For some reason, the hardest part of writing an interview (besides sending a polite DM to whoever you’re planning on talking to) is the introductory paragraph, at least to me anyway. I find it scarily hard to condense why I find a certain artist or personality interesting down into a few sentences without coming off as even more of a pretentious arsehole and sadly the work of Matthew Harris (aka. Applemask) is no exception to this inability. According to the about page on his website, Harris is obsessed with what the Japanese term “mono no aware” – the pathos of things. In other words, Harris obsesses over small, discarded pieces of pop culture and uses these glimpses into the more mundane aspects of the past as the basis for his various video essays. Applemask is probably best known for ‘ITV in the Face’, a scarily-long amateur documentary series that dissects the (at the time of the 2016 remaster) sixty-year history of the British broadcaster through it’s various regional logos and idents, heavily utilizing footage from VHS tapes that’d usually be skipped or forgotten about. There’s something oddly captivating about Harris’s combination of the mundane and the substantial – historical events are marked by embarrassing ads for tabloid rags and Julie Simmons introducing *’Coronation Street’,* reinforcing the odd mundanity of living through a major news event that we’re all currently staring straight in the face. One of Harris’ best video essays (and one I’m mad for not asking about in this interview) is “The Alma Syndrome”, a piece attempting to depict the eeriness of British media in the hours following the death of Princess Diana. Even as someone who talks scarily frequently about James Connolly (and gets stupidly insecure about coming off as a West-Brit while reading this paragraph), there’s something quite fascinating about this video – the last thing aired on ITV before the news broke that Diana had died was some tacky Britpop song that I couldn’t be arsed to locate and there’s something oddly poignant about that fact. The world will probably melt during a ‘Room To Improve’ repeat and Harris’ work is interesting as it makes that fact blindly obvious (if not strangely beautiful). Hopefully that doesn’t seem too pretentious for an introduction – either way, let’s just get on to the interview already.
ILL: On a practical level how would you describe your work and what do you think inspires it?
Oh, the adventures in the inside of my head really is the short answer to both of those. The long answer is probably the rest of this interview. Although I haven’t done it yet so I don’t know. LET’S FIND OUT TOGETHER
ILL: How exactly did you end up reviewing television idents, PIFs, and advertising on the internet?
By a series of random events, accidents and predispositions. I’ve always been fascinated with logos and brands and advertising since I was a tiny child in the eighties. No idea why. A lot of kids doodled; I don’t know how many drew adverts for cars or supermarket leaflets. I have also always had this freakish long-term memory for largely irrelevant details. I can tell you what the Christmas branding campaign at my Co-Op Leo’s looked like. Certain things I just don’t forget. It makes me brilliant at Trivial Pursuit and pub quizzes. Put the two together and my brain becomes a repository for ephemera, images that were here and gone very briefly, like those trailer packages from the late eighties and early nineties. Things that are gone and won’t come back. As soon as I’d lived long enough to have a past, I was interested in nostalgia. But it was just something that bubbled away in my subconscious until the Internet was invented and there was something I could do about it. I discovered TV-Ark and TV Cream in 2002 or so as a distraction from a pleasant but uninteresting office job, and they gave me a basic context, terms and definitions, and best of all some of the materials themselves. Then YouTube came along. I wasn’t there right on the ground floor, I signed up a year or so after it launched, and only because the BBC News website was doing a series of articles about PIFs and had a competition to make your own. I didn’t win, but it was the start of the Applemask channel (the secret of the name: it’s a completely random word). Before long I started uploading bits and pieces I’d found elsewhere on the net, old adverts and PIFs, and writing increasingly involved description pieces. It’s TV Cream’s fault I started making my own things, though. Christmas Wrapping, the first narrated video I ever made, evolved from an article they wrote in an edition of Creamup in 2005 or so that covered the BBC1 Christmas idents of the seventies and eighties, up to 1991. I liked it, thought it was worthy of a place on the regular site, wrote an expanded version to cover BBC2 and the rest of the pre-balloon years, and sent it to them. They thought it was neat and all but didn’t do anything else about it, but it had created an itch that I had to scratch, and so, with a tiny plastic microphone and Windows Movie Maker for Windows Vista, I made some video versions. They went down surprisingly well. So much so I decided to do a full-blown series on the ITV regions, expecting to get bored halfway through and give up. But I didn’t. And I suppose the rest is history?
ILL: What is the creative process behind a typical Bob the Fish video like?
Disorganised. Here’s how the Hard Sell usually goes down. I choose a subject and then look it up on YouTube, and also the History of Advertising Trust at hatads.co.uk, although I mostly use that as a reference guide these days; they got wise to me a while back and slapped a massive watermark on almost all their videos, so I only use them as video material if I really need to. Say the subject’s biscuits: I’d do a YT search for terms like “McVities”, “HobNobs”, “ginger nut” and probably “bums” towards the end out of boredom, and download whatever I can find of interest using various illicit means (usually the 4K Video Downloader) to a special folder called Documents/Hard Sell/Biscuits. Then I spend a day or two writing the script around what I’d downloaded and whatever rubbish narrative I can conjure up around it all. Usually at the same time, I fire up Moviestorm and create the first bit of the “movie” itself by choosing a set and kitting out my avatar as much as possible. Once that’s done I record the narration, usually in chunks of up to two and a half minutes, because Moviestorm’s lip-sync abilities can’t handle anything longer. The individual .wav files are then imported as dialogue into Moviestorm – I’ve taken to doing this simultaneously with recording to save time – and I also sort out any expressions or arm-flapping I want to include, and camera angles and what have you before I render it all down. THEN I fire up a video editing program, usually Olive of late, and edit it all together with the titles and interstitials I have lying around. Very little planning happens. For something like Watch and Smile or Thatcher, same thing without the bits about Moviestorm.
ILL: It’d be an understatement to say that your video essays rely upon scraps of content that’d usually be skipped or cut out, let alone actively archived. How do you continually come across these old recordings of channel continuity, obscure ITV satellite channels, and advertisements that’d typically be ignored or discarded?
Well, that’s why it’s called ephemera. The Japanese have a good term for it too: “mono no aware”, the pathos of things, the awareness of impermanence. The fact that there is a term for it is evidence that I’m not the only one interested in these things. There are other YouTube channels all over the place uploading old continuity and adverts, things intended to be forgotten. Which is just as well since the HAT added their watermark to their own videos. As for my own uploads, I’ve been uploading something new almost every Sunday for a couple of years now, and that’s entirely down to people sending me things they’ve found and encoded via Mega or WeTransfer or whatever, or even old VHS tapes for me to look at.
ILL: In my opinion, one of your most fascinating video essays was the thirteenth episode of your series “ITV in the Face”, where you covered the visual identity of UTV and unintentionally stepped into the proverbial minefield of discussing Ulster’s history while doing so. In general, how do you deal with these situations where the mundane media of idents and bumpers collide with historical events and do you think that through looking at “disposable” media we’re able to gain a deeper understanding of certain times and events?
It’s interesting you say that. I wouldn’t say it was unintentional; I don’t think that minefield could be avoided, certainly not if I wanted to be honest. When I remade the series in 2015 – which I consider the definitive version, so if I ever refer to ITV in the Face “generically” that’s the version I mean – I took particular care over the UTV version because I think I got it wrong the first time: being too blase and flippant and too patronizing and mythologizing by turns. Not that I necessarily think I got it right the second time, but I made more of an effort to correctly judge the subject’s weight. My usual tactic, in everyday life as well as what I suppose I should call “work”, is to face horror down with matter of fact black humour and resignation. It’s probably not healthy, but it’s worked for me so far. It got me through the Thatcher documentary and six and a half years of 2SUNS. I think there is a lot to learn from the margins of popular and consumer culture, including probably close to everything about the ordinary cvillian at that moment in time. I was slightly startled to figure out a few years back that I was a semiotician of sorts, and semiotics as a field of history is probably under-explored.
ILL: Last year you released “Margaret Thatcher: A Warning from History”, a twelve-part documentary series outlining the rise and fall of everyone’s least favorite human from an explicitly antagonistic perspective. What was the experience of working on this series like compared to working on “The Hard Sell” and how did you avoid going insane while researching for the project?
The practical experience was very similar, as I have more or less the same working method on all my videos, with the added step of Moviestorm in some cases. I’m not sure I did avoid going insane, to be honest, but most of the script was already written in the form of the 2SUNS Special. That in itself was planned almost from the start of the magazine – I had the file all laid out and ready to go in Publisher – but most of the writing was done in the two weeks after her death, in an increasing hurry to get it out before it became irrelevant. That probably insulated me from going too mad at the time. Upon making the video series I ended up getting a weird sort of Stockholm Syndrome, acknowledging Thatcher as a great and successful servant of Evil. As I said right at the end, we’re still living in her world, though it’s long since ceased to be viable. But it prefers to die rather than change. That’s Thatcher in a nutshell.
ILL: At the moment you’re in the middle of working on “Rule The Waves” – a book examining the history of the BBC through the lens of its director generals. What drew you towards inspecting the history of the Corporation and how come you’ve shifted from producing video to prose for this project?
I’m not really in the middle so much as maybe a quarter, if that. I’m still only up to William F. Haley and the 1940s. The War only ended a few thousand words ago. The history of the BBC is an obvious thing to do for someone like me, especially as I love the BBC right down to its very concept. I’m not especially patriotic, but my love for the Corporation practically fills the gap, particularly as to me the BBC is Britain in many ways; it’s our cultural nervous system, and Britain without it is as nonsensical as it without Britain. The reason this is done in prose is, firstly, that prose is probably my real strength, and secondly that the history of the Corporation is far, far too involved for a video series like ITV in the Face, or even Kenneth Clark’s Civilization. It would take the length and scope of Mahabharat or something. You’d need a pallet and a forklift to carry the DVD boxset home. It might take more than one book.
ILL: You’ve decided to forgo the typical publishing process for this book, releasing chapters episodically to your Patreon subscribers as you finish them – a method similar to that promoted by journalist Matt Taibbi as “the path for independent journalists”. What has your experience of using this method to release “Rule The Waves” been like, do you plan on releasing your book using more traditional self-publishing methods (ie. selling ebooks), and what advice would you give to people considering utilizing this method?
I wouldn’t say I was eschewing anything; I don’t have a literary agent or anything and have no idea if the BBC will even let me publish this thing; the Patreon instalments plan is as much about maximising my income as anything else. I started it right after I was definitively told I could no longer claim benefits for depression, cutting off my sole other source of income. Yes, I’m a sellout. To the extent I have a plan, it’s to self-publish the damn thing through (probably) Lulu. Absolutely nothing is concrete, however, and it’s a long way from being finished at any rate. Frankly the world will probably come to an end long beforehand. So no, I have no advice. Having said all that, I’d like to give a shoutout to Unbound.com, the literary crowdfunding website. I sent them “Rule the Waves” and they turned it down, but it’s still a cool idea and well worth looking into.
ILL: For a while before the outbreak of COVID-19 it seemed as if the Tories wanted to give your history of the BBC a clear end. Do you believe that public broadcasting has a clear future in these precarious times and is there an argument for the left to make sure that organizations like the RTE and BBC avoid the chopping block (even if they’re riddled with Tory wannabes)?
Don’t be fooled, they still do. They’re going to find it harder, especially with all the rebuilding that will be necessary – there are some really hard times around the corner, we’ll be looking back at the 2009 recession as the Golden Age – but the destruction of the BBC will never be off the Tory agenda, simply because it’s a tax. And a tax that doesn’t benefit them directly. Not entirely, and it never will. No matter how much they stuff the boardroom with puppets and acolytes, and they’ve done a damn good job of it over the past decade. They can engineer it into their own propaganda network, and they have, but that’s still really only a consolation prize for them. The Tories – or more accurately the Right, and the Robber Barons who basically own the Western World – already have their own propaganda network in the shape of most of the rest of the media. They don’t really need the BBC for that purpose, although its symbolic weight definitely helps. Their real problem with the BBC is the same as any other nationalised industry: that it provides a service for the service’s sake and not for profit. And what’s worse, other people exist in the same industry who are run for profit, and that’s just unfair. The BBC cannot be allowed to exist as far as the Tories are concerned, even with a news department controlled entirely by themselves. For that reason, not only is there an argument for the Left to defend the BBC, and the basic principles behind it, it’s imperative to do so. To defend the BBC is to defend British culture itself.
ILL: While we’re still on the topic of the BBC which directors were the best and worst at their jobs in your opinion and why?
I’m only four DGs in on the book, or four and a half depending on how you count Haley (unfinished) and Foot and Graves (two in one), but broadly speaking…Hugh Carleton Greene successfully navigated the Corporation through the sixties, which was harder than it sounds, and Greg Dyke managed to rebuild it after John Birt, so they’re probably my two favourites. Birt is probably my least favourite – it’s not an original choice but there’s a reason for that. He almost broke the BBC completely with his combination of endless pointy-haired bureaucracy and a free-market philosophy that killed off almost every creative department they had. A lot of it was imposed from without by the Government, to be fair to him, but I think he would have done it anyway because he genuinely thought it was a good idea.
ILL: From 2010 to 2016 you ran 2SUNS, an online satirical newszine which you’ve described in the past as “an extremely foul-mouthed, left-wing, British attempt to triangulate National Lampoon, Private Eye and impotent rage”. How would you describe the process of running the zine for thirty-odd issues and do you feel that this work has held up in the four years since its last publication?
2SUNS was an experiment, really, in giving myself something to do on a regular basis, having spent much of the oughties drifting. It was also, obviously, born out of frustration at the disintegration of human society and how utterly powerless I was to prevent it. It was basically me as both King Lear bellowing at the storm and the Fool standing behind him trying to lighten the mood and provide some form of insight. It was very much a labour of love, since I was proscribed from making money on it due to my stubborn insistence on the magazine format. I’ve always loved magazines. I spent a lot of that childhood I mentioned amidst my mother’s Family Circles, which probably didn’t do a lot for my attention span, but definitely helped engineer my love of symbols and logos and things. I think most of it stands up about as well as it did in the first place, except for certain dumb ideas like NowSpoon and the vast number of things I got wrong. And I’m still quite proud of some of the parody adverts, even if I probably used up the best ones on the first issue.
ILL: Outside of 2SUNS and your Thatcher documentary do you think that your politics play a fundamental role within your work and if so in what way?
I think it’s inevitable that one’s politics will play some kind of a role in one’s work, especially when you’re as stubborn in your convictions as I am, and especially when your subject is history or society in any sense. Some people can keep themselves out of their work, to be fair, which is just as well or we wouldn’t have anyone to make shows for CBeebies and the like. I’m not one of those, though. All my work is seen through the filter of a mule-headed depressed Cornish socialist with a dark sense of humour, an appreciation of art and a love of transient symbols.
ILL: What are the records that you’ve been listening to during lockdown?
Oh, all sorts of things, I’m a musical gadfly. I have infatuations that I leap from without purpose. From where I’m sitting I can see CDs by Belle & Sebastian, the Flaming Lips, Led Zeppelin, Radiohead, Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan, Nas, Badly Drawn Boy, Dire Straits and Max Romeo, and I’m likely to put any of them on at any given moment. I even my my own ambient vaporwave as Girl in Sportscar (https://girlinsportscar.bandcamp.com/) Of late I’ve been tending a Spotify reggae playlist, or else listening to random tracks from the Smiths and Morrissey via YouTube. (note: Morrissey can of course go fuck himself forever, but I still like the songs).
ILL: What are your creative plans for the future (if any)?
Well, that’s the question. What with the world coming to an end and everything and the very notion of a future open to question right now, any plans I may have had are on hold until and unless society ever returns to something resembling the old normal. Having said that, even before the plague this year was the first since 2015 in which I didn’t have a mini-series of some kind planned. For the moment, while we’re all in limbo, the plan is to carry on with The Hard Sell, but I do have one or two other things percolating. One is a logical progression from having branched out into actual history with the Thatcher documentary…we’ll see.
Applemask’s work can be found at his website (http://bobthefish.org.uk/), his Vimeo profile (https://vimeo.com/bobthefish), and his YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCQE9WSkctKfd6EyKyoiI08).