Wednesday 30 September 2015

Doctor Who: The Glamour Chronicles

BBC Books

These fairly regular trios of 'New Series Adventures' hardbacks have become a real favourite of mine over the last few years.  I really like the design and the hand feel of them - hardbacks with printed covers - but equally they're a chance for a slightly longer and more outrageous Doctor story than the TV can provide yet they are less involved and embedded in the mythos than the old Virgin and BBC Books series were.  They do however tend to be a bit of a mixed bag but usually they're at worst readable and there's often at least one - the last set had two - that's just downright fun.

Royal Blood
Una McCormack

“The Grail is a story, a myth! It didn’t exist on your world! It can’t exist here!”
The city-state of Varuz is failing. Duke Aurelian is the last of his line, his capital is crumbling, and the armies of his enemy, Duke Conrad, are poised beyond the mountains to invade. Aurelian is preparing to gamble everything on one last battle. So when a holy man, the Doctor, comes to Varuz from beyond the mountains, Aurelian asks for his blessing in the war.
But all is not what it seems in Varuz. The city-guard have lasers for swords, and the halls are lit by electric candlelight. Aurelian’s beloved wife, Guena, and his most trusted knight, Bernhardt, seem to be plotting to overthrow their Duke, and Clara finds herself drawn into their intrigue...
Will the Doctor stop Aurelian from going to war? Will Clara’s involvement in the plot against the Duke be discovered? Why is Conrad’s ambassador so nervous? And who are the ancient and weary knights who arrive in Varuz claiming to be on a quest for the Holy Grail…?

I've read several of Ms McCormack' books before and they're usually a diverting enough read with a nice core concept.  This one though was decidedly weak throughout.

Knights and medieval castles are never going to particularly enamour me to a book and when you tie in King Arthur and the quest for the Grail I'm pretty much gone.  

What really let this one down though was some sloppy writing, plotting and editing.  The time frames are all over the place with, for instance, the questing knights travelling for three weeks over a distance that Clara and Emfil manage to subsequently travel in the turn of a page even though they're on the other side of the country.

This really should have been a lot better and a title like that could have sent the story to any number of interesting destinations but instead what we got was several strands of a story that failed to gel in any meaningful way.

Big Bang Generation
Gary Russell

“I'm an archaeologist, but probably not the one you were expecting.”
Christmas 2015, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.
Imagine everyone's surprise when a time portal opens up in Sydney Cove. Imagine their shock as a massive pyramid now sits beside the Harbour Bridge, inconveniently blocking Port Jackson and glowing with energy. Imagine their fear as Cyrrus "the mobster" Globb, Professor Horace Jaanson and an alien assassin called Kik arrive to claim the glowing pyramid. Finally imagine everyone's dismay when they are followed by a bunch of con artists out to spring their greatest grift yet.
This gang consists of Legs (the sexy comedian), Dog Boy (providing protection and firepower), Shortie (handling logistics), Da Trowel (in charge of excavation and history) and their leader, Doc (busy making sure the universe isn't destroyed in an explosion that makes the Big Bang look like a damp squib).
And when someone accidentally reawakens The Ancients of the Universe - which, Doc reckons, wasn't the wisest or best-judged of actions – things get a whole lot more complicated…

Gary Russell is a long term DW writer and aficionado with a plethora of novels and audio plays under his belt.  I've read and listened to a few and find them to be a bit of a hodgepodge in terms of quality.

As a writer he has a light, fluid and personable style, he's hugely knowledgeable on his subject and an easter egg spotters dream author (and for me the last two are a large part of the problem).  The plot of 'Big Bang Generations' is all of the above and makes for a heads down, see you at the finish ride as we watch the Doctor , an archaeologist friend and some others attempt to avoid the imminent destruction of Sydney followed closely by the universe.

There's a problem here though and it's a doozy.  Russell's version of the 12th is quite simply wrong;  it's just not him.  He's personable, likable, huggy, jocular, patient and wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.  His version of 12 says things like, "Cold pizza. My favourite. Not." which I just can't imagine 12 ever saying.  I spent much of the book picturing the Doctor here as a 10th / 11th hybrid.  A big kid running around with his mates saving the universe. This may sound like a small thing, they're all the same person after all but getting the specific doctor right is fundamental and he didn't.

The book itself is a romp. It's entertaining enough and an ok place to visit but fortunately you don't have to stay too long.

Deep Time
Trevor Baxendale

"I do hope you’re all ready to be terrified!" 
The Phaeron disappeared from the universe over a million years ago. They travelled among the stars using roads made from time and space, but left only relics behind. But what actually happened to the Phaeron? Some believe they were they eradicated by a superior force… Others claim they destroyed themselves.
Or were they in fact the victims of an even more hideous fate?
In the far future, humans discover the location of the last Phaeron road – and the Doctor and Clara join the mission to see where the road leads.
Each member of the research team knows exactly what they’re looking for – but only the Doctor knows exactly what they’ll find.
Because only the Doctor knows the true secret of the Phaeron: a monstrous secret so terrible and powerful that it must be buried in the deepest grave imaginable…

There, I told you there'd be one.  'Deep Time' is fun one this time out.  It brings to a close the poorly conceived 'Glamour' storyline in a satisfying way.  

Unlike 'Royal Blood' it's tightly plotted and unlike 'Big Bang Generation' the Doctor (and Clara) is absolutely spot on.  The words feel like they are being spoken by Capaldi and his actions and reactions are true to the character.

The story is fairly straightforward as the Doctor and Clara join an expedition to investigate a deep space wormhole linked to the lost Phaeron race.  Joining them on board are a team of scientists, a rich adventurer and the four person crew of pilot, navigator and mechanics.  When everything inevitably goes wrong the crew find themselves stranded on a mysterious planet being periodically thrown further and further backwards in time as their numbers dwindle alarmingly and the Doctor frantically searches for the TARDIS whilst someone else in the crew searches for something else.

It was a delight to read. A big , fast, witty, Doctor Who romp that felt at home in the new series and also felt correct to the DW mythology without seeming to be slavishly mired in the history.  

I could happily read more like this and hope the next batch of three provides more of this and less of the others.

Sunday 27 September 2015

The Omega Factor

The Omega Factor
After leaving the TARDIS in 1978 and before confining herself to a Japanese POW camp for two years in 'Tenko', Louise Jameson starred in the single series of what, until recently, was perhaps one of the forgotten chapters of British weird TV, 'The Omega Factor'.

Created by scriptwriter Jack Gerson, 'The Omega Factor' was a 10 episode series produced by BBC Scotland that told of journalist Tom Crane (James Hazeldine also star of Chocky and The Last Train) and his involvement in Department 7, a shadowy government agency (is there any other kind?) concerned with psychic phenomena.  Also employed by the agency are, Jameson's, Dr. Anne Reynolds and Dr Roy Martindale (John Carlisle) the driven and unscrupulous department head.

The Omega Factor
Crane is drawn in to the orbit of the agency as a result of his wife's murder by evil psychic, Edward Drexel played by Cyril Luckham who will be familiar to some readers as 'The White Guardian' in the Tom Baker era Doctor Who storyline 'The Key To Time'.  The rather aggressive, slightly unlikeable and, where Ann is concerned, inappropriately attentive Crane is encouraged to join the organisation both to hunt for Drexel and to explore his own nascent psychic abilities.  Once involved he slowly comes to realise that there is a larger conspiracy at work, the Omega of the title, and that his own organisation may not be completely innocent.

The Omega Factor
Only 10, 50 minute episodes were made before the series ended on a bit of a cliffhanger.  In it's time it achieved a level of notoriety when self righteous, moaning, busybody Mary Whitehouse denounced the episode, 'Powers of Darkness' as being "thoroughly evil" which, according to his obituary in Scottish newspaper 'Herald Scotland', delighted Gerson.

The series boasted some fairly high production values and some nicely creepy and unpleasant moments.  It was definitely made with an adult audience in mind and this is reflected in the behaviour of the characters but also in things like the fabulous diegetic music choices. It is also very much of it's time in terms of things like Crane's (and Martindale's for that matter) behaviour towards Anne.

I've seen this series at various times compared to both 'Sapphire and Steel' and also 'The X-Files' but it rarely achieves the sublime craziness of the former and my knowledge of the latter is really too limited to accurately compare but on the surface it seems a fair comparison.

The series has recently been revived by audio maestros 'Big Finish' who have produced an audiobook of Gerson's novelisaton of the series and who have issued several series of new episodes starring Louise Jameson (whose Dr Anne Reynolds is now in charge of Department 7) and John Dorney (as Crane's son, Adam) which will hopefully raise the profile of the original.

You can also buy the series here - The Omega Factor - The Complete BBC Series [DVD]


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Friday 25 September 2015

Wyrd Britain TV Themes

With several hours to spare the other day I decided to make a playlist of some of the themes from the shows we love here at Wyrd Britain.  I'm entirely certain I've missed more than a few out but these are the ones that came to mind most readily.

Included in the list are classic sci-fi themes (starting with the most obvious), cartoons, supernatural, spy and action themes, kids shows and some light entertainment.

If you think of anything I've missed from the list then please leave a comment below.

hope you enjoy.

Monday 21 September 2015

The Time Machine (1960)

Today, September 21st 2015, marks what would have been the 149th birthday of probably the single most important author in British (if not global) science fiction, Herbert George Wells.  To mark this occasion I'm going to share with you one of my favourite things, the 1960 MGM adaptation of his novella 'The Time Machine'.

Originally written in 1895 Wells' novella tells of an anonymous inventor - identified only as 'The Time Traveller' - who uses his craft to travel far into the future to the 803rd century and then on another 30 milion years to the eventual end of the Earth.

The film, in many ways remains faithful to Wells' original just with the emphasis being, of course, more on action as opposed to Wells' meditation on class and society (and possibly free range farming).  Starring Rod Taylor as H. George Wells (can you see what they did there?) an inventor who creates a time machine - surely one of the most beautifully realised pieces of filmic sci fi gadgetry - and who uses it to travel forward to the seemingly idyllic surface world of the Eloi and the subterranean hell of the mutant Morlocks.

Taylor, in his first starring role, is an engaging enough lead in a movie that he mostly carries on his own shoulders with his co star Yvette Mimieux (playing the Eloi, Weena) mostly reduced to giving puzzled looks and being in need of rescuing.  The sets are nicely realised, the action sequences are slick and the supporting cast are solid.

Having been based on a novella that it follows fairly closely the core story at the heart of the movie is fairly thin but, for me at least, it remains a classic of its time and its genre and is a film I can, have and will watch again and again.

Buy it here - The Time Machine [DVD] [1960] - or watch it below

Wednesday 16 September 2015

The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Scroll of the Dead

David Stuart Davies
Titan Books

Holmes attends a seance to unmask an impostor posing as a medium, Sebastian Melmoth, a man hell-bent on obtaining immortality after the discovery of an ancient Egyptian papyrus. It is up to Holmes and Watson to stop him and avert disaster...
In this fast-paced adventure, the action moves from London to the picturesque Lake District as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson once more battle with the forces of evil.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s timeless creation returns in a new series of handsomely designed detective stories. From the earliest days of Holmes’ career to his astonishing encounters with Martian invaders, the Further Adventures series encapsulates the most varied and thrilling cases of the worlds’ greatest detective.

So, my guess is that David Stuart Davies is a bit of a Sherlock Holmes nut.  I've read several things with his name on and have several more waiting their time in the sun and they are all Holmes related.  A quick check of his website reveals many more strings to his bow (a Stradivarius played at night whilst pondering a tricky conundrum) but for me he's a Sherlock writer and a very good one at that.

David Stuart Davies
'The Scroll of the Dead' is an ancient Egyptian papyrus purported to contain the secret of immortality to whoever can crack it's code.  Hunting for it is a sadistic dandy by the name of Sebastian Melmoth who is determined to defeat death itself.  Through a tangle of events Holmes finds himself increasingly drawn into the hunt for the scroll as a trail of murders leads him further into it's mysteries and the obsessions of those surrounding it.

It's a fairly faithful Holmes tale with a hint of the supernatural about it although the arch-rationalist is having none of that in his pursuit of his quarry.  There are moments when I think DSD left Holmes uncharacteristically wide open and defenceless (the confrontation in the cellar for one) which is too out of character but for the main part Davies knows his characters and has created a very readable Holmes pastiche.

Sunday 13 September 2015

The Wombles

In 1968 Elisabeth Beresford created the first of what became some 20 books (6 of them novels) about small, furry, burrowing creatures that lived under London's Wimbledon Common called Wombles.  From the outset the books were a huge success that tapped very much into the emerging countercultural zeitgeist of simple, rural living and green issues.  The books have since been translated into various languages and continue to sell to this day.

Without wishing to take anything away from the books this enduring success can be, in no small part, attributed to The Wombles step away from the page and on to the screen with the 1973 BBC TV series. 
Elisabeth Beresford

This new series was written by Beresford and directed by Anglo-French animator Ivor Wood who had previously worked on 'The Magic Roundabout' (with Serge Danot) and 'The Herbs' and who would go on to make 'Paddington' and 'Postman Pat'.

Ivor Wood
Responsibility for the theme tune was given to the then virtually unknown songwriter Mike Batt who obtained the rights to musical exploitation of the characters and later went on to be entirely to blame for 'Bright Eyes'.

Providing the voices for the Wombles was British TV legend Bernard Cribbins.  In the video below he talks about the show.

Two series, each consisting of thirty 5 minute episodes, of  'The Wombles' were produced in 1973 and 1975 and all 6 can be viewed in the two playlists below.

They are beautifully made, utterly charming, slightly mischievous and gloriously daft.


Tuesday 8 September 2015

The School Is Full of Noises

BBC Radio 4

Poet Ian McMillan explores the world of ceative music making in the music education of the 1960s as he uncovers the work of teachers and children who created avant garde music and wonders how this impacted on the participants.

At only 30 minutes long it's far too short for such a large and interesting topic but it is fascinating with contributions from both enthusiasts - Jonny Trunk - and experts - Stephanie Pitts.

The BBC link won't embed so listen after the jump...

The School Is Full of Noises 

(if that link goes dead Jon Savage has it has his site here)

If this sort of thing is as up your particular street as it is mine then this is a subject that we've featured before with reviews of two Trunk Records releases...

Music for Children (Schulwerk)


Classroom Projects


Monday 7 September 2015

Horror Stories

Susan Price (ed)
Kingfisher Books

Chills, spills and empty coffins! This wide-ranging collection of twenty-four spine-tingling stories draws on the best traditions of classic horror, from powerful myths and folktales to contemporary stories of man-made terrors. With contributions by writers of the calibre of John Steinbeck, Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Dickens, T. H. White, Philip K. Dick and Stephen King, this is a truly chilling anthology.

On one weird day out at a local town a few months back I found 3 books in this series of anthologies in 3 separate charity shops (and then a few weeks later another in a different shop in a different town).  I bought 2; this one and a Vampire one.

What we have here is very much the modern equivalent of the old Pan, Fontana, Puffin anthologies.  The contents selected by the author Susan Price, is a mixed bag of the famous and the less so, the old and the new, the ghastly and the funny.

There's 24 separate tales here each of which I jotted a sentence about in my handy little notebook as I read and that seemed a good enough idea for this review so here goes the most spur of the moment review I've ever written.

E. F. Benson
1. Algernon Blackwood - The Kit Bag.
- Dark and spooky story about a man terrified by a bag.

2. Stephen King - Here There Be Tygers
- Pointless tale of urine related shyness and a tiger.

3. E.F. Benson - The Room in the Tower
- Prophetic dreams of a horrid old woman and a creepy room lead to a poor ending.

4. Philip K. Dick - Beyond Lies the Wub
- Very odd sci-fi tale of the ethics of food.

5. Susan Price - Feeding the dog
- A short fun morality tale about the costs of evil.

Nicholas Fisk
6. Nicholas Fisk - Teddies Rule OK
- A thoroughly, and I do mean thoroughly, creepy girl with teddy bear story.

7. Eleanor Farjeon - Grendel the Monster
- A quick telling of the Beowolf story.

8. Leon Garfield - A Grave Misunderstanding
- A fun little ghostly tale of the differences between what a dog 'sees' and what a human does.

9. Charles Dickens - Captain Murderer
- An oddly written tale of cannibalism and revenge.

10. Joan Aiken - Something
- Enigmatic and terrifying hauntings & dreams affect the males of a family.

Guy de Maupassant
11. Guy de Maupassant - The Hand
- Spooky tale of a haunted murderous hand.

12. Ellen Emerson White - The Boy Next Door
- Psychopathy American teen style

13. Scottish folktale - The Murder Hole
- Murder on the moors

14. Terry Jones & Michael Palin - The Famous Five go Pillaging
- A deeply Pythonesque tale of the collapse of Roman Imperialism.

15. John Steinbeck - the Affair at 7 Rue de M-
- Pointless story of malevolent bubble gum.

Vivien Alcock
16. Vivien Alcock - A Change of Aunts
- A fun tale of swampy retribution.

17. Edgar Allen Poe - The Cask of Amontillado
- Poe really liked walling people up.  Someone should check his house.

18. English folktale - The Pear Drum
- Odd tale about the perils of misbehaviour.

19. Philippa Pearce - The Dog Got Them
- Dog versus the D.T.s

20. Saki - Gabriel-Ernest
- A story of lycanthropy that begins well and ends poorly.

Philippa Pearce
21. Jan Mark - Nule
- Creepy little tale of anthropomorphism .

22. Jerome K. Jerome - The Dancing Partner
- A robotic take on 'The Red Shoes'.

23. Margaret Bingley - The Ring
- Young girl buys jewellery with a hidden cost.

24. T. H. White - The Troll
- Odd little story of a man confronted by a hungry troll whilst holidaying in Norway.

I'm so pleased they still do anthologies of this type for kids especially ones with this much good stuff but do many young people read Victorian horror?  I hope so.

Sunday 6 September 2015

Wyrd Britain mix 6

It's a beautiful, sunny, late summer, Sunday afternoon here so I thought I'd share with you the latest Wyrd Britain mix.  This time out I've put together a summery soundtrack special.

Opening proceedings is Basil Kirchin's soundtrack to 1960s swinging London before Albert Elms clocks in with two minutes of The Prisoners time.  George Chisholm's trombone provides one of the most recognisable of cartoon themes and the legendary Barry Gray provides another.

Moving into the 21st century we find Broadcast running the 'Berberian Sound Studio' and then into a 1980s version of the far flung future with Ken  Freeman's synthtastic theme to The Tripods.

Two of my favourites next with Alan Tew's brilliant, and much used, theme for 'The Hanged Man' and then Geoff Love and his very busy orchestra provide their version of the sound of The Saints return.

Roy Budd stops trying to get Carter and instead goes after a funky 'Foxbat'. Edwin Astley is incidentally soundtracking Patrick McGoohan's second appearance in this mix and The BBC Radiophonic Workshop's Roger Limb looks for an aquatic spectre.

Finally, Mike Wilkinson conjures up a nude angel whilst trying not to get too much blood on one of Satan's toenails and Cat's Eyes open a very specific door for The Duke of Burgundy.


Friday 4 September 2015

Joan Aiken

We're big fans of Joan Aiken here at Wyrd Britain.  Her crystal clear prose and peerless imagination has produce a body of work that includes works for adults, children and what we would now describe as young adults.

Her two most famous works, 'The Wolves of Willoughby Chase' series and the Arabel and Mortimer books for younger readers (illustrated by Quentin Blake)  have cemented her place in the pantheon of British writers but there was far more to the good lady's pen than these.  We've recently been finally treated to a complete edition of the Armitage Family stories that she wrote throughout her life - read our review here - and she produced several collections of supernatural fiction that we will be featuring in Wyrd Britain as we go - read our review of 'A Bundle of Nerves' here.

But today I have no new reviews for you, instead, on the occasion of what would have been her birthday, I would like to share with you this lovely little film, produced in 1969 for the Puffin Club, that follows Ms. Aiken around various locations that feature in her books and in her life.


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Tuesday 1 September 2015

A Rag, A Bone and A Hank of Hair

Nicholas Fisk
Puffin Books

In the twenty-third century children have become scarce. The government have begun manufacturing 'Reborns', new people from old and an unusually bright boy is sent to live with an experimental family of reborn 1940 Londoners.

In the far flung future some 200 years from now a new society has emerged from the aftermath of a nuclear war.  This society is rigidly controlled both by the Elders and by the 'sleepers' implanted in the back of the populaces heads in order to moderate their behaviour. And, much like the society they inhabit, the people of this time are sterile.

To solve this problem, in a manner never explained, the Elders have developed a way of not only cloning people from the past but also of doing so with their memories and personalities intact (yeah, I know).  

In order to monitor these 'reborns' 12 year old genius - and doesn't he know it - Brin is placed into a scenario appropriate to the world from which the reborns have been taken, England 1940, in particular the kitchen of a London terraced house.The reborns - two children and one older lady - are treated as test subjects by the Elders, much to Brin's disgust, as they plot their behaviour in a variety of increasingly callous ways.

Nicholas Fisk
As the story progresses it starts to become increasingly clear that the reborns are not only becoming bored with the scenario they find themselves unwittingly living night after night but they also hint at the strange, vivid thoughts they are having regarding the increasingly elaborate stories Brin spins about his fictional, cover story, fighter pilot uncle.

This all leads into the books final and quite odd act as the world of those in the scenario changes catastrophically.  The conclusion is very ambiguous and one is left with feelings of sadness and confusion but tempered with a sense of hope and purpose as visions and a resounding command echo around this barren land.

As a novel it is a curious sort of read; as a kids book it's quite odd indeed.  As readers we are being held at arms length, possibly deliberately to allow us access to Brin's initial remoteness and arrogant contempt for those around him but the problem with that is that as Brin thaws, and the little that does become clear does so, he remains quite unlikeable.

As I said earlier there is no clear resolution and as such I've ended up spending longer thinking about this book than I did reading it which surely can't be a bad thing.