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.
In 2016 I was already partway through a planned fourteen print series exploring the themes of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, when the poet Simon Armitage unexpectedly appeared and asked whether the prints, when completed, might be available to illustrate a forthcoming ‘revision’ of his translation, due out from Faber & Faber in 2018. My print collaborator, Dan Bugg of Penfold Press who was publishing the series, was as keen as I to take this heaven-sent opportunity, even though it meant we’d have to get our skates on, as the original intention had been to publish just two prints a year for seven years. It was Simon Armitage’s 2007 translation that had been our inspiration for the series, and a dog-eared copy of it had been at my side throughout the work completed to that point.
Simon was a thoughtful collaborator. He let me have my head, and although my emphasis in many of the images was different to how he saw things, he was invariably gracious and allowed me leeway. There were aspects of the poem I’d been wayward with in my translations to images. Before the agreement with him and Faber, I’d been freely interpreting the poem as I wished. For reasons too numerous to bore you with here, I’d changed the Pentangle on Gawain’s shield to a Star of David. The print had already been made, showing a six-pointed star rather than the five-pointed one described – at length – in the poem.
Simon listened carefully to my reasons for the change. He said that if I were determined to stick to my guns, he would support me in my decision, but that I should know it would cause problems among academics and readers who would notice. I admired him for that, and without hesitation agreed to make the change. I couldn’t make it to the edition of seventy-five prints already out in the world, but I could digitally adjust the image that appeared in the new book. I say I, but in fact I have no digital skills, and so the work was undertaken as a favour by my friend, digital printmaker, Mark Brown. Mark also re-coloured Gawain’s sash green in another image, where I’d bleached the green in a twilight setting. Simon lobbied for a greener sash, and he got it.
David Lowery has taken liberties, too, in his film interpretation of the story. That’s not a bad thing. Artists and directors need to be free to ‘adapt’ literary sources. A poem is far from a film, or even a painting – or a print. The film has to work entirely through its visuals. There are the words too, of course, but the way a film looks is what it will stand or fall by.
Clearly I’m not the only one to have a problem with the colour green. Lowery and his designers have bleached their eponymous Knight to an ashen grey/blue with barely a vestige of green. What works for me when he appears, is less his appearance than the truly spectacular sound editing that so compellingly and viscerally announces his presence. (I can’t recall anything in previous films even close to the artistry achieved with the clop of hooves, creak of leather and the belching breath of the horse in this scene.)
My anxieties about the colour green were all about avoiding any possibility of the Green Knight looking silly. The descriptions of him in the poem are unequivocal. He is both a man:
“a fearful form appeared framed in the door: a mountain of a man, immeasurably high, a hulk of a human fromhead to hips, so long and thick in his loins and limbs I should genuinely judge him to be half giant, or a most massive man, the mightiest of mortals.”
but also, green:
“Amazement seized their minds, no soul had ever seen a Knight of such a kind – entirely emerald green.”
So not even plain green, but ’emerald green’, which is a hard thing to pull off in a world where the Jolly Green Giant and the Wicked Witch of the West have set a precedent in bright green that’s common currency today, though would not have been for the original readers of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in their medieval world.
Lowery’s Green Knight is splendidly filmic, man-shaped, but not in the slightest bit fleshy, more of a mash-up of the Winter King and and the Forest Giants of the Lord of the Rings films. Twiggy and somewhat desiccated, you sense he’d bleed not blood, but sap. This distances us from him. He doesn’t have the vulnerability of a man’s flesh and blood, that too-slender fragile neck-stem of skin, muscle and bone awaiting the decapitating blow of an axe. By turning the Green Knight into a character that appears entirely un-fleshy, the inhumanity of decapitation as a wager is less powerfully repellent than were he a man.
Decapitation is pretty much an unsurmountable problem, for film-makers and artists. In a world where terrorists perform such atrocities for the dark web, execution by decapitation remains the thing that is too dreadful to show on news channels or in documentaries, and rightly so. It can be inept and agonising when performed by hand, far from the swift efficiency of the guillotine. Even in drama, where CGI makes all things possible, decapitations are the events from which, for the most part – the schlockier film-makers aside – the camera averts its implacable eye. I was relieved beyond expression when in the TV adaptation of Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies, the execution of Anne Boleyn was off-screen. Claire Foy’s horror alone was knee-trembling enough to make me lose sleep for nights thereafter. In the poem the axe-blow to the Green Knight is described in detail, as is what follows, when the headless yet still-standing Green Knight retrieves what has been lopped from his shoulders:
“For that scalp and skull now swung from his fist; to the noblest at the table he turned the face and it opened its eyelids, stared straight ahead and spoke this speech, which you’ll hear for yourselves:”
So, another element which though fresh in its day, has since been rendered a cliché by every film in which some Viking/Roman/Barbarian/Troll, strides to camera bearing a head swinging by its hair from a clenched fist, and it was one I went twelve times around the block to avoid in my illustration of the moment. This is how, after much trial and error, I showed the Green Knight bearing his own head, counterbalancing him with his caparisoned horse, ears back and eye rolling in terror. The poem describes the great spurt of blood from the wound, but that too felt clichéd when I attempted it, and so I abandoned the description and made instead a strange, unfurling organic blood-cloud, like a fungi springing from his truncated neck.
Arthur’s Court, in the poem, is young and vibrant. The rot we know is coming – in later accounts of the Arthurian myth – has yet to get underway:
“All these fair folk in their first age, together in the hall: most fortunate under heaven, with Arthur, that man of high will; no bolder hand could ever be found on field or hill.”
Gawain is a privileged and yet, up until now, untried youth. We discover he is pure of heart and steeped in the chivalric code of medieval Knights. He is undoubtedly a virgin, and the only woman who has him, body and soul, is the Queen of Heaven to whom he dedicates himself. When armed for his quest, his shield-lining bears an image of the Virgin and Christ child.
I like the premise in the film, so different to the poem, that the court of Camelot is ageing. Lowery gives us a King bone-weary from a hard life, and a grizzled Guinevere, ramrod straight and glitteringly armoured with tiny metallic talismans worn like a breastplate against harm. Unexpectedly Arthur speaks in dialect. The pair look sick and tired, like weary saints in icons, complete with halo-like devices fastened to their crowns that gleam in the half-light.
When reading from the slip of parchment deposited on the round table by the Green Knight, Guinevere, like a medium channeling the dead, delivers the challenge in a voice not her own. In response, Arthur admits he is too old to face down the Green Knight, and appeals to his court for a champion. Steps forward Gawain, his nephew. Everything to this point is engaging. Afterwards, not so much. When the Green Knight takes the fatal blow, it doesn’t amount to anything, because he’s not really a man, and so there’s no fragility in him and therefore no tragedy. Behind Gawain’s back, the corpse stirs and lurches to its feet, a moment that might make the flesh creep, but doesn’t. There’s no sense of dread, or more critically, of impossibility. Nothing is surprising here, because the Green Knight is so patently unreal.
A year later, Gawain steps out to meet the Green Knight’s challenge, to accept a blow the equal of the one he gave, no matter the consequences. In the poem he’s armoured by the King, magnificently encased in engraved and jewelled plate metal. His trials are not described in detail in the poem, though we know they entail battles with serpents (dragons), ogres and ‘woodwoses’ (wild men). With no ‘squire’ attendant to unfasten him from his elaborate armour, he’s effectively sealed into it, travelling, sleeping, fighting, sweating and steaming in the equivalent of a pressure cooker. In the film he is not so encumbered. Neither is he the lithe and practised fighter of the poem, and when he has run-in with the wonderfully creepy feral-boy, Scavenger (Barry Keoghan pitch-prefect in the role), Gawain comes off the worst, and loses his weapons, his shield, his money and his horse, Gringolet.
There is a GGI fox which mercifully talks only briefly, but departs without leaving any impression on the story. (A real fox would have worked so much better. Foxes are infinitely stranger and more beautiful than anything cooked up in a computer animation programme.)
Eventually Gawain seeks respite from his journey at a sumptuous castle where an un-named Lord and Lady welcome and shower him with affection and favours. The Lady (Alicia Vikander) gets jiggly with Gawain in his bedchamber, and the encounter has none of the almost unendurable sexual tension of the poem, where her verbal duelling with the sleep-befuddled and embarrassed young man is so dazzling that every time I read it I find myself holding my breath in anxiety that her husband might burst in. (Or get wind of the shenanigans.) In the poem Gawain is aware – and ashamed of – his nakedness, covered only by a bedsheet in the presence of the Lady, though he is unaware of his own beauty, described so alluringly by the poet. So we can picture clearly, in imagination, the gulf between her worldliness and sexual teasing, and his vulnerability and confusion. (Mrs Robinson and Benjamin in The Graduate.)
Counterpointing these exchanges, verses describing the hunting, killing and butchering of animals by the Lord of the castle add a bloody and steaming physicality, as he too appears to be intent on sexual games, demanding from his young houseguest the gifts (kisses) his wife has elicited from Gawain while he was cornered beneath his flimsy bedsheet. (We’ve witnessed that there was rather more than kisses exchanged, but the film ducks that.) In the poem the episode of the castle where Gawain is wooed is full of unease because he is a sexually innocent and deeply honourable young man endeavouring to be polite in the face of predatory behaviour. By contrast in the film we know him to be sexually experienced, so there’s no tension when Lady Bertilak mounts him in his bed and we get the swift, unnecessary shot of ejaculate on the hand with which he grasps the green belt that’s the token of her ‘affection’.
Chivalry is the foundation on which everything in the poem is built. But in the film the codes of chivalry don’t exist, and without them, everything that transpires is meaningless and unanchored. It’s glacial in pace, which initially invests it with a sense of gravitas, though that palls as we realise the meandering narrative is yielding little to keep us engaged. Gawain meets giants plodding in slow motion across a misty landscape, but nothing happens. He has an odd meeting with the ghost of St Winifred, martyred by decapitation but still hanging around asking for her head to be retrieved from a nearby pond/stream/sinkhole and reunited with her decomposed corpse, laid out on a bed. Gawain obliges.
At the Green Chapel we arrive at the encounter toward which the entire trajectory of the narrative has led. The poem gives us another spectacular entrance by the Green Knight, Gawain bowing his head to receive the axe blow to his neck, and all the threads of the tale coming together in the revelation of what underlay the Green Knight’s challenge at Camelot and who was responsible for it. In the film we know from the start that Gawain’s mother conjured the Green Knight, and so all that remains at the chapel is for the challenge to be completed. Gawain discovers his nemesis sleeping, and has to wait patiently for him to revive. It’s deadly dull, a damp squib and ends with an ungainly scrabble of an escape. A cluttered, decades-leaping montage later, we learn that we were not shown all that transpired at the Green Chapel, but by then I’d stopped caring. Odd that in the twenty-first century, this film-maker has produced a second, much-anticipated meeting between Gawain and the Green Knight, that is decidedly less cinematic than the account offered by the medieval poet.
My misgivings don’t extend to the performances. Dev Patel, Sean Harris, Alicia Vikander and Barry Keoghan are excellent. (Sean Harris’s King is infinitely more interesting than the Arthur of the poem, who seems a cardboard cut-out by comparison – though of course that was intended by the poet.) If Patel seems to me to be too mature for the role, that’s because I have the fixed view of Gawain as an innocent, physically tough though barely out of boyhood. But that’s what I get from the poem, and it’s not how the character is presented here, where he’s dissolute and an untrustworthy lover from the start of the film. Throughout The Green Knight we’re offered intriguing scenes and visual treats, though there are worrying and atmosphere-destroying errors of judgement. The Lady at the un-named castle inventing the pinhole camera in the Middle Ages, and the Green Knight exiting Camelot cackling like a Disney villain, are frankly wince-making moments.
Jade Healy’s production design is bleak though beguiling, and costume work by Malgosia Turzanska is great right up to the moment when suddenly, at the end, a new character appears who’s a dead-ringer for Padmé Amidala in The Phantom Menace. What impressed me more than anything in this film was the music by Daniel Hart, which will stay with me for a long time, not least because I’ve purchased it and plan to read the poem while listening to it.
For over three years I was completed immersed in the world of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as I produced the fourteen prints and the Faber book. I read the poem every working day, often from beginning to end. I knew the characters and their experiences inside out. I made thousands of drawings. Nevertheless I was fully prepared to set all that aside so as to be able to experience a different telling of the tale. I longed for a different version, something I could lose myself in. I love cinema, and an underlying passion for the history of film underpins a lot of my work. (The book I’ve just finished illustrating, Beauty and Beast, is a paean to Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Béte, a film I’ve loved for over fifty years.) But here there was just too much borrowed from the poem, yet without the context that would have made sense of it. The film-makers should have perhaps detached themselves further from the text than they did. I acknowledge that the complex codes of chivalry are not anything a modern audience would understand or have sympathy with, but a simplified expression of them could have better supported the narrative of a knightly quest. Gawain is not everyman. He’s not ‘one of the boys’ who we identify with because he’s just like us. His code of honour drives him, and would make him uneasy company in any age. He has something in common with the character played by Edward Woodward in another film with roots in what’s now known as folk/horror, The Wicker Man, who we discover late in the story is a virgin, which accounts for the way he behaves and places him as an annoyingly principled outsider. The poet’s Gawain is an outsider, too. He may glitter with youth and idealism and the borrowed trappings of jewelled armour, but he is a loner. No-one wins his heart, which is set on higher things. He begins and ends the poem alone, and there seems very little chance of a good outcome for him beyond the conclusion.
Gawain appears in subsequent Arthurian stories from other hands, though never again as a central character. Placed at the periphery he is not the hero any longer, but a Knight grown sour with age and disappointment.
The past months have seen me pleasurably employed in a second collaboration with Sussex Lustreware designing imagery for their forthcoming range, Harlequinade. This has been a bit of a dream project for me, and one which I suggested to Gloria on the coat-tails of our collaboration earlier this year, when illustrations I’d made as the chapter headings for Marly Youman’s 2020 novel, Charis in the World of Wonders, were re-purposed as lustre-embellished decorations on the Sussex Lustreware World of Wonders range. Gloria and I got used to working around each other on World of Wonders, and on Harlequinade her glorious freehand lustre embellishments suggesting the swags of theatre curtains and the flashes and arabesques that conjure the glitter and tinsel of the stage, are perfect companions.
For the yet to be released Harlequinade range of plates, bowls, trinket-boxes, mugs, jugs and a teapot, I used my life-long love of Victorian Toy Theatre as inspiration, turning to my collection of toy theatre ephemera for inspiration.
All design from historic sources requires adaptation, and in order to make images that fit the various available spaces on the china, and to ensure that the designs have consistency across the range, I’ve reworked – and occasionally reinvented – material from many diverse sources. Toy theatres were produced by a host of print publishers over hundreds of years, who all had their favourite artists. Although overall the toy theatre ‘style’ had something of a consistency, close examination shows many different hands at work, and those wrinkles needed to be ironed out for the purposes of re-presenting the characters here, for a new generation to appreciate. Here you will find the stock characters that were originally lifted from the Italian Commedia dell’arté, Harlequin, Columbine, Pantaloon and Clown, together with a handful of interlopers such as the god Neptune, in his shell chariot drawn by mer-horses – because Harlequinades loved to have a good spattering of the mythic/fantastic – and the fairies so essential to Victorian (and contemporary) pantomime.
There are the tradespeople who had their goods filched by Clown, and the performing dogs and circus horses so appreciated by 19th century theatre-goers. (In the age before motor cars, trained horses were so popular that specialised indoor arenas were devoted to equestrian spectacles, and to this day some theatres bear witness to their previous lives in the name, Hippodrome.)
My collaborator David W. Slack and I have been busy together making some animations to promote Harlequinade in the run-up to its launch. I draw and David animates, though we could as easily reverse that as David is a wonderful artist as well as an animator, and I too am an artist who also animates. It makes the collaboration particularly pleasurable, as we always understand what the other is doing, and the challenges of the work. Watch this space. There are more on the way.
I first saw Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film of La Belle et la Bête in the early 1960s. Before the age of video I recollected the film from that first, single viewing, for years running it over and over in my head, remembering, and very likely misremembering it, until the ‘video’ age dawned when everything could be acquired and watched at will. So for most of my life, one way or another, the film has been my companion. I’ve thought about it, watched it scores of times, analysed it and dreamt about it.
Now I’m making a book of the story, with my collaborator, the poet Olivia McCannon. It started out as a full homage to Cocteau’s interpretation, but through development has turned into something quite different: a new, reinvented version of the story, in which together Olivia and I acknowledge the film’s influence while finding our own own creative path.
There are several places in the book in which I want to visually capture my memories of watching sequences of the film when the camera ‘panned’ horizontally to reveal spaces by degrees. Beauty’s bedchamber was chief among these sequences.
Cocteau remarks in Diary of a Film how visitors to the studio loved exploring Beauty’s bedroom. Walls made of scrim allowed lights to be shone through them and created dissolving vistas of the garden sets beyond, and I imagine that must have made it a strangely liminal space for the actors to work in, finding themselves un-anchored and floating between worlds. Beauty’s bed, voluptuously draped with fur under its canopy of muslin, seems like a boat in this strange sea, and everywhere the glimmer and sheen of opulence.
It’s heady stuff. But the screen ratio of the time was undoubtedly confining, and so a panorama is suggested rather than attained, with the horizontally moving camera the director’s tool to take the audience on a tour of his creation.
By using a double-page spread, I have a ‘panoramic’ shape in which to set my illustration.
With no camera point-of-view to slow the reveal of my illustration, I rely on making an image that offers up all its elements slowly, to halt a headlong rush past them. So Beauty’s ‘enchanted’ looking-glass, is not a rectangular, framed mirror on a table, as it is in the film…
… but a full dressing-table with incorporated looking-glass, half veiled in a flimsy sheet, seen below in a detail from the final render. The time it takes to decipher the object, slows down the viewer, who must pause to better understand it.
And because I have no recourse to Georges Auric’s shimmering, orchestral film score, I set imagined breezes through the composition, ruffling the veils and sending leaves skittering, so the image ‘suggests’ a soundtrack where there is none.
Most people read an image left to right, and so we begin with the bed, with its vertically compressed canopy and hangings which stream out to carry the eye further into the composition, to the Caryatid with candles on her head, the veiled dressing-table and shell-backed chair, up to the bowed balcony overlooking the garden with the Beast’s pavilion/treasury shining in the twilight. (Or it might be an empty birdcage, swinging in the window.) Winds feature in the film whenever the strange is present: Beauty’s father is buffeted by a silent wind when he attempts to pour wine from a pitcher at the Beast’s table, and again at the moment when his previously unseen host appears in the garden, enraged by the theft of a rose.)
There’s no room here for the towering furniture and high ceilings of the Doré engravings that had so influenced Cocteau when he was planning the film. Budgetary constraints dictated his sets could not be spacious and airy. For the most part the interiors, painted black to hide their true proportions in darkness, are conjured by deploying accent features: the architecturally elaborate fireplace supported by living statues, towering stone doorways that dwarf Beauty and the iconic passageway of pale, disembodied arms holding candelabras that magically light when needed. With studio space limited, the bedchamber, while not large, is the most elaborate set in terms of textures, shimmering claustrophobically like a fevered dream. On her bed, swaddled in finery which practically disables her, Beauty appears frozen in the gleam of satin and roped pearls, as the hangings press in suffocatingly.
To mimic something of the character of Cocteau’s vision, an ornate border contains the illustration, compressing and tightening the space, so that it too will press in on whoever enters it. There are birds in the border, but I think of them as being pretty paper-cut decorations, because the Beast’s twilight kingdom in the film has no birds. Not in frame, and not on the soundtrack.
An exhibition of all the original artwork for Beauty & Beast, opens at Martin Tinney Galley, Cardiff, in October.
Work continues on my collaboration with poet Olivia McCannon on a new retelling of Beauty and the Beast, to be published by Design for Today. Working with Olivia is a revelation. Ideas bat back and forward between us in e-mails, and I find the conversations to be revelatory. We both make discoveries through the processes of discussion, exploring connections and explaining new ideas to each other, and I find that the e-mails and all the ideas they contain are as equal a source of the images I’m making as her evolving text. Recently Olivia wrote to me that she believed there was a rich seam to be considered in regard to Cocteau’s casting of the role of the Goddess Diana in the 1946 film, and that’s opened a whole treasury of possibilities about the living statues, which we’ve adopted for our own version of the story, and how their origins might be explored.
In another e-mail she wrote thrillingly of her imagined source of the jewels the Beast bestows on Beauty, and afterwards I could barely sleep for a week with excitement in anticipation of the images that were evolving in my head out of her ideas.
At this stage I can explain no more. While I enjoy sharing the creative processes of making images, in this instance I don’t want to offer them before they’ve been realised and the book published. Suffice to say that this is going to be a version of Beauty and the Beast like no other.
From an Instagram conversation with artist, Dinny Pocock
Dinny: It’s fascinating to see these (sketchbook) pages. By the naming of the characters it would seem – on the surface – ‘easier’ to portray the nature of the beast, but you give Belle such strength and expression. It’s overwhelming.
Clive: Finding the hearts of the characters has been quite the journey of discovery on this project. The Beast’s appearance occupied me more at the start, because there is an undoubted allure in creating a ‘monster’. I found that what worked wonderfully in the 1946 film with an actor in an ingenious makeup, didn’t translate well to the page. When I stuck too closely to portraying Jean Marais’ Beast, mine looked worryingly like a teddy bear with fangs. So a lot of effort went into finding a balance that referenced the Marais/Cocteau creation, but took it where it needed to go in order to work on paper. I had to reconfigure the face, de-humanise the eyes and create an underlying carnivorous ferocity, all while holding on to a sense of the noble. I studied big cats, but far more profitably in terms of inspiration, hyenas. As for finding Beauty, that’s been in nearly every way, the harder task. I knew that to make this work it wouldn’t be enough to portray physical loveliness. Crucially the important things are what underpin the surface of the character. She’s fearful, conflicted, uncertain and unanchored. That’s a lot to suggest. I’m pleased you find the studies of her to be moving. It’s what I hope for in the book.
Below: stages of the character design process begin with studying and making drawings of the the film, but then move on to many sketches and maquettes:
I’m happy to make the formal announcement that Olivia McCannon and I are currently collaborating on our exploration of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, which will be published by Joe Pearson at Design for Today. The project began with Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film La Belle et la Bête, though while inspired by that masterwork of cinema, our version is increasingly evolving its own character. I sometimes say that it’s not so much a version of Cocteau’s film, than a dream we’ve had of it. (I’ve been dreaming about La Belle et la Bête a lot recently.)
Olivia McCannon is a poet and translator. Her collection Exactly My Own Length (Carcanet) won the Fenton Aldeburgh Prize and was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Prize. A new collection, Z, is forthcoming. She has translated the poetry of Louise Labé and Ariane Dreyfus, and a Balzac novel (Penguin Classics). Her doctoral research at Newcastle University (Northern Bridge/AHRC-funded) considers the potential of poetry and translation as ‘arts of living on a damaged planet’. She is currently collaborating with Clive Hicks-Jenkins on an illustrated Beauty and Beast that is both a response to Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film of La Belle et la Bête and a poetic regeneration of the story’s sources.
Clive Hicks-Jenkins has developed a reputation as an artist who works with poets. For over a decade he’s collaborated closely with the American poet Marly Youmans, producing book-jackets and page decorations for her anthologies and novels. His illustrations will accompany Simon Armitage’s new translation of the medieval poem The Owl and the Nightingale, to be published by Faber next year. Beauty and Beast will be Clive Hicks-Jenkins third collaboration with publisher Joe Pearson at Design for Today, and his first with Olivia McCannon.
In 2019 Design for Today published Simon Armitage’s Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes with illustrations by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. Armitage and Hicks-Jenkins had worked previously on the Faber & Faber 2018 illustrated edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but it was the illustrations for their second book collaboration, Hansel & Gretel, that caught the attention of the judges of the V&A Illustration Awards, resulting in the artist being named the winner of the 2020 V&A Illustrated Book Award. Design for Today has just published Clive Hicks-Jenkins’ picture book The Bird House in their ‘Bantam’ series.
I’ve long held a passion for Paul Wegener’s 1920 film of The Golem, based on the Jewish legend of the biddable man made by Rabbi Loew out of clay. (Though of course things don’t go quite as intended and the creature conjured into life develops a mind of its own.)
Wegener recruited architect Hans Poelzig as set designer for what would turn out to be the most extraordinary depiction of a Jewish ghetto made in the style that’s now described as ‘Plastic Expressionism’ after the modelled shapes and textured surfaces of the sets, as opposed to the previous ‘German Expressionism’ used by historian’s for films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in which the sets were flat surface constructions with all elements, from the skewed architecture to the angled shadows and shafts of light, painted onto them.
Poelzig’s atmospheric sketches from his Golem project-book were translated into a Prague Ghetto of perspective-defying labyrinthine streets, alleyways and courtyards where high gables and witch’s hat rooftops twist out of true over buildings that slouch and slump under the weight. Wegener filled it with roiling rivers of extras in a horrifying crush of humanity and it’s hard to believe the crammed effects were achieved with any degree of safety for the participants.
Below: a meandering street of the Jewish ghetto seen here under construction. As the director’s fixed position cameras would be set up to film from carefully selected angles, the buildings could be created as thin facades over scaffolds.
Below: this image demonstrates the wonderful textures of plasterwork on the sets for The Golem as carried out by the UFA scenic department.
For the interiors Poelzig turned to a sculptor – and later wife – Marlene Moeschke, who shaped rooms for The Golem resembling the ribbed and arcing interior forms of seashells.
Above: Moeschke’s model for the Rabbi’s laboratory, and below, the set.
The laboratory was a particular triumph when meticulously recreated at full scale for the filming. Though it’s been over half a century since I first saw fragments of The Golem as a teenager, the images still make the hairs at the nape of my neck stand on end. Marlene Moeschke’s contribution to the film has rather too often been overshadowed by Poelzig’s, so it was heartening to see her acknowledged and her models foregrounded in the excellent 2016 exhibition ‘Golem’ at the Jewish Museum Berlin.