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How to wash a child's brain: Designer Richard Littler creates fictional world based on terrifying public service films

Somewhere in the north-west of England a town stuck in a hellish vision of the 1970s
  • @susborne

Scarfolk, population unknown. Precise location: open to interpretation. Somewhere in the north-west of England, a town stuck in a hellish vision of the 1970s. Thought detector vans called "think tanks" roll through the streets and those who dare to speak to outsiders are handed black spot cards that require a human sacrifice. It's a place of pagan rituals where the water is electrified and the fear of grisly death stalks every corner.

A tour of the town is in turns horrific and hilarious. It's also, thankfully, a ride not around a real place but the brilliantly warped imagination of Scarfolk's self-appointed mayor.

Richard Littler is a graphic designer and screenwriter fascinated by the darker side of the decade and place in which he grew up: 1970s suburban Manchester. His blog, which has gained a cult following since it launched in February, is a repository for items retrieved from Scarfolk Council's newly opened archives. All fake, they include public-information posters, tourist literature and adverts that create a dystopic vision of an England that would have given Orwell the heebie-jeebies.

"I was always scared as a kid, always frightened of what I was faced with," Littler says. "You'd walk into WH Smith and see horror books with people's faces melting. Kids' TV included things like Children of the Stones, a very odd series you just wouldn't get today. I remember a public information film made by some train organisation in which a children's sports day was held on train tracks and, one by one, they were killed. It was insane."

Littler, who was born in 1971, is thinking about The Finishing Line, a 20-minute film made in 1977 by British Transport Films. It's as horrific as he suggests (watch it at ind.pn/railfilm) and the product of an era in which the stick of fear was used to whack children into behaving, to hell with their nightmares. Littler also recalls an obsession with the occult and medical procedures such as appendix removals and circumcision. "I'm just taking it to the next logical step," he explains. "What if people learned that it was a good idea to have your legs removed, or wash your children's brains? I'm pushing reality into absurd horror but, because life was already absurd and terrifying, it only takes a nudge."

The dark humour often comes in the way Littler posts his images. An "extract" from the guide to literal brain-washing reads: "Always wear woollen gloves (or mittens) [...] After the child's brain has been removed with the two brain spoons, rinse it in a solution of vinegar, ammonia and curry powder, then rest the brain on a soft cloth or tea towel for a few minutes, or for as long as is convenient."

In another post, Littler creates the cover of a pop-up book, Factory Related Injuries & Deaths, by Bill Chunt ("Includes limited edition authentic 'severed fingers' playset"). "Unintentionally or otherwise, public information warnings tended to psychologically 'scar folk', especially children," Littler says, explaining the name of his town.

Littler began his project in his own time, mining the internet for inspiration along with his own, genuine archives of documents and materials. He uses Photoshop and other software to create his images, often taking hours to get the right look. "It's hard to make them look imperfect in that 1970s way," he says. "But I'm also lucky in the sense that everyone was working with the same five or six fonts and used the same printers."

He started by posting images to Facebook for the amusement of friends. They urged him to create a blog, which he launched about six weeks ago. A few high-profile tweets quickly earned it more than 30,000 hits in the first three days, and more than a quarter of a million since. Ian Rankin, the crime writer, says of the site: "One visit is not enough." Reece Shearsmith, of the The League of Gentleman, calls it fantastic.

Littler says he has only lately realised the parallels between Royston Vasey, the setting for Shearsmith's horror-flecked comedy. He's now working on a pilot for a mockumentary based in Scarfolk.

In the meantime, he's devoted to the blog and the retro-satirical blurring of the lines between the real and the absurd. They're sometimes too blurry. His second post was a mocked-up cover for a Penguin Guides book called Children & Hallucinogens: The Future Of Discipline. There were no words or Scarfolk Council branding. "I had emails from people saying they'd phoned Penguin trying to get a copy," Littler says. "I like that."