Shaun Ryder on UFOs

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On the surface, Shaun Ryder on UFOs seems like one of those celebrity Madlibs shows Alan Partridge might pitch into his dictaphone. Brian Harvey on The Crusades, Steve McFadden Bought an Alpaca Farm; hey, what if we got that slurring chap from the Happy Mondays to figure out Roswell? Now, I’ve watched a lot of paranormal TV over the last few decades, from the hauntologically spectacular early years of Leonard Nimoy’s In Search Of… and Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World, to the modern ‘screaming at nothing in night-vision’ cycle of your Most Haunteds, and everything inbetween. Honestly, the entire goal of all this is to end up fronting my own show, the as-yet unmade genre classic, Millard’s Fortean Travels, where I traipse around talking to people who’ve been rained on by frogs or got off with a succubus, to take my rightful spot as the paranormal Louis Theroux. Perhaps that’s why I was so pleasantly surprised by this series.

I’m Shaun Ryder. As a fifteen-year-old lad in Salford, long before my hell-raising antics in the Happy Mondays, I saw a ball of light whizzing about in the night sky as I stood at a bus stop.

Each of the four episodes open with Shaun recanting the experience which led to a life-long obsession with aliens, and as becomes clear, was a deeply affecting one. This is obviously the show he’s been wanting to make his whole life, and less a randomised Duncan Goodhew Gets Pegged, then a genuine mission to understand what he saw. But fear not, gentle reader, as Shaun Ryder on UFOs still falls firmly in that pantheon of classic weird-bad television.

01

Though Ryder’s obituary will speak of his place among the icons of the Madchester scene, where everyone has that fucking haircut like a medieval serf trying to escape the ravages of the Black Death, in recent years, he’s become a battle-scarred veteran of bad reality TV. Young and beautiful millennials like myself will recall his scoffing down a crocodile’s penis on I’m a Celebrity, or starring alongside Dot Cotton and Roy Walker to have piss rubbed over his face on ITV’s recent 100 Years Younger. But no longer just a contestant, this entire show is his vehicle. He’s not just another face, but the face, and more importantly, the voice.

All of Shaun’s frequent narration sounds exactly like a stranger shouting into your ear at a party, where all you can make out above Livin’ on a Prayer are the words “controlled explosion.” Charged with voicing someone else’s script in a little booth, words tumble from his mouth like somebody trying to shoplift armfuls of apples. I don’t think he says a single ‘h’ over the entire four hours, causing confusion at the point he mentions the “owls of derision.” I’m not a snob, here to sneer at the cobble-street prose of Northerners, but you get so used to that fake newsreader accent that it’s jarring to hear something real; for example “was you there?” instead of “were you there?” But Shaun Ryder’s unnatural reading of words he’d never use leads to moments of magic, as he narrates educational clips about space, or the prehistoric shifting of tectonic plates. It’s an incredible combination; this bookish sci-babble, leaving the mouth of a man who always sounds like he’s midway through slowly falling down a flight of stairs. Regard this favourite, which is literally an attributable quote from Shaun Ryder:

One intriguing theory states contact goes back far beyond the arrival of the Conquistadors and into antiquity, a hypothesis known as Paleo-Contact.

02

Anyone who’s ever seen a UFO doc will immediately feel at home with grainy news clips of Spanish-speaking people pointing at the sky. This cues Shaun’s visit to Chile, where there’s been “mysterious ‘appenings in the skies,” in particular, an incident at an airbase where a flying saucer buzzed past some planes during a military parade “six monf ago.” He excitedly watches a bunch of videos from different angles, of a silvery blob flitting about, genuinely thrilled to see UFOs embraced by the Air Force in a way the British Army never would, and, as will become the theme, he’s elated that it adds credence to what he saw at the bus stop all those years ago. Or, as Shaun puts it, “music to me ears… even in a UFO ‘ot-zone like Chile, au-fentic sightings are rare.

Next, we’re off to the foothills of the Andes, where a swaggering Shaun takes a straw poll of elderly Chilean villagers, breaking through the language barrier by miming what he saw as a teenager. In the many times this visual demonstration occurs throughout the series, he maniacally karate chops the air to mimic the alien ship’s speed and movement. It turns out about 7/10 of those polled had seen something strange in the skies, to which Shaun is sweetly happy; vindicated that “we’re all in the same club.” Like most self-proclaimed experiencers or abductees, all he’s really looking for is a connection with someone who understands; to know that, perhaps like us in the universe, he’s not alone. The constant talk about his own sighting had me wondering if this was all building to a final episode hypnotic regression, and discovering that he’d been abducted. Possibly by Bez.

03

Now, I’m sure many of you are thinking “Shaun Ryder, a man who’s done all the drugs in the world, says he saw something weird?” It’s true, as far as reliable witnesses go, it’s like asking Mr. Magoo to identify the specific ant which mugged him, but on the other hand, who better experienced to differentiate the trippy shit you might see while willied out of your skull with something that’s actually real? That said, he also claims, later in life, to have seen “ ‘undreds of small lights going across the sky,” and tends to be a bit excitable. When traveling up into the mountains to do some sky-watching, his Chilean guide isn’t particularly convinced at Shaun’s casual description of seeing four shooting stars the night before, and during one stake-out, he gazes excitedly at a light, watching it change between white, red and green, “almost like, you know, when you see a plane,” he says. Yes. Almost. After hours of gazing up at an empty sky, Shaun’s guide tells him it’s his first sky-watch sesh since 2003, after an incident where he and a dozen others suffered missing time and amnesia. In a horror movie, that would be the cue for beams of light and anus probing, but here, Shaun calls it a night because it’s proper cold up that mountain.

After investigating a creepy video of ‘humanoid figures’ about 3-pixels high hanging over the city, where Shaun says the words “it’s a starship trooper” about a hundred times, while going on and on about Star Wars, it’s off to the desert to find evidence of ancient aliens. An expert explains geoglyphs to Shaun; big Earth-art, like the Nazca Lines. “We’ve got some of those in England,” says Shaun, “the man with the big willy.” They visit a giant space invader-looking design drawn on a hill with rocks, before ascending, because “it’s time to climb up and get a closer look at the giant’s ‘ead.” The three men stumble and amble around the rocky hill, baseball caps blowing off in the wind, as Shaun points out alien parts, “eyes… mouth… foot… body.” He posits that the sculpture wouldn’t have lasted a day in Manchester without being vandalised, before casually picking up one of the rocks from its eyeball, astounded that it’s been there for 1500 years, and haphazardly chucking it back.

04

He then meets a man who looks like an anime Rolf Harris, who was cured of cancer by a cult of aliens called The Friendship, who live on a remote island, which involves Nazis and magic liquid and interspecies breeding, that all seems a bit much, even for Shaun. So, he brings it back to basics, interviewing an astronomer who’s using a big telescope to look for sugar, but doesn’t believe in UFOs. Shaun tries to convince him of interstellar travel, one scholar to another; “this is a fabric, can’t we just open it up and pop through it and come out at another part of the galaxy?” The professor not sold, he mimes his sighting again, which was “millions of years advanced technology, surely they can open up fabric and zip through?

The South American excursion ends with more sky-watching, on a lake where hovering UFOs have been seen stealing leccy from a hydro plant. Disastrously, having trekked 250 miles, the assembled experts forget a bunch of equipment, leaving a crestfallen Shaun, looking forwards to sifting through 9 hours of footage, now left with “9 hours of fuck all.” But when all hope is lost, one of Shaun’s crew calls him over to look at a photo — “Nuffing can prepare me for what I’m about to see.” The image of a weird streaky star traveling at a 45 degree angle has Shaun absolutely beaming. “It’s a UFO, that!” Even his sceptical manager is “visibly shaken,” and as someone who only ever wanted people to feel the excitement he felt back under that bus stop, the endearingly childlike Shaun is euphoric. On this high note, it’s time to leave Chile, a place with a large UFO culture, where he felt he truly belonged, and speaks of the comfort in feeling like you’re not alone. I too, will miss the place; specifically, I’ll miss that TV convention of not showing the part when subtitled speakers are translated, giving the impression Shaun Ryder is multilingual, as he sagely nods along to lengthy, Spanish-language monologues.

05

Now back in the UK, of course, Nick Pope shows up. The former MOD in charge of UFO sightings, who sold himself in his many chatshow appearances throughout the 90s as the British Fox Mulder, in older age, has pleasingly taken on the look of Egon Spengler. For Shaun, this is like meeting a rock star, so excited, he looks to the crew as he points at Pope while mouthing “Nick Pope!like when the Queen saw those cows. He immediately brings up — and mimes — his own sighting, before accompanying Pope to the National Archives, to rifle through the government’s declassified UFO files. It’s like getting to poke around the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, as they don a pair of white Mickey Mouse gloves, so’s not to damage Winston Churchill’s letter asking about flying saucers, and documents relating to the deliciously-titled ‘Cosford Incident’. Most excitedly to our presenter, the descriptions of the craft’s movement sound just like his UFO. “There’s a lot of credible witnesses there,” says Shaun, “not just a bunch of, you know, fruit cakes… bubblegum heads.

Speaking of bubblegum heads, once we’re back home in the UK, the wheels really come off the sanity-wagon, sending viewers into a ditch, and Shaun off to meet a procession of the kind of breathtaking weirdos that could only ever be produced by our wretched nation. First, he’s off to Watford to visit The UFO Academy, aka a few dozen people gawping at a series of PowerPoint presentations, which the jaunty, mocking soundtrack indicates we should be finding funny. Thankfully it is, with its montage of droning nu-Agers, who I guarantee you’re picturing correctly in your mind right now, sharing abduction experiences, while Shaun slumps in a chair wishing he’d signed up for ITV2’s Celebrity Penis Mutilations instead. “I don’t want to be rude to these people,” he says, dragging on a post-lecture fag outside, “I’m just not ‘avin’ it… I need somefing more coherent.

06

Unfortunately for Shaun, his next meeting is about as coherent as one of Bob Dylan’s bathtub farts, when he visits the Aetherius Society; a 60’s style hippie spiritualist group who believe they’re working with extraterrestrials to heal our planet. They’re real big on the Billy Meier era space brother vibe, spouting that “we’re on the verge of a great change, these are dangerous times!” stuff that flakes have been saying for literally decades. If Shaun thinks he can be the oddest one in the room simply by wearing a leather jacket over a high turtle-neck, he’s wildly mistaken, as it’s explained the Society’s purpose is to discharge energy “in cooperation with beings from other planets,” and furthermore, “we keep a log of all those discharges and where it goes to and when,” which sounds like when I became unwell and started keeping all my old cum in dated jars. “Statistically,” says the priest, “it’s working.” Not to be outdone, Shaun suggests “if a human being exploded, it’d be like a million nuclear bombs going off,” inspiring a look in the priest that suggests even he, world-healing cohort to alien gods, is in over his head.

What happens next is called a ‘prayer session’, which due to Shaun’s inexperience, he cannot participate in, but is invited to watch, and which I will now try to describe to you, without going off like a million nukes. The priest takes his place at the front of fifty Society members, dressed in a long red robe; as are certain members of the congregation, presumably the ones addressed in the opening invocation — “…prayer director Pat, timekeeper John, and Pete, caretaker of the battery.” The battery?! Then the power chant begins, an eyes-closed mantra of “omm nammy pappy omm” which reverberates through the rest of the scene, as Shaun meets the lens with a withering side-eye. With great formality, a man pulls on a pair of gloves, before delicately approaching a large wooden box and removing a smaller wooden box from within. This is the battery.

07a

A unique piece of super-technology capable of communicating with aliens, and firing our combined healing energies into the world, surely Elon Musk would have your family killed for a mere glance at the blueprints. Hopefully he doesn’t come after me for describing it here. Imagine, if you will — if you can — an egg whisk glued to a wooden box, which has OPERATION PRAYER POWER stencilled on in time-flaked black paint. The chant now stronger than ever — “omm nammy pappy omm” — robed members of the group approach the battery, to beg of its help with outstretched hands; “flow to this world now, inner child, into the hearts and minds of men now.” Oh, and there’s Shaun Ryder, stood at the back, looking like he’d rather be at the funeral of a child he accidentally hit with his car. He points out that it’s no weirder than what goes on in a lot of churches every Sunday, though I’d probably sign up for an Alpha course if they had a special battery.

07b

But you can’t have a show like this without meeting proper abductees. On then, to Sutton Coldfield, for a chat with a victim of multiple snatchings, a concept Shaun finds terrifying, but “wouldn’t mind ‘aving a go at.” Aged 11, our witness was taken out of his bed by aliens that looked just like the Pink Panther, and showed him a floating severed head, and a pair of legs inside a filing cabinet. Definitely not sleep paralysis, then. His evidence it’s real is that “I’m a very sceptical person” line people like that always say, while immediately assuming every little creak is the ghost of Michael Jackson. A later, adult experience occurred when our man got up in the middle of the night and sat in the conservatory, where he saw a bright light in the garden, and a small alien which tazed him, waking him up, where he found hours had passed and his coffee was cold. I too, had a strange experience, which occurred one night when I laid down in bed and closed my eyes, and suddenly I was teleported back to my old school, to sit an exam I hadn’t even studied for. Just as I realised I was naked, I was suddenly back in my bed, and it was now daylight, while my alarm clock was making a shrill beeping noise, likely due to electromagnetic radiation from a passing UFO.

The witness takes Shaun back to the scene of the first abduction at his childhood home — or at least its chimney, as pointed at through some trees, as the current occupants clearly didn’t want them filming there. Soon, the memory of Pink Panthers and leg-cabinets becomes “too upsetting,” and the bloke has to walk away, giving us the worst cry-acting since Mick Philpott’s press conference. Even so, Shaun’s unwilling to mock, as he thinks back to his own experience, and warns us he’s about to take aim at the sceptics; “I’m off to shake Britain’s stiff upper lip!” UFO nerds will be thrilled as he enlists the help of the most famous abductee ever; the logger whose experience was adapted as the movie Fire in the Sky; Travis Walton. The final episode is like a backdoor pilot for a supernatural sleuthing show, with Ryder and Walton driving round Yorkshire to investigate close encounters before stopping off for a chippy tea.

08

As I hoped they would when cruising his neck of the woods, the lads start sniffing around the famous case of policeman Alan Godfrey, who found the corpse of a supposed UFO-related death atop a coal heap, before seeing a spacecraft and being taken aboard himself six months later. For alien-nerds, seeing two powerhouse hitters like Walton and Godfrey in the same room is like when Bowie duetted with Bing Crosby, or Elvis met Shakin’ Stevens. As Godfrey sketches his UFO for the pair, I can’t help but think what a coup this would have been for Millard’s Fortean Travels. Perhaps I’ll get Derek Acorah to shake hands with Robert the Haunted Doll.

But though it’s filled with lunacy, what sets Shaun Ryder on UFOs apart from celebrity shows of its ilk is its hosts admirable empathy for those seen by the majority of the world, and particularly by the media reporting on their experiences, as eminently mockable. Like all reality TV, this was about The Journey; the journey to understand, and more importantly, to not be alone. He may not have uncovered alien bodies or put his anus through the rigours of a space-medical, but he did connect with those he saw as fellow outsiders, in a world that only wants to sneer. And what kind of a fool would put so much effort into taking the piss out of stuff; all yours for as little as $1 a month? I’ll leave you with some more genuine, attributable quotes from Happy Mondays frontman, Shaun Ryder.

shaun quotes 1

shaun quotes 2

shaun quotes 3b

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~ by Stuart on August 5, 2018.

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