Saturday, 20 February 2021

Peel Sessions 24

The music from week twenty four of our celebration of the 37 years worth of Peel Sessions.

This week...
Ride (1990)
Chelsea (1977)
Dr Feelgood (1978)
Billy Bragg (1983)
The Special AkA (1983)
999 (1978)













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Thursday, 18 February 2021

Ness

Robert Macfarlane & Stanley Donwood
Hamish Hamilton

Somewhere on a salt-and-shingle island, inside a ruined concrete structure known as The Green Chapel, a figure called The Armourer is leading a black mass with terrible intent.
But something is coming to stop him.
Five more-than-human forms are traversing land, sea and time towards The Green Chapel, moving to the point where they will converge and become Ness. Ness has lichen skin and willow-bones. Ness is made of tidal drift, green moss and deep time. Ness has hagstones for eyes and speaks only in birds. And Ness has come to take this island back.

Nature writer Macfarlane and artist Donwood have collaborated once before on 'Holloway', a search for hidden track ways and coincidentally the only other one of Macfarlane's books that I've read having been given it as a gift a few years back.  This time though the author steps away from the real into the realm of fiction with an apocalyptic prose poem based around the Orford Ness in Suffolk.

The Ness, now owned by the National Trust, was previously a military development site and testing ground for nuclear and chemical stupidities which, though now abandoned, still wears the scars of its previous inhabitants.

Macfarlane's prose poem finds echoes of these brutal inhabitants and confronts them with the spirit of the Ness itself as its various aspects reclaim the land in a story about the impermanence of man and the permanence of nature and the natural's inevitable victory over the un.

It's a quick and interesting read but not for me a wholly satisfying one. I am at heart a fairly simple soul and as much as I enjoy a beautifully constructed sentence, an engaging turn of phrase and a grand concept I also love a story and whilst Ness satisfies the first three requirements with aplomb the last one not so much and so I closed it with the slightly disappointed feeling that something was missing.  It's pretty much the same issue I have with poetry in general and not just the prose version as seen here but I'd like to stress that this is my very own personal foible and beyond that Ness makes for intriguing reading. 

Buy it here - UK / US.
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Sunday, 14 February 2021

The Sorcerers

Starring Boris Karloff, Catherine Lacey, Elizabeth Ercy and Ian Ogilvy 'The Sorcerers' is the story of disgraced hypnotist Dr Marcus Monserrat (Karloff) who, over a characteristically sad looking Wimpy hamburger, somehow convinces bored hipster Mike Roscoe (Ogilvy) to allow himself to be strapped into the machine he's invented. Said machine looks to be straight out of 'The Prisoner' (UK / US) and after some suitably psychedelic lighting effects and an electronic squall worthy of the Radiophonic greats it allows Monserrat and his wife Estelle (Lacey) to control Roscoe's mind and perceive everything he does.  It's not long though before the flood of emotions and experiences overwhelm Estelle and her darker nature comes to the fore.

Karloff is always a powerful presence and Ogilvy a reliable leading man but the movie belongs to Catherine Lacey's powerful performance as her addict's craving for new experiences degenerates into murderous madness.

Of the three movies director Michael Reeves made in his short career the third, 'The Witchfinder General' (UK / US), is undoubtedly his most widely celebrated but for me, as good as that movie is, it's this his second movie made the previous year, 1967, that's his best and shows just how good he was and would've been.

Buy it here - UK / US.



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Saturday, 13 February 2021

Peel Sessions 23

The music from week twenty three of our celebration of the 37 years worth of Peel Sessions.

This week...
Peter and the Test Tube Babies (1980)
Ivor Cutler (1975)
Mogwai (1996)
Slits (1978)
The Monochrome Set (1979)
The Sisters of Mercy (1982)













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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 welcome a donation towards keeping the blog going - paypal.me/wyrdbritain

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Tuesday, 9 February 2021

3 Wyrd Things: Joe Banks

For '3 Wyrd Things' I ask various creative people 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.

This month: Joe Banks

Joe is a music writer with a résumé that includes Mojo, The Guardian, Electronic Sound, The Quietus, Prog and Shindig.

In 2020 Joe published (on Strange Attractor Press)  'Hawkwind:Days of the Underground' (Buy it here - UK / US) his exhaustive biography of the space rock legends.  Covering the years from inception (1969) to 'Levitation' (1980) with numerous side trips along the way it's a glorious and timely repositioning of this idiosyncratic band as one of the cornerstones of underground music in the UK.  To accompany the book Joe maintains a Hawkwind treasure trove at www.daysoftheunderground.com/

I am really pleased to be able present Joe's choices to you and heartily recommend you follow him on twitter at - JoeBanksWriter   

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TV
Dave Allen At Large (1971-79) 
Buy 'The Best of Dave Allen' here - UK / US.

Growing up in Britain in the 1970s, it was possible to stumble across all manner of unexpectedly strange and frightening programmes on TV, particularly if you were a child of a “nervous disposition” or just easily spooked. Indeed, an entire cottage industry based around memories of terrifying PIFs, Christmas ghost stories and scary kids’ shows has developed over the past decade or so – it sometimes feels as though the perceived uncanniness of the past is being used as a communal bulwark against the divisive, hyper-stimulated present.

But while I experienced plenty of cosy chills watching Doctor Who, and felt genuinely unsettled by ITV’s Quatermass, it was being caught off-guard by something nasty lurking in programmes that were ostensibly light entertainment that affected me the most. For instance, there was an item on early evening magazine show Nationwide that freaked me out for months, the appearance of a werewolf in a suburban house, which I’ve subsequently discovered was connected to the story of the Hexham Heads (Britain had an unquenchable thirst for all things paranormal in the ‘70s, and Nationwide regularly ran pieces on topics such as UFOs and poltergeists). And then there was this scene from a screening of Carry On Screaming, which again completely terrified me.

The board comedy of the latter should perhaps have neutralised the weirdness of that scene, but the context actually ended up heightening my sense of fear. And that was also very much the case with the first wyrd thing I’ve chosen. Irish comedian Dave Allen was a regular presence on British TV throughout the ‘70s, an intelligent and urbane raconteur with a uniquely laid back style of delivery – sat on a high leather chair, dapperly suited and with a tumbler of whisky (actually ginger ale) at his side, he didn’t so much tell jokes as weave stories with occasional laughs, the antithesis of the quip-spouting stand-up. I loved his presentation and the often fiercely irreligious sketches that peppered his shows, for which he’s perhaps still best known.

But along with the Catholic Church, Allen also had a dark fascination for the supernatural, with longer filmed pieces that accurately aped the gothic horror of Hammer, building real tension before the inevitable comic (and often ludicrous) pay-off. The ultimate manifestation of this was the horror-driven monologues that he would sometimes close his shows with, the studio lights darkening and the camera pulling in, as Allen revealed himself to be a master storyteller of the macabre. There was one in particular that really got to me – I remember nothing about it except the languorous, dread-filled tone of Allen’s voice, and the atmosphere in the back room where I was watching it becoming icy with an awful anticipation. And even when the punchline came, the spell wasn’t completely broken – there was still a horrible sense of unease, that something remained hidden in those words, and that this was a bloody odd way to make people laugh.




Book
 
The Unexplained (1980-83) 

As noted above, Britain was completely nuts for anything of a paranormal or supernatural bent during the ‘70s, the floodbanks of credibility having seemingly been washed away by the countercultural enlightenment of the late ‘60s. With the authority of Church and State eroding, and with the country in the midst of both political and social flux, all kinds of strange ideas and belief systems began to creep in from the margins. If traditional institutions could no longer be trusted and/or believed in, then perhaps other, more mysterious, forces were abroad? It’s surprising how quickly and firmly this notion took hold of mainstream culture, with TV and newspaper items on UFOs, ghosts and the Loch Ness Monster vying for space with reports on the latest industrial dispute or IRA bombing, creating a wyrd imaginal dissonance.

This obsession with all manner of mysterious phenomena persisted well into the ‘80s – in fact, it was probably at its zenith when, in 1980, Orbis Publishing launched the ‘partwork’ magazine, The Unexplained. Partwork magazines, where each weekly issue built towards a completed set of large format, binder-bound volumes, were hugely popular during the ‘70s. My dad had bought and assembled an earlier Orbis series about WW2 – I remember poring over these volumes full of battle photography, cut-away schematics of Messerschmitt fighters, and the often disturbing propaganda posters generated by the conflict. I had also recently completed my own, slightly less troubling Orbis series, The Encyclopedia Of Birds.

But The Unexplained was something else altogether. Leaving the joys of ornithology behind, I had plunged headfirst into the murky underside of the everyday and embraced the world of possibility – or more prosaically, and no doubt like many other boys (and girls) of my age, I just really liked the idea of monsters and aliens and weird stuff in general, despite being quite capable of scaring myself witless (see above). As soon as I saw the TV ad for this new series – “How much do we really know, and how much are we allowed to know?” – I immediately badgered my mum to take out a subscription. The magazine looked great, with lots of colour pictures and illustrations, and each issue had five-six articles on an impressively broad range of topics, the first few editions taking in such unexplained phenomena as Bigfoot, black holes, ball lightning, and every child’s favourite, spontaneous human combustion




Despite the conspiracy theory posturing of the ad, the overall tone of the magazine itself was one of open-minded enquiry rather than tinfoil-hatted fanaticism, accessible to a general readership but hinting at a shadowy canon of arcane knowledge for those who wanted to go deeper… As it was, I was quite happy to stay at the popularist level, obtaining classic books such as Alien Animals, The World Atlas Of Mysteries and the frankly terrifying Photographs Of The Unknown, without experiencing any kind of occult epiphany. It was just what I was into, and certainly by the end of The Unexplained’s run, I had moved onto other things, music in particular. Yet The Unexplained remains a classic totem for those times, a window into a different way of looking at the world, and a gently eccentric corrective to the harsh realities of Thatcherite Britain.


Music

Peter Hammill – pH7 (1979)
Buy it here - UK / US.

As I’ve confessed elsewhere on the internet, I was a Teenage Prog Rock Fan. Having grown up in a market town in the East Midlands, it was practically de rigueur that the first genre of music I was seriously into was heavy metal. But after the NWOBHM, the early ‘80s saw a resurgence in that most hated, and downright feared (according to the NME anyway) genre of music: progressive rock. Hard now to convey just what a bogeyman ‘prog’ was seen to be by music’s cultural gatekeepers, but its return, even in a diminished and mostly derivative form, was a cause for much mockery and gnashing of teeth. And yes, we’re talking Marillion here.

However, from my perspective as a young rock fan looking to expand my horizons, neo-prog (as it subsequently became known) was a welcome development. Not only did it lead to me encountering the genuinely wonderful Twelfth Night, but it also sent me back in time to investigate where this stuff had originally come from. And after wading through the likes of Genesis, Yes and Camel, I got to the hard stuff: King Crimson and Van Der Graaf Generator. VDGG in particular presented a challenge to my rockist mindset, dispensing for the most part with guitars and promoting the saxophone to lead instrument. But I soon realised this was all essentially moot in the face of the band’s driving force and self-proclaimed “Jimi Hendrix of the voice”, Peter Hammill.

Hammill is an extraordinary figure within British music, and a cult hero of the wyrd. He’s capable of both raging with elemental energy and penning lyrics of remarkable sophistication, ranging from coruscating self-examination to meditations on the nature of existence, often with apocalyptic overtones. He’s also been incredibly prolific throughout his 50+ year career, and there’s any number of albums I could have chosen to highlight his unique talents. But for me, 1979’s pH7 is his finest solo achievement, a perfect melding of Hammill’s fiery intelligence, his commanding but never pompous vocals, and a stripped-back, new wave-channelling sound, austere yet utterly compelling. I also have a strong memory of being given a tape of this album just before going to university, and spending those first few weeks sat in my room, listening to it on headphones in the dark.

Its delights are many, and it’s one of Hammill’s most socially conscious, outward-looking albums, with topics covered including biological weapons (‘Porton Down’), disability (‘Handicap And Equality’), political corruption (‘The Old School Tie’) and the end of the world (‘Mr X Gets Tense’). There’s never any sense of earnest hand-wringing here, but instead a direct and visceral engagement with the issues in question. Musically, it’s often thrillingly intense as well: there’s the paranoid, machine-driven stomp of ‘Careering’; the electro-classical ‘Mirror Images’, like something from Wendy Carlos’s score for A Clockwork Orange; and most intriguing, the crunching yet expressionistic setting of ‘Imperial Walls’, the translation of a 9th century Anglo-Saxon poem. A terrific, mind-expanding record, and a great cover too.



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Saturday, 6 February 2021

Peel Sessions 22

The music from week twenty two of our celebration of the 37 years worth of Peel Sessions.

This week...
Killing Joke (1980)
Jethro Tull (1969)
The Stranglers (1977)
UK Decay (1981)
Thee Hypnotics (1989)
Cocteau Twins (1982)












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Thursday, 4 February 2021

Weird Woods: Tales from the Haunted Forests of Britain

John Miller - Weird Woods: Tales from the Haunted Forests of Britain (British Library)
John Mller (ed)
British Library

Woods play an important and recurring role in horror, fantasy, the gothic and the weird. They are places in which strange things happen, where you often can’t see where you are or what is around you. Supernatural creatures thrive in the thickets. Trees reach into underworlds of earth, myth and magic. Forests are full of ghosts.

In this new collection, immerse yourself in the whispering voices between the branches in Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor, witness an inexplicable death in Yorkshire’s Strid Wood and prepare yourself for an encounter with malignant pagan powers in the dark of the New Forest. This edition also includes notes on the real locations and folklore which inspired these deliciously sinister stories.

It's been a while since I picked up any of these British Library Tales of the Weird books but the've continued to release some very intriguing collections and I've grabbed three recently which have caught my eye.  This one, with my fondness for arboreal shenanigans, was always gong to be a must buy and indeed proved to be a solid collection of, mostly, entertaining tales of the deep dark woods.

It doesn't get off to a particularly auspicious start with the anonymous opener, 'Whisperer in the Woods', lifted from the pages of Charles Dickens' literary journal ' All Year Round'.  It's a poorly written and fairly common or garden sort of story of wronged widows and plucky sons and help from beyond and I'm not entirely convinced by the weird woodiness of Edith Nesbit's 'Man Sized in Marble' but a story as good as this always merits a reread especially on a cold wet winter's night.

Gertrude Atherton's 'The Striding Place' puts a gentleman pining and - sort of - searching for his lost friend into a battle with the elemental force of a raging river that runs through the woods in a story with a distinct but typically circuitous homosexual undertones and a sudden and jarring ending worthy of Robert Aickman.  Another classic tale with distinct homoerotic undertones comes next in the form of E.F. Benson's 'The Man Who Went Too Far' another story I'm always happy to reread.

We have a slght dip with the next two stories as neither W.H. Hudson's 'An Old Thorn' nor Elliott O'Donnell's 'The White Lady' have much to recommend although the former conjures up an interesting initial vibe before losing it's way and petering out.

We are on much more solid ground with Algernon Blackwood's 'Ancient Lights' as the venerable master spins a yarn concerning a fairy wood that reads like a forebear of Robert Holdstock's 'Mythago Wood' books.

We've and interesting and haunting proto-feminist tale of a man's selfish desire and a young woman's love of her home in Mary Webb's 'The Name Tree' whilst in Walter de la Mare's 'The Tree' a pompous and vulgar fruit merchant travels to visit his estranged artist brother who lives and works in the shadow of an exotic tree that is his inspiration.

Marjorie Bowen's 'He Made a Woman...' is a quick and beguiling riff on the story of Blodeuwedd taken from the Mabinogion and also the inspiration for Alan Garner's 'The Owl Service'.  This is followed by one of M.R. James' later and lesser tales, 'A Neighbour's Landmark', which, with it's inocuous story of a haunted wood, is lacking some of the panache of his clasic tales.

The book ends oddly with 'N' the last great flowering of Arthur Machen's genius.  Certainly there's a weird wood in there as this is one of the elder statesman of the weird's stories of the thin places but it feels out of place here and far more at home in the London collection the The British Library have published at the same time.  I rarely turn down the opportunity to reread Machen though and this is a sublime end to an enjoyable collection.

Buy it here - UK / US.

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Sunday, 31 January 2021

The Stalls of Barchester

First screened on Christmas Eve 1971 'The Stalls of Barchester' was the first of the BBCs 'A Ghost Story for Christmas' strand of (mostly) M.R. James stories adapted by Lawrence Gordon Clark.  

'The Stalls of Barchester' stars Clive Swift as Dr. Black (a role he was to revive the following year in 'A Warning to the Curious') an academic engaged in cataloguing the library of Barchester Cathedral who's shown a diary that tells of the life and death of the 17th century Archdeacon Dr Haynes (Robert Hardy) and the mystery of the carvings of The Devil, Death and the black cat made from a tree known locally as 'The Hanging Oak' by a man called 'Austin the Twice-Born'.

Setting the tone of much of the rest of the series this is a sedate affair that Clark fills with delightfully creepy amorphous sounds and flitting visuals and with a sense of mounting dread that makes for compulsive viewing.  This one is perhaps more mannered and maybe even tentative than the later entrants in the series but it's no less powerful for that.

Buy it here - UK / US - or watch it below.




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Saturday, 30 January 2021

Peel Sessions 21

The music from week twenty one of our celebration of the 37 years worth of Peel Sessions.

This week...
Half Man Half Biscuit (1999)
Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac (1967)
John Cooper Clarke (1982)
The Tea Set (1980)
UK Subs (1978)
Broadcast (2000)













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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 welcome a donation towards keeping the blog going - paypal.me/wyrdbritain

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Tuesday, 26 January 2021

Starve Acre

Andrew Michael Hurley
John Murray

The worst thing possible has happened. Richard and Juliette Willoughby’s son, Ewan, has died suddenly at the age of five. Starve Acre, their house by the moors, was to be full of life, but is now a haunted place.
Juliette, convinced Ewan still lives there in some form, seeks the help of the Beacons, a seemingly benevolent group of occultists. Richard, to try and keep the boy out of his mind, has turned his attention to the field opposite the house, where he patiently digs the barren dirt in search of a legendary oak tree.

I wasn't as taken by Hurley's first novel, 'The Loney' (UK / UK), as lots of other people seemed to be but I enjoyed his second, 'Devil's Day' (UK / US), more than others seemed to and with this, his third, I seem to be falling somewhere between the two.

The story of a couple dealing with the sudden death of their troubled young son takes a turn for the weird as the story unfolds.  It's a story that is unremittingly bleak from beginning to end, in fact, increasingly so.

One of the things I didn't like about 'The Loney' was that the - for lack of a better word - 'magic' was so hidden as to be almost an afterthought and as such I thought it felt tacked on whereas in 'Devil's Day' it was beautifully disguised within the story; virtually unnoticed and all the more powerful for it.  In this case it's just too blatant.  The appearance of the hare and Richard's acceptance of such a bizarre occurrence entirely at odds with his reaction to Mrs Forde and the Beacons.

It's a beautifully readable book though. Hurley teases out the story and I found it hard to put the book down, finishing it in two sittings but I have to admit it felt underdeveloped and as such it didn't quite satisfy me to the extent its predecessor did.

Buy it here - UKUS.

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Sunday, 24 January 2021

They Came From Beyond Space

They Came From Beyond Space - Amicus
'They Came From Beyond Space' is a cobbled together sci fi movie from Amicus studios. With a set apparently left over from the Doctor Who movie 'Dalek's Invasion Earth 2150 A.D.' (UK / US) and a Milton Subotsky script made up of vague memories of various 1950s alien invasion movies like 'Quatermass 2' (UK / US), 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' and 'It Came From Outer Space'.

Mind controlling moon rocks come to Earth to recruit slaves to help them rebuild their crashed rocket.  Up against them is action scientist Dr.Curtis Temple (Robert Hutton) who as well as being a rocket scientist is an expert at hand to hand combat, a crack marksman and a metallurgist who can make fashionable anti alien headgear at the drop of a, well, a hat. In charge of the now corporeal moonies is 'Master of the Moon' Michael Gough in a very fetching pink cape.

It really is a load of old tosh. The story is dull, bitty and anticlimactic, the direction from the usually reliable Freddie Francis is pedestrian at best but I suppose he could only do so much with what he had and thanks to his cinematographers eye in parts it does look quite nice.  Truthfully there's nothing here to recommend to you other than if, like me, you have a liking for really bad sci fi movies then all of the above because this is a really bad sci fi movie.

Oh and just to add to the experience the video embedded below isn't a particularly great copy.
 
Buy it here - UKUS - or watch it below.




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Affiliate links are provided for your convenience and to help mitigate running costs.

Saturday, 23 January 2021

Peel Sessions 20

The music from week twenty of our celebration of the 37 years worth of Peel Sessions.

This week...
Spiritualized (1992)
The Damned (1977)
Bonzo Dog Band (1969)
Gorky's Zygotic Mynci (1998)
The Adicts (1979)
This Heat (1977)













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Friday, 22 January 2021

The Mummy

Riccardo Stephens - The Mummy (Valancourt Books)
Riccardo Stephens
Valancourt Books

Dr. Armiston, middle-aged bachelor and general practitioner, has his quiet and routine life interrupted when he is called in to consult on the deaths of two young men. One case seems to be a tragic accident, the other the result of natural causes, but they have one strange thing in common: the presence of the same ancient Egyptian mummy case in both men's homes. When Armiston learns that the sarcophagus is inscribed with a terrible curse promising vengeance on anyone who disturbs the mummy's repose, and as the series of deaths continues, the doctor will risk his own life to unravel the mystery and find out whether the mummy - or something or someone else - is responsible.

I've never had much in the way of an interest for Egyptian history or mythology which goes some way to explaining why this was the last of the four Valancourt books I was kindly gifted that I read.

The blurb on the back made it all sound like an intriguing Hammer style romp with a mummy at it's core but the reality proved to be a more intriguing conundrum, a murder mystery with occult and near sci-fi elements. 

Dr Armiston, a crotchedy, middle-aged batchelor is drawn into a bet between the members of the Plain Speakers Club that has already resulted in the death of a member with a second to follow soon after.  The deaths all seem connected to the lots drawn to take custody of a supposedly cursed sarcophagus for a fortnight.  Armiston throws himself into the centre of the mystery and the lives of the eclectic group of characters that make up the faction of the Plain Speakers.

Armiston is a fairly unlikeable character being a right misery whilst the character I found most interesting doesn't make it far into the book which was a shame.  As a whodunnit it's fairly easy to spot the 'who' and the 'dunnit' isn't entirely relevant.  It's a pretty slow sort of read that I have to admit I struggled to get into for a while.  By the mid point though I'd found it's rhythm, was enjoying it and was intrigued by how it played out.

Buy it here - UK / US.

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Sunday, 17 January 2021

A Warning to the Curious

Originally published in 1925 as part of the collection of stories that bears it's name M.R. James' 'A Warning to the Curious' was the second adaptation made by director and screenwriter Lawrence Gordon Clark for the BBC's annual Ghost Story for Christmas strand.

Updating the story to the depression era 1930s Clark has newly unemployed clerk and  amateur archeologist Paxton (Peter Vaughan) arriving in the town of 'Seaburgh' on the Anglian coast in search of the the last remaining lost crowns of Anglia, buried in ye olde days and reputed to protect the county from invasion.  In the inn there he meets Dr Black (Clive Swift) - who had also appeared in the previous years apatation 'The Stalls of Barchester' - and the typical variety of local yokels that usually populate these sort of things.  He also keeps catching glimpses of a mysterious figure following and watching him from afar.

It's a wonderfully bleak affair with some nicely low key performances particularly from Vaughan and some fantastically intense sound work full of shrill tones and ominous drones along with Clark skillfull direction maintains a perpetual air of menace and certain doom that hangs over Paxton from the moment he arrives.

Buy it here - UK / US - or watch it below.




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Affiliate links are provided for your convenience and to help mitigate running costs.

Saturday, 16 January 2021

Peel Sessions 19

The music from week nineteen of our celebration of the 37 years worth of Peel Sessions.

This week...
The Jam (1977)
Fairport Convention (1969)
Clock DVA (1983)
The Adverts (1979)
Peter Hammill (1974)
New Model Army (1983)













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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 welcome a donation towards keeping the blog going - paypal.me/wyrdbritain


Affiliate links are provided for your convenience and to help mitigate running costs.