Artists and authors alike turn to the lighthouse as a meaningful symbol. Photo: Flickr/Dennis Jarvis
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Sinister structures or homely beacons: why lighthouses stand firm as a cultural symbol

Though they are rarely operational these days, lighthouses remain culturally powerful and maintain a strong hold on the imagination. 

In Tomm Moore’s marvellous Oscar-nominated cartoon Song of the Sea – currently on cinema release – a widower raises his young family on the west coast of Ireland after his wife dies in childbirth. At the centre of the story is Ben and his strained relationship with his younger sister Saoirse, who is still mute years past her infancy.

The family live an isolated life on an island, which the children’s grandmother calls “awful” and their home is a lighthouse, father Ben being the keeper. For a film that is about mythical Celtic sea creatures called selkies and the sea’s enveloping embrace, the choice of location is a fairly obvious one.

Lighthouses by necessity tower over the waves, yet they are not quite of the land either – most tend to be located either on rocks or promontories, far from any neighbouring buildings. They are outcrops of dry land built to take everything the elements can throw at them.

Song of the Sea (2014)

They also appear to be favourite locations for children’s films and books – before Song of the Sea, the British version of the Eighties Jim Henson show Fraggle Rock was set in a lighthouse presided over by Fulton Mackay and his dog Sprocket (as opposed to the North American version set in a rag-and-bone shop).

Another show of the same era was The Adventures of Portland Bill, which also used a lighthouse as setting and its characters were all named after various maritime locations of the UK and Ireland. The largely forgotten 1977 Disney film Pete’s Dragon also had a lighthouse backdrop, as did one of Tove Jansson’s later Moomin novels, Moominpapa at Sea

What is it that children like about lighthouses then? Or rather, what makers of children’s film and TV believe kids to like about them? Their novelty is undoubtedly one attraction – lighthouses are by default monumental, all the more so for the fact they usually stand out starkly against a bare coastal landscape. Many of them are striped for greater visibility and they are, or at least were until quite recently functional.

It’s not hard to imagine children getting a kick out of the notion of living in a lighthouse, close to the sea, its inhabitants fulfilling a vital task and, most importantly of all, there aren’t enough lighthouses for every girl and boy, so it unlikely that your friends would be able to live in one too.

Where an adult might find the interiors of lighthouses claustrophobic and restrictive, younger people probably see them as cosier and homely. This is certainly the impression given by Song of the Sea, with its characters depicted snugly ensconced amid the spandrels and alcoves.

But children tend not to focus too much on the impracticalities of their wishes – the geopolitical implications of being a princess don’t loom too prominently in the minds of little girls – and there are few parents willing to oblige their offspring by buying a lighthouse to move into. 

Still, there are some grown-ups who fancy the life in a lighthouse. After decades of automation which vacated lighthouses of their operating residents, decommissioned towers are now being snapped up by enthusiasts for conversion into homes.

Some might be attracted by the sea, others by the lack of neighbours within any appreciable distance, there are more still who might simply be youngsters at heart. It has to be said though that there is a divergence in the attitudes towards lighthouses among children and adults – at least, that is, if their respective cultural portrayals are anything to go by.

It is not for nothing that the formative incident in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (the most famous one in literature, surely) is a child’s wish to go and visit a lighthouse while on holiday on Skye, a wish that is stymied by the overly cautious concern of his father. Resolution is only reached a decade later, after the family, the Ramseys, have experienced death and war and they finally pay the visit to the lighthouse. There is aesthetic reconciliation too, with Lily Briscoe completing her long-planned lighthouse painting (the structures are a perennial favourite of amateur painters, and quite a few professionals too).

Though the robust majesty of lighthouses features in many a seascape, from Neoclassicism through Romanticism to Impressionism, in the 19th-century lighthouses began to take on a more ambiguous cast in narrative fiction.

It all started with Edgar Allan Poe’s unfinished short story, popularly known as The Light-House, which has intrigued literary scholars and writers alike, with its tantalising intimation of what might have been. The nobleman narrating the tale speaks of his increasing discomfort at the Nordic lighthouse he has just taken up residence in, noting at the end of the fragment that the structure appears to be “like chalk”.

Lighthouses tend to be far sturdier than that (it took an earthquake to destroy the great one at Pharos, and a Roman lighthouse at La Coruña, built in the 2nd century AD, is still standing and operational) but there is a clear echo of Roderick Usher and his crumbling abode in this fragment.

Ever since then writers and filmmakers have made much of the capacity for lighthouses to unsettle. Jules Verne’s posthumous novel The Lighthouse at the End of the World has a lighthouse, based on a real one on the Argentine island of Isla de los Estados near Tierra del Fuego, besieged by pirates. 

The Fog (1980)

The isolation of lighthouses is taken to its extreme here and later artists have played with the disorientation endowed by a building that exists to illuminate in the least favourable of weather conditions.

In John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980), the residents of a California port are revisited by the ghosts of stricken mariners and the film deprives the lighthouse (where heroine Stevie Wayne broadcasts her radio show) of its sureness and safety. It is instead host to the frightening mysterious messages from the vengeful dead sailors and becomes engulfed in the titular fog and the terror it brings. The proto-slasher movie Tower of Evil (1973) and Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010) make lighthouses similarly sinister locales.

Their architecture makes them paradoxically insecure for the purposes of a film – safe and strong from the outside but once you’re in, you have very little room to wriggle, hemmed in by winding staircases and cramped alcoves. You don’t really want to get stuck in a lighthouse with a malignant force.

Tower of Evil (1973)

This ambiguous nature of lighthouses was foreshadowed by JMW Turner in his painting, The Beacon Light, which unlike most other paintings of lighthouses, reduces the structure to its light alone. Though the painting is a vigorous paean to the steadfastness of the beacon in the midst of a turbulent storm, there is also something unnerving about it. The lighthouse is scarcely visible – only the line of the clifftop and the beaming light give a clue to its whereabouts – and the tableau is a thrilling yet disquieting portrayal of the loneliness of a lighthouse battered by a tempest.

The word “beacon” naturally has overwhelmingly positive connotations, and the sight of one would have been welcomed by many a desperate sailor in distress, but the lighthouse is nonetheless a lonely, sometimes dark, place.

But handsome too and incredibly photogenic. And it is not as if lighthouses are inexorably overrun with sinister connotations, despite the efforts of artists of a gothic bent. Lighthouses are indeed skeumorphically versatile – they never fail to look recognisably like a lighthouse and they are adaptable in a near infinite proliferation of logos and used to sell everything from financial consulting to churches to beer.

The parabolic arcs the beacons describe across the dark night have a geometrical precision that is brilliantly conveyed by Song of the Sea’s animation, with its palette of two-dimensional planes and high-contrast solids (and also by the idents for Rob Reiner’s production company Castle Rock Entertainment).

Lighthouses are structures like few others and, even as technology has meant they are not quite so vital as they were in the past, there is still something about the sight of one that inspires both awe and admiration.

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

DES WILLIE/BBC
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Man alive! Why the flaws of Inside No 9 only emphasise its brilliance

A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking.​ ​Even as my brain raced, I was grinning.

At the risk of sounding like some awful, jargon-bound media studies lecturer – precisely the kind of person those I’m writing about might devote themselves to sending up – it seems to me that even the dissatisfactions of Inside No 9 (Tuesdays, 10pm) are, well, deeply satisfying. What I mean is that the occasional flaws in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s cultish series, those unlooked-for moments when nothing quite makes sense, only serve to emphasise its surpassing brilliance.

At the end of the final episode of series three, for instance, there came a discombobulating twist. A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking. How had this happened? Were the preceding 28 minutes only a dream? Even as my brain raced, I was grinning. That line about Ron Mueck! In a piece that seemed mostly to be paying topsy-turvy homage to the camp 1973 horror flick Theatre of Blood.

Pemberton and Shearsmith are all about homage: a bit of Doctor Who here, a touch of Seventies B-movie there. Inside No 9’s format of twisty one-offs is a direct descendant of ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. And yet it is so absolutely its own thing. Only they could have written it; only they could ever do this much (stretch your arms as wide as they’ll go) in so little time (half an hour).

In the episode Private View, guests were invited to the Nine Gallery in somewhere Hoxtonish. This motley crew, handpicked to represent several of the more unedifying aspects of 21st-century Britain, comprised Carrie (Morgana Robinson), a reality-TV star; Patricia (Felicity Kendal), a smutty novelist; Kenneth (Pemberton), a health and safety nut; and Maurice (Shearsmith), an art critic. Hard on their heels came Jean (Fiona Shaw), a wittering Irishwoman with gimlet eyes. However, given that they were about to be bloodily picked off one by one, at least one of them was not what she seemed. “I’m due at Edwina Currie’s perfume launch later,” Carrie yelped, as it dawned on her that the pages of Grazia might soon be devoting a sidebar to what Towie’s Mark Wright wore to her funeral.

Private View satirised a certain kind of contemporary art, all bashed up mannequins and blindingly obvious metaphors. Admittedly, this isn’t hard to do. But at least Pemberton and Shearsmith take for granted the sophistication of their audience. “A bit derivative of Ron Mueck,” said Maurice, gazing coolly at one of the installations. “But I like the idea of a blood mirror.” The duo’s determination to transform themselves from episode to episode – new accent, new hair, new crazy mannerisms – calls Dick Emery to mind. They’re better actors than he was, of course; they’re fantastic actors. But in the context of Inside No 9, even as they disappear, they stick out like sore thumbs, just as he used to. They’re the suns around which their impressive guest stars orbit. They may not always have the biggest parts, but they nearly always get the best lines. You need to watch them. For clues. For signs. For the beady, unsettling way they reflect the world back at you.

What astonishes about this series, as with the two before it, is its ability to manage dramatic shifts in tone. Plotting is one thing, and they do that as beautifully as Roald Dahl (the third episode, The Riddle of the Sphinx, which revolved around a crossword setter, was a masterclass in structure). But to move from funny to plangent and back again is some trick, given the limitations of time and the confined spaces in which they set the stories. In Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Shearsmith’s character found a size-nine shoe in the street and became obsessed with finding its owner, which was very droll. But the real engine of the piece, slowly revealed, was grief, not madness (“Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John”). You felt, in the end, bad for having sniggered at him.

If you missed it, proceed immediately to iPlayer, offering a thousand thanks for the usually lumbering and risk-averse BBC, which has commissioned a fourth series. One day people will write learned papers about these shows, at which point, jargon permitting, I might discover just how Maurice managed to live to fight another day.

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 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution