I took the M5 Southbound past Bristol, to Junction 23 – and Glastonbury. I was due to meet Matt Mackenzie on top of the Tor at eleven o’clock, and it was best to get an early start as the roads are always shite. Why Glastonbury Tor? Well, Matt always did have a flair for the dramatic. That was his real name. Matt Mackenzie. The man who played Screaming Lord Smith, member of the T-Service.
As the cult TV buffs out there will remember, the BBC drama series The T-Service ran for three seasons between 1967 and 1969. It was a sci-fi horror comedy thriller about a super-team backed by the British Government, a group of eccentric characters saving the world from a different threat each week. It was pitched as the BBC’s answer to the colorful psychedelic spy shows that ITC were putting out, like The Avengers and The Prisoner, and a companion show to Doctor Who. The ‘T’ in the T-Service stood for Terror. The star of the show was Jason Zodiac, a flamboyant swinger with a command of occult magical arts and a knack for pulling dolly birds. The other regular characters all had their own back stories and super powers too: Screaming Lord Smith, Tangerine, Uncle Jack, Camera Obscura, token American liason the Someday Man, all led by the scientific genius Doctor Chess, and receiving their assignments from a shadowy government contact known only as The Minister.
Great names. They don’t make TV like that any more, eh?
One reason why The T-Service had gained such notoriety is that it had fallen victim to the BBC video-wiping purge in the early 1970s, and only a handful of episodes actually existed. The stories where The Beatles and Mick Jagger had appeared were still around, of course, but classic stories like The Unexpected Question, The Camelot Run, Death by Chocolate and Festival of the Damned were lost forever.
Or so we thought, until Matt Mackenzie contacted Fugue magazine, claiming to have unearthed an 8mm film copy of Festival of the Damned.
I got to the Tor just before eleven, parked the car, and trudged up the hill to the famous artificial mound, with its signature spiral path winding toward the beautiful stone tower on its crown. A cold February wind scythed across the fields, but I’d wrapped up warm in quilted jacket, scarf, sweater and gloves, so it wasn’t too bad.
When I got to the top of the hill Matt was standing by the stone tower waiting for me. I recognized him from his publicity shots; he’d put on weight and lost a bit more hair, but his face was still the craggy, lined, handsome face that had got him the part on the show. Screaming Lord Smith’s super-power was a jacket that emitted psychedelic blasts of colored light that confused, blinded or hypnotized the baddies. Which is pretty funny when you remember that the first T-Service series was filmed in black and white. Today, though, there was nothing psychedelic about him; he wore a long black wool coat that almost stretched down to his feet.
“Good morning, Mr. Smith,” I said. “Or can I call you Screaming Lord?”
He laughed. We shook hands. “Hello, Mr. Carter.”
“Call me Jamie.”
We stood on top of the Tor, buffeted by the wind but with the solid reassuring presence of the tower behind us, and we looked out across the rolling Wiltshire countryside. The stubby hedgerows, the scattered farm buildings, the roads carrying their ceaseless loads of traffic.
“I’d forgotten how far away the Tor is from the town,” Matt said.
“Yeah, it’s quite a way. Have you been back here since the filming?”
“I went to the Glastonbury Festival a couple of times in the Seventies. Saw Pink Floyd headlining one year and Thin Lizzy the next.”
“Me too. I saw Pink Floyd here,” I said, thinking there was not much I could remember about it. Most of it was the sheer paranoia of having my stash stolen or being arrested. Ah, youth.
Matt pointed across the fields. “We filmed Festival of the Damned down there. The director put down flat wooden supports for the cameras, because he wanted to recreate the effect of filming in studio. Several cameras filming the action at the same time, from different angles. Cameras and arc lights moving across the wooden planks on wheeled tripods. All the cameramen had headphones on so the director could speak to them.”
“That episode had quite a strong opening scene, I remember.”
“Yeah, that got quite a reaction. The first thing you saw was Agent Teapot being chased across those fields by the Morris Dancers from Hell.”
“All the spies from that department had tea-service code names. Agent Sugar, Agent Milk, all that stuff. Teapot sends off a message in Morse code before he’s murdered by the Fool with an exploding pig’s bladder on a stick.”
I remembered watching it with my own mum and dad on Saturday teatime when I was a kid. It was a scene pretty scary and graphic for the time, and most people agree it was an influence on the writers of the classic 1971 Doctor Who story The Daemons, where menacing Morris Dancers almost burned Jon Pertwee at the stake.
“I never looked at Morris Dancing the same way after that,” I said.
“Shame,” he said. “I was going to ask you to nip down there and join me for a dance.”
“I think I’d rather have a pint.”
We both laughed.
We carried on the interview at the King Arthur (Matt’s idea of a joke, considering all the legends surrounding this place), a nice comfortable pub on Benedict Street in Glastonbury town center. Matt opted for the ploughman’s lunch, but after being out in that wind, I needed something piping hot. I finally chose the steak and kidney pie in gravy with a non-alcoholic beer to wash it down.
“Here it is,” Matt said, taking a videocassette wrapped in a plastic Sainsbury’s bag out of his attaché case. “The long-lost episode.”
I took it from him and peered at it, all kinds of thoughts going through my head. Front covers of Fugue magazine. DVD releases. Behind-the-scenes specials.
It had been a long-standing mystery in TV circles why The T-Service had never had the classic status it deserved. The shows that existed had never been repeated on TV and never released on video or DVD, and were never shown abroad. One theory is that Mary Whitehouse, the head of the TV censorship group at the time, had angrily reacted to what she had called the ‘Satanist’ elements of the series. She had even claimed in an interview that Jason Zodiac had conducted a real Black Mass on-screen, but I couldn’t remember ever seeing that.
I talked it over with Matt, as well as the curious fact that all the cast of The T-Service had left the acting profession after the show was finally cancelled. The actor who played Uncle Jack died in the late Seventies and Someday Man passed away in the mid-Eighties. Yvonne Page, who played Tangerine, had set up a film company, and Matt McKenzie himself had gone into record production; in fact, not many people know he was the producer on The Blobs’ best-selling debut album, We Are The Blobs.
“But what you really want to know,” Matt said with a sly grin, “is where is Jason Zodiac.”
Now we were getting down to it.
In the T-Service series, Jason had basically played himself – a larger-than-life character with a mysterious past and dodgy reputation. I knew that he started off as a rock star, a lead singer with psychedelic rock band The Banana Sundial. The Jason Zodiac persona he adopted as the frontman of the band was the same character in the TV series – a bit like David Bowie assuming the mantle of Ziggy Stardust.
“There was never any argument that Jason was the star of the show,” Matt said, as he scooped up the last of the Branston pickle with a finger of Cheddar cheese. “He looked the part, and acted the part, both on stage and off. He knew everyone in ‘the scene’, as we used to call it. Jason told me once that after a heavy smoking session, he wandered around one morning looking for munchies, and he found himself on Primrose Hill. You know who he bumped into?”
I shook my head.
“Paul McCartney! He just met Paul completely by accident, and started up a conversation with him! They became good pals after that. Crazy, innit? Let me tell you something else. One day someone turned up on location and hung around when we were filming. At the lunch break he managed to wangle his way into the private area and sat down at the same table with me and Jason. Said he was a big fan of the Banana Sundial. Also said he owned a farm with a bit of land he wanted to turn over for public events, like open-air rock concerts, and he wondered if Jason was interested. His name was Michael Eavis.”
I stared back at him, my pint halfway to my lips. “The bloke who set up the Glastonbury Festival?”
“That’s right. The Banana Sundial were the first band to play the very first Glastonbury Festival – in September 1970.”
“Are you sure?”
“Well, it was more of a pre-gig party, before Stackridge went on. The point is, Jason had the face, the luck, the charm. And he really believed in that stuff, you know.”
“Occult stuff. He wasn’t a Satanist, or a Wiccan, and he didn’t have anything to do with Crowley’s Thelema religion as far as I knew, but he believed magic was real. I think talking about it was the only time he stopped joking and got serious.”
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