Interview: Mulgrave Audio | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Following the release of their first long-form audio drama, Simon Perkins’ Lurgy, Mulgrave Audio founders Bob Fischer, Andrew Orton and Andrew T. Smith release their latest spooky tale.

Fellfoul was inspired by Andrew Orton’s late-night online explorations on Wikipedia, and stars Aja Dodd as a young woman who finds respite from her dreary, suffocating home life in a fictional world of swords and sorcery. The story comes with a full, original musical score by Ghost Box Records founder Jim Jupp, recording as Belbury Poly.

Fellfoul is being released as a download and on 10-inch vinyl and physical copies come complete with a single page of an imaginary 1983 Fellfoul comic strip by veteran artist John Ridgway (2000AD and Doctor Who Magazine).

How did Mulgrave Audio start?
In the car, with my friend Andrew Orton. Andrew is a huge sci-fi and fantasy fan who has written books about Robin of Sherwood. We were driving to an event at the Cheshire house of the legendary writer Alan Garner, who is a big hero of ours, and were just outside Birch services on the M62 when I mentioned in passing that I’d always wanted to write original audio drama. “So have I!” said Andrew, and before we knew it we were discussing ideas for plays, and actors we could cast in the lead roles. We celebrated with a bag of Monster Munch and a Reece’s Nutrageous.

We then had a couple of planning meetings outside a chip shop in Esh Winning, before deciding to ask another friend if he’d like to join us in this strange venture. Confusingly, he’s also called Andrew: Andrew T Smith, who I’d spent most of 2019 onstage with, touring small theatres with a show about our mutual love of Last of the Summer Wine. Call him Drew if you like, everyone else does and it makes life easier. So we became a company, and we started making audio dramas for download and vinyl and CD release. Live out your dreams, kids. We’re totally DIY. This is PUNK ROCK. Well… not really, but Andrew owns a leather jacket and I have a few Buzzcocks CDs.

Our first play was a script of mine called Simon Perkins’ Lurgy. It’s about a troubled Teesside boy in 1974 who becomes convinced that the continuity announcer on daytime television is speaking directly to him. We cast Ethan Warren – a genuine Teesside teenager, he was 14 when he recorded it – as Simon, and somehow persuaded Roger Limb to play the announcer. Roger spent decades as part of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, but before that he was an actual 1970s BBC voiceover man. They both put in brilliant performances, and we got a lovely soundtrack in the can from Teesside musician Ben Hopkinson – who I knew from his work with By Toutatis and Kingsley Chapman – and a Bristol duo called The Twelve Hour Foundation, who used vintage Moog synths to create wonderful spoof 1970s TV themes. That authentic period feel is really important to us.

Where did the name Mulgrave Audio come from?
We were literally on our way to North London to record Roger Limb’s spoken parts for Simon Perkins’ Lurgy and we realised we still didn’t have a name for the company. We knew we wanted something that sounded like a small, spooky village and had spent months poring over Ordnance Survey maps looking for place names with a weird, rustic feel. Eventually, in the car park of South Mimms services on the M25, we settled on Mulgrave Audio. Port Mulgrave is a tiny coastal village near Whitby, and we have no connection to it whatsoever other than my spending a single night there in 2010. But we loved the name, and the nearby Mulgrave Wood is a hotbed of weird folklore and strange ghost stories. Check out the tale of Jeanie the Fairy, it’s a beauty.

Also note the influence that motorway service stations play in the early history of our company.

Who or what are some of Mulgrave Audio’s creative influences?
For me, music plays a huge part. I’m in love with a scene that’s come to be known as ‘hauntology’ – music that uses distinctly unsettling memories of the 1970s childhood to create a very specific mood. About 15 years ago I discovered a label called Ghost Box that was taking direct influence from crackly Public Information Films and weird 1970s kid’s TV dramas like Children of the Stones. The music they were releasing was so evocative of that time, and I wanted to bring some of that atmosphere into the plays we were planning. 

As a writer, it’s definitely the aforementioned Alan Garner. He wrote incredible books like The Owl Service and Elidor, books that thrive on the collision between everyday ordinariness and outlandish, folklore-influenced weirdness. But I also love a bit of wordy, downbeat wit – the likes of Victoria Wood and Alan Bennett. And Roy Clarke, who wrote Last of the Summer Wine. So I try to introduce a bit of that into my scripts, too. Simon Perkins’ Lurgy was influenced enormously by the Adrian Mole books. 

All three of us share similar influences, but we come at them from slightly different angles. Andrew Orton is a hardcore swords and sorcery fan. His house has kind of become our unofficial HQ, and there are maps of Middle-Earth everywhere. He writes in that style immaculately – our new release Fellfoul is just a perfect pastiche of that genre of writing. It’s poetry. As for Drew Smith… our next release is a script written by Drew, and it starts out sounding like a homage to Bagpuss and other vintage kids’ series of that ilk, before becoming more of a rumination on ageing and our relationship with the past. It’s a beautiful and very touching script.

Mulgrave Audio was set up to tell “spooky tales in domestic settings”. In your opinion, what makes a good spooky tale? And does the domestic setting work as a mechanism to tell a spookier tale?
Absolutely it does. I’m not especially interested in fantasy fiction that operates in its own distinct world – apart from Lord of the Rings, which I love. But when that fantasy starts to bleed through into a familiar setting, suddenly I’m fascinated. It probably stems from Alan Garner again, whose books I read as a kid and he remains my favourite writer. In The Moon of Gomrath, a vengeful Celtic spirit is unleashed by ongoing building work in a pub car park. In Elidor, a unicorn is let loose along the slum demolition sites of 1960s Manchester. The idea of weird magic bleeding through into everyday grottiness is absolutely intoxicating to me.

As I get older, I also find that I’m much more interested in atmosphere and ambiguity than in straightforward plot. That makes for great spookiness for me. I loved a recent film called Enys Men. On first viewing it’s baffling, a jigsaw puzzle of non-linear storytelling, but on subsequent viewings the pieces begin to fit together. But even then, it’s still hugely open to interpretation. Those kind of impressionistic stories have become much more evocative to me than any straightforward “It was the janitor in a mask…” conclusion. For genuine disquiet, you have to leave a few things hanging.

This latest release is about a young woman (Eleanor Wood) who finds respite from her dreary, suffocating home life in the fictional fantasy land of Fellfoul. Is there anything else you can tell us about the plot?
Eleanor is a socially awkward young woman whose life is dominated by her over-protective mother. One evening she gets lost down an internet wormhole and discovers that a 1983 fantasy film called Sword of the Fellmaidens was partly shot in the field outside her house. The film is set in a magical medieval world called Fellfoul, a world that slowly begins to seep through into Eleanor’s real life. She attends a Fellfoul convention in the field itself, orders a costume and a broadsword, and the lines between fact and fiction suddenly become incredibly and dangerously blurred. 

Does Fellfoul share any similarities with, or is it in any way inspired by, a real town?
Fellfoul itself is very much a fantasy world – it’s our Middle-Earth! Andrew Orton has done some incredibly detailed world-building, he’s even drawn a huge map of Fellfoul filled with references from the play itself. Perfect for anyone determined to make that perilous journey from Stormhelm in the Province of Winterguard to the Dust Tower on the sandy plains of Thornhold.

Real places are rarely named in any of our productions, but so far I think all of our dramas have subconsciously had a North-eastern setting. I’m from Teesside, Andrew Orton is from County Durham and Drew Smith is from Gateshead, and that heritage is very important to us. I wouldn’t want us ever to be categorised as ‘North-eastern drama’ as I think that’s a little limiting, but the influence is absolutely there. Simon Perkins’ Lurgy never mentions Middlesbrough, but that’s definitely where it’s set. And, to me, Fellfoul feels completely rooted in the former pit villages of Co Durham: Esh Winning, Brandon, Tow Law, places like that.

Having said that, my next script is set in Keighley, West Yorkshire! A nice town with a cracking heritage railway line.

Aja Dodd is the lead actor in this production. What was it like working with her and what did she bring to the project?
She’s been brilliant. We knew we needed someone quite quirky and idiosyncratic to play the part, and we asked around friends and contacts for a good local actor who might be interested in working with us. I’m friendly with the singer-songwriter and film-maker Jay Moussa-Mann, who I know is no stranger to NARC! Jay recommended Aja, who she had worked with on a feature-length Biblical film called Ruth. We watched Aja in Ruth and in a couple of short films, and quickly realised she was a really interesting performer. She’s a genuine eccentric, and also a bit of a sci-fi nerd herself, which helped a lot. Not only that, she’s named after a Steely Dan album. True fact, that. 

Aja is from Darlington, so it was easy enough to get her over to the Green Dragon Studio in Stockton for a day of rehearsing and recording, and she brought so much to the project. In the course of the play, Eleanor journeys from being a reclusive Wikipedia addict to a sword-wielding warrior, and Aja brought out that transition with such deftness and sensitivity. And a lot of humour, too – she’s really, really funny with an uncanny ability to switch between voices and moods in a nanosecond. Also, she didn’t bat an eyelid at all the baffling fantasy language that Andrew Orton chucked at her, she just threw herself into defeating Vermithorn the Dragon with the long-lost Wyrdstone of Gylfanning.

It comes with a full musical score from Belbury Poly. What is the creative process of taking the finished story and adding music to it like? How does it enhance the storytelling?
It can be transformational. Belbury Poly is the musical guise of a musician called Jim Jupp – co-founder of the aforementioned Ghost Box Records. Jim had been incredibly enthusiastic about Simon Perkins’ Lurgy, and we knew he was the perfect man to provide the soundtrack for Fellfoul. But I was still a little nervous about asking him, because at the end of the day I’m a fan of his. And I still get angsty about asking people whose work I love to collaborate with us – it’s pure Imposter Syndrome! Thankfully, Jim loved the script and started talking immediately about the music from Hawk The Slayer, Robin of Sherwood and 1980s Doctor Who as being influences he could draw upon. So we instantly knew he was on the same page as us.

We’d already gone to town on the sound design – the land of Fellfoul is just a riot of charging horses, baying wolves, clashing swords and shrieking dragons. But Jim’s music took things to an extra dimension. We sent him the finished audio, complete in every aspect apart from the music, and Jim and bassist Chris Budd scored the whole thing from scratch. They just nailed that very 1980s micro-genre of analogue synths soundtracking medieval battles. A few people have told us on social media that the sound design and the music has absolutely transported them to their childhoods, which is incredibly rewarding. And the isolated soundtrack comes as a free digital download when you buy the play. Cheap plug, there.

Tell us more about the physical release and comic by John Ridgway. How did that creative collaboration come about?
John Ridgway’s artwork was a huge part of my own 1980s childhood. Lots of people know him from his comic strip work for 2000AD, but for me John is all about Doctor Who. In he mid-1980s he drew the regular comic strip for the official Doctor Who magazine, and his artwork is epic, surreal and riddled with a very quirky sense of humour. It’s just beautiful.

Fast forward forty years, and we were discussing the possibility of including a single page of a Fellfoul comic strip with the 10” vinyl release. Our daft idea being that, in 1983, there had been a short-lived comic strip adaptation of the Sword of the Fellmaidens film. We decided between us that, if this had actually happened, it would undoubtedly have been drawn by John Ridgway. At which point Andrew Orton piped up and said “Oh, I know John – should I ask him?” Andrew is a terrific artist himself, and had been providing the colouring for one of John’s recent strips.

John was delighted to help out, and I laughed out loud – in a good way – when I saw what he’d drawn for us. John is over 80 now, but his style hasn’t changed at all! He created a perfect pastiche of his own 1980s work. I love it. And the brilliant thing was… at the Fellfoul launch, Aja saw the printed comic strip for the first time, and said “Hang on – that actually looks like me!”. We’d totally forgotten to tell her that we’d sent her publicity photos over to John to use as the basis for his drawings.

Physical media is very important to us, we’re very much about “things”. We actually made a zine recently – the Mulgrave Journal, complete with Andrew Orton’s map of Fellfoul – and it sold out in a few days, which surprised us a bit! We’re planning Issue 2 in time for Christmas. 

Fellfoul is the first of a range of ‘Little Hauntings’ releases. Can you tell us more about that and any future releases in the pipeline?
The ‘Little Hauntings’ range came from our mutual love of very short stories. Simon Perkins’ Lurgy was an hour long, but the three of us were just teeming with ideas for much shorter plays, and began to realise there was scope for the audio drama equivalent of the 7” single. Or – in the case of Fellfoul – the 10” EP! We’ve had lovely reviews of Fellfoul again, but maybe also a little bemusement that it’s only 13 minutes long. But that was always the plan. A short, sharp blast of weirdness never did anybody any harm. I like to think of it as something people might listen to over and over, like a favourite song.

So we’re planning another hour-long drama in 2025, but before that there’ll be two more Little Hauntings. Drew Smith’s play should be out later this year, and it’s called Patchwuff. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s narrated by a genuine TV legend and has a soundtrack by another genuine TV legend! A different one. After that, it’s my Keighley script, a play we’ll hopefully release early in 2025. It’s very much influenced by Last of the Summer Wine, but with a sci-fi twist. I could give you the title and the name of the narrator right now, but I’m not going to.

Again, you have to leave a few things hanging…

You can order your copy of Fellfoul here.

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