The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral: Gargoyle wrestling

Like the hem-sucking demon crouched beneath the slabs in James’s “An Episode of Cathedral History”, Westall’s gargoyle had one purpose: to destroy with a terror that exploited our primal fear of darkness.

An afternoon play about a gentle, modern-day stonemason (played by Terry Molloy from The Archers) battling a possessed medieval gargoyle was clearly inspired by M R James, the great Victorian writer of supernatural fiction (29 September, 1.30pm). But as it also involved takeaway pizza and the sentence “That’s totally crap, Keith”, it could never be accused of too-blatant plagiarism.

Those familiar with James know that his stories of crosspatch academics visiting forgotten country houses are absolutely set: no sex, no marriage, just the slow setting down of buttered toast before the removal of dread-filled papers long locked in an antiquarian’s briefcase.

Robert Westall’s play ostensibly had this kind of thing in spades: the provincial town, the night-wanderings of the innocent, the bachelor clergyman, the deep suspicion of all things foreign. Here, the cause of all the trouble turned out to be an Italian. I can’t recall if any of James’s characters travel as far as Italy but they certainly venture now and again to the kind of eastern European hostelry happened upon by Peter Cushing in the Hammer movies – “Europe” as a snowcapped, stollen-heavy location with garlic flowers around the door that still manages to feel precisely like Berkshire.

“He’s an ugly fellow right enough!” gasps the stonemason when he first sees the gargoyle, “and he seems to be watching me somehow. I’ll wear my hobnails instead of trainers next time . . . ” From the interior of the cathedral emanates the sound of a choir perpetually rehearsing Allegri’s “Miserere” – the bit when the boy soprano goes for the top C and your fingers start to claw in anxiety for him. There was an uncanny smell of rotting fish among mouse droppings, and stone that mysteriously crumbled into mulch, centuries before its time. Like the hem-sucking demon crouched beneath the slabs in James’s “An Episode of Cathedral History”, Westall’s gargoyle had one purpose: to destroy with a terror that exploited our primal fear of darkness.

It was spooky enough – though lacking the appalling malice I personally always hope for (Westall, who died in 1993, generally wrote for children). But it was strangely consoling in the way of all good horror stories. An alternative world was quietly and sadly acknowledged – a place of phlegmatic rustlings and lowered temperatures, fetid smells (must ghosts always smell?) and violence, mainly voiced by the one-eyed grump who processes the milk up at Grange Farm. A world precisely like our own.

Gargoyles versus stonemasons. Image: Getty

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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Strictly: Has Ed (Glitter) Balls got the winning moves?

Will the former Westminster high-flyer impress the judges and fans?

Ed Balls once had dreams of Labour leadership. Now, according to flamboyant Strictly Come Dancing judge Bruno Tonioli, the former Shadow Chancellor should be aspiring to “imitate the hippopotamus from Fantasia” every Saturday night, preferably while basting himself in fake tan.

Welcome to my world, Ladies and Gentleman. A place where the former Westminster high flyer  is more famous for sashaying around in sequins (and ineptly tweeting his own name) than for his efforts with the Bank of England. It’s a universe so intoxicating, it made political correspondent John Sergeant drag a professional performer across a dance floor by her wrists in the name of light entertainment.

The same compulsions made respected broadcaster Jeremy Vine alight a prop horse dressed as a cowboy (more Woody from Toy Story than John Wayne) and former Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe fly across the ballroom like an inappropriate understudy in an am dram production of Peter Pan. It is a glorious, if unnerving domain.

Ed Glitterballs, as he will henceforth be introduced at every after-dinner speaking engagement he attends, has trotted out many well-rehearsed reasons for signing up: getting fit, being cajoled by his superfan wife, Yvette Cooper, regretting a missed opportunity. But could it be that, as he relentlessly plugs his autobiography, he’s merely after a bit of Strictly stardust for his post-politics career? 

Let’s start with the basics. Politicians are generally unpopular, while anyone with a vague connection to Strictly is treated as a demi-God. So the chance for “the most annoying person in modern politics” (David Cameron’s words, not mine), to bask in reflected glory is a no-brainer.

It’s a valuable opportunity to be humble and self-deprecating — qualities so rarely on display in the House of Commons. Which of us sitting at home scoffing Maltesers, wouldn’t sympathise with poor old Ed being chastised by his impossibly svelte partner for having a beer belly? Early polls suggest the dads’ vote is in the bag.

When Widdecombe appeared on the show back in 2010 — one of the most astonishing rebranding exercises I have ever witnessed — Westminster colleagues warned she would lose gravitas. “My reply was yes I would, but what did I need it for now?” she said.

Strictly Come Dancing gives the nation an extraordinary capacity to forget. Maybe it’s the fumes from the spray tan booth, but Widdecombe’s stern bluster was soon replaced by the image of a sweet old lady, stumbling around the dance floor with gusto. Her frankly shameful record on gay rights evaporated as she traded affectionate insults with openly gay judge Craig Revel Horwood and won us all over with her clodhopping two left feet. Genuinely incredible stuff.

Balls won’t be another Ann Widdecombe. For a start he’s got the wrong partner. She had untouchable fan favourite Anton Du Beke, more famous than some of the celebrity contestants, who happily provided the choreography and patience for her to shine. Balls is with an unknown quantity — new girl Katya Jones. 

His performance has been hyped up by an expectant press, while Widdecombe's had the all-important shock factor. Back then nobody could have predicted her irrepressible stomp to the quarter finals, leading to a career in panto and her own quiz show on Sky Atlantic. And unlike John Sergeant, who withdrew from the competition after a few weeks owing to sheer embarrassment, she lapped up every second.

Neither, however, is Balls likely to be Edwina Currie. If you forgot her stint on the show it’s because she went out in the first week, after failing to tone down her abrasive smugness for the ballroom. Balls is too clever for that and he’s already playing the game. Would viewers have been so comfortable with him cropping up on the Great British Bake Off spin-off An Extra Slice a few months ago?

My bet is that after a few gyrations he’ll emerge as amusing, lovable and, most importantly, bookable. The prospect of Gordon Brown’s economic advisor playing Baron Hardup in a Christmaspanto  is deliciously tantalising. But what happens when the fun stops and the midlife crisis (as he takes great pleasure in calling it) loses its novelty? Can he be taken seriously again?

When asked about Labour’s current Corbyn crisis, Balls told The Guardian: “If I got a call saying, ‘We think you can solve the problem, come back and rescue us,’ I would drop Strictly and go like a shot.” Well, Jeremy Vine came out unscathed — he hosts Crimewatch now, folks! — and thanks to Have I Got News For You, Boris Johnson casually led us out of Europe. Perhaps the best is yet to come.

Great news all round for Balls, then, he’d have to work really hard to come out of this badly. But there’s a reason he’s the bookies’ booby prize, with odds of 150/1 to lift the glitterball trophy. An entertaining but basically useless act has never won the show. We’ll be bored by November.

“But Ed might be sensational!” I hear you cry. Unfortunately his brief appearance on this year’s launch show suggests otherwise. This weekend — the first time he and Katya will perform a full routine —  he will be giving us his waltz, one of the more forgiving dances, and a style Balls has already expressed fondness for.

After that come the sizzling samba, the raunchy rumba and the cheeky Charleston. These can be mortifying even for the show’s frontrunners. As a straggler, Balls may find himself dewy-eyed, reminiscing about the time Bruno compared him to a cartoon hippo. But if he can just cope with a few weeks of mild ridicule, the world could be his oyster.

Emma Bullimore is a TV critic