Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Category: Popular culture (page 1 of 2)

A Ghost Story for Christmas – the real murder hidden in Dead of Night

UK Poster for Dead of Night (1945)

I don’t know about you, but Christmas is the time of year when there is nothing better but curling up warm and reading ghost stories. We have a tradition in our house of watching the Amicus compendium horror films written by Milton Sabotsky and directed by Freddie Francis starting with Tales from the Crypt (1972) – well, it’s practically a Christmas movie judging by the Joan Collins story. However, great as they are Milton Sobotsky’s brand of compendium won’t do for this kind of blog post as none of the stories are based on real-life crimes – at least I hope they aren’t.

So to keep in the spirit of my intermittent series of real-life crimes behind famous films I’m going back to the compendium film that started the sub-genre – the 1945 film Dead of NightA rare example of horror from the first half of the 20th century, Dead of Night is about a group of strangers who find themselves together in a country house. One of the group, architect Walter Craig confesses that he has had a recurring dream of them all gathered together and the group start telling the stories of their own brushes with the supernatural. Now for the purposes of this blog post, I’m not interested in the most famous segments, including the ventriloquist’s dummy story with Michael Redgrave which scares me to this day. The section I’m interested in is the actual Christmas ghost story that makes up the second segment. This story is linked to a very famous real-life crime and that’s what I’m going to look at in this post.

The murder of little Francis Saville Kent at his father’s house in Road in Wiltshire was a sensation in its day. The gruesomeness of the crime – the child was found stuffed down the privy with his throat cut – the middle-class status of the family, and the succession of suspects with a sensational reveal of a teenage killer after many years guaranteed column inches at the time and it was a case that stuck in the memory. We don’t know why writer Angus McPhail picked the case for his Dead of Night segment. McPhail was a frequent scriptwriter for Ealing films and also worked with Alfred Hitchcock on Spellbound (also 1945) and The Wrong Man (1956) as well as the classic Whisky Galore! (1949). His segment Christmas Party involves a little boy who is afraid of his older sister because she wants to kill him. There is no doubt whatsoever that the Road murder is being referenced as there are name checks and a lot of biographical details are given. The fact that it’s a real murder though is completely incidental, it just gives an extra dimension to the horror and this may well have been the intention in including the details.

The Road murder has been well explored in recent times thanks to Kate Summerscale’s incredibly successful The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2009) so I won’t go into too much detail about the ins and outs of the case. On Sunday 8th July 1860 Lloyds Weekly Newspaper quoted the Bath Chronicle to give its readers’ the terrible details of the case. They were baffled by the mystery.

Lloyds Weekly Newspaper, July 8th 1860

It wasn’t long before a suspect emerged. Inspector Jonathan Whicher, who had been investigating the case was convinced from fairly early on that the murder had been committed by Saville’s half-sister Constance. On Monday July 23rd 1860 The Standard reported on Constance’s appearances in court with Inspector Whicher setting out the case against her.

The London Evening Standard, Monday July 23rd.

But Whicher’s suspicions against Constance proved difficult to prove. Then someone else confessed to the crime. On Thursday, August 16th the London Daily News reported on the court appearance of a John Edmond Gagg who claimed he had killed the child. However, it soon became apparent that Gagg had not even been in the vicinity at the time of the murder and could not have committed the murder. The Daily News was not impressed.

London Daily News August 16th 1860Constance finally confessed to the murder in 1865. The London Daily News carried the story as did many other papers. The Road Hill House murder had certainly captured the public imagination.

London Daily News April 27 1865

The story of little Francis Saville Kent and his sister Constance still has a draw today and I would recommend a read of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher for the full details. But for a Christmas ghost story take a look at Dead of Night – be scared by the ventriloquist’s dummy but remember the sad, sordid tale behind that innocuously creepy Christmas party segment.

All newspaper snippets copyright The British Newspaper Archive.

It’s in the trees…it’s coming…

Nightofthedemonposter

I thought it was time for another look at real cases that have their echoes in classic films. Last time I wrote about lost Lon Chaney film London After Midnight  and it’s connection to the rather tragic case of Julia Mangan, killed by the obviously disturbed Robert Williams. This time we’re sticking with a horror film but the story has more than a whiff of the supernatural – the link might be quite rather tenuous but I’m going with it. It’s a great film and the cases that echo through the story are fascinating ones.

Night of the Demon  was Jacques Tourneur’s version of the classic M.R. James short story Casting the Runes. Released in 1957 it tells the story of the sceptical psychologist played by Dana Andrews who comes up against the charismatically devilish Niall MacGinnis. It’s a tremendously creepy film that has all of James’ hallmarks – intellectual arrogance coming a cropper against older, darker forces – but for the contemporary audience it was a story that carried a particularly plausible shiver thanks to a couple of strange war time murders. Even though there’s no direct link, there’s a very good chance that screenwriters Charles Bennett and Hal. E. Chester were influenced by what they read about these cases when they were updating James’s earlier story.

In 1943 four small boys were poaching in Hagley Woods near the village of Stourbridge in Worcestershire. They came across a large Wych Elm near Wychbury Hill and it was there they made a shocking discovery. Looking for birds nests they climbed the trunk and peered into the hollow. Below them was a human skull still with traces of hair attached.

Local papers appealed for information about the identity of the deceased – a woman believed to be aged between 35 and 40.

Gloucestershire Echo 24 April 1943

Gloucestershire Echo, 24 April 1943

No one came forward to claim her. But someone didn’t want her to be forgotten. As the first anniversary of the discovery approached, the Sunday Mirror took up the story.

Sunday_Mirror_02041944

Sunday Mirror, April 2 1944

The piece explained that shortly before Christmas the previous year the words “Who put Luebella down the wych elm?” were written in chalk on the wall of a house on Hayden Hill Road, Old Hill. The following week the words appeared again on the wall of an empty premises in Upper Dean Street, Birmingham. A few days later, the mysterious writer was obviously getting frustrated that no one was answering them so the words “Hagley Wood Bella” appeared several times near by. Bella has never been formally identified. One theory said she was part of a war time spy ring. The file remains open.

The following year a gruesome murder in nearby Warwickshire dredged up old suspicions and paranoia. On Valentines’ Day, 74-year-old hedge cutter Charles Walton was slashed to death near the village of Lower Quinton with a pitchfork and a slash hook. Initial reports such as this one from the Gloucestershire Citizen the following day made no mention of any supernatural link but that would soon change.

Gloucester_Citizen_15_February_1945

Gloucester Citizen, February 15, 1945

However the case soon became synonymous with witchcraft, largely thanks to the later accounts of the famous Chief Inspector Robert Fabian, who arrived from Scotland Yard to investigate. In his 1950 memoir, Fabian of the Yard, he would write.

“One of my most memorable murder cases was at the village of Lower Quinton, near the stone Druid circle of the Whispering Knights. There a man had been killed in a reproduction of a Druidical ceremony on St Valentines’ Eve”

Fabian suggested that the case had marked similarities with a murder that had happened nearby a generation ago, a murder where witchcraft actually had been a very real part of the story. It’s rather unlikely that the Walton case had anything to do with the occult even if it did make one hell of a good story. The earlier case on the other hand really did seem to arise from good old fashioned superstitious paranoia.

In December 1875, the the trial of James Haywood at the Warwickshire Assizes was covered by the Warwickshire Journal. All the witnesses described Haywood’s preoccupation with witches, leading to a brutal attack on elderly Ann Tennant, who he had attacked with a pitchfork and killed in the village of Long Compton.

Haywood had apparently said that there were 15 or 16 witches in the village and that they were making it impossible for him to work. He said that he would kill them one by one. When the victim’s daughter took the stand, he got agitated in court.

Worcestershire_Journal_18_December_1875_1

Worcestershire Journal, 18 December 1875

According to the superintendent of the county lunatic asylum Haywood was insane.

Worcestershire_Journal_18_December_1875_2

Haywood was found not guilty by reason of insanity and would spend the rest of his life in the asylum. However it is worth noting the words of an earlier witness, local farmer James Taylor…

Worcestershire_Journal_18_December_1875_3

It’s impossible to know how much influence these cases had on the writers of Night of the Demon but it is very reasonable to assume that they were were in the mix somewhere. Fabian’s memoires were adapted by the BBC in the 50s and  the Lower Quinton case in particular was a notorious one. The film is a quintessentially English horror firmly rooted in a world where belief in witchcraft had never fully died out. In fact, in the 50s it was rather a fashionable subject. The founder of modern witchcraft, Gerald Gardiner, had published his book Witchcraft Today in 1954 and Hammer Films were helping horror films back into the spotlight after the war. These three cases undoubtedly formed part of the national psyche and have not lost their resonance today.

All newspapers available on Findmypast.co.uk

Scared out of his wits

Annex - Chaney Sr., Lon (London After Midnight)_02

Lon Chaney as the master detective Edward C. Burke in the film London After Midnight, which allegedly frightened a man to commit murder. Image thanks to Doctor Macro.

It’s been a while since I’ve told the story of a trial. Hardly surprising since that’s not what I do anymore but I haven’t moved very far away from that line of work really. I still spend far too much time immersed in the details of murders and murderers so I’ll continue to share their stories.

When I was growing up Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange was notorious. We all knew it was banned, and unlike the so-called video nasties that were our favourite loans from the video store, it had been withdrawn by it’s  director after being linked to violence.

But 50 years before Clockwork Orange was linked to violence a sad little case came before the courts in London that had a similar link to Hollywood. It went largely unreported by the London papers, unsurprisingly since the case had that familiar ring that even now made it unlikely to generate many column inches. A woman killed by her partner.  I’ve covered so many down through the years and written about them here. But what this case extraordinary was the defence – that the accused man had been so terrified by a film he’d recently seen, London After Midnight starring Lon Chaney, that he had lost his mind, albeit temporarily.

On October 25th 1928 the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette announced the “Hyde Park Tragedy”.

Hyde Park tragedy Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 25101928

The following day the Dundee Evening Telegraph carried a report from the inquest. An unnamed constable described finding the young Irish woman. She was lying huddled, face down with her left hand on her throat. Her glove was saturated with blood.

Patrick Mangan, her brother, told the inquest that his sister had been seeing Williams for three weeks. He had once had to throw him out of her place for being drunk.

Williams was expected to be discharged from hospital in about 10 days time. A picture was beginning to form. The inquest was adjourned until he could be questioned.

In November the case came before the Marlborough Street Police Court. This was the first time details of the case had been heard in public. The Nottingham Evening Post informed it’s readers that 21-year-old Julia had been employed as a worked as a house-maid in a house on Stanhope Gardens in South Kensington.

The police doctor said that considerable violence must have been used to cause the wound in her neck. A policeman who had gone to charge Williams in hospital told the court that before he could caution him Williams had told him “I did it, she had been teasing me.”

A couple of months later the case came for trial in the Old Bailey. The Central Criminal Court after trial calendars show that Williams was charged on two counts. One of murder, the other of suicide.

CRIM9 Robert Williams listed in the After trial calendars

I can’t tell how widely reported the case was. I haven’t been able to find a single reference in the London papers, although this is probably down to the late (for digital archive sources) date, but there was quite a bit of coverage north of Watford, as my mum used to say.

The Hartlepool Mail on December 20th 1928 carried a report from the Central Criminal Court, Williams was being tested to see if he was fit to stand trial. He was indicted on the charge of murder and pleaded not guilty but a key medical witness was not available to back up his insanity defence. Williams took the stand and told the court that he had known Julia Mangan for around a month. He had wanted to kill himself three days before he had killed Julia, on October 23rd. He had put a cut throat razor in his pocket. He had not intended to hurt Julia, they were friends. He had wanted to marry her, although he had told her a false name when they first met.

There had been no quarrel he said. “I felt as though my head were going to burst and that steam was coming out of both sides. All sorts of things came to my mind. I thought a man had me in a corner and was pulling faces at me. He threatened and shouted at me that he had me where he wanted me.” The man, it appears, was Lon Chaney as he had appeared in London After Midnight, a film Williams had seen several months before.

The defence put forward their case. A local chaplain from Williams’ home town of Caernarvon told the court he knew of five separate incidences of insanity in Williams’ family. A London doctor said that while he had treated Williams for neurasthenia and would have considered him “abnormal” he would not have certified him insane.

Dr James Cowan Woods, described as a lecturer on mental diseases, suggested that Williams had been suffering from an epileptic mental attack, “epileptic automatism”, much to the consternation of the judge. “You have said that many people of high intelligence are going about their work, although they are suffering from epilepsy. Are you suggesting that they might commit murder tomorrow?”

But by the time Williams stood trial in January there was still some confusion about whether he suffered from epilepsy at all. No firm diagnosis was given during the trial according to the available reports. The Western Daily Press  was more focused on the Hollywood angle, as it appeared was the trial judge, Mr Justice Humphries, when he was summing up to the jury.

“I do not know whether you have been to see any film in which Mr Lon Chaney acted. One of them, we are told is The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and another London After Midnight. If any of your members of the jury have seen the later, or even the advertisements of what Mr Lon Chaney looks like when he is acting in that film you may agree it is enough to terrify anyone.”

"London After Midnight Poster 1927 MGM" by MGM - ha.com. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The film in question, directed by legendary director Tod Browning best known for his later films Dracula (1931) and the infamous Freaks (1934). It is known as the director’s first exploration of the vampire theme and is one of the most famous lost films – the last known copy was destroyed in a fire at MGM studios in 1967. Chaney plays a detective intent on discovering who killed Sir Roger Balfour. It was based on a short story written by Browning, The Hypnotist. Chaney, was already famous for his skills of makeup and one of the selling points of the film was that the audience got to see the master at work as the detective dons various elaborate disguises – including the famous one shown in the poster and the still at the top of this piece – with sharpened teeth and special wire fittings like monocles to give him that special hypnotist stare. The film was rather a flop.

However, during Judge Humphries obviously wasn’t a fan of such popular entertainment and was only going by what had been said in court.

Judge's comments reported in Western Daily Press, January 11 1829

Williams was found guilty and sentenced to death. Judge Humphries instructed that further inquiries were made by the Home Office to try to get to the bottom of that epilepsy diagnosis. I never did find out if he was executed or not.

So the case became part of the legend of a legendary film. Personally, having gone through all the newspaper reports while I was researching this I’d have my doubts about Williams’ story. The story at the heart has too many similarities with cases I’ve covered in the past. There’s Williams’ hospital statement, that he killed her because she made fun of him. Had he proposed and been turned down? Had she broken things off? These would be far more likely scenarios in cases where women are killed by their intimate partner. I’ve also covered cases where the medical evidence was in no doubt, where the accused could not be found guilty by reason of insanity. Those cases are so often marked out by the degree of violence. While the evidence is there that the wound to Julia Mangan’s neck was done with violent force there isn’t the overkill that so often goes with a psychotic break – and I’m not even getting into the whole epileptics as killers undercurrent to the evidence…that seems more like common prejudice than anything that would be born out by modern medicine.

References:

  • Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 25 October 1928, page 8 of 8
  • Dundee Evening Telegraph, 26 October 1928, page 6 of 12
  • Derby Daily Telegraph, 13 November 1928, page 7 of 12
  • Hartlepool Mail, 20 December 1928, page 10 of 10
  • Western Daily Press, 11 January 1929,page 11 of 12
  • Central Criminal Court: after-trial calendars of prisoners (TNA Ref: CRIM 9)

All sources found on Findmypast

Fighting the Federation in Killer Heels

Blakes 7

Growing up as a space-obsessed kids in the 70s and 80s I was used to the fact that, as a girl, I probably wouldn’t get to drive the TARDIS but if I happened to wander into the Federation, not only could I kick some serious fascist overlord ass but I could actually be that fascist overlord, if I so wished – and could put up with the feathers.

Recently I’ve been tweeting my way through the various box sets of the BBC’s seminal 1980s sci fi series Blakes 7. I’m currently halfway through the third series (where things start to get really silly) and most evenings I amuse myself sniping away at the frequently ridiculous costumes and somewhat hammy acting from certain members of the cast but fun as that might may be it’s got me thinking. I’ve been a fan of Blakes 7 since it first aired. I have a higher tolerance for the ludicrous plot twists of the third and fourth series because they were where I came in. When I was a little girl I thought Dana’s combination of cat suits with stilettos was seriously cool and I had a bit of a thing for Tarrant (both characters joined the show for the third series after the show lost two of it’s key characters including the eponymous Blake.) But with each adult viewing (we’ve the whole lot on DVD and it does tend to get yearly showings) I get a further appreciation of what a cracking show it is even at it’s weakest points. I’m increasingly glad that it was there when I was growing up, that it provided me with such strong role models and set the bar for all future space and future set viewing at an impressive height.

Blakes 7 inspired, at least partially, both Babylon 5 and Joss Whedon’s Firefly. It told the story of a motley crew of freedom fighters who were taking a stand against the repressive Federation led by the magnificent uber-bitch Servalan.

Servalan in heels

 

The original crew was lead by charismatic leader Roj Blake who ran around the galaxy righting wrongs dressed like a PVC -clad floppy sleeved Robin Hood (courtesy of the sometimes treacherous costume department). Blake had been a resistance leader on earth but had been stung with false pornography charges and sent to a penal colony (even though he never actually got there). Like Firefly our dynamic captain has a female second. Jenna Stannis was basically a female Han Solo minus the wookiee. She was a crack pilot, fearless fighter and a principled smuggler who had walked into her own brand of trouble when she refused to smuggle drugs for the mob. Kerr Avon is the somewhat self-serving hacker who’d got into trouble for a spot of bank robbing and was to spend the rest of the serious smouldering at Servalan and bristling at any rival alpha males including a computer. Olag Gan was the gentle strong man who had been fitted with a chip to help him with his anger management issues. Vila Restal was a super thief, known throughout the Federation and feared by anybody who had locks even though he seems to spend most of the later episodes playing the bumbling fool and token serf (back then the BBC future was very middle class indeed). After meeting on a prison ship this lot met up with alien empath Cally, who was basically a vigilante until she joined Blake’s crew. The seven were completed by the two ships computers – Zen, a Tetris light board with a rather stentorian attitude and everyone’s favourite neon perspex box of flashing lights, Orac. Orac was a computer with a personality problem who regularly refused to do what he was told, so not unlike some of today’s tech then.

Unfortunately after a very gritty, grimy start with hard hitting story lines and frequent industrial settings, the 80s and Margaret Thatcher arrived and everything got a little bit more neon and a lot more silly. Gareth Thomas famously left the part of Blake because he felt the show had become more Science Fantasy than Science Fiction. He was joined by Sally Knyvette who felt that the character of Jenna had been watered down in the second series. She talks about her concerns in this interview. The character of Dayna Mellanby who replaced her, certainly seemed to be more of a pleasure model, despite the character’s credentials as the best weapons manufacture the Federation had ever known. Tarrant, who attempted to slot into the green doublet left by Blake, was a rather petulant pretty boy who kept his silver spoon in his well pressed pocket. A rather unconvincing freedom fighter, since Avon had been providing the pouting arrogance since the start. The last female member of the crew Soolin, actually was a pleasure model with her fighting credentials tacked on as a bit of an after thought.

It’s perhaps odd that a show with such obvious flaws inspires such affection or perhaps it isn’t.  Each evening, when I start tweeting the next episode I’m amazed at the response I get. I’m always relieved people get in 140s characters that while I’m sending it up I do so with absolute affection – but I doubt I’d get the same response if I was so rude about Star Wars or Star Trek and I know I don’t when I poke fun at Hammer Films or The Prisoner. Cult movies and TV do get some rather intense fans but with Blakes 7 I’ve yet to encounter any. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a show that people love and love passionately. I loved it so much that when it came to an abrupt end in 1981 I was devastated. I started reading the Radio Times and watching Points of View just to scan for news of a reprieve. It was the first time I’d experienced the cancellation of a favourite show and I took it personally. Over the years, before either show was revived and we were all working purely on childhood memories, I’ve had rows with Doctor Who fans over which was better (I always liked both but you couldn’t say that in these rows). Blakes 7 was the one that people tended to forget back then, or to remember it dismissively as an also ran. Perhaps that’s why the affection for the show you encounter online is so warm. Despite the reliance on depressed industrial landscapes, despite the outrageous costumes, despite the sometimes dodgy portrayal of women and the utter campness of the whole thing, once you love it, you’ll love it for ever more.

When I was a kid I never noticed the fact that the women were styled to appeal to all the boys not to me. I loved the fact that Dayna was a crack shot with the large guns she’d built from scratch, not to mention the fact she could still aim straight while balancing in those strappy silver sandals with the three inch heels. Cally was my hero. I loved that she could calm situations without even raising her gun. Jenna I only discovered once I got the dvds so I can’t say she was a childhood rolemodel but to be honest the deepest impression was left by the series bad guy. Even though you weren’t supposed to like Servalan it was hard not to. The woman is a monster who destroys planets before sitting down to breakfast. She is so far over the top she’s coming down the other side and generally performs her tyranny in full evening dress with perfectly manicured nails and drag queen makeup. Jacqueline Pearce, who’d made various appearances in Hammer Films in the 60s as a wide eyed ingénue, gives the role her all and somehow, despite all the set chewing, flamboyant extravagance, is brilliant.

Servalan

With Servalan you knew she wasn’t wearing an outfit like this  because she was a sexual object, she was wearing it because she wanted to and probably because it unsettled whoever was in the meeting with her. She is the embodiment of an assumption that I always remember seeing in British sci fi growing up that the future would be equal. There would be no barrier to getting the top job as a woman because that argument had already been had. I knew I couldn’t drive the TARDIS because I wasn’t a Timelord but there were no barriers in the Federation. These were women who frequently did the rescuing, who could be in charge, who could do what they wanted. It’s something I’ll go into in more detail in a later post but I remember growing up with no shortage of role models like these. I’m not sure you could say that these days things have got worse but I can’t help feeling that for every Katniss Everdeen or Zoe Washburne there’s a Bella Swan dragging the whole side down. Perhaps it’s because family shows back then couldn’t have cohabiting protagonists back then so strong female characters tended to be shown as single (although that opens up a whole other kettle of worms if you’re going to look at them from a feminist perspective). Like I said – we’ll leave that for another day. Back in my college days I wrote countless essays on feminist views of popular culture. Don’t get me started on the male gaze! But that’s not for today.

Today I just want to sing the praises of the women of Blakes 7 who helped to make the show one of the campest BBC shows outside Come Dancing. I’ll be back on the Twitter when we put on the next episode tweeting at the hashtag #blakes7. If you want to watch along and have the DVDs we’re on Series 3 episode 10. I’m there most evenings between 10 and 11 GMT.

A Point that Really Shouldn’t Need to be Made

Late yesterday afternoon, at around the time thoughts were turning towards what to have for dinner, my phone rang. It was a wonderfully geeky friend who knows of my own (not so closet) geeky tendencies. Had we talked about Much Ado About Nothing she asked excitedly.

“Um no, not recently.”

I knew that Much Ado About Nothing was one of the most hotly anticipated screenings at this year’s Jameson Dublin Film Festival. In attendance would be the director of this new production, none other but Joss Whedon. I knew about the screening all right. I also knew it was sold out.

But my wonderful friend had a tip. A small number of tickets were being released in the final hours before the screening. Would I like to go with her.

“Hell yes!”

So at 6 o’ clock yesterday four of us, all women, excitedly met outside the Savoy Cinema. We weren’t the only women there. Why would we be? This is the man responsible for Buffy the vampire slayer, for the formidable Zoe Washburne in Firefly, I could go off into a long list of amazing female characters but I’m trying to keep the fangirlness to an absolute minimum. Let’s just agree that Joss Whedon is known for his strong female characters. It’s a fact so mind bogglingly obvious it really doesn’t need saying. You would think. There were a lot of women at last night’s screening, a substantial percentage of the enthusiastic crowd.

After last night’s screening there was a Q&A conducted by John Maguire of the Sunday Business Post. Eventually questions were thrown open to the floor. You can imagine the number of hands went up for those microphones. The first question went to a guy in the first row. What it was is unimportant. The second went to a guy in the row behind him. Then another bloke, and another. Eventually Joss Whedon had to point out that there were women in the room. Wasn’t it time to let one answer a question?

The next question went to another man. Much to the annoyance of the woman sitting next to him who had also had her hand up.

Now I’m not saying that the guys who got the mic didn’t have a right to ask their question. Everyone in that audience was there for the same reason. Tickets sold out so quickly because Mr Whedon has a hell of a lot of fans of both sexes.

But he is known for his strong female characters.

Afterwards in the crowd outside the cinema people were smiley and happy and chatty. Our little group of four got talking to other audience members. All of them women. Nothing surprising in that. It was just the way it worked out. But we all commented on the fact that so few women had got to answer questions.

Of the two women who did get to ask one of them identified herself as a theatre director and producer. She wanted to adapt the famous musical episode of Buffy for the stage she explained. She had written a letter. To the audience’s, and I’m sure her, delight, Whedon crossed to her seat and took the letter from her, tucking it in his jacket pocket.

That took balls, everyone outside was saying. How appropriate.

That failure to give the mic to the women in the audience was the only gripe in an otherwise great evening. I don’t think it was done maliciously, probably not even intentionally, but it was done and it was noticed and it was remarked upon by the guest of honour himself.

The truly depressing thing about the fact that it wasn’t malicious and it was probably wasn’t intentional is that that this kind of stuff happens all the time. It happens with such mind numbing regularity I frequently want to scream. It’s like the time in college when a big journalistic name came to speak to our class. There was a lively discussion that went right up to the end of the day. Afterwards this big journalistic name, who was an old friend of our lecturer, agreed to go for a pint. Invitations were carelessly given but somehow the only people who got them were they lads in the class. Once again it wasn’t intentional, once again I found myself outside with the women noticing the omission.

It’s like fact that you can turn on Irish radio station between breakfast at dinner time and only hear a male host. The fantastic advocacy group Women on Air was set up to combat this. Despite a long list of qualified female contributors out there, Irish journalists (and those elsewhere, this isn’t solely an Irish problem by a long chalk) will go for the same old male reliable. I could go on giving examples forever. I’m sure you could add them yourself.

It’s frustrating as a women to feel even now, in Western Europe in the 21st Century, that you don’t have the same voice as the other half of the population. Even though my generation of women are the first who can look on our freedom as a birthright there is so much still to do. The fact that this freedom, this equality, is so easily forgotten shows just how fragile it is. The worst thing is that sometimes the offenders really should know better. Members of the so called “liberal meeja” really should know better.

When you’re interviewing someone who is known particularly for writing strong female characters then the issue should surely be at the front of your mind.

I’ll leave the final word to Joss Whedon himself. My miraculous ticket fairy also pointed me towards this clip of him accepting an award from the Equality Now movement. Says it all really.

Back on the Women’s Pages

 

The-Newsroom-poster-HBO

I’ve a definite soft spot for journalism movies. Give me a story about a heroic hack (or a not so heroic one for that matter) and I’ll make the popcorn. The same goes for books and TV and has done since I studied journalism in college. So when it was announced that Aaron Sorkin was writing a new series set in a TV newsroom I got rather excited. I’d devoured the West Wings liberal bed time stories and even loved the short lived Studio 60. The Newsroom was bound to be good.

I should probably point out here that I don’t require my journalism movies to be madly realistic. The more gung ho and idealistic the better – I’m looking for entertainment not realism – but it does need to be recognisable. So I progressed from Lois & Clark to Drop the Dead Donkey via the short-lived Harry, starring Michael Elphick as a washed up Fleet Street hack running a news agency up north.  There was political intrigue in House of Cards,  not to mention Paul Abbott’s genius State of Play and more recently The Hour and that’s just the TV.

In films there’s Mel Gibson before we learned about his unfortunate religious views in The Year of Living Dangerously, All the President’s Men, Good Night and Good Luck, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, Up Close and Personal, His Girl Friday and To Die For to name but a few. And of course Paddy Chayefsky’s utterly brilliant Network. I never cared whether I was watching male or female hacks the hook that always caught me was the drive, the hunger for the story, the determination to get the truth out there. This was something I was sure Aaron Sorkin would provide in bucket loads and so settled down to add The Newsroom to the list.

But there’s a problem.

Several episodes in and I’m still waiting for a female character I can relate to. Actually I’m still waiting for a female character I didn’t want to slap. It’s never really been an issue before. There was never anything in the films and series that I’ve mentioned above that told me as a woman I wasn’t capable of standing shoulder to shoulder with any of the male journalists and chasing that story just the same. In the same way that I wouldn’t assume I was any less capable than any of my male colleagues. There might be differences between the sexes but they don’t tend to extend to news sense and ambition.

So why do I feel when I’m watching the Newsroom that the person talking to me thinks women should be making the tea and writing the women’s pages? It could have something to do with this interview with Sorkin that came out just before The Newsroom launched. But it’s a lot more to do with the character that every female character seems to be a neurotic incompetent who brings her personal life into work and gets distracted by sparkles unless there’s a nice strong dependable bloke to keep her focused.

I’ve been a journalist for more than a decade. I’ve had a lot of female colleagues. I can’t think of one of them that wouldn’t have taken any of the Newsroom drips to one side to tell her to cop the fuck on. It’s a shame because in pretty much every other respect The Newsroom ticks the boxes. It’s nowhere near as sharp as Network, even though I gather Aaron Sorkin is also a fan, but its right-on outrage at the state of journalism is more heartening bedtime story stuff. It’s what he does.

But that’s what makes the Sorkin women so hard to take. Where are the strong female role models, a Martha Gelhorn for every Ed Murrow? Surely in this perfect journalistic world the exceptional women should be standing up with the exceptional men? I would have thought it was a given.

I’ll probably keep watching The Newsroom, for the rest of the first series at least, but it’s not going to be going on my journalist list. I wouldn’t recommend it to any girls or women wanting to follow a career in journalism. They should be told the sky’s the limit, not to wait until a man comes to sort it out. It’s hard enough out there. We don’t need this crap.

After the Apocalypse

Over the weekend I got the chance to see a film that has haunted me for years. I first saw Death Watch, Bertrand Tavernier’s 1980 dystopian look at reality TV, during the Dublin Film Festival in the mid 90s. It’s stuck with me ever since. The story takes place in a world where death has been pushed to the sidelines as medicine cured most of humanity’s ills. This has not led to the utopia one would imagine. There are food shortages, wars, restrictions on travel. A journalist, played by Harvey Keitel has a camera implanted into his brain to bring a personal view of death to a viewing public numbed by modern life. Right down my street – and I hadn’t even started on the current line of work back then.

Seeing the film again after all these years I was struck by how well it fits with the fatalistic sense of an ending that has pervaded the world we live in. It’s not really surprising that Death Watch has been dusted off for a whole new audience. Apocalypses (especially of the zombie variety) are hot right now. The Hunger Games trilogy has spawned a series of films, even a nail polish line, not to mention a whole school of dystopian fiction for teens. The TV schedules are full of Walking Dead and Falling Skies. There’s even an Irish entry to the canon with Conor Horgan’s One Hundred Mornings. The list goes on. I suppose you could even look at the enduring charms of steam punk as tapping into the same obsession – albeit from a rather glamorous and circuitous route.

It’s hardly surprising though. Times of flux suit the dystopian genre. While writers might not need society to break down before they will happily imagine its destruction, dystopias have niche appeal unless things get pretty shitty. I was a child of the 70s. I’ve always got a draw full of candles because I remember getting stuck without them in the brownouts, the depressingly regular power cuts that used to punctuate winter nights. I remember tramping through pitch black streets to friends with a camp stove and surplus night lights. My mum always kept a supply of tins at the back of a cupboard, long after the labels had fallen off and they had become encrusted in mysterious black goo around the rim. She was a war baby and was always prepared.

It’s this boy scout instinct that pricks up it’s ears it hears a dystopian scenario. The bit of us that likes to know that if the worst came to the worst we’d be ok, we’d have that emergency stash, have the resources, the skills to survive. Dystopias answer that fear. They’re reassuring, comforting, and always character driven. We like to see that when the end comes and the dust has settled family will survive, society will rebuild, and we’ll all get to live in idyllic surroundings and grow our own veg.

While dystopias might allow a writer to strip back relationships, to explore their characters in extremis or to look at the logical, if pessimistic end to a current trend or policy, they can offer the reader something considerably more hopeful. At their heart there is always the best of humanity. A spark that refuses to be extinguished. While marauding gangs might terrorise the broken landscape, it will be resourcefulness, compassion and integrity that win out more often than not, a glimmer of hope in the darkest times.

Back when I was a kid, even though the pea green bleakness of the 70s had given way to the florescent brashness of the 80s, there was still terror at every turn. President Reagan was playing Star Wars, women were camping at Greenham Common and there were the nuked white outlines of a family and their dog spray painted on the pavement outside Wimbledon Town Hall. In 1984 a season of nuclear themed television on the BBC scarred a generation with Z for Zachariah and Threads but even here there was still a spark of hope (even if that hope might be in the viewer’s power to prevent the events from ever happening in reality)

I was at a rather impressionable age when I saw that season. When, two years later they showed Raymond Briggs bleakest of bleak love story When the Wind Blows, I was already sleeplessly waiting for death to come in the night.   I don’t think I was the only one. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always had a soft spot for dystopias, and why I’m sure today’s kids will have a similar fondness decades from now.

Tonight’s viewing will be The Quatermass Conclusion but for now I will leave you with the best “You Bastard You’ve Killed Us All” opening sequence of them all.

 

The Dark Side of Love

Maybe it’s because I spend a large chunk of my working life writing about disastrous relationships but I’ve never been one for sugary romance. In fairness I was of a fairly cynical bent before I ever set foot in a courtroom but the last six years have not helped! The avalanche of cherubs, roses and all shades of pink that erupts so soon after Christmas these days just puts me in mind of the dentist. I listen to Jacques Brel singing Ne Me Quitte Pas and I think of barring orders and don’t get me started on the kind of stalking popularised by blokes of  a vampire persuasion (see Twilight or Buffy  for copious examples).

Perhaps this is why I’ve always liked films that look at the twisted side of love.  Last night I was watching the unusual Hammer thriller Straight on Till Morning.

Straight on Till Morning

Hammer’s Straight on Till Morning

Staring Rita Tushingham and Shane Briant it’s as dysfunctional a love story as you can get.  Brenda, who writes children’s stories in her spare time, leaves her home in Liverpool to go and get knocked up. Unfortunately the first bloke who gives this “ugly duckling” a second glance in swinging London happens to be a serial killer with a Peter Pan complex. He likes her coz she’s not that attractive. She likes him because he’s got a pulse. It’s not going to end well. Made in 1972, it was probably cashing in on previous successes in this very specific genre, but it’s an interesting film nonetheless, though rather stuck in its time. This isn’t Hammer’s usual fare. It really is a love story, although a twisted one and the frequent referencing of  J.M. Barrie’s book gives a literate shorthand to some psychological complexity.

Straight on Till Morning though, pales in comparison with earlier explorations of this kind of theme. Another of my favourites is the 1965 adaptation of John Fowles’ The Collector.

The Collector Poster

 

I read the book when I first moved away from home and it’s story of a lepidopterist stalker left me paranoid for weeks afterwards. The film, starring Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar, is a damn good literary adaptation. I still think its one of the most unsettling accounts of obsession. Freddie Clegg has watched art student Miranda Grey for half her life and becomes convinced that if he could only get her attention she could fall in love with him.  When he comes into a large sum of money he decides to take action.

But to my mind the best of the bunch is the brilliant and unsettling Peeping Tom, directed by Michael Powell of Powell and Pressburger fame,

Peeping Tom

 

Made in 1960 this was the film that arguable brought Powell’s career to an end.  The story of quiet, monumentally screwed up cameraman Mark, played by Carl Boehm with Anna Massey as his lodger Helen, was too dark for critics and audiences alike. It is a brutal story, though relatively tame by modern standards, but it’s also a brilliant examination of the cinematographer’s gaze and the distance both filmmakers and cinema audiences have from the subject.  Once again, the central relationship at the heart of the film is a dark reflection of romantic love.

But it’s worth remembering that all three of these films are disturbing echoes of a reality that is all too common. I’ve seen way to many trials of men who killed their partner because she threatened to leave.  In reality I always struggle to understand the mind of someone who would want to possess another human being to that extent. In many ways obsession is far scarier than any monster or psychopath. But there seems to be a fine line between desirable romantic passion and the time to change your phone numbers and notify the gardai.  But then at this time of year I’m always the one pointing out that anonymous Valentines cards are really quite a creepy idea. But then, I don’t do sugary romance…

How to be a Good Wife

 

A 1950s housewife

Every day we’re bombarded with advice on how to be perfect.  Whether it’s the magic cream that will keep you young or the latest newspaper column on how to garden, how to cook, what gadgets will elevate your life onto a plane of Zen-like calm as the minutiae of life are sifted into ever smaller boxes, there are always voices feeding our insecurities with the promise that if you could only follow these three simple rules life will flow like it does on the movies.  With money tight and time even tighter it’s hardly surprising we feel like we’re floundering, but take heart.  We’re not the first generation to feel swamped by the image of the perfect home, perfect life.  It didn’t kick off in the 50s either whatever you might think from watching Mad Men. It goes much, much further than that!

At the climax of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew Kate instructs her sister and step-mother with her newly hard won wisdom.  “A woman moved is like a fountain troubled” she scolds “muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty; and while it is so none so dry or thirsty will deign to sip or touch one drop of it.”  She could almost be selling the latest anti aging miracle potion.

Next week an 18th Century guide to how to cut it in the modern world will go under the hammer.  The Lady’s Companion  with the snappy subtitle An Infallible Guide to the Fairer Sex,  was pitched as essential reading for “virgins, wives or widows”.  So dogmatic, so L’Oreal.

My own interest in the impossible dream started when aspirations to domestic nirvana were limited to singing along to Somewhere That’s Green from The Little Shop of Horrors.  It was the early 1990s and I was living in a bedsit in Rathmines that was straight out of Rising Damp.  The wiring was certainly straight out of the 70s – ah the heady days before landlord registration! So the 70s edition Good Housekeeping Home Encyclopaedia seemed like an essential reference when I found it on the dusty lower shelf of a second hand bookshop.  It was only when I got it home I discovered the wealth of information about stain removal and household budgets.  In those days I tended to skip the bits about how to cater dinner parties and look your most alluring with a gin & tonic when your husband came home from a hard day at the office.

Growing up in the 70s and 80s surrounded by strong women, many of whom were going it alone I never doubted that I would build a career.  There was never any suggestion that happiness was in any way contingent on a well appointed kitchen or, come to that, a man.  By the time I reached my teens and my 20s I saw the perfectly rouged, high-heeled beauties in the “House Wife” manual as nothing more than Stepford Wives, enemies almost, who were very definitely letting the side down.

My stance softened when I met The Husband.  I seized the idea of building a warm and inviting nest with both hands, consumed with the urge to build a glowing, sweet-smelling home just for just us two.  I bought an apron and matching saucepans.  I learnt to make cupcakes and bread.  I was never going to be a kitchen goddess – the keyboard will always have more of a lure than the kitchen – but suddenly I could kind of see the point.  It was in the euphoria of early married life that my little collection of “Good Wife” manuals took shape.  Even when newsroom shifts meant I was living off M&S microwave meals for one I would look at the colour plates in these books and marvel at the spotless kitchens and gargantuan cleaning schedules.

The earliest book I have is the didactically titled Book of Good Housekeeping published by the Good Housekeeping sometime in the 1950s.   “The modern housewife”, the introduction informs, “has to combine many functions with those of mistress of her house; she will almost certainly do her own shopping and cooking, and probably a good part of the household washing and cleaning; more and more she is her own interior decorator, handywoman and often gardener…Even with the willing help of the “man about the house”, the average housewife today leads a very full life.”  The book covers everything from balancing the household budget to plumbing and beauty (all vanishing cream and makeup that looks it’s best from the other side of the room).

The schedule for housework alone provides a full working week and the requirement for table linen (2-3 table cloths, 2-3 breakfast cloths AND 2-3 afternoon tea cloths) means life would be a never ending cycle of table laying.  But despite the frankly terrifying standards you’re supposed to aspire to there’s something comforting about the photographs of primary coloured kitchens and living rooms.  For all the fish knives and grapefruit spoons, the book makes ideal home perfection look attainable – even if it is a full time job.

Then there’s Frankly Feminine published in England in 1972.  Times have changed and it’s no longer enough to match your lipstick to your suit colour (or to dress up when doing the housework for that matter).  The book starts off with a list of the calories in everyday foodstuff and many pictures of a very supple blonde girl in a red leotard but the housework plan is as strenuous as ever.  As the foreword says “This book has been compiled for today’s complete woman – who sees the stars around her and finds her happiness still in her home, with her family, and her friends.”  “Today’s complete woman” is still going to be spending a hell of a lot of time with table cloths and dinner parties even if the fish knives have now been superseded by fondue sets.

These were the books bought by and bought for brides.  I can all too easily imagine how their calm, dogmatic tone could be tinged with the mother-in-law’s hectoring tones. They set the bar pretty high and, when not viewed as social history, must have seemed like the Stepford rule book.  But I read them from a different world.  I might not come close to their exacting standards but I don’t have to.  I find it comforting not nagging that they break down domesticity into a simple set of rules.  With their diagrams for everything from changing nappies to laying out a kitchen to putting on eye shadow they break down the esoteric secrets of grown up life into a few easy steps.

Generally speaking I restrict my domestic goddess tendencies to Christmas and the very occasional dinner party and you’re a million times more likely to find me sitting at my desk with birds nest hair and ratty pyjamas than turning the mattresses and laying the table for breakfast.  But if I had the spare cash I’d love to bid for the Lady’s Companion…how fascinating to see how the mother-in-laws of the 1740s would given their instructions.

The Lure of Celluloid

I’ve always loved going to the cinema.  Since I was a kid and the expedition to the two screener in Wimbledon a treat for high days and summer days and whenever we had the money to go.  They still had a commissioner in those days (Ashes to Ashes territory), a short man with a lot of gold on his uniform and a hatred of kids.  I can remember my mum getting into a row with him because she was bringing me to see a 15 certificate and I was only 12 or 13.  He called her bluff but my mum was never a person to cross and he ended up backing down.  The film, if I remember right, was The Assam Garden, hardly a riot of violence and torture porn.

When I was in school in Sligo the trip to the flicks was the once monthly treat for boarders.  I went on my first proper date to the cinema.  It was hardly the most obvious date movie…a film called Skindeep most famous for the scene where you see light sabre-like duelling condoms.

Once I’d left school and moved away from home, cinema became a refuge from long days and a strange city.  The cinemas along Abbey Street here in Dublin were my favourites – the Adelphi for the Hollywood blockbusters and the tiny Lighthouse for foreign films and arthouse.  I can remember a friend and I going to see Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves dozens of times during the summer of 1991.  Both of us can still quote most of Alan Rickman’s Sherriff of Nottingham dialogue by heart.

The Lighthouse was a different experience.  Tiny and red carpeted the screens had an intimate atmosphere I’ve never encountered before or since.  Screen two in particular only sat around around 30 people.  I remember once, during a showing of Tous Les Matins du Monde staring the Depardieu father and son, someone started handing round Maltesers to the whole audience – there were only about six of us.

The Adelphi and the old Lighthouse are long gone, as is the Adelphi’s sister hotel the Carlton which used to be at the top of O’Connell Street opposite the Savoy.  By then the Irish Film Centre had opened up in Temple Bar, showing art house and independent films, retrospectives, foreign films but also providing a hub for a certain section of the cinema going public.  There was a restaurant there, a bar and a shop.  The big airy space in an old glassed over courtyard seemed fresh and modern.  I was working for a community radio station at the time, while I was in college.  I’d got involved with the movie show and used to love going to the IFC in the morning clutching paper cup of coffee and balancing a notebook on my knee in the dark.

I saw so many films in those morning showings, too many to detail here.  I’d always wanted to review movies and was finally living the dream.  I used to sit in the dark listening to the scratching of pens from all the other reviewers around me.  I enjoyed every film I saw, partially because they were free, even if I would sometimes find fault – just for the show of it!

I loved the IFC, now the IFI, but I always missed the Lighthouse.  Even in the early morning press screenings, no one ever handed round Maltesers and there was never the same sense of camaraderie, that you knew you were in the company of like-minded people, or at least, one or two like minded people and quite a few homeless people and pensioners.

So I was delighted, ecstatic even, when I heard that, not only were we getting a local cinema in Smithfield but it was going to be the resurrected Lighthouse.  This time last year it opened and we’ve been going ever since.  In it’s new incarnation it’s a far cry from the tatty seats and cigarette stained red carpet of the old Abbey Street venue.  The new Lighthouse is quite simply the nicest cinema in Dublin and in the top three of cinemas I’ve ever been to.

I love the multicoloured seating in the largest screen and the fact that every screen is different.  I love the fact that it’s designed with lots of interesting spaces and places to sit when you’re not watching films…it cries out to be used for seminars and conferences and talks, and I gather it’s been pulled into service for that very purpose more than once.  But probably the thing I like most about it is that it’s so far underground, deep under Smithfield Square, that mobile phones just don’t work – and anyone who’s had a pivotal cinematic moment ruined by some gimps novelty ring tone will agree that no signal is a good thing in a cinema.

I’ve become positively evangelical about the Lighthouse.  It really is a world class place and worthy successor to it’s Abbey Street predecessor.  It deserves to do well and I really don’t think I could deal with losing the Lighthouse for a second time!

I’ve nothing against the multiplex experience.  There’s nothing wrong with a decent blockbuster when you’re in the mood and multiscreens are great for those.  My favourite in Dublin is Cineworld on Parnell Street…a good selection of films and it’s actually a big enough place that even marauding packs of kids don’t get underfoot while they’re waiting for the latest pre teen sensation to start.  But a small local cinema like the Lighthouse that shows interesting films and champions the titles that would never get a multiplex showing…that wins every time.

I love films and I will always love going to the cinema.  Being able to get lost in another world for a couple of hours knowing that around you there are other people lost in exactly the same world is like nothing else.  It’s a totally different form of storytelling than books, communal rather than solitary and there are times when that simply can’t be best.  Theatre is a local experience.  A play is done performed by a specific group of people in a specific venue and will only be that way with those people and that venue.  Cinema is universal, one vision suits all, the whole world can see the same thing.

The Lighthouse is a cinema for people who love film, run by people who love film.  That can’t be bettered!

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