I think some people discover Lawrence Durrell having read My Family and Other Animals when small… and so can’t quite forget the satirical portrait by his brother. Interesting that My Family and Other Animals was published in 1956, just before Lawrence (below, centre) produced his best work and secured the literary world’s respect and recognition.
A stop at Witley Court near Worcester on the way to North Wales. Partly destroyed by fire, gutted for salvage in the 1950s, and perfect for the recent meander at WhistlesintheWind about what we keep and throw away… pondering the popular view of Britain before the 1960s, what modernised us, and the things salvaged from the 20th century’s garbage skip.
Witley Court is well-managed by English Heritage, a grand shell with a centrepiece fountain that fires on the hour.
There’s a very particular atmosphere, and the link here is actress Deborah Kerr, who appeared in two films that came to mind while wandering around. One was Jack Clayton’s 1961 film The Innocents, based on Henry James’ Turn of the Screw. Somehow that film made the bright sun of a summer’s day coldly haunting, with images across the water of the house in cadaverous silence. In complete opposition, I also remember Deborah Kerr in a technicolor comedy with Cary Grant, about the inhabitants of a stately home ‘forced’ to take in guided tours to maintain their lifestyle. Witley Court is both – families, dressed in shades of Italian ice cream, sit happily on the manicured lawns, while the brooding, slightly resentful shell of the mansion stands over them.
Solid, stoic – it will not be moved.
Above: the last echoes of the rustle of a dress up the staircase, sweeping away with the speed of a darting peacock’s tail feathers…
Perhaps this is all we need? Nothing could be more honest than Witley Court. The architecture seems to speak more powerfully as a shell – part of the story of the 20th century told with unsentimental beauty.
I remembered last year’s visit to Castle Howard in Yorkshire. I had wanted to go there for years, but what waited there was fairly hideous… a house, like Witley Court, once partly destroyed by fire (in the 1940s), yet risen again. In the 21st century some aspects can only recall garish images of stately grandeur: garden centre statues or statement wallpaper in out-of-town superstores up and down the land.
Elsewhere, it seemed the very essence of the British heritage industry at its worst: the empty, shored-up and once fire-damaged rooms are barely filled with bored displays flogging the dead horse of the 2009 remake of Brideshead Revisited.
Castle Howard is itself unconnected with any of Waugh’s inspiration but remains in the Arcadian imagination as the stage set for the iconic 1981 TV drama.
And yes, something from an earlier age remains – in the occasionally fawning and obseqiuous manner of attendants drooling over the family portraits. Brideshead ended the war as the ghost of its former self. If heritage supermarkets with their cafés complete with suspiciously-stained sofas are what we need to feed a dream, then perhaps we should have let Charles Ryder ride away down the drive in his jeep, never to return.
Here’s another scene which carries a theme from the Billy Liar post – ‘escape/something more’ in mid-century Britain (or anytime, come to that). Waters of the Moon ran between 1951 and 1952 at the Haymarket Theatre, London, at the same time as the Festival of Britain. At first glance it’s everything the angry young men and women came to dismantle in the coming years: a drawing room drama about the lives of the ‘bourgeois’ classes…
The playwright, Norman Charles Hunter, spent some time convalescing in a Devon military hospital during the war and throughout his recovery would go walking around Dartmoor. On one occasion he stopped for tea at a mothballed hotel, of the type with long-standing residents. He recalled it later when coming across a quote from William Hazlitt: “To what a point of insignificance may not human life dwindle! To what fine, agonising threads will it not cling!”
It is a drawing room drama, with all the familiar devices. And yet there’s some genuine empathy for the characters whose lives are disturbed for a few days at New Year by the rich and dynamic Helen Lancaster, whose car and family have become snowbound.
It’s a fascinating study of how Britain is perceived at this time: the hotel residents are mostly stereotypes, but either wrestling with aspects of the ‘leash’ that Shelagh Delaney is talking about here, helpless in the face of change, or simply ‘used to it’.
Evelyn Daly is the daughter of the hotel’s family, her mother is widowed, her brother may or may not have TB, and her life consists of tending fires and the needs of the guests. Aided by the crate of champagne bountifully shared by Helen, who has instigated an unheard of ‘party’ for New Year’s Eve, she steps out of line.
This clip is from a version filmed in 1980, with stalwart actors of the time reliably producing an era: Joan Sims, Virginia McKenna, Ronald Pickup, and Penelope Keith flawlessly recreating her stock role. So many things echo back and forth over these decades, from the fifties to the eighties. Evelyn (played by Lesley Dunlop) is politely consoled as unbalanced and bundled to bed with an aspirin, while Helen Lancaster/Penelope Keith says it all with her verdict at the close.
A view of St Paul’s through wasteland, cover artwork published in 1950 for Rose Macaulay’s story of a girl who is sent to live in London after years in occupied France (jacket design by Barbara Jones). I’ve yet to read it. The inside wrap reads:
“London and the ordered formality of English life seemed to her after the wild maquis society of France more than strange, repellent even, a totally unintelligible confusion. She was bewildered, not merely by the ordinary rules of what is called civilised life, but also by the ambiguity of her personal relationships within that framework… the only escape from it she found in a real but fantastic world which she created for herself in the wrecked and flowering wastes around St Paul’s, which became her physical and spiritual home.”
Here’s an image from 2013.