Strange British customs – part 2

•December 21, 2010 • 2 Comments

Turning the Devil’s Stone

Back in the days of yore, the Devil was always hanging about the English countryside.

If he wasn’t nipping about the fields worrying sheep or passing the time by upsetting rows of cabbages, then he was hiking about in the snow and leaving a trail of cloven hoof marks over the roofs of cottages.  

These days, he seems to make fewer and fewer personal appearances. You might assume that he’s avoiding the publicity (he used to get a right hammering from the popular press), or that he’s grown weary of having slack-jawed rustic types staring at him as he struts through the village with his scaly bifurcated tail swishing along behind him…

But this is not so. The reason we never see the Devil these days is due entirely to the good people of Shebbear in North West Devon.

On Bonfire night each year, the bell ringers of St. Michaels and All Saints Church play out a particularly fruity peel and then head down (traditionally armed with cross-bows) to the middle of the village to ‘turn the Devil’s Stone’. The practical upshot of this is that it wards off the Devil for another year. ..

The Devil’s Stone is, as you might imagine, is not just any stone.  According to local legend, it’s the stone that fell out of the Devil’s pocket when he was cast down from Heaven by Saint Michael.  Considering that the Devil was apparently in the guise of many-headed dragon at the time, perhaps the more surprising point to this is that he was wearing the jacket or trousers that contained the stone in the first place… 

Up Helly Aa

Shetland, though now technically a part of Scotland, reaches up towards Scandinavia – and, indeed, it was only in the 19th Century that the (form of) English spoken there today replaced the old Nordic language of Norn.

When tar barrelling (the ill-advised custom of getting blind drunk and carrying a burning barrel of tar on your back for a protracted period) was outlawed, the inhabitants of Shetland naturally sought out a new ways to liven up their bouts of drinking.

With a nod to their be-horned Viking ancestors, the good people of Shetland decided that the best use of their time would be to spend eleven months of a year toiling to create a full-size Viking long-ship. Then, on its maiden voyage, to get pissed and set fire to it with torches…

The festival remains popular, because burning stuff is cool.

Children’s Football Punditing

Many Britons, reaching their thirties and realising their own lives are characterised by pointlessness, decide, instead, to live their dreams through the medium of their children.

And so, accordingly, on Saturday mornings throughout the UK, school football pitches are invaded by large, out-of-condition men, who wish for nothing more than to spend one of their few days off work, violently shouting at children, who may or may not share these dreams. 

Finally, after proffering a lengthy post-match analysis (in which their own offspring are naturally praised and singled out for future footballing greatness) they then retreat to their living-rooms to watch Match of the Day on telly – and bark aggressively at the incompetence of the professional athletes that they admire so. 

The Tichborne Dole

 

This traditional English ‘festival of charity’ is held in the village of Tichborne, Hampshire, every year, during the Feast of the Annunciation.  In times past, the poor of the local community would gather outside Tichborne House in order to receive donations of flour, which have been blessed by the local parish priest.

According to local tradition, the custom started in the seventeenth century, when the House was occupied by Sir Roger Tichbourne and his dying wife, Lady Mabella. Roger, who did not approve of charity or poor people,  stood over his wife’s sickbed and said he’d only agree to giving the local poor of the community flour (once a year) if she was able to ‘encircle the House’s grounds, under her own power, whilst carrying a lighted torch’. Marbella, fairly unbelievably, got out of her sickbed, picked up a log from the fireplace and managed to crawl around the 23-acre grounds.

Roger must have been kicking himself – he should have just said ‘no’.

Punch and Judy

 

The modern Punch and Judy show can trace its roots to the sixteenth century Italian Commeida dell’Arte.

Presumably it is due to his Italian roots that Punch is such a flamboyant dresser. Usually, he is attired in a brightly-coloured jester’s motley and sugarloaf hat. (Though it could be that this daring dress-sense is a tactical move designed to direct attention away from his hook nose and hunchback…?)

The Punch and Judy tale is such a familiar one that it’s practically universal – and, accordingly, it’s popular throughout the world.

This time-old story begins simply enough, with Punch and (his wife) Judy relaxing at home. They kiss and dance before Judy decides she needs to go to the shops and asks Punch to look after the baby.

Punch, with his wooden hands and tremendous proclivity towards unprovoked physical violence, is poorly-suited to the task – but, fair play to him, he has a go. 

Left to his own devices and badly-misunderstanding what is required of him, Punch attempts to placate the mewling infant by actually sitting on it. When the child’s cries become all the louder as a result, he decides, instead, to go down unusual route of throwing the infant around –  until he inadvertently tosses it into a sausage-making machine that he keeps in the living-room (what? – he’s Italian!). 

When Judy returns from the shops, Punch spends a few moments rasping aggressive nasal  commands at her and trying to cover up the fact that he has accidently minced the baby. However, the subterfuge doesn’t last long – and, when Judy becomes aware of the infant’s shredded clothing in the sausage machine, she is, understandably, upset. Punch, in his despair, goes at her with a large stick…

A passing policeman, appearing at the door (presumably attracted by the sound of Judy’s thrashing) is also felled by Punch and his club. With the front door left open, a opportunistic dog (called Toby) then rushes into the house and has it away with the sausages. Punch pursues the sausages, though his motivation is unclear.

The ensuing story is a similarly unlikely and involves a crocodile, a judge, the devil and, bizarrely, real-life British executioner, Jack Ketch

It is not known why the popularity of Punch and Judy shows seems to be on the wane.

Perhaps, with the introduction of television in people’s houses, the British public are now less keen to stand around on the cold streets watching a man in a hut hitting a doll with another doll?

Or is it that, after hundreds of years, complacent modern audiences struggle with the prospect of a yet another comedy about a deformed man killing a child?

Or is, simply, that slapstick comedy performed by hand-puppets just isn’t that funny…

The Secret Identity of Jack the Ripper

•November 22, 2010 • 10 Comments

For as long as I can remember, I have been always fascinated by the Victorian period.

When I was about eight years old, my first foray into the world of writing was in producing a small pamphlet on the most notorious crime of that period – the Jack the Ripper killings. Although, it was a fairly-derivative piece; cobbled together, as it was, from two Encyclopaedia entries and then badly-typed up on my mother’s IBM (as you can see, my life hasn’t really progressed much), it represented something an early obsession for me… 

Two nights ago, I was pleased to be able to reacquaint myself with the facts of the Ripper case. Having gone to my Lovefilm account to see what joys were thrown up on the free ‘Watch Online’ section, I was not disappointed. For it was there that I stumbled upon perhaps the finest analysis of the ‘autumn of terror’ ever made: The Secret Identity of Jack the Ripper.   

Introduced, by a heavily-sweating Peter Ustinov (un-self-consciously reading from an idiot board), the show was recorded in 1988 – ‘one hundred years after those terrible events in Whitechapel’. Clearly in America. Clearly for an American audience. 

Ustinov begins by sneering down the camera, warning the audience that this ‘investigation’ is not for thrill-seekers, but that it is, in fact, a scientific analysis of the murders – and the murderer. As he makes this point, the frame of the shot opens up to reveal that he is walking across a studio set clearly borrowed from the musical version of A Christmas Carol, but with the street-lamps turned out and an overworked dry ice machine pumping out  a weak approximation of the ‘London particular’ across the shiny studio floor. 

Leaving the Victorian street-scene behind him, Ustinov mooches across to the other side of the studio, where a bunch of ‘crime professionals’ are seated around a wooden table, rustling papers and looking serious. We are introduced to them – and they are serious. The first is the Curator of Scotland Yard’s Black Museum, the next is a female Judge (Ustinov looks appalled) and, at least two of them, are Special Agents with the FBI

After a thumbnail sketch of the Ripper killings – made terrifying by performances by some of Britain’s weakest character actors – and an ‘on location’ report about the serial-killer by serial-bride Jan Leeming (she’s knocked up a tally of five, as well), we are presented with our Ripper suspects

Robert Donston Stephenson

A journalist and writer interested in the occult and black magic. Stephenson authored a newspaper article, which claimed that black magic was the motive for the killings and alleged that the Ripper was a Frenchman. According to the show, Stephenson’s landlady was so suspicious of him that she searched his room – only to find a cache of blood-stained cravats. This proved he was definitely Jack the Ripper. Or, at least, that he was quite careless when it came to shaving.

Montague John Druitt

 

Druitt was a failed barrister, forced to supplement his income by working as an assistant schoolmaster in Blackheath. He committed suicide shortly after the last canonical Ripper murder. It is hinted at during the show that he was also homosexual and suffering from depression, neither of which traits would obviously serve to strengthen his candidacy as a suspect, but there you go… 

Dr William Gull

Gull was the ‘physician-in-ordinary’ to Queen Victoria. It is unlikely, therefore, that he spent much time hanging around the squalid East End of London. He was also in his mid-fifties, looked nothing like the contemporary pictures of Jack the Ripper, was never suspected at the time of the murders, and was in failing health – having suffered a stroke two years previously. Let’s face it, it wasn’t him.

Gull only became a Ripper suspect when Stephen Knight published his spurious account of the murders, Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, in the 1970s. The Masonic conspiracy, outlined in the book, has Prince Eddy (Queen Victoria’s grandson) being secretly married to the last Ripper victim, Mary Kelly, who was not only a prostitute but also a Catholic. To the staunchly-Protestant Queen, Kelly’s Catholicism constituted a constitutional emergency (being a prostitute was fine). Gull and his driver, John Netley, were dispatched to the East End to rectify the situation. Only to discover that Kelly had informed four of her friends of the marriage, who also have to be silenced. Gull, being a Mason, finished them off in the style of a Masonic ritual (which may or may not actually exist). 

Though, this theory probably owes more to TV’s Columbo, then it does real life, it did at least lead to Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell creating the excellent graphic novel From Hell. So, for that at least, we can be thankful.   

Prince “Eddy” Albert Victor

 

The Royal theories have been bandied around for years. Although the contemporary eye-witness accounts painted Jack the Ripper as a foreign-looking man with a moustache and deerstalker-type hat, when those same witnesses were interviewed again years later, their accounts had radically changed – he had now become the Ripper that we all know and love, stalking the fog-covered cobbles, wearing a top hat and full evening dress. (If you’re going to cut a woman to pieces in a stinking alleyway in the East End, you may as well dress for it).   

Prince Eddy is back again, this time he’s contracted syphilis and gone mad – killing the prostitutes all on his lonesome. Considering he was in Balmoral for one of the murders and Sandringham for two others, it’s, again, unlikely to be our man…

Aaron Kozminski

Kozminski was a poor Polish Jew who was admitted to Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum in 1891. He was named as a chief suspect by Metropolitan Police Commissioner Melville Macnaghten in an 1894 memorandum. Macnaghten’s claim is that Kozminski was identified as the Ripper but that no prosecution could be made against him because the witness refused to testify. It turns out as the programme goes along, that Macnaughten may have been somewhat confused, since he refers to the suspect “Kozminski” (first name and any other details omitted) as a violent woman-hating maniac, who was sent to the Asylum in late 1888 but killed himself shortly afterwards. According to Colney Hatch records, Aaron Kozminski was admitted there, but was actually rather a gentle figure who was confined in the institution mainly for poor dietary habits and a refusal to wash (surely this wasn’t that uncommon in the East End in 1888?). Moreover, far from killing himself, Kozminski carried on living at the asylum for a further thirty years…

Back in the studio, we are once more addressed by Ustinov, now listless and wearing an increasingly damp shirt, as he tries to make sense of the largely-contradictory evidence that has been provided.

Back in London, Jan Leeming is poring over old documents in an attempt to get to the bottom of it all. To little avail. A pair of television-friendly ‘Ripperologists’ – in the shape of Martin Fido and Colin Wilson – are wheeled out to provide expert opinion and to lend their support to none of the above. (It makes you wonder how the less TV-friendly ones might look…)

Finally, the action moves back to the American studio, where Ustinov (now pacing around like Poirot working up to the denouement) addresses the criminologist panel once again, demanding to know, once and for all, who the mysterious killer was.  

The judge (referred to as ‘pretty’ by Ustinov in an aside that is both patronising and wildly inaccurate in one move) is first. She discounts Gull, Prince Eddy, Stephenson and pretty much everyone else. The Black Museum Curator concurs. This leaves the two FBI agents, who provide a very dry ‘psyche-profile’ of the murderer – which totally ignores and undermines everything that has been said over the course of the last two hours.

Finally, under duress, the panel is forced to make a choice between the five suspects – and all, fairly reluctantly, plump for Kozminski.

“It’s unanimous!” chirps Peter Ustinov, turning to the camera. “Good night ladies and gentleman”. Looking momentarily away, Ustinov suddenly swings his head back, adding mysteriously: “Oh. And sleep well…”

Grim-faced, Ustinov bounces forward, perhaps entertaining dark thoughts about any rogue thrill-seekers that might have viewed the ‘documentary’ without heeding his words of caution. As the credits roll, he crosses back to the mists of the Victorian street-scene – with the unusually-strained gait of a man who has recently soiled his trousers. It is a fitting end to such a show. And it is probably for this, if for no other reason, that The Secret Identity of Jack the Ripper is worth watching.

Ghostwatch – the plot sickens

•October 30, 2010 • 3 Comments

It’s that time of the year again. The nights are closing in. The wind is rattling through the catches. Mark Gatiss is dominating the output of BBC television. 

Halloween is coming. And this means but one thing – that soon, all over the land, young people will be arriving at our front doors, ready to demand confectionary with menaces.  

I recall vividly two Halloweens from my youth. On one occasion, my mother refused to open the door to some children (actually surly teenagers dressed in bin bags) who clearly knew the house was occupied, since we’d opened the  door moments before and dispensed a selection of boiled sweets (probably rescued from down the side of the settee), to the previous group of poorly-attired chancers. Standing firm against their calls of ‘Trick or Treat’ – hollered goonily through our letterbox – we waited until it all went quiet…

Two minutes later, doing clumsy SAS-style rolls across the hallway, myself and my elder brother proceeded to the front door and edged it open, only to find our front garden cut with reams of toilet paper! Running back into the house to inform my Mum of this cruellest of tricks perpetrated against us, she sighed heavily and headed to the front garden. As my brother and I quickly set about wrenching the bog roll from the petunias, Mum mysteriously advised us to “be careful”. Taking notice of this warning, we turned cautiously back to her and observed that she had begun to, very carefully, gather in the paper and roll it into a loose ball. Suddenly aware of the palpable looks of confusion on our faces, she paused, mid-spin. “What?” she said. “We should keep this! It’s good quality paper!”

I don’t recall what year that was, but I can be a lot more specific about my other memorable Halloween experience – which took place on the 31st of October 1992. BBC 1 aired the excellent Ghostwatch.

For those of you unaware of the phenomenon that is Ghostwatch, I shall try and explain. Airing on BBC1 at dinner-time, the show purported to be a scientific look at the paranormal – and, accordingly, used a format familiar to its audience. There was a studio section, interspersing interviews and live viewer telephone calls, cut with ‘location’ shooting and some investigative journalism. The television personalities were familiar too – there was a range of talent, including Michael Parkinson, Mike ‘Smithy’ Smith, Sarah Greene and Craig Charles. Anyone living in 1990s Britain would naturally look at so impressive a line-up and fancy that they were in safe hands. Not so…

Parkinson: the host with the ghost

After an introduction of Michael Parkinson blandly intoning that haunted houses no longer have ‘creaking gates, Gothic towers or shutter windows’, we cut to an outside broadcast.  Sarah Greene and Craig Charles have been summarily despatched to the Northolt home of Pamela Early and her two young girls, Kim and Suzanne. The house is unusual insofar as it is also occupied by a poltergeist.

Sarah Greene wastes no time in getting to the crux of the matter, and ponders messy rooms and other such hard evidence of poltergeist activity. She also flicks through one of the girl’s school copybooks, which contains etching of the ghost (which, someone in the prop team has drawn a willy on! You guys!)

Outside the house, Craig Charles (foam-tipped microphone in hand and puffed up like an owl in his NFL-branded finery), pounds the streets talking to a collection of middle-aged women in shell-suits about their own ghostly experiences.

Back in the studio, Parkinson now sits imposingly in his big chair, apparently coordinating these efforts – and recommending that viewers phone in on the telephone number provided if they witness anything spooky – giving the lucky audience the chance to wax spiritual with Mike Smith, who is heading up the call centre…

It’s a quality set-up. However, not all is how it seems. For, whilst Parky talks to Sarah and Craig via an – apparently live – video link, the outside scenes had, in fact, all been pre-recorded six weeks before. It’s a credit to the scriptwriter, however, that he’s managed to perfectly replicate all the boring shite and poor-quality adlibbing that one would expect from a live TV show going slightly askew. For the first forty-five minutes of the show, almost nothing happens at all, adding a greater sense of tedious reality to proceedings. After all, why would anyone pre-record footage of Sarah Greene and Craig Charles titting about talking rubbish?

Suddenly things change, Parky interviews Dr Lin Pascoe, a parapsychologist, who has made an in-depth study of the Earlys’ predicament and believes that there is definitely a supernatural explanation. He listens to her spiel with a vague look of hostility…

It cuts to Smithy, who has a ‘live one’ on the phones – a woman from Slough is demanding to speak with Dr Pascoe about one of the pictures we saw earlier in the programme of the girls’ bedroom. (Hmmm, that did seem extraneous at the time!) The caller is adamant that, in the photograph, there is a figure standing in the room. Despite Dr Pascoe’s protestations, we see the picture again – and there is, clearly a ghostly figure standing by the curtains. It cuts again to Dr Pascoe as she examines it on a monitor and then cuts back to the picture again – this time there’s no one there… (Did we all imagine it? No, they’re messing with our minds!)

Now things really begin to cook. A damp patch is discovered in the Early’s front room, requiring a load of experts to rush in and do experty things, such as prod it and take away samples to a lab. Sarah Greene runs to a French window, apparently freaked out by the sound of some cats fighting. Craig Charles turns up his capering by a good 60% – and leaps out of a closet! It’s edge of the seat stuff!

Greene: dazed from the glory hole

A terrible banging starts upstairs in the house. As Sarah Greene freaks out, Ms Early shrugs it off – this is, apparently, an everyday occurrence. Even still, the ghost is making a right ruckus.  I can’t describe the ruckus, but I’ll try – it sounds quite a lot like central heating problems, which is exactly what has led the family to nickname the ghost ‘Mr Pipes’ (It’s little wonder he’s angry…) 

According to the girls in the house, Mr Pipes sometimes watches them when they’re in bed, but spends most of his time lurking about in the cupboard under the stairs, which has been mysteriously tagged ‘the glory hole’ and subsequently boarded up. (I dread to think, what Pipes is doing under there…)

Since this is a thorough and scientific study of supernatural activity – which should be clear from the fact that Mike Smith is on board – in an attempt to get final, clinching proof of the supernatural there are video cameras mounted in every room of the house. But, just when we think Mr Pipes is unwilling to play ball, the sound of banging suddenly intensifies – and it’s coming from the landing outside the girls’ bedroom. Spooling back the relevant video tape hoping to see Mr Pipes, we are in fact shown footage of nothing more than Suzanne Early smacking a metal bar off the boiler…

Parkinson needs to see no more! Instantly disparaging, he lays into Dr Pascoe for her rubbish views on the supernatural (in fairness, he’s been building up to it for a while). He concludes that she has been the victim of a hoax perpertrated by the girls. Pascoe splutters on, explaining that this is perfectly normal. Since, poltergeists often target adolescents, their subjects often try and prove they aren’t making it up by faking it. (Clearly, that is a rubbish system!)

Cutting back to the house for Sarah Greene to say her last goodbyes to the studio audience, it would appear that things have turned up a notch. No longer is she boring members of the production crew by pointing out they look like Mike Gatting (cheers, then!), instead she’s dodging flying furniture and listening to Suzanne Early spout nursery rhymes in a demonic male voice, whilst cowering behind a chair…

But, ever the professional, Greene moves the story on, heading out to what she believes to be the source of the troubles – the glory hole! As assorted furnishings and ornaments crash down around her, Greene edges towards the hallway, when – suddenly – the picture cuts out…

Back in the studio, the monitors have all gone blank. The telephone connections are dead. Even the clocks have stopped. Parkinson is unruffled. (That’s twenty years in the business for you.) But, Dr Pascoe’s looking shaky. Not as shaky as Smithy though, who is probably wondering how such a simple task as heading up a telephone call centre could have possibly gone so badly. (He should stick to flying helicopters…no, wait…)

Smith: Done a whoopsie- again

After some minutes’ anxiety and confusion, suddenly the monitors blink back on again and, though they have no sound, it seems that life has returned to normal in the house. Indeed, everyone seems to be happily ensconced in a game of cards and chatting with members of the TV crew.

Even Smithy can breathe a sigh of relief, as the telephones have started working again. He even relaxes enough to put another call through. This time it’s a retired social worker, who claims to have visited the Early’s house several years ago to see a lodger that used to live there – a man named Raymond Tunstall. Whilst staying in the house, Tunstall apparently went mad and developed paranoid flights of fancy, mainly that he was being taken over by an old woman who forced him to wear dresses and hurt people. In order to escape from his tormentor, he hanged himself in the cupboard under the stairs…

Parkinson chuckles at this tall story (the arrogance –when will he learn!), turning to the camera, he starts a Crimewatch-style “please don’t have nightmares, this is very rare” wrap-up line – only to be interrupted by Dr Pascoe, who has noticed that something odd about the video feed from the house. One of pictures that flew off the living room wall earlier in the evening seems to be back in place…

This can only mean one thing – the images they are seeing are not live! So what is happening at the house?

Cutting back to the house, the unconscious bodies of various members of the production team are now being carted out the front door on stretchers. Despite this, another cameraman is despatched to find Sarah Greene, carefully deploying his infrared lens that we were shown at length earlier in the programme. (Hmmm, that did seem extraneous at the time). Heading back indoors, through a swirling kaleidoscope of night-vision (accompanied with much Silents of the Lambs-style heavy breathing), he manages to locate – a now hysterical – Sarah Greene, who (ignoring all the cameraman’s advice) pulls away the pieces of wood that had been covering the door to the glory hole. As the door swings open, the camera captures a split-second vision of Pipes in his dress – before swinging shut again – taking Sarah Greene with it. As her screams ring out, the camera signal breaks up…

Back in the studio, Parkinson is so shocked by the events in the house he has literally sat forward in his chair! The lights suddenly dim, and for a minute the studio is left in shadow. It’s enough to cause instant panic with the production crew (they’re as superstitious as sailors down at Television Centre) and, especially, Mike Smith who just apparently watched his wife die on prime-time television.

Suddenly, Dr Pascoe realises what is going on – by bringing all those cameras into the house they have started a nationwide séance! (Of course, it’s obvious now!) Faced with the awful truth, and fully realising her own part in it, she runs from the building – leaving Parkinson to carry on on his own.

After a moment’s gibbering, Parkinson stands up and wanders aimlessly around the studio floor. (Since the cameras are unmanned, the lucky viewer is treated to three minutes of Parky’s navy trouser crotch move in and out of focus.)  Suddenly the auto-cue turns on again and, almost automatically, he begins to read. But what is he reading? Only Pipes’ favourite nursery rhyme! Finally, it’s clear – the ghost is in the machine…

According to the Wikipedia article on Ghostwatch, in the weeks running up to the BBC airing the show, they were worried about what effect it would have on the British public – and very nearly cancelled the screening. This seems unlikely, considering if you look on writer Stephen Volk’s website, you can clearly see Michael Parkinson’s face adorning the front page of that week’s edition of the Radio Times. To me, this would suggest that they were clamouring to get the programme exposure rather than tentatively moving forward with the project…

Whatever the case may be, the show certainly did have an effect. So many people called the telephone hotline that the majority spent hours listening to the engaged tone – thus failing to hear a message pointing out that it wasn’t real.

A lot of suggestible viewers (or possibly mad or attention-seeking viewers) actually claimed to experience ‘supernatural’ activity as a result of seeing Ghostwatch.  Much of this involved what would otherwise seem to be rather common-place phenomenon, such as clocks stopping and movement in curtains, but one inventive viewer actually attacked his wife and then blamed that on the show. Clearly, in the days before The Jeremy Kyle Show, a certain strata of the British public were struggling to find proper outlets…

Still, for those of us interested in the supernatural from a young age (I was a boyish 14-years-old in 1992 – and already had loads of books about ghosts and shit) it must be said that Ghostwatch delivered. In these crazy modern times, the kids have nothing – save for repeats of Yvette Fielding and Derek Acorah scrutinising the dust floating around the corridors of stately homes and calling it ‘orbs’…

Enjoy Stephen Yolk’s excellent Ghostwatch here:

modern man, an exposé

•October 15, 2010 • 1 Comment

The world would be a very dull place if we were all the same now, wouldn’t it?

Actually though, when you think about it, the world is a very dull place – and for precisely this reason.

Submitted for your approval, the ten forms that the tragic modern man can take…

The Office Man

Good humour and dignity are two things lacking in this poor wretch’s life. For he is quite prepared to stand in front of the water-cooler and recite, with vigour and an array of comedic voice changes, the jokes from the previous evening’s episode of My Family.

The smirk is an unsuccessful attempt to hide his inner turmoil.

The Standard

Sartorial elegance for this man consists of little more than the wish to wear sports utility clothing whilst attending happy hour at some vinegar-sprayed local.

Clutching a pack of Rothmans and cell phone with one sovereign-digited hand, he intermittently feeds himself peanuts and turns the sporting pages of his red-top newspaper with the other.

Finally, he drives home to watch Late Night with Richard Littlejohn on cable.

The Goth

Yes, that is a man.

Much like old soldiers, Goths never actually die – they simply fade away. But unlike old soldiers, they actually tend to re-appear again, just when you’ve forgotten about them – and are therefore more like cockroaches.

With their ashen faces and purple frills, the Goths’ appeal is not so much Byronic, as the tedious ability to remind you of the forgotten old people in your life.

The Trekkie

Unfamiliarity with the ways of the woman has led this man to seek out other areas of self-expression.

Now, he has traded in all the things his mother has taught him, for a signed photograph of William Shatner and a pair of outsized, rubber ears.

The well-thumbed Klingon phrase-book in his pocket highlights the sickening depths to which the Star Trek cult can take hold.

The Ponce

No stranger to the photo-booth, this one. He can spend up to four hours a day pouting at his own reflection.

But you’re more likely to find this pretentious young pup, sitting on a train struggling with the preface of some lesser-known Penguin classic. The outward facade of poise and dignity is then customarily betrayed by his mother calling on his mobile, asking what time he’ll be home for tea.

Above all others, these men should be shunned.

The Scientist

Of course, The Scientists should be praised for their contributions to making this crazy world a better – and easier – place for us all to live in. This is because, when it comes to art of picking up ladies, they are impossibly inept.

All those sums and calculations that whizz around their robotic heads, whilst affording them a little saviour-faire in the realm of the white coat and test tube, tend to kill any domestic conversation stone dead. In order to draw attention away from their scientific tendencies, The Scientist’s conversation will inevitably drift into discussion of the dreams they experienced the previous evening.

The Metaller

He’s a dirty fellow. The soap his mother bought for him last Christmas has been used so few times that the brand name still remains embossed, for all to see. He attempts to cover up his bedroom’s ghastly funk with joss sticks – to little avail.

The desperate craving for Cutter’s Choice and Stone’s Ginger Wine drags him from the house once a week. But when bigger men push into the queue in front of him, it goes unchallenged.

In order to relax after this ordeal, he slopes off home in order to play unpleasantly complicated guitar riffs, whilst mugging furiously into the mirror.

The European

Look at the sparkle in those eyes.

This limp-wristed glamour-puss, is a master of the dance floor, where his bandy legs become a blur within seconds. His exciting dress sense and gallant over-enthusiasm make him a must at any party.

However, much like the mighty cheetah, his initial burst of energy leaves him spent within the course of an hour. Finding himself no longer a valuable party asset comes hard to The European, and he recklessly sinks any remaining alcopops.

Since The European is a flighty and emotional creature at the best of times, this is often to the peril of all remaining party-goers.

The Regular

It’s Saturday night and in provincial towns up and down the nation preparations are under way. Loafers are being buffed to mirror sheen, jockey shorts are being ironed, close-cropped hair is being assiduously pasted to scalps – and from each three-bed semi, the musky stench of Hilfiger rises into the evening sky.

Such is the lot of Regular Joe. As he steps out with his chosen selection of identikit friends to prowl “the strip”, he feels to the very core of his heart that he’s right – about everything. 

One thing’s for sure, some pan-caked harpy is gonna get a rough handling tonight! 

The Irregular

Born without that most important of human capacities: the ability to see the world through other people’s eyes. Our man could either have gone one of two ways, the route of the cold-hearted psychopath or the plain buffoonery of the big fat party animal.

His is almost certainly the fetid armpit you will end up smothered by at any given concert.

Who would guess this fellow would have such diverse musical tastes or so fine an array of colourful singlets. More power to him.

Hammer House of Horror – an appreciation

•October 9, 2010 • 5 Comments

THEY own the night

Recovering from ‘man flu’ (the worst type of flu) earlier in the week, I resolved – after two days sloth – not to waste any more time and, instead, take stock of my life. 

But it turns out that taking stock of your life does very little to pass the time. And so, I decided, after much deliberation, that a better course for me was the route of moaning practically unceasingly and watching poor-quality television from the 1980s.

Due, in part, to my inability to track down the episode of Neighbours where Paul Robinson has a nervous breakdown, I decided to focus my (not substantial) energies on the output of the Hammer House instead.

As all British people know, Hammer is a name synonymous with horror. If you’re of a certain age (and mentality) then your childhood was almost certainly defined by Friday nights watching the likes of Peter Cushing doing battle with evil forces – usually in the form of his mate Christopher Lee brutalising a middle European village. (This was in the days before British stag parties did it.) And, if your cup wasn’t already brimming over, occasionally the likes of Dennis Waterman or Anthony Ainley would blunder onto set in a velvet jerkin and pair of fawn slacks, ready to do some mild romping before being hastily despatched.

The ‘60s and ‘70s were golden times for Hammer, they produced big-budget, big-screen, British filmmaking at its camp and beautiful best… (Even Dennis Waterman did a good turn!)

However, the vogue for such things as good production values and historical settings seemed to die off in the late 1970s, probably due to the rise in popularity of cheap video slasher films. The swishing of velvet capes and fangy mugging at the sun, so beloved by Hammer fans, was suddenly replaced by tracking shots and people in isolated American camp-sites being bludgeoned by the contents of an electrician’s toolbox. For shame!

At Hammer House, the folks didn’t know quite what to do with themselves. In 1979, they made a ‘safe’ remake of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes with a cast of American actors – including Cybil Shepherd and Elliot Gould. It was a sensational flop.

One thing was clear, Hammer Films had lost its way…

However, by the early eighties they had cleverly re-invented themselves, making the move from the big screen to small screen and bringing their brand of ghoulish storytelling to ITV. For thirteen Sunday nights in my childhood, Hammer House of Horror was on the telly…

Perhaps the most famous episode of the television series is The House that Bled to Death, if for no better reason than it has a cracking title. Spoiler: the house doesn’t bleed to death. What does happen is that Nicholas Ball (TV’s loveable Hazell) buys a new semi, where – unknown to him – a murder has taken place previously. As a result, he is beset by odd occurrences, including the murder weapon being re-gifted to his daughter at her birthday party, a severed hand appearing and body-popping on the hall lino, blood pouring down the bedroom walls and, most ominously of all, that bloke that used to play Ted Hills in Eastenders turning up and wanting a cup of tea.

My favourite episode is Visitor from the Grave, but, that said, there are very few slouches in the series…

Some highlights include:

In Growing Pains, a toy rabbit gets cut up at the dinner table and half a pound of chopped liver falls out of it.

Bunny spoiler

In The Two Faces of Evil, a couple of holiday makers are terrorised by a man in a yellow Sowester…

"Cooo-ee"

In Rude Awakening, it’s clear from the offing that the production team have come in seriously under time and were, as a result, forced to improvise in order to pad the episode out. As a result we are treated to a montage of slow-motion clips from the rest of the episode (including a heavy reliance of Denholm Elliot in a red telephone box) in a baffling pre-credit sequence. That’s the way to do it! 

In Children of the Full Moon, Dynasty’s Christopher Cazenove runs up to Diana Dors shouting that he’s just seen a man in the woods turning into a wolf! Dors explains that ‘It’s probably just a stag!”  Oddly enough, he completely acquiesces… It turns out townspeople often do make this rookie error.

Russell Brand, the wilderness years

Tony Valentine rocks up in Carpathian Eagle. (As does a very young and very embarrassed-looking Pierce Brosnan.)  In this episode, a murderess spends most of her time sitting alone in pubs and bars, waiting for men to pick her up so that she can kill them. (Pierce, however, pulls her down the park – he’s old school). Fair’s fair, this femme fatal does top some serious ‘players’ too. I think the middle-aged man with the bottle of Mouton Cadet and the outsized rubber feet at the end of his bed, gives a pretty good account of himself… 

"That's right, love, comedy feet..."

But Visitor from the Grave is simply genius – mainly because it combines a wealth of quality British talent. Manimal’s Simon MacCorkindale takes the lead. We know this because he spends most of the time indulging in the actorly pursuits of shouting, flexing (in pair of excessively tight trousers) and flaring his nostrils. He’s trying to convince his American (read: highly-strung) missus that she’s going crazy, so he can have it away with her cash.

The plan is a brilliant one. Stanley Lebor (that’s right, it’s Howard from Ever Decreasing Circles) turns up at their isolated farmhouse in the middle of the night and sets about sexually molesting her! (Howard never did this!) Not unreasonably, she picks up a nearby shotgun and shoots his face off…

‘Corkie’ MacCorkindale comes home and, amid some impressively manful thrusting, cleans up the mess and buries the body in the garden. However, for the rest of the episode, Howard keeps turning up to haunt the wife – in the street, in a car, even dressed as a waiter at a rubbish party (who then turns and legs it with a tray of vol-au-vents!) For these good reasons, the wife surmises that he isn’t actually dead after all. And, so, MacCorkindale is forced to go back to the garden and dig his body up to prove that he is. Unfortunately, he chooses the exact moment that a policeman – in the form of Blake 7’s Gareth Thomas – has decided to call at the house.   

After telling the copper that everything’s fine (by explaining that his wife’s gibbering is perfectly normal – women, eh!) the policeman drives off satisfied, and MacCorkindale – ever the sensitive soul – grabs his wife’s hand and drags her to the garden – where Howard is lying in a shallow grave with maggots crawling all over his face.

Probably not the reason he got into acting...

MacCorkindale’s wife now realises that she is seeing ghosts, and although, he doesn’t believe in such ‘poppycock’ himself, Corkie arranges for her to see an Indian mystic that he knows about. Mind you, it’s going to cost her. Apparently the mystic lives in India and will only visit her if she says she’ll finance a church in the UK. (This must be how Derek Acorah pays for his dental treatment.) She readily agrees.

The mystic, called ‘Gupta’, arrives at their house, dressed in dark glasses and an outsized turban, and sets about doing Indian mystic type things (i.e. he holds a séance). There’s no messing about – and, within seconds, a projection of Howard’s angry face appears in the middle of the table…

Despite the wife trying to make amends with Howard’s giant face, there’s just no consoling him and he tells her that he will carry on haunting her – forever!

In a state of some disarray, she runs from the room and kills herself.

Back in the living room, minutes later, Gupta pulls off his turban and dark glasses to reveal that he isn’t Indian after all. (A-ha! That’s why he was doing that Welsh accent!) Shockingly, it’s Gareth Thomas again!

With the lady of the house’s body not even cold, the cynical plot is uncovered and MacCorkindale, Howard and Gareth Thomas sit around drinking booze and counting out the money that the wife had supplied for Gupta’s church. (No explanation is given as to how Howard managed to project his face into the middle of the room, but there you go…)

Suddenly, in that way that weak plot devices often assert themselves, as the lads are laughing it up and Gareth is regaling everyone with his faultless Welsh accent again (just in case you hadn’t worked out he was Gupta, despite having just watched him take the costume off), the ‘real’ ghost of the wife rears up in the middle of the room and laughs wickedly at them…

“Revenge…revenge…”

You see, people, this is British story telling at its best. Don’t take stock, kick back with a cup of hot Bovril and enjoy…

best of British – part one

•September 29, 2010 • 4 Comments

Sergeant Ray and an eight year old boy visit the Big House

“Juvenile Liaison”  (1975, Nick Broomfield)

An early piece of Nick Broomfield cinema verité, based in Lancashire. It follows the lives of two Juvenile Liaison Police Officers, as they go about their daily work of routinely attacking and maligning children.

The film was banned for a long time. I don’t know why. Clearly in those unenlightened days (of the mid-70s) it must have seemed more than reasonable for parents to invite burly coppers into their houses in order to dispense dry slaps to their children.

Or, to ask a policewoman with a wonky bee-hive into their living-room specifically in order to call their daughter ‘a slut’ for swearing in the precinct, whilst they piss off to the kitchen to smoke a tab…

In the film’s unbelievable finale, a six-foot-tall policeman – with a Ray Reardon haircut and a leather trench coat – stands threateningly over a little boy in knee-socks, blowing smoke into his face and growling: “Where’s the cowboy suit, Johnny? WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH IT?”

You can watch the follow-up documentary on 4OD.

Staggard: the lost weekend

•September 15, 2010 • 9 Comments

The stag (left) hits Totnes

 I have not written here for a long time. I know. I’m aware… 

The thing is, I have my best friend’s wedding in a week’s time and I have to prepare a Best Man’s speech. 

And so, as is so often the case when I have to write something – and especially something unpaid – I am spending vastly too much time worrying about it, and doing very little of actual use.  

So now, for example, I am writing a blog about not writing the speech, in preference to actually writing it. I really need to rethink the whole system. 

The ‘stag do’ was a bit of a let-down and has given me very little to work with. Far from doing anything raucous, the stag has become practically tee-total over the course of the last few years and now spends much of his time tending to his courgettes and talking wistfully about Agas. As a result, his drinking skills have utterly dried up. 

Last Friday, we all arrived in a big country pile in the middle of Devon and attempted to warm up for the Saturday’s ‘all-dayer’. However, the Friday night drinks that the stag imbibed, as a purely perfunctory measure, clearly took it out of him – to the point that when Saturday morning came about he was basically unable to function.

Lying in bed shivering, the stag’s ashen face was contorted and stretched into a helpless leer. When we brought him a nice glass of cheap brandy and some garlic sausage (the classic ‘Bulgarian breakfast’) he flew to his en suite and spent the next thirty minutes assiduously purging his system. It didn’t get any better. Having vacated the bathroom, the stag then sloped back to bed, vowing to not drink again until at least midday… 

Unwilling to allow such a late start, we set about changing the clocks. The stag’s mobile phone was summarily stolen, the time changed on it, then replaced. When he appeared in the kitchen forty minutes later (after enduring much abuse and childish name calling), he stared fixedly up at the kitchen clock in horror. Though it was only 9.30 in the morning, it read 11.30. Pondering this helplessly for some minutes, the stag’s clouded mind was unable to take it all in. “But…?” he stammered weakly. Taking his mobile from his pocket, he held it out in his wavering palm, peering hatefully down at it. “I must have fallen back to sleep…?”

Another two hours shivered by, before the stag was discovered ‘kicking back’ on one of the settees in the living room watching a repeat of Ironside on the telly (his assertion that this was ‘alright’ because DeForest Kelley was guest starring, met with a remarkably cool reception). After a ten minute’s more chiding, the stag was finally convinced to open a beer. Which he did. And for another hour, it sat untouched by his curling toes.  

The stag’s performance didn’t improve for a long time. Wearing his extra small T-shirt out in Totnes (an unusual party location), he refused to take off his jacket! 

When his first pint did finally gurgle down it was 5.30pm (his time); everyone else was utterly pie-eyed after taking down vast quantities of the local bright-orange cider. 

From my own point of view, I have come away from the stag party bereft of hilarious stories to add to this Best Man’s speech. And, in point of fact, it was my own sleeping carcass that was ritually desecrated by the stag party for passing out early! 

It is appalling to me that photographs survive from the stag party of a (by now) bright-eyed stag looming over my unconscious body, which is itself piled high with assorted furniture, bric-a-brac and foodstuffs. (The worst part being that we all bought fake beards – ostensibly to mock the bearded stag, although in my own case the objective was mainly about maintaining a measure of anonymity – and my pointy black pirate beard is clearly evident in this series of photographs, hanging from my naked foot. The indignity!) 

Pile treatment

Anyway, I’d better get back to trying to scribble down something that might form the basis of a witty and stylish Best Man’s speech, with very little to go on and without wanting to do the unthinkable and steal some terrible one-liners from the internet. I wonder, can you just make it up…?  Continue reading ‘Staggard: the lost weekend’