Monday, 4 November 2019

Alice Through the Looking Glass & White Rabbits in Sussex

Peter Howell & John Ferdinando - Alice Through the Looking Glass
In 1974 a young composer named Peter Howell joined the BBC Radiophonic Workshop where he stayed for the next 23 years composing some of the Workshop's most memorable pieces of that time including "Greenwich Chorus", "The Children of Green Knowe" and the reworked Doctor Who theme used throughout the early 1980s.  Previous to his time at that venerable institution though he, along with his friend John Ferdinando, had been part of several psychedelic folk bands - Agincourt & Ithaca - who produced several - now insanely collectible - albums.

The duo were also responsible for one particular beautiful oddity when they composed the 'soundtrack' for The Ditchling Players 1969 amateur performance of Lewis Carroll's 'Alice Through the Looking Glass'.  Originally only released as a private press (50 copies) on Howell's own label it is the single most perfect audition tape he could ever have made for his later employers; full of odd instrumentation and tape experimentation it's pastoral folk experimentalism meaning it's every bit as eccentric and idiosyncratic as both the source material and his future workplace.

Peter Howell & John Ferdinando - Alice Through the Looking Glass
You can hear the album in the embedded player below and whilst it may not be to everyone's taste I encourage everyone to give it a try as personally I think it's fabulous but before you do please also allow me to point you in the direction of a fantastic 30 minute documentary on the album produced by BBC Radio 3 a couple of years back.

Presented by David Bramwell it tells the story of the album and beyond that of the influence of the landscape of the Sussex Downs with the participation of the two composers, some of the Ditchling Players themselves and musical luminaries such as Shirley Collins and Arthur Brown.  It really is very much worth 30 minutes of your time and can be heard at the link below...

White Rabbits in Sussex

And then there's the album itself...



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Sunday, 3 November 2019

Night of the Big Heat

night of the big heat
The original novel that spawned 'Night of the Big Heat' was written by UK writer John Lymington (real name John Richard Newton Chance) who produced a seemingly endless stream of sub John Wyndham sci fi through the 1960s, 70s and even into the 80s - indeed fellow sci fi writer Brian Stableford suggested that Lymington chose his nom de plume specifically because of it's similarity to Wyndham's name - and this, his first, is very much in that category.

Set on the island of Fara where despite it being winter the locals are suffering in an intense heat wave.  Onto the sweltering island comes vampish secretary, Angela Roberts (Jane Merrow) in an attempt to rekindle her affair with novelist / publican Jeff Callum (Patrick Allen).  Already on the island are various locals including Dr Vernon Stone (Peter Cushing), a team of meteorologists and a brash scientist called Godfrey Hanson (Christopher Lee) who is investigating the heatwave and uncovering some unexpected results.

night of the big heat
Directed by Hammer stalwart Terence Fisher (The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula) and starring that companies two biggest stars - although Cushing is very much a supporting cast member here - it seems strange that this was made by the obscure Planet Film Productions but perhaps that goes a long way to explaining just how cheaply made it seems but continuity errors and dodgy effects are the stuff that all our favourite B-movies are made of and this is definitely a B (possibly even a C).

The film is often achingly slow being a creature feature with an uninspiring creature that resembles a stranded jellyfish and with a script that was, at least in part, written by  Pip and Jane Baker - more familiar for their work some 20 years later on Doctor Who - this is a film that is saved by it's cast as Lee is obviously relishing his role, Cushing dominates each of his few scenes and Merrow is deliciously vindictive as the bonkers femme fatale.

In all it's a mess but it's a mess with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing at it's heart and that's a pairing that is always going to make me happy.

Buy it here - Night Of The Big Heat - or watch it below



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Friday, 1 November 2019

The Vorpal Blade

Peter Cushing The Vorpal Blade Tales of the Unexpected
In this sixth series episode of Roald Dahl's 'Tales of the Unexpected' Peter Cushing, as an ageing German officer, tells the story of a duel fought while at school.

Told in flashback Cushing himself appears only in the the framing sequence and as the narrator and whilst age may have robbed him of the physicality he used to bring to his performances it certainly has had no effect on the grandeur of that voice.

Peter Cushing The Vorpal Blade Tales of the Unexpected
With it's title taken from the name Lewis Carroll gave to the magical blade that slays The Jabberwock in his nonsense poem featured in 'Through the Looking Glass', Cushing here tells the tale of a schoolboy duel; of jealousy, of pride and of fear.  He tells of a time in 'his' younger days when he was forced to fight a duel and of the consequences of the decisions and actions of the participants.

The story he relates is, in all honesty, a little weak and the final revelations are easily deduced long before they are played out but a chance to catch one of the final performances - he was to act on screen only 5 more times after this - of one of the greats of wyrd British cinema is not to be passed on.



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Sunday, 27 October 2019

Night of the Demon

Night of the Demon
Based on the classic M.R. James story 'Casting the Runes', 'Night of the Demon' tells the story of an American psychologist, the somewhat overbearing Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews), arriving in the UK to debunk a notorious satanic cult led by Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) only to find himself wrapped up in both the murder of a colleague and his own predicted and imminent demise.

Made by the French director Jacques Tourneur (who had previously made the fabulous 'Cat People') ''Night of the Demon' is an early entrant into what has become known, perhaps slightly clumsily, as folk horror and certainly set the scene for many a Hammer and Amicus film to come in the next decade and a bit.  Standing stones, (references to) witchcraft, black magic, rural landscapes and runes all feature prominently but the film is made with a master's eye for atmosphere conjuring malevolence even in broad daylight as in the garden party scene - later perhaps to find an unlikely homage in the video for UK prog rock band Marillion's video for their song 'Garden Party'.

Night of the Demon
Beyond the technical skills of the director 'Night of the Demon' features fantastic performances by all involved.  MacGinnis is superbly understated as Karswell equally at home delivering his blase threats (and curse) against Holden as he is gently dealing with his 'wayward' mother's (Athene Seyler) attempts to help the same.  Andrews is almost smotheringly pompous in the lead role as his brash and rational new world confidence comes crashing into old world irrationality helped only by the presence of his murdered colleague's niece (Peggy Cummins) whose scientific education matched with her British heritage allows her to straddle both worlds.. 

There's some dispute over the demon itself, was it's appearance always planned or was it inserted at the insistence of producer Hal E. Chester and should it even be seen at all. Personally I come down on the side of those who would rather not have seen the beast but I do wonder if that's partly because this was a film that eluded me as a youngster and so I first saw it when the teenaged metalhead version of me with my Slayer patch adorned denim was already becoming a distant memory and he would have bloody loved seeing the demon.

Buy it here - Night of the Demon (1957) [DVD] - or watch it below.



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Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Mortal Echoes: Encounters With the End

Greg Buzwell (ed)
British Library Tales of the Weird

A strange figure foretells tragedy on the railway tracks. A plague threatens to encroach upon an isolated castle. The daughter of an eccentric scientist falls victim to a poisonous curse.
Yet for all its certainty and finality, death remains an infinitely mysterious subject to us all. The stories in this anthology depict that haunting moment when characters come face to face with their own mortality.
Spanning two centuries, Mortal Echoes features some of the finest writers in the English language – including Daphne du Maurier, Edgar Allan Poe, Graham Greene and H. G. Wells. Intriguing, unsettling and often darkly humorous, this collection explores humanity’s transient existence, and what it means to be alive.
 


Another in the series of ghoulish tales from the British Library.  They've done about a dozen of these over the last little while and I  thought it was about time I got properly stuck into them.  The first one I read (Glimpses of the Unknown) was a fun excursion into the lesser known corners of the golden age of supernatural fiction.  This one takes a look at various visions of mortality.

In it's pages editor Buzwell includes a nice mix of real classics such as Charles Dickens' 'The Signalman', Sheridan Le Fanu's 'Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter' and Edgar Allan Poe's sublime 'The Masque of the Red Death' and a number of minor greats, Saki's 'Laura', Marjorie Bowen's 'Kecksies' and Robert Aickman's 'Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen' all of which will be familiar to connoisseurs of ghostly anthologies but all of which reward repeated readings.

We have several tales by well known authors who maybe aren't particularly associated with the supernatural such as Graham Greene's tale of an unpleasant encounter in 'A Little Place off the Edgware Road', Daphne du Maurier's murderous lady 'Kiss Me Again, Stranger' and a cosmic excursion in H.G. Wells' 'Under the Knife'.

Beyond these there are a few lesser known authors such as the under-rated May Sinclair, represented here by her fantastic 'Where Their Fire is Not Quenched', the darkly funny 'The School' by Donald Barthelme and Charlie Fish's amusingly daft 'Death by Scrabble'.

The problem with themed anthologies is they can quickly become quite tiresome but Buzwell has put together a nicely varied selection that entirely avoids this pitfall and this is one of the most satisfying and enjoyable anthologies I've read in quite a while.

Buy it here - Mortal Echoes: Encounters with the End (Tales of the Weird)

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Thursday, 10 October 2019

Nothing is Strange

nothing is strange mike russell
Mike Russell
Strange Books

20 mind-expanding short stories.
Inspiring, liberating, otherworldly, magical, surreal, bizarre, funny, disturbing, unique... all of these words have been used to describe the stories of Mike Russell so put on your top hat, open your third eye and enjoy: Nothing Is Strange


 Mike contacted me here at Wyrd Britain to ask me if I'd like to check out his books for possible inclusion here, obviously I said yes and he kindly sent two over.

This, the first, is a collection of short shorts of a whimsically surreal and playful nature.  Stories morph and change in front of your eyes often lasting no longer than a page or three which in many cases is ample time for Mike to squeegee your third eye but there were times when I would have dearly loved to linger longer..

Outside of his playfulness what's most apparent is his sentimental side with love and friendship at the core of much of the work but in many cases slightly obscured by the darkness.  Now, I'm an old softy at heart and I very much approve of that sort of thing and there were a number of stories here that I enjoyed very much and am looking forward to diving back in to Mike's imagination for the second volume.

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Sunday, 29 September 2019

The Keeper (1983)

The Keeper by Alan Garner
'The Keeper', written by Alan Garner, was the final episode of the original 'Spooky' series of the long running Dramarama series, an anthology show for children.

Garner's story concerns 'Beacon Lodge' a dilapidated and long abandoned gamekeeper's lodge where two paranormal researchers - Peter (Tim Woodward) and Sally (Janet Maw) -  settle themselves in for the night.  We know right from the off that there is something already resident, and comfortably at home, in the house and it's not best pleased at the the arrival of the interlopers. A game of scrabble and a poem set the scene for the conclusion as the secret of the house is revealed.

The Keeper by Alan Garner
At the heart of the story is a typically Garner tale of the power that resides in the land, an animistic presence that holds sway over the patch of earth.  It's a short little tale that uses many well worn tricks to build suspense - eerie acoustic instruments, predominantly a dulcimer, and a restless camera that's constantly circling and hovering just behind the Peter and, particularly, Janet - but it must be remembered this is a show made for kids for whom many of these tricks of the trade would be new and also they are well worn because they work.

A genuinely scary story from that golden age of kids television when film-makers had literally no qualms about utterly terrifying their young audience.



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Sunday, 15 September 2019

Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance (1976)

Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance (1979)
'Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance' is a short story written by M.R. James that was included in his second anthology 'More Ghost Stories'. It's my understanding that it was written to bulk out that collection which would make sense as it really does pale in comparison to most of the other tales in that collection.

The gist of the tale is obvious from the title with the inheritance in question being a large house and it's accompanying maze; a maze it seems only Mr. Humphreys can easily navigate and which has at it's centre an enigmatic, inscribed globe.

Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance (1979)
This adaptation was made in 1976 as an ITV schools programme - for those not raised in the UK in the 1970s these were shows made and shown during the daytime with an educational bent that could be used by teachers to distract the kids as they had a sneaky tea and cigarette break - as part of a series called 'Music Scene' whose purpose was to highlight the importance of incidental music to a production which in this context puts modernist tootling over typically Jamesian imagery. It sometimes makes for an odd fit but, for me at least, made a nice change to the usual overblown, portentous, pseudo classical violin sawing that film-makers often smother everything in.

With a run time of only 17 minutes the makers have amalgamated many aspects of the source material and discarded others entirely but they've created an engaging little film that manages to conjure up some nicely claustrophobic sequences within the maze - the point where the incidental music is at it's most effective - and a nifty and creepy animation sequence that looks like the opening of a 1970s Doctor Who episode but with the Doctor replaced with Peter Pratt's melty face version of The Master.

The show is available as an extra here - Casting the Runes [1979] [DVD] - or you can watch it below.



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Sunday, 8 September 2019

Mrs Amworth

Mrs Amworth
Adapted from an E.F. Benson story of the same name 'Mrs Amworth' is a modern vampire tale that finds the titular lady - played with flamboyant aplomb by the fabulous Glynis Johns - both beguiling and terrorising a small English village but finding her match in retired professor  Francis Urcombe (John Phillips).

Apparently made as part of a series of 6 adaptations by the likes of L.P. Hartley, Robert Bloch, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, D.H. Lawrence and Issac Asimov called 'Classics Dark and Dangerous' it seems to have only made it to screen here in the UK for one brief half hour back in 1975 although the various episodes were later amalgamated into two straight to video movies - in this case 'Three Dangerous Ladies'.
(My thanks to the good folks over at the 'Taliesin Meets the Vampires' blog for providing this info)

There're no real chills here but it's got some great music and it's tiny run time means not a second is wasted with a cast of rock solid character actors playing very much within type to produce an understated but fun little treat.

Buy it here - Rare Chills - The Fear Makers:Shadow Of Death & Supernatural:Mrs Amworth [DVD] - or watch it below.



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Sunday, 1 September 2019

Witchfinder General

Witchfinder General
Witchfinder General was the third and final film by Director Michael Reeves before his death from a barbiturate overdose and stars his childhood friend Ian Ogilvy and is based on a fictionalised account of the life of self appointed 'Witchfinder General', Matthew Hopkins, played here with sleazy conviction by Vincent Price.

Following the witchcraft accusation and hanging of a priest, 'John Lowes' (Rupert Davies) and the rape of his niece (and Ogilvy's fiance) 'Sara' (Hilary Dwyer) by Hopkins and his brutal assistant John Stearne (Robert Russell) Ogilvy's roundhead officer 'Richard Marshall' sets out looking for revenge against the despicable duo.

Witchfinder General Ian Ogilvy
Reeve's vision of Civil War era England is one adrift in political turmoil, rife with misogynist superstition and in the thrall of the charismatic Hopkins.  Both the world he conjured and the film he made are unrelentingly and unrepentantly brutal; with the exception of the short burst of hammering as a gallows is constructed the film opens and closes to the sound of screaming with little respite in between.  The fact that it is mostly shot, presumably for budgetary reasons, mostly in daylight and amidst the bucolic delights of the English countryside only adds to the intensity of the experience as every act of callous violence is thrown into stark relief.

Buy it here - Witchfinder General [DVD] - or watch it below.



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If you enjoy what we do here on Wyrd Britain and would like to help us continue then we would very much appreciate a donation towards keeping the blog going - paypal.me/wyrdbritain