‘The Scarfolk Annual 197X’ reviewed

❉ Littler stays true to the essential feeling of Scarfolk –  suffocating, paranoid existential horror.

There’s a special thrill to be had in exploring someone else’s bookshelves, particularly when you’re young and the person in question is older than you. Those shelves can feel like they contain whole worlds, offering up a vast smorgasbord, some of which you probably shouldn’t be getting access to at all.

It’s an experience which has been plumbed by many a great TV comedy tie-in volume, going back to the Python books, essentially translating the scatter-shot sketch show format onto the printed page. They seem like a whole, random bookshelf that’s crashed together between the covers..

Here the format is taken up by Richard Littler’s excellent creation, the town of Scarfolk, originally a series of perfectly designed, keenly observed blog posts, and a previously spin-off book in the form of 2014’s Discovering Scarfolk.

However, the Scarfolk Annual gives it an extra twist. Most readers will have grown up receiving annuals under the Christmas tree and will recognise the form and layout of them in an instant. Sure enough, this comes complete with the features, puzzles, comic strips and jokes pages you may remember from your childhood, except – as you’d expect if you’re familiar with Scarfolk – something very dark indeed seems to lurk right below the surface.

It’s a great hook upon which to hang the Scarfolk concept, which has always reeked of curdled Seventies innocence. In less capable hands the whole thing might seem cheap and nasty, but Littler’s remarkable eye for canny design – an evocative typeface here, the flourish of a vivid colour scheme there – seals the deal. Some of the most effective pages here keep text to a bare minimum.

Scarfolk is perched somewhere between art project and sketch show, and this annual plays to that well. It riffs on many familiar touchstones, from the Enfield poltergeist case to the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas, and serves them up in twisted ways, such as a recipe for a cake of a classic Spontaneous Human Combustion scene (complete with that unforgettable unburnt half-leg). There’s even an educational look back at the time when ancient Britons decided to physically cut themselves off from mainland Europe. ‘Little bit of politics’, as Ben Elton used to say.

The humour ranges from the silly to the hellishly bleak (‘Q: Why did the chicken cross the road? A: It had cancer’). Not everything hits the spot, but that’s only to be expected. If some material feels rather like filler, well, maybe it’s just conjuring up the average Seventies annual too accurately.

There are real highlights though – What is a Library? is a stand-out stand-out – plus a neat hidden running thread. To his credit, Littler manages to stay true throughout to the essential feeling of Scarfolk –  suffocating, paranoid existential horror, basically. Something this dark wouldn’t make it onto everyone’s Christmas list, but the cognoscenti will treasure it and it deserves to be discovered on bookshelves by poor unsuspecting souls for years to come.

❉ The Scarfolk Annual 197X is available from Amazon, Hive, Waterstones, The Guardian Bookshop, Foyles, Wordery, Blackwells, Forbidden Planet, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million & others.

 Andy Murray is Film Editor for Northern Soul and a regular contributor to We Are Cult. He’s also the author of the Nigel Kneale biography Into the Unknown and co-author (with Dr Mark Aldridge) of the Russell T Davies biography T is for TelevisionHe’s not the tennis guy, obviously. But he did once receive a publicity photograph of him to sign by mistake.

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