Novel Gothic: George Gilbert Scott's St Pancras Station seen in 1905. Photo: Getty
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Strawberry Hill forever: Two presenters with a distinctly Gothic side

Cruickshank seems unable to speak in anything other than an urgent whisper while Graham-Dixon has the kind of face that looks particularly good rounding the top of a stone spiral staircase on a cold March morning.

Dan Cruickshank and the Family That Built Gothic Britain; The Art of Gothic: Britain’s Midnight Hour 
BBC4

The BBC is having a miniature Gothic season, which is great news if you’re into witches, skulls, mad monks, arched windows, ivy-clad castles . . . and, er, Andrew Graham-Dixon or Dan Cruickshank. Although, now I come to think of it, both of these presenters have their Gothic side, Cruickshank seemingly unable to speak in anything other than an urgent whisper and Graham-Dixon having the kind of face, long and sardonic, that looks particularly good rounding the top of a stone spiral staircase on a cold March morning.

Both, too, are prone to melodrama. Cruickshank’s film about the Gilbert Scotts, creakily styled as The Family That Built Gothic Britain (21 October, 9pm), came with his usual hand-waving, a tic that became more pronounced as he described the descent into madness of George Gilbert Scott Jr. Graham-Dixon’s The Art of Gothic (Mondays, 9pm), meanwhile, was distinctly febrile at times. As he described the three-day orgy with which William Beckford, the author of the naughty 1786 novel Vathek: an Arabian Tale, celebrated his 21st birthday, his voice slowed and softened to such a degree, it was enough to make a girl blush. If his producer had thought to shove a plate of sugar-dusted Turkish delight in front of him, I would have had to leave the room.

The Art of Gothic throbbed with this kind of juicy, if rather familiar, stuff. Here were, in literature, Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis and, in art, Salvator Rosa and Henry Fuseli. Day trips were taken to Strawberry Hill (Walpole’s playful home at Twickenham), to Stowe House in Buckinghamshire (a nice Gothic folly) and to the Tate collection’s basement (to gawp at Fuseli’s super-weird 1783 painting Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma).

Graham-Dixon is an actorly presenter – always casting sidelong looks to the camera – and well able to hold your attention, especially when you sense he is genuinely interested (he seemed keen on Beckford’s Fonthill Abbey, a construction so ambitious that it eventually collapsed under its own weight; ditto Matthew Lewis’s novel The Monk, in which debauched nuns think nothing of lifting their habit to expose a milky breast). But his films are also rather list-like, just one thing after another. No other expert is called, no other voice heard but his. It’s wearying sometimes.

Cruickshank did bring other witnesses to the stand, notably Gavin Stamp, George Gilbert Scott Jr’s witty, impassioned biographer. Still, this was a dreary film. No one could love St Pancras Station, Gilbert Scott Sr’s greatest creation, more than I do but even I couldn’t help yawning. The problem was that the most intriguing Scott – the Victorian giant’s son George Jr, who died of drink in a room in the Midland Grand Hotel above St Pancras – is so elusive, very little of his work having survived (though I recommend to you the tiny church of St Mary Magdalene, East Moors, Yorkshire, built in a zippy Gothic style that seems to me unique). Gilbert Scott Jr’s son Giles, who gave us the holy cavern that is Liverpool Cathedral, thought his father a genius, a man far more talented than his grandfather. But as he met him only twice, this may have been a product of the wishful thinking that is particular to neglected or abandoned children.

Either way, Cruickshank was unable to bring the personalities of the three men to life. He can stroke a pediment with the best of them but human hearts remain for him a mystery, something I regard as a terrible failing in one who hopes to animate buildings. Architecture has so much to do with feelings – from awe to claustrophobia and back again – and relatively little to do with technicalities. In this ghoulish contest, then, my winner, hands down, is Graham-Dixon with his clanking suits of armour. There seems to be something restless in him to which the Gothic clearly speaks. His theory is that our forebears’ passion for all things Gothic was their means of “re-enchanting” their world in the age of Enlightenment – and on this score he knows whereof he speaks. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain and Germany aren't natural enemies

Lady Macbeth.
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Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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