Silent Film Double Feature @InvFilmFest

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This year’s film festival featured not just one, but two silent film festival events. I’m not sure if this year’s festival offerings were disproportionately serious in topic in general, or just my choices were not the most uplifting options. However, both silent film events were spots of – much needed – light relief and joy for this viewer. They were both very different in tone and style – from the comedy shorts of Laurel and Hardy to the feature-length ‘historical’ drama of Rob Roy.

Laurel and Hardy

I’ve always had a soft spot for Laurel and Hardy. I’ve no idea how I first ended up watching a Laurel and Hardy film, only that I loved them. (Let us never speak of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon series, but it probably was the cause.) Their talkies were in pretty regular circulation on the television when I was a kid, burning Dance of the Cuckoos into our collective unconscious. (It was nostalgia watching Laurel and Hardy early one Sunday morning on BBC 2, as a teen that led me to see Breakfast at Tiffany’s for the first time – for years my favourite film.) But I don’t think I ever saw any of their silent films until I was an adult.

I’d developed a soft spot for German Expressionist filmmaking at uni but I didn’t really fall in love with silent film until I saw my first silent with a live musical accompaniment. It was a grey and miserable Sunday afternoon, in a large tent, in the middle of – I think – Glasgow Green, and Neil Brand was talking about – and vamping along on the piano to – a Buster Keaton film. The General if memory serves me right.

In the decade and a bit since then, I’ve seen a lot of different silent films, with a lot of different accompanists, but this was the first time since then that I’ve seen another silent accompanied by Neil Brand.

Watching Laurel and Hardy always makes me feel like a kid again, in the best way, – that giant custard pie fight sequence! – and this was no exception. There’s something so pure and simple about their humour; that means that their humour still works so perfectly and that allowed them to make the transition to sound in a way so few of their contemporaries did. The films may have been silent but I could hear their voices, clear as day, less in my head than in my heart.

Rob Roy

Second up, was the now traditional visitor from the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival tour, with it’s specially written score. This is the second year in a row we’ve had a silent movie with a new score from multi-instrumentalist David Allison and he’s exceeded himself here. I must admit to being a bit of a purist when it comes to silent film scores, if I’m seeing them live, I tend to prefer a live improvised piano score. I find alternative scores a bit hit and miss generally, either they are amazing and an utter joy to experience (the klezmer band that accompanied Salt for Svanetia were particularly awesome), or they just don’t work at all (looking at you, Moroder). But this definitely fell into the former category. It was adventurous, charming and very different – Allison appeared to be using an iPad as a synthesiser at one point – and most importantly it played the film straight. It would have been very easy to make this film seem silly, but instead it drew the audience into the story focusing on it’s earnestness and pathos, so that we were charmed rather than amused by it’s more ridiculous moments.

Accross Land and Sea @CircusArtspace

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In order to talk about this exhibit, I need to first talk about the space it took place in. CiRCus_Artspace is an artist collective based in the WASP studios within the Inverness Creative Academy. (Or, if you’re a certain age, the old Midmills College building.) Their stated purpose is to make contemporary art available to a wide Highland audience while also supporting recent graduate artists from the area. I’ve been in the space a few times now – and I’m always taken by the light in the space, both natural and artificial – but this was the first time I’d actually seen it with art on display. Being a largely crowd-funded endeavour, the exhibitions tend to have fairly short durations and necessarily limited opening hours – this is in fact the third exhibition that they’ve held in the space, and it was the first I’ve made it along to see. (I was particularly disappointed to miss the soundscape on the preview evening.)

Circus artspace

The exhibition itself was a coming together of three artists from across the Highlands and Islands who share an interest in traditional crafts and craft materials and are inspired by their surrounding landscapes and communities.

I was particularly taken by Vivian Ross-Smith’s work, which felt very much like a conversation between the contrasting ephemerality and practicality of traditional crafts and artistic practice. There’s definitely something about the work ‘Network’, made from preserved haddock skins and Shetland wool that has lots to say about both the bonds and fragility of rural communities – particularly island communities such as the one Ross-Smith grew up in on Fair Isle.

Sorting and GradingNetwork

I was also somewhat charmed by Patricia Shone’s time-based pieces that dominated the space and seemed to both compel and confuse visitors to the exhibition. In this case, time-based means that they were dried clay pieces that were either filled with water so that they would collapse over time or designed to dry out and self-destruct in the opposite direction.

Patricia Shone

Across Land and Sea ran at Inverness Creative Academy from October 11th – 20th 2019.

IFF19 @EdenCourt – Down The Rabbit Hole

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Down the Rabbit Hole (Webster, 2019) is one of the many documentaries showing as part of this year’s Inverness Film Festival, but despite being one of the shorter documentaries I feel it deserves a post of it’s own. Partly due to it having an accompanying photography exhibition but also due to it being so very different from all the rest of it’s compatriots.

First of all, the photography exhibition – which will be lurking around on the 2nd Floor of Eden Court for the rest of the month – which I saw and enjoyed for the first time before seeing the film, but gained a whole new level of appreciation for after having seen the film. For some reason, until I saw this exhibition, I had no real conception that stalactites being wet. Given how they’re formed it makes sense that they would be, but I guess I also thought of them as being wet previously but not currently. I didn’t really think of them as being still-growing, fragile works in progress. Both beautiful and alien, they were created on a timescale beyond human comprehension, like so many things underground they defy so much of what we imagine to be true about the world.

It exhibition location seems unlikely, being up on the first circle where casual visitors are unlikely to pass by, but in fact the location is thematically perfect. Due to the unusual shape of the building, the roof space over the exhibition area forms a sort of cave, especially once the sun has set, placing you in a carefully lit space that only adds to the atmospheric nature of the photographs. If you can, I recommend heading to the middle of the balcony and sitting on the floor with your back to glass wall, looking up at the photographs. It really helps to make you feel like you’re there in the cave with them.

On to the documentary itself, which started as a short about caving and mental health and evolved as the director realised he couldn’t do the subject justice to the subject in such a short run time. The subject of the film – wildlife photographer James Roddie – is refreshingly open and practical, both when he talks about the risks and rewards of both climbing and caving, and especially when he talks about his own struggles with an eating disorder. Particularly when he talks about the way that climbing went from being a respite from his mental health issues to being an enabler of the condition and how he’s recently been able to claim the activity back as something he enjoys and can do for fun rather than in a constant consuming quest for ‘better’.

(Being mildly claustrophobic myself, I’m fascinated by these underground worlds, but would absolutely not cope with going down there myself. That Swiss Cheese crawl is literally the stuff of nightmares! I do love the idea of being a daring adventurer, but I’m definitely not cut out for it.)

The film provoked a lot of the same feelings in me that Free Solo did when I saw it at the start of this year. Although I did always have the reassurance that I’d seen both Roddie and Webster, alive and well introducing the film, those vertigo inducing moments where you genuinely fear for their lives are somehow worse for them being people I’ve actually met. (The creative arts scene in Inverness is pretty small, so there’s a lot of crossover in people you meet and work with over the years.) In a sense it feels like something of a companion piece, bookending a year of documentaries for me. That moment in Uamh nam Fior Iongantais (Cave of True Wonders) where they decide to turn back, feels like a more emotionally honest reflection of the moment in Free Solo when Honnold comes back down off El Capitan. Sometimes you need a friend to give you permission to make the sensible decision.

IFF19 @Edencourt – Magaret Tait 100

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The Margaret Tait centenary celebrations kicked off here in Inverness at last year’s film festival, so it seem fitting that those celebrations should draw to a close here almost a year to the day on. Much like last year’s screening my attendance wasn’t in my original film festival plan. This time round I was supposed to be seeing a documentary called Aquarela, which didn’t turn up – or rather it did, but they copy didn’t work and the replacement didn’t arrive in time for the screening – as though the universe had opinions about my cinematic priorities.

Without a doubt the two triptychs by Margaret Tait herself – Three Portraits (1951) and Garden Pieces (1998) – which bookended the collection were the highlights, but nonetheless there were some clever little films in there.

My favourites of the rest of the films were the ones that interacted directly with the source material The Forest of Everything (Carey/Kirkup, 2019) is consciously interacting with Aerial (Tait, 1974) playing with conventions and expectations raised by the original film and also with the concept of play itself by involving a bunch of children in the making of it. (Given that a common complaint about modern art is ‘a kid could have made that’ it feels delightful that here some kids really did make that.) Both The Bravest Boat (Smith/Wood, 2019) and Houses (For Margaret) (Fowler, 2019) feel almost as though they could have been Tait films, despite the fact that they’re the films that most openly interact with the concept of Tait as part of the archive, as part of a film-making and artistic canon.

I also enjoyed Shoe Leather (Storey Gordon, 2019) although more as a work of visual art than as a short film. It was a clever idea, and I liked what he’d done with it, on execution, stylistics and metaphoric levels. The way it pulls back the curtain on the ‘magic’ film-making, exposing the lie of the ‘perfect shot’. I just don’t think it worked as a film.

It was quite interesting to hear from some of the directors/artists in the Q&A afterwards that the original brief had been very open except on one point – they were all supposed to be 1 minute films! They all failed the original brief, though as the curator noted at that point they couldn’t have run the kind of screening they’d just had if the artists had stuck to that. Might have made for an interesting art installation but it would have been something entirely different.

I was interested to note that despite the variety of mediums the films were shot in – HD, SD and 16mm – they almost all had a similar slight graininess to the picture quality that I associate with footage shot on video and mini-DV. Combined with the consistent use of 4:3 picture size throughout, it gave the whole proceeding a very 90s feel. As though all the artists consciously or unconsciously were channelling that era of her work.

As I noted in last year’s review, her short films really highlight for me what so many other art filmmakers are striving for and failing to reach. As a result it was all the more interesting – and a pleasant distraction during the films that didn’t work for me – to see a collection of short art films that wore their influence so blatantly on their sleeves.

Sounds of the Islands

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Back in July, I found myself over on the Isle of Lewis for a week, covering a colleague’s summer holidays. The weather forecast looked promising and the nature of the job meant there would likely be far more time spent on the road around Lewis and Harris than in the office. Naturally, that meant I definitely needed to take my little sound recorder. When I’m out in the field for work my job really only has two modes, furiously busy or standing around waiting for things to happen and on those rare latter occasions, I tend to wish for my little sound recorder.

Obviously on days I was working on a piece there was no time to use my little recorder, so there were no recordings from Harris – a shame because had we been less tight for time I could have got some cracking livestock sounds, along with some old school tractor engines, at an agricultural show! However, I also spent a few afternoons out filming library pictures for future use, and while out doing that I certainly had time to take a tea break and make some recordings.

Being a small (ish) island, Lewis is largely a marine environment, you’re never more than 10 miles from the sea. It’s easy to forget that a lot of the time though, other than being pretty flat and rather short of trees you be forgiven for thinking you were on the mainland a lot of the time. At least until the sea heaves back into sight again. Except for the boats everywhere. The way other places have abandoned or ‘under repair’ cars sitting around in driveways and in corners of fields, Lewis has boats. But really it was the variety of different water sounds that I was able to capture that really took me by surprise. My recordings of the waves crashing on the beach and the gentle gurgling of water in the harbour wall were taken approximately 12 feet apart in Port of Ness. It’s been a long time since I recorded properly open water and even then the English Channel is as nothing to the rage of the Atlantic. Especially not when there’s nothing between you and the Faroe Islands in one direction and Canada in another, you really feel on the edge of Europe there.

My recordings on Lewis tended to come in batches, with a few solo exceptions, I mostly seemed to find a promising location and then make a collection of recordings. Half a dozen from the harbour in Port of Ness, three at Stornoway Airport, another couple from the window of my hotel room of the street below.

One thing I noted more than anything else was that it was never actually quiet. Even wandering the Sabbath quiet streets of Stornoway, the moment I switched on my little recorder the true depth of sound quickly revealed itself. The distant rumble of traffic, and trundle of bikes through the woods at Lews Castle, or the drifting hymns and other voices than were obvious even three floors up from my hotel window.

The theme of the week was not, as I expected from my experience in the Shetlands, wind, wind and more wind. (Which is not to say that it wasn’t breezy, I don’t think I’ve ever been so windswept in my life.) Rather it was: ‘and seagulls’. So many of the recordings I made have audio tags that end ‘and seagulls’ that I can sometimes hear either laughter or frustration in my own voice listening back to them. I did eventually just lean into it, and purposefully recorded a seabird colony while visiting the lighthouse at Butt of Lewis. Appropriately enough there are in fact no seagulls in that recording; black-headed gulls certainly – also gannets, shags, fulmars and a possible kittiwake – but no seagulls.

Butt of Lewis

IFF19 @EdenCourt – Bridging The Gap: Opportunities

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Tonight is the official start of the Inverness Film Festival, so I kicked off my film viewing with my traditional attendance of a short film screening. Bridging the Gap is in many ways the perfect confluence of my film festival interests combining short films and documentaries. (The only real complaint I have about this year’s scheduling choices – given that this year it will allow me to see six out of the seven documentaries showing – is that there a lot of short film screenings scheduled across from documentaries so I’ll be seeing less short films that I would otherwise.) I always look forward to the Bridging the Gap screenings because the quality is always so high, even the ones that I personally consider to be duds are usually well made. As much as I think that five to ten minutes is the perfect duration for a short film, I do give a bit more leeway to documentaries and the ten to fifteen minutes that these span was pretty much spot on. Leaving the audience wanting more time with the more compelling protagonists and not out staying their welcome for the less compelling ones. I’d go so far as to call this a vintage year for BTG documentaries.

Altsasu

Altsasu is a Basque town where during the annual festival, several youths and a couple of off-duty civil guards had a contretemps that ended up with seven youths in prison for terms between two and sixteen years, on terrorism charges. The case is widely considered a miscarriage of justice – and the imprisoned as political prisoners – with sizeable annual protest coinciding with the local festival that marks the anniversary of the events. The film largely follows one of the mothers as she faces the anniversary and campaigns to free her son and his compatriots. The segments shot during the festival give everything else and strange and slightly unsettling quality, underlining in it’s own way the cultural differences between Basque country and surrounding Spain.

Hydebank

This was my favourite of all the films in this year’s screening. It’s set in HMYOC Hydebank, which has, for reasons that were never explained, a flock of sheep that prisoners care for as part of their rehabilitation. Our protagonist Ryan is clearly a violent and damaged young man, but the care and tenderness he shows the animals in his care is just as obvious. He’s by far at his most articulate when talking about the sheep. It seems that its as much a revelation to him as to anyone else that he’s capable of something other than destruction. (I suppose, in a way, working with sheep must be oddly cathartic for someone like him, they couldn’t care less about who he is and what he’s done, and screaming and posturing will have pretty much no effect on them.) The scene where he’s working away in the dark, with only a headlamp for company, fellow prisoners shouting abuse down at him from the cells above, that feels terribly metaphorical for the other work he’s carrying out. Learning to control himself in the face of provocation, and equally to face the demon of the crime that put him there in the first place.

My Name is Anik

My Name is Anik is a very sweet and compelling film about a Kurdish woman living in Istanbul and the arrival of her granddaughter from Scotland to stay with her and learn Kurdish. Grandmother and granddaughter are performing a dance throughout the film negotiating the differences between what the younger woman wants and needs from her grandmother, and what Anik wants and needs to pass on to Bircan. What is most obvious in their arguments and stubborn silences, and the quiet tenderness of hair-care is how fundamentally alike they are, however different their opinions and perspectives may be.

There is a great deal unspoken in this film, so much of the politics of being a minority language speaker, of cultural and linguistic preservation and inheritance, plays out in their discussions and arguments without really being discussed head on. There’s also a great deal said obliquely about what it means to be an immigrant and what it means to go home, whether a meaningful going home is possible for either of them.

That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

This film was nominated for a BAFTA and I can kind of see why, without agreeing with the decision. On the surface it’s a charming and whimsical film about a man with a traumatic brain injury and his slightly eccentric but warm and cheerful wife, but underneath, it’s a deeply sad film about what love can endure and survive, and the toll that his condition takes on both of them. The slow isolation that is settling around them as the quirks of his condition gradually drive friends and family away, placing more and more of the strain on Lindsay alone.

If comedy is tragedy plus time then this is the opposite, with what at first seems like a funny side effect of Paul’s injury becomes increasingly sad as it reveals how little remains of the man he was before.

Vivir Bailando

The summary of this film makes it seem much more grim and bleak than the actual film turns out to be. It’s a joyful and hopeful film about getting a second chance at love and finding joy in unexpected places. Widowed Cari and her new beau Vincente are the last inhabitants of their village, but instead of this being a source of sorrow or loneliness for them, it’s an opportunity and an excuse to be as eccentric as they like. To play loud pasodobles in the street and dance in the middle of the road, treating their village like their own playground and living life to the full. Dancing their lives away indeed.

I suspect that this is the first time I’ve seen one of these screenings without being handed an explanatory blurb sheet, but as I only tend to read those during screenings if I don’t like the films – a sneaky peak at the duration to see how much longer I need to endure – I really can’t complain that I didn’t notice until I came to write them up afterwards. I did have fun trying to guess this year’s theme – perhaps absence or displacement, there are a lot of people who aren’t where they’re meant to be in these films – but it turned out to be opportunities. Initially I thought didn’t really fit – though the other tag that they have ‘red’ fits even less – but the more I think about it the more it works. To a greater or lesser extent, all the films are about second chances, the needing of them or the getting of them.

Trailers for all of this year’s films are available to watch online on the Scottish Documentary Institute’s website.

Official Secrets

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I didn’t intend to make today’s post about the film Official Secrets (Hood, 2019) but one of my colleagues suggested we see it, and having seen it I cannot think about anything else. It’s a deeply compelling film, with some excellent performances that I highly recommend to anyone with an interest in either the topic or whistle-blowers in general. One of the great strengths of the film is the way that it portrays the slow build of frustration and anger that leads the whistle-blower to act and then the slow grinding toll that it takes upon her, her life and her relationships in the aftermath.

My colleague mentioned that it was nice to see Keira Knightly in something that wasn’t a period drama, but in a way it did feel like a period piece, with it’s careful reconstructions of early 2000s technology and websites. But beyond the fashions and the flip phones, beyond the slightly grainy archive footage, the zip drives and the answerphones, it feels like stepping into another world. Post 9/11 but before the financial crisis; before waterboarding and extraordinary rendition were terms that we recognised with resigned familiarity. If Katherine Gun feels naïve in her actions, its partly because with the benefit of hindsight we all seem naïve, in believing that once a lie has been revealed as a lie it would lose its power. (Also the journalists feel like actual journalists, rather than someone’s idea of what journalists are like.) The vast majority of the most damning things said in the film, are not spoken by actors, but are instead news clips of the things that those politicians actually said at the time. The archive usage in general is a clever move, as they’re all people that our protagonist never met and the pivotal information is what they actually said on the news to the public. It also removes that element of distraction and doubt that would creep in if they were being played by actors – focusing us not on the performance but on the words themselves, and removing the potential to be accused of re-scripting the words for dramatic effect.

Arguably this film doesn’t really tell you anything that you didn’t already know. That the Iraq war was illegal. That the government – both UK and USA – lied to their people. That there were no WMDs in Iraq. Any revelations it might have had to offer are sixteen years too late. And yet, it felt like a revelation, or perhaps more of a reminder that so much of the whole mess we’re in, in terms of politics and journalism and so much more, starts here.

It is in fact a timely reminder to those of us who work within the third estate, that it is our job to not blindly accept the word of officialdom, of press offices and publicists, to instead question and investigate. That there is a world of difference between being a public service broadcaster and being a state broadcaster; that both the press, and the civil servants at all levels, work not for the government of the day but for the people. That the government serves the people not the other way round. Naturally we should commend them when they get things right and improve things; but the other side of that coin is that we hold them to account when they get it wrong. Holding our elected officials to account is both our responsibility and an essential part of the democratic process.

IFF19 – Preview Film

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The Inverness Film Festival opened last night with a bang, in the form of the preview night film, Aeronauts. It’s a beautifully realised film, starring Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, as a scientist exploring meteorology and the atmosphere, and an aeronaut attempting to break the record for highest flight.

I have a longstanding passion for the early history of weather prediction. The initial blame probably lies with Benjamin Franklin wandering around pre-Revolutionary Massachusetts in thunderstorms with kites; but then I read Pauline Halford’s Storm Warning: The Origins of the Weather Forecast over a decade ago, and made my own pilgrimage to Greenwich observatory and the maritime museum to see the related artefacts. (Seeing our scientist climbing about on the roof of the observatory was like seeing an old friend – I’m very jealous I’d love to get up on that roof.) As Glaishier rightly points out in the film it’s not about divination, it’s about navigation and trade, flood prevention and crop protection. The shipping forecast remains both arcane and important, after all.

The launch sequence is delightful, the contrast between measured scientific process and purely ridiculous Victorian showmanship, is played up for all it’s worth for both the watching crowd and the audience in the cinema. From the start we learn that this is a film about pushing boundaries and making compromises. Additionally, Glaishier and Rennes make a delightfully mercurial odd couple, clashing with and complimenting each other, initial distrust transforming through adversary into friendship and teamwork. Both Redmayne and Jones put in very emotionally controlled performances – their eyes do a lot of work – while at the same time being very physical actors in this, really throwing themselves into the roles they inhabit whether they are verbally sparring or physically wrestling the balloon into submission between them. It’s something of a who’s who of British acting – though Himesh Patel definitely deserves a mention for his charming portrayal of lepidopterologist John Trew.

The only problem I have with this film is that it doesn’t seem to know whether it wants to be a fact-based drama or a delightful piece of historical fantasy. James Glaishier was a real pioneering meteorologist, who really did make ground-breaking discoveries with an aeronaut in a balloon called The Mammoth that broke the records for highest human flight. They really did nearly die. However, the aeronaut in question was not called Amelia Rennes – his name was Henry Coxwell – and they flew from Birmingham rather than London. Their journey was also somewhat less dramatic than the one in the film, though it was fairly dramatic in it’s own right.

It’s as though the filmmakers started making a delightful historical fantasy, about an early meteorologist and an aeronaut, with an odd couple vibe and discovered a real scientist who’d done something very similar and decided to just fold him into the film. If they’d both been composite characters it would have been fine but the combination of historical people with fictional composite characters replacing actual people makes me queasy in a way the more vertigo-inducing moments in the film never did. (Also, knowing that Amelia Rennes never existed, completely changes the big emotional revelation of their flight, from a satisfyingly devastating moment of catharsis into something that instead feels cynical and manipulative.) I really wish they’d just committed to making a historical fantasy and credited the actual aeronauts as inspiration, instead of the rather deceptive use of the phrase ‘based on true events’. I feel like the filmmakers tried to have it both ways and in the end have made something that satisfies no-one – not the people who’d like a proper biography of James Glaishier, nor viewers excited by the prospect of a film celebrating one of history’s hidden female pioneers, and not the audience looking for some escapist historical fantasy.

I’m more annoyed because I had so loved the film when I saw it and discovering the background left me feeling rather manipulated by the film and the emotional whiplash has been really quite something.

A Summer of Audiodrama

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When BBC Sounds first split off from the iPlayer, I was somewhat dubious of the whole endeavour – the iPlayer had never quite known what to do with radio and this new endeavour seemed a bit gimmicky. On the rare occasions I used it, it was as a convenient medium for catching up with Slow Radio. However, over the last six months I’ve really warmed up to it, as I’ve come to discover new things I really enjoy, subscribed to things I enjoy but don’t exist as podcasts, and the recommendation algorithm has got to know my tastes and offers me things I enjoy but wouldn’t have known to look for previously. As a result my radio drama listening has increased substantially. I’m fairly rubbish at remembering to tune in for particular points in the linear schedule on a regular basis, which is not ideal when it comes to episodic audio drama. (The bulk of my regular radio listening takes place either when I’m being woken by my radio alarm, or driving somewhere in a work pool car, or, you know driving the desk for the radio programme in question and that’s a very different experience.) However, now I have an easy way to find new (or in some cases old) audio dramas that are currently or have recently run on the radio, the latest episodes dropping into my feed ready for me to have the time and inclination to listen.

Forest 404

Forest 404 was my gateway drug to this new world. I heard a trailer for it and the end of an episode of the From Our Own Correspondent podcast that sounded amazing and sought it out. It turned out that only the first four episodes were available as a podcast but I could have the whole series at once on BBC Sounds. Not only that but it came with delightful extras, as each episode had both a scientist talking about an issue explored in the episode, along with a full blown soundscape to accompany it. It’s an eco-thriller with truly amazing sound design, and more than that, the soundscapes that it uses are an integral part of the plot. (Our heroine Pan is an archivist, tasked with ‘cleansing’ old audio visual recordings in a time when digital storage is finite and precious, and it is old sound recordings – I suspect in reality old BBC Radiophonics Sound Effects and Recordings – that lead her down the rabbit hole into uncovering the conspiracy at the heart of the story.) The score is by Bonobo, and is both perfect for the story and stands alone as some cracking tunes I’d happily listen to most days of the week.

The plot itself deals with issues from artificial intelligence and bio-hacking, through climate change and sustainability, to colonialism and cultural remembrance and forgetting. It’s experimental and adventurous and very different from the normal run of the mill of audio drama. It certainly helps that the characters are deeply compelling, even though, and perhaps especially, when you aren’t sure if you like or trust them, or whether you should.

Also if you’re a Dr Who fan, it stars Pearl Mackie and she has an amazing voice.

Guards Guards

Guards Guards is an adaptation of the Discworld novel of the same name, from 1992, and it holds up surprisingly well. It’s quite a good adaptation/abridgement of the book, keeping most of the charm and most of the best lines – that caged whale section is still funny after all these years – while doing a good job of distracting your attention from the whole swathes of the plot that they’ve excised. I think both Wonse and Vetinari come across as far less competent than they do in the book but the plot is sturdy enough to get along regardless.

Mabinogi

Mabinogi is a charming short series, which is an adaptation of the Mabinogion (which are some of the oldest surviving prose stories of these islands) specifically the Red Book of Hergest. It was very Welsh and very brutal in the way that stories that old always are, but mostly I was following along for the friendship between the daft young prince and his foster sister the bard – it was very much the Pryderi and Brigid show as far as I was concerned. Very different from anything else I’ve been listening to lately.

Stillicide

Stillicide is set in a near future world where water is a very scarce and valuable resource. There are two strands to the story, that weave around each other throughout the twelve-part series. One following the Water Train that that keeps London supplied with water – and drains the life out of the surrounding communities – and the people who work and live around it. The other following the process of transporting a giant iceberg down from the Artic to solve the same issue, and the destruction and dispute around the building of the dock to facilitate it. My favourite parts of the story were the little details about how the water shortages affect everyday life for people – migrant workers, homeless kids, hospital patients, scientists and police officers – in big and small ways.

Unfortunately, I feel as though the story lost it’s way a little towards the end there. It worked best for me when the episodes were standalone vignettes, snapshots of this almost familiar world from different perspectives. When it tried to tie all it’s loose ends together in the last few episodes I felt it just got tangled up and left me less certain about what came before. Perhaps a second listen through without a week between episodes would improve it I think the overarching plot suffered a little from that style of delivery.

Cello Full of Bees

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Some days, it can feel like Twitter – and for that matter, the wider internet – has become a garbage pile of algorithm enabled rage and nonsense. However, some days you come across something – a charming animation, a moving short film, a bonne mot of pleasing wit – that reminds you that there is still good in the world, both virtual and out here on terra firma. Some times they will even lead you down the kind of rabbit hole that you’d forgotten were once a major usage of time spent online. You start with a charming viral video about something – for example a cello full of bees – both innocuous and oddly compelling, start looking into it, one click leads to another and before you know it you’re half way through a 17 page article on the Dorso-Ventral Abdominal Vibration signals of Honeybees and you’ve got a burning desire to go visit an art installation at Kew Gardens.

(If you’re going to write an academic report about the use of frequency modulation by bees, I feel you’re missing an opportunity if you don’t make at least a few orchestra based puns. Working in harmony, orchestrating hive-wide co-ordination, a symphony of drones. I’m both impressed and a little disappointed in these otherwise worthy academics.)

It feels somehow fitting to discover that it was artist Wolfgang Buttress following a similar rabbit hole that led to his collaboration with Martin Bencsik on the Hive in the first place. Though perhaps given the nature of the work and the way it’s sparked of creative inspiration in all sorts of interesting directions – from sculpture to soundscapes – the correct metaphor is not rabbit hole but rather bee hive. An interconnected network of the strange and the beautiful, each part special in it’s own right but collectively rather more.

Inspiration comes in the strangest ways from the most unlikely connections and collaborations. You never can tell what combination of factors will cause that spark to catch fire, anymore than you can predict which charming video clip will go viral on any given day. I now know – and find adorable – that bees buzz in the key of C and that those bees are living in a C cello! Perhaps that will only ever be an anecdote I tell colleagues when we’re being bothered by insects out in the field, or perhaps one day it will lead me down another stranger pathway to make some art of my own.

I spend a great deal of time working in news these days, and it can be easy to get overwhelmed and terribly cynical in the face of all the unexpectedly terrible and downright petty things that the world has to offer. And yet, it is still possible to be surprised and delighted by how much stranger and more wonderful the world truly is, if you just know where to look and keep an open mind.

As this winter election season kicks off, keep in mind, that somewhere in Nottingham, a cello-full of bees are hibernating, waiting for the spring.