The horror

Behold, the Collins family kids, in a row, holding their favourite present on Christmas Day, 1975. From left to right: Andrew, aged 10, holding Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies, a large hardback book whose wraparound glossy dust jacket has long gone, but whose vivid painterly back-cover collage of images is captured in all its glory; Melissa, aged 5, wearing her nurse’s uniform; and Simon, aged 8, who seems already to have constructed an anti-tank gun from a khaki Meccano set. We didn’t want for much.

The reason I’m printing this seemingly random happy snap from the long-ago past is that I met and interviewed the extraordinary Mark Gatiss for Radio Times this week. It all happened very fast: BBC4 offered him up for interview on Monday, to promote Horror Europa, his personal, 90-minute documentary about European horror cinema – showing on the night before Halloween, and a direct follow-up to his well-received A History of Horror from 2010 – I arranged to meet him on Tuesday, over pasta during an hour’s break from “tech rehearsals” at the Hampstead Theatre for 55 Days by Howard Brenton, in which he plays Charles I to Douglas Henshall’s Oliver Cromwell (and which opened for previews on Thursday); I transcribed and wrote it up at 900 words on Wednesday; and the two-page layout was signed off yesterday.

The above still is from A History of Horror, when Mark was bearded. Although he is bearded as King Charles, it is a stick-on beard, and he was clean shaven over dinner. This was a labour of love for me – I jumped at the chance, even though I’m way too busy to write 900 words – which is apt, as these documentaries are a labour of love for him. He’s 46 – in fact, he turned 46 on Wednesday, so he was 45 when I dined with him – and we share the same boyhood obsession with horror movies, something that informed our discussion over calamari and chips (me) and salmon and spaghetti (he). In A History, he explicitly revealed how important the Gifford book was to him, and whether he likes it or not, I bonded with him forever.

I loved this book. To say it was my Bible sounds sacrilegious, but then, it was filled with evil and supernatural images. First published by Hamlyn in 1973, it was still a relatively new book when I got it for Christmas in 1975, and I’d had it in my sights for ages, thumbing through it in WHSmith’s in the Grosvenor Centre of a Saturday morning shopping trip. Its unofficial companion in my house – and, it transpires, in the Gatiss house in Country Durham – was Alan G Frank’s Horror Movies, published in hardback by Octopus in 1974 under the Movie Treasury imprint and subtitled Tales of Terror in the Cinema. (I had to wait until Christmas 1978 to own this.)

A copy, in its original dust jacket, appears on top of a prop telly in Horror Europa. Another touchstone. Of course, it would be easy to be jealous of Mark Gatiss, who gets to turn his childhood horror nerd obsession into television programmes – to exorcise it, if you like – but these programmes are so good, he fronts them with such urbane charm and enthusiasm, and he’s so true to his roots, we should all be grateful that he’s seemingly in charge of horror at the BBC.

There’s something glorious about finding common ground with people of your own age. You may remember that I was able to find an instant bond with JJ Abrams when I interviewed him about his film Super 8 last year. He, too, is 46. It’s no surprise to discover that he was a fanboy, as we weren’t called in the 1970s, but I was still over the moon to see the film’s chief protagonist Joe carefully painting an Aurora glow-in-the-dark model of the Hunchback of Notre Dame in an establishing scene (the film is set in 1979). Here’s my grab:

I was so mad about these kit models. I think I had them all, at various stages – the Hunchback, Phantom of the Opera, Godzilla, King Kong, the Wolfman, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Salem Witch, Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, Dr Jekyll, the Mummy, the Forgotten Prisoner of Castel-Mare – as my Airfix-inclined friends and I would swap the finished items, and usually repaint them in new Humbrol colours to claim them as our own. At this age – and I got my first, the Hunchback, and my second, Dr Jekyll, for my ninth birthday in 1974 – I was utterly preoccupied with horror, especially the iconic monsters that Universal defined itself with in the 1930s, not that I really had any concept of the 1930s at that wide-eyed age.

Ironically, when The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the 1939 classic starring Charles Laughton, was on television in June 1974, Simon and I were too scared to watch it! When BBC2 starting running their double-bills on a Saturday night around that time, we dared each other to watch what would be ultra-tame, fag-end stuff like House of Frankenstein, and The Mummy’s Ghost on the black-and-white portable, after dark. We weren’t the first boys to find something thrilling in being scared out of our wits, and I’m glad we had no prejudice about whether a horror film was old or new, cool or uncool, black-and-white or colour.

One of the many things Mark Gatiss and I agreed upon on Tuesday was that it was the very unattainability and the mystery of the stills in our horror books that made them so alluring. What would The Student Of Prague or The Golem or The Cabinet of Dr Caligari actually be like to watch, moving about? I choose three silents because neither did we have any prejudice about silent movies at that age. How innocent and free from preconception we were!

So, this has been a hymn to childhood, or at least childhood in the pre-video age, when horror nerds had access to almost nothing but stills in books, plastic models and our imaginations to fire up our enthusiasm.

Horror Europa is on BBC4 on Tuesday 30 October at 9pm. My interview with Mark appears in next week’s Radio Times, out on Tuesday. And while we’re plugging, to go all BBC announcer for a moment, Mark Gatiss is currently appearing in 55 Days at the Hampstead Theatre … (nobody has asked me to do that link, which is why I’m happy doing it)

PS: My sister didn’t become a nurse; my brother did join the Army; I took my Pictorial History of Horror book to an Italian restaurant in Swiss Cottage when I was 47 to show it to a man, who whooped, “the green one!”

C.R.E.E.P.S.H.O.W.

I mention this only as a matter of record. In November 1973, when I was eight years old, our Friday afternoon art project at Abington Vale Primary School was to make a papier-mâché puppet. If I remember correctly, we moulded the head around a balloon with strips of newspapers and glue, let it harden, painted it, decorated it, then added the hand-puppet body using rudimentary dressmaking skills, which actually seem fairly sophisticated for an eight-year-old boy, especially the padded hands, although I suspect we had assistance in this.

This brief was fairly typical of the modern, co-educational thrust of comprehensive education in the early 70s: boys and girls mucking in and blurring the distinctions between gender-specific crafts and activities.

As noted in my 1973 diary on Friday November 16, “Today it was art and we are making puppets out of papier-mâché. I am making Jimmy Savile but I haven’t put his hair on yet!”

Thanks to my own adult predisposition to archiving (otherwise known as “hoarding”), I can present physical evidence of the completed Jimmy Savile puppet, with the trademark hair, fashioned from string. The key creative decision, aged eight, to make Jimmy Savile “evil” was, I have to admit, less a prescient appreciation of the darker side of the nation’s favourite kids’ TV host (as previously stated, we loved Jim’ll Fix It in our house), more a reflection of a general boyhood obsession with horror films, as filtered through Monster Fun comic, Aurora glow-in-the-dark kit models, Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s Monster Mash (a reissue of which 1962 novelty tune was a hit that October) and Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies. I equated blood running out of nose and eye as “evil.”

Who knew? (That is the question.)

Boring

Hey, not to be too self-pitying about it, but the lead letter in the new Word magazine came from a disgruntled reader of the previous Word magazine, who went to the trouble of getting in touch with the magazine to declare that the piece I’d written for that issue about my experiences, aged 14-17, as a member of the Northampton College of Further Education Film Society, was “the most boring piece I’ve ever read in a magazine.” Quite why this rude man went to the trouble of letting Word know is beyond me – as beyond me as why he continued reading when the first page, and the second, had bored him so much. Anyway, because Word do not republish online, I sought permission to reprint the piece, in full, here. It’s very long. And it’s very boring. Hope you like it! (If you don’t, please stop reading at the exact point that you get bored. That’s my advice.)

FIRST PERSON

In the early 80s, post-punk music and the cinema battled for my very soul

On Valentine’s Day, 1980, a couple of weeks shy of my 15th birthday, I saw my first “X” film. The visceral Philip Kaufman remake of Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers, I didn’t have to sneak in through a held-open fire door, wear a false moustache or lower my voice an octave, as per underage tradition. I paid £1 to see it, legally, projected onto a modest screen before an auditorium of arranged plastic chairs at Northampton College of Further Education’s Arts Centre, courtesy of their members-only Film Society.

I loved it and wrote the following haiku-like review in my 1980 diary above a rough cartoon approximation of Donald Sutherland in his “footballer’s perm” phase, emerging from an alien cocoon: “Really good’n’gory. Nice pod scenes, rather horrific, creepy and ace.”

To contextualise this pivotal event in my junior filmgoer’s life, in the same week in February 1980, my friend Pete and I had settled on the name D.D.T. for our first bedroom band (he on electric guitar; me on ice cream tub and tyre levers); and I’d optimistically posted off my entry for a Smash Hits competition asking readers to draw the 2 Tone label mascot Walt Jabsco as he might appear on the sleeve of another record (I had chosen The Damned’s Smash It Up and neatly depicted him smashing up vinyl records) – the prize was a copy of The Specials LP.

Like any 14-year-old, I was wracked with a confusing hormonal need to fit in and rebel at the same time. My musical tendencies reflected this: I saw myself nominally as a “punk”, although beyond a product-free sticking-up haircut that worried my Nan despite usually falling into a tame centre parting, I was just a provincial boy who wore sweatshirts and baseball boots from the Kay’s catalogue and nothing more outwardly seditionary than the regulation Harrington jacket, which we all wore.

But a glance at the customised cover of my 1980 diary reveals a serious schism. Between the cut-out Photostats of my favourite bands the Undertones and 999 are pics of Gene Hackman, The Elephant Man and Marilyn Monroe, plus the logo of the aforementioned NCFE Film Society. At that difficult and easily distracted age, I was a little bit films and a little bit rock and roll.

I was not yet a member of the Film Society when I saw Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers – part of a special, leafleted Spring ’80 Horror Films Season along with Piranha and The Return Of Count Yorga – but a guest of my friends Neil and Dave, a pair of what would these days be called nerds from the Trinity School side of town whom I’d fallen in with at Saturday morning art classes at “the Tech”, and whose trendy English and Communications teacher Mr Tilley had been their link to the Film Society. Without perhaps fully appreciating it at the time, Neil (feather-cut, rainbow braces) and Dave (Phil Oakey fringe, green v-neck) were to be my passport into a new world and, ultimately, a fast-track to adulthood. That Film Club, as we knew it, would one day help qualify me for a career in film criticism would have been purely abstract at the time.

Northampton was, in the year of London Calling, one of the “faraway towns.” Punk rock had only arrived there the year before, but I did my damnedest to catch up. My first official punk single had been Something Else by the Sex Pistols. (Rat Trap didn’t count as it didn’t have a picture sleeve.) Pocket money was thereafter invested in seven-inch vinyl futures; my broker was John Peel, whose late-nite Radio 1 show I was literally listening to under the covers through a single waxy earpiece. I remember in January 1980 going on an expedition to the still-new shopping mall in Weston Favell – colloquially known as the “Supacentre” – with my music-nut buddy Craig; after much deliberation, I bought the London Calling single, while he bought The Special AKA Live! EP. That evening the Undertones were featured on Nationwide, which felt like a moral victory for “us”.

Craig lived in Weston Favell and so did my parallel pal Paul, who’d accompanied me to Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers. When I was round Craig’s, we’d listen to music. When I was round Paul’s, we’d draw cartoons together and pore over the movie spoofs in back issues of Mad magazine. Craig was into football, Paul couldn’t even throw a ball straight when cast as a fielder in a school game of rounders; I was somewhere between the two.

It’s clear to me now: between the years of 1979 and 1983 I was half-punk, half-nerd.

To neatly illustrate: in 1979 I’d begun to regularly buy two grown-up publications – the New Musical Express and Film Review. The former provided a vital weekly bulletin from the frontlines of the war on mediocrity, the latter a monthly fix of movie news albeit rather more vanilla in tone. An uncritical industry cheerleader for new releases, Film Review sold monthly through the ABC cinema chain. I expressed my devotion to it and to cinema in general by sending off for back issues, to study and keep, an early nod to voluntary history. I was now fully abreast of what was out, coming soon, and – less so in those days – in production. I had also become a devout disciple of Barry Norman and BBC1’s Film ’80, which morphed into Film ’81, Film ’82 and so on.

Paul and I expressed our groupie love of Barry one bored afternoon in 1981 – between drawing Mad-inspired caricatures of Charlton Heston and learning Monty Python LPs by rote – by improvising a silly, imagined clash of the titans, Barry Norman Vs Chris Kelly (ie. the presenter of ITV kids’ movie magazine show Clapperboard). The cassette of this Pythonesque routine has been lost in time, fortunately, but it was definitely the Film Review me in ascendance, not the NME me.

When the two worlds collided, such as the week in December ’79 when the NME devoted its cover story to a learned appreciation by Angus Mackinnon of Apocalypse Now, I felt whole. The rest of the time, I was torn. Was I about 999 and the Undertones, or Gene Hackman and The Elephant Man? Did I hang out with Neil and Dave and Paul, or Craig and Pete? The solution was: I hung out with both, separately.

Hey, I haven’t even mentioned girls, whose sinister, preoccupying scent further complicated the hormonal tug-of-love in 1980: during the April and May of that year I started writing the name of my first actual girlfriend in every typeface I could passably render in a diary far more usefully employed as a logbook for films seen at the ABC and tunes heard on Peel.

In the final dark days before the VHS revolution, access to movies was controlled: you either saw a film at the cinema when  the chains decreed it, or you saw it on TV after the usual five-or-six year gestation, and even then often cut for taste by the philistine broadcaster … unless you joined Film Club and transformed Tuesday nights for the best part of the academic year.

My 14-year-old desire to see Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers was salacious rather than academic: it was an “X” therefore I wanted to see what might be in it that qualified it to be one. (The “X” certificate seemed far more illicit than its prosaic replacement the “18”.) My stunted height, choirboy’s squawk and smooth features guaranteed I was among those fourth-formers who failed to get into The Exorcist and, a year later, Kentucky Fried Movie, even though on that occasion I was accompanied by my Dad, which cut no ice with the woman at the box office. But the NCFE Film Society, which I eagerly joined in September 1980, existed outside of such arbitrary, draconian restrictions.

First rule of Film Club: there were no rules. Actually, there was one: “All films start at 7.30pm – please try to be punctual.” Once you’d paid your flat membership fee (£7.50, or £6 for students, OAPs and “claimants”, which went up by a pound the following year), you were entitled to see all 36 films showing in the 1980-81 season and to sign in your own guests. A flash of your blue membership card also secured entry to and “unrestricted use” of the “Real Ale Bar” on film nights, where those of us at O-Level would comically nurse half-pints of shandy while making up nicknames for the more grown-up regulars. (“Stacy Keach,” we called one of them, for self-evident reasons, keeping up the cineaste theme.) Film Club was run by a tireless man called Frank Quigg, who we must assume worked at the college. I have a picture in my mind of a slightly less racy History Man type with elbow patches but I may be post-rationalising.

During that first, mouth-watering season I saw any number of films that would have been off-menu if I’d continued to live the life of casual grazer: Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (another “X”, excitingly), Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment (a landmark Cuban film set between the 1959 Revolution and the 1962 missile crisis with a prescient fractured narrative), Revenge Of The Creature in old-school red/green 3D, and the “lost” 1974 kitchen-sink drama Pressure, whose raw depiction of everyday life and separatist politics within the Trinidadian community in West London was quite a socio-political eye-opener. This was, I guess, the cinematic equivalent of roughage. Were it not for Frank Quigg, I might never have broadened my palate in this way.

It would be nigh-on impossible to explain the thrill of physical admission offered by Film Club to today’s generation, spoiled as they are by push-button, palm-of-the-hand media access and the instantaneous sharing of opinion. You can download selected arthouse movies from the Curzon website the same day they are premiered on its cinema screens. If you favour less legal means, I expect the whole century of film is at your fingertips. In 1980, it was like we’d discovered a magic portal to another world.

By the time 1981 and phase two of Film Club’s season had rolled around, a glance at my diary in February reveals a typically teenage list of “likes”:

  • Digestives and butter and cheese
  • The B-side of Teardrop Explodes’ Reward
  • Clint
  • Film Club
  • Playing snooker at Craig’s
  • Lemon mousse
  • And a girl I’m not going to name

See how effortlessly films now slot into my 15-year-old spreadsheet? Focussing my teenage filmgoing devotion on Clint Eastwood was predictable; Paul and I had just seen a double bill, The Good, The Bad & The Ugly – “very ace indeed” – and The Outlaw Josey Wales – “Guns, guts and gob” – at Film Club so he was fresh and weatherbeaten-cool in our minds. But the tug of drumming along to Teardrop Explodes B-sides remained in place, not to mention the girl I wasn’t going to name. (This meant she wouldn’t go out with me.)

However, having paid my £6 I was still committed to squeezing my money’s worth out of Film Club, and dutifully ticked off Summer Of ’42 (“ace Durex-purchasing scene,” according to my diary), Robert Altman curio Brewster McCloud (“a wonderful epic of weird and wit”) and the first part of a Bill Douglas double, My Childhood (“black and white poverty-o plot”) as the season built to its climax in April with Andrei Tarkovsky’s meditative 1972 Russian sci-fi landmark Solaris (“bloody subtitles”).

It would be easy to back-romanticise and rewrite my own underdevelopment so that Film Club’s steady diet of foreign movies had a profound effect and opened my mind to world cinema on the spot. It didn’t. Bloody subtitles indeed. I even fell asleep during the 165-minute Solaris, awoke and snuck out before the end. (Neil and Dave assured me that it got better after I’d gone.) But the fact remains, I was exposed to some choice nuggets of exotic cinema at an impressionable age, from Japan (Nagisa Oshima’s Empire Of Passion) , France/Italy (Marco Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe), Germany (Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu), and Argentina (Leopoldo Torre Nilsson’s The House of the Angel) … I’d grown up with Abbot & Costello and British comedies like What A Whopper on TV, and James Bond and Disney at the pictures, so this forced march of maturity was significant.

But never mind the quality, feel the width. In 1981, I saw a total of 121 films. I have this precise figure at my fingertips because, world-class anal-retentive that I undoubtedly was, I had started keeping a running tally. This was the year that the Collins family took delivery of its first VCR – a Philips V2000 with the double-sided cassettes, very much the cleansed ethnic group in the VHS-Beta war – which eased the hunting of films around the TV schedules and empowered Paul and I to pause and replay the best bits of Chinatown, Death Wish, Deliverance and other choice, late-nite items from the ragged pages of the Radio and TV Times.

Within the year we would be supplementing our running cinematic buffet with those first trophies from video rental shops. At this nascent stage we’d bring home anything, frankly. And BBC2 were still lashing together Saturday night horror double bills, so you’d get 1943’s The Seventh Victim followed by 1975’s Race With The Devil. (Even on holiday in North Wales or the Channel Islands, we’d talk Mum and Dad into taking us to a local fleapit to catch the new Bond film: Live and Let Die in Nefyn, For Your Eyes Only in St Helier.)

If all this counting and collating suggests a quasi-autistic relationship with films, I can assure you that love coursed vividly through it. The badge of honour was in seeing every film I could possibly see. You can sense by the way each one is logged in my diary – title, year of release, certificate, followed by still frankly juvenile assessment (“Chariots Of Fire, 1981, ‘A’, starring Ian Charleston, Ben Cross … that’s all the big stars out of the way!”) – that I am now under the factfinding spell of the big film encyclopaedias I’d started buying or borrowing from the library.

I was taking a pocket-academic interest at last; starting to memorise years and directors’ names like other boys reeled off the previous clubs and goal averages of First Division footballers. Key Christmas/birthday presents of the time included David Quinlan’s Illustrated Directory of Film Stars and The Illustrated Encyclopedia of The World’s Greatest Movie Stars and Their Films by Ken Wlaschin, which I pored over as if handling sacred scrolls. In particular, I fixated on filmographies of favourites like Gene Hackman, Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and Charlton Heston, transported into reverie as I wondered what obscurities like Zandy’s Bride, Psych-Out or I Never Sang For My Father might be about, or if I would ever see them.

Putting all such film studies aside, I still gleaned enormous, mathematical, savant-like satisfaction from the simple act of seeing multiple films in ad hoc double, triple or quadruple bills. During the Christmas holidays in 1981, for instance, I marked up six in one day, thanks to bingeing at the video with Bridge On The River Kwai, Carry On Doctor, Savage Bees, Superman, Superman II and Magic. At such a greedy rate, you can see how, the following year, my film total went up to 144.

In 1983, the year I turned 18 and cast aside the maroon blazer of the sixth form, I saw 175 films, which is I suspect a lifetime per annum record. Film Club, whose 1982-83 season was my last before heading off to London and to art college, helped plump up those impressive numbers. I never went to film school. But I didn’t need to. Here, on tap, were the likes of Tony Garnett’s directorial debut Prostitute, Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, further unsweetened black experience in Britain courtesy Babylon, Spielberg’s 1941, the seminal Richard Pryor In Concert … but it is sad in retrospect to see Tuesday nights at Film Club gradually displaced by rented videos, band practices and nights at the Bold Dragoon pub.

I let my subscription to Film Club lapse without ceremony or fuss. Too many distractions. I carried on meticulously logging films in my 1983 diary, whose cover collage continues to convey my cultural duality by ranging Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now against Echo & The Bunnymen under sticky-back cellophane. I had carved up my soul and sold it piecemeal to post-punk raincoat music and Athena movie icons. My tastes in cinema had been converted to small-“c” catholicism by Film Club, and during the Christmas recess in 1983, I willingly sat down in front of the telly for my first Busby Berkeley musical, 1943’s Take Me Out to the Ball Game and 1969’s stunt parachutist drama The Gypsy Moths, mainly because I was on a mission to see the whole of Gene Hackman’s CV.

I won my copy of the Specials LP in the Smash Hits competition in March 1980, by the way, and my drawing of Walt Jabsco was printed in the magazine. I was thrilled: an early taste of the media.

Before the decade was out, I saw my first ever professional film review – of the ho-hum yachting thriller Masquerade starring Rob Lowe – published in the NME, where I had found employment as a humble layout boy. From this en suite vantage point I had taken to pestering the paper’s section editors for writing work, and they were starting to cave. Writing about music, and commissioning other people to write about music, dominated my nine-year employment history from 1988 to 1997 – NME to Vox to Select to Q –  during which, videogames and live comedy made further supplementary claims on my time. But my devotion to films never waned.

In 1995, I briefly became the Editor of Empire magazine; in 2000, I landed the job of hosting Radio 4’s weekly film programme Back Row; and, a year later, began writing about films for Radio Times, where I am still retained as Film Editor and – unbelievably – share reviewing duties with the source of my early film inspiration Barry Norman. I couldn’t have achieved any of this without my self-enforced early-80s cinematic education, enhanced and nourished for those three key years by the imaginative and varied programmes of Frank Quigg, the geeky company of Neil, Dave and Paul, and the NCFE Film Society, where unrestricted use of the “Real Ale Bar” had made me a man, even without ever sampling any Real Ale.

And all this from a 16-year-old whose considered assessment of Buñuel’s radical exposure of bourgeois sado-masochism Belle de Jour ran, in the 1982 diary: “This epic about horse carriages and bras was shit bum wank.” And why not?