Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Tideland - Part Three: Setting up a mooring

This blog was never intended to be a diary, but a lot has happened recently...

Motupipi River at dusk - the view from our deck

Easter weekend has just passed and we’ve now been living in Golden Bay for over a month - the realisation of a very long term plan. We’re adapting to coastal life and ‘Takaka time’ pretty easily: the constant good weather and friendliness of the people we’ve met has certainly helped.

But actually getting here turned out to be anything but easy.

Our biggest fear at the time, that our three cats would find the move and relocation stressful and unhealthy, actually turned out to be pretty-much unfounded. In fact, it was ultimately one of the easiest issues we had to overcome.

Ed and Monty struggle to adapt to their new deck

The biggest obstacles were physical: the notoriously rough stretch of water separating New Zealand’s two main Islands, and the 791m mountain pass which is modestly referred to as the Takaka ‘Hill’. And the biggest stress was to become our inability to get over either of them.

In hindsight picking the same day to move as the arrival of a tropical cyclone seems like tempting fate to the absolute extreme, but these storms are by their nature very difficult to predict, and our complex plans involving flights, ferry crossings and vehicle hire had been put in place well in advance. 

Wharariki Beach: The 'poster girl' for New Zealand tourist calendars never disappoints

Never-the-less, I flew into Takaka airport in a light plane with three bewildered felines the night before Cyclone Gita arrived, just to play it safe. Arriving at the airstrip we were immediately welcomed with 'Bay' hospitality, and gifted a free hire car to get us to our new home. Regardless of what lay in store for us over the next couple of weeks, this local generosity has remained a constant.

Several hours later, while I huddled in a sleeping bag with restlessly prowling cats in the  corner of our empty new living room, Rose was driving our packed-to-bursting hire truck onto the 2.30am ferry.
If you think this division of labour seems unfair you’re probably right, but I cope with rough seas (and they were) about as well as Rose copes with rough flights and she had no wish to share the cats suffering either in the air on in the car, to and from airports. 

My idea of paradise - beaches for miles, and the sun just won't stop...

Our first mistake was probably to seriously underestimate the time needed to pack properly. Although we’d been stowing belongings in our garage for months, the week was a maelstrom of frantically shoving it all in and out of a truck, car and trailer, (gradually without the benefit of daylight, food or sleep), in mere hours when we should have allowed days. It became clear that moving from the North to South Islands was more like immigrating to another country than we could ever have suspected.

Rose arrived with the truck at around 11am on the rainy morning of February 20th - scant hours before the hill she had just crossed was devastated by Cyclone Gita. Over 20 slips were brought down onto the road, some of them washing whole sections of it away.

We were blissfully unaware of this at the time, our new neighbourhood somehow almost completely sheltered from the force of the storm. The first evidence that other areas hadn’t been so fortunate was a power-cut that afternoon. but in our ignorance, even this was treated lightly. Our first day back on the national grid in six years and we’re without power - that’s got to be funny, hasn’t it? 

Living history - the Langford store, serving the Bainham community since 1928

Our sense of humour was to serve us well over the next fortnight. The road closure meant that we couldn’t return an expensive hire truck for over a week, and after a near-evacuation, a cut-off Takaka began to suffer food shortages and petrol rationing. 

But worse still, our house purchasers defaulted on their settlement payment, leaving us to teeter on the brink of financial ruin as we struggled to afford the mortgage and insurance on two houses.
Without going into specifics, the compassion of the vendor of our new home pretty much saved our bacon, (which was definitely off the menu as we struggled to survive). 

The daily late fee our tardy house buyers tided us over when the whole horrible business was finally concluded, but was little consolation at the time. I could say more here, but am choosing to move on after a brief warning. House sellers beware: the integrity of a contract is only worth the integrity of the person who signs it with you.

Naturally we celebrated once the money finally came through. We’ve dined at the Mussel Inn, picnicked at Wharariki Beach and I’ve cycled everywhere from Collingwood to Pohara. 
Rose posted a request on the local facebook group for firewood, adding that we would come and chainsaw/chop it ourselves. She was bombarded by offers and we’ve met some interesting and generous people while putting in the hard yards to stock up on wood for the winter. 

This was a shapeless pile of metal and plastic when we moved in...

She has also repaired our ramshackle greenhouse and we’ve insulated the entire underfloor of the house. Although autumn has officially been here for a month and daylight saving has just ended - the hot Golden Bay sun shows little sign of abating.

It hasn’t been easy getting here, but so far at least, we’re living the dream...

Who needs a garden bench when you can have a jetty to relax on?

Thursday, 18 January 2018

The Omega Man

It's funny what you can discover when you're packing up to move house.

I've seen that author's name somewhere before...
no idea what happened to the the illustrator, though

For decades I have carried around two A1 sized boxes stuffed with select work I'd produced at Design School in the mid 1980s, to freelance illustration in Scotland in the early 1990s.

Most of it is horrible and finally needed to be got rid of on a bonfire of inanities. But a few exceptions also exist, a tiny stack of scribblings which, more through accident than design, manage to hold up. By my standards, at least.
Among these are some illustrations I did for an Edinburgh-based magazine called Scottish Field, established in 1903 and despite publishing some of my work in 1993/94 are still going strong today.

These commissions came at a time when I really needed the money, and confidence boost, and were for a series of whimsical short stories about a retired butcher called Bodie who becomes a private investigator.

I'd supply two black and white roughs, then a colour rough for my
own reference, and finally the finished art in watercolour and ink.

I realised that I'd actually kept some copies of the magazine itself, and turning to one of these stories was struck dumb by a realisation twenty-five years after the fact (I can be slow on the uptake, but a quarter of a century for the penny to drop has to be a record).

The author of these stories was a man called Jack Gerson. And this might not have even meant anything to me now, if I hadn't written blog post about a television series and book which I took into my sad little geek heart so many years ago:

I had been illustrating stories by the writer and creator of The Omega Factor and hadn't even realised it.

It won't mean much to anyone else, as my wife's rather bemused expression conveyed when I shrieked this discovery. But this 'one degree of separation' rather rocks my world, sharing 'journalistic real estate' with a storyteller who's skill fired my imagination as a teenager and still does even now. And made all the more poignant by the fact that I was gormlessly unaware at the time.

But perhaps it's just as well, my Fanboy reaction and inevitable stalking of Mr Gerson might have only earned me a restraining order and termination of contract.

Finding an obituary, I discovered that Gerson passed away six years ago, leaving a huge body of work to the world.
The last writing he did was a radio play called Bodie’s Occupations, featuring, yes, the very same character whose earlier adventures I had illustrated.

The connections don't end there. As anyone who has to listen to me for longer than 5 minutes knows, I am currently writing a book about Hammer films, which has absorbed a huge part of my life recently.
The concept of 'Hammer Horror' really began with a 1957 film called The Curse of Frankenstein, starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in their first film together. Second billing went to a Scottish actor called Robert Urquhart, who played Frankenstein's tutor and eventual accomplice, Paul Krempe.

Urquhart himself had a long and illustrious career, and one of the final things he did before his death in 1995 was a certain radio play by his old friend Jack Gerson, where he took the title role of a private detective called Bodie.

My preliminary sketches for Bodie's appearance and
(inset) actor Robert Urquhart, who eventually played him on radio.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Count Down - Part Ten: Transylvania Jones and the Temple of Doom

The concept of Halloween becoming the ‘Geek Christmas’ was reinforced this year with a very special gift from BBC Radio 4.

Finally returning to this blog has been an interesting experience. Last time I got to revisit, correct and publish something I first posted in 2015, and now I’m returning to a series of posts from the blog’s earliest days, which I had assumed long over.
Count Down was my nine-part look at the Hammer Dracula films, and revisiting them first kindled the spark which led to my upcoming book about that film company (whose release is now postponed until Halloween next year - more on this later)

Given the Count’s unfailing ability to rise from the grave again and again in these films, we shouldn’t have been too surprised when the script for an unmade production was brought to life this Halloween.

The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula has a long and interesting history. Intended as a follow-up to 1970’s Scars of Dracula, it was written by Anthony Hinds to take advantage of frozen assets which Hammer’s then-finance partner and distributor, Warner Bros, had in India at that time.
According to Hammer historian Marcus Hearn, the story was first titled Dracula High Priest of Vampires, before being dropped in favour of Don Houghton’s script Kali Devil Bride of Dracula in 1974, (to co-star Peter Cushing if the poster artwork is to be believed). Hind’s original script was then returned to 1977, shifted to the 1930s and given the name we know it as today.

Apparently it eventually transpired that Warner’s Indian assets were unavailable after all, the story was never filmed,  was and this was all no doubt yet another nail in the Hammer coffin at the close of the 1970s.

Decades passed until the Mayhem Film Festival mounted a full-cast-live reading of Unquenchable in Nottingham in 2015. Complete with a live sitar player, it was widely praised and lead to the Festival giving another unfilled Hammer script the same treatment this year: Zeppelin v. Pterodactyls. (Presumably without a sitar this time)

And then a few months ago it was announced that celebrity Hammer fan Mark Gatiss was going to adapt it as a radio production. Directed by Gatiss from Hind’s original screenplay, The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula debuted on BBC Radio 4 at Halloween. Fortunately for those of us in other parts of the world the BBC iplayer did allow us access, and thank goodness, because this is an absolutely brilliant production.


Set in Northwest India in 1934, the indigenous characters are all authentically cast, including Jekyll’s Meera Syal in two superb roles. Michael Sheen really brings the gravitas and atmosphere with his narration, and Lewis MacLeod, if not actually impersonating Christopher Lee, at least effectively channels his most famous performance, as Dracula.

But the true, unexpected delight is the story. I’ve half-seriously suggested that this is like listening to ‘Hammer meets Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’, but this production actually improves on the 1984 Spieberg film in its cultural depiction. Unquenchable may have the requisite light nudity and sadism you’d expect from Hammer, but also none of the racism and sexism that the second Indiana Jones film provided.

We follow a very capable female protagonist, Penny Woods, who drives the action. Although assisted by an Indian father figure and love interest, neither are given time to ‘man-splain’ or patronise as they have their hands full just keeping up with her.
The originality of the setting and story structure achieves what Hammer never really succeeded in doing - injecting new life into their Dracula series. Unquenchable is fresh, exciting and never predictable. I was wrong-footed every time I tried to guess ahead, and that was a treat for someone so steeped in the ways of the house of horror.

However, I can confidently predict that everyone who listens will wish it had been made. More realistically, it’s my wish that Mr Gatiss turns his talents to the many more un-filmed Hammer scripts for Halloweens to come.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

The Return of the School Night of the Living Dead

It’s spooky what you can find out when you actually do some research!

Way back in October 2014, I tried to interest the media company I work for in running a short piece about a bygone NZ tradition in late night fright films - The Sunday Horrors. it seemed ideal to me as Halloween was just around the corner, and the period in which they were shown (the 1980s) was a time which most of our readership could easily recall. 
My employers passed, and it became a blog post instead:

Three years later, with Halloween becoming less a twee splash-back of Americana and more the ‘geek Christmas’ every season, I tried again - and the successful result appears below.

This time I did some proper research and was dismayed by how badly wrong I’d got certain ‘facts’ from my first version. Admittedly, the 2014 blog post was written from a personal perspective - as usual I had assumed it was all about me, and the Sunday Horrors stopped when I ceased watching.

More Sunday Horrors then you can shake a stake at -
channel's 2 and 3 go head to head with the undead...

In reality something which I had always assumed was a strictly ’80s phenomenon didn’t care that I was living overseas in the early ’90s, and continued in rude health for the entire first half of that decade, too. The Sunday Horrors survived the introduction of TV3, hosting by Count Robula, and the advent of Shortland Street and MMP. It stared down Suzanne Paul, compulsory cycle helmets and the dawn of cafe culture.

Just how many countries can boast a former head of Government
as a TV horror host?  Only one that I know of...

So let the spirits take you - Karen Hay is once again bidding you goodnight and the main feature is about to begin. Settle into your Lazy-Boy and do not adjust your set - the film may actually be in black and white. No tricks - you’re in for a treat. 
Happy Halloween!

Friday, 25 August 2017

Getting Hammered Pt 2

So you want to write a book? Be careful what you wish for…

Hello again dear, neglected blog. It’s probably just you and me listening, but I’m still going to write about how it feels to have got the first draft of Infogothic: An Unauthorised Graphic Guide to Hammer Horror, completed.

I’m sure such people must exist, but off-hand I can’t think of anyone else foolhardy enough to do every aspect of a project like this single-handedly.  In my day job I’ve been fortunate enough to be given opportunities as a published writer, designer and illustrator. I’ve designed books, researched information graphics and wrestled with the myriad technicalities of preparing a complex document for print.
So, why wouldn’t I do it all myself?

To answer to that question - I need to remind myself of the following: 
I have spent the last seven-and-a-half months working every possible spare hour I could find in my day, on this book. Whenever possible, I’ve started my day at 4:30am and worked in a freezing room (hello chilblains) until my day job or a grumbling stomach intervened.
I’m not a night owl but have burned the other end of the candle, too. I found that if I could get past my ’pain threshold’ of 10pm, I would end up having to make myself go to bed in the wee hours of the following morning.
Exercise has fallen by the wayside, as has sometimes even leaving the house. And to myself at least, I definitely look older. 
I’m not looking for sympathy though - I’ve loved every minute of it.

Whatever happens next, I hope that love comes through in this book.  My publishers might demand extensive changes, or lose confidence altogether. Even after it’s published I might end up with a garage full of unsold volumes, gathering dust and cobwebs like a Hammer film set.

But you know what else?  I’m proud of it. I’ve put everything I have into this book - most of my annual leave, every ounce of effort and what might pass for talent that I possess.
But not for a second am I forgetting any of the wonderful people who’ve supported and helped me - I will definitely thank them all properly in due course. But for now, you know who you are.

It’s an unusual product in an already very narrow market, but I know the ‘Monster Kids’ are out there - those of us who grew up adoring our horror films and learning to appreciate them like fine wines as they, and we, age.
I hope Infogothic finds them - and hopefully you - eventually. 

But for now, there is still some way way to go in bringing my very own ‘unholy creation’ to life.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Getting Hammered

Hammer horror, Hammer horror,
Won't leave it alone.
I don't know,
Is this the right thing to do?”

(Kate Bush)

Warning: spending too much time in your room could leave you looking like this...
(from Infogothic: A graphic guide to Hammer horror)

In my pre-teens I didn’t go out much. I spent too much time in my room and didn’t interact nearly enough with the real world. I didn’t do anything physically active, and if the very thought was not ridiculous to someone who still names his blog after a stick insect, I would almost certainly have been overweight and unhealthy. Instead I was immersed in a fantasy world of my favourite films and TV, pouring over books and magazines and writing and drawing pictures about them. It’s little wonder I had the social skills and physical coordination of a baby giraffe when hormones finally propelled me out of my bedroom.

Sometimes it feels as if I’ve lived my life trying to make up for this ever since - forcing myself outside in all hours and weathers for physical pursuits I might not even be very good at, pushing myself into social situations I’m probably equally ill-suited to.

So how utterly bizarre it is to come full circle all these decades later.

Instead of my bedroom, I now spend all my time at a keyboard in our office, and as much as I miss regular exercise, I’m still a stick insect. I’m even secretly glad we’ve just had the worst summer in living memory because I wouldn’t have been able to spend much time out in it. Much else has been neglected - needless to say this blog has been one of them. My wonderful wife has been incredibly patient and tolerant, only making occasional remarks about the anatomically-impossible position she believes my head to be lodged in, most of the time.

And I’m (only just) getting away with this blindingly anti-social and monstrously selfish behaviour because I’m writing a book, with a signed publisher’s contract and everything.

Coming soon...
I can’t remember the first Hammer film I actually saw, but do recall seeing a couple of seconds of a fanged, hissing Christopher Lee in an episode of Some mothers Do ‘Ave em when I was very young. Always like Frank Spencer in so many ways, this made an instant impression on me.

It’s taken forty-something years, but I’m now researching, designing, writing and illustrating a 94 page soft cover book about the horror films of Hammer Studios.
Very aware these productions have already been analysed, dissected and evaluated in molecular detail by authors all across the world (I was reading some of their books in my bedroom all those many years ago), I pitched a very different approach which astonishingly attracted some interest from a british publisher.

Over the last decade my day job has required me to produce infographics (information graphics) - visual representations of information which can be absorbed quickly by a reader, rather than having to be excavated from large bodies of text. These can be charts, diagrams, maps, graphs, schematics, illustrations - any visual device which analyses and informs.

Apart from the fact that successive generations of film fans are now delving deeper and deeper into the backgrounds and minutae of their favourite films, the perennially popular output of Hammer studios lends itself perfectly to this treatment. As with so many of their decisions, Hammer’s body of work was driven by cost considerations. Sequels were an efficient way to reuse props and costumes and calling upon the same actors familiar with the Hammer method of working saved time, as did reusing directors, writers and technicians.

The result of this ‘business model’ is a vast, interconnected world stretching across two decades of film-making. Sometimes it’s the fictional characters and settings which form the connective tissue, and sometimes it’s real-world factors. Either way, this gives me plentiful data which can be sifted and arranged into (hopefully) attractive and engaging infographics.

Will Infogothic - A graphic guide to Hammer horror sell? Will it actually see the light of day - will I even make my deadline? Even I’ve learned that many uncertainties lie between a project and a product in this industry.
The single best thing which has come out of this incarceration is the incredible generosity of fans and authors all over the world which I’ve encountered. They have been unfailingly encouraging and helpful with my every request and enquiry. I’m still reeling from the incredible kindness of one author who sent me a PDF of his entire out-of-print book for my own reference. Like Hammer films themselves, although the subject matter itself was often sensationalist or even tawdry - it was always executed with pure class.

This post is already longer than I intended, so it’s back to work. I’m not sure when I’ll return to this blog, but I definitely will - there’s been so much else to write about this year.
In the meantime; I’m learning a lot - not just about Hammer itself, but history, geography, languages and literally, rocket science. And I’m currently working on a fashion spread, charting the costumes of Hammer heroines from Raquel Welch’s doe-skin bikini in One Million Years BC to the PVC futurism of Moon Zero Two. So don’t feel sorry for me - and if you like what you hear - buy my book!

Friday, 23 December 2016

Tarkin it to the limit

This year has brought disbelief in many ways - but I never thought we’d reach Christmas 2016 with Peter Cushing trending on social media.

Seasons greetings, and apologies to anyone who actually does look in on this blog. I have been criminally neglectful of poor Phasmatodea, (3 years old this past October) in recent months.
Apart from ever-increasing work commitments (which is never an excuse) I have been commissioned to write a book.  Or more accurately, write, research, design, illustrate and lay out a book, which is obviously going to absorb my spare time until delivery date mid-next year.

I will post about it in more detail later, but in many ways it’s a culmination of what keeping this blog has prepared me for - trying to find new ways to discuss and analyse genre films which I’m passionate about. For now, I’ll simply state that the subject ties-in peripherally with the main topic of this entry. Let’s just say it’s going to be 'Hammer Time'...

Now back to this post. Since the ‘House of Mouse’’s acquisition of Star Wars in 2012 we’ve been promised a visit to a galaxy far, far away every year. And this December we got a ‘side-ways’ addition to the saga which I have to confess I never had high hopes for.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’s trailers seemed to offer a collection of cold and unappealing characters, and Director Gareth Edward’s last big budget film, Godzilla, actually made me think more fondly of the 1998 Roland Emmerich version.

I reluctantly predicted Rogue One would be an unsuccessful experiment in offering something new, outside the main Star Wars storyline., News of extensive studio-instigated reshoots made me think this might even damage the brand more than the prequels did.
The one thing which did keep my interest was the possibility of seeing one of my favourite characters, and actors, return to the screen - the late Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin.

"...and I want proper images, instead of these screen caps, released immediately!"
Although initial, and to me very exciting, talk of a computer generated Peter Cushing seemed to go quiet, I kept hoping. Given the film’s setting immediately prior to Star Wars episode 4: A New Hope, I couldn’t see how Tarkin couldn’t be at least referenced. I cautiously expected that we might see a cutaway shot, (maybe manipulated unused footage from 1977), and perhaps a significant sound-alike line delivered. Glimpsed on a view screen or as a flickering hologram, something like that. Then no matter how bad the film was, I’d be happy.
The one thing I had never expected was that Tarkin would get more screen time and lines in Rogue One than when Cushing was alive…

The character has been posthumously represented for many years...
I’d never gone to a Star Wars film with low expectations before, and I left with my face aching from continuously grinning like a loon through most of the final hour. Let’s be clear, the first half is a little turgid and choppy, but the second is sheer TIE Fighter fuel. In its final act Rogue One felt to me like the most 'Star Wars-y' film since 1977, and unlike last year’s the The Force Awakens, the audience applauded at the end.

As far as Tarkin is concerned, it seems that those in the audience not in the know either don’t notice or wonder why this character was computer generated, while OCD Star Wars nerds either applaud the technical advancement or moan about video game rendering. And although some Cushing fans question the morality of digital resurrection, most seem rapturous over this respectful interpretation.

(Left to right) Tarkin from the Rebels animated series, Guy Henry, Tarkin from Rogue One and Peter Cushing from Star Wars: A New Hope.
My own expectations for the appearance of Tarkin were tempered - I knew it could never be perfect. Cushing was a tall man for his times but the actor who performed the role and wore later ‘wore’ the pixels; Guy Henry, is a good 3-4 inches taller. Cushing was also a master of ‘eye acting’, knowing how to use available light to make his pale blue gaze steely or compassionate where required - whereas in Rogue One the environment dictates that the Grand Moff’s eyes are more often in shadow.
But the biggest adjustment for me was not the visual, but the audio - because nobody else sounds like Peter Cushing.

It’s been said that in casting he and Alec Guinness in Star Wars, George Lucas inadvertently brought the best diction in the acting profession to his galaxy far, far away.  
Peter Cushing overcame a serious dental issue and his south counties accent to develop a cut glass voice which somehow found more syllables in words than anyone else suspected ever existed, decisively clipping them only after every vowel and consonant had been properly honoured. And he could roll those r-r-r-rs like no-one else not from Scotland can.
That being said, Tarkin’s most famous line, (beautifully honoured in Rogue One) urbanely draws the first word out without finishing it: “You may fa-h-h when ready.”
As far as Henry’s delivery is concerned, in fairness perhaps a slavish impersonation of Cushing would only sound like mimicry rather than a performance.

Wayne Pygram's makeup as a younger Tarkin in the closing moments of
Revenge of the Sith, (2005), was best seen from a distance.
Personally, I am delighted with the result and find it mind-boggling that when a digital recreation was finally attempted as a significant and sustained performance in a major film, it was done so with my favourite actor.

Last years The Force Awakens felt like an early Christmas present, But the last act of Rogue One makes you feel like a Star Wars fan finding everything you’ve ever wanted under the tree.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

"I cast him the first moment I met him.
There was no doubt in my mind that Peter Cushing was perfect for the role of the
sinister Grand Moff Tarkin... he was not only a very talented actor, but he even
looked the role – exactly what I imagined Tarkin to be."

George Lucas