Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Children of the 1970s

It's partly because kids in the 1970s are now adults waxing lyrical about their now-idealised childhoods; it's partly because modern TV is crap; it's partly because teenagers now are more likely to watch adult TV than specific teenage TV; it's also because we are living in a time of Retromania (thanks in large part to the internet) – Simon Reynolds coined the word and wrote a book about the phenomena.

Whatever the reason (though it's mainly because I never watched any of them first time round, being too young, and have only recently heard of them), I've found myself watching four cult 1970s children's TV programmes/series over the last few months: The Owl Service (1969-1970), Penda's Fen (1974), The Changes (1975) and Children of the Stones (1977). Exploring notions of old England, known as Albion, in a supernatural and lyrical way, together they represent the pinnacle of challenging, thought-provoking and cutting edge children's drama – though to appreciate them fully it helps to be an adult.

Two of the four were adapted from then-recently published books: The Owl Service (1967) by Alan Garner and a trilogy of books (1968-70) by Peter Dickinson became The Changes. Penda's Fen was written by David Rudkin as a TV play and shown as part of BBC's Play for Today series. Children of the Stones was written for TV by Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray.

Though the programmes were written and made for children/teenagers and broadcast in the late afternoon/early evening children's time slot, they all deal with fairly heavy, traditionally adult themes such as identity, myth, magic, sexuality, ecology and class (to name just a few!) in an original and often experimental way. (NB: this may be another reason why these now-cult programmes are being rewatched by adults – none of them as kids knew what they were watching at the time; now in their 40s, they can fully understand them). Landscape is paramount in all the programmes: they all have a distinct sense of place, and show the British countryside in an often lyrical way. In Children of the Stones it is Avebury in Wiltshire (called Milbury in the series); in The Owl Service it's rural Wales; Penda's Fen is set in the Malvern Hills and The Changes in Bristol, the Forest of Dean and Sharpness.

The Owl Service, the book, was enigmatic, elliptical, obscure and opaque, whilst dealing pretty realistically with questions of myth, class, national identity and teenage love. The TV series is, well, pretty much the same. In fact, it was only the rather prosaic-sounding recap at the start of each episode which helped me understand the book and the TV series. Beautifully filmed in 16mm colour, it featured the attractive Gillian Hills (who a few years before was in Blowup and a few years later would be in A Clockwork Orange – now she's married to the manager of AC/DC, working as an illustrator) as Alison and the dark, brooding Michael Holden (who would be randomly murdered in a London bar in 1977. I made the mistake of Googling the actors midway through watching it; it cast a dark shadow over the rest of the series) plays Gwyn, the insecure Welsh boy trying to escape his upbringing. The whole series is unsettling and creepy, exploring as it does the story of the mythical Welsh figure of Blodeuwedd and a girl seemingly possessed by owls. I can understand children watching it at the time to be freaked out and confused by it.

Its music (a traditional folk piece) and imagery has been hijacked in recent years by the Hauntological mob, in particular the record label Ghost Box (who I've written about here): above left, still from The Owl Service credits; right, cover for the Ghost Box release by The Advisory Circle, As the Crow Flies.

Penda's Fen is described by Rob Young in his book Electric Eden as a 'complex meditation on the matter of Britain'. The film, directed by an Alan Clarke more famous for his social realist films (such as Scum and Made in Britain) than elegies to lost England, and though still unavailable on DVD (though it can be watched on YouTube), has had a resurgence in recent years, with Time Out last year featuring it in their 100 best British films, calling it a 'unique and important statement' and numerous blogs attesting to its brilliance.

The film centres around teenager Stephen, a somewhat wimpy middle-class pastor's son, as he comes to question his beliefs after a series of visionary encounters with an angel, the composer Elgar and the pagan King Penda. Along the way Stephen finds out he's adopted, is gay, and that England has a religion much older than Christianity, visualising itself in the pagan king. The landscape of the Malvern hills, birthplace of Elgar, is used to dramatic effect, like a character in its own right.

The Changes (also unavailable on DVD) sees England revert to the dark ages when freak weather conditions seem to cause people to turn into Luddites and inexplicably destroy all modern technology. The brilliant first episode features people throwing TVs and fridges out the window, attacking toasters and kettles in their kitchens, bashing cars and bikes in the streets, with cranes and trains ablaze, intercut with schizophrenic, global-warming-style weather: floods, earthquakes, landslides and snowstorms.

The series features Nicky, a teenage girl, who gets separated from her parents in the confusion, as she attempts to find them by walking to the south coast to try and get to France. Along the way she encounters Sikhs, bandits and witch finders. Indeed, it seems to take a matter of days before people resort to barbarism, racism and witch hunting. Any mention of technology is punishable as heresy. It makes Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, set a few thousand years in the future, seem rather logical and inevitable. The ending, like with Penda's Fen, lies in ancient Albion and another mythical figure: this time, Merlin.

Judging by YouTube comments on The Changes, this one really got to children at the time (and as adults now), especially the fear of pylons, which in the series are referred to as the 'bad wires'. One comment seems to sum up the feeling of most: 'Childhood in the seventies was pretty exciting, then the internet came along and it could all be retrieved.'

Both Penda's Fen and The Changes feature the eerie, atmospheric music of Paddy Kingsland, who worked at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop throughout the 1970s. he was also responsible for music and effects for Doctor Who, the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and other BBC TV and radio science fiction programmes of the time. The power of Penda's Fen and The Changes is partly down to Kingsland, employing spooky electronic effects and memorable theme tunes.

Like The Owl Service, Children of the Stones features the idea of actions played out again and again, ad infinitum. In The Owl Service it was the three children re-enacting the story of the ancient legend of Blodeuwedd; in Children of the Stones it's a time rift within the Avebury (called Milbury in the series) stone circle. The series opens with astrophysicist Adam and his precocious son Matthew arriving in Milbury to research the magnetism of the stones. They soon discover that they hold an ancient power, and the villagers are all held captive by the strange forces of the stones. Raphael Hendrick, played by Iain Cuthbertson (who also starred in two other great 1970s productions: BBC's spooky The Stone Tape, with Jane Asher, and The Railway Children, starring Jenny Agutter), plans to unleash this power.

Again, this was hardly suitable fodder for children (or most adults), featuring as it does temporal paradoxes, black holes and psychic bubbles. Still, it can be viewed on several levels (I saw it being about the difficulty of outsiders fitting into Wiltshire village life), and it's highly atmospheric and riveting TV on any level. Again, music is a key ingredient, with scary wailing and chanting sounding like it's coming from the stones themselves. Again, countless YouTube comments from adults testify to the series having affected them as children.

On another YouTube clip, comedian Stewart Lee reminisces about 1970s children's TV in general (taken from Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe on BBC4), and Children of the Stones and The Changes in particular, remarking how he feels lucky to have been a teenager in the 1970s, as there "there was something really comforting for nerds and weirdos about programmes like Children of the Stones and The Changes." Lee compares them with teenage TV shows today, such as the shallow Skins, which seems mainly to be about sex and drugs.

Who knows, maybe something like The Sparticle Mystery, a CBBC post-apocalyptic TV series filmed in Bristol last year (even I know the city well enough to notice the continuity error in the first episode when they drive past Fopp, then drive past it again a few minutes later. Also, wouldn't the kids naturally stop to nick CDs and DVDs? I certainly would.) is as good as The Changes. I was discussing this sort of thing with a work colleague a while ago. When we were younger, our minds were like sponges and we absorbed all kinds of films, TV shows and music. It was in our teens and twenties when we saw the best films and TV shows and listened to the best music ever. Now we're old, grey and cynical, we don't have the time, energy or inclination to be that impressed by new art – even if it is the best thing ever. Even so, I can't imagine children today in thirty years time waxing lyrical about the currently ubiquitous Tracey Beaker or Justin Fletcher TV shows.

The 1970s were a great time for many, a time when living and interacting with the British landscape on a more fundamental level seemed possible. Music, cinema and TV all seemed to align towards this: Paul McCartney was living in on farm, films such as The Wicker Man (1973) explored pagan religion and even more traditional children's TV adaptations such as 1975's The Secret Garden managed to explore notions of class, friendship, magic and nature in a lyrical way. Then in 1979 Margaret Thatcher got into power, the countryside has been raped and pillaged, and all hope has been lost.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Top ten male singers

"I was born like this, I had no choice
I was born with the gift of a golden voice"
– Leonard Cohen, Tower of Song

1. Bob Dylan
2. Rod Stewart
3. Leonard Cohen
4. Scott Walker
5. Al Green
6. Otis Redding
7. Roy Orbison
8. Serge Gainsbourg
9. Bryan Ferry
10. Lou Reed

Friday, June 22, 2012

Notes on Charters and Caldicott

You know, in public, I tell people my favourite Hitchcock films are Vertigo, Rear Window, Psycho and North by Northwest. In private, I mean the ones I enjoy most and can watch again and again, and in fact do on a regular basis when I haven't watched, say, Vertigo for over a decade, would include The Birds, Notorious, The 39 Steps, The Trouble with Harry and, my favourite of all, The Lady Vanishes. What I love about it is nothing happening for the first half hour, by which I mean no plot. We forget we are even watching a thriller and become engrossed in the characters. The whole film unfolds into a great mix of suspense and humour, with splendid performances, great characters and sparkling dialogue.

Set in Bandrika, a fictional European country, a group of travellers eager to get back to England are stuck in the only hotel in town after an avalanche has rendered travelling by train impossible until the morning. Amongst them is musicologist Michael Redgrave, spoilt yet sparky socialite Margaret Lockwood and governess May Whitty. Best of all are the two Cricket-obsessed, uptight, stiff-upper lipped Brits Caldicott and Charters, played deadpan by Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford. Permanently unimpressed at everything in general, and flabbergasted that no one seems to speak English, the feckless couple seem to get the short end of every stick. Though this was the first time Wayne and Radford had acting together, their repartee made them look like a comedy double act (the not too distant cousins of Laurel and Hardy) who'd known each other all their lives (or at least since Oxford).

The success of The Lady Vanishes meant the winning formula was reproduced for Night Train to Munich (1940), a comedy thriller directed by Carol Reed. Though not a sequel as such, it felt like a loose one if only because so many elements from The Lady Vanishes were repeated. It was written by the same duo, Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, starred the same actress, Margaret Lockwood, as well as Wayne and Radford who actually keep their same names from the Lady Vanishes, Charters and Caldicott. It's like they've been typecast after one film together. Indeed, the poster for Night Train to Munich features them in the bottom corner: 'Ha! Ha! Ho! Ho! Laugh with the comedy pair of Lady Vanishes'.

They were Charters and Caldicott again in Crook's Tour (1941) and Millions Like Us (1943). A falling out with the BBC in 1945 meant they were contractually unable to portray the characters Charters and Caldicott any more. This didn't stop them from playing essentially the same characters under different names though: Parratt and Potter in Dead of Night (1945), Woolcot and Spencer in Double Bedlam (1946), Stalker and Gregg in Passport to Pimlico (1949) and Fanshaw and Fothergill in That's my Baby (1950), amongst many others.

Though Radford died in 1955 and Wayne in 1970, this didn't stop their characters Charters and Caldicott being used again: in the 1979 remake of The Lady Vanishes and a 1985 BBC TV series called Charters and Caldicott.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Hansel and Gretel dream

I was in a small cinema with metal frame chairs watching an art house film version of Hansel and Gretel, being distributed by Artificial Eye. Filmed in Eastern Europe somewhere, it was startling, dark and scary. Suddenly I found myself in the film. I was a prisoner in the basement of the witch's house. Hansel and Gretel had decided to stay in the witch's house after murdering her. They were now middle-aged, fat and rich, living on the witch's precious jewels and continually having to renovate the house after eating it. The basement was patrolled by an evil old man. One day, whilst he was frying some eggs and had the small basement window open, I saw my chance. I ran towards the old miser and threw the frying pan in his face. He screamed; Hansel was alerted but was too fat to run. I quickly climbed through the small window. And started running through the forest. I saw a stunned-looking Gretel who merely dropped the logs she was carrying and stared at me. Whilst running I noticed, in a clearing, a large block of flats being constructed out of cakes, gingerbread and sweets.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Fruity albums of the week: Apple & Cherry

LEFT: Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do If you think that title's long, it's nothing compared to her 1999 album, called When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He'll Win the Whole Thing Fore He Enters the Ring There's No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might So When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and If You Know Where You Stand, Then You'll Know Where to Land and If You Fall It Won't Matter, Cuz You Know That You're Right. Otherwise known as When the Pawn Hits...

RIGHT: Neneh Cherry and The Thing: The Cherry Thing The Thing, a Scandinavian jazz band named after a Don Cherry tune, were destined to team up with the Swedish Neneh Cherry at some point. Born Neneh Karlsson, she was raised by her stepfather Don Cherry and took his surname. Playing in several punk bands in her teens, it was 1989's Raw Like Sushi, featuring the huge hit Buffalo Stance, which bought her fame. Two less successful solo albums followed but throughout her career Cherry has always collaborated with other artists including Youssou N'Dour, Michael Stipe, Matt Johnson of The The, Pulp, Tricky, Peter Gabriel and Gorillaz, amongst others.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

RIP Kaneto Shindô, 1912-2012

A late RIP this, for Japanese film director Kaneto Shindô who died a few weeks ago (May 29), a month after his 100th birthday (on April 22). Born 1912, he directed some 48 films and wrote 238 scripts in a career lasting sixty years (his final film as director was last year's Postcard). He directed films in all genres throughout his long career. When asked in an interview last year by actor Benicio Del Toro what was the most important thing he had learnt from his mentor, the Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi, Shindô replied 'never give up'.

Shindô's most famous film and one of my all-time favourites is Onibaba, made in 1964, the same year as the similarly-themed and just as extraordinary The Woman of the Dunes. In equal parts chilling and erotic, Onibaba is a tale of sexual jealousy with two women, a mother and her daughter-in-law, who make a living by killing passing samurai warriors and selling their armour and weapons. When the mother uses a demon mask to scare her daughter-in-law from her lover, she finds the mask stuck to her face. Set in medieval, rural Japan, and based on a Buddhist parable, the film is notable for its sumptuous black and white photography, constant rustling sounds of the reeds and symbolism – holes, masks – Freud could have written a book about.

• The BFI are currently showing a season of films by Kaneto Shindô and his close collaborator Kozaburo Yoshimura.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Lookalikes #29: wonky album covers

The Enemy's Music for the People (2009) and Orbital's Wonky (2012).

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Metros

The Metros is a dreary new weekly BBC3 drama about a group of young, professional metrosexuals working together near London Bridge, at an unspecified yet obviously badly-paid and poorly run financial company with horrendous toilets.

The young men – all aged between 23 and 33 – see no contradiction between starting a sentence talking about football and finishing it talking about face cream.

We follow them week by week in the office, in the pub and in the gym as they pretend they're tough men by endlessly discussing football and drinking and finishing every sentence with the word 'mate'. However, the laddish artifice is eroded by their simultaneous debates about diets, hot lunches, tea, fashion, lotions, haircuts and jogging.

The series culminates with the metros discovering they are all, in fact, homosexual. After an out-of-office-orgy, and feeling guilt-ridden, sticky and dirty, they commit mass suicide.

But seriously, folks, in my day, anyone with an asymmetrical haircut and tight trousers was either weird or gay or both. Getting in touch with your feminine side was a way to get chicks into bed. But times and fashions have changed and trimming ones pubes is simply taking care of oneself.

Metrosexuals, once a nasty rumour in the 1990s, are now ubiquitous. And they're looking good (if gay) – well, they would, seeing that they've emulated homosexuals in just about every department. In fact, if anything, females have started to let their side down a bit. Men generally are looking better than women nowadays; they're making more of an effort and the results are paying off.

Although people generally like looking at those of the opposite sex, there's a theory that heterosexuals actually prefer looking at those of the same sex. We like to see how our own kind dress and act, possibly getting fashion tips and the like, and generally checking out the competition.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Mike Mills album covers

Clockwise from top left: Beastie Boys' Hot Sauce Committee Part Two (2011); Wild Flag (2011); Sonic Youth's Washing Machine (1995) and Moon Safari by Air (1998)

I'm glad I finally bought the Beastie Boys' latest (last?) album, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, on vinyl. It arrived yesterday and I was delighted to discover it containing two white vinyl records, a bonus 7", an iron-on T-shirt transfer and digital download. As well as a nice cover designed by Mike Mills, who, like with many designers, I find myself liking their work before knowing who they are.

Mike Mills (b. 1966) is a film & music video director and graphic designer. He directed indie flicks Thumbsucker (2005) and Beginners (2010), which was based on Mills' father who came out as gay aged 75 after his wife (i.e. Mike's mother) died of brain cancer.

Mike Mills' website and book.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

No durian, durian

Of all the signs in all the world, No Durians Allowed seems the most excessive. The king of tropical fruit tastes pretty nice but smells like 'pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock' (according to food and travel writer Richard Sterling). You either love it or hate it. Most seem to hate it. Throughout South East Asia durians are banned on public transport and public places like airports and hotels. I love the sign which, without the description 'No durians', would look more like a 'No Spiky Bombs'.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Lookalikes #28: Michelle Williams & Carey Mulligan

Never Let Me Go is a dreary 2010 sci-fi film based on the book by Kazuo Ishiguro and starring Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield and Carey Mulligan as a dowdy generic clone of Dawson's Creek era Michelle Williams. In the film, Mulligan wishes she was as glamorous as her American counterpart and travels from Hailsham to Massachusetts to track her down.

I waited in vain for the film to play Bob Dylan and Joan Baez singing Never Let Me Go together.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Dawson's Creek: better than The Wire?

Friday, June 08, 2012

Cigarettes vs. smartphones

A recent eye blog post by Camilla Grey about never being alone (or bored) with either a cigarette or a smartphone struck a chord with me, perhaps because I acquired an iPhone quite soon after I quit smoking (over a year ago now, apart from *cough* a cheeky one last week). It was handy to have something to replace the cigarette and initially fascinating to get apps, use them once, then forget all about them.

As a smoker I was rarely bored or alone if I was smoking. Smoking was a great time to reflect or relax, but also, if smoking in a public place (which more recently meant standing outside a pub or restaurant), a conversation with a fellow smoker would usually be struck. As I've mentioned in a previous post, the most interesting people at any gathering were always outside, smoking.

There are still a lot of smokers around but it's lost its cool factor. The cigarette I smoked last week was actually shared with a Spanish woman who referred to herself as a 'social smoker'. I thought that term had vanished and was now a contradiction in terms. Even a couple of years ago I was referring to myself as an anti-social smoker.

As the eye post mentions, people locked into their smartphones actually look unapproachable and anti-social rather than cool and popular, even if they are doing something perceived as social such as checking Facebook updates. But by constantly checking their phones they're not really connecting with their immediate physical world. This may mean they're missing something interesting (such as seeing a man with two blue parrots on his shoulders, perhaps) but mainly it's just seeing the world go by and people watching. Indeed, the more I see people glued to their phones and tablets, the more I see them as devices to block out the world, not interact with it more.

When I first got my iPhone a friend said to me, 'You'll never be bored again!' Which made me cringe. I like being bored; I've virtually made a career out of it. There used to be a time when I liked nothing better than to stare into space (smoking, naturally). Nowadays people can't be bored for a second. If they are, they'll just switch app. But being bored is good for the soul and the imagination.

I admit that smoking and smartphones is a somewhat tenuous link, but who knows, like with smoking, maybe in twenty years time we'll find that all these phones and tablets also cause cancer.

Camilla Grey's eye blog: You're never alone… with a smartphone

The title for this post is a twist on George Orwell's essay Books vs. Cigarettes.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Nourish & Flourish!

Within the space of a few hundred yards of each other on and just off the mostly unpleasant Merton Road in Southfields, Southwest London, are three architectural gems. The glorious Art Nouveau building proclaiming Nourish and Flourish! (just off Merton Road on Standen Road) used to be Frame Foods, producing baby food. It's now been converted into flats called Tiffany Heights but thankfully kept many of the building's original features.

On the corner of Standen Road and Merton Road is the Art Deco Southfields Tyre & Battery Service. The neon lights do light up at night.

Across the road is another Art Deco building; this one is now Grade II listed. It was purpose built in 1928 as the headquarters and factory for OK Sauce, a fruity brown sauce still apparently being made by Colman's but quite difficult to find. It's meant to taste a bit like HP sauce and is used in Chinese cooking. Now produced in Norwich.