Friday, 31 May 2013

Elektrik Karousel by The Focus Group

The new Focus Group album, Elektrik Karousel, comes with the usual accompanying Ghost Box conceptual packaging, creating a contextual world of the imagination which the music can inhabit. In this case, Julian House, the individual turning the dials behind the Focus Group screen, has designed, along with fellow Ghost Box boss Jim Jupp, an old fashioned board game with a distinctly surrealist cast. The pieces are engravings from old books, and include triple-headed sea gods and louche devils; flayed horses and disembodied ears; anatomical cross-sections of cochlear tracts and optic nerves; plumed helmets and Victorian military medals; cartographer’s dividers and antique playing cards. They look like props from a Jan Svankmajer animation, liable to fill out, flush with colour and come to life at any moment; or elements from one of Max Ernst’s collage novels, waiting to be inserted into a dream tableau.

Caught in the Carousel - Max Ernst's Reve d'une Petite Fille qui Voulut Entrer au Carmel (1930)
The inner sleeve of the LP or the foldaround cover of the CD are illustrated with the trail of squares the players must traverse arranged around a central karousel with its spinning arrow of chance (a dice is clearly not necessary for this game). Corresponding to the track titles, these squares allow for the use of a variety of typographical styles whose associations give the impression that the game’s moves progress backwards and forwards through the decades as much as across the demarcated board space. They also resemble the small ads which might be found at the back of comics, SF magazines or underground music papers. The slightly wonky placement of the squares, along with the deliberate misalignment of the two colour printing, gives a visual cue to the rough aural collages of the record. The cover, with its vaguely op-art black and white patterning, suggests that the whole game could expand into three dimension (either magically or by folding along the dotted lines) and begin to revolve like the barrel of a zoetrope or the mirrored axle of a praxinoscope – in both cases to bedazzling, hypnotic effect, possible depositing the children depicted onto a life-size board whose hazardous labyrinth they must negotiate in order to find their way back to the real world.

Science of the supernatural - Blackwood tributes
Titles are an assemblage of recurrent Focus Group and Ghost Box obsessions. Hope Hodgsone (sic) once more points to a love of British supernatural literature. Algernon Blackwood has already been paid tribute to in the title of The Willows, the Belbury Poly LP whose back cover also bears a quote from the story. Quotes from Welsh writer of weird tales Arthur Machen also grace the covers of two Ghost Box LPs: The Focus Group’s We Are All Pan’s People has a passage from The Great God Pan, whilst Belbury Poly’s The Owl’s Map extracts a description of age old musical ritual from The White People (the title story in Penguin’s recent collection of Machen’s fiction). The capitalised SPOLK looks like a mnemonic acronym, conjuring memories of SPLINK, a similar and rather confusing example urgently delivered by Jon Pertwee in a 70s public information film which tried to inculcate in suggestible children the proper way to cross a road. The Flourescent Host, Skipping Spook (evidently a friendly spirit in the Motley Hall mould) and Wax Phantom are further hauntings, whilst The Heavy Blessing, Flaming Voices and Hoojumany continue the investigations of witch cults begun on the collaborative LP with Broadcast. Various tracks with prominent Ks (the Elektrik Karousel, Kinky Korner Klub and the Kool Kranium) point to a thrilling future of scientism and synthetic living in which the soft and extraneous and extraneously curved C has been eradicated as a needless inefficiency. From a graphic designers perspective, the K also has the naturally dynamic look of a figure putting one elegantly straightened leg forward whilst raising a celebratory arm to propose a toast or wave at an admiring crowd. Finally, More Night Films we can assume to be from the Hammer or Amicus (or even Tigon or Compton) canon, with lashings of Kensington gore, rituals conducted in purple robes, Thames Valley gothic piles and as much exposed actorly flesh as the ducking and diving producers could charm the BBFC scrutinisers into permitting.

Jon Pertwee urges us to splink
The album sets out its sonic stall in the opening moments of the brief prelude, Make Way. A Carl Orff-like percussive tinkling is juxtaposed with manic mechanical ricochets sounding like field recordings made in a Japanese pachinko parlour or an aging chorus of excitable cash registers. This is overlaid by the sound of children making a racket in the resonant space of a swimming pool. The later gives off the chlorinated whiff of the public information film, another common Ghost Box reference point. A ‘learn to swim’ film of this type was explicitly evoked in The Advisory Circle track In The Swim from their Mind How You Go LP. The second track, Elektrik Karousel, gets the game moving with a rolling jazz drum pattern in the Take Five style, which is phased and spun around. The carousel is definitely turning, and taking its slightly woozy effect. Harpsichord arpeggios and patterns are layered on top, as are snatches of immaculately RP-articulated dialogue which sound as if they are being tuned in from half-remembered children’s programmes. Then there is the Pavlovian jangle of ice cream van chimes.

The harpsichord is a signature sound throughout, its sprightly, lightly plucked notes non-resonant and so following each other in rapid succession before awkward silences can descend. It’s an instrument which somehow became prominent in the 1960s and summons up the contradictory impulses of that wild decade. It’s both antique and kinetically of the moment, expressing a bustling English eccentricity which at the time was both looking to the future whilst trying to maintain well-worn traditions. It could be used as the soundtrack to a betweeded Margaret Rutherford blithely riding her bicycle through an unchanged country village or to a mod-styled Mrs Peel speeding away from her London mews flat in a fast white sports car. And with a little echo and reverb, it neatly conjures the unthreatening approach of friendly spooks. Other sounds which recur and give the album its particular flavour and sense of continuity with previous Focus Group records include xylophones, musique concrete blips and skrees, chanted, ritualistic vocals and pastoral flute (whether in folk, Kes-jazz or impressionistic Debussyish mood). On this record there are also elements of free jazz sax (on The Magic Pendulum), Indian classical music (sitar, bansuri flute and tabla on Flaming Voices) and even the surprising intervention of swooshing Jeff Beck-like jazz fusion guitar sounds on The Plastic Castle, perhaps suggesting the thrill of rushing down a plastic slide descending in a spiralling curve from the crenellations. Sounds recur and recombine at various junctures throughout like themes being reiterated, varied and placed in different settings. Indeed, the whole album, whose tracks are generally very short, feels like an extended suite (with Flaming Voices as a mini-suite within). This is given further credence by the lack of track divisions on the vinyl LP. The recurrence of particular sounds or harmonic sequences (there’s a series of soft guitar chords which seems to emerge at periodic intervals) also brings us back to the Karousel game, with its own cycles and loops, dictated by the chance operations of that spinning dial, sending players back to previously occupied squares.

Julian House may be the secret mastermind behind The Focus Group, but here he gives credit for ‘help from Broadcast’. There is a sense, then, that the collaboration begun on the Witch Cults from the Radio Age LP is being continued in some shape or form. House is now in a post-Broadcast trio with James Cargill and Roj Stevens, both ex-members of the group. They will be recording and hopefully performing under the name Children of Alice. Both James and Roj have recorded for Ghost Box before, and it is they who contribute to this album under the proud Broadcast banner. Something of their characteristic sounds can perhaps be detected at various points. James’ warm analogue synth lines seem to lend a magic hour glow to Flaming Voices, Let’s Listen, SPOLK and Petroleum Paisley, whilst the trundling and clanking sound of complex mechanisms in motion which was a feature of Roj’s The Transactional Dharma of Roj LP forms the unstable Meccano framework to parts of Bachoo, Flaming Voices, Frumious Numinous and Harmonium. To offer a Radiophonic Workshop analogy, which seems appropriate in the context, Roj is like John Baker, using the electronic manipulation of sounds found or synthesised to produce elastic, springy rhythms. James, meanwhile, has a Paddy Kingsland ear for melody and a Delian sense of rich atmospherics. These elements combine perfectly in Flaming Voices, which maybe affords us a glimpse in to what the Children of Alice might sound like.

That name pays tribute to the late Trish Keenan, the voice (and much more) of Broadcast, who had an abiding love of Lewis Carroll’s labyrinthine dream tales. She is given thanks for the ‘sounds you sent’. And is that an echo of her song in the angelic choral voices drifting in the nebulous background of Frumious Numinous. The title makes reference to the nonsense ballad (which yet makes instant sense) Jabberwocky from Alice Through the Looking Glass (‘Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun the Frumious Bandersnatch!’, you’ll recall). You can hear a recording of Trish reading it on the Broadcast website. It’s a suggestive title, with hints of the transcendental, a numinosity which often illuminated her lyrics. It hints at some spirit living on, perhaps just in the molecular patterns of oxide tape or in the lines of digital light etched into the polycarbonate spiral of a CD. But hopefully in some more expansive form.

House’s technique in the studio (or sat in front of his laptop) mirrors his graphic style in its deliberate creation of a rough-edged, imperfect finish. Where his visual collages preserve or cultivate torn borders and hastily scissored outlines, the aural collages of The Focus Group delight in seemingly abrupt and clumsy edits (the equivalent of cinematic jump cuts), and loops whose ‘joins’ can be clearly heard. The hiss of scratched vinyl can be detected at certain intervals, too. The nature of the materials used to make the sounds is left raw and exposed, just as much as it was in the brutalist concrete architecture of the 60s and 70s, and with a similar aesthetic and perhaps even ideological intent. It seems to amount to a pronounced disavowal of the polish and surface sheen of airbrushed perfection offered (and it’s an offer that is generally accepted) by the effortless tools of digital manipulation. The process is apparently made evident, although this is of course an imaginary process. There are no tape loops or spliced edits, no whirring spools or glowing dials. The rough cut and paste juxtapositions are a conscious aesthetic choice, creating the appearance of something which has been put together in a more laborious and solidly mechanistic way. The illusion of materiality adds to the archetypal Ghost Box concern with the utopian dreaming (and propagandistic scheming) of the post-war British world (Macmillan to Callaghan, roughly speaking). Some of the tracks look to the more avant-garde, lab-coated tendencies of music in this period. A radio being tuned at the start of Hypnoradiol, which thereby incorporates the static sounds of the universe between stations into the piece, which is followed by pointillist punctuations and vocal distortions, points to John Cage and early electronic experiments. The electronic stridulations on The Heavy Blessing sound like the artificial chirruping and metallic frog chorusing on Pauline Oliveros’ 1967 tape piece, gloriously titled Alien Bog.

Johnny plays jazz - Staccato meets...
A processed flute in tigt gruffil (anagram or meaningful nonsense?) could be transposed from an early Tangerine Dream record. Flaming Voices has a wafting breeze of Debussyesque flute, which morphs quite naturally into its Indian equivalent (Debussy was influenced by Eastern music, after all). The Indian music adds a new colour to the Focus Group palette. It is blended with a Stravinskyish oboe in a marriage which seems a lot more relaxed than the rather stiff East meets West meetings between Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin. Most striking and unexpected is Hope Hodgsone, which sounds like a straight piece of reflective after hours jazz. There’s even a touch of night club chatter and clinking glasses to give it that authentic Village Vanguard aura. It’s a spare piece with soft brush on snare and cymbal, a minimal bass suspension and impressionistic Bill Evans chords. Has it been edited together from different sources in the prescribed xenochronous Zappa manner. If so, it’s skilfully done (and in this instance, you can’t hear the join). Or perhaps this is the surprise new direction for the Children of Alice – a piano jazz trio. The title posits (in my mind, at least) the appealing notion of a character who is a combination of William Hope Hodgson’s occult detective Carnacki and John Cassavetes’ jazz piano playing PI Johnny Staccato, smoky New York dives colliding with Edwardian drawing rooms.
...Carnacki - chasing after hours spectres

The final named track, More Night Films, has a touch of the spiralling Terry Riley all night flight organ plus delay improvisations bubbling away in the background, beneath more plucked, slightly melancholic harpsichord figures. Riley did record the soundtrack for a couple of films in the early 70s – Les Yeux Fermés and Lifespan. Perhaps there’s a hint of those here; Late night art screenings for an audience nodding off on scattered beanbags. Such longform, flowing improvisations are the exact opposite of the Focus Group’s concentrated cut-out vignettes. Riley isn’t allowed to float off into a prolonged nocturnal trance here, though. The Night Movies end and we are left in an echoing auditorium for a brief untitled coda. A queasy Blackpool organ plays a desultory chord over and over, only serving to emphasise the emptiness of the space. The ratcheting clatter of the opening is now the emptying of the tills and the bustle of cleaners, who are also eager to finish up and get home as quickly as possible. We are being ushered out – the show’s over. But it can start again whenever we want, the karousel set once more into slow rotation, speeding up into a disorienting, dazzling and ever changing blur of motion. Just go back to square one (Make Way), spin the dial and begin the game all over again.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Alan Garner on the Television: The Owl Service, Red Shift and The Keeper


Alan Garner is widely regarded as one of the finest writers of children’s fantasy in the post war period. His first two novels, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960) and The Moon of Gomrath (1963) were both set around the Cheshire escarpment of Alderley Edge, the area in which Garner grew up. Ancient mythological figures and legends were reawakened to play out their archetypal conflicts once more in this landscape. In Elidor (1965) a church in a decaying area of Manchester proves to be a gateway to a similarly barren otherworld, a chivalric Arthurian realm whose golden age is long over. The worlds of urban realism and symbolic fantasy are implicitly linked, as are the two very different literary modes which they represent. A strong attachment to landscape and the myths and histories that inhere within it has been a characteristic of his fiction ever since. Towards the end of the 60s and into the 70s, his novels became more enigmatic, written in a condensed, elliptical and very literary style. They demanded a great deal of concentration from an adult reader, let alone the young readership to which they were still being marketed. It was these challenging and emotionally highly charged stories which Garner adapted for the television, beginning with his 1967 novel The Owl Service, which he scripted for ITV in 1969. In 1978 he turned his 1973 novel Red Shift into a BBC Play for Today. And finally, he wrote a haunted house (or cottage) story for the half hour ITV children’s series Dramarama in 1983.

Alison, Gwyn and Roger - the eternal triangle
The Owl Service largely takes place around a large old manor house adjacent to a village in a Welsh valley. The house has been inherited by Alison, a girl in her late teens. She and her mother, Margaret, have come here on holiday with her stepbrother Roger and his father Clive. It’s a new family set-up, Clive and Margaret having just married, and tensions soon become apparent. The house is kept with sullen resentment by an outsider, Nancy, who also acts as cook. She has returned after many years, having moved away to the other side of Wales. She is accompanied by her son, Gwyn, a precociously intelligent, self-educated boy. Standing sentinel outside, endlessly raking the gravel drive, is Huw Halfbacon, the gardener. He watches the house and the comings and goings of its inhabitants as if waiting for something to happen. The story begins with Alison hearing scrabbling, scratching sounds coming from the attic above her bedroom ceiling (premonitory shades of The Exorcist). She gets Gwyn, with whom she is on friendly terms, to climb up and take a look. He uncovers an old, dust and grime coated set of plates painted with a pattern which weaves the beak and eyes of an owl into a garlanded floral design. Alison becomes obsessed with tracing out the pattern onto sheets of paper, which she then folds into origami owls. Once she has done this, the original pattern disappears from the plates, leaving them blank. Her driven creation of owls from flowers acts as the trigger for the re-enactment of an age-old legend associated with the local landscape. Huw looks on and makes obscure bardic proclamations. It’s as if he had expected this to happen, and had experienced it countless times before.

Tom and Sally parting at Crewe
Red Shift, like The Owl Service, features teenage protagonists on the cusp of adulthood, but who are still beholden to uncomprehending parents. They too are wracked with intense, wrenching feelings for one another which are thwarted by the social and economic forces of the world around them, as well as by their own doubts and anxieties. Tom lives in uncomfortable proximity with his mother and father in a static caravan in Rudheath, Cheshire. He has an expressively romantic relationship with Jan, who lives with her parents in a nearby bungalow. When they move away and Jan begins her nursing studies in London, Tom arranges for them to meet at regular intervals at Crewe railway station. From here, they cycle out into the outlying countryside. Besides Tom and Jan’s story, we also slip back into two historical eras, witnessing violent events which occurred within the landscapes which they explore. These time shifts are triggered by a mixture of emotional affinity and a tapping into the spirit of particular powerful locations.

The struggling rump of a Roman legion, which includes some native followers, is ambushed and retreats to the rocky outcrop of Mow Cop. Here it becomes pinned down on a sacred tribal spot, where the soldiers discover a heavily pregnant woman sheltered in a cave. She is regarded by the local tribe as a fertility goddess, but treated as a prize of war by the Roman members of the legion. The exception is Macey, who refuses to violate her like the others, treating her with due deference. He is a young Romanised Celt brought into the legion when he was just a child, and used by its leader, Logan, for his ability to go into a state of frenzied violence when certain trigger words are used. Another story takes place in the Civil War period. Another young seer, Thomas Rowley, gazes out towards Mow Cop from the tower of the church in the nearby village of Bartholmey as the inhabitants prepare for a siege. A militia of Royalist Irishmen is sweeping across the country from the West ruthlessly set on rooting out parliamentary sympathisers. Amongst those they seek is John Fowler, a charismatic figure in the village who is central to the organisation of the retreat into the fortress of the church. The Roman and Civil War periods are linked by a physical artefact, a stone axe-head. It is used by Macey, who breaks it from the axe in one of his frenzies, and dug up by Rowley, who calls it a lightning stone. He believes it to be a token of good luck if placed with a hearth, a ward against future lightning strikes. Tom and Jan discover it in an old ruined cottage on top of Mow Cop, and Tom takes care of it for them, holding it as an emblem of the possibility of a future spent together.

The Keeper's cottage
The Keeper is an enigmatic and subtly disturbing supernatural tale. It concerns Peter, an enthusiastic amateur ghost hunter. He is accompanied on one of his nocturnal investigations by Sally, as they seek to find proof of reported hauntings in a half-ruined gamekeepers cottage. Peter intends to measure and record any phenomena which might become manifest, confronting the unknown with empirical rationalism backed up with a battery of scientific equipment. His grandmother had told him tales from her childhood about the house and its reputation as a bad place. It had been left to fall into ruin by the daughter of its last inhabitant, a gamekeeper who shot himself in 1912. Sally seems to sense an abiding and watchful presence in the house. Her intuitive, empathic feel for the spirit of the place acts as a counterbalance to Peter’s analytical aloofness. As the night wears on, they play scrabble to pass the time. The words they choose with uncommon swiftness turn out to be from the lines of an old folk rhyme, which Sally has also unconsciously written out. It becomes increasingly clear that they have, through their curiosity, made a connection with some formless but powerful spirit of the land, a keeper which resents their presence.

Many of the themes of The Owl Service and Red Shift can be found in condensed form in their opening title sequences. The Owl Service uses musique concrete and diagrammatic animation and shadowplay to fold together modernity and age old tradition, the natural and the mechanistic, rational and supernatural in disconcerting visual collage. The title card pictures, with their clear and simple outlines and monotone colouring look like printed illustrations from a children’s book. Their minimal animation therefore gives the sense of stories coming to life, pages flickering into being, their contents made physically manifest in the world beyond the covers. The music begins with the rippling of a harp, a sound redolent of bardic traditions and the old oral storytelling fixed and codified in the books of the Mabinogion, the Welsh collection of Celtic legends. The harp is followed by a gurgle of water draining down a plughole, the sound transformed to give it a metallic cast. It conjures notions of a fluid passage corkscrewing through time. We then hear a motorbike engine revving, a more guttural reiteration of the harp and water sounds which lets us know that we have entered the mechanistic age of the internal combustion engine. All three sounds form elements of an unbroken continuum, it is suggested.

Bird shadows
We see a stand of trees on a hill which are then contracted within a circular frame. In the story, this is both the focal lens of Roger’s camera and the hole in the standing stone which seems also to act as a lens, bringing resonant echoes of past events into focus. The combination of the two create a composite vision, an amalgamation of ways of seeing both ancient and modern. As if to give this concept visual form, we then see a pattern of concentric circles rippling inwards, waves of time drawn towards a focal point. A pictorial candle’s glow is animated into flickering motion, the camera zooming into the flame as if our vision were drawn mothlike towards its immolating fire. A papery flutter of wings accompanies bird shadows cast by hands joined at the thumbs. A similar image was used at the strikingly effective cover of the Ghost Box LP As The Crow Flies by The Advisory Circle. It wouldn’t be surprising if its designer, Julian House, had been influenced by The Owl Service titles. Another of his Ghost Box covers, for Belbury Poly’s The Owl’s Map, also features an outline owl design. Hands then make a circle, echoing the one in which the trees were framed. This circular formation, a cyclical symbol, hints at a non-linear view of time, one which encompasses rebirth and recurrence. It is an invitation for something to come through, for an old pattern to re-establish itself.

Colouring in the owl service pattern
After the flight of wings, the harp returns, playing an old Welsh tune, and we see the pattern on the plate constructing itself, growing in an almost organic form, like time-lapsed lichen. As it is coloured in, as if by an invisible child’s felt pen, it seems flushed with renewed life. We hear a scrabbling, percussive patter, as of the scurrying of small, clawed feet. This morphs into an unnerving rubbing, ratcheting and stretching sound. It feels like some plastic material whose tensile strength is being tested to its limits, pulled taut from both directions. Something trying to break through the skein of time, perhaps. It also perfectly expresses the psychological tensions caused by the close proximity of the story’s characters, and the threat that one or more of them may snap, unleashing a destructive backlash. The raking tracks of clawed nails tears three ragged, parallel lines down the flower and owl mandala, and it fades from view. These titles really are a miniature masterpiece in themselves. They manage to convey so much, with such power, in a very short space of time.

Red Shift begins with a bounding Autobahn style electronic theme by Phil Ryan. It immediately introduces the idea of modernity and of fast motorised motion. We see blue lights coming towards us on a motorway, which blur and reform in the shape of stars approaching (or some interstellar vessel rushing towards them), a ring nebula at the centre perhaps the remains of some cataclysmic supernova. This gives an idea of the contrasts in scale which will be a feature of the story – from the intimate and personal to the historical and cosmological. It also introduces the central astronomical metaphor of blue and red shifts. Observation and measurement of these opposite ends of the visual spectrum allow us to determine whether a star is moving towards our point of perspective (blue, indicating a greater frequency in wavelength) or disappearing into the distance (red, indicating a lower frequency). The ring shape of the nebula again hints at a cyclical view of time. We see the faces of the three male protagonists framed within its iris, morphing into one another within this symbolic stellar formation. The personal and the universal are brought together, a cosmic connection outlined.

Tom in the iris of the ring nebula
We then see red car lights moving away along the other lane of the motorway, the title Red Shift appearing over them, the metaphor spelled out. Two people stand on the verge, rooted in the local landscape while all about them is in motion. They are seen from both perspectives, the blue and red shifting streams, stationary observers within the flux of progressive and regressive time, their relativistic perspective not yet available to us. They are depersonalised, peripheral figures stranded on a hard shoulder no-man’s land. These are our present day protagonists, Tom and Jan, but they are located from the beginning within a wider expanse in terms of time and space. In the opening scene, we find them sitting on a sandy hillock adjacent to the motorway, watching the cars and lorries rush past. To Jan’s innocent question ‘where are we going?’, Tom gives a smart aleck response, talking about continental shift, planetary rotations and expanding universes. Such geological and cosmological perspectives threaten to dwarf them, reduce them to insignificant specks. But when Jan announces that she’s going to move to London, the perspective narrows down to matters of immediate personal import, which have a more direct emotional impact.

Watching the trespassers enter
After the 80s electropop of the Dramarama titles (complete with synth drums and vocodored vocals), the opening credit sequence is contrastingly quiet and restrained. We hear the sparse and suspended chordal clangour of a hammered dulcimer (generally an indicator of East European intrigue in cold war spy thrillers) lightly breaking the silence in the interior of the gamekeeper’s cottage. The breathy whisper of a flute is suggestive of soft respiration, and the sense of presence is further indicated (as it is throughout the story) by the movement of the camera. A chair is set before the fireplace, with logs burning in the small iron grate. The camera eye point of view moves towards the chair, where it lowers its perspective. It’s as if some invisible form were settling itself in before the warm glow. The titles appear over the flickering flames. We hear two figures noisily approaching, and the camera swings suddenly around, startled by this unexpected intrusion. The blank gaze notices them passing by the window, and the door is forcefully shouldered a few times before it bursts open. Sally and Peter enter, and we see that the room is entirely bare, the chair unoccupied, the fireplace cold and the grate empty. We have immediately been introduced to the discomfiting idea that there is something in the cottage, however, and that it is watching. Sally’s later comment, when Peter asks whether she has ever seen a ghost, is perceptive and prescient: ‘I’d be more bothered if a ghost had seen me’.

Mythology and folklore are the matter at the heart of each of the three stories. The sense of a present at the nexus of deeper veins and currents of time is suggested by the way that ancient tales or rhymes whose words flow with incantatory cadences are made manifest in the modern world. These old legends are often attached to a particular place, but they are also universal in their recognition of the play of human emotions, and the conflicts engendered by the potent mixture of sexual, social and generational tensions and rivalries. In the Owl Service, the three young protagonists are driven to enact the story of the rivalry between Lleu Llaw Gyffes and Gronw Bebyr, lord of Penllynn. Their murderous rift came about because of the love between Gronw and Blodeuedd, Lleu’s wife. The story is told in Math Son of Mathonwy, the fourth branch of the Mabinogi, the Celtic legends collected in the 14th century in two volumes, the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest and brought together in what is now known as The Mabinogion.

In this story, the magician Gwydion makes a wife for his nephew and charge, Lleu Llaw Gyffes, from ‘the flowers of the oak, and the flowers of the broom, and the flowers of the meadowsweet’. He does this after Lleu has been cursed by the Lady Aranrhod, his mother, whom Gwydion had tricked into breaking a previous prophecy. She had provided Lleu with arms to defend her castle against a nonexistent enemy which Gwydion had conjured up, and had thereby gifted him his territorial inheritance. In revenge, she consequently vows that ‘he shall never have a wife of the race that is now on this earth’. Blodeuedd, the woman of flowers, is fashioned for Lleu in what amounts to a magically arranged marriage. But she develops a will and independent desires of her own, and falls for Gronw Bebyr, lord of Penllyn, whom she meets whilst he’s abroad hunting stag. He also falls for her, and they plot to do away with Lleu. As is generally the case in these stories, there is a complicated and unlikely set of conditions which must be met before a particular destiny can be fulfilled. There is an element of Celtic tall-tale telling to the legends, which Gwynn also indulges in when he spins Alison a shaggy yarn about sheep on the upper sides of the valley needing stilts to balance and stop themselves from toppling over. He describes this as ‘soaking the Saxon’, maintaining the tribal divisions of past millennia.

Updating the old tales - Gwyn takes aim at Roger
Once the conditions which will render Lleu vulnerable have been met (in this case involving him standing with one foot on the side of a bath by a riverbank, the other on the back of a goat), Gronw strikes him down from the hill crest of Bryn Cyfagyr with a specially fashioned spear he has honed in the prescribed manner over the course of the previous year. Lleu is instantly transformed into an eagle and flies off, seemingly banished for good. Gronw claims both Blodeuedd and Lleu’s cantref of Ardudwy. Gwydion, meanwhile, vows to discover Lleu’s aquiline incarnation and determine whether his fate is irreversible. He eventually finds him in the branches of an oak tree, shedding flesh and maggots which a sow feeds on below. This would seem to indicate that there was some remnant of the mortally wounded human still present. Gwydion uses his magic to transform him back into the old Lleu once more, although he is in a pitifully mangy condition. He recovers in Caer Dathyl in Gwynedd, Math son of Mathonwy’s kingdom, and then sets out to take reprisal against Gronw and Blodeuedd, with Math’s forces at his disposal. Gwydion overtakes Blodeuedd as she is fleeing with her maidens, all of whom drown in a lake. He transforms her into an owl, telling her ‘thou art never to dare show thy face in the light of the day’, and that she will be regarded as an enemy by all other birds.

Gronw, meanwhile, negotiates with Lleu in an attempt to save his own skin. But Lleu will accept nothing less than the opportunity to strike a blow similar to that which he was on the receiving end of, and on the very same spot as well. Gronw pleads to be allowed to place a stone between himself and the intended trajectory of the spear, arguing that the balance of blame for his bloody deed lay with Blodeuedd and her insinuating persuasions. Lleu grants his wish for this seemingly impenetrable piece of mineral armour, but he throws the spear with such force that it transfixes both the stone and Gronw’s heart. The stone with a hole through it is left standing on the banks of the Cynfael river in Ardudwy like a memorial headstone, and is named Llech Ronw, or Gronw’s Stone.

Gronw's Stone - Roger as target
We see it in the opening scenes of The Owl Service, Celtic spiral patterns forming a tangled horizon beneath the hole. Roger swims in the river from whose banks it rises, climbing out to lean against the bole of an aged tree, his exposed breast directly in line with the imaginary vector of the spear’s flight suggested by the hollow circle. In the next scene, we find Alison in her bedroom, idly tracing the circular pattern of light reflected from a glass of water or the pond outside to shimmer on the ceiling. We are immediately reminded, both by this and by the circle in the stone, of the circular patterns in the opening titles. When Alison hears the scratching coming from the attic above her (and above the circle of light) it is almost as if she has summoned it up, invoking the recommencement of a pre-established cycle of events (the circularity of which will also be reflected in the round, white circle of the plates themselves, which are uncovered in the attic). Gywn is called in, and the two are evidently comfortable in each other’s company (Alison remains dressed only in a loose, oversized nightshirt). He picks up the ornamental spear which stands by the dressing table and pokes at the ceiling with it. The roles which each will inhabit are established from the outset. Roger is the cuckolded and ousted Lleu, Gwyn the local usurper Gronw, both in romantic and territorial terms. And Alison, of course, is Blodeuedd, the woman created from flowers and later turned into an owl.

Comic icons 1 - Gwyn as green man

Comic icons 2 - Roger as green man
Gwyn and Roger also take up ironic modern poses with echoes of the old iconographies of the green man or wild men, figures connected to the natural landscape (woodlands in particular) and its seasonal changes. Gwyn is seen in the corridor holding his arms up to either side, the globe of a cabbage balanced in each hand. Roger poses more awkwardly and self-consciously in front of his timer-set camera, a large branch held up above his head as if it were sprouting from his ribs. With his silly grin, and with Gwyn’s cabbages from the garden, they are both caricatures of the figures of the ancient British wilds. Their foolish stances are a reminder that industrial civilisation has largely swept such dark and mysterious places aside, although certain residual impulses remain lodged in the inner depths. The bathetic nature of their impressions also makes it clear that they are hopelessly ill-prepared for the mythological roles they are fated to play.

Learning the part - reading the old tales
After the plates have been found and Alison has begun transferring the patterns into origami owls, we find her reading a green hardback Everyman edition of the Mabinogion (the paperback version of which I’ve taken my quotes from) in the garden on a hot summer’s day. It’s a book which Gwyn has lent to her, as if to impart the ancestral knowledge which is an instinctive part of his Welsh inheritance. Alison looks every bit the sulky English Lolita in her red bikini and bright plastic sunglasses. Her awakening sexuality is the catalyst for casting her as the reincarnation of Blodeuedd’s freshly created spirit. It also makes her a precursor of Angela Carter’s modern reinventions of female fairy tale characters in her Bloody Chamber stories and in the film The Company of Wolves which derived from them. The reflections of Gwyn and Roger framed in the twin screens of her dark lenses points to the formation of a new incarnation of the eternally recurrent triadic relationship. Alison uses the book to shield herself from both of them, dispelling these reflections and blocking their undisguised boyish desire. When Gwyn kicks the book away, we see a brief flash of the flowered owl design tattooed on her face. She is possessed as much by the power of the word and the truthful outline of the story as she is by the energising effect of the occult circuitry in the plates’ pattern. The word reinforces and fixes the energies which the owl service patterns and the paper models which are made from them unleash.

Mask of anger - the owl tattoo
The dangerous power of words and of powerful, archetypal stories is made alarmingly apparent when Gwyn is attacked by a fluttering flock of torn pages (an attack accompanied by shrill free jazz flurries and squawks). They swirl around him with the angry, snapping susurration of mobbing birds driving off an invasive, threatening presence. ‘Boy, there’s axiomatic’ he comments at this self-evident demonstration that the old myths still have power. Gwyn is one of a number of auto-didactic smart-arses with more than a hint of self-portraiture about them which can be found in Garner’s work (Tom in Red Shift is another). The ancient word comes to life and punishes Gwyn for his disrespect, his contemptuous kicking of his own book and his own traditions. It asserts its undiminished force in the world (or this corner of it, at least), the abiding truth encoded within the eccentric symbolism of its surface details.

Huw Halfbacon is a complex figure who is both Gwydion (and specifically identifies himself as such in the novel) and, in a previous iteration of the tale involving him, Nancy and Bertram, the former upper class owner of the house, an incarnation of Lleu. He also acts as a chorus, and both he and Gwyn talk about the old tale from the Mabinogion. Gwyn provides clarification and a narrative précis, whilst Huw comes out with a kind of running footnote commentary and explicatory exegesis, progressing from an anticipatory ‘she is coming’ to a declamatory ‘she is come’. His reading of the story attempts to reach a more sympathetic understanding, however, which would transcend his and the boys’ assigned roles. It could almost be seen as a revisionist modern interpretation, taking into account and giving primacy to the female perspective of Blodeuedd/Alison, and acknowledging the way in which she is controlled, the pattern of her life set out for her.

Huw Halfbacon
Through having been created for a particular purpose, marriage to a lord, she comes to represent, to a contemporary reader, the social powerlessness of women and the rigid expectations of class. Huw observes how hard it is to be ‘shut up with someone you’re not liking very much’. He notes that Lleu is a hard lord, and that Gronw is ‘not a bad man’. His repeated mantra ‘she wants to be flowers and you make her owls’ points to an alternate outcome to the story which takes her needs and desires in to account. His despairing cry ‘why must we destroy ourselves’ suggests that he is all to well aware of his own powerlessness to alter events, however. He seems to have abdicated his own role and shrugged off complicity by displacing any sense of responsibility. For all his proclamations of power and regal guardianship (‘I own the ground, the mountain, the valley; I own the song of the cuckoo, the brambles, the berries’, and ‘my land is the country of the summer stars’) he is in the end helpless in the face of Alison’s violent climactic metamorphosis and the seismic meteorological chaos is unleashes across the valley. The time of his domineering, capricious and vengeful authority is over. A new balance of power must be found to re-establish harmony in the world.

Garner claimed that Red Shift was inspired by the ballad of Tam Lin and Burd Janet and the Queen of Fairy, which may be familiar to many through the version Sandy Denny sings on Fairport Convention’s classic Liege and Lief LP. This is a fairy tale of the darker variety, before the old superstitions were diluted into sweeter and less threatening nursery fare. The Queen of Fairies is a figure of fearful otherwordliness who has held Tam Lin under her spell since capturing him when he fell from his horse. Janet disobeys explicit instructions not to go to the large house of Carterhaugh where he lives. The local story has it that any maiden who goes there will lose her virginity to the rakish Tam. But Janet has been promised the house by her father, and goes there to claim her inheritance. Carterhaugh is a haunted place which has the feel of being located on a threshold. It is also a world away in terms of class and wealth for local lass Janet, of course. But she meets and falls in love with the enchanted Tam Lin, and according to several versions becomes pregnant with his child. He warns her away, however, revealing that he is doomed to be offered up by the Queen of Fairy as a tithe to hell (an interesting collision of Pagan and Christian iconography there).

Janet once more shows her independent strength of spirit, however, and insists on fighting for his life. If she is to break the spell she must pull him from his horse as he rides by with the Queen and a retinue of knights on All Hallow’s Eve, when the exchange of the human currency of the damned is due to take place. She must then hold on to him throughout the long night as the Queen wrenches his body through many transformations, turning him into a lion and a serpent before he finally lies as a naked knight in her arms. The story is clearly ripe for modern interpretation as a parable of sexual awakening and of female independence and strength. It has been used as such in Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock and Catherine Storr’s Thursday (Storr is better known for her children’s classic Marianne Dreams). It use in Red Shift is a little more oblique and notional, however. Charles Butler has written an excellent article, Alan Garner’s Red Shift and the Shifting Ballad of Tam Lin, about how Garner incorporates the spirit of the ballad into his story rather than using it as a rigid template. He points to the key moments in the story in which the female characters hold on to the vulnerable male protagonists, whose transformations are the inner ones of wrenching emotion and psychological turmoil. The women are holding them together and shielding them from external forces which manifest themselves as manipulative parental figures (real or proxy). They hold them through dark nights to keep them from disintegrating mentally (or at least try to). The corn goddess does this on Mow Cop in the Roman period; Madge Rowley holds Thomas in the Civil War episode to warm his wounded body through the night on the bleak plain of Rudheath after they have fled the churchyard massacre; and Jan (the modern equivalent of Janet) tries to keep the volatile and mentally hyperactive Tom (the modern version of Tam) from suffering an implosive breakdown which will burn out his buzzing neural circuitry. Such an implosion would be an inverted echo of the supernova which created the ring nebula we see in the titles at the beginning.

The Bloody Braggadoccio prepares to strike
Other elements of the story are taken from fragments of history which have been passed down through hearsay and rumour as much as record. The Roman strand draws on the legend of the lost Ninth, the legion which disappeared and many have gone native, blending in with the local tribes. They are explicitly identified as such in Garner’s novel, in which their leader Logan states ‘we’re the Ninth’. We learn that they’ve disguised themselves as the ‘Mothers’, who make tribal war with the local ‘Cats’. In the Play for Today adaptation, they are more like a ragged and beleaguered rump. There are a few natives in tow, but in a significant variation from the book, this is a desperate remnant of men adrift in unknown territory, ambushed in their tents and driven towards Mow Cop where they make ready for their last stand. There is certainly no sign of the raid on the Cat village which occurs in the book. The Civil War episode is based on reports of a massacre at Bartholmey in 1643, which only became widely known after the Field-Marshal of Royalist forces in Cheshire, Sir John, Lord Byron, unwisely crowed about it in a letter which fell into the wrong hands (thus earning him the title ‘the bloody braggadoccio’). The lack of any more detailed report leaves a vague blankness which leaves room for the imaginative expansion of legend.

Automatic Scrabble writing
In The Keeper, the hidden meanings of folk rhymes form the basis of the story’s revelations. The sinister sense decrypted from seeming nonsense verse gives voice to some unnameable other, a force which is beyond conventional understanding. Language and words are key here. The rhyme emerges through the letters placed with semi-conscious haste on a Scrabble board, and is then written down in an idle moment by Sally, once more without conscious input. Both Scrabble rounds and scribbled rhyme are a form of automatic writing, bypassing conscious intent to reach some deeper layer of intuitive awareness. With the chill realisation which is at the heart of the best classic British ghost stories, it becomes retrospectively evident that some presence has found its way into both their minds. Whatever force is at work appears to be drawing on deep veins of folk memory to deliver its message or, as it turns out, warning. The rhyme, once pieced together in acrostic form and written out on paper (a bit like a Cageian chance score which taps, Zen-like, into the momentary flux of a larger universal order) reads thus: ‘go away from my window my love, my love/Go from my window my dear/for the wind’s in the west and the cuckoo’s in his nest/And you can’t have a lodging here’. The image of a figure standing at a window looking out hints at an observing presence in the house. The roving camera, which observes the two protagonists from various interstitial points of view (behind the fireplace and from between the exposed slats of the crumbling wall) gives a constant sense of something watching and waiting. The reference to the cuckoo in its nest also hints at the discomforting sense that this presence has found a lodging in their minds, the fragile house of the self in which it will grow and eventually evict the inhabitants for which it was originally built. The fact that the cottage they are spending the night in was built for a gamekeeper, someone who watches over the surrounding land to make sure that trespassers don’t intrude, suggests that this invisibly scrutinising force has an analogous role. It’s the guardian of some more intangible threshold.

PART TWO is here.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Ray Harryhausen

Cyclops vs.Dragon - The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad
Ray Harryhausen’s calling came to him young, when his parents took him to see King Kong at Graumann’s Chinese Theatre in LA. He was only 13 at the time, but he knew what it was he wanted to do, and set about achieving it with the spirited energy of the dedicated hobbyist. As he self-deprecatingly observed on many an occasion, he was lucky enough to be able to extend his hobby into a lifetime career. Lucky and, of course, with a natural and abundant talent which soon made itself apparent. Willis O’Brien, the stop motion animator who brought Kong and his dinosaur combatants to such vivid and characterful life, was Harryhausen’s idol, his work the pinnacle to which he aspired to ascend. He plucked up the courage to phone him some years after seeing Kong, by which time he had started to produce his own amateur films featuring dinosaurs. Finally, in 1939, he got to meet him on the MGM lot, where O’Brien was working on one of several never to be realised projects. ‘Obie’, as he soon came to know him, proved friendly and solicitous and gave him much valuable advice. He encouraged him to study anatomy, the better to understand how to make his models look convincing and move in a realistic manner. Harryhausen would always study the movements of the animals most closely resembling his fantastic creatures, whether at the local zoo, the aquarium or simply in the human zoo of the city streets. Appropriate then that he should make a cameo appearance in 20 Million Miles to Earth as a man looking at an elephant in a zoo – a real creature which he will later transmute into rampaging stop-motion form. He even went so far as to take a few fencing lessons to prepare for Sinbad’s sword fight with the skeleton in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.

Best pals - Ray and Mighty Joe
Such assiduous care and attention to fine detail make his stop-motion animation endlessly enthralling, and the sheer quality of his work have ensured that he has been widely and enduringly revered and imitated by animators over the years. He did get to work with his hero, Obie, on Mighty Joe Young (1949), which effectively became his apprentice work, introducing him to the world of Hollywood studio film-making. He did the bulk of the animation for this rather less than mighty son of Kong, and there was a definite sense of the artistic crown being passed down to the next generation. Harryhausen’s death can thus also be seen as the end of a lineage dating back to what many still regard as the finest fantasy film ever made (an opinion with which I wouldn’t feel inclined to argue). With CGI having effectively consigned the labour intensive art of stop-motion to the film museum, this is a lineage which is sadly now effectively at an end. Harryhausen would always honour Obie’s memory and pay tribute to the formative influence he exerted upon him. He would later make the allosaurus vs. cowboys picture Valley of the Gwangi which O’Brien had been planning when Harryhausen visited him at the RKO studios in the 40s. He used some of his storyboards as a basis for key scenes, such as the lassoing of the dinosaur in the drystone gulch.

O’Brien also taught the young Ray the value of fine draughtsmanship and the ability to produce swift and accurate sketches when detailing setpieces and storyboarding action. He introduced him to the etchings and lithographs of Gustav Doré. With their striking use of light and shade, they had a naturally cinematic appearance. They were to be a strong influence on Harryhausen’s own fine charcoal, pencil and ink pictures. Dynamic compositions such as the skeleton tumbling from the top of the exposed ruin of a winding stair as Sinbad prepares to give its skull a final cleaving blow with his scimitar; or an allosaurus rampaging through the shadowed vaults of a cathedral; or a group of men running through the rubble of a bombed out city as three legged Martian war machines stalk towards them are all executed with great skill and dramatic flair. The scenes they envisaged often created the immediate visual impact needed to sell the picture they were summoning up for studio bigwigs in one enticing image.

Arabic aliens - Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger
The latter image, with the Martian war machines, came from the version of War of the Worlds which Harryhausen tried for many years to make. Unfortunately, it was never to come to fruition. Ray would certainly never have let the strings show on those spaceships, as he later demonstrated in Earth Vs the Flying Saucers. His aliens were a bit more freaky, too – basically beaked amphibious heads on scuttling tentacles. He even got as far as designing two latex rubber demonstration heads. The beaked fish-man appearance was later incorporated into the design of the Kraken sea monster in Clash of the Titans. Harryhausen was never shy of re-using work cast aside in previous years. The homunculi who attack Sinbad and his sleeping compatriots in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger bear more than a passing resemblance to the Selenites from First Men in the Moon, aliens adrift in an Arabian fantasy (or perhaps it was the Arabian fantasy adrift in a post-Star Wars cinematic landscape). HG Wells was an abiding favourite of his. Another unrealised project was an adaptation of Wells’ Food of the Gods, whose giganticised animals would have been a natural for him to bring to looming and lowering life. He did get to make a light-hearted version of Wells’ rather darkly dystopic First Men In The Moon, however. His insectoid Selenites and grub-like mooncalves captured the feel of Wells’ lunar ant colony, and he also got to make a solidly brass-fitted Edwardian geodesic spaceship. He plotted one of Jules Verne’s fantastic voyages in Mysterious Island, whose oversized fauna (a crab, a bee and a chicken!) gave him the chance to realise some of the big beasties he might have enjoyed creating for Food of the Gods.

Attacking the one-eyed monster - The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms
As his love of Wells indicates, Harryhausen was something of a classicist when it came to SF and fantasy (and he was much more at home with the latter). He shared the essentially conservative tastes of his lifelong friend Ray Bradbury. The two Rays met when they were both young men, artistic success and the acclaim of their peers still ahead of them. It would be Bradbury who, many years later in 1992, would present Harryhausen with his Academy award for a lifetime’s contribution to the technological development of cinema (the Gordon E Sawyer award). They both loved Kong, and vowed that they would sustain their love of dinosaurs into old age, treasuring their youthful relish of the exotic and fantastic. It was a vow that both managed to keep without too much difficulty. Their work tended to remain rooted in the era of the 20s and 30s in which they grew up – the age of colourful pulps, imperial adventures and monster fandom (Forrest Ackerman, founding editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland was another friend). Indeed, as Harryhausen turned to the worlds of Greek myth and Oriental fantasy in the late 50s and 60s, his films became increasingly nostalgic in their very escapism, their isolation from any contemporary currents in popular culture or in society.

Lost Worlds - The Golden Voyage of Sinbad
This disconnection from the usual signifiers of a particular decade gives them a curiously ageless quality, free from any attempts at zeitgeist riding. Even the sets, harking back to Doré and John Martin, the Victorian painter of immense depictions of Biblical apocalypse and Babylonian city states, steered clear of the contemporary designs which manifested themselves in many historical fantasies (and indeed in the 50s lounge furnishings found on the planet Altair IV in Forbidden Planet). Perhaps it’s significant that Clash of the Titans, his farewell to stop-motion animation movies, was released in 1981, at the dawn of the studio blockbuster period, and of the market-driven cinema it represented, with all its attendant crudities and loud sensationalism. Harryhausen’s finely crafted and lovingly made fantasies looked out of place in such a world, their emphasis on individual creative effort out of step with the corporate imperative. Even in the 1970s he was still producing classical and oriental fantasies rooted which tended to involve the discovery of lost worlds in the She or Lost Horizon manner. In Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, the adventurers finally reach an arctic Shangri-La of a distinctly Egyptianate nature with a transforming beam of coloured light at its heart. And in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, he drew designs for a fountain of youth, bubbling up in a vast subterraenean cavern and surrounded by an intact stone henge. The entrance to this sacred chamber is reached via a cave in a cliff face carved with heads derived from Indonesian Buddhist sculpture. Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger meanwhile uses the perfect lost world set – Petra, the city carved into the cliffs in the Jordanian desert.

Kali attacks - The Golden Voyage of Sinbad
Harryhausen always felt free to mix his mythologies. As early as his SF picture 20 Million Miles to Earth, he named his ever-growing Venusian monster the Ymir, after the father of the giants in Norse mythology. He would quite happily import mythical beasts from other tales or even other traditions when making the Greek classical or Sinbad films. Cyclops, centaurs, sirens, Buddhist carvings, Egyptian statuary and the Hindu goddess Kali (looking more like a dancing Shiva, actually) turn up in Sinbad films (he was well travelled, I suppose) and the Kraken sea monster of Norse mythology is co-opted to menace Andromeda in Clash of the Titans. The Hydra, meanwhile, migrates from the legend of Hercules’ labours and becomes the guardian of the golden fleece which Jason and his Argonauts have to do battle with. Harryhausen would point out to picky critics that he was making fantasy films, not academic adaptations of the classical tales. These stories existed in many variant versions, anyway, having always existed within malleable oral traditions before being written down and rendered ‘definitive’. The same goes for the dinosaurs vs. humans films (One Million Years BC in particular). This was a colourful fantasy, not an essay in paleontological reconstruction. However, Harryhausen, ever the perfectionist, would try to make his dinosaurs in accordance with current scientific knowledge as far as practical demands allowed. Given the considerable expertise which many young children have when it comes to dinosaur taxonomy, this was probably wise.

Talos descends - Jason and the Argonauts
Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation technique involved moving his models in each of the 24 frames which went up to make a second of 35mm sound film. This was hugely labourious and time consuming, and required intense concentration, a minute sense of continuity and a fine attention to every nuance of gesture and movement. Duchamp’s 1912 painting Nude Descending A Staircase No.2, with its blurred yet analytical depiction of movement over time, provides a good visual analogy to the kind of stretched out and slowed down perception of time Harryhausen had to cultivate. His moving monsters were always evidently models – they never achieved a convincing semblance of real life. But those who carped that they lacked realism fundamentally failed to appreciate their true appeal. It was the very fact that they did look like models stirred into miraculous motion, golems raised from inert, moulded clay by some cabbalistic enchantment, which lent them their magic aura. Harryhausen seemed to be well aware of this, which is why there are so many statues, lifeless figureheads or limply hanging skeletons which are brought to life in his films – the witches or sorcerers (invariably wicked) who achieve this acting as surrogate animators. There is the six-armed Kali in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, which also has a wooden figurehead which comes to life; the bronze colossus Talos in Jason and the Argonauts; and the golden bull christened the Minaton (a kind of robotic minotaur) in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, which acts as a labour saving mechanised galley crew. He had also planned to adapt Karl Capek’s play R.U.R (standing for Rossum’s Universal Robots – the first use of the term), bringing the Czech writer’s mechanical men to life.

Talos Awakes - Jason and the Argonauts
The Talos sequence in Jason and the Argonauts is probably my favourite Harryhausen scene. The moment when the monumental statue, kneeling on its plinth with sword at the ready, turns its cumbersome head with rusty creak of ages to look at the two fools making away with its titanic treasures, is electrifying. And when it effortfully pulls itself up and climbs down from the plinth, to the accompaniment of the low rumbling brass of Bernard Herrmann’s score (his standard lumbering monster music), I still find myself catching my breath. Harryhausen animates the stiff-limbed gait of the verdigrised giant perfectly, creating an awkward, naturally pixillated movement suggestive of joints which haven’t seen exercise in aeons. It was entirely appropriate that Harryhausen turned to casting his own bronze statues in later life. He created casts of both his Talos and Shiva models, giving them a more permanent form than the fragile and perishable latex rubber of the originals.

With Trog on your side - Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger
The care which Harryhausen took over his creations, and the evident love he put into giving life naturally led to them often taking on a sympathetic air. His monsters were frequently imbued with a certain noble savagery. This was another legacy of Kong, the imperious master of its kingdom, whose wild environment is invaded, and whose untamed nature brought low by contact with human civilisation. There’s always a part of me that’s rooting for the giant roaring beasts as they’re poked, prodded and pierced by spears, swords and arrows, and a feeling of sadness when they slam lifelessly to the ground with a final bellow or drawn out screech. The prehistoric saurian in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms disturbed from its ocean bed slumber by the noisome rumblings of the atomic age; the alien Ymir in 20 Million Miles to Earth, which is brought to our planet from Venus and is treated as a freakish beast by all who come into contact with it; and the great ape of Mighty Joe Young, subjected to all manner of circus indignities – all invite audience sympathy. In Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, Harryhausen goes the whole way and finally makes one of his stop-motion figures, the prehistoric giant Trog, a dumbly loyal friend to our intrepid adventurers. He lends his brute strength like a humanoid Kong, a beast once more tamed by Beauty. Perhaps significantly, the Harryhausen family dog when Ray was a boy was named Kong.

T Rex vs.Triceratops - One Million Years BC
Harryhausen created a wide variety of creatures over the course of five decades, to each of which he imparted a living movement drawn from his careful study of analogous species. He modelled real animals such as baboons, elephants and walruses. He also recreated extinct ones, bringing dinosaurs, carnivorous and herbivore, back to life for The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, One Million Years BC and the Valley of Gwangi. There were molluscs, crustaceans, marine reptiles and cephalopods – the giant octopus from It Came From Beneath the Sea, the giant crab and nautiloid from Mysterious Island and a giant turtle for One Million Years BC; and insects (all giant, of course) – scorpions in Clash of the Titans, bees in Mysterious Island and a wasp in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.

Pterodactyl with mini Raquel - One Million Years BC
Creating the illusion of flight in its different forms was one of many challenges he relished setting for himself in each film. The flickering wings of an insect in flight was a very different proposition from animating the flapping, spike-beaked scrap of a pterodactyl, the top-heavy bulk and wide wingspan of a roc or the mid-air gallop of the winged horse Pegasus. Making a skeleton stalk and stab entailed building a particularly fine armature, the jointed metallic frame at the core of all his cast latex rubber models, to provide the bones within the bones. He often had his monsters an magical creatures fight on different planes, climbing up stairs and jumping off and onto plinths and platforms, all of which allowed for an increased range of postures and gestural movements.

Death's head grin - Jason and the Argonauts
His Dynamation photographic process involved the matching of actors with model action (the integration of mannequins human and manufactured), and that combined action against model, studio and location sets. This entailed managing the delicate task of matching colour, tone and scale, blending the real and the imaginary in as realistic a marriage as possible. Such a blend had demonstrably not been the case in some of his earlier studio pictures such as 20 Million Miles to Earth, where the back projections of Rome were obtrusively ill-matched with the animation. The celebrated summit of his achievement with Dynamation was the skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts, which he choreographed to the last detail in his charcoal storyboards. The skeletons he fashioned for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts (the singular creation from the former piecing itself together to rise from the earth with its bony brethren in the latter) area a marvellous design. The beetling, drawn in brow ridge and leering death grin lends them a jack-o-lantern appearance of gleefully psychotic ferocity. They look like they relish the prospect of reducing their opponents to the lifeless and fleshless state from which they’ve temporarily been resurrected.

Ymir and model farmer - 20 Million Miles to Earth
For all the technical mastery of the Dynamation scenes, it was also always fun seeing a jerkily writhing of a human being picked up in the jaws of a dinosaur, screaming horribly before being chomped (the bloodcurdling cries another element taken from Kong), or lifted bodily in the claws of a Roc to be deposited in a mountain nest as food for the chicks. There’s a brief but rather impressive scene in 20 Million Miles to Earth in which the reptilian Ymir wrestles with a farmer in a barn, understandably enraged by the fact that its just had a pitchfork stuck into its back. Harryhausen animates the man quite convincingly as he tries to fight off his attacker, his blows growing more desperate as the creature sinks its teeth into his shoulder. Most famously, a tiny model of Raquel Welch was carted off in the clutches of a pterodactyl in One Million Years BC, feebly gesticulating as it disappeared into the distance, spears thrown in the flapping and cawing beast’s wake all falling pitifully short.

Monumental lumber - Earth vs.the Flying Saucers
The Jason skeleton fight demonstrated the complex action Dynamation could co-ordinate between actors and models. But Harryhausen also enjoyed having his creatures interact with miniature sets, which usually involved their utter destruction. There are many wonderful scenes of oversized monsters chewing on masonry and twisting iron girders as if they were plasticene, reducing all to decorous rubble. He drew upon his friend Ray Bradbury’s short story The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms for the poetic scene in which the subaquatic saurian rears up to confront an isolated lighthouse. It hears its foghorn as an aggressively challenging bellow, its reflecting beacon a blinking eye, and tears wounds in the brickwork with its claws. Later, it goes stomping through Manhattan in the classic style, snacking on foolhardy NYPD officers who stand their ground in the face of the overwhelming evidence that their guns are having no effect whatsoever. The giant octopus which Came From Beneath the Sea wrestles the span of the Golden Gate Bridge into new plastic forms, like a post-war sculptor. The Venusian Ymir in 20 Million Miles to Earth climbs to the top of the Colosseum in Rome in an attempt to evade the US army. They blast away in their usual dunderheaded manner with bazookas and howitzers. Between enraged monster and aimless artillery, they manage to destroy a fair amount of antique Roman architecture before the inevitable end. The spectre of Kong looms large again as the rather pitiable beast plummets to the roads ringing the old Roman circus. It even gets to wave a defiant Kong-style fist at its tormentors below before taking its dying fall. Most enjoyably (and in a stylistic departure for Harryhausen) the sharp-edged discuses of the alien ships in the self-explanatorily titled Earth vs. the Flying Saucers fell the Washington Monument like so much dead lumber (crushing fleeing citizens in its timbering shadow), strim the classical columns guarding the Lincoln Memorial, and crack the dome of the Capitol like a hollow eggshell. It was a scene memorably parodied by Tim Burton in Mars Attacks, with the Martians rather more adeptly manoeuvring their saucers to toy with the toppling monument, tipping one way and t’other and making the panicked tourists run thither and thither before crushing them with much gleeful cackling.

Enter Medusa - Clash of the Titans
Harryhausen also delighted in sinuous, elastic motion, whether it be in the winding tentacles of the giant octopus in It Came From Beneath the Sea, the seven heads of the Hydra in Jason and the Argonauts, or more simply in the trumpeting trunk of the elephant in 20 Million Miles to Earth. More balletically, he also animated a serpentine bellydance in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, an enchanted snake growing four limbs which undulated with hypnotically swaying gesticulations before the tail reverted to boa instincts and tried to throttle its new-grown head. This delight reached its apogee in the snaking hair of the Medusa in Clash of the Titans, in which the multiple coils of the gorgon’s tangled barnet writhe in hissing and chaotically contrary motion. The Medusa’s slithering approach is all lit by a light mimicking flickering torchlight in a subterranean lair, an effect which had to be sustained in all the 1/24th of a second frames. Ray Bradbury called it ‘the finest piece of work he ever did’.

Centaur vs.Griffin - Golden Voyage of Sinbad
Again, for all the technical achievements of the Dynamation action, the climactic setpieces of Harryhausen’s films, the Jason and Sinbad ones in particular, tended to feature monster on monster gladiatorial combat. This put the real stars of the movie centre stage, with the humans pushed to the periphery. They occasionally prodded the antagonist of their favoured creature with puny pinprick spears, which produced an irritant sting at best, but generally they took the opportunity to slink away to safety. As far back as 20 Million Miles to Earth, he set his amphibious Venusian giant against an escaped circus elephant (the same one whose real incarnation he himself had been seen feeding a few moments earlier in his small screen cameo). In the later films of his mature period he pitted curved claw against razor-toothed claw, clacking scimitar beak against boulder-like fist. There was the classic fight between T.Rex and triceratops in One Million Years BC, with the mighty carnivore leaping onto the bony plated herbivore’s back, trying to avoid the jabbing thrusts of its goring head lances. Surprisingly, the triceratops comes out the victor in that one. An ogrish Cyclops lashed out at an unleashed dragon in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and the friendly troglodyte tried to pummel the defrosted sabre-tooth tiger in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. Both anthropoid bruisers were outclassed, however, and the outcome seemed something of a foregone conclusion. Griffin vs. Centaur in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad was a rather more even match – club and hoof against beak and claw, brutish grunt met with screeching squawk. Harryhausen creatures never reached a linguistic level, but their panoply of howls, roars, snarls and piteous dying screams were articulate in themselves. Lets finish with the image of this mighty bout, played out in front of the henge fencing the fountain of eternal youth. Place your bets now, and watch The Golden Voyage of Sinbad to find out who wins. My money’s on the griffin. It’s a wickedly clawed southpaw with good beak action, and the centaur’s vulnerable in its undefended flanks.