Tuesday, 6 December 2016

We're still getting calls about that shadowy figure...

Greetings, Ghostwatchers!

Almost twenty-five years on, and it seems that Mr. Pipes still delights in tormenting his audience with further, potential hidden appearances. So much so, in fact, that one Ghostwatcher in particular - James Syrett, recently got in touch, to suggest a few new possible sightings of his very own...

Before we start, it's worth noting that Dr. Lin Pascoe's eloquently logical notion of 'Faces in the Fire', remains something of a much-loved mantra, around these parts. We know that there are definitely eight confirmed sightings of the notoriously-bashful Raymond Tunstall, one debunked, and perhaps as many as five more left to track down, in total. It's also worth a mention that although the golden figure of "Thirteen" appearances is posited during the doc, the actual final tally could well have reduced/increased, during the exhaustive edit of the original film.

Nevertheless, what James appears to have discovered, is certainly compelling enough to swirl the odd eyebrow, or two - particularly, as in any event, there are without doubt, several more items on the #PipesWatch checklist still waiting to be located and confirmed. So, with that in mind, and evoking Parky's ominous opening monologue... Let's see what you think.

And incidentally, we shall be using the 101 Films DVD for time-codes, if you'd like to investigate further, yourself.

1. "You come and live with impossible." 00:06:00

Firstly, James reported that he could see the faint outline of a figure to the left of Pam Early, during this shot taken at the rear of the property (you can see the Hallowe'en decorations in the kitchen, and hallway behind Suzanne).

This is something we have broached several times in the past, as intriguingly, Pipes is specifically stated as making his first appearance, during this scene, in Stephen Volk's screenplay:


Something also worth noting here, is that the production schedule for this particular date of filming (Thursday 30th July) also lists Keith Ferrari as being required for this very shot. However, even when digitally enhanced (short of using our very own light-pen on the screen, there), this sighting has long-remained frustratingly inconclusive - despite there undoubtedly appearing to be something resembling a 'figure' between Craig, Kim and Pam.

But now, thanks to word just in, from director, Lesley Manning, we can exclusively reveal that actor, Keith Ferrari is indeed behind the patio glass, during this shot, bringing the confirmed total up to nine! And just for the record, this marks the first confirmed new sighting, since 11 June 2000, via Stephen Freestone's inaugural fan-site, ghostwatch.info.

2. "Only at the BBC, loves!" - 01:18:44

Around the same time transmission cuts out, and the image switches to Craig speaking with Alan Demescu about how 'calm and peaceful' the interior of the house appears to be, James has noticed somebody stepping in and out of the shadows, in the background.

Now, personally, I wouldn't figure Pipes for what very much appears to be a pair of white socks/sneakers, but the motion of this person does seem rather interesting. It's almost as if they are intentionally moving in and out of the light, for some reason.

Also, at this point in the narrative, despite the fact that Pipes *should* be in the Glory Hole with Suzanne - as James rightly points out, throughout the film, the ghost is seemingly able to manifest at various locations... Hmm. Answers on a postcard, please?

3. "Glory Hole Glitch" - 01:17:02

Now, this is possibly the most easily-influenced sighting of all, so if I were you, I'd skip straight to the picture, before reading anything else...

James has spookily suggested that teeth, nostrils, and even an eye socket can be found amidst the static of this shot, possibly from some kind of overlay - similar to the otherwise confirmed seventh sighting, during the film's windswept denouement.

Again, I'm compelled to refer back to the 'Faces in the Fire' theory, and how even Dr. Pascoe herself is heard to explain, "Human perception is such, that the first thing you attempt to create, in any abstract shape, is a human face or form." This may very well be the case here, but what remains quite peculiar to see, is that even when taking into account the heavy distortion, these shapes do not appear to part of the same background image they have been distorted from - or even track alongside, as one might expect...

4. "Have we lost the link, completely?" - 01:18:00

Now, this one is undeniable, and another great spot, by James. After Suzanne becomes trapped in the Glory Hole - just moments before the live feed turns to static, and the various, interior camera angles are cycled by the Gallery - there is an unmistakable flutter in the corner of this shot of the landing, overlooking the children's bedroom.

Now, one likely explanation, is that this is simply a clip from some earlier point in the film, which happened to include a few stray frames featuring one of the cast or crew. My first thought, was that it was either Mike Aiton or Chris Miller from when everyone rushes into the bedroom, only to find Suzanne covered in scratches. Or even, Sarah as she later scours each of the upstairs rooms to try and find the missing Kimmy. However, neither of these seems to match up.

Consequently, this too, remains something of a mystery. Who, or indeed, what are we seeing, here? In any event, I can't recall this being mentioned before now, so kudos again to James for spotting it!

Once again, if you were able to find anything of interest in the above, or at any point during Ghostwatch whatsoever, do get in touch with your time-codes, and we'll have a good look at it. And don't forget to leave a full description of what you thought you saw with somebody manning the phones, please.

Oh, we before we sign off, a huge thanks to everyone who helped make National Séance 2016 such a memorable evening, this year! Particularly, As I Gather, We Were Trending On Twitter, Again.

Analytics are slightly thinner on the ground, this time around, but at least 31,000 impressions alone were recorded in the short space of 24 hours via the @Ghostwatch account. So, the chances are, we ranked somewhere in the Top 20 on the night, at the very least. Bravo, Pipes-Phobes!

We're also delighted to report that Behind the Curtains placed among the best performing titles in BBC Store's new Frightmares collection, also featuring in the top ten best sellers, for the first two weeks after launch! Blimey.

Now, you'll have to excuse me, as I'm a little busy working on something usable but terribly important to look especially striking. Ahem.

As always, more news when it comes in, and until next time, Ghostwatchers, try not to have sleepless nights...

Monday, 31 October 2016

National Séance 2016

Greetings, Ghostwatchers!

First, has anyone else noticed their old Teletext service has suddenly returned, or is it just me..? If this happens again, I'll be sure to let you know. Spooky, eh?

In other news, hope you can all join us later this evening, for National Séance 2016! This year marks our sixth live event, and the last before next year's big Ghostwatch Twenty-Fifth Anniversary. As always, the glorious proceedings kick off, just like the original, at 21:25, Tonight.

And remember, this year, you have the added bonus of being able to download the film and its retrospective doc, Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains from BBC Store. It's been great to see so many Tweets and messages come in to the project since we announced the news. For those who have, thank you so much for taking the time to get in touch.

In the meantime, you might like to check out this three-part article by Craig Lines of Den of Geek, who recently interviewed producers, Rich Lawden and Lesley Manning concerning their retrospective documentary and how it came about.

Oh, and for added authenticity, be sure to play the following Continuity Announcement about one minute before we start. Other than that, again, all you need to do to take part is play your DVDs, video cassettes, or downloads at exactly 9.25pm and comment on the proceedings via Twitter using hashtags #ghostwatch and/or #NS16 - it's that simple.

Happy Hallowe'en, look forward to seeing you later, and try not to have sleepless nights!

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Only at the BBC, loves!

Greetings, Ghostwatchers!

So, news. But first, a recap. In late 2007, when I first met writer, Stephen Volk at The Watershed, Bristol, so intermittently timorous was I in handing over my treatment for then-pie-in-the-sky documentary project, first momentarily titled, Ghostwatch: Behind the Scenes, that I very nearly walked out of the building before I even got the chance. Though, to be fair, I was just about to miss the last train home. Then, a few seconds later, I did.

Despite weeks of planning, it suddenly dawned on me that there was an admittedly small, though entirely reasonable chance that in handing over those few crisp pages of hope, the as-yet-un-met, Mr. Volk's response to my albeit humble request to even brush past the hem of his garment, might not be an entirely favourable one, at that. In fact, if it wasn't for Steve's wife, Patricia, noticing me waiting a little too patiently to introduce myself following his Q&A, and consequently pushing me to the front of the queue of fellow fans, the project may never have gotten off the ground, at all...

A lot has happened since that spooky evening, a good deal of which can be found in the first book I ever wroted, which incidentally (... ahem) is still available from Lulu. The thankfully-short version forthwith comprises a five-year odyssey to help bring one of the most legendary TV productions rightly back into the spotlight, and out of its own hellish cupboard under the stairs (no, I'm not saying, 'Glory Hole').

It is therefore with tremendous excitement that we can officially announce that both Ghostwatch and its feature-length, retrospective documentary, Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains are now each available to download on BBC Store, headlining the brand-new Frightmares collection.

Yep. Ghostwatch in its entirety, has returned to the Beeb for the first time in almost twenty-four years (well, not counting, a brief stint on BBC Global iPlayer in 2011.)

Devised to open up the BBC Archive, BBC Store allows viewers to purchase and download single episodes or entire series, and currently offers over 10,000 hours of shows spanning more than 60 years of programming to choose from. You can find bundles that contain special episodes or bonus features, stream instantly using the BBC Store website/official app for mobiles and tablets, or for those on the go, download to watch offline - particularly useful if you happen to be travelling abroad, or find yourself without wi-fi. The library is also Chromecast-friendly, enabling purchases to be spectrally-projected via iOS and Android-compatible devices direct to your TV (but only if you promise, upon doing so, to delicately whisper, "... It's in the machine.")

For those just joining us, Behind the Curtains began life in 2007, following the aforementioned fateful encounter between the writer/creator of Ghostwatch, Stephen Volk and lifelong fan, Rich Lawden. Soon after, Rich and Ghostwatch director, Lesley Manning partnered to form Lawman Productions in mind to making the idea a reality in time for the show's Twentieth Anniversary in 2012. The completed film was released to positive reviews, with ever-dwindling DVD copies now very close to fully selling out.

But before even that, there was Ghostwatch, itself - a singular production that unravelled not only the power of Television, but arguably also our own collective desires as an audience. It was an instant-classic BBC special drama, carefully constructed to entertain, thrill, and inform, and to this day remains a mint condition pressing of British Horror, now globally renowned (and dreaded) for its effectiveness, quality and reputation.

Following the original film's so-called 'banning' (despite being readily afforded a 12 Certificate by the BBFC in 2002), the BtC project was founded not only to serve as a much-needed touchstone for fans, but also a repository of information, covering inception to reception. Along the way, fellow Ghostwatchers seemingly from all corners have keenly shared their stories, finds, and theories concerning the show - and also, experiences in overcoming their fears of revisiting the piece, many years later.

Our annual viewing event, National Séance, this year, turns six years old. In 2012, we rocketed up Twitter's Top Ten List, at one point reaching as high as Fourth Place, as fans joined forces (in a spiritual sense, of course) to viscerally approximate the veritably behemothic initial viewing figures as courted by the original drama (certainly by today's standards). Over eleven million tuned in on Hallowe'en Night 1992, whilst we maxed out at merely 191,449 users, with over 755,738 impressions. Man, that was a good night. Our next, takes place as soon as Monday, next week...

During the past decade (yes, next year marks our tenth year online), there have been some memorable live events that have taken us all over the country, including the unforgettable Lowestoft, Brighton, Glamorgan, Scarborough, and LFCC. There have been two books. There's been an official remix of the original theme, and an unofficial rap by Pipes. There have been copious newspaper and magazine clippings, screen-grabs seen in Corrie, newly-unearthed trailers, prototype T-Shirts, cupcakes, podcasts, radio interviews, and now this - a truly exciting, and I think it is fair to say, historic development that after so many years of good will, vibes, and dedication from followers of both the show and project, can today best be summed up in just two words: Team Effort (... and I was the one who came up with the whole 'Team' idea - me).

Speaking of which, genuine-gigantic-platinum-plated kudos as always to the doc's phenomenal cast, Sir Michael Parkinson and the wonderful Parkinson Productions, Sarah Greene, Craig Charles, Gillian Bevan, Mike Aiton, Ruth Baumgarten, Caroline Noble, Chris Swanton, Kim Newman, Andy Nyman, Cappsy, Jo & Tanya of TORDFC & G&T fame, plus David and Sam from The Electric Cinema who threw that fantastic screening in Birmingham, just a few years ago.

An extra special mention of course to the BtC Holy Trinity of artists, Ian Evans, Arfon Jones and Daniel Stephenson, who each contributed some outstanding material to the film, which to put it mildly, will forever be appreciated. In fact, the level of support from so many fellow Pipes-Phobes has been truly great, and it deserves to be said, incomparably generous - particularly our friends and followers on both Facebook and Twitter - notably, ghostwatch.info founder, general lege' and all-round-good-guy, Stephen Freestone - and not forgetting, especially that from two truly irreplaceable friends and gentlemen, the late Richard Broke (Executive Producer) and lead actor, Mike Smith, who both remain sorely missed.

Suffice it to say, a download for the doc is something that has been on the to-do list for a while. We began receiving requests even before the initial DVD release in 2013, so naturally as a result, are thrilled to finally be able to do so. A big shout-out must also go to the ever-expanding BBC Store platform itself, and its dedicated team for developing the fantastic new Frightmares collection, which also includes such cult classics as, Count Dracula (1977), The Nightmare Man (1981), The Mad Death (1983), The Blue Boy (1995), and the recent, three-part BBC drama, Remember Me (2014) starring Michael Palin.


So, what's next on the horizon for Ghostwatch? Well, all things being equal, and given that 2017 marks the film's 25th Anniversary, without providing any direct visual descriptions just yet, let's just say that more is still to come. Least of all, National Séance 2016! And what better way to enjoy your spanking-new digital copy of Ghostwatch, than to play it along with us at 21:25 on Monday October 31st. For more on how to take part, check out our past articles, and remember - irrefutable photo evidence of your themed event, or it didn't happen!

Until then, enjoy a comfy, sleep-filled night, Ghostwatchers. You've earned it. And again, my thanks.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Bag Pipes

Greetings, Ghostwatchers! On Wednesday 24th August, in the heart of bustling, tram-linked city of Edinburgh, Scotland, Filmhouse (home of the city's International Film Festival), hosted the world premiere of Red Dwarf XI, set to air on Dave beginning, 22nd September. And guess who flew up to Auld Reekie to check out the proceedings. No clues, just have a guess.

Moderated by SFX Editor, Richard Edwards, the event notably featured an appearance from our very own Hallowe'en Witchboard enthusiast, Craig Charles.

Also, quite unexpectedly sharing the flight over was none other than a noticeably rubber-less Robert Llewellyn - the man behind the iconic, square-headed mask of mechanoid counterpart, Kryten. Soon after, I noticed a well-known, classic Big Brother alumnus, sitting just a few rows behind. Later still, and who ethereally glided past in Arrivals, but the man responsible for birthing Radio Norwich's most venerable D-Jock into the world (not literally, that would be hideous). At this point, I naturally expected the next P.A. announcement to call for Commandant Lassard, Chief Hurst, Madam Mayor, Mr. President, His Holiness the Pope, the King of Norway, and other honored guests to please make their way over to Gate 15.

Incredulous star-striking aside, in light of the recent news that Dave is planning on releasing the entire new series of Red Dwarf XI one episode at a time, each week ahead of broadcast via online platform UKTV Play (... no, really), and least of all, the threat of laser-targeted, embargo enforcement droids consciously hovering over my head, fear ye not regarding spoilers, here on in. Though, as I have been heard to remark in the past - a story should not depend on a twist, the same way a twist should depend on a story.™©®

Yes, it seems that the good old days of viewers especially taking the time to gather as a community in order to enjoy watching something as yet, largely unseen, air at a designated time and place, are finally approaching extinction. And just for the record, I refuse to believe that any resistance to this undoubted, broadcasting game-changer is (solely) the rose-tinted spectacles talking. In all important respects, National Séance was built around preserving that simple notion, alone.

That said, as with Ghostwatch, Red Dwarf has that peculiar gift of being able to reach far beyond the confines of the medium for which it was first intended. In particular, audiences for each programme seem more than willing to congregate and enjoy the chance to go all 'Big Screen Experience', as and when the opportunity rolls around. It's the reason I remain such a staunch supporter of the long-mooted movie project, or better yet, stage show featuring the cosmic characters, which I'm sure would be, for lack of a better word, ace.

Nevertheless, as someone probably once said, the proof is most certainly in the vindaloo, or something - and fortunately, as far as Twentica is concerned, it won't be long until the episode can be checked out in full via official stream, albeit in near-glorious Standard Definition.

In the meantime however, and to paraphrase High Cat... what is this..?
It's newly, officially released footage for today's full-length trailer, that's what. And for some very special reasons, this single fleeting shot by far caught my eye than any other. But more on that particular brow-curling curio, for another day...

So, why has Red Dwarf endured for close to three decades? That's far too big a question to satisfactorily answer here and now, but my general feelings are, up until a certain point, the characters, unquestionably being the series' primary focus amidst a plethora of truly inventive science-fiction and perpetual mirth, didn't so much evolve or complicate over those years, as they did further refine and more credibly deepen.

The final, excellent episode of Series V, Back To Reality, involves our seemingly-worthless gang of misfits realising they are in fact a largely-random troupe of entirely different people, until now caught in a soul-sappingly mundane, group computer simulation, or 'Total Immersion Video-game'. Nevertheless, as this subversively functional deconstruction of the Red Dwarf myth continues to develop, their core characters remain implacably resolute - even whilst subject to increasingly-unbearable depths of despair...

For all his obvious faults, last human, Dave Lister, is ultimately described as being, "A good man, a man of moral courage." In the context of the story, maybe he is, maybe he isn't. But in that brief, precious moment, no-one in Starbug's cockpit argues contrary to the description provided. Amidst the gentle humour and pervading absurdity of the characters' extraordinary predicament, it remains a profoundly-moving moment, as it exposes between them, a genuine skein of mutual respect. Person-to-person, the Boyz from the Dwarf couldn't be more different, but since when did that ever stand in the way of true friendship?

The cosy banality of conversation so often found in earlier series' bunk-room scenes, was at best, saddle-stitched to a requisite sense of soul that rendered many of the crew's often absurd statements, beliefs or dreams, solid and effectively timeless... Lister's humble wish of a farm on Fiji... Rimmer's physically-improbable ambition to become an Officer... Cat's eventual, timezone-spanning wardrobe... A living, breathing garden for Kryten to one day sow and tend. These personal ambitions stem from a plain, relatable core of truth, or if you'll pardon my pretentiousness, verisimilitude.

With the series now so longstanding (first airing in 1988), I still consider the entirety of those first 36 shows (Series I-VI) as being good enough for the time capsule. That's not to say that VII-onwards doesn't have its gems - Tikka To Ride, Beyond a Joke, Dear Dave, and The Beginning for example, all wear big hearts on their respective sleeves, and most are as visually dynamic as they are healthy in scope, or pathos alone. Don't get me started on Entangled, though, or we'll be here all week...

... Okay, I'll save the rest for the inevitable book, I think. Including an entire chapter on how Lister's unprompted allergy to tomatoes in Series VIII+1/2 makes so very little sense considering his renowned, curry-loving disposition.

Anyway, back to the event. And a thoroughly pleasant experience, it was, too - which also provided the opportunity to catch up with TORDFC teamsters, Alex Newsome as seen in Behind the Table, Jo Sharples from Behind the Curtains, and even Señor El Presidente, James 'Redge Wharf' Bull, accompanied by the lovely Señora Helen.

Before we begin, I would just like to say a few words about the event's host city. Edinburgh is... really, really great. Really. Never before have I visited a place where your gin & tonic arrives served with slices of orange instead of lemon or lime. Or home to a curry house where the waiters joyfully take the time to explain the finer points of Ghostbusters merchandise collecting, as you enjoy your chicken madras. There was even time to check out a snippet of the now eponymous Fringe, which in addition to showcasing some of the country's most exciting, untapped, artistic talent, also doubles as the UK's premiere open leaflet dispersal demonstration.

Just to set the scene, for those not in the know, your correspondent once cut his teeth in the professional world thereof, in part courtesy of Red Dwarf's production company, Grant Naylor. I was admittedly a fan at the time of my first gig, and who would have thunk, to this day, still find the series relentlessly debatable. RSSers of this blog may recall just one or two related articles, set reports, and the like, mostly from Back To Earth-onwards.

Taking place directly after the screening, the definitively embargo-less Q&A was great fun, despite all in, there only being enough time for three questions from the audience. "No Geography questions..." pre-warned Craig. "I'm shit at Geography."

Richard kicked off the proceedings by asking writer/director, Doug Naylor how he comes up with ideas for the show, to which Charles auto-replied, "He drinks a lot." Adding just slightly more detail to the creative process, Naylor went on to explain, "If I'm obsessing, thinking about Red Dwarf ideas, I'll often go to bed, and wake up in the morning with an idea [...] You've gotta be absolutely obsessed. And you can't be pissed."

"The difficult thing is getting your head around some of the scripts, though..." Craig added. "They are quite complicated. And we are quite thick."

"That wasn't one of the really tough episodes for me." conceded Robert, briefly glancing above to the now-curtained screen, before admitting that for this particular installment, "There were no post-it notes stuck to the back of Craig's head."

"I've so many photographs on my phone of Kryten with his glasses on!" Craig chortled. "They were printing the scripts, and [we were] getting re-writes all the time."

Though, according to Robert, the reduced font size required to accommodate these additions or alterations on the page was often, "Microscopically small."

"And the scripts would come, and you'd need thick glasses, or longer arms." Craig mimed.

Continuing on the topic of recent upgrades, Robert proceeded to shed some light on what has so far proven to be a fairly divisive new get-up for everyone's favourite service droid, despite his character's click-lock cranium, for the longest time, only ever appearing to have once been wedged between four particularly uncooperative iron vices.

"Yeah, it's a new one. It's actually really good to see [the final episode], because when they - I'm sure, some of you are aware - when the initial pictures were released by UKTV..." at which point, Robert referred back to a smartphone to laughingly read aloud his current-favourite Tweet on the matter... "That's it. The mask is awful. I won't be watching."

"The thing is..." Doug attempted to soothe. "... The mask is based on your face. And if your face changes, the mask changes. There's nothing we can do, unless we insist on changing your face."

Nodding in agreement, Robert reassured, "So, this year, it was made of a different material. It was made of silicon rubber - really, it's the same stuff you put round the bottom of the bath... the shower stall, to stop it leaking. It's quite heavy, so when I first picked it up, I went, "Oh God, this is really heavy - good, there's a whole new layer of moaning I can do." Once it was on, it was the coolest I've ever had, the most flexible, I didn't notice the weight. Also, the two things I didn't notice until we were well into [filming], the lighting was LED lighting, which isn't hot. Which meant the studio wasn't 150 degrees Centigrade [...] So, altogether, a huge improvement."

Moving on to the aforementioned, unfathomably-broad subject of precisely why the show has endured so well in the eyes of our trio, Craig cheekily replied, "I think it's 'cause we're still prepared to do it [...] None of use has actually cracked Hollywood, or anything [...] We've known each other longer than we've known our wives and children, which is quite weird. Nearly thirty years. 'Cause I'm the young one, I've grown up with [the rest of the cast], really."

The first question from the crowd, rightly voiced by a familiar, local accent, enquired as to any particular favourite series, or episode - lovingly capped with, "Just quickly... have any of you eaten a deep-fried Mars Bar?"

"... She's speaking Scottish." whispered Craig. "Someone translate! All I heard was 'deep-fried Mars Bar' - yes, please!" before explaining, "My favourite episodes are all ones that have filmed in front of a live audience, because we come alive a lot more. We're all natural show-offs, really. And it kind of ups your game. So, I do like doing it in front of an audience."

Suffice it to say, it didn't take a microsecond for either the audience, or Craig himself, to realise his marvelous double entendre.

"My favourite episode is yet to be broadcast." cryptically hinted Robert. "I've got a bit of a favourite in Series XI." only for Craig to jump in with, "Doug's is yet to be written!"

Another two-part question from a curious audience member, this time aimed at Doug - first asking if he still has the scribbled-on beer mat the original pilot script was legendarily based upon...

"Well, no. I don't know where that went. Maybe Rob [Grant]'s got it. I don't have it."

And secondly, if by the time Series XII draws to a close, could there possibly be more Red Dwarf still to come..?

"If I was a betting man..." the co-creator replied, following a short pause. "... I would say, probably two more, at least."

And with any luck, into production as soon as possible, if the cast has anything to say about it - with both Craig glumly admitting to being too fat and old to continue portraying the role (tish, p'shaw and nonsense), and Robert recounting a recent ADR experience, in which he admitted how footage displaying Kryten's increasing difficulty running down a corridor now oddly mirrors his own.

The final lucky inquisitor from the audience cunningly asked something potentially spoilery, so perhaps it's best not repeated here, just yet. In any event, despite there being a hopeful, though definitively non-committal answer from the rest of the panel in response, Craig's well-timed reaction was nevertheless just enough to raise a hopeful smile for the future... "... Happy days!"

And there you have it. All in all, a hundred-percent successful trip.

With thanks again to Filmhouse for putting on such a good show. And to the excellent City of Edinburgh, for there genuinely not being a cloud in the sky, all day. And remember, the premiere episode of Red Dwarf Series XI airs on Dave, September 22nd at 21:00. Be there, or be square as sideways-ironed flairs and transparent plastic sandals.

Until next time... try not to have sleepless nights.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Elly's watching you...

Image courtesy of Lionsgate
Ironically, this all seems slightly unreal.

There had been some rustling in the leaves for a while surrounding upcoming Horror flick, The Woods, but earlier today, news finally broke that the upcoming film, set for release this September, is in fact a long-awaited sequel to Indie classic, The Blair Witch Project!

Made on a shoestring in 1997, the original film was later released in 1999 to enormous worldwide commercial success, and a positive critical response. The first industrial metal-fueled sequel, Book of Shadows shortly followed in 2000, and is often regarded as, well, not quite up to the lofty standards of its predecessor. Personally, I must admit to having slightly more time for its central, mass-hysteria-centric conceit than some, which feels more grounded and intriguing a concept on repeat viewings. Give it another go if you can, especially if watched alongside its short film accompaniments, Shadow of the Blair Witch and The Burkittsville 7.

On that subject, for those not in the know, this trilogy of mini docos, kicked off by the wonderful Curse of the Blair Witch, almost serves as a collective prequel in its own right, with each subsequent edition adding to the lustre of the overarching legend, simultaneously serving as a stepping stone to aid audiences in building a cognitive map of the intertwined narrative prior to the release of each film. I very much hope we shall be getting a fourth, in time for this one.

Expository plot details for this newly-rechristened installment, now simply titled Blair Witch, are so far, thankfully few and far between. However, this trailer does unveil a brand-new lead character with a strong familial link to Heather Donahue, who is said to have finally tracked down new evidence pertaining to his sister's tragic disappearance in the Black Hills, almost twenty years previously. In any event, this premise alone is certainly closer to the sequel story that most would naturally have expected in place of Blair Witch II.

In deference to Book of Shadows, the story boldly diverted from the established focus and narrative of a college-film-project-turned-bad, cleverly admitting from the get-go that it was a so-called dramatisation of 'real' events that took place shortly after the film's original theatrical release. Regrettably, it never seemed to gain the traction it sorely needed to match, or indeed outdo the sheer inventiveness (or effectiveness) of its forerunner, which to this day, remains a tremendously high watermark in low budget film-making. The series has remained in limbo, ever since.

Contrary to popular belief, the original film was meticulously planned. For proof of this, you need only refer back to the casting - with each largely-unknown actor cunningly selected to bounce effectively off the other, in some way. The pervading sense of isolation depicted within the film itself, is at times crushing, and the sound design, more than anything, is designed to stay with you, as opposed to merely jump-scare viewers into an adrenaline-depleting sense of physical exhaustion. It's genuinely scary as hell. And given the sheer weight of footage generated by the three lead actors, I remain surprised that the equally daunting/impressive process of editing the film has not yet been met with even greater recognition.

Recently, I talked about Batmania, and how 1989 was huge for advertising that featured the Bat insignia. In 1999, the now iconic Blair Witch stick-man emblem, for a time, reigned supreme. The marketing campaign was frighteningly efficient - effectively deputising its target audience to help coalesce an unassuming, though ultimately horrifying myth. As often with Ghostwatch, I am reminded of the opening title card for the Coen Brothers' Fargo, in which the film naughtily professes to be a 'true story', and how lead actor from that film, Peter Stormare was later heard to remark in its defence, "It is a true story... but it might not have happened." To me, this encapsulates the profound and lasting effect of any well-drawn and executed narrative.

Like Ghostwatch, The Blair Witch Project similarly encouraged the viewer to actively participate. The treasure hunt-like mentality of the latter film's debut website (then, something of a rarity in itself) enabled a new generation to play detective, in a profoundly innovative way. As fiction willingly merged with reality, Heather Donahue was infamously reported 'dead' on her personal IMDb bio page - in her words something that, "doesn't necessarily bode well with the friends and relatives." But in kindhearted retrospect, this undeniably added to the film's mystique.

In this instance, from a franchise-standpoint alone, inter-connectivity astutely remains the name of the game in continuing the Blair Witch legend. The centuries-spanning, make-believe history as presented, was at face value watertight, though flexible enough to allow for added scrutiny. The aforementioned mini-doc, The Burkittsville 7 accurately deconstructed the myth, inferring even greater, sinister machinations at the hands of one of Elly Kedward's young 'victims', Kyle Brody. It can be truly fascinating to immerse oneself in thick, gloopy Blair Witch lore (if you're into that kind of thing). Put simply, it's good to hear they've not started afresh, this time around.

In honour of our recent piece on VHiStory, earlier this week, I looked through a number of old cassette tapes gathering dust, and happened upon one from Saturday 30th October 1999, containing almost a full day's worth of unique programming from now off-air cable channel, Rapture TV.

The much-missed, light-hearted 'youth' station, which zeroed-in on rave culture, extreme sports, and all things cool'n trendy in the late nineties, hosted an entire Blair Witch Weekend in honour of the then-heavily hyped flick. Much of the limited original programming generated for the event was repeated ad infinitum over its two-day run, including ACNY (A Cinema Near You), which explored the slew of spoofs that rode in the film's wake (The Blair Fish Project, etc), and the decidedly Bad Influence!-lite console show, G@mers which featured an astoundingly corner-cutting tutorial on how to make your own hit Horror film, that simply consisted of purchasing as much expensive, high-end film kit as possible, and then finding a forest. Having done so, I can't imagine the inevitable nightmare of uploading an edit to the web, as instructed. And in 1999, upload to where, exactly?!

Also on offer was a parodic series of sidesquel micro ad bumpers featuring Colin Rothbart and Matt Cuttle entitled, The Norwitch Project, and crucially, a highly-enjoyable doco by the name of The Quest For Blair Witch, hosted and produced by Inge Theron.

The one-off special followed Inge, and producer/companion, Alex, as they jet off, first to LA to interview cast, crew and fans, including words from Production Designer, Ben Rock, and late Director of Photography, Neal Fredericks, before heading all the way over to Burkittsville, Maryland, to join a dedicated group of real-life Blair Witch hunters (surely, inspiration for the second film) who at least at one time, regularly corralled curious fans for hikes through the very woods as seen in the film, visiting various landmarks, including Coffin Rock, and the infamous (now demolished, as I understand) house of fictional, local villain, Rustin Parr.

Ironically mirroring much of the film's basic structure, upon landing in Burkittsville (and becoming genuinely lost), the pair proceed to interview local residents, some of whom admit to not being quite so keen as others at the prospect of their one-peaceful town being flooded by curious fans and moviegoers - particularly after reports of vandalism, and a repeatedly-missing town sign, allegedly in said visitors' wake. There is however, some positive reaction to be found, with local merchants revealing how a boost in tourism has nevertheless contributed to a marked increase in local trade - with somewhere in the region of 2000 postcards being sold purely on the strength of their local postmark, alone.

Before venturing into the woods for their own tour, at one point, the group stops off to cool off and refresh themselves at a local, crushed ice, 'snowball' dessert stand, with advice from one particularly humorous fan, warning the hosts to stop calling people 'blokes' in America - "I'm tellin' ya, they're just not gonna like it!"

As the sun sets, deep in the forest, Inge's voice depressingly drawls amidst the growing dusk, as she finally reads from her untouched, leopard skin tent's instruction manual, "To avoid surprises, get to know your tent before you travel..." After timidly viewing the final location, they are even gifted a congratulatory T-Shirt each from their guides, upon successfully making it through the night.

With Rapture still very much an online presence, I very much hope that this special gets the chance to air again in some form. Particularly as it features some exclusive footage and interviews which I'm sure would be of great interest to fans.

In the meantime, this recent development and full-blown trailer for the latest iteration of the long-hibernating, would-be Horror franchise raises as many expectations as it does questions. I myself, have a great deal of time for the low-key, slow-burn advertising of the original film, but you can't deny that this next-gen update packs a serious punch. The whiplash-like frenzy of today's announcement is specifically designed to turn heads, and so far, they have succeeded. Now, all that remains is actually delivering on the promise of returning the series to its roots. Ahem.

I still find it hard to believe that a soft reboot is now less than two months away, but I'm just as glad that the new creative forces have taken the care and time to acknowledge what came before. This way, yet another new generation can turn detective, in learning more about what really happened, now almost two decades ago. It's as carefully-calculated a marketing strategy as we've come to expect, but perhaps lacking the subtlety the original used so effectively to energise and engage with multiple audiences simultaneously (to me, this seems very Horror-driven, as opposed to a thriller). This time around, the message almost seems to be, 'Make no bundles of teeth about it, this is the Aliens of Blair Witch sequels', 'This time, we're turning the piles of rocks up to eleven,' and so on.

That said, as we continue to follow the trickling through of strong, early reviews, the initial signs are, this is indeed the follow-up that so many (no doubt already camped outside their local cinema, snugly wrapped in their plush sleeping bags) have so long been waiting for, to entice them back into the woods, once again. I for one, cannot wait to discover the truth behind Blair Witch.

Until next time, Ghostwatchers, try not to have sleepless nights...

Monday, 18 July 2016

Can we see that tape?

Relatively few examples of contemporary media have best withstood the test of time more so than the Video Home System, better known as good old VHS cassette tapes.

Tactile, reliable, and still in use today, they no doubt remain an integral part of many Ghostwatchers' early lives. Largely phased out to make way for LaserDiscs, DVDs and other higher-def formats, Ghostwatch nevertheless holds the distinct honour of being one of the BFI's final video releases, released back in 2002.

One online project that is dedicated to preserving the memory of these remarkable analogue wonders is VHiStory, a fascinating personal mission to catalogue several thousand individual tapes lovingly stockpiled by reviewer and archivist, Jim Lynn.

A couple/few years ago, we reached out to Jim to ask if he might possibly have a copy of the original Ghostwatch trailer, and Outro from on/around the night of transmission. And who would have thunk, earlier this week, a message dropped in our inbox from the man himself, very kindly announcing that he had at long last found a number of interesting clips that he would like to share with us... One in particular, that we at BtC must admit to having never seen before.

Not only that, but we were also lucky enough to speak to Jim concerning exactly how this longstanding project of his first came about. You can check out his very own article on Ghostwatch, published today, by clicking here.

Hi Jim, what are the origins of VHiStory, and what is your process for reviewing each tape?

I’ve had this huge collection of tapes sitting in boxes for such a long time, and always felt like I couldn’t just throw them away. I worked at the BBC as a software developer for about 12 years, and spent part of that time working on some projects related to the BBC archive, so I was well aware how fragile and incomplete even professional broadcasters’ archives can be. Every Doctor Who fan knows this deeply.

I couldn’t bring myself to simply junk all the tapes, so I’ve wanted to digitise them for a long time, and when I started, I knew that part of the value would be to find out if anything on the tapes was something that didn’t exist anywhere else. The only way I could think of to achieve this was to catalogue the tapes in public, so people could find a reference to a long lost programme if they searched for it.

Because I genuinely don’t know what is important on any of the tapes, that forces me to be almost obsessively detailed. Sometimes I think I was mad deciding to log every instance of every advert, but I feel that’s the only way an archive like this can have any value.

I’m not a professional archivist or researcher, but being a computer programmer, I have some of the completist instincts necessary for a project like this.

The archival process has two phases. The physical digitising is ongoing, and I can record two or three tapes a day onto a bank of 4TB hard drives. But the blogging is a slower process. I transfer a few tapes worth of MP4s onto my laptop at a time, and create a Wordpress blog entry for each tape. I try to watch as much as I can, but there are some programmes that I just can’t muster the enthusiasm to watch. I capture screenshots as I’m watching, and I’ve written an app to capture, crop and upload images quickly – that used to be a fiddly, manual process.

My ‘rules’ are that I want to be able to call out every individual ‘item’ on each tape, whether that’s a single programme, a fragment of a programme, or the individual trails, adverts and continuity between the programmes. This is because it’s the ephemeral stuff between the programmes that’s more likely to be something that doesn’t exist anywhere else, and that’s the whole reason for doing this.

My ‘reviews’ of programmes are more like a ‘live blog’ of the programme. I’d rather talk about strange glitches, early appearances of now famous actors, and examples of how much things have or haven’t changed than write a critical analysis of the programmes – although for the programmes I really love, I’ll talk more about why I love them.

How did you come to amass such an impressive library of recorded cassettes?

I bought my first VCR in December 1984, with almost my first paycheck. At first I assumed that I would probably just use it for time-shifting, but I found that pretty soon, if I cared enough about a programme to record it, I’d care enough to watch it again, so I started amassing more and more tapes.

I eventually had at least two VCRs set up, so I could record multiple overlapping programmes if necessary, or simply ensure that I kept one programme together on the same tape, something I preferred to do. I think at one point I actually had three VCRs on the go at once.

But the simple fact is, 16 or 17 years of recording TV to VHS and an unwillingness to tape over a lot of it meant I’ve eventually got almost 3000 tapes of TV programmes.

How long have you been working on the project, and how long do you estimate it could take to fully exhaust your collection?

I started in January 2014. I’d been made redundant from the BBC the previous year, and had been working on some programming projects during that time, but hadn’t taken on any more full time work, and my wife suggested I use the time to start digitising the tapes. They’d been sitting in our garage, mostly stored in large Really Useful Boxes, so apart from changes in temperature, they’d been kept in fairly good conditions, and I’d been saying for years that I’d like to digitise the collection, but it had always seemed a daunting prospect, given the scale, and the amount of storage I’d need.

I’d made an aborted start at doing this about ten years ago, using a DVD recorder to digitise the tapes, but it was a fiddly process, the discs were unreliable, and it was very manual and intensive. Plus, the resulting recordings weren’t always the best quality.

I’d been given an Elgato HD video capture device as a leaving present from the BBC, and found that it happily digitised the output of a VCR, so I did some tests, and discovered that if I kept the recorded bandwidth really high, I could capture the output of the VCRs with very little loss in quality. In theory, VHS has a very low bandwidth, so you could use a very low bandwidth, but that would tend to make the resulting recordings very mushy and blurry, and lose what little detail the tapes had originally. Ramping up the bandwidth means it’s as close to the actual output as possible, which I think is important for archival purposes.

According to my database of tapes, I’ve digitised over 2,700 tapes, and have less than 300 tapes left to archive. This means I’ll probably finish the archiving part of this project in the next few months.

The blog is another matter. When I started, I published the blogs as I wrote them, and was writing several a day, but for a while now I’ve been on a daily schedule, one tape a day, although I still do write them in batches and schedule them. I’ve published 1163 entries so far, one per tape, so I’ve still got around 1700 tapes left to blog about, which means, if my maths is right, I won’t finish all my tapes until March 2021.

I don’t know what I’ll do after that, to be honest. Maybe I’ll start logging all the digital TV captures I had since I started recording TV digitally, around 2002.

What did you set out to achieve with the project, and has there been any particularly memorable or unexpected feedback you've received over the years? For us, Red Dwarf connections often pop up now and then, particularly with Craig having featured in both shows (I believe we may first have heard about VHiStory through our friends at Ganymede & Titan).

Some of the nicest feedback has come from people who have featured in programmes. One man remembered being an extra as a schoolboy in a BBC film many years ago, and I was able to find the scene he was in, and find a picture of him.

Fans of shows like Red Dwarf certainly like to see everything there possibly is about their shows, so having some rarely seen BBC continuity for early Red Dwarf was nice. And recently, I was able to help the Galway Film Festival with a copy of a short film they wanted to show, because it had been featured in one of the programmes. That was nice because my mother was born in Galway, and I’ve been there often on holiday.

You often mention and detail ad breaks in your posts. When I myself very occasionally rediscover an old tape, I often find they have the capacity to serve as a kind of historical touchstone. For my taste, you can glean quite a bit of information from ad breaks, alone – particularly how noticeably they have evolved production-wise, over the years, but also in terms of our then-buying habits, public information announcements, and the like. What are your thoughts on the inherent value of archival advertising?

I agree, I think it’s hugely valuable, especially when we can see context, and the great changes in how adverts were made, and what was advertised.

For example, I hadn’t realised until I started this how much the 80s was dominated by money. Every other advert seemed to be for a bank, or investment company, or a share opportunity. And Champagne was frequently advertised as if it was a commonplace, like oven chips or shampoo.

I sometimes think there’s a book or a TV series to be made about how adverts changed, even in the short time I was recording them.

Absolutely! I'll never forget, whilst researching newspaper clippings for the doc at Central Library's archival microfilm department, how noticeably both tabloids and broadsheets had changed in such a relatively short period of time.

It can be incredibly difficult to find VCRs these days, yet there still seems to be a following - and certainly collectors who continue their search for rare tapes. Notably, Matthew Holness’s 1970s-inspired, pulp comedy drama, A Gun For George was recently released on the format, no doubt for added ‘authenticity’. What is it about VHS as a medium that you feel still appeals? Would you say VHS is in some ways, more user-friendly (hands-on, durable, etc) than even some modern-day formats, and what is your preference format-wise?

Even though I do have a lot of residual nostalgia for VHS as a format, having grown up in the VHS era, I was a very early adopter of digital formats. I started collecting DVD before the format was even launched in the UK, and I started moving over to digital TV recording in 2002 when I bought a TiVo, and when I moved over to a Home Theatre PC shortly after that, and started archiving to hard drive, I never looked back.

What’s strangest (to me at least) is that these days I don’t record anything. When my old HTPC started dying a while ago, I decided not to replace it with another, because I was actually watching TV almost exclusively on iPlayer (or similar services). I use iPlayer, Netflix, Amazon Video and Now TV for most of my TV watching, and, surprisingly, I don’t often feel regret at not having a permanent recording. Maybe I’ll regret it in ten years time.

I'm sure your piece on Ghostwatch will go into greater detail concerning any feelings or recollections you have concerning the show, but briefly, are you a fan? :) Do you recall the night of transmission? And what are your thoughts on its continuing legacy?

I think it was a magnificent programme. It’s not perfect, and I talk a bit about how a couple of the performances don’t quite feel true, but I think it’s one of the most brilliant uses of the television medium there has ever been. It was a fictional story, but one which played with virtually every facet of television production, and audience expectation, and I think it deserves to be regarded as an all time classic, just as much as something like I Claudius or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

I have to admit, I didn’t watch it going out. I was out that night, so I recorded it, which is how I got some of the surrounding continuity. And I think I already knew what it was, so I don’t think I would have been taken in. The Radio Times did a cover story on it which, I think, either hinted or stated outright that it was fictional. My memory of the time was that I was a bit dismissive of people who thought it was real, because all the pre-broadcast coverage seemed to make it clear that it wasn’t. But that might just be hindsight working.

In a way, the programme’s absence from broadcast TV has probably helped it keep its mystique. Things like this are much better when vaguely remembered.

My appreciation of it has grown since the broadcast. I was probably too critical of the few weaknesses I saw on first viewing, because when I re-watched it a few years later, I was surprised to find myself drawn in again, and I found the ending more disturbing than I had the first time. And time has helped me appreciate just how clever the production was, how it played with all our expectations of the form, and how it practically invented an entire genre of Film and TV.

It’s now become a Halloween tradition for me. I like to watch it each year, and I always enjoy it.

With many thanks again to Jim for contributing this great interview, and sharing those ace clips. For more on VHiStory, be sure to check out his blog, and hit as many subscription buttons as you can!

Until next time, Ghostwatchers, try not to have sleepless nights...

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Na-na, na-na, na-na, na-na, Late Show..!

This might not come as much of a surprise, but for my taste, documentaries arguably represent the purest form of film. Drama, almost by default, strives to meet that same baseline level of realism, which I suppose is where my appreciation of faux docos, or Cinéma vérité stems. Like so many others, I count more than a few examples of (f)actual docs as being among my personal favourites. But in my experience, there always seems to be one that, for whatever reason, stands out, personally.

At some point during Friday the 16th June 1989, I watched a fuzzy VHS recording of a BBC doco my parents videotaped the night before, that I must admit, made quite an impression – the last installment in that current series of The Late Show.

Then at just four years of age, as far as documentaries go, this would likely have been the very first recorded especially for me, and I'm surprised I haven't spoken more about it until now – particularly, as to my knowledge, the episode in question has never been repeated. As with Ghostwatch, the production also found its way to the front cover of the Radio Times, incorporating a two-page article, with words this time from Jonathan Ross. And as with Ghostwatch, the article doesn't refer much to the programme at all, instead using it as a king of springboard as opposed to a focal point.

First, Batman – and quite the fan I was, as a kid. Which is pretty much why I'm sure my folks figured a TV Special based on the character might have proven interesting for me to watch, at the time. Plus, truth be told, I was into those kinds of retrospectives, even then. My first Bat Cape was a thing of joy, even if it was just a die-cut vinyl face plate stitched to a sway of black cotton. It blew my tiny mind that one even existed outside the comic book, let alone an entire rack, that icy morning at one of Blackpool's many outdoor markets.

If you weren't around to see it, 1989 was a crazy year for what (even those not) in the know refer to as, 'Batmania'. So much so, that the word itself seemed perfectly suited in conveying the kind of mass hysteria that followed in the wake of Tim Burton's seminal feature film, released that very same year. "That summer was huge. You couldn't turn around without seeing the Bat Signal. People were cutting it into their fuckin' heads." once uttered phonic flutist, Kevin Smith, who also admitted to quitting work the day the film was released in order to catch it at his local cinema.

Generally speaking, not very many people expected Beetlejuice star, Michael Keaton to be quite as good as he was in the title role. Co-star, Kim Basinger eloquently attested, "I got it immediately. There was just something about Michael that I could see as an orphaned child." Nicholson masterfully brought the house down as Jack 'Joker' Napier – those three principals headlining a truly awesome cast, a smorgasbord of Oscar-worthy production design, a truly unforgettable Elfman score, and a remarkably talented/young director in Burton himself.

So striking were both the visuals and performances, that even Napier's number one guy, Tracey Walter's eerie, Bob the Goon received his very own action figure with authentic Button Activated Power Kick™. I'm surprised that Robert Wuhl's likable everyman, Alexander Knox wasn't sculpted into a "Features Ten Classic Phrases!" talking doll, too – "Thanks for the tip, Duane.", Hello, Legs...", "He must have been, King of the Wicker People!", "... What a dick.", etc.

As seen through my impressionable, four-year-old eyes, I distinctly recall how Batmania, certainly at the time, felt like some wonderful, mass-cultural event – in which the now-iconic symbol evoked a kind of perpetual resonance. Somehow, this one elegant logo managed to comprise culture and counter-culture simultaneously. Consumerists seemed to dig it for its kitsch value, whilst disillusioned Gen X types heralded the black-on-yellow oval as being some kind of subversive icon – handy, when the closest thing to a Facebook Like back then was wearing a T-Shirt.

-The other day, my good friend Jackie even found this vintage bumper sticker from the film's supremely-orchestrated marketing campaign – nearly three decades later. Can you imagine the surplus of stock, worldwide?!

Having such a broad appeal, there must be so many valid and vivid dissections of the character, to boast just one single thesis. In purely my own terms, I enjoy the Lost Son of Gotham at his hypocritical and/or ambiguous best...

... A grafter who fights evil from the shadows. An army of one, who admonishes firearms, but is otherwise content to freely dispense life-threatening concussions and fractures, or pepper some ne'er-do-well's body with razor-sharp Batarangs. My Batman is an enigma, wrapped in a superiority complex, wrapped in a cape – and that's how I like him. A brooding, two-fisted, insomniac vigilante, just waiting for the night sky to illuminate with his signal, providing him the opportunity, or perhaps approval he longs for, to "Go to work".

During the doc itself, writer/artist of the profoundly un-sentimentalised, The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller, goes one step further on the tricky subject of defining such superheroic characteristics, by saying...

"It's almost a mistake to think of them as human beings.
You have to define the wish. And then, play it out."

Featuring a number of rare interviews with such renowned artists and writers as Will Eisner, Jerry Robinson, the aforementioned Miller, et al, the doc, directed by Mary Harron – who coincidentally(?) directed a pre-cowled Christian Bale in 2000's delightfully devilish, American Psycho – sets out to chronicle the titular character's true-life origins and various legacies, by way of the intriguing framing device of a young boy, Michael (played by actor, Henry Power), as he discovers a veritable treasure trove of related memorabilia.

The doc opens dramatically, introducing the flashlight-wielding youngster, as he ventures into a dark basement (or cave if you will), brimming with Bat-trinkets. Approaching what looks to be a crisp reprint of Detective Comics #27, he reads...

"The "Bat-Man", a mysterious and adventurous figure fighting for righteousness and apprehending the wrongdoer. In his lone battle against the evil forces of society... his identity remains unknown."

At that moment, a jump-scare of Keaton crashing through the film's Flugelheim Museum skylight smash-cuts, and what appears to be a hand-animated bat flaps its wings past the heavy bars of the basement window, glowing under the moon-lit sky. Startled, the kid reaches down to retrieve a lost Precious Thing – a fallen snow-globe containing a miniaturised New York City, caught beneath drifting shards of glitter suspended in fluid.

An excerpt from Duke Ellington's 1927 jazz tune, The Mooche segues into some stock BBC footage of Times Square – one of the very metropolitan neighbourhoods that inspired the Bat's own concrete playground of Gotham (having long been a nickname of sorts for NYC, before becoming an albeit fictional locale in its own right) – in writer/artist, Frank Miller's words...

"It's uh, New York City below 34th Street. And, it's a place where the buildings
are far too close together. Streets somehow vanish when you hit the rooftops,
so you can jump from one building to the next..."

Collectibles in their own right, the interviews as presented are most certainly for the time capsule. Utilising excerpts from the Orson Welles-performed, The Shadow radio series from 1937, the Lewis Wilson-starring Columbia Pictures serials of 1943, and even Adam West's breathtaking Batusi dance from 1966, no stone is left unturned in attempting to unravel the title character's motivations, and therein, our own lasting appreciation.

Admittedly, at one point, the otherwise taut narrative drifts into the murky realms of 80s-era, Punky, psychological guesstimation, by the skimming over of Dr. Frederic Wertham's infamous conjectures on comic books' supposed dire negative influences on the youth of yesteryear. Convincingly portrayed on-screen by satirist John Bird, he incredulously expresses his disdain to the rather bewildered-looking Michael, at witnessing male comic characters depicted as living together in large houses with flowers in vases. No, really.

Nevertheless, the academic slant proves amiably brow-swirling, even today. There seems to be a genuine effort in attempting to codify both the character and his motivations, in turn compartmentalising them into a plethora of varying topical contexts... That in being human, Batman's closest approximate superpower is in fact a super-capability to channel his inner demons into a kind of anarchic productivity... By representing the complexities of Society, positive female characters are often sidelined, as they are said to 'confuse' the youthful simplicity of the typical American Hero... The introduction of a vigilante streak in Batman was designed to counter the celebrity and popularisation of real-world gangsters... When depicted in a timeless world, coupled with restrictive censorship, this effectively nullifies superhero characters by putting them in a world that doesn't need them, thereby rendering their actions consequence-less... And so on.

But it's the cutaways that I still find most fantastic. There's an endearing, hand-crafted approach to more graphically-represent the various points and arguments made throughout. A large mock-up of Two-Face's iconic coin slowly turns before us. Tiny, card gravestones lay beside vintage figurines, marking the untimely passing of their namesakes – "Batwoman, 1956–1977, Killed by the League of Assassins"... "Catwoman, 1940–1953, Died peacefully in her sleep", among one or two others.

A number of 'womanly' Bat Gadgets are also faithfully recreated – including Batwoman's Teargas Perfume Atomiser and Charm Bracelet Handcuffs. A small Robin doll is depicted resting within a miniature, open coffin – in addition to a stylised, life-size version of his iconic costume hanging inside a glass-fronted wardrobe. And who could forget the now-classic shot of a tear-a-day, paper calendar, freely spilling its pages to denote time passing.

Supporting Duke Ellington's opening track, additional music includes Robin actor, Burt Ward and Frank Zappa's singular collab, Boy Wonder, I Love You, which still has the power to raise even a hint of a perplexed smile today – and charmingly, just a few bars of Burt Bacharach's score from Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, played over a clip from a vintage home movie perfectly capturing a sunny, Batman-themed birthday party.

A silver thread of what I can only presume is library music (no single composer is listed in the closing credits) balances both timeless and electrosynth in perfect measure. The sound of the doc certainly provides a considerable amount of character, with the pieces used both well chosen and well placed. They even find time for a snippet of the late Prince's, Batdance.

The soul-pounding Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) from Verdi's Requiem can also be heard over an operatic illustration of Batman roaring in rage over Robin's lifeless body.

On that subject, the film curiously takes a moment to acknowledge the apparent pervasive 'unpopularity' of said sidekick, and how the character's shocking death in 1988's, A Death in the Family saga might even be more culturally-significant than tonal juggernaut, The Dark Knight Returns.

Several speakers from the film are sadly now no longer with us, giving their words even greater heft – including artists and designers, Will Eisner, Jerry Robinson, and Anton Furst, to name but a few. Fred Finger, the son of co-creator, Bill, also speaks on his late father's behalf – reported to have sadly passed away just a few short years later, himself.

It isn't long before we get to the nub of the matter – the new Tim Burton movie, and this doc is clearly intended to coincide with its release – on the one hand, riding the wave of Batmania, whilst on the other, providing an Internet-less platform to pour over its global appeal.

Structurally, at this point, there is certainly a sense that the story is building to a conclusion. As to whether Keaton's Batman is considered by the filmmakers as being some kind of (then-)modern day pinnacle, or merely the epitome of the character for that particular era (I would say, the latter is more likely), it is perhaps better left to the viewer to ascertain. If there is a vertex to the proceedings, it may be that in creative terms, the less seriously (or perhaps, truthfully) you take these kind of fantastical characters, ironically the more they tend to suffer from a narrative standpoint. Critic John Powers, offers...

"By the time we reach the Batman of the movie, Batman has actually gone
through lots of transformations, and the interesting thing with the movie
will be to see whether or not they actually keep the 80s sense of him,
or make him into [...] the ultimate policeman of the status quo."

Over some final words from the originators as introduced from the opening, a hefty price-list for a handful of particularly rare, antique comic books fades in (which fascinatingly, now seem positively dwarfed by their current reserves), serving as a gentle reminder as to the appreciable value of art, and how easily the very same can become denigrated if packaged within something considered a throwaway form.

We return to the basement setting, where young character, Michael is called upstairs by an older female voice. When he glances away from the comic book, the memorabilia has vanished before his eyes... leaving just a lone Bat Signal projected onto the plain brick wall, as he departs. It's a strangely melancholic moment that to this day, elicits for me a genuine nostalgia.

And there you have it. Suffice it to say, it has been many years since I last saw the film in its entirety (sadly, our home copy lops off the first minute or so), though in my memory, remains very much a high watermark – particularly so during the making of Behind the Curtains. I have long regarded it as a prime example of BBC documentary film-making and researching, and would genuinely thrill to see it repeated some day, in full.

I don't know the origins of The Late Show: Batman Special. If anyone out there reading this happened to work on the episode, it would be Bat-tastic to hear from them. Yes, I just said that.

Until then... try not to have sleepless nights.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

No Gothic towers, no shuttered windows...

Greetings, Ghostwatchers!

Just a quick heads-up that if you happen to be in the vicinity of Newcastle Castle Keep's Great Hall on Friday 17th June, at around 7pm, you might like to check out a very special screening of Ken Russell's Gothic, presented by Novocastria Macabre, in association with Screen Demons Horror Film Festival - and set to feature a must-see Q&A with screenwriter and Ghostwatch creator, Stephen Volk, and David Pirie, author of A Heritage Of Horror.

Not only will the occasion mark the 200th Anniversary of that rather inspirational evening at Villa Diodati, Switzerland, but also the anniversary of the film's production, having taken place exactly thirty years previously, in the summer of 1986...

The year is 1816 and poets Byron and Shelley, Byron's doctor Polidori and Shelley's mistress Mary Godwin (later to become his wife) gather in a villa on Lake Geneva and dare each other to write ghost stories. The results, Polidori's The Vampyre and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, become the foundations of the horror genre. In Ken Russell's recreation of that fateful night, the young Romantics hold a demonic séance and descend into a sex and opium-fuelled nightmare world.

Lovely stuff. Tickets are around £13 per person, and more info on the event can be found here.