Dick and Stewart, Richard Littler and Scarfolk

The crackly, rustic theme tunes; the muted colour palettes; the crude but charming animated styles, the gently-clipped narrations by honey-voiced character actors, their fruity tones steeped in sugary tea and the pallid smoke of untipped cigarettes. The short cartoons of our 1970s childhoods – from Mr Benn to The Magic Ball, from Bod to Mary, Mungo and Midge – had a very distinctive style, and a very special place in our hearts; broadcast ‘for our younger viewers’ in the five-minute run-up to Pebble Mill at One, or sandwiched between Blue Peter and the unsettling headlines of the 5.40pm news. One final, daily hurrah of childhood innocence before Kenneth Kendall or Richard Whitmore arrived, and our cosy front rooms were once again subsumed by news of international arms races and imminent industrial action.

Richard Littler – who, since 2013, has been the benevolent overlord of Scarfolk, the dysfunctional North-Western town trapped in a perennial, authoritarian late 1970s nightmare – has combined many of these evocative factors to create Dick and Stewart. While re-creating perfectly the gentle trappings of those teatime institutions, it’s actually a nightmarish, satirical look at 21st century surveillance culture, seen through the eyes of a very 1970s schoolboy – the trusting, innocent Dick – and the living eyeball that he carries everywhere; the last, living remnant of his friend Stewart, who – we learn – has died in a playground accident.

Narrated by Julian Barratt, of The Mighty Boosh and Flowers fame, it’s a disturbing but beautifully-made piece of animation, with the pilot episode – I Spy With My Little Eye – available to watch, in full, on Youtube…

I asked Richard about the process of making Dick and Stewart, and the inspirations behind it…

Bob: Congratulations on Dick and Stewart… it’s wonderful. Can you tell us a bit about the process of getting it made, and how difficult that might have been?

Richard: Thanks a lot. I was flying blind a bit because, although I’ve worked in motion graphics before, I hadn’t done any kind of character or narrative-based animation. It took me a while to find my feet and develop my own process. I ended up creating Dick and Stewart with a mix of open source software and Adobe After Effects, which I don’t think is typically used for this kind of production. There weren’t any deadlines so I just took my time. On my own, it took months to complete.

As a graphic designer, had you always harboured ambitions to try your hand at animation?

In addition to Disney, Warner Bros and Tex Avery – which was my favourite – I was also brought up on Terry Gilliam’s Python animated inserts. It was seeing his rudimentary style that first made me think that animation may be possible even for someone like me. Gilliam didn’t need a studio of Disney animators, nor did he care about the kind of slick refinement you’d see in a film like Fantasia or Sleeping Beauty. He just did it all in his bedroom, even when he was making it for the BBC. Gonzo or punk animation. Low-budget, daytime kids’ animations were also similarly simplistic.

Yes, it’s clearly very much inspired by the 1970s animations that we all saw as children… the likes of Mr Benn and Mary, Mungo and Midge. Can you talk us through your memories of watching these, and other shows of the same ilk, and how they made you feel as a child? Which of them were your favourites?

I loved the cartoons you mention. I also liked The Magic Ball and anything by SmallfilmsIvor the Engine, Bagpuss etc. Looking back at the cartoons before I started Dick and Stewart, I was surprised how technically crude – albeit charming – some of them are. You can frequently see pencil marks, rubbings out and felt-tip pen strokes. Rostrum cameras were also used extensively, so thirty seconds might go by and the audience would only see a zoom or pan of a static illustration. 

This slower pace gave many of the animations a dreamlike quality, which I responded to. I wasn’t as much a fan of noisier cartoons like Roobarb – as much as I love Richard Briers – or American cartoons like the Hanna Barbera stuff. I also preferred hypnotic narrators such as Ray Brooks and Oliver Postgate, the co-owner of Smallfilms.

The trance-like quality was compounded for me because I was always off sick with colds, flu or fevers, which cast a surreal and sometimes dark shadow over the programmes. I still remember that, during one fever, the weird, unblinking eyes of the background characters in Mr Benn unsettled me.

Interesting that you mention dreamlike qualities, as we’ve spoken before about your childhood inability to distinguish between reality and the horrible nightmares you suffered from… does that remain a motivating factor in your work?

I don’t think it’s a conscious factor, but I have always preferred art, music and books with dreamlike, or rather unexpected or out-of-place elements and qualities, though my interpretation of whether something is dreamlike or not is probably subjective, rather than the intention of the artist in question.

People often talk of the 1970s as being a decade of bright, clashing colours, but my memories are of everything being rather washed out and pale. And the colours of Dick and Stewart really capture that… was the colour palette something you thought about carefully?

You’re right, 1970s cartoons were quite washed out. Or all our TVs were on the blink! The colours were very important, so I spent some time extracting colour palettes from programmes such as Mary, Mungo & Midge, The Magic Ball, Mr Benn, Bod and Joe. The latter of which I’d never seen before, but I liked the thick, black, rough lines and distinctive period colours.

(Curiously, I’d never heard of Joe either, but it was broadcast on BBC1 throughout the early 1970s, with the second series – from which this episode comes – being narrated by Colin Jeavons…)

The themes of surveillance and authoritarianism are terrifying… is this a reflection of how you feel about the 1970s, with its powerful state, or more how you feel about the present day?

Although I loved the black-domed, in-store surveillance CCTV cameras in the 1970s, which resembled Dalek heads or the torture droid in Star Wars (I still want one!), the surveillance in Dick and Stewart is inspired by contemporary issues. Brits sometimes appear quite complacent about encroaching surveillance, more so than in other countries I’ve lived – Germany, for example. Last year, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the UK government’s bulk interception of data was against human rights. It’s an issue we need to… well, keep an eye on to ensure that civil liberties are not impinged upon, or worse. I’ve also completed similarly-themed design work for organisations such as the Open Rights Group. For example, a while back, I created a series of surveillance images parodying Fougasse’s wartime propaganda posters.

The normalisation of control is the most disturbing element of Dick and Stewart for me – as epitomised in the song, with its “watching is normal and healthy” refrain! Is this a road we’re being nudged down, do you think? Our everyday activities in 2019 are easier than ever to track and record…

We’re frequently at risk of signing away our privacy. I don’t think law has caught up with technological advancements yet, so there’s a constant tug of war between what is legal and what isn’t or shouldn’t be. Many companies (and the Government itself) sustain some of their activities via loopholes and/or with the hope that any wrongdoing hasn’t been detected, partially because it has not yet been clearly defined. Reality TV and phone cams have also normalised the idea of constantly being filmed and broadcast, and even that it’s desirable.

The idea of Stewart being the last remnant of a dead friend really struck a chord with me… my childhood seemed to be filled with rumours and urban myths of children that had died in terrible ways, and their stories were often presented as a lesson or a warning… ‘do you want to end up like that little boy?’ and all that. Was it the same for you? Any stories that have stuck in your mind?

Yes, the 1970s were full of well-meaning but horrific cautionary tales that involved the maiming or killing of children: Public Information Films about the dangers of pylons, railways, canals, farms, fireworks, electricity. When I was in infant school, rumours spread in the playground that a fellow pupil had suddenly vanished because he had been taken by a witch. At the same time, Public Information Films warned children not to go with strangers, so I took this as tacit confirmation that witches abducted kids from suburban playgrounds. The pupil hadn’t disappeared, by the way, his parents had moved house. Well, that’s what they say; I’m pretty sure it was witches. I hadn’t really thought about it until now, but it’s possible that Stewart came about because of the ubiquitous childhood warning, “Be careful or you’ll have your eye out with that!”

Julian Barratt’s narration is perfect… how did you get him on board? Was he someone that you always had in mind for this, and if so – what was it about his voice that made him so suitable?

I always knew that I wanted a soft “Ray Brooks type” narration, though for quite a while I was contemplating a female narrator. When I heard Julian’s narration, however, I knew that he was the perfect choice. He and Andy Starke, the producer, had worked together before, which made it easier. I’m very grateful that he did. I don’t recall that we discussed Ray Brooks specifically; I don’t think we needed to because Ray Brooks is such an icon in this field.

And needless to say, I love Chris Sharp‘s music… and he’s an artist that lots of readers will know from his work as Concretism. Do you go back a lomg way with Chris?

Chris was one of the first people to like Scarfolk so we’ve known other since then. I was an instant fan of his music and our respective creative projects come from the same well of early experiences. It captures the period perfectly and I’m so delighted that he let me loose on his album design. The Dick and Stewart soundtrack will be released soon, so people should look out for that.

This episode of Dick & Stewart is labelled as a ‘pilot’… are there further episodes in the works? What are your plans for it?

Five further episodes are already written and cover a range of contemporary topics including propaganda, civil defense, ‘fake news’, gaslighting and various forms of governmental corruption. Additionally, much of the artwork for the next two episodes is complete, but of course these things cost money and time and, ideally, the series would find a home on a platform other than YouTube.

Thanks to Richard for his time, as ever… and for providing the screengrabs in this feature. While we await further Dick & Stewart, it’s worth mentioning that Richard’s new Scarfolk Annual is released on 17th October, and is available for pre-order here…

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Scarfolk-Annual-Richard-Littler/dp/0008307016

Ritual & Resistance, the Delaware Road, Concretism and Imber village

We’d driven along the winding, narrow roads of Salisbury Plain for at least two miles; a convoy of civilian family cars packed with camping equipment, passing countless “Unexploded Military Debris” warning signs in troubled, late summer sunshine, all of us drawn to the cluster of grey concrete bunkers that perodically peered, surreptitiously, from behind a pockmarked horizon.

This was New Zealand Farm Camp, location for the latest extraordinary Delaware Road event, and – when not playing host to a prestigious assembly of artists sharing DNA based loosely in the electronic avant-garde – a site used by the Ministry of Defence to simulate urban combat, the clump of army boots and the rattle of live ammunition echoing around its muddy trackways and fordibbing, brutalist architecture.

“What’s the book?” asked the guard at the main gate, poking diligently through the travel bag on the back seat of my car.

“It’s Suggs’ autobiography,” I replied.

“Very nice. I’ve just started Kenneth Williams’ memoirs.”

Alison Cotton began proceedings, performing a beautifully ethereal and haunting suite to an attentive crowd in the Nissen Hut that housed the event’s main stage. Stephen ‘Polypores’ Buckley and Chris ‘Concretism’ Sharp were amongst the friendly faces I spotted in attendance, and warm greetings were exchanged at the end of the set before I followed them to Bunker B1, where Colin Morrison’s Castles in Space label – home to recent releases by both – had set up camp for the evening. Stephen performed a throbbing, mesmerising Polypores set of seamless, pulsing ambience to a bustling crowd, tightly packed into this shadowy, concrete hideaway. Including Portsmouth’s own psychedelic troubador Keith Seatman, who cheerfully introduced himself and gleefully briefed me on the history of the 19th century sea forts heavily featured in the 1972 Doctor Who adventure, The Sea Devils.

The evening became a blur of music, conversation, cider and the occasional occult ritual. I paid a visit to Frances Castle, whose Clay Pipe stall was ensconced in Bunker 3, and boasted tantalising first glimpses of the artwork for two forthcoming albums: Vic Mars‘ intriguing Edgelands-influenced project Inner Roads and Outer Paths, and Alison Cotton’s Halloween release The Girl I Left Behind Me, inspired by two Muriel Spark ghost stories, and originally composed for Gideon Coe’s BBC 6 Music show. I swapped genial greetings with Push and Neil from Electronic Sound magazine, dishing out freebies from a towering pile of stylish back issues in the basement of a building where, upstairs, the ever-welcoming Robin The Fog was warmly greeting interested snoopers in the midst of a Howlround soundcheck.

It was a delight to catch the professorial figure of Sarah Angliss performing live; her album Air Loom has been one of my highlights of 2019, and she makes for an extremely engaging live performer; funny and self-deprecating, but an expert in building beguiling symphonies from samples, theramin and an ancient clavicymbalum… a medieval precursor of the harpsichord, apparently; these disparate sounds all perfectly entwined around Sarah’s soaring, crystal-clear vocals. I then squashed back into the crowds of tiny B1 to catch Jez and Polly of The Twelve Hour Foundation present a magnificent. feelgood set of John Baker-inspired radiophonica; transporting a bunker filled with grinning fortysomethings back to childhoods soundtracked by the themes to long-forgotten Open University modules and John Craven’s Newsround.

Amongst their number was the effusive Alex Cargill, whose epic debut album as The Central Office of Information is set to become Castles In Space’s debut CD release. It was a delight to meet Alex, who repaid my insistence on playing his tracks on my BBC Tees show with another pint of cider from the impromptu stall outside the main hut. The evening was becoming slightly blurry…

I enjoyed Crass founder Penny Rimbaud‘s spoken word performance on the main stage, accompanied by a plaintive, mournful cello; then found myself caught in the midst of a procession to the woods, where a circle of bemused participants were anointed with oil to the lower lips and encouraged to worship “The Spirits of Place” with a spiralling chorus of animal howls. I imagined the noise my beloved border collie, Megan, would make when I returned home the following day, and threw myself into the maelstrom accordingly. The green-faced Chris Lambert – accomplished mummer and long-term resident of The Black Meadow – was a constant presence in the series of ritual events that sparked up throughout the evening; whenever, that is, he wasn’t leaning against a bunker wall and discussing the finer points of Krull with Stephen Buckley, the pair of them entirely oblivious to the extroardinary double rainbow forming outside, seemingly bestowing its radiant, benevolent blessing on the whole, strange shebang.

Howlround’s performance – in cahoots with audio-visual artist and Psyché Tropes supremo Merkaba Macabre – was typically hypnotic, and equally typically packed, the audience nestling shoulder-to-shoulder. I had to watch from the stairs, while a succcession of vintage washing powder and detergent advertisements flickered on the bare wall behind me. And then it was back to the Castles in Space hut, where Chris Sharp presented an hour-long Concretism set, a mesmeric evocation of delicious Cold War austerity, to another attentive gathering.

Back in May, Chris spoke live on my BBC Tees show to both myself and the show’s resident electronica wizard, Kev Oyston. This seems like an appropriate moment as any to transcribe it…

Tell us a little bit about your background… when did you start making music as Concretism?  

It was around 2010. If I remember, about a year before, I’d discovered Boards of Canada, and they were a massive influence on me. I’d always written music, but I got bored and despondent with it. But I remember hearing Boards of Canada, and they absolutely blew me away, and I thought… I want to make music like that. What really fascinated me was how they can evoke and create the feeling that you’ve gone back in time. That’s what I wanted to do, and that’s kind of how it started, but Concretism – when it began – was quite different to how it is now. It was more of a drone project, and it wasn’t as Cold War-influenced. For the first few years, it was more inspired by things like Public Information Films, and a lot of 1970s documentaries. But for the last few years it’s gone in that Cold War direction, which is only a good thing!

As a kid, and then a teenager, in the 1980s, the Cold War seemed to permeate every aspect of my childhood, and the prospect of nuclear armageddon was something I thought about every single day. Was it the same for you?
 

Absolutely, yeah. I remember the Star Wars programme… that’s what I think made the 1980s such a scary time, with regards to nuclear confrontation; Reagan’s stance against the Sovet Union, with the Star Wars programme being a big part of that. And then obviously Chernobyl, in 1986… and although that wasn’t nuclear war, it was still nuclear. I used to watch the news as a kid, because I was a strange child, and I remember seeing all the Chernobyl stuff and thinking “Oh my God, that’s terrifying… what if the radiation gets over here?”

And the other thing… when I was about nine or ten, my dad took me to the cinema to see When The Wind Blows, which I’m sure is not a film you should really take a nine-year-old to see.

No! I can’t believe you saw it at the cinema!

I did, and I was so depressed and upset. And to this day, I haven’t seen it since. I’ve only seen it that once. Even as an adult, I refuse to watch When The Wind Blows. I will not watch that film. It upset me so much.

I bet your dad thought he was doing a really good thing… come on Chris, it’s by the same guy who made The Snowman!

Yeah! And it’s funny, I can watch Threads… I can watch Threads a million times. I never saw it as a kid, only as an adult. And I just think it’s quite a funny film…

Oh, come ON!

No! Because the characters in Threads are a bit two-dimensional, aren’t they? You don’t really care about the characters in Threads, whereas if you watch When The Wind Blows, you really care about this old couple.

I care about the characters in Threads so much that the last time I watched it, I got half an hour in, and the feeling of impending doom was so much I had to turn it off. I didn’t want to see Reece Dinsdale die! I like Reece Dinsdale!

We all like Reece Dinsdale, honestly! But no, I can watch Threads and it doesn’t bother me at all.

Did you have any sirens close to your house? Anything that might – for example – have been mistaken for the four-minute warning? 

I live quite close to the Thames, in the south of Essex. I live in the house I grew up in, I bought it from my dad, and I’ve lived here forever. And we still, to this day, have flood sirens down on the Thames, which are basically just repurposed World War Two air raid sirens. And every Thursday morning at 11 o’clock, they test them… they give them one blast for about thirty seconds. So quite often, if I’m working at home and I have the window open, I’ll hear “Mmmmmmmmmmmmm….” and it’s not rising or falling, it just rises then drops down again. But it’s pretty scary. Luckily I know what it is, but if anyone was in the town and didn’t know that they test the flood sirens every week… they would soil themselves, I think!

Have I seen somewhere that there are no nuclear sirens in the UK any more? They’ve all been decommissioned?

I think, during the Cold War, a lot of stuff was repurposed. So they just used air raid sirens that had been left over from World War Two, and also bunkers… generally, they didn’t really build a lot of nuclear bunkers, they just used old World War Two bunkers, and reclaimed spaces. So there must be some kind of attack warning now, but it’s probably a text message! They had that thing in Hawaii didn’t they, about a year ago? I think it would be that. Or a WhatsApp message. Or a tweet.

I saw you in 2017, performing at the Delaware Road event in Kelvedon Hatch Nuclear Bunker in Essex, the underground facility that would have housed the British government in the event of a nuclear attack. What did you make of the place? 

It was pretty cool. I didn’t actually get to see much of the bunker, because it took me about an hour to set my gear up, and then I did my gig and played for just over three hours, and then my mate – who is my roadie – had to catch an early flight in the morning. So as soon as I finished, I packed all my gear up, got in the car and left! But I briefly had a very quick look around the bunker, just after I soundchecked, and what I saw of it was really impressive, and really big. And creepy… I found it very creepy. There’s something very unsettling about it, even though it was never used for real. Not helped by the fact that there are mannequins and dummies all over it!

Talk us through your album, For Concrete And Country. There are some interesting references amidst the track titles… Microwave Relay was the one that really fascinated me. Can you explain that?  

It’s a reference to the Microwave Tower Network, which was codenamed “Backbone” during the Cold War. They built a lot of these big wire mesh towers, and many of them are still standing now… and some of them are concrete, too. Part of the Backbone Network was the Post Office Tower. But again, I think a lot of it was repurposed, or even used at the same time for TV and radio broadcasts. So BBC Tees might well be using mouldy old Backbone masts!

It’s more than likely…

So Microwave Relay is a reference to that Backbone Network, which would have been resilient to nuclear attack… far more so than other systems.

There’s a track called Pye Green Tower on the album too, was that part of the same network?

That was one of the towers, yeah. That one was concrete, and it’s in Staffordshire. I’ve never been to the Pye Green Tower, but it looks pretty impressive!

Given that all of this stuff traumatised us so much as a kids, why are we looking back on it with a sense of almost rose-tinted nostalgia? We’re like Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen…

I think it could be the fact that nuclear war never actually happened. There’s a sort of relief, isn’t there? We can look back at these horrific things like Threads and When The Wind Blows – well not me, obviously, because I won’t watch it – with a kind of relief, as adults, that the war never happened. It would have been absolutely horrific. And it could still happen, but I think what we need to worry about more in the 21st century, going forward, is Artificial Intelligence. Which I think a lot of people are saying is a bigger threat to the future of humanity than nuclear weapons. But it doesn’t have the same cool factor, does it…?

In twenty years time, when nothing has happened, the musicians that were teenagers in 2019 can make albums about that…

Yes, there’ll be a hauntology movement about Artificial Intelligence!

From midnight onwards, Ritual and Resistance took on increasingly surreal (well, more surreal) proportions… I watched Natalie Sharp, in her Lone Taxidermist persona, perform a disturbing but captivating set, accompanied by what appeared to be two suspended human spines. And then, outside the camp’s Water Tower, I bumped into Jez and Polly of the Twelve Hour Foundation for a final time, and we whiled away the early hours by discussing the alluring qualities of their home towns; Cleethorpes and Scarborough respectively. I then capped off the evening by dancing (alongside journalist and Modern Aviation owner Will Salmon, who has some sensational moves) to a pounding DJ set by former World Snooker Champion Steve Davis, who had been an affable preseence throughout the day, and who spoke passionately to a small, assembled throng of us afterwards about his love of the Delaware Road project, and his lifelong passion for underground music and electronica.

It was 3.40am before I collapsed into my spider-infested tent beneath a rustling oak tree, but not before I’d grabbed the picture below…

As a wonderful addendum to an incredible evening… on the Sunday morning, as fragile heads were being soothed by gentle conversation and coffee, it became apparent that a fleet of vintage Routemaster buses were transporting campers to the nearby abandoned village of Imber, requisitioned by the MOD in 1943 for wartime training, and uninhabited ever since. With a long journey back to the North-East ahead of me, I uncharacteristically decided to forsake its haunted pleasures, and set off in the car… but, as three double-decker buses bobbed on the horizon ahead of me, I couldn’t resist. I followed them, and spent an hour poking around Imber’s deserted buildings and (surprisingly busy) 16th century village church, joined by blog-reader Richard – who records as Caveat Auditor – and ever-genial electronica and Early Music enthusiast Rolf, who I’d last seen in June, at 3am in Shoreditch High Street, at the climax of the State 51 Conspiracy/Ghost Box/Trunk Records Midsummer Night’s Happening.

As Steve Davis had emotionally proclaimed at the end of his wee-hours DJ set, “It’s like a big family, isn’t it?” He’s right, and I look forward – as ever – to the next gleefully dysfunctional reunion.

Thanks to Delaware Road and Buried Treasure supremo Alan Gubby for all his extraordinary efforts in making Ritual and Resistance such a memorable event… and to Alison Cotton, Colin Morrison and Andy Collins for their photos.