Stigma: Folk Horror #5

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A few traditionalists might have sipped their glass of vintage port uneasily while tuned in to the BBC Ghost Story for Christmas in 1977. Previously these had all been classic adaptations of the work of M.R. James or Charles Dickens. This was a new script, set in the present day and had more in common with David Cronenberg than it did some earlier entries in the annual series. And it was about as Christmassy as strawberries and cream at Wimbledon.

Clive Exton supplied the screenplay. Best known for British serial killer film 10 Rillington Place, Exton had also written Doomwatch in 1972, which might be described as an eco-thriller with elements of folk horror. His script here combines body horror with folk horror, not that anybody would have used that latter term when Stigma was first shown on BBC1.

The Delgado family have just moved into a new picture postcard cottage in Avebury, Wiltshire. Katherine (Kate Binchy) and daughter Verity (Maxine Gordon) travel home in a car and Kate faces some low-level resentment from her daughter during the journey. Verity is hardly thrilled to be escaping to the country from London, sensing that teenage kicks will be hard to come by in a sleepy village.

When they arrive home, two workmen Dave and Richard are struggling to hoist a huge stone in their garden from the ground.

‘Why can’t you leave it there?’ Verity protests, and the workmen agree she has a point.

‘It’d spoil the lawn,’ Katherine notes, perhaps a little reluctantly.

You just know this is a bad idea, don’t you?

The camera pans across to the fields beyond the garden, the site of one of the Avebury stone circles that could be seen fleetingly moments earlier.

As she starts preparing a meal, a commentator on the radio outlines the progress of two Voyager spacecraft launched some months beforehand. This is the modern world, and the future is more important than the past, the mysteries of space more fascinating than the ancient mysteries on their doorstep.

Outside, she watches on as the men’s JCB crane finally lifts the stone, albeit only six inches or so above the ground. As it does so some wyrd forces display themselves but only to Katherine.

Wind gusts into her face. She is sent into a trancelike state. She traipses indoors where ornaments, a clock and framed pictures rattle. Small cracks run up a wall. A small mirror smashes. Katherine recovers somewhat.

Verity is unaware that anything strange happened, which the viewer might read as a strong indication that what just took place was only in Katherine’s head.

Soon, Katherine sees blood smearing a plate. She examines her hands but there’s no visible cut. Maybe it’s from the brisket of beef she has begun to prepare, but no – and I better warn you that some spoilers lie ahead.

Tiny droplets of blood begin to inexplicably ooze from her side and forehead for no identifiable reason.

It’s like a particularly distressing anxiety dream (and twice we can glimpse an etching of Fuseli’s famously disturbing image The Nightmare where an incubus sits upon a woman sleeping with outstretched arms). In her bathroom Katherine desperately attempts to wipe the blood from her torso. This is an uneasy, even harrowing watch. I would guess that some complaints were fired off to the BBC about the (semi) nudity but this can’t be viewed as salacious in any way. If anybody enjoys watching this then I’d advise them to seek professional help.

Eventually, the bleeding subsides, and Katherine is able to dine with Peter and Verity that evening.

That night, though, Peter is woken by the noise of a steady drip. Vague voices are heard and laughter. He gets up goes to investigate. An onion rolls off a table, a knife rotates, and some oven rings have been left on. Perplexed, he goes back to bed. 

The next morning, the workmen return with a larger crane. This time round the stone is completely dislodged. Dave and Richard find a skeleton underneath where it lay, and it’s surrounded by carefully placed daggers. Verity suggests that this means the burial was intended for a witch.

‘The old religion,’ she explains. ‘Read about it in a book. They used to bury them under big stones.’

She begins to peel away the outer layer of an onion’s skin, her nails bright red. Maybe she’s also read that onions help ward off evil spirits.

Meanwhile, very bad things are happening to her mother.

Directed by BBC Ghost Story for Christmas regular Lawrence Gordon Clark, Stigma lasts just over half an hour and is continuously engaging from start to finish.

Kate Binchy excels at portraying – without words – the growing panic of her character and there’s a great use of location. By a coincidence, 1977 had started with another drama filmed in Avebury, Children of the Stones on ITV’s late afternoon children’s slot (and believe me, they don’t make them like that anymore on children’s TV).

Most critics disliked Stigma, although surprisingly, the Daily Mail was impressed, their reviewer noting that it ‘worked on the imagination as well as the senses’. I agree, though why the curse unleashed by the stone’s removal only affected Katherine remains a mystery to me.

For more on Stigma, click here.

I Start Counting & Primitive London (Soundtrack Sundays)

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Tomorrow sees the release by the British Film Institute of director David Greene’s I Start Counting! Underrated when it first came out in 1970, the movie has since established itself as a genuine cult favourite. This is largely down to Jenny Agutter giving one of the best ever performances by any teenage British actor, although its reputation has also been enhanced by the growing interest in the music of Basil Kirchin, whose score is remarkably evocative of the era.

It did surprise surprise me to learn that Kirchin had originally wanted Cilla Black to contribute the vocal for the movie’s theme tune. Thankfully, he didn’t get his wish. Instead, an unknown teenager called Lindsey Moore took on the singing duties. According to legend at least, this came about as a result of Lindsey accompanying her mum (Basil’s singer/arranger/composer pal Barbara) on a visit to the studio where he was recording. Having mentioned that her daughter was looking to start a career as a singer, Basil, on the spur of the moment, suggested that Lindsey give the song a try and handed her a microphone.

What a wonderful job she made of the opportunity. It’s this demo that was used as the musical introduction to the film:

We hear many variations of the theme throughout (although I didn’t start counting them) and there’s a few other less successful tracks, which were Basil’s attempts at mimicking the pop music of the day. They Want Love sounds like a band who thought the high point of The Beatles’ career was Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, fronted by a singer who wanted to be Tom Jones. These were left off the soundtrack album.

Now, we all know that Dusty Springfield was one of the greatest vocalists of the 20th century, don’t we? I’m guessing that through Barbara Moore – who was for a time one of Dusty’s backing singers on her TV show – Dusty became aware of the theme song and fell in love with it to the extent that she covered the track on her 1972 See All Her Faces album. While it’s always a real pleasure to hear that voice, I reckon this is another case of the original is best.

This BFI release comes with a number of special features, and these include Worlds Within Worlds, a 33-minute look at Basil Kirchin’s pioneering career by Jonny Trunk, whose label Trunk Records, has helped bring Kirchin’s work to the attention of new generations of music fans, releasing several of his albums of his soundtracks and library music. In recent years, Brian Eno, Jarvis Cocker and Thurston (definitely no relation to Lindsey) Moore are only three of the musicians who have also talked up Kirchin’s talent publicly.

During the feature, Trunk mentions that a definite similarity exists between two of Kirchin’s cues for Primitive London and Bernard Herrmann’s Taxi Driver score, written 12 years later.

Primitive London is a curious mondo style documentary that examined life in the capital in the mid-1960s. ‘The beat,’ we’re advised, ‘is off-beat.’

Director Arnold Louis Miller combines the seedy with the sanctimonious. Any supposedly salacious visuals are always accompanied by a lecturing and moralising narration. Men and women flock to a cabaret club to watch ‘exotic’ dancers, a young woman gets a tattoo – a real rarity at the time – and for a reason I couldn’t totally understand, we visit a kendo dojo. We’re introduced to mods and rockers, beatniks and Soho strippers. Britain might not have moved into full swinging mode just yet but we are shown a swingers’ party in suburbia with ‘car keys dropped into a brandy glass.’

Somehow rated X on its release, this is an interesting enough time capsule but easily the best thing about Primitive London is Basil’s score. Here is one of those musical cues that resembles the main theme from Taxi Driver, listen out for the distinctive 21 note melody that both pieces feature.

If you want to hear Herrmann’s theme for Taxi Driver, click here.

For my review of I Start Counting! click here.

For more on Trunk Records: https://www.trunkrecords.com/

Radio On (1979): British Movie Night #5

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Music plays a big part in Radio On. Its opening credits even advertise not only the artists that we’ll be soon be hearing but the individual tracks. It opens with David Bowie’s Heroes accompanying some obviously handheld camera shots of someone prowling through a house, that initially appears empty. Doors open and close, and we get a glimpse of a man lying motionless in a bath, presumably having committed suicide. Or maybe not. This is not a film that gives much away.

The lyrics move into the German version of the song, Helden, giving a hint that like Deep End, this is another British/West German co-production, funded jointly by the BFI and Wim Wender’s production company. And yes, the influence of the German director’s early movies is easily identifiable here, no surprise as he acted as associate producer and the film was shot by his frequent collaborator Martin Schäfer, while his then-partner Lisa Kreuzer plays a German woman Ingrid searching for her daughter Alice – an in-joke on Wenders’ Alice in the Cities where she played a woman searching for a daughter named – you’ve guessed it – Alice.

One of the dead man’s final actions was to post a parcel to his brother Robert (David Beames) with three Kraftwerk cassette tapes and a note wishing him a happy birthday. Robert decides to investigate the circumstances of the death further but he’s no Colombo.

Radio On is a real rarity, a British road movie. It’s also a minimalist road movie in every way and moves only between London and the Bristol area. Not much over one hundred miles in distance.

Fast-paced, plot driven and dialogue heavy are not descriptions you’ll ever come across if reading about the film. Petit himself has spoken of how he’s always thought of it as ‘more of a report than a dramatic narrative, about the way things looked and the music we played, about cultural climate and weather, buildings and landscape, a sense of alien record.’

You might not be surprised to hear that Hollywood didn’t come knocking on the door of Chris Petit.

Some scenes serve little purpose in the traditional way of moving the film forward, such as Robert getting his hair cut by the world’s least talkative hairdresser or when, alone, he plays an arcade game called Tumblers without any success.

Sometimes a shot seems superfluous but will later suggest something you feel the need to speculate on. When Robert sets off on the autobahn – sorry – motorway – to Bristol he drives under the Westway and past a wall where the prominent slogan ‘FREE ASTRID PROLL’ has been spray painted – Proll being Baader-Meinhof gang member arrested in London during 1978, her capture spawning a rash of supportive graffiti.

Ingrid’s ex-partner has obtained custody of their daughter and doesn’t want her to see her mother – there are some hints later that this situation is down to her behaving irresponsibly – perhaps getting involved in the fringes of some Red Army Faction style group. Or maybe that’s just my imagination running riot.

Robert goes into a pub and plays Wreckless Eric’s Whole Wide World on the jukebox. He drinks alone at the bar but when he leaves, there’s a youngish guy in his car. The two haven’t been seen communicating but Robert seems okay with this. An intense squaddie who has served two spells of duty in Northern Ireland, he has witnessed his pal being murdered by Nationalists, an event that has clearly brought on some kind of post-traumatic stress. This has led him to go AWOL and Robert decides he’d be better travelling alone although there is danger inherent in this choice. A little action at long last.

This is a film that can be self-referential. In his job as a nightshift DJ in a giant bakery, Robert plays Ian Dury and The Blockhead’s Sweet Gene Vincent. Later, an Eddie Cochran obsessed garage attendant (played by an on the cusp of fame Sting) mentions the crash that killed Cochran and injured Vincent, explaining that they had just ended their tour at the Bristol Hippodrome, a venue that we’ve seen earlier. Sting’s character also imparts some Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich trivia decades before a character in Tarantino’s Death Proof claimed that Pete Townshend almost quit The Who to join the Wiltshire act. I’m still not buying that one.

There are some more gently amusing in-jokes. When Robert first comes across Ingrid, she’s talking to a friend in German and there are no onscreen subtitles provided. Later the partner of Robert’s brother watches a film with the sound down so as not to wake Robert, relying instead on the subtitles.

Shot during Britain’s Winter of Discontent with the spectre of Margaret Thatcher’s likely victory at the polls looming large, the country looks cold with Schäfer’s black and white cinematography adding a suitably bleak mood to proceedings.

Radio On failed to grab me the way Wenders’ own early films grabbed me although it didn’t annoy me the way some of his later films like The Million Dollar Hotel annoyed me – the motto here being ignore Bono if he ever tries to pitch you an idea.

It was selected for Director’s Fortnight at Cannes before going on to play Britain’s art-house circuit. In the documentary series Punk Brittania, synth pioneer Daniel Miller of The Normal named it as one of his favourite films of the era, particularly admiring its use of Kraftwerk ‘which really threw the whole thing into a completely different, weird spin.’

Quite simply, the soundtrack is superb, easily the best thing about the film.

It could be split between two distinct camps (almost). Firstly, there are a number of very forward looking acts – Bowie, Kraftwerk, Robert Fripp and Devo – connected in a number of ways: Bowie used to regularly enthuse about Kraftwerk being his favourite group, while they name-checked him on Trans-Europe Express. Robert Fripp supplied lead guitar on Heroes, and after seeing Devo play Max’s Kansas City, Bowie took to the stage to declare them ‘the band of the future’. Fripp volunteered his services for production duties for their debut album but instead they chose Eno assisted by Bowie. The album was recorded at former Kraftwerk producer Conny Plank’s studio.*

Secondly, there are a bunch of Stiffs: the aforementioned Wreckless Eric and Ian Dury and The Blockheads, together with The Rumour and Lene Lovich – whose Lucky Number was shooting up the British singles chart as Petit filmed. Stiff Records’ head honcho Dave Robinson was agreeable to the idea that as many of his publicity hungry label’s roster be represented as possible and a deal was struck at a very agreeable price for Petit, including Devo whose frenetic take on Satisfaction did appear on Stiff in Britain (hence ‘almost’ in brackets in the previous paragraph).

Here’s a clip featuring some Kraftwerk:

Trivia: Nicholas Royle’s novel The Director’s Cut (2000) features a projectionist who has recently programmed and screened Radio On as part of a series of road movies. He also sleeps rough outside Radio On location the Camden Plaza Cinema and imagines meeting Chris Petit as he does so, the director keen to get him involved in a sequel. It’s a recommended read.

* Mark Mothersbaugh recently discovered some tapes of his band jamming with Bowie from these recording sessions and these will likely be released at some point in the not too distant future.

Penda’s Fen: Folk Horror (#3)

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Penda's Fen 1973

When I think about English director Alan Clarke, I think of a young borstal boy clobbering the head of a fellow inmate with a sock filled with pool balls. I think of a bunch of football casuals planning to establish themselves as the most feared firm in the country, or I think of a skinheaded Tim Roth strutting around London on the lookout for some aggro.

His name doesn’t conjure up dramas set in idyllic rural villages overlooking the Malvern Hills, with a central character who is seventeen but does his best to sound like an old, lifelong Conservative, pompously clinging on to the last days of empire. This is Penda’s Fen, though, shot in 1973 by Clarke for the BBC’s Play for Today strand.

The play (or film for television according its author David Rudkin) opens with a shot of a Worcestershire landscape that could almost be a John Constable painting.

Spencer Banks plays the priggish sixth former Stephen. Social skills obviously aren’t his strongpoint, and he is highly unpopular at his posh all-boy’s school. Extemely proud to be English, he is also a devoted Christian (his father is a parson) and he rails against the unions who, he believes, are holding the country to ransom through their industrial actions. I’m guessing he would approve of Mary Whitehouse, Britain’s most high profile killjoy of the era.

Spencer Banks - Penda's Fen

On the week of Penda’s Fen being screened in March 1974, the top 20 of the British singles chart included Queen’s Seven Seas of Rhye, Devil Gate Drive by Suzi Quatro and Bowie’s Rebel Rebel but predictably, Stephen is no glam fan. Instead, he adores Edward Elgar, and the nearest Stephen manages to get to rebel rebelling is when his mother insists he turn the volume on his Bush Dansette as Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius is being blasted out. He glares at her, clearly thinking about disobeying her. But he doesn’t.

The highlight of Stephen’s social life is a night out with his parents to the local parish hall where a debate is taking place between some stuffy locals and Arne, an incomer, who writes controversial TV plays and whose politics are a radical mirror image of Stephen’s. It’s easy to assume that he is a substitute character for Rudkin.

Arne outlines his ideas on how the village and the country as a whole could be improved. He also makes mention of what he sees as a sinister and highly secretive local development with government involvement – later we get a hint of what is happening there with a probable radiation death before this subplot is quietly ditched.

Not surprisingly, Stephen despises Arne. ‘He’s a terrible crank,’ he shrieks to his mother. ‘He’s unnatural.’

‘Stephen,’ she chides him. ‘You can be grotesque.’

Despite his traditional outlook, it’s obvious that he holds some kind of fascination for the local milkman – look that one up if you’re under 30 – a young man who looks like he’s just back from an allnighter at Wigan Casino. Is this sexual?

Strange visions begin to haunt Stephen’s sleep. He sees golden angels and naked schoolboys. A demon visits him, with a face that momentarily morphs into Joel’s. It squats on his bed like the incubus in Henry Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare, its distinctive hooked nose resembling Elgar’s.

Soon, while Stephen shelters from some rain in a barn, he gets to meet the ghost of his favorite composer, and later comes across King Penda, reputedly the last pagan king in England.

Penda's Fen church

As the visions continue, his worldview begins to unravel. He becomes strangely drawn to Arne and his wife and starts visiting them. He even encourages Mrs Arne to adopt children and doesn’t baulk when she mentions that homosexuals ‘make very good fathers I’m told.’

When Stephen asks if his next play will be outrageous, Arne admits that he’ll have to tone it down. ‘The public have lost the imaginative strength they had,’ he explains. ‘Their sight and will to see what’s really going on has been steadily weakened by the entertainment barons for gain, by the yes men for cravenness.’

It wouldn’t be hard to guess what his opinion would be on the dumbed-down television offered up by Britain’s 21st century entertainment barons like X-Factor, Celebrity Big Brother and Love Island.

This complex drama is very 1970s, the pace is slow, its ambitions are high and its author doesn’t feel the need to spell things out, preferring to let the audience work out what is going on for themselves. Don’t expect to see anything like this on TV any time soon.

Penda's Fen March 1974

As noted by the TV correspondent of my local newspaper, the Glasgow Herald, an arts show Real Time felt that the play was important enough to discuss later that same evening over on BBC 2. Rudkin was invited on to have his say and this show lasted 45 minutes, roughly half the length of the play. Sadly, I’d guess that any tape of this held by the BBC would have disappeared long ago.

Penda’s Fen split opinions. While many critics praised it – including, surprisingly enough, the Daily Mail – it wasn’t to be shown again on British television for over fifteen years.

Should it be classified as a folk horror?

Author David Rudkin doesn’t believe so, although as Rob Young pointed out in Electric Eden, his book on visionary British folk music: ‘It was created at exactly the same time as The Wicker Man, and deals with a similar theme: the lingering pagan presence in the British landscape, and by extension, in the soul of the nation.’

Rudkin himself considers it a ‘political work’. It also examines religion, myth, the family, repression, nationhood, and history.

Penda's Fen still

Clarke excels, and some of the phantasmagorical imagery he presents us with is as disturbing as it is startling, especially one involving a truly bizarre series of atrocities in a gorgeous picture book setting, which I won’t ruin for anyone who hasn’t already seen the play.

Some might find criticism with the special effects on display, and although these look outdated today, they must have appeared rather impressive for British television of the era.

Penda’s Fen is far from perfect. There’s little real drama and much of the conflict is interior. The theology debates failed to arouse much interest in me and surely more could have been made of the radiation death, but it is such a thought-provoking piece of drama that I have a hunch it won’t be too long before I’ll want to see it again. Rudkin is a highly individual voice and I’ll be seeking out more of his work in the forthcoming weeks and months.

For more on the play click here, and for David Rudkin’s official site, here you go.