23 February 2012


Agnosco veteris vestigia flammae.

My latest painting, featured in the film, is of a nocturnal street scene in front of the newly renovated West Hampstead Station - the variegated bricks you can see glinting in sunlight in my recent Urban Georgic.

Shadow Play. Photo by Dora Petherbridge

Edward recently did a Q&A about Slim Chances with the Washington Independent Review of Books, which you can read here.

13 February 2012


A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret.
A Tale of Two Cities 

Dickens, his characters and the empty chair at Gad’s Hill.
National Portrait Gallery

12 February 2012


‘Does no other profession occur to you, which a young man of your figure and address could take up easily, and see the world to advantage in?’ asked the manager.
     ‘No,’ said Nicholas, shaking his head.
     ‘Why, then, I’ll tell you one,’ said Mr Crummles, throwing his pipe into the fire, and raising his voice. ‘The stage.’
     ‘The stage!’ cried Nicholas, in a voice almost as loud.
     ‘The theatrical profession,’ said Mr Vincent Crummles. 
Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby 

Photo by EP

In celebration of the bicentenary of Dickens’s birth, just past, I reproduce here the essay I wrote for the programme of Nicholas Nickleby, nearly thirty-two years ago, on the subject of Dickens’s theatre.

Those actors who find they don’t have to draw lines on their faces anymore, but perhaps have to cover them up, are probably old enough to feel that they’ve acted with Dickens’s Mr and Mrs Vincent Crummles. I certainly did; it was at the Arcadia Theatre, Lowestoft or the Hippodrome, Stockton – I’d better not say which – twenty-two years ago. I was offered four pounds. The Equity minimum was seven pounds ten, so as a member of Equity, I said I couldn’t possibly act for less than six. I was sacked after two weeks on account of my enormous salary and the tiny houses – though the fireman said, bless him, ‘You’re the one I’d ’ave thought ’e’d ’ave kept.’

Actually it’s over a hundred and forty years since the original Vincent Crummles met Nicholas on the road to Portsmouth but, despite the vast changes, he remains delightfully recognizable, even though the country manager he epitomizes has been almost completely replaced by the university graduate or more likely a co-operative of graduates running a small touring ‘community theatre’ on hard graft, social or ideological commitment and persuasive talk at the Arts Council.

The great bulk of the early and mid-Victorian theatre repertoire remains unrevived and possibly unrevivable; only a few actors’ names are remembered, but somehow the afterglow lingers, and for many of us the notion of theatre and theatricality in the best and worst senses has everything to do with what was on the week Nicholas Nickleby arrived in London. This afterglow is fanned by the sight of plush and gold leaf, our memories of toy theatres and our first pantomime visit.

At two of the many glorious extremes of the theatre of the late 1830s were the Theatre Royal Covent Garden and Richardson’s travelling booth. 

Richardson’s booth depicted by Thomas Rowlandson

Kean as Brutus.
By James Northcote (1819). NPG
The great Edmund kean who died at thirty-five or so, five years before Nicholas arrived on the scene, had a career that took in both the gaudy canvas booth as a strolling player and the neo-classical building in Covent Garden based on the Temple of Minerva on the Acropolis. This particular Covent Garden Theatre Royal, today’s predecessor, was built and opened in a year – about as a long as it would take a theatre company now to plan for and acquire a travelling canvas booth.

The strollers had their own slang. ‘We think it must have originated from Italians who went about doing pantomimes’, one of them told Henry Mayhew.

The Italian influence from the Commedia dell’Arte was also obvious at the temple of Minerva in Bow Street and at the other Royal Patent Theatre round the corner in Drury Lane, though these two houses (together with the Theatre Royal, Haymarket in the summer months only) were the only theatres in London allowed by law to perform Shakespeare and the ‘legitimate’ drama. They found it expedient to mix in a generous amount of Pantomime, Harlequinade and Ballet, and as all the textbooks say, our traditional English Pantomime came from the Commedia dell’Arte via the Paris fairground booths. Even animal acts were to be seen at Drury Lane and Macready, leading actor at Covent Garden, was appalled that the young Queen Victoria had gone backstage to see the lions ‘again’! Crummles could hardly be blamed for introducing his donkey. But strangely enough the Strollers would act Shakespeare when doing ‘private business’ outside the fairs ‘ ‘then we go as near as memory will let us. We only do the outline of the story and gag it up.’

Macready as Henry IV.
By John Jackson (1821). NPG
But one must be careful not to confuse Mr Crummles’s line with the fit-up booth business. He would have been as aware of his precise placing in the system of layers as anyone else in any other walk of life. Macready was keenly aware of his position at the head of the acting profesion, jealously watching the exploits of Edmund Kean’s son Charles at Drury Lane (‘that imposter’) and bitter that because of his station as an actor he could not really be regarded as a gentleman and would certainly not be received at Court, though he performed regularly to the command of Victoria and had the honour of meeting her in her box and ‘lighting her down’ to the Royal exit. Perhaps it was some comfort that from his well-lit position centre stage one night he directed the following lines as King Lear at the Queen:
Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.
He was being paid more than the Prime Minister at the time.

The theatre was thought to be at a low ebb around 1838, but Dickens couldn’t stay away from it. Earlier in the century Jane Austen, who must surely have been a sensitive and discerning theatregoer, saw Edmund Kean as Shylock and wrote of the ‘most perfect’ acting she had seen. From the point of view of dramatic literature it has left us comparatively little – but so much else has come down of the tradition – even of the ephemera of the stage which theatre people still measure themselves by, fight against, and dream about with nostalgia. People say that Dickens invented ‘Christmas’. By the same token, did the Georgians and the Victorians between them invent  ‘The Theatre’?


A taste of the Victorian fairground and of Victorian Shakespeare:

Beerbohm Tree as Mark Antony.
By Charles Buchel. V&A

And, finally, a compilation of some of Emily’s and my scenes in Nickleby, together and apart:


If you missed Edward’s readings from Little Dorrit as part of the BBC News feature on Dickens’s anniversary last Tuesday, click here.

Part 2 of Edward’s Dickensian Blog will follow shortly.

04 February 2012


So close, and yet so far out!
Dylan in The Magic Roundabout

Crediton Hill, West Hampstead. Photo by EP

Our (Kathleen’s and my) research rambles through West Hampstead’s past have taken a surreal turn this week, proving yet again the human spirit’s power to transcend nineteenth-century brick-built terraced conformity. The tree-lined Crediton Hill, photographed above, with its rather grand houses and its air of leisured respectability, has, in the course of the last hundred years, been a refuge and home to pioneering surrealists in virtually every medium.

Perhaps the first was the experimental poet David Gascoyne who spent the most formative moments of his childhood and adolescence at the house of his godmother Florence Mole in Crediton Hill, a house he remembered being ‘full of objets d’arts and Victorian watercolours and Meissen china’, and his window onto the cosmopolitan delights of London. Gascoyne’s first and only full-length novel, Opening Day, written at the tender age of sixteen, is a semi-autobiographical stream-of-consciousness account, after the manner of Joyce’s Ulysses, of a day in the life of a young literary aspirant. In it he recalls going to stay with his grandmother in West Hampstead (clearly modelled on Miss Mole of Crediton Hill).

At a similarly precocious age, Gascoyne published a collection of his early surrealist work and translations of French surrealists, and in June 1936, two months before I was born, he helped to organize the First International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries in London. 

The First International Surrealist Exhibition. 
Gascoyne and Salvador Dali are standing second and third from the left.

On this occasion Salvador Dali, wanting to show that he was ‘plunging deeply into the human mind’, attempted to deliver a lecture wearing a deep-sea diving suit. After a few minutes it became clear that he was near asphyxiation and he had to be prised out of the helmet by Gascoyne with a pair of pliers. 

Dali in his diving suit

      Dali tried cocking a snoot
      Adorned in a deep diving suit
      Nearly drowned but not drenched
      By pliers was wrenched –
      And set free ... was his point rather moot?

This incident may have subconsciously influenced Gascoyne’s depiction, that same year, of the classical hero Perseus, dressed in an iron lung, rescuing Andromeda from a school of seals.

Perseus and Andromeda (1936). Mixed media on paper.
Tate Collection
In the 1970s, Crediton Hill was the home of Eric Thompson (father of actresses Emma and Sophie and husband of Phyllida Law), the inspired writer and narrator of the cult children’s television series The Magic Roundabout. The series was created in France under the title Le Manège enchanté. The BBC version, presented in five-minute episodes before the early-evening news, used the original French animation footage with entirely new scripts devised by Thompson. Its surreal style, quirky characters (including a guitar–playing rabbit named after Bob Dylan) and slightly psychedelic overtones appealed to both children and adults.

Still living in Crediton Hill, and in his ninety-fifth year, is Charles Chilton, a producer of The Goon Show, perhaps the apotheosis of British surrealism, with its outrageous, unpredictable cartoons in sound. First broadcast on the BBC Home Service over sixty years ago, the Goons have been the subject of at least two surrealistic studies, one in French (by Jacques Brunius), the other in English (by J. H. Matthews). Of Spike Milligan, the latter says: ‘His work takes on, in Breton’s enthusiastic phrase, “great hallucinatory value” in that his use of language offers us “a succession of vertiginous verbal equations” leading to solutions that evade rational limitations.’

The Goons. Photo by Bryan Wharton, 1968.
National Portrait Gallery

Chilton’s other forays into the surreal include the sci-fi trilogy Journey into Space, which he wrote and produced for the BBC Light Programme in the mid-1950s, and which can claim Stephen Hawking as a fan, and Oh! What a Lovely War, a show that began life as a radio play and, in its final form, told the story of the First World War as a series of end-of-the-pier sketches. 

I leave you with the latest version of my ‘Allegory of Acquaintance’, a painting inspired not by Surrealism but by Titian – although Titian’s ‘Perseus and Andromeda’ in the Wallace Collection was at least partly the inspiration for Gascoyne’s surrealist interpretation of the myth, and my encounters with Captain Cox, formerly of the Bengal Lancers, may be said to have had touches of the surreal.