Wednesday 12 July 2017

We Don't Go Back #54: Look Around You: Ghosts (2002)

The problem with writing about comedy is that not only will you never really communicate what's so funny, but that there's this danger in trying that you'll sap the comedy from the thing you're writing about. So I suppose that in writing about Look Around You, I'll just be serious. I hope that's all right with you.

When I was a kid in primary school, the age my own children are now, I used to look forward to the afternoon that the school TV, a monstrous box bearing a faint whiff of heat and ozone, would be wheeled in.
We'd sit and watch the clock counting down to when Words and Pictures, or Watch, or some science show would begin. I faintly remember that some of these programmes had accompanying textbooks and storybooks, which would be kept in the white wire carousels in the corner of Miss Chapman's class, getting increasingly dog-eared, but never, as far as memory serves me, being used in class. These memories have a faintly dreamlike character, perhaps because of the way that school programmes intruded on my near-constant daydreams. The Boy from Space, part of the already trippy Look and Read strand, was, until the BFI released it on DVD, something I'd always wondered if I'd imagined; Picture Box always seemed to me to be faintly queasy, but then I only ever saw it when I was at home, sick (and remember that it was expected that schools would tune in to these programmes on the point of broadcast, hence the countdown).

Look Around You ran for two series in 2002 and 2005. The second series was a breezy, joyful spoof of Tomorrow's World in its 80s heyday. But in the first series, in each of eight ten minute episodes, writer/producers Peter Serafinowicz and Robert Popper created a sort of ode to this lost strand of educational television, or, more accurately, to their dream-logic memories of them.
Over footage that has the grainy, washed out character of 70s film stock and cheerful but faintly queasy music that could have been the product of the Radiophonic Workshop, a friendly yet professorial voice (the voice of Nigel Lambert) says, "Look around you. Look around you. Just... look around you."

With gentle authority, we will be told that the largest number possible is 45 billion (but... could 45,000,000,001 yet exist?), that we don't know what birds are ("we just don't know"), and that if you mix sulphur and champagne (the decent stuff, mind) you get sulphagne, which enables you to shoot disintegration beams from your eyes when you drink it. A hand takes jars full of iron, water, sulphur, music and maths from a shelf. A scientist (Edgar Wright. Yes, that Edgar Wright) receives a phone call from a brain in a jar.
The avant-garde background music and the parade of absurdities, always presented with documentary authority, give the whole thing a faintly nauseous character. The test tubes, beakers, pipettes, bunsen burners, all clearly marked with Dymo labels (everything in Look Around You has a Dymo label on it) call back my school science lessons. A parade of absurdly specific devices appear, only slightly more offbeat than the kind that forbidding Mr Veale and sadsack Dr Jordan would produce in the science lessons I endured as a kid.

Look Around You inspires a kind of hysterical nausea. Or maybe that's just me. Watching it now, I can smell the leaky gas taps in my school science labs. I have no doubt that my profound antipathy to science subjects back then had a lot to do with spending 90 minutes at a time wondering if I was going to throw up, about six times a week (this is probably also part of the reason for my unreasonable lifelong antipathy towards Thursdays, which seemed to be when I'd have three double science lessons in a row).

I wonder now if science subjects were really as badly taught in my school as I remember them being. They seemed back then to be a parade of jumbled, pointless facts that were presented as somehow important with no real explanation of why. And I think that's why Look Around You works for me. And why I find it so very funny.
Look Around You is a work of hauntology: it presents a past that is unresolved, made absurd and strange like memory. Its genius is that it feels more like that time does now than the actual artefacts often do when we revisit them.

At the halfway point of the first series, having done germs, water and maths, Look Around You focusses on ghosts. And it's sort of crucial that it's in the middle of the series, because part of what makes the Ghosts episode so brilliant is that they give the supernatural exactly the same treatment as they do to other everyday things.
Narrator: From the sightings of the headless spirit of King Henry VIII to the poltergeist activity of the ghost of Sir Ian Whitaker, former General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, ghosts are all around us... Most of us are interested in the spirit world, and if we're not reading about it in popular magazines, we're paying a visit to our local medium.
And the things is, back then I clearly remember that the supernatural was a thing that we talked about, that was on TV all the time. Russell Grant (who was the real deal, not just some bloke in a horrendous jumper) did the horoscopes on TV-AM. There were people who thought Ghostwatch was real. Look, here's one of the MacDonald Headlines educational books from 1977, a copy that belonged to my dad.

And here's the back cover:
Look, back then, a mainstream educational publisher would produce a series that gave ESP the same treatment as subjects like garden herbs, having a baby, cheese-making and birdwatching.

The 70s were another country.

Look Around You approaches ghosts as if they're as much part of the everyday fabric of life as water, iron, music and, um, maths, the sorts of things you measure with Gloriette 80 Materialisers and Kymantic Melomintions.
In the commentary for Ghosts, Robert Popper says, "When we wrote it, we said, it's going to be spooky anyway. Look Around You is spooky." and that's pretty telling. Look Around You was the first TV series that really tuned in to this feeling that the slightly warped childhood so many of us who grew up in the 70s and 80s remember is something that is slightly more than we imagine. It's not really homage; it's not even a reboot. It's almost a critique, a nagging feeling that there was something very wrong with the notional world of our childhood. 

And this is what hauntology is. This is the same vein that Richard Littler's Scarfolk taps. It's not nostalgia exactly; it's about the claiming of distorted memories of the past – the things that haunt us – as an object for our attention in its own right.
And it's this sort of psychoarchaelogy that gives the rise in interest in the 70s folk horror classics its weight. The folk horror boom is essentially hauntological; it is a rediscovery of the scary things from between about thirty and fifty years ago and a growth in a desire to remake them in our own way, based upon imperfect memories of them. Look Around You is right at the heart of that.

Make sure that you write that down in your copy books.

My own extended project in hauntology, We Don't Go Back is going to be a book and it's still funding on Kickstarter. There's still over two weeks left to support it, and it's tantalisingly close to its stretch goals. Back it here.