Sunday, 12 August 2018

Chocky (1984)

Matthew Gore is an ordinary sort of 12 year old; he can't draw particularly well, he's average at maths and isn't much good at cricket; that is until someone else takes up residence in his head.  That someone is an extra-terrestrial entity named Chocky and unusually for these sort of things she's not there to cause trouble.

Published in 1968 'Chocky' was John Wyndham's final novel. A YA novel of sorts; it's  rather gentle story marks a departure from the more overt post-apocalyptic scenarios - The Day of the Triffids, The Chrysalids -  that he was known for and in it's place is essentially a science fiction family drama that offers a different take on the idea of a possession or haunting.

Adapted by former Doctor Who script editor Anthony Read (who also wrote episodes for both Sapphire and Steel and The Omega Factor) the show for the most part stays very close to the source material with a few minor changes such as making Chocky telekinetic and allowing her a physical manifestation of sorts.

It's a beautifully made series that just like the book exists in the hinterland between a kids story and one with a more adult nature.  The cast are uniformly excellent with Wyrd Britain regular, James Hazeldine (The Omega Factor, The Last Train, Ride, Ride) and Carol Drinkwater (All Creatures Great and Small) as Matthew's parents providing solid performances around which the show revolves and with Andrew Ellams producing a nicely measured performance as Matthew pulling off that most rare feat for a child actor of not being precocious or irritating.  My only complaint would be that the book's weak third act isn't improved any by seeing it on film.

The success of the series led to two more being produced that took Matthew and his alien friend on further adventures which we'll return to another time.


Buy it here - Chocky [DVD] - or watch it below.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

3 Wyrd Things: Paul Magrs

For '3 Wyrd Things' I asked various creative types whose work I admire to tell us about three oddly, wonderfully, weirdly British things that have been an influence on them and their work - a book or author, a film or TV show and a song, album or musician. 

First up, Paul Magrs.

Paul Magrs lives and writes in Manchester. In a twenty-five year writing career he has published novels in every genre from Literary to Gothic Mystery to Science Fiction for adults and young adults. His most recent books include the concluding volume in a science fiction trilogy for kids - ‘The Heart of Mars’ (Firefly Press), and ‘Fellowship of Ink’ (Snow Books) which continues the multi-volumed saga of Brenda, the long lost Bride of Frankenstein. He has taught Creative Writing at both the University of East Anglia and Manchester Metropolitan University, and now writes full time

Paul's writing is always an absolute joy to read; it's 'War of the Worlds' as written by Alan Bennett and it's 'Hammer House of Are You Being Served'. His work is gloriously individual and utterly rooted in everything that makes British science fiction and horror so much fun and we are honoured to have him write the first in this new series.

More info on Paul's writing can be found on his website - Life on Magrs.

He is appearing at the Corner Theatre, Charlotte Square, as part of the Edinburgh Book Festival at 7pm Tuesday 14th August.
Armada was the most amazing and – I think – undervalued of children’s publishers in Britain of the Seventies. Never as classy as Puffin or Piccolo, their books were readily found in the paperback carousels of newsagents and motorway service station shops. A little cheaper, a little tackier and often a lot more fun. My favourite thing they did was their anthologies: umpteen volumes of ghost tales, mostly edited by the remarkable Mary Danby, and six books of Monster stories curated by the semi-legendary R. Chetwynd-Hayes. Best of all, to my mind, were the Armada Sci-Fi Books one through to four. Every story is a gem – juxtaposing shops and tower blocks with alien visitors and space fleets from afar. Richard Davis was the editor and these books are vanishing from Ebay, from endangered bookshops and from the face of the earth itself. They must be collected and preserved.

‘Three Salons at the Seaside’ is the most wonderful piece of telly I know. It’s a forty minute fly-on-the-wall documentary from 1994, produced for the BBC and directed by Philippa Lowthorpe. All it asks is that we sit quietly in the corner of three different hair salons in Blackpool during a rainy Monday (it feels like) as the sky blows and glooms outside and the elderly ladies come trogging in, in twos and threes, to have their rinses and blow-waves done. We eavesdrop on alarming conversations about death and disaster and all manner of frailties and scandal. We discover the secret of the communal funeral handbag and we marvel, basically, at these wonderful, watchful, eloquent faces as they mull over the meaning of everything, sitting under the driers. Outside a young girl flies back and forth on roller skates and the music is just exquisite; jaunty, hopeful and achingly nostalgic. It’s the best bit of telly there’s ever been, in my humble opinion.
Watch it here

For a record I’d like to pick out Geoff Love’s ‘Space Themes’ – a picture of the cover appeared recently on this page. That marvellously copyright-infringement-dodging painting drew my eye back in 1978, when Fine Fare opened a late-opening megastore in our town precinct and offered all kinds of fantastic records and stuff to lavish your pocket money on. This album – joined by many other Geoff Love classics – has lived in my treasured collection ever since. The rendition of the Doctor Who theme is like the pulsating, thrilling, technicolour cinematic version that the Seventies failed to bring us.

Many years later, in 2011, when I was writing Doctor Who stories for AudioGo I played this version of the theme to myself, to get me in the mood for a day’s recording near Charlotte Street in Soho. I sat outside a Greek cafĂ© at eight in the morning, anticipating a day in studio creating a story I’d cheekily called ‘Tsar Wars’ – a kind of retelling of ‘Nicholas and Alexandra’ set in 1970s outer space.

We had a rather large cast arriving at about nine o’clock. I was there early, eating a bacon sandwich, sipping frothy coffee, enjoying the sun sliding over the canyons of Fitzrovia. The Geoff Love Dr Who theme was playing loudly and… at that very moment Tom Baker came galumphing round the corner. He was swinging a bag of cakes and sweets he was bringing to share with everyone at the recording.

It was a completely magical moment. There was no one else there on the street. He noticed me and gave a jaunty wave. And that moment became one of my favourites of all time: set to the tune of that disco-era Doctor Who.

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

The Nightmare Stacks

Charles Stross
Recorded Books

Alex Schwartz had a promising future - until he contracted an unfortunate bout of vampirism, and agreed (on pain of death) to join the Laundry, Britain's only counter-occult secret agency.
His first assignment is in Leeds - his old hometown. The thought of telling his parents that he's lost his old job, let alone them finding out about his 'condition', is causing Alex more anxiety than learning how to live as a vampire secret agent preparing to confront multiple apocalypses.His only saving grace is Cassie Brewer, a student appearing in the local Goth Festival, who flirts with him despite his awkward personality and massive amounts of sunblock.
But Cassie has secrets of her own - secrets that make Alex's night life seem positively normal .

Let me start by saying Gideon Emery has ruined these books.  I tried reading one recently and just couldn't do it without my internal monologue defaulting to a piss poor imitation of his voice and so I had to give up and revert back to the fantastic audio versions that he reads.

'The Nightmare Stacks' is another Bob-less Laundry book and one that's going to blow the whole secret open as Britain is invaded by magical elfy types from another dimension.

The story follows Alex Schwartz one of the newly recruited 'Phangs' (vampires) - left over from a previous novel - as he scouts a new Laundry headquarters in Leeds.  The book is very much in the tradition of the series - lots of policy wonking - and tapping into a particular literary trope - in this case the fantasy novel - but like the superhero one that preceded it things have gone really overt as the endgame comes slowly into sight.  I'm not entirely in favour of this as I do prefer the more covert side of things and I think this and it's predecessor have been by far the weakest books in the series but Stross is an eminently readable (Damn you Emery!) listenable writer and this series is pretty much always a delight to read / hear.

Buy it here - The Nightmare Stacks: A Laundry Files novel

Sunday, 5 August 2018


'Stigma' is one of the three non M.R. James adaptations made by the BBC for their 'A Ghost Story for Christmas' and the first of the two that broke with the tradition of adapting a classic ghostly tale.

Written in 1977 by screenwriter Clive Exton (10 Rillington Place, Agatha Christie's Poirot, Jeeves & Wooster) it tells the story of a couple Katherine (Kate Binchy) & Peter (Peter Bowles) and their teenaged daughter Verity (Maxine Gordon) who move to a house in the country beside a stone circle (Avebury) and unwisely decide to remove one of the stones from their garden.  A sudden gust of wind coincides with the lifting of the stone and the beginning of Katherine's troubles.

The enigmatic nature of stone circles has long been  a source of inspiration for writers with a tendency towards the wyrd and the 70s seemed a particularly fertile time for dramas centred around them with 'Children of the Stones' and 'Stones' appearing in early 1977 and 1976 respectively and the 'Ringstone Round' shenanigans of the 'Quatermass Conclusion' in 1979 (and I'm positive there were many more).

As a traditional Christmas ghost story it kind of misses the mark a little with it's summery, contemporary setting but it is a very effective and haunting, body horror with a fine central performance from Binchy.  The writing is tight with not a second of the limited run time wasted and it's only the clunky bit of exposition at the end that slightly mars a nicely macabre tale.

Buy it here - Ghost Stories for Christmas - or watch it below.

Don't be fooled by the 56 minute run time shown on the bottom of the player. 'Stigma' is actually only 30 minutes long and then the video doubles back on itself( to confuse those pesky bots).

* For those of you who are sensitive to this sort of thing please be aware that there is partial female nudity in this film.

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Sapphire and Steel - Top Ten TV

"No spaceships, no ray guns, no men in silver suits.  It was about atmosphere, fear and creaky stairs." - P.J. Hammond

Below is a short - very short - discussion about Sapphire and Steel from a show called 'Top Ten TV'.  Presented by Nick Frost it includes contributions from writer PJ Hammond and lead actor David McCallum alongside the usual vaguely irritating types that populate these sort of shows.  It's an innocuous but fun little watch and it uses 'Bela Lugosi's Dead' by Bauhaus as background music which always adds to the proceedings.

If this has wet your appetite you can find a much longer documentary here:
Sapphire and Steel: Counting Out Time

Watch the series here:
Sapphire and Steel

Or you can buy the box set here:
Sapphire and Steel: The Complete Series (Repackaged) [2008] [DVD]

Sunday, 29 July 2018

To Kill A King

Alan Garner's 'To Kill A King' was the final episode of the supernatural anthology series 'Leap In The Dark' that ran for 4 series on BBC2 between 1973 and 1980.  Whilst the early series were documentaries the latter two consisted of various dramas written by the likes of Garner, Fay Weldon (author of 'The Life and Loves of a She-Devil') and (the writer of 'Penda's Fen') David Rudkin.

In 'To Kill A King' Garner tells an autobiographically tinged story of an author, Harry (Anthony Bate, Oliver Lacon in 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'), haunted by a disconnect with his restless muse as he battles against writer's block or of man rapidly descending into depression and madness as he rages against the turmoil of his mind.

Garner has spoken in the past of his struggles with depression and in many ways this seem like an exploration of its causes as Harry is pressured from all sides - by colleagues, family, fans but most of all by himself - and as a result 'his head' is submerged in muddy water unable to see the light, a terrifying prospect that throws him into even deeper water. 

As you may have inferred the play is heavy on symbolism with Harry reaching a decision as he emerges from a dark tunnel and the idea of inspiration as a transmission from elsewhere embodied by the presence of Jodrell Bank Observatory at the end of his garden and the plethora of communications technology - typewriter, telephone, television - that haunts him and it's not until he uses 'his head' to break their hold that his muse settles and his block lifts.

The finished piece is an oddly compelling collision of supernatural tale with psychodrama that offers an interestingly ambiguous take on both.

Sunday, 22 July 2018

The Waiting Room

The producers of 'Shadows', a mid 70s supernatural anthology series for kids, had a talent for attracting well respected writers and actors to their programme.  Here on Wyrd Britain we've already featured an episode written by Susan Cooper ('Dark Encounter') and one by PJ Hammond ('And Now For My Next Trick') and hidden amongst the three series are episodes written by Joan Aiken, Penelope Lively, Fay WeldonJ. B. Priestley.  The casting could be equally solid with appearances from British acting stalwarts like Jacqueline Pearce, Brian Glover, Gareth Thomas and, in this case, Jenny Agutter.

'The Waiting Room' finds a brother and sister having to spend the night in a deserted and isolated railway station after missing the last train home.  Whilst there they experience a 50 year time slip to 1925 where they are witness to a train crash before a slip back to their own time sees those same events begin to repeat themselves.

'The Waiting Room' despite it's nicely dingy single set never really manages to achieve a satisfying level of claustrophobia and you can't quite shake the feeling that you are watching a village hall am-dram production with one standout actor amongst it's cast. Agutter is, of course, rock solid and anchors the proceedings nicely but her co-star, Paul Henley, is way out of his depth and hamming it up something terrible.

With all that said though I do quite enjoy this one.  It's very old fashioned even for 1975, extremely well mannered and is very much a hark back to the classic Edwardian ghost tale which I'll probably always have a soft spot for.

Buy it here - Shadows - The Complete First Series [Series One] [1975] [DVD] - or watch it below.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Ace of Wands

Devotees of British supernatural TV of the 60s and 70s have become grudgingly used to the idea that many of the shows of the time are lost to us due to the cost cutting practise of 'wiping' and the lack of a system for safely archiving.  Amongst those lost to time are some 90 odd episodes of Doctor Who, much of the first series of Quatermass and the entire first two series of early 70s supernatural detective series 'Ace of Wands'.

Created in 1970 by Trevor Preston and Pamela Lonsdale, Ace of Wands told of the escapades of stage magician and detective 'Tarot' (Michael Mackenzie), his pet owl Ozymandias and various assistants including antiquarian bookseller Mr Sweet (Donald Layne-Smith) and, in the third series, a brother and sister duo by the name of Chas (Roy Holder) and Mikki (Petra Markham).  Originally envisioned as kid friendly show about a flamboyant detective, over the three series, the show becomes progressively more concerned with the supernatural especially with the arrival in series two of writer P.J. Hammond.

Following on from his contributions to AoW Hammond would, of course, go on to create and write Sapphire and Steel but it is here that he first took his cop show chops (earned on shows such as Dixon of Dock Green and Z-Cars) and married it with a love of the odd.  His third series storylines - 'The Meddlers',  'Peacock Pie' & 'Beautiful People' - show hints of what was to come but truthfully with storylines that include people being turned into dolls the whole thing has a similar vibe to what Hammond would later create in S&S.  Ace of Wands walked a fine line between the ostentatious spy-fi, detective fiction of the ITC shows and the Earth bound sci-fi of Pertwee era Doctor Who whilst also tapping into the zeitgeist and embracing the supernatural shenanigans that would characterise much of the 1970s TV we love so much here at Wyrd Britain such as 'The Stone Tape' and 'The Children of the Stones' all the while managing to just about keep things kid friendly and rocking a killer theme tune by Andy Bown.

It is an absolute shame that so much of this series is lost to us but as the recent(ish) Doctor Who finds (of episodes from 'The Web of Fear' and 'The Enemy of the World') show there's always a chance that some of the earlier episodes will resurface but for now we have only the third series and that's certainly no bad thing.

Buy it here - Ace Of Wands [DVD] - or watch it below.

Friday, 13 July 2018

Adrift on the Haunted Seas: The Best Short Stories of William Hope Hodgson

William Hope Hodgson
Douglas A. Anderson (editor)
Cold Spring Press

William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918) is acknowledged as one of the undisputed masters of the sea story. There has never been a collection of his very best short stories offered to the trade. Hodgson's sea stories have unusual authenticity owing to his having spent a lot of time on merchant's ships-he left his family in 1890 at the age of thirteen to spend eight years at sea, where the experience of mistreatment, poor pay, and worse food was contrasted by Hodgson's immeasurable fascination with the sea. His obsession for the sea fills his writings. This volume collects the very best of Hodgson's sea stories-which has not been done before-with some of the most exciting and dramatic creatures of fantasy on the written page, exhibiting the sea in all her moods: wonder, mystery, beauty, and terror."This collection brings together the very best of his short stories, together with a sampling of his poetry. It includes a variety of his sea horrors along with two non-fantastic pieces: "On the Bridge," a journalistic story written immediately after the sinking of the Titanic which attempts to show some of the various factors which contributed to the tragedy, and the suspenseful nonfiction story "Through the Vortex of a Cyclone," which is based on Hodgson's own experiences at sea." - From the Introduction by Douglas A. Anderson

 Hope Hodgson's Carnacki stories have long been a favourite of mine and are at the centre of my love of a supernatural detective yarn but I never really had any real desire to read much else by him.  A year or so ago I listened to an audio of 'The House on the Borderland' which I thoroughly enjoyed  but again no real impulse to dig any further until I stumbled across this collection of his nautical horrors collected together by Douglas A. Anderson.  Now. part of the reason I'd not dug any further into Hodgson's stories is a disinterest in nautical tales but as it was in my hand I thought I'd give them a go.

As a young man Hodgson had spent a number of years at sea in the merchant navy and so the sea loomed large in his stories even featuring in one of his Carnacki tales, 'The Haunted Jarvee' which is included here.  A particular favourite of his was the 'Sargasso Sea', a legendary 'sea of weed' that ensnares unwary ships and holds them trapped as the crew either slowly starves or become food for the creatures that call it home.  Several of these Sargasso stories feature here and they range from the enigmatic ('The Voice in the Dawn') to the dynamic (the two parts of 'The Tideless Sea') to the dreadful ('The Finding of the Graiken').

Some of the stories such as 'The Wild man of the Sea', 'On the Bridge' and the fantastic 'Through the Vortex of a Cyclone' are fairly straight adventure fare - the latter sourced from experience - but for me it's the stranger stories that made the bigger impact such as the fungal body horror of 'The Voice in the Night', the unlikeliness of 'The Stone Ship' and the bittersweet final voyage of 'The Shamraken Homeward-Bounder'.

I must admit the constant nautical setting did wear at me somewhat and at times I found myself flagging a bit but Hodgson spins a good yarn and few of those included here hang around long enough to truly wear one's patience but as I said earlier nautical stories were never of much interest and whilst this did nothing to change my mind on that score it is a very recommended collection.

Buy it here - Adrift on the Haunted Seas: The Best Short Stories of William Hope Hodgson

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Keith Seatman - Disjointed Oddities and Other Such Things EP

I've had the great pleasure of being on the receiving end of Keith's promos for a good few years now and it's always been an absolute delight.  This new five track EP featuring four new tunes and a remix of a tune from Keith's earlier album - A Rest Before the Walk - by Wyrd Britain faves Revbjelde is no different.

Musically he walks a capricious, queasily disconcerting and idiosyncratic path.  With his sounds balancing on the edges of radiophonic playfulness and acid folk's twisted pastoralism filtered through the dark prism of Coil-esque post-industrial decay he has assembled another collection of deliciously serpentine and indefinably nebulous psychedelia fuelled by oneiric logic and arcadian phantasms.