Being there

On September 4, 2014, in Cinemas, Shakespeare, Theatre, by Luke McKernan

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The Two Gentlemen of Verona, production photo from www.rsc.org.uk

Until now, I’d not been to one of the live video broadcasts into cinemas of theatre productions which have spread so rapidly since the New York Metropolitan Opera introduced them in late 2006. In part this was me being slow off the mark, in part it was apprehension at what I was buying into. Simply, it didn’t feel like I would be buying into the real thing. I am no advocate of the liveness of theatre above life shown through a screen: there’s a snobbishness and sentimentality in that line of argument that I really dislike. But beyond the obvious convenience of seeing a stage production that one might probably not be able to see otherwise, I just wasn’t sure what I would be purchasing. In short, would I be getting value for money?

I overcame such caution last night when I went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, broadcast as part of its RSC Live from Stratford-upon-Avon series into cinemas up and down the land, including for my benefit the Woodville Halls Theatre in Gravesend.

The play is one of the Shakespeare’s earliest – perhaps his first – and is generally considered a weak attempt at the romantic comedy style he would make his own with Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night et al. It is deeply beholden to the arid traditions of courtly romance and betrays the inexperience of the young writer through its several faults of technical construction. But the production has been showered with praise – amazingly, it is the first RSC full production of the play in forty-five years – and it’s a play that I had never seen performed. So it was that I turned up at the Woodville, intrigued and expectant. I wanted to see the production, and I needed to experience the phenomenon. I’ve started collecting examples of ‘streamed theatre‘ on my Picturegoing site, and I’ve been intrigued by how many bloggers who write about such shows review them as theatre, understanding themselves to be there, not seeing the screen as screen at all (unless technical glitches distract their attention). What would I see?

There were around forty of us, huddled for the most part in the centre of the auditorium. The live broadcast was preceded by a rotating slide show that introduced the production and cast, and advertised the RSC, serving therefore as a form of programme (I thought how useful such a projection could be before the show in an actual theatre, except that it would affect the sales of programmes). We were also given shots of the audience taking to their seats at Stratford-upon-Avon. They looked like us and we looked like them: a fair representation of grey-haired middle England. I thought what a shame there could not be a way for those in Stratford to see us, much as we were seeing them. They would gain a greater sense of the larger audience to which this production was now playing.

An enthusiastic woman called Suzy Klein sat down at a table on the stage and introduced the play to us, while the actors milled about in an approximation of a Verona café. Suzy said she hoped we would tweet about the experience. None of those seated at the Woodville looked like they had ever tweeted in their life, and in any case we had been told to turn off our mobile phones and of course we had all obeyed (if someone had brought in a tablet with them I didn’t see it). Interactivity was for others – we just wanted to see the show.

And so the show began. It is a terrific production which breathes new life into the play. It is bright, witty, passionate and engaging. A talented young cast make every line reasonable, sailing confidently over the play’s odder constructions (such as the rapid reconciliation with the selfish Proteus at the play’s conclusion) and clearly enjoying themselves. One ends up admiring Shakespeare’s early sense of dramatic construction. It’s a play and a production that you would happily recommend to anyone.

Trailer for The Two Gentlemen of Verona

I was particularly interested in how it was filmed. This was very pleasing. There’s a fine balance that needs to be achieving between capturing the action as presented on a stage, and selecting shots calculated to satisfy the cinematic (or televisual) eye. At one end of the spectrum you get the camera parked in the stalls recording the literal actuality. At the other end you get those video production where close shots have been interpolated to turn the show into something designed with the camera first in mind and the theatre and its audience an unwanted distraction. The filmmaker needs to find a halfway house, true to both camera and stage.

This the RSC Live production did very well. There was judicious use of crane shots, gently swooping over the action; lateral camera movements which took in the audience’s heads so we were always reminded that we were in a theatre, sharp cutting between protagonists as they debated with one another, showing much careful planning of camera positions; and the occasional misalignment of actors in the frame to prove that this was live and that actors do not always stand where the film producer hopes that they will stand. I was especially impressed by some of the smooth transitions from scene to scene, particularly the cut between Acts 3 and 4, from Julia exiting with Sylvia’s picture to Eglamour dressed as a monk, both filmed from above. There were close shots, but not close-ups – we were never taken imaginatively out of the space that is the theatre. The filming optimised the experience.

I wasn’t so sure of the sound. Partly, one is at the mercy of the digital projection facilities of the participating cinema, but to my eye the words were ever so slightly out of synch with the visuals (so one saw someone closing their mouth to end a speech a split second after we heard the final word being spoken). More troubling, at least initially, was the sound mixing. There was a curious lack of perspective, as though audio and visually had been recorded separately and laid together for the broadcast. It’s hard to describe, but I felt that the spoken words didn’t belong to the stage, that there weren’t projected out but instead sounded as though they were confined with a small space. Of course, this may be an outcome of the radio miking in theatres which is designed for clarity and intimacy, but I found it odd at first. As the production went on, either the sound effect settled down or I became used to it, because eventually I ceased to be bothered by it.

There was an interval, with ten minutes of quiet in which we saw footage of people at Stratford vacating their seats, followed with ten minutes of promotional stuff (including a mock silent film trailer for Love’s Labour’s Lost and Love’s Labour’s Won – which they have decided is the alternative title for Much Ado About Nothing). Suzy told us how great the music was and how she thought buying the soundtrack CD would be a great idea, and encouraged us all to tweet once more. We ignored her.

There have been reports of these ‘live theatre’ events of the cinema audience clapping alongside the theatre audience at the end of the show. Not in Gravesend they didn’t. We sat there in silence, then filed out during the credits. All seemed to have liked it, though, to judge from the exit chatter, with promises made to the staff that we would be coming back for other such shows.

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The Woodville

I will certainly be coming back, because I enjoyed it immensely. One can look at it as extension of presence in the theatre, or as something changed radically by being on a screen, with gradations of change in between those poles, according to the viewer. Has any Baudrillardian theorised as yet on broadcast theatre as simulacra or simulation of live experience? It is subject ripe for applying Baudrillard’s idea of the precession of simulacra, where the copy takes over the meaning of its referent, ultimately destroying the meaning of the original. But different folks will see different things. When I first got there, an attendant asked me what I had come to see. I said I was going to the cinema. He said there was no cinema that evening, instead they had ‘a show’. It was either, and both.

One thing bothered me, however. Just how ‘live’ was it? Of course the production was broadcast live and every action that we saw was occurring at precisely the same moment as it was in Stratford-upon-Avon. But it didn’t feel live to me, or rather the liveness didn’t matter. I expected to feel a particular frisson at being there, however remotely, and of course the liveness is a major part of what is being sold to us as an attraction. But the frisson didn’t happen. Had it been a show from the day before I don’t see how the experience would have been truly different. Had it been from six months ago then perhaps the feeling might change, as initiatives like RSC Live and NT Live advertise repeat screenings as ‘encores’, with (I assume) marginally lower prices. But the difference between live and close to live seems a fine one.

There’s an interesting parallel with football, where live games may be shown on a Saturday afternoon on Sky, and then the highlights on Match of the Day in the evening, and in both cases there is the feeling of being there. If you repeat either broadcasts later in the week, or still later than that, then the liveness has gone, as actuality turns into history.

Also, football is a business where primary revenues have moved from the turnstile to the screen, and that is what is now happening to theatre. The RSC production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona on 3 September was seen by around 1,000 people in the theatre. Broadcast to some 275 cinemas in the UK, it will have been seen by a remote audience of at least 11,000 (if the Gravesend turnout is anything to go by) and probably nearer 20,000, and that’s not counting worldwide screenings (they reached Argentina, Australia, Russia, Spain and the USA) encore screenings and any subsequent DVD sales. The National Theatre’s more established NT Live reaches 600 venues, had found a worldwide audience of 1,275,000 by the time of its 2013-13 annual report, and for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time it got a UK audience of 42,000 and worldwide audience of 72,000, while the 43,000 for The Last of the Haussmans got the screening into the UK’s weekly box office cinema chart (at no. 8).

This is going to have a huge effect on the economics of theatre. Productions will be selected and made with the camera in mind, star actors will be attracted for what may be shorter runs, because the residual revenues will be greater. The liveness of theatre will be an essential part of what is being sold to us, and in that the audience attending the theatre will play their part, just as the football crowd lets us know that the game is real. But the power will lie with the few who came to the Woodville, not the many who filled the theatre at Stratford. We were the ones who were really there.

Links:

  • Details of the production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona are on the RSC site. The director was Simon Godwin; the cast included Mark Arends (Proteus), Pearl Chanda (Julia), Sarah MacRae (Silvia) and Michael Marcus (Valentine)
  • Information on Verona and other RSC broadcasts (live and encore) is on the Live from Stratford-upon-Avon site
  • Peter Kirwan has a review of the 3 September screening at his excellent Bardathon blog – he reviews it as theatre, with some reference to presentation (the introduction, camera placement) and a complaint about sound distortion (a fault of his local screening at the Nottingham Broadway).
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Colour music

On August 21, 2014, in Colour, Music, by Luke McKernan

colourmusic

Chromatic scale for music and colour, from Colour-Music: The Art of Mobile Colour

A recent post by John Wyver on his very fine Illuminations blog covered the history of Mobilux, a system for projecting abstract images onto a screen which was used for some television broadcasts in 1950s. It’s a fascinating insight into the ways in which television was viewed, and used as a vehicle for experimentation, in its early days. But what particularly caught my eye was the comments of its inventor, John Hoppe, who said that Mobilux was inspired by earlier inventions:

I developed the instruments I now use on television from instruments used in the original lumia process. The first one was an instrument using candles, which was built in 1751. As far back as 1895 there was an instrument which mixed light from an organ keyboard. In 1925 there was a flurry of interest in lumia, and there were many performances of it. It was very pretty but it was used without music and died down.

Well I’ve done a little investigation into Lumia, and the related art of ‘colour music’, in the past, so here’s my historical gloss on the Wyver blog post, with particular emphasis on the colour organ, a device for playing colour music.


Colour music, or the art of combining musical effects with colours with correlations of harmonic and emotional effect, has a long history. First imagined by Aristotle, and speculated upon by the 16th-century artist Archimboldo, its first practical exponent may have been Louis-Bertrand Castel, a Jesuit priest and mathematician, who in the 1720s began work on his ‘clavecin oculaire’, or ‘harpsichord for the eyes’. This sought to relate the seven colours of the spectrum to a musical scale – though Castel chose to work from an irregular scale of thirteen notes that had been devised by Castel’s fellow Jesuit, Athanasius Kircher (supposed progenitor of the magic lantern). Castel’s invention featured lanterns, candles or colour boxes, but a working model seems never to have been demonstrated. The idea was picked up by various theorists, notably Erasmus Darwin, who in 1789 proposed the creation of a visual music through accompanying musical performance with light from oil lamps projected through coloured glass.

Yale University documentary on a performance of Scriabin’s Prometheus with a modern colour organ (Luce, introduced at 5:33 and in performance from 9:38), programmed to play Scriabin’s colours

In the mid to late nineteenth century a number of colour organs and related instruments were constructed. The American artist Bainbridge Bishop in 1877 constructed a projector to be fixed to the top of an organ, which would project coloured light onto a small screen; and artist Alexander Wallace Rimington patented his Colour Organ in 1893. Rimington became the best known theorist and exponent of the art of colour music, which he demonstrated at several concerts throughout 1895. The concept of combining colour with music in pursuit of a pure synthesis of light and sound was taken up in the twentieth century by such composers as Schoenberg (Die Glückliche Hand, 1909-1913) and notably Scriabin, whose Prometheus, the Poem of Fire (1911) calls for the use of a colour organ, with the colours projected on a large screen above the orchestra; while from the other direction artists introduced sound into their work, notably Kandinsky in his 1914 (but not performed until the 1960s) abstract music drama, The Yellow Sound.

Loie Fuller in hand-coloured 1897 Lumière film Danse Serpentine

Silent excerpt from a c.1969 Lumigraph film with the instrument played by Elfriede Fischinger, the filmmaker’s widow

The American dancer Loie Fuller, with her serpentine dances of the 1890s that featured her flowing dress lit up with projected lights to create colour effects was another pioneer of the idealistic combination of colour projection and music. Film animators such as Viking Eggeling, Oskar Fischinger and Walter Ruttmann each took further the wish to combine colour, movement and sound in the search of abstract form and synthesis – Fischinger in particular would go further by developing his own version of the colour organ, the Lumigraph, in the 1940s. Such experiments have continued, reaching their most popular outcome in the light performances that accompany rock concerts, their most ubiquitous form in the use of colour visualations in computer and phone media players, and perhaps an aesthetic peak in the ‘star gate’ sequence from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Thomas Wilfred’s Lumia composition Opus 147 “Multidimensional” (1957)

The colour organ itself enjoyed its greatest period of popularity in the 1920s, with the American colour organist Mary Hallock Greenewalt (who first experimented with the form in 1906); the Danish-American Thomas Wilfred, whose Clavilux employed a keyboard with sliding keys that controlled light projections (it was Wilfred who named his colour projections ‘Lumia’, which he preferred to have exhibited silently as moving art forms – as they appear in Terrence Malick’s film Tree of Life, for example); and Adrian Klein, creator of the Klein Colour Projector, whose remarkable book Colour-Music (1926) is an exhaustive study of colour music, its theory and potential. Klein also wrote major books on colour cinematography, and as Adrian Cornwell-Clyne managed the important Dufaycolor film process in Britain.

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Wallace Rimington with the Colour Organ

Alexander Wallace Rimington (1854-1918) was Professor of Fine Arts at Queen’s College, London and a water-colourist, whose studies of Turner led him to pursue his own ideas of a new language of art. He wrote a talk for the debut performance of his Colour Organ at the St James’s Hall, London, 6 June 1895. It was subsequently published as a paper, entitled A New Art: Colour-Music, and is reproduced in Klein’s book along with newspaper notices and the patent drawings (Klein was another artist who turned his eye to music). His Colour Organ was a somewhat unwieldy instrument, with a battery of arc lamps positioned in parallel high above a conventional organ console. The colours were projected onto a large screen. The organ was accompanied by piano and orchestra (the latter conducted by Louis N. Parker, later famous as a producer of pageants), and the programme featured music by Wagner, Dvorak, Chopin and Gounod. Other concerts then followed, which enjoyed a mixed reception, partly owing to poor stage management. A performance at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, on 30 November 1895 saw confusion from an audience which had imagined that by some marvellous new scientific discovery it was the sounds themselves that were producing the colours. Rimington was uncomfortable with public performance, and gave no more demonstrations after 1895. He wrote a book, Colour-Music: The Art of Mobile Colour in 1911, and in 1914 was invited by Sir Henry Wood to supervise the colour organ for a performance of Scriabin’s Prometheus at the Queen’s Hall, but the War intervened.

Here are some of Rimington’s thoughts from 1895:

Very briefly, my aim has been to deal with Colour in a new way, and to place its production under as easy and complete control as the production of sound in Music.

Until now colour to a large extent in nature, and altogether in art, has been presented to us without mobility and almost invariably associated with form. Colour combined with form has constituted the whole colour art of the world. In painting colour has been used only as one of the elements in a picture, although perhaps the greatest source of beauty. We have not yet had pictures in which there is neither form nor subject, but only pure colour. Even the most advanced impressionism has not carried us thus far. In decorative art colour has, broadly speaking, held the same position. Moreover, to obtain particular tints of colour it has been necessary to mix them laboriously on the palette or in the dye-house. Art hitherto has not been able to compete in any sort of way with Nature in the mobility of her multitudinous and ever-varying combinations of colour. There has, in fact, been no pure colour art dealing with colour alone, and trusting solely to all the subtle and marvellous changes and combinations of which colour is capable as the means of its expression.

The object of the present invention is to lay the first stone towards the building up of such an art in the future. The chief problem, then, that the new art sets itself is to introduce mobility into colour, and with this changefulness, the three great influences of Time, Rhythm, and Combination, slow or rapid and varied. Colour thus is freed from the trammels of form, and dealt with for the sake of its own loveliness.

Rimington’s talk on the Colour Organ, from which the above extract comes, expounds his thinking behind the invention, which was to find a means of marrying the arts of sound and light to a mutual aesthetic and emotional effect. In simple terms, Rimington took the colour spectrum and equated it with the musical octave, taking colours at particular points along the spectrum where their frequencies corresponded in ratio to the diatonic and chromatic scales, then putting these selected colours under the control of those specific notes on the keyboard. When depressed, the key then triggered the corresponding colour, by means of prisms, diaphragms, colour filters and fourteen arc lamps, the keyboard becoming, in Rimington’s words, ‘a large palette from which we can paint with instantaneous effect upon the screen.’ Some of the organ stops created further lighting effects, a pedal controlled luminosity, and three levers at the side of the organ controlled the degrees of strength for each of the primary colours. Rimington was therefore able to achieve a great variety of effect than might be assumed from a simple note-for-colour correlation. Nevertheless, the colours were inaccurate and relatively crudely produced. A review in The Times (28 June 1895) was sceptical both of the effect and the reasoning:

[I]t must have appeared doubtful to many whether there is any parallelism between the kinds of emotion produced by a piece of music rendered into sound in the ordinary way, and by its translation into colour as given by Mr Rimington. The tints with which the screen was filled were often very beautiful, if rather suggestive at times of ‘crushed strawberry’ and colours of that style, but they seemed unsatisfying, and did not convey the same impression to the mind as the music. There is perhaps force in the suggestion that our eyes are not yet sufficiently practised to make us competent judges of colour as expressive of emotion; but it may be remarked that even were the physical analogy between sound and colour complete which it is far from being it does not follow that the emotional effects are analogous. Mr Rimington, indeed, claims that his new art is not dependent upon the demonstration of the analogy; but, seeing that his instrument is constructed on the assumption that it does hold good, the point may not improperly be taken into account in considering the results obtained.

But if Rimington’s instrument was limited in its effectiveness, and if his theory of colour music was flawed and rather fell apart in performance, his passionate idealism demands respect. His rhapsodic description of pure colour, ‘freed from the trammels of form’, far in advance of most of the visual arts at this time (including his own art), soars above the mechanical realities and the mismanaged exhibitions which characterised the Colour Organ’s brief public turn in 1895. While the experimenters of the twentieth century who experimented with colour music seem of their time in engaging with abstract art – Scriabin, Wilfred, Fischinger, Mary Ellen Bute and others – Rimington the Victorian is the one who made the further leap imaginatively from the art that he knew to the art of his dreams.

But how did a Victorian art professor come to construct such an organ? His is the only name on the patent. What help did he receive? Who actually built it? And whatever became of it? The Colour Organ was located in Rimington’s home at 26 Kensington Park Gardens until 1914, certainly, but then what? I have searched where I can and have found no trace, online at least. Does anyone know what happened to it, if it survives? It would be grand to hear and see it played again.

Note: This post is an adaptation and expansion of an introduction I wrote to Wallace Rimington’s 1895 paper A New Art: Colour Music, for Living Pictures: The Journal of the Popular and Projected Image before 1914 (vol. 2 no. 2, 2003, a special issue on colour).

Links:

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Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War centenary?

On August 6, 2014, in War, Work, by Luke McKernan

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Top half of Savile Lumley’s poster for the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, ‘Daddy, what did YOU do during the Great War?’

Deep indeed is our need of round numbers. We count the past in intervals of ten, fifty or a hundred years, making sure that we are standing in the right place and composed of the right thoughts when the time comes round to commemorate the historically momentous. Anniversaries and centenaries seem always to be upon us, driven partly by a media that like always to have something celebrate (and round numbers make for an easy story), partly by a wish by some impress upon us the lessons of the past, and partly because the passing of the years means that there is ever more of the past queuing up to be remembered.

Centenaries range from the pointless (all that fuss two years ago over the Titanic centenary) to the truly significant. The centenary of the First World War is undoubtedly among the latter, and if one hundred years is a meaningless concept beyond illustrating to deeply the decimal system is embedded in our consciousness, then it is significant for being a date just beyond the point where the last First World War combatant had died (Claude Choules, who died aged 110 in 2011). The war we must all remember is now something no one living can remember. We commemorate the loss of the connection.

But how to commemorate? The centenary of Britain declaring war on Germany on August 4th was marked by services, unveilings, parades, and encouragement for everyone to switch off lights in the evening until 11pm. There were television programmes that are documenting these events, interspersed with interviews asking people what their thoughts are on the significance of what was taking place. But then what? We have been commemorating the centenary of the war all year, and we will continue to commemorate it for another four years. How will we maintain consistency? How will we find the stamina? How to get it right? What will we learn from it all?

Here are some of the means to commemorate the war’s centenary that are open to us.

Books
There is nothing quite like purchasing a weighty history book for doing our bit. It seems the right thing to have at such a time, and certainly the shelves in the bookshops up and down the land are groaning with histories new and republished to provide us with that definitive idea of what happened. Amazon list 69,646 books for sale under ‘First World War’ – around 8,000 are said to be currently in print. I’m slowly reading Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, which is an intricate read but is setting the pace for being the key book of centenary so far, and lined up on the shelves I have Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars, and Jerry White’s Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War looks essential. Novels? Well I might try and finish Parade’s End. It’s defeated me so far. A tip for a book to add to your shelves? Try David Jones’ In Parenthesis, the great prose-poem of the infantryman’s experience and its mythic significance (subject of a future blog post, I think).

Television
The BBC owns this war. It has 2,500 hours of programming planned across television and radio, as well as web platforms, with a mission to increase our understanding of the war and to seek out its stories. It is a war composed almost entirely of the experiences of individuals, reflecting the sense that such total war has to be seen from the personal perspective rather than the strategic overview. A war with no overall meaning can only be understand by how it affected people just like us. So it is that we are getting a lot of readings from diaries and actors looking sorrowfully at the camera. It’s a somewhat bludgeoning effect, all the more so with something like the BBC3 series Our World War, using head-cams and thermal imaging to impress upon a generation that doesn’t know what its bloody reality was like. It’s the video game approach – the further we move away from the past the more we need some violent stimulus to jolt our sensibilities, or so the argument seems to be.

Films
When was the last time a popular film about the First World War filled the cinemas? Gallipoli (1981)? [Update: War Horse, of course, as someone's now reminded me] I don’t know of any major productions in the pipeline, and maybe there won’t be until 2017 the centenary of America’s entry into the war. But there will be plenty of screening of films from the war period itself, and those made in the few decades afterwards. It should be everyone’s national duty to see The Battle of the Somme (1916) (could some TV commissioner be brave and screen the film in its entirety on 1 July 2016?), and the IWM’s Collections site has 1,816 actuality films of the war to view (memo to self – another blog post). But the feature films made in the 1920s and 30s by those who lived through the war but took time to distil the memories into cinema should also be sought out. All Quiet on the Western Front, The Big Parade, I Was a Spy, What Price Glory?, Wings, Journey’s End, A Farewell to Arms, La Grande Illusion: they say more about the memory of war than poor TV drama, too young to know, will ever be able to achieve.

Museums
The Imperial War Museums (note the awful plural they’ve given themselves) has opened its/their much touted First World War Galleries, having closed for a period to prepare itself/themselves for the centenary. For many this will be the shrine to visit, and I’ll get there somewhere along the line. The museum has to compete with the expectations of the televisual, video game age, marrying physical exhibits to digital narratives that again try to impress on us war’s virtual reality. Also in tune with TV (and indeed every other medium it seems) is the focus on the individual experience, making the past real because it happened to people just like us. Culture 24 has a listing of what museums across the UK are doing to mark the centenary.

Battlefields
I’ve never been to a First World War battlefield. It would be a rightful thing to do, and those I know who have visited them have been deeply moved. I suspect they may be a bit crowded for the next few years, and I’m ambivalent about tour guides. Perhaps things will be quieter in 2019. The key site is that of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the first place for finding out about the war dead.

Exhibitions
Every museum, library, archive, gallery or whatever is going to have its First World War exhibition. There will be no end to them, probably no counting them all. So many objects yearning to make us remember. At the British Library we have Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour (running to October this year). For something off the beaten track, I might try Empire, Faith and War: The Sikhs and World War One at the Brunei Gallery, or the Cartoon Museum’s Never Again! World War I in Cartoon and Comic Art. The IWM-supported www.1914.org is the place to find what’s going on.

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First World War: The Story of a Global Conflict

Websites
Or if you can’t see the objects in their glass cases, why not experience them up close online, such as through Europeana 1914-1918 (another project the British Library is involved in), which is digitising objects from museums, libraries and families alike (they are organising family history roadshows where you can get your precious objects digitised) for sharing across the continent through the Europeana portal – itself an expression of the belief that there is a way to build a world beyond war. Linked with this is the BL’s own World War One site, with objects, articles and themes to explore. Or I must visit in full The Guardian‘s impressive First World War: The Story of a Global Conflict interactive documentary. or the BBC’s all-powerful World War One pages, aiming to be the portal through which a nation rediscovers the war’s significance.

Apps
Why not download a part of the war and take it away with you? There’s artist Jeremy Deller’s digital artwork for the Lights Out project for which you had to download the app then see four videos over 1-4 August, a brief digital candle of a life. Or for that personal experience, try out World War I Interactive, First World War: Western Front, Owen (i.e. Wilfred Owen), War Horse, and many more.

Hashtags
#ww1, #ww100, #ww1Aug14, #WW1Centenary, #LightsOut, #FirstWorldWar, #centenary, #WorldWar1centenary, #WorldWarOne, #WorldWarOneRemembered, #WWOne, #100years, #1418, #1418Centenary, #GreatWar, #GreatWarCentenary, #WeWillRememberThem, #lestweforget, #WarToEndAllWars

Poetry
If we feel pity, we’ll likely turn to poetry. Try out a different poet or two. Read the Italian minimalist Giuseppe Ungaretti, or Isaac Rosenberg (see his poems, digitised documents, photographs etc all at the excellent First World War Poetry Digital Archive). Here’s Rosenberg’s ‘Louse Hunting’:

Nudes – stark aglisten
Yelling in lurid glee. Grinning faces of fiends
And raging limbs
Whirl over the floor one fire,
For a shirt verminously busy
Yon soldier tore from his throat
With oaths
Godhead might shrink at, but not the lice.
And soon the shirt was aflare
Over the candle he’d lit while we lay.
Then we all sprang up and stript
To hunt the vermin brood.
Soon like a demons’ pantomime
The place was raging.
See the silhouettes agape,
See the gibbering shadows
Mixed with the battled arms on the wall.
See gargantuan hooked fingers
Dug in supreme flesh
To smutch the supreme littleness.
See the merry limbs in hot Highland fling
Because some wizard vermin
Charmed from the quiet this revel
When our ears were half lulled
By the dark music
Blown from Sleep’s trumpet.

Commemorative issues
It seems like every newspaper in the land has rediscovered its archives and produced a commemorative issue, often by reproducing what their title published back in August 1914. Some have faced a bit of a challenge because 1914 newspapers in general weren’t laid out as dynamically as we would expect of a newspaper today, though the Daily Mail‘s attempt to get round this by producing a mock-up of how a war issue would look like if they produced it today was roundly criticised. Ironically it’s likely to end up being the one genuinely collectible commemorative issue of the centenary.

Memorabilia
No.

Family history
There is much encouragement from schools, archives and newspaper archives for people to discover how the war affected their ancestors. It’s another element of that personalisation of the war being stressed through every medium. I find the idea behind Lives of the First World War project (‘Facebook for the Fallen’) a bit unsettling. It is inviting us to fill in details of the names of all those who contributed to the First World War to create a ‘permanent digital memorial’ – which may just be a contradiction in terms. It’s a mixture of free and subscription based, and I wonder just how many will feel compelled to add family details to the register, and what the thoughts of those fallen would have been. It is good, however, that people are finding connection through family history, which never fails to bring home the enormity as much as the banality of the past. My maternal grandfather was at Gallipoli, the Western Front and Egypt – quite a tour of duty. He didn’t speak much about it afterwards.

Projects and courses
A thousand school projects have been launched about the war, many focussed on family or local figures. But we can all continue to learn. The BBC has launched a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course, would you believe – there are lots of them out there), teaming up with the Open University, University of Birmingham, University of Glasgow and University of Leeds to deliver four free courses: Trauma and Memory, Aviation comes of age, Paris 1919 – a new world order, and Changing faces of heroism.

Theatre
I may take someone young to go and see War Horse.

Talks
Well I can do my creative bit by giving a talk of two of the First World War and film, which I’m supposed to know something about. A couple of talks are lined up – maybe others will follow. Plenty of archive film is being featured in all these TV programmes, trailers, websites and apps, but precious little of it is being given any sort of context. It is not just background, it has meaning – meaning that becomes clearer if you know its history. Much like any other aspect of the war, of course. Perhaps that’s my answer to Savile Lumley’s poster.

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Blood Swept Lands And Seas of Red via @HistoricalPics

Poppies
I wore a poppy once. Not now. Better instead to go to the Tower of London and see the extraordinary outpouring, and open wound of blood-red ceramic poppies, 888,246 of them (eventually), one for every British and Commonwealth (they don’t say Empire) soldier who died. It’s an artwork by Paul Cummins, entitled Blood Swept Lands And Seas of Red, and for many this will say it all. Ours is an age of extraordinary imagination.

Think of other wars
Of course we must think of the world today, and not hide from it. But we can recognise the past too.

Meet those who were there
We can still do so, through the ghostly magic of the audiovisual media. One of the best offerings from the BBC is the series of uncut interviews with those who lived through the war which were made for the 1964 series The Great War. There are thirteen of them on iPlayer, available indefinitely it seems. They are so clear, eloquent and truthful. We don’t need head-cams or thermal imaging – we just need to look into their eyes.

Is it all too much? It is for some. Simon Jenkins calls the outpouring of “Great War plays, Great War proms, Great War bake-ins, Great War gardens, even Great War Countryfile … a nightly pornography of violence”. We celebrate with abandon, yet learn little. I don’t know. We may be celebrating the centenary as much to fill the void as to commemorate the past, but no one is going to see every exhibition, read every book, or download every app. They will see what they want to see. And the lessons are clear enough for most – some elitists may shake their heads at the vulgarity and meaninglessness of it all, but the rest understand that remembrance is a lesson in itself.

What is distinctive about so many of these commemorative war events is their focus on the individual experience – their experience then, and our imaginative engagement with that experience now. It was a war fought by you or I, not by some remote army. In doing so it made war ridiculous and indefensible. It didn’t stop war, but it changed the understanding of war utterly, and that continues to have its effect on the world most of us expect to see and to live in. And because the war was fought by you or I, we became more important than the kings, politicians, ambassadors and generals whose machinations caused the war in the first place. We own the story, and every exhibition, book, programme and downloadable app is a reflection of that truth.

 

Guitar solos

On July 27, 2014, in Music, by Luke McKernan

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Album cover for Fred Frith’s Guitar Solos

This is one of my favourite album covers. It’s so English, with its field, cricket sight screen, and unprepossessing musician retreating into the background. It’s also one of my favourite albums to listen to. Fred Frith‘s Guitar Solos was released in 1974. It was the first solo record by the guitarist and violinist with the avant garde rock group Henry Cow, and it heralded the career of one of the most innovative and inventive of guitarists. The extraordinary improvised guitar playing, with extra pickups, split fretboards, alligator clips holding down strings, and other means of prepared guitar, created sounds unlike any heard before, and earned the album a remarkably warm critical reception for a piece of experimental music. It was followed by Guitar Solos 2 in 1976, where Frith was joined by Derek Bailey, Hans Reichel and G.F. Fitzgerald, and Guitar Solos 3 in 1979, with several guitarists including Eugene Chadbourne and Henry Kaiser.

What was revolutionary about Guitar Solos was that it inverted all previous ideas about how a guitar might sound, and where its position lay in rock and pop music. Guitar solos were never solo – they were contained within the structure of a song. Even if that piece of music was an instrumental, the guitar element was but one part of a combination of instruments working together to a conventional purpose. Frith’s album sets the guitar free from the constrictions of song, from the need to fill a passage between one verse and the next. It is music that says, ‘stop accepting, start listening’.

That said, the guitar solo as commonly understood is a revered and well-established part of the structure of popular music, or at least in the form in which it could be commonly found from the 1905s to the 1980s. Fred Frith himself wrote a renowned series of articles on the art of the guitar solo for New Musical Express in the 1970s. There are numerous lists to be found on line which are boosted as being the top 50 or 100 guitar solos. Most of these I find to be musical abominations (Jimmy Page? Bah!), which mistake bombast for musicianship and excess for excellence. I had been planning to write a blog post on guitar solos that counteracted such opinions for some while, then was prompted to do so by the news this week of an article by David Robert Grimes, of the University of Oxford, in the open access scientific journal Plos One, entitled ‘String Theory – The Physics of String-Bending and Other Electric Guitar Techniques‘.

Grimes’ article, which has excited some interest in the silly-season press, is a serious work of acousto-physics which argues that electric guitars can sound as expressive and distinct as the human voice. Grimes explores string-bending, vibrato, micro-tonality, fretting force, whammy-bar effects, hammer-ons, pull-offs, tapping, tremolo arms and pick-ups, with reference to the works notables not normally found in physics papers, including Dave Gilmour, Brian May, Steve Vai, John Petrucci, Frank Zappa, Joe Satriani, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler and Eddie Van Halen.

The key idea is that the electric guitar, and the means that have developed to play it in rock music, uses much the same patterns as the human voice. Grimes writes:

Coupled with the huge array of amplification, effects and distortion options, the electric guitar can yield a vocal-like quality in lead playing, allusions to which are often made in popular culture; in Dire Strait’s [sic] 1979 debut single “Sultans of swing”, songwriter Mark Knopfler refers to a jazz guitarist as being “strictly rhythm, he doesn’t want to make it cry or sing”. Eric Clapton’s thick guitar tone and use of vibrato is referred to by guitarists as the “woman tone”, which he famously contributed to the Beatles’s classic “While my guitar gently weeps”. These are but some examples – An accomplished guitarist’s tone and vibrato can be so intrinsic to that player that their idiosyncratic sound is as distinctive as a vocalist’s to a trained ear.

The implication is that this human quality is the secret of its appeal. There seems a lot to this line of thinking. It is not so much the musicality of the guitar that is distinctive as its vocality. It mimics not simply how we sing, but how we talk and thereby express ourselves. The electric guitar, perhaps more than any other instrument, expresses the various-ness and free-ranging quality of human expression, whether strained by convention (as in the burst of a solo squeezed into the three-minute song) or liberated to uninhibited eloquence (as demonstrated in Frith’s masterpiece).

There are limitations to this theory. If the guitar solo is so intrinsic to the sympathetic understanding of popular music, then why has it largely disappeared as a device since the 1980s? Musical fashion has moved on, and to throw in a conventional guitar solo into a piece of music now seems anachronistic, even absurd. The guitar solo was a part of the inheritance of rock’n’roll, and lasted for the period that the generation that created it and the generation that were inspired by them lasted.

The guitar solo came out of rock’n’roll’s country, blues and especially jazz roots. The ensembles of the 30s and 40s playing short songs or numbers in which individual instrumentalists took their brief turn to solo their variation on the melody evolved into the drum-bass-guitar combos that proved best for delivering the propelling beat of rock’n’roll. The archetypal rock’n’roll combo was that which accompanied Elvis Presley, with Scotty Moore playing lead guitar and Presley himself supplying rhythm guitar. Moore cemented the role of the lead guitarist, leading on melody lines, fills and full solos, the complementary voice to that of the singer.

The guitar solo gained prominence when rock music escaped from Tin Pan Alley, bands played their own instruments, and wrote their own songs. It was an expression of assertiveness and individuality. Assertiveness can soon lead to vanity, and the excesses of the rock guitar solo from the late 60s through to the 70s, were a product of a medium that now believed in the adulation it received through ever larger live shows. Virtuosity devoid of taste is a poor substitute for genuine musicianship. The best guitar solos were grounded in that subtle evocation of the many shades of the human voice; the worst merely screamed.

Then music moved on from its rock’n’roll inheritance, and the guitar solo became anachronistic (admittedly such news has taken a while to filter through to numerous American soft metal bands). In part it was a generational thing; in part it was the rise of electronica, beats, and a more manufactured sound. In doing so the music may have lost some of its voice.

….

Enough of such musings. Here are my top ten guitar solos. Not the top ten, please note, which is a stupid game. They are just ten solos that I particularly admire, for how well they work within the confines of the song they grace, yet how they have a substance that lifts them beyond the confines of the song. And yes they all have that human voice quality, one way or another. So, in reverse order….

10. Tarheel Slim, ‘Number 9 Train’, guitarist: Tarheel Slim (1959)

American guitarist Tarheel Slim (Allen Bunn) had a varied career playing gospel, blues and rhythm’n’blues throughout the 1950s, briefly making his make as a solo artist with this blistering rock’n’roll number in which his solo boldly plays just the two notes repeatedly but wholly logicially in the context of the propulsive nature of the song, before breaking free across the fretboard.

9. Bonzo Dog Band, ‘Canyons of Your Mind’, guitarist: Neil Innes (1968)

Perhaps it’s a bit much to include a parody of the rock guitar solo among a listing of my idea of the best of them, but Neil Innes’s painfully funny deconstruction of the pretensions of the form is also a good deal better than most of the examples that it spoofs. It is off-key, mis-played, irregular and tuneless, but it also perfectly complements the absurdity of the song and in its way displays such invention and variety within a short space of time. Everything that can go wrong with a guitar solo is here.

8. Jimi Hendrix, ‘All Along the Watchtower’, guitarist: Jimi Hendrix (1968)

Of course you have to have Jimi Hendrix, and though this is an obvious choice, for sheer musical imagination and ingenuity of technique, this version of the Bob Dylan song has few peers. The solo perfectly expresses the mysterious adventure that the lyrics describe.

7. B.B. King, ‘The Thrill Has Gone’, guitarist: B.B. King (1969)

Grimes’s thesis could be proven with reference to the work of B.B. King alone, a guitarist whose strong bending, vibrato and unique tone make the electric guitar sing in a form no other instrument can equal. This number is an obvious choice, with the imaginative coup of strings in the background accentuating the melancholic musings of King’s guitar.

6. Kevin Ayers, ‘Shouting in a Bucket Blues’, guitarist: Steve Hillage (1973)

The late Kevin Ayers had a keen eye for musical talent, and attracted a number of brilliant guitarists who tended to shun the mainstream to accompany his whimsically radical songs, evidenced by two of his numbers appearing on this list. Steve Hillage’s exhilarating guitar breaks on ‘Shouting in a Bucket Blues’ counterpoint Ayers’ miserabilist theme, perfectly illustrating the song’s fatalistic optimism.

5. The Coasters, ‘I’m a Hog for You Baby’, guitarist: Mickey ‘Guitar’ Baker (1958)

This is perhaps the boldest, most imaginative guitar solo of them all – Mickey Baker’s one repeated note at the heart of this typically sassy Lieber and Stoller composition. How did he come up with the idea? How could the song be accompanied in any other way? Acknowledgments also to Dr Feelgood’s version of the song with Wilko Johnson applying variations on the repeated note theme, shown in this sensational YouTube clip.

4. Slapp Happy/Henry Cow, ‘Strayed’, guitarist: Fred Frith (1975)

Here’s Frith himself, showing how to work a guitar solo within the confines of a relatively conventional song. The unlikely combination of the wry pop of Slapp Happy and Henry Cow’s austere experimentation yielded this chirpy number with an echo-ey, sharp, earthy, almost parodic solo from Frith that, brief as it is, manages to sound both familiar and yet not quite like any other guitar solo you ever heard.

3. Bob Dylan, ‘Tombstone Blues’, guitarist: Mike Bloomfield (1965)

Strictly speaking this is several guitar solos, and each so brief that there ought to be no space for the expression of an idea that the solo is meant to represent. But Mike Bloomfield squeezes in so much concentrated ingenuity into this up-tempo number, providing both relief and commentary on the rapid outpouring of surreal, insistent imagery. The inspiration for a thousand guitar solos that were to follow.

2. The Only Ones, ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’, guitarist: John Perry (1978)

This is the most conventional of the ten choices, and in a way it epitomises what the standard guitar solo can be. The Only Ones’ new wave pop number with its mixture of romanticism and space fantasy soars into the heavens with John Perry’s inter-galactic solo. The ultimate guitar solo statement, and perhaps the end of a musical era – it’s the most recent solo on this list.

1. Kevin Ayers, ‘Whatevershebringswesing’, guitarist: Mike Oldfield (1971)

I’m not a fan of Mike Oldfield, at least not Mike Oldfield solo. But when he played with others and was a teenager (he was just eighteen when this recording was made) then his original genius is clear. Another example of Kevin Ayers’ sharp eye for talent, Oldfield provides the solo (and the bass too, I think) for this languid number which doesn’t initially appear that it is going to be anything exceptional, but then the guitar bursts into song. It is not flashy, there are no pyrotechnics for their own sake – it simply finds all the right notes, bends them where it needs to, and shows such invention and good taste. Modest, wistful, earthbound yet soaring, rather English in tone, as idiosyncratic as the human voice itself.

(with apologies to Lou Reed, George Harrison, Frank Zappa, Bill Frisell, Duane Allman, Richard Thompson, Ollie Halsall and all those others who didn’t quite make the cut)

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Joyce, film and metaphor

On July 19, 2014, in Film, Literature, by Luke McKernan

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Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Before Sunrise

I recently watched the Richard Linklater trilogy, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight, which trace the romance over nineteen years between Céline (played by Julie Delpy) and Jesse (played by Ethan Hawke). They are much loved films and have been much discussed, and all I need to say about what I thought of them in general is that the first was very good, the second looked a bit rushed, and the third was better than the second.

But one aspect of the trilogy intrigued me, and that was the connection to the works of James Joyce. The first film, Before Sunrise (1994), takes place on June 16th (the date is specifically referenced in the film), which is the day on which Joyce’s novel Ulysses is set (‘Bloomsday’). Before Sunrise takes place on a single day and involves the traversing of a city, substituting Vienna for Dublin. Joyce chose the date 16 June 1904 as the setting for Ulysses as it was the first day that he stepped out with his future wife, Nora Barnacle, and the accidental meeting of Jesse and Céline, and the romance that then follows, consciously echoes this. And, just to add to the associations, while at university James Joyce translated a play by the German writer Gerhart Hauptmann – its title, Vor Sonnenaufgang, or Before Sunrise.

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Ethan Hawke answering questions in Shakespeare and Company bookshop, in Before Sunset

Before Sunset (2004), the sequel which takes place nine years later, opens with Jesse giving a presentation on a novel he has written (based on his meeting with Céline, who comes to the reading, thus triggering the romance once again). It’s at Shakespeare & Company, a celebrated bookshop on the Left Bank in Paris. The original Shakespeare and Company, which was run by Sylvia Beach in the 1920s, was located at the 6th arrondissement; the present shop is in the 5th arrondissement, and was named in honour of Beach’s shop. James Joyce visited the original shop regularly, and it was Shakespeare and Company that published Ulysses in 1922.

So the Joycean connection is continued, but it is the third film, Before Midnight (2013), that is the most intriguingly if obscurely Joycean in theme. Jesse and Céline are now a couple with two children, and are holidaying in Greece. Greece is the home of the Homeric myths, of course, but the specific Joycean reference occurs when Céline recalls a black-and-white film from her teenage years which had a powerful impact on her, particularly a scene in which a couple visit Pompeii and see the bodies mummified by the volcanic explosion. She doesn’t name the film, but it is Viaggio in Italia (1954), or Voyage to Italy, Roberto Rossellini’s film about a couple’s sterile marriage, the couple being played by Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders.

Céline and Jesse are similarly becalmed, and that might be all there is to the subtle referencing of Rossellini’s film. But Voyage to Italy is also loosely based on James Joyce’s short story, ‘The Dead’, the tale of a seemingly happy marriage troubled by lingering thoughts about the past. It’s not a scene-for-scene remake; rather it is a loose homage, with a specific echo when Bergman’s character recalls a boy who may have died for love of her, just as Gretta Conroy does in Joyce’s story. It is a reference point for those who want to think more deeply about the film, though just in case you have missed the point there are the names of Sanders and Bergman’s characters: Mr and Mrs Joyce.

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Before Midnight, at the point where Julie Delpy’s character recalls seeing Voyage to Italy

How much further can we play this game? Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris (1963), aka Contempt, is partly an homage to Voyage to Italy, being as it is the story of an estranged husband and wife (Michel Piccoli and Bridget Bardot) in Italy. Much of the drama concerns the production of a film of Homer’s Odyssey aka Ulysses.

Literary films are too often produced, and subsequently critiqued, as facsimiles of what appears on the printed page, the plain conversion of a narrative from book to screen, with all of your favourite scenes and characters intact, or so you hope. This is a very narrow way of looking at literary adaptation. What is far more interesting is the oblique reference, the quoting of particular scenes, the echoing of themes, the suggestion of a connection to enrich appreciation. I have had a lot to do with Shakespeare on film in my time, and one thing I’ve been keen to promote is how a Shakespeare film can be just as much one with sly references to the plays as the plain transference of stage text to screen. It is just the case with other writers.

Back in 1995 I co-programmed a season of James Joyce films at the National Film Theatre with Phil Crossley. We put our programme together in Joycean spirit. We included obvious titles like Joseph Strick’s Ulysses, Mary Ellen Bute’s Passages from Finnegans Wake, John Huston’s The Dead, and television plays based on Joyce’s work, including the little-known BBC play, Bloomsday (1964), based on Ulysses. We had a special programme of films known to have been shown at the Volta cinema in Dublin, which Joyce briefly managed at the end of 1909. But we also showed Voyage to Italy and Le Mépris, and then had much fun including Groundhog Day, whose theme of a man caught in an eternal daily round might be seen to have Joycean echoes, but chiefly we chose it because Groundhog Day is February 2nd, which was Joyce’s birthday.

I wish we had been bolder. I wanted us to include The Producers (1968), simply because Gene Wilder’s character is called Leo Bloom, the same as Joyce’s hero. That didn’t seem to be connection enough, but later someone pointed out to me that Wilder’s co-star, Zero Mostel had achieved great success in 1957 playing Leopold Bloom in the play Ulysses in Nighttown. We really should have included it in the programme.

Others have played at this game. In the collection edited by John McCourt, Roll Away the Reel World: James Joyce and Cinema (2010), to which I made a contribution or two on the Volta cinema, American writer Jesse Myers argues for the Joycean-ness of The Producers, American Beauty and The Departed, as well as pointing out metaphorical references to Joyce in The Third Man, The Manchurian Candidate, Annie Hall and several more.

Metaphor matters more than adaptation. The film that tries to reproduce a novel merely creates a surface impression, and a body of critical work unpicking differences between screen and source text which is, if not futile, then certainly wildly overdone. It is the signposting of references to literary works in films (and vice versa) that delights the imagination that much more, and breaks down the barriers between one artistic form and another. It is the knowing transference of ideas, keeping them eternal.

Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy is more subtly and rewardingly Joycean than any literal transcription of his work to the screen. Whether Linklater knew of Rossellini’s referencing of ‘The Dead’ in Voyage to Italy I don’t know, but I suspect so. There had to be a place for Joyce somewhere, to complete the odyssey.

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Brief lives

On July 13, 2014, in People, Shakespeare, by Luke McKernan

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George Pearson (left, from britmovie.co.uk) and Albert Smith

I have begun writing the lives of two people. I have been given 1,000 words in which to encapsulate the achievements, character and significance of two filmmakers, George Pearson and Albert E. Smith. It’s a commission from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, for which I have written several such short biographies already, on Arthur Pearson (newspaper publisher), filmmakers G.B. Samuelson, Walter Haggar, Charles Urban, Percy Smith, and film archivist Ernest Lindgren. Some are hack work; some I’m quite pleased with (the piece on Lindgren probably hits the mark best).

I picked Pearson and Smith from the list of candidates awaiting authors because I know something of both, know where the main sources are, and admire them both. George Pearson was a British film director at his height in the 1920s, whose work has a distinctive and special charm, an expression of the character that comes through in his delightful autobiography Flashback. Smith was born not far from me (his family came from Faversham), and went from being a magician to an early film mogul with the Vitagraph Company of America. He was a savvy operator who produced a singularly misleading memoir, Two Reels and a Crank, which I shall be using only with the greatest caution. I’ve also written a short account of his life before now.

So I start out by exploring the basics: the published memoirs; the surviving papers; the family history sources with census records, birth, marriage and death certificates; the wills and probate records; the online newspaper archives; and, yes, even checking their names on web searches to see what clues might emerge. Then will follow visits to archives and libraries to check film trade papers, personal papers, histories, biographies, and maybe some film viewing too. I will build up chronologies, filmographies and family trees. As required by the ODNB, I will identify film, sound and pictorial records of the two men, where these can be found.

Having amassed all this information, I must boil it down into 1,000 words. There is a scale of word-length according to the perceived importance of these figures, and neither merits the extended entries of a major artist, politician or other public notable. I deal in minor figures.

But how can a life be encapsulated in so short a space? What is one capturing? The art of the dictionary of biography, the encyclopedia entry or obituary is to mix the essential with the memorable. One must record the expected highlights, suggest something of the character, thrown in an anecdote or two, and create a summary judgement. That summary judgement, which is so important, is generally your final paragraph (though it may be followed by standard stuff such as death and family details, depending on the conventions of the publication for which you are writing). It is the estimation of a life in three or four lines. It says that we leave behind our works and other achievements, but who we really were can be – and may be should be – rounded up in a few, hopefully well-chosen words from a stranger.

That ‘stranger’ element is key. The biography long or small written by someone who knew their subject has a different quality, one which almost says I know better of this person than you the reader ever will. The professional biographer who does not know their subject personally, most often because the subject is an historical one, has a different quality too. They have spent enough time with the subject to become a close acquaintance of sorts, exuding an authority bred of supposed intimacy and professional know-how. We who write brief lives are of a different kind.

John_AubreyBrief Lives is the name given to a collection of short biographies collected by the British antiquarian John Aubrey (left) at the end of the seventeenth century. Some finished, some a collection of notes awaiting completion, they were never published in his lifetime, and only edited and made public in the nineteenth century in various expurgated forms. He started out on his task at the behest of Oxford scholar Anthony Wood, who was producing a volumes of lives of those who had studied at the university. Aubrey therefore gathered evidence that the ill-tempered and ungrateful Wood could then turn into a finished product, but having handed over his rough texts to Wood, he then carried on with collecting lives on his own account.

Aubrey loved truth and he loved anecdote. He applied his antiquarian passion to the collecting of evidence, in the spirit of the scientific empiricism of the seventeenth century that that gradually overturning the myth, magic and received wisdom of past ages. He sought out eye-witness testimony, and applied his own knowledge of a subject wherever possible. He did not greatly discriminate between the observed and the reported, and that has meant that his Lives have been criticised for their occasional credulousness, but it is what they tell us of a life that is so important. Aubrey captured people as they had been remembered, or as they might be remembered.

This is some of his life of the lawyer Walter Rumsey (1584-1660):

He was an ingeniose man, and had a philosophicall head; he was most curious for graffing, inoculating, and planting, and ponds. If he had any old dead plumbe-tree, or apple-tree, he lett them stand, and planted vines at the bottome, and lett them climbe up, and they would beare very well.

He was one of my councell in my law-suites in Breconshire about the entaile. He had a kindnesse for me and invited me to his house, and told me a great many fine things, both naturall and antiquarian.

He was very facetious, and a good musitian, playd on the organ and lute. He could compose.

He was much troubled with flegme, and being so one winter at the court at Ludlowe (where he was one of the councesellours), sitting by the fire, spitting and spawling, he tooke a fine tender sprig, and tied a ragge at the end, and conceited he might putt it downe his throate, and fetch-up the flegme, and he did so. Afterwards he made this instrument of whale-bone. I have oftentimes seen him use it. I could never make it goe downe my throat but for those that can ’tis a most incomparable engine. If troubled with the wind it cures you immediately.

Here is a life – or part of a life – revealed through those small details which made the person memorable. The entry on Rumsey notes his legal achievements, but is drawn chiefly to the curiosities of his character. We are told enough of Rumsey’s career to understand why he merits appearing in this collection, but then he is drawn to the life as lived. We can see Rumsey fussing about in his garden, receiving guests cheerfully, and worrying continually about his health. In Aubrey’s pages, he is fussing, conversing and worrying still, into eternity.

Aubrey’s notes on William Shakespeare are valuable because they record impressions people had of him, or had heard reported of him, that would otherwise have been lost and which contribute significantly to the portrait we have of the man. It is thanks to Aubrey that he know that Shakespeare was believed to understand Latin “pretty well”, that he had been “in his younger yeares a schoolmaster in the countrey”, and that “he was want to goe to his native countrey [i.e. Stratford] once a yeare”. Maybe true, maybe not. He records what we know to be certain false reports, such as the intelligence that Shakespeare was the son of a butcher, but what is important is that he noted what he found, not what he expected to find. Earlier biographers moralised, fitting their subjects into a framework from which lessons should be drawn. Aubrey discovers.

What I like most about Aubrey, however, is his title: Brief Lives (his actual title for the collection was Schediasmata: Brief Lives – ‘schediasmata’ means ‘rough notes’). These are not lives which can only be championed in weighty volumes. These are not only the lives of the great. They champion brevity. They understand what is memorable, and through that make those people live again. It is a poetic process: the concentrated understanding of what is true.

I have contributed to brief lives beyond writing for the ODNB. Apart from encyclopedia entries and the like, in 1996 I co-edited, with Stephen Herbert, a volume called Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema, which lives on as an website. The book contained “300 biographies of those who, behind and in front of the camera, played a significant part in creating the phenomenon of moving pictures”. The website has allowed us to add more names, and we continue to do so. The aim of the the book was to be a reference work of value to those studying the first years of cinema, but it also sought to expand the understanding of what cinema was by looking beyond inventors and filmmakers to the subjects of those films (dramatic and actuality), to those who commented on them, exploited them or who were significantly affected by them. It also placed character on a par with technology, and my view of the book was that it was more of a novel than a reference work as such, with a worldwide cast of interconnected characters each of whom had been affected by the phenomenon of motion pictures and found their different lives irrevocably changed by the process.

I knew none of those about whom we wrote personally, and only one or two had been known at the end of the lives to other contributors. We wrote what we could find from the surviving documentary evidence, and leavened this with such traces of character was we could find reported. We composed brief lives.

‘Brief lives’ means not simply lives in brief, but lives of less consequence or scant evidence for which we may only have scraps to suggest to us what someone once was. Aubrey writes of John Spiedell only that “he taught mathematiques in London, and published a booke in quarto named Spiedel’s Geometrical Extractions (London, j 63-), which made young men have a love to geometrie”, and of William Sutton, “came to Ch. Ch. Oxon at eleaven. He wrote much, but printed nothing but a little 8vo against the Papists.” Such things are all that we may leave behind us. Yet it is good to have left something.

Now I must sum up the words to unpick how a schoolmaster made the bold leap to become a film director with a distinctive vision, and how a two-bit magician touring America saw in the invention of motion picture something that would make his fortune. I must get the facts right, but also find the poetry, and the poetry will be in the brevity.

Football considered as one of the arts

On June 15, 2014, in Art, Audiences, Sport, by Luke McKernan

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Watching football on an inflatable screen in Kenya, via BBC

I have watched a lot of football in my time. I’ve not been to that many live professional games – four in total. But despite such apparent apathy I have seen hundreds if not thousands of football matches. I have seen them on television screens (from black-and-white era to Smart TVs), I have seen them on computers, tablets, mobile phones, public screens, cinema screens, videotapes, DVDs and on Steenbecks. I have seen full games, fragments of games, highlights, summaries. I have seen football matches as actuality, drama, animation and computer game. I have listened to games. I have read descriptions of games.

And every time I have experienced a football match, it has been the same game, and the same performance. It takes place on the same stage with roughly the same dimensions wherever it is played. It takes place over the same period of time (extra time notwithstanding). Eleven players from one team meet eleven players from another team, and each side attempts to propel a round ball into a net positioned behind the opposing team, and to do this more than the other side, while they mutually abide by an agreed set of rules. It is the same story every time, with just two outcomes – a win for one side, or a draw.

On the face of it, this is absurd. What entertainment value is there in seeing the same limited story played out over and over again? A team wins or loses, it goes up a league table or down it again, it gets so far in a knockout tournament before being knocked out of it. It has no inherent meaning, there is nothing to be learned from it. It simply goes on and on.

Yet billions watch the game, mostly on a screen of some kind. Why is this so? They must do so because it satisfies as drama. Of course partisanship is an important part of the appeal, because it is what drives the narrative. There must be heroes and villains for a drama to succeed. However, such partisanship is a means to understand the drama, not the end in itself. Football supplies our need for stories; for this reason it qualifies as one of the arts.

If so, then what are the arts? This usually supposes a creative work presented before a public i.e. it is something produced by an artist and then offered to an audience in a recognised form, such a book, play, song, painting or whatever (one of the reasons conceptual art is such a challenge for the public is because it increasingly rejects any form that might capture it, thereby negating its status as art). Football has no such creator. A manager may organise a team to play in a particular fashion, and there may be individual examples of artistry displayed within a team – which are important, if supplementary, part of the game’s appeal – but what we seen is not the playing out of the work of another’s imagination, as in a film or an opera. It this respect its art is purely mechanical, a following out of patterns within strict parameters.

But we can look at this differently and say that the artist is incidental to art, or simply another form of mechanics, an agent by which the artform comes to be understood by its public. What matters is not that a work has a creator – or at least, as in an individual footballer’s skill, it is of supplementary importance – but that it is understood by an audience. A book or a painting or a song can be enjoyed without the recipient being aware of who its creator is. It is not of fundamental importance to the fulfilment of the audience’s need. We, the audience, need experiences which crystallise our understanding of life, be this in the form of a story, or picture. All art ultimately boils down to being a story or a picture, expressing experience in time and space. (Music and song in this argument fit under story).

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England v Italy, 14 June 2014

Football therefore qualifies as one of the arts because it fulfils the need for stories, and to a degree supplies a pictorial pleasure as well. But the problem still remains of the repetitive nature of such art. It is always the same story, with little in the way of character or detail to alleviate the spectator from the unremitting inevitability of it all. This can only be a vital part of its appeal, and not the problem it might seem to be. It is the comforting familiarity. It is the endless variation on a theme. It is the intimation of immortality, the sense that all else may live or die, but a game of football is always being watched somewhere in the world and always will be, and always the same. Football therefore qualifies further as art by the reassurance that it provides. It is the story we can always turn to.

Yet there is more to football as art than the playing out of eternal tropes. Football is a reflection of social, cultural and aesthetic understanding. Watching England play at the World Cup in Brazil tells us more about the country’s place in a post-imperial world with globalised economics than one might ever gain from, say, a David Hare play. It is all there in the harsh clash between sentimental hopes based on a narrow nostalgia and the hard realities of action played out in the present day. There are the individual players, elevated by public expectation and too often brought down by physical inevitability. Football plays out as spectacle, thriller, tragedy and farce.

Football also holds a special place in the arts, because of the relationship between the game seen live, and the game as it is most often experienced, on a screen. The latter must recreate the former. A football game is meaningless without the crowd, through which we understand the drama’s import and the narrative is propelled forward. Live cinema screenings of theatre plays rather awkwardly encompass the audience as part of the entertainment. For football, the crowd makes us realise what we are seeing. It reminds us that we are the ultimate creators of this drama.

All of this is true for other sports, of course. Football has primacy only because it is so globally popular, though it has a special status through the way it works so well on the screen. There are the opposing sides, arrayed left and right, each seeking to invade the other’s territory. There is the size of the ball, ideally proportioned (roughly the size of a human head) to gain the attention of the casual eye. There is the patterning of formations (4-3-3, 4-4-2, 5-3-2) for those who want to look more deeply into how eleven intersects with eleven in space. There is the particular combination of long, medium and close shots, with restrained camera movement and rhythmic editing, that determines how football is best displayed upon a screen. And there is the game’s duration – ninety minutes, with interval, the ideal length for the unfolding of drama, as centuries of theatre and decades of cinema have taught us.

Football must be considered as one of the arts. Why else I have put my book down and decided to watch Argentina versus Bosnia-Herzegovina?

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On Margate sands

On June 8, 2014, in Art, Colour, Exhibitions, Galleries, by Luke McKernan

turner skyscape

Turner Contemporary with Margate skyscape

Few railway stations can offer a grander view of the town that they serve than Margate. As you step out of the station, the full sweep of the bay opens up before you: the low waves ebbing over flat sands, a great line of amusement parlours, shops and hotels following the leftward curve of the beaches to the far point with a cluster of buildings which ends with the Turner Contemporary gallery looking out to sea and to the epic, ever-changing display of clouds and sky that drew J.M.W. Turner to paint here so often. It may only be a humble seaside town, but human and natural design combine as art. And so you are drawn down the hill and along the curving sands to that far gallery which now completes the picture.

I have many happy memories of Margate. Living as we did on the north Kent coast, it was a short car drive away and a place full of excitement for children in the summer holidays. There were the endless sands, the beach entertainments, the long parade clinging to the beach with its seemingly endless line of slot machines, candy floss machines and ice cream parlours, and of course Dreamland, the gaudy amusement park with its slides, rides, hall of mirrors and crowds of screaming children. Margate was a special place.

Margate then became a sorry sight. The crowds flew off to Alicante instead, the sands became deserted, Dreamland fell into disrepair and then disuse, and the recession turned the town into a DSS Mecca, the epitome of decline. Shops were boarded up, rows upon rows of seaside hotels stood empty, poverty bred more poverty. The place became a metaphor for commercial and social failure, all the more potent for being in the supposedly prosperous south-east. The grim social history behind those gaudy amusements was laid bare by the personal story told by its most famous (and loyal) former resident, Tracey Emin. Films and programmes set in the town, such as Last Orders (based on a Graham Swift novel), Exodus and The Last Resort, suggested a place at the end of its, and the nation’s, tether.

A regeneration programme began in the late 1990s, and at the centre of the plans was the building of an art gallery, the Turner Contemporary. This opened in 2011, and is generally recognised to have an unqualified success. Despite some local scepticism while it was being built, the gallery has drawn the crowds, has succeeded with some imaginative programming that marked it out as a venue of national significance, and has started to draw in new business into the town. Margate once again has some reasons for optimism.

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray and Blue, 1921.

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray and Blue (1921)

I came to the town to see the Mondrian & Colour exhibition. This is a fine exhibition showing the development of Mondrian’s art, from realism through to symbolism and finally abstraction, with emphasis on the place of colour in his art. It serves as a useful primer for the development of modern art in general, as one can readily see that even in his early works of rural and villages scenes, supposedly in the realistic manner, that he is drawn to significant shapes and colour, drawing out the abstract from the ordinary. One sees the grids emerging before ever the grids were there. The legends that introduce each stage of the exhibition make much of Mondrian’s theories of art and the significance of colours that he learned from Goethe. None of this really matters. Mondrian may have believed in such theories, but I think they were simply attempts at rationalisation after the fact. Mondrian responded to a world that was changing from within, a world in which – over the period from the late 19th to early 20th century – things were seen differently, as the literal was supplanted by the symbolic, the view for its abstraction.

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Constable cloud created by Spencer Finch

An adjunct to the exhibition is a delightful one-room exhibition of work by the American artist Spencer Finch, entitled The Skies can’t keep their secret. This playful and illuminating show continues the themes of colour and observation highlighted in the Mondrian show. There is a grid of bright colours taken from The Wizard of Oz which fade as the natural light in the room fades as evening falls, reflecting the changing light patterns that make Margate’s skies so visually entrancing. A row of photographs taking one second apart of a passing fog fills the length on one wall. Seemingly white drawings on close inspection show meticulous capture in greys and yellows of waves patterns and the effect of sunlight on a white surface. Above hangs a plastic sheet bunched up in flounces held together by clothes pegs to create a cloud inspired by the art of Constable. In the corridor, Finch has selected some favourite Turner watercolours, several showing Margate, but including the entracingly mysterious ‘A Wreck, Possibly Related to ‘Longships Lighthouse, Land’s End’ (c.1834) which for Finch seems exemplify the tension between abstraction and representation which binds these two shows together.

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Margate sands

And then it is out through the gift shop and to Margate once more. The effect of the Turner Contemporary on the old town area clustered by the gallery is obvious to see. There are bijou art and antique shops, eating places and drinking places, which make best use of the charming brickwork buildings and warren of short streets. There are clear similarities with Whitstable, another town on the north Kent coast which has successfully promoted itself as a combination of arts haven, culinary attraction and quaint working seaside town, attracting regular London visitors.

Margate has some way to go before it matches the success of Whitstable, however. It is that much further away from London, albeit that it is now connected to the metropolis by the High Speed railway line. Away from the excitement surrounded the Turner Contemporary, the rest of Margate in a work in progress. On a sunny day in June the long beaches were almost empty, a few figures dotted among the stretches of sand and the low, gently incoming sea. Two bored attendants sat by a crazy golf and trampoline venue on the beach that had no takers. The amusement parlours had a only few hardened visitors seated at the one-armed bandits, their signage faded and broken, the paintwork peeling. The high street that leads up from the seafront looks desperate, with boarded-up shops, money-lenders, and the forlorn look that comes of having little to sell to people with little money to spend.

The next stage in the regeneration plan is to rebuild Dreamland as an amusement park featuring traditional entertainments. This idea has proved controversial, with competing ideas for how best to rebuild on the space, but the local council recently served a served a Compulsory Purchase Order, and eventually a new Dreamland will presumably arise, built on memories of the old. The overall strategy seems to be to make the most of Margate’s heritage while reinventing perceptions of it at the same time. This will be tricky to achieve. The grand view is there, but the life to fill it is only partially in place. Perhaps with the growth in housing along the Thames gateway, combined with the High Speed line, then Margate will seem closer to more people.

Meanwhile the skies above remain glorious, ever-changing, nature’s own abstraction of itself.

Sunrise, perhaps at Margate

J.M.W. Turner, ‘Sunrise, perhaps at Margate’ (c.1840–5), from tate.org.uk

Flickring

On May 26, 2014, in Images, by Luke McKernan

medway

Road sign in a Medway tributary, near Strood, Kent, https://flic.kr/p/5NXgdd

Why have I expended all this effort in writing when I could more easily communicate with images? I’ve been looking at the statistics for the photographs and other images that I have on Flickr, and collectively they have generated 233,869 views over a period of six-and-a-half years. That seems quite a substantial number to me. I have little skill as a photographer – the minutiae of lenses, f-stops, shutter speeds and such like are a closed book to me. My camera is switched to an all-purpose setting, and all I do is point and shoot, generally with indifferent results. Many of my photos are quick snaps using my Blackberry phone. I don’t travel to interesting places, nor find myself in the middle of dramatic events, indeed I make every effort not to do so.

So even an indifferent photographer with no sense of adventure can get nearly quarter of a million views on Flickr, from what are currently 1,985 images. That’s 188 views per image. I don’t know how many words I’ve written online overall, but my Bioscope blog comprised some one million words and has to date generated 1,245,375 visits, or a little over one visitor per word. Alternatively, the site has 1,380 posts, so an average of 900 visits per post. So more readers of texts than viewers of images, but it’s so much effort to write, to think about what words to say and then the sheet slog of typing them all out. Why don’t I just point and shoot, and communicate the easy way?

It’s not a case of which is the more truthful, or useful. Communicating by words and communicating by images have their different ways of getting at the truth, and are useful in their own particular ways. I guess it it boils down to how we think, and I think in words, and less easily in images. Which is ironic, given that much of my professional career has been given over to argue the case for the special value of images – moving images, that is (and if I’m a bad photographer, I’m a still worse filmmaker and very seldom film anything at all). It may be the way that I think, and because it is an effort, and may involve some skill, that the results may feel more satisfaxctory. If I felt the urgent need to communicate through images, I would work to acquire the skills to do so, or I would feel driven to acquire those skills. But I don’t. Yet it’s a shame, when the results of a simple click of a shutter can catch the eye of thousands.

Here are a few personal favourites from the photos on my Flickr account:

shutters

Window shutters, Trieste, Italy, https://flic.kr/p/5UyMZY

boats

Boats on the shore at Derwentwater, Lake District, https://flic.kr/p/7wLfmN

shadows

Shadows on the walls of the Ulster Museum, Belfast, https://flic.kr/p/jKKPLh

colindale

Volumes at the former Newspaper Library, Colindale (a quick phone snap but my most viewed photograph on Flickr), https://flic.kr/p/fJiTTo

messages

Torn advertisements on a pillar in Lund, Sweden, https://flic.kr/p/eqiLuy

aldi

A row of shampoo bottles in a Aldi store, Canterbury (an out-of-focus phone snap, but I still like it), https://flic.kr/p/7Kop78

pordenone

Audience in foyer of Verdi theatre, Pordenone, Italy, https://flic.kr/p/atPC6H

city

London viewed from the Shard, https://flic.kr/p/ecTReB

gardens

Rochester Cathedral gardens in the snow, https://flic.kr/p/92UfGj

mushroom

Mushroom (my least viewed photograph on Flickr, just one view in four years, as of today), https://flic.kr/p/84aHXj

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God save the King

On May 18, 2014, in Shakespeare, Theatre, by Luke McKernan

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Production photo of King Charles III by Johan Persson, from www.almeida.co.uk

King Charles III is one of the best modern plays I have seen. I’ve certainly not seen enough modern plays to make an authoritative judgement as to its quality, but I found play and production – running at London’s Almeida Theatre until the end of May 2014 – outstanding. The play is by Mike Bartlett, and bills itself as a ‘future history’. It tells of a time, maybe just a year or two from now, when Queen Elizabeth II has died and King Charles III ascends to the British throne. It is written in the manner of a Shakespearean drama, in its theme of the state of things seen through the lives on monarchs, and in its construction. It is a five act play and written in blank verse with iambic pentameter (five stresses to a line). A wittier or more appropriate dramatic conceit it would be hard to imagine. Very simply, it works.

The play’s theme is the nature of constitutional monarchy in the present age. Charles becomes King and is frustrated at the purely ceremonial function of his role. As when he was a prince, he wants to make his opinions known, and now he wants the opportunity to influence through the wielding of power. The opportunity arises when the Labour government seeks the royal signature on a bill legislating on press freedoms. Charles refuses to sign it, and sparks off a constitutional crisis. The nation is divided into those that support his stance and those that rebel against it. Tanks are parked on the grounds of Buckingham Palace, as Charles’s convictions reveal their ugly side, while the government puts forward a bill that will end the necessary royal approval of new legislation. The impasse is broken by William, Duke of Cambridge, initially reluctant but finally egged on by his wife, who forces his father to abdicate the throne and becomes King himself, restoring the monarchy to the ceremonial status perfected by his grandmother. A subplot concerns Prince Harry falling in love with a commoner, planning to renounce his royal status to be with her, but in the end changing his mind.

All of this is great fun, and could have been simply the subject of a mocking satire. It is the great strength of Barlett’s play (and Rupert Goold’s astute direction) that the tale works as high drama, with the emotions suitably engaged, and the action grounded in credibility. These extraordinary things could happen. Charles, as Prince of Wales, is known to write regularly to ministers of state putting forward his opinions – not always very welcome – on a wide range of issues. It is quite plausible that as king he may be less accepting than his mother of the passive role of the constitutional monarch. The abdication crisis of course echoes that if Edward VIII, who like Charles III gave up the throne before his coronation. The characters of the royals, from the conscience-stricken Harry yearning to be free, to the calculating Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, operating behind her ‘plastic doll’ facade to promote the interests of her husband and herself, all chime with a popular sense of how these royals might actually be. In reality they may be dull and stupid; in our imaginations they may be the stuff of Shakespearean drama.

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Lydia Wilson as Kate and Oliver Chris as William, photo by Johan Persson

It is Shakespeare that makes this play work. There are obvious, sometimes mocking, borrowings from his plays, notably Macbeth, the Henry IV plays and King Lear. The dissolute Harry is easily connected with Prince Hall, while the ghost of Diana haunts Charles and William, telling each that they will be the greatest king of all, in the manner of Macbeth‘s witches. I wasn’t so sure about the use of Diana – more of a grotesque than a believable human being, to my mind – but it’s an amusing joke for all that. Other Shakespeare homages include comic rustics, and passages describing action that it is easier not to stage.

But the chief joy is the verse. There is a long history of writers who have tried to produce plays in a Shakespearean manner, and produced quite dreadful results, both because they lacked the stagecraft and because they became pompously intoxicated with the curlicues of iambic pentameter: among then Bulwer Lytton (Richelieu, 1839), Alfred Tennyson (Queen Mary, 1875) and Stephen Phillips (Ulysses, 1902). Mike Barlett has mastered the simplicities of such verse. He uses it to enable his characters to express their thoughts most clearly. He avoids the temptation of aping Shakespearean use of imagery, and deftly laughs at pretension by throwing in modern-day language and concerns. This passage from a set piece soliloquy from Kate is a good example of his technique:

I have ambition for my husband yes
And hope my son will grow the finest King
But if I must put up with taunts, and make
So public everything I am, then I
Demand things for myself, I ask no less
Than power to achieve my will in fair
Exchange for total service to the State.
Yes this is what,enthroned, that I will do,
Not simply help my husband in his crown
But wear one of my own.

But here’s my husband, he’s been on the phone.

Act 4, Scene 3

This passage, where Charles agonises over his role and seeks out conformation of his function from Walter Bagehot’s The English Constitution shows how effectively Bartlett combines the poetic and the demotic:

I have been through the archive many times
But read as King each word seems made afresh.
I have been seeking moments which relate
Precisely to the current state of play
Our English law is based on precedent
And when I’m called to make my case I must
Have all the facts to hand, examples of
When monarchs in the past have also done
The same as I, or very near. And so.
Here’s Walter Bagehot, eighteen sixty-seven,
Explaining changes to balance of
The Crown and State. I read it as a child.
One line stands out: Bagehot explains that now
The monarch’s mostly ceremonial
And only can expect, from hereon in:
The right to be consulted (which I’ve not)
The right to encourage (which is all I do),
And most importantly the right to warn.
‘The Right to Warn’ so warning is the thing
It’s only what I do, I warn, but even that
I’m told’s too much and so must tolerate
This constant fuzz of bright white noise
The emanates from out the baying mob.

Act 5, Scene 1

Our modern stage lacks poetry. The general trend throughout the 20th and 21st centuries has been towards realistic speech, a continuum that links Galworthy to Rattigan to Osborne to Hare. This is despite the stage being a unnatural place, where the heightened ought to have precedence over the literal. Television drama fulfills the public need for pseudo-realistic language, and while modern theatre has become adept at arresting imagery, its language is too often flatly obvious. It lacks poetry. Why can’t all our plays be in blank verse? was my thought when watching King Charles III. This is how a play should be. It should speak of the concerns of our times in its own language, not always in the language of our times. Blank verse captures the moment; it echoes the deliberation of thought. It has grace and understanding, or at least it does in the right hands. It makes dull royals the stuff of good argument, and invests them with meaningful character. It makes us think we live in interesting times.

I don’t know if King Charles III will become a classic. It is so much of the moment in some of its references that any subsequent production would probably need a re-write to ensure reality had not overtaken it. A highly accomplished, largely lookalike cast such as the Almeida has assembled, might never been assembled again: Tim Pigott-Smith (Charles), Oliver Chris (William), Richard Goulding (Harry), Lydia Wilson (Kate), Margot Leicester (Camilla). In other hands, and at other times, it may not be the same play at all. It has been a privilege to see it, when its time was right.

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