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.
I’ve sometimes wondered how the experience of the “haunted” childhood differs from country to country. For a long time I was convinced the phenomenon was exclusively British, the inevitable result of our damp 1970s childhoods with their dreary procession of rainy Tuesday afternoons; of Crown Court and building sites and Vimto and Doctor Who.
Could it even be possible, I wondered, to understand the concept of dark, nebulous childhood unsettlement if you were raised in a sunny country? Surrounded by wide open wilderness and azure blue ocean, and mesmerised by the wonders of multi-channel TV?
The answer, according to Australian-born Adam Spellacy, is a resounding yes. Not least because the wide open wilderness regularly caught fire, the azure blue oceans were filled with sharks, and the multi-channel TV still had Doctor bloody Who on it. Adam grew up in the already disturbingly-named city of Broken Hill, New South Wales, and all of these fears made it into the wonderful childhood drawings and paintings that comprise our latest Felt Trips contribution…
Over to you, Adam!
“These childhood drawings were recently sent to me by my mother, who discovered them while sorting through some old document boxes. They date from the early-to-mid-1970s, when I would have been between five and seven years old.
This portrait of the artist as a young man appeared on the front page of Broken Hill’s local newspaper The Barrier Daily Truth in 1973. I’m five years old, at kindergarten, painting a picture of a cowboy while wearing one of my father’s old shirts backwards as a smock. It must have been a very slow news day.
Scuba divers, sharks and other aquatic beasties feature prominently in my drawings from this time. I remember being so obsessed with sharks that I insisted my mother take me to Broken Hill’s Silver City Cinema to see Jaws when I was seven. These were the days of double bills, and Spielberg’s film was paired with Earthquake, one of the many Irwin Allen disaster films that dominated US cinema at this time – along with miserable, dystopian sci-fi films. Earthquake screened first, and I remember being so scared that I asked my mother during the intermission if we could go home. Now to give you some idea of how ‘scary’ Earthquake is, there’s a scene in it where a bridge collapses and a livestock transport truck topples over and disgorges its contents: the truck is clearly a model and the cows are clearly plastic farm animals. My mother replied: “You want to see Jaws, I want to see Jaws. We’re staying.” Suffice to say that I, like many other impressionable people who saw this film on its initial release, I have never been out of my depth in sea water since. Which is no mean feat if you’re Australian.
The submarine, island and sea monster that feature prominently in this drawing suggest that it was inspired by the Amicus filmThe Land That Time Forgot, which I saw at the Broken Hill drive-in in 1975. Jurassic Park it ain’t, but in the right light those dinosaur puppets looked the business. I loved it – even though I remember being completely freaked out by the protagonists being left stranded at the end. Thank God for sequels, eh? This drawing was a gift to my favourite teacher at the time, Miss Powell, who evidently had to correct my spelling of her name. She also gave it a kangaroo stamp, the Antipodean equivalent of the elephant stamp denoting “good work”.
I love the colour scheme of this drawing of Batman and Robin. I’m assuming it was inspired in equal parts by my collection of DC comics and repeats of the 1960s ABC television series. I would imagine, at the time, that the campness of the show went straight over my young head, but Robin’s bulging underpants, as seen here, suggest otherwise.
In addition to having a title like a David Lynch painting, ‘In the holidays I went out bush but when I toasted my braead (sic) it caught on fier (sic)’ is notable for documenting a real-life experience of which I have absolutely no recollection whatsoever. My father would often take me on trips into the desolate rural areas surrounding Broken Hill, the northern New South Wales mining town whereWake In Fright (1971) was filmed. It was every bit as frightening as its filmic alter-ego, ‘Bundanyabba’. My abiding emotional memories of these journeys are comprised of overriding anxiety and fear, a dreadful sense of being stranded in a vast and isolating landscape, and of being incompetent at even the simplest of father-son bonding exercises. Feelings all distilled in this rendering of a disastrous encounter with a towering elemental force beyond my control.
I’m unsure as to what media, if any, inspired this drawing of (rather generic) spacemen battling some reptilian creature, but it reveals an early love of sci-fi. It wouldn’t have been long after this drawing was made that I discovered Doctor Who, which became my absolute obsession (and I cannot stress this enough) from the age of five onwards. To the degree that my earliest memory as a child is sitting on the sofa in front of the television as the show’s opening vortex and howling music came on, leaning sideways to peer down the hallway through the back door, where I could see my mother hanging washing on the line and yelling out to her in a tremulous voice: “Mum! Doctor Who’s on!” as if it were an emergency.
She hurried back inside and sat down with me for the duration, which was apparently the only way I could tolerate it. I can even recall the story – ‘Terror Of The Autons’ – because that fucking murderous plastic doll haunted my dreams forever…
I was surprised and not a little crestfallen that the trove of childhood drawings my mother unearthed didn’t include any of my attempts to depict the Doctor or his monstrous adversaries, because I can definitely remember doing so. As I said, I embraced Doctor Who with the fervour of a zealot: it was my weekly escape from the depredation of living in a harsh mining town. As soon as I started to receive pocket money I’d buy a new Target novelisation every week, and read them over and over again (graduating directly from Doctor Seuss to Doctor Who). And when my father brought home our first shoebox-style Panasonic tape recorder, I immediately pressed it into service making audio cassette recordings of the show, placing the recorder on a foot stool near the television speaker. I always assumed that I was alone in this practice, until I encountered other members of the narrow-bandwidth tribe which Bob Fischer helpfully categorised as the ‘Haunted Generation’.”
Shucks, thanks Adam. 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.
“Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man.” So states the famous Jesuit proverb, commonly attributed to Saint Ignatius of Loyola. And this sentiment has never been more appropriate than in the case of Nick Setchfield, who – at the age of seven, in 1975 – was drawing self-aggrandising Daleks in his Cardiff home, and – in his adulthood – is now a prolific entertainment journalist, editor-at-large of SFX magazine, and the author of two acclaimed novels, The War in the Dark and The Spider Dance, both of which combine Cold War-era espionage with folkloric and magical elements.
As Nick himself says:
“This is either a Dalek propaganda poster found in the ruins of Britain circa space year 2150 AD – or it’s me expressing my deep obsession with all things Skaro at the age of seven. I think the covers of the 1960s Dalek annuals must have been an inspiration, given the way I’ve drawn the midriff. I found The Dalek World at a local jumble sale for 2p and devoured every page, memorising all the survival tips in case of an imminent invasion of suburban Cardiff.
I was certainly building Daleks out of upturned Ski yogurt pots and cocktail sticks around this time. The red polka dot starfield possibly represents an unspoken fear of measles – and are those twin Saturns in the sky?
I still stand by the sentiment.”
Yes, Nick. Daleks are great. And thanks for sharing.
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.
(This article first published in the Fortean Times No 390, dated March 2020)
For almost 70 years, John Townsend amassed an extraordinary collection of 20th century ephemera that has now inspired a new book, Wrappers Delight. Bob Fischer carefully unwraps the story, then puts the packaging to one side for safe-keeping
“He was collecting on a different level,” says Jonny Trunk. “Relentless. Absolutely relentless. It’s so hardcore.”
This is quite something coming from Jonny, a irrepressible gatherer of vintage curiosities himself. His label, Trunk Records, has become the stuff of legend; breathing new life into musical obscurities of the mid-20th century. But his new book, Wrappers Delight, shines a spotlight on one of the most prolific collectors of British ephemera ever to have lived. The late John Townsend lived in the suburbs of Stockport, dedicating his entire life to a house-filling (and, indeed, shed, caravan and summerhouse-filling) collection of cards, stickers, wrappers, packaging, tins, junk mail… pretty much anything that ordinary households would routinely throw away.
The story of the book began with promotional flexi-discs. A friend of John Townsend’s son Robin borrowed a boxful from the house, and uploaded an audio mix of them onto Youtube; before alerting Jonny Trunk, who has a profound interest in such matters. “There was the Barbara Moore Singers doing a Tango advert; there was a Bryant & May ‘Message from the Chairman’, that sort of thing,” remembers Jonny. “Just my sort of advertising rubbish! I went up and offered Robin a good sum of money for the box, and I said ‘Let’s have a look around the house’. And from there… “
“It was an Aladdin’s Cave. Hanging in the hall was a Weetabix T-shirt, and I thought ‘What?! Why is there a Weetabix t-shirt there?’ It was the one where they turned the Weetabix into little skinheads, remember that? And on every shelf there was a thing, a tin can that was a promotional item that had been turned into a radio… wherever you looked there was something. He had loads of mugs, and I love mugs. And they were everywhere… mugs from Robertson’s Jam or the Swizzels factory.
“There were bags, and in the bags were boxes, and in the boxes were more bags, and in the bags was more stuff. I’m a collector, and I know how much time, energy and effort it’s taken to collect the roomful of records I’ve got. And he did it with postcards, cigarette cards, tobacco silks, first day covers… everything. What most people spend their life doing for one thing, he did across several. I got really excited by the possibilities.“
The book is a sumptuous affair, with 500 of John Townsend’s most vividly evocative items scanned and photographed in loving detail. From Pink Panther candy to Yellow Submarine sweet cigarettes, from Lolly Gobble Choc Bombs to Kung Fuey crisps, they provide a direct portal to an era when luridly-packaged treats would be eagerly snaffled by grubby-faced kids all over the country, queuing in pokey sweetshops and street corner newsagents alike.
Three days after speaking with Jonny Trunk, I travel to Stockport to visit the Townsend household itself, finding myself at the door of an impressive, five-bedroomed house in a leafy cul-de-sac: the very epitome of unassuming suburbia. I’m greeted by Robin, a whiskery blues musician now known universally as Robin Sunflower (“It was chosen for me by the people of Ashton-Under-Lyne”, he smiles, enigmatically). His wife Paula is also there, as are two incredibly excited dogs, one of whom is called Elvis.
Immediately, I get a sense of what Jonny has described as a “strange energy”; John Townsend’s collection, although depleted since his death in 2014, still dominates every available space. The house is a riot of ephemera, a museum of 20th century pop culture and packaging that is still piled halfway to the ceiling in some rooms. As we settle down by the fireside, Robin begins to tell me his father’s life story.
“He was born in Surrey in 1937,” he says. “His dad died quite young, and his mum got another man, so he ended up going into a children’s home. And he spotted that the milk that was delivered there every day had different patterns on the cardboard bottle tops. And he started collecting them. It was something that he could have, something that made him different to everybody else. And from there he went onto collecting cigarette cards, tea cards… and then anything.”
“He had an eye for design, and logos…” adds Paula. “They would have appealed to him…”
“Yeah,” agrees Robin. “Logos fascinated him. So he went from cigarette cards, to bubble gum cards, and then the actual packaging. Everything that came into the house was planned. It wasn’t just a case of ‘We need some beans, we need some Cornflakes.’ He’d be in the shop, and he’d say ‘We’re going to get these beans, because they’re advertising this film…'”
John moved from Surrey to Stockport in the late 1950s, and into the current house in the early 1970s. He spent his entire working life as a rep for Bird’s Eye (“We were never short of frozen peas,” deadpans Paula), weaving his love of collecting into his regular family life, with wife Brenda and three young sons – Martin, Robin, and Christopher.
“Me and my older brother Martin were very much employed, at not fantastic rates!” laughs Robin. “My dad would regularly come back with boxes of bubble gum… 144 packets in each box. And in each packet there’d be one piece of bubble gum and four or five cards of whatever series it was; footballers or pop stars. We would flatten all the wrappers, then get all the cards and put them into order, onto boards. There’s No 7 from that series, and there’s No 22…”
What comes over strongly is that John’s hobby wasn’t merely collecting for collecting’s sake: he felt a overpowering duty to preserve the minutiae of 20th century life for future generations to enjoy, and had a visionary sense that eventually these throwaway items would amass great cultural importance, simply because most households were throwing them away.
“There was definitely a social history angle,” nods Robin.
Paula agrees. “Everything to do with disposable life fascinated him,” she says. “He was always going on about the throwaway society, and how it was wrong and he should keep everything. And how one day it was all going to be in this glorious museum. He never got round to that… he never gave himself time, because he was always just collecting more and more.”
“People would bring him things as well,” adds Robin. “He’d say ‘Please collect all your empty cereal boxes and bring them to me… all your junk mail, all your phone cards, all your bus and train tickets…'”
And some of John’s collection has accrued remarkable value.
“There were two boxes full of flattened cereal packets, mostly from the 1970s,” says Robin. “I looked through, and said ‘This one’s got Star Wars on it…’. So we put two Star Wars Shreddies boxes onto eBay with a starting bid of a fiver. Someone got in touch, and asked ‘Would you take £300 for the two?’ It was like… right, OK… let’s tread a bit more carefully now. We’ve also got Battlestar Galactica, Superman, The Black Hole…
“And the Doctor Who Weetabix boxes, we just couldn’t believe. One bloke bought three of the four, on the same day. He spent over £1,000 on three empty Weetabix boxes.”
So objects that were designed to be collectible are now worth less than the packaging that housed them, simply because people kept the former, but not the latter?
“Yeah,” nods Robin. “People might have kept the little plastic figures or the cards, but not the box. That’s the nature of ephemera.”
“Your dad knew that all along,” says Paula. “He understood that immediately.”
The presence of John’s wife Brenda seems to have tempered the scale of the collection, but the intensity of his hobby escalated following her death in 1989. “It was different when Mum was alive,” agrees Robin. “There were certain areas where his collection was, and certain areas where it wasn’t. But once there was only him, there was no need for any demarcation lines.”
This change in circumstances led John’s fascination with printed matter into some unexpected new territories, too: notably, a notorious Manchester nightclub whose name become synonymous with 1990s rave culture.
“Haçienda club flyers,” says Paula. “He loved those.”
Robin nods. “He used to go into Manchester with a rucksack, a shopping trolley and a couple of shoulder bags, and he would go round Affleck’s Palace and Eastern Bloc Records, picking up huge stacks of them. His bag would weigh a ton!”
This new direction prompted John to put his collecting on a more formal footing, with the foundation of an official society. “He was running a club called the M.I.C.E. club,” explains Robin. “All about club flyers, tourist information cards, free postcards… things that were given away as promotional items.”
At this point, he retrieves from the shelf a book that gives an indication of the level of attention that John’s collection began to attract. The Ultimate Guide To Unusual Leisure, by Stephen Jarvis, was published by Robson Books in 1997. It includes an entry on M.I.C.E, the “Modern Information Collectors Exchange”, founded by John to swap promotional flyers with similar enthusiasts dotted around the country.
“What would life be like if you saved every piece of junk mail?” the book speculates. “Probably like John Townsend’s life, who has boxfuls of the stuff all over the house. It’s even on the staircase. He says: ‘There’s a gap down the middle of the hall, where I walk…'”
Robin closes the book, proudly. “It’s also got entries on Zen Archery, the Friends of the Museum of Bad Art, The Flying Nun Fan Club, and barbed wire collecting.”
“I’m surprised your dad didn’t get into that,” smiles Paula.
So did the collection take over the house as spectacularly the book suggests?
“It was quite extreme at one point,” says Paula. “You could sort of shuffle around, but you had to do it really slowly. Sometimes you would actually have to climb over boxes. If you laid flat, you could sort of slide over them. And I don’t remember going upstairs for the first few years. I don’t think it was accessible upstairs.”
“Sometimes you’d hear a sort of rumble upstairs, as something collapsed…” remembers Robin, wistfully.
“But there was never any shame over it,” adds Paula. “He was always ‘Take me as you find me, this his how I want to live’. And everybody accepted that, because it was just… John.”
Both Robin and Paula recall John’s sense of humour and gregarious nature, describing a funny and sociable man who was entirely aware of his own idiosyncrasies. “He liked the thought of being the eccentric English gent,” nods Paula. “He loved being the centre of attention, and if he got the opportunity to be on the radio or the telly, then he loved that, too.”
And the dawn of the 21st century provided the opportunity for John to expand his collecting habits even further. Perhaps not surprisingly, he was an enthusiastic early adopter of eBay.
“He had his own van that the Post Office would send out specifically to come here,” recalls Paula. “Nowhere else. A massive box of condiments, free sachets of brown sauce, turned up one day. We said ‘Why have you bought this?’ He said ‘Because I’m collecting free giveaway condiments, obviously.’ He never used them, they just sat there for years in the box, then got totally moused…”
Robin laughs. “He ran a M.I.C.E club, and them some real mice joined…”
“The kitchen was really scary,” laughs Paula. “Remember that big tin of Mango Purée that exploded?”
Both agree that the collection reached its peak in 2007, by which stage the house was so dominated by bags and boxes that John moved into the garden summerhouse. And shortly before his death in 2014, he was still ordering eBay items from his nursing home: they would arrive unexpectedly at the house, much to Robin and Paula’s surprise.
The couple moved into the house when John died, and began the bittersweet task of gently dismantling the collection. As the family sift through what John once conservatively estimated to be 34,000 items (“Possibly 34,000 squared!”, jokes Robin), older brother Martin has been tasked with listing the more interesting items on eBay.
“It feels strange, it all going out of the house,” admits Paula. “Because the house and the collection have kind of become one. And it is Robin’s dad. Having had years of arguing with him, I now feel that I understand where he was coming from, and why he couldn’t let it go. I thought it would be easy just to get rid of it, but it’s really not. When stuff goes out of the house, it does tug on your heartstrings a bit, because we’re never going to see it again. But realistically, we can’t keep hold of it.”
Robin agrees. “It’s a shame that he spent a lot of time gathering these things together, and now they’ve been fragmented. Maybe out there now, there’s someone desperately trying to gather them together again…”
Wrappers Delight, of course, immortalises a corner of the collection, and cements John Townsend’s visionary status: Jonny Trunk’s 2019 crowdfunding campaign to finance the book reached its £20,000 goal in 36 hours, proving that the world has finally come round to John’s way of thinking. We now positively delight in the disposable ephemera of decades past. And Jonny Trunk himself is rightly proud of the finished product. “On every page I’ll see something I like,” he says. “There’s a lot of illustration which I think is really quite charming. Some of it’s brilliant, and some of it’s not very good at all… that slightly ‘outsider’ art of badly drawn pop stars, you know. But there’s something on every page I’d buy.”
Meanwhile, Robin and Paula are a delightful couple, and inexhaustibly welcoming. As we potter around the house, I get an overwhelming impression of their love for John, and their willingness to share and celebrate his story. Touchingly, on top of a drinks cabinet in the front room, are the modest pile of 1940s cardboard milk bottle tops that sparked the whole collection. They graciously offer them for me to inspect; the faded remnants of a traumatic, wartime childhood. I’m subsumed by a feeling of incredible sadness.
“He lost everything when he was a kid,” says Paula. “But these were something that he could take, that he could just have. It was like everything he’d lost, he put into his collecting. I think a lot of it was about him taking control of his life.”
“Yeah,” agrees Robin. “Existing on his own terms.”
And as we pass the foot of the staircase, John’s story has one final, heart-rending twist. Posing for photographs beside a promotional cardboard cut-out of a beaming 1970s schoolboy sporting a Superman t-shirt and a chequered flat cap, Robin smiles. “If we stand here, my parents are in the picture, too”, he says. And he points out two charcoal-grey cardboard boxes, nestling almost unnoticed beneath a fluffy, sleeping toy cat.
John Townsend has become part of his own collection. It’s impossible not to conclude that it’s what he would have wanted.
Wrappers Delight, by Jonny Trunk, is available from FUEL Publishing, RRP £24.95. It’s here…
It’s almost possible to play Terry Nation Bingo with many of the scripts that the debonair Dalek supremo turned in for Doctor Who during his 1960s and 1970s heydey. There will be a remote planet with a frighteningly hostile environment (check); there will be a futuristic citadel that provides fragile respite from the dangers present on the planet’s surface (check); there will be an eccentric scientist working alone on a secret project (check); and a sizeable chunk of the story will essentially consist of an “obstacle course” journey across a hazardous landscape populated by deadly beasties, with the eventual goal of reaching – literally – the story’s ultimate place of resolution. It’s usually on the other side of an acid lake, or a deadly, petrified forest.
Check. All of these elements are present in Rebecca’s World: it only really needs the lingering threat of radiation poisoning for the complete Terry Nation Full House.
What separates it from the bulk of his TV work, however, is the book’s ultimate strength – a delightfully surreal and clearly Goons-inspired sense of humour. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise given Nation’s background as a comedy writer: his first–ever professional credit was for a sketch sold to Spike Milligan in 1955, and he subsequently worked on hundreds of radio scripts for likes of Eric Sykes, Harry Worth and Frankie Howerd, before joining the long list of illustrious collaborators to have been fired by Tony Hancock.
For better and for worse, Rebecca’s World clearly draws heavily on these experiences. The titular lead character is a sparky young girl, bored to tears during a school holiday in her sprawling country home. She has an unmistakably Edwardian quality – clearly reinforced by the book’s interior illustrations – although there’s also a single, slightly surprising reference to her once watching television. Perhaps a leftover from a previous draft? Either way, after unwisely dabbling with her father’s gigantic astral telescope, she finds herself transported across the universe to a decidedly unusual – and curiously unnamed – “Forbidden Planet”.
At this stage, Nation’s influences become clearly apparent: we’re essentially thrown into a Milligan-esque reworking of The Wizard of Oz. Rebecca discovers that the planet is in thrall to the dastardly Mister Glister, a debonair tyrant with the sartorial tastes of Liberace. Glister keeps the population subjugated by controlling – and charging for – access to shelters that will protect them from the murderous GHOSTS that are roaming the planet’s surface; and yes, the capitals are Nation’s, and are used throughout. Keen to become an unlikely hero on her new home world, Rebecca teams up with three lovable local misfits and embarks on a lengthy quest across the planet’s surface to liberate the cowering populace.
So there’s Grisby, a fur-coated hangdog (in fact, almost a fur-coated Hancock) with the most painful feet in the world; Kovak, a hopeless spy and hilariously transparent “master of disguise”; and Captain K, a feeble, bespectacled superhero whose power lies in his possession of a “GHOST stick” – the last remnant of the forest of GHOST trees that kept these malevolent spirits at bay for generations. Until, that is, Mister Glister chopped the trees down to build said “GHOST shelters”, charging the public a small fortune to enter these tiny refuges, their only way to remain safe during the dangerous GHOST raids that frequently sweep the planet.
Pursued by Mister Glister and his hapless henchmen, the mis-matched foursome travel across land to reach the mythical “last GHOST tree”; encountering a succession of genuinely great characters along the way: my favourites being the creepy “Scarepeople” – a legion of giant, dark-robed screaming figures that line the rim of a desert canyon; and the “Bad Habits”, a initially genial elderly couple who transpire to be the originators of all the irksome peccadilloes picked up by children the world over; training tiny, furry creatures to whisper “Bite Your Nails” into the ears of sleeping infants at the dead of night.
The landscape too is the stuff of fairytales, all towering needles and bottomless feather wells. It’s genuinely terrific stuff. But Nation’s background as a sketch writer, and the influence of Milligan in particular – a strength when it comes to the book’s humour – is perhaps his downfall, too. The story is essentially a sequence of fairly unrelated incidents and set pieces, and never quite connects as an genuine journey, with character and consequence. Maybe I’m asking too much of a book clearly aimed at a very young audience, although it’s not a criticism I could level at – just thinking out loud here – The Wizard of Oz. Regardless, it’s never less than good fun, and shows an interesting flipside to Nation’s typically traditional TV science fiction scrips.
Point Of Order: This is the first “Musty Book” of which I can claim previous experience. In 1982, my primary school teacher Mr Hirst read the opening chapters to me and my fellow ten-year-olds, shuffling impatiently on the parquet floor of Levendale Primary School. Iintended then to complete the rest of the book one day, so never let it be said that I don’t play a long game.
Update: Thanks to ‘Joe Dredd’ on the Roobarb’s TV forum for pointing out the Rebecca was, in fact, the name of Terry Nation’s daughter. And to Chris Orton, who added that she also lent her name to the character of Rebec in Nation’s 1983 Doctor Who story, Planet of the Daleks.
British seaside towns exist in their own, weird pocket universe. The gaudy fairgrounds, the extravagant ice creams, the Kiss-Me-Quick hats and flashing arcades. The chips dusted with sand, the dogs on the beach. The works outings fuelled by beer and rock dummies; the windswept piers, the cockles and mussels, the inscrutable soothsayers and fearsome landladies. They are towns that teeter on a weird tipping-point between real-life hell and Carry On heaven, a direct portal from the everyday to the world of the 70s sitcom.
Time To Dream But Never Seen, the new album by Keith Seatman on the Castles In Space label, captures these feelings perfectly. It is strange, beautiful, utterly transportative: the very essence of modern psychedelia. And it seamlessly continues a lineage of British wonkiness that includes The Alberts, The Bonzo-Dog Doo-Dah Band, Syd Barrett, and every bizarre, half-baked novelty act that ever clattered onto a wooden stage in some draughty, tumbledown, end-of-the-pier palace of varieties.
I love it. Almost beyond words, although God knows it’s inspired me to write a few. It has weird fairground organs, bamboozling radiophonic noises, sleeve notes by Ghost Box Records‘ Jim Jupp, and regular Seatman collaborator Douglas E Powell reciting a bizarre list of unlikely rustic aphorisms that never cease to make me laugh out loud: “Where the acorn lands upon the ground, the hare, mouse and pig are found.”
On the weekend of the album’s release, I called Keith at his home in Southsea, the Hampshire seaside resort whose culture, landscape and social history has clearly seeped into the album’s very DNA. We talked for almost an hour and a half, and it was wonderful. Here’s how the conversation went:
Tell us about your background as a musician… I know you were in a 1980s indie band called The Psylons, but had you done other things before that?
No, that was the first thing. It was 1986, we were a load of twentysomethings kicking around, and we released a single that got Single Of the Week in the NME. Then it got into the Indie Charts, and then I think John Walters phoned up one day… I can’t quite remember, one of the other band members dealt with it! But it was basically: “John Peel wants you to come in for a session.” And we said “Right OK…” and we did that!
Then, about four or five weeks after that, we got another one. We got two sessions! We did a John Peel session and an Andy Kershaw session, and thought “Wahey, here we go!”
But we were just really unlucky. It went kind of pear-shaped.
This is an example of our bad luck, it’s absolutely true. The second single got played by Janice Long, and those were they days when – if you got a play on early evening Radio 1 – you were quite lucky. I got in one evening, and my Dad said “You’ve had a phone call from someone called O’Connor…” So I dialled the number up, and it was Hazel O’Connor’s brother, who worked for Martin Rushent, the producer. And he said “Martin wants to record you, can you come to Genetic Studios?”
So we piled in the car, went down to Genetic Studios in Berkshire, and we’re thinking “Christ, Martin Rushent… he’s done The Human League, he’s done Buzzcocks… wahey!” But after that we didn’t hear anything from him for weeks, and then the weeks turned into months. And we suddenly saw, in the NME, that they’d gone bankrupt. It kind of always happened like that, we were always just really unlucky. We sustained it until the 1990s, we finally got an album out that got good reviews in the Melody Maker and NME, but by then we were just fed up. We were all drifting in different directions, musically. And that was pretty much it.
So even in The Psylons, did you have that psychedelic influence in your music?
It was real post-punk. Noisy, with bits of psych and backwards guitar, and other bits and bobs. We had a list of hardcore things that we were all into, and that was… Teardrop Explodes, Echo and the Bunnymen, very early Pink Floyd, a lot of psych. Then it kind of drifted. I was really into a lot of post-punk synth stuff, and Tangerine Dream. And they could never understand my love of Hawkwind, so there you go.
Actually Jim [Jupp] and I were discussing Hawkwind recently, and trying to convince Douglas Powell how great they were. But he wasn’t having it at all!
Didn’t you first meet Jim when you were in The Psylons? Did he come to see you live?
It’s one of those weird connections. I didn’t know Jim, but he came to our gigs. And Jez Stevens, who did theAvoid Large Placesvideo on Youtube, was in a band with him. I got to know Jez through some other projects, and then became aware of Jim… it’s all mutual friends, really. Friends of friends in the pub, that kind of thing. And time crept on, and it became quite close-knit. Jez and Doug knew Jim, and I knew Jez and Doug, and it came together like that. And now we go for long walks together!
So was this pre-Ghost Box?
Yeah, because Jim then disappeared for a few years… was he an architect? It was a high-level, posh job! But then we all came together again. Jez was always in touch with him, and we all got together again in the late 1990s or early 2000s. And that’s continued to this day. We’re all going out on a Last of the Summer Wine day! Me, Doug, Jez, Jim and our friend Russ… we’re going for a walk to Lewes on the South Downs. It’s a lovely walk. We’ll end up in Lewes, in the Lewes Arms – which is a fantastic pub – and then at Jim’s. We all kip on Jim’s floor, and muck around into the night… it’ll end up with me and Jim trying to convince them all that Hawkwind are brilliant.
So after The Psylons, did you quickly want to make music as a solo artist?
Yeah, I tinkered around with Jack and Simon who were in The Psylons. I still do stuff with Jack, he does a lot of my mastering and co-producing, because basically his studio is a damn sight better than mine! So I did stuff with Jack and Simon, and recorded bits and bobs, but it was the late 1990s and early 2000s again before I started really tinkering around with stuff. And to be honest I wasn’t that confident.
But by about 2008 or 2009, I had all these tapes and CDs of stuff, and Jez gave me a good talking-to in the pub one night. He said “You’re going to have to release it, otherwise you’re not going to do anything.” And I wasn’t that confident about releasing it… I thought “No-one’s going to buy this old crap!” (laughs) You think you’re working in isolation and that no-one’s going to like it.
But I released a couple of things on Bandcamp, and a few people did like it. In fact, one of the early people – this would have been about 2011 – was probably Kev Oyston, of The Soulless Party. We contacted each other through e-mails because I bought a copy of Exploring Radio Space, which I really liked. It looked like a Ladybird book! And I bought his Close Encountersalbum, too.
I was really lucky. I released the second album, Boxes, Windows & Secret Hidey Holes, and Shindig reviewed it. And I thought “Good Lord, somebody really does like it!” And it just progressed from there. Somewhere along the line, Stuart Maconie played a track… and it just genuinely seems to have snowballed, with a lot of support from a lot of people. Jim’s been fantastic, and yourself… if I had to write out a list of people to thank, it would be a massive list. One day I’m just going put it on the blog page. Without them, I probably would have been sitting in a room, recording stuff but not doing anything with it.
Time To Dream But Never Seen really spoke to me, and reminded me so much of my childhood visits to the seaside. We’d get the train to Redcar or Saltburn, or the coach to Scarborough, and I was just transfixed by the otherworldiness of these places, and how different they were to the towns that I knew. The whole culture was so exciting and exotic – the fairgrounds, the arcades, the dummies in glass cabinets that laughed when you put a coin in…
We’ve still got them! There’s one in the city museum, it’s fantastic – you put in 20p and he laughs away. You can hear the motors whirring and clicking away inside. It’s brilliant.
Well, all of that came back when I was listening to the album. Did you intentionally set out to capture the atmosphere of the seaside, and the fairground in particular?
Oh, I’ll sound really pretentious here, but it really was a subconscious thing. It all just came together. In 2017, I did the All Hold Hands And Off We Goalbum, but then I got really bored. My attention span went completely, and I thought I’d just release EPs and singles for a while. So I did one of those, and then the Ghost Box 10″ with Jim and Doug… but I carried on recording. And I got quite obsessed in 2019, building up to finishing work for the summer [Keith works at a local college]. I was talking with my sister about the build-up to my nine weeks off, and I was saying that it was exactly the same feeling as when we were little. For two weeks before the holidays, there’s just a buzz in the air at work. The students are fed up with us, we’re fed up with them, and we’re all just looking forward to hitting the summer.
Living in Southsea, we always had access to the beach. And I was saying – the summer holidays would kick in, so we’d have six weeks off. And you could guarantee that, for the first few weeks, we’d be down the beach, at the fair, on the pier… arsing about doing stuff. And I suddenly realised that some of the tracks that I’d done sounded like that and I thought: “Oooh, there’s something going on here!” And then I started thinking about it more, and I realised that the summer holiday basically broke down into three periods.
So the first two weeks would be that build-up, and excitement, and you’re with your mates and getting up to stuff, drifting home, having your tea and going back out again.
And then you’d hit the middle, where it was almost like… “OK, where’s it going now?”
And then, in the last two weeks of August, there’d be this weird feeling of impending doom. The whole seaside thing disappeared, and we’d go out with Mum and Dad to country fêtes. You know, where you’d stick your head through a piece of cardboard, and people would throw sponges at you. We’ve got the New Forest close to us, so we’d have all those weird fêtes with their home-made jams. And you’d realise that, in this strange, six-week period, you’d drifted from “all the fun of the fair” to these rural tents.
I remember getting told off by my Dad for jumping over the ropes on the tents! He used to say “If you fall over the rope, you’ll get harpooned by the tent peg, and it’ll go through your heart…”
And then, inevitably, it would piss down with rain. You’d be at a fête and everything would be soggy, and then… well, the summer would be over. So it went from that initial excitement at the beginning, to a weird limbo in the middle, and then stuff with the family towards the end. And before you knew it, it was the autumn. For that last week… you always knew the autumn was on its way, creeping in.
In the very first episode, there’s a scarecrow festival. And that’s what it reminds me of. There’s a bit of a breeze… it’s not cold, and it’s not hot, and there’s just this weird feeling of knowing autumn is on the way. Like Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes… that first chapter, where they’re getting ready for the autumn, and talking about the “autumn people” turning up. It’s a fantastic book, and it’s that feeling. There are clouds on the horizon.
And then it’s here, it’s the autumn. And the summer, all that stuff – mucking around with your mates, falling in the sea, trying to chat girls up, not succeeding at all – it’s all gone. It could almost be a lifetime away.
You go back to school, and everyone seems older. Before the holidays, they looked 13 or 14, and then suddenly they look 30! They’ve all got beards! How they hell did that happen? I was still standing there under my Buzzcocks and Undertones posters looking really pasty, and other students were coming in looking like Lemmy…
So it wasn’t a conscious thing to begin with. But once it was, everything seemed to match, and that’s how it all came together.
So the album was structured to reflect the changing feel of the summer holidays?
Yeah, once I’d got the idea. The actual title track, ‘Time To Dream But Never Seen’, was probably about the fourth track I had, and then it started to come together. I thought I’d make that the final track, but I still had so many ideas, folders with samples, bits and bobs, and stuff laying around. There was a lot of stuff that I ditched that didn’t work at all.
In my head, I’d thought we were doing a CD, but then Colin [Morrison, from Castles in Space] said “No, we’re doing vinyl!”
“Oh crap, I’ve got to rethink it…” (laughs) I knew then that Side 1 had to end with ‘Compact Bedroom Circus’.
And ‘Waiting By the Window’… I got the title for that because I was once sitting in our house, on an afternoon towards the end of summer. It was absolutely piddling down with rain, and I was waiting for my Dad to come back… we were supposed to be going out, doing all that summery stuff. And I remember staring out of the bay window at the rain, just thinking “If I go away, and come back in five minutes it’ll be better. The sun will be out.”
But it wasn’t. It rained and rained, and I remember my Dad coming in with a look on his face that said “Yeah, we ain’t going anywhere…” And that was it, the end of the summer. It was Mousetrap and Ker-Plunk for the afternoon.
Your relationship with the seaside is an interesting one. Has it always been about Southsea for you?
Yeah, I grew up down this way. I’ve lived away a few times, but always come back. I went for a walk down the beach when it was windy the other day, and I thought – I’ve got a real affinity with it. I’d have a real problem moving inland, away from the sea. Even when I go to see Doug in the West Country, he’s not far from Barnstaple in North Devon, and it’s smashing – there’s sea up there, too! I’ve got to have some sort of water. It’s nice to come out of the house, go for a walk on the beach, and I can look at the sea forts from Doctor Who,The Sea Devils….
Is the strangeness and otherworldliness that I got from seaside towns something that you can appreciate when you actually live, and grew up, in one?
Yeah. Definitely. There’s also a weird thing… I was chatting with my daughter about this: you go to the beach in the summer, and it’s pretty horrendous. Nowadays it’s barbecues, and there’s literally a dark cloud of apocalyptic smoke hanging over the beach – it’s appalling. You see families with binbags of 500 sausages from Iceland! But again, it’s that “end of summer” thing. When you go back to the beach in the autumn, when it’s still slightly warm… that’s what I really like. All the holidaymakers have gone, you can see the grassy bits on the beach again, and it can be eerie and wonderful. We actually went to see the sun come up on the beach on Christmas Day, two years ago. All sitting there at 7 o’clock in the morning… it was lovely.
Down this way there’s a lot of old history, a lot of forts and derelict sites. The eerie one is Fraser Range, where The Sea Devils was filmed. I had a wander down there the other week, because they’re slowly knocking it down and turning it into flats, which is a real shame. But growing up, it was so exciting going down there. It was an active range, and you’d hear the guns on a Saturday and a Sunday morning. They’d fire out into the Solent and put marker buoys out, to stop ships from coming in. And that’s basically what you see in The Sea Devils, when the hovercraft comes up, and they’re all running around. That’s Fraser Range.
But you go down there now, and it’s all covered in graffiti. Online… they’re called urban explorers, aren’t they? They go into old buildings? There’s one for Fraser Range and it looks fantastic.
So yeah, it’s that sort of mystery. It’s quite nice. Even walking through the fair in the autumn, when everything is under canvas – you know, they cover everything up for the winter. As soon as dusk falls, anything at the funfair looks weird. With a full moon and eerie shadows.
So that Doctor Who story, The Sea Devils from 1972… obviously the fact that it was filmed in your town had a huge impression on you, but it’s also got one of the harshest radiophonic soundtracks ever! Malcolm Clarke’s music for that story is so experimental. Did that get to you as a kid as well?
It’s those screechy bits – I’m going to do one now! Weeeoooweeeeeeeooo! I was obsessed with that when I was a kid. Absolutely. My two favourites, and the only Doctor Who stories I’ve got on DVD, are The Sea Devils and The Daemons. I’ve always been a “take it or leave it” Doctor Who fan, but they’re my absolute favourites. One was filmed down here, and the other…well, it’s The Daemons! Set in the village church, there’s the little guy called Bok, the huge Daemons… and that’s got some good sounds on it as well.
But yeah, The Sea Devils is really extreme, isn’t it?
I love the fact that we were exposed to avant-garde, experimental electronic music on BBC1 at a Saturday teatime. And not just that… I think it was actually considered really healthy at that time for children to experience leftfield art and music.
Jim said something once, when we were discussing stuff like that. That we were all into the same odd and strange stuff, but you never knew who else was into it… so when you met someone that was, it was quite exciting! A friend and I showed the intro from Children of the Stones to his son, who was about 18, and his daughter, and they just stared at it and said “What the hell is this all about?” (Laughs) And does anything actually happen? But they thought the opening was quite freaky.
And the intro to The Owl Service… that totally shook them up! They said “What’s it all about?” And I said “Well I’ve read the book, watched the TV show again recently… and I’m still not absolutely sure.” I’ve got two lovely editions of the book, one of them a lovely hardback that I picked up in an old junkshop, and I’ve got the DVD of the bloody series… but I still wouldn’t like to explain it to someone.
It’s one of my favourite books. It doesn’t give up its secrets easily, but I like that.
Yes, you’ve got to keep reading it, and you’ll keep seeing different things in it all the time. We were all subjected to stuff like that, and I suppose – going back to The Sea Devils – it all fits in. The strange avant-garde electronica, the kids’ programmes with weird beginnings… I don’t know why it worked like that back then, and why it doesn’t work now. I’m going to sound really old, but everything has to be explosions now.
Although saying that, I did watch Doctor Who the other week, and there were a lot of Cybermen in it. And I thought “OK – I’ll go with this!” I like a good Cyberman.
Yes! I watched that with my sister. We had the book at our primary school, Marianne Dreams. I remember it being in our little, basic school library, next to Bedknobs and Broomsticks. And again – I didn’t have a bloody clue what was going on, apart from these rocks getting closer to the house, and scaring the crap out of me! I re-watched what I could some years ago, when it started appearing on Youtube, and I tracked down the paperback and re-read it, and it’s an absolutely fantastic story. And the crackling voice on the radio: “We can see you…”. Again, coming back to that Doctor Who approach… I don’t know if they just shoved a microphone through an old fuzz pedal, but it’s really, amazingly distorted. So that’s why I did that one!
I love ‘Avoid Large Places’ on the album, and I was trying to work out where I knew the sampled speech from…
It’s not actually one sentence, it’s cut together from a larger bit of speech on a junior poetry album. I had to chop the whole middle bit out, so she doesn’t actually say “Avoid large places, keep to small…” It’s “Avoid large places… blah blah blah… keep to small!” I’ll try to dig it out. I pick up cranky old poetry albums, and record these samples, and I forget where they came from.
There’s a second-hand record shop in town, and somebody brought in an amazing collection. I was chatting with the guy in the shop, and he went downstairs and said “Oh, someone’s just brought in a load of BBC stuff… ” I ran down, and it was the usual sound effects albums, and I already had a few of them, but it also had these BBC albums of poetry and nursery rhymes, and an original copy of the orange-covered Play School album. So I just bought the whole lot… I think he wanted seven quid! It’s not what he would normally deal with…
So I think it’s from one of those. I do tend to scour eBay for odd poetry albums, I’ve got a couple from a series called Voices, they’re 1960s albums done as educational things. Shirley Collins is on them doing a couple of pieces, they’re on the Argo label. There was a whole series of them, but I’ve only got a couple. And then there’s one called The Searching Years… there seemed to be all these albums around then, with strange kids reading poetry! And glockenspiels being hit, and kids belching into microphones.
That’s another thing from that strange era… it was very acceptable for kids to have these odd albums. “Here’s a microphone and here’s an elastic band!” Nowadays, it’s all bloody laptops (laughs).
The Seasons, by David Cain and Ronald Duncan, is my textbook example of that. The music is so harsh, and the poetry is often quite disturbing and inappropriate… and yet it was absolutely intended to be played to primary school-age children. I wasn’t actually sure if ‘Speak Your Piece’, Douglas Powell’s spoken word piece on Time To Dream But Never Seen, was a little nod to The Seasons.
Well, do you know what? I gave him a call on the Dougphone – I always imagine it’s like the Batphone, he lifts the receiver up and says “Yes, Keith!” – Diddleiddleiddleiddledum! [this is Keith doing the Batman music]
I said, “It’s that time again, I’ve recorded something, it’s really quiet… and I don’t want singing!” I said I wouldn’t mind some sort of poem. And he said “OK, leave it with me,” and then sent it to me… and I can imagine some old sage sitting in the corner by the fire, recounting these tales to the young lad who lives up the road.
Oh, that’s fantastic stuff. I’ve got all the books now, and I bought a few as Christmas presents! I’ve met Chris a few times now, and I went to Reading to see one of the Black Meadow stage productions, with all the kids…
I saw the same show in Whitby! It was great! [Chris is a secondary school drama teacher, and enlisted his students to perform a Black Meadow play… you can read more about it here]
It was really, really good. I just sat there and thought – “Brilliant!” It must have been a great adventure for the kids. I’ve only really met Kev once, and I felt very humbled. I’m always like that when I meet people. “Argh! It’s Kev! Kev from The Soulless Party! Can you sign me book please?” (laughs) That was in Reading Library, they put another Black Meadow thing on there, and it was fantastic. I tend to get a bit overexcited.
I met Steve at the Delaware Road event. I was leaving at about 11pm… I’d watched Chris Concretism then made a move for home, but grabbed a coffee before I went. And I bumped into my mate Jez again, and he was chatting to some bloke. He said “This is Steve,” and I said “Alright, Steve, how you doing…”
“No, this is STEVE”!
And then I did a Scooby Doo head turn and went “You’re Steve Davis!” And then I didn’t know what to say. I think I just said “Smart… and really sorry, I’ve got to go!”
Jez said something about me and Castles In Space to him, and I just said “Yes, it’s coming out in the New Year…”
I bet Steve Davis has heard your album. He’s into everything.
I picked up the Utopia Strong album, and it’s frighteningly bloody good. I was chatting with someone a while back, and saying they really had to hear it. I said it’s Kavus from The Cardiacs, and it’s Steve Davis [and, indeed, Michael J York from Coil]. He said “What – Snooker Loopy Steve Davis?” But everyone’s known for a long time, he really is Mr Prog. He knows stuff about Turkish prog-garage bands from 1967.
And he still went “Steve Davis? Snooker? World Champion?”
He sits there with his big synth… it is amazing.
He told Kev and me that it felt like a new lease of life, starting a completely new career at the age of 60-odd. He was really excited.
I was reading a really lovely interview with him, about how he just drifted into it. And I thought – yeah, imagine being in that position where you’re 60-odd years old, you’ve done all your snooker stuff, and you’ve got this whole second life. He’s a massive Magma fan, isn’t he?
That’s where him and Kavus met, they were at a Magma gig in Paris.
It’s absolutely amazing.
One more thing about your album… I wrote a review of it for Electronic Sound magazine, and it got a bit florid. But the album really, really spoke to me… and I ended up talking about the “glorious inheritance of arcane weirdness”, and how you tapped into a lineage of strangeness that incorporated The Alberts and The Bonzo Dog-Doo Band, all that kind of thing. Did that strike a chord with you, or was I just rambling?
I showed that to my friend Greg that night, we were having a few drinks. And I said “I’ve got something to show you…” He said “Is it Mr Fischer’s review?”
And he read it, and looked up, and said “That’s pretty much nailed it!” (laughs). You mentioned Tommy Cooper…
It’s just that whole lost scene of strange British variety acts. Your album reminded me of that tradition. And, for some reason, him in particular.
I enjoy a bit of Tommy Cooper. Greg and I always end up discussing old episodes of Dad’s Army, or Steptoe and Son. And the sadness of Steptoe and Son. We’ve sat there and analysed it, half sloshed, about how absolutely tragic it is… this grown man lives with his Dad, who’s so needy and won’t let him escape. He’s an absolute bastard.
And I very much like Ivor Cutler too, things like that. There’s a few Bonzo tracks that I like, but also – I have a massive love of The Cardiacs. Again, it fits in with that strange quirkiness. So yeah, I read it again, and Greg read it again, and said it had hit the mark.
And bearing in mind he’s from Stalybridge in Lancashire, he didn’t even say anything derogatory about North Yorkshire!
At this point we ended up rambling about my beloved North York Moors, but lost our train of thought when Keith knocked an empty beer bottle onto the kitchen floor (from the previous evening’s recycling – he was keen to point out that he hadn’t been drinking that lunchtime). So I’ll just say thankyou to Keith for a delightfully entertaining conversation, and point out that Time To Dream But Never Seen can be ordered here…
And sod it… here’s the full review I wrote for Issue 62 of Electronic Sound magazine. Which is well worth subscribing to, you can do it here.
KEITH SEATMAN Time to Dream But Never Seen (Castles In Space)
“Owner of some synths, and always a tad lost.” So goes Keith Seatman’s self-effacing description of himself, and both are apparent in this utterly magical concoction, an album steeped in the sweetshop mysticism of a stranger, gentler England. Certainly the wistful tootling of ancient keyboards are present and correct, conjuring delicious images of topsy-turvy fairground rides, of wonky, body-bending mirrors and clanging Ghost Trains. With Seatman himself marooned in the throng, bemused and out-of-time, a static observer in a stop-motion crowd scene.
Write his name in the centre of a crumpled notepad, and – as this extraordinary musical adventure unfurls – let the comparisons explode around it. You’ll end up with Syd Barrett, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, even Tommy Cooper and the remnants of Music Hall. But they’re not influences, nor inspirations. It’s more than that. It’s genetic. This is the sound a man of whose DNA is infused with the spirit of what the Alberts once described as “British Rubbish”. It’s the glorious inheritance of arcane weirdness, and it’s painfully touching to acknowledge that such a thing even exists any more. It’s like finding a beloved, elderly relative, long assumed dead, living in a disused lighthouse on the South Coast, surrounded by wheezing harmoniums and stuffed puffins.
You need actual proof? Try the zig-zagging, end-of-the-pier Wurlitzer of ‘Tippy Toe Tippy Toe’. The spectral, skeletal waltz of ‘Compact Bedroom Circus’. Or ‘Speak Your Piece’, in which poet, songwriter and regular collaborator Douglas E. Powell invokes the spirit of Ronald Duncan in his Seasons pomp: “Where the acorn lands upon the ground, the hare, mouse and pig are found.” We’re now six albums into the career of this Puckish troubador, this mercurial genius on the fringes of popular hauntology. But, like those old Nationwide weirdies who would row to abandoned sea forts in the Solent and declare them an independent state, Seatman has become the king of his own beautifully bespoke realm.
And a tad lost? Yes, but wonderfully so. Stay lost Keith, and keep sending us postcards like this. Assuming he’s on the same calendar as the rest of us dreary mortals, it’s barely February. But he might already have made the album of the year.
Christmas morning! Without exception, the most exciting morning of the year. A head-spinning rush of excitable sleeplessness (In 1981, I stayed awake constantly from Christmas Eve morning until the early hours of Boxing Day – with a table football from Romer Parrish’s toyshop in the offing, sleep was impossible), giddy anticipation at the delights to come, and a wild, morning sugar rush on the only day of the year when it becomes socially acceptable to eat a Toblerone before 9am.
When I raced downstairs at six or (if my parents were lucky) seven o’clock, I would be greeted with a pile of brightly-wrapped presents stacked carefully below the branches of our silver Woolworths tree, its fragile plastic twigs groaning wearily beneath the weight of the entire Teesside tinsel reserve. After a few delaying tactic formalities (pot of tea, coal fire lit, curtains open to reveal drizzly twilight, local radio switched on because TV programmes didn’t start for another hour and a half), I would be allowed to “sort out” the presents into piles; individual stacks of oddly-shaped gifts for my Mum, my Dad, my Gran, my Uncle Trevor and Auntie Rose… and then a dizzily exciting mound of goodies for me, inevitably the largest of the lot. I was lucky, and I was spoiled, and with the benefit of forty years’ hindsight, I can’t thank my parents enough for that. God knows, they must have worked themselves into the ground for our Christmases.
During this giddy sifting, it was – of course – essential to attempt to guess the nature of each present before the wrapping came off. And the easiest to identify by far were the annuals. A4, hardbacked, reassuringly solid… there’s something about the very distinct weight of them that still transports me back to childhood Christmases, whenever I lift one from the self in 2019. There would be Whizzer and Chips and Whoopee annuals, of course, but – as I grew older – also Doctor Who and Blue Peter, publications that combined the “Cor!” rush of fun comic strips with worthy, educational features and stories, and often rather disconcerting illustrations. They never could get Tom Baker quite right.
These publications have all provided the inspiration for the new Scarfolk annual, a devastatingly dark and unerringly accurate pastiche of the genre. Writer and artist Richard Littler, the genial self-proclaimed mayor of this fictional, dystopian, 1970s North-Western town, joined me to share some memories of his favourite childhood annuals, and to discuss the influences on his own rather wonderful book…
Bob: Congratulations on the Scarfolk annual… has it been a long time in the planning? When did you start thinking about this, and compiling material?
Richard: Thank you! I had the idea shortly after the release of the last book, but it took a while to collate the ideas for content because I was working on other projects. I was also still regularly creating Scarfolk blog posts, but an annual requires different content, so I decided to take a break from the blog in order to focus on this new Scarfolk direction. Throw a move to another country – and a few other issues – into the mix and suddenly a couple of years have zipped by.
It’s a brilliant homage to the annuals of our youth, always seemingly published by the mysterious World Distributors. Can you recall particular 1970s annuals that left a distinct impression on you as a kid? Any particular features, stories or comic strips you’d like to share?
When I was very small, I was fond of Playhour and Disney annuals. I suffered from night terrors, and I’d leave the light on so that I could see the happy cover of my Disney annual as I tried to sleep. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen from countless horror films, juxtaposing something creepy with something innocently childlike tends to somehow make matters worse. When I was a little older, my favourites were the 1968 TV Tornado annual, which contained strips of The Saint, Tarzan, The Man from UNCLE, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and others. Print technology changed a lot in the early 1970s, so it felt ancient with its rough paper and gaudy colours when I bought it from a school jumble sale, circa 1977. Another oft-thumbed annual was Ghost Special No. 2, which is where, as a six-year-old, I first encountered Borley Rectory, in a factual feature alongside Shiver & Shake and Monster Fun-style cartoons. There weren’t any ghostly photos – just pictures of rubble and remains – but it still unsettled me.
I remember finding a certain ‘wrongness’ to 1970s annuals, too… the Doctor Who annuals, for examples, often had illustrations that bore little resemblance to the actors in the series, and there would be educational articles too, unconnected to the show. Was that feeling something you remember, and kept in mind when working on the Scarfolk annual?
Yes, I recall that well. Buffering the true, series-based content, there were many pages in annuals only vaguely connected by theme, especially factual or puzzle content. The 1976 Doctor Who Annual, for example, contains a feature about the signs of the zodiac, and the 1978 annual has an educational piece about the Apollo mission crew emblems. They were quite lazy, really: anything to do with time or space went in. “Doctor Who is about time, and they called him grandfather, so let’s do a chapter about workmen who clean grandfather clocks”. I parodied the loose space theme in the Scarfolk Annual, as well as other nebulous fact pages… such as the page about the origin of “things”.
The strip artists also frequently used existing source material in their work. In the 1976 Doctor Who annual strip called “Neuronic Nightmare”, the character Skizos is actually a sight rejigging of Vincent Price from the film Madhouse (1974). In the story “The Mission”, the character called Tamrik is a reworked image of Charlton Heston. In honour of that kind of thing, there’s an illustration in the Scarfolk Annual that I based on an image from the 1922 Scandinavian horror film Häxan.
The annual itself is bitingly political in places – which I know has always been a part of Scarfolk, but have recent political events made Scarfolk seem closer to 21st century reality than it’s ever been? “Foreigner Identification Badges” actually seem terrifyingly plausible, as do government statements dissuading people from protesting…
I think it might be the other way around to some extent: the 21st century is getting closer to Scarfolk – or any number of dystopias – than it has been for a while. If real-world events start echoing motifs from dystopias, many of which are cautionary tales, it’s time to make sure that totalitarian and socially-extreme ideas don’t start to become normalised. That said, Scarfolk isn’t a fixed artefact like a novel. Because it’s a blog, there is some leeway and it can more easily “interact” with the latest political and cultural developments as they occur.
Has that come as a sad surprise to you over the last few years? You launched Scarfolk in 2013, which now seems like a relatively stable era in hindsight… did you have any inkling back then, that Scarfolk would become so relevant to modern life?
I didn’t at all expect that it would become so relevant to modern life. Looking back, it was an almost an innocent time. Back in comparatively utopian 2013, Scarfolk’s dystopian aspects were quaintly surreal. Since 2016 particularly, real-world developments have become absurd and tribal, Trump being a perfect personification of this. A real step back. Every time I see or hear Trump I can almost feel the human race regressing.
I loved the comic strip “Waugh in the War”, with the insane, titular “hero” determined to kill everyone… including his own soldiers. I actually remember being a little unsure as a very small kid was to whether World War 2 was still being fought in the 1970s, because it still just seemed to be everywhere. Were we still fighting it in our heads, do you think?
The 1970s were only 30 years from the war, very much within living memory of two, maybe even three generations, so it was bound to feature prominently in culture as we tried, as a society, to define what it all meant. Children’s books were full of simple tales of war-time heroism and “beating the Jerries”… as featured in comics such as Commando, Warlord and Battle, not to mention the innumerable films. Sadly, I think a lot of people still hold onto this idea of the war, which almost defines “Britishness” for them. We even hear it in mainstream political discourse. It’s facile.
Ilaughed a lot at the feature about “IFOs” as well – “Identified Flying Objects” – which gives supernatural significance to ducks and aeroplanes. And the “Seance Poodle”, too! Do you remember the 1970s as an era when the paranormal became an unlikely element of mainstream society? Not just in the media, with reports of ghosts on Nationwide and the like, but also everyday life… universities were still conducting “psychic research”, and I suspect belief in things like the Loch Ness Monster would have been pretty widespread. It was a pretty credulous era.
The supernatural was very much presented as scientific, rather than pseudoscientific, in the 1970s. As you say, university departments had psychic laboratories and parapsychology departments. It was all taken very seriously; it wasn’t joked about, and TV presenters didn’t make light of it at all. In fact, the same broadcasters also presented the news and other factual programmes. Books about UFOs, ghosts, Nessie, spontaneous human combustion and ESP were always in the non-fiction section rather than being in the “religion, spirituality, and new age” type category, which is where I tend to see them now.
Also, I don’t know what it was like anywhere else in Britain, but in the north where I’m from, people still went to spiritualist churches and visited mediums. Maybe they still do, I don’t know. Despite the modernist and brutalist architecture springing up around them, and the dreams of utopian, technological futures, interest in the supernatural was very much present – in fact, it accelerated. Perhaps, to some extent, it was a reaction to the concrete, glass and steel (and increasingly godless) progress that alienated some people.
Is that credulity part of what makes the era so ripe for satire? An era when people believed information provided by the mainstream media, and the government, in a way that they maybe don’t in 2019…
A few years ago, I would have said yes, the 1970s was a ripe era for satire – and it was – but seeing what has occurred in the past handful of years, I would say that gullibility is still a huge concern. Many people have been deftly manipulated into believing untrue, flagrant absurdities. Arguably, it’s worse now: At least in the past, people had the excuse of “innocent” ignorance, in that there was less access to information and knowledge. Nowadays, information is at everyone’s fingertips and, arguably, it doesn’t take too long to discern whether or not a piece of information is factual, manipulated or fabricated. More than ever we can see confirmation bias at work and this is frequently exploited by controlling agencies such as governments, corporations and media sources (and often so-called ‘alternative’ media sources).
On a lighter note, with “Scar School” in mind… which of the Play School toys did you find the most unsettling, and why?
It has to be Hamble. She’s a cursed toy. She’s supposed to be baby but she looks about 80 years old. She’s like a witch or the dwarf in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. She’s to be avoided at all costs.
I also love your ear for little phrases that remind me of feeling scared at school. Reading the annual was the first time in 35 years that I’d come across the phrase “Middle C of the piano”. I had no idea what it meant at the time, but I felt like I was supposed to know, and that scared me. Any other phrases like that that haunt you?
There are so many, and I try wherever possible to include words and phrases that aren’t in use as much as they once were. Even something simple like “Hallo” or “hullo”, instead of “hello”, which I remember from reading Enid Blyton books as a kid. The phrase that unsettled me the most – “for more information…” – I adapted into Scarfolk’s slogan: “For More Information Please Re-read”. I panicked whenever I read official documents, whether at school or elsewhere. And if you reached that kind of phrase at the end of forms, and still didn’t understand, you were in trouble. Too frightened to ask for fear of looking stupid, or risk a clip round the earhole from a proudly abusive teacher, you’d just smile and pretend that you got it.
This is complete nosey parkery on my part, but a recurring theme in Scarfolk is the breakdown of trust (or the attempt to drive a wedge) between children and their parents. The annual even has a feature called “Are You Parents Hurting You?”! Dare I ask… what’s your relationship with your own parents like, are you exorcising anything here?
Ha! My relationship with my parents is fine. Honestly (honestly!). Writing from the point-of-view of Scarfolk Council is really only like an actor playing an unsavoury character. “Method” blogging, if you will.
One central concept of the annual is about indoctrinating children – or anyone, I suppose – so I studied the brainwashing and coercive techniques of cults. One method is to break down the trust between a prospective cult member/victim and their closest family members and friends with the ultimate goal of pressuring the victim into cutting all ties so that they are under the full control of the cult. Once a cult has broken down the victim’s connection to the outside world, it starts eroding their concept of themselves as individuals. So, you know, I thought that would be a good idea for the basis of a children’s book. As you do.
Any future plans for Scarfolk that you could share with us? Could the annual become an, erm, annual occurrence?
It could only be an “annual annual” if I involved other artists and contributors, because of publisher and printer deadlines. The turnaround would be too tight for me on my own. Involving others was originally the plan for this book, but when I realised how much it might cost to commission so many contributors, I took on the onerous task of doing everything myself. I’m so cheap. I ended up having to teach myself to draw in the varied style of the old annuals. Thankfully, and very fortunately for me, the art in some of them is quite crude, but I still I had to improve myself enormously just to reach the dizzying heights of crudity!
Thanks so much to Richard for his time, and typically thoughtful and fascinating conversation. The Scarfolk Annual is available here…
And thanks, from me, to everyone who has been part of this blog throughout 2019! It’s been a joy to put together, and I’m so grateful to everyone who has contributed and commented, or simply read and enjoyed these articles. Particular thanks go to David Sutton and all at the Fortean Times. Lots more to come in 2020, in the meantime… wishing you all a merry – and hopefully not too haunted – Christmas.
“The most striking thing about the whole programme was the music. Until then, as far as I know, there hadn’t been any pure electronic music. In the early sixties there was still a fair amount of the old 1950s rock and roll around, but then this music came out… no instruments… purely electronic… and I’d never heard anything like it before…”
It was only a matter of time before my Uncle Trevor made an appearance in this blog. Trevor is a lovely bloke, and with the benefit of adult hindsight, I can see what a important influence his tastes exerted on my 1970s childhood. He liked electronic music. He liked Doctor Who. And the above quote is his abiding memory of watching the first episode of the show as a 10-year-old, in November 1963. Yes, he remembers William Hartnell emerging from the TARDIS in a murky Shoreditch scrapyard, but it was the whooshing, swooping, radiophonic theme music that truly captured his imagination. To the ten-year-old 1960s child, the experience of hearing music without any discernable instrument was… well, unearthly.
Although Doctor Who‘s theme had been written by Australian musician Ron Grainer, whose title music for Maigret, Steptoe and Son and That Was The Week ThatWas had already built him a solid reputation in the TV industry, it was arranged and realised by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s Delia Derbyshire. Surrounded by piles of sliced analogue tape and test-tone oscillators, she painstakingly transformed Grainer’s notation into a resolutely avant-garde slice of musique concrète. Is it, alongside The Beatles’ Revolution #9, perhaps the most widely-heard piece of experimental music ever produced? Grainer himself was certainly taken aback. “Did I really write this?” he famously pondered, as Derbyshire played him the final mix. “Most of it,” she laconically replied. His subsequent noble attempts to secure her a co-writing credit were thwarted by grey-suited BBC beaurocrats, who preferred members of the Radiophonic Workshop to skulk in shadowy anonymity.
Nevertheless, Delia Derbyshire became a pivotal figure in the development of experimental, electronic music, firmly entrenched in that intoxicating middle-ground between art and technology, her life almost defined by the delicious power of contrasts: she was a working class Coventry girl who gained a scholarship to study mathematics at Cambridge University; a tweed-skirted former primary school teacher who found herself at the very farthest edge of the 1960s counter-culture. She exhibited music at The Million Volt Light and Sound Rave, the 1966 ‘happening’ at which The Beatles’ other experimental opus, the since resolutely-unheard Carnival Of Light, was aired. And – alongside fellow Radiophonic Workshop composer Brian Hodgson and US-born electronica enthusiast David Vorhaus – formed the band White Noise, whose 1969 album An Electric Storm is a captivating mix of psychedelia, occult-tinged folk-pop and eerie, disturbing soundscapes.
By the 1990s, Derbyshire had seemingly long-since stopped making music, however – towards the end of the decade – she befriended musicians Pete Kember and Drew Mulholland, collaborating with the former on a 2001 track entitled Sychrondipity Machine (Taken from an Unfinished Dream), and passing onto the latter the score for an unfinished piece of electronica, dating – as far as she remembered – from the late 1960s. I knew of Drew from his recordings as Mount Vernon Arts Lab, particularly his wonderfully atmospheric album The Séance at Hobs Lane, originally released in 2001, and then reiussed by Ghost Box Records in 2007. So I was intrigued to discover, earlier in 2019, that he had finally realised Delia Derbyshire’s “lost” score, transforming it into the album Three Antennas In A Quarry, now available from Buried Treasure records.
Drew’s interpretation is incredibly evocative of Deliba Derbyshire’s 1960s work for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and Doctor Who fans with a particular love of the William Hartnell era may find themselves drifting dreamily to a long-forgotten front room, or – indeed – to a gleaming corridor on a hostile alien planet. I might even buy a copy for my Uncle Trevor. I spoke to Drew Mulholland for my BBC Tees Evening Show, and this is how the conversation went…
Bob: I’m assuming that even before you got to know her personally, you admired Delia’s work a lot?
Drew: Yeah, even on my first records, on the run-out groove it said “Delia Derbyshire we salute you”! So she was always around. One of the things that I ‘fessed up to was that, when I was a 12-year-old, I did shoplift quite a bit… and one of the records I got was Out of This World by the Radiophonic Workshop. And I remember – because there were 100 tracks or something on it – writing down the ones that really stood out for me, and they were all by someone called “DD”. So I checked the index, and it was Delia, of course. And for me, as a 12-year-old, they were head and shoulders above everything else.
That is pretty esoteric music taste for a 12-year-old… like lots of us, did you come to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop through their work on Doctor Who?
Yeah, but also… I’m writing the story of how I got involved in music, and I had to – as Syd Barrett would have said – tread the backward path. So I was thinking about all of this, and it came from… not necessarily Doctor Who, but BBC Schools music. Those weird programme that we’d listen to, maybe on the World Service, that had all these sounds, rather than music. I think that sensibility was very quietly going on in the background, and I was soaking it up.
It’s odd, last week I watched Georgy Girl, the Lynn Redgrave film, and she’s a nursery school teacher, and in the opening five minutes she’s teaching kids to interpret what is clearly an experimental Radiophonic Workshop track! And you’re right, we did hear this stuff at school. Music, Movement and Mime…
That was one of them… I think that was a series of LPs. A lot of the stuff that Ghost Box have picked up on, that whole ethos, is very much based on that time. Now we’ve got so much distance from the 1970s, we can look back as adults and go “Actually, that was pretty weird…”. You know, the Public Information Films and all those hauntological tropes. It was a strange time.
It was a time when it wasn’t seen as particularly out of the ordinary to give really small kids some quite avant-garde things to listen to. It was seen as quite a healthy thing. I mean, the BBC produced this stuff for kids… the state broadcaster!
How times have changed!
So how did you get to know Delia? Did that happen in the 1990s?
Yeah, the late 1990s. It was Pete Kember from Spacemen 3, Spectrum and E.A.R… we were making a record together, and he phoned one day – very excited – and said “You’ll never guess who I’ve just been talking to…” and I said “Right, can you phone her back, and ask if it’s OK if this guy in Glasgow phones her?”
And I’ve told this story before, but I called her at seven o’clock, and she said “I’m really busy just now, can you call at twelve tomorrow?’ So right on twelve o’clock, I picked the receiver up and dialled the number… so her phone rang at about a minute past twelve. And she just picked the phone up and said “You’re late!'”
Ha! Rumour did have it that she was somewhat eccentric… and also quite reclusive by the 1990s. How did you find her as a person?
I’ll be diplomatic… it depended what time of day you spoke to her. If it was early on, she was sweetness and light and very helpful. She was great. Other times, not so.
I’ve seen you say that she was the only person you’ve ever encountered who could say “Oh Crumbs!” and not make it sound remotely contrived. Did she have that kind of sweet, old school quality to her?
Very much so. “Gosh and golly”, things like that! You didn’t even question it, it was just… that’s Delia. It was very natural, and hilarious of course.
So how did Three Antennas in a Quarry come into your posession? Was it something that you’d talked about working on together?
No, I think she was doing some recording with Pete Kember, it was around that time. We did a kind of mini-tour with E.A.R… Experimental Audio Research, one of Pete’s many groups. This would be summer or autumn 1998. And she’d phone up, and just say… without any pre-amble… “Do you use spices? I can get you some spices! My man works in a spice factory…”
And then she’d phone up and start talking about snuff… Oh, I’d seen that she was a very enthusiastic snuff user…
Yeah! She said to me once that she’d had a special mix made up at the Sheffield snuff mills.
We need to find that, someone could market it… branded Delia Derbyshire Snuff. I suspect the market for snuff is quite niche these days, but you know…
One of the things that really annoys me is that Pete gave me one of Delia’s snuff tins… and I’ve lost it. I’ve no idea what happened to it.
If your house is anything like mine, it’ll be down the back of a radiator or sofa. So in what form did Three Antennas in a Quarry come to you? From listening to the album, it doesn’t sound like it lends itself to traditional notation.
No, not at all… it was a graphic score, which can be anything – a drawing, a sketch, dots on a page, a graph… it was very much the classic “scribble on the back of an envelope”. It was a sheet of A4, and there was a lot of numerical notation, and references to reel-to-reel tape recorders and what speed they would go at. So it was quite intense tying to find a route into it, because apart from the tape recorders and speed there wasn’t any direction as to how the music should go, the tempo, that kind of thing… but I like that, because I’m a researcher!
Where did some of the titles come from? ‘Calder Woodward’, for example?
A mixture of Calderwood, where I lived briefly as a child, and… Edward Woodward. You’ve got to have fun when you’re making a record!
Any idea what Delia had intended to do with the score? She even seems to have been quite vague about when she’d written it… the late 1960s, but she wasn’t quite sure…
No, she wasn’t sure. I don’t even know if it was supposed to be for the Radiophonic Workshop, or if it was a theatre piece… because she did lot of stuff for television and theatre… or if it was even an idea that she pursued. It was just one of those things that was either abandoned, or drastically transformed into something else.
Did you speculate at one point that she might have intended it for Syd Barrett, or Pink Floyd?
I don’t know… obviously it can never be proven, but I know that she invited Pink Floyd to the Radiophonic Workshop. We got the calendars out, and it would have been October 1967. And Syd was still in the band then, so the idea of Syd and Delia in the same room together fires the imagination.
She seemed to have this connection with the biggest rock stars of the day, and they had a fascination with her as well… didn’t Paul McCartney and John Lennon visit her at one point?
Yeah, Paul McCartney had written Yesterday, so this was 1965. And he knew that he didn’t want the full band to play it: he didn’t want the normal bass, two guitars and drums. So he asked George Martin -“What do I do with this?” and he said ‘”There’s this woman at the Radiophonic Workshop, go and have a word with her…”
I’d literally just read about that in Barry Miles biography of Paul McCartney, and I called her straight away, and said “What’s all this about?” And she now famously said “Yes, he came to see me… with the other one… the one with the glasses”. I said “That’ll be John Lennon, then?” She said “Lennon, that’s it… golly!”
So she lived in a separate world to the pop music of the era, then?
I think so, yeah. I visited Girton College in Cambridge [where Delia studied in the late 1950s] to give a talk there, and I did some field recording, and stayed there for a couple of days… and really started to get a sense of separateness. From the world, basically.
Although she did seem to have a certain fascination with Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones…
Yeah, we spoke to her up here for a radio interview, and she said that when she heard the news that he’d died, she was doing he washing up, and she cried into it. She said he was really nice, and remembered his frilly cuffs! But the spooky coincidence is that they both died on the same day… July 3rd. Which was also the day that my Dad died… and Jim Morrison!
Don’t throw any more in, it’s getting spooky! She’s such an extraordinary figure, and an ahead-of-her-time figure… my Uncle Trevor, who is a big influence on me, saw the first episode of Doctor Who broadcast in 1963, when he was ten… and he said it wasn’t so much the programme itself that stuck in his mind, it was the music… he and his friends had never heard music before where you couldn’t discern any particular instrument. That must have been a mind-blowing thing for an early 1960s kid. Incredibly forward-thinking.
Oh, incredibly! It’s like a stun grenade going into a room… there were only two channels on TV at that point, and not only did you have the introductory music, but you also had those visuals as well. The video feedback… it was the first time that had been used. And this wasn’t some out-of-the-way arts programme, it was teatime on a Saturday. I was two then, so I don’t remember it, but we’ve all grown up with the Doctor Who theme, and more and more television channels, and CGI and all this… but at that time, it must have been a bit of a cultural shift. Suddenly… this is what’s possible. And perfectly timed, in the early 1960s.
Yes, psychedelia, just before actual psychedelia…
Well that’s why they called it psyche-Delia!
Twenty years in regional radio, and I’m still being beaten to solid-gold opportunities for brilliant puns. “Pyschedelia Derbyshire”! Good grief, I hang my head in shame. Thanks to Drew Mulholland, and to Alan Gubby from Buried Treasure Records. A limited vinyl edition of Three Antennas in a Quarry has now sold out, but the full album can be downloaded here…