Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Elisabeth Sladen

The news of Elisabeth Sladen’s death came as a shock to me and I’m sure many others who were unaware of her illness. She’d still looked so full of life and vitality in recent episodes of the Sarah Jane Adventures, and the years had treated her well (usually a sign that someone has treated themselves well). She was the Doctor Who companion whom I had grown up watching, and so had a special place in my heart, and that of my generation. The companions are always the point of audience identification in Doctor Who, the Doctor himself being, of necessity, a somewhat aloof and strange presence. Katy Manning’s Jo Grant was a hard act to follow, having pretty much spanned the Jon Pertwee era and provided the definitive companion to his Doctor. Elisabeth Sladen, along with producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrnce Dicks, managed to create a character who was sufficiently different in attitude and manner, creating the necessary distance from Jo’s scattily endearing persona, and signalling a new era for the series. Sarah Jane Smith (the Smith surname indicating a certain everywoman aspect) was curious, assertive and resourceful, but also vulnerable and sometimes overly impetuous. She represented the new face of feminist strength whilst also frequently finding herself in old-fashioned positions of cliff-hanging peril – a difficult balancing act to pull off. Sladen managed to convey the complex mixture of bravery and fearlessness which didn’t preclude a healthy and sensible sense of fear. Her mastery of the tremulous voice and apprehensive look acted as the perfect expression of the audience’s pleasurable terror.

Sarah Jane in the beginning - The Time Warrior, 1973

Sarah Jane’s first adventure was The Time Warrior, its first episode broadcast on the 15th December 1973. She is presented as a journalist posing as her Aunt Lavinia, a scientist, in order to gain access to a scientific research centre which, as UNIT’s presence attests, is experiencing an outbreak of weirdness. Sarah stumbles into a Middle Ages past, and Sladen plays the comic aspects of her misapprehension of the nature of her surroundings very nicely. She believes for some time that she is in the middle of some historical re-enactment. Her encounters with the full-blooded chauvinism of block-headed robber baron Irongron (who goes through the whole panoply of goblet-thumping medieval actor techniques) is also an instant challenge to her emancipated outlook, and one which she rises to admirably. It boded well that the first alien creature she encountered was a Sontaran, which would go on to be a recurring foe, and one with enough staying power to become a ‘classic’ monster, making it through to the current incarnation of Who. There were some other enjoyable episodes with Pertwee (Death to the Daleks is an enjoyable quarry based adventure, with the embodiments of ruthless evil rendered temporarily impotent) but it was difficult to escape from the shadow of Jo, something which was particularly apparent in the Monster of Peladon, which was a pale shadow of The Curse of Peladon, to which it was a belated sequel. Unlike Jo, however, Sarah did make it to Metebelis 3 in Pertwee’s last adventure, Planet of the Spiders (just released on dvd, at last).

It was in the Tom Baker era that Sladen really came into her own. This started off with Robot, first broadcast on 28th December 1974, an enjoyable if far from classic adventure in which Sarah Jane develops a touchingly empathetic relationship with the tin-plated title monster, finally playing Fay Wray to its giganticised behemoth in the last episode. Sarah was put through her paces in these stories, often finding herself split off from the Doctor and having to fend for herself. She poses plays the investigative journalist once more in Robot in order to infiltrate a quasi-fascist cadre of scientists. She undergoes an agonisingly claustrophobic crawl through the air vents in The Ark in Space, with the threat of coming up against a squirming green slime grub around every corner (definite shades of Alien here, and in the story as a whole, some four or five years before that came out). That uncomfortable claustrophobia was repeated in a scene which haunted me as a child. In Planet of Evil, she was confined in a coffin-like box alongside the Doctor, which was to be ejected into space. The captain of the spaceship pressed the button and the boxes began to glide towards the exit ports. In Genesis of the Daleks, she turns revolutionary, and organises a rebellion against the Kaleds in the missile silo where she has been consigned to hard labour. Her climb up the scaffolding towards the missile head, bullets ricocheting around her, is a particularly memorable scene. In The Brain of Morbius, she is not only left alone, but in a state of temporary blindness. This leads to perhaps one of the most terrifying cliffhangers in all Who. Sarah blinks as her sight finally begins to come back to her. Joyfully declaring ‘I can see’, she turns tentatively around, only to be confronted with the hideous creature that has just arisen from its laboratory table: a patchwork amalgam of shaggy beast with giant insect pincer and brain in a fishbowl head.

Sarah Jane’s relationship with Tom Baker’s Doctor developed into a lovely double act. She grounded his eccentricity, refusing to take him entirely seriously, and there was even a sense that she was gently mocking his character at times. She could also provide a counter-argumentative voice, as in the classic exchange in Genesis of the Daleks, one of the central examples of the series strong moral core. Sarah Jane urges the Doctor to join the connective wires which will destroy the nascent Dalek race in its hatchery, but he hesitates, agonising over whether he has the right to commit a monstrous act in order to destroy a monstrous force. There were a couple of occasions on which Sladen had to play a Sarah who wasn’t Sarah. In The Android Invasion, there is a great scene in which the Doctor realises that she has become something other. Calmly telling her ‘you’re not the real Sarah’, she stumbles over and her face falls off, revealing the clockwork mechanisms beneath which are driving this replica. Sladen’s playful side really comes to the fore in her final adventure, The Hand of Fear, which begins in a quarry which really is a quarry. In this story, she becomes possessed by a long dormant alien being, and calmly walks into a nuclear power station, brushing aside all who get in her path with an impishly delivered assertion that ‘Eldrad lives’. In non-possessed state, her relationship with the Doctor is also at its most playful and teasing, and it’s a fine way for her to make her exit from the series. The final parting is beautifully underplayed. When she tells him not to forget her, he simply says ‘oh, Sarah’. It’s something neither he, nor the audience, could ever do. And there she, is left on the pavement of Hillview Road in South Croydon, although, just before the famous music crashes in, she wonders whether this is where she is at all.

K-9 and Company

It wasn’t to be the last of Sarah Jane, of course. She returned on 28th December 1981 in K-9 and Company, an underrated offshoot ill-served by its regrettably risible title sequence. This was in fact a very enjoyable tale of rural occultism set in the imaginary village of Moreton Harwood where Sarah had gone to visit her Aunt Lavinia. She teams up with her aunt’s young charge Brendan to crack the mystery of a coven which makes sacrifices to the Goddess Hecate. In a bizarre way, it anticipates the Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright film Hot Fuzz. It’s a real pleasure seeing Sarah Jane as an active heroine in her own right, and her protective, maternal relationship with her young sidekick anticipates the later Sarah Jane Adventures, in which she is also a mature and self-assured single woman who also plays the role of guardian. The Sarah Jane Adventures were hugely enjoyable as well, and offered the chance for re-unions or first meetings with the Brigadier, Jo Grant and David Tennant and Matt Smith’s Doctors. Sarah Jane had returned in the Tennant episode School Reunion, and Sladen beautifully conveyed the painful re-awakening of feelings which had lain dormant but which had never really gone away – a combination of sadness and joy, happiness and regret. Her presence elevated an episode whose surrounding story was less than wholly engaging. It was really good to have her back. The Sarah Jane Adventures was a particular pleasure in that it offered a mature female heroine, someone who was still at the heart of the action (and quite capable of joining in) but able to bring the wisdom of age and experience to bear. We need more of her kind.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Ken Campbell - The Great Caper

Last week’s book of the week on BBC radio 4 was Michael Coveney’s new biography of Ken Campbell, The Great Caper. It was engagingly read by Toby Jones, who managed a creditable impersonation of Ken, as well as bringing the voices of the likes of Bob Hoskins and Bill Nighy to life. Not exactly copycat impressions, but he captured something of their vocal mannerisms which made you realised automatically who they were. Happily, Ken himself was heard at various points via archive recordings, initially talking about what would happen to the universe if space was in fact infinite. It would go on expanding until it became very cold indeed, he explained, until the whole absurd enterprise simply ceased to be once more. This mixture of the sublime with the absurd neatly sums up what Ken was all about, although the word neat is probably not an appropriate one to use when summarising his chaotic and randomly curious approach to performance and life (there was probably little difference between the two in his mind). He once declared ‘I have a desire to be astounded’, and as a corollary to that wish, he endeavoured to convey some of that astonishment to his audience, or ‘seekers’ as he preferred to call them. Ken Campbel was at war with the ordinary, seeing dullness and mundanity as a sign that you just weren’t looking at things intently or perceptively enough. His delight in discovering new and strange perspectives on the world was perfectly conveyed by the nasal, flattened vowels of his Essex accent, which could be used to drawlingly elongate certain words or phrases, giving them an underlined significance.

The first programme began with a brief description of his funeral in 2008, the eccentric nature of which served to reflect the manner in which he had lived his life. He was drawn to his burial place in Epping Forest on a sled pulled by his three mongrel dogs. Coveney then proceeds to trace Campbell’s wayward path through the fringes of the theatrical world, always going against the grain and following his own ever-branching trains of thought, naturally attaining the status of ‘the outsider’s outsider’, as Mike Leigh put it. When he was a boy, he would spend hours playing in an imaginary world he had created from the patterns on the bathroom floor (the earthier equivalent of Alan Garner’s ceiling world), acting out the adventures of ‘the creatures of the lino’. Principal amongst these was his imaginary ‘mate’ called Jelp. Jelp seems to have been young Ken’s alter ego to a certain extent, and its impish character could be seen to have stayed with him into adulthood. It’s a somehow fitting name for the antic yet always curious performer that he would come to be.

Ken entered the world of the theatre in the 60s, when it was imbued with the radicalism and experimentation of the times. He worked with Peter Cheeseman’s theatre company in Stoke, and wrote a play called Jack Shephard, whose eponymous anti-hero was a piratical rogue in the Brecht/Weill manner. You can find a copy of this in Exeter library, although it has to be said that when Ken turned up for the first day of rehearsals with an armful of copies of the playscript for the cast, he announced ‘it’ll be a sorry day if we ever have to open these’. He showed his play to Lindsay Anderson, who was one of the principle directors at the Royal Court, the hub of radically-minded theatre. The two got on well, both outsiders in their own way, and Anderson helped Campbell to get a job directing Frank Norman’s prison-based play Inside Out. It was a valuable experience if only in that it showed him exactly what he didn’t want to do. Shortly thereafter, he was sent out onto the streets by the theatre he was working with to make people aware of their existence, and the shows they were putting on. This was a mistake. Ken was never likely to simply advertise something (although he did later do some car ads on the telly) and these promotional outings became attention-grabbing performances in their own right. He soon got the sack, but developed the spontaneous street shows into what became known as the Ken Campbell Road Show. This travelling vaudeville circus would set up in pubs and clubs, with the hat being passed around afterwards for contributions. It was, as Coveney describes it, ‘a type of superior busking’. Ken envisaged this as an escape from the conservative world of the theatres and a return to the days of the music hall, and variety shows. His troupe would be a new Fred Karno’s Army, with Bob Hoskins as a latter day Dan Leno. The shows involved physical comedy, inventive props and carefully choreographed slapstick which gave the impression of chaos and anarchy but was in fact extremely well-rehearsed. A later incarnation from 1979 can be seen in the Secret Policeman’s Ball film, in which Ken is joined by David Rappaport and Sylvester McCoy, who has a nail driven into his nasal cavity. When McCoy got the role of Doctor Who in 1987, much of the surrounding reportage questioned whether it was an appropriate part for a man more accustomed to shoving ferrets down his trousers. This was all Ken’s fault. The Road Show also used to perform a routine which went by the self-explanatory name of ‘the man who disappeared up his own asshole’, a title which conjures up visions of a strange marriage between William Burroughs and Buster Keaton (Buster Burroughs?) Ken addresses the Secret Policeman’s Ball crowd as ‘sensation seekers’, but for him the audience were simply ‘seekers’.

Such an appellation was never more appropriate than for his next great opus, The Illuminatus Trilogy, which he produced in 1976 for the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool which he had set up just for that purpose. Coveney describes Robert Anton Wilson and Michael Shea’s ultimate conspiracy epic as combining elements of HP Lovecraft, Hermann Hesse, Robert A Heinlein, Carl Jung, Micky Spillane, William Burroughs and Terry Southern. Working on the principle that something was ‘only worth doing if it was impossible’, Ken invited Sean Connery, Charlton Heston, Marlon Brando and Vanessa Redgrave to take part in what he described as ‘an enthusiast’s production’. He also sent a telegram to John Huston, suggesting a part which he throught would be perfect for him, adding ‘no money but great wheeze’. None of them replied (their loss) but he did manage to rope in Jim Broadbent, who said he would ‘do’ Connery, Bill Nighy and David Rappaport, the short fellow who would become the chief of Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits. The play became a sprawling 9 hour experience, first performed in a warehouse in Liverpool christened, with typical Campbellian grandiloquence, The Liverpool Theatre of Language, Music, Dream and Pun. Brian Aldiss, who became good friends with Ken, reviewed it for the Guardian, conveying something of his feelings of exhilaration, bewilderment and exhaustion. He described the way in which ‘Campbell performs miracles on a shoestring budget, inventing tiny beds and portable sets and singing dolphins and amorous female computers and alien jungles to support a plot which unravels like a paranoid octopus’. It opened the newly built Cottesloe stage at the National Theatre to great acclaim. It was later restaged at the Roundhouse in Camden, edited down to four hours. It didn’t work so well in this format, now feeling simply like an overlong play. As someone said, ‘it seemed longer when it was shorter’.

Illuminatus evidently wasn’t quite epic enough for Campbell, so he and the Science Fiction Theatre embarked upon The Warp, which lasted for 24 hours, give or take the odd break for food, drink and maybe forty winks. It is apparently the longest play I theatre history. Jim Broadbent and Bill Nighy returned from Illuminatus, but were savvy enough in the ways of Ken to avoid the major roles. That poisoned chalice was handed to Russell Denton, who still seems a little dazed by his experience. He describes how his character in the final act is exhausted and worn down by what he has gone through, a state which Denton was able to convey with no need for acting whatsoever. The play was performed at the ICA I January 1979, starting at 10.45 in the morning and ending at 8AM the following day. It went on to the Edinburgh fringe, where it took place in the ruined hulk of the old Regent Cinema. When Ken became artistic director of the Liverpool Everyman in 1980, The Warp was the first production he put on, and he managed to blow the entire years grant on it. He evidently had a great love of science fiction and weird literature. I saw him in 1987 in a show he directed called Science Fiction Blues, in which he, Brian Aldiss and an actress called Petronilla Whitfield read various of Aldiss’ stories in a dramatic fashion. I still have the programme, which bears the very Campbellian subtitle ‘An Evening of Wonders’. Ken’s profile mentions some of the other productions which the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool put on; intriguing sounding titles such as Psychosis, Unclassified, the End is Nigh and the Lovecraft adaptation The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

I went to see Ken whenever one of his one man shows came to Exeter. In these, he would essentially expound upon whatever projects he’d been engaged in. It was a way of revealing the progress of his experimental ramblings in which he followed notions which had caught his interest in whatever directions they might lead. For these explorations, life was the stage, so the one man shows were a way of gathering the evidence together and reporting back. Subjects included the ‘ventriloquial arts’, the achievement of the transcendent state of finding the universe both hilariously funny and unutterably tragic at exactly the same moment (a state which he astonishingly managed to embody in his episodic story, pitched in autobiographical terms, of the adventures of one Nina Plauschwitz), weird cults and beliefs, quantum physics (which could be filed under the preceding), cargo cults based around Prince Phillip, jamais vu (the opposite of deja vu), animal funerals conducted by appropriate glove puppets, and animal art. The latter was produced by his parrot Doris. He managed to tell the tale of Doris’ art and his attempts at selling it (successful, as I recall) to a local gallery for some time before revealing her parrot nature. The ‘art’ basically consisted of Doris crapping onto a canvas, which Ken, when he felt it had reached a state of completion, would frame. Action art. Doris came into Ken’s life in one of those moments of random spontaneity which he liked to allow to direct him at various junctures. His daughter Daisy had persuaded him that he really needed a computer to connect him with the world. He dutifully went off to the nearest computer shop, but was distracted by the pet shop next door and went in that instead. He came back not with a computer, but with Doris the parrot. He was in the process of teaching her to narrate her own autobiography, starting with the sentence ‘I used to be an egg, then I hatched out, didn’t I?’ He remarked that, since parrot’s have very long lives, his voice would live on after he was dead. I wonder whether she still is alive, and if so, how much of her life story she managed to memorise.

Ken continued to work with younger performers, including his daughter Daisy, with whom he produced a series of Shakespeare plays translated into the pidgin language of the South Sea island of Vanuatu. He claimed that the limited number of words contained within this language (a matter of hundreds) concentrated the plays down to their essence and made them better as a result. He also got into the realm of improvised sonnet making. Members of his troupe would be encouraged to pick a lady or gent out of the audience who attracted their eye and use them as inspiration for an instant sonnet. One performer relates how he saw someone who he particularly liked, but felt shy about approaching her. ‘Go on, sonnet her’, Ken encouraged. They were later married. He also produced the ‘bald trilogy’ of what might be called confessional (not that these confessions can be thought of as in any way reliable) one man shows in the 80s, so named because the National Theatre was concurrently staging the ‘Hare’ trilogy of plays by David Hare. You can find the scripts of these shows in the Exeter Performing Arts library (see what we’ll miss if library services are cut!).

Ken had a way of being both hilarious and profound, the two qualities seeming to arise inextricably one from the other. His inquisitiveness was both mischievous and genuine, his antic nature a testing of boundaries. His attitude to the world, and to life, was that it could be both absurd and beautiful, and that beauty often resided in the apparently absurd. He was a great composer of aphorisms, nuggets of wisdom and truth contained in pithy and concisely worded phrases. My two favourites, which I find particular pertinent personally, are as follows: ‘I’m not mad, I’ve just read different books than you’, and ‘I don’t believe I can believe, but I suppose I can suppose’. Anyway, I shall continue to follow Ken’s example and attempt to fulfil the ‘desire to be astounded’.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Alan Garner - Return to Brisingamen

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of Alan Garner’s first novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, and BBC radio 4 acknowledged the enduring importance and popularity of this and subsequent Garner novels with a short documentary last Thursday entitled Return to Brisingamen. It was presented by John Waite, best known as the voice of gentile indignance and well-mannered outrage on You and Yours, a long running consumer affairs programme on radio 4, whose fixity within the schedule is assured by the revolutionary fervour of listeners when faced with any substantive change to their daily radio routine. Its prosaic and indubitably valuable focus on the mundane minutiae of the everyday world and the gripes and grumbles which dealing with it engenders is at the far opposite end of the spectrum from the mythic framework within which Garner’s stories unfold. He is the ideal host, then, to convince a sceptical radio 4 audience that a documentary about a book which is not only fantasy, but fantasy written for children, is worthy of their attention. It should be added at this point that Garner has said (in the essay A Bit More Practice) ‘I do not write for children, but entirely for myself’, although he goes on to add ‘yet I do write for some children, and have done so from the beginning’. He elucidates a couple of paragraphs later, stating ‘only recently have I come to realise that, when writing for myself, I am still writing for children; or, rather, for adolescents. By adolescence I mean an arbitrary age of somewhere between ten and eighteen. This group of people is the most important of all, and it makes the best audience. Few adults read with a comparable involvement’. It’s a good argument for the importance of ‘children’s literature’ in general, and its appeal to a readership beyond the age of those at whom it is ostensibly aimed. Philip Pullman, who also appears in the programme, carefully defines him as being ‘one of the greatest writers of books that children read’. Waite reveals his own love of the book, which stemmed from a childhood reading, and talks of the very personal way in which it affected him. He grew up in Wilmslow in Cheshire, with Alderley Edge, the setting of the novel, looming constantly in view through the bedroom window above the corner shop his parents ran. Waite describes this prominent outcropping as being ‘the Ayers Rock of the Cheshire Plains’. One day, in the shop, he served a man who he was told was the local writer Alan Garner, who’d written a story based on the local legend of the Edge.

Like many a post-Tolkien fantasy, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen includes a map in its opening pages across which the reader can trace the questing trail of the story’s characters. In this case, however, it represents not the secondary world of the author’s creation but a real landscape with which Waite was intimately familiar as a boy; the landscape of Alderley Edge. The fact that Garner used a real place in which to stage magical scenes allowed him to feel that he was a part of the story, since he could locate the specific sites at which various events took place. It’s like finding a location used in a favourite film. The place, ordinary as it might be, acquires a certain glamour through having had a story overlaid, an aura of immanence created through the association with a particular scene. Why else would efforts have been made to save a brutalist car park of the most unforgiving starkness in Newcastle were it not for the fact that it had been featured in a memorable car chase and murder scene in Get Carter. With Alderley Edge, the magic and sense of otherness was already inherent in the landscape, and naturally attracted an accumulation of stories and legends which gave expression to its special atmosphere. Garner’s use of the legend of the Edge, with its hero king and his armoured knights lying dormant beneath its slopes, guarded by an ancient wizard, waiting to be re-awakened for the final battle in which they will ride again, demonstrates the power of myth to evoke the spirit which inhabits certain places. These places are marked by the potent intersection of generations of human habitation with the formations of geological time, history and culture with stories, language and literature. Landscapes with isolated hills, ridges or escarpments erupting from otherwise low-lying surrounds seemed to have a particularly rich accretion of layers of legend. These sometimes involve giants or dragons, tales suggested by the resemblance of geological features to the awkwardly arched back of a recumbent gog or magog, or the ridged, scalar spine of an arête gently inclining down into a still curve of tail, its sinuous folds filled with the potential for sudden motion. There are also many myths, of which the legend of Alderley Edge is one, of figures from a fabled golden age lying in hidden halls reached by secret entryways beneath the hills. The location of Arthur’s resting place beneath Glastonbury Tor is probably the best known of these, but Cadbury Castle in Somerset, Torbarrow Hill in Gloucestershire and the Eildon Hills in the Scottish borders offer further examples.

The Voice That Thunders - great, great grandfather Robert Garner's Wizard Well carving
The programme centres around Waites’ interview with Garner, who also takes him on a wander around the Edge to find some of the landmarks found in the book. He points out a sacred well, which he speculates almost certainly dates from pre-Christian times, and which is now known as the Wizard’s Well. Its stone receptacle bears a carving of a bearded face, shaded green by a light coating of moss. This was made by Garner’s great-great grandfather, a stonemason, in the mid nineteenth century. His family have lived here for generations, and have made their mark on the landscape, whether literally, in the case of Robert’s carvings and stone walls, or in a more notional sense, through the knowledge, values and stories which they’ve passed down. Garner talks about his great-grandfather William Jackson, a Fabian deeply engaged with social issues, and his wonderfully diverse, autodidact’s library of books, which he left behind upon his death at the age of 93 in 1942. These were discovered by the young Alan during a summer spent with his grandmother, William’s daughter, and indiscriminately devoured. He was effectively absorbing the outward remnants of his great-grandfather’s particular knowledge and interests, the physical projections of his inner world. It was a powerful and influential legacy to inadvertently bequeath. In the programme, Garner mentions Marx’s Das Kapital (in English) and the Hindu epic The Ramayana, which was particularly important in opening his mind to the power and universality of mythic storytelling. In his essay Aback of Beyond (included in the collection The Voice That Thunders) he goes into more detail about the range of literature and ideas which he absorbed during this intense summer of reading. In a hot July and August’, he writes, ‘I swallowed The History of the Co-operative Movement, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, Elements of the Fiscal Problem, The Golden Bough, Hone’s Popular Works, the corpus of Thackeray and of Spenser, Carlyle, Swift, Dickens; British Battles at Sea, Nietzsche’s Human All-too-Human, The Living Races of Mankind, The Works of Sir Thomas Malory, The South African and Transvaal War, Capital:from the German and Engel’s Communist Manifesto of 1848.

Grandfather's stone wall

Garner refers to the vernacular phrase ‘to get aback of something or someone’, from which the above essay title is derived, as expressing the idea that you have to live up to the example of your forebears, but also create a certain distance, choosing to make your own particular mark on the locality in which they lived and worked. Garner’s ancestors were craftspeople, his grandfather a smith, and he tells their generational story in the Stone Book Quartet. His eventual decision to become a writer was partially arrived at whilst sitting opposite a wall which his great, great grandfather Robert had made. It’s a wall which he shows us in the 1980 tv documentary The Edge of the Ceiling, included in the extras of The Owl Service dvd. Garner’s grounding in his great-grandfather’s library had set him on the path of book-learning, and he progressed from Manchester Grammar School (in fact an independent school which took in scholarship pupils) to Oxford University. He had determined that he would be a prominent academic, preferably the chair of Greek classics at Oxford. This would really have been getting ‘aback of beyond’, in the words of his elders. But self-doubt set in as to the purity of his motives, and he began to think that this kind of ambition was merely a way of seeking power as an end in itself. Perhaps it was the craft heritage of his ancestors which drew him to the idea of writing fiction, creating with words rather than stone or iron. His tutor at Oxford encouraged him to test his abilities with his own sardonically wise variant of telling him to get aback of his parents and grandparents. ‘Discover if you’ve got an original mind’, he suggested. If he then found out that he didn’t, he could devote himself to studying the work of those who had.

Oxford is the other central site of significance in Garner’s life, if only in that it showed him what he didn’t want to do. He listened to lectures there by CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, in the latter days of their professorships. Waites goes to visit Philip Pullman, another resident Oxford writer of fantasy, to hear of the high regard I which he holds Garner, and the formative influence which he had on him. He points to the clarity and natural rhythm of his writing, the unique and surprising quality of his imagination, the mythic focus on forces greater than human life, and yet his concurrent ability to encompass elemental human conflicts and emotions within such a grand frame. He cites The Owl Service as a book which particularly struck him when he first read it, and which combines all of these elements. Garner’s papers are now housed in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and Waite is granted a look at those pertaining to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. The librarian comments on the beautiful italic hand in which he wrote, which would suggest that the original manuscript was handwritten. There are also some early drafts over which Garner has scrawled some savagely dismissive comments in red pen. His assessment of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen in his essay A Bit More Practice, included in The Voice That Thunders, but first published in the Time Literary Supplement in January 1968, just after the publication of The Owl Service in the previous year, would seem to indicate that he is his own worst critic (although some of the children’s letters he quotes in the later essay Hard Cases show that he’s had some pretty stiff competition at times). ‘My first attempt, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’, he wrote, ‘is a fairly bad book, but there had to be a start somewhere, and consolation rests in the even worse first drafts of the opening chapter, which I pin up when things seem to be going well’. Hopefully the book’s continued success (it has made it to the Waterstone’s best 150 novels of all time, and has never been out of print) has made him feel a little more kindly towards it.

Rooted in local particularity - The Stone Book Quartet

Garner delves back into the early days of his childhood to trace the roots of his intensely vivid imagination and his ability to enter into the different, interesecting planes of time which the local landscape inhabits. His early education was characterised by attempts to eradicate the Cheshire dialect of his grandfather (he names the teacher who used to wash his mouth out with carbolic soap), and his mother’s efforts to correct his lefthandedness (a sign of wrongness and potential deviance). It has to be said, the former project seems to have been very successful, as he now shows little trace of an accent of any regional origin, although the milieu in which his subsequent schooling and higher education took place may have had as much to do with this loss. The memorialising of local distinctiveness, both in terms of place and of dialect and custom, which can be found in all of his novels could be seen as a way of regaining what had been programmed out of him, and of making sure that a record of it remained. This concentration on the ‘inner time’, as he puts it, of a particular place has continued through to his novel of the 90s, Strandloper, and of the 00s, Thursbitch (read the M.John Harrison review here). Like a craftsman who takes his own good time, he generally manages a book a decade now. As for his insistence that myth and imaginative storytelling relate a form of truth as valid as any rational, empirical observation (if the writer or narrator is a good one, that is), that seems a very lefthanded point of view.

When he was six, Garner contracted whooping cough, measles and then meningitis, and at one point was so ill that he heard a visiting doctor declare him to be beyond help, having apparently started slipping irrevocably towards death. This authoritative declaration, a dismissal of life which brooked no argument, and to which he could offer no response anyway, filled him with anger, and it was this inward rage to which he attributes his survival. The young Alan spent long periods confined to his bed, virtually immobile, and he talks of his sickness as having concentrated his imagination. He projected himself out of his recumbent body through a conscious act of will, and lost himself in a landscape which revealed itself to him as he lay staring up at the white plastered ceiling, its uneven surface suggesting hills, rivers or roads. He describes it in more detail than in the programme in his essay The Edge of the Ceiling, once more included in The Voice That Thunders, also noting the direct inspiration it provided for a later novel. ‘The world of the ceiling was three-dimensional’, he wrote. ‘Objects were solid, visual perspectives true. I never ate or drank in the ceiling (as I later found out was the rule for the Other World). There was no wind, no climate, no heat, no cold, no time. The light came from no source and was shadowless, as neon; but before I knew neon. And everywhere, everybody, everything was white. It was the genesis of the dead land of Elidor’. Sometimes, however, the landscape disappeared and the ceiling was taken over by ‘a plump little old woman with a circular face, hair parted down the middle and drawn into a tight bun, lips pursed, and small pebbled eyes…she was a waning moon: her head turned to the side, as if she had broken her neck’. He knew he must not enter the world of the ceiling when this fearful figure appeared, nor let it enter the room where he helplessly lay. This was his death, patiently waiting.

Forge of creation - the writer at work
Garner’s experience of an imaginary world, which often seemed more solid than the real one reductively framed by his bedroom window with its distorting panes of glass, is also recollected in the 1980 TV documentary Alan Garner – The Edge of the Ceiling, which is, as previously mentioned, included as an extra on The Owl Service dvd. This documentary also allows us to have a look around Garner’s , which is in fact two conjoined houses meeting each other at right angles. Outside, inter-city trains occasionally rush past on the railway line, and on the other side of the tracks, the large dish of the Jodrell Bank radio telescope cranes its face to the sky – the technological sublime towering above its pastoral surrounds but somehow fitting in nonetheless. Even when it comes to his home, he collides different eras, eliding great swathes of time. The timber frame of his original house dates from 1850 whereas the later addition, moved from elsewhere in 1970, dates from 1550. The room in which Garner is seen at his table, researching and writing, is a large open space with a timber vaulted roof and joists, and a small open fire in the centre, sending smoke up to gather beneath the ceiling. It certainly feels like a place in which to tell tales.

DVD of the 1969 Owl Service adaptation - including the documentary Alan Garner:The Edge of the Ceiling

He guides us around the landscape of the Edge in this programme, too (as indeed he does more recently in this short Guardian video). In this case, the accompanying music bears no resemblance to the extract of Elgar’s cello concerto used at the beginning of the radio 4 documentary. It is filled, rather, with the unsettling polyphonic choral mutterings and chattering whispers of Bill Connors’ score, whose restless spectral sounds seem to leak out from the timbers, stones and earth, faintly picked-up ancestral voices fluttering in the surrounding aether. 1980 was still effectively the 70s (the first couple of years of any decade can generally be considered a part the previous one), and this was an era in which children’s fantasy programmes such as Children of the Stones, King of the Castle and Doctor Who (and indeed the 1981 adaptation of The Day of the Triffids) would be eerily soundtracked with atonal scores written by composers clearly in thrall to the modernist strain of contemporary classical music – the likes of Ligeti, Stockhausen and Berio exerting a strong influence.

Garner takes Waite to the Devil’s Grave, the cleft in the rock through which Colin and Susan crawl to make their claustrophobic escape from the forces of evil which are pursuing them. This involves Colin getting stuck in a nightmarish bend in a narrowing passage, an experience which Garner half-jokingly likens to a birth trauma. Finally, Garner and Waite end up at the rock (a ‘great tooth of a rock’, as Garner describes it) which, in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, cracks open to reveal the iron gates which guard the tunnel to the chamber in which the sleeping king and his knights lie dormant, waiting for a sign. Waite naturally has to strike the rock with a stick, the wizard’s ‘open sesame’ in the novel. The way fails to open for him. It’s clearly not yet time for the final battle to commence. But don't worry, it may not be long.

Friday, 8 April 2011

The Films of Val Lewton Part Thirty Five

Bedlam - Part Five

Lord Mortimer's new pet

From the brutal force-feeding of hard currency to Nell in the squalid, straw-strewn surrounds of Bedlam, we dissolve to a close up of Poll the parrot being fed a nut. It’s a pointedly comparative juxtaposition of images, switching disconcertingly from brutality to indulgence. The camera pulls back to reveal that Poll is sitting on Varney’s arm and the provider of the tasty nuggets he is snapping up in his horny beak is Lord Mortimer. The link between people and pets is once more made. Nell has been separated from her alter ego and symbolic emanation, and from the man who used to provide for her. The contrast between the stone floor of the central hall of Bedlam upon which she now crouches and the gilded furnishings of his lordship’s bedroom is an indication of the huge gulf between the opposite poles of society. Poll is now the familiar of Varney, who had until recently enjoyed the protection of Nell, one step down in the hierarchy of favour from Lord Mortimer. Her patronage was benevolent and based on friendship, but he has now been forced to find an alternative, and the parrot on his arm (a variant of the monkey on the back) is the token of his new position as Lord Mortimer’s pet dandy. It may just as well be him who is being fed the nuts. Varney has sold himself at the same time that Poll has been taken off the market and thereby silenced. He is unlikely to repeat such insubordinate behaviour as Nell indulged in, particularly given his knowledge of her fate. Varney’s employment as the ‘new Nell’ means that Sims’ niece Kitty finds herself displaced, a fact which she immediately recognises and accepts with the equanimity of worldy-wise experience. She wears an extra ‘beauty spot’ now, a souvenir of her brief relationship, perhaps. Such spots were commonly used to cover syphilitic scars (so hers would more likely be a gift from a former lover) and thus provided a neat metaphor for the deceptive divide between appearance and reality, the cosmetic veneer of beauty disguising mortal and moral decay. The features of characters in Hogarth’s narrative sequences of prints such as The Harlot’s Progress and The Rake’s Progress are positively dotted with irregularly sized patches, which chart their steady and inevitable decline into physical and moral ruin.

Kitty - resigned acceptance
Varney looks on with an expression of dreaminess mixed with mild chagrin as Lord Mortimer explains to Kitty that they will be going to the country ‘to rusticate’, and that her presence will not be required. It’s to be a ‘bachelor affair’ involving ‘manly things’. ‘Sports, you know’. Kitty does indeed know. The script indicates that she eyes Lord Mortimer’s tight trousers in a knowing fashion. These two feminised men have found their ideal mirrored partners, but must remove themselves from society in order to enjoy each other’s company. There was a degree of tacit tolerance of homosexuality in the mid to late eighteenth century. This was partly a reaction to the excesses of crusading organisations such as the that for the Reformation of Manners, who had engineered a spate of sodomy trials in 1726 which resulted in the execution of four men. Such zealotry, far from reforming manners, turned the public against the attempts, using dishonest methods of entrapment and deception, to persecute people for failing to observe a narrowly defined and censorious morality. They probably realised that this kind of puritanical intolerance was only liable to widen its sights if given the chance. Prosecution for the catch-all offence of ‘sodomy’ could still bring with it the death penalty in 1761, the year in which the film is set, or a spell in the pillory, which might entail the same result should the mob be in a vindictive mood. It would certainly be wise, therefore, for Lord Mortimer and Varney to retire to more discreet surroundings. Kitty sighs and says ‘I see’, gracefully acknowledging that ‘all good things must end’. She is wiser than her appearance and manner might suggest. She may not have the bright, sophisticated wit of other courtiers, but the very fact that she is not concentrating all her mental energies on composing the next bon mot leads her to see things with simple clarity. As she knocks back a consolatory gin or two, she mentions that there is a Quaker out in the corridor waiting to see his lordship. Varney instantly becomes alert.

Power in inverse proportion to stature
Outside we see Hannay conversing with Pompey, their height differential strikingly apparent as he leans forward, the wide brim of his hat shading the boy’s tiny turbaned form. Pompey is dissimulating, denying that he has ever heard of someone called Nell Bowen. Despite his lesser physical stature, he is the one with the authority here, a power bestowed upon him by his master. Nell has effectively been erased from existence within this circle. Having left no physical trace (her possessions were loaned and have been reclaimed) she remains only in memory, from which her recent presence can easily be denied, the past disremembered and reconfigured to suit. Hannay is dismissed. Pompey starts munching on a snack. Like Poll, he is also a pet fed by Lord Mortimer. His denial of the truth stems from a base level of self-interest, which simply looks to where the next meal will come from. Moral compromise and lowering of principles are a matter of survival at the lower end of society. You’ve got to eat somehow, haven’t you?

Basking in approval - Varney and Hannay
Varney bursts through the door and interrupts him mid-bite, asking where the Quaker has gone, and runs out to catch up with him. His new position may prevent him from acting directly himself, but he can still provide the inside knowledge which will enable Hannay to come to Nell’s aid. Out in the street he breathlessly accosts him and says ‘I’ll tell you where she is, they put her in Bedlam’. He refuses to go with him to the asylum, pointing out that he’s employed by ‘milord’. He seeks to justify himself, stating ‘I have to live. You yourself said I didn’t have enough muscle for honest work’. Honest work is seen as physical or productive labour. The kind of ‘work’ to which Varney and Nell have dedicated themselves is more self-serving and produces nothing, not even the literary works to which Sims aspires. It is all simply a matter of social advancement. But Varney is still prepared to help his friends, even at the risk of losing his own tenuous position upon the social ladder. Hannay recognises this quality of loyalty and tells him ‘it’s enough that thee is an honest man’. Varney beams at this approval and understanding. Even though he is weak, and ready to admit it, he has a keen conscience and a steadfast moral core.

Paired statues - Nell and the 'madonna'
We return to Bedlam where we are presented with a tableau featuring a man sitting at a desk and writing, another leaning against a pillar reading, and Nell in the background, still pressed defensively against the wall. It’s a strangely civilised scene, one evoking an almost languorous air of contemplative leisure. From another angle we see Nell in the foreground with the catatonic ‘madonna’ parallel to her in the background, also pressed against the wall. This visual mirroring serves to offer a presentiment of the state to which Nell might in time descend in such surroundings. A retreat inwards which neutralises all-consuming fear by shutting out external stimuli. An echoing cry of ‘Nell Bowen’ is thrown around the hall by its inhabitants, and the reader, clearly an educated man from the manner of his speech, tells her it may be a name called from the street which they have picked up and repeated in this strange hocketing fashion. The inhabitants of Bedlam have become depersonalised, a homogenous and generically defined group – the mad. There are many Nell Bowens here amongst whom her individual identity will eventually be lost. She runs to the window, pushing her way past tow wild-haired women, and looks with wide-eyed desperation through the bars. There is no one to be seen. The camera views her through the bars. Already she is beginning to appear like a frantic animal, contained within a cage, halfway towards becoming like the women behind her.

Hannay, meanwhile, has gone to the entrance hall where he attempts to pay his tuppence to take a tour. He is refused entrance, but insists upon his right to visit. Sims comes in to deal with him, and agrees that he does indeed have the legal right to go in, and accepts his coins. He then notes that ‘it is a rule of our institute that all who enter the main hall must hang their arms up on that rack’. Since Hannay has none, he can’t go in. It’s a piece of bureaucratic absurdity which demonstrates the power of language to act as a shield, protecting against sense and reason. It is a version of the deflecting wit employed in Lord Mortimer’s circles, which serves to evade direct expression and opinion. In this domain, walled off from the world at large and until now free from its scrutiny, Sims is in charge, and it is his word which counts. He is the Lord of the ‘loonies’, and as such his cruel, sharp intelligence can be given full reign. As he says to Hannay ‘I break no rules’. He is far too clever for such crude displays of extra-legal power.

The walls have arms - in the dark corridor
Hannay walks back through the stonemason’s yard where he stops to talk with some of the people working there. He is comfortable and relaxed in their presence, even though they gently mock him for his beliefs, and he helps them in their work. He wryly observes that it was work for which he bid, and they tell him that he didn’t get it because of his principles. He helps them with their work, taking his hat off to do so. Such productive work is carried out in the presence of God. Together, they carry a building stone into Bedlam, and the men point out the corridor leading into the main hall to him. Physical labour, which has been seen as a hallmark of honesty within the context of the film’s superficial worlds of merry wit and glittering appearance, offers him the means of entrance which Sims linguistic sophistry has denied him. The corridor has the same inky blackness which confronted the detective in The Seventh Victim, and is lined on either side with the barred doors of the inmates’ ‘cages’. Hannay now slowly embarks on the Lewton ‘night walk’, familiar from so many of his films, from Cat People’s Central Park scene onward. There’s no deceptive ‘bus’ shock this time, just a sudden thrusting forward of a wavering thicket of grasping arms accompanied by a burst of gibbering, demented laughter. It’s a scene which has great visual power, representing the intrusion of the uncanny, or the unbidden manifestations of the subconscious, smashing through into the rational world to shocking effect. It is echoed in similar images in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and George Romero’s Day of the Dead (and to more dreamily surreal effect in the disembodied arms which serve Beauty and her father in Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bete), in both cases as a subjective indication of the protagonist’s declining mental state, the erosion of the walls between conscious and subconscious levels of experience. Hannay makes it to the end of the corridor unscathed and looks into the main hall, where he soon picks out Nell, sitting by her stretch of the wall.

A house is not a home - Nell's new dwelling place
Nell sits beneath a childish drawing of a house graffitied onto the wall, which now serves as the roof over her head. It’s a play school representation with door, cross-paned windows and pointed roof. It’s a symbol of all that she’s lost, and of the similar sense of displacement felt by whichever lost had scrawled it there. Her shelter is now communal, and she must stake out whatever small corner she can for herself. The hall of Bedlam is an interior space which is really an exterior, the street relocated beneath its roof. The relayed polyphony of voices calling her name, cued by Hannay’s stage whisper from the wings, at first sends her in the wrong direction. She walks towards a madman whose hands are clasped in fervent outward sign of intense, internal prayer before she is called back by Hannay. We see him from the perspective of the interior, behind the bars of the back entrance door. He is placed as if it is he who is confined, a religious maniac like the other towards whom Nell had been drifting. His face is pressed against the bars, his arms reaching through to attract Nell’s attention, leaving him in much the same position as the mad prisoners whose grasping hands he has just evaded. The divide between madness and sanity is ill-defined, a fluid boundary whose limits are determined according to the dictates of current convention. Hannay’s dissenting religious views could easily be seen as tantamount to insanity. In Roberto Rossellini’s film Europa 51, Ingrid Bergman’s selfless acts, which would once have had her categorised as a saint, lead in the modern day to her being declared insane and confined to a mental hospital.

Wild-eyed and desperate
Nell runs to Hannay and asks in a declarative voice ‘you’ve come to take me away’. She displays the kind of desperation and fear whose persistence will lead to madness. Hannay has to tell that this is not the case. Like Sims, he breaks no rules. He is a strange kind of hero, cautious and pedantic, but persistent and indefatigable at the same time. Nell immediately thinks of Wilkes as an alternative saviour, someone with more power and influence. To Hannay’s plea for patience, she replies ‘I’m terrified…these people are like beasts’. Already she is beginning to distinguish herself from the others, fear making her view them as less than human. ‘The same thought as Sims’, Hannay points out. ‘They’re dirty, savage, mindless, disgusting’, Nell continues, an adjectival outpouring which expresses her horror through logorrhoeic excess. She still wants to help them, ‘but I cannot here, not here where they’re all about me’, she asserts. Philanthropical and charitable acts are more easily achieved from a distance, from where they involve no direct contact with the unseen objects of conspicuous generosity. ‘Thee has thy kindness and courage’, Hannay insists, but Nell is after something more material than such moral and spiritual values. ‘I want better weapons’, she responds, harshly. She notices the mason’s trowel which hangs from Hannay’s belt, and asks him to hand it to her. He objects, saying ‘that is to build with’. Tools intended for constructive and creative purposes are turned to destructive use throughout Lewton’s films, particularly in Ghost Ship. The trowel here is also a symbol of secret, Masonic power, the routes of advancement and favour blocked off to the wider populace. For Hannay, it simply represents honest labour, the production of something worthwhile which benefits society, as well as a symbolic means with which to build the shining celestial city of Heaven on Earth.

Nell confronts him with the possibility that her appearance, which he evidently finds so pleasing, will be ruined, digging into her inner verbal thesaurus to ask ‘would you have me maimed, scratched, scarred?’ She pauses for a beat before adding ‘my face’, in a tone which suggests that she has shocked herself at the mere contemplation of the prospect of its disfiguration. Her beauty had provided a major portion of her currency in the world of appearance in which she had managed to negotiate her not inconsiderable value. She has not been above using it to achieve her ends, both in attracting the support of Wilkes and in deflecting Hannay’s judgemental opprobrium. Her awareness of her beauty has also been flaunted in order to show her contempt for Sims, who she described with disgust as ‘an ugly thing in a pretty world’. Now the world has been turned upside down and she is a pretty thing in an ugly world. Sims was unable to make himself pretty enough to fit into her world, but this world is likely to work its accelerated entropic effect on her in the natural course of time. ‘The Lord will not let it happen’, Hannay assures her. ‘Give me the trowel and I’ll not let it happen’, she instantly snaps back. She is, as ever, eager to take an active rather than passive role, taking control and turning this tool into a weapon. Faith is balanced against pragmatism, and she favours the latter. She uses her charms on Hannay, consciously softening the tone of her delivery, filtering out the harsh frequencies of violence and desperation. ‘Look at my face again’, she coos, ‘shall it be scarred?’ Hannay immediately hands over the weapon, unable to contemplate such a desecration. Nell manipulates him in the same way that Sims manipulates Lord Mortimer, both using their sharply observant insight into the desires and values (or lack of them) which define these men’s essential natures. Hannay’s pacifism has been momentarily relinquished, even if it is at one remove. Knowingly providing the means through which violence can be committed is effectively allowing for that violence to take place. Nell has convinced him in this instance of the need for defensive action as opposed to relying solely on faith in the protection of God. Having got her way, Nell swiftly switches her tone to one of command, ordering Hannay to ‘get to Master Wilkes. Wilkes will have me out of here’. She puts her faith in politics, not religion, the material rather than the spiritual. She looks triumphant at the prospect of release which she is sure that Wilkes will duly offer. But wariness soon eclipses her old self-assurance as she looks behind her. The ‘tiger’ rattles his chains in his cage and makes a grab for her. Until Wilkes comes through, she must focus her energies on surviving from moment to moment.

Invitation to the table
Nell’s faith turns out to be ill-founded. Hannay enquires after Wilkes at the printers only to be told that he’s on the road electioneering and won’t be back for some indeterminate time. Wilkes’ concern is for the populace at large, and in particular their votes, and the individual and immediate attention which Nell requires is impossible for a politician such as he. She is one amongst many, and he deals with collective masses and broad issues rather than particular people and their specific problems. Hannay is the one who is interested in her as an individual in and of herself rather than for what she represents or the value which she might provide. He is aware of and concerned about her current state. In short, he is there for her. Back in Bedlam, we see the shadows of bars on the walls and hear the tolling of a bell. The shadows of windows and bars are common throughout Lewton’s films, and hint at a level of existence beyond the limits of everyday perception, at a right angle to the daylight world. The tolling of the bell is a reminder in this essentially timeless place, in which the days are indistinguishable one from the other, of the normal passage of time and the quotidian progress of events in the outside world. We see the writer and the reader from the earlier scene sitting at a table adjacent to a pillar, playing cards. There is a triangle sketched onto the pillar’s surface, its ideal geometrical form a hopeful symbol of rationality, of the ordered mind. The reader, whom we had first encountered lost in the pages of his book whilst leaning against this pillar, seems, along with the writer, to embody this rationality. He invites Nell with exaggerated formality to join them in their card game. She seems calm and collected now, an appearance which prompts this approach. Appearance remains important in here. With the addition of a young man sitting on the floor nearby, he brightly suggests ‘we can play paroli’. The civility and gentile manners of this corner seem to create a small oasis of order amongst the surrounding madness. The reader points out that they don’t play for money, ‘we play on our word’. This little bit of word play, with its implied sense of a code of honour, makes Nell realise that these are people to whom she can talk. ‘I have a wealth of words’, she replies. It is like the old exchanges of witty phrases which she used to enjoy, but the extraction of the monetary element removes the underlying competitiveness which charged them with a vicious energy. Here, they betoken an unaffected offer of friendly company.

A relaxed game of paroli
The reader introduces himself and the others. The writer is Oliver Todd, a mute. The young man is Dan, who ‘sometimes…fancies himself a dog’. Another instance of the comparison between people and animals, in this case of the harmless domestic variety (like Nell and Varney), and therefore not in need of being locked up in a cage. His adoption of a canine nature is an instance of acting according to the manner in which you are treated, becoming what others determine you to be. The reader introduces himself, with occasional darting looks to the side, as Sidney Long, ‘the crown solicitor whose enemies will not let him practise at the bar’. His voice shifts into a rhetorical stage register, accompanied by a proud theatrical pose as he declares ‘I, the most skilled of them all’, a statement which we will come to recognise as his signature catchphrase. Climbing down off his imaginary podium, he apologetically mutters ‘I have many, many enemies’, voicing a rather bashful paranoia. Nell looks at them with a kindly smile, and says ‘I understand’. Her perspective has shifted from its instinctively reactive attitude of fearful shock, and her natural compassion and empathy has come to the surface once more. These people are not to be feared. Their madness is an exaggerated extension of their former position or vocation. The writer’s inwardness, the solicitor, used to judging others, developing the sense that it is he who is now being judged, and the young man whose poor treatment has led him to identify with the creature which so often bears the brunt of otherwise unexpressed household hostilities. Sidney explains that ‘we who are near the pillar are the safe ones…the good ones, the wisest’, and warns her about the rest. There is social stratification within Bedlam, too, a hierarchical ranking which generates its own ‘us and them’ divisions and disparaging references to a homogenous ‘other’. Bedlam is a skewed model of the world beyond the walls, with its customs and values magnified, their inherent absurdities made apparent. The card-playing clique are allowed a candle at this upper end of the hall. Its illumination is representative of the light of reason, knowledge and empathetic understanding which comes with education and literacy, and the freedom from constant labour which allows time for their cultivation.

Enjoying the game - Sidney and Nell
Nell is enjoying the game, and winning, too. The stakes are imaginary, a reflection of the notional nature of currency as a whole, be it in the form of money or some other token of exchange. An element of trust is implied, an agreement to take whatever token of value is currently used seriously. Here, the exchange is in the mind only, and a real element of carefree playfulness is therefore possible, with Dan using different types of dog as his stake. It’s another form of wit, of amusing sport and wordplay. Everything is becoming rather civilised. But Nell is repeatedly distracted by groans emanating from the darkness beyond, the gothic ambient of night shadow. They are the sounds of a man in pain, she is told, of someone to whom Sims has administered a ‘dose of iron’. When she asks why none of them help alleviate his audibly evident suffering, Sidney blandly replies ‘why should we help? We are the people of the pillar’. In this model world within the world, she has found herself in the social circle analogous to that of Lord Mortimer and his ilk. It evinces a similar blank indifference to the injustices and inequalities from which it seeks to distance itself, preferring to maintain a state of willed ignorance. Nell takes up the candle, the light of illumination and knowledge which the people of the pillar have chosen to horde, to keep solely for themselves. She takes it out into the darkness, spreading its light and the promise which it bears, casting distorted noir shadows on the walls . She looks like a saintly Florence Nightingale figure, the lady of the lamp, albeit a lady with a sharp edged trowel clutched at the ready in her good right hand. She passes the catatonic Madonna. Her rejection of a fearful retreat into self-defensive passivity in favour of outward engagement and positive action has removed the visual parallel drawn earlier between her and this motionless statue, who appears to be a physical outcropping of the wall to which she is permanently attached. Now she is just a haunting figure whom Nell heedlessly glides past.

The Lady with the Lamp
Nell finds the man uttering the pitiful sounds of pain, a pain which arises from the bands and chains within which Sims has confined him; His ‘dose of iron’, as Sidney had described it. The script memorably describes his encumbrance as consisting of ‘a curious and frightening contraption of steel plate and chain, a terrifying travesty of chivalrous armour’. It’s a nice reference to the source of many a gothic chill, the groans in the night in the castle or baronial hall which seem to originate from a suit of armour, whose hollow human form appears to move slightly in the peripheral vision. It’s a convention which dates right back to the origins of the gothic novel, with Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto and its deadly, crashing, oversized antique helmet. Here, the shadowy fears of the gothic are confronted and dispersed, along with the terror of madness which they also trail with them. This spectre is a human figure, and his groans stem from physical pain and discomfort rather than any supernatural torments. The evaporation of her fear upon confronting the reality of the inmates’ pitiful condition, her dispersal of the shadows, is represented by the fact that she drops her weapon, the trowel. She concentrates instead on trying to help this suffering soul, placing bandaging cloth between metal and flesh. A hand moves into the frame and draws the discarded trowel away. Nell may have put aside the idea of violence, but the means of its perpetration which Hannay has provided are taken up by another. His pacifism is still compromised, even at a second remove. When Nell notices it’s gone she scrabbles around for it, but soon abandons her search. She doesn’t seem overly concerned at its loss, certainly no longer exhibiting the desperation with which she pleaded with Hannay for its protection. The shadows of fear and their encumbent suspiciousness and mistrust have been diminished by the illumination of direct experience and compassion. Hannay was right all along in seeking to deny her arms. She had her kindness and her courage, and that was enough.

Back at the pillar, she makes light of her actions. ‘I don’t care for sad music with my game of paroli’, she jests. She is no longer full of the self-satisfaction at her ordering of good deeds which she exhibited in the company of Sims and Lord Mortimer, and is not any more interested in using them to entrench or further her own position. It was a deed done directly and for its own sake, without undue reflection or calculation. She is no longer practicing philanthropy from a distance and has actively begun to play her part in helping in situ, ‘here, where they’re all about me’, as she had negatively put it to Hannay. Meanwhile, Sims approaches silently from behind the pillar. He pats the cheek of the catatonic Madonna with a smile of pleasure which mixes recallection and anticipation. It’s a loathsome gesture which implies a history of abuse. Hearing the stakes being cheerfully called out from the table, he approaches. Dan the dog instinctively cowers, presumably in remembrance of past blows received. Sims introduces a note of sardonic insincerity to what had previously been an innocent gathering, recalling the guarded, calculating manners of the world of the Lord Mortimers beyond. ‘So nice to find you here amongst the upper classes, Mistress Bowen’, he mocks her. ‘I see you’ve joined what little we have of society’. Its narrow compass is in keeping with the proportion of ‘society’ in relation to the wider majority of the working populace in the world beyond the walls.

Mocking ideology
He suggests that she’s forgotten her reforming ideals, given that she’s been here a week and her only friends are ‘our nobility’. He feels the need to best her on ideological grounds. She maybe confined within his domain, under his suzerainty, but her ideas and ideals are still potent. They offer a challenge to his power, and on a more personal level, to his own worldview. Idealism is an affront to him, a personal insult. He speaks in mocking tones of ‘the brotherhood of man’, a refutation of the very notion of spiritual or moral values affecting the way in which the world is run or structured. She tells him that if he gives her the means (straw, soap and water) she will work for them to realise the egalitarian state embodied in the words. A model for the world beyond. She is seeking the kind of physical labour the very idea of which she and Varney had shied away from in the stonemason’s yard. The surroundings and company of Bedlam are having a transformative effect on her, but rather than dragging her down into madness, as Sims might have hoped, it is lifting her up and giving her emergent morality greater force and determination. It is imbuing her with an ideology grounded in direct experience. Sims departs, saying ‘I’ll leave you to dream of these Augean labours’. This is a reference to one of the labours of Hercules. (number five on his list) in which he was obliged to clean out the stables of King Augeas, which housed 3,000 oxen. Their immortality meant that they were able to produce a copious quantity of dung. This task was designed not to allow Hercules to display prodigious feats of strength or endurance, but to humble him through lowly and dirty physical labour. It didn’t achieve such a potentially beneficial end, since he cheated and rerouted the courses of a couple of nearby rivers. The use of such an analogy indicates once more Sims’ regard for his inmates as no more than filthy animals. Sims doesn’t believe that Nell will prove to have the character for such physical endeavour, which is well beyond what she has been used to in courtly circles, in which all such effort is provided for. The social provision which she envisages in this model world will go begging not due to lack of resources so much as a deficiency in reforming will. It is up to her to prove his cynicism unfounded, to rise to his challenge. The duel has recommenced.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Tim Ellis at the Spacex Gallery

'Lectern' © Copyright 2010 Tim Ellis.

The latest exhibition at the Spacex Gallery in Exeter is by the artist Tim Ellis and is titled The Tourist. It’s his first ever solo show in this country, so we’re privileged to be able to see his work in its proper context (and you can see some pictures from the exhibition here, in the first three rows). This is particularly so since it needs the space to spread out in order to achieve its full impact. Whether coincidentally or by design, the title The Tourist is particularly apt for an exhibition taking place in this part of the country, which is so dependant on the tourism industry. The tourist is essentially a spectator, viewing the unfamiliar sights with which she or he is presented from a distanced perspective. It’s a good metaphor for the experience of the visitor to a modern art gallery, confronted with work from which they often feel disconnected, as if it is the product of an alien and hermetic culture, its meaning beyond comprehension. The theoretical language which accompanies many such exhibitions, self-reflexively pitched at art world insiders, often merely increases such incomprehension. The representative figure of the tourist who is the sole inhabitant of the first room by the entrance to the Spacex is on one level standing in for the curious gallery visitor, then – for you or I (or the ‘journeyman’, as he or she is referred to in the guide). Hopefully the accessibility of the exhibition, and the intriguing nature of the image used to advertise it, will draw many more who might not otherwise think this is the sort of thing for them. They might want to leave off reading the guide until after they have looked around and allowed their imaginations to spark off what they see, however. As with any journey to unfamiliar cities or countries, it’s often better to gain your own impressions, to get pleasurably lost, before reaching for the guidebook to find out where you actually are.

The tiny elevated figure of the Tourist in the first room stands atop his plinth, dwarfed by the space which surrounds him. The small scale renders him deliberately unimpressive, inviting the gallery visitor to think ‘is that it?’ His elevation from the environs in which he has found himself gives him a sense of remoteness, the slightly bewildered detachment of the touristic stranger in a strange land. The plinth on which he stands is octagonal, and I can’t help but be reminded of the characters (a different one each week) who used to rise from the revolving and unfolding musical box at the start of Camberwick Green, descending back into its mysterious interior once their tale had been told. The Tourist figure here is slouched and slack-jawed, his oafish stance at odds with the noble and erect posture of most heroic statuary whose subjects have been deemed worthy of ascending their own immortal pedestal. His hands are thrust deep into the pockets of what looks like a smock, and he sports a loose and floppy hat of the sort bakers used to wear (and may still do, for all I know). This attire, together with his gaping regard and open-mouthed gawp, makes him appear like a bumpkin in the city, awed by the density of novel sights and impressions assailing his senses. Country origins are perhaps further hinted at by the small circle of green baize upon which he stands.

On the wall to his side is the first of Ellis’ banners. These are paintings on loosely hung sheets of cotton, stiffened by acrylic paint and varnish and hung from the brickwork in makeshift fashion by bulldog clips. Their coloured patterns are heavily scored and lined, as if this is a piece of ceremonial fabric which has been folded up, put away and unfurled many times. The suggestion of some public informational or institutional purpose is furthered by the light brown border, edging the whole thing with the practical, utilitarian colour of packing tape. The low key tones of the abstract arrangements of circles and lines and the monochrome colour fields upon which they lie invoke a pictorial language which is readily understood by the natives and so doesn’t have to be shouted out in bright, attention-grabbing primary hues, but which is opaque to tourists and visitors – the plinth-bound gawper and ourselves. It’s classic inter-war abstract modernism of the sort which first started prompting claims that infants could produce work of equal merit. Art which found a home in (relatively) nearby St Ives. We must try to intuit some of the meaning behind these well-worn arrangements of signifying shapes and juxtaposed colours, perhaps by not trying too hard to understand. The Tourist himself isn’t looking at the banner at all. It acts more as backdrop than object of direct scrutiny, the theatrical scenic props against which he and the inhabitants of the next room are set. The Tourist directs his stupefied stare through the window and out to the streets of Exeter beyond the gallery. Maybe he is on his way out as we make our entrance. His casually listless posture suggests that he isn’t terribly impressed by what he’s seen.

The main gallery of the Spacex, open to the light once again after its enclosure for the last exhibition’s films, is populated by a number of objects cradled atop (or grasped within) a diverse array of plinths and display stands. Some are alone, others paired companionably together. They look very much like a group of figures, drifting spectators in a gallery, in fact. Their solid bases topped with more intricately detailed assemblages makes them resemble the kind of anthropomorphised robots which plagued the screens in the wake of Star Wars. Closer inspection reveals that their ‘heads’ are mostly formed from what appear to be the glass shades and coverings of wall or ceiling lights. The others have appendages which give them the appearance of noisemakers, ready to emit a loud or piercing blast of sound when triggered. The figure referred to as ‘Lectern’ (and this is where the ground plan available on the table by the entrance comes in handy) is the first you come across as you enter the room. It has two outward facing metallic discs mounted on a pole (the lids of old pans, perhaps) which resemble loudspeakers, or crude cymbals ready to be clattered together. ‘The Arrival’ is a round, red object with an ornate cap which looks rather like a Russian samovar. Two conical ‘ears’ emerge on either side, ready to let off a shrill, steamy whistle. Perhaps these two are the ‘guides’. They do have a slightly more commanding, aggressively solid air than the paired figures, with their fragile glass craniums. This dominant status is reflected in the names they have been given. The Lectern would suggest an authoritative font of knowledge, whilst The Arrival could be some local guide, ushering and herding the directionless flock of newcomers.

'The Arrival' © Copyright 2010 Tim Ellis.
The light-shaded figures appear to be waiting for someone to flick a switch, at which point the whole assembly will flicker back into life from their state of suspended animation, consciousness illuminated once more, and begin gliding across the floor in a spinning and spiralling dance of spectatorship. The varying shapes and decorative patterning of the glass shades make for distinctly different characters (perhaps even different species). The stands and plinths which shoulder them also display a variety of forms and colours and further this sense of divergent personae, whose predominant characteristic is crystallised by the names which they are given. These names also underline the fact that the paired figures are of greater and smaller stature, dominant and subordinate personalities attaching themselves one to the other. The tin sounding-stand of The Lectern threatens to boom out over its companion, with its glass bulb resembling the flowering head of a soft evergreen cone, which is identified as Willing Servant. A figure with a pineapple-shaped casing resting in a marbled glass bowl, which is described as Interloper, attaches itself to a smaller figure whose squarely circular cut-glass shade resembles a fancy cake, an effect enhanced by the piping of acrylic paint icing its crystalline crevices. The stand on which this cake crown rests consists of four bulbous blue legs, hunched rigidly and nervously together, exuding a withdrawn and nervy body language which earns it the soubriquet The Fearful. In the final pairing, the taller partner is capped with a grey-white globe which resembles the ice-cracked surface of Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter. It is girdled with another shade (as is the Interloper), a circular drum closely strung with semi-transparent nylon or plastic, vaguely akin to the constructivist sculptures of Naum Gabo. These create a strobing visual effect as your circle them, spinning an illusion of flickering zoetrope motion around the planetary globe. This figure is the Well-Wisher, looking down patronisingly on its neighbour, a light which is shaped like the head of a rush. This constricted form is contained within its own base of lilac and subdued red, four inward-facing wooded wedges forming a protective but repressive brace. It is called The Subordinate. In the far corner of the room is a solitary figure topped with a ridged, peach-coloured bowl shade in a vaguely art deco style perched upon a solid stand with a skirt of fabric around its base. This is known as All Seeing, a name which hints at a kind of remote viewing which could apply to all of the glass light-shade-headed figures. Normally designed to diffuse light, now they absorb it, transformed into organs of vision. Perhaps, my associative imagination, warped by years of reading science fiction, prompts me, they are hosts for downloaded conciousnesses. This would explain the titles of the three backdrops on the walls: To Live Long and Maybe One Day Forever.

The third room, approached via a ramp and identified as room two on the exhibition plan, is full of various neatly ordered and categorised relics which might have been brought back from his travels by the tourist. Memorabilia – key-chains and snowstorms, as Marc Almond once put it. They are also the kind of relics which you might come across in a museum, mysterious artefacts from a history and culture of which you know nothing. The contents of this small, enclosed room are discretely hidden from immediate view by a screen which seems to have been put together using cheap beach mats. Both this and the free-standing shelving behind it are constructed from bamboo canes, the signature material of fifties ‘exotica’, the ultimate in faux touristic dabbling in alien cultures. The shelving bears an immaculately symmetrical hierarchy of paired iron bookends in various novelty forms, topped off with guardian eagles, then bulldogs (that symbol of proudly insular Britishness), cannons, sailing ships (a Rule Britannia memorial to faded Empires built on naval dominance) and monks. The whole assemblage is entitled Through Authority We Serve. Opposite is a selection of long, dark wooden poles (mahogany?) topped with proportionally small casts of heads. The poles are too tall to be walking sticks for any but a giant race, although they rest in a walking stick stand and the whole is entitled Growing Old Together. The figures have a historical feel, with Punches and Pickwicks and regally bearded and moustachioed visages of noble mien. The disarrayed sheaf of the poles brought woodcuts and prints of the old London Bridge to mind, with its guard towers displaying a grisly selection of heads freshly (or not so freshly) supplied from The Tower.

Utilitarian object as abstracted design icon
On the wall behind them are hung three copper ‘bats’, akin in form if not material to the oriental fans which were one of the essential accoutrements of fashionable fin-de-siecle Japonisme. They are adorned with the simple symbols of graphic informational design; white circles within green lozenges and inverted white Vs outlined in red. Perhaps they are some kind of signalling baton of the kind used by those fearless souls who direct taxiing aircraft or by modern day station conductors indicating that the train can leave, the coloured shapes clearly semaphoring instructions. Utilitarian objects removed from the context of their original usage can be admired in isolation for the elegance of their design and the function which it served to embody (a function which remains mysterious in this case). The graphic representation of differently coloured traffic cones on the first two Kraftwerk LPs springs into my mind here. These three objects are collectively given the utopian slogan Towards a Common Understanding.

Beside the wall opposite the entrance to the wall is a small table with an array of seals or ink stamps set on the end of handles in the shape of Greek columns, thick and sturdy enough to stand up to the firm and authoritative thump of an official imprint. These are neatly stacked like pipes in their own rack. The signs and sigils embossed on the seals have their own inferred symbology of stars, pyramids and pentagons, with more fragmented and irregular patterns of shapes hinting at a more occult and strange visual language – the marks of some secret, hermetic order. This collection of tools bearing the hidden signs of power is given the self-revealing Masonic title Through Authority We Serve. Hanging on the wall above this table is a strange design on an oval of white cardboard made up of contrasting curled and angled lines and calligraphical swirls, all of which hint at an abstracted representation of an owl’s face. The connection is immediately made in my mind with the owl pattern painted onto a set of dinner plates discovered in an attic which sets off the emotionally charged supernatural narrative of Alan Garner’s novel The Owl Service. This eerie design, which feels like it belongs in an overstuffed Victorian parlour, is housed behind a convex glass frame, visible only after closer, squinting scrutiny. It resembles the bulging cornea of a watchful, predatory eye – another manifestation of the All Seeing. It is given the vaguely religiose title ‘Through Form Becomes Meaning’, a variant on ‘In the beginning was the Word’ from St John’s Gospel.

These are all personal responses, of course, associations triggered into associative branching through whatever region of my brain such paths take by the objects on display here. The mysterious and suggestive aura which they radiate, a blurred and shimmering horizon beyond which lies the promise of clarity, understanding and perhaps even revelation, invites such imaginative fancy. I suppose this is what is meant by the guide’s rather dry assertion that ‘every object, whether in isolation or as a collection is dependent on a creator, mediator and audience’ and the further suggestion that their positioning within the exhibition ‘offers the opportunity to question their purpose and meaning within a new or altered context’. Well, just go along to the Spacex and allow your imagination to create its own personal meaning. Become creator, mediator and audience. Be an active tourist.