Disrespecting the Genius of Dan Leno, or how to make a mess of a film out of a damned good book!

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When I was a teenager I was obsessed with the music hall clown of the 1880s, Dan Leno. I have no idea where I might first have heard of him, but by the time my friends were collecting bubblegum cards of footballers, I was seeking out photographs of Leno, along with any accounts of him I could lay my hands on.

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There was something in his images that struck the deepest chord in me. Let’s face it, no man can have played in pantomime for fifteen years for the Drury Lane producer Augustus Harris, without being a master of his art. Slim as a whip and with the exaggerated, elastic features of a born clown, Leno became for me a performer the like of which I aspired to: mercurial, fleet, funny and yet with comedic foundations firmly planted in the almost ludicrous tragedy of life, his skill was for creating characters that were both ordinary and yet compelling, with all the pathos of the downtrodden airing their hurts and grievances. It seems that like Victoria Wood, Leno had a practice of observing and listening, and then deftly reshaping the material of overheard lives into the monologues of his invented characters. His creations, like all the best clowns, were rooted in ‘everyman/woman’. He wore costumes with the serious actor’s aptitude for being at home in them. Had he been around in the age of television, surely he would have been a stalwart of BBC classic dramas. I can see him as any number of Dickens grotesques, male and female.

 

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Exhibiton 4

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Leno was celebrated, of course. The public adored him. There are postcards of him in costume, postcards of him in civvies, cigarette cards, caricatures, theatre posters, programmes and sheet music covers that indicate his immense popularity.

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There were even painted novelty ink-wells made in his likeness, en travesti.

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The character of Mother Goose, now a must-play role in any aspiring pantomime Dame’s repertoire, was originally created for Dan Leno.

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As a performer and as a young director I worked with several comedians who shared my passion for Leno. Roy Hudd, an enthusiastic historian of pantomime and music hall as well as being a genius performer, who in his salad days bore more than a passing resemblance to Leno, positions Leno and Grimaldi as the most significant antecedents of the British clowning tradition. I once played Dick Whittington’s cat in a pantomime starring Hudd, and we shared our enthusiasm for Leno. Back then Hudd, with his wide mouth, expressive eyes, mobile brows and lithe physical skills, had in abundance the qualities necessary to play Leno. Some years later I directed Ronné Coyles and Kenneth Connor in pantomimes. Alas both of them are now gone, but I recall vividly how their portrayals of Dames, though quite different to each other, consciously honoured Leno’s tenderness for women of slender means and heart wrenching aspirations that were doomed to disappointment.

Leno as Widow Twanky in Aladdin.

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Kenneth Connor played Mrs Crusoe for me at Eastbourne. His clown’s insight into the human condition could make audiences laugh and cry simultaneously, a deft and almost impossible to reproduce trick, and one that I know was the result of his admiration for the achievements of Dan Leno. Ronné too had the gift of investing his travesty roles with an underlying pathos, even when he was brassily strutting the stage and playing knowingly to the gallery. In these men’s performances, fragility and and the instinct to survive combined to wonderful effect.

Last night I saw the film The Limehouse Golem, directed by Juan Carlos MedinaThe reviews had been quite reasonable and I was looking forward to seeing it. Moreover I love the 1994 Peter Ackroyd novel on which the film is based, having read it several times, though I should perhaps have been forewarned by the jettisoning of the author’s original title, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. It proved not insignificant that my hero’s name had been dumped by the producers. Dan Leno is a central character of the book and remains so in the film. Here then was an opportunity to show something of what made the man the immense star that he was, though it would have taken an insightful script and the right actor to do so. On both these fronts the producers signally fail. The script is lacklustre and the actor doesn’t raise even the most wan ghost of Dan Leno. It’s a dispiriting spectacle for anyone who knows just how vivacious and imaginative the Victorian popular stage was.

When representing the music hall traditions of the 1880s, it would pay dividends to have a sound knowledge of the genre. Moreover it’s simply disrespectful and stupid –  and somewhat cruel – to put an unequipped actor into the role of a music hall star celebrated for his comic genius, musical aptitude and charismatic stage presence. I sat dumbfounded from the beginning of the film at the portrayal of Dan Leno. Things didn’t fare any better in the representation of a fictitious cross-dressing male impersonator of the day. Evidently the film’s producers/makers didn’t feel that specialised performance skills would be vital in order to conjure the world of the nineteenth century stage. The performers, as presented in the film, would have been booed off. Theatre goers back then were rowdy and took no hostages. Dan Leno, who once held audiences in the palm of his hand, must be turning somersaults in his grave.

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Leno was born into family of performers and had made a living on the stage from his earliest childhood. His had been a hard life and it had taken a toll. He didn’t make old bones. Like his father before him he became an alcoholic. His latter career was punctuated by outbursts of temper against fellow cast members, perhaps made worse by his increasing deafness and inability to remember lines. Despite his popular success, Leno became disappointed that he was not acknowledged as a legitimate  actor, having harboured aspirations to play in Shakespeare. He’d lobbied for serious roles, but the opportunities had eluded him. He died aged 43 after some years of declining mental health. Max Beerbohm said of Dan Leno’s early death:

“So little and frail a lantern could not long harbour so big a flame.”

 

George Wild Galvin, known as Dan Leno

20 December 1860 – 31 October 1904

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Development of the Stencils for ‘The Green Chapel’

Guide Drawing

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Stencils are made on transparent film, one per eventual colour in the print, and so some impression of the image may be had as the layers build, though of course the colour is missing. The drawing lying underneath the stencils is the template of the image throughout the process.

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The sample colours at the side of the stencils, indicate to the printer the colours required at the printing stage. This print will consist of five colours.

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As the density of the render increases with each stencil, I occasionally have to remove layers to better see what’s going on. The crayons, pencils, inks and paints used are not transparent, and so each new layer begins to obscure what lies underneath. The printing inks by contrast are largely transparent, allowing the many layers to show in the finished print.

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Using an improvised etching needle to break up the heavy lithography crayon with sgraffito and create what will eventually be a more tonal layer of ink.

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In the image below the sketches in the margin were made as I worked out the composition.

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In the image below, the scratches catching the light on the surface of the plastic stencil, in the print will create an area of softer tone

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Below, tonal stencils will underlie the stencils on which the details of the image are rendered.

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Hansel & Gretel at Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop

Hansel & Gretel update from the Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop website:

‘NEW! This utterly bewitching illustrated toy theatre recreates the scary story of Hansel & Gretel, tempted into the Wicked Witch’s beautiful gingerbread house. Clive Hicks-Jenkins’ uniquely expressive painterly style evokes the story’s darker undercurrents, yet is peppered with delicious sweets and candies. This fully playable toy theatre comes complete with a proscenium, stage, six backclothes, two side wings, 14 characters/props and Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop curtain. The eerie, somewhat grisly tale is told in an entertaining scipt written by the artist, accompanied by an additional mini theatre poster for ‘Jury Lane’. The theatre requires cutting and sticking to set up using scissors or a craft knife for maximum precision.’

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The toyshop has also produced a pop-up card based on the Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre.

‘Good enough to eat although we don’t recommend it! Send a pop-up version of our Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre through the post as it comes flat and through the marvels of paper engineering opens up into a tableaux of Clive Hicks-Jenkins exclusive design for Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop.’

 

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A newly released game of Pelminism is based on the Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre designs.

‘Warning: Do not play while hungry. This delicious game of Pairs otherwise know as Pelminism will help train your memory, so perfect for all the family to play together. Match Biscuits and Sweets from Hansel & Gretel beautifully illustrated by artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins and watch out for that witch! 32 card discs with instructions in a box.’

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Finally, there are Hansel & Gretel wooden spinning-tops in assorted colours.

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All the above may be found at the newly launched, redesigned Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop website.

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Mary Bullington and the Anglo-Saxon Riddle

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Above: making stencils for The Exchange, No 10 in the Gawain series of prints

The wonderful Mary Bullington contacted me at Facebook offering this Anglo-Saxon riddle as a thrillingly mystical descriptive of what I do as an artist.
Riddle 40 
I saw four things in beautiful fashion
journeying together. Dark were their tracks,
the path very black. Swift was its moving,
faster than birds it flew through the air,
dove under the wave. Labored unresting
the fighting warrior who showed them the way,
all of the four, over plated gold. / Ic seah wrætlice wuhte feower
samed siþian swearte · wæran lastas
swaþu swiþe blacu swift wæs on fore
fulgum framra fleotgan lyfte
deaf under yþe dreag unstille
winnende wiga se him wægas tæcneþ
ofer fæted gold feower eallū

The answer is Quill Pen, and the explanation is as follows.

The ‘four things’ are two fingers, a thumb, and quill, working as a unit. And while it can’t be said that the quill moves ‘faster than birds’, it’s forgivable hyperbole, or perhaps even a humorous reference to the slowness of scribes working with painstaking deliberation. (In which case it’s even more like me, because I crawl over the densely detailed stencils for the Gawain series like a snail on a mission to circumnavigate the globe!) The ‘fighting warrior’ is the guiding arm of the scribe. The ‘plated gold’ is more obscure, and is probably a reference to the gold mount of the ink-horn.

While inks may no longer be dipped from gold-mounted ink-horns, in my mission to create the series of fourteen images to illustrate the magnificent narrative poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I feel the connection across time with the anonymous practitioners celebrated in the riddle.

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Above: completed stack of stencils ready to be sent to Dan Bugg at Penfold Press

Mary is a painter and a friend of Marly Youmans, and we know each other through Marly’s blog and through Facebook. I am so touched that she sent such a lovely thought to me, spurred by an appreciation of what I make. Thank you, Mary.

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The Eight Stencils of ‘The Exchange’

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Seven colours and eight transparent stencils. (There are two black ones.) Here the eight are stacked, held in place by tabs over registration pins. The effect is misleading. The stencils deeper in the stack are rendered milky by the layers over them, whereas in reality the tonality will be evenly distributed across the image. But this dreamy effect is beautiful in its own way. Luckily I checked the last batch of photographs before sealing the package, because I noticed here that the light on dark of the ropes supporting the mast, needed adjustment because they appear to go behind the topmost waves. All corrected now. Today the parcel will be dispatched to Daniel Bugg so that his work can begin.

The Exchange

 

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The Exchange is number ten in the fourteen print Sir Gawain and the Green Knight series I’m making in association with Daniel Bugg of the Penfold Press, and marks the episode from the poem in which on three occasions the Lord of Fair Castle returns from hunting to claim a kiss from his guest. I’ve always found this point in the story to be exciting, though wasn’t at all sure how to set about representing its transgressive nature. (Gawain has to parry the romantic advances of his host’s wife in her husband’s absences, and is made to surrender kisses to the Lord whenever he returns home. It’s as though the young knight is a shuttlecock being batted between the couple.) In the end I made the decision to create an extraordinary encounter, with Bertilak swooping from above to better create the sense of a dizzying erotic charge. I’m currently four stencils into this nine stencil print. Here’s a record of the work so far.

Above and below: preliminary sketches.

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Below: details of the ‘master’ drawing used to guide my work on the print.

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Below: creating the first stencil.

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Below: the dead stag from the first of the three hunts.

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Below: the granular texture of the TruGrain on which the stencils are made is apparent in this detail of the kiss.

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I use a limited palette of red, grey and black to make the stencils, favouring a combination of opaque fibretip pen, greasy lithography crayon, oil-rich black pencil and acrylic paint.

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Below: the colours planned for the print are dull blue, red oxide, dull sand, black, cyan, purple and orange.

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Below: beginning to render the embroidered details of Bertilak’s jerkin.

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Hansel & Gretel Q&A

 

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I did a question & answer for the main newspaper of north Wales, The Daily Post. Peter went to get a haircut at the barber shop in Aberystwyth, and our friends there had very kindly set aside a copy for us. I answered the questions so long ago that I’d almost forgotten what I’d said. Here’s the transcript:

Your name:

Clive Hicks-Jenkins

How old are you?

Sixty-six.

Where are you from?

Newport, Gwent.

Tell us about your family

My father was a wayleaves officer with the South Wales Electricity Board. He was responsible for brokering contracts between SWEB and the landowners/farmers whose acreage needed to be crossed by power lines. But because he was a countryman and loved the landscape, he was an artist when it came to placing them where they’d least be visible, hiding them in valleys and along the edges of woodlands. My mother was a hairdresser. She loved films and from an early age she took me every Saturday afternoon to the cinema. Never to see kids’ films though. She loved more dramatic fare, and so my tastes were quite unusual. I don’t know how she bucked the certificate system. She probably knew the local cinema manager and bargained haircuts against him turning a blind eye to a seven year old watching Bette Davies melodramas!

What are you best known for?

Probably my Mari Lwyd-themed series of 2000-2001, The Mare’s Tale. I had an exhibition of that name, and it made quite a splash. There was a book of poetry by the late Catriona Urquhart that accompanied it, and in 2013 the composer Mark Bowden and the poet Damian Walford Davies made a chamber work of the same name, based on the underlying narrative of a psychological haunting.

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Tell us about your exhibition (what’s it called, what’s it on/where is it being held?)

The exhibition is at Oriel Tegfryn, Menai Bridge, and it’s the result of four years of exploration on the theme of Hansel & Gretel.

When is it running from/to?

Sept 1st – Sept 24th.

What can people expect?

Last year the publisher Random Spectacular commissioned a picture book from me that was based on the fairy tale. As my version is very dark it’s been marketed as being more suitable for adults. (It’s been described as ‘George Romero meets the Brothers Grimm!)

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Simultaneously I was commissioned by Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop in Covent Garden to design a toy theatre assembly kit of Hansel & Gretel. This has been quite a thrill. I played with a Benjamin Pollock toy theatre when I was a child, and so it’s a great privilege to be asked to make a new one to bear his name. Published this summer, in contrast to the picture book it’s a sunnier affair, quite suitable for children. Even so I put my own visual spin on it. You won’t have seen a Hansel & Gretel quite like it.

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The Tegfryn Gallery exhibition consists of all the artworks made for the picture book and the toy theatre, plus illustrations for Hansel & Gretel alphabet primers that I made several years ago. Prepare for a Hansel & Gretel Fest!

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Tell us five things which make your exhibition great?

1) Scary and beautiful is an alluring mix!

2) I can guarantee it’s not going to be like anything you’ve ever experienced at Oriel Tegfryn.

3) What’s not to love about art in which family dysfunction, unhealthy appetites and manslaughter are the principal themes? This is a fairytale for the soap generation.

4) There are Liquorice Allsorts deployed as weapons and gingerbread men that bite back!

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5) If you want to know what horrors lie beneath a witch’s prosthetic nose, then this is the exhibition you’ve been waiting for!

Tell us what’s good about the venue

It’s a warm and welcoming gallery with wonderful staff. Visiting Oriel Tegfryn is like calling on friends who are always pleased to see you.

Who is your favourite artist and why?

The ‘who’ is George Stubbs, and the ‘why’ is because he painted animals with unparalleled compassion. His Hambletonian, Rubbing Down may be numbered among the world’s greatest equestrian artworks.

What piece of work are you most proud of and why?

Green George. It’s in a private collection here in Wales. If you type the title and my name into a search engine, you can see it. I paint only for myself and I never think about who might purchase. I made Green George as a painting I’d like to live with, though in fact I never did. It was finished only days before being shipped to the gallery, and it sold immediately. I knew even as I painted it that I was riding the wind. I couldn’t have bettered it.

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Tell us a little known fact about yourself:

I once played Batman’s nemesis, the Riddler, in an American musical.

What are your best and worst habits?

I’m a fiercely loyal and loving friend. But I’m also implacably unforgiving when betrayed. It’s an unattractive trait.

What’s next for you? What are you currently working on, or what do you plan to work on?

I’m on the last lap of a fourteen print series on the theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in collaboration with Daniel Bugg at the Penfold Press. The press has been publishing the series sequentially. The art historian James Russell has been writing accompanying texts. It’s been a wonderful experience.  The Martin Tinney Gallery is having an exhibition of the work in January.

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Then I go into rehearsals for a new music theatre work of Hansel & Gretel that I’m designing and directing. The production opens in London before embarking on a year long tour.

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