Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Black Mountain Side

It occurs to me that some of you more sociable types may be having a Halloween party. Ignoring the fact that you haven't invited me, if you need a soundtrack that really shivers the spine, might I suggest 'Black Goat Of The Woods' by Black Mountain Transmitter? Originally released on cassette on 31st October, 2009, it's a terrifying recording that my wife always makes me listen to on the headphones, thereby ensuring that I get really frightened on my own.

It's still out there on physical formats, people, and you can 'download' their back catalogue here. . Their new album 'Playing With Dead Things' is, appropriately, out today.


Peter Wyngarde never played Dracula (come on, Pete, there's still time) but, amongst a dozen other pen portraits, he managed to come over all vampiric in 'Epic', a wild, weird and very funny 1967 episode of The Avengers.

Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Half and Half

In 1964, a national competition was held to find a work of art to welcome shoppers at one of the entrances to the Merrion Centre, a new, modernist shopping precinct in the heart of Leeds. The winner was 'Androgyne', by art student Glenn Hellman.

Glenn said of the work "the myth of the Androgynes is relevant to the title. They were a race of people joined with the perfect partner who because of their perfection, in time became so arrogant that that they angered the Gods so much that they split them asunder and ever since we have wandered the world seeking our other half. This destruction is a recurring theme in my work, but not the only one. Forms tearing themselves apart, or if you are a 'glass half full' person, then healing themselves. Personally I think the glass is down to the dregs."

Famous and controversial in its time, this photograph shows it as it looked in 1967. Part of a vibrant thoroughfare, surrounded by life and movement. There are even benches in front of it for passers by to sit and look at it. Sadly, fifty years on, it has become one of the most neglected pieces of public art in the city, with changes to the precinct and surrounding areas slowly turning the busy area it was once situated in into a dingy courtyard, a non-place. It's really rather sad, and 'Androgyne' cuts a lonely figure these days, the spirit of modernity become old and marginalised.

Glenn Hellman went on from the competition to have a long career as a professional sculptor. His work becomes even more abstract and divisive as it goes on, which is something I always look for in an artist.

Screen Maquette

Curly Vee


Horizontal Curves
I wonder if Glenn Hellmann ever thinks of 'Androgyne', surely his most seen work? Either way, whenever I'm in Leeds, I always make sure that I seek it out and give it a little pat.

Monday, 29 October 2012

It's A Small World

Town Centre Shops
Model Village
Great Yarmouth.

Oh, I also love postcards of Model Villages, so I thought I'd share some of them with you.

There are two basic types: the type that provide a close up so it takes you a moment to realise that you're looking at a scale model, and the type with people in it providing a sense of proportion. I think I like the second type best, they are full of strange possibilities. Here an enormous boy points as two little people seemingly cower against a shop window.

Little Utopias

Model Villages are by no means confined to our little islands, but they were invented here and, for me, they seem to encapsulate three great British traditions: gawping, hobbies, and our insistence on imposing our idea of order onto an unordered world.

An aerial view of Bekonscot

The first Model Village proper was Bekonscot in Buckinghamshire. A rich man’s obsession, it was initially a private project, and only opened to the public in 1929 after featuring in a news reel which stirred up frantic interest in this Lilliputian marvel.  Many more miniature parks followed, mostly designed as tourist attractions, often in seaside resorts. Great Yarmouth has one, as does Torquay, Dorset and the Isle of Wight. Blackpool have one, too, of course, as you knew they would.   
Although there are examples all around the world, these typically merely reproduce famous landmarks at a reduced scale. The best kind of British Model Village instead creates an idealised fantasy environment: a village or small, manageable town which is perfectly proportioned and presents a nostalgic portrait of Olde England. There is usually a Church, a Butchers, a Bakers, a Bobby on a bike, a cricket match in progress, a pub; thatched roofs and narrow roads, buses and steam trains, a winding river with anglers on the bank and jaunty boats on the water – all the signifiers / clich├ęs of the land of lost content, a cosy, rural environ essentially unchanged from the Edwardian era. This safe, self-contained microcosm can be taken to mind boggling length: the Isle of Wight and Bourton on the Water’s model villages have their own model village, for example.

Bourton on the Water's Model Village's Model Village
There are no riots here, no anti-social families, no over-crowding, no litter or tiny pools of vomit- no problems whatsoever, in fact, instead a happy, harmless, comforting stasis: everything in its place, reassuring, safe – even death is banished, although dry rot can be an issue (a couple of model village’s include burning houses, but each conflagration is under control, and the good old Fire Brigade are in attendance).

Roland Callingham, inventor of the model village as we know it
The model village is created not by gradual settlement like normal centres of population, but seemingly all at once, by the guiding intelligence of a God-like figure and the myriad hands of his craftsmen (Bekonscot was accountant Roland Callingham’s idea, but he pressed his maid, gardener, cook and chauffer into helping him with the work). To this end, the design and purpose and feel of the development are informed by the deity’s sensibilities and preferences / prejudices, and it is their concept of order that is imposed.
This desire for order is, of course, also reflected in the real life model communities that were built specifically to provide housing for workers in the shadow of the factory or industry they served, as well as in the post-war enthusiasm for new towns, with their carefully placed amenities and logical but convoluted road systems. Again, as in their small scale counterparts, order is informed by a patrician view of the world. 

Model village, Great Yarmouth

Model community, Bournville
George Cadbury
Model village, Isle of Wight
Model Community, Port Sunlight
William Lever (brother not pictured)

The village of Bournville doesn’t have a pub, for example, as George Cadbury was a Quaker and disapproved of alcohol (one hundred years on, it still doesn’t have a pub - The Creator’s shadow looms large). Port Sunlight was an early example of a profit sharing scheme, but William Lever made the decision that the workers share would be put into houses rather than into their hands (in typical patrician style, he feared cash would be wasted on sweets and alcohol). The workers were not consulted, just as the thousands of Londoners forcibly rehoused into the new towns at Stevenage and Bracknell and Hemel Hempstead were not consulted. It may very well have been ‘for their own good’, but it’s nice to be asked.

Similarly, private developments at Thorpeness and Portmeirion also follow the pattern. Thorpeness is a strange resort of artificial lakes and mock-Jacobean chalet type accommodation, a holiday village for the wealthy friends of multi-millionaire Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie based, in part, on Peter Pan’s Neverland; Portmeirion, the famous location for ‘The Prisoner’, crams an Italianate village into a relatively compact space, an architectural showcase for the work of Sir Clough Williams-Ellis. Both were created as private empires, idiosyncratic worlds shaped to suit an individual, and, long after the creator has died, ‘little’ people still fight to preserve the traditions and order arbitrarily imposed in the past.

Unique skyline at Thorpeness

The extraordinary Portmeirion 

Sir Clough Williams-Ellis and his most famous long-term resident
Whether full size or 1/12th scale, the motivation for the creator of the model is clear: to produce, like God, a perfect, complete world in your own image – an opportunity that I suppose we are all working towards to some extent with our own homes, gardens, sheds and blogs. It is perhaps no surprise that the publicity material for model villages rarely fails to mention ‘feeling like a giant’ as one of the benefits of visiting, as if power or a sense of omniscient omnipotence is passed down to the tourist as they traipse around the exhibit – seeing life all at once, from an elevated position, perhaps with an enormous sandal clad foot poised to crash down on it all.   

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Basil On Film

Basil Kirchin scored relatively few films and even less TV, but his name on the titles always gives me a frisson of pleasure.

The Mutations.

Assignment K.
The Strange Affair.

The Shuttered Room.

Primitive London.

I Start Counting.


Out Of The Unknown: The Indian Spirit Guide.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

The Freakmaker

Released in 1974, ‘The Mutations’ turned out to be the last film that Jack Cardiff directed, and the last film that Basil Kirchin scored, so you might well expect it to be a career ending disaster, a monumental flop that derailed the hitherto promising careers of two excellent people. In actual fact, it isn’t bad at all: just a little cheap and tacky. But it’s fun, which goes a long way, and the music is great.

Donald Pleasance plays Professor Nolter, a brilliant biologist and geneticist who is working on creating animal / plant hybrids so that mankind can live by photosynthesis and the world hunger issue can be eradicated, which is fair enough. But why do the annoying (and really old) students in his seminar group keep disappearing, and what exactly is going on at the local Freakshow? That’s right, the local Freakshow. It’s that sort of film.

The Freakshow is the centre of the mystery, and is populated by a cast of real sideshow performers with a variety of deformities (including a man who can pop his eyeballs out of his sockets) and it is their presence that raises issues of exploitation and sensationalism. The majority of their screen time is documentary type footage of their tent show where they introduce themselves and their ‘talents’ in time honoured carnival style, but they also have some dramatic scenes that are deliberately staged to recall Tod Browning’s ‘Freaks’, including appropriating some of the dialogue. These scenes have a real pathos that is not in the script, but written by their haunted faces, awkward movements, and the obvious sadness of their limited lives. In classic horror style they become killers at the end, of course, and give a fairly impressive demonstration of deadly knife throwing.

Pleasance is very understated and utterly convinces as a dedicated, if somewhat sardonic man of science. You could almost believe he might even be the hero of this story until you see him tenderly stroke a large rabbit before shoving it into the open trap of a massive carnivorous plant. No matter how many times I see this, it always makes me laugh.

Scott Anthony is the male lead (well, he shares the honour with screen vacuum Brad Harris) and is perfect casting as a know-it-all student with a shit quip for every occasion. Equally insufferable as sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brezska in Ken Russell’s shrill and embarrassing Savage Messiah’, Anthony’s career ended here, too – I can’t say I’m sorry as he is one of the least likeable male actors I have ever seen, and I’ve watched films with all of the Baldwin brothers (Memo to the Baldwin Brothers: you have made life unnecessarily complicated by all becoming ‘the fat one’.)

The most striking element of the enterprise is Basil Kirchin’s amazing music, including extracts from his first ‘Worlds within Worlds’ LP and additional material written with John Nathan. Surprisingly experimental for a mainstream (horror or otherwise) film, it utilises trumpet, animal roars, hums, clicks, pops, scratchy strings and the sounds of autistic children to provide an avant garde accompaniment to the story, lending a gravitas to the action even when it gets really silly. The combination of music and image probably work best in the opening sequence: the stop-motion footage of flowers and toadstools growing is beautiful on its own terms, but Basil’s music and sound makes it transcendent.