English and Drama blog

5 posts from November 2013

28 November 2013

Fifty Glorious Years! Doctor Who and the Invasion of Dusty Victorians

Doctor Who and Henry James are rarely mentioned in the same sentence. Now, admittedly there are many excellent reasons as to why that should be the case. The author of The Portrait of a Lady and The Wings of the Dove tended to move in rather different circles to those occupied by the splendid chap (all of them) who to this day travels through time and space in something that, on the outside at least, resembles a police box. I can't imagine, somehow, that James would have had too much time for alien invasions, time travel and mad scientists (let alone K9, the talking computer designed to look like a dog - a most un-Jamesian idea if ever there was one) but all the same, there is a link between the two and as Doctor Who celebrates its fiftieth anniversary perhaps now is as good a time as any to explore the debt the Doctor owes to Henry James, and indeed to a whole array of 19th- and 20th-century novelists.

Tardis 2

The TARDIS. There are probably dozens of Victorian novelists hiding behind it right now

Mary Whitehouse famously disagreed but the golden age of Doctor Who was often at its best when it doffed a cap to the great works of Gothic fiction. The Tom Baker era for example, when the programme's ratings were at their highest, rummaged cheerfully through assorted dark cupboards positively stuffed with literary Gothic horrors. The Brain of Morbius (1976) for instance was a variation on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, complete with a brilliant but wayward scientist and a monster cobbled together from spare parts. The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977) cheerfully mixed Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera with Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu books while adding a dash of Sherlock Holmes. Tom Baker even wore a deerstalker in the story and the programme featured a giant rat (which, for all we know, may have had links with Sumatra - and if that means nothing to you then please read Arthur Conan Doyle's 'The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire' immediately). The Masque of Mandragora (1976) gave a cheery wink to Edgar Allan Poe's  'The Masque of the Red Death', even down to the macabre dance at the end while Planet of Evil (1975) reworked Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and added a dash of antimatter misbehaviour for good measure. The Hand of Fear (1976) meanwhile borrowed from W.F. Harvey's story 'The Beast with Five Fingers'. It was all brilliantly Gothic stuff and to their credit the show's producers, directors, cast and script-writers took their ideas from the original novels and ran with them in dazzling and inventive new directions. Mary Whitehouse, rest her soul, may not have been punching the air with enthusiasm but the rest of the country lapped it up.

So where, you may ask, does Henry James fit into all this? Well, since its reboot in 2005 Doctor Who has continued to borrow from and reinvent classic tales of the supernatural. The Crimson Horror (2013), with its setting in Victorian Yorkshire and its weird, creepy red parasite comes across like the bizarre literary lovechild of Elizabeth Gaskell and Bram Stoker. Charles Dickens himself (well, sort of ...) appeared in The Unquiet Dead (2005) and the great man's A Christmas Carol loomed large behind the 2010 Christmas special titled ... umm ... A Christmas Carol (the literary heritage of that one was, admittedly, not obscure). The following year witnessed a bit of borrowing from C.S. Lewis for The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe and then, best of all to my mind, we had the 2012 Christmas special - The Snowmen. Ah yes, now that's the one that owes a great deal to Henry James.

Henry James

Henry James, perhaps pondering whether to introduce killer snowmen with sharp teeth into 'The Turn of the Screw'

Henry James's 1898 novella 'The Turn of the Screw' tells of a governess; her two wards - Flora and Miles - and the ghosts of her predecessors Peter Quint and Miss Jessel who, while they certainly exist within the governess's mind may not exist anywhere else. The parents of the children are both dead and their uncle, around whom the governess weaves romantic fancies, is remote and distant. In The Snowmen we have a governess (definitely one with a bit of mystery about her), looking after two children haunted by nightmares in which her predecessor returns from the dead. The children's mother is also dead and their father, in a neat 21st-century twist, weaves romantic notions around the governess ('Such wisdom in one so very, very pretty ... I mean young ...'). All of this, as with the Henry James novella, takes place in Victorian England in an isolated mansion. Then there are the murderous snowmen ... Okay, so these do not appear in the Henry James version but the nods and winks to the past continue. Matt Smith's Doctor even claims to be Sherlock Holmes at one point while the investigative trio of Madam Vastra, Jenny Flint and Strax owe more to Arthur Conan Doyle (as Richard E. Grant's character actually observes) than to Henry James. All of which goes to show how the influence of Victorian literature, and Gothic Victorian literature in particular, is frequently present throughout Doctor Who. To my mind the show is all the better for it so long may it last. Indeed, here's to the next 50 Gothic-flavoured glorious years.

21 November 2013

Professor Heger's Daughter

Chrissie Gittins is our guest blogger this week. Chrissie writes poetry, short fiction and radio plays and has just published her new poetry pamphlet, Professor Heger's Daughter, with Paekakariki Press. Here she writes about finding inspiration for one of these poems in a visit to the British Library's Manuscripts Reading Room.

  Paekiri cover
Credit: Paekakariki Press

I first read about Charlotte Brontë’s letters to Constantin Heger in the Saturday Guardian early in 2012. They were mentioned in an article by Lucasta Miller about a recently discovered fable which Charlotte had written. After her aunt died Charlotte returned home to Haworth from Brussels, where she’d been studying, and wrote a series of passionate letters to her teacher. Professor Heger tore them up on receipt and threw them in the wastepaper basket; the only reason they survive is because his wife rescued them, stuck and stitched them together, and kept them safely in her jewellery box. The letters are now part of the extensive collection of Brontë literary manuscripts held at the British Library.

I cut out Miller’s article and stored it alongside a mound of cards scrawled with ideas which I keep in a pink glass vase from Poland, bought at the market in Hay-on-Wye. The image of the letters surfaced periodically in my mind and, when I had a stretch of time in autumn last year, I re-read the article. After making enquiries about viewing the letters, I realised I would first need a letter of recommendation. At the end of October I made it to the Manuscripts Reading Room at the British Library, clutching a letter from Judith Palmer, the Director of the Poetry Society, which said, ‘The material state of the manuscripts in question – and their folding/tearing/re-binding – is central to the research Ms Gittins is pursuing (rather than the text alone).’

At the counter I was given the four letters, encased in glass, two at a time. I made sketch maps of the tears and stitching in my notebook, and made notes about a ‘river of a rip’ and the ‘mountain range gashes’.

My notebook, 21 October 2012

I copied Charlotte’s handwriting on her envelope to Monsieur Heger and studied her sepia handwriting leaning to the right on the thin creamy paper. To be so intimately in her presence was astonishing. What I didn’t think I could do was assume the persona of Charlotte Brontë in order to write a poem, so I tried to find a different angle. One of the letters is partly written in English, the rest are written in French; so I made two return visits to study the letters, and others written by Charlotte, taking my lead from Margaret Smith’s translations in her edited Letters of Charlotte Brontë Volume 1, 1829-1847 (Oxford University Press).

It was then that I decided to write a poem from the point of view of one of Heger’s daughters – probably Louise, who became a successful landscape painter. After several drafts the poem, ‘Professor Heger’s Daughter’, came together in January of this year while I was staying in a windswept Southwold. I incorporated quotes from the letters and used their arrival at the family home as the structure.

Searching for words - page from an early draft of my poem

I am pleased to say that ‘Professor Heger’s Daughter’ is now the title poem of my new pamphlet collection which has just been published by Paekakariki Press. It’s printed in traditional letterpress with original wood engravings and is available on their website: www.paekakarikipress.com

My thanks to the staff at the British Library for this fascinating excursion.

11 November 2013

The Shakespeare sculpture at the British Library

A guest post by Jennifer Howes, Curator of Visual Arts, British Library

Photo credit: Jennifer Howes

The first art work a visitor encounters inside the British Library is a full-size, marble sculpture of William Shakespeare. It stands just to the left of the main staircase, atop a specially designed travertine plinth.

The sculpture was commissioned by David Garrick (1717-1779), the famous actor-manager of the London stage, who revived Shakespeare’s genius in the 18th century. It was originally placed inside a purpose built, octagonal ‘Temple to Shakespeare’, in the grounds of Garrick’s villa on the bank of the Thames, at Hampton (see image below). It is still possible to visit Garrick’s Temple of Shakespeare today. The sculpture was kept there until 1779, when it was bequeathed - along with Garrick's books - to the British Museum. 

Photo credit: Garrick's Temple to Shakespeare Trust

Garrick commissioned the best sculptor of his day, Louis Francois Roubiliac (1702-1762), to create the sculpture. A portrait of Roubiliac by Adriaen Carpentiers, now in the National Portrait Gallery, shows him standing next to a maquette of the very same work.

Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery, London 

In 2005  ownership of the sculpture was transferred from the British Museum to the British Library, and the sculpture was installed in the Entrance Hall of the St Pancras building. 

08 November 2013

The Radfords

Guest post from Charlotte Dickerson, Cataloguer and Metadata creator, Europeana 1914-1918 project

While the names Ernest and Dollie Radford may not ring many bells today, at the turn of the 20th century they were widely known within English literary and artistic circles. Ernest was a writer and poet as well as a socialist, a prominent member of the Arts and Crafts Society and founding member of the Rhymer’s Club. In 1881 he met Caroline (Dollie) Maitland in the reading room of the British Museum where she went to study with her friend Eleanor Marx.


Photograph of Dollie Radford, c. 1900, © Radford Estate

Dollie was an early feminist and shared Ernest’s socialist views. Like her husband she was also a writer, poet and keen contributor to The Yellow Book. She later found success with her beautiful books of children’s verses. They married in 1883 and their first child, Maitland Radford, was born in 1884, later followed by daughters Hester and Margaret.

All three children followed in their parents artistic footsteps, becoming writers and sculptors but Maitland in particular cultivated a close circle of literary friends. He had a longstanding friendship with author Eleanor Farjeon, discussed cricket incessantly with playwright Clifford Bax and even unsuccessfully proposed marriage to the novelist Viola Meynell.

The Radford archive, acquired by the British Library in 2010, mainly covers the period 1880 to 1920. It consists of the correspondence, manuscripts, personal papers and photographs of the Radford family.

The correspondence charts Dollie and Ernest’s growing relationship and covers their marriage, the birth of their children and Ernest’s mental breakdown and convalescence. It also includes Dollie’s correspondence with her female friends such as Eleanor Marx, Olive Schreiner and Amy Levy, and Ernest’s correspondence with people such as H.G. Wells, Edmund Gosse and Augustine Birrell.


Photograph of Maitland Radford, c.1940 © Radford Estate

Maitland Radford spent a year in France with the Royal Army Medical Corps during the First World War and corresponded frequently with his mother during this time as well as with friends such as Stacey Aumonier, Godwin Baynes, Eleanor Farjeon, Viola Meynell, the Gardner family and Jane Wells (wife of H.G. Wells). 

See the National Portrait Gallery website for a photograph of Maitland and some of his well-known friends.

In 1915, artist Phyllis Gardner wrote a very moving letter to Maitland about the death of her lover Rupert Brooke, “I want very much to draw but my ideas are wandering about so, and the things I think are totally unadvisable. Tell me, you, what do you think becomes of the souls of the dead? Have you ever lost anyone you were on thought reading terms with?”.

The Radfords were also very close to D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda. The Lawrences stayed with the Radfords for a period during the First World War and the family’s letters contain many
references to them. In a letter to her brother, Margaret Radford describes D.H. Lawrence as “like flame. He is a wonderful actor too, he often becomes the person he is talking about….He loves heartily with a great tenderness – though he is fierce and a bit mad, and unscrupulous, I want you to know him”.


In addition to their many friends, the Radfords were also related to the Olivier family through marriage as well as the socialist Graham Wallas, and their photograph albums are peppered with famous faces.

While the Radfords may not be so well known today, their archive gives a fascinating glimpse into the literary world of the early 20th century. Some material from the archive has been digitised as part of the Europeana project, a Europe-wide project to provide online access to material from national library collections, and will be available online from 2014.

05 November 2013

Most of What Follows is a Complete Waste of Time

Guest post from Ian Greaves, researcher of theatre and broadcasting history

N F Simpson (1919-2011) was said to be many things. During his near-century on the planet, he served as playwright, teacher, satirist, bank clerk, philosopher, a one-man-band English wing of the Theatre of the Absurd, army intelligence officer, father, translator, sketch-writer and poet. Coming to fame relatively late in life, his early successes A Resounding Tinkle (1957) and One Way Pendulum (1959) placed him in the company of Angry Young Men. These, however, were not his natural bedfellows.

Wally Simpson by Mike Harris
N F (Wally) Simpson, photographed by Mike Harris

As the writer David Benedictus once observed, Simpson had the misfortune to not be foreign like Ionesco or rude like Orton. His was a particularly restrained form of English humour, a precise extension of his personality. Simpson was certainly no self-publicist and, as a consequence, he became a marginalised figure: largely absent from the theatre after 1965, and with most of his subsequent work out of circulation. It falls, then, to a new collection of his work- Most of What Follows is a Complete Waste of Time (Oberon Books) - to fully restore this brilliant but neglected writer in the public consciousness.

The new Oberon Books collection contains several extracts from Simpson’s previously unpublished 2009 miscellany, Anatomy of Bewilderment. Draft material is held amongst the British Library papers.

Simpson had the pause before Harold Pinter, planted the seed of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and inspired the comic philosophy of Tom Stoppard. His beguiling plays were full of memorable set-pieces, endless diversions, upturned clichés and dark philosophies. His worlds were essentially ordinary, but worlds in which everything was equal and interchangeable - the private and public, animals and humans, biscuits and books. Comedy emerged from a determination to hold onto reason with whitened knuckles. To quote his introduction to Some Tall Tinkles (1968), his characters followed “a simple faith in the axiom that for those to whom life is an exercise in survival, the secret is in knowing how to ride with the punch”.

In the five years immediately prior to his death, N F Simpson - or Wally to his friends - underwent what many artists enjoy only after they’ve gone: a resurgence of interest. There was a season at the BFI, a new play at Jermyn Street Theatre, revivals of A Resounding Tinkle at both the Royal Court and Donmar Warehouse, a BBC Radio documentary about his life and work, and the purchase of his papers by the British Library.

The last of these was characteristic of a gradual effort to put his house in order. Working as researcher on the 2007 radio documentary, I soon found that Wally was keen to establish the whereabouts of all his work. This put me on a five-year road of discovery: archive upon archive, covering radio and television, stage and print. Part of this process resulted in the quite accidental discovery of Pinter’s lost sketch 'Umbrellas' at the British Library. Even as a big Pinter fan, however, I was slightly more excited to finally locate a copy of Simpson’s 'Take It Away!' in the same Nottingham Playhouse revue.

N F Simpson collaborated with cartoonist Willie Rushton on a series of cod advertisements for Private Eye magazine. This piece appeared in issue 32, cover date 8 March 1963. 

The British Library’s invaluable Simpson papers - acquired in 2009 - gift us many treasures and insights. Oberon’s new, authorised miscellany of Simpson’s writings brings some of this material back from obscurity, including his first professional writing (for The Tribune in 1953) and a number of important, pre-fame pieces for Birkbeck College magazine The Lodestone. Thanks to this material, Most of What Follows… acts as the most complete map of his creative life, revealing its continuities and experimental diversity. Perhaps now we can all of us enjoy the many different facets of Simpson and, with one collective push, assert his true place in the canon of great English comic writers.

Ian Greaves is co-editor of Most of What Follows is a Complete Waste of Time: Monologues, Dialogues, Sketches and Other Writings by N.F. Simpson, published by Oberon Books on 5 November 2013.