Category Archives: Essays

My Desert Island Discs

I’ve been drawn back to this BBC warhorse for many a year now. Most often, the eight records constitute benign interruptions within a rambling biography of the guest. So rare and precious are those occasions when the records seem to stand for constituent pieces of that human’s soul. On that basis, I’ve made choices that I hope would outshine any biographical ramblings. I’m not terribly interested in writing my biography; still less is the public in reading it. But combine all the pieces – with their bizarre voices, their baroque theatricality, their deep vein of harmless melancholy – and there you have me, in inchoate musical form. When the BBC finally invites me over, I will no doubt be venerable, grey-haired, and fixed on markedly different choices. But I like to think a few of the below would make it.

Newley MicAnthony Newley’s ‘The Man Who Makes You Laugh’ – Each us who loves Newley carries our own version of him. Here’s mine: a Newley of grandstanding showmanship and big-hearted schmaltz, forever prone to unsparing confessionals. In this song, Newley mixes some very disjointed showbiz images – circus, stand-up, vaudeville – as a channel for his abiding self-pity. I’m sure it’s unlistenable for some. But once you reach an accommodation with Newley, even his self-pity becomes rousingly cathartic, generously human. Key to navigating Newley is getting to know his unique voice, that caramel discharge of rumbling, reverberant emotion. The climaxes of ‘The Fool Who Dared to Dream’ (robust vibrato) and ‘I’ll Begin Again’ (a more aged, tremulous vibrato) are exemplars of where the Newley voice could go – and each is, for me, perfect in its imperfection. Newley’s vibrato has sometimes reduced me to tears. This time, Newley translates his talent for building to these devastating climaxes into a different form: a short story that runs down musical tracks. I’ve previously written on ‘The Man Who Makes You Laugh’ at length: by all means have a look. The song is a balm for any and all disaffected entertainers; and should I ever acquire a singing voice, I damn well want it to be Newley’s.

Lee DraculaJames Bernard’s ‘The Victory of Love’ from Taste the Blood of Dracula – For its acolytes, Hammer Films represents a distinct world, one that might as well exist. There is its surface terrain of quaint inns, drawing rooms and churches in muted shades – which then explode with the high-coloured, galvanic demonism of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. It’s close to a surrogate religion – the imagined other world, the heaven-and-hell divide – which might be why this Bernard piece works on me so. It closes the film, just after Lee’s Dracula suffers his fourth ignoble destruction (he had three still to come). The strings build up, up, up – seemingly to the heavens – before their release in the love theme from the film’s beginning. And all within the confines of the village church. There’s a persuasive argument that the Gothic Revival was built on a superficial (and often camp) regard for high church trappings; thus the tricksy medievalism of The Castle of Otranto. Bernard accomplishes this for me in musical terms. His yearning strings reminds me how transporting the trappings of faith can be, if not the substance. I would make for a first-class lapsed Catholic. For me, Bernard’s other most evocative themes are the main titles for The Curse of Frankenstein and, especially, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (the film that inducted me to Hammer). All prove that so-called horror films can be breathtakingly beautiful.

SamsonRegina Spektor’s ‘Samson’ – This song is a melancholy prism. It speaks to me of people I love (it was recommended me by a close friend); it reminds of people I used to love (the line ‘your hair was long when we first met’ carries me right back to scenes at university); and it reminds me of people I’ve loved but lost (Samson’s long hair has fallen away; it is a song of cancer as much as myth). ‘My sweetest downfall’ is a brilliantly economical way of expressing how we’re at once destroyed and created in opening ourselves up to other people. Kindness and acceptance will leave us as quivering and vulnerable as any cruelty. Spektor has a wonderfully haunting voice. It’s a little tarnished, cracked, smokey; a fine crystal tumbler filled with clouded water. As with Newley, any quirks of sound production are less mannerism than idiosyncratic sincerity. The piano anyway gives that quirkiness a stabilising background.

BrideFranz Waxman’s ‘The Creation’ from Bride of Frankenstein – I’m no longer sure that this is my favourite horror film. But it’s certainly one that I can’t do without. This piece is straightforwardly thrilling, scoring as it does the ‘birthing’ of the monster’s mate. The pulsing drum mimics her beating heart, which Frankenstein has in his laboratory. There’s a primal excitement to that; a womb-like imperative to gather life from the rhythm. But the keynote is anarchy. James Bernard’s scores are the Gothic distilled. Franz Waxman is happier to subvert, turning his ‘Creation’ into a melting pot of widespread cultural influences. There are dissonant flashes that remind me of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring; alarming creaks that put me in mind of that Looney Tunes stock piece ‘Powerhouse’; and a decadent, intoxicating glamour that reminds me that this heady perversity emanated from Golden Age Hollywood. The unforgettable theremin looks ahead to 1950s sci-fi, not to mention ‘Bali Hai’ from the musical South Pacific. It reminds me of the diverse reasons I fell in love with vintage horror films. And makes me question why I devote my time to anything else.

Giants SkyStephen Sondheim’s ‘Giants in the Sky’ from Into the Woods – My favourite of all of Sondheim’s songs – although it has stiff competiton from ‘Move On’, ‘I’m Still Here’ and ‘Not a Day Goes By’. Funny, actually, how all of these titles have a spatial dimension. ‘Giants in the Sky’ harnesses space with innocence and awesomeness both: locating the imagination way, way up in the clouds. It transports me back to the fairytales of early childhood, when the likes of Disney’s (grippingly macabre) Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs constituted my whole imaginative universe. I love the child-like boldness of expression: the heaping-on of adjectives in ‘big, tall, terrible’ is genius, as are the breathtaking exclamations of ‘not till the sky!’ and ‘after the sky!’. Throughout is a note of nagging yet gentle acceptance – something I’d argue as the most painful but necessary of emotional rites. I stumbled on this song just before leaving university, in the bittersweet twilight between last exams and graduation. These words in particular rang out: ‘And you’re back again only different than before’.   My Sondheimian runner-up would be ‘Loving You’ from Passion, which follows acceptance into the darker territory of emotional martyrdom.

Orange TreeDamien Rice’s ‘Dogs’ – A puzzle to be solved on each hearing. Thanks to its striking images, lightly (and ambiguously) worn, the song encourages a meditative state, a heightened concentration. Aside from that, it’s very pleasing to the ear. Playful lyrics, full always of circling, child-like motion; I’m particularly fond of ‘we drive around and she drives us wild’. The gentle tweakings of the acoustic guitar. Rice’s voice, soulful almost to androgyny. There’s also a structural reason to like it: on Rice’s album 9, ‘Dogs’ comes directly after ‘Rootless Tree’. Which is deadeningly bleak. It is therefore like the sun coming out – just as in Fantasia, where ‘Ave Maria’ follows ‘A Night on Bald Mountain’. A phoenix from the ashes. It’s given me hope in darker periods. This hope is so much more precious for being hard-won; equally precious are Rice’s other brighter spots, in the likes of ‘Older Chests’ and (more arguably) ‘Colour Me In’. Rice seems to average one fit of optimism per album. ‘Dogs’ is a modern transposition of the sun-dappled, life-giving finales of Dickens’ greatest novels. We know that despair and death are real, but we are content, for the present, to bask in the sun.

Frollo-3Tony Jay’s ‘Hellfire’ from The Hunchback of Notre Dame It’s been ten years since Tony Jay left this planet. He took with him my all-time favourite voice. In many respects, it’s a peculiarly constrained voice: the thickened diction, the narrow range, a timbre alternately bone-dry and clammy as the tomb. But it carries with it an outsize, all-pervading Gothic atmosphere, ideally suited for Victor Hugo. ‘Hellfire’ puts Jay’s voice through its paces – composer Alan Menken was determined that Jay sing it just slightly beyond his comfortable vocal range. Jay’s voice is also a magnificent throwback: within it, I divine traces of George Zucco and Henry Daniell, to name but two. Underrated character actors, much like Jay himself. But all have found an immortality in the cinema. Tony Jay bears much responsibility for getting me interested in acting (I saw the Hunchback a good six or seven years before Lon Chaney sealed my fate). Quite apart from Jay’s contribution, the song is laudably audacious. Its central ‘hellfire’ refrain, amplified by the choir, transposes ‘The Bells of Notre Dame’ to a minor key. Thus, one can take the villain song as the film’s dark heart. It has always seemed so to me. I’ve written on ‘Hellfire’ in a wider context here.

Wanda-posterJohn Du Prez’s ‘Finale’ from A Fish Called Wanda – This piece I find purely and ecstatically joyful. Precisely why is a bit elusive. I’ve a degree of affection for the film, particularly its depiction of a beautiful eighties London (it holds a certain romance for those of us lucky enough to not actually have been there). Yet I’ve never found it as funny as John Cleese’s other works. I do vibrate to the saxophone – the end of ‘Old and Wise’ by The Alan Parsons Project, for instance, and Lisa’s immortal ‘Jazz Man’ from The Simpsons. As with ‘Dogs’, there’s the beauty of the acoustic guitar. Perhaps all that’s enough. But let’s chalk it up to a choice intersection of music and moment. I recall being drawn to the film, aged thirteen or fourteen, because Stephen Fry has an incredibly brief cameo. Fry was a figure who gave me a certain hope about my (then dread-inducing) future as a gay man. The likes of Wilde, Williams, Crisp and Callow were to follow and eventually usurp him. It’s that long-ago spark which imbues it with hope for me. Along with Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique (the third movement, specifically), it might be my gay anthem.

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Filed under Dracula, Essays, Film, Frankenstein, Personal Excavation

Familiar Old Ghosts

I was intending to write this last week. As so often, I got derailed. Now a sudden change has deepened and darkened my theme. So bear with me while I marshal my words as best I can. They do not come easily.

I originally meant to record a minor holiday, just before I returned to my time-honoured imprisonment at The York Dungeon. It was the Dungeon’s biblical flood – another time-honoured tradition – that granted me time and space for my own projects at the start of the year. It’s just what I needed after the manifold frustrations of 2015 – something I chronicled, via Anthony Newley, over here and here.

To briefly convert this time-based holiday into a land-based holiday – with trains and sight-seeing and people and such – seemed an excellent way to round things off. The result was a few snatched days of geographical interest: in Cambridge, then Leeds, then Blackpool. After recent events, I now realise that I was facing down some familiar old ghosts. Most of which transported me right back to York and far into that empty Dungeon.

Two weeks ago, I returned to Cambridge. My first time back in nearly four years. My absence from my old university town had evolved, little by little, into a point of principle. I was determined not to go back without a really good reason. In the end, I just settled for a reason. I went there to collect my honorary (read: falsified, worthless) MA, an arcane rite that extends to all Cantabrigian degree-holders. Essentially, this boiled down to some fantastical fancy dress and choreographed movement, with an audience in spitting distance – and all in Senate House, where sly old Henry Irving claimed his Doctor of Letters. Oh, yes. It represented my university experience very well.

Whence this dread of facing Cambridge again? I believe it was really the dread of facing myself – my ghost-self, as unstable and overwrought as I’d felt through university. Three exhausting years of slow metamorphosis. Never was I happier: creatively engaged on play after play, exposed to untold riches, making many of my very best friends. Never was I unhappier: feeling ever the outsider in acting and academia, awaking to quite how mediocre an intellect I possessed, experiencing some appallingly black moods.

All this found its most painful distillation in my second year, when I was deeply in love, and he was beautiful, and it was terrible, and it was wonderful, and – of course – it all went wrong. Old ground for me now, ancient history. I’ve written about the experience here; the fall-out from it, anyhow.

At this distance, I wonder if love was the only response to being so maniacally, so intensely alive. It required an equally strong force to balance me. That force was the Dungeon. Just before my second year, when all that feeling had opened me up, the Dungeon made me feel worthy of love. Armed me to go off and fight for it! And after my second year, the Dungeon gave me space to recover. It restored love to its proper place: from doom-laden soul-searching to simplicity, acceptance, warmth.

So as I knelt this time in Senate House, I thought on Henry Irving’s acceptance speech. Especially those words he cribbed from Polonius: ‘To thine own self be true.’ I stumbled on many bits of that self in Cambridge. But they were always tested and confirmed in York.

On with the holiday. I was next in Leeds, for a leisurely tea with my friend Simon. A man who has been crucial in my self-development, ever since I read his Shooting the Actor at age fifteen. He helped me to stoke my passion for acting, to make sense of my gayness, and to extend my interests in Dickens and Laughton and so many others among the Great Dead. Having done all this for me, it was perhaps inevitable that I would end up getting to know him personally. The Dungeon provided one of my earliest chances to test Simon’s exhilarating horizons for acting. I then saw transformation as absolutely central. How I strained to make my every character physically and vocally unique. To make them very unlike me.

Acting’s become more complicated in the years since. Most any craft is easier when primal. The sheer novelty of doing it convinces you that you’re better than you are. These days, acting is much more about accessing the soul. Which is difficult indeed; a lifelong journey. Just before I departed Leeds, Simon inscribed for me his latest book: an injunction to go on pursuing ‘the great and greatly flawed’. Eloquently put. For acting is rough-hewn hurly-burly: all mud and blood and fire and thunder. This essential roughness has been another of the Dungeon’s lessons. It’s not just okay that it’s not perfect. No, it’s an essential part of the deal. We must be flattered to be so flawed. It’s that which connects us to the human race.

The next day was the most emotional. I visited Blackpool to see my beloved friend Bryan. A long-standing colleague from – where else? – that Dungeon of York. Bryan embodies the murky essence of the place. This is a gift that reaches beyond acting, verging instead on the mystical. Bryan carries that atmosphere about with him; a natural emanation. He could indeed be a medieval monk or a viking king or a pagan war-god. More surely than anyone, he has converted the ghosts into friends.

Blackpool was also where I used to visit my grandparents, my mum’s mum and dad. I found their ghosts on the sea-front, mixed up with the spit and the pother, but even more in the Tower Ballroom. They had often danced there: probably to the same old standards, certainly to the same old organ. I sat there with my cup of tea for nearly an hour. I found myself almost ridiculously moved at the variety in the dancers: old men with old women, grandads with grandchildren, women with women, a mum with her daughter, another mum with her mum, men with men, two old widows. All those complicated chunks of humanity briefly thrown together and giving it all to the dance. This lent a certain resonance to when I met up with Bryan after his own dance, his devil-dance within The Blackpool Tower Dungeon. How wonderful to see him again in his proper context: restored to his full powers and exercising all the tools of his trade. How wonderful simply to embrace this man.

How I’d like to do that with another man now.

A few days ago, Mark – my manager at the Dungeon since 2008 – quietly passed away.

I am intruding on hallowed ground here. So many people knew Mark better than me, and longer than me. I know my loss is nothing compared to theirs. I cannot imagine their pain. I can only try to express mine, in flawed and dithering words. In this, I may light on some of what my colleagues are feeling.

What Mark represented to me was a whole comforting home. That warm and welcoming Dungeon home, which lives with me still, no matter where I travel. Over the years, I’ve had my gripes with the Dungeon; those periods of wishing I was anywhere else. I certainly don’t plan to stay there forever. In these respects, it’s like any home. Now a home that can never be the same again.

This idea of the Dungeon sustained me through the end of 2009, during my rocky first term at university. I had found the transition tougher than anything I’d expected, and was beginning to think I’d made a very big mistake. Here’s a little of what I wrote in my ever-uplifting diary:

Everyone here is better than me. They can talk to each other, communicate their wild and brilliant ideas without effort. I struggle so hard to form a coherent sentence, never mind the insurmountable difficulties in pretending to be happy.

I shrink with shame at that now. Knowing Mark’s great talent for happiness, for provoking it in others.

And yet he had provoked something in me. I went on, in this diary, to devise myself a back-up plan, where I would flee university and settle for a quiet and comforting life. And at the centre of all that? The Dungeon. I reduced it to a phrase:

The people there are wonderful.

I know that Mark was hovering at the centre of that sentiment – and therefore at the centre of all those testing years of finding myself out. It was the warmth and decency of Mark and his fellow Dungeoners that gave me the grit to stick university out. They would top me up when I saw them in the summer. And the thought of them gave me the strength, always, to keep on going. It’s a process that continues.

The darkest moment of that first term was when I found out that my grandad – that tireless romantic, that ballroom dancer – had also quietly passed away. I was by then too exhausted to entertain death. I sat at the same laptop I sit at now. Listened again and again to ‘Old and Wise’. Squirming, panting, smarting at this cruel new world, which seemed to be disintegrating beneath me. And still thinking to myself:

Don’t worry, don’t worry, the world is cold and dark now, the light is all but out… But I can still go to the Dungeon. I can still go home.

Now I do all of that all over again. All that time has passed, yet things are as they were.

As surely as Bryan is the Dungeon’s murky essence, so was Mark its living, beating heart. I feel thankful to him now in so many ways. It was Mark, along with Stuart, who gave me this first acting job in 2008. Mark helped to promote me from the shadows, encouraging some of my most purely happy assaults on acting. He inaugurated me as the Judge and as the Torturer. He gave me more pride in those outlandish creatures than I rightly deserved. That golden self-confidence that can comes only from someone you respect absolutely. With the result that he could pull me up short when I deserved it, make me feel utterly ashamed of myself. Such was the force of the man’s goodness. Only last Halloween, he bundled me swiftly home when I fell ill, defying all my croaking protestations. Then he laughed with me as I proceeded, croakily, to ring in sick.

He didn’t need to do any of that. How I’ll miss the absurd jokes and the infectious enthusiasm; the painful (usually accidental) ease with which you could make him jump out of his skin; the fact that he still addressed me as ‘Mr Swanton’ after eight years of friendship. By God! I’ll miss the joyousness! The sheer, luminous joyousness of the man. He lived to the hilt that which Dickens once wrote: ‘Brighten it, brighten it, brighten it!’ So often would he make me laugh till I cried. Now he makes me cry till I laugh.

His courage in facing down the end was little short of miraculous. I have never known a bravery like it. Never. I wish now, selfishly, that I’d seized the chance to tell him just how much I loved him. But that would have been to have Mark’s funeral while he was still alive. I don’t believe Mark ever seriously intended to leave the party. I still don’t think he has.

Besides. With a man like Mark, could love ever really, seriously be questioned? To him, it was the only thing. I am sure he knew we all loved him. Love was all he knew.

So thank you, Mark. You’ve shaped the course of my life, in ways that will probably always reach beyond my comprehension. You will forever be inseparable from the Dungeon. And it’s that Dungeon, that home of homes, that I carry with me, always – whether I am shouting within a dark building by (occasionally in) the River Ouse or somewhere else entirely. A home crammed with all those daft and delightful and lovable, loving people, with you at the very centre. Then. Now. And always.

Mark Pollard

Here’s the family in 2011. Mark is the bearded fellow at centre. I’m the grinning demon behind Mark; the distinguished greybeard to my left is, of course, Bryan. Also at centre, just below Mark, is Kayleigh – the love of his life, who he married last year. The best thing he did in a life crammed with the best.

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Filed under Essays, Experiences, Henry Irving, Personal Excavation, The York Dungeon

The Funny Man is Me

These burblings are a continuation from last time. For their Newley-bound context, I direct you to the previous installment, ‘Drowning in Your Dream’. For a more primary view of my passion for Newley, read my essay ‘The Fool Must Die’. And rest assured, there is still more Anthony Newley to come – witness this magnificent portrait of his Ebenezer Scrooge (the work of Sacha Newley).

Newley Scrooge

Yes, I fell in love again. I cannot write of the experience in positive terms. It used to be quite different: when I last let myself love – five, nearly six years ago – I was grateful for the feeling to the point of grovelling self-abasement. There’s a social expectation that heartbreak is mentioned only in terms of survivalist positivity. I think this practice abominable. All it does is contribute guilt to suffering – a panic that you’re not getting over things more quickly. But life cannot be reduced to a Gloria Gaynor song. Most responses to break-ups and the like strike me as an effort to not deal with things; to try and dodge all the pain. This, in my experience, is deadly. Pain must be faced down, always. Only then might happiness follow.

Besides, I’m almost certain that people never get over anything. I certainly don’t. All one can do is absorb the change into one’s person and keep on moving. Not move on exactly. Perhaps, at best, move past. ‘Love Has the Longest Memory’ harbours just such a lesson. The lyrics are confused – appropriately and inappropriately – but their musical setting delivers a hammer-blow. The song rounds off Quilp, Newley’s adaptation of The Old Curiosity Shop. It’s faithful to Dickens’ unwittingly masochistic melancholy.

I know I held her hand in mine,
Though time has blurred her touch…
But when night robs my sight
I feel her much too much.

In my case, there was one especially decisive snag. There was not the least point in telling the object of all this loving agony. The man in question was not gay.

This is the baseline misery in gayness, irregardless of social acceptance: the vastly reduced chances of falling for someone who’ll be able to return your love. The body remains a fortress. This holds true even if you swallow the (discredited, surely?) statistic that one in ten people are gay. Still. There’s a bittersweet relief in having so much decided for you. And this before you’ve even begun.

As I wrote last time, my efforts to master my emotions are comical. This time, I wrote searching essays to myself, in a spidery hand – all of which seemed hysterically overblown when read the next morning. I cried very hard indeed – a cry that might as well be a laugh, so forcefully does it break out. I read a great deal too. Primarily about other men who chose silence. Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons (‘it’s a matter of love’), Tom Pinch in Martin Chuzzlewit (‘it will be set right’), and my old friend Kenneth Williams, the most self-important of the tragic clowns. This 1963 diary entry by Williams kept returning to me. It reflected my own morbid frustrations:

I wonder if anyone will ever know about the emptiness of my life. I wonder if anyone will ever stand in a room that I have lived in, and touch the things that were once a part of my life, and wonder about me, and ask themselves what manner of man I was. How to ever tell them? How to ever explain? How to say that I never found Love – how to say that it was all my own fault – that when presented with it, I was afraid & so I spurned it, or laughed at it, or was cruel, and killed it: and knew that in the process I was killing myself.

Newley, by contrast, gave full-throated expression to the void within. His proved the really purgative music. I most often returned to ‘What Kind of Fool Am I?’ This recording shows Newley at the peak of his powers. A grandstanding performance of love – you can see David Bowie emerging – mocking me for staying silent:

Why can’t I fall in love, till I don’t give a damn?

I was staggeringly right to give a damn. To tell the man in question would not have been kind or good. Not right; not under those circumstances. My primary impulse in love is to unburden myself. So many times I wanted to get the feeling out: to say the words, write a letter, do some unambiguous loving deed. My dawning awareness of my responsibilities felt a self-betrayal. Love may not happen very often for me – I’m averaging once every five years – but that’s no reason to inflict it on those at the receiving end. I unburdened myself to three or four good friends, then blundered on.

I can write now, a little, about what made him beautiful. I saw in him ease and simplicity. I saw in him danger and chaos and devil-laughter. I could see the flames of hell licking away at him. Such vulnerability is compelling: pleasure founded on pain, which is anyway essential to pleasure. I loved because he seemed so very unlike me, me, me, coiled-up in my self-reflecting neuroticism. Never could I get out of my own way. Nor could I do homage to him as I saw fit. Any revelation would have been mired in the clumsy, over-earnest flutterings of ‘My First Love Song’. Reading this paragraph, I realise that that still holds true.

Each endeavour
I may make to sing your praises
May not sound as it should do.
But I love you –
Please believe I love you…

There was also a pride in this passion. The sense that the man had a respect for my acting – for The Work, I should say – which had never been the case in my previous love-fallings. Quite the reverse: back then, I’d felt my every appearance on a stage was my saying: ‘How about this? Am I good enough yet? Am I – acceptable?’

This last point should have shown me where my passions truly lay. For whilst this feeling was roaring away, I had my busy, frenetic, jittery, maniacal work – Work – WORK. The last four months of my 2015 were comprehensively rammed. I was in at the Dungeon five, six, sometimes seven days a week. Halloween happened. Sickness happened. And trips to London for auditions and play-readings and meetings meant my very occasional days off were all but monopolised. There was a creative resurgence: a rehearsed reading of The Road with some inspiringly good actors; an overhaul of the Irving play, prior to sending it to colleagues and mentors; devising and writing and rehearsing Winter Gothic in York, thus satisfying my desire to get more plays out. It is staggering that I found time for even my pale ghost of a personal life.

Winter Gothic Still

How lost I’d have been without all this. I loved him, in truth, because we were so incompatible. I knew he was no fucking good for me – but he opened up a vision of an entirely different world. ‘Someone Nice Like You’ betokens just such an alternate existence. Below is the bit that breaks me; the most understatedly sad lyric I’ve encountered (find Newley’s version if you can):

And if we could live twice
I’d make life paradise
For someone really nice
Like you.

That hope of living more than once: the last refuge of the damned (recall Patricia Routledge as Alan Bennett’s Lady of Letters: ‘but this is it; this has been my go’). On this occasion, the world of love was all but obscured by my mountain of work. All of which carried me out into the real world, yet further into my fortress-self.

If there’s a running theme in the Newley song-book, it’s that pain might be salved through creative endeavours. I direct you to the galvanic three-fold climax of ‘The Fool Who Dared to Dream’ (as with much Newley, the execution leaves the lyric far behind) and the wistful sadness of ‘Pure Imagination’ (which is all about the lyric: ‘living there, you’ll be free – if you truly wish to be…’). By now, I am pleased to have said nothing. I shall go on saying nothing. Unless I feel I can do some good with the disclosure – a full disclosure. All or nothing again. But I don’t see what good it could do. So nothing it must remain.

How to sum up, then? 2015 seems a year of strange cruelties, of queer and dizzying pointlessness. Yet it was also a year of high comedy – his devil-laughter, yes, but taken over by Newley’s parade of sainted fools. A year of redemption, too – but only ever through The Work. I have no doubt that love is a very great gift. But it may not be a gift for me. Certainly not yet. Perhaps not ever – but should that ‘not ever’ come to pass, I’m hopeful I’ll be too busy working to care.

Let us finish with the strains of Newley’s ‘I’ll Begin Again’. It’s a song from Leslie Bricusse’s underrated Scrooge, which became Newley’s final role in the theatre. It’s a song that overturns the nihilism of Newley’s self-penned ‘I’m All I Need’ (which, believe me, was much with me last year). Through Newley’s performance, it opens out – and up:

I will start anew,
I will make amends,
And I’ll make quite certain

That the story ends
On a note of hope,
On a strong amen,
And I’ll live in praise
Of that moment when
I was able to begin again!

I shall have this song played at my funeral. Not that I plan on dying; I fully intend to live forever. But begin again? I have, and do, and will continue to do so.

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Filed under Essays, Experiences, Personal Excavation

Drowning in Your Dream

It was in 2015 that I discovered Anthony Newley. He was my patron saint that troublesome year. A man of the theatre, to which he brought new expressive possibilities. A man who did homage to Dickens, in musicals of The Old Curiosity Shop and A Christmas Carol. A man who yearned, unceasingly, to achieve love – and who always counted himself a failure. Pictured below is his wonderful ‘Who Can I Turn To?’ from The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd. I’ll be drawing attention to other Newley songs. Many are masterpieces in miniature. So play along with me – do, do.

Who Can I Turn To

A conspicuous hole in my 2015 was just how little I wrote. There were two (necessary) redrafts of the Irving play, some light flourishes for Winter Gothic, a few other scripts that I was never at peace with – and four essays on this website. This last is the most inexcusable. At the very least, life-writing keeps a muscle honed. And at best, it is the most liberating self-help, something I was sorely in want of last year. But toiling under the delusion that blogs exist to be read – and what blog has ever been read, truly read? – I decided not to waste more of my time on one.

Essentially, my sense of humour ran out. Now I am more amused by my cosmic littleness: ever striving, self-important, to find order in my universe. By pretending to be other people. The last laugh of 2015 was when the Dungeon again flooded to levels inoperable. Three years ago, I felt a light tragedy (there I stand as the Reaper, dramatising). But this second time, I feel weariness, giving way to contained hysteria. A lingering ‘oh, really?’ followed by ‘is that the best you can do?’

Dungeon Flood 2

Blogs are for writing, not for reading. So here I am again, bashing away at the keyboard, trying to make sense of 2015.

It began in recovery. I was rounding off an exhausting spell at Trafalgar Studios, where I’d been acting my one-man play Sikes & Nancy. One performance of ‘The Murder’ – as Dickens mortally demonstrated – is liable to cause a stroke. Well, I performed it thirty times in four weeks. I have my own word for this strange form, the theatrical nervous breakdown: ‘heartattacting’.

It therefore seemed right to take a month out. Make sure that I properly recharged my batteries. The one-person form can beget a stifling neuroticism. Instead of getting lost in another person on stage, you retreat ever further into yourself: your body, your face, your voice; above all, your mind. Increasingly, the play becomes an act of self-definition: you are the play; the play is you; and on and on and on you go, in ever-tightening circles. Strangulating. I had become my own fortress. It was vital I tried to escape.

During my long-drawn attempt, I came to Anthony Newley. This began with hearing – more accurate, beholding – his thrilling rendition of ‘The Man Who Makes You Laugh’. I still think it Newley’s keystone work. Flushed with first love, I wrote thoroughly of it at the time.

Anthony Newley typified that cosmic littleness which I was struggling to locate in myself. Newley’s constant metaphor is the fool versus the world: we are all silly little clowns and jesters and zanies, and our only refuge is in laughter, the laughter of the damned. Newley’s music is not without its flaws. But there is an irrepressible rightness about it, as with the best of Cole Porter. Both miraculously created new old folk songs; songs that transmute their surface littleness into an almost mythic vastness.

Cole Porter’s song-book stands alone. But Newley’s songs are best, by far, when completed by Newley. Once you get into an accommodation with him, even his flaws become assets. Newley’s sentiment can seem gushing, excessive – before his passion-performance will confirm its sincerity. His warbling vibrato becomes the sound of the soul erupting from the body – the more so when imperfect, when unachieved.

Newley made of his person a self-defining theatre, each emotional impulse externalised and heightened. This might be my deepest point of sympathy. Translate Sikes & Nancy into cabaret and you have ‘The Man Who Makes You Laugh’:

Look around you, Mister Clown
You’re drowning in your dream.
A sea of strangers, each one reaching out for you…

This idea of ‘drowning in your dream’ has haunted me. Sikes & Nancy had fulfilled quite a few of my acting dreams. I was acting on London’s West End – and in the title role (title roles, to be precise). I was serving Charles Dickens, that writer I love beyond all others. I was advancing myself as horror actor, pitching my performance between Henry Irving and the vintage horror film. My hero Simon Callow even gave the show his blessing – and, on the last day, his attendance.

Yet, as Wilde said: ‘When the Gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.’ Such colossal good luck at age twenty-three is all but unprecedented. I would be a swine not to see it. I remain supremely grateful for Sikes & Nancy. I look forward to tackling it again. But what was I to do with my acting now?

The first half of 2015 passed in fitful cycles. I would work like a fiend to make more acting appear. I would then take an absolute break, because I couldn’t take the frustration. Yes, I was acting at the Dungeon – but that, to me, has long constituted ‘the work’ as opposed to ‘The Work’. But nothing is quite as exhausting as working to secure The Work: working and waiting, then working harder, then waiting much longer for something, for anything to turn up. ‘It Isn’t Enough’ exemplifies this unhappy Micawberism:

It isn’t enough to hope.
It isn’t enough to dream.
It isn’t enough to plot and plan and scheme.
It isn’t enough to stand here, saying that life is grand here,
Waiting for something good to turn up…

I eventually read my reviews for Sikes & Nancy. That was in May, I believe, almost a half-year after the show closed. On a base level, I needed to raid them for quotations, to press into letters and the like (thereby facilitating The Work). But I hoped also to best my old terror of criticism. Better the whole humbling truth, after all, than a fear-hewn fortress.

The experience proved shattering. I did them all in one go: digested nearly forty appraisals of me, me, me. At this distance, I see that the reviews were, on the whole, extremely good (you’re welcome to survey the good bits). But I hadn’t the benefit of distance. How could I? Not only was I the piece’s actor – its sole actor – but its deviser, its designer, its director. There was nothing to read that didn’t somehow impinge on me. Implicate me. Writers pointing out all that was ‘remarkable’ in my person, for good or for ill, all that was conspicuous enough to provoke some ‘remark’.

I am a monumental self-doubter. So it was no shock that I mainly absorbed that which was deemed clumsy, or jarring, or misjudged. But it was the bald fact of exposure which was really insufferable. I am a man who always avoided his school reports, all from fear of knowing what people think of me. In trying to connect with the outer world, in reading those sod-buggering reviews, I was only drawn further into my fortress-self.

Really, I needed to learn from Newley, and rejoice in my idiosyncrasies being noticed at all. ‘This Dream’ would often insinuate itself, in my trampings to and from the Dungeon:

I have this dream,
I have this wonderful dream where I win,
Where I win every battle I fight,
And I kill every dragon in sight!
Each night, I like awake and I wait for this dream.
What a world I create, when I dream I’m not lonely…

Ah, loneliness. Something that plunged me into an appallingly black mood in February, just before I resumed the Dungeon. For I am a man without a personal life – and I think people with a partner (or the meaningful possibility of such) find it easier to tread water.

I think much of this void is the consequence of not talking about being gay. It was in 2003 that I realised I was gay; it wasn’t until 2010 that I discussed it. And then with only with two or three people. That’s a long time in hiding. My first instinct in this had been not to make anyone else uncomfortable. Selfless. Seemingly. In actual fact, self-persecution. Clearly, it was me who was more uncomfortable than anyone at the idea of my intersecting with love. That dread of uncontrollable exposure – as with a stack of theatre reviews.

Silence can speak. Over the years, I’d worked myself to a point where practically everyone about me knew I was gay – without my ever having said a word on it. This no doubt gave the impression that I found the subject incendiary. Thus nobody mentioning it, least of all me. A cycle difficult to break.

Well, this year I got a good deal better at talking about being gay: freely, easily and, yes, even gaily. Why this change?  I’ve been blessed this year to be surrounded with people naturally more comfortable with themselves – who regard sexuality, quite rightly, as a non-issue (and, furthermore, a source of great fun). It’s been liberating, being so taken out of myself. It’s answering – albeit slowly – some deep-seated need in me.

Then again, I may have simply gotten bored. That constant rumble of low-level internal pressure. What had it all been for? ‘What Kind of Fool Am I?’ swims into my head. It comes from Stop the World – I Want to Get Off, a show that follows Newley’s Littlechap from birth to old age. This is the last he sings before death. It’s especially painful on Newley’s final studio album, blasted out across his frail, attenuated vocal cords:

What kind of clown am I? What do I know of life?
Why can’t I cast away this mask of play and live my life?
Why can’t I fall in love, till I don’t give a damn?
And maybe then I’ll know what kind of fool I am!

When shall I ever be able to answer these questions? For something in this idea of a long-drawn coming out – this lifetime of coming out, in fact – remains dreadful to me. To me, openness should really be total. Or else null. It’s this bloody-mindedness, I believe, which prevented me disclosing my sexuality on a more trivial basis. It had to be a full-blown, all-embracing romantic love. Or else nothing at all. A poet or a monk.

This ‘all or nothing’ principle is the only real danger I have in me. It has continually thwarted my love life. Yet I suspect it’s also been the foundation of anything worthwhile I’ve achieved, in stoking my single-minded devotion to work. A work in which I try to assume Newley’s ‘mask of play’ – that play I’ve found so hard-won in life.

Fortunately, I did have a long-awaited victory with my acting. In August, I managed to get Frankenstein’s Creature before an audience. I wrote on the build-up to it here. And now, in the retrospect, I regard it with untroubled joy.

Despite playing a monster, the king of monsters, I found myself being more human than I’ve ever been on any stage, ever. I credit Jack, my director, with that – for not letting me get away with anything. I credit also Quentin, my producer – for standing by Jack in not letting me get away with anything. Every choice was expertly interrogated. Don’t whine – don’t ask for pity – for God’s sake, stop elongating your vowels – stay playful with it – above all, keep thought alive. At last, I was liberated to deliver that which I’d sighted in Sikes & Nancy: lightness, quickness, ease. The ‘mask of play’ redeemed.

The Creature has displaced Quasimodo – in my mind, at least – as the best performance I’ve given. I shall do Frankenstein’s Creature again, and right gladly.

Creature Ascends

Best for me were the play’s final moments, where the Creature transcends all earthly things. In embracing his isolation, he locates in it the opposite, and joins with the impossible vastness of everything. So it can be with one-man theatre. The staging was patterned on Newley’s Expressionist pantomime in ‘Who Can I Turn To?’ (much more than I realised at the time, as the photo illustrates). Newley stands on his loneliness also:

With no star to guide me
And no one beside me,
I’ll go on my way and after the day
The darkness will hide me.

That August, I shared the Creature’s ecstasy. By the end of the run, I too felt reborn.

Then, a few weeks later, an accident.

I went and fell in love.

More on that next time.

And maybe tomorrow, I’ll find what I’m after…

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Filed under Essays, Experiences, Frankenstein, Personal Excavation, Sikes & Nancy, The York Dungeon

The Mystery of Christopher Lee

Most of my heroes in acting are long dead. Karloff, Wolfit, Irving – there’s no need for me to come to terms with their absence. I have known them always as completed by death: their narratives lying fully writ. So it was a considerable shock to me when Christopher Lee passed away. A full acceptance isn’t possible when you’ve gotten used to someone’s life and work developing before your eyes. Even now I feel cheated of closure. As I prepared to play Frankenstein’s Creature – Lee’s breakthrough role, back in 1957 – I started to meditate on the great man’s legacy.

Lee Portrait

Christopher Lee remains a mystery to me. For over half my life, family and friends have brought me his newspaper clippings; warned me of his television appearances; accompanied me to Tim Burton films, just to hear his two or three fateful utterances. And yet I can explain practically nothing about Lee – neither the actor, the man, nor the uncanny filmic hinterland where the two fused as one.

Lee’s life reads to me like an old mystery play: a profound and dazzling romance, founded throughout on the supernatural. And as with the mysteries, there is a return from the dead. Taken collectively, Lee’s performances as Dracula constitute a dark parody of the Christian Resurrection. His Stations of the Cross are frenziedly theological; particularly Christ-like are his impalements on a giant crucifix and, a century later, on a hawthorn hedge. A principal delight of the Hammer series was in witnessing how each successive film – with varying results – undid the death in its predecessor. Now death has come for real – but the romance is still hanging in the air.

Lee Thorns

For it has been a romance. Albeit one conducted mostly within my head, across many years of prizing up the holy relics. Such has also been my experience with Lee’s compatriots in terror cinema: with Lon Chaney; with Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff; with Vincent Price and Peter Cushing. Only Christopher Lee was very much alive and, until recently, very active. Primary contact is lost in the fog of early childhood, though it was probably his King Haggard in The Last Unicorn. My first really conscious inheritance was Lee’s Saruman in The Fellowship of the Ring. Captive in the cinema, aged only ten, I awakened to the beauty of that smouldering voice:

Smoke rises from the Mountain of Doom. The hour grows late, and Gandalf the Grey rides to Isengard, seeking my counsel. For that is why you have come – is it not? My old friend…

Old friend indeed. For somehow, strangely, I had intimated that this was Christopher Lee whilst watching him. It was something in the long, angular hands, in the dark Italian skin and the noble features (albeit compressed by a false nose). A dormant memory, perhaps. I had previously been fascinated by a photo of Lee’s Dracula in the Osborne Book of the Haunted World: spattering blood over Melissa Stribling’s throat, a long hand hovering suggestively close. I put Dracula aside for a time, and applied myself to impersonating Saruman on the secondary school field. Striving (ever vainly) to channel Lee’s voice became one of my first experiments in acting.

I first came to Hammer with Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. A pan-and-scan viewing on grungy VHS, recorded by my dad in the early hours. Yet the film still bled its autumnal colours upon its heaps of Catholic iconography – the candlesticks, the prayer-books, the vestments, the crosses – with all heightened into ritual by James Bernard’s funereal score. At the centre was Lee’s majestic Count Dracula, backed by infernal red sunsets, never more picturesque. I soon saw Dracula: Prince of Darkness – courtesy of my grandma, another late-night VHS – in which Lee’s wordless vampire became a solely picturesque entity. Then, aged just twelve, I gained the unholy trinity. Lee’s founding Hammer monsters: in The Mummy, in the original Dracula – and in The Curse of Frankenstein, which for a while was my favourite of all of them.

Lee Creature

Lee’s Creature is the jagged heart of this elegantly brutal film. It remains a spectacularly underrated performance – because, as ever, Lee operates by stealth. Not that his Creature lacks for visceral impact; The Curse of Frankenstein is a powerful reminder that, for a decade at least, Lee was regarded as the most frightening actor in the world. There is the scene of the Creature’s first unveiling. Lee is revealed standing in the laboratory, swathed entirely in dripping bandages. He then tears them away to reveal his horrendously scarred head, the camera barrelling in for an overwhelming screen-filling close-up. A dead eye, decayed teeth, that blotchy, corpse-like skin. In 1957, the effect must have been paralysing.

Lee’s Creature is cemented as destructive juggernaut when he encounters a blind man in the forest. This Creature struggles to comprehend, misinterprets, then brutally murders the man (and, we are led to believe, his grandson). It’s a pitiless rewriting of the most sentimental passage in Mary Shelley’s novel, not to mention Universal’s Bride of Frankenstein. Karloff’s Monster seemed always to be a gentle, soulful being: the Hollywood equivalent of the noble savage, an impression augmented by a clean, streamlined makeup. Lee’s Creature hasn’t a hope in hell. He’s an abortive, soulless automaton, with a cut-and-paste visage to match (as one critic put it: ‘a road accident’). To watch him is acutely painful, like watching a brain-damaged animal that must be put out of its misery.

Yet there’s much more at play in Lee’s Creature. Very few actors can make you believe in the supernatural as Lee did. Paul Scofield was one. When Scofield, as the Ghost in Hamlet, says ‘I am thy father’s spirit’, you believe him. When Lee plays Dracula – with deadly sincerity, in the direst of films – you believe him too. There are other connections with Scofield: the regal bearing, the resonant voice, the Italian appearance, that haughty demeanour punctuated by unexpected impishness. Nor was either actor particularly ostentatious, despite roles that offered countless opportunities for extravagance.

The significant difference is that Scofield was regarded as legitimate, by virtue of his work in the fashionable theatre. Lee was not. Like Henry Irving, his Gothic-knight precursor, Lee stood for the Gothic. But unlike Irving, Lee belonged to an age when the Gothic was afforded little respect. It is sad that Lee’s imaginative achievements have therefore been downgraded. Scofield could afford to refuse a knighthood (and so he did, several times). Lee owed it to the Gothic to accept.

As with Scofield, there remains something fundamentally unknowable about Lee. Neither man ever discussed acting in any depth. Lee’s memoirs, whilst detailed, contain scant clues about his process. When pressed, Lee might quote Ralph Richardson on acting as ‘dreaming to order’. But he seldom went further. It’s tempting to say that Lee couldn’t go further. Much like Richardson, Lee cultivated (perhaps unintentionally) an image as a cantankerous old dinosaur, all no-nonsense blustering and portentous secret-keeping. Such was the sustaining joy of his late-career interviews. And such a man is not to be asked his opinion on the artistic process.

In his approach to acting, then, Lee might well have been a mystic. It is perhaps the only way that such a man can be an actor. I think of the great mantra of Claude Rains, another of these invisible actors: ‘I learn the lines and pray to God’. It’s an excellent summation of a process that remains thoroughly mysterious. As far as Lee was concerned, there was nothing to be discussed.

Lee Creature Again

These are thrilling grounds on which to engage with Lee’s performances: as dreams, quite unreadable. The earliest Gothic fictions were derived from dreams. So were the first Gothic films. This is confirmed by a glance at The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a film compounded of such stuff as dreams are made on. Here we find the template for Lee’s Creature: in Conrad Veidt, who was Lee’s great acting hero. Veidt’s Somnambulist shares much with Lee’s Creature: the juddering, puppet-like movements; the light-sucking black garments; the gawkily expressive hands. Above all, there is the fascinating spectacle of a beautiful man giving his all to remould himself as grotesque.

Lee can’t have been oblivious (or unreceptive) to these parallels with Veidt. Emulation is vital to an actor’s early development. But in later life, Lee seemed to become his own strange creation. Here the mystery only deepens. For we can study Lee’s transformation, preserved on film across his incredibly long-drawn career; a nearly seventy-year journey from clean-cut youth to bearded magus. Perhaps only Angela Lansbury affords a more sustained view of an actor’s development. Yet her transformation has been nothing compared to Lee’s.

The most intriguing physical specific is Lee’s toupée. To keep knowledge of it from the public, Lee gave it an inconsistent mythology. At times, he claimed to have shaved his head for The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes; at others, to have worn a bald-cap. When filming The Mummy, Lee apparently refused to remove his toupée, subjecting it instead to his heaviest makeup. There is also the matter of Lee’s changing voice. Robert Quarry avowed that the famous ‘Christopher Lee voice’ was a rank affectation, a put-on. Quarry was a weirdly hostile co-star; yet there’s also that celebrated outtake from The Fellowship of the Ring (‘I cannot get up these goddamn steps smoothly!’), where Lee, caught off guard, speaks in a higher register than his tightly-clamped bass. Although voices change with age, Lee seems to have cultivated his. It’s disarming how unlike himself Lee sounds in the 1958 Dracula. But ten years on, in Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, the stentorian growl of Saruman is creeping in. With time, Lee became exactly what he pretended to be. A lesson for all actors.

In his recent tribute, Ian McKellen described Lee’s Saruman as possessing ‘the air of a stern yet benign Pope’ with hidden reserves of ‘cruelty and spite’. Perhaps Lee’s greatest gift was in revealing where the sacred and the profane came together. It’s naturally central to the Frankenstein myth: the sanctity of God-created life versus the blasphemy of the devilish Creature. Lee’s Jekyll-and-Hyde embodiment in I, Monster was also sensitive and engaging. But there are yet more daring examples. His Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man is a man who sacrifices with a disarming smile. His performance as Rasputin: The Mad Monk contains many potent moments, distilled in some mesmerising speeches:

During the time that I’ve been here, you’ve tried to teach me that confession of my sins is good for the soul. You also removed all temptation from among us so that there’s no chance of any sin here. I merely tried to put that right. When I go to confession, I don’t offer God small sins, petty squabbles, jealousies. I offer him sins worth forgiving.

Lee Rasputin

Whenever Lee played the monster hunter – in The Gorgon, or The Devil Rides Out, or Horror Express – he cut a figure almost as forbidding as the monsters themselves. Ultimately, Saruman resides on the same continuum as Count Dracula: evil fused with a sense of religious ritual. Flowing, lustrous garments. Precise and commanding gestures. A terrain half-castle and half-church. And above all, that sense of authenticity – that belief which Lee brought to everything he played, whether Stoker’s gaslight melodrama or Tolkien’s Black Speech.

Lee Tears

So formidably dour was Lee’s persona that it’s easy to overlook the raw humanity in his best performances. In 2011, the fabled Japanese reels for Dracula were found – and it was discovered that Lee’s Dracula cries human tears. Astonishingly brave, astonishingly unexpected (Lee’s constant creed in acting), and more effortlessly poignant than anything in Gary Oldman’s overblown opus. Lee held fast to his mystery, though, and kept the front up in public.

In this way, Lee stood apart from his terror contemporaries. Vincent Price was so amiably dedicated to promoting the arts that he seemed eminently approachable. Peter Cushing’s sorrow at his wife’s passing was deeply humanising, and a comfort to many. Lee, by comparison, came across as rather cold. It wasn’t so. Those who saw the mask drop at the BAFTAs knew it. The behind-the scenes footage from Flesh and Blood is also heart-warming, Lee swapping Looney Tunes gifts and voices with Peter Cushing. Lee’s reminiscences about the long-lost Cushing and Price were never less than moving. It’s certainly the highlight of his revised memoirs, this sense of Lee communing with absent friends. We horror fans live vicariously through the emotional lives of its stars. It’s a comfort to know that Dracula cries; that he might even cry for a friend. It places a beating heart within the Gothic skeleton. On receiving his knighthood in 2009, Lee privately remarked that the honour was meant for Cushing.

My years spent with Lee come back to me in a haze now. I was disheartened when he was cut from The Return of the King; I was thrilled when he was impersonated by Stephen Fry on QI (Fry was then another really formative influence). I looked forward to dissecting Lee’s bewildering Christmas Messages, those increasingly free-form capsules of mortality. I was even a patron of Lee’s widely reviled singing career. In my first year at Cambridge, I fell in love whilst listening to Lee’s intoxicating ‘Name Your Poison’ from The Return of Captain Invincible. A few weeks later, I found cassettes of Lee reading Peter and the Wolf and The Soldier’s Tale in a charity shop, thus rounding off a very heated term. I’m listening to them now.

Lee Saruman

It’s fitting that my last sighting of Lee was in the cinema where I’d seen The Fellowship of the Ring. Now, more than half a lifetime older, I bore witness to the credits of the final Middle Earth film. There again was Saruman – just as I’d seen him first – now an etching, fading to white, to the elegiac accompaniment of ‘The Last Goodbye’.

Only it isn’t goodbye. Closure isn’t necessary. Not just yet. As long as there are still films of his that I haven’t seen – and there are well over a hundred – then that last goodbye need not come. Christopher Lee was a part of my development, my self-creation. And I am certain his legacy, however mysterious, will continue to shape my life.

God preserve you, my hero. Have a ball with Peter and Vincent.

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Filed under Acting Theory, Dracula, Essays, Film, Frankenstein, Personal Excavation

Creature Ascending

It gives me great pleasure to confirm that, next month, I will finally get round to being Frankenstein’s Creature. The show will play six performances at Theatre503 in Battersea, running from the 25th to the 29th of August (with a matinee on the 29th). The production is in the care of Dippermouth, the company behind the sumptuous mounting of Scrooge & Marley in 2013 (click for photo evidence). They’ve already crafted an excellent show blurb and press release, in addition to a beautifully gruesome publicity image. With a support network like this, I need only learn the odd line and stand under a big light.

Frankenstein's Apple

The show’s been a long time coming. I wrote the bulk of Frankenstein’s Creature almost three years ago, when Sikes & Nancy was in its infancy. I’d then performed Sikes a mere six times, and felt pretty sure I’d gotten the fullest use from it (well, that feeling’s long gone). Frankenstein’s Creature represents a development from Dickens: as well as embodying a universe on the stage, I am now that universe’s author. I’ve somewhat tempered my hubris by keeping to the framework of Mary Shelley’s novel. I don’t care for reckless invention when there’s unplumbed richness in the original. I prefer for new details to introduce themselves. Happily enough, they did. Although the script is faithful to Shelley’s spirit – or so I believe – there’s not a single sentence from her novel there. By now, the script feels like it was written by someone else again. This should prove healthy in rehearsal.

Frankenstein’s Creature is informed by my early relationship with Sikes & Nancy in another way. It’s full of unbridled confidence – a confidence I don’t have in the same pure form now. This is clearest in the relish which this new play embraces transformation: incarnating that otherworldly character for over an hour. In the past, transformation has been my ideal in acting. Thus the frantic monopolyloguing; the commitment to grotesquerie; the not infrequent gender-swapping – and Sikes & Nancy included all of these. Yet I’ve started to question transformation in recent years. Paradoxically, this comes from having given Sikes & Nancy so very much. I’m coming to terms with the physical and vocal toll this sort of acting takes. In my case, transformative acting leads to endless paranoid questionings – questionings which reductively carry me back into myself. Am I vocally incompetent? I am prone to losing various bits of my voice (or convincing myself I have, which comes to the same) – but then, I attempt very ambitious things with my voice. I’ve never considered it terribly expressive, so I’ve tried to wrench more from it than is healthy. Am I physically overdeveloped? I don’t always have a sure grip on how my face is moving these days – the muscles have, if anything, grown too responsive. This is worrisome given that my physical presence is one of natural exaggeration. As Peter Ustinov said of Charles Laughton: ‘When Laughton was sitting quietly in a chair, not speaking, he was doing too much.’

All this is underlined by the dawning recognition that I am, after all, physically and vocally limited – because I’m so distinctive. A transformative actor must start with a blanker slate. Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman are transformative actors; Judi Dench and Christopher Lee (God rest him) are not. Distinctiveness needn’t cripple me: it’s what my great hero, Henry Irving, had going for him in spades. So perhaps these worries stem from a more fundamental discomfort with self. The late Roger Rees – what a loss – had this to say on self-consciousness in acting, back in 1983:

I am embracing a fear. When I was a boy I found it hard to throw myself wholeheartedly into things because I was even then an observer. I watched. And I find now that if I have to do anything extremely physical or frightening on the stage, I am able to stand completely outside myself, really look at myself, almost see myself from the back of the auditorium. And I hate it. It makes me feel po-faced and unadventurous; and that’s why sometimes I do physical things which are quite wrong, quite embarrassing; but I have to do them just for my sake. It’s me fighting against myself, and I think that’s what acting is about.

It’s true of a lot of actors layer their work from a fear of being boring. My person is naturally distinctive, expansive, requiring little embellishment to become overwhelming. And yet I do assume I’m boring an audience most of the time. A knotty problem. So: rather than waste my energies in ‘fighting against myself’ (in my case, beating myself up), it makes sense to gravitate towards outsize characters, for which I don’t have to squash down these embarrassing bits of myself. The Creature is therefore a gift. I am feeling my way to a greater simplicity. But I’m sure that the journey will last a lifetime. I only hope Roger Rees departed at a point when he felt satisfied.

In certain respects, the Creature is a character that demands transformation. On a base physical level, certainly: a cheat to do it without some elaborate makeup. But psychologically and emotionally, I’m discovering (rediscovering?) that my script is concerned more with enmeshment. Our desire to become one with other people; the terror of it. As is abundantly clear, this sets off unnerving vibrations for me as an actor. But it’s also the most purely human experience: that difficulty in giving ourselves over to other human beings (‘The Rose’ by Amanda McBroom: ‘It’s the one who won’t be taken, who cannot seem to give’). In life, the best answer lies in becoming more comfortable with oneself. It’s not easy. It takes time. I’m not quite there yet (who is?), though I’m as close as I’ve ever been. This should be an acting transformation tempered with simplicity then; even a lightness.

For this Creature is all lightness, a total divergence from filmic stereotypes. (By no means the same thing as filmic reality: Karloff’s Monster is towering in its simplicity.) This Creature is a hypersensitive, even narcissistic being: like some blithering Romantic poet, his tragedy may be that of someone who feels everything too acutely. There should be a tapered, wispy elegance about him; a Creature composed from air. I am not, by nature, a light actor. ‘Lightness, quickness, ease’ became my mantra in playing Sikes & Nancy at Trafalgar Studios. I did the best I could, but I still felt hampered by my natural equipment: bass voice, slack diction, a body wiry and bony, a tendency to elongation. I was born for the heavy. All the more reason to chase lightness then: it could prove a most helpful tension for the Creature.

Yet despite its airy aspiration, Frankenstein’s Creature remains a chance to revel in the mud and the muck. The script pushes forth a character who is, in most respects, sickening: a life story in which iniquity and perversity are persistently framed as beauty. Or is it the other way around? We read Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis with compassion nowadays; if anything, with too much compassion. Yet had the letter fallen into the hands of Wilde’s persecutors, it would have been regarded like a tract from Jimmy Savile.

Wilde and Savile both had the gift of insinuating themselves into society. Not so the Creature. He is the ultimate outsider. Is this a figure who can understand or meaningfully want humanity? We so often want to complete the Beast with a Beauty. But, as I learned when playing Quasimodo, this may go no further than a fairytale. The Beast stands alone. And perhaps he goes further still, embracing his ugliness as superior. The undesirable parading their most undesirable characteristic as radiant – this is the purest definition of the grotesque I know. Wilde represented boy-love as a superior love, founded on the Greeks. In our own time, a number of pedophiles have attempted a similar defence. I don’t see how pedophilia could ever be legitimised (‘consent’ being the watchword); nevertheless, more effort should be made to understand the impulse. The Creature should encourage people to look away. But we must feel compelled to probe his mystery.

In short, I feel ready for Frankenstein’s Creature. As ready as I ever will: the man and the moment are converging. The result should, at any rate, be interesting. Not that a fixed result is the aim here: I very much hope the show will have a life beyond this initial showing. And perhaps, in creating my Creature, I’ll go some way towards recreating myself as an actor. But to hell with overworked metaphors: book your tickets at once for Theatre503. There are 100 tickets at £10 for those under twenty-six. Capitalise on your youth and beauty; the Creature would have it no other way.

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Filed under Acting Theory, Announcements, Essays, Frankenstein, Personal Excavation, Sikes & Nancy

Island Dreaming

To ensure these dreams are worth the telling, I must rescue the word ‘dream’. Above all, from the wishful completism of ‘come true’. Dreams do not come true. A dream come true is instantly converted back into a dream. ‘It’s my dream to climb Everest.’ So go forth and climb it. You’re left with the memory: another kind of dream. ‘It’s my dream to wed the one I love.’ So go forth. Be wed. Two collapse into one; the situation is transformed. The dream has not been vanquished, but it has been changed, absolutely.

Dream-territory is not fixed or solid or palpable. It is amorphous, ever-shifting. And so, with one seeming exception, my dreams are not specific. Moreover, dream-territory is a visionary realm – reaching deep down into the self, before opening out into the wider world. The mystics knew this. It might well be that I’ve reached the theatrical equivalent of a dark night of the soul. With Sikes & Nancy all wrapped up (for now, at least), my time has been quiet indeed. Where to go next? What story to tell? I’ve felt somewhat marooned. Not that it’s been unpleasant, this island dreaming, but I’ll be restless until I work out how to gain the land.

Richard III

To one day play Richard III. Richard is central to my dream to finally do justice to Shakespeare. Yet Richard is also a figure who exists outside of Shakespeare. His bunch-backed silhouette is shaped by so much else in this world: by a still-unfolding English history (the scoliosis-bound skeleton unearthed in Leicester), by former players of the part (the silk-draped buffalo-hunch of Antony Sher) and by wider cultural forces (from Basil Rathbone in Universal’s Tower of London – a near-imperceptible humping – to Anthony Newley in his aborted musical, ‘an envious mountain’ on his back). My struggles with Shakespeare have come from the long-drawn realisation that I, like Richard, am a bit of a satellite. Rather than serving as conduit for the poetry, my idiosyncrasies tend to overwhelm it. But with Richard, my peculiarities are strangely entitling. My curved spine, which denies me a centred physique and a resilient voice, may make me the first actor in history to embody the part without artifice. Richard could even move me towards finding how to serve Shakespeare properly: Antony Sher has been candid in enumerating his eccentric classical path, graduating from Richard to Shylock, Leontes, Macbeth and – next year – Lear.

It’s curious that so many of my dream roles have lost their lustre with time. But then, how can you be drawn to anything other than the surface until you’ve played the part? I’ve often fancied playing the Devil, for instance – but in what context would I be a worthy Devil? Marlowe? Goethe? Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale? Irving’s pantomimical Lyceum Faust? Richard might end in disillusionment. I’ve never found the play entirely gripping when I’ve seen it acted. I find it sags badly in the mid-section, a marsh of confusing court politics. Perhaps a streamlined script will be the order of the day, from an up-to-the-minute Colley Cibber. No matter. I’ll be damned if I don’t have more than one go at Richard.

To become the island. Better by far than being marooned! There’s a song called ‘Face of a Stranger’, which Stephen Schwartz wrote for the great Philip Quast. Within are these memorable lines:

They tell you no man is an island
But to me that’s not how it seems
I think every man is an island
Of secrets and longings and dreams.

To really feel ownership of my island-like qualities – that would be superb. How glorious to reach a point where all my tasks are self-created, or at least self-determined. Rather like the great Terry Jones, whose career has consisted of little else. I suspect that other young actors long for this. We suppress this longing, though, the better to collaborate. A wise instinct. That’s the best way to learn. But I fear that too much collaboration is of the wrong sort: a mere craving for approval, legitimacy, the safety of joining the establishment. This can deteriorate into the need for approval of any sort, from any source. We take on work that we never wanted in the first place. We lose our self-respect. And so dreams are badly compromised.

Funnily enough, I didn’t need that reassurance when I took my first steps towards acting. I marvel now at my primary arrogance: at age thirteen, I would read of Olivier and inwardly scoff – of course I could do better than that! But then, for centuries and centuries, the vagabond actor-rogue craved no sanction. Henry Irving has much to answer for here, in creating the modern theatrical knight. An honour once reserved for England’s most defiantly particular actor has become sadly generalised. For how much modern theatrical dabbling is a scrabbling for riches and glories? We must learn humility, we must learn we can indeed learn – but we mustn’t lose in courage. So why not collaborate in order to create our own work? My one-man plays have been steering me towards this, but better is collaboration with others alongside you. Bridging the gap between islands. As Quast goes on:

An invisible ocean surrounds us
Those who love us reach just the shores…

To honour the classic horror film. Much of my growing up came through the Gothic, as I’ve written at length before. In my imaginative universe, the greatest flowering of the Gothic was the classic horror film. That which shapes us as human beings retains a primary hold. Even when I’m at my lowest ebb, these films will yet move me. In the scrap above, I’ve touched on the actor’s cravings for approval. This, I think, should be overcome. As much as is possible. We should instead our work to serve something greater than ourselves. I would consider my purpose more than served if I could illuminate the horror film as art. In my recent experience, this has meant treading the paths of the great macabre actors. I’ve played Quasimodo to honour Chaney and Laughton, and will soon enough play Frankenstein’s Creature to honour Karloff and Lee. By transferring these spirits from film to theatre, I hope it would also become possible to restore their imaginative scope to world drama. Shakespeare needed no such encouragement. Nor did the Greeks. They knew the power of ghosts, witches, demons.

All this becomes part of my broader campaign to win respect for the underdog. My recent obsession with Anthony Newley derives, in part, from the fact that he never seemed to have much luck. I want respect for much-maligned scribblers (Ainsworth and Bulwer Lytton spring to mind), for gay people (Tchaikovsky, who I respect as much for his private struggles as his music), for those who loved unwisely and paid dearly for it (Oscar Wilde: whose scribbling and gayness both were torn apart in life; whose death cheated him of their eventual celebration). I suspect love is at the bottom of most of it. It’s also a neat resolution to the problem of self-love. There’s an ever-present danger that acting will come to naught but egotism. We succeed, then, if we relegate the self to these reflecting shards of the wider world. We can safely vent our demons, and perhaps convert them into angels.

To establish my own theatre company. This will happen. Someday. I’ve yet to find a focus for it. Or willing collaborators. The two will define each other. It will have something to do with all of the above. The chance to play a part or parts like Richard III. The self-sufficiency of blissful collaboration. And the twilight world of the Gothic… Dim ideas as yet. Some new version of Faust. A revised script for Bulwer Lytton’s Richelieu. A rendition of Eugene Aram. Something from Victor Hugo. A fairytale. A love story. Something entirely new. And then there’s Frankenstein

I’ll be on my island for the present, working out how to tie these scraps together. I might even make a raft of them.

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Filed under Essays, Personal Excavation

The Fool Must Die

Just lately, I’ve become fascinated (and mildly obsessed) with the song ‘The Man Who Makes You Laugh’ – Anthony Newley’s stab at the ‘tragic clown’ subgenre. My favourite version is the studio recording from The Singer and His Songs, Newley’s 1978 LP. Newley possessed a uniquely eccentric instrument, and it’s here given full rein – whether crackling on the cusp of an elongated vowel, or gargling through a bolt of forced vibrato. It’s a voice that reminds me of Algie’s discourse on the piano in The Importance of Being Earnest: ‘I don’t play accurately – anyone can play accurately – but I play with wonderful expression.’ Sometimes you need an Ethel Merman; for all her warbling extremity (and deafness of tone), no one else can touch ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’ (a sunnier take on ‘The Man Who Makes You Laugh’). Sometimes you need a Newley too.

Anthony Newley

Sadly, this recording has never been issued on CD. But better than the LP, there exists an old tape from the Parkinson show. This provides the bonus of Newley’s physical performance. And it is performance, undeniably: an Expressionistic pantomime for the song’s every line. It’s oddly charismatic. Unexpected too, coming from a man with those heavy eyebrows and thick-set, potato-headed features – unchanged from his adolescent breakthrough, as the Artful Dodger in David Lean’s Oliver Twist. This ruggedness sit at odds with a decidedly fey quality. It finds its best expression in Newley’s hands: sometimes propitiating, sometimes flapping uncontrollably, but always in nervy motion, never for one moment still. Newley’s physical dexterity fleshes out the song’s unfailingly bold lyrics – the kind of thing I’d be too cowardly to set to paper. The words are rough-hewn, but always daring, risking the banal to become breathtakingly poetic. So whilst there are images that don’t quite fly (‘the custard pie that life just loves to throw’), others are perfect, and perfectly surreal (‘the monster with the thousand eyes is shouting to be fed’). The exemplar of this poetic type might be the Newley-Bricusse ‘Pure Imagination’, which conducts Roald Dahl to Elysium: ‘If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it…’

Newley’s lyrics capture so many of the masochistic pitfalls of performance: slaving for Norma Desmond’s ‘people in the dark’, the cycles of addiction, even the bloody reviews (a particular insight: even the glowing verdict ‘the laughter machine’ reveals itself as harmful). But more than detail, there is staggering embarrassment. Voice and movement and lyric scrape against each other like tectonic plates. It’s a performance seedy, degraded, fawning, frantic, spasmodic, mincing; painful and pitiable and, beyond all, chilling. The feeling of embarrassment only increased in aftertimes, when Newley often seemed intoxicated on stage. The song is so cunningly engineered that this added new force.

‘Entertainer’ is as close to a target as I can find for the song. For Newley rather strangely conflates the stand-up comic (‘my home is any microphone that’s free’) with the circus clown (‘prepare your painted face’). But by the time Newley’s staring at his reflection in the dressing-room mirror, he is all of we dispossessed performers: ‘I ask my own reflection and I see – the funny man is me!‘ Funny men, the lot of us. Newley deserves to be recognised alongside his fellow tortured entertainers. It’s a battlefield that stretches far beyond Archie Rice. I think of ‘He’ in Andreyev’s He Who Gets Slapped, perhaps the most iconic tragic clown. Lon Chaney played him in 1924, in the first ever production from the fledgling MGM – a studio no doubt responsible for a score of dispossessed entertainers. Britain has yielded two great Shakespearean actors: Edward Lionheart in Theatre of Blood and the Wolfitian ‘Sir’ in The Dresser. The former kills the critics who scoffed at his Lear; the latter kills himself by playing Lear. My personal favourite is Gwynplaine in Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs (sublimely incarnated by Conrad Veidt in the silent film). The fellow with the permanent smile – a rictus grin – irreparably carved into his head. Gwynplaine’s only hope of survival is the carnival.

Gwynplaine

I rail against the commonplace of the tortured entertainer. It’s become such a stereotype that it requires great originality and even greater style to warrant attention. In writing my play about Henry Irving – optimistically scheduled for performance in early 2058 – I did everything I could to avoid the stereotype (not easy with Irving, whose emotional life was peculiarly barren). Stereotypes are often so for being founded in truth. Yet the truth is rarely pure and never simple (thanks again, Earnest). A lesson of ‘The Man Who Makes You Laugh’ is that we performers need a measure of self-indulgence. We crave it. Thrive on it. A bitch and a moan and a grumble. Arguable, I suppose, that this is an anodyne to the frustration and privation of pursuing any career as an entertainer. But I suspect the sort of strange individual (and we are all of us strange) who makes a living standing in front of other people would anyway want an outlet for that self-indulgence. The fool must die, but he’ll make sure it’s by his own hand. He’s going on his own terms: ‘Look at ME! Look at ME! I’m the FUNNY MAN!’

Stephen Fry

All of which makes me think of Stephen Fry. Few entertainers have been more determined to indulge on their own terms. I’ve just finished More Fool Me, Fry’s latest volume of autobiography. His first, Moab is my Washpot, was a formative experience for me. I encountered it when I was about fourteen. A revelatory explosion of unrequited love, wrecky homosexuality, feeling unable to ‘join in’ and generalised unhealthiness. Here was a life I understood very well. But in a sort of ‘word made flesh’ way: never had I imagined that an inner life could emerge so perfectly phrased. The second volume, The Fry Chronicles, whilst critically acclaimed, left me cold. Inevitable, in retrospect: how on earth could it follow the first one? But I was now noticing a certain pattern. Fry’s prose style knits together a chain of ghastly self-descriptions, embellished with superficial admonishments to the reader. To paraphrase:

I’m a foul, fat and ugly waste of skin, and I know you’re telling me off that, dear reader, for which you are utterly, utterly right, for writing hatefully of oneself is a dreadful habit, which only proves me a foul, fat and ugly waste of skin, and you mustn’t pity me for thinking that, for I know my foulness and fatness and ugliness to be the truth of me – to descriptive depths quite beyond your imagination…

It’s impossible to locate a crack in Fry’s armour. There’s simply no way to attack him. He’s in there first, doing it all on his own terms, just like Newley’s grandstanding entertainer. Self-revelation may be no more than a desperate self-protection.

Fry’s third memoir, More Fool Me, was critically roasted (not least in this weaselly, if insightful, piece) – but so much so that I found it surprisingly good (though still not up to Moab). This time, I was prepared for Fry’s style. No transparency now. It has hardened, callous-like. And it has become the whole show. A performance about performance, rather like ‘The Man Who Makes You Laugh’ – the showbiz biog Fry once claimed he’d never stoop to write. A slightly ugly spectacle, but it’s hard to look away.

At this juncture, I should add that I don’t view self-indulgence as being the worst of all activities. It has to be carefully regulated, lest it prove self-destructive. But, to my way of thinking, it’s a fairly basic human need. Perhaps self-indulgence isn’t exactly the right phrase. Narcissism, maybe? Fry’s accused of narcissism quite often now. His fin de siècle career renaissance – the films, the books, the BAFTAs, QI above all – has rendered him ubiquitous, triggering the tediously predictable backlash. I think it’s unfair to accuse Fry of straightforward narcissism. It strikes me that one of the defining features of narcissism is that it doesn’t like hard work. Staring at one’s reflection in a pool is passive, not active. And Fry is a furiously hard worker; were it possible to earn a right to narcissistic self-regard, he’d have done so many times. But can any entertainer be free of narcissism? For someone, anyone, to stand on a stage they have to think, however deeply: ‘I AM EXTRAORDINARY!’ Even if he’s extraordinary for being such a waste of skin. Perhaps when narcissism turns active, it manifests as the necessary self-indulgence of the entertainer.

Stop the World

As it happens, ‘The Man Who Makes You Laugh’ was not Newley’s first stab at the tragic clown. Much more famous is ‘What Kind of Fool Am I?’ from Stop the World – I Want to Get Off. It’s been covered by just about everyone (tortured entertainers all), but the Newley version proves most expressive. In this clip from Hollywood Palace, there again are those mesmeric, freewheeling, tell-all hands. And the full-face clown makeup suggested in ‘The Man Who Makes You Laugh’. The lyrics are a fog of narcissistic revelation: ‘It seems that I’m the only one that I have been thinking of…’ – ‘What kind of man is this? An empty shell!’ – ‘Why can’t I fall in love – like any other man?’ The last is particularly telling. Fry-like: affirming distinction. Shit, but extraordinary in it.

Newley’s self-revelations – more accurately self-protections – show where the entertainer’s self-indulgence truly lies. It’s out in the uncharted hinterland between narcissism and masochism. For the performer knows he will suffer, must suffer. We all know what we’ve signed on for – how could the prevalence of the tragic clown leave us in doubt? Unless we assume that we’ll be the first ones to crack it and locate unforced happiness in making entertainment. Which is purely narcissistic. Feeling hard done to is, bizarrely enough, a not unattractive part of the deal – especially for these performers, like Newley, who perform performance. Newley’s desire to suffer is redeemed by his compulsive need to tell everyone about that suffering. It’s the transformative effect of performance. Shit is converted into art; death into life. So if we must self-indulge, far better we do it on the stage. It drains the poison from our systems in a way that enriches.

The transformation also reveals that the suffering was never abject. It’s all a part of the show – a part without which the show really couldn’t go on. How Merman would scoff. Thus do Newley and Fry go arm-in-arm into their showbiz sunset. A flapping, sinuous flipper, hooked in the tendril of that bin-liner full of yoghurt.

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Happier Tortures

My last torture essay focused on The Raven (1935) and – as much as I relish that juicy melodrama – wasn’t especially kind to it. Here, then, is an attempt to make amends: a study of those tortures in classic horror that remain legitimately horrifying. To simplify (as much as I ever manage that), I’ve divided my argument into three basic points. The whole involves somewhat less Raven-bashing – though a total absintence proved impossible.

First: torture must be hidden away to horrify. The dungeons of the Inquisition are the ideal example – the setting, incidentally, for Poe’s story ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’, one of the dubious inspirations for The Raven. No attempt was made to translate Poe’s oppressive seclusion: Vollin invites four house guests as additional audience for his torture spree – and, presumably, witnesses to his crimes. This dimension turns The Raven into the equivalent of the public execution: repulsive to be sure, but more straightforward entertainment for the masses; auto-da-fé rather than sheltered dungeon.

The Black Cat (1934)

The Black Cat (1934) – Universal’s Poe-inspired predecessor to The Raven – did get this principle of hiding spectacularly right. The film climaxes with Bela Lugosi skinning Boris Karloff alive, but with an admirable reliance on suggestion. The Black Cat invites favourable comparison with Paramount’s Island of Lost Souls (1933), which ends with Charles Laughton suffering vivisection without anaesthetic. In both films, Lugosi is chief torturer, anticipating the cruelty with dialogue that makes the best of his unique grasp of intuitive rhythm. In The Black Cat, Lugosi’s passion is such that he invents a new verb for skinning: ‘Did you ever see an animal skinned, Hjalmar? That’s what I’m going to do to you now! Tear/pare/flare the skin from your body! Slowly… Bit by bit!’ Meanwhile, Island of Lost Souls requires no more than Lugosi’s rhapsodic upward inflection as he utters ‘the House of Pain…!’ Both films then proceed to shots of gleaming razors being collected. This is particularly nauseating in Island of Lost Souls, as the razors are taken up by the island’s hideous beast-men. It creates a quite striking contrast of glass and metal – gleaming, polished, manufactured – and beast-flesh – dirty, atavistic, repulsively organic. Much of the terror is that these filth-encrusted beings are not organic but, like the razors, created.

Island of Lost Souls (1933)

Most importantly, though, both films hide their tortures at the crucial moment. The Black Cat collapses into a chain of shock cuts: the screaming heroine, Karloff’s writhing hand, and a crucifixion-like shadow of Karloff on the rack, Lugosi’s razor merrily flicking away. Island of Lost Souls has the camera discreetly glide away, eventually settling on an exterior shot of the House of Pain. The viewer’s last glimpse of Laughton is of the beast-men swarming in on him. As they block him from sight, the nauseating, Frankenstein-like contrast is completed, the dazzling white suit of Laughton’s civilised scientist surrounded and encased by hairy horrors. Interestingly, both sequences are completed by a scream. Laughton’s scream is an orgasmic hollering, drawn-out and discomforting (but quite in keeping with Laughton’s gallery of sex-haunted monsters, from Nero to Moulton-Barrett to Quasimodo). Karloff’s scream is so bizarre that it seems doubtful it was even performed by the actor: a sudden wolfish eruption, part heave and part hiccup. The early sound film was well-equipped for suggesting its tortures. It clung to the silent cinema’s aesthetic of images teased from shadows, whilst contributing a visceral edge through primitive sound techniques. The interferences of the burgeoning Production Code didn’t hurt either.

Second: torture is more horrifying when women are the victims. There are deep-rooted reasons for this disturbing truth – too tangled to go into here, but probably best distilled in the fact that men are biologically stronger than women. It’s disturbing also to find a general historical bias: whilst the execution and even torture of men often went on in public, it was hidden away when done to women. (For example, female ‘witches’ were seldom left hanging from trees in England. It was thought distasteful that decomposition should produce female nudity. A sadly misjudged modesty.) The few instances of women being tortured in Golden Age horror are downright horrifying. Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) is particularly vile, with Lugosi (again!) draining the blood of a prostitute bound to a beam in his laboratory. Her ‘rotten blood’ gives rise to misogynistic rantings of ‘You cheated me! Your beauty was a lie!’ and an unceremonious dumping through a trapdoor into the River Seine. Universal may have learned their lesson: in The Raven, it’s Bateman’s outrage at the thought of a woman being crushed to death that leads him to betray Vollin.

Bondage scenarios were commonplace in classic horror – Fay Wray seldom got to the end of a film without being tied up – but interestingly it was usually men who were tortured in this context. The best example is The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), in which the naked torso of the young hero is stroked and ogled – across multiple scenes, beautifully photographed in the MGM house style – by Karloff’s gently gay Fu and his whip-crazed daughter. For a film about romantic obsession (one inspired by Poe, no less), The Raven is, by contrast, almost bashfully sexless.

Even unrealized horror tortures depended more on sadistic women torturing men. In 1933, John Balderston was planning all manner of whip-and-chain scenarios for Dracula’s Daughter (1936), none of which made it into the film:

The use of a female Vampire instead of male gives us the chance to play up SEX and CRUELTY legitimately … We profit by making Dracula’s Daughter amorous of her victims … The seduction of young men will be tolerated whereas we had to eliminate seduction of girls from the original as obviously censorable.

Unbelievably, bondage was also considered for Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Still in existence is a detailed story treatment called ‘The Captured Prince’ (the link provides some eye-opening production information). Yet the gendering renders the torture a mild thrill rather than an out-and-out horror show.

At the outset of the sixties, however, actress Barbara Steele became the centrepiece for two of horror cinema’s most nightmarish tortures. Bava’s The Mask of Satan (1960) opens with Steele tied to the stake, swearing vengeance on her tormenters as they prepare the eponymous iron mask. As the mask is brought forth, there comes a striking subjective shot of its inlaid spikes. Finally, the mask is hammered onto Steele’s skull with ghoulish zeal. There’s a quite startling attention to the resulting putrescent outpour – an effect repeated in Bava’s stomach-churning use of poached eggs to suggest regenerating witch-eyes.

The Mask of Satan (1960)

Even more effective is the ending of Corman’s Pit and the Pendulum (1961). The film’s survivors stand atop a dungeon staircase. Their intention is to close the dungeon up for all time: ‘No one will ever enter this room again.’ Leaving, they close the door behind them. Then the camera whips round to an Iron Maiden. Steele’s still-living eyes gaze, catatonic, through the device’s window. Fadeout. Credits. The film’s climax has been so packed with event – notably a certain outsize pendulum and Vincent Price running amok in full Inquisitorial dress – that the viewer has forgotten Steele’s dilemma completely. It’s an exquisite variation on torture by suggestion (now set in a literal Inquisition site), with the viewer’s imagination left to complete the agony.

The gender problem is central to the tortures in both films. Each torture is (in part) a punishment for untamed female sexuality: vampire-witch seductions in The Mask of Satan, adultery in Pit and the Pendulum. This is accentuated by the dual horror of constraint and penetration (by tapered iron spikes) that defines the tortures, an unpleasant sexual analogy. But most effective is the focus that both films provide the eyes, ensconced and engirdled in medieval wrought iron. There is no more emotive image to sum up the human pain at the experience’s centre.

Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

Third: torture is most horrifying when it makes least sense. Now, The Raven very often fails to make sense, but in a way that draws attention to its absurdity. How, for example, has Vollin constructed his numerous industrial torture devices? Why is his modest American house undermined by a cavernous medieval dungeon? What made him such an idiot as to attempt all this – and on the flimsiest of justifications? Regrettably, the answer to all three is that The Raven is just an assembly-line potboiler. Yet the best of the Golden Age horrors (such as The Black Cat, made by the same studio only a year earlier) transcended mere formula to become genuine classics. As Karloff later commented on The Raven: ‘Here was an attempt to pile on the thrills without much logic.’ The Raven presents Vollin as a supreme egotist: early on, he describes himself as ‘a god – with the taint of human emotions’ (conceited devil). But to truly threaten, torture has to represent something much more threatening, and much less explicable, than one man’s ego. George Orwell’s 1984 is an excellent example of this orchestrated senselessness. The tortures of Room 101 can’t be traced to any one individual – least of all the shadowy Big Brother, who, like Goldstein, may not even exist. The ambiguity is central to the horror.

With The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and Theatre of Blood (1973) – two artful proto-slasher films starring Vincent Price – much comedy comes from the tortures making an over-abundance of sense. In each film, the murders follow a pattern delineated by a canonical literary source. The Abominable Dr. Phibes seizes on the Bible’s Ten Plagues of Egypt. It’s appropriate to the god-like aura of Phibes himself, a being neither living nor dead who smites down those who invoke his wrath. Memorably gruesome is a re-engineering of the frog-plague as an oversized frog mask at a masquerade – a mask fitted with a device that makes it tighten, inexorably, about the victim’s throat. Cue much writhing and blood-splattering.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

Theatre of Blood improves on even this, in harnessing the god-like delusions of (certain) actors. The film has an old Shakespearean, Edward Lionheart, pick off his critics with murders culled from the Complete Works. This is a pedant’s darkest dream: beheading from Cymbeline, cannibalism from Titus Andronicus, even burning alive from the little-known Henry VI. There are also a few tortures that never made it into Shakespeare – such as a version of The Merchant of Venice where Shylock finally gets his pound of flesh.

Theatre of Blood (1973)

Yet the Price films commit so thoroughly to their premises that they become disturbing as well as funny. Price’s supreme gift as a horror actor was in portraying fanaticism. He pushed his characters to the limits of self-parody – and then kept on going, where meeker actors feared to tread. So committed are Phibes and Lionheart to following their literary sources, that they pass into the vale of a frightening internal logic. This is aided by the parallel plotting in both films, alternating between scenes of gaudy bloodshed and the surrounding police investigation. These investigation scenes are funnier than even the murders, with the arbiters of law and order expressing baleful admiration for Price’s homicidal genius. Particularly good is a one-liner from Ian Hendry in Theatre of Blood: ‘It’s him all right. Only Lionheart would have the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare.’ The Raven never quite makes the same leap; Lugosi never quite grasps the joke of fanaticism and runs with it. Had he been equipped to do so, Price would have had a hard act to follow.

In closing, it’s worth acknowledging the project that’s provoking these sadistic ramblings: In the Penal Colony at the Arts Theatre, West End. I urge you to book your tickets as soon as possible. I’ve the distinct feeling it’ll provoke more varied and searching reflections on suffering than any number of Bela Lugosi films.

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The Comedy of Torture

In preparing for In the Penal Colony at the Arts Theatre, I’ve been examining torture through the reliable prism of the classic horror film. This entry focuses on the Holy Grail of Golden Age torture-horror, Universal’s The Raven (1935); the next entry will take in snapshots of more successful tortures in the wider horror cinema.

Torture has often uprooted a good horror film. For example, there are the Hammer films that don’t feel like Hammer films – The Camp on Blood Island (1958) and The Terror of the Tongs (1961) – in light of their focus on tortures plucked from recent history. None of Jesus Franco’s torture-horrors have ever worked, except, perhaps, as legitimate torture: his 1970 version of de Sade’s Eugenie is excrement marvellous rare. Franco’s The Bloody Judge (1970), starring Christopher Lee as Judge Jeffries, might be the dubious exception. Yet it’s a film that Lee refuses to see:

In the film, instead of somebody just being hanged – it’s worth noting that Lee was a witness to the last public execution in France – I gather that [they filmed] the most hideous scenes, about which I knew absolutely nothing at all, because they were done long after I’d finished my part: hideous and appalling scenes of torture and brutality and mutilation – hanging and drawing and quartering and worse … That’s why I’ve never seen it. I can’t bring myself to look at things like that.

Like Lee, I won’t pretend I’ve endured the torture porn rigours of Saw and Hostel and The Human Centipede – although I do hold a candle for the fiendishly inventive Cube (1997).

But what of torture in the Golden Age of horror? The founding Gothic in the Hollywood canon is The Phantom of the Opera (1925), which constantly hints at torture as the reason for the Phantom’s deformity. The Phantom’s back story, outlined in a curt police clipping, brims with tantalising inference: ‘Born during the Boulevard Massacre. Self educated musician and master of Black Art. Exiled to Devil’s Island for criminal insane.’ Here are three potential reasons that the Phantom bears a death’s head: torture through revolution or devilry or incarceration. Matters are complicated by the Phantom’s appearance at the Bal Masque, where he imperiously states: ‘Beneath your dancing feet are the tombs of tortured men – thus does the Red Death rebuke your merriment!’ The reference to Edgar Allan Poe – author of torture paradigm ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ – is suggestive, though not so much as the eleventh-hour revelation of the Phantom’s underground torture chamber. Later versions explained the Phantom’s deformity by subjecting him to a face full of acid. Horrific, yes, but never again as interesting.

Whipping became commonplace in the early horror film. Frankenstein (1931) contains a memorable torture scene: Boris Karloff’s Monster howling in chains, enduring the whippings and tauntings of the hunchbacked Fritz. The chains may be painful enough (the Chinese once had the torture of ‘kneeling on chains’); the whip reminds of flogging’s prime place in torture across all ages and all cultures (because a painful but ‘clean’ means of punishment). In the same year’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, whipping rears its head more sadistically. Ivy the streetwalker exposes her naked back to Jekyll – revealing the marks that he, as Hyde, has inflicted on her: ‘Pretty, ain’t it? It’s a whip, that’s what it is – a whip!’ The sadism went up a notch in the 1941 remake, where Spencer Tracy’s Jekyll whips the women in his life in a Freudian dream sequence.

Most potent is the reliance on suggestion. There’s Cleopatra’s transformation into a legless, shrieking ‘bird woman’ in Freaks (1932), where the audience sees only the aftermath; the waking vivisection of Dr Moreau (another chap fond of the whip) in Island of Lost Souls (also 1932), the camera discreetly pulling away as Moreau’s creations pull him apart; and Karloff’s Expressionist ‘crucifixion’ in The Black Cat (1934), conveyed almost entirely in shadow. Perhaps surprisingly, suggestion was usually the result of censorship as much as artistic vision. Freaks originally laid out Cleo’s destruction in gory detail, a tree felling her in a storm before her torturers swarmed in on her (surviving prints substitute a very abrupt fade); The Black Cat had some ghastly script business where a skinless Karloff hobbles across the floor to frighten Lugosi. Island of Lost Souls never required more than the half-laughing screams of Charles Laughton – at once darkly comic, kinky and blood-curdling. Sound can be graphic.

The Raven (1935) - Poster

It was The Raven (1935) that handled torture most brazenly. To the point where it got horror banned in England for a few years, thus shutting down Hollywood production of horror. And yet it’s utterly ridiculous. The Raven has a sister film in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) – almost equally gaudy in its approach to torture, filtering its devices through comic-book exaggeration, MGM production gloss and regrettable Chinese stereotypes. There’s a later comparison in Tower of London (1939), in which prisoners flop from iron maidens like boneless fish. But neither film approached torture with the concentration – and therefore absurdity – of The Raven.

Ware, Hinds, Lugosi

The plot deals with Dr Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi), an eminent neurosurgeon and Poe obsessive, who falls in love with Jean Thatcher after saving her on the operating table. But when her father, Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds), intervenes to prevent the budding psychotic infatuation, Vollin snaps. After imprisoning and mutilating on-the-run gangster Edmond Bateman (Boris Karloff), Vollin exploits him as his pawn in subjecting Judge, Jean, fiancé and friends to the Poe-inspired torture devices in his cellar.

The Pendulum

There’s always something gently amusing about Samuel Hinds moaning under Lugosi’s great big pendulum – politely accepting his fate, now and then mouthing such serene platitudes as ‘Oh, try to be sane, Vollin!’ Given that torture is the blackest of all human practices, it becomes staggeringly funny in The Raven.

Revamped Jail

The hilarity might stem from the strangeness of time in The Raven: medievalism rooted in a modern context. In our first trip to the cellars, Vollin declares his collection ‘a most unique museum of torture’. But it’s only really unique for clearing out the ‘torture’ section of Universal’s prop warehouse. We see balls-and-chains, a mysterious leaden coffin, the rack, a tiny cage (‘Little Ease’ perhaps?) and what looks to be the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg; there’s even one of the gibbets that turned up in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948; it goes without saying that every onscreen prop would be recycled for 1939’s Tower of London). The mood of ancient Gothic is enhanced by the wrap-around dungeon background. It’s another direct steal, this time from Universal’s Frankenstein series: the sets are taken from Charles D. Hall’s jail and watch-tower scenes in Bride of Frankenstein (also 1935). In the context of The Raven, the schlocky medievalism becomes fairly distancing. It’s an illustration of Henry Fielding’s famous remark: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ The moment Vollin enters his museum, The Raven may as well take place in Oz or Narnia.

Revamped Laboratory

Vollin’s fixation on Edgar Allan Poe is complicit in the distancing effect. The long-dead author extends the anachronism in yet another direction, adding his own weird patina of New England gaslight to the generic swirl of ‘The Past’. Although even the apparent present of The Raven is desperately strange: it’s a deranged, never-neverland 1930s, teeming with yuppies who play at horse-racing in the drawing-room. What else can you expect with supporting players named ‘Spencer Charters’ and ‘Maidel Turner’? It was probably just as distancing in 1935.

Aside from his air of anachronism, Poe has been so ritually demonised in western culture that it’s become ridiculous. A fine example is the film Torture Garden (1967); a Bloch-derived portmanteau rather than an adaptation of Mirbeau. The best segment by far is ‘The Man Who Collected Poe’. It’s a satire on fanatical (and Vollin-like) collectors: in this case, a fellow who’s so mad on Poe that he has, quite literally, collected the long-dead author – by resurrecting him via a pact with the Devil. As in the villain song tradition, Poe becomes, for all intents and purposes, the Devil himself; cackling, deranged, at the centre of a blazing inferno, as he damns the soul of a human victim.

Such demonisation of Poe is vital to The Raven. Bela Lugosi’s big speech is a minor masterpiece of melodramatic dialogue:

Melodramatic Speech

Poe was a great genius. Like all great geniuses, there was in him the insistent will to do something big, great, constructive in the world. He had the brain to do it. But – he fell in love. Her name was Lenore… ‘Longing for the lost Lenore’… Something happened. Someone took her away from him. When a man of genius is denied of his great love, he goes mad. His brain, instead of being clear to do his work, is tortured. So he begins to think of torture. Torture for those who have tortured him.

On balance, though, David Boehm’s screenplay for The Raven is badly written – or at least badly conceived, which amounts to much the same. Now, the fruitiness of the dialogue can be one of the highlights of classic horror. And there is a delight in hearing Bela Lugosi give shape to such lines as the following:

Death Will Be Sweet

I am the sanest man who ever lived. But I will not be tortured. I tear torture out of myself by torturing you! Fifteen minutes… There’s the clock – you can see it… Torture! Waiting! Waiting! Death will be sweet, Judge Thatcher!

Walls Come Together

Yet there’s something stubbornly uncinematic about such dialogue in The Raven. It seems to be trying to do the work of the images – and, regrettably, umpteen configurations of the word ‘torture’ do not make up for an absence of well-presented torture. Witness, once again, Samuel Hinds under that great big pendulum. Or the lovers in the room where the walls come together (they seem as politely unaffected as Hinds). Properly contained, the dialogue of classic horror can galvanise a film, its theatrical bravado animating that which is already living (see The Old Dark House, 1932, where great dialogue melds with an appropriately great production). Given that Vollin’s endless epistles to torture never take the shape of a believable reason for the character’s machinations – that is, beyond stultifying sadism – its foregrounding in the script becomes a nagging irritation. The dialogue in The Raven seems to be searching for a container. Devoid of one, it’s just unbridled excess.

Lugosi

The strangeness of The Raven is felt keenest in the imbalance of the lead performances, the now-legendary Lugosi and Karloff. As Vollin, Lugosi takes the film almost too seriously. In doing so, Lugosi does a great service to his audiences, following the formula for melodrama laid out in Gordon Craig’s Henry Irving: ‘Melodrama was not and is not afraid of the spectacular or the heroic, of bravura, or the impossible. It shuns one thing purposely – the matter-of-fact.’ Certainly, the sight and sound of Lugosi throughout The Raven is alarming: an unending cavalcade of bat-like grimaces, staccato cackles and throat-rending eruptions of Hungarian passion, all delivered with Shakespearean aplomb. Even today, it’s unnerving how much Lugosi seems to believe in the script’s cardboard character. And that really is the problem: Lugosi can never do more than dress the cardboard. Which he does effectively enough – just as the art department dresses its ill-conceived setting with a stock ball-and-chain, or the screenplay dresses its dearth of character motivation with a repetition of the word ‘torture’. Of course, to really work, melodrama requires an equal force of belief from everyone involved in the enterprise. And had director Lew Landers believed in the project to the extent of Lugosi, it’s probable that The Raven couldn’t have been released at all. The Marquis de Sade would have made it to Hollywood.

Karloff

Karloff, always the more astute judge of scripts, takes and plays his character as simple pulp. Karloff’s Edmond Bateman is perversely memorable, and certainly no weaker than Lugosi’s characterisation: a breathy, petulant, fish-eyed grotesque. This studied detachment probably relieved Karloff of a lot of unnecessary pressure: his infamous onset remark that ‘this whole place is a toilet’ is a measure of his disenchantment with rinky-dink Universal. Nonetheless, Karloff is responsible for the film’s only potent emotional stab at torture, on awaking to discover his disfigurement at the hands of Lugosi. Even here, the scene is effective against the odds: the Jack Pierce makeup, not bad in principle, is so inadequately lit and photographed that it appears flat, grey and (paradoxically detrimental) lifeless.

Still, The Raven survives as a valuable insight into how differently the premier gentlemen of horror attacked their craft. Lugosi was almost naively diabolic, erupting from within his pedantic cage of calculated baroque stylings; Karloff, more dangerous (and following the example of Lon Chaney), went to the heart to horrify. But seemingly everyone entangled in The Raven appears to be acting in a different film. The imbalance is at least interesting, even if it makes the film that much harder to take seriously.

Despite so much pecking, my affection for The Raven isn’t greatly diminished. On its own borderline psychotic terms (and perhaps there’s no other way to take it), it’s delirious, breathless fun – in spite of (possibly because of) its tasteless subject matter. It does, however, beg a question: when does the representation of torture become hideous, monstrous, unacceptable? I have three strong thoughts on this, all of which bolster The Raven as an unintended burlesque. I’ll save them till next time; we’ve suffered enough for now.

In closing, it’s worth observing that The Raven was remade in 1963. This time as an intentional horror-comedy. One torture-focused sequence featured Boris Karloff (back again, now a wizard) threatening to singe Vincent Price’s daughter with a magically floating red-hot poker. ‘I offer you a choice!’ he fawns. ‘The secret of your hand manipulations, or this – against this!’

A fair effort. But I still think of Samuel Hinds under that great big pendulum.

Revenge of the Pendulum

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