For many of us in the 1970s, absence from school with sickness meant long, languorous afternoons on the settee with flat Lucozade and the humming of a flickering cathode ray tube. The television would not have a remote control, to change it you would have to move, which was out of the question, and there were only three channels. What emerged from the television in those days during the daytime was hard to class as entertainment, instead there would be educational programmes for schools and colleges, news reports, incomprehensible eastern European animation, random public information films and if you were truly unfortunate you were greeted by Test Card F: an iconic and terrifying image of a small girl with a clown, playing a game of noughts and crosses, eerily eyeing the viewer. Couple this with a low grade fever and the time dilation from boredom, and the mind would wander, making surreal connections and imagery, daydreams and daymares. These memories are the genesis of Simon Perkins' Lurgy, an audio play from Bob Fischer – a journalist, D.J and broadcaster who has written about hauntology in an extensive article The Haunted Generation for Fortean Times, and introduces live shows for Scarred for Life.
Simon Perkins is 15, bedbound with an unidentifiable illness – or ‘lurgy’ in playground parlance – and sent by his parents to stay with his aunt in Cleveland (in the UK). As he drifts in and out of sleep he hears the Open University on the television, with courses such as The Metamorphosis of the Frog, and the continuity announcer linking each programme. As time goes on, the announcer seems to refer to Simon personally, then addresses him, slowly enticing him to touch the television and move into his world…
The story is mostly told by Simon, played well by local teen and amateur Ethan Warren. The announcer is drily and sinisterly delivered by Roger Limb – composer for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and once a continuity announcer himself. We never know exactly what the Announcer is, but he offers advice, threats and ultimately a Faustian deal to Simon.
Limb provides some music for the production but the majority is by Ben Hopkinson. The sound production is wonderful, and not better than in the sequences in which Simon envisages himself flying into the air, seeing the tracings of television transmissions and soaring past the centre of the web they make at Bilsdale Transmitter mast, beautiful electric humming and crackling with treated bird noise and environmental effects: the hauntological combination of nature, and folktales, with strange powers and forces, electrical but not necessarily under our control. This is magic realism, with the announcer also suggesting that the whole thing could be a psychosomatic creation of Simon’s mind, perhaps related to his anger towards his parents, who he sees as abandoning him at his aunt’s house. The shadow of cancer lies over his final diagnosis, as the piece reaches a climax with the arrival of his test results, forcing a final decision.
There is massive attention to detail here, down to using the correct old model of television for the sound of it being turned on and off, a vintage rotary telephone, language which may mystify some younger listeners perhaps but should not alienate, as the mood of the piece carries through any required meaning. Presenting hauntology as music, as art or as isolated moments of culture is very common, but what has proved more difficult is to craft a functional narrative piece together. The Scarfolk book, for example, uses the story of a man searching for his son to present fragmented imagery from the dreaded realm, but the story is very much a background frame. Recent film Skinamarink presents the distorted view of childhood fears with accuracy but is narratively bare, even frustrating. But here in Simon Perkins' Lurgy is an artefact which precisely conveys childhood terror, the hauntological mood of the time and an engaging character arc as one coherent canvas, and you may learn something about the metamorphosis of the frog as a bonus.