Kate Griffin admits that films have influenced the world of her Victorian melodramas. On the publication of the fourth book in her Kitty Peck series, she offers a viewing top ten.
One Christmas towards the end of the 1970s I made a teenage stand against the tyranny of spending Boxing Day evening with my parents’ friends. It was a bold gesture. For as long as I could remember, on 26 December we had feasted on cold turkey, tinned salmon, sausage rolls, Twiglets and a sherry trifle at ‘Pinecroft’, the home of the Lamonts.
By the age of 14, the lure of a tin-foil hedgehog bristling with cheese-loaded cocktail sticks had tarnished. Like all teenagers, I wanted to be alone, preferably in front of the telly. This was back in the days when there were only three TV channels and generally a ‘big film’ was scheduled for the Night After Christmas.
Immune to the lowly Bacchanalian rights over at Pinecroft, I wanted high culture. I wanted to embrace more demanding festive fare than Morecambe and Wise, Dick Emery and Mike Yarwood. And so it came to pass that, home alone, that night, I watched Joseph Losey’s 1971 screen adaptation of The Go Between starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates.
It had everything a female, teenage Adrian Mole could wish for. It was classy, literary (Harold Pinter wrote the script), beautifully acted, gorgeously filmed through a veil of fin de siècle gold… and Alan Bates was a really hot farmer.
It was the beginning of a life-long infatuation with films set in the past.
I love a lavishly-mounted period drama. I’m certain the Victorian world of my Kitty Peck series owes as much to my viewing as it does to the 19th-century heavyweights I studied as part of my English degree.
I feel no shame in admitting this. Writing historical fiction is not reportage, it is an act of imagination. If you asked three writers to describe a street in 1880, the interesting and most revealing thing would be the differences in those scenes not the similarities, because those descriptions will have been shaped by factors unique to each writer.
From campy Hammer gothic to Roger Corman’s psychedelic interpretations of stories by Poe (there wasn’t room for The Tomb of Ligeia here, but seek it out!), and from David Lean’s mist-shrouded Dickensian tragedies to Holmesian homages, I know that the look and atmosphere of the films I’ve enjoyed has influenced the landscape I have created for my characters.
Before I recommend a very personal top ten films set in the Victorian era, I offer you the opening line of JP Hartley’s The Go-Between as a warning to the curious:
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
Based on The Turn of the Screw by Henry James*, this 1961 psychological horror is not only effectively chilling, but also – thanks to cinematographer Freddie Francis – one of the most beautiful films ever made. The deep, formless shadows on screen are a metaphor for the horrors that lurk in the psyche of the governess (superbly played by Deborah Kerr) convinced that her two young charges are possessed. With a script by Truman Capote and John (Rumpole) Mortimer, the film is a haunted jewel box. And much better than the novella on which it is based.
*Mark Twain said of James: “Once you’ve put one of his books down, you simply can’t pick it up again.”
Oscar Wilde’s play of confused identity is an exquisite confection, and Anthony Asquith’s 1952 film version is light and pretty as a Laduree macaron. Famous for Edith Evan’s legendary delivery of the line, “a handbag?” (Ian McKellen has said that it still inhibits actors playing the role), I think the scene-stealer is actually Joan Greenwood as Gwendoline. A heart of tungsten steel beats beneath all those gorgeous layers of silk chiffon. This pastel-coloured film is as easy on the eye as it is on the ear.
It was difficult to choose my favourite Hammer offering because I love them all. Dracula (Christopher Lee) isn’t even in this one, the plot is weaker than a milk-soaked Weetabix (what did you expect?) and the terror is tepid. But, thanks to designer Bernard Robinson (and lighting by Jack Asher) this 1960 classic looks utterly fantastic – no mean feat on a horrifyingly tiny budget.
The undying magic of the Hammer films made at Bray Studios was their extravagantly lush appearance. Look out for performances from lovely Peter Cushing as Van Helsing and from stage veterans Martita Hunt as Baroness Meinster and Freda Jackson as Greta, the ancient retainer. Who could resist the tagline: “In the privacy of a girls’ school he sought his prey… turning innocent beauty into a thing of unspeakable horror.”?
One of my favourite books, Dickens’s frosty tale of disappointment and betrayal has been adapted for screen many times. In my opinion, David Lean’s black and white 1946 version remains unsurpassed. From the terrifying opening in the stark, wind-swept graveyard when young Pip encounters escaped convict Magwitch to the first meeting with the macabre Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt again!) surrounded by the mouldering remains of her nuptial breakfast and still wearing the wedding dress in which she was jilted, we are straying into the territory of gothic horror. Some kind readers have said that my character Lady Ginger reminds them of Miss Havisham. I think I owe a debt of gratitude to Dickens, but mostly, visually, to David Lean.
Billy Wilder’s bittersweet riff on Conan Doyle’s great consulting detective is a criminally underrated minor masterpiece. Robert Stephens is a charismatic, melancholic, world-weary Holmes and Colin Blakely is just perfect as Watson. Made in 1971, the film is an affectionate parody of the genre and an emotional excavation of Holmes’s character. The convoluted plot, culminating in Queen Victoria rejecting a prototype submarine as ‘unsportsmanlike’, plays second fiddle to Holmes’s desperately unspoken realisation that he loves Watson. In this case, Holmes is where the heart is – and it’s rather wonderful.
(As a neat link to Great Expectations above, Billy Wilder based the character of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard on Miss Havisham.)
Martin Scorsese’s 1993 version of Edith Wharton’s novel has sneaked into my top ten because it looks so utterly ravishing. It really should have been called The Age of Opulence. The screen is filled with a breathtaking succession of dinners, balls, garden parties and visits to the opera. If I’m being really honest, these are more memorable than the plot, which turns on morals and manners and love and infidelity in New York high society in the 19th century. The film justly won an Oscar for best costume design. (The House of Mirth, 2000, is a superior adaptation of a Wharton novel, but it’s set in 1905 and therefore fails the Victorian test).
7. Lady Macbeth
Florence Pugh is bleakly astonishing in this 2016 adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Pugh plays Katherine, who is sold into a cruel and loveless marriage to the son of a Victorian land owner and initially our sympathies are totally with her. Gradually as she changes, so do we. Shot in glacial colours and almost entirely without a soundtrack, the hyper-real starkness of the production highlights the grim simplicity of a murder and its consequences. Watching this disquieting film is like opening a door to the past and eavesdropping.
This film is difficult to love. Like Lady Macbeth, it is – for different reasons – uncomfortable viewing. Directed by David Lynch and released in 1981, the tragic story of John Merrick made Victorian voyeurs of us all as we waited with baited breath for the cruel unveiling of John Hurt in the opening scenes.
Shot on location in black and white by the brilliant Freddie Francis (see The Innocents), the ugly face of an increasingly commercialised, mechanised Victorian London is sharply contrasted with Merrick’s beauty of soul. Mel Brooks produced The Elephant Man but removed his name from the credits because he wanted the film to be taken seriously.
Sean Connery and Michael Caine came together on screen in 1975 as a pair of dodgy ex-soldiers on the run and on the make in 19th-century British India. They end up in remote Kafiristan where Daniel Dravot (Connery) is mistaken for the returned god-king Alexander the Great and duly crowned ruler. John Huston’s film version of Kipling’s adventure yarn is a rip-roaring treat and although attitudes and sensibilities have changed since the 70s, there is still much to like here – especially Caine as the droll Peachey Carnehan. As a family we went to see this film at the cinema on my brother’s eighth birthday. My maiden name was Cain, and my brother is Michael. Not a lot of people know that.
10. The Go-Between
It couldn’t have been anything else! Pass me a Twiglet.
Read Historia’s 2017 interview with Kate Griffin.
Interested in the Victorian era? You might enjoy these features:
The Victorian theatrical world of mystery and illusion revealed by Essie Fox
Queen Victoria: a dark, if splendid, monster? Miranda Carter is not amused
When Queen Victoria was Empress Alexandra’s interfering granny by Melanie Clegg
Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking by Deborah Cadbury
Victoriana: a HWA short story collection Ten short stories and ten author interviews by well-loved writers
A Guide to Victorian Sex by William Sutton