As part of the London International Mime Festival I attended a screening of the 2010 documentary Puppet at the Barbican Cinema. Made by David Soll, the film followed the New York puppeteer Dan Hurlin as he worked on his production Disfarmer, based on the life of Depression-era photographer Mike Disfarmer. I thought it was fascinating, an intriguing glimpse into how an adult puppet show is made interspersed with the history of puppetry. As someone who loves this art form I found it fascinating.
I recently attended a talk at the Guildhall School entitled Phantom Phenomena, about the many ways in which Gaston Leroux’s original novel has been reinterpreted and remade over the past century. Researcher Cormac Newark specialises in studying the reception of operas, and noticed that many critics who wrote about opera in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also wrote novels featuring scenes set at the opera. Leroux was one such individual, and his most famous novel The Phantom of the Opera was published serially in 1909-10. The novel, which employs traditional clichés about the emotional and spiritual power of opera, makes heavy reference to the opera Faust, which would have been familiar to many readers at the time as one of the most important operas of the age.
The original Phantom book has spawned musicals, ballets, spinoff novels and over fifty films. The talk focused largely on the film and TV versions, which come from all over the world: the USA, China, South America and Italy are just some of the places which have created their own versions of the Phantom story. We saw several clips from different versions: one early black and white version had the Phantom admiring a male protégé rather than a young female singer, while another had a bizarrely cheery musical number. A telenovela version from South America saw a woman being doused in acid – the implication being that the Phantom was originally disfigured in some way. Yet another version combined the characters of the Phantom and Dracula, and I was particularly intrigued by the Eighties horror version with the music being played on a computer.
The continued popularity of the story in the modern age can be largely attributed to the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, and fans continue to explore and develop the story online via websites. I enjoyed this interesting talk and it’s certainly made me want to see some different versions of the Phantom story.
I’ve wanted to go to one of the Prince Charles Cinema‘s famous Labyrinth Masquerade Balls for a while, but it wasn’t until the sad death of David Bowie recently that I was finally prompted to go, along with some friends. The Masquerade Balls are designed for die-hard fans of the film (that’s definitely me): attendees are invited to dress up (although I didn’t do this!), sing along, cheer and generally take part in the action.
On entering the auditorium you are given a little goodie bag: I won’t give away the surprise, but you need to keep it handy as the various things inside it will be used at different points in the film. Once seated, you get to enjoy a bit of pre-show entertainment, including a judging contest for those people who did turn up in costume. And then the film begins!
I usually hate it when people talk, sing or move around in the cinema, but this kind of event is completely different – everyone there knows the film back to front anyway and the emphasis is on enjoying it as a community. I have to admit I did really like this way of enjoying one of my favourite films! Of course, I could have stayed at home and watched it on DVD for free – but then I wouldn’t have got to experience the atmosphere. An entire roomful of people singing “Dance Magic Dance” is not to be missed!
I definitely recommend the Labyrinth Masquerade Ball for any fans of the film. They do run fairly frequently, so check out the cinema’s website.
I went to this discussion with Alex von Tunzelmann, inspired by the Guardian column and the newly-released book which looks like it would be an interesting read. It was lots of fun: as someone who studied history at university I thoroughly enjoyed this look at the historical accuracy – or otherwise – of movies.
Somerset House is one of the most interesting buildings in London, with a long and rich history – in terms of the site itself, not just the existing building. It’s also been used as a film set on numerous occasions. I signed up to the Shot on Site tour to learn more about this aspect of the building’s history.
Our tour guide was enthusiastic and knowledgeable and I learned a great deal about the topic. Around 40 films have been captured here to a greater or lesser degree over the years, beginning with The Long Arm (1956) and The Day of the Jackal (1973), in which Somerset House effectively played itself, as the home of birth, marriage and death records that it then was.
Those films were unusual in that they used interior shots: this is rare as Somerset House, being designed as an office building, does not have particularly lavish interiors. For instance, the exterior stood in for the Devonshire residence in London in the film The Duchess (2008). In children’s movie Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang (2010), Flyboys (2006) – about a group of American pilots – and even Sleepy Hollow (1999), with the aid of some green screen, aspects of the Somerset House courtyard stood in for various locations, including a London street and a French hospital.
Somerset House has appeared in two Bond films, Tomorrow Never Dies and Goldeneye, standing in for a St Petersburg car park in the latter. It has “played” Buckingham Palace three times – in TV series Spooks, comedy The Worst Week of My Life and in children’s sequel Agent Cody Banks: Destination London (2004). The site has appeared in X-Men: First Class (2011) and in the 19th century-set romantic comedy Hysteria (2011) with Maggie Gyllenhaal, who apparently took several takes to cycle away wearing cumbersome Victorian skirts!
For me, the most fascinating part of the tour was the visit to the Lightwells and Deadhouse in the basement. The Lightwells, narrow passages running around and underneath the courtyard, are gloomy and atmospheric and acted as a prison in the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes movie. In the Deadhouse, so named because it is the last remaining part of the palace that once stood on the site and still contains graves of palace staff, we were informed that it stood in for a bunker below the Ministry of Defence in the World War II thriller Glorious 39.
Finally, we were shown some glimpses of forthcoming movies which used Somerset House for filming, including the soon-to-be-released Suffragette. I really enjoyed the tour and if it comes back next year – which it may well do as part of the Film4 Summer Screen season – it’s definitely worth getting a ticket.