When it comes to having a laugh, Charlie Higson is a master of his trade. For those of a certain age, they will remember him as part of “The Fast Show” where Higson played some of British comedy's favourite characters including the hapless Ralph Mayhew as part of the Ted & Ralph sketches. Higson has since switched his attention to the writing of his highly successful Young James Bond series and has become a favourite at the Chalke Valley History Festival as the host of Histrionics where seats are at a premium at the festival.
Now Higson embarks on something new and it comes in the shape of a podcast. Whilst it is fair to say that practically everyone has a podcast nowadays, Higson has decided to focus his on history and in particular, the history of the British Monarchy.
Willy Willy Harry Stee is of course the rhythmic method as to how we can help to remember the chronology of British Monarchs from William the Conqueror onwards and Higson will be going through all the British Monarchs in the same order. To make sure that he doesn’t stray too far away from his chosen monarch, Higson has enlisted the help of popular historians including Dan Jones, Helen Caster, and many more are expected as Higson romps through the ages.
At the Chalke Valley History Festival, Higson has opted for a different approach for his live special that was also recorded live on the IPGL Stage. For this, he gathered some big guns from the historical world to give their opinions on monarchs throughout time. Historian Tom Holland was the voice representing the early ages of the Monarchy including the Middle Ages, Private eye’s Ian Hislop was on hand for his opinions on the Georgian era whilst Leanda De Lisle was on Tudor and Stuart duties.
With these kinds of names on one stage, it was fair to say that it was a good thing that the performance took place on an outdoor stage of the festival as the crowd descended en masse to hear this live special.
There is of course an issue with recording a live podcast outside during a rather busy festival. That being, that nothing going on around the festival is suddenly going to stop just because you are recording. The loud bangs from one attraction offering a trench experience were still reverberating around the grounds as the recording was taking place. For those listening later on…this is what Higson and company hear and are commenting on. Yet in true Higson style, he worked around it and made light of the situation.
He asked his esteemed panel who they believed were the best and worst monarchs of their periods. Tom Holland was quick to pick his favourite, Alfred the Great. Well, it had to be Tom pondered to himself…after all he has “The Great” in his title now doesn’t he? When it came to the worst well that would be King John.
Ian Hislop opted for George III as his preferred choice with George IV being his worst. In doing so he was quick to highlight his vast frame, his blonde wig, and his uselessness. This left the audience to put two and two together with Hislop’s previous “Have I Got News For You” performances to think to themselves whether he was indeed talking about the former Prince Regent, or perhaps a certain former Prime Minister.
Leanda De Lisle at first opted for Mary I declaring her to be a “Badass”. Needless to say, Higson was quick to interject suggesting that the crowd probably was not expecting that answer. In the spirit of diplomacy, Elizabeth I was then preferred after a short debate. (However, De Lisle made some excellent points about Mary and I’m inclined to see her point of view on that one). For her worst…Charles I. For him, De Lisle opted for the nice guy, crap monarch argument which is of course a valid one.
Que laughs along the way as the live performance continued. What was much appreciated by the panel was their ability to be themselves which is exactly what is needed during a showcase like this. Off-the-cuff remarks including Holland describing King John as “a bit of a shit” and of course the previously mentioned remarks of Hislop and De Lisle, helped to bring the audience in with the laughs.
If this is what we can expect from Higson’s new podcast then we can safely say that he is on to something really good. It brings not only more personality to the monarchs who he is highlighting but also from those on his new show as well.
One thing was for sure, the Chalke Valley crowd loved it and I’m sure you will too.
Willy, Willy, Harry and Stee…is available wherever you listen to your podcasts. The live recording from the Chalke Valley History Festival will be on soon.
Dracula changed the horror landscape for Universal Pictures in 1931. For Carl Laemmle Jr, it was vindication for his idea of creating more horror pictures. The dark auditorium was the most perfect place to scare an audience. Within only 48 hours of its release at New York’s Roxy Theatre it had sold over 50,000 tickets turning Dracula into Universal’s largest release of 1931 and in doing so, made Bela Lugosi an overnight star. For Carl Laemmle Jr, the head of production at Universal, another horror film needed to be made as soon as possible. It was time to bring Frankenstein to the screen once again. Mary Shelley’s novel was already used to such treatment. Following its publication it had been made into Operas and plays for the theatre. The novel was also adapted into a short silent film starring Charles Stanton Ogle as the monster created by Dr Frankenstein. With a new era of talking movies, Laemmle Jr believed that it was time for the novel to return to the cinema screens. With Bela Lugosi, the studio believed that they had found their actor to star in their new adaptation. Lugosi hoped that he would play Dr Frankenstein but Laemmle had other ideas. He wanted his new star to play the monster that was created by the Doctor. The director, Robert Florey, also brought ideas to the table that would see a departure from Shelley’s novel. He saw the Monster as a simple killing machine similar to Ceasre from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari who was controlled by Frankenstein himself. Lugosi hated the idea. “I was a star in my country,” Lugosi said, “and I will not be a scarecrow over here!" Whether Lugosi left the project of his own free will or not is up for debate. Either way, replacements for both Lugosi and Florey were needed to be found.
“Your face..” Whale told him, “...has startling possibilities.” William Henry Pratt, the man who had never been the star and whose career could have been largely forgotten was about to become one of horror’s most iconic names. His stage name was Boris Karloff and he had just been cast as Bela Lugosi’s replacement to play the monster.
Jack Pierce had already done enough to impress Carl Laemmle Sr. With Lon Chaney being seen as the master of Horror make up, Pierce had a lot to live up to. He had already produced the make up for The Monkey Talks in 1926 where he turned Jacques Lernier into a simian who could communicate. He had also produced the make up for Conrad Veidt stirring grin in The Man Who Laughs a make up effect that is said to have inspired the creation of Batman's arch villian, The Joker. The death of Lon Chaney had opened a void in the world of horror make-up that Pierce was ready to fill and with Frankenstein's creature, Pierce would produce one of horror's most iconic monsters. Pierce was seen by many as a stern and at times, bad tempered individual to work with. Yet in Karloff, Pierce had found the perfect sitter for the enduring process of his makeup creativity. The relationship between the two men was strong. For Pierce, it was a million miles away from his time working with Bela Lugosi on the set of Dracula. Lugosi and Pierce did not get along with the actor insisting on doing much of his own make-up.
Karloff's make-up ordeal would last for four hours. Pierce opted for a rectangluar head for the creature highlighting the fact that the creature was assembled from other body parts. It gave the feel that re-inserting another man's brain was far from a straightforward procedure. The electrodes on the side of the neck, used to conduct the electricity in order to bring the monster to life, also added an unique look to Pierce's creation. The protruding brow was seen as a characteristic of criminality. The creature's head was built up with cotton, collodion and gum, and green greasepaint, which was designed to look pale on black-and-white film, was applied to his face and hands. Karloff was a patient sitter for Pierce, yet one make-up effect was all of Karloff's own making. The creature's sunken cheeks were all down to Karloff. The actor had a dental bridge on the right side of his face. In removing his bridge, Karloff's right cheek sank where the bridge used to be. It gave the monster an extra special touch of decay. With the look of the creature now complete it would be up to the direction of James Whale and his actor to create something not just horrific but also one that was almost sympathetic. In Whale's eyes, the greatest horror was not to be welcomed as who you actually were. To become what society expected of you, rather than to express your true self.
Whale lived his life as an openly gay man at a time when homosexuality was illegal. Whilst he never went of his way to publicise his homosexuality, he did little to hide it living with his partner, David Lewis. Perhaps that is why he was drawn to Frankenstein. The creature, who for no fault of his own was now alive and being urged to go against his natural instincts, not even knowing that what he was doing was even wrong. Karloff and Whale, would both show that Frankenstein was so much more than a piece of iconic make-up. Karloff portrays the creature initially as childlike and gentle, only to be later goaded into violence. In his childlike state he is scared of the world around him and even more so of fire as Igor enters the room with flamed touch. Karloff might have been playing a monster but even a monster can gain some sympathy. In doing so, Karloff shows us the creature as an outsider in a confusing new world. Something all three men responsible for this piece of horror actually were. Karloff understood all too well that looking different made a difference. His performance shows the creature as a victim rather than the perpetrator. Even when the creature does kill a little girl who was throwing flowers into the lake it is almost like he just wanted to play not knowing the consequences of what he had done. It would be a scene that would cause the censors in 1931 to demand a cut before the creature threw her into the lake. It would be 50 years until audiences saw the whole scene.
When Frankenstein was released in December 1931 at the Mayfair Theatre in New York City, it made just over $53,000 in it's first week. It would go on to become a massive hit for Universal. It would also become a critical hit for the studio. The New York Times would say: "Beside it Dracula is tame and, incidentally, Dracula was produced by the same firm." FiIm Daily called it a "gruesome, chill-producing and exciting drama" whilst Variety magazine highlighted Karloff calling his performance "a fascinating acting bit of mesmerism." John Mosher of The New Yorker may have been a bit more critical of the movie but there was no denying that for him the make up the star of the show by saying that: "The makeup department has a triumph to its credit in the monster." With another commercial and critical feature behind him the rise of the Universal Monsters beckoned with James Whale, Jack Pierce and Boris Karloff all being critical to its future success for the studio. They would all return for the movie's sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, only this time it would be Boris Karloff headlined as the film's star. More sequels would follow but without Karloff and Whale. The Bride of Frankenstein would be Whale's final time helming the property but his fascination with Universal's new monster movies would continue with The Invisible Man. Karloff, the man who Hollywood nearly forgot, would go on to make further Frankenstein movies including The Son of Frankenstein alongside Bela Lugosi. Lugosi would play Ygor complete with make-up by Jack Pierce. The times had changed and Lugosi had now changed with them too. Karloff would see Lon Chaney Jr take over the role and later Bela Lugosi himself as the franchise began to fade in the 1940's. It proved that there was only one man who could play the creature with the same heart as he did in 1931. The monster where three outsiders came together to make a masterpiece of Horror movie history.
This article first appeared in Inside History: A History of Film. You can get Printed and digital copies of the magazine from our online store.
"He could have gone to Canada and lived happily ever after but instead Shields Green chose to fight knowing that this could be a suicide mission."
Mark Amin, Writer/director of Emperor
"Hundreds of thousands of slaves attempted to escape and over 100,000 actually succeed. Why don’t we talk about that?"
Mark Amin, the writer and Director of Emperor was making a very good point. Its not as if Hollywood hasn't made movies about slavery before. Yet for his new movie, he has decided to tell a story about a man who not only escaped from his enslavers, but would also go on to participate in the Raid on Harpers Ferry where the aim was start a slave revolt against their enslavers and the system of slavery.
Amin continued by saying: "I thought it would be really interesting to make a movie about the slave who fought back. That was when we started to look around for those who did that. We looked at many stories and when we came across Shields Green, suddenly I thought, “Oh my god, this guy has connected all the dots.” He was only 23, he had a five year old son, he ran away and made it to freedom, he met John Brown, he met Frederick Douglass, he took part in Harpers Ferry and Harpers Ferry was taken back by Robert E Lee. These are three of the most prominent figures in American History. Shields Green crossed paths with all of these people."
Yet the story of Shield Green is a largely untold one. In terms of historical evidence, his is a history that is sparse in details. It is an issue that makes the telling of his story somewhat problematic yet completely compelling and necessary. Turning someone who has been but a footnote in American history into the central focal point of a movie was an issue as Amin freely admits:
"Nobody really knows about his journey when he escaped the plantation. We did a lot of research and found nothing. We even looked for descendants of him but we couldn’t find any. We tried to stay as faithful as we could to his character and the major events. His meeting with John Brown and Frederick Douglass. The dialogue for that is accurate from the historical records that we have."
Film makers, when dealing with historical figures, are often accused of taking liberties with the real lives that they aim to portray. In telling the story of Shields Green, Amin focuses on what is already known with enough creative license available to him to form a character that we really should be celebrating as a man of defiance alongside the abolitionist, John Brown.
"He could have gone to Canada and lived happily ever after but instead Shields Green chose to fight knowing that this could be a suicide mission. To me that was so unique and showed what a heroic character he was and yet, we don’t really know that story."
"He had the chance to be free but chose to go back and to fight for freedom for all men. I was moved by that and moved by the idea that no one knows the story."
Dayo Okeniyi on why he took on the role of Shields Green
Bringing Shields Green to life is Dayo Okeniyi. It is a performance that is both powerful and emotive. When asked what about his reasoning for taking on the role, Okeniyi had nothing but admiration for Green, despite first hearing about him through the script:
"When the script arrived I though, why don’t I know about this story, why isn’t this a bigger story. A story about rebellion, about a man in the 1800’s that took agency of his own life. He had the chance to be free but chose to go back and to fight for freedom for all men. I was moved by that and moved by the idea that no one knows the story and I wanted be a part of the people who told this story. We ignorantly think that we know so much about this era yet we find out there are heroes that fell through the cracks. Their stories deserve to be told. They were a domino effect that eventually led to the Civil war that led to the Emancipation Proclamation and the reconstruction era, Jim Crow and then the civil rights movement. Its American History and those stories deserve to be told."
Researching Green for the role, Okeniyi hit the similar stumbling blocks as the writer.
"Shields Green is the first character I’ve played who was a real person. Because he is not well known I could take some creative liberties in the way he walked, the way he talked. There’s little about him so you reverse engineer who you think this man was. I studied traits that people who were enslaved would have. What is the physiological trauma of someone who has been in a situation like that? How much self realiastion do they have? How aware of themselves as a person are they? Is there any kind of vanity at all?"
Some fragments of the life of Shields Green were available in the form of The Narrative of Frederick Douglass. It was the key text studied by Okeniyi: "I started with Frederick Douglass’s autobiography where Shields is mentioned very briefly but it paints such an amazing gesture portrait of him. He was described as man not to shrink away from a challenge."
Perhaps it is fitting that both Amin and Okeniyi are similar to Shields Green themselves. In making a movie about a man where there is little historical evidence they have still chosen to bring to life his story. They have done so because they believe in him so much. They believe in Green's courage and admire him greatly. In describing Green, Douglass told us of a man who did didn't shrink away from a challenge and neither have Amin and Okeniyi. In doing so, the name of Shields Green and his participation alongside John Brown at Harpers Ferry will continue to live on.
“He sees you when your sleeping.
Whilst these lyrics might remind us all that Santa Claus is coming to town, they would not be out of place with another character from yuletide folklore. The only difference is that this particular figure from Central European Folklore is one you’d rather not experience.
Whilst Saint Nicholas spreads Christmas joy to millions of children around the world with presents to reward their good behaviour, the Krampus deals with the naughty children. Consider the Krampus to be the Yin to Father Christmas’s Yang. If the Krampus paid a visit to mischievous children, then they would be wishing that had been “good for goodness sake.”
The legend of Krampus has been a centuries old tradition where Christmas celebrations begin in early December. According to traditional Central European folklore, Krampus shows up on the 5th December, the day before St Nicholas Day. This is known as Krampusnacht. Children would leave their shoes outside their door that night. They will either wake to see if their shoes are filled with presents or wooden birch rods. If they see rods, then the Krampus had paid them a visit.