The Curse of Ham

I find ‘ham’ a dispiriting old term. Partly because most of my favourite actors have been accused of it: the curse stretches from Freddie Jones to Charles Laughton; from Bela Lugosi to Bette Davis. But then, I’ve heard even Paul Scofield accused of ham – so it’s not just the usual suspects who suffer. And yes, I’ve also been accused of ham – only a few times directly, more often by implication. There’s a frothing semantic bog of semi-related words, with a ham-shaped hole at the centre… ExaggerationDistortionCaricatureManicGrotesque… Such descriptions can be taken negatively or positively: the context is all. But ‘ham’ – baldly used – is rarely if ever meant positively. It’s always a slight; always a detraction. Yet ham represents much more than an attack on someone’s acting. It’s an attack on that person’s integrity; an arch and scurrilous questioning of motives and inner lives.

Does that sound overblown? I should jolly well hope so. But I can back it up. Just look at how Patrice Pavis defines ‘ham’ in her Dictionary of the Theatre, flinging it into nefarious union with ‘showing off’:

An actor who falls prey to the temptation of showing off or ham-acting puts himself in the spotlight at the expense of his colleagues, the character, theatrical illusion, and the poor spectator who is expected to admire the monster. Apart from the social perversion of ham acting, it entails a demagogic complicity with the audience, who is aware that the acting is a virtuoso who masters his role and is even capable of interrupting himself to prove it.

The above consolidates what ‘ham’ is generally thought to mean. It’s also devastatingly cruel. A ‘monster’ flinging itself at the ‘poor’ unhappy audience! A ‘monster’ succumbing to ‘temptation’ – and therefore ‘perversion’! The whole carries a disgustingly biblical whiff of original sin: the Curse of Ham among us still. These hysterical ejaculations sit uneasily with Pavis’s concession that, actually, yes, fourth walls can be broken, and ‘theatrical illusion’ is far from quantifiable. At least, that’s what I take the unwieldy ‘demagogic complicity’ to mean. It seems that ham, even in the abstract, can drive the most obtuse academic into sputtery, maybe-more-coherent-than-usual rage. Personally, I can’t stomach this sort of cruelty, even when it’s so easy to deride. Ham stirs much rage in me also – just on the other side of the debate.

In terms of usage, ‘ham’ might be considered the antithesis of ‘luvvie’. Both are pathetic non-words, but ‘luvvie’ is used almost exclusively by non-actors to beat up actors (the tabloid press have been most vigorous in this regard). It’s those on the outside attacking those on the inside. That doesn’t give it the least value, but it does render it understandable: fear of the unknown, proceeding from ignorance and non-engagement. By contrast, ham is the eternal stick with which those on the inside beat up others on the inside: actors (or writers, or directors, but usually actors) bitching about actors. Such internal subterfuge is best avoided. The job carries enough challenges already.

Furthermore, the word ‘ham’ might indeed be meaningless. For starters, we’ve no idea where it came from. Etymologists have linked it to everything from ham fat (an ancient makeup remover) to Hamlet (unlikely) to the word (h-)amateur (which in any case means ‘enthusiast’ and deserves our respect). Small wonder that no one can decide what ham means today. It’s become a soggy catch-all word for ‘bad’. But ‘bad’ doesn’t have any meaning beyond the individual saying ‘oh, well, I think that’s bad’. ‘I consider that acting bad, and therefore it is ham.’ Is this really good enough? It puts me in mind of Stephen Fry’s laudable moan (and no one does laudable moaning better) about the word ‘offence’:

It’s now very common to hear people say ‘I’m rather offended by that’. As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually no more – it’s simply a whine. It’s no more than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be ‘respected’ as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that’ – well, so fucking what?

Fry’s point is an important one. People too often cut off their engagement with a productive argument by throwing out a meaningless word. ‘Offence’ is one such chimera; in the theatrical sphere, ‘ham’ is another. But if you’re going to use a word as ammunition, do yourself a considerable favour and pick apart what it means. Or at least what it means to you. You stand to make some remarkable discoveries.

So: if ‘ham’ doesn’t just mean ‘bad’, what does it mean?

I suspect ‘ham’ is a euphemism, actually – for a feeling of embarrassment.

This troubles me. I find some of the most rewarding moments in watching actors (and in acting myself) to be those that make me uncomfortable. It forces me to question why I’m embarrassed, and I very often find it’s a defect in me. I’m not being receptive to what’s being thrown out. Whenever I’ve been tempted to call something ‘ham’ it’s usually been because it simply wasn’t to my taste. I can think of many a performance writ large that didn’t quite fly for me. But then, I’m massively prejudiced. Because I am an actor who does big things, I can never quite remove myself from the picture. I’ll sit there thinking ‘Well, I could have done that type of performance better.’ Or, more resentfully: ‘Well. That’s good – good of a sort – but I’d have done it differently.’ Or, worse yet: ‘They’re better than me at what makes me me. And I hate that.’ I feel discomfort because I may, after all, be looking at only a cracked reflection of myself. Which carries me to the worst thought of all: ‘Oh. Good. God. Am I really that bad?’ Perhaps I really am Patrice Parvis’s monstrous, perverted show-off.

But perhaps not. I still believe that doing the big things is eminently worthwhile. I think of Bela Lugosi’s Ygor and Bette Davis’s Baby Jane Hudson. I think of Freddie Jones’ horrifying Bytes in The Elephant Man, and Charles Laughton’s pitiable grape farmer in They Knew What They Wanted. The only reason for fear is social – a dread of not being accepted by your fellow actors; of being seen as somehow illegitimate or outmoded or unfashionable or just very, very stupid. Well, I say that those pursuing acting – a craft that’s closer to worms than shopkeepers on The Great Chain of Being – have no right to worry about what people think. Least of all those in the same mad game. As long as ‘ham’ is carelessly made a generalised put-down, actors will become more and more unadventurous, unimaginative, unwilling to take risks. More and more grey, in fact.

Beyond all else, the word ‘ham’ points to such poverty of imagination. For in another distressing pattern, ‘ham’ is often applied to works that are considered a throwback. Shakespeare in the grand style and blood-and-thunder melodrama, subjects on which I’ve recently written, are two such pursuits. Well, I don’t have much time for those who refuse to engage with anything outside the present. At least be open to the treasure-house of the past! It’s not about how much you know or don’t know – it’s just about remaining open to the multifarious alternatives! It’s so easy – too easy – to claim that something’s simply ‘bad!’ But why not remove the log from your own eye? Why not use that log to smash Caliban’s looking-glass? Why not question why you think it in the first place, instead of assuming the world will appreciate your opinion because it derives from you? That is egotism!

I don’t exercise this self-control nearly often enough. But I would hope I’m getting better at it. I would hope that others would challenge themselves to get better too.

And none of this is to say we should put up with poor acting. Sometimes an embarrassing performance is just that, and no accommodation can make it otherwise. As David Mamet asks, time and again, in many and various permutations: why – why – why accept the second-rate in yourself or in others? A bit dangerous to go looking for the second-rate in others – that’s the Patrice Pavis approach, and suggests we have insights into others’ souls – but entirely legitimate to interrogate yourself. We all know when we’ve done less than our best work. And if we don’t, we should! Unfortunately, Mamet, for all his considerable virtues, is another person who chronically abuses the word ‘ham’. In 2012, I wrote about Mamet’s True and False, at some length and with (for me) unusual clarity. That clarity was likely because I was just as riled up as I am now.

Mamet’s eternal quest is to wrench theatre from the navel-gazing practitioners and restore it to the audience. So it’s funny that whenever I’ve spoken to audiences, ‘ham’ is invariably used as a compliment – by those who aren’t involved in theatre themselves. Something to the order of: ‘Ah! I liked that! You really hammed it up!’ This occurs most often in Yorkshire, where, for all I know, ‘ham’ carries a legitimately different signification – although I’ve known it in England’s nether regions also. I’ve asked the terse follow-up questions: and yes, it genuinely was meant positively. I’d like to see ‘ham’ and ‘luvvie’ more widely used as good-humoured banter between actors. Rather like ‘duckie’ seems to have been used among the old guard, before they all died off and left the likes of us to fill their places.

Alas, principles must remain. With times as they are, I can’t very well countenance any use of the word. Unless it’s fabulously well-justified. Or triumphantly reclaimed.

The latter is, at least, a possibility. Looking back on a piece I wrote in 2010, I find myself scribbling this on ‘ham’:

What sort of images does this simple word evoke? Abundance; plenty; generosity; flavour; robustness; in short, a feast. Hang on a minute… And these are the things we’re meant to apologise for in our acting?

Damn it all, four-years-ago me! You were occasionally very right!

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Filed under Acting Theory, Essays, Personal Excavation

Neo-Gothic Shakespeare

Over the last few weeks, my brain’s been pleasurably clogged with Henry Irving. He’s become my window onto a brave new world of theatrical adventure. Of course, it’s also an old world, defined by the ruling structure of the Victorian repertoire. At Irving’s Lyceum Theatre, this meant alternating Shakespeare with catch-penny melodrama: Hamlet, Macbeth and Richard III strolled hand-in-hand with the likes of Eugene Aram, Richelieu and Louis XI. In the past, I’ve thought about melodrama as ‘the extra-textual theatre’ – that theatre in which the greatest effectiveness lies outside the spoken word. Certain critics have called it the Romantic theatre, with Edmund Kean as its hard-drinking, mass-sexing embodiment. And some are content to deride melodrama as actors’ theatre – a term that trivialises the glories of restoring the actor to the centre of a theatrical event.

But I think it’s Jeffrey Richards who hits on the best of all terms in this thrilling summation:

Audiences shared a love of spectacle and a fascination with crime and criminals, a profound sentimentality, and a belief in retribution. They were devoted to a hallowed canon of established melodramatic favourites: Willson Disher calls them ‘Neo-Gothic Shakespeare’, the Romantic Victorian equivalents of the Bard, their stories looted from Scott and Lytton, Hugo and Dumas, Goldsmith and Dickens, and ‘the calendars of crime’; their heroes The Corsican Brothers, The Courier of Lyons, Louis XI, Eugene Aram, Sydney Carton, Ruy Blas, the Master of Ravenswood and Vanderdecken the Flying Dutchman.

I’ve no idea where Willson Disher came up with it, but ‘Neo-Gothic Shakespeare’ is an exceptionally fine coinage. Now, the accepted response to melodrama is to cry ‘How ghastly! How embarrassing! Thank goodness this tommy-rot died out!’ Quite understandable. It’s every generation’s self-righteous prerogative to feel their theatre’s the best it’s ever been. But how many nay-sayers have bothered to read these melodramas? I’ve been steeped in their creepy world, via novels and films, for some time While the old melodramas certainly don’t make for good reading, the form clearly answers some very deep need. Perhaps it’s actors who feel that need more deeply than most.

But first: what constitutes Neo-Gothic Shakespeare? I’ll do a quick ‘Notes on Camp’ – like Sontag’s celebrated bullet-points, nothing should be taken too seriously – and try to fix on what melodrama means to me:


1. Visual revelation is central to the event. It could be a hiding-place; a secret passage; a dream shown through gauze.

2. A medieval attitude to villainy. The villainy of the aged, the ugly, the rich, the powerful, the diabolically blood-lusting. Boucicault’s bastardised Louis XI is all of these: the ultimate melodramatic villain.

3. Goodness definitely exists. And is touching for that very reason. Go with it, without cynicism, and it’s wonderful.

4. Guilt ostentatiously presented. The Hand of God ever-present, in ways much more potent than clergymen. In The Bells, Mathias is literally struck dead by guilt.

5. Beautiful (and often highly coloured) fairytale scenery. Gothic castles, with chapels and dungeons; villages at May Day, with rustic cottage interiors. The Castle Spectre is one such pictorial drama. Although even urban melodrama should be prepossessing. It’s as E.W. Godwin said: ‘Even a burlesque can be beautiful.’

6. A relish for the fustian. Swirling mists; swirling capes; a sculptor’s delight in the gargoyle-like leer. Harry Furniss’s caricatures of Henry Irving convey this very well (see below for his Louis XI).

Furniss - Louis XI

7. Tumultuous weather. Pathetic fallacy, yes, but also drumming up a more elemental thrill. Observe the storm in Maria Marten: the murder is made both horrifying and (however shamefully) exciting.

8. Talismans really work. Often crucifixes, but wider than that. Finding lost objects may be key to the plot. Buried treasure. Some lingering sense of the Catholic relic.

9. Emotional ‘surfing’. Hopping from wave to wave. Pity and terror from unexpected places. Louis XI’s fits of religious torment create sympathy for even the devil.

10. Revenge is everyone’s motive. It can be good, it can be bad. But come it shall!

11. As in Dickens, there are serious people (usually heroes and heroines) and unserious people (the buffoons and villains). They can be yoked together in a fashion that’s quite galvanising. Or undergo surprise transformations. The great nightmare of ‘Sikes and Nancy’ is that it discovers the humanity of even Bill Sikes: the ogre made three-dimensional.

12. Melodrama delights in the absurd. It’s camp, in that it’s aware of this dimension. Sweeney Todd is the prime example: the winking line ‘I’ll polish him off!’ was high camp at the instant of conception.

13. Melodrama has an infinitely greater sense of humour than its critics. Tod Slaughter always suggested as much. Witness the intertitle that opens The Face at the Window (1939): ‘this melodrama of the old school – dear to the hearts of all who unashamedly enjoy either a shudder or a laugh at the heights of villainy.’

14. By the same token, melodrama is given to greater flights of fancy than its critics. It enjoys a free imaginative play. The throwing together of disparate elements – much as a child might do – is theatre in its purest sense.

15. Phantasmagoria. Impressively low-tech special effects: gauzes, smoke bombs, coloured light, Pepper’s Ghost, Sweeney Todd’s revolving chair. The spectator reduced to a child-like state. The joins are plainly visible, but all the more wonderful for it.

I confess that the above makes my actor’s heart soar. Melodrama is an anti-literary form; a form in which the text is negligible. The written word does little more than sanction a free-wheeling romp through the possibilities of theatre. In operating around the text, attention is drawn to those things that make the theatre unique. And it falls to the melodramatic actor to bind these unwieldy fragments together – by sheer force of enthusiasm, imagination and belief.

The simple existence of melodrama is the great answer to those who marginalise the actor’s contribution. Here, Laurence Irving reflects on Bernard Shaw’s hatred for Henry Irving’s acting style:

Bravura acting left him unmoved; he was unable to comprehend what Irving described as the actor’s power ‘to arouse the intelligence by the vibrations and modulations of organized sound’. He was constitutionally immune to the spell which an actor of genius can, with the poorest literary material, cast upon his audience; his allergy to the world of romantic illusion upon which the curtain of the Lyceum rose was incurable.

The quotation from Sir Henry is especially thought-provoking: the Wildean idea that melodrama is a form in which sound precedes and even creates sense. Most people don’t have a great feel for Shaw’s text-sodden plays. I certainly don’t. I can vibrate to them as cavalcades of fine and often quirky ideas, but they seldom come alive as drama. Don Juan in Hell has been my best experience of Shaw – and that was a sound-only recording of a platform piece. Some drama!

The most fun I’ve yet had with Shaw has been through A Victorian in Orbit, the autobiography of Cedric Hardwicke. In anecdote after anecdote, Shaw suddenly comes alive: a warm and witty human being. It’s clear that Shaw and Hardwicke were great friends. Yet the greatest surprise is that the book is any fun at all. In his film performances, Hardwicke was invariably dry and dusty. His book’s frolicsome joie de vivre is nowhere to be found in his roles in Things to Come (1936) or The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942); it’s only slightly more apparent in The Ghoul (1933). Hardwicke did make an excellent Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), but that’s probably because his go-to persona suited the repressive, self-denying judge so well. Little wonder that Shaw treasured Hardwicke as an interpreter of his plays. No attention wasted on the actor; all focus on the text. These movie melodramas begged for a different attack.

I suppose my point here is that a text-dependent drama is always, on some level, limiting. That goes not just for Shaw but Shakespeare. Unless we find ways to keep doing Shakespeare justice, I don’t see the point in carrying on. For one thing, it’s dangerous to go on parading inferior Shakespeare before a public of finite indulgence. Surely Shakespeare is great art because it’s of great importance? Months could – and, ideally, should – be lavished on rehearsing one scene. It really is that serious.

Although I so often read that King Lear is unplayable – from Irving himself and in articles such as this one – that I begin to wonder. How far do actors feel caged by these enormously weighty texts? Moreover, what does ‘unplayable’ mean? Does there exist some measurable scale of playability? Is Hamlet just about playable if you’re really, really good? Surely it’s easier to say that all Shakespeare is unplayable – and let’s be honest, it’s much harder to do justice to a messenger or a spear-carrier than a fantastically bewarted monarch who gets to massage half the play’s text between his toothless gums.

For me, as for many, there’s a cloud of inaccessibility around Shakespeare. It’s something to do with the age of the work; something to do with the verse: the sense that meaning, even with diligent research, is slipping between my fingers. It’s not for lack of trying to engage: I’ve read or seen virtually every play by Shakespeare. I’d love to be carried away by his work more often. There are things that do it. It’s usually those things that are Neo-Gothic, by virtue of the uncanny atmosphere they conjure up: the fourth acts of Richard III (‘revolving this will teach thee how to curse’) and Timon of Athens (‘I’ll beat thee, but I should infect my hands’); the marginal characters, such as the Apothecary in Romeo and Juliet and the Porter in Macbeth; the stranger tracts in the late Romances. The Merchant of Venice occupies that atmospherically charged space more than any Shakespeare – a fantastic, picturesque weirdness colours most every scene – which is probably why it’s my favourite of his plays.

Funnily enough, it’s the Sonnets that I find most freeing, and they weren’t intended for the stage. They withdraw from me all of my yearning to do Shakespeare justice. To be a light and deft and tripping being; an Apollonian actor, who can write romance on the air with a tripping quill. I fear it’s not for me (and I hope I’m not talking myself out of a job here): I’m too rough and too plodding to be a great Shakespearean.

Whatever the answer, I’m certain that you can’t take ownership of Shakespeare. Not really. I happen to love Donald Wolfit. The idea of him, at any rate: a flawed, insecure, egotistical, spat-upon monster of a man, who also turned in the greatest Lear of the twentieth century. But whenever Wolfit claimed ownership of Shakespeare, he became absurd. Take this, from when Wolfit played Falstaff and clocked that there was time between appearances to remove his padding:

Brilliant craftsman, Shakespeare. Knew the actor would want to pee and constructed the play accordingly. A Master, a Master!

Or this, justifying his deletion of Malvolio’s imprisonment in Twelfth Night:

I cannot learn it, and if I cannot learn it, Shakespeare did not write it!

Those who claim to be on good terms with Shakespeare should be treated with suspicion. Shakespeare’s not a comfortable author. His plays tell you about being a human being, but in such a way that he takes you far outside yourself. His dramatic situations are gigantic emblems of humanity. Lear on the heath. Hamlet hovering over Claudius with the dagger. Even Falstaff in the buck-basket starts to seem colossal. The Sonnets, by comparison, are chamber pieces: emotion lyrically and seductively transmitted.

One of the refreshing aspects of the Victorian theatre is how differently Shakespeare was represented. Alan Hughes has helpfully whittled down their Shakespearean repertory to the following: Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Richard III, Henry V, Henry VIII, King John, As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing and The Merchant of Venice. Other Shakespeares were revived, yes, but seldom more often than The Two Noble Kinsmen is in our time. The omissions are stunning. No Lear and no Fool. No Coriolanus, no Volumnia. No Richard II. No Imogen. No Prospero or Miranda or Caliban or Ariel. No Angelo and Isabella. No Cleopatra and Antony. No Autolycus; no Leontes and Hermione. No Viola or Malvolio; no Sir Toby, Sir Andrew or Feste. No Oberon and Titania and Puck; no Quince and no Bottom and most certainly no Snug. No Brutus and Cassius; no Caesar. No Falstaff – no, not even the watered-down clone that haunts The Merry Wives of Windsor. Yet for all that’s lost, it’s freeing to find yourself blinkered to Shakespeare. Clipped of its endless expanses, the work feels oddly comfortable. Perhaps it’d make sense to borrow this leaf from the Victorians. The other way they made their Shakespeare comfortable was by uniting it with melodrama.

At its best, melodrama restores the reciprocal relationship of actor and audience. Melodrama is the actors’ theatre, but in a way that’s practically driven. It’s because the words of the melodrama are roughly hewn that the flesh-and-blood performer is invested with new responsibility. No text is perfect: even the unplayable King Lear could be better (as Simon Gray once remarked). Great theatre is not an essay but an event – and an unashamedly rough text can remind us why we’re there in the first place. The Irving literature often draws attention to the idea of ‘creating’ a part. (It was a new term in Victorian England, steeped in the exoticism of the Comedie Francaise.) Creation is the actor’s special gift. Charles Laughton often spoke of creation as the cornerstone of his acting: ‘Great artists reveal the god in man, and every character an actor plays must be this sort of creation.’ Laughton, working in Golden Age Hollywood, had some thinly written scripts to contend with. And his best performance – sparring with Hardwicke as The Hunchback of Notre Dame – required very few words at all. It wouldn’t have done for Shakespeare: his Caliban talks more in one speech than all of Laughton’s remarkable Quasimodo.

Irving - Cardinal Wolsey

In closing, it’s interesting to note the deepest way in which the Victorians got on with Shakespeare: by plundering his works for blood and thunder. Just peruse the Shakespeares that got the most exposure in the Victorian age. Richard III is melodrama by any standard, the archetypal ‘villain play’ – and a no-nonsense Shylock transforms The Merchant of Venice into much the same thing. Macbeth can be a rip-snorter, as can Hamlet, with their glut of castles and ghosts and witchcraft and murders (according to James Agate, Wolfit staged both as melodramas). There’s enough of the macabre in Romeo and Juliet and Othello to keep any ghoul’s interest. Even Henry VIII, with its endless parades and pageants, satiates the melodramatic thirst for show-stopping spectacle (Wilde certainly approved). There are few sights more tantalisingly Gothic than Irving’s vampiric Cardinal Wolsey.

I’d love to see a season of Neo-Gothic Shakespeare – beginning, perhaps, with Titus Andronicus. If all else fails, I’ll start a company.

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What Halloween Is, As I Grow Older

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

Champaigne - Still Life with a Skull

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scrooge & Marley: The Return

… Because some plays warrant more than a Facebook status.

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

Scrooge & Marley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cushing and Lee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Announcements, Experiences

The Knight from Nowhere

Sir Henry Irving has fast become my latest obsession. Which is strange, given that I can’t see any of his performances. Irving last performed in the theatre in 1905. All that remains of his art are a few scratchy wax cylinder recordings.

Master and Pupil

Last year, I developed a similar passion for Sir Donald Wolfit, after reading Ronald Harwood’s excellent biography. I’ve still seen only a clutch of Wolfit performances, film rather than theatre, and none of them hugely impressive: Callistratus in Blood of the Vampire (1958) leaps to mind, as does the title menace in Svengali (1954). To a lesser extent, I’ve had it with Charles Laughton and Antony Sher. I sought out more Laughton films after reading Simon Callow’s biography. It was enervating to have such unpromising vehicles as They Knew What They Wanted (1940) and especially This Land Is Mine (1943) deliver far in excess of my hopes. As for Sher (who I know from his biographies), I’ve still never seen him in the theatre – though given he’s alive and working, there’s every chance that’ll change.

Having a primarily textual connection to an actor is nonetheless edifying. It’s that point at which drama intersects with faith. You start looking beyond the performance for the idea, the ethos, the belief system that underlies it. Much more drama should work like this: as with any faith, it gives its acolytes a reason to continue. Acting is a discouraging enough pursuit – when it doesn’t go right – that such figures are vital. I am anyway a prodigious hero worshipper, and probably for reasons of this nature. My heroes give me the courage to keep on trying.

Irving has been with me far longer than the actors mentioned above. I’m sure I’ve known about Irving nearly as long as I’ve known about Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula (and, as anyone who knows me will testify, that is a very long time). Stoker was Irving’s business manager at the Lyceum Theatre, forever cast in the shadow of his domineering ‘Guv’nor’ and receiving little thanks for his administrative pains. It’s the supreme irony of Irving’s life that now Dracula is more famous than him. Irving even passed up the opportunity to be the first actor to play Dracula (repeatedly, by Stoker’s account). Hindsight has not been kind. Not only are Irving’s performances lost to the dust, but he jeopardised his one real shot at cultural immortality. If the great dead could only speak! The Knight and the Count are no doubt locked in bitter combat, a Salieri and Mozart of the nineteenth-century theatre. Stoker is their jealous (and unlikely) God.

I’ve been getting to know Irving through many great books. I’ve recently concluded Laurence Irving’s monumental Henry Irving: The Actor and His World, which might well be the longest book I’ve read since finishing Cambridge: an all-encompassing almanac of Irving. Simply living with a subject for as long as such a biography takes creates a special bond, regardless of what you think of the man. It’s certainly that way with Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens – you feel as though you’ve lived his life for him, suffered his exhaustion and earned his death (for Dickens and Irving both, a reverential interring in Poets’ Corner). I’m now all over the place in my Irving researches: steeped in Jeffrey Richards’ Sir Henry Irving: A Victorian Actor and His World and Bram Stoker’s Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving; culling sections from The Tragic Actor (Bertram Joseph), That Despicable Race (Bryan Forbes) and Thunder in the Air (Brian Masters); looking forward to volumes by Ellen Terry and Michael Holroyd and (again!) Jeffrey Richards. Then there are the plays that Irving made famous: I’ve just worked through a heavily annotated script for The Bells, and have a ton of Shakespeare, Tennyson and melodrama to go. Simply put, I’m in love.

It’s probably worth adding that I read Barbara Belford’s Bram Stoker and the Man who was Dracula (meaning Irving) last year – as part of my interminable researches for my one-man play of Dracula. A play which I’ve finished, by the way, but will be consigning to the back-burner for the foreseeable future. I’ve decided to press on with Frankenstein first, and make sure it’s as good as it can possibly be. I’m confident that Dracula will eventually be staged, but I don’t think its time has come. It must be more than perfect, and it’s not yet there.

Okay, I’ve so far addressed the hovering ‘hows’ of my Irving obsession. But what about the ‘whys’ behind it?

With all of my heroes, I like to feel assured that they were actually really bad at some things. Their humanity makes their achievements the more admirable (and palatable – it doesn’t pay to envy a hero). Irving truly overcame himself, transforming his weaknesses as an actor into that which made him individual, irreplaceable. His legs were bad, particularly in an age which prized elegance of gait; one foot would sometimes drag slightly. He was terribly short-sighted (thus the ever-present pince-nez spectacles). He suffered from catarrh all his life, which meant that he was constantly vocalising through a dry throat. Irving also stammered. Laurence Irving provides a painful account of this impediment’s resurgence, shortly after his grandfather’s professional debut:

… When he came upon the stage as Cleomenes in The Winter’s Tale to describe Leontes’ discovery of his daughter, no words came from his lips. His fellow-actors waited in awkward dismay. The prompter groaned his cue in tones that were heard all over the house. Irving was paralysed with horror. Then, with a tremendous effort of will, he managed to blurt out:

‘Come to the market-place, and I will tell you further!’ and, leaving the astonished actors, who knew of no such market-place, to pick up the threads of the play as best they could, he rushed to his dressing-room, angry and ashamed, with the hisses of the audience buzzing in his burning ears … It is doubtful if the disaster was an attack of stage fright; it was certainly not due to careless preparation; it was more likely that the half-conquered impediment had, in a moment of stress, broken from its secret prison.

I can empathise with all that, as a short-sighted, funny-voiced, wonky-backed man with one leg rippling with sciatica (I also suffer from catarrh, and don’t anticipate a future when I won’t). Irving was also largely self-educated. Despite his image as an intellectual actor, he would apparently make a fool of himself when engaging with men of art. I’m particularly fond of the account of Irving meeting Walt Whitman. Irving, eager to break the silence, blurted out: ‘You know you are like Tennyson in several ways. You quite remind me of him!’ A few seconds later, Irving worried that he’d offended Whitman. ‘You don’t mind that, do you?’ he said feebly, before retreating back into silence. (Whitman claimed to be pleased: ‘I like to be tickled!’)

Also endearing is Irving’s loneliness, even after he achieved greatness. He would return every night (or morning) to his darkened rooms, far from the glamour of the Beefsteak Room and the Lyceum gala nights, and lock himself away from the world. Irving sporadically kept dogs – and those dogs had a habit of dying – but he seemingly had no people for companionship. His pious mother cast him out when he declared his acting ambitions. He became estranged from his wife when she questioned his acting: ‘Are you going on making a fool of yourself like this all your life?’ He walked away and never spoke to her again. She was allowed to watch him from a box by the stage – Irving always reserved her first-night seats in his tenure at the Lyceum, and she often accepted. How unsettling an image: You may watch me, but only in silence, and a long way away. And only in the dark. By extension, Irving also became estranged from his sons. Did he have the brief satisfaction of affairs? We can’t be sure. They were secretive affairs, for he never divorced. Did he enjoy a close platonic friendship? It’s hard to say. Narcissistic, and therefore self-protecting, friendships – yes, probably. Bram Stoker got no recognition for essentially giving his life to Irving; eventually, Irving committed the supreme betrayal of ignoring Stoker’s advice, and handing the Lyceum to a financially crippling syndicate.

This loneliness was the point of Irving’s life, though. I’m not sure it made him unhappy. The work was all. Bette Davis had this in common with Irving. She believed loneliness was central to the actor’s creative state: ‘It has been my experience that one cannot depend on human relations for any lasting reward. It is only work that truly satisfies.’ She had this to say on happiness: ‘I don’t think as a group actors are what I call “happy people”; I think we’re very moody people … And rather lonely people actually.’ I increasingly believe that if you want to do something really astounding in the theatre, this loneliness is non-negotiable. It’s part of the deal.

Irving also overcame himself by growing, inexorably, in scope as an actor: graduating from grotesque comedy (his Dickensian rogues; in a more realistic vein, his Digby Grant in Two Roses) to melodramatic villainy (The Bells) and finally to classical tragedy (the Great Four: Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear). I think I’m still hovering between the grotesque and the melodramatic, and certainly not at the level that Irving was. But one of the reassurances of Irving’s career is that he kept melodrama and tragedy running in parallel: for every Lyceum Shakespeare, there was likely to be a production of Louis XI, The Corsican Brothers or a distinctly non-Goethe Faust. Nor did Irving betray his roots in the ostentatious ugliness of the grotesque. His idiosyncracies of manner made it so; for all his work on his person, he could never be other than himself. Irving was usually applauded for his facial expression and command of movement (mannerisms maketh man), seldom for the beauty of his voice. Irving was never one of the beautiful people. Well, so what? his characters seemed to say. See how high I’m soaring without your beauty! The paradox of such an attitude is that Irving was all magnetism; I imagine his charisma – sex appeal, even – was comparable to that of Alan Rickman. Although his Romeo was bad (how could it be otherwise?), he made a fine Benedick (much the better part). He even managed to make Iago loveable. As Ellen Terry wrote:

One adored him, devil though he was. He was so full of charm, so sincerely the ‘honest’ Iago, peculiarly sympathetic with Othello, Desdemona, Roderigo, all of them – except his wife … His Iago and his Romeo in different ways proved his power to portray Italian passions – the passions of lovely, treacherous people, who will either sing you a love sonnet or stab you in the back – you are not sure which.

Love goes not simply to the beautiful; not in Irving’s Lyceum.

Irving also embraced the image in his acting. I wrote about this last year in a spoofing vein, but I truly believe the theatrical image to reach much further than the grotesque. Looking back to Wolfit, Laughton and Sher, I realise now that it was a sense of the images they’d left (or are leaving) behind that excites me so. James Agate appointed Wolfit as Irving’s successor, describing Wolfit’s Lear as ‘a ruined piece of nature’. An elemental description of Irving that I find enchanting was supplied by Ellen Terry. Near the end of his life, she said that he became ‘like some beautiful grey tree that I have seen in Savannah’. Irving’s was an inspiriting glide towards death, founded on the mantra of Boris Karloff: ‘I intend to die with my boots and my greasepaint on.’ (The performances of the great horror stars – who Irving so splendidly anticipated – are nothing if not an elucidation of death.) Laughton was that paradoxical combination of the physically unmistakable and the chimeric, transforming his ungainly frame by sheer force of will. Irving’s performance in The Bells might be the consummate example of affecting a change in one’s body and brain through will-power. There are too many enraptured accounts of Irving’s Mathias, and over too long a span, for it to be a shrewd concoction of effects. There’s black magic at work – particularly when it’s considered that The Bells, like many of Laughton’s screen vehicles, is so thinly written. Sher’s painterly approach to his characters is well-known. It can seem a self-absorbed approach to theatre – dictatorial, perhaps, so far as it forces others to conform to a pattern. But Irving harnessed images in like fashion: he revolutionised scene-painting with his ‘spectacular’ Shakespeares at the Lyceum. Of course, every carefully wrought frame had to lead the eye towards the central, completing element: Irving himself. Some would say egotism. I would say art.

I find Irving a great model for what my own path in theatre might be. Not in terms of the success Irving achieved – that was beyond what even Olivier accomplished, and very much bound by his time. But in terms of his artistic attack… It might be worth trying to run the same race. So who knows? Irving may even become my next one-man play.

I’ll end with the Sonnet that Oscar Wilde addressed to Irving. It’s a thrilling call to arms for any actor trapped on the treadmill of the macabre:


The silent room, the heavy creeping shade,
The dead that travel fast, the opening door,
The murdered brother rising through the floor,
The ghost’s white fingers on thy shoulders laid,
And then the lonely duel in the glade,
The broken swords, the stifled scream, the gore,
Thy grand revengeful eyes when all is o’er, –
These things are well enough, – but thou wert made
For more august creation! frenzied Lear
Should at thy bidding wander on the heath
With the shrill fool to mock him, Romeo
For thee should lure his love, and desperate fear
Mock Richard’s recreant dagger from its sheath –
Thou trumpet set for Shakespeare’s lips to blow!

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Filed under Acting Theory, Dracula, Essays, Henry Irving

Fantasy Noir III

Here’s fun: a Boris Karloff-focused addition to my ongoing corpus of Fantasy Noir! (Previous entries can be found here and here.) To keep things interesting, I’ve written on five atypical Karloff films. So there’s a Universal horror that doesn’t feature Frankenstein’s Monster or the Mummy; two Val Lewton pictures that aren’t called The Body Snatcher (great masterpiece that it is). There’s also a performance of the sixties that’s seldom discussed (it’s usually Targets that gets the attention); and a pre-stardom performance of the twenties that’s often forgotten entirely.

Something that strikes me about these films is that they all have exalted sources: some theatrical (Shakespeare’s Histories, Sir Henry Irving’s legendary star vehicle), some artistic (an etching by Hogarth, a painting by Bocklin), some literary (Edgar Allan Poe). I’ll be thinking about how Karloff’s relation to these sources illuminates his contribution to each film.

THE BELLS (dir. James Young, 1926)

The Bells (1926)

Sir Henry Irving was the horror star of the Victorian theatre. In his residency at the Lyceum, he gave new life to such immortal nasties as Louis XI, Richard III, Iago, Macbeth and Mephistopheles. Yet Irving’s most celebrated villain was his first: Mathias in The Bells. Lionel Barrymore takes Mathias here, and gives a blissfully unaffected performance, worlds removed from his stooping and grimacing schtick in Mark of the Vampire (1935). Meanwhile, Karloff’s destiny is hinted at, dimly, in his role as the Mesmerist. The character offers glimmers of later Karloff performances. The Mesmerist’s grin resembles that of Cabman Gray in The Body Snatcher (1945): an intrusive, skin-crawling leer, injecting Karloff’s dour visage with perverse energy. Having Karloff practice hypnosis also points the way to such films as The Mummy (1932), Black Friday (1940) and The Climax (1944). On the whole, though, the Mesmerist illustrates what Karloff feared his role in Frankenstein (1931) would become: a human prop. There are few actors better suited to this reduction than Karloff – such was his organic appeal – but it can hardly have been satisfying for the actor. The Bells ultimately makes for flat cinema. Paradoxically, the special effects scenes with the ghost make The Bells seem more old-fashioned, bringing to mind George Melies trick films and early versions of A Christmas Carol. There’s also a courtroom-bound dream sequence, reminiscent of Stranger on the 3rd Floor (1940) but with none of the later film’s visual flair. The interest of The Bells is as a historical crossroads. It reflects the shadow that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) cast on the American cinema: Werner Krauss’s image is dusted off for Karloff’s dark hat and cloak, round spectacles and straggly sideburns. But the film also looks to the horror boom of the early thirties, and particularly its Karloff-centric progress at Universal. The Bells anticipates the pastoral idyll of Universal’s European village, with its gingerbread houses, frolicking peasant girls and stony-faced gendarmes. One wonders if James Whale drew on his theatre background, and studied The Bells before directing Frankenstein.

TOWER OF LONDON (dir. Rowland V. Lee, 1939)

Tower of London (1939)

Tower of London sheds light on a distinctive quality of Universal’s horror films: the sympathetic monster. Karloff here plays Mord, formidable chief executioner. Yet Mord emerges as sympathetic – he has nothing on Basil Rathbone’s Richard III, a wholly heartless monster. This is clearest in the sequence in which Rathbone plots the murder of the Princes in the Tower. Rathbone’s coldness and premeditation is chilling, as he decides how best to destroy Queen Elizabeth: ‘But I can crush her spirit for all time; take the young princes to the Bloody Tower…’ The only previous child killing (then as now, a great taboo) in the Universal canon had been the Monster’s drowning of Little Maria in Frankenstein. Thanks to Karloff’s human touch, this emerged as the blithe mistake of an innocent. Tower of London is more brutal. There’s a memorably absurd touch when Karloff enters the bed-chamber, gingerly picking up his club foot to prevent a noise. But it’s Karloff’s troubled, uncertain facial expressions that linger in the memory. Even Mord knows this is beyond the pale. This contrast between characters is the hidden treasure in this confused and confusing film. Karloff’s Mord is a cartoon villain, a baddie out of a serial. His appeal to Richard is comically sincere: ‘Your Highness, let me go with you. I’ve never killed in hot blood. It’ll be different, more exciting!’ Mord’s introduction in the torture chamber is like something out of Mel Brooks; Mord would have been perfect for the Inquisition number in History of the World: Part I (1981). Best of all is the scene in which a prisoner flops out of an iron maiden, Mord stepping over the body without batting an eye. Karloff is an outrageous figure throughout Tower of London; Rathbone is the real monster. This effect is aided by the fact that Richard III was, of course, a real figure – despite his propagandistic mangling by Shakespeare, Richard’s murder of the Princes remains a very real possibility. Mord, however, is entirely fictional. In one crucial sense, Tower of London is less biased than Shakespeare’s Histories. Richard III’s patina of deformity has been transferred to Mord: Karloff is physically distinguished by an outsize club foot and bald, beetle-browed visage, while Rathbone coasts by with a barely perceptible hunch. Tower of London is the unprecedented juncture at which Universal horror met real-world history. Its unconvincing recreation of medieval England – all California sunlight, muddled accents and pervasive cleanliness – is more than redeemed by its illumination of the horror cycle.

ISLE OF THE DEAD (dir. Mark Robson, 1945)

Isle of the Dead (1945)

Isle of the Dead has a Conradian atmosphere. Karloff’s General Pherides recalls Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, particularly in his early scenes – a stoic man on the fields of battle, presiding over the dead and dying. Joseph Conrad was Karloff’s favourite author, so it’s likely the comparisons didn’t entirely escape him. Karloff’s performance sounds a note of deep, seemingly unending melancholy. It’s an effect comparable to his Ardath Bey in The Mummy, but with a more realistic grounding. Isle of the Dead as a whole has a shaded, textured quality – most impressive given its stagebound nature and limited budget. A viewer can imagine innumerable horrors lurking in the shrubbery, just as in surveying Bocklin’s painting (or in reading Heart of Darkness). Less ideal is the density of the dialogue scenes: they seem never to stop, and don’t entirely negotiate the distinction between compelling obfuscation and directionless tedium. The viewing experience is much like staring into a dark and murky pool: atmospheric, but often frustrating. This extends to Karloff’s character, who is forced to jump from cold rationalism to prone belief in the supernatural. The best lesson that can be drawn from this is that any extremist position is dangerous: ‘Laws can be wrong and laws can be cruel, and the people who live only by the law are also wrong and cruel.’ Perhaps this theme simply isn’t dramatic enough for a forties horror film: Pherides pales besides Karloff’s full-blooded creations in The Body Snatcher and Bedlam (1946), two screenplays which hinge on a more simplistic clash between characters. The character is under-fleshed, so Karloff compensates by projecting an outsize melancholy (wonderfully complemented, it must be said, by Leigh Harline’s criminally overlooked musical score). In addition to Conrad, Isle of the Dead borrows from Poe’s ‘The Premature Burial’ for its ending. The film’s shaded expansiveness thus dwindles into claustrophobia. It’s this climax, the most purely frightening sequence in forties horror, that rescues Isle of the Dead at the eleventh hour.

BEDLAM (dir. Mark Robson, 1946)

Bedlam (1946)

Like Tower of London, Bedlam fits into the discreet subgenre of historical horror. It has some of the flaws of its forbear: Billy House, for example, plays Lord Mortimer with voluptuous zeal, but remains irrepressibly Yankee. Yet Bedlam has a heart and a soul that make it one of the most moving horrors of its time. Master George Sims, Apothecary General of Bedlam, ranks with Karloff’s most genuinely hateful characters. This is very appropriate; Sims adopts hatred as a personal creed, which breaks forth in some tremendous dialogue: ‘This was to show you that all those mawkish theories you learned from the Quaker are lies. Men are not brothers, men are not born good and kind. Even the mindless ones are savage and must be ruled with force … The others – yes, you can prove the little value of gentleness. But look at this man. Look at him and tell me that kind words and tender deeds can rule him. Look!’ The premature burial of Isle of the Dead is resurrected for Karloff’s fate, but twisted to include the brick wall of Poe’s ‘The Cask of Amontillado’. It’s a fitting send-off for one of his most vivid monsters. Not since his days at Universal had Karloff’s physical individuality been so lovingly (and grotesquely) underscored. His period wig gives a touch of foppish vanity, making Karloff’s close-cut grey hair seem scrubby and parched – less natural than the wig that covers it. Karloff’s bowed legs appear impossibly twisted in his black breeches and stockings and cane, causing his entire frame to crook forwards. Karloff also does much with his face, exploiting its natural doleful melancholy to great effect: there’s a sideways leer at Anna Lee, as he first guides her into Bedlam’s inner sanctum, which is unforgettably sinister. These picaresque details suit Sims’ role as performing monkey for the aristocracy. For fear is at the bottom of Sims’ cruelties, which gives rein to the old Karloff humanity: ‘I’ve had to fawn and toady and make a mock of myself till all I could hear was the world laughing at me!’ Bedlam is one of the best screenplays that Karloff ever worked with. His sparring matches with Anna Lee – his costar from the similarly intelligent The Man Who Changed His Mind (1936) – are a real joy. There’s every chance that they capture the spark that Karloff had with Julie Harris in The Lark on Broadway, for which he earned a Tony nomination.

THE RAVEN (dir. Roger Corman, 1963)

The Raven (1963)

The Raven is AIP’s version of The Sword in the Stone. Specifically, the Walt Disney version. Both pictures feature a surly comedy bird, but their key similarity is one of tone: a gleefully campy vision of wizardry, which seemed only to exist in California in 1963. Karloff’s role as Dr Scarabus at least proves he had a sense of humour – although, by all accounts, he was rather perturbed by the non-stop ad-libbing from Peter Lorre. This may account for Karloff’s oddly stilted delivery, a heightened version of the sing-song ‘acting voice’ identified by his daughter Sara Karloff. At first, this seems likes fuel for the old argument that Karloff walked through vehicles for which he had no respect. Early-career Karloff had no qualms about overplaying the patently absurd, as testified by The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) and The Invisible Ray (1936). Karloff’s performance may have more to do with fashioning a legend in one’s own lifetime. For better or for worse, late-career Karloff had only to turn up on set to fulfil his professional obligations. He had nothing left to prove, and had proven so much. Only one truly great performance lay on the horizon, in Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968). And that was probably his only noteworthy film performance since the 1958 companion pieces Grip of the Strangler and Corridors of Blood. Happily, Karloff’s light touch works rather well in The Raven: he’s fawning, doddering, sincerely sarcastic, and altogether hilarious. The Raven is a slip-shod, patchwork film; hard to dislike, but unworthy of respect. It’s a film that returns to the viewer as a series of surreal ‘moments’: Peter Lorre summoning his Promethean magic, only to be transformed into ‘raspberry jam!’; Vincent Price mugging beneath a frilly umbrella, to incredibly camp underscoring; Jack Nicholson looking altogether lost with his more modern acting style. The Raven transports the viewer back to a simpler age, when wizardry was no longer regarded as diabolic but was yet to be claimed by Harry Potter. The wizard’s duel defies all explanation; connoisseurs of the weird should seek The Raven out on this basis alone.

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Reviewing the Reviewer

I’ll begin with an obvious truth: I am remarkably thin-skinned. I get very hurt at nasty comments, of which I’ve had my fair share over the years. Where reviews are concerned, I do seem to make a habit of rubbing my nose in the dirt. And taking to heart what I find there. Yes, I’m hyper-sensitive – yes, I’m desperately insecure. But then, I’m only twenty-two, I’ve been acting professionally for less than a year, and I’m still trying to find my niche – not just in theatre, but life at large. The last time I wrote on theatre criticism, it was in a purposefully idealistic light, stressing the need for a collective ambition. On this occasion, though, I want to be more personal. How do I, as an actor, take and respond to criticism?

Respond! How critics scoff at the proposal! The standard reply being that ‘AN ACTOR WHO RESPONDS TO CRITICS IS NOT BEHAVING LIKE A PROFESSIONAL!’ This strikes me as nonsense: the knee-jerk defence of those who are too frightened to bob out of the shadows and risk exposure to criticism themselves. I don’t believe that actors should keep quiet out of fear. Least of all the fear that they’ll be punished in some nebulous future review.

Not that I’m suggesting that actors deserve nothing but empty-headed praise. It’s hard to disagree with Nicholas de Jongh’s observation that ‘actors get more praise in ten minutes than most people get in a lifetime’. But it’s harder still to disagree with de Jongh’s reflection that ‘theatre criticism is an evasion of life, a living of life elsewhere’. It follows that many critics despise confrontation. ‘WELL, YOU SHOULD BE MORE THICK-SKINNED!’ is the standard defence. That people who profess to know about theatre can’t make the alarmingly obvious correlation between someone who’s involved in theatre and someone who’s engaged with their emotions is, to put it mildly, worrying.

However, I don’t want to speak from a position of lofty superiority. In the interests of a full disclosure, here’s a far-reaching selection of negative comments about me and my acting. To mix things up a bit, they’re from critics and directors both:

… Occasionally runs the risk of slipping into caricature.

A lack of self-discipline in Swanton’s performance…

… Enough ham to make the production neither kosher nor halal.

Nobody has ever been that mental.

Stop overselling the character!

Throw off all the mannerisms!

… Indulges in facial acrobatics and extreme gurning that is initially amusing but soon becomes irritating.

There is an indulgent and overdone approach to a whole parade of unfunny and unnecessarily twisted gargoyles … the ever-manic James Swanton as Coupler [is] particularly guilty here.

… An absurd, gurning (and, as the front row of the audience can testify) spitting grotesque.

And my favourite (accidentally sent to me in an email by a disingenuously apologetic reviewer):

He was crap, that’s the problem.

There are a few words around which these comments pivot, with boring predictability: caricature, indulgence, ham, gurning, gargoyle, grotesque, guilt (lots of g-words). ‘Oh, here we go again…’ I find myself thinking. I can usually compose my reviews in my head. I sometimes wonder if I’m the ‘wasp cake’ of various different productions: unfailingly drawing attention to myself – for better or for worse – and opening myself up to every kind of attack. How smug I must seem; how full of myself.

This brings me to my major point. A critical attack, everyone seems to agree, is based on something you’ve done – never what you are.

Personally, though, I don’t ever see the difference.

In my case, I don’t think there is a difference.

Whenever I’ve been criticised, it’s been for some form of overacting (a difficult word, but we’ll go with it for now). That much should be clear from the quotations above. ‘WELL!’ the critic might well sniff, ‘IF WE KEEP TELLING YOU NOT TO DO SOMETHING, THEN YOU SHOULD LISTEN FOR A CHANGE! NOT GO ON REPEATING YOUR MISTAKES!’ Yet whenever I’ve been praised, it’s been for exactly the same thing. When I look back on the positive reviews I’ve received (and there are some), they’re pretty well all commendations for going too far, for doing too much, for pushing myself and the play beyond a place of safety and attempting something more heightened. I suppose I’ve been applying Boris Karloff’s mantra on cinema to the theatre for quite some time:

The secret of success in Hollywood lies in being different from anyone else. Find something no one else can or will do – and they’ll begin to take notice of you. Hollywood is full of competent actors. What the screen needs is individuality!

Let’s return to those words flagged up earlier. One critic thought my Friar Laurence ‘risky’ because caricatured; another considered it a ‘marvellous caricature’. Yet another critic praised Scrooge & Marley for allowing me ‘to deliver a goody bag packed with caricatured delights’. ‘Grotesque’ seems to be the word with the most positive capital (it’s certainly a word I’ve pondered at length elsewhere). My Quasimodo is ‘positively stunning in his grotesqueness’ whilst the ‘grotesque contortion’ of my Coupler (lambasted above) is elsewhere acclaimed as ‘flawless acting’ (the sort of egregious hyperbole which actors apparently dream about). For Love’s Labour’s Lost we have ‘James Swanton makes a wonderfully grotesque Katherine’. The latter review consolidates this general critical schizophrenia, in locating the positive flip-side of even ‘indulgence’ (still the word I think most abused in theatre criticism): ‘It’s over-the-top and self-indulgent but the audience loved it’.

You can begin to see why I find critical assessment so aggravating. No description of my acting has ever contained the words ‘subtle’, ‘naturalistic’, ‘restrained’, ‘nuanced’, ‘shaded’, ‘quiet’, ‘kept his head beneath the ramparts’ or anything vaguely comparable. It’s fast reaching the point where I can’t draw satisfaction from the positive reviews. I know what they’ll say before I’ve even seen them. (Let alone the fact that I never quite believe them.) Instead of providing a description of what being in the audience for that show was like – a revelatory practice, and one that largely died out with the Victorians – reviews tend to provide something baser: an opinion. I recall being at a dinner with Howard Jacobson, who expressed an opinion of his own: that opinions were worthless. As time goes by, I don’t think he was far wrong.

A review of my performance in Romeo and Juliet crystallised this for me. It came from the website of Nick Holland, an online reviewer of deathlessly prolific output:

[I] found James Swanton’s Friar Lawrence actively detrimental to the show overall – inexplicably channeling Vincent Price, I found him hard to watch, and he drags out the character’s final speech, making the speedy running time feel as if it’s acquired that lost hour again…

This is about the most venomous thing that’s ever been written about my acting. ‘Actively detrimental’ – ‘hard to watch’. I seriously doubt Mr Holland would have the courage to say such things to my face: the unfailing acid-test for separating judicious negativity from outright nastiness. And cruelty. It does strike me as odd that a man who communicates through such over-the-top linguistic contortions can’t stand my performances, which – by his own admission – are nothing other than over-the-top contortions. Caliban’s rage at his face in the glass, perhaps.

But what stopped me from taking this too much to heart was the mention of Vincent Price, a man who I’ve loved for over a decade. Price was an actor whose performances were, I believe, uniquely good and wide-reaching. I’m more entitled to my opinion (that word again) than most, having sought out over forty Price films: everything from Laura (1944) and Champagne for Caesar (1950) to The Whales of August (1987) and Edward Scissorhands (1990), by way of House of Usher (1960; a film I’ve discussed here) and Theatre of Blood (1973). Having just rewatched The Raven – a 1963 Poe bastardisation, with Price outrageously camp as a medieval wizard – I find it impossible to believe that Price took his screen image seriously.

Theatre of Blood (1973)

But what was Price’s screen image? What exactly am I being compared to here? It’s not my Vincent Price (a damned good actor); it’s not the ‘real’ Vincent Price (whoever that was). Rather, it’s an opinion about who Vincent Price was. And an opinion so lazy that Holland didn’t even originate it: that of Price as the deranged old ham, embarrassing everyone by the baseless over-confidence of his performances. It’s the very image that Price lampooned so expertly in Theatre of Blood, playing homicidal thespian Edward Lionheart. If only Holland would watch the film! (Watch, not review.) He might discover he was attacking me with a ghost that Price himself laid to rest forty years ago.

The opinions pound on. I frankly don’t care that Holland considered ripping Romeo’s clothes off ‘a seriously understandable impulse’, or that he is, in general, ‘easily distracted by attractive men on stage’. I do dote for a moment on the virtues of possessing the amiable plasticity of a GQ model rather than a body like an attenuated candlestick and a leering hatchet-face that naturally operates like a morpine-fuelled Crash Bandicoot villain (you see, we can all play childish games with high-colour adjectives). Possibly then I’d have been praised. Whether I want that sort of praise from that sort of man is something else again. I wonder if Holland would have the courage to confront his innumerable pert-buttocked young actors with his fantasies. I’d be interested in their reactions.

I’m left only with the impression that Mr Holland doesn’t know what the hell he’s on about. I’m learning about him, certainly – not least his startlingly original comic insight that priests are invariably child-molesters – but not my performance. I know he didn’t like it; I just don’t know why. But given that I know what I didn’t like about my performance – and we’ll get to that – what’s to be gained from yet another opinion? Sadly, I am what I am. I simply wasn’t capable of a repressed, naturalistic and (for Holland’s benefit) resolutely unembarrassing Friar. No more than Holland was capable of writing something insightful and coherent rather than sniping, odious and swollen with pederastic rumblings. Not at that moment, not in those circumstances. Too bad – for both of us, I suppose.

It’s a shame. I wasn’t swanning about in my days in Romeo and Juliet (or Love’s Labour’s Lost) with a sense of how glorious and earth-shattering and downright bloody definitive my performances were. Quite the opposite. I was wracked with insecurity and the merciless, pettifogging feeling that I was letting people down by not delivering something I was at peace with. Some of this insecurity stemmed from the fact that I’m so rarely allowed to play a human being. I’m forced to quote Karloff again, this time in the person of the aging horror star in Bogdanovich’s Targets: ‘I couldn’t even play a straight part decently anymore – I’ve been in the other thing too long.’ None of this is the audience’s problem. I’m not asking for sympathy here. But I am asking for understanding. I’m not some complacent, over-confident, ego-fuelled monster who constantly needs putting in his place. My other point is purely pragmatic: that there’s no amount of unpleasant things you can write about me that I haven’t already thought or said or even written myself. This critic takes the biscuit, though, trashing not only me but one of my all-time heroes. That’s some sort of achievement.

Nick Holland’s linguistic masturbations bring me to another point. Blogging has a worrying parallel in masturbation. Being a blogger myself, I think about this fairly often, scrolling through endless sheafs of dangling, comment-less posts, all just floating off into cyberspace… At what point do these writings intersect with the human race? It scares the hell out of me. It’s something that always daunted me about the Cambridge University Library. I’d go off in search of an obscure academic monograph – on Monk Lewis or Thomas Peckett Prest. I’d find it by means of the online catalogue, before traipsing past hundreds of thousands of books to read it. I’d pluck it off the shelf; the front papers would instantly inform me that the book hadn’t been taken out in ten, eleven, twelve years. I don’t intend to take it out. All I do is look in the index. Read two paragraphs at most. I’m done in five minutes. And it’s left on the shelf again.

There’s a litany of unbelievably horrid things I could say about Nick Holland. But why bother? What little I know of him doesn’t fill me with rage. I feel sorry for the man. I certainly know I wouldn’t want to be him, any more than he’d want to be me (or rip my clothes off, for that matter). He’s a cautionary example; I want to do my utmost to avoid turning into him when I’m grey-haired and middle-aged. I don’t want my passion for the theatre to disintegrate into a series of tired and cynical detractions from it. Nor do I want to spend my adult years emptying my creative energies into the premature coffin of an internet blog.

We all make our own worlds – some of them remarkably lonely – and then go off and lose ourselves in them. It’s our right to do so. I hope to do so with my acting, once I find my elusive niche. This is all fine and admirable and good – provided we don’t wound other people in the process. Critics can deny the fact that they upset people with their remarks. But such remarks are often so far from constructive criticism that they veer into ostentatious, grand-standing, show-boating cruelty. A shoddy investment of human life.

Of course, that’s only my opinion. We all have the right to an opinion.

It’s that inclusiveness that makes them so worthless.


Filed under Essays, Personal Excavation

Sublime Misanthropy

This essay was written six months ago, with a view to its appearance in another publication entirely. However, I really can’t be bothered to keep chasing people up, so I though I’d whack it on here. For the most part, the piece is an appraisal of two of my personal heroes: Quentin Crisp and Kenneth Williams. If you don’t know them (shame, shame!), then chase them, pin them down, discover what makes them so great. I hope this piece will be a starting-point on that quest. I also take a glance at Oscar Wilde – a man who I wish was more of a personal hero, but one I find rather troublesome. It seems an ultimate heresy to criticise the noisy cult of Wilde (particularly when you’re gay yourself); I’ve found myself wondering (incorrectly, I hope) whether this is the reason the article didn’t see publication. I don’t think I’ve rubbished Wilde outrageously – it’s impossible to feel any less than compassion for the man – but I’ve certainly prodded him a bit.

Alright, enough innuendo. On with the article.


Homosexuality and the Catholic Church are a very old arrangement. The gay hagiography is organised according to a strictly Catholic lexicon: the ‘gay icon’, the ‘martyr to gay causes’ and, most compellingly, the ‘gay saint’. Martyrdom is often a facet of sainthood. An icon, meanwhile, is a form of reproduction – often offering a reflection (inevitably diminished) of a primary sainthood.

To be canonised as a Catholic saint, a candidate must be responsible for miracles – at least two of them – after their death. To be canonised as a gay saint, then, an individual has to have left a truly remarkable legacy.

In looking back on the twentieth century, Quentin Crisp (1908-1999) and Kenneth Williams (1926-1988) strike me as prime candidates for gay sainthood. They’re not very fashionable choices. They’re not fashionable full stop: Williams clung religiously to greying suits and ties; Crisp’s eternal mantra that style and sincerity were the same thing made his silk scarf and fedora a second skin, too personal to be quoted by others. No one has ever accused these men of being attractive: Crisp was a sort of benevolent metropolitan vampire, Williams the consummate shape-shifting grotesque. Most heinous of all, neither one is Oscar bloody Wilde (whose 1900 death brings him up for consideration).

Saints are expected to have suffered. But the derision with which Crisp and Williams are today regarded suggests they were the enemies of gay liberation. Since their deaths, there has been much unfavourable journalism: in The Independent, Peter Tatchell demonises Crisp as ‘an often self-hating, arrogant, homophobic gadfly’; in The Guardian, Justin Quirk claims to speak for the English public when he describes Williams as ‘a nostril-flaring, camp absurdist’. The case for the defence is not aided by Crisp or Williams themselves, who turned upon the counter-culture for which they’d become eccentric figureheads. Crisp did well to smash such faux gay icons as Princess Diana; less honourably, he pronounced AIDS ‘a fad’ at the height of the mid-eighties epidemic. Williams dismissed the musical La Cage aux Folles as ‘dire sentimental slush about two old queens’ (perhaps some will agree). He never acknowledged his sexuality in public, instead gracing the chat-show circuit with suggestively veiled denials: ‘I don’t do it… I’m asexual… I should have been a monk!’ But like many a celibate monk (or high-ranking cardinal), Williams did want to do it, and – occasionally – did.

And yet there was more to Quentin Crisp than anti-monarchism and indefensible tabloid sound bites; more to Kenneth Williams than acid drops and a fumbling, feigned asceticism. Gay liberation is dependent on its lofty misanthropes. These are the gay saints: those individuals who, by merit of their outsize personalities, do inestimable work for the gay community – and often quite by accident. The misanthropic stance that opens Crisp and Williams to abuse is what made them influential in the first place.

They were curiously dislocated characters. Both had an extreme approach to hygiene. Crisp never cleaned his tiny apartment, clinging to the belief that ‘after the first four years, the dirt doesn’t get any worse’. Williams was his polarised opposite: haunted by the idea of contamination, he insisted his guests use a public lavatory rather than sully his own. This neurosis made celibacy inevitable. Yet Williams had no qualms about owning up to his celibacy, often using it as the basis for double entendres: ‘I live a life of celibacy. I’m not interested in the other.’ Of course, such jokes depended on his homosexuality being the most open of open secrets. Everyone knew what Williams was. Crisp had no fear of dirt; indeed, he was casually employed as a rent-boy in his youth. His celibacy resulted from an absolutist personal creed: ‘If I was to become Miss Arc’s only rival, it wouldn’t do to be picked up by strange men. This would give people the opportunity to say that I had only adopted an effeminate appearance for that purpose.’ In evoking Joan of Arc, Crisp makes a tongue-in-cheek bid for gay sainthood. Celibacy was the final step in the construction of the Crispian persona, already laid out in the make-up and dyed hair.

It is a paradox of these gay saints that they were gay in every facet of their being – except for their sex lives, which were non-existent. Yet this displacement was also their completion. Crisp and Williams demanded attention, and they got it, but always on their own terms. Their lives were shaped by their sexualities rather than defined by them; they were less gay men than men who happened to be gay.

Oscar Wilde endured all the agonies of martyrdom, but he was no gay saint. His hedonism remains a black spot on his character. Wilde hurt innumerable people with his sexuality: not only lover after lover after lover – most of whom were left reeling from his bewitching narcissism – but his wife and his children. There is no denying Wilde’s suffering – but the suffering he inflicted on those around him is too often overlooked. In groping for stars and gutter both, Wilde fashioned a double life that made him a figure of damaging dislocation.

Damaging Dislocation - Oscar Wilde

Crisp disliked Wilde for one very simple reason: ‘He never faced anything!’ During the court proceedings against the Marquess of Queensberry – which Wilde himself had started – Wilde denied his homosexuality again and again. This can be excused: Wilde, after all, faced a dreadful punishment. But even in De Profundis, his confessional, the play-acting went on. There is a flash of self-knowledge when Wilde writes that ‘my ruin came not from too great individualism of life, but too little’. But this soon explodes into a fanciful identification with Christ: ‘You can see to what intensity of individualism I have arrived – or am arriving, rather, for the journey is long, and “where I walk there are thorns.”’ That the ‘thorns’ allusion is taken from A Woman of No Importance reveals Wilde’s suffering as self-dramatising: an extension on the play-acting that cloaked his sexuality. In consorting with the Son of God, Wilde seems to have coveted gay sainthood. He didn’t achieve it. He didn’t know himself.

Benevolent Vampire - Quentin Crisp

Quentin Crisp never pretended to be other than he was. Unlike Wilde, he made a courageous stand for his sexuality. Here is how Crisp approached the London gay community of his youth: ‘At first I only longed to wallow in their misery, but, as time went by, I longed to reach its very essence. Finally I desired to represent it. By this process I managed to shift homosexuality from being a burden to being a cause.’ Thus did Crisp break from the furtive majority to make some serious progress. He risked his life every time he walked the streets. The best-known record of Crisp walking the streets is found in the music video for ‘An Englishman in New York’. This song (‘be yourself, no matter what they say’), along with the John Hurt teleplay The Naked Civil Servant, delivered Crisp’s ‘cause’ to a worldwide, predominantly straight audience. Crisp did more for gay people by simply appearing as himself – wise, warm, elegant, and quite at peace with the world, as immortalised in the Sting video – than most civil rights campaigners gave him credit for.

Kenneth Williams never found a satisfactory outlet for his idiosyncrasies. He disguised his unhappiness with his sexuality in all but his private diaries, in which he vented his anguish in tortured, spidery language. Yet for a man whose channels of communication were so severely disrupted, Williams did much to expose how gay men communicated. His double-act with Hugh Paddick as Julian and Sandy on Round the Horne snuck Polari onto BBC airwaves – the underground slang responsible for such phrases as ‘friend of Dorothy’. Similarly, the Carry On films blessed gay men with a consistent presence in mainstream cinema. It’s too easy to rubbish Williams’s performances as shrieking, effeminate nightmares. They are also an assertion of difference – a statement of sexuality, no matter how distorted – and this has an inherent political value. These British comedies were always fundamentally safe. Yet they were surprisingly progressive, in daring to present gay men in a context detached from the Hollywood tradition of the demonic and monstrous – as exemplified by a Charles Laughton (The Sign of the Cross) or a Laird Cregar (The Lodger).

Consummate Grotesque - Kenneth Williams

Such is the weirdness of the Carry On universe that Kenneth Williams became a beacon of heterosexuality, his gawky frame and Olympian nostrils stirring the deepest passions of Hattie Jacques. The union’s transparent improbability was the joke. Wilde likewise gave homosexuality a coded release in his work, allowing his style to betray his substance. But given that Wilde was infinitely comfortable with his sexuality, this seems teasing rather than progressive. Wilde ultimately brought all his darkness on himself. Williams harnessed his predisposition to darkness, and raised awareness of the sexuality that tortured him in private.

Kenneth Williams never lived to see the influence he would have; Quentin Crisp lived perhaps too long, and lost the good opinion of many. Both fell, late in life, into the traps of their bizarre personalities: wheeled out on chat-shows, repeating the same jokes and stories – ‘just living off body fat’ as Williams put it. Yet it was by mastering their strangeness, their isolation, their inbuilt misanthropy that these men made enormous steps for gay liberation. These gay saints seemed simply to happen, like freak natural phenomena: unexpected, inexplicable, and completely inimitable. A kind of miracle, in fact.

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A Letter to the Friar

Tomorrow I travel to London to start rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet and Love’s Labour’s Lost. Full details can be found on my website, as well as the Grassroots Shakespeare page. To get my thoughts in order, I thought I’d take a break from writing letters to myself and instead write one to Friar Laurence. This entry might also mark a two-month hiatus from bloggery: I haven’t worked out if I’ll have the time and energy and consistency of internet connection to go on through June and July. I’ve no doubt at all that I’ll be back in August. And in any case, thirty blog entries for a year isn’t bad going…

Dear Friar,

Is that going to work out? ‘Dear Friar’? I think Juliet calls you ‘dear father’ at some point, but this seems grossly impertinent coming from me. I don’t know what shoes you wear. I don’t know what you eat for breakfast. I don’t know the Bible at all that well. And I don’t know any Latin – save what I’ve learned by rote for Love’s Labour’s Lost. I know I’ll feel like a ghastly traitor until I’ve at least thought about these things – even though the towering likelihood is that you’ll emerge wearing my shoes, happen to eat what I eat for breakfast, and know precisely as much about the Bible and Latin as the play dictates I know. At the moment, I don’t know where to have you.

Small wonder that I’m not sure I deserve to have you. I’ve never had much luck with Shakespeare. I’ve acted in both of these plays before. I was Dull and Mercadé in Love’s Labour’s Lost in 2010; the Apothecary in Romeo and Juliet in 2011. Tiny characters, existing on the fringes of their worlds – just as I’ve dithered about ineffectually on the fringes of classical acting. Dull was a prism for the parade of clowns, buffoons and lunatics I’ve been saddled with in most of my Shakespearean delvings. That sounds dismissive, I know, and no doubt reflects on my limited gifts to do something original with such characters. The end result always took me out of the play: any ‘humour’ was applied to the text with a trowel, rather than emerging from that text. On the other hand, Mercadé was played on that knife-edge of terror I’ve had whenever I’ve tackled a ‘serious’ Shakespearean role: the terror that everyone’s going to laugh at my voice before I get the first line out. In 2009, when I played Cleon in Pericles, this led to my only ever experience of stage fright.

Now, the Apothecary felt like a crystallisation. But of what exactly? Impossible to say. I’ve written and thought about the character a great deal – producing, on one occasion, a dissertation-length essay; my last word on acting at that particular time. The best I can say is that the Apothecary encapsulates my belief in the value of Romeo and Juliet. A belief founded on the ‘spirit’ of the play, as Donald Wolfit might have expressed it. For the spirit of the play is self-evident. Romeo and Juliet is, quite transparently, a play about love.

Love, dear Friar. Love, love, love. That elusive atmosphere of love is my quarry for the next few months. I’m ransacking so many golden memories for where it might be found. In books: in the sun-splashed endings of Dickens, or the rain-spattered ending of Wilde. In music: in Tchaikovsky, in Beethoven, in Michael Crawford, in the theme tune to The Animals of Farthing Wood. In times and in places: in a day spent in Knaresborough, or a summer spent in Cambridge.

I seek it everywhere but in people. I’ve been shut out of romantic love most of the time. All of the time, if I’m honest. It could be worse. It’s not remotely desirable to become the individual that others worry about constantly: ‘Is he alright? Did you notice how quiet he was today? Do you think we should call him up?’ Better always – always! – to be the individual that everyone assumes is alright, content, at peace with their lot. In time, it becomes the truth. And while I’ve never dived into another human being – in the sense that a full-comprehending love allows – I’ve always been permitted to dive into acting. Into characters. (Into you most recently, Friar.) It’s not that work is more important than life. Or that work is a life substitute. Work is the life. It has to be – and I’m not sure it wasn’t a choice either. I think this suspension follows on naturally from my heightened sensitivity to love.

The programme for that 2011 production of Romeo and Juliet contained a note by Tim Cribb (a wonderful man). After expanding on Tybalt as a symbol of hate, Cribb writes the following:

As well as being fully physical, their love is intensely ideal, a dream of human perfection, of what kinship, of what a family, a whole society could be. This is what begets the most wonderful poetry of the play, but it ends in the tomb, and Tybalt is there too. The repentant parents promise to erect a shrine to the lovers in pure gold, but that is in some future world after the play has ended and we have yet to see it.

To my mind, the most unheralded aspect of Shakespeare’s genius is his use of minor characters to suggest the world beyond the scope of the play: such characters as the Porter in Macbeth, the Clown in Titus Andronicus, and the Apothecary in Romeo and Juliet. That ‘future world’ beyond the play stretches across all time periods, across all locales, into all manner of winding and convoluted human hearts. The Apothecary is emblematic, to me, of all of these sad, drifting, marginalised creatures, shut out of a world of more serious emotions. I’m harshly reminded of my first reading of Stephen Fry’s Moab is my Washpot, wrestling with my unwanted sexuality at age fifteen. One of Fry’s most breathtaking observations is that homophobia has almost nothing to do with disgust at the idea of anal sex – which is, after all, no more than the playground caricature of what gay people might do:

There are plenty of other things to be got up to in the homosexual world outside the orbit of the anal ring, but the concept that really gets the goat of the gay-hater, the idea that really spins their melon and sickens their stomach is that most terrible and terrifying of all human notions, love.

That one can love another of the same gender, that is what the homophobe really cannot stand.

I believe this to be true. It’s the inconvenient truth that’s ignored by the opponents of gay marriage: never do they dare to breathe the l-word. Fry’s buried suggestion is that love is always, always, always more powerful a force than sex. I believe this to be true as well: love is the meaning, sex can be (but, usually, isn’t) love’s expressive mode. It’s probably also the reason that I’m so reticent in discussing these matters. Sex doesn’t make any sense to me without love. I’m not a being of sex, but I am a being of love. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m still fifteen and frightened to death about how life and love will work themselves out.

I think this recollection will certainly inform my playing of Holofernes and Katharine in Love’s Labour’s Lost. I’m determined that neither becomes an attention-seeking comic ‘turn’. Both are different kinds of eccentrics. And an eccentric is nothing more than someone shut off from convention. Holofernes is bound to a love that won’t reject him, in his book-learning and pedantry. The tragedy is that it’s a love that takes him further and further from humanity, rendering him almost incomprehensible. Katharine is frightened into cynicism by her sister’s death at the hands of Cupid. She does receive a love beyond the scope of the play – but, as with that golden shrine, ‘we have yet to see it’. (Copies of Love’s Labour’s Won are not forthcoming.) I can see into that in how I go about with acting. I can also see the sadness of it.

But you, Friar… You mean something different to me. You do not quash or deny the love in your heart. You certainly can’t get at it romantically; your holy orders make that so. You are, to put it crudely, married to God. But I wonder whether it’s something more deeply engrained in your soul. It’s not for everyone to discover a fulfilled and fulfilling romance in their lives. And it’s wasted time to reflect on what wasn’t there in the first place. You’ll balk at this, Friar, but I feel the same way about the divine. Wonderful, if it exists – unashamedly wonderful. But unwise to place faith in it. For all I know, the kingdom will never come. But even you’re shut out of romantic love, Friar, you encourage it in others. You stand as an idealistic facilitator of love. A man stationed at the gate to the garden of youthful and playful delights: never to enter, always to peep in through the bars.

Now that I find profoundly moving. Not simply because it’s the most gracious service one human can do another. But because it’s an expression of the impossibility of a fully requited love for so many. A friend sent me this piece by Carson McCullers, saying it reminded her of how I prattle on about the subject from time to time. She wasn’t far wrong:

First of all, love is a joint experience between two persons – but the fact that it is a joint experience does not mean that it is a similar experience to the two people involved. There are the lover and the beloved, but these two come from different countries. Often the beloved is only the stimulus for all the stored-up love which has lain quiet within the lover for a long time hitherto. And somehow every lover knows this. He feels in his soul that his love is a solitary thing. He comes to know a new strange loneliness and it is this knowledge which makes him suffer. So there is only one thing for the lover to do. He must house his love within himself as best he can; he must create for himself a whole new inward world – a world intense and strange, complete in himself.

Never have I read an account of love that more closely parallels my own thinking. So many points here border on my own experience: the loneliness; the fact that that loneliness drives the lover to a kind of narcissistic introspection; the ultimate solution of ‘housing’ the love within the self. Shakespeare touches on the same in Sonnet 31: ‘Thou art the cave where buried love doth live, / Hung with the trophies of my lovers gone…’ That this passage comes from The Ballad of the Sad Café – a novella in which someone falls in love with the hunchback for a change – only makes it more precious.

I see you, Friar Laurence, as a shining example – for getting by in a world where love is by no means guaranteed. It’s only through acting that I have been assured a glance into the garden. I pray I might one day get past the gate. The brutal likelihood is that I won’t. The loneliness of the actor is sacrosanct. It’s rather like being a monk.

It’s on this basis, then, that I’m happy to come to you, Friar. The ‘dear’ can wait. For now, though, there is much to think about.

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Fantasy Noir II

I so enjoyed writing the last entry on the nascent subgenre of fantasy noir that I’ve compiled a sequel. So much of what drives my writing is the fanatical belief that most of my time is squandered, wasted, frittered away. Prizing up these decaying films consumes such a lot of my time that it’s refreshing to convert it into something of substance. Here, then, is the next kaleidoscope of uncanny cinema. Points of focus include theological uncertainty, coded colour, and, surprisingly often, new beginnings.

FAUST (dir. F. W. Murnau, 1926)

Faust (1926)

Images are central to my relationship with acting – and cinema, at its best, is a treasure-house of images. Murnau’s Faust is a film in which unforgettable acting and images converge. This is largely due to Emil Jannings’ matchless performance as Mephisto. Jannings, later a star of Nazi propaganda films, is a difficult man to love; the Wagner of silent cinema. Yet there’s no denying his visual majesty as an actor. His Satan goes through three distinct incarnations, beating out Pazuzu in The Exorcist (1973) by half a century. There’s the bewinged, blackened demon of the opening – very similar to Chernabog in Fantasia (1940), as it looms over the plague-stricken village. There’s the filthy peasant – a mud-spattered, pedlar-like figure – and finally the more natty Mephisto in black silks. All are exquisite: nightmare beings who stand with Max Schreck’s Count Orlok and Lon Chaney’s Phantom as the silent cinema’s finest grotesques. In its live-action visualisation of demonic forces, Faust‘s only serious rival is Häxan (1922), Benjamin Christensen’s wild and woolly ‘Witchcraft through the Ages’. Christensen, however, fashions a Boschian nightmare of oppressive, unrelenting darkness, in which the Devil’s only serious rival is Freudian pseudo-psychology. Murnau’s demons gain by their relationship with the forces of light. The opening clash of Angel and Devil, sweeping away the skeletal spectres of the Four Horsemen, is Miltonic in the best sense. There’s no doubt a salient point here about silent cinema being nothing other than the clash of light and dark. But Murnau’s visual instincts are also thoroughly medieval, creating a sense of primary sources; one can imagine Milton taking in Faust before composing Paradise Lost. The out-of-the-kit trickery of the magic carpet ride is a perfect example: you know you’re looking at miniatures, but they’re exquisite for their unreality. Like a cathedral reaching for the heavens, Murnau’s film is a non-reality (or unprovable reality) breathtakingly visualised.

DOCTOR X (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1932)

Doctor X (1932)

A bafflingly weird film, this – on several counts. There’s one of the most disturbing scenes of the thirties: an achingly long sequence in which the killer applies lumps of repulsive ‘synthetic flesh’ to his head – which resolve, bit by bit, into a horribly scarred new face. There’s also the two-strip Technicolor, which accentuates the film’s sickly atmosphere by granting it the caste of toxic waste. Even elements that were hackneyed in 1932 seem otherworldly today: Gothic mansions, lightning storms, hooded maniacs, mad scientists with fitting laboratories and skeletons in cupboards (furthermore, the climax seems to be drawn from Paris’s Grand Guignol). These stock horror components prove strangely refreshing, confirming the power of these archetypal films. The screenplay is drawn from one of the long line of ‘old dark house’ thrillers that stormed Broadway in the twenties. Other mythic titles from this period include The Bat, The GorillaThe Cat and the Canary, and, of course, Dracula. Although Doctor X (1932) has never had a remake, its immortality was confirmed by Richard O’Brien’s lyric in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975): ‘Science fiction double feature / Doctor X will build a creature…’ But despite Doctor X‘s peerless weirdness, the careers of its principal creatives became steadily more conventional. Doctor X crowned Lionel Atwill as the most perverse of Hollywood’s horror actors, paving the way for such kinkily suggestive classics as The Vampire Bat, Mystery of the Wax MuseumMurders in the Zoo (all 1933), and, best of all, Son of Frankenstein (1939). It’s a far cry from Atwill’s sad final roles – inevitably consigned to dishwater-dull red herrings and interchangeable police inspectors in such Universals as Night Monster (1942) and House of Dracula (1945). Director Michael Curtiz did rather better, eventually graduating to The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Casablanca (1942). He never returned to the spook-house seediness of this melting-pot movie; its sister film, Mystery of the Wax Museum, is comparatively streamlined. Doctor X shines as a beacon of weirdness for Atwill and Curtiz alike: an artefact that could only have existed for a couple of months in the early thirties.

HERE COMES MR. JORDAN (dir. Alexander Hall, 1941)

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) invites comparison with Portrait of Jennie (1948) as a thought-provoking supernatural fantasy – dwelling gently, even elegiacally, on the nature of mortality. Portrait of Jennie, however, is no comedy. Here Comes Mr. Jordan reminds me a little of Robin Williams’ Bicentennial Man (1999) in its tonal confusion: part brain-free hilarity, part intense fatalistic brooding. Their plots are also similar: a man is forced through multiple changes of body, eventually gaining a deeper humanity, but reaching no easy answers about the place of the soul. It seems likely that contemporary audiences were hardened to such questions: it may have been the background presence of the Second World War that reduced Here Comes Mr. Jordan to a basically unthreatening screwball fairytale. Still, it’s hard not to be perplexed by a film that treats bathtub-based homicide and hiding a corpse in an icebox with such light-hearted ease – and then, in only a wink, have the protagonists stare into each other’s eyes and fall in love with each other’s souls. But maybe in that sense, the film has its priorities right: it’s the purity of the spirit that matters, not the ravages done to the body. Quite a few bodies contribute to this film’s appeal. Claude Rains is predictably splendid, and his unreadable, cat-like facial arrangements keep the story’s secrets locked tight. His role as God is an amusing balance to his part as the Devil in Angel on My Shoulder (1946) – another theologically knotted fantasy, in which Rains delivers the immortal line ‘What in my domain is that?’ It’s curious to find Edward Everett Horton playing a character other than a butler – although his function as Rains’ prissy underling ensures he remains butler in spirit. And fortunately, there’s also Halliwell Hobbes, that other eternal butler (and unrecognisable from 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), on hand for regular duties. There’s a great charm to this film, and a sweetness that seems sincere, but also an imbalance in its secular, no-nonsense, not-quite-Christian doctrine. Here Comes Mr. Jordan wasn’t built to be analysed so coldly – but such analysis does keep it fascinating.

THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (dir. Terence Fisher, 1957)

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

The first of the Hammer Gothics; a cracking film. It’s some sort of heresy, but I’ve always preferred The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) to the (justly) vaunted Hammer Dracula (1958). The traditional argument is that Dracula was Hammer coming to full, bloody fruition; The Curse of Frankenstein, by contrast, shows Hammer holding back a bit, not quite certain what they’ve gotten hold of. It might be that modicum of restraint that leaves me preferring The Curse of Frankenstein. There’s a veneer of elegance to the film – a pokiness, a staginess, a gloss, a polish – that threatens at all times to give way. The film’s colour scheme rarely strays beyond light pastels. Yet there are intermittent flashes of red: from laboratory beakers and electrical pulses, from carefully painted leaves and lurid splashes of blood. The film enters Nicolas Roeg territory at times, anticipating Don’t Look Now (1973) by sixteen years. As with The Body Snatcher (1945), there’s the positive sense that ninety percent of The Curse of Frankenstein would work as a taut and tense stage play: the literate script (clever without drawing attention to itself) and marvellous supporting cast (even the dog is good!) make it so. Given that Hammer’s decline came when they went full-frontal – with sadism, gore and nubile peasant girls – there’s much to be said for The Curse of Frankenstein‘s frosty British reserve. This finds its truest expression in Peter Cushing’s peerless performance as Baron Victor Frankenstein. I’ve long thought that Peter Cushing was the single best thing about Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948). The Curse of Frankenstein cements Cushing’s reputation as the Olivier of horror. In my view, it’s Cushing’s best performance in the six-film series – narrowly edging out the heartless sadist found in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969). Taken as the sum of those six parts, Cushing’s Baron adds up to the most brilliantly conceived and realised character in all of horror cinema. It’s a sixteen-year mosaic of a genius’s decline from Byronic narcissism (The Curse of Frankenstein) to chillingly doddering insanity (in 1973’s Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell). And all this without mentioning Christopher Lee’s underrated, career-making turn as the Creature. The film demands to be seen.

HOUSE OF USHER (dir. Roger Corman, 1960)

House of Usher (1960)

Now that I’ve introduced the first of the Hammer Gothics, it would be remiss to ignore their American cousin: the Roger Corman Poe film. House of Usher (1960) was the first, and, in my opinion, the very best of a distinguished bunch. Each entry in the series had its highlights – the frenzied torture devices in Pit and the Pendulum (1961), the lavish photography in The Masque of the Red Death, the picturesque abbey ruins in The Tomb of Ligeia (both 1964) – but none improved on the cohesion achieved here. Corman’s style borders on the camp at times (early Hammer never did), but this gives the necessary lift to a story that would otherwise be unbelievably depressing (all but one character dies). Visually, the film is immersive, enveloping: all dark curtains, red candlesticks, bronze sculptures, and the occasional Daliesque portrait of an Usher ancestor. Even Mark Damon, an undeniably weak actor, is visually the part to perfection. Supreme among House of Usher‘s visual highlights is the dream sequence, which unfolds in incandescently colourful fogs, as the ghosts of the Usher ancestors make themselves known. As in The Curse of Frankenstein, the onslaught of colour signifies the belly of the beast; an evil undercurrent granted glorious eruption. The impact of the dream is heightened by Les Baxter’s use of a ghostly choir – in broad Halloween style, they even make little ‘woo!’ noises – a musical detail that would resurface in Tales of Terror (1962). Baxter’s lush symphonic score – littered with heraldic motifs, echoing dissonance, and heart-piercing romantic strings – is another of the film’s strengths. As Roderick Usher, Vincent Price gives the best horror performance of his career. Like the film in which it resides, its impact is profoundly sensual, perhaps taking its cue from the character’s hypersensitivity. It might best be described as syphilis personified. Price offers up a desiccated voluptuary wrapped in garish red velvet; his bleached hair and clean-shaven visage create a Price unrecognisable from the mustachioed rogue of House on Haunted Hill and The Bat (both 1959). There’s such unwavering belief in what Price does with Usher that it overshadows the tongue-in-cheek, Phibes-like villains he would play as his career progressed. As he lights his candles and plucks at the strings of a lute, one wonders at the great Shakespearean career Price might have had. (1973’s Theatre of Blood is sadly no indication.) Luckily for us, the fates sorted things differently. House of Usher is perhaps the most unheralded American horror film of the sixties.

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