English and Drama blog

On literature and theatre collections from the 16th century to the present day

11 posts categorized "Film"

26 April 2019

The Book of Hours

a guest blog by Lucy English, spoken word poet and Reader in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. She has two collection published by Burning Eye Press. The most recent, The Book of Hours, is the poetry from the online poetry film project. The project was completed in 2018 and was shortlisted for the New Media Writing Prize in 2019. 

Screenshot from is 'From This Train' by Kathryn Darnell showing handwriting

Screenshot from is 'From This Train' by Kathryn Darnell

The Book of Hours is an online poetry film project which contains forty eight poetry films made in collaboration with 27 film-makers. Through the process of creation I have explored how to bring the immediacy and vibrancy of spoken word  into the delicate poetry film form, which is a growing but niche area of poetry. I have created a project which is experimental in its use of spoken word in poetry film, and also innovative in its approach to creating a themed collection of poetry films. 

Inspired by the medieval Books of Hours, I wanted to create a contemporary compendium of images and text which could evoke contemplation and thought. In our modern world we may that God constantly rewards or punishes our behaviour, but we still have a need for quiet moments, reflection and emotional awareness often associated with religiosity. Poetry continues to be a medium through which we can experience this, so the text in The Book of Hours is in poetic form, rather than prose, and because I am a spoken word poet most of this poetry is presented as voice-over rather than text on screen.

Screenshot from 'Sheltering from the Rain in a Country Church' (after Larkin) by James Norton showing an image of an angel in negative

Screenshot from 'Sheltering from the Rain in a Country Church' (after Larkin) by James Norton

A medieval Book of Hours was a collection of religious readings and accompanying images.  By the fourteenth century these had become highly decorative works of art and many were produced by craftsmen for wealthy patrons.  They were created so that those outside of the religious orders could follow the monastic life. The book began with a calendar illustrated by images of activities connected to each month, such as sowing crops, harvest and feasting. The subsequent texts were divided into sections and one of these sections was the ‘Hours’, a series of prayers and readings spanning a complete day and night and changing with the religious season. This reflected the Hours of the Divine Office, a code of religious behaviour adopted by St. Benedict in his sixth century guide to monastic life. Each ‘hour’ was roughly three hours apart, and was the time for prayer and reflection. The first was Vigil, at midnight, followed by Lauds, then Prime first thing in the morning, then Terce, then Sext at approximately lunchtime. After this was None followed by Vespers and finally Compline, after which the monks went to bed. The ‘Hours’ were therefore a template for religious devotion, spirituality, reflection and connection to God.

There were variations in the format of a Book of Hours but a typical collection contained: a calendar and The Hours, (as described above); a selection of penitential psalms, expressing sorrow for the committing of sins; The Office for the Dead, (a prayer cycle for the repose of the soul of a deceased person); and the Litany of Saints, which were prayers for the intersession of the Virgin Mary and the martyrs and saints.  Books of Hours represented a layperson’s handbook to Christian devotion and were created in a portable size so they could be carried by the owner and referred to on a daily basis. They reveal a glimpse into the medieval relationship between humanity and God and are important compendiums of religious reflection.

In the modern secular society of the U.K we can underestimate the importance of the Christian calendar in medieval times. This was an unwavering structure in an uncertain world where the progression from Christmas to Easter to Ascension would be embedded in the minds and habits of everyone.  The monastic life was seen as the epitome of  proper behaviour and for an ordinary person to possess access to the religious life, in book form, was highly desirable. It was common in medieval art, and also in the pages of the Books of Hours, for the patrons to be depicted in religious scenes, such as witnessing the birth of Christ or worshiping at the feet of the Virgin, thus placing themselves directly into the holy narrative. In the medieval mind, saints could be ‘talked to’ through prayer and requests to God, Jesus and Mary were as common as our ‘wish lists’ of shopping needs.

A Book of Hours can also be seen as an interactive text as these books were not intended to be read chronologically. The reader chose which readings to refer to according to time of day, season and spiritual mood. The most noted example of a Book of Hours created for a wealthy patron is the Tres Riches Heures commissioned by John the Duke of Berry between 1412-1416 and illustrated by the brothers Limbourg. This is currently held in the Musee Conde in Chantilly, France.

The Duke of Berry was a passionate collector of books and his library contained more than fifteen Books of Hours. In Tres Riches Heures the illuminated pages are exquisitely illustrated; they depict a calendar of the month, the signs of the Zodiac and scenes from life, according to the seasons. In the page for October a white clad horse pulls a harrow and a farmer sows seeds over which crows and magpies are already fighting. In the background is a magnificent white castle. The pages of this book offer a detailed insight into the lives of the various strata of medieval society, from aristocratic hunters to peasants in rags.  This keen depiction of everyday detail is also a feature of other Books of Hours, where scenes from the Bible are set against a backdrop of recognizable scenes of medieval life.

Screenshot from 'Mr Sky' by Sarah Tremlett showing images of various skies in grid formation

Screenshot from 'Mr Sky' by Sarah Tremlett

What I learned from my understanding of the medieval Books of Hours and what I felt I could translate into my project were the following aspects: the text, (in my case the poems) would be an embarking point for reflection. This reflection would not be a religious one but a contemplative one, offering responses to the modern world. It would be presented in a calendar format, following the months of the year, times of day and the seasons. It would contain a linear structure  (a calendar year) but the reader/viewer could choose when and where they accessed the films. My final aim was to somehow replicate the everyday quality of the medieval Books of Hours, and to depict the ‘illustrations in the margins.’ By creating a digital project which utilizes our accessibility to screens and downloads, I could also replicate the portability of the medieval books. I wanted the colours and sounds of the films to compliment the total experience just as the illustrated pages in the medieval manuscripts compliment the texts in the book. The themes which link the whole collection are reflections on the passage of time; reflections on the impact of urban lifestyles on rural landscapes and the transience of memory.

Each poetry film was created ‘in conversation’ with the film-maker rather than me ‘giving’ them a poem to adapt. Sometimes we started with an idea, sometimes we started with a sound track, or static or moving images. So all the poetry films in The Book of Hours have been created in collaboration with other artists.

Individual films from this project have been screened at many short film and poetry film festivals: ‘Things I found in the Hedge’ won first prize in the Atticus Review Videopoetry competition. and ‘Que Es El Amor’ won second prize.


All screenshots reproduced with the kind permission of the creator. 

15 August 2018

Michael Palin: Writer, Actor and Comedian

By Greg Buzwell, Curator of Contemporary Literary Archives, and Silvia Gallotti, Manuscripts Cataloguer. The Michael Palin Archive, generously donated to the British Library by Michael Palin in 2017, is now available for consultation in the Manuscripts Reading Room. A display – Michael Palin: Writer, Actor and Comedian – featuring items from the archive can be seen in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library until 11th November 2018.

Attempting to curate a small display featuring material from the archive of Michael Palin was rather like attempting to select a small number of iconic songs written by The Beatles. The sheer volume of fascinating material available to choose from rapidly made the task of deciding what to leave out the stuff of nightmares. Diaries, letters, photographs, notebooks, annotated scripts and publicity material all jostled for attention. About fifty of the notebooks date from Palin’s time with Monty Python’s Flying Circus and provide a fascinating insight into how comedy routines such as ‘Spam’ and ‘Spanish Inquisition’ developed through different versions into those we know – and can’t help but recite using all the different voices – today. Finding iconic material to exhibit was clearly not going to be a problem.


The Michael Palin display in Treasures Gallery at the British Library.

The display follows Palin’s career from the mid-1960s up to the late 1980s. The first case opens with the script for a mock theatrical documentary about attitudes towards sex through the ages called ‘The Love Show’ which Palin worked on with Terry Jones in 1965. Although never produced ‘The Love Show’, for which Palin received his first payment as a professional writer, shows early signs of the surreal humour that would come to define Monty Python. Other highlights in the first case include handwritten scripts by Palin and Jones for The Frost Report  –  a show which proved to be a meeting ground for future Pythons Palin, Jones, John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Eric Idle – and from Do Not Adjust Your Set where Palin, Jones and Idle met another future Python, Terry Gilliam. The item on display relating to Do Not Adjust Your Set is a sketch, written by Palin, called ‘Captain Fantastic’s Christmas’. David Jason played the hapless Captain Fantastic, a bumbling bowler-hatted superhero endlessly battling Mrs Black – ‘the most evil woman in the world’ – played by Denise Coffey. Although intended for children the anarchic humour of Do Not Adjust Your Set rapidly gained a cult following among adults.


‘Captain Fantastic’s Christmas’, a sketch written by Palin and starring David Jason as Captain Fantastic and Denise Coffey as Mrs Black. 1968. Add. MS 89284/2/11. © Michael Palin.

The following section is dedicated to Palin’s career with Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and to his subsequent work on Ripping Yarns, and on films such as The Missionary, A Private Function and A Fish Called Wanda. Included in the display is an early scene from The Holy Grail in which a surreal explanation for the absence of horses and the use of coconut shells to mimic the sound of their hooves is provided (‘Our horses grew weary, unable to carry us further. We were forced to leave them by the mountain and continue with coconuts …’). Also included is an early draft of the ‘Biggus Dickus’ scene from Life of Brian and one of Palin’s notebooks in which he has written a potential running order for various Python routines including ‘Spanish Inquisition’, ‘Fish Licence’, ‘Scott of the Sahara’ and ‘Semaphore Version of Wuthering Heights’.


One of Michael Palin’s notebooks, listing potential running orders for sketches including ‘Spanish Inquisition’, ‘Scott of the Sahara’, ‘Communist Quiz’, ‘Semaphore Version of Wuthering Heights’ and many others. Add. MS 89284/2/15. © Michael Palin

Ripping Yarns, which Palin worked on with Terry Jones in the mid-1970s is represented by an annotated script from the pilot episode ‘Tomkinson’s Schooldays’. The episode is a brilliant satire on public school life and the adventure stories found in magazines such as The Boys Own Paper. Tomkinson’s trials at the school include being nailed to a wall on St Tadger’s Day, fighting the school grizzly bear, being hunted down by a leopard while attempting to escape and, as seen here, having to take part in the ‘Thirty Mile Hop’.


Annotated script for ‘Tomkinson’s Schooldays’, the first episode of Ripping Yarns broadcast in January 1976. Add. MS 89284/1/75. © Michael Palin

The last part of the display looks at some of the less widely known aspects of Palin’s career including his books for children, and the brilliantly disturbing Bert Fegg’s Nasty Book for Boys & Girls (a humorous book satirising popular encyclopaedias for children and presented as though written by the most unsuitable and disturbed person imaginable for the job). This part of the display also includes two of Palin’s diaries, one of which is open at an entry for 27 March 1970, in which Palin recollects the beginnings of his career just a few years earlier, when he was ‘finishing ‘The Love Show’ with Terry’, ‘still unmarried’, with ‘no immediate prospects’. He concludes: ‘A little bit of nostalgia, but I like sometimes to get my bearings right, just to convince myself that I haven’t wasted the 1960s’.


Michael Palin’s diary entry for 27th March 1970, reflecting upon the 1960s and writing the second series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. © Michael Palin

The display represents only a very small portion of the archive, but hopefully it provides a glimpse into the riches it contains. The large amount of material included in the collection relating to the production, publicity and distribution of Palin’s TV shows and films makes the archive a wonderful resource for those interested in the history of comedy, TV and filmmaking. The wealth of notebooks and annotated scripts meanwhile provides a unique insight into one of the nation’s most popular entertainers, and into the genesis and development of comedy sketches and films that are now part of the very fabric of our cultural history.


14 October 2016

Angela Carter and the Visual Imagination

I was too young to see The Company of Wolves when it first came out in 1984. Consequently, until the film appeared on video, I had to make do with reading the reviews in newspapers and admiring the stills reproduced in film magazines. The stills were remarkable, full of fairy-tale imagery run riot. One shot showed a banqueting scene in which ornately dressed guests had developed lupine faces; another showed a cluster of eggs lying in a nest, one of which had cracked from top to bottom to reveal a baby. Perhaps most memorably of all one still depicted a wolf’s snout, all sleek and furred, emerging from a man’s mouth - the beast within made manifest. Inspired by the lush Gothic imagery of the film (I’ve always believed that if Gothic is worth doing it’s worth over doing, it’s a genre that thrives on excess – I’m all for velvet drapes, icy-mists and all round spectacular flamboyance when it comes to Gothic) I sought out The Bloody Chamber, the volume containing the short story that provided the inspiration for the film. And so I discovered the world of Angela Carter – 'Feminist', 'Magic Realist', 'Gothic author', 're-worker of fairy tales' and generally someone to whom a seemingly endless stream of labels have been applied over the years, all of which tell part of the story but none of which do the breadth of her work and her imagination justice.

Angela Carter

(Angela Carter by Fay Godwin © British Library Board)

Perhaps as a result of this early exposure to Neil Jordan’s film adaptation Angela Carter’s work has always, to my mind, possessed something of a cinematic quality. Jean Luc Goddard and Frederico Felline were clearly influences but I often like to imagine that there is possibly a dash of Hammer Horror lurking in the shadows behind some of her stories. In her final novel, Wise Children, Carter had explored the way in which high art and low, Shakespeare and music hall for example, often become entwined. Given such an outlook surely it’s possible to speculate that films like The Curse of the Werewolf, The Brides of Dracula and The Kiss of the Vampire might have played a part in the genesis of stories such as ‘The Bloody Chamber’ and ‘The Lady of the House of Love’. I like to think so, no matter how fanciful such a notion may be on my part. Still, true or not, I’ve always been pleased that I came to Carter’s work via film.


(Poster for The Company of Wolves, directed by Neil Jordan and with a screenplay by Neil Jordan and Angela Carter)

‘Dying’, as Gore Vidal once gloomily remarked, is often ‘a good career move’ and in the year following Carter's death in 1992 the British Academy received over forty proposals for doctoral research into her work. Sadly, in art as in life a person’s influence and worth often only really become apparent once they have gone. Angela Carter’s tragically early death propelled her work into the limelight. Almost twenty five years later, and with Edmund Gordon’s eagerly awaited The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography now in the bookshops, the fascination and admiration surrounding her work continues to grow from strength to strength. In a sense Carter’s work achieves that rare but perfect balance – simultaneously adored by academia for its insight, depth and invention but maintaining popular appeal due to its fabulous characters, storylines and sheer exuberance.

The British Library holds Angela Carter’s archive, a resource that consists of a wealth of manuscript material including diaries, notebooks, letters, drafts of novels, outlines for short stories and research notes. Each part of the archive offers a fascinating glimpse into Carter’s life and work but, for those with a love of her fiction, perhaps the most revealing items are the notebooks in which she recorded her research and worked on ideas that later became fully developed episodes in her books.

Fevvers 02

(Above Add. MS 88899/1/11, a page of Angela Carter’s notes for Nights at the Circus. © Displayed with the permission of the Estate of Angela Carter).

Shown above, by way of example, is a page from one of her notebooks in which she outlines her initial thoughts about the character of Sophie Fevvers from the novel Nights at the Circus (1984). It is fascinating to see the character in embryo, and to be able to explore how layer upon layer of idea, imagination and imagery is built up until Fevvers, a six-foot-two trapeze artist with wings, emerges complete in the published book. The genesis from notebook to novel took many drafts and, as can be seen below in this page of an early draft of the opening chapter the re-workings of the text continually grow and evolve rather than emerge fully formed.

  Carter - Nights 01 (3)

(Add. MS 88899/1/12. Early draft of the opening scenes from Nights at the Circus. © Displayed with the permission of the Estate of Angela Carter).

Carter’s notebooks are a continual delight, and looking through their pages offers a unique insight into the creative process. In a way it is the literary equivalent of siting in a studio with an artist as they work on a painting, seeing the successive sketches and layers of paint as they are applied until the finished portrait appears. You don’t often get the chance in life to see creative genius in action, but Carter’s archive does give us one such opportunity to see exactly that.

Much more about Angela Carter’s archive and work can be found on the Discovering Literature: 20th Century website, with examples from her notebooks relating to Nights at the Circus being available, together with examples of the early drafts of the novel . The British Library, in partnership with the Royal Society of Literature, will also be hosting an event - Angela Carter: A Celebration - on November 24th 2016. Nearly 25 years after her death Angela Carter is more relevant than ever.

04 March 2016

J. G. Ballard: Streets in the Sky and the Secret Logic of the High-Rise

by Chris Beckett


Hardly a day goes by without a news report about London’s social housing crisis. There are currently more than 260 high-rise buildings (of 20 floors or more) either under construction or in the pipeline that are set to dramatically change the London skyline. Yet the high prices of the apartments they will offer, and their attractiveness to foreign (and absentee) investors, means that they will have little impact on London’s urgent need for affordable housing. In stark contrast, residential high-rise buildings constructed in London in the late 1960s and 1970s – such as Balfron Tower (1967), and Trellick Tower (1972) and the three residential towers at the Barbican (1973-76) – were social housing projects.


Balfron Tower (1967)

When Balfron Tower, in Poplar, Tower Hamlets, was completed in 1967, the building’s architect, Erno Goldfinger, took up temporary residence for two months in a flat on the 25th floor to experience at first-hand what it was like to live there. He talked to all the residents in turn at a series of ‘get-to-know-you’ parties that he and his wife hosted in their flat. An inadequate number of lifts was one particular problem: Balfron Tower had only two lifts, so a third lift was added to the plans for his next project, Trellick Tower (1972). Greatly influenced by Le Corbusier, Goldfinger envisaged the floors of his buildings as a series of streets in the sky. Almost all the original residents of Balfron Tower had been re-housed from Tower Hamlets, and it was Goldfinger’s belief that their deeply-rooted sense of local community would transfer smoothly to their new elevated neighbourhood.


Trellick Tower (1972)

But Goldfinger’s high-rise buildings did not develop along the socially cohesive lines he had envisaged. Isolation, crime and vandalism took hold, and life in the stark and fortress-like concrete towers moved ever closer to the dystopian architectural vision of J. G. Ballard’s contemporaneous novel High-Rise (1975): ‘With its forty floors and thousand apartments, its supermarket and swimming-pools, bank and junior school – all in effect abandoned in the sky – the high-rise offered more than enough opportunities for violence and confrontation.’ Rather like Erno Goldfinger, the architect in Ballard’s novel, Anthony Royal, is a resident who throws parties. It is his Alsatian dog that Laing is roasting on his balcony as the novel begins. And the secret logic that Wilder discovers as he fights his way up the high-rise towards Royal’s penthouse at the top is that ‘free and degenerate behaviour became easier the higher he moved up the building’.

By the time that Goldfinger’s buildings were completed, American studies of life in high-rise buildings had already come to the firm view that their design made them inherently prone to crime, and they were entirely unsuitable for families with young children. Unattended lifts (prime sites of conflict in Ballard’s novel) were hazardous play areas, and the taller the building the greater the propensity for crime. One influential study that Ballard had read, Oscar Newman’s Defensible Space (1972), argued that in a high-rise block the only ‘defensible space’ is the apartment itself. Without concierge-controlled entry (which the GLC had not implemented in Goldfinger’s buildings), the entrance lobby, stairs, lifts and corridors were open to all-comers: ‘these interior areas are sparsely used and impossible to survey; they become a nether world of fear and crime’. With a typical Ballardian twist, however, the inherent weaknesses of his high rise building lead not to attack from strangers without but to a breakdown from within as the building’s occupants quickly turn upon each other. The residents of Ballard’s building belong to an entirely professional class, in fact a self-selected grouping that should, according to American studies, be most suited to living there. Yet Ballard typically portrays them as affectless and detached, and most susceptible to the malign influences of the building. In this topsy-turvy world, the ascent of Wilder (the wild man) is a form of descent to an infantile primitivism. He’s a primitive with a cine-camera. High rise buildings, wrote Newman, ‘encourage crime by fostering feelings of anonymity, isolation, irresponsibility, [and] lack of identity with surroundings’, the very qualities that spur Ballard’s occupants towards their new (and apparently welcome) life of dereliction.

Goldfinger died in 1987, his reputation in ruins. Today, however, Balfron and Trellick Towers are desirable addresses, both Grade II-listed Brutalist treasures. The residents of Trellick Tower turned their situation around in the 1980s, and the housing association Poplar HARCA is currently carrying out a full refurbishment of Balfron Tower. Everyone was decanted from Balfron while the work was carried out, and residents were to have the option of keeping their flats in the blocks, or of moving into new low-rise homes nearby, in which case the vacated flats would be sold to finance the works. However, in 2015, HARCA concluded that it could no longer afford social housing in Balfron Tower, and the building is about to transfer unchecked to the lucrative private sector, cleansed of any dream of social housing.

On Friday 11 March, there will be a special preview showing at the British Library of Ben Wheatley’s new film of Ballard’s High-Rise, starring Tom Hiddleston.



On Sunday 13 March, the British Library is hosting a one-day Ballard conference: ‘Inner Space: J G Ballard in the Seventies’.



To accompany both events, in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery there will be a display of Ballard’s draft manuscript for High-Rise and Ben Wheatley’s annotated film script.

12 November 2015

The various incarnations of Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser

by Joanna Norledge, Curator of Contemporary Performance and Creative Archives

Recently the library hosted an event, as part of the 8th International Screenwriting Conference, which featured an in conversation with Sir Ronald Harwood, the Oscar-winning playwright and screenwriter. It was an exciting opportunity to highlight the wealth of material in the British Library relating to screenwriting and specifically to explore the archive of Ronald Harwood. Sir Ronald regaled the audience at the event with entertaining stories from his experience working as a screenwriter. His career spans a long period and The Dresser was one of his successes inspired by his own early career in the theatre.    


Image of the 1983 second draft screenplay for The Dresser, from The Ronald Harwood Archive, produced with permission of Sir Ronald Harwood, image copyright @ British Library Board.


Originally written as a stage play based on Sir Ronald’s experience of working as Sir Donald Wolfit’s dresser, The Dresser  was first performed in 1980 at the Royal Exchange Theatre with Freddie Jones as "Sir" and Tom Courtenay as Norman. The play was nominated for Best Play at the Laurence Olivier Awards in 1980. The Dresser was first made in to a film in 1983 starring Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay.


Image of the 1983 second draft screenplay for The Dresser, from The Ronald Harwood Archive, produced with permission of Sir Ronald Harwood, image copyright @ British Library Board.


On the 31st October a new television film of The Dresser aired on BBC2, starring Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen. Sir Ronald discussed, at the event, how the BBC’s single television plays provided many of the writers of the 60’s and 70’s the chance to earn money and practise their craft. In recent years the small screen has received more attention as a medium of filmic story telling than the big screen. Productions such as The Dresser (2015) look back to the BBC’s roots in theatrical and film narrative. It pays homage to the single television play form in which so many great writers and entertainers began their careers.

The DresserBBC

Image of Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins in The Dresser (2015) produced with permission of the BBC. Copyright @ BBC.

The Dresser (2015) is a theatrical story and dramatization which captures a vanished world. This world is brought to life in the screenplay and dramatic performances from the actors, both veterans of the theatrical world represented. The archives at the British Library are filled with such examples of great engaging plays and television plays and it is wonderful to see some of these being used a source for modern programming.

You can still catch The Dresser on BBC iPlayer. The Ronald Harwood Archive is available in the British Library reading rooms.


12 January 2015

"Terror ... and the Supernatural": Stanley Kubrick's Gothic Adaptation of The Shining

Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is one of the most recognisable works on display in the Terror and Wonder exhibition so we decided to ask Catriona McAvoy to explain its Gothic credentials. Catriona is a writer and filmmaker from London whose research into the films and working practices of Stanley Kubrick began with her Masters degree in 2009. Since then she has presented her findings at several international conferences and in discussion panels. Her forthcoming publications include chapters in Stanley Kubrick: New Perspectives (Black Dog Publishing, 2015) and in Studies in the Horror Film: Stanly Kubrick's The Shining Vol. 1 & 2 (Centipede Press, 2015). More information about her research can be found at kubrickism.com.


The Shining is a film steeped in the Gothic tradition. Stephen King's book makes reference to Gothic literature and Stanley Kubrick approached the adaptation with this in mind. He recruited the author Diane Johnson to co-write the screenplay with him. He had read her modern Gothic novel The Shadow Knows (1974) and she taught a course on Gothic literature at the University of California, making her in Kubrick's opinion "the ideal collaborator".1 They discussed psychoanalysis and a wide range of literature, reading and recommending many books to each other in order to weave deeper themes into the fabric of the film.

The British Library's Gothic exhibition traces the same rich literary history that Kubrick and Johnson explored. Connections can be made between some of the exhibits and the evidence of the Gothic influences on The Shining found in The Stanley Kubrick Archive, The Diane Johnson Archive and from an interview I carried out with Diane Johnson. The exhibition displays some fascinating items from the production of The Shining including photographs and a note from Kubrick listing the 'Manifestations of a Haunted House'. Also displayed is the scrapbook prop which featured heavily in early drafts of the film (several scenes featuring it were shot but they were eventually edited out, leaving it appearing only once). However, it is not just in this section of the exhibition that we find the ghosts of The Shining. We can retrace our steps through the maze of meaning in Kubrick's film using some of the exhibits to guide us. 

Jack awakes from his nightmare, the scrapbook can be seen beside him on the desk (The Shining, 1980)

In the first room of the exhibition Shakespeare's work is highlighted as an inspiration for Gothic writers. His ghosts and supernatural happenings have certainly haunted the genre but his influence goes further than this. The externalization of inner turmoil is a common theme of the Gothic that is present in Shakespeare's work; think of Lady Macbeth who could not wash the blood from her hands. In Kubrick's development notes on The Shining "shades of Throne of Blood" is written beside an idea for a dramatic scene with Danny and Jack.3 Throne of Blood (1957) was Akira Kurosawa's brilliant adaptation of Macbeth and this is one of the few film references noted in The Shining development. Shakespeare again appears in a note from Diane Johnson. She is considering the balance of the narrative and the motivation of the characters and has written: "Tragedy or Fairytale? Lear - Tom Thumb. Moment of choice for Jack - Danny saves everyone."4 Diane Johnson explained the connection with The Shining and the story of King Lear to me as related to tragedy and the perils of "over-reaching ambition."5

Continuing through the exhibition the work of Ann Radcliffe provides the next link to The Shining. Her novel The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) is a defining Gothic tale from this period. One of the key features of her writing is the evocative description of landscapes. Gothic literature often uses landscape and the sublime to inspire terror and awe; dark forests, remote mountains and precarious paths leading to gloomy castles. Johnson recalls discussing the work of Ann Radcliffe with Kubrick during their research. In the dramatic opening sequence of the film we are taken on an aerial journey following Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) as he drives through a Gothic landscape of forests and mountains to the remote and haunted Overlook Hotel. Later in the film as the family make the journey together Jack relishes telling them the story of the Donner party, early settlers who got stranded in the hills and resorted to cannibalism in order to survive: ferocious nature turning man to beast.

Loutherbourg Banditti_Tate_T00921_10
Travellers Attacked by Banditti, Philip James De Loutherbourg (1781)

Matthew Lewis's novel The Monk (1796) provides the next clue to the secrets of The Shining. Amongst the book's supernatural happenings the main protagonist falls into a dream trance and rapes a young woman. Sleepwalking was a key theme in King's book and also appeared in Johnson's novel. In the film Jack is seen having a terrible nightmare at his desk and is drawn into the hotel's ballroom and to the mysterious room 237 in a dreamlike state. Johnson relates The Monk's psychological and supernatural themes to the narrative of The Shining. Jack's pursuit of pleasure at the expense of others is his downfall, mirroring the fate of the monk, Ambrosio, in Lewis's book. The exhibition displays the edited third edition open on a page where we see Lewis had to remove an enthusiastic description of a young woman's bare breast for a milder fourth edition. Interestingly almost 200 years later Kubrick had to blur out the breasts of the naked woman in the 237 bathtub scene for censors in several countries.

Matthew Lewis's annotated third edition of The Monk (1797)

The manuscript of Frankenstein (1818) handwritten by Mary Shelley and annotated by Percy Shelley is a fascinating part of the exhibition. Displayed is the section where Frankenstein comes face to face with the monster in the mountains. Again here we see an evocative description of an unforgiving landscape, relating back to Ann Radcliffe's work and linking us to the setting of the Overlook Hotel. More importantly we find Frankenstein confronting the monster that he created, perhaps the monster within. This duality is a theme throughout Kubrick's film; mirrors are frequently used to show the two sides of Jack and of the Overlook. Jack's inner turmoil and ultimate unleashing of his monstrous side provides us with the true horror of the film and of man's dark side. Johnson remembers discussing Frankenstein with Kubrick during the development of the screenplay. King perhaps also had this character in mind as he describes Frankenstein's monster in his non-fiction book Danse Macabre (1981) as "The Thing Without a Name", an archetype for numerous horrific creations.

The manuscript of Frankenstein. Mary Shelley, annotated by Percy Shelley (1816)

The Brontës’ Gothic imagery is an important part of The Shining's visual horror. The exhibition fittingly displays items from the work of Emily and Charlotte, which connect directly with The Shining. Diane Johnson explains: "in an attempt to understand the essential seriousness of the genre, we discussed Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre"6 Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) manuscript is displayed open to a page describing Bertha, 'the madwoman in the attic'. This is referenced in The Shining with the crazed corpse of the 'bathtub lady' in room 237. The theme of imprisonment in the grand old house is central to Jane Eyre and is echoed in The Shining.

Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) also played a part in the development of the screenplay. In Diane Johnson's manuscript notes, next to the scene where Danny is confronted by the ghostly Grady Girls, she has written "rather like the very affecting scene in Wuthering Heights where the visitor wakes up to discover a child's imploring hand reaching through the broken window."7 On display in the exhibition is a 1943 edition of Wuthering Heights showing an illustration of the very scene that Johnson describes in her notes. She confirms it was the "imagery ... and the underlying psychic elements"8 of this story that Kubrick was interested in.

Wuthering 01
Fritz Eichenberg illustration from Wuthering Heights (1943)

Next in the exhibition's Shining maze is the work of Edgar Allan Poe. His story 'The Masque of the Red Death' (1842) is heavily referenced throughout King's novel (there is a short extract in the epigraph and it reappears many times throughout the text). Although the ballroom scene association remains in the film, Kubrick avoided making such obvious links to the story. In a 1980 interview he downplayed the connection: "All his [Stephen King's] Poe quotes and Red Death things are alright but didn't seem necessary".9 However Diane Johnson does recall discussing "how Poe ended his stories".10

The enduring tradition of the fairytale is the last clue to the mysteries of The Shining that we find in the exhibition. Although a genre in itself and influential to the book and film in many other ways there is also an overlap with the Gothic themes here too. The exhibition points out that fairytales are "not strictly Gothic" but that often the stories are '"supernatural and frightening". On display is a 1909 copy of Red Riding Hood, a tale that is referenced in the research for The Shining. Diane Johnson has commented that she and Kubrick explored fairytales through the psychoanalytic lens of Bruno Bettelheim's book The Uses of Enchantment (1976). In the Stanley Kubrick Archive Kubrick's personal copy of the book with annotations and highlighted sections gives some very revealing insights into the Jack and Danny (Danny Lloyd) relationship of The Shining. Of particular note here is a highlighted section including a description of the symbolism of Charles Perrault's Wolf and Red Riding Hood characters. There are many suggestions of Jack as the big bad wolf in Kubrick's notes and in the film this is made evident in one of the most iconic scenes. As Jack prepares to axe through the bathroom door to get to a terrified Wendy (Shelley Duvall) he teases: "little pigs, little pigs let me in ... "

As we piece together the evidence of the many literary influences on The Shining we can begin to understand more about this enigmatic film. It is perhaps the ghosts of the Gothic past haunting the story that have helped to make it such an enduring classic. The familiar themes from historical literature that influence the characterization, the visual elements and the narrative of the film create a feeling of 'The Uncanny'. The Shining resonates with our cultural past and long imagined fears; like the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel, The Shining has "always been here".

Shining ballroom
The final shot from the film, Jack is pictured in a photograph on the hotel wall from 1921 (The Shining, 1980)

To learn more about The Shining and the history of Gothic literature visit Terror and Wonder: the Gothic Imagination (now in its final weeks). For more information (including extra late night openings) please visit the website



1 Kubrick, Stanley, “Oui, il y a des revenants”, interview with Michel Ciment, L’Express, 25 October 1980, Reprinted in Michel Ciment, Kubrick: The Definitive Edition, New York: Faber and Faber, 2001.

2 Johnson, Diane, "Draft Fragments and Notes", 1978, DJ/1/B/23/1-2, Diane Johnson Archive, Harry Ransom Centre (HRC), University of Texas Austin.

3 Johnson, Diane, "Draft Fragments and Notes", 1978, HRC.

4 Johnson, Diane (2013). Interview with Catriona McAvoy. 11 November, 2013. From the forthcoming publication: Studies in the Horror Film: Stanley Kubrick's the Shining. Ed. Danel Olson. Centipede Press, 2015.

5 Johnson, Diane (1978). "Kubrick Films 'The Shining' In Secrecy in English Studio", interview with Aljean Harmetz, The New York Times, November 1978.

6 Johnson, Diane, “Treatment”, 16 August 1977, SK/15/1/9, Stanley Kubrick Archive (SKA), Archives and Special Collections Centre, University of the Arts London.

7 Johnson, Diane (2013).

8 Kubrick, Stanley (1980). Interview with Vicente Molina Foix. Reprint. The Stanley Kubrick Archives. Ed. Alison Castle. Koln: Taschen, 2008.

9 Johnson, Diane (1978).

NB - The title of this post is taken from one of Stanley Kubrick's letters in which he describes The Shining as "a film of terror...and the supernatural" (Kubrick, Stanley, letter to Saul Bass describing The Shining, 10 October 1978, SK/15/5/2/5, SKA).

14 October 2014

Carry on Screaming

Autumn ushers in chill winds, falling leaves and lengthening shadows. Mornings and evenings are darker, mists become heavier, spiders scuttle from dark corners and carved pumpkins appear in windows as Halloween looms. All of which makes it the perfect time of year to talk about ghosts and vampires and things that go ARRRRRGH in the night.

Gothic 03

(Above: The entrance to Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination. Photo by Tony Antoniou)

Where better to start when it comes to discussing autumnal shivers than the British Library's major new exhibition, Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination. The exhibition explores two hundred and fifty years of Gothic literature, beginning with Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto and running through to the present day. The show provides plenty of insight into novels such as The Mysteries of Udolpho, Frankenstein, Northanger Abbey, Dracula and Rebecca but it also explores, among many other themes, the use of Gothic imagery by authors such as Charles Dickens and the Brontës; our fascination with hauntings; the rise of Gothic literature for children and the macabre appeal of the zombie as the monster of choice in the late 20th century. The exhibition also examines the influence of Gothic literature in other fields including fashion, music, art, architecture and, crucially, film.

Gothic literature and film owe a great deal to one another. The second most frequently portrayed fictional character in film and on television is Count Dracula (the most frequently portrayed is Sherlock Holmes - and given the nature of stories such as The Hound of the Baskervilles and 'The Speckled Band' there is also a considerable amount of Gothic associated with Baker Street's finest). Max Schreck's shadow gliding up the stairs in Nosferatu (1922) provides one of cinema's defining moments; just as Christopher Lee's first appearance as Count Dracula in 1958 altered our mental image of Bram Stoker's creation for ever, changing him from the decayed aristocrat of the novel into a suave and imposing individual possessed of considerable charm. Subsequent adaptations of Dracula have continued the trend for reinventing the Count, portraying him as something akin to a romantic hero, as in Frank Langella's performance from 1979, or as a conflicted but noble figure effectively contracting a deal with the devil in order to save his people as in Dracula Untold, released in 2014.

Gothic 07

(Above: Another iconic portrayal of the Count, this time by Bela Lugosi, seen here with a vampire slaying kit from the Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination exhibition. Photo byTony Antoniou)

Indeed Count Dracula provides a particularly striking example of how cinema adapts characters from Gothic fiction and reflects them back in new forms to highlight changing tastes and attitudes. One film company, Hammer Films, made several movies featuring Bram Stoker's immortal creation and each portrayed the Count in a different fashion. Hammer's first adaptation, Dracula (1958), played fairly freely with the source material, placing the action entirely in a somewhat vaguely defined mittel-Europe of forests, huts and taverns where the locals all go very quiet as soon as the newly-arrived stranger asks for directions to the castle. Certain characters, such as the fly-eating lunatic Renfield were removed altogether while the Count, played by Christopher Lee, is a model of charm, elegance and icy menace. He is also a curiously shadowy figure - dominating the film and yet only speaking thirteen lines of dialogue throughout. The critics were sniffy - with the reviewer in the Daily Worker claiming 'I came away revolted and outraged' - which highlights another common theme: Gothic has never been entirely respectable. It has always been too dark, too transgressive and too challenging to ever find a comfortable home within the realm of the drearily acceptable.

Dracula 1958

Subsequent Hammer films moved the Count away from his East European roots. Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970) placed the Count in fin-de-siècle England, and set him against three debauched and hypocritical members of 'respectable' society. In this scenario the Count actually becomes something of a sympathetic character for a younger generation reacting against the staid traditions and restraints imposed upon them by their parents. In Dracula A.D. 1972 the Count prowled through contemporary London, turning the thrill-seeking hippies who haunted its more colourful locations to the dark side. The Count and decadence do seem to go together - somehow he is at home amongst the dandies and the aesthetes and those on the margins of society whether they date from the 1890s or the 1970s.

Like all of the best villains you can't keep the Count down. Dracula continues to stalk our television shows and cinema screens, not to mention our imaginations. He really is a monster for all times and seasons. A nightmare for all ages and places. Happy screaming.

Learn more about Gothic literature on our Discovering Literature website while the Events programme for Terror and Wonder can be found here. Enjoy, and please don't have nightmares.




30 January 2014

In Berlin...

News from Jamie Andrews at the Unlocking Sources First World War conference in Berlin (follow the conference on Twitter at #usww1)

The last time I was in Berlin, it was just under three years ago. It was a glorious spring; sun shining on concrete. We were there to begin a major EU-funded project with partners from seven other European countries to digitise several hundreds of thousands of collection items relating to the First World War. Almost three years—and several million digitised images—later, the same partners are back in Berlin to launch Europeana 1914-1918. This time we’re in the middle of a typical Berlin winter: fingers freeze on contact with the air, every bus we take apparently doomed to crash on the ice.

Film berlin

From the digitised film footage shown last night in Berlin to launch the portal

But nothing could disguise the warmth of the occasion last night when the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media, Frau Professor Monika Grütters, officially declared the Europeana 1914-1918 portal live. The portal provides access to 400,000 rare documents digitised by our 10 library partners, as well as 660 hours of unique film material , and the personal papers and memorabilia of some 8,000 people involved in the war, held by their families and digitised at roadshows in 12 countries.

Europeana Collections 1914-1918 from Europeana Collections on Vimeo 

The British Library has been leading the UK’s contribution to the site, and has contributed 10,000 items from our own First World War collections to the site, including trench journals from foreign troops, iconic war poetry, and London schoolchildren’s accounts of Zeppelin raids that are featured by Buzzfeed.


From the new British Library World War One site

Especially significantly, we have also produced an amazing new website http://www.bl.uk/world-war-one offering curated access to over 500 digitised historical sources from Europeana 1914-1918, as well as newly commissioned films, contextual information and teacher’s notes (read more here). The importance of the site is its pan-European, comparative approach to the War, as well as its incorporation of material from the British Library relating to the immense part played by the British dominions and colonies.

Key themes explored on the site  include:

  • Origins and Outbreak
  • Recruitment of Conscripts and Volunteers
  • Daily Life on the Battlefield
  • The War Machine
  • Race, Empire and Colonial Troops
  • Gender Expectations and Roles
  • Propaganda on a Global Scale
  • Aftermath – Redrawing Europe’s Map

The site is free to use, and will be added to over the forthcoming weeks and months.


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