Wednesday, May 16, 2007

London Calling

London calling to the faraway towns
Now war is declared – and battle come down.
London calling to the underworld,
Come out of the cupboard, you boys and girls.

. . . The ice age is coming, the sun’s zooming in.
Meltdown expected, the wheat is growing thin.
Engines stop running, but I have no fear,
Cause London is burning and I,
I live by the river.

“London Calling”
The Clash (1979)

One of the scariest things I can remember watching on TV as a child was an episode of the British sci-fi series Doctor Who featuring an alien menace capable of creating and controlling plastic objects.

This alien entity’s plan for world domination included all sorts of things made of plastic, from daffodils that squirted a deadly spray, to “Autons” – sinister-looking shop window mannequins (with concealed weapons within their hands) which, when activated at the climax of the story, broke through shop windows to bring chaos and death to the streets of London.

Yeah, I know, it all looks a bit hokey now. And rest assured, the good Doctor saves the day. Still, the Autons, according to
Wikipedia, “remain one of the more memorable monsters associated with Doctor Who, [and] the image of store mannequins coming to life [and] shooting people down in the street, is one of the series’ iconic moments.”

Interestingly, “[such scenes] caused public controversy about whether [Doctor Who] was too frightening for children. The story also featured in a discussion in the House of Lords, where Baroness Bacon expressed worries about it being too frightening even for older children.”

I’m sure this all seems like a storm in a teacup, especially considering what children can now observe on TV in relation to violence. Not surprisingly, the 2005 return of the Autons in the very first episode of the “new” Doctor Who, involving even more graphic destruction and carnage, didn’t cause the least bit of a stir.

I think the reason why this particular Doctor Who story made such an impression on me as a child was that it used everyday objects as embodiments of violence, fear, and evil. I could dismiss other Doctor Who monsters – Daleks, Sea Devils, Ice Warriors, Cybermen, etc. – as they were so, well, fanciful. But shop window dummies? Why, we even had those in Gunnedah!

Master filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch are renowned for their ability in using ordinary everyday objects and occurrences to mask and convey forces of chaos and evil. In Hitchcock’s classic The Birds – another film I remember well from my childhood – the attacking birds, notes one critic, “represent the eruption of chaos, of unpredictability . . . [of] everything we don’t understand and can’t control.”

And then there’s David Lynch, whose films would have to contain some of the most potent examples of the weird yet compelling blending of the ordinary and the surreal ever committed to celluloid, as the following clip from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, hauntingly demonstrates. (And, yes, that’s David Bowie playing “the long lost Phillip Jeffries,” and Lynch himself playing “Gordon.”)

Again, what makes Lynch’s visions of otherworldly entities and places all the more strange and unnerving is their inclusion of and merging with everyday objects. As film critic Greg Olson has noted about this aspect of Lynch’s Twin Peaks saga: “Roaring TV-set snow and eerily twittering telephone wires are a kind of inter-dimensional conduit. . . . In a place you can’t locate with an earthly compass, the
red dwarf thrives on creamed corn and [the evil entity] Bob sports a leather ‘Levis’ patch on his jeans.”

London, however, is a place one can locate with “an earthly compass,” and the featuring of its various landmarks in stories and films of alien invasions and apocalyptic showdowns has a long tradition.

Doctor Who, of course, has maintained this tradition –ensuring that the British capital has been the focal point of one extraterrestrial incursion after another.

Yet it wasn’t just Doctor Who that alerted me to this tradition. In 1978, Jeff Wayne’s musical interpretation of H.G. Well’s classic novel, The War of the Worlds, was a huge hit in Australia. Wayne’s securing of Richard Burton as the narrator-protagonist added considerable gravitas to a “concept album” which could easily have come across as “a load of old bollocks,” as they say in Britain.

At one point in the story, the Martians, with heat-rays blasting, advance upon London in their tripodal war machines. Amidst the ensuing chaos, swelling strings and Justin Hayward’s re-worked “Forever Autumn” flood the soundtrack. Yet even more compelling is the hero’s attempts to locate his beloved and escape the panic and disarray of the capital. It’s truly epic. Burton’s rich plumy voice, of course, helps tremendously, as does the inclusion of snippets of H. G. Wells’ stirring text (and all set to a disco beat!):

As I hastened through Covent Garden, Blackfriars, and Billingsgate, more and more people joined the painful exodus: sad, weary women, their children stumbling and streaked with tears, their men bitter and angry; the rich rubbing shoulders with beggers and outcasts. Dogs snarled and whined, the horses bits were covered in foam, and here and there were wounded soldiers – as helpless as the rest.

We saw tripods wading up the Thames, cutting through bridges as though they were paper – Waterloo Bridge, Westminster Bridge. One appeared above Big Ben – “Ullah!”

Never before in the history of the world had such a mass of human beings moved and suffered together. This was no disciplined march, it was a stampede without order and without a goal. Six million people, unarmed and unprovisioned, driving headlong. It was the beginning of the rout of civilization; of the massacre of mankind.

London’s seemingly perennial role in such classic tales of alien invasion, gothic horror, and apocalyptic doom was the focus of a recent article by Mark Kermode in The Observer. The recently released film, 28 Weeks Later, the sequel to Danny Boyle’s hit about zombies roaming the empty streets of London, is the starting point for Kermode’s reflection.

“There is something particularly resonant about such nightmarish phantasms when placed within uncomfortably familiar British sites,” he muses. “[It’s] a juxtaposition which has long been exploited by purveyors of the uncanny.”

Yes, just ask the producers of Doctor Who.

Following are excerpts from Kermode’s article.


A Capital Place for Panic Attacks
By Mark Kermode
The Observer
May 6, 2007

In the 19th century, Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker established Britain as the natural home of Gothic horror – with Frankenstein being first published (anonymously) in London in 1818, and Dracula later bringing its eponymous vampire across the waters from Transylvania to darkest Whitby.

When HG Wells wrote his classic tale of extraterrestrial invasion The War of the Worlds, he instinctively understood the eerie appeal of having monsters from another planet land on the outskirts of somewhere as ordinary as Woking. Tom Cruise might have battled valiantly against giant tripods reaping post-9/11 chaos in New York in Steven Spielberg’s recent blockbuster adaptation, but Wells’s late Victorian novel places its first otherworldly appearance squarely in the soils of Horsell Common, a location renowned for its quaint English beauty. Somehow, these outlandish ideas seemed more credible – and disturbing – when played out against the down-to-earth backdrop of Britain.

As a fan of scary movies, I’ve long been aware of the appeal of horror on the home front. One of the creepiest experiences of my childhood was watching a TV rerun of Wolf Rilla’s black-and-white chiller Village of the Damned, a typically domestic tale of alien terror based on John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos. Wyndham had first established himself as a master of strange English science fiction with The Day of the Triffids, famously filmed by Steve Sekely in and around a number of memorable London locations including Charing Cross and Marylebone stations, Piccadilly Circus, and Westminster Bridge.

According to Boyle, it was the opening sequence of The Day of the Triffids, in which a man wakes up in hospital to discover that a meteor shower has blinded his fellow countrymen, which first inspired Alex Garland to write 28 Days Later.

Village of the Damned is altogether less cosmopolitan, centering on a sleepy English village whose womenfolk are discreetly visited by procreating aliens and subsequently give birth to a brood of blond-haired neo-Nazis from space. In Rilla’s film, the children are handsome telepaths who can cause people to kill themselves simply by giving them the evil eye, hence the haunting tagline: “Beware the stare that will paralyse the will of the world!”

This all was worrying enough, but, as a child, the real terror for me came from the fact that the children’s stamping ground was Letchmore Heath, a rather twee little enclave which happened to be up the road from my school. This meant that I was being educated next door to the children of the damned. No wonder I turned out the way I did.

And then there was Quatermass and the Pit, the film which convinced me that taking a trip on the underground would lead you into the very bowels of hell. Originally broadcast as a six-part BBC serial in the late Fifties, Quatermass and the Pit was remade by Hammer [Studios] in 1967 with a ripping screenplay by original writer Nigel Kneale. The plot concerns a string of ominous discoveries (skulls, skeletons, spaceships) during unspecified “Central Line extension work” at “Hobbs End” station.

As demonic artifacts are uncovered, a riot of violent madness erupts, climaxing in an apparition of Old Nick himself over the London skyline. The ingenious twist is that this “devil” is actually a Martian, an intrusive extraterrestrial ancestor from whom mankind has inherited its innate propensity for violence. (“We are the Martians!” concludes our hero.)

According to Kneale, the inspiration for the story came from watching news footage of the Notting Hill race riots in the late Fifties. But it is the sense of the underground as some kind of portal to the underworld which haunts my memories of this creepy classic.

Since then, umpteen movies, including 28 Weeks Later, have capitalised upon the unsettling potential of the tube, a brooding labyrinth which has come to embody the morbid subtextual groanings of horror's repressed psyche. . .

[It’s at Tottenham Court Road station in John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London] that an unsuspecting passenger is stalked and ravaged by the eponymous beastie, providing one of the most memorable sequences in a film which trades heavily on the frighteningly funny disjunct between quaint English locations (Yorkshire pubs; West End porno cinemas; Tower Bridge; even London Zoo) and lycanthropic fantasy.

It’s significant that the long-awaited sequel An American Werewolf in Paris proved to be a total flop, mainly, I think, because once you cross the English channel, who cares whether there's a monster on the prowl? Over in Europe, anything goes; it’s only here in uptight Britain that the magic formula of horror and humbug really makes sense. . .

In recent years, there has been an encouraging resurgence of dark-hearted, British-set fantasies which have acted as a cadaverous counterbalance to the endless diet of comfortably middle-class Hugh Grant staples. An adaptation of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s terrifically seditious graphic novel V for Vendetta ran into unexpected controversy when its explosive, tube-bound finale chimed too closely with the real-life horrors of the 7 July bombings. The film’s release was postponed (officially for “other reasons”), but scenes of the Houses of Parliament being triumphantly detonated from below by a heroic latterday Guy Fawkes remained intact, alongside images of anarchists merrily swarming across Trafalgar Square.

One of the most impressive films of last year was Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men, a gripping, dystopian nightmare adapted from a novel by PD James (via the legacy of Nigel Kneale) which posits a desolate vision of a near-future world in which human reproduction has become a dying art.

Beautifully filmed in battle-scarred, colour-drained hues by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Cuaron's apocalyptic vision of this grey and unpleasant land charts a grim map of Britain which includes haunting footage of the once-magnificent Battersea Power Station, and climaxes in a Hadean vision of Bexhill-on-Sea which most closely resembles war-torn Bosnia.

Danny Boyle agrees that Children of Men exists within the same tradition as 28 Weeks Later, and points out that both films are significantly directed and photographed by non-British film-makers who are able to observe the strangeness of this land and its culture with the intelligent empathy of an outsider’s eye.

“In the end,” says Boyle, “I think the key thing about Britain is that it’s built on this deep, dark ocean of history. There are grassy, picturesque areas of London which you still can’t put train tunnels through because they’re actually covering plague pits. You just don’t get that in America – that dark abyss of the past. And it makes Britain, as a location, very fertile ground for horror.”

(Hmm, not sure about this last bit. America lacking in a “dark abyss of the past”? I think if Boyle took the time to acquaint himself with the genocide of the Native Americans and the carnage of the Civil War, he might think otherwise.)

To read Mark Kermode’s “A Capital Place for Panic Attacks” in its entirety, click here.

London calling, yes, I was there, too.
An’ you know what they said? Well, some of it was true!
London calling at the top of the dial.
And after all this, won’t you give me a smile?
London Calling.

I never felt so much alike, like-a, like-a. . .

First and last images: “Aliens of London” episode of Doctor Who.
Image 2: “Rose” episode of Doctor Who.
Images 3-4: Fade to Colour.
Image 5: “Thunderchild” by Michael Trim (cover artwork of Jeff Wayne’s
The War of the Worlds album).
Image 6: “Panic in the Streets” by Geoff Taylor (artwork from Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds album).
Image 7: Still from Village of the Damned.
Image 8: Still from Quatermass and the Pit.
Images 9-10: Stills from Children of Men.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Reflections on the Overlooked Children of Men
Blast from the Past: The Return of Doctor Who’s Sarah Jane Smith
What Sarah Jane Did Next


Anonymous said...

An all-time classic song which is totally LOCKED in my iPod! Great post, Michael.

episcopalifem said...

Great post Michael!

I enjoyed it muchly.

I'm a closet horror/fantasy/sci fi fan. It warms my cockles to see the same likes in one who is as erudite as yourself (makes me feel less, I don't know, silly, I guess!)

Michael J. Bayly said...

Thanks Eileen,

Your comment made my day!

And remember: there's nothing "silly" about being a fan of a good horror/fantasy/sci-fi tale!