Thursday, 30 October 2014

School Night of the Living Dead

Halloween is here, and some scenes may disturb as we look back at a very Kiwi tradition of late night chills

"we kiss on the sofa, roll on the rug 
we’ve finished the wine by the time that the credits scroll up 
our week begins and ends on Sunday night 
we live for the Sunday Horrors" 
(Sunday Horrors: from Pre​-​Pill Love by Simon Comber)

An apt song which I hope Mr Comber doesn't mind me quoting, although it's not exactly my experience of the glorious seemingly never-ending seasons of late night vintage frights that was TV2s Sunday Horrors. My happiest memories are gathering a stalwart group of male friends at my house throughout our late teens; spanning our final year at school and beyond - to get-togethers while home from University.  By the end of it's run girlfriends and flatmates would form part of the audience  - we'd grown up with The Sunday Horrors.

I've wanted to write about these late night screenings for quite some time, as they went far beyond mere viewings of murky Universal and Hammer classics, (if we were lucky), and came to embody a comforting, end-of-the-weekend bonding ritual which was rarely missed.

(Left: it all began here: Taste the Blood of Dracula in May 1983 was our first-ever 'group viewing' - and a comfort against the end of the May holidays)
In trawling through old diaries to try to pin-point specific film titles and screening dates, the cameraderie of these long-ago gatherings has really hit home, and scanning the ever-changing roster of friends who dutifully trooped through my door on a Sunday night brings a sharp pang of nostalgia.  I say 'dutifully' because I was a genuine horror film fanatic, but my friends, being friends indeed, came along for the ride.  This is not to suggest they did it for me, but that the companionship was the most important part.  Whatever trials were taking place in our academic or embryonic romantic lives, we could put it all aside, enjoy my parents' unfailing hospitality, and immerse ourselves - almost always with fond mockery - in a creaky old chiller.
So much for my self-indulgent reminiscences - now on to my research findings.  Although I recall staying up for a Sunday night horror film (with my dad), as early as 1978 (The House that Dripped Blood: Cushing, Lee AND Jon Pertwee) the seasons of films we're discussing here truly began a few years later.

Without fan-fare, on March 14, 1981, TV2 brought to life a Sunday night institution which lurked menacingly between Radio with Pictures and the Goodnight kiwi.  In fact, this first season of The Sunday Horrors, lasting a mere two months, appears to have pre-dated Radio with Pictures by a couple of weeks, and was composed largely of worthy 1940s noirish, 'uncanny thrillers'.  From this humble beginning the on-going seasons of late-night cult cinema classics which The Sunday Horrors eventually became were to survive almost until the end of the decade, taking a whole generation from film fright to fondness across those years.

It seemed doubly ironic that not only did blood-curdling offerings featuring the diabolical and undead screen on the holiest day of the week, but it was also a school night - leading to much subterfuge across the nation from young horror devotees as they tried to avoid being sent to bed by vigilant parents.  Sometimes just sitting very still and quiet in the living room could make an adult forget you were there until the end of the movie.

(Right: The very first Sunday Horror: RKO's classy Cat People, screened mid June, 1981)
The screening of seasons of vintage horror films on late night television had enjoyed a venerable history elsewhere in the world.  BBC2 hosted summer screenings of late-night horror double bills throughout the late 1970s and early '80s while the US had begun this practice as far back as the late 1950s, with colourful hosts like Morticia Addams-inspired Vampira presenting Shock Theatre. Creature Features, another TV station's series of screenings, essentially gave its name to the entire genre of monster movies.

New Zealand's Sunday Horrors initially threw some classic Science fiction films into the mix, with 1983 screenings of the original The War of the Worlds and The Incredible Shrinking Man. Gradually, however, it settled down to more traditional Horror fare, with the on-going misadventures of Dracula, Frankenstein's monster and the Wolf Man peppering the  schedules.

Karloff and Lugosi together - and brutally mocked...
As I've mentioned,  my own recollections of these screenings usually involved gathering a group of friends in my family's living room late on a Sunday night.  With my long-suffering parents retreating to bed, we would proceed to hoot and cackle our way through the creaky, often monochrome chillers of yester-year.  Fancing myself an earnest devotee of these films, I would sometimes be secretly scandalised by the derision we heaped upon them. I remember once throwing something of a sulk when a screening of Son of Frankenstein was 'ruined' by a barrage of teenage innuendo at an unfortunate line of dialogue. (Bela Lugosi's Hunch-backed Ygor rolls his eyes, rubs the Frankenstein Monster's chest and unforgettably gurns: "He does things for me..."  You could have heard the roar of laughter from space.) But it was always well-intended and with a certain degree of affection, because we all kept coming back for more.

And I was doubly delighted when the occasional film, if not actually scaring us then at least riveted our attention. The rare, rapt silence was music to my ears.

As the years progressed the later Sunday night offerings began to fall more into line with current trends.  More recent titles like Halloween, the Howling, Salems Lot and Alien began to replace the esteemed horrors of earlier eras.  The slot was re-named When Worlds Collide in 1988, to focus more on science fiction and fantasy, and the following year was moved from Sunday nights altogether.  But worse was to come.

Only in New Zealand: Count Robula presents The Friday Frights
(Copyright Anna Chin)
In 1989, it was announced that former Prime minister Robert Muldoon would be taking on the role of Count Robula, the ghoulish host of TV2's 're-vamped' season of late night Horror Films  - the Friday Frights. Seemingly inspired by Muldoon's infamous portrayal of the narrator in an earlier production of The Rocky Horror Show, this was to be a short-lived last gasp of regular creepy features . According to my good friend Mr J Simian, Sir Robert was 'so wooden he could have staked himself' and appears to have done just that.  A viewing tradition which had once seemed as much of a fixture as the six o'clock news had passed - the torch-wielding villagers and holy water sprinkling vampire hunters had finally over-run the castle - and the Sunday Horrors crypt was sealed. (At least until our new 'kid on the block' third channel later robbed that grave and resurrected the grisly remains as 'TV3's Sunday Horrors'.  But that is another story)

In fairness, it wasn't all Count Robula's fault.  The advent of home video had increasingly enabled anyone to see the kind of films which were The Sunday Horrors' stock and trade anytime they wanted.  Ghosties and ghoulies and late-night beasties were forced to flee from the dawning light of VHS.

It seems unlikely that The Sunday Horrors ever did anyone any harm.  In fact, perhaps an appreciation of earlier ages of film, of pioneering directors and stars to which more contemporary cinema owed a huge debt, may have been gained during these late school nights.  Some young kiwis might even have been inspired to follow a career in film and television.  But most of all, it was good, spooky fun.

(Left: If you're going to miss a Sunday Horrors session, make it a good one.  Night of The Eagle was voted one of the very best  - and I wasn't there!)

Doing hard research (OK, looking at archive copies of the Listener) has both exceeded and slightly de-romanticised my recollections of The Sunday Horrors.  It now seems clear that I enjoyed the initial 1982 run of films on my own: it wasn't until May in 1983 when the group viewings began. (Perhaps some of us weren't deemed old enough to be out that late on a 6th form school night, and even I possibly wasn't even allowed to see most of the '81 run).  But on the plus side the line-up of films was absolutely superb, in quality, variety and longevity - practically 11 out of 12 months in 1983!

I would pay good money to see some of the wonderful films which I missed, (in fact, that's exactly what I'll have to do).
And now, for anyone interested (maybe just me), here are those Sunday Horrors seasons in full (I'll continue to add to these over the next few weeks).

Schedules (1981 onwards - to be completed)

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Lunar Express

As the current series of Doctor Who passes its half-way point I find myself talking about eclipses and Foxes.

I'm not saying I predicted vintage trains in space, and certainly didn't foresee steam punk,
but here's a painting I submitted for my University Entrance Art portfolio back in 1982.
(and he seems to be wearing the Eighth Doctor's costume)

This series of Doctor Who has been frustrating.
Why?  Well, just when you think you've picked a favourite story and are sure the quality is most likely to plateau or dip from this point, another one comes along the following week which is even better.  Of course there have been the rare wobbles (Time Heist: go to the back of the class) but so far, this year has been the most consistently brilliant in terms of writing, performance, direction and production value which I can remember.  It's due in no small part to Capaldi.  I hoped we'd see a less accessable, more alien and unpredictable interpretation of the Doctor, but I don't think anyone could have forseen the extent of risk Capaldi dares with his characterisation, or the degree of pay-off. You can't take your eyes off him and although I'm a little reluctant to say it, he's the sixth Doctor done right - scary, unfathomable, but able to let the hero we've followed all these years shine through just when he's needed.
Perhaps because of all of the above, Jenna Coleman has also upped her game hugely from last year.  No longer a self-adoring, quick-fire quipping cypher, Clara is suddenly a believable person in unbelievable circumstances. Sometimes scared, or angry, and sometimes, mercifully, lost for words.

So here is a post tenuously linking itself to the last two stories.  Kill the Moon wasn't stellar, (at least that's my opinion), but did showcase the inevitable bust-up between our two leads.  Perhaps it was inevitable, but still shocking in it's own way and, of course, brilliantly played.
I won't be subscribing to the theory posited in the episode for the origin of our natural satellite, but I am going to talk about the moon. And why not - we had a lunar eclipse earlier this month.  Not a common event, but also the second total eclipse of the moon this year.

As the earth's rotation and moon's orbit align - we become become 'piggy in the middle' with Sol and Luna. The Earth's shadow is cast across our moon, but this doesn't blot it out completely, instead washing it in a dim coppery twilight at totality.  It's a striking sight well-worth seeing, and I'll certainly never forget my first experience of a 'blood moon', with the Star League, on a mid-winter night in 1982.

The moon (in total eclipse) tracks across the sky, with part of the constellation
of Sagittarius, in August 1982 (Photograph by Mark Mullen)

The following episode: Mummy on the Orient Expresswas stellar, and absolutely beautiful to look at.  It has to be said, there probably aren't many programmes as well directed, production- designed and photographed on TV at the moment.

 This episode barely had a single forgettable shot, but what I want to talk about is 'that song'.  I had no idea who Foxes was, but Don't stop me now by Queen has been a favourite for a very long time.

25-year-old, Grammy Award-winning Louisa Allen performs a jazz/blues cover of the Queen classic, and as well as providing some diverting background colour on board the Orient Express, the collaboration between singer and series seems to have had benefits both ways.
Foxes has enthused: " I couldn’t think of a better place to make my acting debut than on one of the UK’s most iconic shows!" while the BBC have taken the opportunity to release the whole track with a compilation of series 8 clips, including some not seen before for upcoming episodes.
Doctor Who and Queen - having a good time, having a ball...

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Dry spell

A month without alcohol?  Can't be that hard, can it?

In a fit of reckless inspiration after speaking to a friend who had successfully completed 'dry July', I suggested that our own household embark upon 'sober October'.  We decided not to be too uptight about it: we had a special night out coming up and wanted to enjoy the pre-show meal with a glass of wine, and another friend who was also a connoisseur of pinot noir was staying the following weekend - we weren't about to make him feel awkward by sanctimoniously abstaining.

It was more about interrupting the routine of pouring a well-earned glass of crisp sauvignon when we got home from a hard day and a long commute - every evening.
The fact that October has so far been deliciously summery, just made for sitting out on our deck after work with glass of wine in hand to enjoy the last hour of sunshine, has caused me to condemn this as the 'stupidest idea' I've ever had.  But we've passed the half-way mark, and are somewhat relieved to find that we've broken a habit - not cured an addiction.  The beginning of next month marks our silver wedding anniversary, and we'll certainly celebrate that in traditional style - not just falling, but gleefully dive-bombing off the wagon again.
In the meantime, to make it really hurt, here's an essay praising the many virtues of 'the water of life'.

Sweet drams are made of these

The first time I tasted whisky I felt as if my chest was starting to glow from within, like ET’s ‘‘heart light’’. Initially a slightly alarming experience, in the time this warm radiance took to spread to my extremities I had become a convert.

Carbisdale Castle - scene of my eternal dram-nation. 

Living about 50 kilometres north of Inverness, in the depths of the Scottish highlands, is probably the best place to be introduced to whisky. My wife Rose and I were working in a remote youth hostel, which also happened to be a castle, overlooking the beautiful Kyle of Sutherland. Sneaking across this large estuary, via the ‘‘strictly no trespassing’’ railway bridge, the hostel staff were often drawn like thirsty moths to the lights of our local – the Invershin Hotel bar.

I had come to social drinking relatively late and was somewhat naive, so I almost got banned from that establishment, if not Scotland itself, when I tried to order a brandy and dry. There was only one liquor consumed around those parts and after workmates took me aside to have a quiet word, I hastily amended my request to a glass of everyone’s ‘‘usual’’ – Glenmorangie single malt whisky.

This was distilled a few kilometres south, and had a fierce following among the local population. After just one taste I remain to this day a fan of this smooth, somewhat spicy ambrosia.

It was winter’s final days when I became initiated, and for me this dark, smoke-infused time of year is linked to a warming nip of single malt. Enjoying a good whisky with friends in front of a roaring fire makes the gloomy, cold months something to look forward to.

By a process that the Scots admit originated elsewhere, but was perfected in Scotland, the pure, natural elements barley, peat and water are magically transformed by malting, fermentation and distillation, then matured into uisge beatha – the ‘‘water of life’’ to us non- Gaelic speakers.

Glenmorangie was only the beginning. I visited distilleries and sampled single malts all over Scotland and beyond – I even shared a dram while gazing up at Everest from the base camp in the Himalayas. Please note, this was Scotch and not the local Nepalese whisky (Ye Olde Earl), which admittedly does chase the cold away – and probably several years of your life, too. Enjoying a single malt isn’t just about the taste, marvellous as it is. The nose – the aroma of the whisky – is almost half the experience for me.

As my other faculties have started to falter my sense of smell remains acute; which is to be expected when you steer a nose the size of mine around. Smell is incredibly evocative; whiskies distilled on the Isle of Islay have an undeniable seaside frisson about their flavours and aromas, unfailingly reminding me of a driftwood bonfire on the beach. Glenmorangie, on the other hand, always evokes for me the peatiness, heather and bracken of the Kyle of Sutherland.

Whisky has accompanied many gloriously happy times in my life, but I’ve also learned the hard way that it commands respect. The penalty for treating this esteemed and venerable elixir with over-familiarity can be at least a day of your life wasted: curled up and braced for an impact which has long occurred, groaning and flinching from any light and sound under a crumpled duvet.

It might be thought that a return to New Zealand might quell the passion for this most Scottish of drinks, but the case seems to be quite the opposite.

Locally held whisky-tastings have been well supported by me and my friends over the years. These are curious but always enjoyable affairs, beginning with typically muted Kiwi reserve and six drams of whisky per attendee, and ending with a raucous din and empty glasses everywhere. As a non-partaker, Rose was often tasked with having to pick us up afterwards. Her reward was to become the one sober person at the party, then to endure what seemed to the rest of us to be uproariously witty banter all the way home.

The final tasting for the year would bloom into a fully-fledged Burns supper, complete with haggis, tatties and neaps (mashed potatoes and turnip) – a meal I honestly find is delicious. Less enjoyable was the traditional address to the haggis. My slight form would ensure I was always picked to represent the ‘‘poor, unfit, spindle-shanked foreigner’’ who ignorantly forsakes the ‘‘great chieftain of the pudding race’’ in this peculiar ritual. It hurt more that I was probably the only Scottish-born person there – but the traditional ‘‘participant’s dram’’ eased the pain a little.

There are many dusty quotes about whisky but I’ll end with a reflection from illustrator Ralph Steadman: ‘‘Single malt whisky is a drink to be respected, treasured, savoured and even kept for half a lifetime. It gathers momentum with every passing year. It fires dreams in the depths of despair and it gathers stories inside itself, as rich and dark as an ancient peat bog.’’

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Anno Tom-ini

Feline groovy?  This could be the song for you...

As Louis Armstrong once intimated about Jazz, somehow you just know the difference between a song which is a classic, and a song which is merely old - when you hear it.
Glasgow-born Alastair (Al) Ian Stewart's Year of the Cat is part of the soundtrack of my immediate pre-teenage years (along with many far lesser songs of that time). Released in early 1976 (!) but slow to make an initial impression, it charted well in many countries towards the end of that year and into 1977. Wikipedia tells me that it reached #15 in New Zealand, but I seem to recall it being as prolific as a top ten hit.

At a time when school was barely touching on analysing poetry and literature, Stewart's lyrics created vivid images in my mostly empty head: 
"She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running like a watercolour in the rain"... immediately paints a clear picture in the mind.  Similarly the "blue tiled walls near the market stalls" which Stewart sings about in the next verse conjure an image of a North African/Moorish village more palpably than any number of travel brochures.
But mostly, I just liked cats, so this song stuck in my mind.

Many years later, I was coming to the end of my days as a student and my flatmate bought Al Stewart's compilation album Songs From The Radio, on vinyl. One of our many flat parties was winding down and Year of the Cat found its way onto the turntable.  Not a dance-able number, to be sure, but when the lengthy instrumental break reached the electric guitar section one of those rare, unplanned, but perfectly-synchronised moments occurred:  
A couple of friends suddenly balanced on one leg and held the other horizontally; to mime strumming those soulful chords with as much 'Rock Star posturing' and gurning as this precarious stance would allow.  A diverting enough sight, but when the guitar segued into the equally emotive sax solo the 'guitar legs' suddenly became saxophones; and  knees simultaneously rose to their mouths with dangling foot sticking out like the 'bell' of that instrument.  Despite losing balance, one of these accomplished virtuosos gamely continued to 'rock' that imaginary saxophone from his new position: rolling about on the floor with knee still determinedly held to his puffing face.  It was too much and by now I was also rolling about on the floor.
A tradition was born, and even now the impulse to accompany Mr Stewart in this fashion is nigh on irresistible. 

Now about that instrumental break: to call it famous is not hyperbole and it certainly elevates what would otherwise have simply been another folksy Al Stewart number to classic status.
Legendary sound Engineer Alan Parsons at Abbey Road studios and equally legendary guitarist Tim Renwick apparently instigated this: a progression of solos transitioning from cello and violin, to acoustic guitar then electric guitar (both played by Renwick) and finally saxophone which elongates the song well beyond the standard airplay length of the times.

Stewart began working on the song itself almost a decade before it's release, inspired by seeing Tony Hancock on stage in the mid-sixties, and the flash of insight he experienced of the comedian's great inner unhappiness. Hancock's subsequent suicide was among the factors causing Stewart to rewrite the lyrics to those we are familiar with, and rename the song after a sign of the Vietnamese zodiac. Year of the Cat is taken at face value as the story of a random romantic encounter during a visit to a foreign town by most, but some try hard to ascribe hidden meanings pertaining to drug use, while others get hung up on the Casablanca references.  Personally I think the best approach is suggested by this on-line comment: 
"This song is magic. I just wish people would stop trying to analyse it and simply feel it..."

A very accomplished 'fan-made' video to accompany this song.
Of course, most of us have our own Year of the Cat imagery,
so you might prefer just to play the track.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Uphill battle

In a change of pace, I'm getting away from the screen and trying to run up a mountain in a freezing, rain-drenched southerly.

The view from the top of Mt Bruce - on a very different day.
Pukaha/Mount Bruce is a wildlife sanctuary north of Masterton which is especially renowned for providing bed and board for Manukura, the famous white (not albino) Kiwi.  Last weekend however, saw this worthy enterprise hosting the inaugural Pukaha Wild Challenge - a fund raising event comprising of a steep 10km hill run and/or a 21km cycle race.

I've been running at every opportunity over the past few weeks, enjoying the warming spring weather and the chance to get as physically distant from the office as I can in my lunch break.  However, as much as I love my bike I was under no illusions about taking part in a cycle race.  The NASA level technology producing road bikes which weigh slightly less than a toenail clipping would leave my own sturdy pack-horse far behind.
The preceding week was wonderfully warm and sunny, as have the days since the event, but race day itself had an icy southerly of Old Testament proportions visited upon it.  Another very good reason just to do the run - most of the course was beneath the sheltering canopy of thick native bush, apart from the very exposed Mt Bruce summit.

Running cold - trying to keep warm at the start point.
The usual excitement and trepidation at the starting line was mixed with an unusual eagerness to get started, as the cold and wet was starting to take its toll on exposed hands and legs.  I found myself at the front so was able to start reasonably well, comfortably resigned as the inevitable cluster seriously fit and experienced racers broke ahead and rapidly disappeared.

As usual, the initial pace I settled into was too quick, which I discovered as soon as I hit the first incline and had to hurriedly 'shift down'.  Not for the first time I quickly began to wonder why 'the stick who walks' does hill runs.  My spidery stride can cover ground quickly on level terrain, but inclines immediately squeeze my lengthy gait, and any possible advantage it brings, into exactly the same constrained, grueling trot as anyone half my height - and age.  It got worse as we soon left the walking track and turned straight uphill, the slopes now treacherous with thick mud and slippery tree roots.  At this point I was tilting myself forward, bent over to literally 'fall up' the hill, horrified that my breakfast already felt as if it was considering a sudden ascent of its own.  Now came the standard 'internal ridicule voice', chiding me for ever thinking I was anywhere near fit enough for this - but least I was no longer even aware of the cold and rain....

The real athletes break ahead - I'm the lagging white socks at the extreme left.
Miraculously there were more level sections and even the occasional dip in this endless climb, and it was here that I took heart again.  I've been told that fitness has a lot to do with recovery time, and I could feel myself 'power back up' a little during these brief respites from the uphill slog.  Also having long arms helped me clamber the steepest parts: frantically grabbing for trees and rocks to haul myself up with somehow enabled me to more-or-less retain my position in the field.  Judging from this photograph, taken several months ago, the view from the summit is quite something, but our visibility was down to few metres.

On clear day... which this definitely wasn't.
Yes, the cold really bit hard up there, but the incline finally ceased and soon we were plunging back into the bushline for the downhill stretch.  And stretch is appropriate as here was my chance to really open out and cover ground quickly.  When that ground is steep, slippery with mud and treacherously studded with rocks and tree roots, caution would be advisable - but there was no time. I  flung myself back down that hill as fast as I could scramble and remember grabbing and spinning 360 degrees around a tree  at one point to try and control my plummet.
On an inclement day the light under a thick bush canopy is surprisingly dim - so the obstacles we ran over weren't even properly visible most of the time. Just before breaking out of the bush and onto level farmland I managed to kick a concealed tree root at full speed, but stayed on my feet and eventually finished knowing I was really going to feel it when I stopped.  (fortunately, my big toe was only colourfully bruised by this blunder).

Follow the orange arrows - but mind the tree roots!
My wonderful support crew and I managed to see Manukura, and a fascinating, if nippy, tree gecko before the grey, wet drive home for a hot shower.
I had managed to finish in 16th place, with a time of 1 hour fifteen minutes, but am under no illusions - far better athletes than me would have been conserving their energy for the cycle ride ahead.
I would like to try for a place in the top ten next year, though (you've gotta have a dream!) and am currently  looking for a partner to tackle the cycle section...

Manukura - 'Poster Girl' of Pukaha/Mt Bruce