Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Utopia London

Utopia London documentary trailer from utopialondon on Vimeo.

Utopia London is a film by Tom Cordell, shown at the bfi Southbank last month, which laments the demise of post-war modernism in the capital and more particularly the social ideals which drove it to create new, large scale public housing projects. It’s an unashamedly partisan work, a heart on sleeve polemic which never attempts to disguise its partiality. As such, it falls into line with the whole genre of cinematic agit-prop documentaries which have found their way onto arthouse screens in recent years, to often mixed effect. There is always a certain sense that these pictures are preaching to the converted, affirming them in their beliefs, and there’s certainly an element of that sermonising here. It’s perhaps significant that in the list of buildings referred to in the film on the Utopia London website, Cordell still refers to Berthold Lubetkin’s Bevin Court under its original name, Lenin Court. Scenes use found footage to amusing but often rather crudely crowd-pleasing (assuming that the crowd is of a left-leaning tendency) effect. An old piece of comic cartoon propaganda depicting the progress of evolution, with a lumbering dinosaur trampling through the landscape, plays as the narrative describes the return of the Conservatives to power in 1951; A silent film clip depicting a corpulent banker puffing on an oversized cigar offers an absurdly obvious caricature; and footage of lab rats attacking one another in confined cages whilst Conservative experiments and studies into the psychological and social effect of high density living is emotionally manipulative, and seems to draw on the use of such associative imagery for darker purposes in the past. A film with a different agenda could easily have used these shots to illustrate the social engineering designed by some of the post-war modernist planners and architects, for whom the inhabitants of their new worlds were expected to conform to a particular notion of community. Cordell’s comments after the screening, in which he noted that his film was a way of saying ‘fuck you’ to those who rejected the egalitarian ideals which he unequivocally identifies with the large scale post war developments hardly suggests that cool objectivity was ever a major priority for him. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of passion though, and part of his motivation for making the film was to put the case for the preservation of the remaining public buildings of the post-war modernist period, before they are razed like the Pimlico school in Westminster. We see the bulldozers move in to level this building, as does its architect John Bancroft. Travelling past on the top of a double decker bus a few days after seeing the film, I can confirm that the site is now a flattened and cleared blank, the school itself replaced by a purpose built academy run by a trust headed by a venture capitalist and leading Tory donor, with new ideals fit to match.

Alexandra Road
If you accept that this is a personal film expressing a strongly felt viewpoint (and, indeed, if you share that viewpoint), then there is a great deal to enjoy here. In a way, this is the official version of post-war modernism in London as its architects would have us hear it. Several of them are on hand to revisit the buildings they designed and talk about the ideas behind them, and the extent to which they feel they were realised (and, crucially, maintained) in the real world. The film is valuable in giving a voice (and face) to architects whose identity was subsumed within the anonymous government structure of the LCC; people such as Oliver Cox, John Partridge and Peter Aldington. They all remain proud of their achievements, although in the case of Neave Brown, the architect behind the Alexander Road Estate, often seen as the terminal bookend of the monumental public housing schemes, his walkabout proves inadvertently hilarious. Noting a couple of surly and suspicious kids (probably wondering why a camera is being pointed at them) jumping up onto a concrete wall, he declares in a loud, plummy voice ‘oh look, they’re having fun’. His description of the hard, concrete slopes tilting down towards the pedestrian centre of the estate’s long avenue as making it like a large playground is a little far-fetched, It’s the kind of surface against which heads are cracked in old public information films. Brown does show a wryly humorous side, which is not often associated with the doctrinaire sternness of brutalist architects. Coming to the end of one of the elevated walkways, which projects slightly beyond the wall of the final stack of flats, he remembers one of the builders telling him ‘I know why you made it like that – so you can jump off it when you reach the end’. He does have the grace to conclude that he probably made the whole estate too long. It certainly has the feel of being a world unto itself, with the stepped terraces overlooking each other and allowing little sense of privacy, and it can appear like a labyrinth from which escape is difficult. It was used to ironic effect on the cover of Richard and Linda Thompson’s Sunnyvista LP, and its rapid fall from favour and fashion meant that it was regularly used as a backdrop betokening ‘gritty’ urban deprivation on 70s and 80s TV. The building has won praise from architectural critics, but few plaudits from social commentators. Jonathan Glancey (who’s a bit of both) remarks in his book on 20th century architecture that it is ‘an extraordinarily powerful, if utterly terrifying, experience. The ideas behind the project seem rational, yet it all seems so inhumane’. With Brown as your affable guide and a bright sun in the sky, you could almost be convinced. But a change of the light and a solitary digression and the atmosphere could rapidly darken.

The Alton West estate
Residents of the buildings are also given a voice. One particularly resilient old lady in the Alton East flats shows around and, when she reaches the lobby by the lifts, talks with offhand matter of factness about how this was where you used to find the drug users, and how it used to reek of urine. Another couple of elderly residents in Alton East are interviewed sitting on their couch, with its doily head rests, in their neat and immaculately orderly flat. They provide a rather conveniently conservative perspective with which to contrast the Alton East and West estates, suggesting a class division between the brick built buildings of the early phase of post war modernism, inspired by Swedish examples, and the uncompromising concrete buildings of the second phase, who looked to le Corbusier as their guiding figure. Kate Macintosh, the architect of Dawson’s Heights in East Dulwich, meets some of the people living there as she wanders around. They’re friendly and open and seem happy and cheerful and in their home environment. The outline of Macintosh’s buildings rising in irregular ziggurat masses above the tree-lined slopes of Dulwich and Forest Hill is a thrilling and strangely ennobling sight, redolent of an age when the future was still a place to anticipate with excitement and an expectation of wonderful new worlds to come.

Kate Macintosh's Dawson's Heights
Cordell’s filming is very accomplished, making the picture an enjoyable visual experience. He captures both the detail and the wider aspect of the buildings featured with judiciously composed shots. There are also a series of speeded up, Koyaanisqaatsi style interludes which evoke the kinetic buzz of city life. These are accompanied by gentle ripples of ruminative marimba music, a refreshing alternative to the sort of Kraftwerk electronica with which modernist architectural images are generally paired, and an invitation to revise our preconceived notions about what we see. He clearly has a wide knowledge of film history, too, making good use of clips from a number of movies. These include Soviet films from the experimental silent period, including Dovzhenko, Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera, and the pupils’ declaration of revolt from Jean Vigo’s Zero de Conduite. Milling zombies from George Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead are used to more ironic effect in relation to the Pimlico School and its attempt to provide a less conventional educational environment. The use of the Alton West estate by Francois Truffaut in Fahrenheit 451 is also shown (and I’ve about the use of brutalist architecture in 60s and 70s SF in a previous post), as is the film’s association of uniform new town housing with passive conformity and more traditional brick-built garden city housing with individualism and free thought. There are also quotes from the likes of Victorian socialist William Morris, Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, German communist martyr Rosa Luxembourg, Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh – and Margaret Thatcher! These give the film a more essayistic, literary feel, providing prefatory headings for the different ‘chapters’.

The Bevin Court staircase
The film finds its founding figure in Berthold Lubetkin, the pioneering architect of a new and fairer world. The Finsbury Health Centre is the starting point of the architectural story, with the Hampstead modernism of Lubetkin and Tecton’s le Corbusier influenced Highpoint flats airily dismissed as having being built for the wealthy. We get to gaze up at the floating seashell spiral of the stairwell suspended in the lobby of Bevin Court, with the striking 50s graphics of its mural by Peter Yates to the side. John Allan, who got to know Lubetkin having studied his work as an undergraduate, talks about his architecture as art, whilst still remaining practical. The tale is told of the renaming of the building from Lenin to Bevin Court in the wake of the revelations of Stalinist atrocities. The bust of Lenin which was to have adorned the entrance sign was buried by Lubetkin beneath the hall, a ritualistic offering which made it a symbolic part of the foundations. It’s reminiscent of the myth in which the Bran, the pagan king of Britain, instructs that his head be buried beneath the White Mount in London in order to ward off evil from across the sea. Lubetkin is positioned as the defiant socialist hero, with a convenient omission of his later building of the luxuriously appointed Highpoint 2 extension (complete with separate entrances to the flats for tradesmen), with his own self-designed penthouse perched on top. Heroic portrayals are intended to provide inspiration, but are inherently two dimensional, and must needs ignore the more contradictory (and therefore more interesting) complexities of human nature.

Patrick Abercrombie's 1943 County of London plan
The story takes us from the plans drawn up by Patrick Abercrombie in 1943 and 1944 for the rational reconstruction of post war London around zones of mixed, low density population and varied housing and amenities, to the popularising modernist showcase of the Festival of Britain in 1951, and shows how the ideas were realised and developed. The Alton East estate follows the Abercrombie ideal of the dispersal and decentralisation of the population, with a mixture of high rise buildings, and terraced house and maisonettes, all on the edge of leafy parkland. Its Alton West counterpoint, built a year later in 1959, is more monolithic and domineering, the separate blocks of parallel flats like great vessels moored at the edge of the park. There’s no denying that this kind of monumentalism became very unpopular, amongst inhabitants as well as conservative opponents of public housing. The degree to which this was the fault of the buildings themselves, or to the poor maintenance and inappropriate housing policies of local councils is still a matter of impassioned debate. The film doesn’t include Robin Hood Gardens or the Thamesmead Estate, neither of which has attracted a great deal of support in the face of the general consensus that they are social disaster zones (although Zaha Hadid, Richard Rogers and other prominent architects favour its preservation), perhaps conceding that neither will do much for its case. As high rise buildings fell out of favour, due to the hasty and cheap construction methods exposed by the Ronan Point disaster as much as any inherent dislike, low rise high density estates came to be seen as an alternative solution. Which is where Alexander Road came in.

George Finch's future on a human scale
Perhaps the film’s greatest success comes not in winning any new converts to the cause, but in its portrayal of the architects themselves. This refutes the oft-held view of them as aloof and disdainful social engineers, dictating the way in which they believed the poor should live and shaping those lives through rigid and authoritarian structures. Such arrogance was reportedly a characteristic of the arch-brutalist husband and wife team of Peter and Alison Smithson, but it’s emphatically not a quality found in any of the architects we meet here. Particularly engaging is George Finch, a raffishly elegant figure in his pink shirt, white scarf and peaked cap. He guides us round his point positioned blocks of flats in Cotton Gardens and introduces himself to the receptionist at the Brixton Recreation Centre (recreation is a feature incorporated into all of his buildings, in line with the 60s anticipation of a leisure society) as the person who designed the building. His line drawings of his buildings, complete with charming figures of all ages mixing together and having fun, and with the odd aeroplane which looks like it’s been folded out of paper soaring overhead, sums up the bright and human future he envisaged better than any more precisely delineated architectural design ever could (and I'm sure Finch has included a hidden door which leads to adventure somewhere). It's like the bustling and happy world of Mr Benn's Festive Road transposed to the age of the high rise estate. All of these architects still cherish the ideals which they held, and mourn their loss from the world. Kate Macintosh was on hand for the Q&A session after the screening to affirm her own beliefs in the social value of architecture, and was joined by Cordell and Owen Hatherley. I would have liked to hear more of what Hatherley had to say; his blog Sit Down Man, You’re A Bloody Tragedy is always witty and engaged on the subject of modern architecture (and on other matters which occupy him, too). Unfortunately, as tends to be the case when lefties gather in any number, the session was taken over by a series of people in the audience who were more interested in delivering lengthy testimonies as to their own beliefs and the way in which they had put them into practice than with asking the panel any questions. I soon tired of this righteous exchange of mutual self-affirmation and quietly exited into the South Bank night.

The word utopia is a hard one to pin down. Deriving from the ancient Greek, it can, according to interpretation, mean the good place or no-place (or perhaps both). It’s an ideal plan or social thought experiment which tends to harden into oppressive forms as soon as it’s actually constructed or imposed. No matter how hard you try to wish it into being, Utopia can ultimately be found nowhere, least of all in London town. But the buildings which manifest the particular post-war moment of utopian dreaming in the capital deserve reassessment, whatever their flaws. Utopia London puts their case with conviction and a great deal of heart.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Neil Innes Night at the BFI Southbank

The Neil Innes Night a the bfi Southbank last month was a part of the Flipside strand of programming, a nook for film and TV from post-war Britain which has a cultish sheen and which has, for one reason or another, fallen into obscurity and neglect. As curated by hip bfi archivists Vic Pratt and William Fowler, it has spawned an eclectic dvd catalogue, which has just been re-released in its entirety (to date) in dual dvd/blu-ray editions. The evening was also shoehorned into the month long Scala Forever season, fitting in with the old Kings Cross repertory cinema’s fondness for oddball artists, offbeat imagination and colourful pop surrealism, as well as its penchant for 60s and 70s retro before it gained the widespread currency it now enjoys. Neil Innes is neither obscure nor someone stuck in the past, of course, and was present on the night to prove it. He is not always given his due as a prominent part of the continuum of quintessentially British comic surrealists. This is partly perhaps because of his eclecticism and ability to absorb and wittily recast the work of others, and partly because, as a person, he is very balanced and evidently quite sane, with none of the cultivated eccentricity or ingrained oddness which often seems required of comic icons. The esteem in which he held many treasured British eccentrics, who were often fairly marginal figures at the time, was made explicit in his series The Innes Book of Records, which featured regular guests, who appeared with little fanfare as part of the ongoing associative progress of the show. Old Bonzo Dog Bandmate Vivian Stanshall was given space to air some of his intricately punning semi-Joycean prose, and it was here that I first came across the likes of John Cooper Clarke and Ivor Cutler, who made an immediate and lasting impression. As I remember, Ivor did his routing about Gruts, and Clarke rattled through Chickentown, each sentence beginning with a slightly toned down ‘bloody’. Much of Innes’ work onscreen is currently available only in random fragments trawled up from Youtube, which made this evening, gathering together the various threads of his performing life, particularly welcome.

We started the programme with How Sweet To Be An Idiot from the Innes Book of Records, in which Neil played the yellow duck-hatted clown, wandering through an exhibition of surrealist art (which sets the tone for the series as a whole), bestriding a model village, looking at the animals in Bristol Zoo surrounded by raucous children, and riding the vertiginous, water-driven cliff railway connecting Lynton and Lynmouth on the North Devon coast. Oasis borrowed heavily from this song for Whatever, as DJ Simon Mayo demonstrated by playing them back to back on his show. Innes’ agent promptly got on the case, and he (Neil, not the agent) now has a co-writing credit, which must earn him a few welcome extra pennies.

Choreographed head revolutions - Music for Head Ballet
The Bonzo Dog Band were an obvious focal point, with a rare chance to see the amateur film The Adventures of the Son of Exploding Sausage. It’s fair to say that this is one for the fans, consisting of little more than aimless goofing about whilst the band were ‘getting it together in the country’ at an old farmhouse during the rehearsals for what became the Keynsham album. Still, Neil sports his stylish, wide-brimmed, pastel felt hat, Viv shows off his sporting prowess with a giant beachball (a disavowal of any autobiographical elements in Sport, the Odd Boy?), and we get to see Roger Ruskin Spear’s perpetual bubble blowing automaton (used, naturally enough, during renditions of I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles). Music for Head Ballet is a piece of choreographed (roughly) deadpan headturning, the Bonzos turning themselves into impassive automata, whilst Equestrian Statue finds our merry troubadours raiding the dressing up chest and cavorting around what looks like Hampstead Heath. Hooray!

There’s a lengthy extract from a 1975 Rutland Weekend Television show, in which The Old Grey Whistle Test was parodied as The Old Gay Whistle Test (not the height of sophistication, I know). Eric Idle made for a hilariously earnest Whispering Bob Harris, greeting everything with a ‘wow, great’, and the cosmic prog noodling of Toad the Wet Sprocket was spot on (didn’t sound half bad, actually). Neil stepped up to the mic for a take off of glam rock, fronting a band called Sprint (‘on the Abbatoir label’) performing at the Gerrard’s Cross Festival with a number called Bandwagon. The song demonstrated Innes’ fine ear for musical pastiche, which had already been evident in the Bonzo days (Equestrian Statue is a great take on toytown psychedelia). This came to the fore with his emulation of Beatles songs for the Rutles, a prefab band often described as sounding more like the Beatles than the Beatles did themselves. We saw the ‘re-union’ video from 1996 of the song Shangri-La, with its host of celebrity vocalists and look-alikes gathering for the final Hey Jude-style singalong. Neil denied claims that he had mistaken the Elizabeth Taylor impersonator for the real thing. He also revealed that George Harrison (who produced and played an in-disguise role in the film) was fine about the Beatles parody songs, although when he heard With A Girl Like You, he commented ‘that one’s a bit close’. He may have been bearing in mind his recent travails over the Chiffons’ claim that My Sweet Lord had plagiarised their old hit He’s So Fine. Someone apparently told Neil that they had heard John Lennon wandering along the New York streets toward his apartments in the Dakota Building singing the Rutles song Cheese and Onions to himself, so it would seem that he was not averse to Innes’ pastiche of his style. Innes played Ron Nasty, the Lennon figure, in The Rutles film, and Cheese and Onions (do I have to spell it out?) is a perfect distillation of his psychedelic period dream songs. In this context, the ’96 reunion (timed to coincide with the Beatles Anthology archive releases) becomes quite affecting, with Ron’s presence unsentimentally (well, he is called Nasty) imagining a celebration in which Lennon might have participated, had he been so inclined by this point. However, Eric Idle, who played Dirk McQuickly, the Paul McCartney figure, didn’t take part in the video, so there was an equivalent absence.

Neil’s talent for pastiche was also on display in Protest Song, the number from the 1976 Pleasure at Her Majesty’s concert, taken from an edition of the BBC Omnibus arts programme. Here he takes off protest era Bob Dylan, complete with excruciating harmonica breaks. Put alongside his epically painful guitar mangling sole in the middle of the Bonzo’s Canyons of Your Mind, this shows how a very talented musician can somehow manage to make himself sound completely hopeless (not an easy feat, I’m sure). The pastiching of various musical styles, along with a love of surrealism and a sidewise satirical perspective on the modern world, led someone in the audience to ask Neil whether he felt any affinity with or was influenced by Frank Zappa. He affirmed that he loved the Mother’s records from the 60s, especially We’re In It For the Money, with its air of real social engagement giving bite and focus to the comedy. He tactfully drew a veil over some of Frank’s later efforts, suggesting that they were more particularly American in their concerns. In fact, We’re Only In It For the Money is very much attuned to the America of the times, whether that be in terms of hippie conformism, the machinations of power or police brutality. Zappa simply became less engaged and more narrowly focussed, and therefore (lyrically, at least) less interesting as time went on. Innes never displayed anything resembling Zappa’s caustic misanthropy, the unforgiving eye which he cast on human foibles (but never his own). He is more likely to respond to human folly with a wistful melancholia, regretful but not judgemental. This may partly derive from the love of old-fashioned clowns which he professed, as well as his fondness for the great silent film comedians (The Innes Book of Records includes routines which show him playing Chaplin and Stan Laurel). They all tended to shade their personae with a touch of pathos, painting themselves as innocent fools at the mercy of a cruel and manipulative world (the fate of Pierrot in the Harlequinade). Any hint of Zappa’s subversive provocations is rather blown by Innes’ 1977 Top of the Pops appearance singing his Silver Jubilee ditty, without any hint of irony, to a cod-reggae beat. He denied that this was a riposte to the Sex Pistols, and said that it was written at the suggestion of his agent. He brushed the idea aside at first, but then found lines and rhymes coming into his head. It’s a harmless enough song, a catchy singalong which makes Paul McCartney’s Her Majesty at the end of the Abbey Road LP sound like a radical Republican call to arms. Neil’s appearance on 3-2-1 singing an updated version of I’m the Urban Spaceman with light entertainment dancers doing their spangly thing around him was hilariously incongruous, however. The bfi audience cracked up at a particularly cryptic stream of rapidfire word association from Ted Rogers, which only someone who finds Finnegan’s Wake a light read would be able to make any sense of. There were also a couple of his assured and enjoyable ads for Holsten Export from 1980, each finding Neil, in smooth, ivory tinkling Noel Coward mode, and his stoically mute companion marooned in some remote or exotic location, with the awkward encounters related in the song leading to the refrain ‘that calls for a Holsten’. Neil was evidently brought in to lend the lager an air of class, a tall order which he did his best to fulfil. There must be some subconscious association between ex-Bonzos and beer. Viv Stanshall advertised Ruddles ale and Tennents lager in ads from the late 80s (the former drawing on Sir Henry, the latter on his punning Chandleresque Bonzo song Big Shot). The Bonzo’s Mrs Slater’s Parrot also changed its feathers to become Mr Cadbury’s parrot, remaining equally annoying and relentless (he’s ‘the fuhrer’s favourite’ in the original).

Finally and most enjoyably, however, we were treated to a full episode of The Innes Book of Records. Someone in the audience subsequently asked why this had yet to make it to dvd, and whether there were any plans to release it. Neil ruefully replied that it was entirely in the hands of the BBC, who didn’t seem in any hurry to do anything about it. A lot of it was filmed on location on 16mm film, meaning that the picture is not of the quality that people are used to seeing these days, but he favoured releasing it in its original state, without any further digital fiddling or cleaning up, leaving it in all its grainy, textured glory. Each episode of The Innes Book of Records consisted of a series of Neil’s songs performed in character and linked by a framing device which located them in a particular landscape or narrative context. Here, this consisted of an archetypal scene cinematically shot in faded black and white in which an old man pushes a rickety cart which bears an old gramophone along a cobbled street in a poor northern town in the early twentieth century. He stops and picks out one of a pile of old shellac 38, whose labels read Innes Book of Records, and winds them into motion, the needle’s crackling contact with the surface conjuring up the colour films which accompany the songs. Some of these are evidently written with this visual element in mind, music videos at a time when they didn’t have the ubiquity they would later attain as essential promotional adjuncts, and later as primary elements of a pop song (sometimes, in fact, more memorable than the songs itself). Recurring characters turn up from show to show. Here we had the downtrodden, raincoat-wearing everyman (or no-man), traipsing around after his wife and dreaming of a more colourful life, which is tauntingly projected at him from the bright packaging of various products prominently displayed in the supermarket he drifts through. The song which accompanies his daydreams, Et Cetera, is one of Innes’ gorgeously sad tunes, reflecting the yearning ache and lightly ironic shrug of its lyrics, summoning up and dispelling banal fantasies of escape.

Innes’ slightly sinister, white-faced a rouged clown crooner, with his tailcoat, kid gloves and swept back mop of black hair, also made an appearance. He wandered down a wilderness road winding across a bleak and remote moor, singing the ‘we will go on’ song Down That Road in the surviving against the odds Frank and Judy style. As he walked on, disconnected mic cable trailing uselessly behind him, he passed various tableaux of medieval death and plague, as if he had strayed onto the set of The Seventh Seal or Monty Python and the Holy Grail (which Innes was in, of course). There’s a man in the stocks, an Inquisitorial procession, a cart piled with corpses and a skeleton filled gibbet. It’s all hilariously grim and makes the song’s sentiments seem hopelessly unrealistic. If there’s one species of performer whom Innes likes to have a go at, it’s the insincere and schmaltzy showbiz crooner. There was another clip from the 1986 Channel 4 programme Comedians Do It On Stage in which he played a grotesque nightclub singer with prosthetic pot belly and oversized medallion swinging between an unpleasantly wide-open shirt singing the song Let’s Be Spontaneous. Of course, this is the last thing such a singer would be, and it was theatrically repulsive. Viv Stanshall also liked to nail the phoney crooner (partly because it gave him the opportunity to put on his exaggerated ‘relaxed and sophisticated’ voice), which he did in Bonzos songs such as Canyons of Your Mind (which he tended to adorn live, after the ‘I mean it’ line, with a belch or vomiting sound), I Left My Heart In San Francisco (hey, leave Tony alone – he’s OK), Look At Me I’m Wonderful and The Sound of Music. Someone in the audience asked if there was a particular target against which he would like to unleash some real bile – whether, in effect, there was a dark side to Neil Innes? He replied that this wasn’t really in his nature. He didn’t want to belittle or demean anyone through his comedy, which didn’t really extend beyond occasionally thumbing a nose or blowing a raspberry at certain targets. He mockingly added ‘I’m just so perfect’, in this sounded too self-important or -congratulatory. However, if there has been one target against which he’s consistently aimed a mildly stronger degree of satirical mockery, it’s this kind of unctuous showbiz character with their feigned intimacy and false humility.

Apeman (or Ungawa) was another song in the show, with its catchy chorus combining the Weismuller yodel with an uh-huhhed ‘ngawa’, a melding of Tarzan with Elvis. It sees the Lord of the Jungle finding love (‘ape man go ape dancing/ape man stay out late’), settling down and having kids with his ‘ape-girl’, vowing that ‘ape man raise ape family/ape man will provide’. Amoeba Boogie is a funky disco number in which a white-coated Neil shakes his bootie whilst squinting at cell divisions (represented by a bunch of dancing school kids doing their thing and having a fun time, by the looks of it) through his microscope lens. His excitement at all the ‘matter dividing’ gets the better of him in the end, and he breaks out into a few choreographed dance moves with his two female lab assistants. Catchphrase is a mock Top of the Pops performance by a new wave band, with Neil as the gum-chewing, low-hung guitar toting front man in the Paul Weller mode. It contains the line ‘a poet for a lie and a clown for the truth’, which could well be Innes’ own catchphrase. It’s another great pastiche (and a good song), and demonstrates how he is able to convincingly adopt the latest styles. There’s none of the crude and embarrassing caricaturing which many other comics of the time indulged in when it came to punk and new wave. In the Q&A session at the end of the programme, Innes was asked if he liked all of the kinds of music which he took off, since there always seems to be real knowledge and affection behind his pastiches. He said that yes, by and large he did appreciate them in one way or another, and always tried to keep up with what was going on. A particular song could also be adapted to different styles, too. Catchphrase had also been performed in an old time dance band style, he revealed. In another episode to the Innes Book of Records (which you can find via the SHARE site, since it features Viv), Neil sings the old Bonzo song The Humanoid Boogie in a seaside cave as a prancing Scottish Frankenstein’s monster to accordion accompaniement and with yelping backing vocals from a trio of limbless shopfloor dummy busts. Yes, it’s that kind of show. Funnily enough, it works really well.

Neil stayed on for a good hour and a half or so after the programme ended, answering questions fully and considerately and with a wealth of amusing anecdotage. He finally picked up the hat which he’s placed at the foot of the stage, brim upwards in the hope of catching a few coins tossed his way, and exited to warm and fulsome applause, with a hint that he might be found in the bar for further convivial exchanges. It was a real pleasure to have spent time in the company of such an easy going, engaging and down to earth fellow. An unsung legend innes own time, as we all felt assured by the end of the evening.

Friday, 21 October 2011

The Sound of Fear

There was a fascinating programme on Radio 4 this week, The Sound of Fear, presented by Sean Street. It examined the way in which certain sounds, or indeed the absence of sound, can induce a fearful response, and the manner in which artists have used the disconcerting quality of certain sounds to uncanny or terrifying effect. Freud’s essay on the uncanny, or unheimlich emerges as a central point of reference, with its exploration of disturbing encounters with unknown or strange phenomena in literature. These often take place within an otherwise familiar and comfortable domestic setting (heimlich can roughly be translated as homely), and the novel elements are disturbing partly because of their unfamiliarity. Sound researcher Marcus Leadley makes the distinction between sounds which are distorted or warped in some way, but which still have an identifiable and familiar source, and therefore merely produce a sensation of disorientation; and those whose source is unknown, and whose unfamiliarity creates a fearful apprehension of the uncanny. Freud’s essay doesn’t pay much attention to the role played by sound in evoking a sense of dread or terror, and the story upon which is at the heart of his analysis, ETA Hoffmann’s The Sandman, specifically revolves around the fear of losing one’s sight. Unsurprisingly, Freud interprets the idea of eyeballs being torn from their sockets as symbolically relating to a castration complex. David Toop, in his book Sinister Resonance (the title taken from a Henry Cowell piece, played on the strings inside the body of the piano), subjects the story to a thorough sonic scrutiny, showing how sounds without identifiable origin provide the most unsettling intimation that the known world of the heimlich has been invaded, tainted with something other. Toop adds perceptive comments and personal observations throughout the programme, the valuable insights of someone whose innate aural sensitivity has led him to a lifetime as a listener, writer and musician intently immersed in the worlds of sound.

I sense that the idea for the programme may have originated in a reading of his book, and in particular the lengthy chapter Chair Creaks, But No One Sits There. In it, Toop examines the uncanny as manifested through sound in supernatural fiction. He writes about Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, with its full dynamic range building up from the microsounds of busy scrabbling and half-heard whispers to an unbearable, deafening pounding; Charles Dickens’ Chimes: A Goblin Story, with its empty nocturnal church as a sounding chamber for the elements; Edgar Allan Poe’s poems and stories, in particular The Tell-Tale Heart, with its regular beat pulsing to the insistent rhythms of unassuaged guilt (the murder in the story is occasioned by the narrator’s hatred of the old man’s cold, staring eye, ocular and aural terrors once more interlinked); Three MR James stories which involve sound as a principal, premonitory or summoning element – A Neighbour’s Landmark, Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book and Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You (perhaps the scariest of all ghost stories); and Algernon Blackwood’s tales of hypersensitivity to eerie sound (or ‘eary’ sound, as Toop quotes Nicholas Royle punningly describing it) A Case of Eavesdropping, The Empty House and The Listener. He notes that, given the importance of sound to the creation of the haunted atmospheres, immanent with uncanny presence, which suffuse Blackwood’s stories, it is appropriate that the psychic detective he created to confront the various supernatural manifestations which he is called upon to investigate is named John Silence.

In the programme, the emphasis is laid more on film than on literature, a concession to a predominantly visual oriented culture, which is a bias the book sets out to counterbalance. Toop talks about the way in which horror films often begin with an anomalous sound, an indication of the presence of something which shouldn’t be there, presaging the onset of a disruptive force. He writes of the powerful use of sound in Robert Wise’s 1963 film of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting, and the bungling of the 1999 remake, with its explicit visual manifestation of the uncanny, entirely withheld by Wise and Jackson, through banally emphatic cgi. He also cites The Innocents, Jack Clayton’s 1961 adaptation of Henry James’ novella, in which a piano is played by an invisible hand in an empty room, with whispering voices and spectral mocking laughter assailing the troubled protagonist. The sound design here was carefully fashioned by Daphne Oram, one of the founders of the Radiophonic Workshop. Here on the radio, Toop is content to make use of a more familiar example, Hitchcock’s Psycho, in order that the shrieking strings of Bernard Herrmann’s score can be played. These alarming stabs are perhaps the best known and certainly amongst the most effective musical expressions of sudden terror. Toop keeps out of the shower, however, and instead refers to the scene in which Martin Balsam’s detective slowly climbs the stairs in the old house before being attacked by Norman’s ‘mother’. Marcus Leadley, a sound researcher, identifies high and low end sounds as being the most effective in inducing fear, with deep rumbling undertones building a sense of undefined, amorphous dread and an anticipation of impending terror, whose eventual emergence may be signified by the sudden leap into the upper register – the harsh, treble pitch of the scream. Both ends of the spectrum affect the body physically, sounds passing through flesh and bone to be felt viscerally.

There are some fascinating insights into the physical origins of human fear impulses revealed by the neuroscientist Sophie Scott. It is the old attic rooms of the brain which deal with fear; the amygdala, part of the ancient lizard core. This is also the centre from which anger and rage radiate. Most fear triggers and responses appear to be innate, a basic set of emotions which are universal across cultures and even across species. The sounds which convey disgust, terror or sudden shock remain essentially the same across the animal kingdom. As Mark Cousins observed in his Story of Film series (when talking about the advent of the horror movie), no emotion affects us more directly or primally than fear. Toop talks of sound being apprehended on an instantaneous and instinctive level before rational understanding has the time to process the information (or before the imagination toys with it). He cites a personal example of having heard a ‘cartoon monkey chant’ like that of the Balinese Kecak chorus in the middle of the night. It was only upon further bleary investigation that he divined its true origins to lie in a fight between two London foxes. The prosaic dispelled the exotic creations of an aurally stimulated mind, unknown sounds sparking personal associations and dream images.

Louis Niebur, a professor of musicology at the University of Nevada and author of the book Special Sound: The Creation and Legacy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop is on hand to talk about the otherworldly quality which much electronic music used to possess (and continues to in some quarters). He points to this stemming from the sounds having no identifiable grounding in the world of physical materiality. Their origins are thus open to imaginative interpretation, and the imagination tends to approach the unknown with a certain amount of trepidation, if not outright fear. The media history professor David Hendy talks about the early days of radio, with its disembodied voices carried across the airwaves. Its development coincided with the post war period in which there was a widespread need to believe in a continuity of being beyond death, so many bodies having disappeared without trace beneath the mud of the Western European battlefields. Sir Oliver Lodge, a pioneer of early radio invention and discovery, about whom Hendy has written, was also a keen believer in psychic phenomena, and was president of The Society for Psychical Research from 1901-1903, and a member, alongside Arthur Conan Doyle, of the Ghost Club. As well as numerous scientific works with titles like The Ether of Space and Life and Matter, he also wrote about spiritualism. In particular, he detailed the contacts he believed he had made with his son Raymond, killed in the war, through various mediums in the heartbreaking book Raymond, or Life and Death (1916). Perhaps he heard the voices of the dead in the sea of static and the aetheric wind whistling between stations, the aural equivalent of pattern recognition which leads us to see a face on the moon or in the grain of a wooden table surface. David Toop also writes about Electronic Voice Production, which pseudo-scientifically holds out he hope that the voices of the dead can be captured on tape. Californian author Tim Powers literalises this figure of speech in his novel Expiration Date, in which ghosts are captured by an elaboration of Edison’s early recording equipment (Edison’s ghost is itself a character in the story) by the predatory living who consume their essence in an attempt to achieve immortality. Toop talks about the impermanent nature of sound, its short-lived existence in time, as imbuing it with an inherent sense of loss, of disappearance and fading memory, and ultimately of death. This leads to the idea that the ultimate sound of fear is in fact the absence of sound. The well-known anecdote about John Cage’s 1951 visit to an anechoic chamber, a room which eliminates all sound, is retold. As all external sound was removed, Cage expected to experience total silence. Instead he heard a high pitched whine and a low, steady hum. When he asked about these sounds, he was told that he was listening to his nervous system and the circulation of his blood. The true sound of silence is the sound of death. Life is sound, so lend an ear and make a merry clangour.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Murray Melvin, The Theatre Workshop and the Theatre Royal, Stratford

We traversed a great deal of ground during the course of this year’s Open House London weekend, from the starkly forbidding concrete canyon of Alexander Terrace in Camden to the cooler modernism and statesmanlike halls of the RIBA building in Fitzrovia; the ultra-modern foldaway one-room cupboard for living of the Lux Pod in Chelsea to the Victorian College of Psychic Studies in South Kensington, once presided over by Arthur Conan Doyle; the London Library in Picadilly, with its vertiginous floor to ceiling shelves interleaved with iron grille walkways, allowing you to see the book-lined precipice above and below to the medieval stone arch of St.John’s Gate, inserted into the narrow 18th century streets of Clerkenwell, and the twelfth century crypt of the Knights Hospitaller’s church over the road; and to the wide rectangular expanse of the Victoria Docks in Newham, which we circumnavigated in the community boat the River Princess, crewed by a disparate parcel of friendly and likeable rogues, from whose decks we could survey the surrounding Ballardian terrain, with its isolated apartment blocks and hangar-like arenas, airport runway abutting directly upon the dock basin and the looming white-walled ruin of the Millenium Mills and its attendant silos.

But the culmination of the weekend was a visit to the Theatre Royal, Straford. We had to fight our way through the milling hordes making their pilgrimage to or pouring out of the new Westfield shopping centre, corporate gateway into the Olympic park and village and genuine ‘retail destination’, positioned to funnel passengers pouring out of the termini of rail, docklands railway, underground and overground and bus route directly into its marbled naves and aisles. As one woman excitedly announced on her phone on the overground on the way back, the crowds were so huge that there was a ‘one in one out’ policy in operation, a form of martial law imposed by the security who are the law in such privately owned enclaves of the city. The theatre and its surrounding companions the Picture House and Stratford Circus performing arts venue can’t compete in terms of scale (or monumental advertising hoardings) to such a temple of consumerism, but it can offer an alternative place to congregate. Set back in the square named after the man who did so much to preserve the theatre in the face of rapacious developers, Gerry Raffles, it’s somewhere in which to find a certain distance from the frenzied busyness of transport cross-connections, the all-engulfing mall and the general ‘regeneration’ of the area.

The Theatre Royal is indelibly associated with Joan Littlewood and Gerry Raffles’ Theatre Workshop company, about which I’ve written in a previous post. We were there both to see the site of many productions which have now become the stuff of legend, and to hear a talk by one of the key members of the Workshop company, Murray Melvin. Melvin is now the Theatre archivist, a role which he assiduously carries out on an entirely voluntary basis. As he told us, this is his way of saying thank you to Littlewood for giving him such an invaluable education, the Workshop having been his university, and also akin to a family. Littlewood was not the sort to accept directly expressed gratitude. As Murray impishly pointed out, ‘if you thanked her, she’d sack you’. Murray’s hard work can be seen throughout the theatre in the many wonderful pictures of Workshop productions which adorn the walls. There’s Harry H Corbett in Richard II, Richard Harris building a wall onstage in the Lord Chamberlain vexing You Won’t Always Be On Top, Barbara Windsor in Sparrers Can’t Sing and Fings Ain’t What They Used to Be, and there’s Murray himself in A Taste of Honey, The Hostage and donning the pierrot costume for Oh What A Lovely War. Many of these photos are from the Spinner collection. As Murray points out in recorded on the occasion of an exhibition of photographs at the National Theatre of the Workshop productions, collected in a book which he edited, John Spinner was a local Walthamstow boy who shared in his father’s enthusiasm for amateur photography. He became entranced by the Workshop’s performances and began to record them, becoming a semi-official documenter (much about the Workshop was semi-official, with funds always low or non-existent) when Gerry Raffles agreed to pay for the costs of his material. Murray suggested to him that his collection could be taken into the archive, where it would be sorted, catalogued and properly exhibited, shortly before his death, and he has remained true to his word. It’s a good example of the way in which the Theatre Workshop engaged with the local community and encouraged the development of nascent enthusiasm and talent. The Workshop is also memorialised in the new area to the right of the entrance corridor, which has been christened the Avis foyer in affectionate tribute to Avis Bunnage, one of the Workshop family’s most long-standing and dedicated members. You can see the busty costume she wore in Oh What A Lovely War to send the boys off to the front with the promiscuous promise of her I’ll Make A Man of You recruitment song. There are also designs for dresses and costumes from this landmark play, and a picture of Avis as Marie Lloyd in the Marie Lloyd story, a performance which provided the enduring pleasures of the old music hall songs but also unveiled the tragedy of the life which lay behind the limelit mask of indefatigable good cheer and bawdy ribaldry.

The Marie Lloyd Story was a fairly late production in the Workshop’s history, staged in 1967, and seemed to be an attempt to reach back into the theatrical past of which the Theatre Royal was a part (perhaps inspired by the end of Gerry Raffles’ lengthy struggle to buy up the Freehold for the land in which it stood, thus seemingly insuring its future). Murray Melvin took us back to its origins in the late Victorian age. Theatrical troupes often performed at temporary sites or ‘fit-ups’, setting up wherever they felt they might attract a good crowd. One such band of wandering players was the company of Frederick Fredericks (son, wouldn’t you know, of Frederick Fredericks snr.). An actor in his company, Charles Dillon, decided to try and create a more permanent base for performance, thus presaging the Theatre Workshop’s decision some 70 years later to settle down after many year’s travelling around the country. Dillon’s application for a license met with strident opposition from the local clergy, in particular one Reverend RP Pelly, who felt that ‘a theatre would not tend to the moral devotion of the people of the neighbourhood’. He was also concerned for the corrupting effect that theatre (and presumably theatrical folk) might have on the inhabitants of the local Home for Respectable Gentlewomen. As Murray wryly observed, there is unfortunately no record of what the gentlewomen themselves felt about the prospect of this new venture. The theatre opened, in spite of the good reverend’s objections, on Wednesday 17th December, 1884, with a production of Lord Bulwer Lytton’s popular and well-known play Richelieu, or The Conspiracy. The building itself was converted from an old, barn-like wheelwright’s shop, its outer shell essentially retained in its original form, with the front wall intact to this day.

Dillon, whilst he was a seriously-minded and committed actor, proved to be a less than inspired manager when it came to the financial side of running a theatre. It soon passed into the hands of Frederick Frederick’s brother Albert (who happened to be married to Dillon’s sister), a successful coal merchant who had a far sharper sense of business acumen. It was to remain in the hands of the Fredericks family for the next 50 years, and as Mr Melvin pointed out, the double F above the proscenium arch remains as a testament to their central role in the creation and development of the theatre. Albert Fredericks put on a more populist programme than Dillon’s traditional theatrical fare, with plenty of full-blooded melodramas. He also had an eye for innovations and novelties, and staged several dioramas, moving image precursors to the cinema in which lengthy panoramas were unwound before the audience’s eyes, with an impression of life and movement created by lighting pinpointing particular areas from before or behind the semi-translucent screen. A particular masterstroke was the introduction of opera in the 1889-90 season. This proved a huge success with local audiences, which goes to show what a popular form of music Italian and light opera used to be. As a result of this success, he was able to make some improvements to the theatre, buying up some of the surrounding land, shops and houses. Murray stepped towards the middle of the stage (set up for a performance of A Clockwork Orange, with added seating to the rear) and spread his arms out to indicate where the back wall used to be, demonstrating how far the theatre had been extended, increasing the depth of the stage from 18 feet to 38 feet. The new bar to the side of the building (added after inevitable mumblings from the Temperance Society) was built on the site of the old Angel Lane fish shop, and a stretch of mosaic tiling can still be seen delineating a portion of its floor plan. After electricity was installed in 1902, along with a new box-office and panel mirror (now installed in the lobby), the theatre, now under the ownership of Albert Frederick’s niece Caroline, offered new delights such as local variety acts, and projections of bioscope pictures were inserted into the usual bill of popular plays.

The story of the theatre after the First World War is one of steady decline, however. Fires, local and national economic depression, closure during the Second World War, and failed attempts at variety and saucy revue shows all took their toll. There was still the occasional highlight. In 1950, the aptly named Tod Slaughter, a veteran Grand Guignol ham who invariably played bloodthirsty gaslight murderers in the Sweeny Todd mould with gleeful violence, starred in Spring-Heeled Jack, The Terror of Epping Forest, a performance which was broadcast by the BBC. However, when Gerry Raffles booked the Theatre Workshop in for a week towards the end of 1950 for their production of Alice in Wonderland, the building was in a shabby, rundown state, and things hadn’t improved by the time they returned in 1953 for a temporary 6 week residency which gradually settled into a more permanent arrangement. Murray Melvin joined 4 years later in 1957, Workshop productions of Edward II and Richard II having made a deep impression on him. Harry H Corbett’s Richard was his finest hour, according to Joan Littlewood and others who saw him in the role. After years of studying in evening classes at the City Lit Institute, Melvin was able to quit his job as a shipping clerk when he received a grant to study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. But, in one of those instinctive moves, seeming irrational and foolish to others, which fundamentally change the course of your life, he rejected his place. Instead, he approached Gerry Raffles and proposed that he join the Workshop as a student, and was welcomed in to the family. His grant became his payment. All of the regular members of the Workshop lived in a semi-communal fashion in the theatre, which they patched up, repaired and decorated to the best of their abilities, making the most of the paltry funds which they amassed. They undertook all manner of tasks in addition to rehearsing and ploughing through the considerable amount of background study which Joan Littlewood insisted upon for each play. Young Murray was immediately set to work painting the front of the building, followed up by the foyer, and recalled with a barely concealed shiver how everyone was constantly attempting to coax the antediluvian basement heater into life. He told us that when the Workshop actors found out which parts they were to play, they would immediately see who was on in the first scene. The heating was turned on an hour before a performance to warm up the auditorium, and they knew that when the curtain went up, the audience would emit a collective shudder at the blast of icy air which would roll over them. Not a sound to boost an actor’s confidence at the start of a performance.

Murray’s apprenticeship was to be short-lived, however. In 1958, he was cast in two substantial roles which would afford him great critical acclaim in plays by two new writers who gained considerable attention, both for their work and as figures of interest in themselves: the Salford teenager Shelagh Delaney and the rambunctious Irish force of nature Brendan Behan. He was Geoffrey in Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, and the young English soldier in Behan’s The Hostage. His readiness to muck in with the Workshop family may have gone a good way towards helping in gaining him his first significant roles. As Joan Littlewood recalls in her anecdotal autobiography Joan’s Book, ‘Murray Melvin, who had been given a Co-op grant to study with us, was always making tea, tidying the green room, taking care of us – Geoffrey to the life – he got the part’. And it was a part which he would take on to a successful run at the Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End and, of course, to the 1962 Tony Richardson film version, alongside Rita Tushingham and Dora Bryan (Francis Cuka and Avis Bunnage didn’t make the transition from stage to screen). As he says in the National Theatre podcast, he swiftly graduated from a ‘dogsbody in 1957’ to a feted actor. ‘Wasn’t I a lucky lad’, he comments.

Murray and Rita - A Taste of Honey
Both A Taste of Honey and The Hostage demonstrated the Workshop’s concern for uncovering and nurturing new talent, whether it was on the writing or acting side. Delaney and Behan’s scripts were used as a starting point for the development of the performance, with extensive improvisations within the cast and discussions with writer and director producing a collaborative work, which was never considered a final version. The performance was always open to further revisions and rethinks, even during the course of its run. Some writers, such as Delaney and Behan, enjoyed such an active interaction with those who would be bringing their characters and situation to life (and Behan used to add his own on interjections, amendments and ad hoc interventions from the audience during his own plays). Others didn’t take so kindly to what they saw as a dilution of their original text, or a co-option of their authorial voice. Wolf Mankovitz, whose Make Me An Offer was produced in 1959, and Frank Norman, whose Fings Ain’t What They Used To Be was also performed in that year, both had difficulties with this way of doing things.

But as Melvin points out in the National Theatre interview, the Theatre Workshop wasn’t a writer’s theatre, like the Royal Court, in which the text was sacred. All elements of the performance were afforded equal import, with the creation of a genuinely engaging theatrical experience the ultimate aim. The way in which an actor moved was given particular consideration, with the ex-ballet dancer Rudolf Laban's theories being a great influence. The conscious control of movement helped to define the character and the way in which they inhabited their environment, and even their speech inflections and tone, and this was very much a part of the Workshop’s creative process. As Murray poetically put it, it was like ‘dancing the speech’. For Geoffrey in A Taste of Honey, he was ‘light and airy’, whereas for the soldier in The Hostage he was ‘down and solid’, his voice lowering in accordance with his physical movements. Joan Littlewood helped him to achieve this heaviness of movement by attaching chains to the bottoms of his trousers in rehearsals. Background study was also an intensive part of the preparation for a performance, with knowledge of a particular milieu or historical period considered vital for expressing the authentic feel of a work. The script of Oh What A Lovely War, published by Methuen, contains an appendix with an extensive reading list of what is referred to as source material for the play. This study might extend to learning new physical skills, such as World War One military drills for Oh What A Lovely War, or bricklaying for You Won’t Always Be On Top, a play set on a building site during the course of which a wall was gradually built up on stage. But all this wasn’t in the name of realism. Melvin is adamant that naturalism was never the aim of Joan Littlewood’s Workshop productions, which always had a strong theatrical element. There was always an acknowledgement that this was a performance, and one which needed to involve the audience, to draw them in to the action on the stage. They never ventured far into the kitchen sink territory so prevalent in the mid to late 50s. In A Taste of Honey, which might be thought to inhabit that territory, particularly in the light of the film version, the characters all had their theme tunes, which they would enter and exit to, sometimes dancing. When Avis Bunnage’s Helen finds herself alone on stage, with her daughter off in another room, she turns to the audience and addresses them instead, as if taking them into her confidence.

Vaudeville and music hall elements were often a part of these physical performances, which also seemed to acknowledge the history of the building in which they were enacted. There was also a healthy dose of cheerful vulgarity (something which made the Lord Chamberlain, still the official theatrical censor at this time, get twitchy) and humour which stuck two fingers up to authority. It’s fitting that a significant number of Workshop performers went on to become well known in film and television comedy: Barbara Windsor, Harry H Corbett, Victor Spinetti, Roy Kinnear, Brian Murphy and Yootha Joyce (George and Mildred, of course). All of these really came to the fore in Oh What A Lovely War in 1963, which was a perfect piece for the building, drawing on the kind of popular songs which might once have echoed around its walls, and looking at the First World War from the perspective of the ordinary soldiers who were largely drawn from the kind of working people who came to the Stratford Theatre in the Edwardian era. The screens upon which photographs and statistics detailing the terrible facts of the war projected also recall the dioramas and bioscope screens from the days of the Fredericks family. There’s a sensitivity to place in this and other Workshop productions, whether that be to the character of the surrounding area or to the atmosphere of the building and its accumulation of past entertainments, faintly echoing down the decades. Oh What A Lovely War was framed as a pierrot show, as performed by the Merry Roosters, with rough khaki being donned over the white silks as the play progressed. Murray was one of the pierrot players, alongside the likes of Brian Murphy, Victor Spinetti, Grifitth Davies and John Gower. The songs are very affecting, sometimes bitterly ironic, sometimes strangely tender.

Joan amongst the rubble - but the Theatre still stands
Murray emphasised how important it had always been to make the audience feel welcome, to feel that the theatre was their own. They would be greeted as they came in, and possibly even before, as they approached the building. Members of the cast were also encouraged to go down to the bar after a performance, where Gerry Raffles was also likely to be found, and talk with the audience, thanking them for coming. He continues to evince impeccable old school manners to this day, and we were made to feel very much at home. Welcoming us all, he asked if we had all been to the theatre before. Only Mrs W and I hadn’t, so he pronounced us doubly welcome. He asked us what had made us come along, and I mentioned having seen the film of Sparrows Can’t Sing and read up about the Workshop as a consequence. ‘Oh, well done’, he replied, before making sure I knew that Sparrers Can’t Sing (as the stage version was called) had first been performed here. I subsequently read in Joan’s Book that he was none too keen on the film version (which I like), but of course he was far too polite and accommodating to say that here. He still clearly has an enormous affection for both Joan Littlewood and Gerry Raffles, whilst not in any way sentimentalising them. He does believe that theirs was one of the great romances, however, and it’s clear that when Raffles died suddenly of a heart attack on 11th April 1975 at the age of 51, she was left utterly devastated, and effectively left the theatre for good. Murray sounded quite emotional when he said that they all still raise a glass to his memory on that day, and he always sheds a tear. But the legacy of the Workshop lives on, particularly in the work that the theatre does with young people from the area. We were ushered in by one immaculately stylish young man who has joined the theatre as a result of one of these programmes, in much the same way that Murray himself did all those years ago. He is closely involved with these youth programmes, and you can be sure that he inculcates these young aspirants with the ethos and spirit of Joan and Gerry. And for my part, that sense of being welcomed and made to feel that the Stratford Theatre was a place to feel at home means that I will surely return in the future.

If you want to find out more, you can’t go wrong with Murray’s own short book The Theatre Royal: A History of the Building (yours for a measly fiver), and also the book of Theatre Workshop photos which he edited (The Art of the Theatre Workshop). For those of you living in Devon, there are a number of books in the library system (all at Exeter, but you can get them out through the inter-library loan system). Michael Coren’s Theatre Royal: 100 Years of Stratford East covers the history from Charles Dillon to the era after Gerry Raffles’ death and Joan Littlewood’s departure. The Theatre Workshop Story by Howard Goorney follows the Workshop from the travelling days with Joan and Jimmie Miller (later Ewan MacColl) in the 30s and 40s through to the Stratford years. Nadine Holdsworth’s Joan Littlewood looks at her life and her working methods, and includes a detailed analysis of Oh What A Lovely War. Joan's Book, Littlewood’s autobiography, is a thoroughly readable and conversational take on her life and work. There’s also the CD issue (on the bizarrely named Must Close Saturday label) of the original cast recording of Oh What A Lovely War in the Performing Arts Library, as well as the Methuen published play script (only an approximation of the performance, obviously, as above comments have made clear), so you can sing along to such old favourites as Belgium Put the Kibosh on the Kaiser, Hold Your Hand Out Naughty Boy, I’ll Make a Man of You, Hush Here Comes a Whizzbang, When This Lousy War Is Over, I Want to Go Home and I Don’t Want to be a Soldier. With this year’s Armistice Day falling on the 11/11/11, it seems like a propitious time to resurrect the old songs once more and gain a sense of the tenor of those terrible years.


Thursday, 6 October 2011

Daphne Oram at the Science Museum

It was quite a thrill to see the Oramics machine enshrined in its glass display case up in the hushed surrounds of the second floor of the Science Museum in London. It seemed like a long overdue official recognition of Daphne Oram’s restless, exploratory spirit, a validation of her unending search, not just for a new form of music but for a new, accessible and democratic way of creating it. The technology didn’t exist to realise the ideas she had long nurtured of creating sound from drawn pattern (reversing the manner in which and oscilloscope screen projected the shapes of the sounds produced by oscillators) so she and her engineering friend Graham Wrench devised and built it themselves. This pioneering spirit, the creation of the mechanical means to translate the ideal into the material, makes them worthy inhabitants of these halls hallowed to the progress of human rationality. However, Dan Wilson’s recent article on Daphne in the Wire magazine, outlining her interest in occult and new age philosophies, suggests that her presence here may have a heretical edge. She was no mere dry rationalist, and was open to intuitive forces and inspirations, all of which gave her work an emotional resonance beyond the sound-by-numbers of some electronic music. Indeed, as Wilson points out in his article, Oram was keen to pursue the idea of using Oramics in a therapeutic sense, nurturing mental health through sound and music rather than regulating it with pharmaceuticals.

The central principle of Oramics was that of drawn sound, of imagining music visually. A similar idea had been realised in Russia with the ANS synthesiser, which the composer Eduard Artemyev used for the soundtrack of Andrei Tarkovky’s film Solaris in 1972. The machine itself is a classic piece of English garden shed Heath Robinsonry. The main body rests within a frame of meccanoesque metal struts, and contains the main scanner and the ten loops of film strips which passed over it. These strips set up the various basic parameters of the sound (pitch, reverb, vibrato, envelope, amplitude) which could be further refined at a later stage. The patterns interrupt the light source and therefore vary the voltage output, which is sent on to various oscillators and filters. As has been pointed out, this is, in monumental form, remarkably similar to the computer music systems such as Cubase, with their graphic user interfaces via which the waveform and its various parameters can be manipulated in an intuitive fashion. Indeed, the parameter controls of the Oramics machine are digital, using an on/off language, and as such are remarkably prescient. The signal from the scanner is sent to a separate component of the machinery, a light box fashioned from an old wooden commode (a small table and cupboard). It has to be said that the rather ramshackle nature of the Oramics machinery favours practicality over any aesthetically pleasing dimension. Perhaps future incarnations might have refined the design aspect a little. This was always something of a prototype. The commode contains a number of cathode ray tubes and oscillators. A series of shapes on glass slides can be slotted in to mask the light output and further modify the sound. Eventually, the whole is sent on to a multi-track recorder connected to speakers, and the sound output can be tweaked and toyed with from thereon in. There’s an interactive screen to the side of the Oramics machine itself which allows you to gain an impression of the way that the layering of drawn patterns could be used to shape music in real time. You can manipulate your own fat, wormy waveforms on virtual film strips, creating your own particular sound.

Like many true pioneers, Oram suffered from a good deal of neglect in her own lifetime. Jo Hutton, in her talk for the Wire Salon at Café Oto earlier in the year, talked about Daphne’s sense of resentment about being effectively written out of the history of the Radiophonic Workshop. She felt that she had been sidelined by Desmond Briscoe in his book 1983 book The Radiophonic Workshop: The First 25 Years, in which it is Douglas Cleverdon who is credited as being the ‘prime mover’ for its creation, sharing the honours with Briscoe himself. Daphne fails to get a mention in the ‘Personages of Much Importance’ chapter, which allowed others to step out from the Workshop’s institutional anonymity. The BBC4 documentary on the Radiophonic Workshop broadcast a few years ago also gave Oram short shrift. This was particularly galling, since it was through her tireless efforts and refusal to take no for an answer that the Workshop was finally set up in 1958, with herself as its first studio manager. The Francis Bacon quote from The New Atlantis (‘wee also have sound-houses), which has become so inextricably associated with the Workshop, was Dapne’s discovery, and it was she who posted it on the door in the early days. She was arguably the first person to make what came to be known as radiophonic music, since it was her striking sounds for Frederick Bradnum’s ‘radiophonic poem’ Private Dreams and Public Nightmares, broadcast in October 1957, which heralded the first use of the word. This poem was written specifically with sound in mind. So, the scripted lines ‘I fall through nothing/Vast empty space/Still falling, falling/But slower now’ are paralleled by sound descriptions; ‘A comet-like shriek/acoustic change/pulsating beat/descending scale/a developed sound like a cry’.

The Workshop was attached to the drama rather than the music department because Oram was well aware, through her own frustrating experiences, of the latter’s fusty conservatism. She had been hugely inspired by a visit to the 1958 Brussels Worlds Fair at which she experienced Varese’s Poeme Electronique blasting out of the 400 speakers around the Philips Pavilion designed by le Corbusier and Iannis Xenakis. Other composers of electronic music such as Stockhausen, Herbert Eimert, Henri Pousseur and Pierre Schaeffer, all of who were working out of the well-equipped radio studios of Paris and Cologne, were also a big influence. When Jo Hutton was going through Oram’s papers and recordings after her death, she talked of finding one box marked Gesang der Junglinge, which turned out to be Stockhausen’s classic piece of musique concrete subjected to her own variations (added reverb and reversed sections etc.). As Hutton pointed out, this was effectively an early example of a remix. Daphne wasn’t working in Cologne or Paris in the late 50s, however, and had to gather equipment together from various sources after a long day’s work as a sound balancer and studio manager in order to pursue her own late night, out of hours experiments in electronic and musique concrete composition. Having set it up and established it on a firm footing, she left the Workshop after only a year, in 1959. This wasn’t out of any bitterness or disappointment at its direction. She wanted to explore her own musical ideas more fully, and these exceeded the compass of the Workshop’s remit of producing sound for the needs of specific programming. It was a general policy at this early stage to regularly move people on after a period of months anyway, since it was felt that prolonged exposure to these new sounds and intense involvement in their production could result in mental imbalance. And Daphne had been at the BBC for 16 years by this stage, having first joined in 1943. The exhibition does something to redress the balance when it comes to her position in this most iconic of British electronic music institutions. This is partly through its very conception, prominently positioning Oram as a prime force in the development of British electronic music, but it also provides a touch screen biographical and historical post which makes her formative contribution clear.

There is another display case which contains some of the equipment which might have been used in those early days: a Ferrograph tape recorder from 1960 in its handy carrying case; a Bib ¼” tape splicing block; and a Leland oscillator. This latter was an ex-RAF bit of equipment, which is indicative of the way in which so much of the technology scavenged and bolted together by the Radiophonic Workshop and other electronic composers derived from bits and pieces used (and discarded) by the military. Graham Wrench, who built the Oramics machine with Daphne, was himself an ex-RAF engineer. Also in this cabinet is Daphne Oram’s 1962 7” record Electronic Sound Patterns, no.3 in a the Listen, Move and Dance series designed for use in school music and movement classes. Here’s what the sleeve notes say: ‘Teachers seeking original material have found this new approach exciting and stimulating in their creative work for music, movement and drama. The Sound patterns are intended for children to enjoy and may lead them into movement of dance-like character, or involve them in imaginative situations. People who are interested in sound production may like to know that these sound patterns were created by Daphne Oram at her Electronic Studio in Kent. By using audio generators, many tape recorders, filters, ring modulators and other electronic devices she built up the tone colours, pitched each of the notes separately, gave them duration and dynamics and finally spliced the notes together to obtain the required rhythms and sequences’. The language is very Oramic – the politely non-committal way in which she says ‘people who are interested…may like to know’. This is reminiscent of her introduction to Oramics on the first track of the CD of that name, in which, after music of intoxicating atmosphere and alien tonality, she says ‘I’d rather like to introduce you to the many varied sounds which are produced by the studio’. You can see her talk about her work on Oramics on a BBC programme called The Same Trade As Mozart at the exhibition, and enjoy the richness of her beautifully modulated RP tones, resonantly English (of a certain variety) with its rathers, frightfullys and terriblys. The seeming conservatism of this outwardly decorous middle-class lady (often depicted in early photos wearing tweedy twin-sets and floral blouses) somehow makes the radicalism of her music and ideas all the more exciting. This wasn’t the product of some bohemian milieu into which she was born, but the pursuit of a real, individual and wilful passion. As she said in a soundclip played at the Wire Salon, it was all ‘frightfully exciting. I was terribly thrilled by it all. I wish the pioneer days could have gone on forever and ever’.

After leaving the Radiophonic Workshop, she moved to and oasthouse in Kent, where she set up her studio, and where the Oramics machine and process slowly began to take shape. It makes for a marvellously incongruous collision of the traditionally rustic with the futurologically minded and technologically adventurous. It’s like a rather more welcoming and less grimly gothic version of Frankenstein setting up his crackling electrical coils and capacitors in an old castle in James Whales’ 1931 film. I think also of Nigel Kneale’s 1972 TV play The Stone Tape, in which banks of electronic recording equipment are delivered to and installed in an old mansion house. The scientists who used them were an aggressive and invasive presence, however. I would think that Daphne inhabited her historical space with a great deal more sensitivity, and was more alive to its temporal resonance. The round tower and conical roof of the oasthouse give it the romantic aspect of a domesticated Northern European castle. In fact, its architectural form had a more practical function as a place to dry out the harvest of the local Kent hop fields. Perhaps appropriately, the Oramics machine does somewhat resemble a strange kind of loom, with all those parallel threads of film shuttling round and round, joining together all the separate elements of sound. As a hand built piece of technologised craft machinery, maybe it’s not so very much out of place in an old Kentish farmhouse after all.

The music which came out of this old crop-drying silo and drifted over the fields included pieces for ballet (Bird of Parallax, 1972), science fiction theatre (Fred Hoyle’s Rockets to Ursa Major, 1962), film (The Innocents, 1961), exhibitions (Pulse Persephone for the 1965 Treasures from the Commonwealth exhibition), multi-media installations (Episode Metallic for Andrew Bobrowski’s mobile sculptre installed in the lobby of Mallard House, London in 1965), documentary (Snow, a 1963 British Transport Films short by Geoffrey Jones), and adverts (Kia Ora, Lego and a Tumblewash washing machine). All this in addition to (or rather as a means towards enabling) her attempts to promote the Oramics system and incorporate it into concert works. Many of these are included on the excellent 2CD Oramics compilation on Paradigm Discs. As it did for so many, money ran short in the 70s however, and the Oramics machine fell into disuse. As you can see in this short film, when it finally saw the light again after many years in storage, it was covered in cobwebs and accumulated dust. No better metaphor could be offered for the neglect and disregard into which Daphne’s work had fallen. But thankfully, the cobwebs have been brushed away and the ingrained grime washed off, and Oram’s legacy can be appreciated in all its wayward and inspiring glory. Excitingly, there are also a number of purposefully empty cases and spaces, all awaiting further elements of the exhibition to be put into place. This will mean that the Oramics machine and Daphne’s musical ideas as a whole won’t simply be presented as the exploration of a technological dead end by an isolated eccentric. They will be given their proper place in the context of the development of a particularly British electronic music vernacular, often achieved against the odds and with an ingenious use of randomly available materials. Never mind musique concrete, the instruments here were frequently found objects in themselves. The Oramics to Electronica: Revealing Histories of Electronic Music exhibition will be fully opened sometime in October, and will involve the input of those who were there, and of modern electronic musicians. Already there’s been a meeting of museum staff with Dick Mills, Roger Limb and Steve Marshall of the Radiophonic Workshop and Peter Zinovieff and Alan Sutcliffe of Electronic Music Studio (producers of the EMS synths used by the Workshop in the late 60s and early 70s). And what will appear in those empty cases? I shall have to return and see.

Monday, 3 October 2011

The Worlds of Mervyn Peake at the British Library

The Worlds of Mervyn Peake exhibition at the British Library drew on their recent acquisition of the Peake archive to provide a portrait of the writer, artist, poet and playwright in all his imaginative prolixity. It took us through his life and work by creating a series of discreet biographical boundaries and geographical divisions (geographies both real and imaginary – although the borders between the two are sometimes ill-drawn). Reducing a life to such a neatly compartmentalised form obviously ignores its complexities and continuations, but it serves for an exhibition constrained by space and helps to illustrate how Mervyn’s experiences fed into his work, and how his work shaped his experience, his way of seeing things. Gormenghast is the thread which is traced through all the stages of his life – an entire world within a vast, self-contained edifice of crumbling stone, a construction of the mind built up from the imaginatively transformed materials of experience, be it direct or artistic.

The first section took us to China where Mervyn was born and spent much of his childhood. His father, Dr Ernest Peake, a missionary doctor, wrote a memoir of his time in China, which remains unpublished. We saw it here, open to a page in which details his arrival in the heart of China, and his nervousness as to how he would be received in a territory still largely closed off to foreigners. Mervyn’s own notes for sketches, notes and idea lists for his own memories of his time in the country, written much later in his life, were also included, with the tentative title ‘Chinese Puzzle’, suggesting the degree to which these early experiences continued to haunt his imagination and memory. The earliest known story which Mervyn wrote, The White Chief of the Umzimbooboo Kaffirs, which he started when he was in China, was here in all its immaculate joined up handwriting and relaxed spelling and grammar (spelling was never his strong point, apparently). We also got to see a copy of the London Missionary Society’s paper News From Afar, which contains Mervyn’s first published piece (although he had had a letter printed in a previous issue) called Ways of Travelling, which he illustrates with small pictures of various modes of transport he’d seen in China. These both showed that he his creative impulses were evident from an early age. Dr Peake’s photographs of the Spirit Way to the Eastern Imperial Tombs, with their great, paired statues of noble beasts lining a rough road through an otherwise featureless, rubble-strewn plain would seem to have a definite bearing on the Hall of Bright Carvings in Titus Groan, the first room in Gormenghast into which we zoom after the long and medium shots describing the exterior of the castle and its details. Some of Peake’s notes for a putative 50s stage adaptation of Gormenghast were included here, written in a more individual and freely flowing hand, and adorned with his sketch of the Hall’s indifferent curator, Rotcodd, dozing in his hammock, slung between two of the exquisite sculptures (which you can see on page 8 of the new illustrated Gormenghast edition).

From China we travelled to Sark, the small Channel Island to the east of Guernsey. Mervyn was, from 1933-4, part of an artists’ colony established here by his old Eltham teacher Eric Drake, and returned on many subsequent occasions. Indeed, he lived there with his wife Maeve and their children for a magical interlude between 1946 and 1949, finding it a haven within which to recover from the shocks of the war. His 1953 fable Mr Pye was set on the island, and we saw one of his notebooks with sketches for the book, one of them seemingly elucidated from the Rorschach blot of and ink stain and smudge. A poem is also included, Love Has Left Us (which I can’t find in the Collected Poems volume), which presumably comes from the post war period in which his poetry expressed feelings of self-doubt and distance akin to post-traumatic numbness. A sketch of a pirate from Captain Slaughterboard indicated the fascination which all things nautical, and in particular piratical, had for Peake throughout his life (which made him such a perfect choice to illustrate Treasure Island and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner). His 1944 book of illustrated nonsense verse Rhymes Without Reason was open here to How Mournful to Imagine, with its pensive and melancholy elephant incongruously reclining on a tropical island against a backdrop of a sky richly composed of searing oranges and yellows as it imagines the huge flaps of its ears being used ‘by pirates in some purple bay’. The elephant reclines against a palm tree, whose air of exoticness appealed to Peake. He insisted on buying one to plant outside their house on Sark, and wrote a semi-autobiographical short story, I Bought A Palm Tree, in about 1948, which we heard his son Sebastian read at a listening post (it is included on the British Library CD of readings from the miscellany Peake’s Progress, edited by Maeve after Mervyn’s death). In her introduction to the story in Peake’s Progress, Maeve records rather regretfully that the subsequent tenants chopped the tree down.

The manuscript for an unpublished and unperformed play called An Escape from 1951 was an attempt at a satirical comic dystopia, a lighter offshoot of 1984’s extrapolation of post war British and world society. The island once more becomes a place of refuge for dissidents and outcasts, as it would in the moving conclusion to Maeve Gilmore’s recently published continuation of her husband’s work and resolution of her own feelings towards him after the years of his lengthy decline, Titus Awakes. The notebook for Maeve’s memoir A World Away was displayed here, open to her description of her first visit to Mervyn’s art strewn flat in Battersea, richly and colourfully decorated and painted so that you almost failed to notice its essential squalor. ‘It was the most romantic place I’d ever been’, she writes in the notebook, a sentiment which is slightly expanded upon in the finally published version to ‘the most beautiful and the most romantic place I had been to. I can remember nothing of that first visit, except that I knew that I must and would return there’. Maeve wrote the memoir in pencil in a swift and flowing hand with no corrections (at least on this page), directly and powerfully setting down the unedited flow of vivid and painfully felt memory. Sark could be found in Gormenghast, too, or rather outside it. One of the notebooks in which Peake wrote the books was displayed, this one written in pencil and open to the chapter The Roses Were Stones (found on page 137 in the illustrated edition). This details Flay’s exile from Gormenghast, his intitially reluctant communion with nature as he becomes a wild man in the Twisted Woods. The caves he finds bored into the slopes of Gormenghast Mountain and which he makes the bedchambers of his new home are, we imagine, transposed from the shores of Sark.

From Sark we plunged back in to the literary world of London. The original self-made booklet of The Dwarf of Battersea, a mock ballad which Mervyn made for Maeve in 1937, recalls their early years in the capital when they lived at 163 Battersea Church Road. Mervyn was delighted to discover that this was opposite St Mary’s church, where William Blake had married his beloved Catherine Boucher. We saw the cover, from which the titular critter gurns out with a gap-toothed leer, and the title page, all carefully written out in his neatest cursive handwriting. It declares itself to be ‘Ye olde Ballade concerning ye yellow dwarfe of Battersea, being a true and trustworthy account of his death at ye hand of ye repulsive artist Master Mervyn Peake when defending ye gloriously beautiful and beguiling charmer Maeve in the year of Our Lord 1937’. It is, in effect, a peculiar sort of love letter. Peake’s love of the grotesque is also evident in his illustrated article London Fantasy in a copy of World Review from 1949, which was displayed here. ‘What a city for a head hunter’ he declares, his term for the delight he took in observing and sketching passers by who had interesting features. He always referred to heads rather than faces when capturing such fleeting faces on paper, and many of his most memorable characters have interestingly shaped bonces, with correspondingly expressive hair. In the article, Peake goes on to outline his interest in ‘the misfits, the loafers, the overflow’. These are the kind of people who drift down into the underground world in Titus Alone, ‘a habitation under the earth…under the river’ where we find ‘the beggars, the harlots, the cheats, the refugees, the scatterlings, the wasters, the loafers, the bohemians, the black sheep, the chaff, the poets, the riff-raff, the small fry, the misfits…the dreamers and the scum of the earth’ (Titus Alone p.132). Dylan Thomas undoubtedly fell into one or more of the above categories, and was acquainted well-enough to send a begging note to Mervyn and Maeve (principally Maeve, who he evidently felt was more receptive) which was included. Hurriedly scrawled on a scrap of paper, it read ‘My dear Maeve will you please lend me coat and trousers for a day’. Needless to say, they were never to see the suit again, and probably didn’t expect to. There’s also a letter from Larry from 1952 in which he regretful announces his rejection of plans to stage Mervyn’s play The Wit to Woo. It was part of a luvvie round which the play made, with vague promises made and hopes raised before being dashed again, a process which did much to erode Mervyn’s spirits. Sketches from his Wit to Woo notebook are made in brown ink (ink that’s faded, presumably) including Old Man Devius sitting in his elevating bed, which was intended to rise above the stage floor with the actor in it. The earliest of the books in which Peake wrote the Gormenghast books is open to its first page, which includes a sketch of the tower of flints and is dated October 3rd 1940. Rather charmingly, there is a message written in this inside cover reading ‘if found please return to..’. The address given is Warningcamp, Arundel, Sussex, the village near to Dr Peake’s house in Burpham to which Mervyn and Maeve moved in early 1940 in time for the birth of their first son, Sebastian. At the listening post, we were able to hear an extract from the 24th August 1964 BBC broadcast of the epic narrative poem The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, a myth of the Blitz and a definite inspiration for Michael Moorcock’s Mother London, one of the great novelistic hymns of praise to the city. This was a dramatic reading by Marjorie Westbury and Marius Goring, the latter familiar to me from his parts in classic Powell and Pressburger movies such as The Spy in Black, A Matter of Life and Death, and The Red Shoes. The spiky Bartokian score, with its piano, winds and restless percussion, was composed by Tristram Cary, whose music for the first Doctor Who Dalek story was heard in the same year. An excellent compilation of his music from a wide variety of sources (‘works for film, television, exhibition and sculpture’ as the subheading has it) was recently released on Trunk Records, with the title It’s Time For Tristram Cary suggesting that recognition is long overdue.

Germany effectively means the war, and although Peake was never able to fully to put his talents to use as a war artist, despite his best and continual efforts to offer his services, he did get a commission from the journal The Leader to travel over to Europe with the writer Tom Pocock and provide sketches detailing the state of Europe in the immediate aftermath of VE Day. This section had as a backdrop a blown-up picture of Mervyn sketching in front of a bombed out building in his military greatcoat. There were several pages of his letters home to Maeve, which detailed some of his experiences, including his encounters with German children who had been members of the Nazi Youth. ‘It is a new thing for me to see hatred so manifest’ he wrote, and observes in particular a ’16 year old one-legged boy with grey hair’. He sounds like the Byelorussian boy in Elem Klimov’s war film Come And See, who by the end looks like an old and wizened man with a child’s body. He illustrated Tom Pocock’s article Hitler’s Problem Children with a sketch labelled as ‘Veteran Hitler Youth’, which appeared alongside several others of German street children. He witnessed the trial and sentencing in Bad Neuenahr, of four men accused of shooting a US airman who had bailed out of his plane and landed in their village (which he had shortly before been machine-gunning). They were all condemned to hang, and Peake sketched one of them, Peter Back, in his cell. His hunched and slightly deformed figure resembles the sketched portraits he’d made of Steerpike (as you can see on pages 96, 126 and 638 of the Illustrated Gormenghast). In a letter which was on display here, he confesses that ‘however wicked the person one feels the loneliness that a condemned man must have’. Tom Pocock, in a 1978 Times article produced in the display, remembered Peter Back as being ‘a pathetic little man with a club foot’ whom Peake had reluctantly agreed to sketch, realising that it was his duty to do so. In Pocock’s eyes, Mervyn ‘was essentially the gentle bohemian, the pacific humanitarian’. The red notebook in which he pasted his poems includes The Consumptive, Belsen, which records his feelings as he sketches a dying girl in the camp, and his horror at his own detachment. In his questioning of the very purpose or point of art in the face of such obscenely industrialised eradication of life he echoes Theodor Adorno’s assertion that ‘there can be no poetry after Auschwitz’. His failure to feel sufficient empathy for the dying individuals induces feelings of guilt, and an implicit sense of complicity which would continue to haunt him (and many others) after the war. The poem has been crossed through with blue crayon, as if he had at some point wondered whether to erase it completely, and perhaps thus also erase the feelings which it attempted to articulate. The poem pasted opposite The Consumptive is The Palmerworm from 1938, one of his paeans to the prolixity of the inner worlds of the imagination which, in this juxtaposition, seems to hark back to a time of innocence forever lost. His promise not to betray the ‘last weak cough of her small, trembling head’ is realised in the sketches displayed, Girl Coughing and Dying Girl in Blanket, which are painfully intimate but, in their observation of detail, don’t rob these people of their individuality in their final moments. The large black eyes of the girl in the blanket recall the description of the abused young woman Black Rose in Titus Alone, whose ‘pupils gaped like well-heads’, and who is surely drawn from the people Peake saw in Belsen.

Gormenghast is an imaginary realm, but as we have by now realised, one which includes many elements of the real, of experience, emotion and transfigured memory. There were several of the original notebooks in which it was first written here. Most are accompanied by sketches and marginal doodles, as if Peake needed to visualise the characters and settings about which he was writing in concrete form. In a manuscript written in pencil, with several crossings out and corrections, we see a picture of Flay in the midst of a lanky-legged stride, his knees muffled by bandages (page 300 of the Illustrated Gormenghast) alongside a sketch of Sepulchrave, the Earl of Groan. In another, in ink this time, there is a sketch of the Prunesquallors with a cheeky cherub hovering above (page 544 of the Illustrated Gormenghast), and the dialogue is all indented on both sides. Another contains The Reverie of Alfred Prunesquallor (p.283 in IG), which sounds like a parody of TS Eliot’s Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, and is one of several passages of individual reverie written in the unpunctuated stream of consciousness style of the final chapters of Ulysses. Ink spattered corrections wind in from the margins and there is a sketch of who’s sitting where around the table at Titus’ first birthday breakfast (p.280, IG). In a significantly larger book, written in the now familiar faded brown ink, is a section of chapter 39 of Gormenghast featuring Barquentine (‘he had been sitting with his only leg drawn up to his face’ – p.566). In a manner which suggests that Peake’s imagination tended to be roving in all sorts of directions whilst he was writing, there are several surrounding sketches, some of Barquentine, including one of him looking out over a tower and roofscape (p.235 IG), one of a woman’s face in the margins, and a framed one of a raven. There’s also a poem written along the bottom page edge, at right angles to the main text, called The Flight in which, appropriately enough, Peake observes how ‘my mind sped/Suddenly far/From me; it ceased to be mine,/It fled’. Reactions to Gormenghast were included. Peake had sent his first draft to Graham Greene, an acquaintance who was one of the directors at the publishers Eyre and Spottiswood. Greene’s response, written on fine blue letter paper, addressed as being sent from the Reform Club (straight from the heart of the Establishment), is neatly written and pulls no punches in its harshly admonitory tone. His initial response to early extracts had been positive, but here he declares ‘I was very disappointed in a lot of it and frequently wanted to wring your neck because it seems to me you were spoiling a first class book by laziness’. Peake was taken aback by Greene’s criticism, but respected his opinion, and set to making some extensive revisions and cuts which were probably necessary and gave greater shape and form to his initial imaginative outpourings. Another letter here from 1958, some years subsequent to the publication of the first two books, was written by CS Lewis, who praises Peake in a somewhat pinched and formal style. ‘May I make as free as to tell you’, he enquires with immaculate politeness, ‘what a profound impression your Titus Groan and Gormenghast are making on me’. He goes on to make a few remarks about the eclipse of imaginative writing in the face of the kitchen sink movement towards realism in the late 50s. ‘People all seem to want a “slice of life” or a “comment on life”’, he hyphenates with evident distaste for such things. Gormenghast, on the other hand, ‘has the hallmark of a true myth’. There were tentative attempts at bringing this myth to the stage in the 50s, which never came to fruition, but we could see here a sketch which Peake made of Swelter for the project. From the BBC’s millennial attempt to bring the first two books to the small screen, there were production sketches of the castle by Christopher Hobbs, which show the influence of classical Chinese architecture which he explicitly drew upon for the adaptation.

Finally, we arrive at Titus Alone, departing from any geographical anchor. A manuscript with the opening line ‘Out of the shadows, Two Voices’ conjures up the disorienting atmospheres of the theatre of the absurd, and the sparse, decontextualised dialogue which ensues furthers this mood, and suggests an affinity with the work of Samuel Beckett, too. The manuscript includes the sketch of a mule, which engages in a savage duel with a camel early on in the story, and of Muzzlehatch, the noble headed but distant father figure of the novel whom Peake seemed to particularly like depicting. There was a 1958 letter on display from Eyre and Spottiswood, signed by ‘Maurice’ (Maurice Temple-Smith), which discusses the manuscript for Titus Alone, and expresses reservations about the introduction of a technologised tyranny. The editor suggests that ‘in general, I do think you should cut out all or nearly all the “science fiction” elements in the second half of the book’. He wanted the scientist and his death ray removed as he didn’t think they fitted in with the tone of the rest of the novel. Mervyn was too ill to put up any resistance by this stage. It had taken all his energy to finish the book in the first place. When it was published by Eyre and Spottiswood in 1959, it was in a heavily edited form, with most of the contemporary and futuristic elements excised. It wasn’t until Langdon Jones’ painstaking reconstruction for the Penguin Classics version published in 1970 that the book appeared in the form closest approximating Peake’s intentions. One of the very few pages of Titus Awakes which Mervyn wrote were here, the last glimpse of Gormenghast which he would be able to communicate before the gates slammed shut for good. It’s a skeletal fragment from which Maeve built, and which stills manages to summon such memorable lines as ‘they sang of joy, with murder in their eyes’. This page is dated, with a certain valedictory finality, July 16 1960. There is a note which she wrote, prefacing her own continuation, which reads almost as if this were some manuscript discovered by an adventurer into an unexplored region. ‘From here onwards the content and the writing becomes too difficult to decipher, and from now on, I, like Titus, will be alone in his wanderings’.

Across from the main body of the exhibition, a short film brought to life a series of frames for a proposed children’s TV programme, Just a Line, which showed what could be done with the simplest of artistic techniques and a vivid imagination. Several of Peake’s illustrations from the Alice books were hung here, too. Down the Rabbit Hole depicted the white rabbit’s initial flight down a particularly earthy corridor, the surrounding tips of roots looking like crackling forks of lightning speeding him on his way. The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party has a Hatter with a very Kenneth Williams flare of the nostrils, which is undoubtedly coincidental, although Williams did go on to appear in The Wit To Woo when it finally made it to the stage in 1957. The legend here informed us that Mervyn had ‘head hunted’ his Mad Hatter in a telephone box in Kings Cross. The Duchess, described as ‘very ugly’, is another of Mervyn’s heads (as opposed to faces), with eccentrically bunched hair containing a small selection of miniature fruit adding a touch of Carmen Miranda exoticism, in addition to a choking serpentine coil of pearls. The Jabberwocky has a terrifyingly gaping avian maw with a gullet that looks like a tube tunnel. Peake made the observation that children liked to be mildly scared, as longterm viewers of Doctor Who have always attested. His Cheshire Cat certainly has a genuine look of demented evil about it. The Jabberwocky bears some of the signs of rough revision which, according to Fabian Peake at the Ways With Words festival in Dartington, he used to effect by scraping the surface of the paper away with the edge of a razor blade. Such alterations, evident in the original, wouldn’t come through in the copies, of course. There are numbers pencilled in beneath several of these illustrations (31/4, 5.5 etc) which presumably refer to the size of the reproduction. The White Knight, in all his ragged and shambolic nobility, is accompanied by a letter from Brian Sibley, who recently adapted the Gormenghast books for BBC radio, to Maeve in which he declares it to be his favourite of the Alice illustrations. There are several white corrections to some of the lines, which again gives an insight into Peake’s working methods. Queen Alice also bears signs of revision, with clouds and a skyline having seemingly been whited out. The Red Queen, resting its chin on Alice’s knee, most definitely looks like Kenneth Williams, albeit in drag and with a curly-haired wig.

Echoes of Goya - Landscape With Figures
There was more Peake across town in the display rooms of the National Archives at Kew. These were some of his wartime propaganda pictures, which he produced speculatively in 1940 in the hope that they might be used by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee. This never happened, and they have languished in the Public Record Office ever since. They take the form of an artist’s portfolio as produced by Adolf Hitler (of whom Peake did an imaginary ‘self portrait’, with blank-eyed stare and an air of sweaty fear and paranoia). Generic titles were given to compositions featuring death and devastation. In a way, it’s Peake’s version of Goya’s dark Horrors of War series, although these images came from his imagination rather than from observation. His father’s tales and pictures of China may have provided inspirations, as well as young Mervyn’s witnessing of the occasional operation. This is particularly evident in the picture (not included here) of a body laid out on a table, one leg ending in ragged flesh and splintered bone rather than a foot. There were seven of the original portfolio on display here, including the cover in which the traditional palette with brush is pierced by the nozzle of a rifle, and a thick blob of paint oozes over the edge, a dark, polluting sludge. Portrait of a Young Girl is a head and torso study in which she clutches at a bleeding bullet wound to her breast with gnarled and bony fingers. Landscape With Figures shows a huddled group of figures fleeing a burning city, a hazily rendered cart piled high with corpses seeming to be a direct reference to Goya’s series. Polish Dawn has two figures being shot by a firing squad, of which we only see the barrel ends of a couple of rifles. As with Goya, these pictures are all about the consequences of war, and the invading armies are nowhere directly depicted, remaining impersonal presences, marshalled beyond the boundaries of the frame. The jagged, asymmetrical fingers of stone, the fragmentary shells of buildings which form the backdrop to the picture, immediately bring to mind the opening description of the castle of Gormenghast in Titus Groan. Peake describes how the tower of flints ‘arose like a mutilated finger from amongst the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven’. These ruins, resembling coralline forms on a dead sea bed, also show the influence of surrealism, of the shapes and forms arising from featureless plains in the paintings of Dali and Ernst and others.

All of which suggests that the WAAC may have adjudged the contents of Peake’s Hitler portfolio to be a little too aestheticised, a little too artfully grotesque for the blunt purposes of propaganda. There’s a sense that he’s almost trying too hard, and his attempt to shock denies his figures the element of humour or pathos which usually invests his grotesques with a counterbalancing touch of humanity. They fail as propaganda partly because they are so abject and hopeless that they fail to engage the viewer’s empathy. The same artifice seen in Polish Dawn can also be found in Dutch Interior, in which surrealist ruins once more loom outside like giant cubist sculptures or Polynesian idols, and another female figure slumps lifelessly in a carefully arranged pose, her shoulder jutting up at an unnaturally acute and bony angle. Reclining Figure by Hitler stands another ragged and desperate victim in a death pose before a firing squad execution post. Seascape has a drowned head as a piece of flotsam bobbing just above the level of the waves. It’s an image which reminds me of the Steve Parkhouse anti-war story Home is the Sailor, published in the British comic Warrior in 1984. These are all powerful works, but they are the products of the imagination (and a gothic imagination at that) taken from sources other than direct experience or observation of conflict and its consequences. It was only when Peake did experience something of the effect of war, and encountered some of its victims that he was able to depict them with real empathy. He tended then to depict individuals in often quite intimate portraits, and resisted the temptation to sketch the dramatic and pictorially surreal ruins of German towns and cities through which he passed. These people’s anguish, suffering and shock were evident and there was no need to contrive its expression through melodramatic staging. Nevertheless, these pictures are worth seeing for the light that they cast on Peake’s work as a whole. They can perhaps be best appreciated within that context, rather than as a genuine or even symbolic depiction of the war during which they were created.

Both of these exhibitions were part of the celebrations of the centenary of Mervyn Peake’s birth. So if you’ve never read the Gormenghast books, or any of his poetry, or seen any of his book illustrations or paintings, then there’s no more appropriate time to begin. Mervyn Peake:The Man and His Art, compiled by Sebastian Peake and Alison Aldred and edited by G.Peter Winnington, includes a wide range of his art, including selections from the Hitler Portfolio and photos of pages from the Gormenghast notebooks. And the recently republished (by the British Library) Peake’s Progress contains a good selection of his non-Gormenghast writings, including a playscript of The Wit To Woo. So set off on your voyage now - there are many worlds to discover.