The Agatha Christie Challenge – Evil Under The Sun (1941)

Evil under the SunIn which Hercule Poirot is enjoying a quiet holiday in a discreet island off the coast of Devon, when one of his fellow holidaymakers is found strangled on a beach. Naturally the local police ask Poirot to assist – and just before they call in Scotland Yard his little grey cells come to the rescue. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

holy BibleThe book is dedicated to “John in memory of our last season in Syria.” This was John Rose, who befriended Agatha and her husband Max at an archaeological dig at Ur, in 1928. She would also dedicate her later book, A Caribbean Mystery, to him. Evil Under the Sun was first serialised in the US in Colliers’ Weekly from December 1940 to February 1941. The full book was first published in the UK in June 1941 by Collins Crime Club and then subsequently in the US in October the same year. The title is a quotation from the Book of Ecclesiastes, Chapter 6, Verses 1-2: “There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, and it is common among men. A man to whom God hath given riches, wealth, and honour, so that he wanteth nothing for his soul of all that he desireth, yet God giveth him not power to eat thereof, but a stranger eateth it: this is vanity, and it is an evil disease.” My guess is that the observation is that the character of Arlena has everything that money could buy, but is she happy?

Film SoundtrackI could only remember a few hints of the story as I was re-reading this book, which meant that the denouement at the end came as a thoroughly enjoyable surprise. I have fond memories of the film; primarily because it had such a brilliant soundtrack of songs by Cole Porter, and the soundtrack album was perfect fodder for whenever you needed a little nostalgic easy listening. The film, however, did take many liberties with the book, and I couldn’t recommend it if you are a Christie purist.

old womanThis is a very enjoyable book but it has a few downsides for me. A few of the characters are deliberately dull and boring people, incessantly jabbering on about nothing in particular (like Mrs Gardener) or constantly referring back to India of old (Major Barry). And the trouble with reading conversations of police-style investigations with these people is that it becomes a boring read. Every time Mrs Gardener started yet again droning on about nothing in particular, my attention wandered. I have a sense it was meant to be funny; no, it’s just boring.

sexismOne is also used to a reasonable amount of sexism in a Christie book; she was never going to be the type to burn her bra, for example, but this book has such an extraordinarily sexist ending that I gasped out loud. I can’t really go into detail too much without giving the game away but, believe me, it really takes the biscuit. It actually ruined (for me, at least) what was otherwise a really exciting conclusion to the book.

early 20th century seasideWhere Evil Under the Sun truly excels is introducing us to the world of early 20th century British seaside holidays. In the first chapter, when explaining how the Jolly Roger hotel came into being, Christie refers to the “great cult of the Seaside for Holidays” when “the coast of Devon and Cornwall was no longer thought too hot in the summer”. Christie paints a lively picture of this quaint, exclusive resort, with its well-to-do holidaymakers who bathe before breakfast (by which she means go for a dip in the sea, not get washed) and discover secluded coves for sketching and sunbathing. Proprietress Mrs Castle is as refined as you can get, with Christie conveying her over-the-top strangulated vowel sounds and ridiculously upper-middle-class language. The one thing that unites all the tourists staying at the hotel is that they are monied; they may not have taste, or class, but they’ve got the wherewithal.

Detective2With this, her third Poirot book on the run, Christie really mastered her thriller-writer-style; longer chapters broken up by shorter, numbered scenes, each of which contained one vital piece of information. That could be an introduction to a character; an account of a detective/police interview with one particular suspect; the discovery of one individual clue, or even one significant observation. This style helps keep you reading; you know the next chapter section is only going to be brief, so there’s always time for just one more chapter – and before you know it, you’re almost at the end. It builds the pace and the suspense very nicely, and Christie even provides the reader with a map of the island, which may, or may not, aid our amateur sleuthing.

PoirotPoirot is once again on excellent form; persistent, unscrupulous, meddling, devious, even cruel – but always in the search for the truth. We first see Poirot disapproving of what he considers the impersonal and deplorable modern practice of lying out in the sun “in rows. What are they? They are not men and women. There is nothing personal about them. They are just – bodies! […] What appeal is there? What mystery? I, I am old, of the old school. When I was young, one saw barely the ankle. The glimpse of a foamy petticoat, how alluring! The gentle swelling of the calf – a knee – a beribboned garter…” Steady Poirot, you’ll have us breaking out in a sweat.

DeauvilleHe is, as he says, old. Blatt says of him, “I thought he was dead…Dash it, he ought to be dead.” Rosamund remarks to Kenneth Marshall that “he’s pretty old. Probably more or less ga ga”. Blatt thinks that Devon would be a hostile environment to the poor old chap, “a man like you would be at Deauville or Le Touquet, or down at Juan les Pins”, and Poirot concedes that in wet weather those resorts would be more welcoming. Christie herself passes comment on one aspect of Poirot’s appearance and personality: “Poirot, in his turn, extracted his cigarette case and lit one of those tiny cigarettes which it was his affectation to smoke.” Affectation – interesting choice of word. Poirot is always concerned about how he looks to the outside world, whether it be a mark on his shoe, or a fleck of dust on a suit, or something not being entirely symmetrical.

ColgateHe’s clearly missing his old pal, Hastings, although, as we discover in a nice little aside, Christie confirms that Poirot updates him on all his escapades sometime in the future. But Poirot always needs someone off whom to bounce an idea or two. In One, Two, Buckle my Shoe it was George, his manservant. In this latest case, Poirot enjoys a good working relationship with both Chief Constable Colonel Weston, with whom he worked in Peril at End House, and on a day-to-day basis with Inspector Colgate. When we first meet them, Christie normally describes her police officers with a few bleak adjectives, but we’re left to make our own mind up about Colgate. He seems dogged but polite, very deferential towards both Weston and Poirot; he speaks “soothingly” to witnesses, and is perfectly happy to sit quietly and listen to everything everyone else says before offering a comment. He’s clearly one who employs his own little grey cells; and this wins Poirot’s trust and friendship. A long way into the case, Christie tells us: “To Hercule Poirot, sitting on the ledge overlooking the sea, came Inspector Colgate. Poirot liked Inspector Colgate. He liked his rugged face, his shrewd eyes, and his slow unhurried manner.” And that’s as near as Poirot gets to finding a replacement for Hastings in this book.

OverhearPoirot shows his lack of scruples by listening in to private conversations; he doesn’t absent himself when Christine and Patrick Redfern are talking about Patrick’s infatuation with Arlena (even Hastings disapproves). He doesn’t flinch from brutally confronting 16-year-old Linda Marshall with a visceral description of her stepmother’s death, the inappropriateness of which shocked even the Chief Constable.

Diana Rigg as ArlenaPoirot gives us an insight into why he questions brutally and relentlessly – and the reason why Poirot admonishes Kenneth Marshall through frustration with the responses he is getting: “there is no such thing as a plain fact of murder. Murder springs, nine times out of ten, out of the character and circumstances of the murdered person. Because the victim was the kind of person he or she was, therefore was he or she murdered! Until we can understand fully and completely exactly what kind of person Arlena Marshall was, we shall not be able to see clearly the kind of person who murdered her.” It’s always the character analysis that most interests Poirot and, of course, that makes it more interesting for the reader.

Jigsaw PuzzleThere’s a further insight into Poirot’s methodology when Mrs Gardener asks him to explain how he goes about solving a crime, whilst she’s wrestling with a jigsaw puzzle. “It is a little like your puzzle, Madame. One assembles the pieces. It is like a mosaic – many colours and patterns – and every strange-shaped little piece must be fitted into its own place. […] And sometimes it is like that piece of your puzzle just now. One arranges very methodically the pieces of the puzzle – one sorts the colours – and then perhaps a piece of one colour that should fit in with – say, the fur rug, fits instead in a black cat’s tail. […] Almost every one here in this hotel has given me a piece for my puzzle. You amongst them.” And when Mrs Gardener is thrilled to find out what she has said to influence his thoughts, he refuses with the ironically amusing response: “I reserve the explanations for the last chapter.”

candlesAs if to make life easier for the reader, Christie lists for us, as she is recounting Poirot’s thoughts, all the clues (for want of a better word) that he accumulates during the course of the investigation, as a challenge to see if we can crack the case before he does: “Gabrielle No 8. A pair of scissors. A broken pipe stem. A bottle thrown from a window. A green calendar. A packet of candles. A mirror and a typewriter. A skein of magenta wool. A girl’s wrist-watch. Bathwater rushing down the waste-pipe. Each of these unrelated facts must fit into its appointed place. There must be no loose ends.” This is the jigsaw puzzle relating to Evil Under the Sun.

Burgh IslandRegular readers will know I like to have a look at the place names in Christie’s books to see to what extent they’re genuine, or just a figment of her imagination. We know from the start that Leathercombe Bay, where the island is located, is in the West Country; although this isn’t firmly stated; it’s an assumption we make after she has already mentioned Devon and Cornwall. There is no such place of course; but, like And Then There Were None, it was based on Burgh Island just by Bigbury-on-Sea. Mr Lane goes for a country walk to Harford; there is a village of that name in the Dartmoor National Park but it would be an awfully long round walk – a good 15 miles each way. Shipley, Sheepstor and Tintagel are mentioned – these are real places; however, St Petrock-in-the-Combe is made up, although there are many churches and roads in the area with St Petroc (no “k”) in the title. Whiteridge, Mr Lane’s Surrey address, doesn’t exist; and although Rosamund’s business address of 622 Brook Street, London, sounds convincing, the numbers in this Mayfair street don’t go anywhere near that high.

Rydal MountThe hotel register lists the addresses of its guests: The Cowans live at Rydal’s Mount, Leatherhead (Leatherhead is real, of course, and Rydal Mount is a house in the Lake District, the home of William Wordsworth, but the two don’t go together). The Mastermans live in Marlborough Avenue, London, NW (there is a Marlborough Avenue in London but it’s in Hackney). The Redferns live at Crossgates, Seldon, Princes Risborough (there’s no such village near Princes Risborough). Major Barry lives in Cardon Street, St James, London (no such street). Rosamund Darnley lives in Cardigan Court, W1 (it doesn’t exist). Emily Brewster lives at Southgates, in Sunbury on Thames (I can’t trace a Southgates there) and the Marshalls live in Upcott Mansions London SW7 (no such place). Poirot’s own address of Whitehaven Mansions London W1 is also a Christie fabrication. Shame.

duck suitLet’s have a look at some of the other references in the book. Do you know what a duck suit is? I didn’t. Our first sight of Poirot is “resplendent in a white duck suit”. It’s nothing to do with ducks. Duck is a heavy, plain woven cotton fabric. The name comes from the Dutch doek, meaning linen canvas. I guessed what was meant by the term “earth closet” (the Gardeners describe the facilities in a guesthouse on the moors in that way) and it is of course the opposite of a water closet.

Marriage of William AsheArlena Marshall was in a revue called Come and Go – that’s another of Christie’s inventions. However, there’s nothing fictional about the characters of Mussolini or Princess Elizabeth (now the Queen) mentioned by Rosamund Darnley when discussing her childhood game of If not yourself, who would you be. Nor are A. E. W. Mason’s The Four Feathers or Mary Augusta Ward’s The Marriage of William Ashe, and the many other distinguished tomes that appear on Linda Marshall’s bookshelves.

Dartmoor PrisonMrs Gardener wants to make a visit to the “convict prison” at Princetown. That’s what we now call HM Dartmoor Prison, built in 1809. And, talking of convicts, the Wallace to whom Colgate refers when reflecting on the cool reaction from Marshall to the fact that his wife has been murdered, was William Herbert Wallace of Anfield, Liverpool, who was found guilty of the murder of his wife but then later had the conviction quashed by the Court of Criminal Appeal. Whilst reflecting on the facts of the case, Colonel Weston concludes that the murderer is “some monomaniac who happened to be in the neighbourhood”. Monomania was the term used to describe a partial insanity, conceived as single pathological preoccupation in an otherwise sound mind. The term fell from favour in the mid-19th century, so Weston’s use of it approximately a hundred years later is very archaic.

AholibahIf you know your Bible (and I confess I am a little weak on parts of it) then you probably know about Aholibah. Reverend Lane compares Arlena to Jezebel and Aholibah in his insistence that she was evil. If you check Ezekiel Chapter 23 you’ll find that Aholibah is from Jerusalem and lusts after Egyptian men whose genitals resemble donkeys’ and whose emission is like that of horses. Funnily enough that passage was excised from my Children’s Bible! And what about Gabrielle No 8 perfume? Gabrielle was the real name of Coco Chanel, whose No 5 was taking the world by storm. I think we can see what Christie was getting up to here.

TriangleChristie also makes a few references to her own books. We’ve already seen that Colonel Weston originally appeared in Peril at End House, which in this book he refers to as “that affair at St. Loo”. Mr and Mrs Gardener are friends with Cornelia Robson who appeared in Death on the Nile. There are also some similarities with the plot of Triangle at Rhodes, which forms part of the Murder in the Mews collection. I’ll say no more, lest I give the game away.

PoundI’m sure you remember that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. There’s only one sum mentioned in this book: £50,000, which is the amount left to Arlena in the will of her old friend Sir Robert Erskine, and which is still assumed to be untouched in her bank accounts. Colgate concludes that Arlena was a rich woman. That £50,000 in today’s terms would be £1.7 million. So, yes, fairly wealthy and worth murdering for!

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Evil Under the Sun:

Publication Details: 1941. Fontana paperback, 4th impression, published in November 1967. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a voodoo doll of a woman in a bikini, surrounded by shells and seaweed, with pins stuck in her body. That certainly captures one aspect of the story, at least. There’s also some magenta wool, which refers us back to Poirot’s list of clue anomalies that has to be explained before the truth is revealed.

How many pages until the first death: 49. That gives us plenty of time to examine the situation and anticipate a crime before anything actually happens. Maybe if the crime were to have been discovered just a little earlier the book might have felt more punchy?

Funny lines out of context: Perhaps not an accidentally funny line out of context but I loved this early observation from Mrs Gardener, together with Christie’s own icy reaction:

“”These girls that lie out like that in the sun will grow hair on their legs and arms. I’ve said so to Irene – that’s my daughter, M. Poirot. Irene, I said to her, if you lie out like that in the sun, you’ll have hair all over you, hair on your arms and hair on your legs and hair on your bosom, and what will you look like then? I said to her. DIdn’t I, Odell?” “Yes, darling,” said Mr Gardener. Every one was silent, perhaps making a mental picture of Irene when the worst had happened.”

Effective use of language: “Mr Lane was a tall vigorous clergyman of fifty odd. His face was tanned and his dark grey flannel trousers were holidayfied and disreputable.”

“The Reverend Stephen Lane drew in his breath with a little hiss and his figure stiffened.”

Memorable characters:

Arlena Marshall is an enigma; someone who is so beautiful, so charismatic, but yet so thoroughly empty and self-centred at the same time. Kenneth Marshall is also an enigma; his completely passionless response to the murder is hard to comprehend, even if he didn’t like her very much. Emily Brewster, with her gruff voice and her athletic prowess is, I guess, an early attempt by Christie to portray a very manly woman. Mrs Castle’s over-refined speech patterns and voice are quite amusing. But, despite these minor fascinations, as is often the case, the characters don’t stand out in the same way that the story itself does.

Christie the Poison expert:

Kenneth Marshall’s first wife was acquitted of the murder of her husband, who “was proved to have been an arsenic eater”. That’s the only reference to poison I can find. However, an intricate sub-plot in this story involves dealing in heroin, or Diamorphine Hydrochloride, as Dr Neasdon carefully explains. Interestingly, Christie talks of drugs like heroin in terms of their chemical compounds, in the same clinical way in which she views poison.

Class/social issues of the time:

This book is very unusual for its almost complete lack of typical Christie-like observations on class and social issues. Because everyone staying at the Jolly Roger is wealthy, the only working-class character in the book is Gladys the chambermaid, but it’s a very small part. True, Christie condescends a little towards Horace Blatt, who, although rich, has neither taste nor the awareness of personal boundaries of the upper middle-class.

There’s only one area of contention in this book – and that’s Christie’s innate sexism when it comes to equal opportunities for men and women. Rosamund Darnley is depicted as a successful businesswoman; unmarried through choice, although Poirot pussyfoots around the subject with: “Mademoiselle, if you are not married, it is because none of my sex have been sufficiently eloquent.” Poirot, perhaps surprisingly, approves of the way she has carved out her own independent living: “to marry and have children, that is the common lot of women. Only one woman in a hundred – more, in a thousand, can make for herself a name and a position as you have done.” That’s why the appallingly sexist ending – you’ll have to read it for yourself – stands out like the sorest thumb in A&E.

Classic denouement: Yes! This is one of those occasions where the majority of the suspects are gathered around to hear what Poirot has concluded, although it’s actually even more exciting as you don’t realise the denouement is taking place until it’s thoroughly progressed; it sneaks up on you as you actually think you’re there to find out something else. It even has one of those extremely satisfying moments when the accused party loses the plot and goes to attack Poirot.

Happy ending? In a sense. A couple are clearly going to get it together and live happily ever after. However, the terms on which this happens are pretty repulsive from today’s perspective.

Did the story ring true? It’s all very convoluted and highly unlikely; but I can imagine how, with chutzpah and some lucky breaks, the crime was committed.

Overall satisfaction rating:
It’s a very good read, and the crime is very satisfactory, from the reader’s point of view. But as I said earlier, some of the characters are rather boring, and that ending is a killer (and not in a good sense.) So I don’t think I can go higher than 8/10.

N or MThanks for reading my blog of Evil Under the Sun and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is N or M?, and we leave Hercule Poirot behind to catch up with what Tommy and Tuppence are doing to help the war effort. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

Theatre Censorship – 29: More real people and national stereotypes

Anyone for Denis?John Wells’ farce Anyone for Denis? (1981) was set in the Prime Minister’s country residence, Chequers, and was supposed to show a typical hair-raising weekend with Russian spies and insulted delegates… you know the kind of thing. The play was notable for its highly topical script which changed daily – which of course would have been impossible under the Lord Chamberlain’s regime – and actually it was the Falklands campaign which caused the play to close because, basically, topical references on that subject simply weren’t funny. There was a minor publicity campaign founded on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s visit to see the show – with photographs afterwards of herself with Angela Thorne, the stage Margaret, and everyone looking distinctly uncomfortable apart from the real Denis Thatcher who seemed to have a whale of a time. To see the Prime Minister of the day standing next to a satirical version of herself would have had Robert Walpole turning in his grave. After all, he had introduced censorship to prevent this kind of thing going on.

Alma Rattenbury

Alma Rattenbury

Other plays that featured “real” people, included two plays, in the late 70s, that were based on the case of Alma Rattenbury who was found guilty of the murder of her husband in 1935; Terence Rattigan’s Cause Celebre (1977) which concentrates on the trial, and Simon Gray’s Molly (1977) which tells the story by means of analogy. Tom Stoppard’s Travesties (1974) brings together Lenin, James Joyce and Tristan Tzara as well as the less well-known Henry Carr for a skit on “The Importance of Being Earnest”, and Robert David Macdonald’s Summit Conference (1978) shows Eva Braun and Clara Petacci (Mussolini’s mistress) holding an imagined conversation in 1941.

Alan Ayckbourn

Alan Ayckbourn

On the subject of national origins – the last of those categories mentioned in the 1968 Theatres Act – despite any acrimony between Britain and Argentina at the time, the Falklands War did not bring about a deluge of anti-Latin American drama. Today we can see that Brexit has shown that there is always scope for – shall we say – international rivalry. Playwrights still satirise whatever nationalities they choose. As an example, and plucked from nowhere in particular, Sven, in Alan Ayckbourn’s Joking Apart (1978) is described as “terribly solemn, terribly Scandinavian, a sweet person but never ever wrong”. In fact, Ayckbourn characterises him as infuriating and pompous, someone who takes the pleasantly Home Counties atmosphere of the play and sours it into something dark, gloomy, and over-serious. Young Mandy, who just likes a bit of painting for relaxation, may just be sketching a drawing of the side of the house for her own enjoyment, but Sven has to turn the whole exercise into an inflated lecture about art: “I would like you to think about this. Art is a lie which makes us realise the truth. Do you know who said that? It was Picasso who said that… I think in some ways you are trying to be too truthful. The result being, at the moment, that your picture has no truth. Think about that.” His instructions sound like those of a part-time art critic who thinks he knows it all but in fact knows nothing; an inflated ego, vain and boorish. Ayckbourn chooses for Sven a particularly unpleasant ending: “one middle-aged mediocrity… who has fought and lost. …The tragedy of life is not that man loses but that he almost wins.” Sven is, of course, an exaggeration of those gloomy Finnish traits – Ayckbourn is actually very popular in Scandinavia – but nevertheless he is a totally believable character.

PlentyIn Plenty (1978) David Hare points out how one associates Scandinavians with gloom and despondency and how people from different Scandinavian countries are indistinguishable from one another, as in this conversation:

Susan: “Apparently it’s about depression, isn’t that so, Mme. Wong?”
Mme Wong: “I do feel the Norwegians are very good at that sort of thing….”
Darwin: “Ingmar Bergman is not a bloody Norwegian, he is a bloody Swede”.

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie

Unlike Sven, Agatha Christie’s Paravicini from the world’s longest running play The Mousetrap (1952) is a totally larger-than-life creation, an exaggeration of the most ridiculous Mediterranean elements, who creeps around stagily and suspiciously, appears to wear rouge make-up, and makes a big mystery of himself: “I turn up saying that my car is overturned in a snowdrift. What do you know of me? Nothing at all! I may be a thief, a robber, a fugitive from justice – a madman – even – a murderer.” Christie has drawn on legendary Italian lasciviousness and added a touch of camp to accompany her character’s ingratiating and fawning behaviour towards his hostess in a good example of parody over characterisation. Of course, as it was written in 1952, this famous play would have been subject to the old rules of censorship. I’m sure it didn’t trouble the Lord Chamberlain one jot.

In my next post I’ll look at some other plays that might – but probably might not – be considered to “stir up hatred” based on colour or race.

Theatre Censorship – 28: The portrayal of real people

Julian Mitchell

Julian Mitchell

The laws of libel and defamation remained largely unchanged from 1968 until 2013 – and this meant that dramatists still had to exercise caution if they wanted to incorporate a non-fictitious character into their work. Many represented real-life characters by implication. In Another Country (1981) Julian Mitchell took one aspect of each of his chief protagonists to create an amalgam of a real-life person. His character Guy Bennett, who is gay (and named Guy), and his character Tommy Judd, who is a Marxist, together add up to an implied portrayal of the spy Guy Burgess, who defected to the Soviet Union in 1951. As if to confirm this implication, Bennett at one stage announces: “I think perhaps I’ll be a spy when I grow up”; and at the end of the play both characters become outcasts as a result of those characteristics. Guy Burgess had actually died way back in 1963, so could not be libelled; but Julian Mitchell’s device of creating a non-fictional character out of two fictional characters is a fascinating piece of invention.

G F Newman

G F Newman

Another 1980s play took a much more hard-hitting and topical scandal for its basis. The Attorney-General was called upon to decide whether a production of G. F. Newman’s Operation Bad Apple should go ahead as planned at the Royal Court in February 1982. The author, known for his tough police fiction both in novels and dramatised on television, had based his play on “Operation Countryman” – an official investigation into corruption in the Metropolitan Police Force. The police lawyers were not deceived by the change of name from Countryman to Bad Apple. They requested that the Attorney-General should insist on its withdrawal because it could prejudice a fair hearing in the Operation Countryman trials which were taking place at the same time. Newman, naturally, insisted that all the characters in the play were totally fictitious, but the atmosphere of the play is one of intense realism with many contemporary references. For example, it included criticism of the Scarman report, which had been commissioned by the UK Government following the 1981 Brixton riots, and had been published on 25 November 1981. According to the lawyers it was the persuasive nature of the realism that could have influenced the trial.

Operation Bad AppleThe main theme of the play is that corruption in the force is not confined to just one bad apple, but that it is widespread; indeed, the play claims that the number of corrupt police exceeds 95% of the entire force. As if to prove the point, two of the play’s most crooked characters end up actually in control of Operation Bad Apple – nice work if you can get it. After consultations between the Attorney-General and the Director of Public Prosecutions, both of whom feature in the play, it was decided to let it continue as planned. As the critic Charles Spencer remarked in the April 1982 issue of Plays and Players Magazine: “The opening… has brought a most welcome whiff of controversy back to the Royal Court. Merging from the underground station you can almost smell the smoke of battle wafting out of the theatre and over Sloane Square. It has been quite like old times… with the Attorney-General keeping an anxious beady eye on the production.”

Royce Ryton

Royce Ryton

The lifting of restrictions on presentations of members of the Royal Family on stage enabled Crown Matrimonial (1972) by Royce Ryton, a serious dramatization of Edward VIII’s abdication crisis, to enjoy a long and successful run. In 1981, however, the same author collaborated with Ray Cooney on Her Royal Highness?, a play which jumped on the bandwagon of the Royal Wedding between Charles and Diana. John Barber referred to it in the Daily Telegraph of 22nd February 1982 as “that tasteless farce about the Prince and Princess of Wales. The Lord Chamberlain would never have licensed that – but it didn’t last long.” According to Ray Cooney’s website, “owing to subsequent events in the tragic life of the real Diana, this play is not available for performance at the present time.”

Happy as a SandbagOne renowned personage who has been subjected to perhaps more than his fair share of satire and abuse is Sir Winston Churchill. It’s not hard to see why. He became synonymous for everything strong, patriotic and magnanimous; for the “blood, toil, tears and sweat” which made Britain great. His victorious cigar was an obvious choice for the centrepiece of the logo which advertised Ken Lee’s musical Happy as a Sandbag (1975). His influence and renown was so strong that to question his greatness was – or maybe still is – also to bring Britain’s greatness into question; especially in those early years after censorship was withdrawn. In Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, the successful search for Churchill’s missing penis at the end of the play acts as a blessing for the themes of sexual liberation that Orton examined so thoroughly in the rest of the play. This discovery is made when all the apparently unresolvable events of the play are, somehow, resolved; just as Nick and Geraldine are twins and Prentice and his wife are lovers, the missing part of Winston Churchill has been literally staring us in the face all along.

The Churchill PlayCast your mind back, if you can, to 1974. Britain in recession, the three-day week, power cuts, miners’ strikes, unstable governments, IRA bombings… it wasn’t the best of times. It was also the year that Howard Brenton wrote The Churchill Play, which opens with the surreal vision of Churchill, presumed dead, springing from his coffin, brandishing cigar and Union Jack. At first you might expect the embodiment of Churchill to represent a spirit of greatness, arriving like the cavalry to rescue Britain from the doldrums. However, as the play unfolds, you realise that Churchill shoulders the blame for everything wrong with the country. The play is set in a British Concentration Camp in 1984 – the Orwellian reference is by no means coincidental – where prisoners of conscience are sent. Their crime? To question the justice of the Con-Lab government which is, as Jonathan St. John (M.P., Chairman of the Sub-Committee of the Committee of Ways and Means) describes himself, “more Con than Lab. Very much more.” The camp is proudly referred to as the Churchill Camp; so the country has seen fit to pay tribute to its “great man” with an edifice that represents, symbolises and embodies fascism. You don’t need me to point out the irony that it was Churchill who successfully waged the 1939-45 war against the Nazis and their concentration camps. Gerald Morn, a representative of the last vestiges of socialism in Britain, calls the camp “the English Dachau”; to prove it, Colonel Ball, the military mastermind of the camp, and who appears to believe implicitly that “Winston Churchill saved this country from one thousand years of barbarism”, continues to implement this barbarism and taint Churchill’s reputation by naming it after him.

The internees of the camp look upon the production of the Churchill play (within a play) as a diversionary tactic, helping them to stage their planned escape, which shows that they see him in a different light from the Colonel and the politicians. They regard him as symbolising a possible salvation from fascism, rather than a justification for it. In the end, the security arrangements are tighter than they thought, and the prisoners’ rebellious spirit disintegrates as they realise that the strength of right-wing militancy sweeping the country. This new regime will not permit them any reintegration back into society. The probable result is that, after the curtain falls, they will either “be dumped”, or received Julia Redmond’s (a most suspicious PPS) white-box torture: “you are tied in a white room. The eye cannot focus. The white… an ionized paint… is infinite. Like the dark sky of a moonless night… in the end you become a white, three-D void… there are drugs. And surgery… You cut the brain… butchery… against the butchers.” Elsewhere in the play, when Churchill is not being used to represent this kind of savagery, he is ridiculed in an imaginary presentation of the 1945 Yalta Conference, where he met Stalin and Roosevelt to complete plans for the defeat of Germany and the foundation of the United Nations. Brenton has him taking a bath with Stalin, with the bath-water representing Europe, displaced in Archimedean fashion by their discussions. Churchill is the unifying thread which runs throughout the play, and a good example of the portrayal of a non-fictitious public figure on stage, with inventiveness and originality.

In my next post I’ll look at some more “real” people on stage and the use of national stereotypes.

The Edinburgh Fringe One-Weeker 2018 – Spank! 25th August 2018

SpankNow it’s time for our third and final visit to the show that’s one of our annual, must-see events. It’s the irrepressibly brilliant James Loveridge and an equally amazingly wonderful female host – not sure who she’ll be quite yet – presenting Spank! at Belly Dancer @ Underbelly, Cowgate, at midnight on the night of Saturday 25th. Here’s the blurb: “Spank! returns for an incredible 15th year with hilarious hosts, awesome comedians and gratuitous nudity. Showcasing the most exciting comedy and cabaret on the Fringe, don’t miss the ‘best wild night out’ (Scotland on Sunday) at the festival! ‘Comedy and legendary party night… if you haven’t experienced this night, get down there right away!’ (Time Out). ‘It’s raunchy, raucous and ridiculous. Utterly and absolutely hilarious’ ***** (BroadwayBaby.com). ‘Everything you could hope for in a late-night comedy showcase… absolutely must-see show’ ***** (ThreeWeeks). ‘Atmosphere is electric… you just don’t quite know what is going to happen next… superb’ ***** (One4Review.co.uk).”

This is also going to be our final show of the Fringe for this year. Let’s hope they give us a great send off! I’m hoping that, even though this is the Saturday show, it will still be hosted by James; they don’t seem to be doing a Spanktacular show this year. Check back around 3am (or maybe early on Sunday morning) to see who were the guests, who got naked and how much fun we had. And thanks so much to everyone for reading, and I hope I gave you a feel for the spirit and excitement of the Fringe – and if you didn’t come this year, you must come in 2019!!

Final night in Edinburgh, final Spank. As enduring as Arthur’s seat, as constant as the morning star. Hosting was the new dream team of James Loveridge and Evan Desmarais, and our guests were Hot Mess, a musical misanthrope called Richard, Clara Cupcakes, the brilliant Tim Renkow, Tamsyn Kelly, Ro Campbell and the superb Lauren Pattison who threw a glass of beer over a punter who wouldn’t stop talking…. well she did warn him. The naked promo was a guy called James who simply did it so he could sing Happy birthday to Megan. Always an amazing night, still unbeatable entertainment!

The Edinburgh Fringe One-Weeker 2018 – Foil, Arms and Hog: Craicling, 25th August 2018

Foil Arms Hog 18We’ve left one of the top Edinburgh attractions till almost the end. We saw these guys in Edinburgh in both 2016 and 2017 with their shows DoomDah and Oink, and they never fail to bring joy. They’re Foil, Arms and Hog: Craicling, at McEwan Hall @ Underbelly, Bristo Square, at 21:00 on Saturday 25th. Here’s the blurb (which stays the same, year in, year out): “Irish comedy, potato, potato, potato, potato, potato, potato, potato, potato, potato, potato, potato… you racist. Sold-out Fringe 2009-2017. Over 100 million hits on YouTube. Foil, Arms and Hog celebrate a decade at the festival with their best show yet, Craicling. ***** (Irish Times). **** (Times). ***** (Irish Examiner). ‘Very funny’ (Rowan Atkinson). ‘An effervescent hour of fast-paced gags, fizzing with energy, invention and great lines’ (Chortle.co.uk). ‘Quite simply, a sensation’ (Edinburgh Festivals Magazine).”

In 2016 I got roped into so many sketches with them, because we sat in the front row. I have to say, I loved every minute of it! Last year I managed to avoid such audience participation. Check back around 10.15pm to see if I got into trouble again. By then the final preview blog should be available to read too.

As always, the three guys give us some brilliant, wacky sketches, with a reasonable amount of audience participation! You never quite know where anything is heading! It’s an extremely large hall, but surprisingly you don’t really miss the intimacy of the old smaller venues. Next year the Albert Hall?

The Edinburgh Fringe One-Weeker 2018 – Entropy, 25th August 2018

EntropyAfter some political intrigue, the next play looks like it’s going to be about playing personal mindgames. It’s Entropy at the The Dairy Room @ Underbelly Bristo Square at 19:15 on Saturday 25th. Here’s the blurb: “’It was enormous, what I did. What else could I have achieved that would have received so much attention?’ Sam has turned up on Barbara’s doorstep unannounced after years of absence, not for nostalgic reasons, but for reasons of his own that become apparent as he plays games with her – and on her. An intriguing and disturbing play full of dark humour.”

Sounds very dark – but hopefully also very enjoyable. This will be our last play of the Fringe, so let’s hope it gives us a good send off! Check back around 8.30pm to see what happened. By then the next preview blog should be available to read too.

Intricate and threatening two-hander, very suspenseful as it conveys the enduring after-effects of child abuse. But how much is in his imagination, and how much did she know about it? That would be your interpretation. Gripping and very enjoyable!

The Edinburgh Fringe One-Weeker 2018 – Westminster Hour, 25th August 2018

Westminster HourInto the home stretch now as we embark upon our last four shows on our last evening in Edinburgh. First up, it’s Westminster Hour at Novotel 1 @ Sweet Novotel at 17:55 on Saturday 25th. Let’s read the blurb: “Fatal consequences in this fast-paced and darkly comedic drama with unexpected twists. On the evening Home Secretary Archie Cornwall celebrates the passing of new, tougher sentencing for convicted paedophiles, a seemingly random shooting in South London leads a former lover to implicate Cornwall in a historic abuse case. But is he too powerful to fall – and who will be silenced to save him? From the writer of the cult play 3000 Trees: The Death of Mr William MacRae.”

Westminster Hour stars Rachel Ogilvy & Andy Paterson. We’ve seen a number of plays based on political intrigue over the last few Edinburgh Fringe seasons and they’ve all been highly entertaining. Check back around 7.15 pm to see if this one was too. By then the next preview blog should be available to read too.

Smart little production, featuring two thoroughly corrupt characters, but you can’t work out how they’re going to resolve the problem till the last minute. Two excellent performances too. Nicely horrible!