Wednesday, 21 October 2020

They're just a sign of the times...

Greetings, Ghostwatchers!

In anticipation of this year's National Seance Live event, I was fortunate enough to speak with Rob from the Hidden Britain Sign Co, regarding their exciting new creation, now available to pre-order... a real-life Foxhill Drive street sign!

Ironically, despite the now-iconic nature of the film's fictitious locale, such a prop never appears during the programme, itself. Given the many opportunities, as there always are, you'd be forgiven for thinking there was time to sneak-in a quick shot during the opening titles, or even a fleeting glimpse when Craig wanders up the road to speak with Yvonne Etherley... but, alas not.

Even so, that hasn't stopped Rob from expertly crafting something striking and evocative - so much so that you'd be forgiven for thinking that it came straight from the 1992 BBC Props Department.

You may also have caught sight of this noble attempt, as cobbled-together by yours truly, from a number of years back. Comprised as I recall, from three sheets of lacquered, inkjet semi-gloss carefully pasted onto band-sawed MDF - expertly distressed using thick globs of PVA mixed with powdered cinnamon for a semi-authentic rust effect. Again, we never actually see such a sign during Ghostwatch, itself - this here is what Terry Lollard might have described as being, a 'factual rendering'.

Originally built for the ending of the documentary, in which having driven past the actual filming location for 41 Foxhill Drive, as seen earlier in the film, I would try on my moth-eaten acting cap, and express 'genuine surprise' at the sight of our custom-made street sign now unexpectedly facing opposite the property, before expectedly smash-cutting to black. Ooh, scary-darey. Sadly, having repeatedly missed the rather complex shot, by the upteenth tortoiseian lap of the close's tiny road, one or two of the curious neighbours began venturing out to find out why these strangers seemingly couldn't find their way out of an open, one-way street, and suddenly the illusion was evaporated.

Another alternate post-credit scene, abandoned in favour of a certain, impromptu cameo, also involved me 'happening upon' the Foxhill sign whilst on my jollies, and effortlessly picking it up, before carrying it home. Though, I'm glad we went with what was clearly meant to be.

So, you can imagine, it was with sheer glee when I caught the news back in September of this undeniably spiffing effort then-in the pipes-line. I also had the pleasure of speaking with its creator Rob, to learn more about his creative process in so adeptly turning fiction into reality...

                                                                              

RICH: Hi Rob, so, first - Ghostwatch! Can you describe your experiences with the programme? When did you first see the show, and do you recall your thoughts, at the time? Has your take on the programme changed since?

HB: I'd just turned 11 years old in the first half of October '92. I remember that time vividly having started middle school the previous month, and with Christmas just around the corner.

There was talk of my brother and I getting a Sega MegaDrive that year, which filled us both with much excitement. I'd left primary school the previous summer where, along with my best friend Ben, I'd spent many hours poring over the Usborne Mysteries of the Unknown book and PG Tips Mysteries of the World cards. I was deep into the idea of ghosts at this point, and was utterly convinced I'd seen the ghost of our recently deceased family dog sitting at the side of the house looking back at me whilst I was playing in the garden during the Summer of '91.

Talk of Ghostwatch started filtering into my mind during the month leading up to transmission, and the idea of it couldn't have been more up my street, despite my healthy sense of unease about what this live broadcast might unearth. On the day it was televised I spent most of the afternoon willing the evening to roll around, and just after the watershed hour of 9pm I went upstairs to my room, got into bed, turned off the lights and settled down with an equal measure of excitement and trepidation.

My heartbeat quickened as the title sequence rolled and Parky gave his introductory piece to camera. "Wow", I thought. My mind was racing from the off. Within a few minutes they cut to pre-recorded footage of the two girls in their bedroom, as my blood started to run cold and I re-adjusted the pillow propping me up in bed. I looked on as the sequence unfolded into chaotic poltergeist activity, ending with the light-bulb exploding and their room being plunged into darkness. I leapt out of bed, turned the lights on and the TV set firmly off. I couldn't do this, it was all too much for me even after the first 5 minutes, that moment further compounded by being alone in a darkened bedroom myself.

At this point my Dad appeared at my door, warmly suggesting "I'm not sure you should be watching this", knowing full well the extent of my vivid imagination and fascination with the subject matter at the time. I agreed and settled back down into bed with just my bedside lamp on for comfort. Within a few minutes the house had quietened down again and my pulse had slowed.

"Right", I thought. "I have to turn this back on!" I couldn't not - I'd been waiting to see this for weeks and needed to be able to talk to my school friends about it the following Monday. I spent the next 80 minutes getting out of bed and turning the TV on and off countless times. The talk of 'Pipes', dog mutilation and suicide in the basement once again became too much for me to bear, never mind the glimpses of a menacing figure behind curtains and reflected in the glass of the patio door. I think I probably watched 50% of the programme that night, being caught between abject fear and fear of missing out on this televisual event.

Back at school, my friends filled in the gaps of what I had missed. I joined in where I could from what I'd seen but otherwise I just nodded along, not giving away that I'd only seen half of the show that night. It was many years later that I was able to finally see it in its entirety. After many failed attempts I eventually tracked down a VHS tape on eBay. It was quite possibly a 100th generation copy - almost black and white - with colours desaturated and the picture further degraded by constant static snow.

Myself and a group of friends, all now in our early 20s, gathered to watch it at a mate's house and we were captivated by it once again, for different reasons this time, despite the poor quality of the pirated VHS copy I'd purchased. I re-watched it again recently after many years (this time on DVD) and was really struck by how clever, brilliantly scripted and dark it is. It still feels wonderfully ahead of it's time and a real one-off event in the history of British television.

RICH: Regarding your background as a graphic artist and sign maker - when did you discover you had a talent for art - specifically, making fictional signage a reality?

HB: I have no formal training as a graphic designer, with A-Level being the furthest I took visual art before going off to college to study music production in the early 2000s.

That said, my aforementioned best mate Ben and I would mock-up fictitious album covers and artwork during our early adolescent years, dreaming one day of holding our own record sleeve in our hands. We didn't have to wait long as in '99, whilst we were studying for our A-Levels, a Birmingham-based record label approached us to release a 7" vinyl of three of our songs. We were asked to supply artwork for the release and this kickstarted over 20 years of producing music and artwork for our own records and others.

I've been involved in nearly 100 releases since then, as a musician and in terms of producing artwork, and it's this experience that really developed my keen interest in design, layout and construction. I've also worked for the last 13 years as a freelance art gallery technician, installing exhibitions all over the UK. Working in this settling really got me thinking about the possibilities and technicalities I could deploy within the idea of something like 'Hidden Britain'.

Then in early 2019, I purchased a vinyl cutting machine, initially to print vinyl wall banners and gallery interpretation for venues where I worked. This led me to start considering ideas inspired by my love of British Horror TV and film along with my interest in design and typography. When lock-down happened in March of this year, I found myself out of work but had time on my hands to really start developing these ideas fully.

RICH: What is your process for making a sign, particularly but not exclusively for this Foxhill Drive design? Do you have your own process that you've developed yourself, or is there a tried-and-tested way for producing each piece? What are the signs made from, and what kind of tools do you use?

HB: Without being too demystifying about my process, all my initial designs and sketches start in Photoshop as a digital mock-up. I've been using Photoshop for years now, but have pushed myself to use Adobe Indesign and Illustrator a lot more over the last year or so too. After I've sketched out an idea in Photoshop, I'll move across to Illustrator to do the final layout, sizing and vectorising of the design so that I can send this to my vinyl cutting machine and cut the lettering in whatever colour and size I need for that particular sign.

Once the design has been cut, there are a number of stages before I then transfer the lettering to an MDF wooden board and apply a few layers of varnish to seal the design, which also helps build up a protective layer that the vinyl lettering sits within. All in there are about 10 stages that go into producing a sign and I spend roughly between 1.5 to 2 hours on each across the whole process. With each of these stages that have slowly become tried and tested, I used experience from my day job and lots of trial and error during my initial tests. It's quite time consuming from start to finish to produce the signs, but I find it a really nice balance between digital design and more hands on making and precision.

RICH: Typography is an art in and of itself. Can you go into more detail regarding your particular process as regard choosing the appropriate typeface, spacing, kerning, etc? What is it that makes a sign look good?

HB: I've been really fascinated with the history of certain typefaces for a long time now, particularly more utilitarian fonts used in British transport signage. From Edward Johnson's 'Underground' typeface of 1910s to 'Gil Sans' in the late 1920s to the 'Motorway Transport' font and publication of the British Rail Corporate Identity Manual in the 1960s. I still find it incredible the level of detail, precision and thought that went into that manual and design and is a constant source of inspiration in making my designs feel 'right'.

The kerning between the letters is so important when looking at producing authentic signage and it's something I take great care and time over when working on new designs. I also have to add that the 1964 British Rail 'Two Arrows' logo is still one of my favourite pieces of design ever.

RICH: We live in a great age of fandom - arguably, more than ever. Cosplay and fan productions now often work hand-in-hand with their chosen following. What is it regarding replica props that you think appeals to fans and collectors, alike? How does owning a 'piece of fiction' bring fans closer to what they love?

HB: For me, it is about producing something that I'd like to own myself, and hope others would too. I try to create something which is evocative of a time and place, which is faithful to the story and setting, and is also aesthetically pleasing. I hope the signs are something that people are be proud to have on display, to photograph, or to post on social media as part of a more personal display of their own identity and interests. As the signs are limited edition (I typically only make around 25 of each item) and are handmade, they have a unique quality which I think appeals to fans and collectors too.

Owning something physical such as a sign or other object brings a little piece of that world into your living room, or your study, or wherever. It brings you closer as it's something you can see, touch and feel. It makes me very happy to see people post images or message me privately about the signs I send to them and to hear their own unique stories, perspectives and connections to these objects. It's been immensely enjoyable working on this project over the last 6 months or so and people's responses have been incredibly gratifying. I hope to continue producing new designs - that people are proud to own - for a long time yet.

                                                                              

With huge thanks again to Rob for a fascinating insight into the making of this marvellous collectible. Again, be sure to check out the Hidden Britain Signs Co site to pre-order your own sign now.

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

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