Deeper Into Weird Walk
There follows on these isles a cinematic tradition of pondering Britain’s rural landscape as a haunting spectre, and the oddities found therein. On a macro level, there was the folk-horror boom of the 1960s and ‘70s, which tapped into a more generalised relationship with rurality and its customs. Customs which, when used in pursuit of mainstream success, were often purloined unfairly from the communities that created them and kept them alive. In more accessible, localised forms it could be found in the anthology TV film series Play for Today (1970 – 1984) in the likes of Nuts in May (Leigh, 1976) and Penda’s Fen (Clarke, 1974). Films which focused in terms of social realism on how British people interact with the landscape around them and how it informs us – culturally, politically, even spiritually. There were the laughably sinister public service films which shaped how a generation of children viewed the landscape around them, such as Lonely Water (Grant, 1973) and David Eady’s Play Safe trilogy (1978). The great British countryside – beautiful yes, but ever deadly. Et in arcadia ego. The macabre stalks even the idyll. As landscape evolves, and the meaning of the word shifts in the 21st century – no longer simply a physical space but also a digital network – movements and organisations rush to bridge the gap. In particular, the recent programming and streaming collaboration between Deeper Into Movies and Weird Walk.
Those reading may be more familiar with the multiplatform East London film club Deeper Into Movies than Weird Walk, an online journal which puts out a zine, a podcast and events concerning the ancient tracks and hidden sites of the British Isles – “formed in the hinterland between the bucolic and the eerie”. Together they have collaborated as Deeper Into Weird Walk on two screenings so far, both at the Rio Dalston. The first, The Ballad of Tam Lin (McDowall, 1970) on Halloween Night last year, which featured a Q&A with star Ian McShane hosted by Stewart Lee. Then more recently they screened Ben Wheatley’s delightful caravan-holiday-murder-spree romp Sightseers (2012), with a Q&A by the writer-stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram. The Deeper Movies Channel has also started a Weirder Walks Selects collection. The channel features Sightseers along with a couple of cult psychogeography documentaries in the form of London Orbital (Sinclair & Petit, 2002) and The London Nobody Knows (Cohen, 1967).
Sightseers was the weird little brain baby of Lowe and Oram, brought to life by Wheatley in the days where his attachment to directing the sequel to The Meg (2018) was but a gleam on the horizon. A story of a couple, Chris and Tina, still in their honeymoon phase heading off on a caravan road trip through Northern England. Chris (Oram) soon embarks on a killing spree which at first is influenced by Little England grievances peppered throughout the film. He backs over a guy for littering on their visit to a model railway. While visiting a ruined abbey, Chris remarks to new friends on how someone’s personal graffito has marred the ancient stone. Individual close ups of each character’s grave expression in response to this this blight reminded me so much of a line from Larkin, that other great arbiter of petty Englishness, from Show Saturday (1973) “Mugfaced middle aged wives, glaring at jellies”.
Chris’s goriest kill is amongst standing stones, a rambler who chastised Tina for letting their (stolen) dog shit near the stones. The rambler threatens to grass them up to the National Trust, and Chris goads him, asking the stranger if he went to private school (he did) and accuses him of trying to feel up Tina. While Chris beats the brains out of the toff in slow-mo, John Hurt’s voice comes in reciting Jerusalem as Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ rises to a heartening climax, abruptly cut short when he smashes the guy’s head against one of the stones. “Tell that to the National Trust, mate.”
While the stranger’s brains are still glistening on the druidic rock, Chris justifies his murder as a retribution for feudalism – “300 years ago his ancestor would have strode down a path just like this you know, and he’d have seen some common strumpet like you and he’d have gone ‘I’m gonna have a bit of that’…and they call them The Good Old Days”. This scene alone can encapsulate a very recognisable form of England, an England entirely unsettled by itself and thoroughly despondent about its present circumstances. This is also evident in Cohen’s curio-doc The London Nobody Knows, which features James Mason in the David Attenborough role, but rather than grandfatherly observations of penguins, we have Mason flatly observing a decaying Music Hall theatre, detailing the demolition of a fading Victorian past, and ending on a phlegmatic note that any hideous architecture of the modern era will also be done away with at some point in the future.
The tie that binds this all, and Weird Walk with it, is hauntology: a portmanteau of haunting and ontology first coined by Derrida, who suggested that the act of haunting and of being could be as one – that ghosts, or the spectral, are relentlessly present even as the past fades into memory and the future arises. Originally developed as a music genre, it has since found itself part of a literary movement, envisioned most boldly in online projects Hookland and Scarfolk. Created by David Southwell and Richard Littler respectively, both are fictional towns which are eternally trapped in the 1970s, embodying the notion that cultural and political spectres linger in nation, or wider territory’s geography. And there can be no doubt that Britain’s landscape – political, social, economic, cultural, journalistic – is haunted. Feudalism, colonialism, industrialism, Thatcherism; all have driven dark furrows through this land, and the scars still gleam.
Scarfolk grew from a blog which posted sardonic public service posters influenced by the inadvertent grim comedy of the post-war health and safety era. Fostered in a greenhorn welfare state of radioactive nests and nuclear survival leaflets, from a time when that was a tangible threat. Some of these were recently featured in the Ghost section of Somerset House’s Horror Show exhibition. Hookland’s origins lie more in the ethereal, and the strange. Both, created by children of the 1970s, exemplify an idea of Britain lingering on the edge of time. Its heritage enshrouded in mist and its future unclear. Scarfolk’s outlook is perhaps more bleak, its parody posters sending up an obsequious nation obsessed with class. Hookland offers resistance. Rejecting creaking nostalgia, invoking landscape punk – a landscape of fractured rural beauty and humming pylons; standing stones flanked by cooling towers.
What is gained from all of this is a refreshing dose of weirdness, a refusal to view England in terms of chocolate box villages and neoliberal homogenisation; presented for consumption or profiteering. But to re-establish a cinema of Strange Britain takes guts and institutes willing to take risks. As Paul Kingsnorth noted in his 2008 novel Real England: The Battle Against the Bland, “Whimsy doesn’t pay”. This publicaiton’s own Ben Flanagan wrote about the Paddingtonisation of British Cinema since 2012 for our Pagans issue, and researching this piece certainly reaffirmed the ways in which the weirder side of British TV and filmmaking has become a smoothed out homogenous plasticine of Nice. Take for instance the recent British film The Lost King (Frears, 2022), a film about a woman who, along with extensive research into the matter, claimed to have a psychic sense that King Richard III was buried under a Leicester car park. In another England, this could have been brought forth in a suitably odd manner, given the correct team, and instead it was delivered with late-career Steven Frears cosiness, with a post-Paddington Sally Hawkins chucked in for good measure. Ben Wheatley seems to have abandoned his early career psychogeographical projects for the most part, especially as he’s now made the jump to directing large, silly blockbusters.
British cinema remains in a sad stasis, missing the opportunity to harness hauntology and weirdness in these progressively more chaotic times. But there is at least a growing trend in streaming and programming to edify our pre-existing oddities. Perhaps in this there is room for a movement to grow, however big or small, by inspiring those yet to become such filmmakers with the work those who came before.