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.