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Maxine Peake, The Eccentronic Research Council and 1612 Underture

This  is the full transcript of an interview with Maxine Peake and Adrian Anthony Flanagan of ECCENTRONIC RESEARCH COUNCIL, which was conducted to coincide with the ERC performance of 1612 Underture, an analog synth/spoken word suite inspired by the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612, at the National Gallery of Scotland on October 31st 2013 as part of the Halloween: By Night Event.

Neil Cooper: First of all, could you tell me how you first got involved in 1612 Underture?

Maxine Peake: It was all the fault of a well known networking site. I'd just been to see Chrome Hoof at Islington Mill in Salford and had typed a little paragraph of praise when I had a message saying if you like them you'll like my band. it was a Mr Adrian Anthony Flanagan. We had a brief conversation about our respective music tastes, and then he enquired if I would appear in his video, which involved donning a rabbit suit and charging around Kersal Moor in Salford. After four months of intensive filming in London it was just what the doctor ordered. 

We stayed in touch, mainly because I was hoping to steal the film footage from him while he was sleeping. Then the next thing I know I'm embroiled in some Kraut, prog, psychedelic, electronic fiasco. Needless to say, I steer well clear of social network sites theses days.

Adrian Flanagan: It's all true. I wooed her with the offer of a bottle of Thunderbird, a pickled egg, a photo of Pat Phoenix and some Rockabilly records..Then the gypsy in me kicked in...You're in my band now!

NC: The Pendle witch trials are still a relatively hidden piece of history. What was the initial motivation for making the album, and what did you want to get across?

AF: Maxine and I just got talking about the Pendle Witches one afternoon. We are both from Lancashire, her Bolton, me Salford, and we were both fascinated by the story. As a child, I used to get dragged up to Pendle Hill to go walking by my folks and be told tales of these scary, fiendish,women...but of course, when you're a bit older and you read about them and you see how horrifically they we're treated and how they were basically being used as scapegoats by the government, then you start seeing parallels with what's going on now.

So Maxine and I went on a little road trip around the villages surrounding Pendle Hill. I came home back to Sheffield and started writing about it with one eye watching London burning in the riots, kids running around breaking things and hurting each other in Manchester and Birmingham, and similar things happening in Greece, Spain and, more recently, Turkey and Egypt. There was and still is this feeling that the whole nation is a ticking time bomb. People are completely fed up with how they are being treated by a government that we by and large didn't even vote for.

We wouldn't vote for liars, or for people whose only interest is that of protecting banks, major corporations and looking after their sort of people, which isn't our kind of people..It's almost like we are just some petty inconvenience, that if they strangle and starve enough, will go away!!..This anger, depression and poverty Is affecting everyone. For people that can't articulate themselves, that anger manifests itself by breaking stuff and they then get called animals or scumbags. They are not animals. They are angry. Ignore that anger at your peril. My anger manifested itself in writing a story about modern Britain and the mistreatment of 17th century human beings, the so called Pendle Witches. I truly believe we are all outsiders, modern day witches. It wont be long before this government will be taking us all to Gallows Hill for having an opinion!

NC: What was the process of making the album, then? And what was it like working with musicians and effectively being in a band?

After I got Maxine reading my story and prose to tape, Dean Honer, my musical partner in the ERC, and I set about building music around the different section', almost sound tracking it. It was a very different process to how we would create say a pop song. It's quite an enjoyable way to work actually, and brought us a new kind of freedom as musicians. It was great to truly see what the old analogue synthesisers could do, be a bit more experimental and noisy and damn the neighbours!

MP: I'm glad I only got involved this late in the game, else if I was younger I would have packed up and gone on the road for good, joining these merry pranksters, drinking myself into oblivion!

NC: How did you feel when the idea for performing the album live came up?

From the clips I've seen, although playing a part, it looks both far more exposing and far more personal than doing something for the telly or a stage play. How much was that the case, and just how personal did 1612 Underture become? Watching you read a litany of contemporary ills, you look very passionate.

MP: There was never any intention to perform it live. The vocals were recorded round at Dean Honer's house in thirty minutes, and I believed it would be the end of that, but then Andy Votel from the label Finders Keepers records got in touch, and we got released it on Jane Weaver's label, Bird.

The next thing I know, we were doing an album launch in Manchester. It was extremely chaotic, but great fun. I find the work with The ERC extremely exposing. In theatre you are to include the audience under the guise that you're trying to get them to believe you've forgotten they are there.Speaking directly to them is very, very surreal for me. It is far more personal and far more difficult. I think it takes a certain personality to be a great front-person, and I think I'm cut from a very different cloth. I wanted to act to get far away from who I am.

Adrian and myself have very similar politics and which we discuss at length, so I am very passionate in my delivery because it's what I believe."
AF: The ERC is effectively just a studio project. We never thought we'd be doing it live or that anyone would really be bothered by what we see as being quite niche and a bit weird, but 1612 Underture seems to have really captured the imagination of the general public. We pretty much said from the start,we'll just do a one-off launch party and a big festival show then move on to the next thing, but it's taken on a life of its own. I think it will maintain a relevance for some time..

We can't do big tours because of Maxine's day job, and Dean's got family commitments, but at the same time we don't really want to do that either. I can't think of anything worse than turning up at some O2/beer-sponsored sticky carpet flea-pit every night and just going through the motions, but once in a while an offer comes in asking us to play somewhere unusual, and if that offer is sweet and we are all available then we would consider it.You never know where the ERC are going to strike next.

Despite what Maxine says, she's one of the best front people I've seen. She's totally engaging. Her compassion, her honesty and heart shines through everything she does. There's an element of acting and showmanship to all front people. It's not so different, it's just about learning the tricks. Just look at Mick Jagger. One day he's in a nursing home with a tartan blanket over his knee, the next he's pointing at an imaginary crowd member and doing high kicks at Glastonbury.

NC: You grew up in Bolton, quite close to Pendle. When did you first become aware of the witch trials, and what effect did that have on you?

MP:The Pendle witches had always been part of the folklore when I was growing up. No-one had ever explained to me their story properly, so I just deducted there was a hill not too far away where witches on broomsticks met to cause mayhem,which I thought was just a fairytale. It was only in my teens when my mother, Glenys, began working in Euxton, and told me there was a woman at her place of work who was a descendant of the Pendle witch, Alice Nutter, so I went down to Sweetens, my local bookshop in Bolton, and bought myself a book on the subject and started to read up."

NC: In terms of pop culture, witches and witch trials are all over the show, from The Wizard of Oz to The Crucible to Witchfinder General, while the Pendle trials are referenced on The Fall's Live at the Witch Trials album. (you might also want to check out these links -
– and, slightly tangentially - and –
What is it do you think about popular culture that is still captivated by witches?

I think over the centuries the story of the Pendle witches specifically has become akin to that of tittle tattle and Chinese whispers. The only documents written that come from the time are taken from the notes of someone who had a government agenda against them. They were hung, drawn and quartered before they stepped in the dock. It was important to me to re-address the balance, right some wrongs. History is both an ass and a teacher. It's just that some people never learn.
I don't really think people who for instance dress up like witches at Halloween really know what they are doing. They uglify themselves, stick on the pointy nose and some warts. I don't think they are doing it in memory of these poor women that were raped and tortured, hung and left to rot. They are just doing it for the lark. It's something that needs to be thought about before painting your face green and going wooo, aren't I scary.

NC: The demonisation and scape-goating of women in particular as witches if they don't conform still seems prevalent today (oddly, someone just told me that a woman was imprisoned under witchcraft laws as recently as 1947!). What forms do you think that takes, and how much does 1612 Underture address that?
MP: Women are still victimised for being different, for not conforming. We like to bandy the word 'mad' about when describing a woman who may be being out spoken or passionate. If a woman has a strong sense of her sexuality she's still labelled a slag or some such. I feel we still have to battle to be heard, to be taken seriously. If a woman has an opinion she's described as feisty! This infuriates me. If a woman is being strong-willed, outspoken, brave, emotional and fearless, then she is being a woman, nothing more nothing less.

NC: Listening to the album and watching a few clips from the show, it seems to be making some serious political points about those who are witch-hunted today, for being poor or different. While no-one's being killed, just how bad is it today, do you think?

MP: No ones being killed? There are woman in this country who are being murdered in honour killings, female babies being murdered because they are not male. The biggest witchhunt at the moment is the Tory parties demonisation of the working class. Whipping middle England up into a frenzy with the myth of hoards of scroungers bleeding the tax payer dry, of immigrants coming over to take their jobs and homes. Bedroom tax, the gagging law. The list goes on and on."

AF: Let's not forget the small fact that more people are committing suicide than ever. I hope you're proud of yourself, Mr Cameron?

NC: How much do you think doing 1612 Underture has affected you as an actress in terms of what you've done since?

The collaboration came at a time when I was just beginning to write my first commission for Radio 4, so it's really given me strength to have the confidence to try different artistic avenues. That I didn't always have to be just an actress.

NC: After doing 1612 Underture, are there any plans to work with the Eccentronic Research Council again? Or is there any further to desire to makes records or perform live?

We have recorded a new album, so I think I'll always have a lifeline to the ERC. If things get really bad I could always roadie for them.
AF: You don't show enough bum-crack to be a roadie. And yes, we do have a few records cooking away. In fact we have just released a single this week in honour of Delia Derbyshire's ground-breaking radio experiment, 'the dreams', which she recorded fifty years ago. Ours is called Maxine's Dream. Look it up.
The first of two new ERC albums will hopefully be out by the end of the year. We've not thought about doing any live shows, but if the people want it and the venue is an unusual setting then maybe we can be tempted. There really is nothing typical about this bunch of freakoids. I certainly never imagined we'd end up playing mad synths inside the National Galleries of Scotland!

NC: And finally, just out of interest, really, what is it you're working on just now?

MP: At this moment I'm about to start work with film-maker Carol Morley on her next feature film project. My radio play about Anne Scargill and her occupation of Parkside Colliery in Lancashire in 1993 is on Radio 4 at 2.15 on November 4th, and I've a theatre commission to get on with for next year.
The Eccentronic Research Council featuring Maxine Peake will perform 1612 Underture as part of Halloween: By Night, which also features a performance by Blake Morrison, at the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, October 31st, 7.15-10pm. 1612 Underture and Maxine's Dream are available now. Witches and Wicked Bodies runs at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, until November 3rd.

An edited version of this article appeared in The Herald, October 31st 2013



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