In which everyone’s favourite fictional Italian disco producer provides a high-tempo soundtrack to… discounted British rail journeys for EU residents? The alter ego of Bristol-born, Berlin-based Anton Maiof, Maiovvi is a Dario Argento-obsessed playboy with a penchant for spooky film scores, but this is a joyously upbeat collection: the eminently danceable ‘Stable Mirror’, in particular, is a New Order-style banger that may yet have grizzled Haçienda veterans reaching for their dusty glow sticks.
Those of us marooned in the provinces during the late 1980s club explosion might find retro, beat-laden workouts like ‘Post Modern Morals’ evoking hazy memories of Sol lager and The Hit Man and Her rather than the Manchester superclubs, but – regardless of where your dancefloor mojo was honed – this is a giddy concoction, liable to make anyone whose teenage years involved the occasional smiley-faced T-shirt feel decidedly misty-eyed.
This Brighton singer-songwriter has peppered her delightfully downbeat vignettes of everyday melancholy with the occasional vintage synth, but here throws herself into full John Carpenter soundtrack mode, with an instrumental concept album whose premise – that of a worldwide sleeping sickness, and a dangerous cult seeking out the victims – sets the tone for an enjoyably dark and suitably woozy musical journey. ‘Run’ even hints at Mark Snow’s X-Files theme; perfect for a case that Mulder and Scully would surely relish.
Stephen Prince’s multi-media project A Year In The Country explores the links between folk, electronica and a rather otherworldly pastoralism, this new compilation tasking its contributors with creating musical explorations of abandoned roads and railway lines. The likes of Field Lines Cartographer and Grey Frequency evoke heartbreaking radiophonic dreams of overgrown sidings and crumbling platforms, and Pulselovers‘ ‘Woodford Halse To Fenny Compton in Five Minutes’ somehow contrives to make a hypnotic, Krautrock synth anthem the perfect celebration of pre-Beeching steam travel. Joyous.
The irrepressible Mulholland – whose 1999 Mount Vernon Arts Lab album The Séance at Hobs Lane helped define 21st century hauntology – is in prolific form, and his third album of 2019 soundtracks Anthony Burgess’ novel in suitably sinister style. Trademark sound manipulations expertly create ominous slabs of music concrète, the eight-minute ’84F’ perfectly evoking the draughty menace of chief Droog Alex’s teenage prison cell. A limited cassette release on this perfectly-formed micro-label, laudably dedicated to electronica with a literary inspiration.
As a very small child in the 1970s, I was vaguely uncertain as to whether the Second World War was still ongoing. It seemed to be referenced everywhere: on TV, we watched Dad’s Army, Secret Army, Danger UXB and The World At War. The shelves of Mr Murray’s newsagents were stocked with Commando and Victor comics, and my Mum – only in her mid-thirties at this point – often recounted her childhood memories of Anderson shelters, and tanks rolling through Middlesbrough town centre. The war seemed tangible and “of the now”; a vivid scar on both the psychology of the nation and its still-recovering landscapes. We all knew the derelict buildings, the wastelands and water-filled craters, the everyday reminders of where the bombs had left their mark.
The war left its mark on Carrie Willow, too. A wistful, recently widowed fortysomething at the beginning of this book, holidaying in Wales with her three young children, she finds herself revisiting both the overgrown valley that provided respite during a traumatic spell as a wartime evacuee, and the feelings of grief and guilt that have dogged her ever since. Nervously, Carrie begins to tell her children the story that forms the main body of the book: how, thirty years earlier, she and her younger brother Nick had been evacuated to a rather down-at-heel (and curiously unnamed) Welsh mining town, becoming inextricably embroiled in the fortunes of two very contrasting households.
And those two feuding families are at the heart of the story. Carrie and Nick find themselves living with dour grocer Samuel Evans and his meek, put-upon sister Lou… and oh, is there any more archaic a 20th century domestic arrangement than two adult siblings sharing a house? Evans aggressively dominates his younger sister, his devout Christian faith manifesting itself as doctrine of extreme austerity that extends to any who cross the threshold. “Dirt and sloppy habits are an insult to the Lord,” the children are told, forbidden from visiting their bedrooms during the daytime for fear of wearing out the stair carpet.
As Christmas approaches, however, Carrie and Nick find respite. Dispatched to fetch a goose from Druid’s Bottom, the woodland valley farm occupied by the Evans’ ailing (and ostracised) older sister Mrs Gotobed, they find themselves almost passing through a theological and ideological portal. As they descend the valley at dusk, Carrie even feels it: “Deep in the trees or deep in the earth… something old and huge and nameless.” She hears the landscape sigh – “a slow, dry whisper” – and there are later suggestions that Druid’s Bottom still bears vestiges of the “old religion”. This manifests itself in the form of Mrs Gotobed’s housekeeper Hepzibah Green, a warm-hearted “wise woman” who welcomes the children into a haven of warmth, food and hospitality.
Mrs Gotobed herself, disowned by Mr Evans for marrying into the wealthy mine-owning family that he blames for their father’s death, is magnificently languid and indulgent. Terminally ill, and largely confined to her bedroom in Druid’s Bottom, her dying mission is to wear, in turn, each of the 29 opulent ballgowns that her late husband bought for her throughout their marriage. A distant cousin, Mr Johnny, is also resident in the house: a young man with severe learning difficulties, barely able to speak, dismissed an as “idiot” by Mr Evans but cared for at Druid’s Bottom by a surrogate family keen to keep him secluded from an uncaring 1940s society that would otherwise have him “locked up.”
Druid’s Bottom’s has its own resident evacuee, too: the bookish, iconoclastic (and magnificently-named) Albert Sandwich. Hints of deeper feelings begin to flourish between Albert and Carrie, further pulling her and the increasingly rebellious Nick away from their official adopted carers, and creating increased tension between the households. Tensions exacerbated when Lou finds romance with a billeted American soldier, leaving her “as good as damned” – at least according to her furious elder brother. Who, by this stage, is actually beginning to elicit our sympathy as an increasingly isolated figure: convinced that his frugality and over-protectiveness is for the benefit of all, he is unable to comprehend the hostility it provokes in those nearest to him.
And if the book has a central theme, it is indeed the influence of our respective belief systems on our lives, and – indeed – the lives of those closest to us. Recurring bereavements (his parents, his wife, effectively his older sister and even his faith in the local mining community) have left Mr Evans dependent on his Christian beliefs for both support and reassurance… but equally, a curious superstition attached to Druid’s Bottom proves to be a lynchpin of the more ethereal and arcane beliefs pervading the Gotobed household – and, indeed, the source of a lifetime’s worth of guilt for Carrie. For the house plays host to a human skull, reputed to be that of an African slave who cursed Druid’s Bottom to destruction should his mortal remains ever be removed. And when a furious and confused Carrie, her spirit broken by the tempestuous feuding that follows Mrs Gotobed’s death, does just that – and in a pretty permanent way – she departs the valley convinced that her rash actions have had a devastating effect on both households.
And so, Carrie’s war stays with her. And so did the events of this book on me. Written with elegant sparseness, it’s a supremely touching depiction of childhood trauma during an tumultuous period of history, and the book’s conclusion is both redemptive and utterly, utterly heartbreaking. There is no more destructive and lingering an emotion than guilt, and the lifting of Carrie’s needlessly prolonged self-torment as her story snaps back to the contemporary 1970s provides tangible, tear-jerking relief – while leaving us unbearably sad at the wasted decades that her wartime experiences have instigated. An extraordinary book.
POINT OF ORDER: Carrie’s War has been adapted twice for TV by the BBC… once in 1974, available on DVD here:
Predictably, I’ve only seen the 1974 series, but it’s a very faithful and beautifully-made adaptation of the book, and well worth investigating.
FURTHER POINT OF ORDER: How many 20th century children’s books begin, like Carrie’s War, with the main protagonists arriving at the story’s primary location on a steam train? There are bonus points available for further examples.
MUSTINESS REPORT: My 1976 paperback edition has a truly classy waft of vintage must, and also a wonderful relic on the inside cover. Here, a sticker proudly declares that, in June 1977, the book was awarded by Carlisle Road Presbyterian Church’s Morning Sabbath School to Wendy Rutherford, for winning First Prize in their “Answering” competition. Exactly 43 years on… Wendy, are you out there? Get in touch.
If you want to go north, turn to 356. If you want to go south, turn to 197. If you want to spend fifteen minutes discovering how two eleven-year-olds from Fife spent their final year at primary school trying to forge a Fighting Fantasy gamebook empire at the expense of their local education authority, read on…
By the mid-1980s, the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks were providing a vital childhood escape route from the humdrum of the everyday. Their relentless invasion of grey-painted classrooms, musty school libraries and cluttered adolescent bedrooms helped transport a generation of kids from the torpor of dreary geography homework to the perilous swamps, forests and deserts of Allansia; where goblins, warlocks and green-eyed skeletons were swiftly dispatched with the swish of a sword and the roll of a die. The Forest of Doom was my personal favourite, and – for the first few months of 1984 – it was rare that my ten-minute bus journey to Levendale Primary School didn’t take a swift detour past Yaztromo’s Tower.
Many of us tried to create our own Fighting Fantasy books from scratch, spending our weekends and school holidays swearing softly at over-complicated flowcharts or – more likely – just drawing the pictures and the cover, and wishing the accompanying 40,000 words of rip-roaring swords ‘n’ sorcery adventure would somehow just magic themselves into existence. Possibly with the help of Yaztromo. Among them was Paul Gorman, who had quite clearly read this…
…. and was keen to have a crack at creating his own, suspiciously similar-looking alternative. Over to you, Paul:
“1986, and our final year of Primary School. While the rest of the class were tumbling and stretching their way to BAGA Gymnastic qualifications, four of us – myself, Will, Rick and David – spent our afternoons designing, drawing and (sometimes) writing our own ‘Swords & Sorcery’ adventure gamebooks.
In the same way that rip-offs are diplomatically advertised as ‘being in the tradition of’ an original work, so our felt-tip, biro and Tipp-Ex efforts were ‘in the tradition of’ Fighting Fantasy…
We began with plans for four books: one each. Rick’s Volcano of Terror led the way. Mine, with a cover directly copied from the Fighting Fantasy book Scorpion Swamp, was the second in the series and was called Horror Swamp. Then came David’s Key to Freedom and Will’s Caves of Time.
Will devised the battle mechanism: toss a coin, twice. If both times it turns up heads, you win! One of each? ‘Keep trying!’ Brutally hard as far as gameplay goes, but brilliantly simple to remember.
And we knew how to promote them, too. My Robin Hood series (inspired, of course, by Robin of Sherwood) promised an ‘epic new adventure’, and the strapline for Caves of Time was ‘Get the treasure, not easy!’
These weren’t mine and Will’s first attempts at writing a book. A few years earlier, we had (no doubt like many other kids our age) shamelessly ripped off Star Wars with a joint effort at a story – illustrated, and which we fully intended to make into a movie – called Star Battle. The heroes were called Luke and Wedge, the robot sidekicks looked strangely familiar (but it wasn’t a complete copy because look! One of them hovers!) and the baddy was called CyclaVader.
But back to the gamebooks…
It quickly became clear that conceptualising (as we would never have called it) was the fun part. We must have planned over thirty books between us. Some existed only as placeholder numbers in the series; some had titles; some had covers. Very few were written to completion: the breadth of our imagination was, alas, matched only by the narrowness of our talents.
Among many others, I planned (or at least drew the cover for) a pirate adventure whose title was supposed to suggest the illicit thrills of high seas gambling, but Dealing with Death unfortunately sounded more like a self-help guide.
Ambition met reality when I sellotaped two jotters together for a sci-fi epic called Starship Disaster. I was particularly proud of the cover, but my enthusiasm died once I realised I could never hope to fill the 800 paragraphs that the two jotters demanded.
I have to add a quick, belated word of acknowledgement for the authority that unwittingly funded our creativity: North-East Fife District Council Education Department. Apart from the first four, for which we were given encouragement by our teacher Mrs. Birrell, every jotter we used thereafter was filched from the school’s stationery cupboard.
David lost interest early on and Rick a little later. I assumed for a long time that mine and Will’s interest in gamebooks petered out by the end of primary school, but a deeper dig in the attic has shown a more advanced cover by Will (always the best artist among us) for a proposed omnibus edition of my Golden Sword series, under the new ‘imprint’ of ‘Gamebook Developments’. It’s dated 1987, by which time we were in high school, and I have no memory of it at all.
Soon afterwards we discovered what we assumed was more grown-up fantasy (Tolkien, Terry Brooks), and then the 1980s horror boom. This, almost predictably, led to me and Will writing short stories ‘in the tradition of’ Stephen King and James Herbert with our series of ‘Uncanny Tales’. But that’s another story…”
Felt Trips is a collaborative effort. If anyone wants to contribute their own childhood drawings from the era, I would be utterly delighted – please drop me a line using the “Contact” link at the top of the page. A good quality scan would be perfect, but – if not – then a clear photo of your artwork, lying flat, is fine. And maybe a few words of explanation, too: when the drawings were done, how old you were, what inspired you to tackle those particular subjects? Thanks so much.
As well as this regular blog, the Haunted Generation is also a bi-monthly column in the Fortean Times magazine, rounding up new releases and forthcoming events. This was the most recent feature, from issue 393, dated June 2020.
THE HAUNTED GENERATION
Bob Fischer rounds up the latest news from the parallel worlds of popular hauntology
“I think it’s always a time of hope, and new growth,” says Jon Brooks, discussing his new album How to Get to Spring, a beautifully melodic and meditative evocation of his favourite season. “So this album is about that. It’s offering a kind of quiet hope, really.”
During the ongoing Coronavirus lockdown, many of us have found ourselves pining for our usual connections with the natural world, and landscapes that both soothe and exhilarate. How to Get to Spring offers blissful musical respite, inspired by Jon’s walks around the remote trails of his native Peak District and a life-affirming journey to the Isle of Skye. “I really just switch myself off, and open myself to what’s going on around me,” he says. “And I think that puts you into a different mental state. That’s where I get a lot of inspiration from, and certain things can bubble to the surface…”
The album is a gentle, elegant musical journey; deliberately structured to drift gracefully from the hard ground and clear skies of January to the pink blossom and bone-thawing sunshine of early May. Stately piano compositions like ‘Dreaming and Further Still’ are swathed in reassuring breaths of woozy electronica, and ‘Neist Point’ adds softly-strummed guitars and a subtle Celtic influence, appropriate for a piece inspired by this remote Hebridean outpost. “I just thought the atmosphere around it was amazing,” says Jon. “You look out to sea, and… that’s pretty much all you can see. Just water. You feel really small in that place.”
The album is the latest of Jon’s solo recordings to be released by Clay Pipe Music, and the label is also reissuing a vinyl edition of his haunting 2012 album, Shapwick[FT 354:34]. This latter collection – influenced by a night-time motorway detour through the titular Somerset village – melds elegiac piano with the sounds of wistful music boxes, vintage radiophonica and field recordings, and is utterly mesmeric. Meanwhile, Jon’s extensive recordings as The Advisory Circle are available from Ghost Box Records.
Taking similar inspiration from evocative landscape are an exciting quartet comprising best-selling writer Robert Macfarlane, artist Stanley Donwood, film-maker Adam Scovell and musician Drew Mulholland. Macfarlane and Donwood are the men behind Ness [published by Hamish Hamilton, 2019], a beautiful, delicately-illustrated prose poem set amidst the eerie topography of Orford Ness, the shingle-covered shard that clings to the Suffolk coastline. Commandeered by the MOD as a secret testing site throughout both world wars and the ensuing Cold War, this curious outpost also plays host to the “Black Beacon”, an experimental 1930s radio tower, and – in more recent years – has been protected by the National Trust as a fragile nature reserve.
It’s perhaps no surprise that such a psychogeographical goldmine has triggered a chain reaction of artistic responses. Hot on the heels of Ness’ publication came Adam Scovell’s similarly-titled film adaptation (visit celluloidwickerman.com), setting Macfarlane’s prose to artfully-shot and hugely atmospheric 8mm footage; its grainy glimpses of abandoned military facilities and windswept beaches feeling themselves like flickering transmissions, echoing through the decades. And Drew Mulholland’s soundtrack to the film, titled A Haunting Strip of Marshland, is scheduled for release by the Castles In Space label in August. Its throbbing, electronic soundscapes effortlessly evoke his lifelong love of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and Mulholland is also a grand master of manipulated field recordings: parts of the album were even recorded on cassette tapes dotted with the remains of ground-up lichen, native to the Ness.
And, for further bucolic delight, I recommend Copsford, a new album by R.B. Russell. Released to celebrate the 100th anniversary of journalist Walter J.C. Murray‘s rejection of modernity, and the resulting year that he spent living in a run-down house in the Sussex countryside, it’s a minimalist but tunefully tender collection of atmospheric instrumental pieces. Murray’s written account of his year of isolation – also titled Copsford – was published in 1948, and bespoke hardback editions are available from Russell’s own Tartarus Press publishing house. The album, meanwhile, can be downloaded from rbrussell.bandcamp.com.
Kudos also to Brighton synth queen Hattie Cooke, whose album The Sleepers has previously graced these pages [FT 387:69]. Hattie has curated the rather wonderful Help Musicians Compilation, a collection of original material on her newly-forged Patch Bae Records label. Intended to raise funds – via the Help Musicians UK charity – for artists whose livelihoods have been threatened by the Coronavirus lockdown, the album is a splendid miscellany of atmospheric electronica and synth-pop from the likes of Polypores, Repeated Viewing and Rupert Lally. Head to patchbaerecords.bandcamp.com.
For an album inspired by an idyllic upbringing in the medieval town of Burford, Cotswold Stone has a curiously transatlantic feel: the evocative schoolroom sounds of maracas and recorders are entwined around clipped synth-funk rhythms and sensuous, yacht rock saxophones. Never have impressions of Bourton-on-the-Water sounded more cinematic. But it’s a delightful confection, suggesting that main man Mat Handley’s 1970s Famous Five-style exploits in the Oxfordshire countryside were the perfect aperitif for an evening of John Carpenter films on BBC2.
Now based in South Yorkshire, Handley even seems to be harking back to his own childhood electronica experiments; he has spoken of sitting “in the cupboard under the stairs, with my Jen SX1000.” The album expertly juggles this musical and personal nostalgia; my stand-out track being the wistful ‘Autumn Arrives Again’, where gently-plucked guitars and a wash of reflective, analogue synths evoke perfectly the dreadful moment when the ‘Back to School’ displays appeared in your local Woolworths.
Is everyone familiar with the contribution of Amanda Grayson to 20th century popular culture? She was, as any self-respecting Star Trek fan will tell you, the human mother of Mr Spock, who followed her heart to live on the desert planet of Vulcan after falling in love with the planet’s ambassador to Earth. Jan Borré ‘s album – released for Cassette Store Day – eschews any temptation towards sci-fi kitsch, instead using her story as the basis for a downbeat and moving instrumental exploration of alienation and disconnect.
Young Belgian composer Borré has worked with Spun Out Of Control before, on the soundtrack to horror film Where The Skin Lies, and his cinematic style is evident here, too. He has a striking gift for melody, with memorable, melancholic synth lines rising frequently from the ambience, and – as in the case of magnificent Side 2 opener ‘The Northern Claw’ – occasionally precipitating an explosion into celebratory, beat-laden ‘banger’ territory.
Hailing from Ohio, Dave Gibson and Travis Kokas have previous form as garage rockers, but Firesides finds the sweet spot between that very pastoral school of Canterbury prog (they happily admit the album’s sleeve is an homage to Caravan’s 1971 opus ‘In the Land of Grey and Pink’), and British library music with a whiff of long-forgotten Open University modules. Tracks like ‘Electron Waltz’ and ‘Space Junk’ are awash with vintage Moogs, and sometimes even find a delicious Krautrock groove.
VARIOUS ARTISTS Cold War on The Rocks – Disco and Electronic Music from Finland 1980-1991 (Svart Records)
The legacy of synth pioneer Jori Sivonen – who died in July – sets the tone for this hugely enjoyable collection, with the opening three tracks (including ‘Jupiter’, purportedly named after his beloved Roland Jupiter 8) all bearing his melodic handiwork. Elsewhere, Mika Sundqvist and Jokke Sepp explore galactic synth sounds, and Visual’s ‘Big & Beautiful’ was sequenced on a Commodore 64. The upbeat, disco-fuelled schlager feel occasionally evokes memories of 1980s Eurovisions, but some of us are rather partial to that.
Mark Brend, Matt Gale and Cliff Glanfield formed Fariña in 1995, gaining acclaim for their albums ‘Three People’ and ‘Allotments’; epic collections of filmic, bittersweet chamber pop redolent of peak-era Scott Walker and Ennio Morricone. There were, quite frankly, trumpets. After splitting in 2005, the trio have reunited to record a soundtrack EP to Mark’s debut novel Undercliff, a gently beguiling tale set amid the post-hippy fall-out of 1972, in which a listless divorcee finds himself drawn into the world of sinister religious cult The Olive Grove.
“It means ‘flour’ in Spanish, I believe,” says Mark. “We just liked the sound of the word.” Unlike their two albums, The Undercliff Suite EP is entirely instrumental, with a more experimental, post-rock feel, perhaps suggesting a bold new direction for a band who seem warmly receptive to longer-term collaborations. “Reforming Fariña just seemed like a natural, logical step,” adds Mark. “I don’t recall us even discussing it that much. We just started writing together and it was if the intervening years hadn’t happened.”
Tell us more…
As Mark is keen to stress: “The music is an attempt to capture the atmosphere of aspects of the book, rather than soundtrack them in a literal sense.” Appropriate then, that the EP is quietly unsettling, with soothing, jazz-tinged brass and folk club accordion floating elegantly across beds of vintage synths provided, perhaps predictably, by Electronic Sound contributor Mark. And it culminates in the beautiful, hymn-like ‘Resurgam’, evoking images of Sir Hubert Parry let loose upon a MicroKORG.
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 aFlash Gordon serial, maybe aMr 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 Millfrom 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 calledthe Lone Pineseries – 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.
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 Turpinhere. 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...
Yeah, he did! That was latter-day Screen Test, wasn’t it?
Yes! AndI’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.
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 likeThe 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 recorderin the film?!
Yeah, they improvised that on set, because they didn’t have a gimmick. I spoke to him about it… it just so happened he’d brought his tape recorder with him.
That is fantastic.And then we go back to one of those films that really seem to have stuck in people’s consciousness, and that’s Sky Pirates, with Bill Maynard. Can you talk us through this one, Vic?
This one’s a real corker. People have been writing into us saying “Please put Sky Pirates on this one!” This is the bloke out of Heartbeat, and he’s an old World War 2 Battle of Britain pilot who teams up with some kids to foil a jewel robbery using model aeroplanes. It was released in the year of Concorde’s first commercial flight, so it was very timely – and I don’t know about you, but I was going down to the model shop buying a plastic model of Concorde. The models in this film were actually bought in the shop that was down the end of my road when I was a kid in the 1970s!
Yeah, yeah! It was on the edge of Hounslow, West London – where I was born – and that’s where I got my plane-spotters guide in 1976.
What was the shop called, can you remember?
Radio Control Supplies Hounslow Ltd.
They knew how to give shops snappy names in those days, didn’t they?
Wouldn’t that make you want to go in there? It was run by guys that used to wear those brown janitor’s coats and ties behind the counter. Like Mr Arkwright in Open All Hours. And the guys that did the planes in this film also did the helicopter sequences in The Spy Who Loved Me. That’s quite a cool pedigree.
Do you get people requesting their favourite films for these sets, then?
Yes we do, and we’d like more of that. So please encourage everyone to suggest titles, if you would! We’re always looking for new suggestions.
What a rod for your own back you’re creating here, Vic. This could get out of control.
No, we want it! I’m on Twitter. Twitter me! Send them over, we don’t mind. There are more than 400 Children’s Film Foundation films in the catalogue, so we’ve barely scraped the surface.
The later films on this set are revelation: they’re really quite thoughtful. The Mine and the Minotaur, from 1980, is set in Cornwall, and it’s a story about art-smuggling. And it’s very gentle and absolutely beautifully shot. The cinematography is wonderful.
Absolutely. And it’s got some pretty good library music grooves, too! It’s quite a cracker. It has kids that are cleverer than the coppers foiling the smugglers, who are very well-spoken, posh Cornwall types. All shot down in Lamorna Cove in Cornwall, so it’s got that really nice, picturesque quality to it.
It’s funny you should mention the coppers – I was going to ask about the way in which adults are portrayed in Children’s Film Foundation films. In the earliest films, the authority figures are absolutely that… the policemen are clever and trustworthy and they solve the crimes, and the parents are generally quite understanding figures. But once you get into the 1970s, it’s the kids that the clever ones. Teachers, parents and even the police are shown to be a bit stupid and bumbling. Was that just reflection of how kids were changing over the decades?
I think it’s a reflection of how kids were changing and how adults’ ideas of kids changed as well. It’s weird when you look at these films now: the kids are all driving around in cars without seatbelts on, they’re going underground without their parents… it’s such a shift in how we look at kids. And yes, they were helping the police to solve the crimes by the 1970s and 80s, absolutely.
There’s an amazing scene in The Mine and the Minotaur where two kids are almost killed by a Maserati that’s racing around the country lanes of Cornwall… and then their Mum basically says “Yeah, that’s fine – get in with that complete stranger, and go for a ride in it.”
Good Lord, yeah. What on Earth was going on there? And then you see the kids in a tent, and their mum and dad nip off down the boozer and just leave them there! Crikey.
I think my favourite film on this set is actually the final film on it: from 1981, it’s called Friend Or Foe, and it has a lovely performance from John Holmes, who went on to play Gonch in Grange Hill. It’s about two Second World War evacuees who befriend the German bomber pilots that have been downed in their local woods. It’s such a thoughtful piece.
This is one of the ones that got shown on TV in the 1980s after the end of the Children’s Film Foundation. It got repeated on TV a couple of times, and we’ve had so many requests for this one, because it really is a very good film. It came right at the end of the CFF’s output, and got a very limited release. All the critics said it was fantastic and it won all sorts of awards, but very few people got a chance to see it. It never got a proper release – the Conservative government of the time had pulled the funding for the CFF, and it looked uncertain whether the film would get finished at all. Other bodies had to step in to help finish it. The CFF carried on for a few more years, but this was one of the very last. And one of the very best.
Is that later period a little underappreciated, then? Possibly because it’s slightly after many people’s peak period of watching these films?
Absolutely. There are a lot that people haven’t seen, but that they’d really love. There’s one called Gabrielle and the Doodleman, with Windsor Davies… all kinds of good films from those last years that I hope will see the light of day one day.
And so much of the appeal of these films comes from the little glimpses into lost eras. Do you find yourself freeze-framing 1960s shop fronts and old cars?
Absolutely – if you look at one of the extras on these sets, there are these little films cald A Letter from The Isle of Wight, A Letter from Wales… there’s A Letter from Ayreshire. I’m a big comic collector, and you see a kid getting a sixpenny issue of a Roy Rogers comic from 1954, and I had to freeze frame and check which issue it was, and cross reference it. I couldn’t believe it! Seeing a 1950s cowboy comic in mint condition! And then he folded the cover…
Sacrilege! Did you have the same issue yourself?
My dad’s got it, but it’s very tatty. He loves Roy Rogers comics. He’s the last man standing.
And are future Children’s Film Foundation DVD releases in the offing?
I hope so. Assuming that everyone rushes out and buys this one. Tell your friends how great these are, and hopefully we’ll see another set next year…
Thanks to Vic for his time, and a delightful conversation – as ever! The Children’s Film Foundation Bumper Box Volume 2 is available here:
Unsettling. Impassive. Slightly… well, haunted. The face of Tom Baker in that iconic 1970s Doctor Who opening title sequence left an indelible impression on so many of our childhoods. The more sensitive of TV viewers even found it scary, but Tom’s penetrating stare nevertheless provided the gateway to a giddy cavalcade of teatime thrills: the Doctor’s daring battles with Daleks, Zygons and Cybermen proving the perfect Saturday accompaniment to fishfingers, marrowfat peas and Mr Kipling’s Cherry Bakewells. Preferably not all on the same plate.
Watching from the safety of his Chelmsford home was four-year-old Christopher Naylor, whose love of the show inspired him to create a beautiful piece of DIY artwork – his own Doctor Who Top Trumps! And incredibly, 45 years later, Chris has actually become part of Tom Baker’s TARDIS team. In March 2021, prolific audiobook producers Big Finish will release Return of the Cybermen, an audio adaptation of the original Gerry Davis script that was extensively rewritten to become the 1975 TV story Revenge of the Cybermen. It stars Tom Baker as the Doctor, Sadie Miller as Sarah Jane Smith… and Christopher Naylor, recreating the late Ian Marter’s role as bold and burly companion Harry Sullivan.
Over to you, Christopher…
“It’s hard to put my finger on my first memory of Doctor Who, although I have a vague image of staring out at the street light through the rippled glass of our front door one night, and imagining myself being taken into Sutekh’s sarcophagus time-tunnel from The Pyramids of Mars.
But I do know that every Saturday, from Grandstand all the way through to Parkinson and beyond, the television was on all day – and always on BBC1, so my awareness of Doctor Who must have faded in gradually. By 1976 – the year from which these frantic scribbles date – I was four, and the show had seized my imagination completely, terrifying and thrilling me in equal measure. I really did hide behind the sofa every Saturday night as the opening titles burst onto the screen. Tom Baker’s Doctor was a hugely important part of my childhood – I adored him, and the show soon took a central place in my life. I had a long (albeit brown) scarf, and a wardrobe to stand in for the TARDIS; during lunch breaks at school I would play at being the Doctor or Harry Sullivan with my best friend Steven Packer, and the following year I failed to win the Silver Jubilee Fancy Dress competition in my home-made Dalek costume.
Even at that age I was always drawing – I still am – so it was inevitable that I’d turn my pencil to the Doctor. I can’t remember the origins of this particular masterwork, but I seem to have been attempting to create some sort of Doctor Who Top Trumps. Tom is the most easily recognisable, and clearly the one I have spent the most time on – his hat and scarf are definitely in evidence. There’s a suggestion of a frilly shirt on the top left, so that must be Jon Pertwee; the dark bob haircut at top right indicates Patrick Troughton, which leaves William Hartnell at bottom right. Well, at least he gets a TARDIS. The whole thing seems to have been scrawled on the back of a Cornflakes packet and hacked into pieces with a pair of safety scissors.
Back then, I longed for the Doctor to land his TARDIS in my back garden and take me with him on his adventures. But somewhere along the way, I worked out that the Doctor and his friends were actually actors, and an idea slowly grew that maybe I could join in by becoming an actor too…
Cut to forty-something years later – and two decades into my own acting career – and I found myself working for Big Finish, the wonderful company who make Doctor Who audio dramas with many of the original actors from the television series. Including the legendary Tom Baker himself. Just to be in the same room as my childhood hero was more than I could ever have expected, so I could hardly believe it when their producer, David Richardson, asked me if I would play Tom’s classic companion, Harry Sullivan.
Working with Tom has been a delight – he’s really everything I had hoped and expected him to be. I was very nervous before I first met him, but he was funny and generous, and of course, wildly eccentric. I remember him making everyone laugh by remarking, ‘Isn’t it terrible about Brangelina?’, as they’d just broken up!
I had to contain myself when I first heard his voice through the headphones – suddenly it was 1976 again. It’s been a real joy to work with him, and to hear him say ‘Hello Chris!’ when I arrive at the studio is still hard to comprehend. It’s almost as good to hear him call me Harry over the headphones…
I can’t believe my luck, really. I still have to pinch myself. But I think if you told the four-year old Christopher back in 1976 that one day he would be the Doctor’s companion and travel through space and time in the TARDIS, I have a feeling he would say, ‘Yes, quite right,’ and then turn back to his cornflakes packet and carry on scribbling.”
Return Of The Cybermen, starring Tom Baker, Sadie Miller and Christopher Naylor (above), is released in March 2021, and available to pre-order now from the Big Finish website:
Felt Trips is a collaborative effort. If anyone would like to contribute their own childhood drawings from the era, I would be utterly delighted – please drop me a line using the “Contact” link at the top of the page. A good quality scan would be perfect, but – if not – then a clear photo of your artwork, lying flat, is fine. And maybe a few words of explanation, too: when the drawings were done, how old you were, what inspired you to tackle those particular subjects? Thanks so much.
BBC1’s disturbing 1975 teatime drama The Changes has become something of a set text for those of us keen to explore our collective childhood disquiet. Introduced by typically understated continuity announcers as a “serial for older children”, it depicts a bleak, dystopian Britain in the throes of a sudden and inexplicable revolution against machinery and technology. The merest presence of a car, telephone or TV set drives the bulk of the populace to blind fury, and the tiny pockets of humanity immune to this outbreak of mass hysteria are persecuted (and frequently executed) as witches in a late 20th century Britain that has reverted en masse to medieval beliefs and practices.
The series was based on a trilogy of novels by Peter Dickinson (who had previously developed Mandogfor BBC1’s teatime strand) although, curiously, the novels tell the story of The Changes in reverse order. The final book, The Devil’s Children (1972), chronicles the events that kick off the TV series. The Weathermonger, despite being published first, essentially finishes the story and provides an intriguingly mythic and mystical explanation for the “Changes” themselves. An explanation impossible not to reveal when discussing the merits of the book itself, so anyone fearful of spoilers (for either book or TV series) should consider this ample warning to immediately smash up whatever device they’re using to read this article and revert to a basic agrarian lifestyle instead. Or, failing that, abandon Musty Books for the Felt Trips section of this website, which has some lovely drawings of 1970s Daleks and a friendly village policeman.
The Weathermonger begins in characteristically bleak fashion. Stranded on a tiny island in the middle of Weymouth Bay, 16-year-old Geoffrey – suffering from amnesia – and his 12-year-old sister Sally are awaiting execution by drowning, imprisoned there by the baying, spear-jabbing mob watching gleefully from the beach. Their crime? They are amongst the tiny minority immune to the “Changes”, and Geoffrey has been discovered attempting to restore the engine of his uncle’s boat Quern to working order. Giving a strong hint that this national outbreak of mass Luddism has a distinctly magical origin, he uses his acquired powers as a “Weathermonger” to engineer their escape. Each town, it seems, has a highly-paid resident capable of controlling the weather by the powers of thought alone, and – until his fall from grace – this has been Geoffrey’s exalted position in Weymouth. Using his ability to create a diversionary sea fog, Geoffrey takes Sally on a desperate swim to safety, miraculously reaching the boat unscathed and setting sail for the unaffected safe haven of France.
Here, they are persuaded by the French authorities that their unique position (young, wealthy, immune to the “Changes” and able to control the weather) makes them the perfect candidates to investigate once and for all the source of the British revolt against modernity. French satellites have detected concentrations of outlandish weather in specific areas of the UK*, one of which – on the Welsh border – corresponds with a note from the siblings’ Uncle Jacob urging them to investigate rumours that the whole strange kit and kaboodle has its origins in that area, down “Radnor Way”.
And, so to Powys! Sailing up the Solent, Geoffrey and Sally return to Britain, steal a 1909 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost from the Montagu Motor Museum at Beaulieu Abbey, and embark on what is essentially an action-packed road caper, across 223 miles of British countryside teeming with witch-hunting mobs, wolves and freak weather conditions. All of which are irresponsibly omitted from the AA Route Planner guide that I used to calculate the distance. There are, predictably, moments of great peril along the way, and also – interestingly – suggestions that Sally is less keen than her older brother on restoring the technological and industrial status quo. She remains immune to the “Changes”, but is scared and disturbed by the whizzing traffic that she encounters in France, and her doubts even begin to make the stolid Geoffrey wonder whether their mission is merely an act of child exploitation on the part of the French authorities.
But the book’s most affecting aspect is an ingenious reversal of the premise of so many children’s books of the era. Instead of presenting a contemporary Britain haunted by elements of a forgotten past, The Weathermonger depicts a medieval Britain haunted by elements of forgotten modernity. The ruined carriageway leading to the “Necromancer’s Castle” now identified as the source of the “Changes” is the overgrown remains of the M5 motorway, charred by magical thunderbolts. Elsewhere, there are mentions of both fishfingers and a pivotal character’s 1959 holiday on the Costa Brava; and I was both jolted and delighted by a passing reference to the Reader’s Digest. There are some folk memories that even a darkly magical anti-technological apocalypse is unable to effectively erase.
This combination of the magical and the mundane reaches its apotheosis at the book’s climax, and spoilerphobes still recklessly ploughing through these ramblings despite my earlier warnings really should choose this moment to chuckle at the charming 1970s Dalek featured elsewhere on this website. For the unwitting source of Britain’s reversal to medieval mores is revealed to be the Arthurian wizard Merlin, accidentally awakened in a long-buried chamber by one-time Abergavenny chemists shop owner Mr Furbelow, who now acts as “seneschal” to his mythical master: guardian, steward and – effectively – drug-dealer.
The well-meaning Mr Furbelow, we discover, is keeping Merlin deliberately hooked on morphine to dampen his senses, a process he began in the hope of steering the mercurial wizard’s limitless powers towards goodness: intending to use his magic, for example, to “stop these wicked wars in the Far East” and – touchingly – to bring the late Mrs Furbelow back to life. Instead, the half-awake and hopelessly addicted magician has merely created, from the magical ether, a strange, medieval haven in which he feels comfortable; with both Merlin and Mr Furbelow unaware that the effects of the spell have spread beyond the remote valley in which they have set up surreal, dysfunctional home.
The revelations are audacious but touching; fantastical and yet affectingly mundane. Geoffrey and Sally’s attempts to explain the trauma of morphine withdrawal – in Latin – to the grateful eight-foot Merlin, thoughtfully turning over a hypodermic syringe in his gigantic hands, make for one of the strangest and loveliest scenes in children’s literature, and provide a fitting conclusion to a book that thrives on both both disorientating contrast and a delightful sense of the contrary.
*They should try living on Teesside for a fortnight.
Mustiness Report: My 1970 paperback edition has pages the colour of a moderately healthy urine sample, and in the opening chapter a previous owner has crossed out in pencil some of the more challenging words. “Piffle”, “dratted” and “defenceless” have all met with disapproval, as has an entire section comparing Geoffrey’s shaky legs to “those toy animals with zippers that women keep nighties in”. Nighties, clearly, are works of wickedness that must be destroyed. The book is unscathed from Chapter 2 onward though, so maybe our disgusted reader gave up at that point and looked at some nice drawings of Daleks instead.
(First published in Electronic Sound magazine#59, November 2019)
Unearthing Electronic Gold
Somewhere, out there in the infinite multiverse, is a parallel reality version of Duran Duran. An incarnation where original frontman Stephen ‘Tin Tin’ Duffy, rather than quitting the band in 1979 on the brink of their commercial breakthrough, stayed the course and found himself strapped to a cyberpunk windmill and dunked headfirst into a vat of fiery water, surrounded by bare-chested Mad Max extras at the height of 1980s MTV-fuelled excess.
However, for those of us with a distinct admiration for Duffy’s wilfully eclectic career, our version of events is infinitely preferable. Chart hits ‘Kiss Me’ and the sublime ‘Icing on the Cake’ were the sound of my 1985, and he’s since made a virtue of his seemingly boundless musical curiosity. There’s the delicate folk-rock of The Lilac Time; the experimental proto-house of the enigmatic Dr Calculus, and – most improbably – Me Me Me‘s ‘Hanging Around’, a cheery Britpop anthem with a post-Parklife Alex James along for the ride, rubbing chartbound shoulders with the Spice Girls in the beery summer of 1996.
In 1999, however, it was the unfinished business of his early Duran Duran adventures – and a chance encounter with Nick Rhodes – that sparked inspiration. The former bandmates bumped into each other shortly after Duffy’s discovery of a long-lost cassette of their pre-fame songs, and set to work on a heroically selfless feat of musical archaeology. With a manifesto of using only the synthesisers available to them in 1979, and not changing a single gauche teenage lyric, they finally recorded the album that might have been.
The resulting 2002 record, Dark Circles, is magnificent. Duffy and Rhodes – recording as The Devils – joyously re-create their adolescent awkwardness with supremely deadpan dedication. “I like going shopping / Shopping in the big store / Shopping in the large store / Any store that’s big,” sings the 42-year-old Duffy, accompanied by dystopian synths and soulful backing vocals. I laughed out loud when I first heard it, and fell in love with the whole glorious caper.
Elsewhere, ‘Come Alive’ has a whiff of Berlin-era Bowie’s poppier moments; ‘Newhaven-Dieppe’ sounds like Nick Drake fronting Soft Cell, and the throbbing title track is a genuine dark-synth classic: “You’re Stockhausen with pictures / Ulysses in ugly shoes” spits Duffy, as Rhodes whips up a whirlwind of tight synth-funk rhythms.
Shortly afterwards, Duffy was visited by Robbie Williams, sounding out potential writing partners. Spying the vintage synths still piled high from the Dark Circles sessions, Williams clocked a new direction. Their resulting co-written single, ‘Radio’, went to No 1, and Duffy found himself playing to international stadiums as Williams’ new musical director. Rhodes, meanwhile, rejoined Duran Duran, and was equally no stranger to a larger-than-average crowd.
The songs of Dark Circles were arguably lost in the slipstream of the commercial pop juggernaut once again. But you’ll never find a more touching – and superbly realised – paean to the giddy rush of wide-eyed teenage ambition.
Electronic Sound – “the house magazine for plugged in people everywhere” –is published monthly, and available here:
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 Sauvage – aka 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 calledCrack 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.
[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…
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?
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: