn’t me dancing, that’s for sure… [laughs]

What do you think it is about the song that has made it so enduring?  

Do you think it’s maybe the fact that people liked the series? I mean, I love M*A*S*H, and whenever I hear the theme to that, I’m there watching. So it’s that combination… the early 1970s were a fun time to be around, and the song transports a lot of people back to their younger days, of sitting around on an evening watching a nice programme on the telly. It didn’t have anything that your Gran wouldn’t want to watch, and it was well-produced and acted. Just one of those fun things to be part of. I think it’s great that people still remember it, to be honest.

Can I ask about The Settlers as a band… when did you first start, around 1963 or 64?

1963 we started, yeah. Mike and John met at a teacher training college in Birmingham, they were going to be teachers. One of them from Burton-on-Trent, and one from Fleetwood in Lancashire. They met up, started singing in the bar, and then went along to a folk club in Birmingham, near to where I used to live, and got up and did their three or four songs. And at the end of the evening they both came over, and chatted me up! Which was quite fun, really. So we all went off to the local coffee bar, which was what you did in the early 1960s, and they got the guitar out, and I joined in.

I went to a few gigs, and on one occasion they’d done their three or four songs – which was all they had – but the audience was shouting for more, and they called me up onstage and said “Come on – do that song we were messing about with the other night”. What a way to get onstage! So I took my cardigan off and got up… and then they couldn’t get rid of me, really. It was good fun, and we entered a talent competition where we had to have four people, so we got a bass player in, and it went from there.

Were we very fortunate… we won the talent competition, and part of the prize was… you know, getting everything in one place. It was like the kids today with The X Factor: we got a recording contract, a TV audition and a radio audition, all as part of that prize. It was a really good start.

So were you from that folk background as well, then? It sounds like you were going to the folk clubs, too…

I was just there in the audience. I just love live music. I came from a musical family, Dad had a fabulous bass voice and sang in a choir; Mum was a soprano and sang in a local choir, too. My sister was absolutely amazing… not only could she sing and play piano, but she was the youngest member to be admitted into the City of Birmingham Symphony Choir. She was only 16. And so we used to sit around the piano, and singing was second nature. And at the local church, I was always up there singing.

The folk clubs were a natural progression, and were great. You heard some really good stuff. You heard some awful stuff as well to be honest, some people who should never have been let near a stage! But there were people who got up and went on to be really quite famous, and it was a good time to be around. It was when the Beatles and all the Liverpool sound was starting… it was a really creative time, and great to have been part of it.  

I was going to ask about that combination of folk and pop music. Obviously the folk scene was hugely healthy at the time, and people like Bob Dylan and Paul Simon were coming over to play at Martin Carthy’s folk clubs in London…

That’s right, it was an emerging sound. People were getting to know it. We, in fact, got hold of Blowin’ in the Wind… somebody had done it in America, but nobody had done it here. We were with Decca Records, and we took it to a guy who was quite famous, Dick James… who turned down lots of people and made lots of mistakes in his musical career! We said “We want to do this as a single,” and he said “Nah, it’s not commercial enough…”

But we were never really a folk group as such. We took folk songs, and made them a bit more poppy… rather than standing there with our fingers in our ears and a glass of beer in the other hand.  

You brought a folk approach to pop songs as well. You did a lovely version of The Beatles’ Nowhere Man.  

That was a single, yes. That was quite good for us, I remember we did it live on The Morecambe and Wise Show… and I mean live, to millions of viewers. Looking back, it must have been quite terrifying! Yeah, it was a nice song to do, and it suited our three-part harmonies.  

How were Eric and Ernie to work with?

Oh, they were just amazing! They used to do lots of rehearsal throughout the day, and almost every time they did a sketch it was slightly different each time. They were honing it, and we just sat there watching.

I’ll always remember… I think we did the Lightning Tree with them as well, and I was wearing a bright red outfit, a see-through skirt with hotpants and a boob tube, and I had long, bright red fingernails, and make-up and all the rest of it, just waiting in the wings to go on. They came off at the end of a sketch, and Eric walked past me and said… “Shouldn’t you go and get changed? You’re on in a minute!” They were just great fun to work with. A brilliantly talented pair.

I love your 1966 single, Till Winter Follows Spring. And I’ve just discovered it was the first lyric you ever wrote!  

It was, yeah! Mike, who is sadly no longer with us, wrote a lot of tunes and often wrote the lyrics as well, but on this particular occasion I took the tune away, and… well, listening to it again, I think it stands the test of time a little bit. It’s an eternal theme, isn’t it? Another way of saying “I’ll love you forever.” But yeah, it was a nice one. You’ve brought back lots of memories!

Good! Honestly, it’s a lovely wistful song. Can I ask about some of your other TV work? In 1969, you worked up here in the North-East on a show called Life With Johnny, for Tyne Tees… 

Oh my goodness, that really is going back! Yes, Cliff Richard and I went to the same church. And we did a lot of work with him: we did concerts on the continent, and at the Albert Hall, and tours all around the UK… both supporting, and doing our own thing. And he was asked to do a TV series by Tyne Tees, in the religious slot. It took a different parable each week – say, the Good Samaritan. And Cliff played a guy called Johnny, who had three girlfriends – I was one of them, Una Stubbs played another, and there was a lady called Linda Marchal, who you will never have heard of… but you’ll know her by her pen name, which is Lynda La Plante! She played the other girlfriend. We had two weeks each… I was the one that was very serious and wanted to get married and settle down, Una was the one who wanted to spend all his money, and Linda was the nice girl who got him in the end.

Una Stubbs actually sang a song in that show where she mimed to my voice! And I tell you what… it’s the weirdest thing to see someone moving their mouth, and your voice is coming out. It’s almost like you’re dead! I can’t tell you what a very strange feeling that was.

But yes, we did that for Tyne Tees, and we wrote about 30 songs, I think. A guy called David Winter, a clergyman who went on to be head of religious broadcasting for the BBC, wrote all the lyrics and dished them out to the five of us, and each week we’d meet and compare notes. Sometimes we’d put John’s verse to Cliff’s chorus or whatever, and I wrote my very first tune! A song called Love Is More Than Words, which is on Youtube. I was quite pleased with that, it was a love duet that Cliff and I did. That was great, writing all those songs. We had a great fondness for Tyne Tees: lovely people, and a lovely company to work with. They were fabulous to us over the years.

The other curious thing about Life With Johnny: playing Cliff’s dad was William Hartnell, the first Doctor! He didn’t do that much work after leaving Doctor Who in 1966, he wasn’t a well man…

No, I don’t think he was. It wasn’t a very taxing part, but it was nice to have him on there. There was a guy from Coronation Street as well, Mike Baldwin… Jonny Briggs! Several people cropped up in it over the course of the series, and there were dancers opening and closing the show… in fact, if you type Life With Johnny into Youtube, it’s there. How people get hold of these things I don’t know, but new clips seem to appear from time to time. Those were the days!

How’s Cliff to be around?  

Yeah, he’s great. We became really good friends over the years: I toured with him, and we did some solo things together. What you see is what you get with Cliff. He’s lovely, and all the problems he’s had just lately… I actually went into court and sat with him. That’s all over, and thank God he’s come out of the other end. That must have taken its toll on him.

But yes, he’s great fun, and wherever we went he was mobbed. He’d land at an airport and there’d be thousands of people there. There’s one lovely little story which I was quite chuffed about: we met up at Manchester airport, the four of us and Cliff and a couple of other people, all going to somewhere in Europe for a concert. And this one guy approached ther group with his autograph book and pen, and Cliff was stood there… and the guy walked straight past him, came up to me, and said “Could I have your autograph, please?”

Cliff didn’t mind at all, but it was very funny!

You were telling me about another TV show called Sing Out, from 1973…

Yes, Sing Out With The Settlers. That was another six-part series, half an hour, and it was us with lots of different people. They’re probably awful, perhaps I’d be better off not seeing them, but it would be so nice if they did exist somewhere! They’ve never turned up on Youtube, and it was in the days before VCR so nobody had a recording of them, but it would be so good to get hold of some, just to have a look. In fact, I don’t know if all of Life With Johnny exists. There’s probably some library somewhere, festering away in a basement…

I have a curious feeling a lot of the Tyne Tees archive is at Teesside University…  

I would be indebted to you forever if you could find those!

You’ve had a very accomplished career in radio, as a presenter and a producer, did all of that start essentially because you were doing lots of TV and radio work with The Settlers? Did you get a feel for it?

I did… when the Settlers ended in 1973, we all went our separate ways. Mike formed The New Settlers, and that went for about a year with three new people. John decided to move into the pub trade, and he had several pubs, mostly up in the North East. Ending up at the Dunstanburgh Castle Hotel, which is absolutely stunning – half an hour south of Holy Island. Geoff married a Dutch girl and moved to Holland, he became a piano tuner… he had to go back to college, and he loves doing that. He was the most talented musician out of all of us.

And I decided I’d quite like to go into radio. David Winter, who I mentioned earlier, said “Come and do a few things on the Sunday programme” [on BBC Radio 4], so I used to review pop-gospel albums and things. It was a great way of dipping a toe into the water. And then I moved onto my own series, Gospel Road on Radio 2. One of the series was presented with Cliff, and we went around the country discovering new talent. I did a couple of series on Radio 1 too; so I went from Radio 4, to Radio 2, to Radio 1. I’ve never done Radio 3, I must come up with an idea for Radio 3!

And then I was in at the birth of commercial radio, which was absolutely fantastic. I was with LBC, I was with Capital. I was with Radio Hallam in Sheffield doing my own late night show, that was great fun up there. And then Premier Christian Radio, when that first started, they asked me if I wanted to do it – 25 years ago this year! I was the first presenter they ever signed up. It was great fun to be in at the birth of all of that in this country. To try and do something that was different, they way the Americans have done it. And 25 years on, I think we succeeded.

What’s your proudest moment in radio?  

Oh my goodness, you should have given me a bit more warning! 9/11… I’m not sure I was proud of it, but I was doing the Afternoon Show. Half an hour before I went on air was when the first plane hit, so we abandoned all the normal music we were going to play and I was there talking to all sorts of people on the screen in front of me, saying, “On Line 4 is somebody from such-and-such a charity, they’ve been working out in New York, and their principal guy is on the phone…” And sometimes, at the end of the interview, I’d just say to the person: “Would you say a little prayer?” Not with all of them, just with some. And I was able to tell our listeners what was going on, because I was getting the feed from IRN and BBC and everything else that was coming in. I was on air for about five hours straight. I’ll never forget that… adjusting what you’ve got in your head, reacting and thinking on your feet.

But the nicest thing was, the next day I got an e-mail from a lady in America who – this is weird, isn’t it – had been listening to a British radio station, to something that was going on in her country, and she just wanted to thank me for getting people to pray. She said it was so lovely to hear other people pray, and all she had to do was say “Amen”. And I treasure that e-mail, it was one of those moments when you just feel that you’re in somebody’s life, and you’re making a difference.

There’s a real responsibility to those moments. I’ve been on air when other big news stories have broken, and there is a feeling of… people are getting this from me, and I’ve got to get it right, and be sensitive and respectful.

You do. I had it with Princess Diana, that was the other one. First thing in the morning… I heard the news at 4am getting out of bed, got into the car to go in, and rang around everyone that I could think of – in some cases breaking the news to them – to record comments. I was in the studio for ages, I was on air for about five hours, drove home about eight hours later, and on the way home I was listening to the radio and suddenly found myself crying. Because it was sinking in that Diana had died. I’d been running on pure adrenaline, and it hit me really hard as I was driving home, thinking “Oh my goodness…”

They actually used to get worried at Premier, when I went, in that something was about to happen. “Check the obits…!” [laughs]

You’re clearly a devoted Christian, and – in fact – are now the Rev Cindy Kent! How did it all happen?

Who’d have thought it, eh? That the girl in a mini-skirt bashing a tambourine would end up being a vicar? There are a few of us… there’s Richard Coles from The Communards, and a couple of others that have gone from being a pop star to being a priest.

Was your faith a big part of your upbringing, then?

I think so, yeah. We always went to chapel from me being a toddler, and it just became part of my life. And at about 15 or 16 it became very personal. I took it on board for myself and just said to God: “OK, here I am… use me, do whatever it is”. And the story unfolded, and went on from there, to me doing what I do now, I guess.

When did you start to feel the pull to actually become a priest yourself?

I don’t know… I woke up one morning and thought “I think I want to be a deacon”, which was the first stage in those days. And then I rang up my local bishop, who I knew really well because I’d used him on Capital Radio, and said “I think I’m being called to be a deacon… but I’m not really sure what that is!”

And he said “Ah, I’ve been expecting this!” I said: “Oh, really? I haven’t!”

So you go forward to a selection conference, and you have to pass exams, and I mean… I was dreadful as a child at school, so the thought of doing anything academic filled me with the screaming ab-dabs. But by the grace of God I got through it, and ended up being ordained, and yeah… it was really good. It’s been a great journey: I had my own church in North London for six years, and then I retired and moved to the Isle of Sheppey, nearly four years ago.

And have you stayed in retirement?

No, don’t be daft! It’s nice to be able to do things, and when I came down here I got what they call “permission to officiate”… which means that you do the job, but you don’t get paid! So I help out at the local church, doing services and things, which is lovely. If I’m going to be at the service anyway, I might as well lead it. I’ve met a load of people, made some great friends, and I’ve got the sea at the bottom of my garden. I sit watching it from my living room. Well… it isn’t really the sea, it’s the end of the Thames, but we don’t mention that!

But there are boats and ships going up and down all day, the tide goes in and out… it’s just the most idyllic place, and I absolutely love it. But if you’d told me, back in 1900-and-frozen-to-death, that this is what I’d be doing in 2020, I would have gone “What?!!!”

And are you still singing live?

I do the odd gig locally, yeah. We’ve done a couple at the beautiful little theatre here on the island, the Criterion, and that’s great. And of course I teach people the chorus of The Lightning Tree – not that you have to really teach it, they seem to know it – and they all join in. The worst thing about that song, though, is that all five verses begin with the same words: “Down in the meadow where…” something happens. And it’s a case of trying to remember which one you’re on! [laughs] I’m constantly singing “Down in the meadow where… mumble mumble mumble…” What happens next? I don’t know!

I’m going to play some more Settlers to finish… can I play Major to Minor, from 1967?

Oh my goodness, Tony Hatch produced that! It was Kenny Everett’s favourite record of the year when it came out. Great lyrics, it was a very clever song that Tony Hatch wrote, he was our producer at the time. It’s a shame it wasn’t a proper hit, it was what they call a “turntable hit”… everybody played it and loved it, it just didn’t sell! But it is a good song, and a nice one to close with…

Thanks so much to Cindy for her time, and for being such a good sport. You can say hello to her on Twitter, she’s here…