Summerisle souvenirs

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Presenting the second in what is now a series of travel posters for the fictional regions of Old Weird Britain. In 2012 I created a poster for the village of Milbury from Children of the Stones, a design derived from the London Transport posters of the 1920s promoting destinations outside the city. At the time I had a vague idea of maybe doing more in this style but it’s taken this long to produce something new.

Summerisle is an obvious choice but not necessarily an easy one. The popularity of The Wicker Man means that a small cottage industry of Summerisle souvenirs already exists, most of the products being concerned with the events of May Day 1973. A travel poster would represent a location rather than a single date so that wasn’t a problem, but I also wanted to avoid any Wicker Man silhouettes. The appearance of the Wicker Man at the end of the film is a secret being revealed, it’s not something the islanders would broadcast to the world, hence the concentration here on the village, the manor house and the standing stones. The sole nod to the island’s customs is the group of people lurking behind a wall. Another temptation would be to use the Nuada sun as seen in the film but others have already made use of that so I took a sun face from an old Tarot card.

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As with the Milbury poster, this is now a design available on a range of CafePress products. These are mostly paper goods for the time being; setting up new shops at CafePress becomes increasingly time-consuming as the company adds more yet clothing, phone cases and household goods. Among the new products, however, there’s a stainless steel flask which I wouldn’t usually add but which is perfect for a design promoting a Scottish island. I think I’ll have to order one for myself.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Wicker mania
Milbury souvenirs
Children of the Stones

Afore Night Come by David Rudkin

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RSC programme, 1962.

Not a review, this, you can’t really review a stage play you’ve never seen. Following the re-viewing of David Rudkin’s White Lady I’ve gone back to some of the published plays. If all you know of Rudkin’s work is his television drama, the plays are instructive for showing the consistency of his themes across the years. The recent resurgence of interest in Penda’s Fen and Artemis 81 has seen Rudkin’s work included among that group of film and TV dramas that Rob Young memorably labelled Old Weird Britain (after Greil Marcus and The Old, Weird America), a loose affiliate that would include films such as The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw, and television works by Nigel Kneale, Alan Garner (The Owl Service and Red Shift) and the MR James adaptations, one of which, The Ash Tree, was also written by Rudkin.

If the Old Weird Britain lies at an intersection between different dramatic forms—ghost story, horror story, science fiction, historical drama—then not all of Rudkin’s work would fall into the intersection, but two of the plays—The Sons of Light and his first staged work, Afore Night Come—could be coaxed into the charmed circle: The Sons of Light, with its sinister human experiments taking place underground, has ties to Artemis 81, while Afore Night Come is another piece about (intentional or otherwise) human sacrifice in rural England. I hadn’t read Afore Night Come until last week, and was struck by its similarity to John Bowen’s Robin Redbreast (1970), a more deliberately ritualistic piece of work. In its first act Afore Night Come is an almost documentary-like account of a day in the life of workers hired to pick the pear harvest in an orchard outside Birmingham; the eruption of violence in the second act is certainly foreshadowed but seems less premeditated than in Robin Redbreast, a factor which has apparently shocked many audiences. During its performances in the early 1960s the tendency was to see the play in the light of Harold Pinter and Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, it’s only in retrospect that a connection with more generic works emerges. There’s also a connection to White Lady via the pesticide spraying about which the workers are continually warned, and whose advent coincides with the moments of violence.

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Sight and Sound, August 2010. Illustration by Becca Thorne.

A couple of other things are worth noting: until 1968 all the plays performed in Britain were vetted by the Lord Chamberlain’s office who would routinely strike out any material deemed offensive or irreligious. Knowing this I was surprised by the recurrence of the word “fuck” in Rudkin’s script, and also the hint of same-sex attraction between two of the male characters, a detail that would usually have been removed. It seems that plays pre-1968 could be performed without censorship if the theatre was declared to be a private club for the evening (a similar state of affairs helped evade some film censorship) which is what happened with Afore Night Come in 1962. Given this, and the incident of a decapitated head being rolled across a London stage (probably the first since the Jacobeans, says Rudkin), it’s easy to see why audiences at the time might have felt assaulted, although the play still won the Evening Standard Drama Award that year. Sexual ambiguity/ambivalence or outright homosexuality have been a continual thread in Rudkin’s drama yet he’s seldom been given much credit for this pioneering work. A year after Afore Night Come there was Rudkin’s first play for television, The Stone Dance, a piece which sounds like another potential addition to the works in the Old, Weird Britain catalogue. Rudkin describes it thus:

A Revivalist pastor pitches his crusade tent within a Cornish stone circle. His repressed son becomes sexually obsessed with an outward-going local boy, and suffers a hysterical loss of speech. A storm blows the pastor’s tent away, and amid the stones, their primal purity reasserted, by the boy’s accepting touch the son is healed.

I believe that, prior to this, no tv play had overtly treated homosexual emotions as a central theme. (In Britain at this time, any gay sex could incur a prison sentence of up to two years.)

Many of the TV plays from the 1960s are now lost so there’s no guarantee that we’ll ever see this, a shame considering that Michael Hordern and John Hurt were the leads. No guarantee either that we’ll see any staging of the more interesting plays like The Sons of Light and The Triumph of Death which seem to be too eccentric for theatre directors. The scripts can at least be picked up relatively cheaply. To date there’s only Afore Night Come that seems to be revived with any regularity. Michael Billington, a long-time champion of Rudkin, reviews the Young Vic production from 2001 here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
White Lady by David Rudkin
The Horror Fields
Robin Redbreast by John Bowen
Red Shift by Alan Garner
Children of the Stones
Penda’s Fen by David Rudkin
David Rudkin on Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr

Robin Redbreast by John Bowen

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This TV play from 1970 was one of the films I watched last year at Halloween, a very poor bootleg copy from the BBC archives with a timecode running away in one corner. So it’s been a surprise to find the BFI releasing it so soon after on DVD. I never saw Robin Redbreast originally, and hadn’t even heard about it until a friend with a similar taste for the outré and neglected told me to look out for it. The main reason for the BFI picking out a rather obscure Play for Today for reissue has been its rising cult status in the sub-genre of British rural or folk horror. Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), and The Wicker Man (1973) are the more notable examples, although in tone and presentation Robin Redbreast is closer to Nigel Kneale’s Murrain (1975), another TV play that’s currently available as a bonus on the Beasts DVD collection.

The usual plot of this kind of drama concerns the arrival of an outsider in a rural community whose presence arouses suspicion and conflict. Robin Redbreast reverses this by having its metropolitan outsider, Norah, move to the country only to find her neighbours are welcoming to the point of being interfering. In time the interference starts to become oppressive, and unfortunately this is one of those dramas where to reveal much more would be to spoil the unwinding of the story. There’s nothing supernatural here, like The Wicker Man a mystery grades in its final moments to horror. With little in the way of cinematic atmosphere it’s left to a detailed script and the performances to do the work. All the leads are excellent, especially Anna Cropper as the beleaguered Norah, and Bernard Hepton as the quietly sinister Fisher.

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Bernard Hepton.

Robin Redbreast was originally filmed and broadcast in colour but the BBC had a habit of wiping many of their tapes after broadcast so what we’re left with is a telerecording on 16mm black-and-white film. This isn’t ideal but it does have the effect of giving all the scenes more consistency. Like most dramas of the period, interior shots were done in the electronic studio while exteriors were shot on film, a technique which was taken for granted at the time but which looks uneven today. The DVD is still superior to the bootleg copy that was doing the rounds. In one of the extras writer John Bowen discusses the origin of the play, explaining how a BBC editor was horrified by a plot detail concerning female contraception. This led to the script being dropped by the suspense series for which it was written, and subsequently taken up by director James MacTaggart for the new Play for Today strand. Play for Today ran for 14 years, producing many impressive dramas but mostly offering a solid diet of social realism. Robin Redbreast is one of a handful of stranger works that crept onto the screen, along with the peerless Penda’s Fen (1974), and Alan Garner’s adaptation of his novel, Red Shift (1978). Now that the BFI has exhausted the BBC’s more obvious ghost and horror fare I’m hoping that some of the less generic films may find a new audience on DVD.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Red Shift by Alan Garner
Children of the Stones
Penda’s Fen by David Rudkin

Wicker mania

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US reissue poster (1979).

The restored version of The Wicker Man (1973) has been showing in UK cinemas recently, and the Blu-ray edition of the film is released this week. My copy arrived from Moviemail, and while I’m not in a great hurry to watch it again—this is one film that’s so familiar I could lip-synch along with it—it’s been a pleasure to compare the restored scenes to the long-version DVD which appeared in 2002. The earlier version had its missing scenes taken from a 1-inch videotape which was considerably poorer quality than the rest of the film. The restored scenes still look grainy and slightly washed out but now they at least look like pieces of film, not interpolations from video. The screengrabs below show the difference between scenes from the 2002 DVD compared to their equivalents on the Blu-ray. The rest of the film looks pristine, of course.

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The new version isn’t as long as the longest version, however, a preliminary sequence in and around the mainland police station having been excised. In a lengthy feature in the October edition of Sight & Sound director Robin Hardy explains that he disliked what he calls “the Z-Cars section” (referring to an old UK TV series), and it’s true that it doesn’t help the story at all. Whether they like it or not, viewers of the film have to accept constable Howie as their proxy within the story, and he’s an insufferable prig throughout. That’s bearable in the context of his presence on Summerisle but the mainland sequence throws his character into relief against his less priggish colleagues.

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Another slight omission is the title card which used to precede the film thanking Lord Summerisle and the islanders for allowing the filmmakers to observe their rituals. In its place we have a zoom into the face of Nuada the Sun God, a painted rendering of a carved figure seen in the film. I’ve always liked this face which has become an emblem of the film even though it’s not present in all versions. (For more detail about the tangled history of the various prints, see this site.)

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Cover photo by Oliver Hunter.

A rather bad drawing of the Nuada face appears at the beginning of each chapter of the novelisation which Hamlyn published in 1979 (and on the cover of the US edition from the year before). This was the year when the film’s reputation began to take off, and also the year it was reissued in the US. Although Hardy and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer are both credited for the novel I suspect the writing is mostly Shaffer’s work. It’s pretty good, and goes into considerable detail, fleshing out the story and Howie’s character, and also showing how much research the pair put into the pagan side of things. You also get the lyrics of some of the songs. Until the complete soundtrack appeared in 2002 the novel was the only place you could find the salacious missing verse from Willow’s Song which describes a maid milking a bull.

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And speaking of the soundtrack, the three-disc Blu-ray edition includes the complete soundtrack on one of its discs, a considerable bonus if you don’t have it already. I should note that my good friend Gav insists I mention that the film’s final brass fanfare—labelled as Sunset on the soundtrack album—is a Bulgarian folk tune entitled Rodopska Devoika Zamrakanala Mona Jana, something neither of us has ever seen credited.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Children of the Stones

Weekend links 177

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A new Wicker Man poster by Dan Mumford appears on the cover of the forthcoming DVD/BR reissues. Prints are available.

• The long-awaited release of a restored print of Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man approaches. Dangerous Minds has a trailer while The Guardian posted a clip of the restored footage. The latter isn’t anything new if you’ve seen the earlier uncut version, but the sound and picture quality are substantially better. I’ve already ordered my copy from Moviemail.

• “It’s a fairly bleak place, and it has this eerie atmosphere. East Anglia is always the frontline when there’s an invasion threatening, so there are lumps of concrete dissolving into sand, bits of barbed wire and tank tracks that act as a constant reminder. I really love it.” Thomas Dolby talking to Joseph Stannard about environment and memory.

Dome Karukoski is planning a biopic of artist Tom of Finland. Related: Big Joy, a documentary about the life and work of James Broughton, poet, filmmaker and Radical Faerie.

The desire to be liked is acceptable in real life but very problematic in fiction. Pleasantness is the enemy of good fiction. I try to write on the premise that no one is going to read my work. Because there’s this terrible impulse to grovel before the reader, to make them like you, to write with the reader in mind in that way. It’s a terrible, damaging impulse. I feel it in myself. It prevents you doing work that is ugly or upsetting or difficult. The temptation is to not be true to what you want to write and to be considerate or amusing instead.

Novelist Katie Kitamura talks to Jonathan Lee.

Leonora Carrington: The Celtic Surrealist opens on Wednesday at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin.

Julia Holter turns spy in the video for This Is A True Heart.

Alexis Petridis talks to graphic designer Peter Saville.

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Al-Naafiysh (The Soul) by Hashim. From the Program Your 808 poster series by Rob Rickets.

Rob Goodman on The Comforts of the Apocalypse.

Post-Medieval Illustrations of Dante’s Sodomites.

• Annoy Jonathan Franzen by playing Cat Bounce!

Paolozzi at Pinterest

The Surrealist Waltz (1967) by Pearls Before Swine | The Jungle Line (1981) by Low Noise (Thomas Dolby) | Al-Naafiysh (The Soul) (1983) by Hashim