A quilt, a cat, and a bluebird

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Norman Page as Tylette the Cat, December 1909

This postcard, from my early 20th century theatre collection, of is one of my absolute favourites. It shows the British stage and silent film actor Norman Page as Tylette the Cat in a production of The Blue Bird by Maurice Maeterlinck at London’s Haymarket Theatre in 1909. It also shows a rather splendid hexagon quilt, in what looks like a simple Grandmother’s Flower Garden pattern. It thus rather neatly combines a number of my interests.

I’ve been intrigued by The Blue Bird since I was about eight years old when I first read Noel Streatfeild’s 1936 children’s novel about the theatre, Ballet Shoes. There are two chapters about a charity matinée of The Blue Bird, and, as a child, I was intrigued that there were extracts from Maeterlinck’s play script contained within the text, along with a lot of information about the plot. As a result, I feel I know the play really well even though I’ve never seen it. And a production featuring Norman Page would be my ideal production (outside the fictional world of Ballet Shoes).

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Norman Page (centre) as Ives in Stingaree, The Bushranger (1908) 

So who was Norman Page?  He was born in Nottingham in 1876, and educated at Trent College. After school, and an attempt to become an artist, he underwent theatrical training at the Theatre Royal in Margate, and his first performance on stage was in 1896 at the Opera House in Chatham. In 1904 he first appeared on the London stage as The Gardener’s Boy in Prunella, or Love in a Dutch Garden by Laurence Housman and Harley Granville-Barker. He went on to work as both actor and producer, and had an interest in some of the new styles of acting and the experimental plays that were being staged in the early 1900s. In 1909 a season he produced at the Glasgow Repertory Theatre was considered by The Times to bring ‘that spirit of modernity … which consists in a sense of artistic unity, a repression of the “theatrical”, a reduction of the emotion displayed to the proportions of the occasion – in short, in naturalness’. (Glasgow Repertory Theatre, The Times, October 19 1909)

Page played Tylette the Cat in The Blue Bird in a number of productions – it seems to have been a Christmas favourite in the years before the First World War. On December 27 1911, The Times considered that a ‘chief joy in the acting is still the sinister Cat of Mr Norman Page.’ In 1912 he travelled to Australia to produce the play there. And on 9 January 1928, he reprised the role for a radio production, broadcast on the 2LO London and 5XX Daventry stations. Cats seemed to have been something of a speciality for Page. As well as Tylette, he played the title role in Puss in Boots at the Apollo Theatre in 1926, and the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland at the Little Theatre in 1932, when he was ‘the best of many good performing animals’. (The Times, December 22 1932)

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Page also had a long association with the Academy of Dramatic Art (which later became RADA) where he was an instructor for 23 years. After his death in 1935, Kenneth Barnes, the then director of RADA, wrote that:

‘He had a great sense of the dignity of the profession of the theatre, and his talents, as producer-actor, scenic designer, and teacher, it can ill afford to lose. I know this because Norman Page was the hardest worked member of my staff … How we wish he were still with us.’

Like a lot of stage actors of the 1910s and 1920s, Page also acted for the films – and that’s where I first came across him. And I’m not exaggerating when I say that his screen presence has had a huge impact on me.  Nearly a decade ago, I had an idea for a research project about the early work of British film director Maurice Elvey, but back then I’d only seen one or two of his films. So when I heard about a screening of his film of Bleak House in Nottingham, I got on a train so I could find out more. I wasn’t expecting to be so delighted by that film’s exquisite portrayal of Dickens’ lovelorn clerk Mr Guppy – played by Norman Page. That screening – particularly  Norman Page’s performance – was the deciding factor in confirming my Elvey research project.

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Norman Page (right) as Mr Guppy with Teddy Arundell as George in Maurice Elvey’s 1920 film Bleak House

And when I saw Elvey’s Life Story of David Lloyd George (made in 1918 but not released at the time) with Norman Page in the title role, I couldn’t believe it was the same actor. It’s an extraordinary performance in an extraordinary film – and a world away from Mr Guppy.

As I mentioned in my last post, I am busy writing up my Elvey research at the moment, so I am writing about Norman Page a lot – The Life Story of David Lloyd George plays a major role in my thesis. That leaves very little time for sewing. But a couple of weeks ago, I was clearing out some fabric and I came across a hexagon quilt I started some years ago. It’s just the sort of undemanding project I need at the moment and it fits in with my research nicely. It reminds me of the quilt on stage in The Blue Bird so I think it’s fitting that while I’m sewing it, I remember the role of Norman Page in starting off my research about Maurice Elvey.

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Hexagons for Mr Norman Page

Hunting for Clues

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Museums are magical places. I learned this at a young age from a book called From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler by E L Konigsburg. First published in 1967, it tells the story of Claudia Kincaid and her brother Jamie who, fed up with life at home and “the sameness of each and every week”, run away to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This they do with some success – pretending to be ordinary visitors – but these are visitors who make use of the antique furniture out of hours. They explore the galleries, find places to hide, dodge security guards, and tag along with unknown school parties. During their stay in the museum, they become fascinated by a statue of an angel which is attracting record-breaking crowds because it might (or might not) be a piece by Michelangelo. The provenance of the angel is inconclusive, so Claudia and Jamie set out to prove whether or not it is the work of Michelangelo.

“They decided to do their research when they had the statue and the museum to themselves. Claudia especially wanted to make herself important to the statue. She would solve its mystery; and it, in turn, would do something important to her, though what it was she didn’t quite know.”

The sheer hard graft, the excitement swiftly followed by disappointment, and the need for lateral thinking by researchers is beautifully conveyed by Claudia and Jamie. Anyone who has ever researched anything or anyone will probably recognise the promise of a museum or archive: the prospect of finding a missing piece of information, that elusive bit of evidence missed by everyone else. The joy of finding what you had hoped for – and the bitter disappointment of the empty, disappointing, or censored file, or of an exhibit removed for conservation.

If I’m looking up something specific, I plan museum and archive visits carefully  to make the most of the time I have there. But if I’m just looking for inspiration, I love very unstructured visits, just wondering through and stopping at things that catch my eye. The unstructured wander means finding things by accident – and who can tell where that will eventually lead?

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Man’s Doublet and Breeches, 1630-1640, satin trimmed with silk braid and silk ribbon, possibly made from a bed cover. On display at the V&A.

A couple of months ago I was in the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington – my best place in London for a wander when looking for quilting inspiration. I’m particularly fond of a satin doublet dating from 1630-40, which is quilted with a breathtaking level of detail. I go and stare at this item every so often and usually end up peering beadily through the glass case, muttering about the skill of the stitching. After my last visit I even went and bought some satin with a view to attempting some very tight quilting – and found it terribly slippery to work with.

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Man’s Doublet Detail: Look at that elaborate quilting!

Once I’d admired the doublet for quite some time, I visited the Medieval Galleries – not part of the museum with which I am very familiar. And there I stumbled across one of the most extraordinary things I have ever seen – the Tristan Quilt.

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This Italian bed covering dates from about 1360-1400 and was made in Florence, from linen and cotton, embroidered with linen. It shows fourteen episodes from the life of Tristan, one of the heroes of medieval literature and is simply extraordinary in its ambition and the level of skilled work involved. The narrative structure seems to have been disrupted as a result of restoration work, but the overall impact is stunning.

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Of course seeing this quilt whetted my appetite for a new research project. What were the techniques used? How has the quilt been restored? How much is already known about it and what else can be discovered? And there’s a sewing project there – why aren’t I making a wholecloth-telling-a-story quilt? Sadly these questions will have to wait. I’ve got too much else on at the moment (I intend to finish my Maurice Elvey thesis in 2017) so I can’t afford to get distracted by all the many intriguing things that catch my eye in museums and archives at the moment. But they are still there – waiting.

And what of Claudia and Jamie? Did they ever answer the mystery of the angel? Was it sculpted by Michelangelo? I couldn’t possibly spoil the story. You will just have to read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler to find out.

A Visit to Green Knowe 

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The Manor, Hemingford Grey

I have a large collection of books about sewing. This collection has changed over the years: to begin with when I first started learning to quilt, I bought books that focused on technique, that set out rules about thread type, dictated strict seam allowances and hinted at the correct way to press fabric. As my quilting developed and I stopped following patterns – and gained the confidence to dispense with the rules that didn’t work for me – these books were given away and replaced with books about quilt histories and culture. But one book has stayed with me from the start: The Patchworks of Lucy Boston by Diana Boston.

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I knew that Lucy Boston (1892-1990) was the author of the children’s Green Knowe series and I remember reading The Castle of Yew years ago. But discovering that she was a stitcher meant that I looked at her work with new interest. The names of her quilts intrigued me: The Babes in the Wood Patchwork, The Patchwork of the Crosses and – most exciting of all – The High Magic Patchwork. These names give the quilts additional depth, for the naming of quilts is an important way of conveying the intention of the maker. Lucy Boston may have described the occupation of patchwork as “disorderly and messy, the room littered with snippets of paper, cotton and lengths of thread, and a maelstrom of materials,” but from disorder and mess comes beauty and deliberation.

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Tolly “saw the head of a giant stone man, carrying a child on his shoulders.”

Last week I visited the Manor at Hemingford Grey, near Huntingdon, Lucy Boston’s house and the setting for the Green Knowe books. It is a beautiful house, with the oldest parts dating back to the 12th Century. Its situation by the river Great Ouse makes it very easy to imagine the floods that open The Children of Green Knowe when the boy Tolly approaches the house by boat in the evening when “the windows were all lit up, but it was too dark to see what kind of a house it was, only that it was high and narrow like a tower.” To Tolly it is like a castle, and he wants to know “Do things happen in it, like the castles in books?” And of course they do.

I don’t actually remember reading the Green Knowe books as a child, but I must have done because, when I went into the room at the top of the house, “a room under the roof, with a ceiling the shape of the roof, with a ceiling the shape of the roof and all the beams showing,” there was Toby’s Japanese mouse and I knew him straight away.

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“On the chest of drawers Tolly had seen two curly white china dogs, an old clock, and an ebony mouse, life-sized with shiny black eyes. It was so cleverly carved that you could see every hair, and it felt like fur to stroke.”

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And there was more – “a beautiful old rocking-horse … a horse whose legs were stretched to full gallop, fixed to long rockers so that it could, if you rode it violently, both rear and kick.” The creak-croak of the rockers was almost audible. It was The Children of Green Knowe come to life – perfectly.

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As well as the joy of finding Tolly’s room, I had the pleasure of seeing Lucy Boston’s quilts. I was especially privileged to be able to touch them, as, wearing white gloves, I helped our guide, Diana Boston, turn them out for viewing. The quilts are made from an eclectic range of fabrics – from wartime dusters to silk, from needlecord to embroidered wedding dress cotton, from heavy furnishing fabric to Liberty prints. Many pieces were fussy cut – with the sort of precision that I admire but never have the patience to achieve – and the piecing is extraordinary. There is a stunning Mariner’s Compass quilt – with twelve of that most complicated of blocks (which I have never dared attempt). When making it, Lucy Boston experienced a feeling known to all quilters: “My patchwork is proving very difficult indeed. It has large circular patterns that will not lie flat. They all heave up like rising tea-cakes.” The Babes in the Wood was a triumph of applique, as owls, birds and squirrels wandered amongst leaves and flowers in autumn colours. My favourite was the High Magic Patchwork: a mass of stars, suns and the phases of the moon. Lucy Boston made this piece when she was writing An Enemy at Green Knowe and noted that it “served to keep my thoughts moving.”

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The Manor is open all year round and can be visited by appointment. The photography policy is very generous and visitors can take pictures all over the house and gardens. However, it isn’t possible to photograph the quilts. Instead, Diana Boston’s lovely book The Patchworks of Lucy Boston can be purchased from the Manor along with cards featuring some of the quilts (and proceeds go towards the upkeep of the house and garden). And the Patchwork of the Crosses, probably the most well-known of Lucy Boston’s quilts, can be seen here thanks to the British Quilt Study Group of the Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles.

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Quilting the Thames Part One: Merchants at the Upper Pool

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Upper Pool – Thames Quilt Section One

The sewing of my Thames Quilt project has commenced. My quilted journey down the Thames begins at the Pool of London with five Fourteenth Century merchants.

Charles Dickens Jnr’s Dictionary of the Thames 1890 advises that the Pool of London is divided into the Upper and the Lower Pool, the point of division being the headquarter station of the Thames Police at Wapping. The Upper Pool stretches from London Bridge to Wapping or (on the other side) Cherry Garden Pier, Bermondsey.

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Looking under Tower Bridge at the Upper Pool

I associate the Upper Pool with trade, largely because of reading historical novels by Cynthia Harnett (1893-1981) when I was growing up. Harnett’s novels always felt slightly radical because they were about merchants and traders – people who seemed ordinary, familiar – rather than about royalty or grand people at court. Her protagonists were merchants’ sons who were learning their trade as apprentices; they would happen upon a mystery, and be sharp enough to expose miscreants engaged in wrongdoing.

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Harnett wove lots of social history into her plots. In The Woolpack (1951) she explained how cloth was made in 1493 – from sheep shearing to sale – as part of the story of Nicholas and his determination to discover the identity of the thief who was tampering with his father’s wool exports. Much of the action of The Load of Unicorn (1959) took place around the Thames of 1482, when Benedict discovered why paper intended for William Caxton’s printing press was being stolen. Along with Benedict, the reader is told how to set a page of type and is advised that the King’s Customs cannot protect the Thames:  Did you know that London Customs have charge only for a few miles down the river? Beyond Gravesend it is the duty of Sandwich. And likewise on the north bank from Tilbury onwards it belongs to Ipswich… Have you ever sailed the coast of Essex, my masters? The inlets are like weevil runs in a cheese – from Pennyhole Bay right round to Mucking Creek.

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Ring Out Bow Bells! (1953) is set in 1415 and is very much a novel of the Thames. Nan, Adam and Dickon spend their time by a river that looks like a big lake shut in on three sides by banks of houses. On the north side the buildings  … crowded down to the water’s edge, ending in a broken line of wharfs and warehouses and a jumble of roofs. Opposite on the south bank, there were gardens among the houses and a background of tree-tops to mark the open country.

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“The Tower from the river looked far more imposing than it did from the land. Dickon shaded his eyes and stared at it.” (Ring Out Bow Bells!)

Cynthia Harnett habitually added a postscript to her novels in which she explained which characters were purely fictional and which were based on real people; which plot elements came from historical records; and where the reader might be able to see an item featured in the novel (in the Victoria and Albert Museum for example) or visit a location. For Ring Out Bow Bells! she described a walk from Cannon Street Station to find the London of Nan, Adam and Dickon. This is doubly interesting today; Harnett was looking for Fifteenth Century locations in 1953 when London still had much visible bomb damage – so the reader of 2016 can find layer upon layer of historical meaning in the walk she describes. (There was a bomb crater just in front of me, and as I poked about I caught sight of some squared stones which had probably been part of the very house which was to be the centre of my story – for you see Grantham’s Inn was a real house.)

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I suppose Harnett’s novels might come across as being a bit worthy and education-heavy but I always liked them. Looking back, I suspect they awakened my interest in historical research – and the idea that there might be more to a story than meets the eye.

Why is this relevant to my Thames Quilt? Well, I wanted to include “real people” in the quilt so I was very excited to find the name of five merchants from the early Fourteenth Century who traded at the Pool of London in the Calendar of Letter-Books of the City of London, 1309-1314*.

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Benedict de Burgo, Henry de Banneberi and Arnald Picard

The Calendar includes the rules of trade at the Pool of London (la Pole):

That no broker in future presume to go to la Pole or elsewhere by land or by water to buy or attempt [to buy] any wines or other goods before they come to land and are exposed for sale, under penalty aforesaid. Also every broker shall tender good advice, that honest men of the trade in which he is a broker may sell their wares to trustworthy and sufficient buyers who have the wherewithal to satisfy their creditors: and if he shall put forward any insufficient purchaser to trustworthy men of the City or other merchants to purchase their wares, so that by reason of the fraud of such broker the purchaser (emptor) lose his wares, the broker shall answer therefor, if he have the wherewithal, and if he have not the wherewithal shall be committed to prison until, &c., and he shall no longer be a broker.

It also lists five men who had the necessary permission to act as brokers:

  • Arnald Picard admitted broker of wine before the Mayor and Aldermen
  • John de Rokesle admitted broker of woad before the Mayor and good men of that trade
  • Henry de Banneberi and Benedict de Burgo elected brokers of peltry by good men of the trade, and presented before John de Gysors, the Mayor, and Aldermen
  • Andrew de Salop elected loco the above Benedict, deceased, and sworn before Nicholas de Farendone, the Mayor, and Aldermen
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Andrew de Salop and John de Roksele

If I were a novelist like Cynthia Harnett, I would have been able to weave a story around these men who were brokers at the Upper Pool. Instead, I sewed them into my Thames Quilt.

* Folios ci – cx’, in Calendar of Letter-Books of the City of London: D, 1309-1314, ed. Reginald R Sharpe (London, 1902), pp. 218-238 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/london-letter-books/vold/pp218-238

Quilting the Thames

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High Tide on the Thames

Along with my habit of listening to the Shipping Forecast, which I don’t understand and can’t interpret, I have a fascination with nautical charts, which, again, I don’t understand and can’t interpret. I just like the words they contain and the sounds and the images they conjure up. I like to unfold Imray navigation charts, and pore over the names of unknown waterways: Mouse Channel, Kentish Knock, Sledway, Shipway, Shipwash…. Even the feel of the waterproof paper on which they are printed promises adventure.

A couple of years ago, I saw Thames Film (1986) by the artist William Raban, which traces the Thames all the way along the Estuary out to the Maunsell Sea Forts, with John Hurt reading from Thomas Pennant’s 1787 Journey from London to Dover. With its mixture of archive and contemporary film, paintings, poetry, place-names and stories, this 66-minute film is one I can watch again and again.*

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The working Thames at Tilbury

Seeing Thames Film opened my eyes to the mysteries of the Thames Estuary. William Raban’s film journey goes as far as the Red Sands Fort, out in the sea near Whitstable, and seeing the towers for myself became an obsession. So, in September 2014, I went down the Thames on PS Waverley from Tower Pier to the sea forts. It was a misty day, and, past Southend, it became harder and harder to see the shore, but once out at sea, the mist cleared and I saw the towers appearing, beautiful and alien, like nothing I had seen before.

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Sea Forts, September 2014

When I look back at my quilting notebooks for the last couple of years, the idea of a quilt based on the Thames comes up again and again, but only as a vague thought. Things finally fell into place at the end of December 2015. I was on a walk around Rotherhithe with Ken, the Old Map Man. Ken has created a great series of London walks which are based on old maps (and you can find out more here). Walkers are shown how an area was set out in – say – the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries, how some things have changed and some have stayed the same. Over in Rotherhithe, Ken showed me King Edward III’s Manor House, a Norwegian church, tunnels under the river, and – most excitingly of all – church furniture made from wood that saw action at the Battle of Trafalgar. As the walk ended, I was talking to Ken about the names of the various Watermen’s Stairs down to the Thames (Fountain, Cherry Garden, Three Mariners, Pickle Herring, Elephant, Swan….) when I realised how the quilt project could work.

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Thames Quilt Fabric – new and uncut

It struck me that the names of parts of the Thames are like poetry: like the Shipping Forecast, they create their own rhythm. And different things happen in different parts of the river at different times. Some are true, some imaginary, and some a mixture of myth and reality.

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Think of Samuel Pepys writing in his diary about the frozen river and the recreation of a frost fair in Sally Potter’s film Orlando. Recall the river trade: legal or illicit – or a bit of both, like the cargo of paper brought in by Benedict and Peterkin in Cynthia Harnettt’s excellent children’s book, The Load of Unicorn. Thomas Cromwell listens to and learns from the talk of the boatmen in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall to the disquiet of his companions (“Master Wriothesley’s face is a study. He does not understand how much you can learn from boatmen, their argot blasphemous and rapid.”). Sally Lockhart finds a Ruby in the Smoke in Wapping thanks to Philip Pullman. Queen Elizabeth I inspires courage at Tilbury. Isambard Kingdom Brunel launches the SS Great Eastern on the Isle of Dogs.

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Launch site of the SS Great Eastern

Then there’s Dickens – Our Mutual Friend and Great Expectations are overdue for a re-read. And I was delighted to discover that his son, Charles Dickens, Jr, wrote a Dictionary of the Thames in 1879, which was updated and reprinted every year from 1880 to 1896.

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I’m not a historian of London or of the Thames, which gives me the freedom to stitch my impressions as I discover books, people, places and myths. I’m planning and researching as I go, so I’m not sure what I will learn – or sew – as the Thames Quilt develops. It is hugely exciting to have such an involving project underway.

* If you want to experience William Raban’s wonderful, haunting Thames Film, it is available on DVD from the British Film Institute shop.

The Magic of The Box of Delights

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Quilting the Box of Delights

In the run up to Christmas, many people all around the UK watch a BBC Children’s television series first broadcast in 1984: The Box of Delights directed by Renny Rye and starring Devin Stanfield as Master Kay Harker, Robert Stephens as the villainous Abner Brown, and Patrick Troughton as Cole Hawlings, the Punch and Judy Man who “dates from pagan times.” Some time their viewing so that they watch an episode a week to finish on Christmas Eve with Leave Us Not Little, Nor Yet Dark – just as the 1984 series was transmitted.

The outpouring of love for this series seems to start annually in November, as aficionados declare that Christmas won’t be Christmas without the Box of Delights, or that hearing the theme music (The First Nowell from Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony) heralds the beginning of the festive season.

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The Box of Delights by John Masefield

The original book was written by John Masefield (1878-1967). He is now perhaps best remembered for The Box of Delights and another adventure featuring Kay Harker and Abner Brown, The Midnight Folk. The language of these books is so evocative – with possets, pirate tea, Oliver’s time, pudding time and pagan times, and the provisioning of toy boats to sail on the floods – and who can fail to be stirred when they hear that the Wolves are Running?

For me, one of the pleasures of reading Masefield is his knowledge of the sea, ships and sea lore – developed while he served on HMS Conway as a youth. His sea songs and shanties run through the Kay Harker stories and include the raucous pirate song from The Box of Delights, sung by the Wolves of the Gulf after much rum punch: We fly a banner all of black, With scarlet Skull and Boneses, And every merchantman we take, We send to Davey Jones’s. Masefield, who was Poet Laureate between 1930 and 1967, also wrote the much loved Sea Fever (I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by).

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Sea Fever by John Masefield, celebrated at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

The Box of Delights has been delighting children of all ages since its publication in 1935. Forty years before the much-loved television series, The Box of Delights was adapted for radio. As part of Children’s Hour, the BBC Home Service broadcast three six-part adaptations “for older listeners.” The book was adapted by Robert Holland and John Keir Cross in 1943 (with John Gilpin as Kay Harker and Hay Petrie as Cole Hawlings), in 1948 (with David Page as Kay and Harcourt Williams as Hawlings), and in 1955 (with Patricia Hayes as Kay and Deering Wells as Hawlings). Charles Hawtrey played Mouse in all three productions.

Over the years there have been multiple radio broadcasts of The Box of Delights, most of which were adapted by John Keir Cross (1914-1967) – a prolific writer, radio adaptor and broadcaster. He presented a radio book club in 1951, which suggested books for family reading, and Connoisseurs of Crime, which explored crime novels and real life cases with detective authors. He also wrote the first radio adaptations of Pamela Brown’s theatrical novels for children, The Swish of the Curtain and Maddy Alone in 1944. *

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The Wolves are Running

In 1966, John Keir Cross told the Radio Times that “Some twenty years ago I wrote a serial version of The Box of Delights, and still, to this day, I am asked when it might be repeated. Recently, writing a script for The Archers, I made a passing reference to this unusual tale; and from all over the world came letters from its secret addicts who wanted to know if it was still in print – as in fact it is.”

It seems that The Box of Delights secret addicts club is still alive and thriving. Every year, the cry that The Wolves are Running goes up – and people join in the adventures of Kay Harker once again.

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Quilting a favourite section from the book: “First there were pagan times, then there were in-between times … then there was Oliver’s time; and then there was pudding time.”

* I found out about radio adaptations thanks to the wonderful BBC Genome Project which gives BBC listings information from the Radio Times between 1923-2009.

Glimpses of a lost silent film: Far from the Madding Crowd (1915)

Advertising for Far From the Madding Crowd, Moving Picture World, July 15 1916. Many thanks to the Townly Cooke Collection for the picture.

Advertising for Far From the Madding Crowd, Moving Picture World, July 15 1916. Many thanks to the Townly Cooke Collection for the picture.

For me, there are few things more tantalising than stumbling across an old theatre programme for a play that closed many years back, or reading about a film that was made a century ago but has not survived. You might know who the players were, the parts they took, even what they wore, but the chance to see what was performed is long gone.

For people who love silent film – and, in particular, British silent film – glimpses of performances past both frustrate and enthuse. It is estimated that 80% of British silents are lost – you come across a reference in a book or magazine, perhaps see still photographs or find musical cue sheets, read a contemporary review or see an advertisement – but you can’t watch the film itself. The missing reels are constantly out of reach.

I’m seeking information about the lost British silent Far from the Madding Crowd (1915). I came across it by chance when researching a fine (extant) film, East Is East (1916), directed by Henry Edwards, who also played in the film. Edwards went on to become one of the big stars of British cinema, and can be seen looking back over his career in this delightful British Pathé film.

A signed postcard of Henry Edwards in his 1926 hit, The Flag Lieutenant

A signed postcard of Henry Edwards in his 1926 hit, The Flag Lieutenant

East is East featured the very talented actor, director, writer and producer Florence Turner. I was intrigued to learn that this was not the first pairing of Edwards and Turner; the previous year they had both appeared in a version of Far from the Madding Crowd, directed by Turner’s friend and business partner Larry Trimble.

Florence Turner on the cover of Pictures and the Picturegoer, June 6 1914

Florence Turner on the cover of Pictures and the Picturegoer, June 6 1914

Edwards played Gabriel Oak and Turner was Bathsheba Everdene. Malcolm Cherry played Farmer Boldwood and Campbell Gullan was Sargeant Troy. So what did this Far from the Madding Crowd look like? Where was it filmed? How did the actors play their parts?

Well, if their pairing in East is East is any indication, Turner and Edwards would have played well together as Bathsheba and Oak in a well-received “quality” picture based on a respected novel (and if you don’t know the plot, please note that the following contemporary reviews contain spoilers).

The Hull Daily Mail on 28 February 1916 said: “The mere fact that so great a novel as Far from the Madding Crowd by so skilled an author as Thomas Hardy should be produced  as a picture play is of sufficient importance to warrant the keenest interest of the public. Far from the Madding Crowd is the life story of an impulsive, capricious, but fascinating woman upon whom tragedy and suffering is brought by her own actions. Her innate inability to refrain from misleading and torturing those whom she captivated by her alluring ways was the cause of the heartbreaking of Gabriel, of the death of Troy, and of the final doom of the morbid Boldwood. But, at the end of it all, the happiness of rest and peace must have been intensified by the turmoil that had gone before. The part of Bathsheba is taken by that favourite and appealing cinema actress, Florence Turner. It is refreshing to have brought to the memory the scenes of Wessex country life; and some of the pictures of farm life are if intense interest because they are so realistic.”

Florence Turner in 1915

That favourite and appealing cinema actress Florence Turner in 1914

On 29 February 1916, the Manchester Evening News reported: “Film versions of popular novels will always be welcome if they are so well done as Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. The picture has many gripping moments as well as scenic and sylvan beauties, and Florence Turner acts the leading part with distinction.” The Rochdale Observer, on 30 August 1916, reported that the film was a “particularly fine production. The setting was admirable and the natural beauty of the scenes depicted added much to the attractiveness of the film. The career of a wandering shepherd and his mistress was followed with much interest.”

I also know a little about which elements of the source novel were filmed. On 3 March 1916 the Hull Daily Mail reported on the strongest scenes: “Great flocks of sheep on the Downs, the catastrophe to Gabriel’s herd, his fall in the world, the saving of the hayrick in the lightning storm while Troy and the others are in drunken sleep, and the unhappy two loves of Bathsheba Everdene.”

Again, courtesy of the Hull Daily Mail (17 November 1915), I learned that “there are several moments of real dramatic intensity in this film. One incident stands out, however, from all the rest – that of the moment when Bathsheba, gazing into the coffin of Fanny Robin, discovers the overwhelming proof of her husband’s misconduct – an episode powerfully acted by Mr Gullan and Miss Turner.”

What I don’t know is whether my favourite scene – Hiving the Bees – was included. But just in case it wasn’t, I’ve been sewing some of the text of that beekeeping scene for my next quilt project.

Hiving the Bees - quilt work in progress

Hiving the Bees – quilt work in progress

And I’ve got a pile of Pictures and the Picturegoer magazines from 1916 to hunt through for more clues about this intriguing lost Far from the Madding Crowd.

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