Monthly Archives: October 2013

What Halloween Is, As I Grow Older

I don’t much enjoy Halloween. It’s that one day of the year when I feel less special than everybody else; my life-long, questing obsession demoted to candy-filching and drunken carousing. In the words of Maila Nurmi, better known as Vampira: ‘My whole life has been a Halloween party!’ – but an idealised Halloween party, devoid of candies and alcohol, which resides only in my imagination. The title is an obvious swipe from Dickens’ phenomenal Christmas essay, but there’s also a deeper link. I’ve taken a moment to reflect on the interconnectedness of all things Halloween in my development (a continuing process, I hope). What became clear is that the Halloweenian been life-shaping in a way that’s increasingly, perhaps completely, unmeasurable. Deciding what to leave out of this rollicking account was by far the most difficult task. It’s an imaginative playground that continues to give and give and give.

Champaigne - Still Life with a Skull

It all started with a skull. Specifically, two skull masks, brought into the house on one of my first Halloweens. They live on in my wardrobe, but I don’t need to get them out. I recollect their squat, flattish faces, with heavy black encircling their empty eyes, triangle noses and individual gritted teeth. That these first skulls were masks is itself significant. My macabre obsession would soon develop into covering up myself in order to release something – and looking for the monster just beneath the skin (the skull is that monster distilled). Skulls and skeletons soon became a habit. I collected innumerable plastic and metal effigies of skulls, like a native chieftain accumulating shrunken heads: from key-rings to fish-tank ornaments to Mighty Max figurines. I had earlier been obsessed with wheels – wheels of all kinds – and a skull shares that pleasing regularity and symmetry. There is an architectural flair to a good skull, bordering on art deco: I remember fixating on two skulls in a stage production of The Wizard of Oz, where they topped the banisters in the Witch’s Castle. This early theatrical rumbling, characteristically shallow, suggested that my dramatic instincts would run towards anything other than Hamlet.

Our old television set jolts into life, and the magnetic delights of VHS. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had a fair few skulls, spread about the Wicked Queen’s dungeons and alchemical laboratory. In over a decade of investigating screen horror, nothing has quite recaptured this early thrill. Walt Disney did good service in the skull trade. The Horned King in The Black Cauldron bore an unmistakable skull visage, dressed up with brown hood, green flesh and demonic red eyes – all of which were to be ripped away in the finale. There were also some skull-headed wraiths in Fantasia‘s ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ – as perfect a visualisation of All Hallow’s Eve as I can imagine. The Nightmare Before Christmas disappointed somewhat, subordinating the beauty of a natural skull to Jack Skellington’s golf-ball cranium.

It was Disney that carried my macabre inclinations from the sepulchre to the theatre. There is a radiant, demonic flamboyance in the best animation, offering up a theatre of perfectly choreographed voice and movement. This was exemplified by two particular black-clad villains, their garments rimed in rich purple: Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty and Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The latter was particularly shaping: how I thrilled to the Shakespearean villainy of Tony Jay. I was intoxicated, out of my brain on the grand, gothic atmosphere of these unexpectedly macabre spectacles. It was inevitable that I would try to become these characters. I have a photo of myself wrapped up in my blanket, trying to replicate the cowl of the Old Witch in Snow White. There was also a Sing-Along Songs tape – ‘Disneyland Fun’ – with one spot in particular watched over and over again. The visual accompaniment to ‘Grim Grinning Ghosts’ offered unfairly tantalising glimpses into Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion…

I had to wait many years before riding The Haunted Mansion in person. But the images of that tape are still vivid with me: a floating candleabrum; a woman’s head in a crystal ball; skeleton hands prising open a coffin; swaying ghosts on a chandelier and waltzing ghosts in a ballroom; a top-hatted organist, every pipe of his organ releasing a hooded wraith. The dark ride was the ultimate frame for my over-stimulated young imagination. They offered sights, sounds and smells – oh, the glorious chemical smell of these places! – that were wonderfully transporting. It was in summer trips to Blackpool Pleasure Beach that this passion was given full rein. Their multi-storey, high-rise Ghost Train was topped by a gigantic skeleton, picking off a stray cart like an emaciated King Kong. Painted in glaring, laser-like fluorescence within were related delights: a skull that detached itself from its skeleton, to zoom suddenly in on the rider; a grim reaper in a ramshackle graveyard; and crowningly, unforgettably, a rag-tag shower of skeletons on bikes.

The Pleasure Beach had too The Haunted Hotel, with a wide range of beasties peeping out through the net curtains on the ground floor. By the time I visited, it had been rechristened Trauma Towers. I still thrill to that attraction’s exquisite danger – the sort that exists only in certain sorts of theme park, here exemplified by guests walking over planks suspended over shallow pools of water. Also at the Pleasure Beach was The Haunted Swing, a tame but hypnotic old library that rotated round about the captive spectator. Scarborough’s Terror Towers was an altogether darker challenge (a non-stop assault of horror movie characters), but it left me with much to talk and think about – and burned ‘Funeral March of a Marionette’ on my brain for years before I knew the piece’s name. I wound up by creating dark attractions for myself in the house. A lamp behind a curtain, flicked on and off to simulate lightning. Some fishing-wire to move small objects around; the same applied to a rocking chair. The acquisition of an ultraviolet lamp was a special glory. I could make things glow in the dark.

It was inevitable that I’d develop an interest in ‘real’ ghosts. I collected a pile of books on the paranormal, which still reside on my bookcase, forming a neat enclave at the bottom. But then (as now), I struggle to really engage. My greatest fascination was always for ghost photos – an attempt, always, to pin down and scrutinise that which is inscrutable. There was a difficulty, however: the more palpable the account, the more incredible the ghosts – and the less believable. And so the less and less I believed. If I was to cram my life with ghosts, they had to be ghosts which delivered. It was no surprise that I turned to the film section in the Osborne Book of the Haunted World, the ghostly giving way to palpable monstrosity. No need to yank it off the shelf: I see the pictures in my mind again. There stands Boris Karloff, prostrate in a dungeon doorway in Frankenstein; there leers Bela Lugosi, in the exquisitely lit person of Count Dracula in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein; and there looms Christopher Lee, dribbling blood over Melissa Stribling in the original Hammer Dracula.

My journey proper into the classic horror film began, of course, with the skull: Lon Chaney in and as The Phantom of the Opera, Gaston Leroux’s pitiable living skeleton. My first viewing did not frighten me. But it moved me, painfully. My path was more clearly defined now. I would go towards the soul of the monster; the skull beneath the skin. Yet I moved straight from the soul to the wholly soulless: my second excursion into classic horror was Max Schreck’s Count Orlok in Nosferatu. Paradoxically, I delight in these surface trappings – to a degree that borders on camp – even as I try to penetrate beneath them. And then came the Universal Horrors: Lugosi as Count Dracula, Karloff as Frankenstein’s Monster. And from there to Christopher Lee’s vampire, first glimpsed in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave; the Book of the Haunted World avenged.

So many images come back to me from the classic horror universe; seductive surfaces all. I see Henry Hull’s demonic, underlit visage in Werewolf of London. I see the picket fence and the silhouetted house of The Night of the Hunter; I see the Castle Borski in The Gorgon, a swirl of autumn leaves and crepuscular blue highlights. I see Boris Karloff in The Black Cat, communing with the elements on a windswept Carpathian mountaintop. I see Peter Cushing descend from Byronic arrogance to doddering insanity, in the sombre sixteen-year fade between The Curse of Frankenstein and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell. I see a bleached Vincent Price in House of Usher, impeccably decked in scarlet frock-coat. Proud at the centre of this imaginative universe is still the Opera Ghost. Whether he appears to me as Lon Chaney, Claude Rains or Herbert Lom – in that theatrical Olympus of the Paris Opera House, he has stayed with me. I truly believe it was the Phantom who brought me to regard theatre as a feast for the emotions. Promoting me, in spirit at least, from melodrama to drama.

A little while later, I was to become the monster, and enter into my employ at The York Dungeon. I was now in the company of skulls and skeletons that looked remarkably real: hanging from castle walls, devouring giblets in a plague-ravaged house, propped up on a desk in the condemned cell. And each morning, I would make a skull of my own face, in kabuki-like black and white. A theatre squalid rather than grand (more often than not, my skull-visage had sweated away by day’s end), except in my heart. And except in those glorious moments when it really, really worked; when contact between actor and audience was at its strongest. It’s a poignant delight to deliver on the old dressing-up games. To know that, post-university, I’m still at it. ‘Squalid’, to me, has remained the ultimate theatrical endorsement: that which is mired in melodrama and music-hall and Punch and Judy rather than state subsidies and social propriety. The best of theatre is mired also in Halloween: David Leonard’s fairytale villains in the York Theatre Royal panto taught me this secret at a very young age. The Dungeon surely sowed the seeds for The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Sikes & Nancy, both singularly macabre entertainments. One-man entertainments, as well – perhaps pointing the way to a lonely future in the horror trade.

Yes, my Halloweens have been felled by disappointments – mostly those inseparable from growing up and growing out. But that’s been corrected this year, all over again, in being back at the Dungeon. The York Dungeon, like Scarborough’s ancient Terror Tower, has ‘This is Halloween’ blaring away at the entrance, betokening the pumpkin-strewn revelry within. I can think of no warmer welcome. Halloween signifies much for me, but it has yet to signify death. It is always vivid new life.

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Filed under Essays, Experiences, Film, Personal Excavation, The York Dungeon

Scrooge & Marley: The Return

… Because some plays warrant more than a Facebook status.

It continues to give me bountiful pleasure to announce the return of Scrooge & Marley – the two-man production of A Christmas Carol that I adapted and performed in 2011. The new Scrooge & Marley will be running at the Waterloo East Theatre, South Bank, from 3rd to 22nd December. George Fouracres (né Potts) is my co-star (and this time, happily, co-adapter); Andrew Brock (who worked alongside Oli O’Shea in 2011) will direct. The production is being staged by Dippermouth, an up-and-coming theatre company founded by Quentin Beroud and Jack Gamble (obscenely pleasant gentlemen and all-round good eggs). Additional details can be found on the Dippermouth website, the Waterloo East website, and my own self-laudatory interweb haunt.

Scrooge & Marley

Two years on, I can summon back the euphoria of the original – a euphoria crystallised in coming on for the bows, drenched in the sweat of some twenty intoxicating characters, to John Gardner’s ‘Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day’:

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play,
To call my true love to my dance;

Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.

Like most songs about Christ, it’s a song about redemption. And I think it was redemption – in all sorts of forms – that made the original Scrooge & Marley such a purely enjoyable experience. That first production came when I was getting very disillusioned with acting (a not uncommon experience at Cambridge), and, in one cleansing hour, it turned everything around. Here was a story that brought uncomplicated joy to audiences, without pretending to any greater relevance or importance. That we were able to get away with this Christmas tale in early November seems to bear that out: regardless of the season, the story is life-enhancing. I’m not so disillusioned this time, but it’s again refreshing to wield some control over my acting destiny. When I played Scrooge at school – way back in 2005 – I had my first real sense of locating my theatrical niche. I hope the same may be true again.

Quite apart from my professional gripes, redemption is essential to the Carol. Dickens persistently returned to Christmas as a vehicle for conquering the ‘vague, unhappy loss or want of something’ that overshadowed his life. Dickens wrote such essays as ‘A Christmas Tree’ to come to terms with the pettifogging disappointments of life, most particularly mortality. Dickens’ Christmas is a lush and thriving memento mori: the ‘Lord, keep my memory green’ that forms the backbone of The Haunted Man. So painfully heartfelt are Dickens’ Christmas writings that they could bring a tear to a glass eye. How comforting to know that Dickens, in the end, managed to conquer death. He is as immortal as any writer can be.

I can relate to brittle old Jacob Marley as well – that immortal who comes to haunt Scrooge, and my character in the piece. Last year, an acerbic (read ‘gittish’) old pro told me that I didn’t convey much warmth, which would hold me back as an actor. Which is a terrible thing to say – like most unpleasant personal remarks, it sticks like a burr. Perhaps I don’t convey a great deal of warmth (I can’t deny I haven’t thought about that one), but that might itself prove helpful in creating a character more pinched and wicked than Scrooge. Pretty well the main point in Scrooge & Marley – as opposed to trotting out another serviceable Carol – is to give Marley his shot at redemption. A chance to go out in love. May we all be so lucky.

When I brood on cold actors, I instantly think of Christopher Lee. Those Lee performances that I count among my favourites – Rasputin, the Duc de Richleau, Lord Summerisle – are uncharacteristically hearty. It’s for his innumerable ‘cold fish’ portrayals that Lee is best known, ranging from the inhuman to the legitimately monstrous. As a personality, Lee is truly unreadable: indecipherably strange, strangely impressive. Lee, like M. R. James, radiates the sense of an astonishingly brilliant academic who fell in on the Gothic by accident. I have a great problem (bordering on a moral dilemma) with Lee disowning the horror films that made his name – it seems a rebuff to those, like me, who treasure up these films and hold them dear. Yet Lee has been so integral to my film-watching life, that I find myself stuck with him.

It’s in Lee’s friendship with Peter Cushing, his co-star in twenty-two films, that I’m reminded of Lee’s wonderful (and expertly hidden) humanity. Here’s a little of what Lee writes about Cushing in his autobiography:

… With varying commercial and critical success, but unvarying pleasure in working together, we knocked off a row of fantasy milestones. Most often I was the menace, and Peter was the force from academe, a savant, devoted to putting a stopper on me. As American golfers say of complementary partnerships, ‘We ham-and-egged it.’

He was the most tolerant of men, expressing for instance nothing but pleasure when I sang arias to him in our dressing-rooms. Only once did he say something that brought me up short. It was on the set of Horror Express … I went into a tirade about the food. ‘… I feel I’m going to die of this frightful food. This is a ghastly studio…’ A massive whinge. He looked at me and peeled his apple. He just said, ‘Well, there’s no good belly-aching about it, you know.’ That was about as severe as he could be. Coming from him, it was shattering.

He really was the gentlest and most generous of men. It could be said of him that he died because he was too good for this world.

The painful thing is that, armed with this knowledge, I suddenly feel very deeply for Lee. And I’m desperately sad that he may not have long for this world; his ninety-one years and increasingly frail appearance are a constant reminder. But why this sadness? He’s lived a long and full life, and still receives more recognition in ten minutes than most will receive in a lifetime. And I’ve no doubt he’s tired of simply wearing out (the same applied to his workaholic forbear Boris Karloff). The sadness comes from the knowledge that Lee once had a friend who he dearly loved. I’m reminded of Dickens in ‘What Christmas Is, As We Grow Older’:

We had a friend who was our friend from early days, with whom we often pictured the changes that were to come upon our lives, and merrily imagined how we would speak, and walk, and think, and talk, when we came to be old. His destined habitation in the City of the Dead received him in his prime. Shall he be shut out from our Christmas remembrance? Would his love have so excluded us? Lost friend, lost child, lost parent, sister, brother, husband, wife, we will not so discard you! You shall hold your cherished places in our Christmas hearts, and by our Christmas fires; and in the season of immortal hope, and on the birthday of immortal mercy, we will shut out Nothing!

Cushing and Lee

A great friendship can humanise the coldest of men. The coldness is rarely the full story. A Cushing-Lee Scrooge & Marley would have been a sight to see.

Accordingly, it’s a delight to be working with friends on Scrooge & Marley. George Fouracres is my co-star. He, like me, was generically typed as one of Cambridge’s mad character men, although this played out differently for both of us. George found the ideal niche for his characters in sketch comedy and pantomime (which isn’t to devalue his other work: his Tiresias was a rare marvel). George is ideal for Scrooge because he is a superlative comic actor (the same held true for Alastair Sim). Meanwhile, my area was the grotesque: the shape-shifting, the distorted, the Caliban-esque. I only really hit my stride when the one-man plays set in, and this was an inherently self-isolating pursuit. George is all lightness: musical, elasticated, expert communicator of mesmeric intuitive rhythm. I am all heaviness: booming, growling, wildly undisciplined, but now and again hitting on something worthwhile (or so I very much hope). George is Ralph Richardson; I am Donald Wolfit. Fortunately, the free-wheeling form of Scrooge & Marley allows us to come together in a way that’s mutually beneficial. There’s a taste of the music hall, but set within a funereal and ghostly frame. There’s a place for both of us in this vision.

Instrumental to the vision is Andy Brock, one of the two or three best directors I’ve worked with. His visual style deserves a coinage; ‘Brocktian’ has a ring to it. It’s a rag-tag explosion of opulent decay: part Dutch Golden Age, part Arthur Rackham, all hand-made, anarchic encrustation. But there is an absolute substance to this style: Andy is all about the storytelling – and not in the disingenuous ‘play the truth of the moment!’ way that one so often hears parroted. And as an actor himself, a fantastically good one (his effervescent Lord Foppington and Sir Toby Belch linger in the memory), Andy is a godsend in ironing out all that can go wrong in a piece of this nature. We are blessed to have him on board.

Not that it’s worth getting too reverential about these things. (George, in particular, does not do reverence.) These friendships descend – ‘escalate’ is more appropriate – into the same euphoria in the end. Raising hell at the Midsummer Common funfair or in the Hughes Hall kitchens on the eve of graduation. Or loudly watching Aladdin in Tooting, accompanied by a majestic Italian takeaway, all three of us nursing disparate theatrical nicks and bruises. If we can convey one iota of this warmth on stage, we will have accomplished our task marvellously.

So: what can we promise in the new Scrooge & Marley? With any luck, everything that we couldn’t cram in the last time. Cambridge terms don’t allow for much in the way of research and development, but George and I are already engaged in an eclectic romp. We’ve visited a phony Victorian street and a real (?) haunted house, we’re taking in everything from blood-curdling supernaturalism (The Phantom Carriage, The Innocents, Kwaidan) to first-class schmaltz (The Wizard of Oz, It’s a Wonderful Life), and we’re reading as much Dickens as possible. The revised script is turning into an intertextual hay-ride, with strands of Dickens’ other works (novels, Christmas Books, short pieces) intermingling with the text of A Christmas Carol. Such is my abhorrence of hubristic adaptors, who seem convinced they write better dialogue than Dickens, that I’d much rather interpolate than invent. Everyone can take much greater ownership of the piece, making it particular to us as much as faithful.

I think that about does it for now. Enough of this Christmas malarkey! There is Halloween to get through yet…

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