Saturday, 3 December 2011

Fortean TV

Those of you with an interest in the odd might have heard of Charles Fort. He was an eccentric who demonstrated the qualities both of the sceptic and the believer. He was, in a word, a proto-scientist or a philosopher to give it the name of the pre-Christian era. Inconsiderately, he only bothered to be born about a century and a half ago, so he tends to be regarded as either a visionary nut or just a plain nut. He compiled a great deal of entertaining/amusing/startlingly important information, and spawned a magazine, Fortean Times. I don't read a great many regularly spawned periodicals. The total amounts to Wargames Illustrated, Miniature Wargames, The Daily Telegraph (thanks, Dad!) and Fortean Times. Oh, and the UK's Vegetarian Society magazine, but that's contingent on membership, so I don't really think of it a lot.

In the '90s Fortean Times must have teamed up with Rapido (the production company that brought us Eurotrash), as those of us watching Channel Four were privileged to behold the start of Fortean TV. This covered much the same ground as the magazine still does, albeit in an inevitably different format. The Rev. Lionel Fanthorpe (a doyen of the paranormal scene, and apparently a CofE vicar in biker leathers) was the presenter of choice, and introduced us, in the most affable voice you can imagine, to a series of ephemera, impossibilities and so on. I sensibly recorded a lot of these at the time. Rapido does not seem to have released them, I am sorry to say. I mean to go through as many as I can.

Tonight's episode covers an unusual Indian fish-swallowing custom, ghost-hunters (this long precedes that night-vision stuff one sees today) and the always popular Yeti! But don't go cross-eyed with boredom yet. The first story is all about a guy who found a pork scratching that resembled the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus. He found it opposite a chip shop called Gabriel's, the pub (indeed) which he had just left contained a total of three people, was known as The Chapel (despite being called The Royal Oak) and contained 400 year-old church pews. Yes, you have correctly discerned the way this story came to prominence: by way of the tabloids. Cue some mumbo-jumbo about the coming Millennium marking the end of an age. The delights of this show were always the way that it presented everything in a thoroughly deadpan manner. One has the option to say, "Well, yes! God would manifest himself in a pork scratching!" as much as one has the opportunity to raise an eyebrow like Kirk's second-in-command.

Next, ghost-hunting! Father Lionel Fanthorpe receives a letter from a man with ridiculously awful hair and a computer which was surely a decade out of date even in the mid-nineties. God save me from having to comment on the chap's glasses, shirt and sofa: an ill-attired Leo Sayer with an English accent and lamentable taste. That said, I've a poster advertising all three Star Wars films on my wall, so maybe I should stop throwing stones out of my glass house. Back to the tale: a villainous poltergeist had interposed itself repeatedly whenever the English Leo Sayer and his wife, Kaye, were in the mood. Amusingly, he recaps it even more unappealingly than I just did. "When we were about to become intimate, er, that is to say, to have nookie." Leo then tells us that he asked some mates round for a spot of ouija.

I should probably remark at this point that I neither believe nor disbelieve in Ouija Boards. I don't intend to use one, nor have I ever used one. My Mum recounts a tale, back when she was a prefect at her school, of coming across two younger children, who frightened themselves by using such a board. I might have missed her exact wording, but the sense is there: they frightened themselves. Of course, you can interpret that as a) their imaginations ran away with themselves or b) through them terrors were revealed from another astral plane. I have no feeling for ghosts. I was sitting in the kitchen of our student house with my ex, when she remarked (for she, you see, was avowedly sensitive) that she sensed a spiritual presence. I remember her noting that it was female. Maybe it was young? Anyway, I noticed nothing except her becoming tenser. I don't dismiss such things out of hand for a few reasons. First, you know green and brown? "Yeah, Pete, we're aware of colours!" Hey, calm down. I have a bit of a blind spot between the two. I had a pair of trousers I thought green, but which female friends (including the ex - spooky!) thought brown. Likewise, there's a bush in the back garden which I think pink, but which Mum assures me is purple. In a word, my eyes have been shown to be untrustworthy. So maybe there's such a thing as ghosts which I cannot see, hear or in any way sense. Inarguably, this is much the same as not believing in the things, but with a lot less sarcasm! :-D

Back to Leo: the Ouija results in Leo Sayer's twin discovering that his ghost is the spirit of an old (i.e. from 1745 - "Bonnie Prince Charlie's era") wife, that his current wife is pregnant, and that his glasses just look weird. OK, maybe not that last. He needs no ghost to tell him that. There is no apparent checking of details, and this is arguably another charm of the series. Herodotus never had the resources to check whether there really were giant ants in India. He'd just say "Well, I was down th pub, and this merchant told me that..." Does it matter if Leo had a wife in 1745? No. It's entertainment. Truth is secondary. Lest it seem that I am unfairly giving Forteana a pass I would not give to "real science", I was really amused by all this light-speed stuff in Europe of late. I would be amused if it transpired that the speed of light could be exceeded. I doubt it would have any impact on my daily life (sorry, Captain Kirk), but the scratching of heads by the globe's pre-eminent physicists would be worth a chuckle. Well, there's also an English scientist who has promised to eat his underwear if it turns out to be true. I haven't seen that sort of thing since Laurel and Hardy had to eat their hats.

So we move on from Leo. Now Father Lionel Fanthorpe gets personally involved. He enrolls in a Ghostbusting course. Shirley, a grandmother, leads the course. Dowsing rods turn up. Sadly, Proton Accelerators do not. Shirley leads everyone in a course of moaning (some sort of odd throat-singing, maybe?) to rid the house of Alice's ghost. Father Lionel gives us a polite scientific viewpoint. He remarks that although he trusts all those present who are psychic that they are giving a true account (cue smiles and nods), that he does not trust his own imagination when he feels he can see something peculiar.

Next we have an unusual pastime: Indians in Hyderabad swallowing live fish stuffed with something herbal and full of saffron as a cure for all sorts of things. Those of you even more sceptical than I will be pleased that nutritionist Prof. Tom Sanders is on hand to explain that a live fish would be dissolved in 15 minutes, and that this would have no bearing on any herbs, drugs or whatever were stuffed into the fish. Well, to be honest, I'm rather predisposed to Tom's side myself. I am not a fan of seeing fish tortured to death. Now comes the ad-break, apprising us that the Yeti follows thereafter!

The ad-break ends, and the show returns: a brief version of the theme plays while a businessman with a lizard's head and a newspaper under his arm rotates beside the show's name. Fanthorpe takes s through a brief history of the Yeti, including some delightful clips of 1920/30s black and white footage of chaps in monkey suits threatening Professor Challenger & co as they escape The Lost World. Mike Dash, an expert, turns up and suggests the possible explanations for Yeti sightings: 1) a survival of Neanderthal Man, 2) an unknown prehistoric ape, 3) a mutation of one or more species and 4) hoaxes. Fanthorpe notes that much seeming proof has been exposed as false. The scene now cuts to Moscow, where Russian researches have been investigating the theory that the Yeti is a human species believed extinct.

Although new evidence is adduced, I shall have to guess that it didn't prove the Yeti's existence. If it did, then everyone seems to have missed that for the last decade and a half. Anyway, Fanthorpe then closes the episode with a recounting of what we shall see next week (Elvis, frogs, stigmata) and "The Yeti Song" (his own words and a familiar tune) with "my good friend Alf!" Then we get the Rapido frog, which baahs like a sheep, and the copyright date: 1998. Ah, what a great little show this was!

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