THE WOLF MAN (1941) July 16th 1977 00.00-01.25
‘Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night
May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the Autumn moon is bright.’
Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains)
The Wolf Man was the film that introduced the final addition to Universal’s roster of A-list monsters from the Golden Age, and also the film that marked the emergence of Lon Chaney junior as a major horror star, in the role – that of Lawrence Stewart Talbot, the eponymous Wolf Man – that he remained most fond of for the rest of his career. So influential was this taut, economical 1941 masterpiece that many people assume it to have been the first werewolf film, but in fact this is not the case. I’m indebted to the Universal Horrors Challenge at https://randallmalus.wordpress.com/ for knowing of a lost 1913 silent called The Werewolf, and there was also Universal’s surprisingly turgid Werewolf of London in 1935, which is much better known amongst horror fans but remains entirely obscure among everyday non-horror folk – or Huggles, as I’m determined to start calling them. So it is The Wolf Man that is the true progenitor of the werewolf sub-genre, and it is such an impressive piece of work that it fully deserves that plaudit. Fast-paced, punchy and moody, the film had everything my twelve year old self, who had just yawned a bit through the earlier screening of The Mummy, could have wanted, and I loved it accordingly. I still do, come to that.
The script by Curt Siodmak, who was to become one of the key players in the second phase Universal horrors of the 1940s, is a masterclass in tight yet ambitious storytelling, maintaining every iota of tension throughout the film’s pared-to-the-bone 70 minute running time, and also incorporating some beautifully resonant folk poetry which is so effective that it is hard to believe it isn’t authentic. It’s not only the ‘Even a man who is pure in heart..’ rhyme which Siodmak’s script passes from cast member to cast member in what must surely be the most ‘werewolf-aware’ village in the world, but also Marya Ouspenskaya’s beautiful lament :
The way you walked was thorny, through no fault of your own. But as the rain enters the soil and the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end. Your suffering is over. Now find peace for eternity.
I don’t expect to see it cropping up in a poetry module on a Literature syllabus anytime soon, but for me that’s more lyrical and profound than a lot of the stuff that does.
Also remarkable about Siodmak’s contribution is just how much of what we think we know about werewolves in fact originates with his screenplay. From the transformative power of the full moon to the fatal qualities of silver to the mystical pentagram, Siodmak conjures the feeling of long-established folklore so successfully that it feels entirely convincing and traditional. The achievement is all the more remarkable for the lack of a recognised literary classic on which to hang it all. There’s no equivalent to a Stoker or a Stevenson, a Shelley or a Poe, for the werewolf movie.
Perhaps a consciousness of this lies behind one of the film’s few flaws – unable to rely on the kind of foreknowledge an audience might have for the vampire or the man-made monster the script falls back occasionally on bursts of rather awkward exposition. It’s a pardonable inelegance, however, when set against the powerful sense of doom which Siodmak layers moodily over the narrative from the word go.
He’s ably assisted in this by some of the most atmospheric fog-enshrouded visuals Universal ever achieved and by the briskly imaginative direction of George Waggner, alongside another triumphant Jack Pierce makeup design.
Also worthy of attention are some subtly affecting supporting performances. There’s Bela Lugosi, squeezing everything he can from the seven lines the script offers him, as the lycanthropic fortune teller who passes on the curse to Chaney’s Talbot. There’s one of Hollywood’s most reliably terrific supporting actors, Claude Rains (who horror fans forever remember for his exceptional performance in The Invisible Man, and who was shortly to come as close as humanly possible to stealing Casablanca from Bogart and Bergman) as Larry’s concerned father. There’s the consistently excellent Evelyn Ankers as Gwen, and more appealing takes on the square jawed hero than usual from both Ralph Bellamy and Patrick Knowles.
Most of all, there is Marya Ouspenskaya as Maleva, the gypsy woman. She carries an extraordinary dignity, tenderness and power, dominating the screen in every moment in which she appears and making so striking an impression that she was recalled for the sequel, Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man.
On re-watching the film now, however, almost as striking as just how much of the now-established werewolf mythos springs from this single text, is how many of the conventions of the genre are nowhere to be seen. For one thing, there is no facial transformation scene. Chaney’s change from man to beast is indicated through a series of dissolves between close ups of his increasingly hairy feet, before said feet start to stomp across his room with a further dissolve showing us those feet now stalking across the misty forest floor.
The sequence actually works very well, in context, if you are able to ignore the fact that Chaney pulls off his shirt and tie to reveal a white vest before sitting down in the chair in which the metamorphosis takes place, but when he’s out in the forest in the full wolf man regalia he’s in a dark shirt and a different pair of trousers. Ever since noticing this glitch, I’ve longed for someone somewhere to come across a long-forgotten deleted scene in which a fully Wolfied Chaney rifles through his wardrobe to pick out the perfect outfit for the sophisticated lupine about town to wear while popping out to kill a handy gravedigger in the woods.
More significantly, the mid-section of the film resembles a psychological thriller much more than a conventional monster movie, leaving the possibility that the supernatural trappings of the story are merely a reflection of Chaney’s increasingly hysterical perspective open until more than half way through the film’s narrative. At one point Chaney’s tortured face is freeze-framed and there’s an effective, but quite unexpected kaleidoscopic swirl of distorted faces, silver canes and wolfbane which reminds me most strongly of the jarring animated montage with which Hitchcock surrounds Jimmy Stewart’s face to signal his character’s mental disintegration in Vertigo.
Perhaps it is partly this emphasis on the psychological over the physical which has led some viewers to dislike the film, often pouring scorn on the cod psycho-philosophical dialogue between Rains and Chaney, or Rains and the imperturbable local doctor, as unconvincing and pretentious in what is essentially a cheapy monster B movie. Rather more fairly, these poor deluded souls may also point to the incontrovertible fact that, though it may be just possible to suspend disbelief far enough to accept that even a man who is pure in heart may become a wolf when the Autumn moon is bright, it is completely impossible to believe that Lon Chaney jr is Claude Rains’ son. Or a member of the British aristocracy.
But all of these ideas about the film, the good and the bad, are missing the point in the end. Because The Wolf Man is not actually about poor, doomed Lawrence Stewart Talbot’s tragic downward spiral into despair, lycanthropy and yak hair. The Wolf Man is about Mark Welch. Not for most people admittedly. But most people are wrong. The Wolf Man is about Mark Welch.
Fandom, you see, can be a lonely, isolated and isolating business. Or, on reflection, perhaps there is a distinction to be made here. Maybe fandom is essentially social: all those football fans or Trekkies or death metal enthusiasts finding community and identity and camaraderie and self-definition through their shared costumes and at large scale, communal events – games or gigs or conventions. But I’m no joiner. Gangs and groups and clubs, whether physical or virtual, fill me with an almost existential terror. I try (or I used to try, until I decided to write a blog about it) not to reveal my ludicrous enthusiasms to people I meet, at work or in the wild social whirl of my everyday life – although the attempt at concealment is always doomed to fail in the end, some chance remark or association which I can’t bite back always leaping out to leave me revealed as the helplessly absurd creature I am.
I prefer to watch horror films alone, my choice of only Lugosi or Cushing or Price for company made easier by my childrens’ tender age and my wife’s deep dislike of ‘scary’ as a concept. It seems to me that many of the activities which best define us – in which we are most truly ourselves – are essentially solitary. Like masturbation. All of which perhaps suggests that maybe I’m not a fan so much as an obsessive.
Nonetheless, my love of these old films grants me automatic membership of an unassuming, unthreatening and largely anonymous community of a kind; one in which I take a quiet pleasure and which exists only because of the context surrounding broadcast television and the screening of these double bills in the 1970s.
People of a certain age – myself among them – will grow slightly dewy-eyed talking about the golden age of British television, and the way in which the entire country would gather around the Morecambe and Wise show, huddled together in the flickering light like mediaeval villagers held rapt around the fire by a lone storyteller. A single, shared, simultaneous experience, almost like an act of worship. It’s true, and nice, that for a young horror fan today with some curiosity about the classics there’s ready availability for everything. Never seen Dracula? A quick scan of Netflix, or You Tube, or if you’re really committed a fiver on Amazon and it’s yours.
Even so, there’s a certain magic about having to see something at the time it’s actually on, screened for an audience by someone else, a commonality of experience vital to the proper enjoyment of event TV.
In 1977 there were only three television channels in Britain, and that lack of choice produced real quality and a truly shared culture, in stark contrast to today’s broadcasting world, in which more and more choice usually means an ever widening proliferation of channels all broadcasting the same depressing rubbish. At the time, the TV broadcast of feature films was no different: shared, specific and single. No VCRs then, no DVD or blu-ray release, no streaming on demand. If you hadn’t seen a Bond film at the cinema, that Bank Holiday Monday night on ITV became a vast, communal premiere for two thirds of the country.
So it was with these horror double bills. Of course the audience was smaller, few but fit, but for those of us who were there, for a whole generation of spotty schoolchildren, otherwise geographically scattered, lonely and isolated, they were a desperately important formative experience. And I can very quickly recognise it in other people.
It’s a source of real pleasure to me to see a common grounding in the works of writers and artists I admire, because it suggests not only a shared sensibility but a strange kind of intimacy. I can watch an episode of League of Gentlemen, or read or see anything else in which Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton or Jeremy Dyson have been involved and I know pretty much where they were, what they were doing, and how they were feeling on specific Saturday nights in Summer between the mid 70s and the early 80s.
Steven Moffatt, Mark Kermode, Matthew Sweet, Jane Goldman and Andy Nyman are other names I’d throw into the mix, alongside specialists in the darker end of teenage fiction like Anthony Horowitz, Marcus Sedgwick and Charlie Higson, and, although they may be a couple of years older, Neil Gaiman and Kim Newman too.
Then there are those, like Marcus Hearn, Dennis Meikle and Jonathan Rigby, whose critical and archival work addresses these films more directly but I’d be very surprised to learn that their scholarly life’s work didn’t have its roots in their experiences in front of late night Saturday BBC2.
More surprisingly, I’d hazard a guess at Jonathan Coe. Most of his witty and profound work, with its deft intermingling of the comic, the poignant and the socially conscious seems about as far from old horror as you’re likely to get, but the influence of films like The Cat and the Canary and The Old Dark House are plain to see in his wonderful novel What a Carve Up, and there’s hardly another of his works that doesn’t boast some sly reference to Universal B movies or Boris Karloff.
I’d even place an outside bet on the wonderful J.K. Rowling, defying gender stereotyping and lapping up all those gothic castles and haunted palaces.
I’m not a stalker – honest guv – and I will never write a fan letter, or tweet or Twitter or poke (are those the phrases? Somebody young let me know) any of the much more talented writers and creators I’ve name-checked. Even so, these double bills were sufficiently central to my own development, my own interests and my own sense of self that I can – I think – recognise their place in the hearts and minds of others when I see it reflected through the filter of their own work, especially if, like me, they were born in the 60s.
At the time, it never really occurred to me that there was anybody else feeling the same joy in the macabre visions being spun out before my eyes on a Saturday night. The films seemed, almost by definition, to belong to the isolated, and to the outsider. To me, in other words.
In Fever Pitch Nick Hornby nails the heart of football fandom beautifully as being accepted into a new, and enormous family ‘except in this family, you care about the same people and hope for the same things.’ Back then though, as now, everybody was a football fan – or at least all of the everybodies that seemed to count.
Horror was OK – it had the tang of transgression to make it credible in the playground and the classroom, and so it wasn’t like being obsessed with Disney or musicals or bird watching or trains, but it was also more than a little odd and out of the way. There was the equivalent of Hornby’s ‘family’ as it turned out, but it was a family that consisted of just one or two of us skulking in the corner of every playground or quadrangle (no class distinctions here) across the country, all feeling as if we were pretty much on our own in those pre-Facebook and fan forum days. A family which only existed with the benefit of hindsight.
In this regard I was lucky. I was not alone, not quite. When it came to horror, Mark Welch was my significant other. Although obsession is essentially private and inward, conversation fans its flames, and Mark Welch was the only other person in my school who knew who Jack Pierce was, or who was prepared to endlessly debate the Boris vs. Bela question. He himself was a Lon Chaney junior man as it turned out, and you don’t meet too many of those around. The Wolf Man was always his monster of choice, just as Dracula was always mine.
Why his preference for lycanthropic Larry? Well, Welch (it was always surnames back then) was a hairy kid, his longish curls always unkempt and straggly and seeming to crave the epithet ‘mop’ in a way that nobody else’s hair has ever quite managed, while whiskers appeared desperately keen to spring out of him, erupting with fecund abandon in apparently random patterns across his face. Swimming lessons and post PE showers revealed pubes that would have decorously graced Bruce Forsyth’s scalp, even back in 77.
Of course the brotherhood of the hirsute is more than skin deep. There’s a clearly identifiable parable of adolescence at work in the werewolf mythos, which was evident long before 50s exploitation cinema gave us I Was a Teenage Werewolf (bizarrely starring Michael Landon, later to find international fame as the world’s third most reassuring father in the saccharine 70s TV hit Little House on the Prairie – coming in just after my dad, and John Walton from the equally saccharine 70s TV hit The Waltons). From the sudden physical changes, the strange nocturnal impulses, the animal urges and the wildly sprouting body hair, to the less easily definable sense of a body, and even a soul, accelerating away from itself, wild and out of control, the werewolf is really just puberty writ large.
And it was not only in the hairy sense that Mark Welch got adolescence bad. Like me, he longed for Shirley Chambers, though he never told me so, anymore than I would have dreamed of mentioning the fact to him, or to anyone else, BECAUSE I DEFINITELY DIDN’T LIKE HER AT ALL ACTUALLY. No, the reason I knew of his desire for the divine Shirley was because it overcame him so completely that he lost control of his reason and actually did something about it.
I at least knew my place. I would keep my longing quiet and deniable, because I could see that Shirley Chambers was a celestial creature from beyond my sphere. She later went out with the captain of the football team, in true David Watts style. She was the most popular girl in the history of the universe ever. Mark Welch, on the other hand, was a spotty git, and no more popular than the likes of me. Nevertheless, in spite of this undeniable truth his inner Wolf Man overtook him utterly. He left a secret note in Shirley Chambers’ desk, inviting her for a romantic weekend bike ride, the big mistake lying in how instantly recognisable his handwriting was.
It even had sketch maps.
I wish, I honestly, honestly wish, that we lived in an American high school comedy world and I could tell you that, against all odds, the ruse worked, she saw the inner value of the apparently nerdy no-hoper, and they strolled hand in hand to a happy future. But we don’t. The only truth to be revealed by American high school comedies is that apparently nerdy no-hopers later end up making wish-fulfilling American high school comedies. Mark Welch’s humiliation was immediate and horrible to behold, giving new meaning to the word ‘crestfallen’.
I don’t know if Welch had drawn inspiration for his sadly ineffective seduction technique from his hero Larry Talbot but it’s not impossible given the extraordinarily adolescent and immature – not to say creepy – nature of Chaney’s courting of Evelyn Ankers’ Gwen Conliffe in the film. To begin with, he eagerly spies on her in her bedroom through a long-range telescope. If that weren’t bad enough – and it is – he then tracks her down and jovially reports his voyeurism to her, even down to identifying the earrings she has on her dressing table, all with a grin that suggests he thinks he’s being a charming smoothy rather than a pervert. He then exacerbates all this further by blithely refusing to accept Gwen’s repeated ‘No’ when he asks her for a date, and seems equally unconcerned by the fact that she is already engaged.
Perhaps in fairness however, I should point out that, while my feminist 2017 self recoils in horror from the film’s blissfully unknowing sexual politics, back in 1977 if I had had a long range telescope and a nice vantage point from which to spy on any of the objects of my desire – Shirley herself, or Rachael Fahey or Kerren Punton or Karen who lived over the road or any of a hundred others – I would have been fiddling with my focus in a heartbeat, without a moment’s consideration or guilt. Even a man who is pure in heart may become a wolf…
Such is adolescent maleness; pumped full of hormones that you know only too well what to do with but lacking the social or emotional or empathetic qualities required to actually connect or communicate with another human being, or even to really recognise that other human beings actually exist.
That’s the twisted logic of objectification, and the instinct of the adolescent, which needs to be worked and matured through, and it’s plainly there to see in the image of Larry Talbot grinning excitedly through his telescope. It works, interestingly, to position even the unhairy version of the character as, despite his age and appearance, essentially a teenage boy. It also, perhaps, helps to explain Mark Welch’s catastrophic attempt to get off with Shirley Chambers.
They were hard times, and those schools were hard places. Even so, it’s not the undeniable misery which I now find most memorable, but the uncontrollable laughter. It is a strange fact, I think, that once you leave school you will never laugh so long and so hard and so hysterically again. Stuff just isn’t that funny later on. Actually, in retrospect, it’s quite difficult to determine what was so funny then, but somehow it was.
One of my most vivid memories of the time, and of Mark Welch in particular, is of spending the best part of a full day literally doubled up, helplessly giggling like a loon, tears squirting from my eyes, gasping for breath, sides aching and, despite the escalating threats from successive teachers, no more able to stop chuckling than I could have chewed off my own hand. The cause of this shared hilarity? The equivalent of the old Monty Python sketch about the wittiest joke in the history of the world; a joke so funny it is instantly fatal to the hearer and becomes the Allies secret weapon to win the war? The cause, ladies and gentlemen, was Mark Welch and I occasionally whispering to one another at the very moment the last paroxysm of laughter had subsided, the words ‘Stravinsky, Kaminski, Violinski’. Talk about you had to be there. For the uninitiated – though I don’t think the knowledge will add much to anyone’s sense of why this was so agonizingly hilarious – Mik Kaminski was the name of the violinist in ELO, and Violinski the name of his one-hit wonder spin-off band. Apart from the handy rhyme, I don’t think Stravinsky had anything to do with it.
As the Kaminski reference might suggest, horror films were not our first, or only, shared interest. Alongside a joint and oddly specific sense of humour, music represented another mutual passion. Through 1976 and early 77 I had a real but relatively casual interest in the softer, poppier end of prog-rock. ELO themselves, Manfred Mann’s Earthband, a hint of Genesis. It was Welch who converted me to punk. The persuasion wasn’t subtle. There was no lending of albums – not when you only had about three – and no compilation tapes, since C90s weren’t cheap either. He just banged on about it so long and so often that in the end I gave in and started to pay attention.
Like the rest of the country the notorious Pistols Bill Grundy interview had been what first brought punk to my attention, but I hadn’t regarded it as anything more significant than a bunch of yobs hilariously swearing a lot on telly. Without Welch’s endless droning about this single or album track he’d heard on John Peel I probably wouldn’t have ever got any further than finding the whole thing a bit of a joke. But eventually I caved in, and everything was suddenly new.
I was too young to know what it was like in the 60s, with that extraordinary outpouring of talent and energy, each new single or album by The Beatles and The Stones and The Kinks and Dylan and The Who and The Beach Boys and The Byrds seeming better than the last, with that incredible sense of musical discovery being possible every time you switched on the radio. By the time that shining moment was palely reflected once more in the beautiful Britpop bubble of the mid 90s, much as I loved those bands, I was too old for them to really get to me, in the way that can only happen when you’re fourteen or fifteen and music is the centre of everything.
So for me it was the golden years of 77 and 78, that were truly to define my musical tastes most indelibly and completely, and again it was that wonderful sense that each time you listened to Peel, or Luxembourg, or Kid Jensen, some new Undertones or Buzzcocks or X Ray Spex or Members track would be the best thing ever. And for us suburban boys all around the country it was the radio and the music that drove it, not the fashion and not the trendy London art school gimmickry.
Despite Jimmy Pursey’s best endeavours, however, us kids still weren’t quite united. On the one hand there was the snarlingly threatening presence of the teds and greasers, always ready to bash a grammar school punk while weirdly acclaiming the sugar-coated retro 50s stylings of Showaddwaddy and Darts as the authentic voice of disenfranchised youth and even striking up a bizarre alliance with a nation of pre-pubescent schoolgirls in worship of Travolta and Newton-John’s seemingly endless string of Grease soundtrack number ones.
On the other, even within our own ranks there was little unity. For the first few months, there was only punk. But then someone noticed that My Aim is True didn’t really sound much like Rattus Norvegicus which in turn didn’t sound all that similar to Never Mind The Bollocks, and so was born the concept of New Wave and we all started judging one another on how credible our tastes were. A new single by The Rats? They’re shit compared to The Clash.
Wolf Man Welch and Dracula Galley were at loggerheads once more. He was for The Jam, hook line and Rickenbacker, while I worshipped Costello, patron saint of NHS glasses-wearing 9 stone weaklings everywhere. As a result, though he liked Costello and I liked The Jam, we had to argue about who was best and could only do so by pretending that the other’s preference was total crap.
With musical differences already in place, of course it was inevitable that we should form a band. Punk’s famous ‘this is a G chord, this is a C, this is a D now release a single’ DIY aesthetic notwithstanding, we found it hard to get past the ‘having no instruments and not being able to play them even if we did’ phase of our musical development.
What we did have was the ability to endlessly debate the best name for the band. My initial suggestion was The Fucking Wankers, which I thought at the time – and rather shamefacedly have to admit, still think – the most hilariously in your face band name ever. I loved the idea that, rather than wild eyed Rottenesque snarling, we might step onstage in sober fashion, taking a Beatlesy bow, and then gently announce ‘Good evening ladies and gentlemen. We’re The Fucking Wankers’. Wedding bookings might have been few and far between, but artistic integrity has to come first, doesn’t it?
In any case, Welch was not so keen on the suggestion, and countered with the rather more sonorous ‘Yesterday’s Outcasts’. There was even a poem, briefly, intended for the sleeve notes, to which I believe I contributed the immortal couplet ‘Went to a party, stole some streamers/Yesterday’s Outcasts, tomorrow’s dreamers.’
With that kind of profundity, it’s little wonder that I quickly became the band’s lyricist in chief. I wrote a song called Brain Surgery, intended as our debut single (Anywhere around this great blue globe/If you have a frontal lobe/ They’re gonna get ya for/Brain surgery/Maybe a brain cell or two/The government back it to avoid a coup/All of society makes a moron of you/They don’t admit it but they know that it’s true), added B-side The Evolutionary Scale (Man is on the bottom rung/Though he thinks he can get no higher/Compared to us he’s a load of dung/Don’t think that I’m a liar) and quickly began work on punk rock opera and concept album Jesus Christ: Punk Rocker.
I intended something a little less blandly respectful than Rice and Lloyd Webber – in fact Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory, Eric Idle’s original title suggestion for what became Life of Brian, catches some of the spirit of what I hoped to achieve. My artistic vision was restricted, however, by having too much Chemistry homework, and I never got any further than a single song, called Crucified (the lyrics escape me now, but it’s a safe bet it wasn’t a gigantic developmental leap on from the searing social critique of Brain Surgery) and a proposed cast list for the film. Elvis Costello was to be Christ, of course, with Paul Weller as John the Baptist and Johnny Rotten as Pilate. Even now, I rather wish someone with a modicum of talent had stumbled on the idea and made it happen. Not to be, sadly.
Still grappling with the name which might best represent us – I had an inkling Yesterday’s Outcasts might have just the tiniest whiff of the pretentious about it, and wasn’t altogether in keeping with our stripped down Punk credentials – we eventually settled on The Superboes. That’s pronounced Superb-oes, not Super-boes, for those few of you miraculously retaining any interest whatsoever in my doomed tilt at rock stardom.
We invented a few album titles, like Sombrero Fallout (don’t ask me why – I’ve still never read the novel) and The Superboes Live (Almost) – a title I found funny because it dispensed with the requirement to actually be live, but I think on reflection may have owed slightly too significant a conceptual debt to a 1976 episode of The Goodies called The Goodies Almost Live.
Welch was also in the habit of creating his own weekly top 30 listings consisting of entirely fictitious singles, designed either to reflect events at school or to just have funny titles. Oddly, despite the questionable independence of these chart placings given Welch’s heavy influence on his own self-penned hit parade, our band only ever made number 1 once, with I Remember Nicky Goodwin (sung to the tune of Danny Mirror’s jaw-droppingly bad tribute single I remember Elvis Presley) and replacing The King with the name of an odd little boy in the year below us who once fervently berated me in the school canteen for using my fingers to eat a doughnut with the plaintively repeated lament “A spoon! You’re supposed to eat it with a spoon! A spoon! You’re supposed to eat it with a spoon!” Nowadays he would be diagnosed with Asperger’s and/or OCD. Back then he was just a nutter who made excellent comedy fodder for invented novelty singles.
Although one Christmas around this time I did get a three quarter size guitar and a four page ‘how to play’ manual which came with it, we never got as far as recording. Or gigging. Or rehearsing. In fact disconsolately following around a fourth year boy who was rumoured to own a drum kit and never having the nerve to speak to him was as close to getting together a proper band as we ever got. Somehow, a very slow acoustic version of The Drunken Sailor, which was all the combination of the manual and my own sticky-fingered incompetence (a quality that continues to haunt my guitar playing to this day) was able to offer up never seemed to quite cut it in the ‘let’s stop coming up with names and song titles and actually do something’ stakes.
Of course, even music had not been the first of our joint passions. Unlike most of the friendships in the first year of secondary school, ours had not been formed at primary level. We’d been to different schools, but an exceptional commonality of interest and experience formed an early and tight bond.
It was Who initially – avidly watching and sharing our impressions of the preceding Saturday’s episode on a Monday morning. My scumbag 1970s comp did not possess a water cooler, but Welch and I shared plenty of those moments, swapping Target novelizations and our own ideas for brilliant sci-fi stories which were always unacknowledged but unabashed rip-offs of already existing brilliant sci-fi stories.
As the years went slowly by, our reviews became less breathlessly enthusiastic and more smugly sardonic and sneering. Each adolescent schoolboy kills the things he loves, and like a teenager inflicting some deliberate cruelty on an old, once much-loved teddy bear to prove how far from childhood he has grown (and all the time crying inwardly over Twee-Twee’s sorry fate), we moved steadily further and further away from the show.
In truth our early years had been spoilt; the UNIT family Pertwee era of 1970-74 followed by Tom Baker’s glorious first three years still represent the show’s golden age for me, and many of the later Tom Baker stories were indeed hard to love. The show’s demographic shift away from dark, gothic-influenced teen-friendly stories towards more overtly comedic, pre-school devices like the cute robot dog K9 left us out in the cold – or perhaps the shift was more in ourselves than in the show. Whichever, the more determinedly bleak and pessimistic Blake’s 7 began to fill the grown up sci-fi shaped hole in our hearts, sharing as we did the almost universal adolescent conviction that dark and gloomy is somehow intrinsically more ‘adult’ than positive and upbeat.
In its subject matter and some of its dialogue, as well as its doom-laden mood and atmosphere, The Wolf Man itself might seem to fulfil that requirement for gloom. Indeed some of Claude Rains’ Jekyll and Hyde style philosophising that the wolf is simply an expression of the dark side of the human personality, along with Larry’s more than a little dubious pre-werewolf way with the ladies, suggests to me that perhaps Larry Talbot might have been originally intended to be a rather darker character than the one who finally emerged on screen. Lon Chaney jr is probably the least highly rated of the great horror stars amongst fans of the genre, but I don’t accept the charge in some quarters that he was a bad actor. He wasn’t. In fact he was a very good actor, but within a comparatively limited range.
When called on to do dark and sinister – as in Son of Dracula say – he floundered. But he could do affable Everyman, and alongside it turmoil and torment, extraordinarily well, and this is what he gives to Lawrence Talbot. Rather than his performance suggesting a dark underside, which the character’s behaviour and some of the dialogue might easily have supported, he takes the opposite tack, and as a result his character’s descent into despair and monstrosity is rooted in compassion and generates enormous sympathy. I think Chaney’s very touching and effective performance, so ripe for empathy in its ordinariness, is a major part of the reason The Wolf Man resonated so strongly with me, and even more so with Mark Welch.
There’s an extraordinary level of dependence that forms in those adolescent relationships. As in so many things, it’s only in absence that that level of dependence becomes fully realised. On the odd occasions Welch was off sick the days stretched out like funeral bells, and I’d wander the school grounds miserably, on the assumption that it was better to present a moving target, glumly searching in vain for whatever dark corner seemed least obtrusive to hide away the endless lunch hours.
I remember the fear and desolation which ate away at me like the gnawing wolf within poor old Larry Talbot over the course of one long summer holiday when it seemed likely that a change in his dad’s job would mean Welch had to change schools and wouldn’t be back the following September. Even that year’s set of Saturday double bills only provided a temporary respite from the nagging unease – particularly since there was a hint of bottom barrel scraping about the 1979 offerings, which included lowlights like Night Monster and Black Friday. No mobiles, no texting or Facebooking back then. It wasn’t until that September morning when he walked in again that I knew the outcome, and there have been few occasions in my life when I’ve been more pleased and relieved to see anybody.
There was certainly nothing physical about the relationship, and I don’t think I’m in any kind of denial when I say that there was no undercurrent of repressed sexual feeling about it either, despite the sneering insult ‘you bears’ hurled like confetti at the happy couple about a hundred times a day. ‘Bear’ incidentally was a strange, and, given that I’ve never met anyone since who knows the phrase, probably school-specific piece of slang meaning ‘bender’ or ‘bum bandit’, themselves terms of endearment to which I was no stranger. Nonetheless, the intensity of the connection could hardly have been heightened if there had been. And yet…
Mark Welch was my best friend from some point in late 1976 to the end of June 1981. I can be that precise not because of any sudden death or other such dramatic incident, but because at the age of 16 I scraped enough O levels to get me into Sixth Form. Welch only got two, which didn’t do the same for him. He phoned me on results day and told me. That was the last time we ever spoke. We had no reason to after that. School had been the only context for us, and he wasn’t at school anymore. Without the context, there was no relationship.
It leads me to wonder about myself a little. I’ve never lived alone, and in my forties became what people still refer to as a ‘family man’, and yet in many ways I think I’m self-contained almost to the point of neurosis. I take real pleasure in my own company, and have always had the capacity to shrug off friendships like a snake shedding skin. Welch may have been the first, but he certainly wasn’t the last.
There was Paul, a childhood playmate with whom I spent the bulk of my Saturdays for more than a decade, while drifting further and further apart the whole time. I passed the 11+ and he didn’t, so Grammar school and Secondary Modern made for the first separation. I grew increasingly bookish and nerdish, and our mutual frames of reference receded as our teenage years rolled by. At sixteen he got a job at a carpentry business making doors, and although I continued to see him on the occasional Saturday, it was more out of habit than anything else. When I left for university I failed to get in touch when I came home for holidays and the friendship was over. I later heard he’d lost part of his hand in an accident at work, and feeling guilty, met up briefly over the space of an awkward couple of pints, but, duty done, I allowed the relationship to lapse, permanently this time.
At university there were long, desperately earnest and intense nights of conversation and bottled pretension which came to a similarly abrupt end. I think it’s normal, isn’t it, to form intense relationships through the crucible of flat sharing and wild living in your university years and then gradually lose touch as a decent period elapses? I managed to lose touch with my college friends while I was still sharing flats with them.
A little later as a trainee teacher I formed a tight-knit group of friends, and discovered for the first time as the earnest 80s gave way to the laddish 90s that I could make people laugh around a pub table and that to do so wasn’t necessarily reactionary and oppressive. As a result that year remains one of the most simple, fun, and uncomplicated periods of my life, and I still think very fondly of the people who shared it with me, but no more than a couple of years after it was over I couldn’t have given you addresses or phone numbers for any of them, which was entirely down to me.
Over the years since then there have been bandmates and song writing partnerships, drinking buddies and football fan friends, stag dos and weddings and births and dinner parties, but it makes me strangely comfortable to note that with the fortunate exception of my wife, my family and the odd work-based friendship, I’m not in touch with anyone I’ve known for longer than about five years. I’m not absolutely sure what the slight tingle of pleasure I get from shedding people, from moving on and avoiding intimacy or lasting entanglements, says about me, except that the anonymity that comes with being known only partially and fleetingly by anyone except those very closest to me feels right and true and secure.
An introvert and an obsessive. Like poor old Larry Talbot, I really am a lone wolf, in the end.