It’s become something of a tradition over the past few years for the Animated Exeter festival to stage an open air spectacular for the delight of the local citizenry. The cathedral has proved the obvious Beer stone backdrop for inventive animated projections which have used its windows, towers and buttressed walls to tell tales both haunting, surreal and amusing. This time, events moved North to Belmont Park, and, under the direction of the Mischief La-Bas company, mixed projections with theatrical storytelling and historical re-enactment to thrilling effect. It was the climax of both the Animated Exeter and the Extreme Imagination festivals, which had conjoined at various points, encouraging the half term hordes to get involved in various creative literary and artistic activities. Philip Reeve, author of the wonderful Mortal Engines books, had written a new story for Extreme Imagination, The Exeter Riddles. This envisioned time leaks breaking out around the city, caused by some mysterious power source, and depositing bewildered denizens of past eras at various familiar locales. An interactive game, Time Winders, produced by Slingshot, took place around the city over the weekend, with players following clues to trace the source of the leak before the rifts in time wreaked havoc and reduced all to smoking rubble. Posters were to be found in bus shelters and shop windows promoting the efforts of the Ministry of Historical Defence and calling on citizens to come to their aid, for the sake of their city and ultimately Britain itself. They were printed on a red background in an authoritative, utilitarian wartime and post-war type, with which people have been refamiliarised through countless Keep Calm and Carry On variants. It really was a widely co-ordinated effort which seamlessly grafted an entertaining and expansive fiction onto the everyday world.
The posters directed us to Belmont Park where, on a chill Saturday evening, the boundaries were dramatically lit with flaming torches. Ambling around the perimeter, we came across idling Georgian soldiers in fine green tailcoated uniforms; a foppishly attired and cheerfully loquacious Civil War parliamentarian with foil at the ready to run through any royalists who might cross his path; World War 2 land girls and air raid wardens celebrating victory with a hearty singsong which they encouraged us to join them in (handily unfurling a banner on which the words to We’ll Meet Again were daubed, in case we didn’t know them); a group of squatting cavemen and women (or perhaps survivors of some future apocalyptic war – the time crack spread outwards in both directions from the present) warming themselves around a fire in front of their hide-draped bivouac; a group of Roman legionaries, their polished helmets and handsome plumes glinting in the baleful glow in the far corner, which flickered over the stone building which used to be the lavs; and a number of figures clad in dusty white, their faces fixed plaster masks, who stiffly descended from a tiered platform at various intervals to stiffly totter about like horror movie mummies before returning to their set positions. They were statues from the façade of the cathedral magically brought to life (rather like those on the front of York Cathedral at the start of Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell) we later learned. Officials wandered around, clearly identifiable in the modern manner by their hi-vis jackets, printed with the MOHD logo.
Over and above all this milling activity, the insistent sound of heavy drilling shattered the night air, originating from the Mining Area, marked as such by another MOHD sign and barricaded off. A large scaffold framing a black screen indicated that this was where the climactic show was to take place. Two officials dressed in black uniforms (recalling a previous gathering in the park in the thirties, when Oswald Mosley addressed a rally of blackshirts) stood atop its upper walkway. Their amplified voices called everyone in, crossing searchlights also drawing the attention of all in the park and no doubt beyond as well. They summed up the crisis in the city, reporting sightings of cavemen in John Lewis (shrinking from action movie explosions on widescreen TVs, perhaps) and Romans on the cathedral green. The source of the time leaks had been traced to the city’s heartstone, which had been reawakened, and which lay directly below. Our collective effort was now required to summon up the spirit of Sidwella, the local saint whose tale of murder in the cornfields and the bubbling up of a renewing spring where her blood was shed blends elements of Pagan and Christian symbolism (and who was central to the Isca Obscura animation projected onto the cathedral walls a couple of years ago). This call to mental fight, in the Blakean sense, combined with the Attlee-era poster style and the clipped accents of our expositing ministerial narrators, pointed to a subtle underlying element of nostalgia for a time of post-war consensus in which all were intent on creating a public society which worked for the good of all, rather than slaving for a private and corporately governed world. And, of course, the whole shebang benefited from funding by the Arts Council, City Council and Heritage Lottery Fund. This was a rite in which the lingering ghosts of Mosley’s fascists would be exorcised.
With deep bass rumbles and pulsating electronic music reminiscent of the F&%* Buttons (whose childishly profane name prevented them from fully benefiting from the use of their music in the Olympic opening ceremony, another celebration of the collective post-war spirit) the heartstone rose from the behind the boards screening off the mining area, its pulse of throbbing life gradually increasing in a wakening accelerando. Cut into facets like a precious jewel, its blank, white, hexagonally outlined surface provided the focal prism for a procession of reversed moving pictures, whirling us on a rushing journey from the Exe Estuary to the modern-day Exeter. Here, passersby retraced their steps, walking backwards presumably to deposit whatever was in their bags back onto the shelves. It reminded me a little of the eyeflash succession of subliminal images in Yellow Submarine, when the magic vessel takes off from Liverpool and flies off towards psychedelic seas, passing through a rapid montage of English land and cityscapes before plunging into the water with the final crashing chord of A Day in the Life. Perhaps I should mention that I’d seen a screening of a sparkling new digital print of the film at the Animated Exeter festival a couple of days previously. On the big screen and with such beautifully clear (and hand restored) colour, I saw it anew, in a completely fresh light. There were many delightful sequences, with the Eleanor Rigby collages having always been a favourite. There was also the surreal pop art invention of the sea of monsters, the retina-dazzling op-art of Only A Northern Song, the splashily impressionistic Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, and the wonderfully celebratory All Too Much – enlightenment with an assurance of getting home in time for tea.
Back to the dawn of manBack to Belmont. As the heartstone became a black hole hoovering time into its depthless vortex, backward running local news and home movie footage faded from colour to black and white, calendar pages mentally stripped off and blown away on chronological winds. Further and ever accelerating regression swept us back through medieval and prehistoric periods, cheekily refracted through familiar movie images: knights and monks from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Rachel Welch as a fashionably coiffured primitive in One Million Years BC, and ape ancestors grazing the plains in 2001: A Space Odyssey, their grunts given echoing recognition by the cavemen whose curiosity had led them to mingle in with the watching crowd. Even the pre-human was a given a look-in, with an animation from David Attenborough’s evolutionary survey Life On Earth run backwards, beating a retreat from land to a simpler, unicellular life drifting through the oceans, a de-evolutionary folding-in. The computer graphics of the late 70s used in Life On Earth now seemed as much an antediluvian relic of the past in the context of the rapid evolution of digital and communications technologies as the primitive transformations they depicted. They also served to show how far animation technology has developed in just a few decades. To demonstrate, we were about to witness an evolutionary leap worthy of the mystical denouement of 2001.
Finally, with time spooled back and packed away in the heartstone’s crystalline archive, Sidwella made her appearance. Drifting spectrally across the screen, she was a wide-eyed starchild, serpentine strands of red hair (still stained with sacrificial blood?) wafting like water weeds in an invisible aetheric current. She cupped the stone, dense with accumulated time, in her hands, gazing at it with open wonder and infinite curiosity. It glowed with a responsive light, and then its glittering facets shattered, dispersing in luminous shards. The stone, now blank and drably featureless once more, sank back into the ground, its recession marked by a cascade of sparking light spitting and crackling along the top of the screen. Sidwella drifted back to whatever otherplace she’d emerged from, and the MOHD officials emerged once more to declare that all was safe once more. The destructive forces of fragmentation and disharmony had been dispelled by our collective summoning of the feminine spirit, and harmony and rightness was restored. A small celebratory firework display lit the sky behind us, reflected impressionistically in the windows of the terraced houses beyond the park railings, the skeletal wintry branches of the plane trees in front forming charcoal silhouettes against the blossoming explosions. Disaster has been deflected by collective effort, and by the invocation of a female spirit of renewal and open-hearted compassion. It was a message of hope for everyone to take home with them, a light in dark times. It was a positive, imaginative and wonderfully staged event which brought a bit of magic to a bitter February night.