The Ploughman’s Lunch

•December 10, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Pretty Fantasmagorical is on temporary hiatus while I work on my PhD on the emergence of hauntology as a genre in electronic music. If you’ve found your way here that might be the sort of thing you’re interested in too, in which case you may enjoy my PhD blog The Ploughman’s Lunch.

Happy Day,

Hazel x

Century Falls

•August 20, 2014 • 1 Comment

Do you hear that? That faint chiming sound in the distance, just detectable over the howl of the wind? Kind of melancholy… ethereal… vaguely threatening? Yeah, don’t worry about that, it’s just the sound of my uncanny village alarm going off. It’ll stop in a minute.

Though you’d never have guessed from the name, Century Falls is a village with a dark secret, this may or may not be to do with an unresolved issue from the past (it is). And hang on, what’s going on here then? Is there a mysterious evil mastermind running amok, plotting to harness all that malevolent energy for their own nefarious purposes? But who could it possibly be? Well let’s examine the suspects;

Perhaps it’s teenager Ben. Ben is that sort of boy. No not that sort of boy, the other sort, you know, the type that can set a lake on fire. With his mind. Ben’s a wildcard, which means he has extremely developed psychic and telekinetic powers. We later learn each time he harnesses these powers a portion of his mind is destroyed. One can only imagine this destruction has begun in the part of his brain responsible for charm and good manners. At least Ben’s pyromania is more creative than that of the equally rude and charmless boys from the village where I grew up, who mainly confined their activities to setting fire to the recycling pavilion. Perhaps he’s not the evil mastermind after all.

Maybe it’s his strange twin sister Carey with whom there are hints of an incestuous relationship and whose accent suggests Essex origins, despite her brother’s plummier tongue. No not her, entirely too dull.

Could it be one of the Harper sisters, the aggressive elderly spinsters who run the corner shop/post office? They do seem very angry about something and they do talk about dead children an awful lot.

If not them it’s got to be Richard Naismith, the wealthy, power crazed local landowner. He’s in possession of some very intriguing artifacts and no mistakin’. Namely a locked cabinet containing a weird golden mask and an ultrasound of the unborn child of the newest Century Falls resident, a woman he’s just tricked into moving to the village. He also has a henchman, which is always a dead give away.

So the story with Century Falls is that at some point in 1992 Colin Cant, children’s television director of some note (Grange Hill, Moondial, Dark Season) has a bit of a crisis of confidence in the latest spooky kid’s drama he’s supposed to be getting ready for the 5.10 Wednesday afternoon slot on BBC1. Luckily he’s been working with this chap Russell T Davies who seems to have quite the gift for scaring children and he commissions him to quickly write something to replace the original script. Davies duly delivers the first episode of Century Falls, the story of socially awkward teenage girl who moves to said uncanny village with her expectant mother. Cant likes it and away we go. The reason this sequence of events is important is it goes long way to explaining the unevenness of Century Falls, why, to use an awkward and slightly sexual metaphor, it’s so top heavy. Ok, let’s get all of the awkward sexual metaphors out of the way here and now. It explains why Russell T Davies shot his load too soon.

The first episode is packed to bursting with perverse, sinister characters of the variety most supernatural kids dramas confine to the odd one or two. We’re not introduced to them gently either, they’re unrelenting. This isn’t an uncanny village, this is Dante’s 5th circle of hell. There’s a lot of bellowing. And then we have the remaining 5 episodes (and more bellowing) to tediously try to determine who is the least trustworthy/most deranged. Almost as if someone wrote the first episode and worked out where it was going later. To get to this point it is therefore necessary to throw in as many mysterious otherworldly concepts as possible to maintain intrigue/try and bulk out the plot. The best thing about this approach is it also excuses the introduction of some really useful (lazy) narrative devices. A waterfall that ‘remembers’, where memories are stored in the water (everyone can just peer at it and see the past), a boy with extrasensory powers (everyone can touch him and see the past), a strange shared collective consciousness among the villagers (everyone can look into the middle distance and see the past).

Century Falls is a slightly different viewing experience for me, in that the majority of supernatural kids TV I watch is via jittering VHS tapes and badly pixelated YouTube videos. Century Falls is available on DVD, the quality is good, it comes with a ‘collectors booklet’ which means I don’t have to put my glasses on to try and make out blurry credits. It also means I can read in afore mentioned booklet what additional stuff Davies was originally planning for the plot. This includes a university lecturer investigating a stone circle with his young assistant, mysterious symbols carved into megalithic stones, some leylines, and assorted ghosts/timeslip apparitions (for good luck). It’s hard to tell if it’s a loving homage or a hastily drafted 1970s supernatural drama checklist made flesh. Hey Russell, you forgot the exorcism (and the owls).

The booklet just annoys me. I don’t want to watch anything that comes with a booklet anymore. The notes shamelessly ingratiate Century Falls into the cannon of supernatural children’s drama, as if using the idioms of every 1970s spooky TV programme Davies ever watched while growing up somehow elevates it to their status. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have it’s moments, the evil mastermind plot twist is delicious, just in the wrong place. Most of the characters are genuinely interesting, if slightly one dimensional, and due to the central theme of the village as a place where no children have been born for 40 years have been cast from a stock of experienced character actors that really know how to do their stuff. The accompanying score from David Ferguson is understated and brooding, and teases up the hair on the back of ones neck most satisfactorily.

I did enjoy this, don’t think I didn’t, it’s just overall Century Falls is clumsy and badly paced (like it’s heroine) and wears it’s influences on it’s sleeve, which is perhaps the problem with viewing it retrospectively. Had I been one of the four million children quietly freaking out while watching this after school things may have been different. As it is, knowing how much more Davies is capable of, I can’t help watching with detachment, duly noting the nods to various 1970s supernatural offerings, a bit of Rosemary’s Baby here, a bit of the Wickerman there, oh look, there’s the guy from Witchfinder General! And what’s this we see emerging from the landscape, the ultimate sign of deference to children’s drama of the 1970s? Yep, a nice neat, heart warming BBC happy ending. Didn’t see that coming.

The Moon Stallion

•April 6, 2014 • 4 Comments

Girls and horses, eh?  What’s that all about?  No doubt there’s some disturbing Freudian interpretation that would explain it all, but perhaps we’ll save that one for another day and just accept  in a kids TV sense girls and horses solving mysteries go together  like boys and dogs causing mischief.  I’ve never been into all this horsey drama stuff, many a decent Sunday morning viewing schedule was ruined for me in the 80s with re-runs of The Adventures of Black Beauty, so watching the Moon Stallion really didn’t appeal to me much.  A timeless story of a girl and a magic horse… gimme a break, that horse is gonna have to have some frickin’ top drawer super-powers to keep me interested.

So anyway, as usual I digress, let’s start at the beginning.  The Moon Stallion was a 6 part drama produced in 1978 by Anna Home for the BBC.  We know  it’s a BBC production as we’ve already had an earnest history lesson on the Uffington chalk horse and it’s significance before we’ve even been introduced to the main characters.  And there’s more where that came from, British history, Celtic festivals, Roman deities and an awful lot of King Arthur stuff are practically crow bared into the Moon Stallion.  Hats off to the mental capabilities of  kids in the 70s, I did a lot of pausing for wiki-checks throughout this one.  On the plus side I’ve probably now reached the stage where I could do a Mastermind specialist subject round on Arthurian legend based entirely on what I’ve learnt from kids supernatural drama.


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The Moon Stallion was written by Brian Hayles who sadly died before the show was broad cast.  Quite the British dramatic stalwart (he wrote for Dr Who and the Archers, what a combo) Hayles also wrote spin off book and cartoon strip adapted for Tammy (girls comic with lots of horsey tales, drawings of puppies and wholesome japes).  The story revolves around Diana, a young blind girl who accompanies her father Professor Purwell to the house of Sir Mortenhurze who wants Purwell, an archaeologist, to investigate the legends of the locality.

Diana is played by Sarah Sutton, who is most famous for being Dr Who companion Nyssa in the early 80s.  In case your roman mythology is a little patchy, Diana was named after the roman goddess of both hunting and the moon, which is convenient as there’s a bloody great moon stallion with a curse attached to it galloping about.  To make up for being blind Diana also has some occult powers, the most useful being extra sensory horse perception.  While Perwell traipses around Berkshire making half hearted attempts to discover the lost site of Mount Baden,  Diana is frequently found looking haunted after accidentally stumbling into a “killing place” or having got some weird vibes off a big stone on a jolly outing to the local megalithic burial chamber.

The Moon Stallion is unexpectedly dense, there’s a lot in the way of myths and legends to get your head round, evil has to be fought, sometimes while wearing a nighty, and people actually die.  Nether the less it’s still a BBC period piece, adventures are stopped as it’s time to go home for lunch and everyone speaks very nicely.  This may be partly explained by the fact that it’s directed by Dorothea Brooking, a lady who bizarrely in her long career working in children’s television drama managed to produce the Secret Garden no less than three times, in 1952, 1960 and 1975. She also did the Railway Children twice and the 1974 version of Tom’s Midnight Garden, a book which the BBC seem to be contractually obligated to dramatise at least once a decade for eternity or at least until some point in the future where we start wearing clothes woven from space dust and children no longer understand the concept of pyjamas.

The pedigree of the Moon Stallion is further enhanced by music from Howard Blake, he’s the guy that wrote the music for the Snowman!  He’s actually written an awful lot of stuff and if you’re the kind of person that likes to chance upon the soundtrack to a fish fingers advert directed by Ridley Scott you’ll probably find his website a whole lot of fun.

Despite my personal aversion to all things equestrian I found the Moon Stallion surprisingly enjoyable.  At times does feel a little bit like an advert for English Heritage, they really get their money’s worse out of that massive chalk horse, but it’s a very good example of a story bolstered by snippets of historical fact and real geography which can be a difficult mix to get right.  Some of the acting too is top notch, and perhaps because of it’s reliance on exterior scenes it manages not to fall into the cheap looking 1970s trap. Yeah, it’s really neigh bad (sorry).

Penelope Lively

•April 18, 2013 • 2 Comments

I’ve not watched a whole bunch of kids TV lately.  You hear yourself telling some confused inebriate at a party you’re interested in the supernatural, mythological and metaphysical in children’s television drama once too often and you kind of get to thinking maybe you should broaden your interests a bit more.  I did however attempt to purchase the second series of Shadows, the 1970s Thames TV spookfest as a birthday treat a couple of months ago.  Season 2 is no place to start any series, but Shadows is a supernatural compendium, essentially a TV version of those great ghost story anthologies you sometimes uncover in charity shops with a picture of an angry black cat or a skull with a candle in it’s eye on the front,  so I figured it was okay to start in the middle.  There was also one story in particular I was keen to see from Series 2 called Time Out of Mind by Penelope Lively.

In the end the DVD never materialised, though you’ll be please to know I did obtain a full refund, but it got me to thinking  about what the best birthday present I’d ever received was.  I’m sure I got a  lot of great gifts as a child, but to be honest its mostly a blur of lego and Our Price vouchers.  The only birthday present I remember with any form of clarity was a book I was given called the Revenge of Samuel Stokes by  Penelope Lively, yeah, the same Penelope Lively that wrote Time Out of Mind…  It has my name on the index page in the spidery black capitals of an 8 year old still to master joined up writing, but one very sure no one else was going to make off with their newly acquired literary treasure.  So this is a blog about Penelope Lively, writer of scary children’s stories.  A refreshing change from a blog about scary children’s TV programmes I’m sure you’ll agree…

The Revenge of Samual Stokes by Penelope Lively, so good I wrote my name in it twice.

The Revenge of Samual Stokes by Penelope Lively, so good I wrote my name in it twice.

Before she was a terribly serious credible adult writer Penelope Lively wrote a lot of books for children.  In a Guardian interview from 2009 she described most of these as “crap, honestly”, but my ten year old self would have been incredulous at such a suggestion, had I known what incredulous meant.  The Revenge of Samuel Stokes was my introduction to Lively and from then on all pocket monies for the foreseeable future were dedicated to the pursuit of getting my hands on as many of her books as possible and bloody hell, I really treasured those books.  Once my collection was amassed each  of my Penelope Lively books had a  ’This book belongs to’ sticker affixed perfectly symmetrically  inside the front cover, name carefully inscribed with a calligraphy pen  in my best handwriting.

Written in 1981 The Revenge of Samuel Stokes is a highly enjoyably but slightly silly book, a idiosyncratic ghost story  not dissimilar in tone to her best known and most critically acclaimed children’s novel, the Carnegie Medal winning Ghost of Thomas Kempe, written 8 years earlier.  Looking at her writing chronologically the Revenge of Samuel Stokes was at the point of publication one of her lighter kids works and signalled a shift into more whimsical territory, with a lot of her  writing for children after this targeting a younger demographic.  Proceeding this however in the early to mid seventies was a pretty hefty body of work largely much more serious, and usually with a strong historical grounding.   I couldn’t get enough of it.

It’s only with retrospect that I can see that Lively sowed the seeds of interest in all things uncanny; folklore (the Wild Hunt of Hagworthy), deserted villages (Astercote), stone circles (the Whispering Knights) and haunted houses galore.  With sensitive, intelligent, ponderous heroes and heroines Lively wrote perfect supernatural children’s fiction crying out to be dramatised.

The 1970s and 80s were a good time to be writing fiction for kids in the UK.  A wealth of children’s publishing imprints –  Fontana Lions, Armada, Puffin – meant a market buoyant with new writing as well as reprints of children’s classics .  This in turn fed into television, with not only more screen time devoted to kids, but the funding to match.  All of which begs the question why so little of Penelope Lively’s work was ever televised.  An original series for Yorkshire TV, Boy Dominic, was Lively’s first TV work, followed by the aforementioned episode of Shadows, but of her books only two were ever adapted for the small screen, her first novel Astercote, lost in the BBC vaults since the turn of the 1980s, and a US version of the Ghost of Thomas Kempe produced by ABC.  Seems like everyone was too busy re-adapting Tom’s Midnight Garden every five friggin’ minutes to see the potential under their noses.

But hey they’re great books, they can always be adapted in the future and hopefully some of them will one day, in the meantime I recommend giving yourself a break from worthy adult novels and getting a copy of  something Lively wrote for children.  Perhaps even write your name in it.

The Children of Green Knowe

•January 20, 2013 • Leave a Comment

“I wondered whose face it would be out of all the faces I’ve known…they always come back.”  So says Mrs Oldknow on first clapping eyes on young  master Toseland, who is henceforth known as Tolly to avoid confusion with all the other young  master Toselands that have gone before him.  Many of whom have befallen premature and tragic deaths, but hey lets not get into that now, the little lad’s only just got here.  Mrs Oldknow is Tolly’s maternal great grandmother and has spent the best part of the last century living in the uncanny house of  Green Knowe eating crumpets and going slightly mad.  An old family estate, the Oldknows have lived there for so many generations everyone‘s lost count, constantly accompanied by a succession of manservants called Boggis.  They’re very economical with names at Green Knowe.

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Tolly is at boarding school with no one to spend the Christmas holidays with on account of his mother being dead (ping! goes my trope counter) and his father being away in India with his new wife, who sounds a bit annoying.  Enter strange elderly relative who lives in the back of beyond (ping!) with no earthly companionship bar old Boggis our requisite old guy that knows a bit more than he lets on (ping!), like the fact that the male line of the family was cursed by some gypsy horse rustlers several centuries hence.

For a BBC period drama Tolly is a surprisingly likeable chap, small and earnest he buys into the mystery of Green Knowe without question.    Tolly really just wants someone to play with and he’s in luck as the house and gardens happen to be haunted by three of his distant relatives killed by the back death.  Our Toseland spends quite a lot of the four episodes running around shouting ‘where are you?’.  Note to self, Ghosts are rubbish at hide and seek.

Maybe I’m just feeling overly emotional today, but I did find something immensely poignant about all of this, though I am a bit of a sucker for things that hint a little bit at the underlying sadness of childhood, i.e. that it is so fleeting and then we all grow up and die.  Or don’t grow up but die anyway.  But as always, I digress.  It’s not all loneliness and premature death, there are some light moments too, like Boggis easting an onion like a apple and a brief cameo from King Charles where he looks like he’s being played by Boycie from Only Fool and Horses.

Based on the first  of Lucy M. Boston’s Green Knowe novels  unlike From Time To Time the recent Julian Fellows Green Knowe inspired film, the adaptation is faithful both in storyline and pace.  Boston’s writing itself was directly inspired by  the house in which she lived and where all the novels are set and you can read a bit about the background to her writing, and the books’ original illustrations by her son Peter in an excellent two part interview with her daughter in law, the houses current custodian here.

The  Children of Green Knowe is a great bit of escapism for winter evening, a timeless bit of warming BBC magic of the kind they regularly used to bring out around Christmas, a la Box of Delights and the Chronicles of Narnia.  It also has the bonus of  a Peter Howell (BBC Radiophonic Workshop) score, some pretty decent acting and only about two instances where the special effects are cheesey enough to make you giggle, not bad for something of this vintage.

Not currently available commercially if you’re not adverse to a bad quality copy you can find one on YouTube, there is also some kind of Facebook petition to get it re-released you can also add some weight to should you so wish.

Filming the Owl Service #1

•September 18, 2012 • 2 Comments

I’d consciously put off writing about the Owl Service because I really didn’t know where to begin.  If you’re interested in the supernatural, mythological and metaphysical in children’s television drama then the Owl Service is the beginning.  The Owl Service preoccupied me long before I even watched it, as a child the cover my Armada Lions jumble sale copy of Alan Garner’s novel on which the series is based used to simultaneously terrify and mesmerise me.  I’ve since gone on to accumulate numerous copies of the book in a few different languages, but none of the covers creep me out in quite the same way.

In the late nineties with my first access to the internet I used to regularly stay late in the library at university and search for the Owl Service in the hope of gleaning more information.  I must have visited the BFI Screen Online page dozens of times.  Not much changed from as it is now, though minus the video clips in those days, the picture of Alison defiant in her red sunglasses was the epitome of cool.

And that’s the thing about the Owl Service, everything about it is so strangely captivating and the more you find out about it the more uncanny it becomes.  Ignoring everything else it’s a great novel filmed with a radical almost avant-garde approach, certainly for children’s drama.  It heralded a new way of producing television drama for young people and I chose not to write about it because trying to explain that with, like, words ‘n that, well that’s quite difficult.

Then this summer I found a way to get around it.  I wouldn’t write about the Owl Service, I’d write about the Filming the Owl Service.  Filming the Owl Service was a book produced to coincide with the televisation of the series taking the format of a diary written by Garner’s children, liberated from school for nine weeks while their father supervised filming.  I admit a little bit of it was showing off, because I actually had a copy.  ‘Big wow’ you might think, but tracking a copy down for less that the fifty quid or so it used to go for had put it out of my reach for some time. Tracking down even information on it had been tricky, so now I had a copy I figured there’d be other people like me interested in this mythical book.  This would be a great blog entry, it might even nudge out  the biggest source of traffic coming  from searches for Heinz Haunted House Pasta.  Possibly.

That was the plan anyway, until I actually sat down to write it and with a preparatory google found I’d been pipped to the post.  Twice.  Well, three times actually if we’re going to be picky as one is a referral, but seriously, two posts about the Filming the Owl Service in six weeks, what are the chances?  So this is a blog about not writing a blog, post-modern innit?  And an opportunity to link to three other excellent blogs which I’ve dipped into from time to time and always enjoyed so feasibly you might too.  They’re a right good read.

The Hauntological Society
Found Objects
Folk Horror Review

Such is the uncanniness of the Owl Service, which I’ll probably write about next time.  If no one gets there first.

Come Back Lucy

•August 6, 2012 • 2 Comments

Where would children’s supernatural drama be without posh girls with dead parents sent away to live with relatives they’ve never met, eh? I’m fairly sure there must have been at some point a small village entirely populated with retired teachers churning these stories out, ably assisted by a couple of local historians to fact check the Victorian accuracy.   Not that we should blame Pamela Sykes, author of  Come Back Lucy the 1977 children’s novel on which the TV series was based  (published in  the US as Mirror of Danger) for this.  The book itself has somewhat of a cult following and Amazon and Goodreads are littered with testimonials of  adults scarred for life by reading it as children, or in some cases  so terrified they were unable to finish it.  This is always a promising start.

A promising start is also what you get with the 1978 ATV television production.  The opening credits are phenomenally creepy, particularly if you’re easily spooked by the prospect of a mirror stealing your face.  If I had chanced upon this on telly after school before my age hit double figures I’d have been terrified and presuming I got past the opening credits then the wild eyed Victorian child who has “waited so long for you to come and play with me” would probably have seen me running screaming from the sitting room.  It’s a pretty scary one, this.

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But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Going back to the time honoured kids drama trope of bereaved child sent away to live with relatives they’ve never met, we all know that one right?  Well Come Back Lucy turns this on its head.  Rather than being sent away to live with some fusty old aunt in the back of beyond, Lucy is plucked unwillingly from this peaceful life.  Brought up by a benevolent old lady whose idea of a fun time is a game of cribbage and an extra sugar in her tea, Lucy is a stuffy, well behaved child with very old fashioned ways.  When her aunt passes away her house is on the market before she’s cold in her grave and Lucy learns for the first time that she has cousins, and that she’s going to be living with them.

Lucy’s cousins wear jeans, they’re  into pop music, and they call their parents by their first names.  One of them is a Young Socialist.  Aunt Gwen is a whirling dervish of charity volunteering, slapdash cooking and evening wine glugging.  Uncle Peter is a slightly eccentric corduroy wearing man with an unhealthy interest in African art and ripping out the period features in perfectly nice Victorian houses.  Welcome to the 1970s Lucy.

What Lucy really needs to get her through this difficult time (the death of her favourite aunt, having to live in a house full of hippies) is a friend.  Unfortunately the only friend on offer has not only been dead for the last century, but turns out to be a bit of a bitch.  You know the type of girl, really loud annoying laugh, always has to be the centre of attention, lures you into the past to play with her then attempts to trap you there forever.  Forever.  Forever and ever and ever.  Did I mention this is quite scary?

Come Back Lucy is a little gem of  supernatural/time slip kid’s drama.  Not repeated since the early seventies and not yet available in full commercially (the first episode is featured on Network DVD’s Look-Back on ’70s Telly – Issue 4 and if they’ve any sense they’ll issue the full series in due course) it’s recently surfaced on YouTube and is available for public consumption for the first time in 35 years.  It’s not looking to bad for it’s age either, a rarity for vintage kids drama; a great story, well paced and acting that’s (just about) stood the test of time.  Well worth checking out before it disappears again (for ever and ever and ever).