The Quietened Bunker

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Bunkers were a recurrent feature in the media of the 1980s, a consequence of increasing Cold War tensions following the election of Ronald Reagan and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The decade birthed new horrors of the body-mutating variety, and also reanimated some older ones in the figure of the knife-wielding psychopath, but the omnipresent spectre of nuclear war posed a threat not only to characters in films and TV serials but to the audiences who watched them. That threat manifests most strikingly in the middle of the decade with the TV film Threads (1984), the TV serial Edge of Darkness (1985), and the comic-book serial/graphic novel Watchmen (1986–87). To these you could add feature films such as WarGames (1983) and James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) and its sequel. Not all of these works feature bunkers but nuclear warfare by its very nature implies the existence of subterranean control centres with all their latent mythological resonances. Some of those resonances are played with in David Rudkin’s Penda’s Fen (1974) and Artemis 81 (1981), the latter featuring an extended sequence in a sinister subterranean complex. Troy Kennedy Martin’s superb nuclear thriller, Edge of Darkness, runs the gamut of underground enclaves, from labyrinthine cave systems and abandoned nuclear shelters to a dusty Cold War command centre with a telephone link to Downing Street.

Bunkers of the abandoned variety provide the theme for the latest compilation album from A Year In The Country:

The Quietened Bunker is an exploration of the abandoned and/or decommissioned Cold War installations which lie under the land and that would have acted as selectively populated refuges/control centres if the button was ever pushed; a study and reflection on these chimeric bulwarks and the faded but still present memory of associated Cold War dread, of which they are stalwart, mouldering symbols.

Track list:
1) Lower Level Clock Room – Keith Seatman
2) Drakelow Tunnels – Grey Frequency
3) The Filter’s Gone / The Last Man Plays The Last Piano – A Year In The Country
4) Aggregates II – Panabrite
5) Bunker 4: Decommissioned – Polypores
6) Comms: Seen Through The Grey – Listening Center
7) Crafty Mechanics – Time Attendant
8) Crush Depth – Unknown Heretic
9) Waiting For The Blazing Skies – David Colohan

This is another quality collection in distinctive black-and-white packaging that will be of immediate interest to anyone who enjoys the releases on the Ghost Box label (Listening Center are already Ghost Box artists): spectral pianos, shortwave radios, ambient chords. The bunker theme connects to shared concerns among related artists with the old Civil Defence films, samples of which have been used on releases by The Advisory Circle and Mordant Music. The Cold War bunker is more than another empty space, it joins the bio-weapons lab (see The Satan Bug) as a source of contemporary horror that doesn’t require any supernatural component to chill the blood.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Fractures

Folk Horror Revival: Field Studies

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The particularly British sub-genre of folk horror receives a substantial examination in Folk Horror Revival: Field Studies, a 500-page collection of essays, interviews and artwork edited by Andy Paciorek.

Featuring essays and interviews by many great cinematic, musical, artistic and literary talents, Folk Horror Revival: Field Studies is the most comprehensive and engaging exploration to date of the sub-genre of Folk Horror and associated fields in cinema, television, music, art, culture and folklore.

Includes contributions by Kim Newman, Robin Hardy, Thomas Ligotti, Philip Pullman, Gary Lachman and many many more.

100% of all profits from sales of the book will be charitably donated to environmental, wildlife and community projects undertaken by The Wildlife Trusts.

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Nuada rising, 1973 & 1976.

Among the contents there’s my 4000-word essay Sacred Demons: The Dramatic Art of David Rudkin, parts of which will be familiar to readers of my previous posts about Rudkin’s work. I’m not sure Rudkin would appreciate being subjected to such a narrow focus when his plays and TV films are much more personal and cerebral than most generic entertainments. But there is an intersection in a number of them with folk horror at its widest reach, and Rudkin did happen to adapt The Ash-Tree (1975) by MR James for the BBC’s series of ghost stories at Christmas. My piece covers this along with other TV films such as Penda’s Fen (1974) and Artemis 81 (1981), and many of the stage plays including Afore Night Come (1962), The Sons of Light (1965/76) and The Saxon Shore (1983). The stage plays I only know from their scripts which makes them difficult to appraise; maybe the renewed interest in Rudkin’s work will spur some revivals.

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Sight and Sound, August 2010. Illustration by Becca Thorne.

Paciorek’s book isn’t solely concerned with British subjects, other essays include studies of Weird Americana, the music of The Cremator and Morgiana, and Czech folk horror. The Lulu page apparently didn’t allow the listing of a full table of contents so I’m posting the details below.

Continue reading “Folk Horror Revival: Field Studies”

Haunted Corridors: The Temporal Enigmas of Sapphire and Steel

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All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Transuranic, heavy elements may not be used where there is life. Medium atomic weights are available: Gold, Lead, Copper, Jet, Diamond, Radium, Sapphire, Silver and Steel.

Sapphire and Steel have been assigned.

Voiceover at the beginning of each episode

Having revisited a fair amount of old television in the past few years I thought I was past being surprised, but this came as a revelation. Sapphire and Steel appeared at exactly the wrong moment for me to fully appreciate it the first time round. The six storylines ran on the ITV network from 1979 to 1982, a period when my home and personal life was so chaotic that I saw little television at all. At any other time a series featuring a pair of cosmic investigators immersed in mysteries involving haunted railway stations and people escaping from photographs would have been essential viewing. Sapphire and Steel was never repeated after those original screenings so watching the entire run recently has been like seeing it for the first time. In recent years the series has been included in discussion of the weirder British television of past decades; China Miéville in his interview in The Twilight Language of Nigel Kneale describes Sapphire and Steel as the strangest thing ever screened on British TV. After reading that, and a couple of other appraisals, I felt obliged to refresh my vague memories.

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Assignment One: Sapphire (Joanna Lumley) and Steel (David McCallum).

Superficially, Sapphire and Steel belongs to the occult-detective subgenre, a minor category of weird fiction that in its early days included characters such as Sheridan Le Fanu’s Dr Martin Hesselius, Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence, William Hope Hodgson’s Thomas Carnacki and others. But several factors set Sapphire and Steel apart from their more staid predecessors: occult detectives are generally solitary figures whereas Sapphire and Steel operate as a pair; Sapphire is a woman in a field more commonly occupied by middle-aged men; and most striking of all, both Sapphire and Steel are supernatural beings themselves, dispatched to Earth by agencies we never see and learn nothing about, in order to mend ruptures in the flow of Time. Supernatural detectives had appeared in comic books before this but there’s no evidence that series creator PJ Hammond was considering such antecedents when he wrote The Time-Menders (as Sapphire and Steel was originally known). A few years earlier Hammond had been writing for Ace of Wands (1970–72), a mildly hippyish children’s TV series whose hero, Tarot, was a youthful stage magician with genuine occult powers. Between stage shows, Tarot and friends investigated supernatural events. Sapphire and Steel had originally been planned as a series for children but before the first script was finished it was moved to an early evening slot, thus allowing for darker and more adult-oriented material.

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Assignment Two: the haunted railway station. The clothing worn by the pair changes with each assignment; on this occasion they’re in evening dress.

One of the attractions of Sapphire and Steel in a genre replete with origins and canonical histories is how little is explained about the two main characters, the source of their assignments, or even the true nature of the malevolent forces they have to face. Sapphire (Joanna Lumley) and Steel (David McCallum) embody the materials after which they’re named, the pair being part of a team of elemental operatives some of whose names are listed in the voiceover that introduces each episode. We only encounter two others: Lead (Val Pringle), a huge African-American man with superior strength; and Silver (David Collings), an effete and dandyish Englishman with abilities to mould metals, fix machines and replicate objects. Sapphire’s abilities are mainly psychometric—she reads the history and condition of people and places—but she can also rewind time for short periods; Steel is as cold and unyielding as his name; he’s fiercely analytical, often bad-tempered and also strong enough to tie a knot in a lift cable.

Continue reading “Haunted Corridors: The Temporal Enigmas of Sapphire and Steel”

Afore Night Come by David Rudkin

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RSC programme, 1962.

Not a review, this, you can’t really review a stage play you’ve never seen. Following the re-viewing of David Rudkin’s White Lady I’ve gone back to some of the published plays. If all you know of Rudkin’s work is his television drama, the plays are instructive for showing the consistency of his themes across the years. The recent resurgence of interest in Penda’s Fen and Artemis 81 has seen Rudkin’s work included among that group of film and TV dramas that Rob Young memorably labelled Old Weird Britain (after Greil Marcus and The Old, Weird America), a loose affiliate that would include films such as The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw, and television works by Nigel Kneale, Alan Garner (The Owl Service and Red Shift) and the MR James adaptations, one of which, The Ash Tree, was also written by Rudkin.

If the Old Weird Britain lies at an intersection between different dramatic forms—ghost story, horror story, science fiction, historical drama—then not all of Rudkin’s work would fall into the intersection, but two of the plays—The Sons of Light and his first staged work, Afore Night Come—could be coaxed into the charmed circle: The Sons of Light, with its sinister human experiments taking place underground, has ties to Artemis 81, while Afore Night Come is another piece about (intentional or otherwise) human sacrifice in rural England. I hadn’t read Afore Night Come until last week, and was struck by its similarity to John Bowen’s Robin Redbreast (1970), a more deliberately ritualistic piece of work. In its first act Afore Night Come is an almost documentary-like account of a day in the life of workers hired to pick the pear harvest in an orchard outside Birmingham; the eruption of violence in the second act is certainly foreshadowed but seems less premeditated than in Robin Redbreast, a factor which has apparently shocked many audiences. During its performances in the early 1960s the tendency was to see the play in the light of Harold Pinter and Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, it’s only in retrospect that a connection with more generic works emerges. There’s also a connection to White Lady via the pesticide spraying about which the workers are continually warned, and whose advent coincides with the moments of violence.

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Sight and Sound, August 2010. Illustration by Becca Thorne.

A couple of other things are worth noting: until 1968 all the plays performed in Britain were vetted by the Lord Chamberlain’s office who would routinely strike out any material deemed offensive or irreligious. Knowing this I was surprised by the recurrence of the word “fuck” in Rudkin’s script, and also the hint of same-sex attraction between two of the male characters, a detail that would usually have been removed. It seems that plays pre-1968 could be performed without censorship if the theatre was declared to be a private club for the evening (a similar state of affairs helped evade some film censorship) which is what happened with Afore Night Come in 1962. Given this, and the incident of a decapitated head being rolled across a London stage (probably the first since the Jacobeans, says Rudkin), it’s easy to see why audiences at the time might have felt assaulted, although the play still won the Evening Standard Drama Award that year. Sexual ambiguity/ambivalence or outright homosexuality have been a continual thread in Rudkin’s drama yet he’s seldom been given much credit for this pioneering work. A year after Afore Night Come there was Rudkin’s first play for television, The Stone Dance, a piece which sounds like another potential addition to the works in the Old, Weird Britain catalogue. Rudkin describes it thus:

A Revivalist pastor pitches his crusade tent within a Cornish stone circle. His repressed son becomes sexually obsessed with an outward-going local boy, and suffers a hysterical loss of speech. A storm blows the pastor’s tent away, and amid the stones, their primal purity reasserted, by the boy’s accepting touch the son is healed.

I believe that, prior to this, no tv play had overtly treated homosexual emotions as a central theme. (In Britain at this time, any gay sex could incur a prison sentence of up to two years.)

Many of the TV plays from the 1960s are now lost so there’s no guarantee that we’ll ever see this, a shame considering that Michael Hordern and John Hurt were the leads. No guarantee either that we’ll see any staging of the more interesting plays like The Sons of Light and The Triumph of Death which seem to be too eccentric for theatre directors. The scripts can at least be picked up relatively cheaply. To date there’s only Afore Night Come that seems to be revived with any regularity. Michael Billington, a long-time champion of Rudkin, reviews the Young Vic production from 2001 here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
White Lady by David Rudkin
The Horror Fields
Robin Redbreast by John Bowen
Red Shift by Alan Garner
Children of the Stones
Penda’s Fen by David Rudkin
David Rudkin on Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr

White Lady by David Rudkin

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Amy: Dad? What’s a parable.

Gil: Parable? A sort of story, with something in it…strange. To help you remember it. And think. About something important.

I first heard about David Rudkin’s White Lady (1987) from Grant Morrison during a conversation about Penda’s Fen, Morrison having been a Rudkin-head as far back as the original screening of that TV film in 1974. This was at a time when you couldn’t call up details of somebody’s entire career in a couple of seconds, so all I knew of Rudkin’s television work aside from Penda’s Fen was Artemis 81 (1981) and his adaptation of The Ash Tree (1975) by MR James, one of the BBC’s Christmas ghost stories.

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Vampyr (1932).

All of those films feature sinister, possibly supernatural events taking place in the English countryside, and this theme is continued in White Lady, a 45-minute drama which Rudkin wrote and also directed. In dramatic terms the film is a minimal piece concerning a divorced father trying to set himself up as a farmer while also taking care of two young daughters. In the fields surrounding the farm pesticides are being used, although we see little direct evidence of this. More overt are the disturbing interjections and animated graphics which show photographs and X-rays of laboratory animals suffering from pesticide exposure. Rudkin’s dialogue tells us at the outset that this is a parable, hence the deadly effects of the pesticide being embodied by the White Lady of the title, a spectral figure who carries a scythe.

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The first time I saw this I thought the scythe was a heavy-handed device, despite its obvious farming connections; watched again I realise that Rudkin would have been alluding (if only for himself) to the scythe-bearing ferryman in Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), a film Rudkin subjected to very close scrutiny in 2005 for the BFI’s Film Classics series. In his book Rudkin notes a shot in which a sleeping figure is menaced by the shadow of a scythe on a wall; that shot is recapitulated in White Lady.

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It’s unfair to compare this to the eerie, intellectual masterpiece that is Penda’s Fen, but White Lady is still worth a look for anyone interested in Rudkin’s dramas, especially with it being his sole directing credit. If the dire warnings of genetic mutation haven’t come to pass there’s relevance in our present concern about the effects of nicotinoids on bee and bird populations. The White Lady still has plenty of work to do.

White Lady: part one | part two

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Horror Fields
Robin Redbreast by John Bowen
Red Shift by Alan Garner
Children of the Stones
Penda’s Fen by David Rudkin
David Rudkin on Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr