I Watched Jim Davidson’s Adult Panto (Because I Hate Myself)

•December 11, 2017 • 4 Comments

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Jim Davidson’s long stint as the legitimate face of prime-time family entertainment, beginning in the mid-nineties, is bewildering to look back on as a nation. How did we let that happen? Were we all hypnotised? It must be what modern-day Germany feels like when recalling the antics of the 1930s, or how a sightless band of survivors staggering the post apocalyptic wastelands of 2030 will feel about President Trump. Millennials who only know Davidson from newspaper headlines where he’s cancelled a show rather then perform for fans in wheelchairs, or from a weirdly successful stint on Celebrity Big Brother, will find it hard to picture him as Mr. Saturday Night. But it happened.

Sinderella was filmed slap-bang in the middle of Davidson’s first season as host of The Generation Game, a role he held until 2002. People talk about 911 as the great cultural sea-change, as though everything can be categorised into coming before, and consequently being old, or after, and modern, but as the towers fell, Jim Davidson was still employed at the BBC, in that Strictly/X-Factor sweet spot, before we had broadband or Twitter to help kill time on our trudge towards the grave instead. Similarly, Jim’s snooker-themed gameshow, Big Break, went out on Saturday nights for 222 episodes over eleven years. That’s 111 hours of Jim Davidson making jokes about snooker and waistcoats; Christmas specials with celebrity contestants like Little and Large; and it was all just allowed to happen. Of course, now he’s about as welcome on our screens as a live feed of some lunatic in a balaclava folding a baby into a George Foreman Grill, and as the BBC have another pet fascist in Nigel Farage, it seems he’ll see out his career playing to increasingly-small club audiences of like-minded Tories.

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But to fully comprehend the horrors of Sinderella, we need the context of where we were as a nation in 1995. It was the summer of Britpop, and Lad Culture had begun to swagger over the horizon, in the form of TFI Friday and rags like Loaded Magazine. These were spaff-mags disguised as a style guide for the modern lad; heavy on a post-ironic embracing of ‘real’ men who’d previously been cast aside by political correctness, of whom the word “legend” was thrown around until its meaning had rotted. Cover stars were made of hatchet-faced old footballers; seventies actors; gangland figures and “hard men” — with drug smuggler Howard Marks the messianic figurehead on the prow of HMS Lad — and comedians whose decidedly un-PC material had become more laughed at than with, following the rise of Alternative Comedy in the previous decade. Maybe Jim was hoping to find a home there, on the walls of uni students, between ‘Chopper’ Harris and ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser, his portrait lit like a villain from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

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“She turned them against meeeee…”

Christmas has always been the time for weird vanity cash-grabs, making stocking fillers of stand-up DVDs and expensive biographies with giant fonts. This year’s “what shall I get me mam?” trend is albums from men who look like they built a recording studio in the empty bedrooms of their estranged children. Nick Knowles’ Everyday Kind Of People, Shane Richie’s A Country Soul; who next for the mid-life crisis put to song, Yer Old Dad’s She Might Have Taken the Kids, But I’ve Still Got My Top Gear Box Set? It makes sense that Davidson, a ‘blue’ comedian both trapped by and made rich from a family friendly cage, and who saves his real material for off-camera, would make the move into “too hot for TV!” pantomime, with panto-themed Christmas specials a yearly Big Break tradition. Besides, he’d already released his solemn sad-dad album years ago, including intriguingly self-penned number The Gates of Heaven.

The very concept of panto must seem strange to American readers. Imagine going to see a play, but it’s a musical Christmas fairy tale. The humour is broad vaudeville style, and high in pro wrestling-like audience participation, with encouragement to boo, cheer, sing along, and yell “He’s behind you!” The phrase “camp as Christmas” surely originates from the medium, where it’s a sensory overload of glitter and lights, and earnest, beaming smiles; where men drag up as dames in outfits so ostentatious, RuPaul would tell them to take it down a notch. Panto is a land of handsome princes and snarling villains, as played by soap stars off the telly who can take a break from the drudgery of suicide and alcoholism-based storylines to devour the scenery, and pull in five-figures a week doing it.

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One of the many A-Listers to have blocked me on Twitter

So then, from this festive tradition aimed solely at families, and to a ‘rude’ version, beginning at the very title. Taking the traditional story of Cinderella, Jim’s outrageously naughty spelling of it with an S lets us know we’re in for a wild ride. Sins, like scoffing cakes, or playing with yourself in the bath, or the murder of an elderly neighbour. Put the kids to bed and drop your trousers, because from here on in, it’s adults only. But which to sin specifically does Sinderella refer? The priapic, cocks-and-wanking obsessed material might suggest Lust. But as we’ll discover, the entire thing’s so fucking lazy, the most applicable is Sloth.

I watched the home video version. I did not travel back to 1995. Although watching this is basically time travel to a period when Jim Davidson wasn’t a cultural leper. Sinderella opens with a to-camera address from Davidson, in 45 seconds which perfectly set the tone for what’s to come. He repeatedly refers to the high concept of a “mucky panto,” does a visual impersonation of Hitler, and explains that every character, including a pony, is trying to “shag” Sinderella, while mistiming a look into the camera, and not bothering with a second take.

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To no surprise, Davidson casts himself as the put-upon, lovelorn Buttons, recalling the rage of Keith Harris when he met Louis Theroux, upon reading a review condemning him as too old for the role. But that’s fine, after all, this is an auteur project. Like the films of Woody Allen. Or Roman Polanski. Or Victor Salva. For a naughty adult panto that never really goes further than saying the word “shit,” one of the few genuine shocks is the casting of Sinders herself. While the dancers, perpetually pawing at Prince Charming, are young enough to be his daughters, Sinderella, the object of pre-cum-soaked lust for every male character, is an age-appropriate actress of 45. Don’t misunderstand; she’s an attractive lady, but it must have gone against Jim’s chauvinist instincts not to hire a 22-year-old to stage-kiss with. It’s official; Jim Davidson is more progressive than Tom “in his fifties but always with a twenty-something love interest” Cruise. The actress in question is Dianne Lee from Peters and Lee, a British folk-pop duo who had success through the seventies and eighties, after winning Opportunity Knocks.

The plum role of every panto is the dame, with Cinderella-proper’s Ugly Sisters possibly the most iconic. Jim’s twosome are named Camilla and Madonna, with the former a reference to Prince Charles’ then-mistress, now-wife, that’d long since been beaten to death by tabloids and panel shows; and the latter, even by ’95, a badly-dated excuse to get an overweight bloke into a pointy bra. Of vague casting note is Camilla’s Roger Kitter, whose career highlights were taking over the role of Italian stereotype Bertorelli for one season in ‘Allo ‘Allo, and a minor hit with John McEnroe-themed novelty single, Chalk Dust – the Umpire Strikes Back. For the role of Prince Charming, Jim went back to the good ol’ days, with swinging sixties singer and personality Jess Conrad, dressed here like Evel Knievel, with a massive dick-bulge in the front of his tights, while Dandini, who has no further credits to his name, truly seems like someone they found manning the till at B&Q.

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SILF

But the selling point of every panto is the big celebrity name on the marquee. In recent years, the likes of Pamela Anderson and David Hasselhoff have spent their Christmases earning megabucks throwing sweets at kids. Hell, down here once, we had Wolf from Gladiators. Who then, for Sinderella? Ladies and gents, starring, not as Baron Hard-up, but Baron Hardon (like a stiff willy!), Charlie Drake. A popular oldschool slapstick comic in the fifties and sixties, Drake is best known for the incident during a live broadcast, when he was smashed through a breakaway bookcase that had been — as legend tells — ‘fixed’ by a disgruntled crew member because he was such a nob. Out like a fucking light, Drake’s floppy carcass was heaved through a window of the set, right on top of his head. Unable to break the fall, he spent the next three days in a coma after cracking his skull, and didn’t return to work for two years. But in the years leading up to Sinderella, Drake had made only a handful of cameos onscreen, with his last regular work, a role in BBC’s Bleak House, a decade prior.

As Sinderella gets under way, the wizened Drake’s big intro, with the dancers reverentially applauding and his arms outstretched like he’s finally come home, is played like the grand entrance of a showbiz legend, but his catchphrase “Hello, my darlings” gets zero audience reaction. I’m not overly familiar with the Baron Hard-Up character this is based on, but apparently he’s a paedophile munchkin. From the opening scene, it’s immediately clear that there’s no budget, and this is Hell.

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The first mistake was selling the illusion of a genuine panto by having the audience pretend that they’re children, and addressing them as ‘boys and girls’. The 40-something Davidson does his lines in a bouncy, schoolboy cadence, while the chorus line are likewise supposed to be kids, spoken to in baby-talk like one would a toddler, by men winking to the audience that they’re going to fuck them. It’s creative choices like these which mark Charlie Drake’s grim introductory scene as the perfect storm of post-Savile horrors.

As the dancers stand in a line, the gnomish seventy-year-old Drake lecherously shuffles along, stopping by each female to clasp their hands inside his, and to offer sweets. To a “little girl” who informs him “I’d do anything to be famous!” he gives two sweeties, while the next baby-voiced woman, who “hasn’t had it yet” gets a frantically tossed handful, as Drake makes a cum face. The whole thing feels like a Crimewatch recreation of Yewtree allegations, especially when the male dancer’s brushed past with a brisk “fuck off!” The final girl, when given a Mars Bar, asks “may I suck it later?” His excited reply — “a star is born!” Back then, this was just hacky shite, but as we stand in the nuclear winter of the Weinstein fallout, such routines accidentally work on a satirical level, exposing the regularly-groped underbelly of backstage showbiz. Even Drake’s asides to the audience — “hello little girl; like a sweetie?” — are straight up noncery, capping the scene by asking a woman to open her legs so he can sling a Mars Bar up there.

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Later, Drake gives his daughter Sinders a great big wobbly black dildo — black dicks always funnier than white ones to yer Davidsons — that vibrates so hard, it shakes the set. “What’s it for, daddy?” she asks, in that sickly baby voice, and proceeds to say the word “daddy” about a thousand times, giving Sinderella the feel of something that can only be viewed on the Dark Web. Eventually, he tells her to rub it three times to see “the genie of the prick.” At this point in proceedings, Baron Hardon disappears from the story. Given Drake’s performance, sleepwalking through muttered lines with the disdain of a man reading recently-discovered letters from his wife to her secret lover, presumably he was in the dressing room writing his suicide note, and cursing the fact he’s not tall enough to sling a belt over the light fitting. Though when he does return, it’s immediately obvious just how he spent that time [does the charades mime for ‘necking back a load of booze’].

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Like most times a comedian leaves the safety of their stage act, the terrible dialogue is created by crowbarring Jim’s existing stand-up observations into the empty spaces in the script. Quite often, punchlines stand aside for straight-up vulgarity, such as Prince Charming’s zinger — “A dragon in the woods? If it’s got big tits, I’ll give it one!” Jim’s erection honks whenever he touches it. A Fairy Godmother shits herself. Literally never does Sinderella surprise you with a well-crafted joke. In fact, the times it stops the farting long enough to present the structure of an actual joke, it’s this kind of thing:

Buttons: “The difference between Sinderella’s sister’s fanny and a cricket ball? If push came to shove, I reckon I could just about eat a cricket ball.

Or

Prince: “Now look here, you country person!

Buttons: “Don’t you call me a tree person. And stop using my first name!

This outrageously-clunky line, Jim decides, having failed to land with the audience at all, is so clever, we’ll need to rewind the VHS a few times to get it. But fear not, there are simpler yuks to be had for non brain-geniuses, such as the naked man being chased offstage by Camilla, who’s chased back by a pantomime horse with a 4 foot erection. This leads, when Jim opens a door to reveal her being fucked by the horse, to an odd dig about the Freemasons. Perhaps the Sin of the title refers to Jim’s Pride, constantly peppering the script with his personal gripes; expensive divorces, the police, getting done for drink driving; and all the repressed homophobia, with everyone going on about great big cocks all the time. Women get it too, with one non-sequitur where he points at his dick, rolling his eyes about the illness women get every month; in another, he breaks from the script to parrot other character’s lines in a ‘deaf voice’ while mimicking sign language.

Much of Jim’s regular stage act is of the “laughing at woofters” variety, but here, his homophobia mostly raises its head in the kind of latent obsession you see in right-wing politicians who spend their political careers denouncing the foul perversion of gays before inevitably being caught in a toilet cubicle with one. There’s one accusative catcall at the man in the orchestra pit — “he’s a homosexual” — and a couple of puns about big poofs, but the whole show is awash with a tsunami of jokes about enormous penises, with the running gag of Prince Charming’s massive nob, requiring a condom like a windsock, taking up at least a third of the script. The DVD cover shows a young lady (who doesn’t appear in the show) hiking up her dress to reveal stockinged legs and a bare bum, but any straight banter-boys watching Sinderella for titillation won’t even be able to rouse a semi, cos there’s not a sniff of boobs, and this show is all about the dick.

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Dick-pie

As anyone who reads my Twitter knows, I love a good cum joke, but every other line in Sinderella is “would you like to come on my boat” or “I’ve come all the way from the palace” or some other semen-based innuendo. I swear, there are at least twenty jokes based around ejaculatory double-meaning, and with the obvious obsession over giant throbbing cocks spraying cum all over the place, you’d be forgiven for assuming Jim spends all his time thinking about sucking on a nice thick one, the bigger the better. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, but this is the man who was kicked off 2007’s Hell’s Kitchen for referring to a gay fellow contestant as a “shirt-lifter.”

Heading into this, I had imagined the audience would be the kind of howling morons in jester hats you see at the darts, kicking their feet in the air and literally rolling in the aisles. But rather, in its frequent cuts to the audience, at least half of them look bored, sat next to spouses with their chins resting on their hands. Evidently, the sort of people who’ll laugh at Davidson’s blue material aren’t into the kind of audience participation required to make a panto seem like it isn’t conducted in a mortuary. Given the quality of the show, who can blame them? If I were to encapsulate Sinderella‘s script in a single moment, it would be the part when Sinders gives Jim a peck on the cheek, and he runs offstage with “I’m going for a wank!

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Sinderella is loaded with obviously-scripted bloopers, with none of the charm of those in the Bottom Live stage shows. One sees Camilla mistakenly refer to Prince Charming as Prince Charles, in a topical reference so witty, it puts a halt to the show while corpsing performers gather themselves. This is a constant theme throughout, with a purveying sense of false anarchy, where Jim’s perpetually doubled over in laughter, and every fart noise (of which there are many), sees the cast breaking character and meeting each other’s eyes. These kind of chuckling-at-your-own-lines performances exist solely to get across the great time the actors are having, as though it will magically transfer to the audience. The cast constantly breaks character at Jim’s lines, I suspect, to give the impression that he’s improvising the whole thing, and is such, a comedic genius, leading us through this fucking jazz panto, in the equivalent of a band noodling away as he runs through his material on big dicks n balls; “looks like a golf driver, don’t it?” “look at the drivers on him.” “what a pair of drivers!” Why, it’s like the glory days of Second City! Although it seems like Drake’s blunders, constantly forgetting lines and props, are genuine, because, in what turns out to be the real story of Sinderella, he doesn’t give a shit, and is incredibly drunk.

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In such a broad setting, one might fear for an unrestrained Jim Davidson’s lack of subtlety in the arena of race-based humour; his trademark. His most famous bit by far is the Chalky White character. Though ‘character’ is a generous way to describe a gammon-faced prick doing a cartoon West Indian voice to act out the foolish antics of a fictional black mate; like Irish jokes painted up with boot polish. Jim even released a 7-inch single in 1980, performed entirely in Chalky’s voice (blackvoice?). Festively enough, it’s a cover of White Christmas, featuring steel drums, the line “break open a coconut,” and Jim breaking character at the end to wish the child backing singers a nauseating Merry Christmas — “Merry Christmas, Uncle Jim.”

While there’s not a single black face in the many shots of the audience, there is one in the small cast. Initially, this is surprising, but within the first three minutes, all becomes clear. In the opening scene, Jim exits the stage past a line of dancers, greeting the lone dancer of colour with “Skin one up, man!” in his Chalky voice, and slapping out a double high five. Because that’s what black people do; smoke weed and high five. Barring one scene, the black man is cast as the punch line in every interaction, and during Drake’s paedo-with-sweets bit, he’s told to piss off as he’s in the wrong show; “Five Guys Named Moe, up the road!” His one speaking line comes as a dame walks in brandishing an oversized prop piece of meat, for no reason other than to ask “Do you want a joint?” Now in dreadlocks, he replies in a Bob Marley voice, “No ‘tank you, me have one of me own!”, revealing a foot-long spliff. Even the cod-reggae riff of The Police’s Walking on the Moon is enough for Jim to sing a line from it in a fucking minstrel voice. But Jim’s an equal opportunities racist, and also has a pop at Chinese takeaways, informing us that “fish wipe their chads (?) on the seaweed,” before slitting his eyes and bucking his teeth to properly intone “you wan’ fishy or no fishy?!” The PC Police have robbed us of some real comedy gold, haven’t they?

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But aside from the dick-stuff, noncing, and racist bollocks, how does Sinderella fill its 95 minute runtime? I was worried there’d be musical numbers. As evidenced by his discography, Jim’s not averse to singing, especially in earnest “and this is me” character-dropping power-ballad show-closers. But the closest thing to a heartfelt number occurs when he stuffs a whole apple into his mouth, core and all, and spends Joe Cocker’s Up Where We Belong spitting gob-fulls of it into the audience and Sinders’ face. It’s absolutely disgusting, though markedly less distressing than the other two songs, which we’ll get to soon.

Another oddity is the smattering of weird, always slightly-wrong Star Trek references, which suggest he was watching TNG videos on the tour bus, inbetween angry wanks over posters of the WWF’s British Bulldog. There’s “beam me up Data,” a Vulcan salute while referring to William Shatner, and a mumbled “elementary, Riker,” which gets silence from the audience, and seems to conflate Star Trek with Sherlock Holmes.

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When Charlie Drake eventually returns to the story, he’s even drunker than before. If he was a few sheets to the wind in the first half, after the interval, he could’ve belched over a lit match and roasted the entire audience to ash, Game of Thrones style. Actors are told to project to the cheap seats, but he’s so low-energy, it’s like watching someone use their dying breath to plead “just leave me here” from the bottom of a well after breaking every bone on the way down. What fine timing, then, for Charlie Drunk to lead the crowd through a lengthy musical number that’s literally just a play on the word arseholes (“what a beautiful fish… are soles”).

Where ‘adult panto’ doesn’t work is when it turns into audience karaoke, and the cameras repeatedly cut back to an audience rooted statue-like to their seats and self-consciously mumbling the lyrics under their breath. Children — the normal panto demographic — love joining in, but Jim’s fanbase of gruff brickies, Sun-reading dunces, and football men who think crying over their child’s cot-death is for poofs aren’t going to sing along. Consequently, like he wishes he would for real, Drake dies a horrible death up there, and you couldn’t have harnessed the energy in that room to power a lightbulb.

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Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

As the show creeps wraith-like towards its closing act, his drunkenness becomes too obvious for even the cast to ignore. Jim makes an aside about his stinky booze-breath, before Drake seems to improvise a ditty about being “a gnu, with shit on my shoe.” As bad as Sinderella was up to this point, from here on in, it’s an absolute shambles, as the elderly Charlie Drake, either in a scripted fuck-up, or just being a gross old drunk man, substitutes the scripted “fondling” for the line “fingerin’ a fuckin’ hitchhiker,” complete with protracted mime, and gleefully sucking on his fingerin’ finger. For ages. I’ve not eaten since. This entire section is chaos, with Drake barely able to stay upright and going on about “fuckin’ a fuckin’ lizard,” while Jim cackles in hysterics. In fact, Jim’s soft, off-camera “oh no” when Drake tries to put Sinders’ slipper on while it’s still in his pocket instead of in his hand is the most genuine moment of the show, and merely one of the punchlines ruined when the old pro forgets a prop. Charlie Drake’s visible contempt for the material, the audience, and himself for participating, makes this one of the great/tragic drunken late-career performances.

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Finally, I must tackle, at some length, the most extraordinary section of the show. For no reason at all, in a bubble outside of the story, Jim marches onto the empty stage and breaks into the song Nothing I’d Rather Be. You know the one. If I were singing it right now, it would go something like “If I were not a book writer, something else I’d rather be. If I were not a book writer, a serial killer, me!” It originated as a campfire song for scouts, but its structure as a ’round’, where everyone sings their lines over each other, like “row row row your boat,” makes sense as a panto standard. Each performer’s verse has associated actions, meaning the others standing in the line have to duck or react each time, like clockwork toys. With me? Okay.

So, the chorus for all posits “If I were not upon the stage…” Jim’s first out, and he’d be a bus conductor. “Full inside, two up top, and move along — ding ding!” The Fairy Godmother’s next, and she’d be a doctor. You get the idea. By number three, the brainstorm session over jobs has already run dry, with this wonderfully creative refrain — “If I were not upon the stage, an actor I would be.” If I wasn’t acting, I’d be an actor? Brilliant. But the cast keeps on coming. What next; another bus conductor? Here’s Ugly Sister Camilla — “If I were not upon the stage, a Gestapo officer, me!” Let’s take a look.

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Nazi uniform with a Hitler tash, and a gigantic yellow star around his neck — you know, what the Jews had to wear during the holocaust — hanging there like a swinger’s medallion. He’s Seig Heiling and jackbooting, and it’s all a great big laugh. Though this is the first moment to made me sit upright and paw at my eyes with my fists to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating, for all its obvious try-hard offense, it’s almost a child’s idea of a Nazi. “Jackboots… Hitler tash; they all had them, yeah? Eyepatch, Helga wig… big yellow star? Think I’ve seen them somewhere.” It’s at once trying for the easy shock laugh from its audience of morons, and wilfully ignorant of history. When the other Ugly Sister follows, the combination of one after the other somehow succeeds in making them both worse; a greater sum of their terrible parts.

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Dressed as the kind of portrayal of a Rabbi you’d expect to see next to an advert for bullets in a White Nationalist newsletter, the giant comedy scissors are there to aid the actions of his verse, which goes “Snip it here, snip it there, oy vey, I’ve cut it off!” As another example of how a man who uses Nazis as a joke in 1995 hasn’t moved on, Jess Conrad’s rather-be is a Teddy Boy, which is a spectacularly outdated reference. Because the song starts anew each time someone else comes out, this section goes on forever. Seriously, it’s 6 ½ minutes, with the final dozen or so verses, where everyone’s long-since given up, just a hellish cacophony of cluttered noise.

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Starring Ricky Gervais

Anyone who survived the ordeal of Sinderella would find no respite, as Jim Davidson persisted with 1999’s Boobs in the Wood. I’ll confess, I had planned on reviewing that here too, but there’s only so much a man can take. Maybe next year, if I’m at another low point. Still, the nineties, eh? It was a different time. But this was pre-911, so as we’ve discussed, old. We’ve moved on since then. Except, almost a full decade later, Jim went touring with a sequel, 2004’s Sinderella Comes Again, taking his 70’s style mucky panto into the 21st century. Incredibly for how frail he looked in the first one, like a pickled homunculus of Mick Hucknall, Charlie Drake would reprise his role, aged 79. This would be his final credit. And what an indignant end to the career of Drake; chucking a raspberry flavoured condom to an embarrassed man in the front row, and telling him to “have a quick fuck and pass it round.”

The sequel also saw Jess Conrad and Dianne Lee return, again unlocking the strange realisation that Jim Davidson, of all people, has written a sexy leading lady role for a 54-year-old woman. Never one to use a reference while it’s still fresh, 2004’s Ugly Sisters are called Vagina and Viagra. Amazingly, in 2011, Davidson was aiming to complete the trilogy with Sinderella 3, but once written, he could neither afford to fund the production, nor convince his envisioned leads, Bradley Walsh and Junior Simpson, to join the cast.

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Where we’re going, we won’t need eyes to see

Though this show plainly belongs in the toilet, adult panto can be done well. Look at The League of Gentlemen Are Behind You. They’ve clearly paid attention to the medium, and it’s fun, camp, festive, and an absolute joy. Since its release, …Are Behind You has joined Scrooged as a yearly watch for me. Sinderella, on the other hand, is severely lacking in a panto feel, with a few static performers on a big, empty stage in front of a single backdrop. If Davidson wanted to emulate a British Christmas institution, he’s unintentionally succeeded, as it perfectly captures the grim, amateur tedium of sitting through a school nativity. Perhaps the whole thing is a Jacob’s Ladder deathbed vision of Charlie Drake, still laying on the floor of that studio in 1961, bleeding out from a fatal head-wound, as gaffers stand around to watch him die.

The worst part of all this is that it’s clearly pitched as a Christmas present. Christmas Day 1995, there were those, likely numbering in their thousands, eyeing an obvious VHS-shaped parcel under the tree, hoping to find Red Dwarf’s Smeg Ups, or Danny Baker’s Own Goals and Gaffs, but tearing off the paper to reveal this monstrosity. Just imagine having to sit through it after your turkey. Children, who in 2017, would be vainly arguing with their Daily Mail-reading parents about immigrants, spent that one bleak, mid-nineties Christmas afternoon putting on a brave face at all the jizz-gags, while in his chair in the corner, Dad was chuckling, while also secretly annoyed there weren’t even any tits in it.

But in all its failures, in a way, Sinderella is as representative of the British Christmas as anything. What’s more festive than going back to your childhood home and sitting through an episode of Mrs Brown’s Boys, stony-faced, as your parents rock with laughter, free to do so now we’re out of the EU? Keep your Snowman and your Muppet Christmas Carol; this is as festive as it gets. Whether you like it or not, that sound of audience laughter as Jim Davidson and a pissed Charlie Drake shriek about big dicks; this is the Merry, oh the very Merriest, British Brexit Christmas.

If you enjoyed that, check out my books dissecting bad or weird pop culture; Smoke & Mirrors and Steven Seagal and So Excited, So Scared: The Saved by the Bell Retrospective. Or solve that tricky Christmas shop for a sinister relative with my new novel about the Manson Family, Charlie and Me, on Amazon UK, and Amazon US.

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The Train Man, the Owl Man, and Others

•November 12, 2017 • 2 Comments

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Like a lot of British writers of a certain age, I’ve got an obsession with unsettling stuff from the seventies and eighties. Everyone’s always harping on about Ghostwatch or The Stone Tape, or the giant, teasingly-climbable pylons looming over the analogue landscape of our youth, and it’s an area I frequently return to in my work. Almost the entirety of this disconnected sense of dread is rooted in our collective childhood, and consequently, hauntology’s biggest treasure chest of nauseous memories can be unearthed from our early schooldays.

Obviously, I’ve been unable to attract a mate with which to sire children, and as such, have no idea what goes on in today’s schools, or what kind of classroom visitors are allowed though the gates in a post-911, post-Limp Bizkit world. 1980’s junior school assemblies seem inherently strange through adult eyes; jammed-packed with prayer and hymns, and threatening allusions to God’s ever-watchful eye. The enforced daily sing-a-longs now seem more at home in Jonestown, with each song wilfully composed to instil various good-boy behavioural traits, including the one that went “Milk bottle tops and paper bags,” which gives a Pavlovian urge to violently beat anybody I see littering to this day. Occasionally, these morning gatherings would deviate from the Godly into something more entertaining, like when the PE teacher played cassettes of Bob Newhart’s driving instructor sketch, or Benny Hill’s novelty single Ernie over the speakers, or, when a special visitor came in to give a talk.

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“Slip on the wet floor, did you?”

Most who grew up in that era will remember their school’s visit by the Owl Man. Unfortunately not the Cornish Owlman — a terrifying man-bird that stalked Mawnan cemetery — the Owl Man was, as the name suggests, a man who brought in owls and other small creatures, to educate us on owl-facts, such as how owls don’t poo, but sick it all up instead. If he came to your school, you’ll recall that the Owl Man had snakes too, although inviting schoolkids to touch his snake to demonstrate that it wasn’t slimy seems like the laziest possible set-up for a Yewtree joke. Incredibly, if you Google for the Owl Man, he’s still going today. That is, a franchised ‘Owl Man’ mantle that’s worn, like a falcon on the arm, by numerous men from zoos and bird sanctuaries nationwide, like Santa’s Helpers at the mall. There is no Owl Man; there are Owl Men.

But I’m not here to reminisce about Owl Men, or the writer of ITV’s After Henry, who came in our class to critique some stories, or even the lady whose puppet told us about recycling, which I remember as being very badly received, and pure Legz Akimbo. The latter was surely the result of a ‘green’ phase at our school at the time, with teachers telling us we’d all be underwater by 1996 and there was only 5 years of petrol left, painting a very Mad Max view of the future that made learning seem rather pointless, when we’d all be scavenging rat carcasses to feed our mutant children. But there’s one visitor that’s the most vividly burned into my brain, no doubt due to its status as a Public Information Film made literal flesh. This is the Train Man.

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Picture it. It’s 1988, or thereabouts. 150 of Thatcher’s children are sat on the floor of a dirty school hall. At the front stands the television on wheels; an always exciting intrusion of technology into our midst. Colour, with a VHS, and at least 18 inches, it was usually rolled in to display some of childhood’s most golden hauntological offerings. Sickly BBC Schools countdown clocks, Look and Read‘s Boy from Space, and on one occasion, a wildlife program that got me into trouble when I said “Bottoms up!” as a duck went under the water, causing the tape to be stopped under angry teacher-demands for the culprit to identify themselves (I did not, and consequently, remain on the run for my crimes). But today, its jittery track-lines are frozen on the image of train tracks. Then a man — not a teacher, but an adult nonetheless — asks a question. “Who here wants to see a dead body? Stand up if you want to see blood and gore!

Of course, the young Millard was up on his feet in a flash. Despite the show of bravado, and years of frankly vile and depraved output as an adult, I was a scaredy lad. An only child raised by a single mother, I simply didn’t have access to horror films, missing out on the slashers my classmates were raised on, thanks to older siblings and dads with a Rent-a-Film membership, and therefore, was unused to terrors beyond the plasticine stop motion of The Trap Door. In fact, at the height of my youthful cowardice, I pleaded to sit up and watch the television premier of Rocky II, only to cry during the opening scene, due to the frightening prosthetic swollen eyes, and beg for it to be switched off.

But then, “Who here wants to see a dead body?” There was glee in his voice; an invitation. He was one of the lads. Even now, I remember in that moment, I was trying to be one of the lads too; trying to look tough. Girls will gaze up at me, I thought, from their position down on the floor, and think “That Millard’s so hard. He’ll see slides of corpses and not even blink. What a hunk.” I looked around. Joining me were maybe half a dozen other boys, all from the category we’d now call ‘troubled’. Boys with poor discipline and bruised knuckles; boys whose dads were football men from the pub. I suddenly felt tall and exposed, amid the sea of cross-legged children. Teachers with folded arms met my eye from the edges of the room, and the eyes of the other gore-hungry standers, as though taking stock of this degenerate minority, to mark it down on our permanent records.

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Sensing I’d walked into a trap, I panicked and sat back down, my hurried manner suggesting my standing had been an accident. It’s okay, I thought, nobody saw. It’s with relief I was not one of the boys still on my feet when the Train Man’s tone suddenly changed, from tempting to berating. Instead of inviting everyone to watch a video of dismemberments while high-fiving the lads who’d stood, he had the room turn their eyes on them; to look at the “sick, stupid little boys” who wanted to see the horrible sights he saw, every day. “Sit back down,” he barked, with disdain.

You see, Train Man was familiar with dead bodies and innards. His job was dealing with the consequences of children like us using the train tracks like a playground and getting flattened into boy-pulp on a daily basis. He’d seen it all — severed heads; little fingers wrapped around the wheels; probably even an arse up a tree — and wore a distant stare that suggested he’d personally scraped dozens of dead kids off the tracks with a spatula. His visit that day was as if the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water itself had wandered in, with the sole purpose of scaring kids away from the tracks. They weren’t a place to play; not to skip or build dens or lay pennies; because if we did, there was but one unavoidable outcome — we’d be killed. We’d be killed, he said, and the police would knock on our door to tell our families, and then, our grans would immediately suffer a fatal heart attack from the shock. So, he told us with absolute certainty, not only would we be killing ourselves, but murdering our grandparents. I’d never been more glad to have sat down.

The talk was concluded by his telling us that, not only was it stupid to play on the tracks, it was illegal. To every school he visited, he brought along a video of some boys who’d been on the tracks, spraying graffiti on trains, and gotten caught on CCTV. He’d shown them to our headmaster before the assembly, but the suspects didn’t go to our school. But one day, he promised, with the haunted obsession of a man who forever felt he was finally within fingertip reach of his White Whale, a headmaster would recognise the faces in the video, and then, during this exact moment during the talk, he’d play the footage, with the boys themselves in the audience! No doubt, they’d be hauled up to the front and arrested on the spot.

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I always wondered if Train Man ever found his boys, or if this was another pointed fear-tactic to keep us off the railways, like the nan-killing, or other teacher urban legends; quadriplegics who were crippled after leaning back in their chairs; eyeless girls blinded by paper aeroplanes and elastic bands. One teacher wove a tale of a beloved paperboy who always wrote a Christmas card to her cats. One year, the card mysteriously failed to arrive, and she later found that, too hip and trendy to wear gloves on a cold winter’s day, he’d cycled his route with both hands in his pockets, and gone under the wheels of a van. Maybe someone reading this remembers Train Man visiting their school. Did he tell the same story, of faces that would be identified “some day,” or had they been found by the time he got to your assembly? Perhaps his later talks had footage of the boys being led off to borstal? Leave a comment below if you can add another piece to this puzzle, especially if you were there the fateful day the boys in the video were in the audience too.

Soon, sometime around that same year, we did see death and gore, no doubt due to the same staff-member who’d been behind the planet-conscious puppeteer. One afternoon, a large group of 9 and 10-year-olds took their floor-space in front of the wheely television. Just being told we’d be watching TV after lunch was enough to rouse excitement, though it would’ve been less so if we’d have known it was a video of animals being tortured. Battery chickens and vans crammed with sheep; laboratory monkeys and rabbits having shampoo squirted into their eyes; the thrash-scream death of slaughterhouse cattle. This was the era of hardcore animal rights activists, frequently on the news for blowing up cars outside of labs, and throwing paint over catwalk models. Perhaps the video was a mail-away shock tactic propaganda-piece for people to show their McDonalds-quaffing friends where their meat really came from.

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The finale of this legitimate video nasty lingered for many long minutes, on footage of baby seals being clubbed to death, over, and over again. One of my clearest childhood memories is the “ahhs” of children who’d been subjected to relentless images of panicked monkeys being force-fed bleach, at the sight of a puppy-like seal, inching its way along the snow. And then the shrieks, as an arc of red and brain-tissue stained against the white, as its head was smashed to fuck by a man with a club. Baby seals were a big cause back then, and well into the nineties. As a teenager, a t-shirt proclaiming ‘Wear the Shirt, Not the Skin‘ was in regular in rotation with my Nirvana smiley. It’s possible, in the pre-Youtube days, that this video was distributed like some kind of underground activist-meme, maybe in other schools. Again, if anyone has any idea what we watched, or suffered through the same thing, drop a comment.

I don’t remember any adverse reactions to the video, just the “urgh!” noises of kids too young to comprehend watching cows getting bolted through the head, and there were certainly no parents marching en-mass to burn down the school. When it was over, we all went back to class, full of chatter about the evil seal-killers, and spent the lesson drawing baby seals violently clubbing the men instead. I’d say it didn’t do us any harm, but here I am writing about creepy old shit again, and about to link you to the novel I just published about the Manson Family. Still, at least I never did play on the train tracks.

If you enjoyed that, check out my book containing similarly-hauntology themed pieces, including a chapter about Ghostwatch, Smoke & Mirrors and Steven Seagal. Or, my new novel about the Manson Family, Charlie and Me, on Amazon UK, and Amazon US.

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The Darker Waters of Loch Ness

•October 24, 2017 • Leave a Comment

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Like a lot of things I’ve written about at length, the Loch Ness Monster was a huge obsession of mine growing up. Well into my teens, I wanted to follow the example of Steve Feltham, who jacked in his job selling burglar alarms, stuck two fingers up to the rat race, and parked up on the banks of the Loch in a mobile library, where he could spend all day scanning the water with binoculars. Twenty-six years later, he’s still there. And I’m still here.

Aside from a brief holiday as a boy in the mid 90s, I never made it. But it’s still an incredibly appealing notion. The simplicity. The magic of an unsolved mystery. The solitude. Even though I live by the sea, some days, when I’m repeatedly having to pause Netflix to wait for the deafening roar of a motorbike to buzz out of earshot, it feels like there’s nowhere I’d rather be. I often think about how much I’d love to do it, if only just for a year, to write a book or shoot a film about my hunt for a monster that I don’t even really believe in any more. Maybe I should do a Kickstarter.

Even as a kid, in the storm of my obsession, the Monster felt like a mystery from a slightly bygone era. Time, and belief, had moved on, leaving much of its power back in the 1970s, alongside black and white photos of flying saucers on strings, Leonard Nimoy in a roll-neck talking about Bigfoot, and the unexplained mystery cards given away with Brooke Bond tea. The evidence I pored over back then is stronger now in its hauntology than it was even at the time. The grainy video of eyewitness reports featured weathered Scotsmen talking of ‘upturned boats’ rising from the waters in concrete-thick accents, most memorably, with Father Gregory from the monastery demonstrating the movement of a long neck through the waves with a buckled, arthritic finger. My favourite of all was an underwater picture taken through the murk by a team of American scientists, dubbed ‘The Gargoyle Head Photo,’ (seen at the top of this post) which suggested that, whatever species Nessie was, she was capable of screaming.

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While definitively silly season filler material to the real news, Nessie was a genuine enigma back in the day. There’s a plucky Britcom movie to be made of the story of the Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau, which formed in the early sixties in response to the flood of sightings, and existed for a decade, with over 1,000 members at its peak. The enormous cast of bearded men in macs, their necks bent by heavy cameras, spent many thousands of rainy man-hours sat on wooden watch-platforms along the 23-mile length of the loch, watching, waiting; though I fear the only thing they found was violent haemorrhoids.

The eventual winding down of the project must have been reflected in their notepads. From the early days, full of youthful excitement, feeling as though they were on the verge of some great discovery, and the thrill of those first sightings; a distant row of humps, a shape cutting through the water; sights which, over time, became familiar; explained. Converging boat wakes. Native ducks. An otter. The longer you spend looking, the less you’ll see her, until she’s almost entirely disappeared. For many, rationality — and the elements — must have chipped away at the mystery, leading towards the central truth of Nessie; that she is many things all at once. Waves, ducks, otters; shapes that elsewhere hold little meaning, in a place imbued by such folklore became the embodiment of the fable about the blind man and the elephant; disparate necks and humps and wakes, converging into a single entity; an entity which soon appeared more often on boxes of shortbread than on rolls of film. Like everything always does, the Loch Ness story got distilled down to a handful of specific beats. The surgeon’s photo. The Dinsdale film. The flipper. The sonar sweep, as shown on Newsround. But lost in these classics, are a whole heap of singular, weird tales, half-forgotten because they were too creepy or wacky, or didn’t fit the established canon.

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“Can’t sit back down. I’ll burst ’em”

While beautiful, Loch Ness can also be a dark, foreboding place, and is almost a tale of two shores. The north side of the Loch is the one you know, home to the ruined castle, and perpetually feuding museums and gift shops. Shelves of stuffed green plesiosaurs in tartan, gift bags of chocolate pellets purporting to be her poos, boat rides for tourists; it’s where you imagine the Family Ness might live, or where The One Show could shoot a short VT, before quickly shifting topics and asking a confused Russell Crowe for his thoughts on bladder cancer. This is the Loch Ness of postcards. Across the water — freezing, peat-thick waters that could swallow a man — away from the £7.99 tam o’shanters with comedy ginger hair, are mile upon mile of empty, rolling fields and ancient woodland. And the former residence of Aleister Crowley.

The years have been particularly kind to Crowley’s reputation, with the label of ‘Wickedest Man in the World’ having stuck for over a century, rather than a more truthful descriptor, say ‘World’s Dirtiest Old Fucker’. His incredible skill as a self-publicist sees Crowley, to this day, held up as the great (and real) black magician, his poster on the walls of sixth form goths, his figure looming over every mention of the spooky dark arts, and inspiration for countless occult murderers in novels and episodic detective shows, each with similarly wicked-sounding names — always Lucien Ravens or Anton Devilscratch, and never just ‘Bill’.

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Not a magician in the traditional sense –“please don’t show your appreciation by throwing coins in the top hat; it’s full of cum!” — in reality, Crowley was mainly a prodigious enjoyer of sex and drugs, whose ‘magick rituals’ consisted almost entirely of prolonged bumming sessions that went on for days, in an effort to pull down the walls of consciousness. It’s little wonder that participants in these ‘workings’ generally didn’t skip happily back into everyday life once they’d clocked off for the day. Crowley’s first wife, party to all manner of black ceremony and possession, was committed to an asylum, where she died some 21 years later, while Victor Neuburg, frequent partner in his rituals for many years, would eventually be broken, both mentally and physically, after, to borrow a phrase from my previous work, Crowley smashed his back door right off its hinges.

None of this is to diminish the life of the man, who was incredibly culturally influential, and one of the most fascinating characters in human history. Grandfather of the counter culture, and a true polymath who walked every corner of the globe, it’s a tragedy he didn’t live into the age of the chatshow, to swap patter and innuendo with Kenneth Williams about alien gods like a Mephistophelian Ustinov. Perhaps subject to the greatest collection of rumour and tall tale of any historical figure, Crowley’s reputation spread far beyond the years of his own life, weaving him deep into the fabric of history. Stories of his influence, and his excess, only seemed to grow after his death; some true, others not. Crowley, it’s said, was a double-agent working for British Intelligence. He was part of a plot, along with Bond-creator Ian Fleming, to influence the Nazis via faked horoscopes. He committed human sacrifice. He was friends with L. Ron Hubbard and Jack the Ripper. He’s the real father of Barbara Bush (and grandfather of George W). The poet Dylan Thomas, in the midst of an affair with one of Crowley’s initiates, would often talk of the time Crowley had turned Neuburg into a camel.

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In August 1899, aged 23, Crowley purchased Boleskine House, on the banks of Loch Ness; but not because of the monster. There was no monster then, at least, not in popular legend. People talk of Water Kelpies and Saint Columba — who saved a local man from a “water beast” in 565AD — but those are folkloric backfills, and despite plenty of sightings from the late 19th century onwards, the Nessie of myth began in 1933. Not that Boleskine was without its ghoulish charms, said to be haunted by a severed head which could be heard rolling across the floor, and built on the ruins of a 10th century church that mysteriously caught fire, burning the trapped congregation alive. With its own personal graveyard, linked to the main house via hidden tunnel, the relator must have kissed the ground when Aleister Crowley walked in, and true to form, paid twice the asking price.

But like Alan Partridge’s cast-iron egg-tree, these gothic accoutrements were happy accidents. For a number of months, Crowley had been seeking a location in which to perform the Abramelin Operation; a six-month-long occult ritual designed to summon his personal Holy Guardian Angel. Boleskine House had been chosen as it fulfilled a number of specific requirements; an isolated location overlooking the water; a room set aside for the ritual, with a north-facing exit onto a terrace containing sand from a riverbed, two fingers deep (to record the footprints of invoked beings), and a lodge at the north end, into which conjured spirits could be contained.

Moving in on November of that year, the self-titled Laired of Boleskine Manor wasted no time getting up to general mischief, writing a letter to the National Vigilance Association — a Victorian society devoted to the halting of decaying public morals — complaining that prostitution in the nearby village of Foyers was “most unpleasantly conspicuous” by its absence. Even before the rite-proper had begun, preparation was stirring up cosmic unpleasantness, with workmen at Boleskine claiming they were unable to complete their tasks due to the unruly presence of half-formed beings, while on a return trip to his London residence, Crowley found the contents to have been thrown all about the place, and witnessed the same entities “marching around the main room in almost unending procession.”

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But now settled, it was time to get down to business, for the sixth-month ritual of Abramelin. This would require all of Crowley’s commitment, stamina and focus, as well as abstaining from alcohol and sex, which must have been tough going for someone who so loved pulling on his penis. The purpose of the ritual was summoning demons — more specifically, the 12 Kings and Dukes of Hell — and cowing them into submission; into serving the Lord of Light, in a weird occult version of the face-turn trope, like when Vader throws the Emperor down the reactor shaft. In turn, they would summon their own minions, to also serve, then, using the combined power of the now-good forces of Hell, the Holy Guardian Angel could be invoked, to impart the operator of the ritual with blessings and wisdom.

As the rite got underway, Crowley reported the movement of shapes within encroaching darkness. The air became thick with shadowy spirits, choking the daylight, even on the sunniest afternoons. Local labourers started to go mad. Crowley’s housekeeper disappeared. His lodge-keeper, tee-total for twenty years, went on a three-day bender and tried to murder his wife and children. But on he went, inviting the Lords of Hell into his home and trying to whip them into obedience. This demanded all of his fastidiousness, though one story tells of a local butcher who interrupted the Operation, and chopped off his own fingers after taking Crowley’s hastily-scrawled order for sausages on a scrap of paper with an old spell written on the back. But the spreading madness aside, all seemed to be working as it should. The demons were coming, thick and fast. And then Crowley received a missive from the head of his magical order, The Golden Dawn, calling him to Paris. He left immediately.

As any occult expert or Most Haunted viewer will tell you, rule one of performing any supernatural ritual is shutting things down properly. Even usually-sensible folk will scream at you to “make sure you say goodbye when using a ouija board!” as though ghosts will come pouring out, like when Peck shut down the containment unit in Ghostbusters. Open the doors, I say. Life would be way more exciting if there were ghosts everywhere. Anyway, Crowley’s mid-ritual scarpering to Paris was the equivalent of going on holiday while leaving the gas on, with gaping portals left wide open, and Hell’s denizens free to come and go as they pleased, without so much as the common courtesy to turn to the good side once they were through.

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In his absence, the property was said to be under a looming dark cloud, weirding out locals, who went out of their way to avoid the place. When finished with his business in Paris, Crowley briefly returned, writing of rooms now so thick with spirits that you couldn’t see a thing, even with the lights on, before other matters took him away to various locales, such as New York, Mexico, Egypt, and China. Three years later, he returned again, now disillusioned with the universe, and leaving the ritual to lay unfinished.

On and off, when he wasn’t travelling, Boleskine served as Crowley’s home for over a decade. In 1904, Boleskine found itself under magical attack from a fellow black magician in Paris, which Crowley claimed had killed his dogs and laid sick his servants. In response, he summoned Beelzebub, and his 49 servitor spirits, one of whom, according to his clairvoyant wife Rose, took the form of a large red jellyfish. Finally, in 1906, while Crowley was on his world travels, the Abramelin Operation was performed to completion, putting him in contact with his Holy Guardian Angel, ‘Aiwass’, who dictated to him The Book of The Law, aka the sacred bible for Crowley’s religion, Thelema. Despite further Boleskine ‘workings’ with Neuburg, he never closed down the half-finished Abramelin ritual there, nor did he banish back whatever demons he believed to have summoned.

Boleskine changed hands a few times over the next century, with the events that followed adding to its grim legend. Two of the subsequent owners committed suicide, with one of them shooting his own skull off in Crowley’s old bedroom. His housekeeper found a fragment of it in his dog’s mouth, throwing it for the dog to fetch before realising what it was. Besides Crowley, its most famous owner was Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, who was fascinated with the occult, but spent little time there. Page’s house-sitter, plagued by noises and shadows, once heard a monster snuffling against the bottom of the door. But then, Crowley did claim to have left one of the demons bricked up in the walls. In December 2015, a mysterious fire razed much of the manor to ashes. All that remains is blackened timber and a few free-standing walls. And whatever Aleister invited in.

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Curiously, though the notion of a prehistoric monster lurking in the nearby waters was some decades away, while in residence, Crowley had a warning sign posted outside the house. It read “Beware the Ichthyosaurus!

1933 was the Monster’s true date of birth, with most of the classic sightings and photographs hailing from a two-year period of prolific reports, both in the water, and on land. There had been many odd stories in the preceding decades, but the trademarks of a long neck, broad back, and multiple humps first coalesced into the Monster during the flap of 1933-34. She was subject to daily column inches, in newspapers like the Daily Express and Daily Mail; of whom the latter’s persistent front-page championing of the beast suggests they believed a surviving British dinosaur to admirably represent the farthest possible thing from an immigrant.

Of all the sightings, my absolute favourite occurred before all of this. In fact, it’s my favourite eyewitness account because it pre-dates the rest; a singular event before the established folklore was written, before the parameters were set, which doesn’t fit Nessie-lore at all, and consequently, is weird as shit. On April 1932, a Lieutenant Fordyce was driving back to Kent from a highlands family wedding with his fiancée, along the shoreline of Loch Ness. It’s there that he saw something, not in the water, but on the road. As you might expect, it did have a long neck, but as for the rest…

Travelling at about 25 mph in this wooded section, we were startled to see an enormous animal coming out of the woods on our left and making its way over the road about 150 yards ahead of us towards the loch. It had the gait of an elephant, but looked like a cross between a very large horse and a camel, with a hump on its back and a small head on a long neck. I stopped the car and followed the creature on foot for a short distance. From the rear it looked grey and shaggy. Its long, thin neck gave it the appearance of an elephant with its trunk raised.

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Pleasingly muppet-like illustration from the June 1990 issue of Scots Magazine

With zero frame of reference for craziness at Loch Ness, what did Fordyce think he’d seen?

Unfortunately. I had left my camera in the car, but in any case I quickly thought discretion the better part of valour and returned to the vehicle. This strange animal occupied our thoughts and conversation for many, many miles and we came to the conclusion that it was an escaped freak from a menagerie or zoo. We felt that a beast of such tremendous proportions would soon be tracked down and captured.

To digress slightly for a paragraph, though Fordyce was just offering a vague explanation to sooth his troubled mind over something he couldn’t explain, the old ‘escapee from a zoo’ idea is a classic Fortean problem-solver which crops up time and again, most often in the hypothesised form of a crashed circus train. Everything from big cats to the Dover Demon have been instantly rendered as ‘case closed!’ by the conjecture of an event that’s never happened outside of The Beano. Similarly, a few years ago, there were big headlines about Nessie being solved, with the theory that simpletons had merely misidentified elephants from a nearby circus, swimming beneath the surface of the Loch, with their trunks raised above the water. At every turn of the Fortean landscape, you find blind acceptance of the first ‘rational’ answer that’s proposed, rather than equal levels of investigative thought into explanations both rational and preternatural.

Interestingly, though Fordyce made his sighting in 1932, he kept quiet about it until 1990, and despite years of pop-culture Nessie bombardment, didn’t relent on what he’d seen, second-guessing his memories, or reshaping them into a more palatable, populist image of the monster. ‘Our’ Nessie doesn’t have fur, or spindly legs, but regardless, that’s what he saw. So what else could it be? Let’s revisit that description again. …like a cross between a very large horse and a camel, with a hump on its back and a small head on a long neck. Where else in this piece have we seen talk of a camel? Ah yes, Crowley, said to have magicked his associate into such an animal. Interestingly, if we investigate where the sighting took place…

…we had a lovely run by the side of Loch Ness as far as Foyers where we spent a short while admiring the famous waterfall. Shortly after leaving Foyers, the road to Fort William turns away from the lochside and runs through well-wooded country with the ground falling slightly towards the loch.

Foyers falls, you say? Along the road that leads into the woodland. Let’s take a look.

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Fordyce’s creature was coming from the woods on the left, and moving towards the loch, which indicates they were driving away from Boleskine, but this still puts the incident within walking distance of Aleister Crowley’s old home. Perhaps this strange, camel-like creature was one of Crowley’s enemies, transformed into a beast and left to forlornly wander the shores. Or maybe something that had crawled from Boleskine’s shadows while he was away gallivanting in Paris. Or perhaps it spilled out with the clowns and strongmen and monkeys on little bikes when a passing circus train flew off the tracks.

Though Fordyce’s experience was far from the last time Nessie was seen waddling about on land, reports of these excursions dried up decades before their aquatic counterparts. After a rash of land sightings during the boom of ’33-’34, there have been only a handful since the 1970s. In fact, it was another report of the beast on land, one year after Fordyce’s encounter, where an enormous prehistoric creature was seen slithering across the same stretch of road near Boleskine, that first started the media furore, and the whole Nessie phenomena.

As a child, I sent fan-mail to three celebrities. One was Norman Lovett from Red Dwarf; another was WCW wrestler Johnny B. Badd. Both replied with signed photos. The third was newsreader and royal correspondent, Nicholas Witchell. Now best-known for being called an “awful man” whom Prince Charles hates, when the future King was caught muttering on a hot mic, or for the time he sat on a lesbian protester live on the news, back in the day, Witchell was Nessie’s biggest evangelist. An active member of the Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau in his youth, Witchell’s book, The Loch Ness Story, was taken out of the library by me, every two weeks for about a year, until my mum finally bought me a copy of my own.

Eventually, I sent him a letter, telling him how much I loved the book, and that I was sure he’d one day see Nessie for himself. Enclosed was a drawing I’d made, of Nicholas Witchell astride the monster like a valiant knight, rearing up out of the water, his shining ginger hair lovingly rendered in felt tip. The brief reply of thanks was CC-signed by his secretary, but I was sure my portrait took pride of place in a golden frame on his desk. Such was my Witchell fandom, for that year’s birthday I requested, and self-decorated, a Loch Ness cake, where green humps arose from a spread of blue icing. Loch-side, represented by a plastic Subbuteo-fan with little binoculars, a dob of orange icing for hair, was Witchell himself, ever watchful. Ironically, by the time I wrote to him, Witchell had disowned his book, considering Nessie an embarrassing youthful misadventure, and long-since stopped believing.

If you enjoyed that, check out my book of similarly-themed pieces about weird Fortean stuff, Smoke & Mirrors and Steven Seagal. Or, my new novel about the Manson Family, Charlie and Me, on Amazon UK, and Amazon US.

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Charlie and Me, and Me.

•September 4, 2017 • Leave a Comment

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Hello. As you might have seen if you follow me on Twitter, I’ve got a new book coming out very soon, on October 10th. Here it is.

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January 1971, and Charles Manson is acquitted of the famed Manson Family murders. As a free man, he finds himself folk hero to the disenfranchised youth that flock to his side, where one young follower quickly becomes enamoured with the freedoms of this brave new world.

But something unimaginably terrible may be brewing, in a place where life and death are “just an illusion,” and where a lie, told enough times with enough conviction, can become the truth.

Millard’s alternate history fable is a story of freedom and control; of love and obsession; and of charismatic leaders with big promises.

The digital version is available to pre-order right now in all regions, so please click here and do that. Once it hits 10/10, it’ll automatically download to your device. For info about print versions, keep reading down to the bottom.

In the wake of the controversy over HBO greenlighting an alternative history show based on the notion slavery was never abolished, I figured I’d do “What if?” about something tasteful.

No, of course not. This book has been a (really) long time coming. I first started working on Charlie and Me eight and a half years ago, and for the last six years, have just been sat on it. A piece I wrote about the toll that took on me, both the writing process, and the inability to get it released, is now itself two years old. But I dunno, something about the radicalisation of disaffected young people, and an outrageous leader whose rise is built on a cult of personality just seemed timely.

Other than the recent paperback of 2014’s Smoke & Mirrors and Steven Seagal, this is my first release for over two years. Truthfully, I got severe burn-out after the last one, and jacked it all in. I’m a writer, not a promoter, and the spammy, unending grind of trying to make something fly isn’t great for one’s mental health, particularly as mine was already in a really bad place at the time. But now I’m back on the horse, finally ready to put myself through all that shit again, because for me, this is the one. I put everything I have into this — including another draft, to tighten it up to 2017-me standards — and I can no longer keep it to myself. Live or die, crash or burn, I have to cut the chain and let it loose.

Although, lately I realised I’m practically at the age where if I do suddenly find success, I’ll be used as one of those inspirational “It’s never too late!” memes. “This bell was 38, with a decade-plus of failed releases behind him when he finally wrote the big one. Hang in there, kids!” Weirdly, though Charlie and Me will be the 8th book I’ve published so far, it’s the first actual novel (3 anthologies followed by 4 non-fiction).

So here again are those pre-order links. Be a pal and snap one up, won’t you? I promise it’s really great.

Charlie and Me on Amazon UK

Charlie and Me on Amazon US

As for the question of paperbacks, currently the limitations of Amazon publishing’s print arm (with no proof copies, no author copies at cost, no pre-ordering) makes it tricky to time releases to a specific date. But I’m going to try to get Charlie and Me available in paperback around the day the digital versions hit. But don’t let that stop you from grabbing yourself a digital version, because who knows, right?

For further emotional blackmail, if this does well enough to keep me from burning all my notebooks in a fit of artistic pique again, then I’ve something else ready to go very early next year. And if you think mass murderer Manson is an offensive topic for a novel, wellllll…

The Plight of the Professional Contrarian

•December 28, 2016 • 1 Comment

I keep wondering what it’s like to be Katie Hopkins. Not just Hopkins, but any of these modern characters who’ve made — or been allowed to make — a job out of reacting to current events with incendiary, contrary opinions.

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“Now… what is the exact opposite of what a caring person would say?”

Somewhere in the last few years, the role that I, like many teenage boys, took on as an obnoxious 6th former, of ‘offensive/contrary opinions troll’ became an actual paid career path. Thankfully I grew out of it, having only behaved that way because I was seeking validation, and would rather gain looks of revulsion and giggles from the gallery than no reaction at all. Twenty years on, the likes of Hopkins, Milo, Mensch, and those who aspire to be like them, are still all tugging each other off in the common room, because it’s all they have.

But what is that like? With no other skills, and no self-respect, knowing that your only way to make a living is by peddling hot-takes contrived to turn as many stomachs as possible? Most likely, it’s crushing. “Someone popular has died. Better rush to Twitter to let everyone know I don’t give a shit. Christ, I wish I was fucking dead.” Most people don’t like their work, but this career must be exhausting above all others. Get up; see an atrocity on the news; carefully construct a blasé opinion about not caring to keep your brand going and cashmoney coming in.

The majority of people with a shred of humanity will feel empathy on hearing of, say, a well-loved celebrity’s death; of police brutality, poverty, mental illness, drowned refugee children washing up on the shore. But if you’re one of these purveyors of outrage, that’s the fire-house bell signalling the pole-slide down to the laptop, to compose a thought, an outburst, a take; something to rile the masses and fist-bump the fellow trolls. And, you’d better do it quickly, to most effectively grab those sweet retweets, and invites onto talk radio shows and daytime discussion panels, to expound with further-scripted zingers in best pantomime villain priggishness, so you sprint to the keyboard, heart ricocheting against your ribs, with a silent prayer of “Please, please don’t let anyone have said something equally reprehensible yet…” If there’s nothing on the news, then you’re forced to be creative. Maybe a sneering reflection about the poor, or the overweight, or whatever try-hard Cards Against Humanity nonsense will get your name back in the papers, and your arse back on the studio sofa defending your views to a sexless presenter duo. Most likely a pop at immigrants, as that’s the most easily inflamed, perpetually raging fire of recent years.

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“Hot: babies with cancer; dancing on graves. Not: dogs; happiness.

With bad news coming at a rate of knots, more than just shitty takes, the Pro Trolls now find themselves having to adopt political ideologies they may or may not have agreed with, in the days before becoming locked into character. Fascism on the rise and getting negative reactions from the lefties you’re constantly feuding with? Well, eventually, you’re going to have to align with actual Nazis. You can’t take a step back, or be seen to have empathy; to side with the ‘snowflakes’ and ‘SJWs’; the angering of whom has become your life’s work. It’s all-in now. If a celebrity dies, if a left-wing MP is shot in the street, if dusty, bleeding children, and the corpses of their friends are pulled from bombed-out streets in the Middle-East, and you’re not there to post about how sad it all isn’t, then someone else might get there first; someone like you; someone who gets invited onto The Wright Stuff as a result, while you’re sat at home, thirty pieces of silver down.

I wonder if it eats away at the soul, a sickly, nagging guilt. Maybe at first, you don’t really believe what you’re saying, and the money feels dirty as it’s tipped into your account, while you tell yourself you’re just playing a role, posting missives from The Upside Down. There were flashes of humanity in Hopkins, during her stint on Celebrity Big Brother, where, like all but the truly unhinged, she was unable to stay ‘on’ 24/7, and gave occasional reminder she was a human being. Although perhaps anyone would look more palatable while locked in a house with Perez Hilton, a man who spent his time literally screaming into people’s faces about how great and happy he was while wearing sunglasses to hide the tears of self-loathing and insecurity welling in his eyes.

She’s not so bad,” people said, but then came the Sun column where she compared warzone-fleeing refugees to cockroaches, suggesting they be mowed to shreds with gunboats. At that point, the Hopkins persona; the brand; could not turn back. Having stated that she will never back down or apologise (although she recently was legally required to, and did so at 2am for minimum visibility), it’s clear the thing she fears most is having to take any stance that would bring a fatal blow to the carefully-constructed brand, like seeing two wrestlers chummily eating together at KFC a couple of hours after you’d watched them hitting each other with chairs. People pointlessly argue with Katie Hopkins on Twitter like they would with Mickey at Disneyland, as though she’ll suddenly remove her foam head and break character. It’ll never happen. She won’t do a Mike Yarwood, say “And this is me,” and croon out a dreary, heart-felt ballad.

I suspect that, over time, you become that person, like a method actor who can’t shake the role. Still, part of you must feel it, deep down, in the pit of your gut that fears for the world your children will grow up in, when you get a news alert about a terrible event, and know you’re going to have to let everyone know how hard that you don’t care, because that’s who you are now. I genuinely have intense pity for anyone who’s made this their life, for whom human suffering is something their very name demands be used as glib rage-bait. But I despise them too. Though contrived, these personas still breed very real hurt, anger, and unrest. And nobody who wasn’t a massive fucking dick to begin with could ever consider living that way.

Roger Corman’s Game of Thrones

•July 12, 2016 • Leave a Comment

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Despite its enormous popularity, most people don’t realise that HBO’s take on George R. R. Martin’s work is not the first time Game of Thrones has made it to the screen. Some decades before, in 1963, famed independent film-maker Roger Corman had his own crack at the material, with an adaptation that’s been virtually erased in the wake of its more famous, fresher-faced relative.

Corman’s ‘The Game of Thrones‘ — the change from ‘A Game…’ being far from the last deviation from the source material — is a forgotten piece of the GoT canon, much like the 1988 Bourne Identity film, which pre-dates the Matt Damon franchise, or Corman’s own, unreleased Fantastic Four movie. While a 21st century HBO had the budget, and advances in VFX, to fully render the scope and scale of Westeros as it’d been imagined, Corman’s adaptation saw five volumes crammed into 90, under-budgeted minutes of b-movie, resulting in a heavily condensed, and often nonsensical sprint through the material. That said, many of your favourite characters feature in some form, with surprisingly coherent retellings of major plotlines. Wobbly VHS copies were traded at comic conventions in the late 80s, before an original print was briefly released on DVD in China in 2012, until HBO’s legal team stepped in.

The first two acts cut between happenings in King’s Landing, Jon Snow at The Wall, and Daenerys’ story across the narrow sea. Corman’s film moves through the plot of the first book at a brisk pace, covering Robert’s death in the first ten minutes, with an unseen Ned killed offscreen.

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Robert Baratheon

The story then shifts focus onto the character of Tywin Lannister, thanks mainly to the big-name casting of Vincent Price.

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Vincent Price as Tywin Lannister

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Varys and Tywin

Dany, played by a young Jane Asher, was initially to follow her book journey with the Dothraki, but when Bernard Bresslaw — blacked up as Khal Drogo — fell ill the day before shooting, hasty rewrites led to material from the second book/season making its way onscreen instead.

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Daenerys Targaryen

Following the introductory bath, Dany’s arc follows the familiar beats of travelling to Quath, losing her dragons, and encountering a mysterious masked figure (Quaithe), who leads her to the House of the Undying to reclaim her children.

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“Remember who you are, Daenerys. The dragons know. Do you?”

Budgetary restrictions are obvious in this sequence, and though it’s imbued with a typically Corman sense of the dreamlike, the final reveal of the dragons as a pair of unmoving models is twee by today’s standards.

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The House of the Undying

Meanwhile, a rather clean-looking Jon begins his training at the Night’s Watch.

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Jon Snow

He quickly rises to the rank of Lord Commander, and executes Janos Slynt.

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“Edd, fetch me a block.”

The Wall itself, particularly during the Wildling attack sequence, is by far the biggest casualty of budget.

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The Wall

The battle is won thanks to the magick of Melisandre.

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Melisandre

Though the lean running time left scant wriggle-room for subtle performances, actor Willy Creamer’s turn as Tyrion, a perfect blend of scheming dignity and sick burns, was surely a model for Peter Dinklage.

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Tyrion

The relationship between Tyrion and Varys, which is much the same as would be later portrayed, is a particular highlight.

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Tyrion and Varys

Though Tyrion’s make-up, when later disfigured during the Battle of the Blackwater, leaves a lot to be desired.

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“Don’t fight for riches. Because you won’t get any.”

His marriage with Sansa did make it onscreen, and actually stuck closer to the source material, with Sansa much younger than her TV equivalent.

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Tyrion and Sansa

Ghost, the only other remaining Stark to feature, appears alongside the couple, but was recast as a tamer breed, after a real wolf bit a background extra’s knee off.

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“Ghost. To me.”

The Purple Wedding goes down, as it would some fifty years later.

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Joffrey (r)

After which, Tyrion eventually makes it to Daenerys’ side in Meereen…

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“Can I drink myself to death on the road to Mereen?”

…and accelerating past GRRM’s work, brings her back to King’s Landing. The casting of Price led Corman to play around with the timing, and see Tywin still living, to unveil Dany to the court of King’s Landing.

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Tywin presents Dany

Before Jon arrives to ask for Dany’s hand in marriage, so they might rule the seven kingdoms together.

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She’s your auntie, you dirty bastard

Anyway, I’m sure it’s out there on somewhere if you look hard enough, if you can drag yourself away from that video of the iguana farting in the bath for more than five seconds, you deviant.

Here’s some more pop-culture writing by me that you might like. Click on the covers to go buy them.

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The Beach Diaries 2016 — #3 in an Occasional Series

•June 2, 2016 • Leave a Comment

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Your mum goes to parties?!” says an aghast teenage girl to her friend, with the open-mouthed shock of somebody interviewing the only witness to a bank robbery committed by three cats stood on each other’s shoulders.

I know,” replies the friend, “so weird, right?!” I bet the mum’s ancient; like 35, which is basically halfway in your coffin. How embarrassing!

There’s a big school outing of children and teachers all dressed as pirates. Well, how a pirate would be interpreted by the Beano or Dandy, anyway. Skull-n-crossbones bandanas, hoop earrings, and plastic swords, with a fluttering Jolly Roger sticking out of the sand. Lazily, none of them have bothered to shoot for realism and contract scurvy, so to enhance their experience, I leap down from the promenade, with an aggressive cry of “I’m the captain now!” My new gang of child-thieves lash the teachers to the breakwater by the rising tide, before we storm the amusements, tipping the 2p slide machine on its side, and making our escape with the loot. You know, in my mind.

I give off such an aura of thuggery, it’s rare that a stranger in need of a seat will take the unoccupied end of a bench on which I’m sat. Even here, on the most sought-after bench in the entire town — perhaps even world — at the furthest end of the pier, facing out to sea, and at point of its peak value, high tide, where it’s like sitting in the middle of the ocean, a gentleman would rather unfold his own chair than park himself beside me to eat his sandwiches. Though if he does risk an interaction at this point, I’m fucked.

What are you writing about in your notepad there, mate?

“(Don’t say ‘you, and your little chair and your sandwiches’…) Oh, just a load of ol’ racism and vile sexual stuff…

No wonder nobody wants to sit next to me.

To amuse his grandson, an old man pushes a small toy bus all the way along the rail on the riverbank, making appropriately enginey brum-brum noises, and changing key when he moves up a gear.

Years ago, I invented a fun game to play, if you’re down at the beach by yourself like a lonely wretch, right as the tides are changing. Look for the wet part of sand, marking where the tide has previously touched it. This is the sea’s Personal Best. Now, you mentally cheer the waves, clapping them onto set a new PB. Will it push itself higher up the sand and on to salty glory, or be tantalisingly just out of reach? Oh what an exhilarating thrill!

I suppose another fun game might be to go to the beach with someone you like spending time with, and having nice chats and interactions with them, but getting into that is like making the fucking Olympic team, so c’mon, the sea, you can do it!

While for comedy purposes, these pieces may work better if I paint myself as a wandering loner and potential Sutcliffe, in the interests of full disclosure, despite the above paragraph, later in the week, I actually do go to the beach with a friend. It’s way better than playing the Ocean PB game, or taking lonely strolls to the toilets to check if there’s any new cottaging graffiti.

A super lovely day, it also differs from the rest of these diaries by our hitting the west side of the beach, across the river from my usual note-taking. As told in a previous entry, the west beach is sometimes known for its array of naturists, entirely of the middle-aged man variety, standing about with their hands on their hips, with an “oh, is my nob out? I hadn’t noticed” look on their faces.

And so, as we stroll about this delightful day, amid the powder blue skies and quiet beauty of nature, the pink heads of naked men, like a native species of dune-dwelling wildlife, pop up above the rushes we pass, meerkat-like, giving the feel of a rather disgusting Whack-a-Mole game. At one point, I completely lose my flow mid-sentence, and have to apologise with “Sorry. Just saw an old man’s cock.”

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Sam is very smelly” says some graffiti.

Pussyhole” says more, elsewhere.

Ham” reads a tag on a shelter, presumably sprayed by a pig or a prime minister.

Piss” cries a wall.

It feels like a storyteller’s scavenger hunt, seeking out the scattered words of a fable and piecing them together. At the moment, it’s all so scatological, it may very well be one of mine.

Later in the week, there’s more.

— “CALL 999” written on the ground next to the mock chalk outline of a dead body.

— “[name redacted] IS A PROPER MILF

— Perhaps the biggest chalk penis I’ve ever seen, drooping across the entire side of the shelter, with the word “CUM” drawn beneath the helmet. Interesting. Writing the actual word takes more effort than drawing a droplet of cum itself. Perhaps they weren’t confident enough in their art skills for the potential audience to differentiate between cum and piss. Those are the artistic risks one takes when adding cum to the image of a penis that has been rendered as flaccid.

— On the “NO CLIMBING” sign, the NO has been crossed out and replaced with an anarchic chalk YES.

— Lastly, in another huge daubing, “FREE CONOR MCGREGOR #UFC200

Once again alone, on the tide-out, early morning desert of the abandoned beach, I find what can only be described as a seaside Christmas tree. Its spindly driftwood trunk has been pushed into the sand, on a base-bed of pebbles, with seaweed deliberately draped from its branches like tinsel. It’s like something from True Detective season 3, where I team up with Louis Theroux to solve a murder-by-drowning linked to Satanic cult activity infiltrating the local coastguards.

It’s a flat circle…”

What is, time?”

Sorry, no; just saw an old man’s cock.”

Over the years, I’ve amassed a very small collection of shells and rocks. About once a summer, I’ll find something interesting enough to pocket. A perfectly round little planet. A fairy’s footprint. A witch’s finger. This year, it’s a pebble that, when wet, perfectly resembles an organ from the human body, say, a liver, or a heart. I needed a replacement anyway. And this one seems unbreakable.

It is of course illegal to remove pebbles or sand from the beach, and I rush to get this up on the blog, as an array of red dots has appeared on my chest, but hopefully I can hit the ‘post’ button before the SWAT team come bursting into the room–

I’M UNARMED! I’M UNAR

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The Beach Diaries have been running since 2011, spawning the two Kindle books you see above. Both are available on Amazon, for the price of a pint, and I highly recommend you buy them, because I like money.

The Beach Diaries 2011: £1.99 on Amazon.co.uk$2.99 on Amazon.com

The Beach Diaries 2012: £2.99 on Amazon.co.uk$3.99 on Amazon.com

If you don’t have a Kindle, here’s Amazon’s FREE Kindle app for phones, tablets, mac and PC

These days, I only put them out occasionally, as I did three years ago. The Occasional Beach Diaries 2013: #1, #2, #3, #4, #5

In 2014: #1, #2, #3

In 2015: #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6

And this year: #1, #2

 
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