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”

The Book of the Lost

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A recurrent feature of the music landscape of the late 80s and early 90s was the “soundtrack for an imaginary film”, a sub-genre that proved especially popular among the electronica crowd when DJs realised they needed a description to justify their collections of downtempo instrumentals. Two of my favourite examples were produced away from the dance world: John Zorn’s Spillane (1987), and Barry Adamson’s solo debut Moss Side Story (1989), both of which took their thematic cues from crime novels and film noir. The artists on the Ghost Box label haven’t gone down the imaginary film route but many of the tracks on the Belbury Poly and Advisory Circle albums are reminiscent of TV theme tunes from the 1970s. The closest you get to an imaginary film in the Belbury sphere is the unseen giallo horror in Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio with its score by Ghost Box allies Broadcast, and a title sequence by Julian House.

Given all of this, The Book of the Lost, a collaboration between Emily Jones and The Rowan Amber Mill, is a logical next step: a CD collection offering a theme from a forgotten TV series “shown on Sunday nights in the late ’70s and early ’80s” which broadcast four of the equally forgotten horror films upon which the accompanying songs are based. Between each song you hear a brief snatch of dialogue, just enough to whet the appetite without getting too involved. One of the films referred to, The Villagers, belongs to that current of British folk-horror that runs through Witchfinder General, and Blood on Satan’s Claw, to Ben Wheatley’s intoxicatingly weird A Field in England. Pastiching aside, all projects of this kind depend upon the quality of the music, and the folk-inflected songs here are very good, as is the Book of the Lost theme itself which is as spookily evocative as Jon Brooks’ Music for Thomas Carnaki.

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If that wasn’t enough, there’s a special numbered edition of the CD which comes packaged in a die-cut slipcase (above) containing cards giving details of each of the films. In addition to promotional artwork there’s also a synopsis, a production history and even a cast list. Other films are mentioned in passing—The House that Cried Wolf, Ghosts on Mopeds—that imply there was a lot more happening in Wardour Street in the 1970s than we previously suspected.

The Book of the Lost isn’t officially released until January but it’s available for purchase now at the project website.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Outer Church
The Ghost Box Study Series
A playlist for Halloween: Hauntology
The Séance at Hobs Lane
Ghost Box

Stone Tapes and Quatermasses

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Quatermass paperbacks from Jovike’s Flickr pages.

This may be another occasional series in the making since there’s already been a post about Roadside Picnic/Stalker music, and one about music inspired by the cosmic horror of William Hope Hodgson. I was going to write something earlier this year about music derived from the works of Nigel Kneale after rewatching all of Kneale’s major works. The reappraisal was prompted by the publication in January of The Twilight Language of Nigel Kneale, an excellent anthology of essays/speculations (and a China Miéville interview) about Kneale’s film and TV dramas. The delay in writing was a result of having to wait several months after ordering a CD of the Tod Dockstader album (see below) which for some reason the distributors couldn’t manage to get in the post.

In the Twilight Language book there’s a piece by Ken Hollings about electronic music, some of which has material connections with Kneale’s work, notably the Radiophonic Workshop’s creation of sound effects for Quatermass and the Pit. Early copies of the book came with a bonus cassette tape of Kneale-inspired music; more about that below. The men and women of the Radiophonic Workshop are the godparents of the following Kneale soundworks, most of which are British, and inevitably tend towards the grinding, droning and doom-laden end of the electronic spectrum. Given the enduring influence of Kneale’s work, especially the Quatermass serials and their film equivalents, it’s surprising there isn’t more Knealesque music to be found. (I’m avoiding the obvious film soundtracks, and any bands such as Quatermass who may be named after Kneale’s work but whose music doesn’t reflect it.) If anyone can add to this list then please leave a comment.

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Quatermass (1964) by Tod Dockstader

The American master of tape manipulation here processes hours of recordings of cymbals, pipes, tone generators, a vacuum hose and rubber balloons to create what he calls “a very dense, massive, even threatening work”. Dockstader hadn’t seen any of the Quatermass films or serials when he chose the name but he said that it sounded right. It certainly does, as does the unnerving, shrieking morass of sound he manages to craft using the most primitive equipment. The Starkland CD containing the Quatermass suite includes two further edits of the source material entitled Two Moons of Quatermass.

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The Séance At Hobs Lane (2001) by Mount Vernon Arts Lab

Mount Vernon Arts Lab is Drew Mulholland and various collaborators. The Séance At Hobs Lane is an abstract concept album based on Mulholland’s lifelong obsession with Quatermass and the Pit (an idée fixe he writes about in the Twilight Language book), plus “Victorian skullduggery, outlaws, secret societies and subterranean experiences”. Among the collaborators are Coil, Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub, Barry 7 of Add N to (X), and Adrian Utley of Portishead. The album was reissued in 2007 on the Ghost Box label.

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Ouroborindra (2005) by Eric Zann

And speaking of Ghost Box… This album has been mentioned here on several occasions, a one-off release that’s the most consciously horror-oriented of all the works in the Ghost Box catalogue. The artist “name” and track titles reference Lovecraft and Machen but it’s included here for the dialogue quote in the insert from Kneale’s ghost drama The Stone Tape. In addition to the Mount Vernon reissue other Ghost Box references to Kneale can be found in the samples from Quatermass and the Pit (TV version) on The Bohm Site from We Are All Pan’s People by The Focus Group, and the title of the track which follows: Hob’s Rumble. Continue reading “Stone Tapes and Quatermasses”

The Outer Church

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Compilation albums: on the one hand they’re in the lowest echelon of the musical world, all those cheap pop collections you see in any supermarket; on the other they provide an introduction to zones of activity which might seem too rich or too obscure to easily investigate; Soul Jazz Records is a master at this kind of collection.

There’s also another level of compilation album where the collection becomes an opus in its own right, and which can also help to define a new movement or moment. In this category I’d think of favourites such as Kevin Martin’s Isolationism set from 1994 which first identified the emergence of what we now think of as Dark Ambient music; and Devendra Banhart’s The Golden Apples of the Sun (2004) which showcased a new generation of American folk artists. To these I’d add Joseph Stannard’s The Outer Church, a 2-CD set compiled for Front & Follow which is released this month. My hand-crafted, letterpressed edition just arrived so I’ve been relishing the new music after forcing myself to avoid the preview tracks which have been available for the past couple of weeks. Regular readers won’t be surprised to learn that the emphasis is very much on the Hauntological end of things; this blog nurses a Ghost Box fetish, and there are Ghost Box connections in the presence of Pye Corner Audio, Hong Kong In The 60s, and Baron Mordant. The latter pair and another artist, Robin The Fog, all provided tracks for the recent Restligeists, the cassette compilation that came with The Twilight Language of Nigel Kneale. Of the new collection, Joseph Stannard says in his notes:

Wind the tape all the way back to Brighton in 2009. The uncanny influence seeping into contemporary music from ‘elsewhere’ had become impossible to ignore. Magazine pieces I had written in my capacity as a music critic were revealed to contain subliminal memos for my own attention. Unusually vivid dreams and unsettling anonymous telephone calls imparted curious instructions. I was to establish a space in which various forms of unheimlich audio would converge with moving images of a similarly anomalous nature. Equipped only with a well-thumbed copy of The Beginner’s Guide To Psychic Architecture, I resolved to build a Church.

This compilation presents a selection of the artists who have performed at The Outer Church, with the exception of illustrious filmmaker and composer Graham Reznick, who lives in faraway Brooklyn and kindly permitted us to screen his tremendous psychedelic campfire tale, I Can See You, in Brighton and Dublin. All of the recordings here are previously unreleased. Together they advance the argument that something weird is stirring in modern music which resists categorisation, manifesting itself in unsettling cadences and temporal distortions across a wide variety of occult strategies.

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Illustration by Alexander Tucker.

And they aren’t the only ones exploring this territory: Demdike Stare and the very excellent Haxan Cloak might also have been included here. I am, of course, especially partial to any kind of doom-laden timbres, whether electronic, orchestral or guitar-oriented, so I can’t be an unbiased reviewer. But it has been a relief to see contemporary electronica (in the UK at least) find a way out of the rut of abstraction into which it had fallen in the late 1990s. That’s it’s done this by delving into our nation’s long history of ghost and folk mythology is no bad thing. Not all the artists on The Outer Church are attempting to spook their audience; there are songs as well as drones. Hong Kong In The 60s produce the kind of uptempo pop you’d expect from a band with that name. It’s to Stannard’s credit that he manages to sequence things without the mix of styles being too disjunctive.

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One of the mini-postcards inside the limited edition. Photo by Joseph Stannard.

The first edition of The Outer Church has been selling well so anyone looking for a copy is advised to make haste and use the links on this page. There’s a related event in Brighton this (Friday) evening, and another in Manchester on Saturday. I’m now looking forward to following some of the paths revealed by this opening of the portals.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Ghost Box Study Series
A playlist for Halloween: Hauntology
The Séance at Hobs Lane
Ghost Box

The Ghost Box Study Series

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01: Youth and Recreation; 02: Cycles and Seasons
03: Welcome to Godalming; 04: Familiar Shapes and Noises

The Ghost Box Study Series, a sequence of occasional seven-inch singles on the Ghost Box label, is looking increasingly good as a set. The design, as usual, is by Julian House, while the music is by Belbury Poly, Moon Wiring Club, The Advisory Circle, Mordant Music, Broadcast, The Focus Group, Hintermass, Jonny Trunk and Pye Corner Audio. Being collectible items, the vinyl editions are sold out, but all the releases can be purchased in digital formats at the label shop.

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05: The Open Song Book; 06: Animation and Interpretation
07: Autumnal Activities; 08: Inversions

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The album covers archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
A playlist for Halloween: Hauntology
Forbidden volumes
The Séance at Hobs Lane
Ghost Box