Into the Haunted Doll’s House

On stage, scene 6 of Hansel & Gretel is the most atmospheric yet disturbing in the production. Both the music and the text for it are different in tone to any of the scenes before or after. Gretel has just shoved the witch in her own red-hot cauldron, and though we might expect brother and sister to leg it out of the house as fast as they can, instead Simon Armitage, who has written the poem that is the narrative of our production, leads them, and us, deeper into the heart of darkness. It’s a classic horror-movie scenario of innocents in jeopardy, and I’m reminded of the moment from Silence of the Lambs in which Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster, descends into the cellar of the murderer’s lair.

Matt Kaner threads his music sinuously through Simon’s text, and the result is bone-chilling.

House where the dark broods

House where the dark blooms

House where the dark breeds

House where the dark breathes

I began my work on the scene by laying out ideas for the production team about what the visuals might be. Simon had written an evocative ‘stage direction’ for it, though that was more by way of a suggestion of mood rather than anything too specific. He was always clear that he was happy to allow us the freedom to interpret.

To begin with I intended to film footage on location in abandoned and derelict buildings, looking particularly at cellars and rooms without windows. There had been much in the news about men (it always seems to be men) who imprison young women in cellars for decades, fathering children on them and keeping these ‘hidden families’ in isolation. But after long consideration I came to the conclusion that such a stark, documentary-like contrast to all the other visual aspects of the production, would be too great, and gradually the idea of location filming began to be replaced with the idea of a nightmarish doll’s house.

Below: cameraman Pete Telfer begins to shape the ‘haunted’ doll’s house with lighting rigs. His work on the sequence is immaculate.

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Most of my visual references stemmed from German Expressionist films of the 1910s – 1930s, with a spattering of American Gothic (most significantly Hitchcock’s Psycho) thrown in. The model is a complete four-story building with eight rooms leading off the spine of four sizeable hallways/landings through which the twisting stairways rise. In the event only just over half of the house was prepared for the camera, as the rest of the space was required for the lighting-rigs. (But I’m going to complete the as yet undecorated spaces shortly, and also paint the exterior of the house.)

The rooms were furnished with commercially available doll’s house furniture, much of which I carefully broke before texturising and painting. (Texture was grit gathered from the floor of my attic-studio, mixed into gouache and applied to rooms and furnishings in layers of ashy grey.)

Cameraman Pete Telfer produced wonderfully elegant and atmospheric gliding shots by panning a camera secured on a tripod, contrasting with the jerky, nervy ‘point-of-view’ footage achieved with a tiny hand-held cam the size of a golf ball. When edited together, the dual techniques were less destabilising for an audience than had we used a shaky hand-held throughout.

The making of the doll’s house is an extraordinary story for another time, though for now this post is the acknowledgement that without Simon Coupland, Jana Wagenkenecht and Stephanie Davies, it simply wouldn’t have happened. They were heroes, key to the whole endeavour and their part in it will be fully acknowledged and described at the Artlog later this year. (They know the reasons why I’m deferring the moment.)

An honourable mention, too, for Jon Street of The Moth Factory, Bristol, who guided me so unerringly through the film editing process, and contributed so generously at every stage of it. Everything, in the end, is collaboration.

Final word. Audiences have not see the last of the haunted doll’s house. Watch this space.

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Broken furniture piled high in the haunted doll’s house.

House where the light peeps

House where the dark leaks

House where the light bleeds

House where the dark weeps


Extracts are from the poem Hansel & Gretel by Simon Armitage.


13 thoughts on “Into the Haunted Doll’s House

  1. The shots of the dolls house are absolutely perfect for this scene Clive, it’s really spine-tingling stuff. The filmed footage worked wonderfully well with the music, the words and the other visuals when I saw it at the premier in Cheltenham, so creepy and eerie.

    • Thank you, Phil. I’m glad you enjoyed it, and hope that you were pleased with the contribution you made to the production. It’s all been quite an adventure, but a rather exhausting one, and so I’m feeling a bit punch-drunk right now. On reflection, juggling both the conclusion of the Gawain project and making H & G for the stage, was probably pretty ambitious in terms of the demands on my resources of energy!

  2. I LOVE the blue, beautifully spooky, and also – not kidding – due to a really interesting Sky Arts prog’ on directors (Hitchcock) seen a few days ago, I was talking of seeing Psycho with you in the – I think, Brixton flea pit – and then waving across the tracks from opposite platforms on a scary journey home. (No mobile phones for comfort in those days!) AND- just thought – Dali’s images for Spellbound! (I always did like Gregory Peck).

    Yours, as ever but this time in…antici…xxx

    • Ha ha! It’s true, Bern, it was the Brixton flea-pit, and moreover we bunked off classes to go, which was unheard of behaviour from us goody-two-shoes-who-wouldn’t-say-boo-to-a-goose, let alone bunk off classes! I recall we did quite a bit of soul-searching about that en-route to the cinema. However, we were simultaneously so exhilarated by our previously unsuspected naughtiness, that we just hoped we wouldn’t get caught and went with the plan.

      It was on a double-bill with War of the Worlds, a sub-par garish technicolour and wobbly space-craft on visible wires fest! But Psycho, Psycho was something else, a beast of an altogether different hue, and it stuck in my head like a burr that has never dislodged. I was in awe of it then and I still am. Love the music too, which was of course by the sublime Bernard Herrmann, and the titles, by Saul Bass, who was also a storyboard artist on the film.


      • Yes, I vaguely remember the WOTW but don’t think it impinged much and another ‘yes’ for the music. Really, we ‘bunked?’ The only one of those times I recall, and you might’ve already have left/or been working, was seeing Romeo & Juliet. I think dad provided the tickets but details are unclear, which is hardly surprising given we’re ‘journeying back in time,’ some…wait for it…50 years ago! Arrgh!!

        So all you’ve gathered, sifted and collected, returns to colour the next phase/stage of life, living and creativity. Hurrah!
        B xxx

  3. Looks just so perfectly imagined and created. What a team you are! Wish I could see the show. Alas, you may have to bring it to Melbourne for that to happen. I’m sure Melbourne would eat it up though…. Just saying.

  4. This gets more and more exciting, Clive! It is so tantalising to be unable to see it! Really hope I will be able to a bit later in the year.
    What a wonderful creation this is turning out to be!

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