Looking at my shelves I realise how fortunate I’ve been as an artist to have collaborated on a good many interesting book projects. At the start of my career as a painter, Nicolas and Frances McDowall of Old Stile Press gave me multiple opportunities with their invitations to collaborate on volumes of poetry, plus the covers of two bibliographies. For them I made two volumes of works by the sixteenth century poet Richard Barnfield, The Affectionate Shepherd and the Barnfield Sonnets, plus The Mare’s Tale by Catriona Urquhart, an anthology of poems which memorialised the life of her late friend – and my father – Trevor.
At Old Stile I produced an illustrated edition of Peter Shaffer’s iconic play, Equus, which led to a commission from Penguin Classics to contribute an image for the cover of a new edition of the play in 2006, still in print today.
While at OSP I learned craft on the projects Nicolas chose for me, it would be fair to say it was in the books springing from my creative enthusiasms as an artist, that I’d find the most satisfying experiences. Simon Armitage’s 2018 revision of his translation of the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for Faber & Faber gave the opportunity to use the fourteen-print series on the theme I’d made with Dan Bugg at Penfold Press, edited into illustrations for the edition. That led to a second collaboration with Simon of a much-loved fairytale for publisher Design for Today, Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, which won me the 2020 V&A Illustrated Book Award.
Next came a second book at Faber with Simon, by now appointed Poet Laureate. The Owl and the Nightingale was conceived as a companion volume to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and like its predecessor was a ‘translation’ of a medieval text.
Joe Pearson at Design for Today makes extraordinarily beautiful books which honour the great traditions of illustration, and after Hansel & Gretel in 2019, he invited me to make a child-size ‘pamphlet’ book, The Bird House, which enabled me to indulge my love of toy birds and toy buildings. No text with this one, just page after page of pictures.
Throughout the pandemic lockdowns I worked on my second ‘fairytale’ project for Design for Today, Beauty & Beast, in a reinvention by poet Olivia McCannon. Our starting points had been the eighteenth century French novella of the fairytale and the 1946 film La Belle et la Bête by poet/artist/director Jean Cocteau. However in Olivia’s hands the source materials were thrillingly transformed, underpinned by 21st century concerns about global warming and the destruction of environment.
For fifteen years I’ve been producing cover artwork and page decorations for the American poet and novelist, Marly Youmans. My most recent work for her has been a collection of poems under the title The Book of the Red King, and her novella-length narrative poem, Seren of the Wildwood.
This year I produced my second cover for Penguin, an edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, working with Penguin/Random House art director, Suzanne Dean.
Over the years I haven’t seen myself as being an illustrator so much as an artist with a wide range of interests, among which books are admittedly a bit of an obsession. Some of the book projects have been ones I’ve instigated and brought to completion with the help of others. Joe at Design for Today has been my major facilitator for the most significant ones, while others have come via publishing commissions. But however made, the books produced in collaboration with writers I greatly admire, such as Marly, Olivia and Simon, often thereafter cast their influences further into my practices as an artist. I have been majorly influenced and fuelled by poetry. It’s a persistent thread throughout my work at the easel, on the stage and in books. The past year has seen me working for Folio Society on a new illustrated edition of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, due out this summer. The project just dropped into my lap, brought to me by Folio Society art editor Raquel Leis Allion. I’d long wanted to work with the text, so it’s been a bit of a dream come true.
The orchard behind the house is is thick with hoar frost, glorious in the winter sun. Despite the sharpness of the imagery in this video capture, what I experience is not what you see here, good though my I-phone camera is. Tiny irregularities on the surface of the human eye make the crystals of ice appear to glitter and flash as I move through the garden. It’s utterly beautiful. Dazzling.
Think back to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Whenever a screen goddess appeared in rhinestones or sequins, her image would simply be off the charts with the reflective sheens and sparks given off by them, because the lenses back then were a lot closer to the imperfect human eye, and their surface imperfections created the starbursts of dazzle which photographers and cinematographers turned into glamorous magic. Here Marlene Dietrich turns the ‘pixie’ hat into an accessory for seduction, with cuffs to match.
Watch any film or tv commercial today and glitter has been added in post-production, and frankly looks like it. Instagrammers add sparkles to their selfies, staring in soft-focussed self-absorption through storms of ‘glitter’ produced by an app. All those 20th century Christmas cards embellished with glitter-frost spoke to us because they looked the way we saw ice and snow crystals with our own eyes. Everything glittered and flashed. These days the Etsy merchants selling vintage Christmas cards ‘with glitter’ can’t reproduce them effectively to show at their online stores. Their cameras can’t capture the reality. Everything flattens out, the glitter/glimmer/sparkle vanquished.
I recognise digital sparkle the moment it appears. It’s unconvincing, not remotely similar to what we see with our own eyes. It isn’t even what cameras from an earlier age captured. I know it isn’t real, just as surely as I know when confronted with a CGI dinosaur, no matter the artistry involved in its making, that it isn’t real. The artifice makes me feel differently about what I’m watching, certainly on a conscious level but almost more so on an unconscious one. I’m just not as engaged/involved. In the first Jurassic Park film the stand-out episode for me was not one created with CGI, but rather the sequence with the hunting velociraptors in the kitchen, which was created with brilliant puppets and razor-sharp editing.
All this is to come to the elephant in the room, which is the AI generated imagery now flooding Instagram. So much of its candy-coloured allure and textural brilliance is leaving many illustrators, painters and stage and production designers feeling that their long-honed drawing and painting skills are going to become obsolete. How, they wonder, can anyone compete with AI capacity to take/steal existing materials and reassemble and embellish them to such clever effect? How can any artist with pencils and brushes compete at anything like the speed? While I don’t believe there will be any turning aside from the technology, neither do I believe it’s game set and match. Just as CGI continues to co-exist with analogue skills, so there will be things which people still do better than a computer programme. After all, old-style glitter is still defeating the apps.
Jan Zalud’s beautiful facsimiles of the Hansel & Gretel puppets he’d made for the stage production of 2018 arrived here several weeks ago.
I commissioned the puppets when the producer Kate Romano of Goldfield Productions and the Goldfield Ensemble, repeatedly declined to lend the originals for my forthcoming exhibition at Oriel Myrddin. It was an inexplicable decision on her part because the puppets were funded in part by an Arts Council of England grant to Goldfield, and in part by me, and so ownership could be disputed. However instead of all the anxiety of embarking on a legal challenge, I decided instead to commission and pay for the facsimiles. It was the right decision. Jan has made a spectacular job of the rebuilds, and I’d defy anyone to spot the difference between these and the originals. Soon they’ll be on their way to costumier Oonagh Creighton Griffiths, who costumed the first puppets.
Rudi is fascinated by the puppets and is very gentle with them.
Over at the Sussex Lustreware website, Gloria has packed the shop with items from the Harlequinade range that we collaborated on last year. Harlequin, Columbine and a host of characters drawn from the great Victorian traditions of Toy Theatre, are resplendent in their sequinned finery and ready for ‘Curtain Up’. To celebrate the range, David W. Slack and I have produced our tribute to the golden age of the Victorian stage!
I find myself feeling sad, a condition, increasingly, of our times. Back in 2013 the book blogger known as Tomcat in the Red Room wrote a dream review of Marly Youmans’ novella/poem, Thaliad, published by Phoenicia. Now Thaliad is a jaw-dropping literary achievement by any standard, but Tom wrote a review which beautifully cast a net to ensnare readers who may not otherwise have found it. When I read his words I rejoiced, because he really understood what a talent Marly is, and eloquently conveyed the fact. I know it, but no-one is going to listen to me. Marly and I have been working together for nearly twenty years, and so when the long-term collaborator says “Read this woman’s work. She is a genius!”, people might well reply “Well he would say that, wouldn’t he?”
So here is Tom’s book-report, so insightful, tender, and clear-sighted. I discovered today that his blog is no longer active, or even viewable. I don’t know whether he still writes online, or even, given the events of the past few years, whether he is still with us. I will forever be indebted to him for what follows.
Tom Cat in the Red Room on Thaliad.
It seems that post-apocalyptic narrative is definitely on a roll here in the early 21st Century; what with Cormac McCarthy, China Mieville, David Almond etc. all turning to the genre in recent years. Marly Youmans’ ‘Thaliad’ is an unusual addition to the field, but it’s also one of the best examples I’ve ever read. ‘Thaliad’ has a commonality with The Road in that it comes from a literary tradition decidedly outside of the SFF mainstream: it’s a mythopoeic epic poem about seven children attempting to survive the aftermath of some non-disclosed apocalyptic event referred to only as `The Fire’. One of the children, a girl named Thalia, soon emerges as the de facto leader of the group, and together they settle in the ruins of an abandoned village on the edge of lake Glimmerglass. What follows is a desperate and genuinely moving cling to life that’s equal parts bleak and uplifting, harrowing and hopeful.
A lazy crib would be: `The Road meets Lord of the Flies in verse’, but such a label, however succinct, fails to encapsulate the sheer inventiveness and lyrical exuberance of Youmans’ writing. Who, for example, could resist such beautiful and strange and violent language as:
Nothing could have halted them from verdict
And vengeance, save angelic messengers
Arrived by unexpected thunderbolt.
A wail went out from Thalia and streamed
Across the mire, across the slough of blood
It’s structurally formal, but the poetry never feels rigidly metered or constrained; a feat entirely due to the beauty, flow and vitality of the writing. Sure it’s heavily stylised in the way you’d expect from epic verse that channels, among others, Homer; but the writing isn’t at all arch or overbearing. Furthermore, the book has some strikingly novelistic traits: chapter divisions, direct speech, and a first person narrator, all of which should act as a helpful way-in for those readers more familiar with novels than poetry.
‘Thaliad’ is composed in blank verse (that is, unrhymed iambic pentameter), and there’s a definite tension between the book’s future-looking, sci-fi-esque premise, and the New Formalist way it eschews free verse in favour of this more traditional approach to rhythm and prescribed syllable count. Wrapped up in this tension between the book’s setting and its form are Youmans’ playful references to the canon of classical epic poetry. The opening line, for example, “It was the age beyond the ragged time” references the first line of The Iliad, with “age” and “ragged” bearing more than a passing phonic and visual resemblance to Homer’s first-line repetition of “rage” (as it’s translated in English, obviously); and this serves as a definite tonal signifier for the poem that follows. Similarly, such chapter headings as `Seven Against the World’ make reference to Greek Tragic drama (as do the frequent allusions to masks), and the text itself is replete with lively puns, such as this clever nod to both the Icarus story and the fabled fluid that supposedly ran in the veins of the Greek Gods (the `ichor’):
The heavens, ichorous, let down a rain
That seemed as if it could have been the blood
Of dying Gods dreamed up in ancient worlds.
The most striking Classical reference is, of course, in the book’s name. Using the titular suffix `-iad’ would have been an act of pure hubris in the hands of less able writers, and initially I was sceptical, expecting Thaliad to be open to accusations of self-aggrandising pomposity and stylistic misappropriation; after all, calling your book `Thaliad’ and hence inviting comparison with Homer could be mistaken as a very cocky move indeed. Happily, there’s a fantastic inter-textual rationale behind this book’s title and its neo-classical form. The narrator (and supposed writer) of Thaliad, Emma, is speaking 60 years after the events she describes, and learnt her trade as a poet-historian by salvaging what books she could (presumably the Classics) from the ruined world’s libraries. So ‘Thaliad’, then, fictionalises the story of its own creation; the book itself is supposedly a piece of history, written as a record of the first years following `The Fire’.
It’s not unlike China Miéville’s post-apocalyptic landscape the `Railsea’, whose inhabitants have re-ordered society through a kind of collective performance of Moby Dick. The world of ‘Thaliad’ likewise addresses the problem of overcoming the apocalypse through an act of textual salvage: Emma and Thalia have re-constructed the world’s history via this filter of Classic literature, and the results are surprisingly uplifting. It really works, but only because the post-apocalyptic setting provides suitable thematic gravitas: no other genre of 21st Century fiction could get away with appropriating the language of classic Greek literature without simultaneously committing some enormous faux pas.
But don’t worry if Homer et al isn’t your particular thing. ‘Thaliad’ doesn’t pre-suppose an understanding of Greek literature, and knowledge of the Classics is not a pre-requisite to fully enjoying this poem. The book’s real appeal is its language, its characters and the heartbreaking decisions they find themselves making. Marly Youmans takes great pains to ensure that ‘Thaliad’ isn’t one of those post-apocalyptic narratives whose characters are mere passive bystanders swept along by Big, Important, Global events beyond their control. Choices made and not-made are the thematic heart of the poem, and for me the book’s most significant event occurs at its very beginning, when the children make their first collective decision: to abandon one of their number, Gabriel, a boy who won’t stop crying:
They shouted at him that he’d learn a thing,
Or two, to not be so unendingly
Unbearable, to weep as all could weep
But did not do.
[…] They drove away.
They drove away! And left that little boy
Alone with bridges, river, blowing ash,
Immensity. He was eleven, a child
The six remaining children soon realise what an appalling thing they’ve done and turn around, hoping to find Gabriel once more, but all to no avail.
The abandonment of Gabriel influences the moral identities of the children more so than any other of the book’s events. Chapters and decades later, it remains the significant episode of their lives, presumably because, unlike `The Fire’, discarding Gabriel is a tragedy of their own contriving. If the apocalypse can be read as a second Fall (and there’s plenty of Biblical imagery at play: “There is no peaceful land, / And gates of Eden long ago clanged shut”), this first decision made by the children is definitely their loss of innocence. On numerous occasions various speakers equate this early naivety with all their future tragedies:
– For where is Gabriel, that child of light,
Who might have been the father of the world? –
Perhaps the sin of Gabriel, forlorn,
Abandoned on the track has weighted us
Like pocket stones in deepening water.
If you want to be twee about it, you could probably argue that ‘Thaliad’ functions as a metaphor for the end of childhood and the violent emergence into the adult realm of moral responsibility. I wouldn’t tug at this thread too much, but it’s there if you really must.
It would be remiss of me at this point not to mention Clive Hicks-Jenkins, who as well as designing the book’s cover, has illustrated small iconographic vignettes that head each of ‘Thaliad”s twenty four chapters (note: the same number of books divide The Iliad). These striking black and white collages definitely influenced my conception of Thaliad’s world, and the grey-tone in which they’re rendered acts as a satisfying visual call-back to the descriptions of ash and rubble that dominate much of the poem’s imagery. As well as being unusually beautiful, Thaliad’s artwork is loaded with symbolism and connotation. The image that heads chapter twenty three, for example, depicts two of the children (now fully-grown) fighting over Thalia. The icon itself is a silhouette-esque depiction of two men locked in combat, with their swords provocatively placed so as to resemble the positioning of erect phalluses in a way that alludes to the lust that is the deeper subtext and reasoning behind their feud.
Thaliad is an extraordinary, deeply moving and fiercely intelligent poem, and I hope I’ve given some indication of its many achievements. I’ve not written much about the plot because, frankly, it’s difficult to do so without resorting to massive spoilers, but suffice it to say that several of the story’s twists are genuinely shocking, genuinely original. Its greatest accomplishment is the way it successfully melds so many disparate literary traditions into something cohesive, without seams. References to Diana Wynne Jones can be found adjacent nods to Ovid or Cormac McCarthy and Andrew Marvell. It plays with form in memorable and mischievous ways (the first fourteen lines of chapter 18, for example, could easily be isolated as a kind of weird blank verse bucolic sonnet), and it always works. Thaliad is a convergence of genre spaces, and we Science Fiction fans, sometimes so rigid and stubborn in our reading, would do well to embrace it.
A largely forgotten masterwork directed by Roman Polanski, Dance of the Vampires AKA The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) rewards on every level – if you can find it. Ignore the US print from which sixteen minutes of footage was butchered by interfering producer Martin Ransohoff, who additionally saddled the film with an unnecessary animated credit sequence. He also extended the title to The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck, and dubbed Jack MacGowran’s Prof. Abronsius with a silly, cartoonish voice. Polanski so resented Ransohoff’s vandalism that he asked for his name to be removed from the credits of the US version. I have a Blu-ray disc made with a dubbed soundtrack for the Spanish market (El Baile de Los Vampiros), but it comes with the original English soundtrack as an extra. It is, inasmuch as I can tell, Polanski’s original edit. (It runs at 103 minutes as opposed to the 88 minutes of the US release.)
Dance of the Vampires/The Fearless Vampire Killers – as seen in Polanski’s original cut – is both a horror film and a comedy, and the two elements intertwine elegantly with no shortage of thrills along the way. It looks utterly ravishing, with designs embodying every trope which fans of the Transylvanian vampire genre could possibly wish for.
Wilfred Shingleton and Fred Carter worked together on production design and art direction, and their creations of the garlic-festooned inn and the dark castle rearing out of a pristinely glittering snow-bound landscape, are nothing short of magnificent. Look out for the scary portraits of Count von Krolock’s ancestors lining the castle walls. The camera doesn’t linger, but what we see is typical of the attention to detail characterising a Polanski film.
The inn is a masterpiece of squat, labyrinthine passageways and interconnecting rooms, wonderfully lending the creaks and pistol-cracks of its expanding and contracting wood construction to a soundtrack ripe with stealthy footsteps on boards and the reassuring clucking of unseen poultry in the yard beyond. Beds with grey over-stuffed duvets, fat as ticks, cram into rooms too small to accommodate them. Everywhere there are unexpected spaces, with cupboard-sized rooms crammed under eaves and a wine cellar which provides a suitably claustrophobic setting for a vampire chase. The design aesthetic is European in every sense, but then Polanski is a European director clearly revelling here in the things he knows and loves. The Chagall-ian tavern (the owner is named ‘Shagal’) embodies the character of a shtetl in a way that would never be seen outside a European film, save perhaps in Fiddler on the Roof. In visual terms the film is completely consistent throughout, with nothing of the ‘real’ world to distract from its immaculate construct. Where real landscapes are incorporated, they are melded perfectly with exterior miniatures and with additional painted scenic elements. It’s a twilight landscape of picturesque snow-drifts and ice-bound forests, where characters freeze solid and have to be carried, stiff as boards indoors, to be thawed back into life. (Or in one case, thawed into undead life.)
The castle is the best in any vampire film, ever. Polanski was paying tribute to Hammer Films with the lush, gothic style, but this goes way beyond anything the Hammer studios ever achieved.
The galleried castle courtyard was elaborately designed for the most perfect ‘chase’ gag, made in an unedited take, and it pays off wonderfully. But the film’s triumph of design is the sequence in which Professor Abronsius and Alfred pick their way across the snow-blanketed battlements and roof-scapes of the castle, and as the camera slides sideways to take in the full, wide-screen panoramic loveliness of the architecture against the mountains, the effect is simply breathtaking.
The cast is perfection, with stand-out ensemble work from Polanski as the timid Alfred and Jack MacGowran as a whippet-thin and physically elastic Professor Abronsius, as though Peter Cushing were being played Mr Pastry. Alfie Bass is outstanding as the obsequious innkeeper Shagal, bowing and bobbing in deference to the retreating vampire Count (the supremely elegant Ferdy Mayne) who’s just abducted his daughter. Shagal’s basilisk-eyed termagant of a wife is played by Jessie Robins, and Polanski brilliantly contrasts the couple’s physical disparities to create the sense of Shagal as a hen-pecked husband always doomed to come off worse within the marital state, though always straining to outwit the odds stacked against him. With her mountainous presence under an equally mountainous duvet in their tiny bedroom, he looks as though he’s about to be stifled under an avalanche of snow.
The Count’s shambling henchman, Koukol, is the British boxer Terry Downes, just thirty at the time of the filming, and he is astonishingly good. The character’s presence is one of the sinister/humerous lynchpins anchoring the film. He’s both funny and scary, and lumberingly lethal. (He polishes off an aggressive wolf with his bare hands and teeth!) And then there’s Sharon Tate, luminous as the Shagals’ daughter, Sarah, giving a performance so sweet and pitch perfect to the film that your heart aches for what we lost two years later.
Stand out sequences:
The lyrical yet sinister moment when Tate in her bubble-bath suddenly realises that snow is falling in the room, the window above her having been opened.
The Vampire Ball in which our heroes dance with the undead until the sublime moment when their game is suddenly up.
Crossing the snowbound rooftops of the castle.
A wonderful pursuit of Alfred by Count Von Krolock’s gay vampire son, Herbert, who has goodness knows what mischief in mind. (What I loved about this film both when I saw it on its release, and now, is that Iain Quarrier neither minces or camps, as a gay vampire would in any American or British film of the time (Kenneth Williams in Carry on Screaming), but plays it as a brooding, predatory dandy, like a blonde Lord Byron. It’s refreshing, funny and scary!)
Krzysztof Komeda’s music for the film shimmers with swooping vocal tracks that make a wordless vampiric chorus to the action. The effect is wonderfully atmospheric and spine chilling, and it was a crying shame he wasn’t enlisted to write music for the German stage musical, Dance of the Vampires, in which the magic of the film was utterly vanquished by relentlessly dreary songs, as though someone had pieced the show together from whatever leftovers never made it into Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. You can hear bits online and it’s deeply depressing. Komeda wrote the music for several Polanski films, including Rosemary’s Baby, but in my opinion his triumph was what he produced for Dance of the Vampires.
It’s with huge delight that I can reveal, at last, that my current big project is the commission to illustrate a new Beowulf for The Folio Society, in the acclaimed translation by Seamus Heaney. The illustrations must remain shrouded in secrecy until the book is ready for launch, and I won’t be showing work in progress. Suffice to say that I’m already deeply bedded in the project, awakening every morning excited to be in the thick of it and enormously enjoying the many discussions and planning sessions with my wonderful Folio Society art director, Raquel Leis Allion. But this little vignette is all you’re going to see before the book is published, because we’re keeping the images under lock and key.
I’ve greatly enjoyed the notion of ‘the monster’, whether in novels, in film/tv or in folklore and mythology. Aged eight I was sold on the idea of the ‘Gorgon’ from the first moment I read about her, and the Hydra, too, and the three-headed Cerberus, guard-dog of Hades. As a child, when too young to actually see X-rated films, I pored over imported copies of Famous Monsters of Filmland, so I knew all about the Universal Studios monsters – which were vintage even back in the fifties when they were being given lush spreads in the magazine – long before I ever saw the films themselves. I thrilled to the images of Lon Chaney being unmasked in The Phantom of the Opera, of Bela Lugosi curling back his lips in a pasty-faced vampiric leer, and Karloff sitting in Jack Pierce’s makeup chair being transformed into one of the most iconic monsters of cinema history.
I’m not a fan of all ‘horror’ – in extreme form I find it distasteful – but when makers are creative in producing something that nails you to your seat, the ride can be thrilling. I particularly love it when the scary bits are not too in-your-face. One of the greatest strengths of Alien, is that it pre-dated CGI, and so the fully-grown creature is half-shadowed and all the more alarming for it. I think the best scares in Jurassic Park are in the kitchen where a pair of Velociraptors hunt down the children, because most of what you see is staggeringly clever animatronics and puppetry, made even better by masterful editing. When the monster is actually there, in close contact with the actors, and not just a man in green wielding a ball-on-a-stick to cue their eye-lines for special effects to be added later, there are worlds of difference in the performances.
I’ve particularly enjoyed it when I’ve been given illustration opportunities to engage with old-school classic creatures. For the cover of These Our Monsters (2019, English Heritage), I was able to trace back to Bram Stoker’s account of Vlad Dracula, which was quite an eye-opener because the original descriptions are not remotely like any of the character’s film incarnations. (The cover image here is for The Dark Thread by Graeme Macrae Burnet, who sets his troubling and elegiac short story in Whitby at a time when the mentally fragile Stoker has returned to confront his own creation.)
There were entirely new monsters in the book, too, and I loved creating what Sarah Hall only suggests in The Hand Under the Stone, which is about as close as I’ve ever come to making a monster inhabiting a similar ‘between-worlds’ plane of existence to those found in the ghost stories of M. R. James which I love so much.
I’ve made several varieties of Witch for two quite different books on the theme of Hansel & Gretel, for a stage production in which she was presented via shadow-puppetry, and for a toy theatre for Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop.
My first Hansel & Gretel book was a more or less textless picture-book for St Jude’s in which there was a Witch scary enough to require a warning for more sensitive readers. I made her glaucous-eyed and short-sighted – as witches traditionally were in some folk and fairy-tales, the Grimm Brothers telling of Hansel & Gretel included – but I dressed her in a garment embroidered with eyes to send out a different kind of message. (I stole the idea from a portrait of the first Queen Elizabeth in a gown embroidered with eyes and ears, as a coded message to her subjects – and more particularly her enemies – that the monarch saw all and heard all!)
For the Simon Armitage version of the tale, Hansel & Gretel, a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, I collaborated with paper-cut artist Peter Lloyd, providing him with rough drawings that he then transferred into elaborate stop-motion shadow-puppets. To begin with Hansel and Gretel saw only a crone in a bonnet and cloak, but when the cloak came off, the full horror of a spiny crab-like carapace was revealed, reverse-joint legs – like a bird – and a tail with a stinger that snaked into view and coiled and thrashed about.
When Simon Armitage’s libretto for the stage production was published in 2019 as an illustrated book by Design for Today, I made a monstrous Witch – seen below as she’s turned into a gobstopper when Gretel pushes her into a cauldron of sweets boiled down into molten sugar – and a monstrous personification of the haunted forest, too, wonderfully described by the poet in a text that’s an illustrator’s dream.
Beowulf is jam-packed with the eponymous hero’s encounters with monsters of many varieties. There’s a deep-sea-creature that drags him to watery depths, a dragon he slays – though he becomes fatally wounded in the process – and that arch-monster of literature and father of all horrors that came after him, Grendel, who is of a sufficient size to stuff thirty human corpses into a bag and make off with them. Beowulf tears off Grendel’s arm as a trophy, and the fatally wounded monster slinks away to die ‘off-stage’. We then discover there’s worse waiting in the wings, for Grendel has a mother, and she’s as wrathful as a nest of Asian Hornets on the warpath when she sets out to avenge her son’s death. (And you thought the vengeful mother was invented by the makers of the second Alien film. Turns out that she goes back to Anglo-Saxon literature, and before that to even more ancient mythologies and tales.)
So I am thrilled to be making images of these archetypal monsters, and hopefully in ways that will be unexpected and visceral enough to raise a few hairs at the nape of the neck. But in a good way, of course.
I was – and remain – a big fan of The Avengers. I loved the whimsy and style of the series, the brilliant pairing of the characters John Steed and Mrs Peel, brought so affectionately and stylishly to life by actors Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg, and the way it dipped so regularly into science fiction, weird fiction and a brand of folk-horror that was all its own.
In The Avengers the streets of London could always be relied upon to be strangely empty – which had the bonus of intensifying the tone of the series and foregrounding the players – and the countryside to be charmingly picturesque and devoid of eyesores. With droll dialogue and unexpected plots, each episode was a pitch-perfect jewel of escapist tv drama, and moreover was never un-balanced by overwrought visuals. The designers and special effects departments worked on a rigorously spare budget, and the constraint made everyone infinitely more inventive. Rigg and Macnee were masters of the quip and the ironic raised eyebrow, so that wherever the implausibilities of the plots would have tripped up more earnest actors, Steed and Mrs Peel instead exchanged knowing looks, poured glasses of restorative champagne and roared off in a convertible to the next chapter. (Or as below, trundled off on the back of a milk-float!)
The Hour That Never Was logged in at episode nine in the fourth series. As so often in the series … because actors know a good thing … it had a sterling supporting cast including Gerald Harper and Roy Kinnear. (The Avengers could always be relied upon for wonderful guest actors.)
Central to the plot of The Hour That Never Was, was a milk-float and a dead milkman. The United Dairies vehicle was an iconic one on the early-morning streets of the country, and there was a popular die-cast Triang toy of it.
My friend Simon Shaw, who is an aficionado of British tv/cinema horror and science fiction, has been busy producing wonderfully inventive models and figures for his Hobbs Lane Etsy Store. (He recently added a glow-in-the-dark possessed bed-sheet to his shop, based on the wonderful Jonathan Miller tv play Whistle and I’ll Come to You, starring Michael Hordern and adapted from the M R James short story Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.) Having found a vintage Triang milk-float in an extremely play-worn condition, he sanded it down (actually he got his ninety-four year old dad to do that bit for him), re-painted it in new livery and then added 3-D printed elements, including milk-crates and the body of the deceased milkman, to make a perfect miniature replica of The Hour That Never Was vehicle right down to the correct number-plate. Then he boxed it in a commercially available reprint of the packaging, adding bespoke stickers to complete the effect. Brilliant!
Hats off to Simon for ingenuity in this charming ‘homage’ to a series so many of us remember with great affection. And yes, dear reader, I did acquire it, to go alongside some of the other memorabilia of tv I’ve loved, including several boxed sets of characters featuring Jo Grant from Doctor Who, given to me by the girl herself, Katy Manning, who’s my much loved cousin.
In 1964 Hammer Films released its Terence Fisher-directed horror, The Gorgon. It was an elegant and unexpected addition to the Hammer canon, taking as its titular ‘monster’ a creature borrowed from Greek mythology.
The studio was rather good at creating female ‘monsters’, The Reptile in 1966 being a significant success, as was The Countess Dracula in 1971.
Working out of Bray Studios, what Hammer Films lacked in budget, they more than made up for in lushly gothic design and brooding atmosphere. Their teams of writers, directors, set and costume designers, make-up artists, matte and model artists and composers, created a rich seam of cinematic horror. They re-invented the old monsters of the Universal Studios – Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Mummy among them – in ways that found completely new audiences. The films were largely strongly European in their settings, with brooding Carpathian castles looming over villages where peasants lived in dread of their vampiric overlords.
The cast was stellar: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Richard Pascoe, with Barbara Shelley in the role of Carla Hoffman. Shelley was the studio’s top female star. With her rich auburn hair, evenly chiselled features and low voice, she brought gravity as well as beauty to all her roles. In Carla she played a distaff to that horror staple – the werewolf – by being transformed at full moon into Megeara the Gorgon, whose dreadful stare turns human flesh to stone, the premise for which is the ‘serial killer’ heart of the story.
Fisher and his team were concerned that transforming Shelley into the Gorgon was going to create multiple difficulties. The story required the creature’s true identity be revealed only toward the end of the film, but given there were to be several close-ups of the monster’s ‘killer stare’, it was believed the deceit would be hard to pull off were Shelley to be under the make-up. There was also the matter of time. Transforming Shelley’s classic looks into Megeara would hold up filming on a regular basis, so despite the fact that she was very keen to play the character in both manifestations, no matter the discomforts involved, it was decided to use another actress who might plausibly represent a grotesque version of her, up to the point when the duality is revealed.
Enter Prudence Hyam, an actor and retired ballet dancer who Fisher and his team believed would have the necessary performance skills to embody the elegant, poisonous intensity they hoped to achieve in the Gorgon, yet be up to the rigours of of the uncomfortable physical demands. Hyam didn’t disappoint. She cheerfully submitted to the heavy headpiece hiding the snake mechanisms under her wig, which was over seven pounds in weight. She wore bloodshot, full-sclera contact lenses that in these early days of the technology were not at all comfortable.
This short clip shows Prudence in full make-up and towelling dressing-gown, marching out of the Bray Studios make-up department having hitched the cumbersome loops of snake-mechanism cable-controls over her shoulder, while make-up man Roy Ashton follows with the box that will operate everything out of shot. Hyam looks like a woman not to be put off by seven pounds of special-effects attached to her head!
Hyam clearly didn’t have any problem with playing a character deemed to be ‘monstrous’. One gets the sense she was a performer to her core, relishing the challenges and an opportunity to be evil.
When the Gorgon makes her first appearance in Castle Borski, it’s a moment of spine-chilling unease. Cobwebs billow as she emerges from behind them, a simple effect that adds to the sense of predatory malevolence. Hyam was on a small wheeled platform that created a gliding trajectory – rather like the one employed under Josette Day in Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Béte – and her dancer’s posture wedded to an icy intensity of expression, makes the moment unforgettable.
The set is one which fans of Hammer will know from several films, instantly recognisable by the colonnaded gallery encircling the entrance hallway and the stairway that’s so effective in terms of staging low-angle dramatic moments. Here the space is tellingly furnished with the life-sized hulk of a headless and decaying classical statue, a queasy clue as to what haunts its shadowy recesses.
The Gorgon is not a film without flaws. But having seen it, despite its X-certificate, when I was just thirteen – the local flea-pit cinema never having ever turned down a ticket-purchase on the grounds of age – the memory of it has stayed with me for a lifetime. The appearance of the Gorgon herself has attracted occasionally – in my opinion – unfair comment from critics, with jibes about the character’s design deficiencies. But the jerky rubber snakes and the the too-obvious scaly skin appliances notwithstanding, her appearance gives the film moments of genuine horror, and Hyam’s fierce intensity as she glides out to literally petrify her victims, has persisted in my dreams for five and a half decades. So many times the mood of that colonnaded gallery with its monstress glimmering as green-as-absinthe in the cobwebby shadows has nudged into my work, whether in Neo-Romantic paintings of mood-drenched ruins, or in the creepy filmed sequences of interiors I made for the stage production of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes.
Soon there is to be a little tribute to the Gorgon, in all her basilisk-eyed venomousness, in a little project I currently have on the go. Watch this space.
Those who deserve credit:
Director: Terence Fisher
Music: James Bernard
Cinematography: Michael Reed
Editor: Eric Boyd Perkins
Production Design: Bernard Robinson
Art Direction: Don Mingaye
Make-up: Roy Ashton
And lastly, Prudence herself, who so memorably added to the canon of movie grotesques, and deserves to be better credited and celebrated.
I’ve had this card for most of my life. Say hello to Ethel Marion Foreman, born in 1887 and died in 1976. Marion was an actress and the first wife of actor Basil Rathbone. While performing with Frank Benson’s Shakespeare company, Rathbone met and fell in love with her. He wrote:
“Marion Foreman had been on the stage for some time before I met her at Stratford on Avon in August 1913. She was an excellent actress with a beautiful speaking and singing voice. Both on and off the stage we saw much of each other for many months.”
The couple were married at the church of St. Luke, Battersea, London, on October 3, 1914. The following July their son Rodion was born. The Rathbones divorced in 1926. Marion believed they would come together again, though that was not to be. Much later the Hollywood ‘press’ presented their marriage as an indiscretion of ardent youth, and she’s barely mentioned in Rathbone’s autobiography. Rathbone was reunited with his grown son Rodrion when the young man tried his hand as an actor in Hollywood, and indeed lived for a time with Rathbone and his wife, Ouida. The evident warmth between father, son and stepmother as expressed in the movie magazines was not to last, and the three were estranged after Rodion and his wife felt that their wedding had been hijacked by Ouida as a Hollywood ‘society event’. (Ouida was her husband’s manager, and by all accounts was a very busy networker.) Rathbone’s Hollywood career placed him on a high pedestal of achievement and success, but his staginess was not to everyone’s taste. The renowned stage actor and wit, Mrs Patrick Campbell, described him in her autobiography as “an umbrella taking elocution lessons.”
Around or about 1956 in Newport, Monmouthshire, my mother Dorothy was getting anxious, believing that I should speak with no trace of the accent she was convinced would hold me back in life. I was five when she delivered me to ‘Madam Rathbone’ for elocution lessons. I recall very little of the lessons beyond the room in her house in which they took place, whch was airy though dark with heavy furniture and the glimmer of silver frames containing photographs on many polished surfaces, including the piano. Madam R would have been in her late sixties at the time, which to me seemed incredibly old, and she wore black. What her connections to Newport may have been or why she lived there, I have no idea. Her address has survived and bears the name ‘Rathbone House’ in Serpentine Road, not far from Newport Civic Centre. (My thanks to Stephen Lyons for that information.)
I was an obedient student and a quick learn. I could imitate with skill. By the time Madam Rathbone was through with me my speaking voice had changed forever. What you hear today is how I spoke when I emerged from her tutelage. Later, as a young actor in my early teens, already I sounded like something out of my time, forever cast as toffs.
I look at Marion Foreman in the photograph, in her teens or twenties, from an earlier age of the performing arts that seems almost inconceivable to us in the first quarter of the 21st century. Marion was born a Victorian, and she bequeathed me the speaking voice I have today.
Obituary of Marion Foreman
1887 – 1976
“Miss Marion Foreman, the Shakesperean actress, died at Denville Hall, Northwood, on September 8. She was 89. One of the oldest surviving members of Frank Benson’s company at its meridian, she played in many Stratford upon Avon festivals. Benson held that she was the best Viola in his experience.
Born on June 2, 1887, Ethel Marion Foreman went on the stage when she was 15. At Stratford before the First World War she was in those famous seasons remembered as idyllic and intimate, that were led by a dedicated visionary. With Benson, too, she toured North America during 1930 – 40, acting Jessica, Gertrude and Ann Page for a company that included, beside her husband the young Basil Rathbone, such celebrated classical players as Randle Ayrton, Dorothy Green and Murray Carrington. A ready and endearing actress (in her day applauded as Juliet and Ophelia), she was also an expert fencer.
During the summer of 1919 she and her husband – who would become as well known in the cinema as he was in the theatre – returned to Stratford for the first festival directed by W. Bridges-Adams. Between wars she acted a great deal in the United States. When finally she retired to settle at Newport, she directed, for charity, performances of Macbeth (1939), playing opposite Donald Wolfit at Caerphilly Castle before the Princess Royal. She also directed at two other castles: a Macbeth at Chepstow and Hamlet at Usk. Respected as a teacher, lecturer and adjudicator, she put on many Shakespearian and modern plays among the Welsh miners with whom her association was always understanding and affectionate.
Her marriage to Basil Rathbone (by whom she had a son) was dissolved.”
UPDATE: I am most grateful to Stephen Lyons for the following information about Ethel Marion Foreman:
Ethel Marion Foreman was born in Stepney, London. Her father Edward was a Superintendent of Baths and Gymnastics Director. Sometime between 1891 and 1895 he moved his family to Wales, where he took up a job with Newport Corporation. In 1939 Marion was living at 1 Serpentine road, and was a Drama Lecturer, Producer and Actress. She was also volunteering as an Ambulance Driver.