Burn the Witch

A few days ago a friend told me that Radiohead had released a new song, ‘Burn the Witch’, accompanied by an intriguing stop-motion video. ‘Seems they’re moving into your territory’, he said. I watched it on YouTube. Then I watched it again. And again.

The song is actually over a decade old – sweetly melodic, certainly compared to recent offerings from the band – but the video is freshly minted. In fact, they finished it last Thursday (28 April). It took the director Chris Hopewell and his team just fourteen days from initial concept to the final edit. How they did it is a mystery, for it is a miniature masterpiece and worth the attention of this historian of witchcraft, at least.

Thom Yorke’s plaintive vocals tell of red crosses daubed on doors, local hysteria, and cheering at the gallows – the trappings of pre-modern paranoia, persecution and mob justice. All this is acted out in the video, and is all the more chilling for being so charming. For Hopewell has used the exact design of the 1960s’ children’s animations Camberwick Green and Trumpton to tell the story of a bowler-hatted government inspector visiting a tidy English village, one imagines to take a dim view of their traditional way of life.

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The mayor, having shown his increasingly alarmed guest around various local exhibits, at once winsome and grim, ushers him towards a gigantic wooden effigy. At this point Trumpton turns into The Wicker Man, Robin Hardy’s classic 1973 horror film starring Christopher Lee. Predictably, some fans are already calling the video ‘Camberwickerman Green’. The inspector timorously climbs the ladder, enters the cage, and then remonstrates in vain as the structure is set on fire with him inside.

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Intolerance and paranoia and superstition are still so much part of our world, and yet we tend to keep it at arm’s length, confining it to the past when it is geographically close to us, and to different cultures when it happens on the other side of the world. Radiohead’s ‘Burn the Witch’ captures the viciously conservative spirit that so often underpins life in any introspective, essentially anxious community in any age. It’s a seductive and timely warning. The history it draws upon, however, is a bit confused.

The story muddles various elements from our past in such a way as to leave the fictional village with no actual witches to burn. The crosses on doors indicate not so much a purge of deviants as a sensible public health measure once used during plague epidemics, albeit signifying a ghastly fate for the infected. The ducking stool we see was actually used for punishing scolds not witches, and the ritual masked dance points to some kind of May fertility rite rather than the execution of the devil’s acolytes.

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The blond-plaited maiden tied to the tree doesn’t die: we see her again at the end, putting the torch to the wicker man. As for this part, well in Hardy’s film it is a means of sacrificing a virgin (namely Edward Woodward’s unsullied policeman investigating the disappearance of a child), and comes from an idea stretching back to Roman histories of Celtic pagan rituals involving the burning of people and animals to appease the gods and ensure prosperity on the land.

Even so, the insouciance of the Trumpton characters and the neat simplicity of their world, juxtaposed with savage intolerance of intrusion and change, work brilliantly and memorably to convey how fear in communities once turned into action against perceived threats to collective well-being. Many English villages experienced what Yorke’s lyric calls ‘a low-flying panic attack’, and did dreadful things to try to calm themselves. And it has been suggested recently that the government contractor responsible for housing asylum seekers in the north-east of England may have painted their doors red, opening these people up to discrimination and abuse. Contrary to my pedantry about the plague, it may have been this story to which the video is referring.

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As the nation prepares to decide whether to become Little England again, or press on with its development into a modern European state, these sorts of emotions deserve consideration. Should we look in or out? And how far do passions cloud our judgement? Are we, at least in part, what we fear in ourselves and others? Are we all latent xenophobics? And while we’re on the subject, what does Donald Trump have in common with the mayor of Trumpton? Surely, a willingness to draw political strength from a virulent fear of ‘the other’. We also need to examine public attitudes to refugees, against whom otherwise decent people harden their hearts with ease. It seems likely that Syria, the tragedy of our times, was in the minds of Thom Yorke and Chris Hopewell when they made this little gem of social criticism and caution.

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