Peter Sasdy at 80


Today is the 80th birthday of director Peter Sasdy, and I wanted to pay a little tribute to the man and his work.

Peter George Sasdy was born in Budapest on the the 27th May 1935. Although he survived the war and the devastation of Budapest, he was forced to leave Hungary after the failure of the 1956 uprising. Arriving in England, he studied drama and journalism at Bristol University before joining ATV in 1958. His first task there was directing numerous episodes of Emergency Ward 10 (1959-60.) He was promoted to director of drama at ATV, before going freelance in 1964. His work included a range of series and standalone plays, ranging from police dramas such as Ghost Squad (1963-64), Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel (1964, his first collaboration with Peter Cushing) to two Brontë adaptations, Wuthering Heights (1967) and the four-episode series The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1968-69) starring Janet Munro as Helen Graham.

He also directed no less than three productions of Sherlock Holmes, beginning with an ITV episode in 1965 that starred Peter Cushing as the detective. This was later followed by the Polish-British co-production Sherlock Holmes (1979) starring Geoffrey Whitehead, and finally Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady (TV movie 1991) starring Christopher Lee.

He came to know the two great masters of British horror very well after being taken on by Hammer studios, with whom he made his feature film debut in 1969. Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), was the fifth Hammer film about the Transylvanian count and the fourth to feature Christopher Lee, although Dracula himself has very little screen time. In compensation for some awful dialogue the production values are relatively high, with lavish 19th century sets, shadowy Gothic lighting and some brilliant camera work.

Sasdy followed this up with Countess Dracula (1971), starring Ingrid Pitt as bloodthirsty Hungarian aristocrat Erzsébet Bathory (1560-1614.) Unlike most other Hammer horrors there was a genuine interest in the film’s historical basis, due partly to Sasdy’s nationality being shared by the producer Alexander Paal and the leading man, actor Sandor Eles. Nonetheless, Sasdy and Paal frequently fell out on set and had blazing rows in Hungarian in front of the cast and crew. Ingrid Pitt found the tense atmosphere intolerable, so she went away and learnt a few Hungarian swear words, which she let rip the next time the two men started arguing. The film failed to realise its potential, partly because of Sasdy’s over-restrained direction.
Sasdy’s next film for Hammer was Hands of the Ripper (1971), an original take on the story of Jack the Ripper that imagines that he had a daughter who inherited his murderous traits. The traumatised young girl (Angharad Rees) is found by a psychiatrist (Eric Porter) who – naively – imagines he can help her. His motives are not entirely altruistic of course, and the nuanced performances by Porter and Rees give their relationship both depth and sympathy, despite the increasingly bloody activities of the girl. Sasdy’s direction gives the film something of a giallo feel, introducing elements of a modern ‘slasher’ film to what might otherwise have been another Hammer period piece.

The Stone Tape is probably Sasdy’s finest work and . Shown on BBC2 on Christmas Day 1972 as part of the BBC’s tradition of broadcasting ghost stories at Christmas, Nigel Kneale’s script was unusual in fusing traditional elements – a Victorian mansion haunted by ghostly screams and apparitions – with modern technology. The story focuses on a crew of electrical researchers who have moved into the old house of Taskerlands to concentrate on their new project: to devise an alternative recording medium to magnetic tape, so as to outgain their industrial rivals in Japan. Although the researchers – especially Jill (Jane Asher) – both see and hear apparitions in the house, their sophisticated equipment is unable to record any trace of these – inspiring the team leader Peter Brock (Michael Bryant) to propose a theory: that the supernatural occurrences are actually phenomena that have been recorded by the room itself, and are being replayed through the senses of those present. Does this ‘stone tape’ provide a solution to their technical quest?

The originality of these themes, and the subtle, intelligent way in which they are handled are startling, and it remains a deeply unsettling film even today despite its dated acting style (it comes across as a filmed play, complete with some overtly theatrical performances) and limited effects. The chills come from the sound design rather than the visual effects, as Brock’s team cranks up the noise in order to increase their chances of recording a response from the room’s ‘presence.’


Ghost in the machine? When ‘The Stone Tape’ was made, computers were still an alien concept to many.


Jane Asher as Jill Greeley in ‘The Stone Tape’ (1972)
Doomwatch (1972) was an intriguing Tigon production based on a TV series
starring Robert Powell, John Paul and Simon Oates that had been inspired by Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass. Again, it was well ahead of its time, tackling the issue of environmental pollution and government cover-ups, albeit with a creepy atmosphere and marketing campaign that would have been more appropriate for a Hammer horrors than for the actual film itself.Both Paul and Oates reprised their roles, with Powell’s place taken by Scottish actor Ian Bannen, and George Sanders playing an admiral. It was filmed in Cornwall, around the area of Polkerris and Polperro.
Nothing but the Night (1973) starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, also involved sinister occurrences on an island. Like Doomwatch, there are similarities with The Wicker Man, which had just been released. Nothing but the Night was the only film made by Lee’s production company, Charlemagne, which seems a shame given the promise shown here. Once again Sasdy demonstrated his skill at exploring psychological horror, against a background that includes a spate of bizarre murders, a remote orphanage and ritual burnings.

Some of other Sasdy’s films don’t merit much attention, however, and amongst his worst is Sharon’s Baby (1975), which aimed at replicating the success of Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968) but fails. Miserably. Attempts to repackage it as I Don’t Want to Be Born, It’s Growing Inside Her and The Monster did not succeed any better. Sasdy even managed to pick up a Razzle Award for Worst Director after The Lonely Lady (1983), an adaptation of Harold Robbins’ best-selling novel that starred multiple Razzle Award winning ‘actress’ Pia Zadora. Of much greater interest was Welcome to Blood City (1977), a science-fiction film that explores the idea of virtual reality over twenty years before The Matrix.

Alongside his film output Sasdy continued doing working for television, including episodes of popular series such as The Return of the Saint (1978-79), Minder (1979) and The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ (1985-87.) His association with Hammer ensured he was kept on board when the studio broke onto the small screen with The Hammer House of Horror (three episodes, 1980) and The Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense (three episodes, 1984.) His last TV production was an Omnibus documentary on another Hungarian director, Alexander Korda, whom Sasdy has often cited as a major inspiration. The disproportionate contribution made by Sasdy’s countrymen to the visual arts has led some to wonder what it is about Hungary that has produced so many brilliant photographers and film directors. But as Korda himself once quipped, ‘It’s not enough to be Hungarian – you must have talent too.’

Sisters on the screen: 20 films about convent life

The Convent Gate – from an old promotional postcard

To mark today’s screening of Black Narcissus as part of the series of Exeter Screen Talks, I wanted to celebrate twenty films about convent life. The emphasis is on movies that make some serious attempt at portraying religious life, and I have therefore ignored those with fake nuns (A Mule for Sister Sarah (1970) and Più forte sorelle (Renzo Spaziani, 1973) as well as the more lurid examples of the nunsploitation genre (Behind Convent Walls (1978), Sacred Flesh (1999) etc) but at the end of the day the selection is a personal one and is as arbitrary and subjective as can be.

The Convent Gate (Wilfrid Noy, 1913)

Straightaway I’m cheating by writing about a film that I haven’t seen. It’s been estimated that between 75-90% of silent films were destroyed or disappeared, and sadly The Convent Gate was one of them. My interest was piqued when I came across this postcard at a flea market some years ago, and I wrote a little bit about it in a previous post.

The White Sister (Henry King, 1923)

Ten years later Lilian Gish starred in this adaptation of F. Marion Crawford’s 1909 novel The White Sister. It had been filmed already in 1915 with Viola Allen in the title role, as star-crossed Italian lover Angela Chiaromonte who enters religious life after a series of tragic events, plotting and misunderstandings. Ronald Colman played her lover, Captain Giovanni Severini.


Lilian Gish in ‘The White Sister’ (1923)


Helen Hayes as Angela Chiaromonte in ‘The White Sister’ (Victor Fleming, 1933)

The story is set in Italy and ends with the climactic eruption of Vesuvius. While in Sorrento five years ago I came across a street named after Crawford – he moved here in the 1880s and knew the area well.

The White Sister (Victor Fleming, 1933)

In the third screen adaptation of Crawford’s novel Angela was played by Helen Hayes, who was about to make her name playing Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Victoria on Broadway. Colman’s role was taken here by Clark Gable.

I’ll skip quickly over The Song of Bernadette (Henry King, 1943) as it was the subject of a recent post which you can read here.

Les Anges du Péché (Robert Bresson, 1943)Comparisons are often drawn between the work of Bresson and Bill Douglas, both of whom excelled in the use of poetic imagery with minimal dialogue. Bresson was still finding his style with Les Anges du Péché, his first feature film, made in wartime France in collaboration with Dominican friar Fr. Raymond Bruckberger O.P. and playwright Jean Giraudoux. ‘Angels of Sin’ follows events in a religious community dedicated to rehabilitating women prisoners, but it is easy to see the German occupation of France as influencing the themes of incarceration and vengeance killing.


Les Anges du Péché
This may be early Bresson, but it is well worth a watch: as Oliver Assayas has said of Bresson, ‘He is what keeps me faithful to what cinema can achieve. In moments of discouragement, he reminds me how great films can be.’

Bells of Saint Mary’s (Leo McCarey, 1945)

Ingrid Bergman and Bing Crosby star in this drama as Sister Mary Benedict and Father Charles O’ Malley, fighting to save their city school from closure. Both of them get to sing in the movie of course, Bergman singing the traditional Swedish folksong Varvindar Friska (Spring Breezes) and Crosby crooning the title song (along with a choir of nuns) and others. The movie is used in the film The Magdalene Sisters (Peter Mullan, 2002) with bitter irony – the sweet nuns of the 1945 film contrasting harshly with the cruel, somewhat cartoonish villains of Mullan’s tale.


Ingrid Bergman as Sister Mary Benedict in Bells of Saint Mary’s (Leo McCarey, 1945) with Bing Crosby
Black Narcissus (Powell & Pressburger, 1947)

One of my favourite films of all time, and my strongest recommendation of all those listed here, Black Narcissus is based on Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel and tells the story of a community of nuns opening a convent in the Indian Himalayas. As with so much of Powell and Pressburger’s work, the film is imbued with a strong sense of place and an awareness of the effect of location on human behaviour: the lush sensuality of the landscape (filmed in vibrant Technicolor by Jack Cardiff) and the erotic history of the convent building (a former seraglio) seem to draw out the emotional tensions and desires of the nuns – in particular Sister Ruth (below.)


Those eyes, that mouth…. Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh in ‘Black Narcissus’


The Himalayan landscape was suggested through the use of magnificent matte paintings, as the above pictures reveal

The magnificent cast also includes Deborah Kerr, Flora Robson, Jean Simmons, Esmond Knight and a surly, swaggering David Farrar.

Come to the Stable (Henry Koster, 1949)

Another tale of nuns moving into an unfamiliar location, but very different in tone, Come to the Stable starred Loretta Young and Celeste Holm as two French nuns trying to establish a foundation in Bethlehem, Connecticut. Unlike the plot of The Bells of St Mary’s the nuns don’t resort to trickery to achieve their goals…


Sister Scholastica (left, Celeste Holm) and Sister Margaret (right, Loretta Young) in a scene from ‘Come to the Stable’


Sister Josephine (Connie Gilchrist) and Sister Mary (Claudette Colbert)

Thunder on the Hill (Douglas Sirk, 1951)

This who-dunnit is set in a storm-lashed Norfolk convent, where convicted murderess Valerie Carns (Ann Blythe) gets marooned by the weather while en route to the gallows. (Ruth Ellis, the last woman hanged in Britain, died four years later, in 1955.) Claudette Colbert plays Sister Mary, a young nun who begins to have doubts about Valerie’s guilt – setting her on course to clash with the Mother Superior (Gladys Cooper.)


Corporal Allison (MItchum) and Sister Angela (Kerr)

Heaven Knows, Mr Allison (John Huston, 1957)

Having played the Sister Superior in Black Narcissus, Deborah Kerr was demoted to the status of a novice in this film, in which she is stranded together with US marine Robert Mitchum on a Pacific island during WWII. They have to deal with lack of food, fever, Japanese soldiers and – of course – each other, while waiting to be rescued. Both stars give tremendous performances, while the exotic location (much of it was filmed in Tobago) provides a lush backdrop to the poignancy and drama of their situation.

The Nun’s Story (Fred Zinnemann, 1959)

Based on Kathryn Hulme’s 1956 novel, The Nun’s Story follows Sister Luke (Audrey Hepburn) as she struggles to deal with inner conflict as a medical nun working in Africa. As with The White Sister and Black Narcissus, there are hints of an unresolved romance haunting her decision to enter the convent, but Sister Luke also has to deal with issues regarding obedience and her duties towards her family and homeland after the Nazis invade Belgium while she is working in Africa. It’s one of the best films for a serious exploration of the real issues involved in taking the veil.


Sister Luke (Audrey Hepburn) and friend
Le Dialogue des Carmelites
(Philippe Agostini, 1960) This was another wartime project of Fr Bruckberger O.P., based on Gertrud le Fort’s novel about a community of Carmelite nuns who were martyred at Compiegne in 1789 during the French Revolution. George Bernanos wrote additional dialogue – much of which was later dropped – and stage and opera versions were produced before the screenplay finally made it to the screen. Jeanne Moreau played Mère Marie de l’Incarnation.
Mother Joan of the Angels
(Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1961) Based on the same story about the possessed nuns of Loudun that inspired Ken Russell’s film ten years later, Mother Joan of the Angels is much less well known: this is a shame, as it’s an absolute masterpiece, subtle in all the places where Russell is extravagant, yet containing a wealth of stark, stunning imagery and poetic visuals.


Le Dialogue des Carmelites (1960)


A scene from Matka Joanna od Aniolow (Mother Joan of the Angels)

Lilies of the Field (Ralph Nelson, 1963)

This film provided Sidney Poitier with his first Oscar, playing wandering handyman Homer Smith who finds work (but no wages) helping out a struggling community of nuns from German and Eastern Europe. The title of the film is taken from Matthew 6:28-30, which Mother Maria (Lilia Skala) quotes in response to Homer’s request to be paid.


The nuns get excited about a phonograph in ‘Lilies of the Field.’
The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965)

Maria von Trapp’s memoir The Story of the Trapp Family Singers provided the basis for a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical which was in turn adapted for the screen by 20th Century Fox. Julie Andrews played Maria, a novice nun who leaves the convent for a while to work as a governess to an Austrian family of seven children, and ends up leaving religious life and marrying their widowed father. Some of the exterior scenes were shot at the convent of Nonnberg in Salzburg.


Maria…not ‘an asset to the abbey’? A scene from ‘The Sound of Music’

The Nun (Jacques Rivette, 1966)

Denis Diderot’s novel La Religieuse, published in 1796, offers a profound critique not only of religious life and Catholicism but also of the constraints placed upon women in 18th century society. Diderot’s simple tale recounts the sufferings of a young girl, Suzanne Simonin, who is forced into the convent by her family. French New Wave director Jacques Rivette adapted the novel for the stage before revising it for the screen, in both versions casting Jean Luc Godard’s then-wife Anna Karina as Suzanne. It remains quite stagey, with its slow pace and unadorned style, but it’s deeply moving and heartbreaking in its depiction of Suzanne’s ordeals as she experiences religious life under three Mother Superiors – the kindly Madame de Moni (Micheline Presle), cruel Sister Sainte-Christine (Francine Berge) and the ardent Madame de Chelles (Liselotte Pulver.) The film was remade by Guillaume Nicloux in 2013 with Isabelle Huppert playing Suzanne.


Sister Suzanne (Anna Karina, on left) falls foul of the new regime in ‘La Religieuse’ (1966)

The Trouble with Angels (Ida Lupino, 1966)

Returning to the present day and a lighter vein, The Trouble with Angels was set in an American convent school where rebellious pupils Hayley Mills and June Harding try to outwit the Mother Superior (Rosalind Russell), only to find that they underestimate the nun’s wisdom and wiles. The success of the film inspired a rather lacklustre sequel, Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows (James Neilson, 1968.)


Mary (Mills) and Rachel (Harding) meet their match
The Singing Nun (Henry Koster, 1966)


Debbie Reynolds as Sister Ann in ‘The Singing Nun’


Lobby card of a scene from ‘The Singing Nun’

‘The Singing Nun’ was the popular name given to Sister Luc-Gabrielle O.P., also known as Jeanne Deckers (1933-85), a Dominican nun from Belgium who released several records including the No.1 single ‘Dominique’ (1963.) The movie is a sweetly fictionalised portrait of Deckers, whose life subsequently took a tragic dive downwards into depression, drug abuse and suicide.

Change of Habit (William Graham, 1969)


Sister Michelle (Mary Tyler Moore) and Doctor John Carpenter (Elvis Presley) in ‘Change of Habit’

Elvis Presley’s final fictional movie role saw him play a doctor in a run-down area who is unaware that three co-workers – Michelle Gallagher (Mary Tyler Moore), Irene (Barbara McNair) and Barbara (Jane Elliott) are in fact nuns who have shed their habits in order to gain the trust of the parishioners they are trying to help. The movie, as one would expect, contains romantic entanglements and lots of Elvis songs.

As a by-the-by, it is perhaps worth mentioning that another of Elvis Presley’s co-stars, Dolores Hart – who played opposite ‘The King’ in Lovin’ You (1957) and King Creole (1958) – entered a real-life convent in 1963 and later became the Prioress of Regina Laudis Priory in Connecticut.

The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971)

It’s been over forty years since the release of The Devils but Ken Russell’s extraordinary and disturbing work has retained its reputation as one of the most shocking movies ever made in Britain. The scenes of orgiastic violence are graphic and unrelenting, but shot with the high command of visual aesthetics that one would expect from production designer Derek Jarman. Although Vanessa Redgrave played Mother Jeanne of the Angels, the role had been originally offered to Glenda Jackson. However, after playing the female leads in Russell’s Women in Love (1969) and The Music Lovers (1970), a third erotically-charged performance might have been excessive (even for them.) As a representation of convent life The Devils cannot evade the charge of sensationalism – it’s a orgy of Grand Guignol grotesquerie and Gothic horror – but it explores aspects of religious psychology and the interior life that are barely touched by the other films listed here. Go there if you dare.

Nasty Habits (Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977)

It wasn’t long Jackson got another chance at playing a nun, and this time she accepted the offer: Nasty Habits is based on Muriel Spark’s novel The Abbess of Crewe: A Modern Morality Tale (1974), which took the then highly-topical story of the Watergate scandal (1972-74) and transposed its component parts into a Benedictine convent where a power-hungry nun is plotting to fix her election as abbess. The film version shifts the setting from Crewe to Philadelphia and assembled a star-studded cast that included Edith Evans as the old Abbess Hildegard whose death leaves a power-vacuum, Glenda Jackson as the ambitious Sister Alexandra (i.e. Nixon) and Geraldine Page and Anne Jackson as her accomplices Sisters Walburga and Mildred, who break into the sewing basket of her rival Sister Felicity (Susan Penhaligon) in order to steal a cache of love letters. Allegations of bugging and bribery lead to Vatican involvement, and those familiar with the Watergate story will enjoy identifying the characters and events being parodied.


Pre-election skulduggery in ‘Nasty Habits’ (1977) – a topical note on which to end this week’s blog!

Artists for an Antiquary: M.R. James and his Illustrators


‘The little boy… looked around him with keenest curiosity.’

The effectiveness of M.R. James’ghost stories owes much to the author’s ability to create sensations of physical unease in the reader, particularly through the sense of touch. He never relies on merely visual effects, such as the sight of a grisly spectre or the shock of recognising a dead ancestor. Many of his stories were, of course, written in order to be read aloud rather on the printed page. One might therefore question the purpose of illustrations for his stories; can they enhance the reading experience, or might they prevent the text from guiding the reader’s imagination in the way that James intended?

Whatever the reader might feel, illustrations were seen as desirable by most publishers during the period in which Monty was writing, particularly for popular periodicals.  In this blogpost I’m going to look at some of the illustrations that accompanied his earlier works, beginning with ‘Lost Hearts’ which appeared in the December 1895 issue of  Pall Mall magazine.

The artist commissioned to illustrate James’ story was Simon Harmon Vedder (1866-1937), a young American artist whose reputation was on the rise following recent exhibitions at the Paris Salon. Vedder went to provide illustrations for authors such as Elizabeth von Arnim, G.A. Henty, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Sir Walter Scott, but his watercolour style does not indicate a strong sympathy with the tone of ‘Lost Hearts’ and the pairing is not entirely successful.


‘Is Mr Abney a good man, and will he go to heaven?’


‘He went to the door of the bathroom to ascertain if the figure of his dreams were really there.’


‘Stephen was standing at the open window of his bedroom.’


‘Mr Abney was found in his chair, his head thrown back.’

Both ‘Lost Hearts’ and ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook’ were read by James at the 601st meeting of the Chitchat Society at Cambridge on 28 October 1893, just around the time that a young artist named James McBryde came up to the university from Shrewsbury.

Despite their different backgrounds, the two men became close friends, cycling along the Danube together in September 1895, travelling through Denmark and Sweden in the summers of 1899, 1900 and 1901 – these Scandinavian trips inspired the stories ‘Number 13’ and ‘Count Magnus’ – as well as visiting Aldeburgh together in 1902.

McBryde had originally intended to follow a medical career, but after completing his training at St Bartholomew’s in 1902 he decided to pursue a career in art instead, and began studying at the Slade School of Art in the autumn. Despite his marriage to Gwendolen Grotrian the following summer, and the fact that he lived in London while James remained in Cambridge, the two men remained close friends. The idea of combining McBryde’s artwork with Monty’s stories seems to have originated with L.F. Giblin, a friend of the artist who had also entered King’s at the same time. When McBryde fell ill with appendix trouble in March 1904, the project seemed an ideal way to distract him during his convalescence.

Monty responded positively to the suggestion, and six of his supernatural tales were chosen for the anthology – ‘Canon Alberic’, ‘The Mezzotint’, ‘The Ash Tree’, ‘Number 13’, ‘Count Magnus’ and ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.’

The drawing below is an illustration for ‘Canon Alberic’ and was used as the frontispiece for the collection. It was based on a photograph of the interior of St Bertrand de Comminges, which M.R. James had visited in April 1892.


The Englishman was too deep in his note-book to give more than an occasional glance to the sacristan
The figures of the English scholar Dennistoun with his notebook (above) and seated at his desk (below) were both modelled on Monty himself.


A hand like the hand in that picture
The next two illustrations are for ‘Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’:


Looking up in an attitude of painful anxiety


It leapt towards him upon the instant
McBryde wrote to Monty on 6 May: ‘I have finished the Whistle ghost…I covered yards of paper to put in the moon shadows correctly and it is certainly the best thing I have ever drawn…’
Sadly, these were to be his last drawings. On 31 May McBryde underwent surgery on his appendix, and despite early signs that all had gone well, he died at 9.30 am on the 5th June. His widow Gwen, who was then expecting their first child, returned the drawings to Monty. Despite his publisher’s recommendation that another artist be found to complete McBryde’s work – Arnold recommended H.J. Ford –  Monty insisted that the collection be published with just the four drawings as a tribute to his friend. In the meantime he wrote to Gwen and offered to publish The Story of a Troll Hunt, which McBryde had written and illustrated following their trip to Denmark in 1899. Gwen agreed, and the volume was published by Cambridge University Press with a preface by Monty. 


An illustration from ‘The Story of a Troll Hunt’ showing the three friends – Monty, McBryde and William Johnson Stone – who travel to Jutland in search of trolls for the Fitzwilliam Museum.

As mentioned above, publisher Edward Arnold had originally suggested that Ghost Stories of an Antiquary be illustrated by Henry Justice Ford (1860-1941.)   Monty’s refusal of this had nothing to with Ford’s qualities as an artist, and within a few years he was again invited to illustrate a book by M.R. James.

Old Testament Legends; being stories out of some of the less-known apocryphal books of the Old Testament (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1913) is a collection of eight tales adapted by James for children, drawn from stories in the non-canonical Biblical literature known as the ‘Apocrypha’. James had a profound knowledge of the subject – he had edited a collection of Apocrypha Anecdota for Cambridge University Press in 1893 and would later write The Lost Apocrypha of the Old Testament: their Titles and Fragments Collected, Translated and Discussed (London: SPCK, 1920) while his Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924) remained for several decades the standard reference work for Scripture scholars. Prefaced with a clear explanation of the subject for younger readers, the collection includes the following stories:

1.  Adam
2.  The Death of Adam and Eve
3.  Abraham
4.  The Story of Aseneth, Joseph’s Wife
5.  Job
6.  Solomon and the Demons
7.  The Story of Ebedmelech the Ethiopian and of the Death of Jeremiah
8.  Ahikar

Ford’s bold black and white drawings accompanied all the stories except No.7, and there were no less than three illustrations for the legend of Aseneth. This uneven distribution suggests to me that Ford submitted a portfolio of pictures, from which the editor may have struggled to make a selection. It seems unlikely that the quality of the illustrations was uneven, given Ford’s evident skill as a draughtsman, so if there were any shortcomings these were probably to do with his treatment of the subjects. The style of the illustrations fits well with the text. There is none of McBryde’s whimsy here, as readers would expect Biblical topics (even from the Apocrypha) to be handled with respect. Nor is there anything resembling the sentimental pastel tones of Vedder. Some of the drawings are in fact remarkably powerful.


From ‘Adam’ – How Satan deceived Eve in the River. The figure of Eve reminds me very much of one of the temptresses in ‘Hylas and the Water Nymphs’ (1896) by J W Waterhouse


Then Came One of the Seraphim and Bare the Soul of Adam to the Lake of Pure Water in the Garden


Abraham and the Broken Idols


Aseneth Doing Homage to her gods


“Aseneth, rise up”


Aseneth Flies in her Chariot from the Men in Ambush by the River


Satan Departs, Vanquished by Job at Last


Job’s Happy Death


Ephippas and the Demon of the Red Sea bring the Great Pillar to Solomon
The apocryphal encounter between Solomon and various demons does, of course, feature in ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook.’


How Ahikar Outwitted the King of Egypt
Old Testament Legends was dedicated to ‘Jane and My Godchildren.’ Jane McBryde was now about nine years old and grew up with some artistic talent of her own – she drew a portrait of M.R. James when she was in her early teens, and it was good enough to appear in Letters to a Friend (London: Edward Arnold, 1953), a collection of 300 letters from Monty to Gwendolen and Jane McBryde, that the artist’s widow had edited for publication. His fondness for the McBrydes is clear fro the fact that his only novel, The Five Jars (London: Edward Arnold, 1922) was written for Jane. A children’s fantasy, it is written in the form of a letter to a young girl named Jane, in which the narrator recounts his strange sensory experiences involving five jars containing mysterious scripts. It included seven black and white pictures by Gilbert James (fl. 1886-1926), who is now better known for the illustrations he did for Leonard Smithers’ 1898 edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. His style is less cartoonish than that of McBryde and may perhaps remind contemporary readers of the work of Edmund Gorey (1925-2000.)


Frontispiece: The Bat Ball


A Former Owner of the Jars


The Pillars of Mist


The Cat Takes Action


Life Going on Much as Usual


Wag Introduces the Party
Since the death of M.R. James in June 1936 numerous editions of his works have been issued by different publishers, illustrated by artists including Francis Mosley, Charles Keeping, Rosalind Caldecott and Jonathan Barry. A blogpost about the will have to keep until another evening, as it is now time to curl up in the armchair with Ghost Stories of an Antiquary…, where is that candle?

Scattered Thoughts on ‘The Elephant Man’

Poster for ‘The Elephant Man’ (1980)

It has been many years since I last saw The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980), and a considerable time too – although somewhat less – since I last sat in a cinema with tears in my eyes. Last night I revisited both experiences, thanks to a special screening of the film as part of Exeter University’s Screentalks series. What follows below is just a series of scattered thoughts and impressions, written without the usual care applied to my blog posts.

Sometimes The Elephant Man is described as an anomaly in Lynch’s oeuvre, its period setting, factual basis and star-studded cast distancing the film from the highly original and darkly surreal narratives of his other projects. Such an opinion seems convincing on paper, even in conversation, but when watching the film on the big screen one cannot fail to be impressed by the powerful motifs familiar from other David Lynch movies: the bleak monochrome industrial landscape and off-screen synthesised drones of Eraserhead (1977), the use of dream sequences and visions reminiscent of Wild at Heart (1990) or an anxiety about the infernal worlds that lie beneath and behind the respectable facades of society, disturbingly portrayed in Blue Velvet (1986.)

In her introductory talk, Corinna Wagner drew attention to the Gothic elements of the film, including the preoccupation with dark secrets, with what is hidden behind the surface. Episodes during Merrick’s early period in the hospital evoke Gothic tropes, such as the ‘madwoman in the attic’ of Jane Eyre or the ‘horror behind the door’ of Bluebeard. 

The threat of ‘what lies beneath’ is depicted quite literally in several sequences, where the camera appears to drop beneath the streets of London to glimpse a labyrinthine network of tunnels and serpentine pipes, shadowy chambers in which we occasionally spy blackened half-naked men slaving away in fiery pits or labouring over mysterious Victorian machines, the purpose and function of which remain obscure. Again, these sequences recall the lady in the radiator in Eraserhead but also the unnerving opening shot in Blue Velvet when Lynch shows us the subterranean horrors that lurk beneath the white picket fences and smiling firemen of small-town America.

One might argue that there was enough horror within damp, dank, smoke-filled squalor of industrial London, without the need for any further Gothic mystery – but it was growing anxiety about such urban nightmares that encouraged authors to use cities as their setting for ghastly tales. Eighteenth century Gothic stories contrasted the civilization of the city with the dangers of the countryside, a place under the sway of strange customs, primitive superstitions, lawless brigands and feudal tyranny, not to mention unmapped forests, inhospitable terrain and wild animals. Technological progress in the Victorian era may have brought a degree of enlightenment, but at what cost?

Near the beginning of the film, we see Dr Treves (Anthony Hopkins) operating on a man who has been injured in a machine accident – another sign that modern technologies brought new dangers as well as benefits. He remarks to his colleague that they will be seeing many more of these injuries in the future, one fatal drawback of machines being that ‘you can’t reason with them.’ There is a sense here that man is caught between two contrasting, inhuman threats: the irrationality of primitive nature (darkness, wild beasts, madness and the like) and the irrationality of modern technology. Despite his attempts to master them, ultimately he cannot claim to control either. Many of the classic Gothic tales contemporary with the period in which The Elephant Man is set – The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1885), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and Dracula (1897) blend modern science and the supernatural within contemporary urban settings. Darwinian theories about evolution may have seemed daringly progressive, but they were backward-looking too: for if modern man had evolved as part of a long and gradual process, then what distinguished him from animals was a matter of degree rather than a distinction in kind. Surely such a mutation could move in the opposite direction as well?


The Pig-Man (Buster Brodie) in ‘Island of Lost Souls’ (1932)
The title The Elephant Man is an obvious indication of anxieties about transgressing boundaries between man and beast. Similar fears played out in H.G. Wells’ novel The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), in which a crazed scientist attempts to create humans through surgical operations on animals. Characters included The Dog-Man, The Leopard-Man and The Ape-Man. It was made into a film, The Island of Lost Souls (Erie Kenton, 1932), starring Charles Laughton as Dr Moreau and also featuring Bela Lugosi – emphasising Paramount’s wish to link the film with Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein movies from the previous year. The possible fusion of man and beast is further alluded to in The Elephant Man by the animal costumes worn by the performers in the theatre show attended by Merrick. While playing with the notion of the ‘noble savage’ there is an obvious contrast made between Merrick’s gentle, civilised soul trapped in a deformed body, and the bestial, inhuman behaviour of porter Jim (Michael Elphick) and his able-bodied friends. This is also paralleled in the kindness shown Merrick by the dwarves and ‘circus freaks’ in Belgium, who join forces to free him from his cage and help him return to England. It’s all very reminiscent of Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932) – which incidentally starred Leila Hyams from Island of Lost Souls – in which the murderous deceptions of the able-bodied trapeze artist and strongman are defeated by the humanity and kindness of the deformed performers (dwarves, amputees, a ‘bird-woman’ and Siamese twins – played by Violet and Daisy Hilton who feature in my book A Carnal Medium.) Lynch’s films, of course, have frequently included characters with physical disabilities – such as the main character in The Amputee, the radiator-lady in Eraserhead, Ed (Blue Velvet), Juana (Wild at Heart) or Arnie (The Lost Highway.)

I wrote a little about Victorian freakshows in a previous post, and The Elephant Man makes the same point as I did: much as we like to distance ourselves from the insensitive vulgarity of those showground spectacles, modern media is not really that different in its commercialisation of all manner of forms of human tragedy, and we as audiences often share equal guilt in our consumption. In the film, Treves’ conscience begins to trouble him after visitors start flocking to see Merrick at the hospital: he recognises the truth of the accusation of hypocrisy made by Merrick’s previous ‘mentor’, the showman Bytes (Freddie Jones) – are not both men, in their own way, exploiting Merrick for their own ends?

What sort of man was Treves? There is actually a copy of his December 1923 obituary in the scrapbook that I wrote about in last week’s blog post. Reference to ‘The Elephant Man’ appears in the second half of the tribute.

Treves and Merrick first met in November 1884, and it is not hard to equate his rapid rise thereafter with the publicity generated by their association. By 1902 the respectable doctor had been granted the rank of baronet, and this surely shaped his perspective on the events of the 1880s. The film claims to be based on Treves’ 1923 memoir, The Elephant Man and other Reminiscences, and the depiction of London’s ‘lower’ classes is far from flattering. Recently I came across Raphael Samuel’s essay ‘Modern Gothic: the Elephant Man’ in Theatres of Memory (1994) which dissects the use of class stereotypes in the film, and argues that Lynch has in fact created a ‘fairy tale in documentary form.’ The Elephant Man is unashamedly moralising and sentimental, playing with our emotions sometimes in ways we might associate more with the director of E.T. than Eraserhead, and the fairytale element is impossible to deny. One cannot watch the scene with Merrick and famous actress Madge Kendal (Anne Bancroft) without being reminded of Beauty and the Beast…
...which reminds me that the next Screentalks event is a screening of Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bête (1946) on Monday 9th February. I’m looking forward to that already.

Ghoulies, ghosties and long-leggety beasties..

At a postcard fair in Broadclyst last summer I picked up three postcards with the title ‘A Cornish Litany.’ All three are the work of Stanley T Chaplin, and belong to a set of twelve postcards, but the background to their production turned out to be murkier than expected. First of all, what is this ‘Cornish Litany’?

Litanies are sets of prayers arranged in the form of a list of petitions, usually sung or chanted by cantors, to which others provide responses. These vary according to the nature of the petition: the name of saint invites the response Ora pro nobis (Pray for us), a general prayer has the reponse Te rogamus, audi nos (We ask you to hear us), while reference to some evil or misfortune – such as ghosts and ghoulies – requires the response Libera nos, Domine (Deliver us, Lord.) In the traditional litany of saints, these calamities include omni malo (all evil), omni peccato (all sin), insídiis diaboli.(the devil’s wiles), fulgure et tempestate (lightning and storm), a flagello terrae motus (earthquake), a peste (plague), fame et bello (famine and war)…etc. There’s nothing here resembling the contents of the Cornish litany. One explanation for this is that it was a local and perhaps unauthorised ritual, one that was used orally and was never recorded in a liturgical book. Some have claimed that it dates back to the 14th or 15th centuries, but such prayers would then have been in Latin, and the absence of any textual record for several hundred years – linking Pre-Reformation usage to a vernacular translation – is hard to comprehend. Tracing the origins of this phrase has proved far harder than one might have imagined. ‘Long-leggety beastie’ sounds like a distinctively Scottish pronunciation, and indeed in the anthology A Beggar’s Wallet (Edinburgh & London, 1905), edited by Archibald Stodart Walker, there is a contribution by Hugh Munro Warrand which is prefaced with a ‘Scots’ version:

Frae ghosties and ghoulies, long-leggetie beasties,
And things that go bump in the night,
Good lord deliver us.
– From a quaint old Litany

However, the fact that only the first word is distinctively Scots suggests to me that this ‘quaint old Litany’ was merely an attempt to ‘Scotticize’ a phrase which had been acquired from some other source. A few years later James Withers Gill, a former colonial administrator who helped catalogue the African collections in Exeter’s RAMM, published a scholarly article on ‘Hausa Speech, Its Wit and Wisdom’ in the Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies, University of London, Vol. 1, No. 2 (1918), p.46, in which he remarks casually of the inhabitants of Hausaland in the Sudan: ‘To a people nourished on mystery who, in spite of their fatalistic creed, believe in genii, ghosts, goblins, and those terrific things that “go bump in the night”, protective charms are eagerly sought for.’ Again, the phrase is cited without any explanation, as if the author regarded it as commonplace.

Then, eight years later, Francis T. Nettleinghame published his Polperro Proverbs & Others (Polperro Press for the Cornish Arts Association, 1926) in which he describes the thriving pokerwork industry in Polperro. Pokerwork, or pyrography (“fire-writing”) involves using heated tools to burn designs into wooden objects and craftworkers in Polperro were doing particularly well selling products that featured ‘the Cornish or West country litany.’ The artwork for these wares was undertaken by Arthur Wragg, rather than Chaplin.

That’s really the limit of my knowledge, but an American collector named Debra Meister has done a great deal of research and self-published a book, A Litany…Cornish and Otherwise, which is now in its third edition. I haven’t seen the book yet, but may try and pick up a copy soon. Other sources of information include:

Donald T. Matter, ‘The Cornish Litany, a Prayer for All Times’, The McLintock Letter: the quarterly newsletter of the South Jersey Postcard Club. Vol. 11, No.5 (October 2011), pp.1-2
Susan Hack-Lane, ‘A New Look at the Old Cornish Litany’ in Postcard World Magazine (November-December 2011), pp.7-9.