“Be thoroughly prepared as far as the work is concerned, so you can handle the madness.” – Author Michael Mears discusses Fringe success and This Evil Thing

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“The absolutists were as their name suggests, absolutely opposed to doing anything at all that could even remotely be construed as helping the war effort.”

In 1916, at the height of the First World War, Henry Asquith, Britain’s beleaguered Liberal Prime Minister, “begged leave to introduce a bill with respect to military service.” Little did he know just how strong the opposition to it would be. Although he had ensured, as a result of vigorous campaigning both inside and outside Parliament, that one of the exemptions contained in the bill would be, “on the ground of having a conscientious objection to bearing arms,” in practice it proved extremely difficult to obtain this exemption.

Arrests soon followed. C.O.s would be forcibly escorted to barracks and there ordered to put on a uniform, and do drill – which they politely refused to do. This civil disobedience would result in punishments, bread and water diets, solitary confinement, and worse. At least they couldn’t face the ultimate threat – execution – as they were not in the war-zone, and therefore not deemed to be on active service. Unless, of course the Army started sending C.O.s across the Channel to France…

Michael Mears – actor, playwright, long-distance walker – has enjoyed a rich and varied career in theatre, television, radio and film. His on stage work includes seasons with the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the Peter Hall Company, portraying many classical and Shakespearean roles.

On television, Michael’s roles include Rifleman Cooper in Sharpe, two series of The Lenny Henry Show, and appearances in Parades End, The Colour of Magic, My Family, and Birds of a Feather. On film Michael is most delighted to have been the hotel barman who brings Hugh Grant and Andie McDowell together in Four Weddings And A Funeral.

This Evil Thing was published in April 2017 by 49Knights. To find out more click here.


Why WWI conscientious objectors?

As a playwright, I was looking for a subject as the First World War 100 year commemorations were approaching. There I was, a pacifist, but I didn’t appreciate what my subject matter had to be until I casually picked up and read, the way you do, a book I’d been given for Christmas – Robert Graves’ autobiography, Goodbye To All That – in the course of which he describes his experiences in WW1, including his meeting and friendship with Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon, known for his superb war (anti-war?) poetry – served loyally and courageously as a Lieutenant in the trenches, before having a Damascene conversion and realizing the horror and utter futility of it all – and becoming, in effect, a conscientious objector.

Oh yes, I now thought, who were the conscientious objectors exactly? Within days I was discovering all kinds of books, articles, you name it, about the subject – an utterly fascinating, riveting and rarely told part of the history of the First War. I felt compelled to make my own dramatic contribution, inspired by the stories I read, feeling I wanted to play my part in helping give their courageous stand against war and conscription more oxygen and daylight.

This Evil Thing is a play for one actor yet there are dozens of characters represented. What was your process to ensure that each has an individual voice?

michael-mears-in-this-evil-thing-2-999x450Myself and Rosamunde Hutt, my director, made sure that the smallest character, even an army sergeant who has just a couple of lines in the piece, say, had a name, a motivation and their own integrity. We ascertained what their background would be, how they might sound (through playful exploration) and similarly explored how they would move, what physical gestures/tics/mannerisms they might have. Obviously this work would be more in-depth when looking at the more substantial characters. We strenuously tried to avoid any kind of caricature – although occasionally a cartoon-like style might be briefly employed where appropriate.

You’ve enjoyed considerable success at the Fringe both with This Evil Thing and previous productions. What are the best and worst things a new company can do during August in Edinburgh?

Best things you can do – are to be thoroughly prepared as far as the work is concerned, so you can handle the madness of whirlwind get-ins and get-outs, as show follows show follows show. Be as charming and polite as possible to those you are given to work with in the venue, and your venue managers, publicity people etc. Whatever the frustrations, (and there are oh so many) try not to let these affect the way you are in public, and way you deal with people in public. And yes, unless you get that early 5-star review and then sell-out pronto, do hand out flyers and spread the word about your show on a daily basis, but as charmingly as possible – while being fully accepting of the many brush-offs and rejections of your leaflets that you will encounter. Tall order, I know.

Worst things – to get so inebriated, wrecked, spaced-out, whatever, that you can’t deliver brilliantly what you are here for in the first place. To quote some old playwright of yore – ‘The play’s the thing…’ (or the show, the stand-up act, the musical – substitute as necessary…) We all need a good moan. But try not to moan ad infintum. Edinburgh can be incredibly frustrating, but you’re there, you’re performing for better or worse in this huge arts festival, the city is beautiful and it’s an extraordinary place at Festival time, so relish being there, get out and see loads of stuff, especially the amazing stuff that comes from abroad, and let it feed your own work, your own imagination.

You’re an alumnus of the TV series Sharpe (in which Sean Bean plays the titular blood and guts Napoleonic war hero). Here you are writing a play about a different kind of heroism. Are the two types, soldiering and refusing to fight, antithetical?

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My instinct is to say yes, and yet, as I highlight right at the end of This Evil Thing, there are different ways to be a hero, to be courageous. The very best soldiers are absolutely willing to sacrifice their lives for what they believe in – and it is exactly the same for the conscientious objectors. They were willing to face death if necessary, to face execution, rather than betray their belief that no man, no government, should be able to force another man to kill against his will.

And many COs, while imprisoned in barracks and guard-rooms, met soldiers who though they said they didn’t agree with the COs’ beliefs, nevertheless had great respect for them and their willingness to suffer in order not to betray those beliefs.

Did you ever mention that you might be a pacifist while playing Rifleman Cooper?

Warfare in those days, the days of Napoleon and Wellington, was a very different thing to warfare just a hundred years later. You got very close to your enemy, often saw the whites of their eyes, often grappled in hand to hand combat…somehow it seemed more honest, if that makes sense – unlike warfare now where generally it’s a question of dropping bombs from a great height or distance – without those doing the bombing ever having any contact with those to whom they are bringing such damage and devastation. The early 1800s was a fascinating period to research and though I was never truly comfortable holding and firing my rifle and taking part in those imagined battles, the characters were so vivid and rich and colourful – most of them survivors from the gutter, finding a home and purpose in the army. And at the time of filming Sharpe, in the early 1990s, I wasn’t consciously calling myself a pacifist. The job of being part of Sharpe was an acting challenge to me, first and foremost – to portray a hard-bitten soldier living on his wits and the camaraderie of his fellows, even though I would never have dreamt of joining the army in real life; much as to play Macbeth, you don’t actually have to have been a murderer (though I imagine it would help a bit).

Many of the absolutist COs came from a nonconformist background. Most Quakers, Methodists, etc accepted non-combat roles (such as front line stretcher bearing). What made the absolutists different, and how were they treated by their own congregational communities after WWI?

The absolutists were as their name suggests, absolutely opposed to doing anything at all that could even remotely be construed as helping the war effort. They were utterly opposed to this war, and in most cases, all war. There were 1,300 of them, and they endured tough prison sentences, with repeated stints of solitary confinement on bread and water diets, and enduring what was a Rule Of Silence for all prisoners in prison at that time. Many developed health problems as a result of their treatment.

After the war the responses the COs encountered on release varied – but in some communities there was a feeling that they had been shirkers, had had an easy war and didn’t deserve any kind of special treatment or status now. Finding work could prove very difficult, with many ads in the papers specifying that ‘COs need not apply’ ; and the vote was denied to COs for 5 years. But there were communities, such as in Huddersfield with its radical background and history, who were far more understanding of what the COs stood for and had endured.

Bert Brocklesby, the protagonist in my play, and who had been an absolutist, was ultimately spurned by his Methodist congregation in south Yorkshire. It wasn’t long before Bert joined the Quakers, understandably.

Do you see a difference between refusing wartime service between 1914-18 and 1939-45?

An early choice of title for my play was ‘What About Hitler?’ Sort of says it all, really – in terms of this question. The most passionate pacifists, and I consider myself one, are nevertheless brought up short when confronted with the ghastly phenomenon of AH. War is an appalling way to resolve international disputes, but when someone like Hitler appears on the scene – what do you do? But there were COs in WW2, a lot more in fact than in WW1, and because of those early trailblazers and the way in which they had in fact helped to reshape public opinion to a considerable extent, COs in WW2 generally had a far more sympathetic hearing.

Although This Evil Thing is a play for one actor you’ve been directed, stage managed, designed and produced. How does a solo player successfully pick a team?

There are all kinds of elements that go into picking a team – experience (the older you get, the more people you work with and thus gain an excellent knowledge of people’s abilities or particular skills); word of mouth; getting out there and seeing (in my case) other directors’ solo work (partly how I found Ros Hutt – I saw a splendid solo piece she had directed a year earlier); chance meetings; serendipity; and of course, calling on people you’ve worked with well before – like Mark Friend my set designer, who had designed a previous solo play of mine. I came across my sound designer Mark Noble, when I was in a play sat Salisbury that he had designed sound and video for – and I thought, ‘Gosh, he’s good. And he’s very young. So maybe he won’t be too expensive – yet!’

30477-6715What’s next for This Evil Thing?

A 600 seat tent, 3 Quaker school halls, the studio of Hull Truck theatre, London’s only surviving Elizabethan Church in Stoke Newington, a small wine bar in Wanstead, East London – all these with their differing shapes, sizes and acoustics, and many more, will be hosting the play this August, and through the autumn. Check out michaelmears.org for more details.

I’m also looking for possible American openings – no, not Hollywood, but the Quakers in Philadelphia perhaps…

What should be playing on the stereo when we’re reading This Evil Thing?

Ideally nothing. But if you do want something on in the background…then almost certainly something by Vaughan-Williams – his ‘Pastoral Symphony’ – which captures the sense of loss and sadness connected with the First World War… or his ‘The Lark Ascending.’

Or a haunting and beautiful piece of acapella music called ‘Unmarked Graves’ by Helen Chadwick, from her album ‘AMAR’ – she recorded other beautiful acapella material for the production of This Evil Thing.


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“If this question is sarcastic, see my answer to Question Five.” – Author David Damant discusses The Luck of the Devil

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“I can imagine that Sullivan’s music for the Devil would have been excellent, and Gilbert would have loved the plot.”

Vienna, May 1931. The Baron Bretzenny is a worried man. His banking house is bust. It seems nothing can prevent the Bank Bretzenny from becoming just another casualty, lost amid the global wreckage of the Wall Street Crash. As one of Vienna’s foremost public atheists, the Baron literally hasn’t got a prayer. Then a mysterious visitor offers the Baron a way out of his troubles… but at what price?

The Luck of the Devil is the coruscating debut comedy of financial guru turned scribbler, David Damant. Damant is at once both a respected elder statesman in the realm of finance, a pioneer of Modern Portfolio Theory in Europe, and also a keen observer of his fellow creatures, their vanities and profanities.

At his London club David has, in addition to the world premier of The Luck of the Devil, arranged for a performance of the melodrama Maria Martin and the Red Barn, as well as more than a dozen operas or parts of operas, each directed by the celebrated Jamie Hayes. These have included Dido and Aeneas (starring Jean Rigby), the second act of Tosca (Sue Bullock & Robert Hayward), the essential scenes from Don Giovanni (Robert Hayward again), and no less than four performances of Offenbach’s Not In Front Of The Waiter.

A browse of his social media profile reveals that David’s interests include food, wine, opera, history, and conversation – he has even, on suitably rare occasions, been known to allow his interlocutors to get a word in… although never the last one.

The Luck of the Devil was published in March 2017 by 49Knights. To find out more click here.


Why the Devil? Why an Austrian banker? Why the interwar years?

I had been revolving in my mind for some time the idea of a Faustian contract in which, unusually, the Devil has to ask for help. After the stock exchange crash in New York in 1929 the trigger for the serious depression on this side of the Atlantic was the failure of the Viennese bank the Creditanstalt in May 1931, so I thought that an Austrian banker in trouble at about that time would need money and would provide the basis for the plot.

I then added the idea that the Roman Church was about to issue an Encyclical saying that the Devil was no more than a psychological construct – something that the Devil would not like at all – and he needed human help to stop the Encyclical – the name of which Ad Deliramentum Expellendum was crafted for me by an expert in Papal Latin. I have portrayed the Devil in an fairly honourable light (accepting his standpoint as the Father of Evil).

LOD 3You’ve been involved in dozens of productions down the years. How did those experiences shape The Luck of the Devil?

Except for one play before this one, all the productions I have been involved with since 1987 have been operas in whole or in part. But operas are drama so I suppose that I learnt a bit from those productions. A greater influence was P G Wodehouse, who used to construct his novels as though they were plays, with the scenes balancing each other in the sense of what happens in each, and the various characters given balanced appearances – one cannot introduce a big character and then drop that character half way through. So I followed that rule in my play.

You’ve not written a play before, but you have written on financial matters, history, music etc. How have your previous endeavours informed this one?

Writing so much taught me to write clearly……in any case a lot of what I wrote in the financial world had to be translated, or anyway read by those who were not native English speakers – so I had to be clear. A lot of writing these days is not transparently easy to follow, My aim is always to have the reader (or the listener to the play) able to concentrate on the ideas which I (or a character) is expressing, and not have to work out from the language what the point might be.

When I thought of writing the play I read quite a lot of other plays to get the structure in my mind, and was pretty dismayed by the sordid or unhappy nature of the plots – failed marriages, hopeless careers, children and parents at loggerheads etc etc.

The drama centres on a banker who has run out of money and needs bailing out. Where did you get such an incredible notion from?

See the answer to Question One. If this question is sarcastic, see my answer to Question Five.

Your own background is in banking and the city. Bankers aren’t massively popular at present. What can they do to improve their public image, and what should us non-bankers always bear in mind about the sector?

The general view of bankers is completely unbalanced. The main reason for their unpopularity is the financial crash, which was caused not by them but by the Central Banks keeping interest rates too low, by the Regulators not checking on balance sheets, and by the Chancellor (Gordon Brown) stating frequently that he had abolished downturns. What does one expect bankers to do in such an environment? Sit on their hands with all that cheap money and refuse mortgages?

Of course bankers have behaved badly in specific areas, but one does not attack the game of football because FIFA was corrupt, or attack athletics because many athletes take drugs, The financial system is a tremendous asset to this country – we have a great talent in that area – but I cannot see the image improving much. Most people do not understand the enormous value of efficient capital markets in using everyone’s savings more efficiently, and of attracting vast amounts of business to this country…… another difficulty is that the salaries seem so high. I see that several football managers earn more than £10 million a year. But people understand football.

LOD 2Do you believe in the Devil? Is he abroad in the world of men?

I believe that the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna in my play was right (originally). The Devil is no more than a psychological construction in the mind of the human race, but has even so some importance as part of the human psyche. Jung said that if the Christian religion was not true, it had to be psychologically valid, since otherwise it would not have succeeded, and the Devil is part of that analysis. Incidentally, the real Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna in 1931 was Cardinal Pifl……..

What makes for good theatre?

This is a matter beyond my sphere of expertise. Chekhov stands out, and is of great interest in any attempt to answer your question.Often very little happens in a Chekhov play until the middle of the second act, when they all meet and decide not to go to Moscow. Yet his plays stand out as an amazing analysis of the human predicament. Note that the plot is merely the skeleton on which the real drama is hung. That is why so many films of great novels miss the point. They can tell the story, maybe a good one, but miss the dimension which make the whole thing a great work of art.

Wuthering Heights is the extreme example. Shakespeare is in a different league from everyone else – one can only be astonished at his genius. Incidentally, it seems clear to me that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. It is impossible to imagine that he could have been in and around the London theatre scene for so long without anyone noticing the difference between his plays and his mind in conversation, not to mention having to wait whilst he rushed off the get input from Bacon or Lord Oxford. Also the comments by Ben Jonson and others.

What has been the response to The Luck of the Devil thus far?

The response is enthusiastic by those who have read it, but not many have read it outside my circle. Those in my circle are probably amazed that I have written a play at all. All profits from the first printing of the first edition went to a Charitable Trust.

LOD 1What’s next for The Luck of the Devil?

I have sent it to the BBC as it is perfect for radio. As regards a second play – Wodehouse when talking of novels always said that the second one was the real test of a writer, and no doubt the same is true of plays – I have started on a plot dealing with the incompetent bureaucracy of Heaven, where Stalin on arrival is not recognised (he uses his real name Josef Vissarionovitch Dzhugasvili) and is given the wrong papers, so that he is very nearly through the Pearly Gates, much to the delight of Satan.

What should be playing on the stereo when we’re reading The Luck of the Devil?

This is not an easy question. Any reference to the Devil brings to mind the Charles Williams piece The Devil’s Gallop, which the more ancient of your readers may remember as the theme for Dick Barton, Special Agent on the BBC, which was succeeded by the Archers (the Archers have never been the same since Squire Lawson-Hope sold the village). But the Gallop is for a melodramatic Devil, and for my play we need something more sophisticated. Handel’s Zadok the Priest would do, since the long and restrained build up is full of tension, relieved by the triumphant ending.

If the play were to be made into an opera, I think that Gilbert and Sullivan would have done it rather well. I can imagine that Sullivan’s music for the Devil would have been excellent, and Gilbert would have loved the plot. Or even better Offenbach – we have put on his Not in Front of the Waiter four times at my club. His humorous wit is sophisticated and some of his music might also do for background music when reading the play.


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“I like having a central character who’s rather out of his depth among the intrigues, but with the willpower to battle through them. A just man in an unjust time, perhaps.” – Author Ian Ross discusses The Twilight of Empire IV The Mask of Command

“I’ve always been drawn to periods of revolution and change, and the possibilities of viewing this very volatile era through the eyes of a man caught in the midst of it, not knowing what the future might bring, were compelling.”

When a treacherous act of murder throws the western provinces into turmoil, Aurelius Castus is ordered to take command of the military forces on the Rhine. But he soon discovers that the frontier is a place where the boundaries between civilisation and barbarism, freedom and slavery, honour and treason have little meaning.

At the very heart of the conflict are two vulnerable boys. One is Emperor Constantine’s young heir, Crispus. The other is Castus’s own beloved son, Sabinus. Only Castus stands between them and men who would kill them. With all that he loves in danger, Castus and a handful of loyal men must fight to defend the Roman Empire. But in the heat of battle, can he distinguish friend from enemy?.

Ian Ross was born in England, and studied painting before turning to writing fiction. After a year in Italy teaching English and exploring the ruins of empire reawakened his early love for ancient history, he returned to the UK with a growing fascination for the period known as late antiquity.

Ian has been researching and writing about the later Roman world and its army for over a decade. His interests combine an obsessive regard for accuracy and detail as well as a devotion to the craft of storytelling.

The Mask of Command (Twilight of Empire IV) (published by Head of Zeus, December 2016). To find out more click here.


Why the age of Constantine?

The Roman era is always going to attract the imagination, I think: perhaps it’s the combination of the recognisable and the very alien, or just the sheer scale of the empire and the drama of its history. The early fourth century is probably rather less familiar to many people, but it was a fascinating period, simultaneously gloomy and ornate, sophisticated and brutal. The empire had been through tremendous upheavals and was in a process of transformation; it was still a resolutely Roman culture and society, but the old certainties of the classical world were gone. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to sense the gathering storms of the empire’s collapse, so there’s a sort of background of darkness that makes the action stand out in even greater clarity.

I’ve always been drawn to periods of revolution and change, and the possibilities of viewing this very volatile era through the eyes of a man caught in the midst of it, not knowing what the future might bring, were compelling. We also have a reasonably good idea of the main events of the time, and a cast of extraordinary historical characters!

Did your research include much travel? Are there places where the visitor can catch a glimpse of the world your characters inhabit?

I’ve tried to visit all of the main sites I write about in the books, yes – an advantage, as I find travel sharpens the imagination greatly. My research so far has taken me from Scotland to Turkey, but this book is mainly set on the north-west frontier of the empire, along the lower Rhine and its hinterland. In Cologne (Colonia Agrippina in the novel, Castus’s centre of operations) you can see the remains of the Roman praetorium, or governor’s palace – and an extraordinary stretch of old sewer tunnel beneath it, which found its way unexpectedly into the novel! In Trier the audience hall of the imperial palace still stands, an enormously impressive building, while in nearby Mainz you can see full-size replicas of the smaller type of Roman river galley.

Downstream at Xanten there’s an entire Roman legionary fortress, with some excellent reconstructions. Often it’s the smaller finds that draw me, though – those glass cases in museums filled with everything from kitchen implements to dice, bits of armour to votive figurines; the things that people of the distant past would have handled in their everyday lives.

When did you first “meet” the hero of the novels, Aurelius Castus? When and how did he first appear in your mind’s eye in roughly the form he takes in the novels?

Castus appeared to me very quickly; I found I could picture him distinctly almost from the first moment I started thinking about the story. I wanted a protagonist who fitted with the era, rather than a sort of superhero figure, but someone with the depth to develop and remain central to the successive stories. Castus is a traditionalist, fiercely loyal to his own rather idealistic sense of the empire and the emperors, and he has a blunt and straightforward view of the world that often makes him clumsy in social situations. But he has a strong sense of ethics and honour, that throws him into conflict with the more duplicitous morality of the times.

The later Roman Empire was a complex and often murky place, with emperors rising and falling, and murderous conspiracies and treacheries on all sides; and I like having a central character who’s rather out of his depth among the intrigues, but with the willpower to battle through them. A just man in an unjust time, perhaps.

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Where did Castus learn to fight i.e. where did you learn to write authentic battle accounts and war stories?

I’m glad you find them convincing! I would guess it’s safe to say that few, if any, people today know what the actual experience of fighting hand to hand in ancient battles would be like, so authenticity is hard to judge. We have accounts from the period, some very vivid, that can tell us how Roman soldiers fought, how their formations were arrayed, and how particular clashes developed. There are reconstructions and re-enactments that can tell us even more. But beyond that it’s a matter of imagination and a sense of empathy, I think: we all know what fear and shock feel like, what adrenaline does to us, and fiction can build on that knowledge and take it somewhere new.

All novels are about empathy in that sense, about imagining the experiences of somebody else doing something entirely unfamiliar, and when that person is living in an historical era the imagination has to stretch that bit further. So when I’m writing these scenes I’m trying to evoke the sense of action and speed, the sense of danger, but keep everything focussed on the experiences of the individual man, Castus himself, who actually feels quite at home in the violent world of the battlefield!

Castus is the hero, but he is not the narrator. Did you ever consider telling the story in the first person?

I didn’t really, no – Castus is a man of relatively few words, and his taciturn nature wouldn’t really suit a narrator’s role. He’s always going to be at the centre of the story, although I have increasingly used other character’s perspectives alongside his own. In this book, there are viewpoints from Fausta, the emperor’s wife, and a certain rather dangerous eunuch as well; I often find it appealing to write from the perspective of people very dissimilar to myself.

220px-p1070865_louvre_tc3aate_de_fausta_ma4881_rwkYou’ve been researching the period for over a decade. What’s the greatest liberty you have taken with your sources in order to tell the story?

I’ve always tried to take as few liberties as possible with the historical facts – which isn’t actually all that difficult, as our sources tend to be pretty scanty for this period, and there’s plenty of leeway for interpretation! But I haven’t deliberately changed anything so far, and only start inventing things once I reach the furthest borders of the evidence. With the new book, The Mask of Command, I’ve had to be a lot more inventive though: the historical record tends to follow Constantine quite exclusively, and in this book my story leaves him in the eastern provinces and heads back west to the turbulent Rhine frontier.

We know there was some sort of war with the barbarians, and the emperor’s son Crispus claimed a victory, but beyond that things get a bit hazy. So my reconstruction of events is necessarily speculative, although almost everything that happens is at least based on something recorded from the surrounding era. More generally, though, I’ve never found the facts of history – or what we can establish of them – to be a hindrance in storytelling. It’s a lot more fruitful, I find, to try and build a story around the surviving fragments of the past, with all their awkward gaps and contradictions, rather than trying to bend history into a new shape that fits the ideas I already have.

Which novelist of the Roman Empire have you most tried to emulate, or is there one you’ve tried hard to avoid?

There are plenty of great writers around at the moment producing stories set in the ancient world, but I think with my own books I was trying consciously to reach back to works from a previous generation, the sort of thing I read when I was younger, and perhaps more impressionable! Rosemary Sutcliff would be obvious choice – mainly her novel for adults, The Flowers of Adonis, which is fabulous. Also Mary Renault, Wallace Breem and Alfred Duggan, and Robert Graves of course. I’ve tried to capture something of the subtlety and detail of those writers, and combine it with the more action-driven sort of narratives that we’re familiar with today.

If you could meet one of the historical personalities featured in the Twilight of Empire series who would it be?

There are quite a few! Fascinating as it might be to meet Constantine himself, I doubt he’d reveal much beyond his public persona. Actually, it would be more interesting to meet his wife: Fausta plays a significant role in the novels, but she’s a shadowy historical figure, the daughter, mother, and wife of emperors, but perhaps very conflicted in her allegiances. No doubt she could give an illuminating insider’s view on what was really happening in the imperial court! Maxentius, who appears in the third book, would be fascinating too, I’m sure: the pro-Constantine propaganda portrays him as a monstrous tyrant, but he was very popular at the time, and I suspect he was a lot more sympathetic than he often appears.

The Mask of Command is the 4th book of the series. What’s next?

There are going to be six books in The Twilight of Empire series, covering a period of about thirty years. I planned them, rather roughly, before I started work on the first, and I’ve just finished the fifth. Despite all the planning – I try to plot everything out in as much detail as I can before I start a new project – things do always change once I’m into the writing process, so the story can always develop in unexpected ways. But you can expect further challenges for Castus, a lot more conflict and imperial intrigue, and some dramatic new locations too.

What should be playing on the stereo when we’re reading Twilight of Empire IV The Mask of Command?

I never listen to music when I’m actually working, as it’s too distracting, although when I’m in the planning and preparation stages I sometimes do: anything from Holst to medieval Sicilian music, whatever helps to summon a certain mood. But if anyone wanted a musical accompaniment to reading the book, I’m sure the soundtrack to Gladiator would be quite suitable!


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+3 Review Moondogs (Edinburgh International Film Festival: 17 June ’16)

“Heartwarming and well written”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

This year the 70th edition of the Edinburgh International Film Festival brought a wide range of films and documentaries home to Scotland. We took a look at the world premiere of Philip John’s Moon Dogs – a Scottish coming-of-age film – released on the 17th of June 2016.

Two step-brothers Michael (Jack Parry-Jones) and Thor (Christy O’Donnell) are thrown together through their parents’ marriage and the relationship between the two is far from perfect. Michael is a temperamental, slightly gullible young lad who having just finished high school is trying to figure out his future. Thor is the more quiet, reserved, artistic type who prefers to lock himself in his room to focus on his music and block out the rest of the world.

For their own individual reasons they decide to embark on a trip from their home on Shetland to Glasgow. With no money or any idea how they will get to there, they are lucky – or perhaps unlucky – to meet the wild, free-spirited yet slightly troubled young woman Caitlin (Tara Lee) who decides to accompany them on their journey.

The story focuses on the trio’s travels rather than their final destination. Throughout the film there are some beautiful shots of Scottish scenery and at times it almost feels like you are on a tour through Scotland’s landscapes and its society. With brutal honesty the film shows the best and the worst sides of Scotland. The three meet a variety of characters, from kind hearted locals to cruel criminals, whom anybody in their right mind would avoid.

The script, written by Derek Boyle and Raymond Friel, brings out a range of emotions with some charming and funny exchanges but also some darker, serious moments. Although this independent drama does at times appear a little awkward and staged this could be a reflection of how the characters themselves are feeling. At the beginning the boys, despite needing one another to make their journey to Glasgow possible, are both displeased at the idea of travelling together. As they begin to warm to each other the scenes and the interaction between the three appears to become more natural, resulting in some endearing moments for the audience and some sympathetic giggling.

The casting works. Michael and Thor are naive through their sheltered upbringing and young age and actors Parry-Jones and O’Donnell are very authentic in their roles. Tara Lee gives a captivating performance as Caitlin, although her questionable decision making and flirtatious nature make her a somewhat difficult character to comprehend. Personally I found this made her quite difficult to warm to, although perhaps the point of her role is more to provoke the boys and test their boundaries rather than to be a likeable character.

I would say Moon Dogs is a heartwarming, well written film that causes much amusement as the trio battle with the hardships of their journey and with growing up – as you do!

 

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Moondogs at the EIFF 2016 & at the British Films Directory

Reviewer: Iona Young (Seen 17 June)

“I sensed that if I could draw solace from these two stories, then so might an audience.” – Author Mark Farrelly discusses Soho Lives

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“I hope Patrick is not revived. I much prefer him to be a cult that only a small number of us know about. In this sense he is the literary equivalent of “Withnail and I”. Pass the secret on – but not too loudly.”

Soho Lives is a collection of two hit solo plays exploring the extraordinary lives and losses of two great Soho writers, Patrick Hamilton and Quentin Crisp. Greeted with huge acclaim since their debut productions, Mark Farrelly’s plays offer actors and audiences laughter, heartbreak, and an urgent, passionate reminder that the only thing that ever matters is being true to yourself.

Patrick Hamilton (1904 – 1962) was a shooting star playwright and novelist. His stage thriller Rope made him a hit on both sides of the Atlantic by the age of 25, and the play was later filmed by Hitchcock. Patrick repeated his success with the Victorian chiller Gaslight, while his highly regarded novels include Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, Hangover Square and The Slaves of Solitude. His output – witty, cynical and beguilingly empathetic of all those “battered silly by life” – was cut brutally short by the loss of his battle with chronic alcoholism.

Quentin Crisp (1908 – 1999) was variously a rent boy, artist’s model and full time layabout. Shunned and beaten by London society for his flamboyant effeminacy, he concentrated simply on Being, and spawned a philosophy which enlightens to this day. After being portrayed by John Hurt in the classic TV film The Naked Civil Servant in 1975, he became an unlikely international treasure. Moving to New York in his seventies, he spent the rest of his life telling anyone who would listen ‘How to have a lifestyle’. Asked to give a young fan some life advice, he replied: “Remember – you don’t have to win”.

Mark Farrelly is an actor/writer. He was born in Sheffield and graduated with a double first in English from Jesus College, Cambridge. His West End credits include Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opposite Matthew Kelly at Trafalgar Studios. Mark is a veteran of numerous arts festivals and a regular favourite at the Edinburgh Fringe. He has performed his two hit solo plays, The Silence of Snow: The Life of Patrick Hamilton, and Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope over one hundred times. Mark’s latest project is as writer and co-star of Howerd’s End, celebrating the centenary of comedy legend Frankie Howerd.

Soho Lives: Two Solo Plays by Mark Farrelly (published by 49Knights, March 2016). To find out more click here.


Why Patrick Hamilton and Quentin Crisp?

Though I didn’t consciously know it at the time, they deeply mirrored aspects of my own life journey. Patrick’s personal life was a perpetual, drink-sodden mess (just read the highly autobiographical Hangover Square for a sense of this febrile fragility). I wasn’t in that league, but my personal life was certainly dysfunctional a few years ago. Around this time, me and my girlfriend of fifteen years split up, and I was truly on my own for the first time in life.

Horrifyingly, I found that adulthood could be postponed no longer (it seems that human adolescence now stretches to the age of 40). That’s where Quentin came in – the great guru of loneliness and laughing in the face of adversity. I was understandably drawn to Quentin’s story because it’s the tale of a man sitting in a flat on his own thinking life is over, which was very much me in 2012 /13, but then eventually things change and he ends up being the toast of New York.

I sensed that if I could draw solace from these two stories, then so might an audience… because we’re all suffering aren’t we? It’s a big part of what life is. The trick, as Quentin knew, is never to try to deal with it like Patrick – by running away.

Joining the two Lives is Soho. What was Soho like in their day and did Hamilton and Crisp ever meet there?

Soho (at least until recently) has always been what you want it to be. It’s a cipher for everyone’s inner ideal of a sanctuary from the harshness of life, but also a metaphor for the danger we like to flirt with in our younger days. So, for Patrick, it’s initially a boozy bolthole, a safe haven, idealised as a realm of “bottley glitter”. Later, as Patrick’s worldview darkened in the shadow of Hitler, Soho becomes a feeding ground for human sharks… conmen, narcissists, and also suicidal depressives.

Quentin likewise saw Soho initially as a refuge, hiding in what he called “layabout cafes”… until a “rough” or the police hassled him, angered by his brazen selfhood. Later he withdrew from it, and it existed only as a memory: “Soho used to be a more exciting place. You used to be able to get your throat cut on a really big scale”.

Did Patrick and Quentin ever meet? Unlikely. But I like to think they once unwittingly brushed past each other. Like so much of human interaction – almost connecting… but somehow never quite managing it.

Why have the novels of Patrick Hamilton dropped off the radar, and is he due a revival?

I suspect they dropped off the radar because there aren’t that many of them. He only wrote twelve books. The early ones are apprentice works, the later ones are blighted by the alcoholism that killed him at 58 (“I’ve been battered silly by life”), so for me that leaves only five flat-out great novels. They also have a narrowness of focus, compared to say E.M. Forster (another man who ‘only’ produced five great books). I hope Patrick is not revived. I much prefer him to be a cult that only a small number of us know about. In this sense he is the literary equivalent of Withnail and I. Pass the secret on – but not too loudly.

Quentin-Crisp.jpegDo John Hurt’s much celebrated portrayals of Quentin Crisp make it easier or harder for another actor to play him?

It didn’t really affect me. There have been thousands of Hamlets so I knew the world could cope with two Quentin Crisps. John Hurt (a great portrayer of victims, of whom it was rightly said “he suffers so well”) played to the hilt the bizarre upward inflections that Quentin sometimes spoke in. I deliberately toned this down for a solo play, as it would have become a bit annoying. So, at the wise encouragement of my superb director Linda Marlowe, I allowed some of my own voice to come into it. After all, the whole point of Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope is to encourage people to have the blind courage to be themselves at all times, however tough it is. Quentin said: “I simply refuse to bevel down my individuality to please other people”. Please dwell on what a great statement that is.

How do you go about researching your biographies, what sort of people do you meet, and what’s the single best insight you’ve gained?

The best research for writing a biographical piece is to have lots of psychotherapy. Find out who and what you are, what’s really going on beneath your behaviour patterns and your unexpressed wishes. Deeply explore why you are drawn to your subject, and what that says about you and the wider human “condition”. You’ll likely discover that your subject is what Jung called your shadow… some split-off, disowned part of yourself that you abandoned as a child in the face of criticism and aggression.

And now the soul burns to reconnect with all its parts. You’ve grown exhausted of listening to those dismal voices in your head, that embalmed Normal Bates gag reel of guff that keeps telling you that life is hopeless, you’re a failure and so on. It’s just a ghostly echo of everyone whose negativity you co-opted as a child, and you’ve spent years vainly trying to find the dimmer switch.

If (and it’s quite a big if) you are able to do this, then everything else will flow. Your reading, meeting surviving relatives, creating something of value… it will happen, though not necessarily in the manner you expected. The best insight (beautiful word) I had was when meeting Frances Ramsay, Quentin’s octogenarian niece. She said that whenever she was with Quentin, he would introduce her to his friends as “My niece Frances. She comes from real life”. And there it is. Quentin was an alien. Gloriously ironic that knowing yourself very deeply makes you an alien. And it does. Ninety percent of people I’ve met are phonies, imposters. I should know – I used to be one too.

14702423656_ac23f53089_k.jpgIf you had the chance to take Patrick Hamilton and Quentin Crisp to dinner where would you go and who would you also invite along?

Even after all my experience (I’ve played both men on stage over 100 times) I don’t know whether they would “click”. It would certainly be an interesting speed-date. I think we should go to the Garrick Club. Patrick (rare for him) felt at home there, and Quentin would, even today, raise eyebrows with his appearance. I would like no other diners present, I would want them all to myself. However, if I could freely subvert the known laws of space and time then I would like to be joined by Tim Welling, my dear friend who committed suicide in 2012. He helped me in the early days of these projects, and was one of the few people I’ve met who, like Quentin, was entirely himself regardless of who he was with or where he was. I miss him deeply.

You’re next project is a play about Frankie Howerd. If you’ll let us peek over your shoulder at the portrait while it’s still in progress, what’s emerging on the canvas?

I’ve realised that Frankie is the archetype of the human condition – nervous, haunted, hunted, desperately trying to keep the plates spinning before the whole lot disastrously crashes down. Of course, as Frankie’s partner of 40 years, Dennis Heymer, knew, letting the plates crash down might be a very good thing, but Frankie could never take that Rubiconic risk. This meant that he created a brilliant, brave, timeless form of stand-up comedy, but had the classic unhappy inner life. His act was a band-aid solution to the problem of being Frankie Howerd.

Next year is Frankie’s centenary, and we’ve never had a big comedic anniversary like this that I’m aware of. I think it’s extremely healthy for people to have proper goodbyes in life. I realised this when I went to see Monty Python at the O2 in 2014: we, and they, were getting a chance to say goodbye formally, and that’s very healing, allows you to move on in life. Two big romantic relationships of mine ended without a proper goodbye (“closure”) which did me a lot of damage.

So the play (Howerd’s End) is partly about how to let go properly. Dennis lived on for seventeen years after Frankie died in 1992, was often found clinging to the grave weeping, never came to terms with the loss. So what he and the audience have to learn during the course of the play is how to let go of Frankie. After all, one day we’ll have to let go of ourselves.

Above all: I want the play to be bloody funny. We’re apt to make our clowns very dark for the sake of drama. Every stranger I’ve spoken to about Frankie grins and says “Oh I loved him”, and so although I certainly want to provoke a few tears, I also want the audience to ride big waves of happiness. I asked Barry Cryer about this. He wrote for Frankie, and said that he’d seen a TV biopic about Frankie that “was so bleak you’d never have guessed Frank was a funny man”. Well, exactly. The world in 2016 is a pretty dark and frightening place, bombs seemingly going off by the hour… and I think we could all do with a damn good laugh. I know I could.

How important has your time at Edinburgh been for the development of both scripts?

Invaluable. Edinburgh is a brutal forcing house for new projects, and if you can survive it, possibly even get good reviews and interest from producers, then you’ve done very well indeed. There are three thousand shows in Edinburgh every year. When I first appeared there in 2002 it was one thousand. Gives you some idea of what you’re up against. Edinburgh to me is like the painting of the raft of the Medusa… thousands of egos fighting over a small bit of attention. It’s actually quite unpleasant, and when I performed there in 2014 I stayed away from much of the craziness by retreating, Quentin-style, to my room and listening to meditation tapes to remember how beautiful and special it is to be alive, because you can easily forget that in Edinburgh in August.

What’s the one thing anyone contemplating bringing a solo show to Edinburgh needs to consider?

Money.

What should be playing on the stereo when we’re reading Soho Lives: Two Solo Plays?

For Patrick, a selection of his beloved Ella Fitzgerald (he adored These Foolish Things).

For Quentin, complete silence, which was the soundtrack to many years of his life in Chelsea (“If I want anything, it’s peace. Quiet. The opportunity to stay in my room and just stagger on”). Then after you’ve read it, listen to Open All Night, Marc Almond’s beautifully dark album from 1999. It’s truly atmospheric, evocative of a lost Soho that probably never existed, and I think Patrick and Quentin would especially appreciate track 3: Tragedy.


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“What’s really hard to understand is how difficult it must have been to work with Churchill.” – Author David L. Roll discusses The Hopkins Touch

 

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“How do you express his executive leadership? It’s much easier to talk about the night he spent with Churchill or the meeting he had with Stalin.”

Harry Hopkins (1890–1946) trained as a social worker. He rose to prominence administering the work relief program in New York, where his tenacious efficiency brought him to the attention of Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When FDR won the White House, Hopkins was presented with opportunities to put his knowledge and experience to use on an even larger scale. An one of the architects and implementers of the New Deal, Hopkins grew the Works Progress Administration into the largest, most ambitious, and arguably most successful program to put Americans back to work, thus countering the effects of the Great Depression.

As the President’s chief diplomatic adviser and wartime troubleshooter, Hopkins oversaw billions of dollars of Lend-Lease aid to America’s Allies. His intimate partnership with Roosevelt – Hopkins actually lived at the White House for three and a half years from 1942-1944 – enabled him to build close working relationships with Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, and General George Marshall. Churchill was to write of Hopkins, “His was a soul that flamed out of a frail and failing body. He was a crumbling lighthouse from which there shone beams that led great fleets to harbour.”

Author David L. Roll was educated at Amherst College and The University of Michigan Law School. After more than 35 years as a partner at international law firm Steptoe & Johnson LLP, he founded the Lex Mundi Pro Bono Foundation serving as its Managing Director from 2006 to 2008. Roll is presently under contract to write a new appraisal of General George C. Marshall.

The Hopkins Touch: Harry Hopkins and the Forging of the Alliance to Defeat Hitler (published by OUP USA, April 2013). To find out more click here.


Why Harry Hopkins?

I ran into him when I was writing an earlier book, and I saw, I got a glimpse, of how he operated. It was a night (in about May of 1942) that he was with Winston Churchill at Chequers. It was the middle of the night. They were (as usual) having a beverage or two and a cable came in to Churchill from India. It announced that Louis Johnson and Churchill’s envoy (Sir Stafford Cripps) to India had reached an agreement with Jawaharlal Nehru and the other Indian leaders. The agreement was that the Indians would resist an imminent Japanese invasion in exchange for a measure of independence after the war was over.

Churchill, as you know, was quite keen on his India colony and wasn’t about to make major concessions. What happened when the cable reached Churchill for his approval was that he threatened to resign in Hopkins’ presence and Hopkins basically just off the top of his head said, “Mr. Prime Minister, Louis Johnson does not speak for the President. I can assure you.” Hopkins obviously knew Johnson DID speak for the President and he basically calmed Churchill down, they had that kind of relationship. Johnson had been undercut.

It’s sort of a fascinating incident. I got interested in pursuing it after the Johnson book came out.

tumblr_lyvqcqc9o61qlqojoo1_250Woven into your narrative are threads drawn from previously private sources. What were they, where and how did you find them?

The entrée was Diana Hopkins (Harry’s daughter by his second wife, Barbara). She lives in the DC area still. She’s in her 80s. Barbara died of cancer in 1937. When war in Europe broke out, Roosevelt asked Harry to live in the White House, in the Lincoln Room right down the hall from the President. Diana (then about 6 or 7) went too. She lived on the third floor and Mrs Roosevelt was her surrogate mother for about 3 years. Diana now lives out in Virginia and was a wonderful source that had not been interviewed for many years. She had observations about the workings of the White House when she was a child.

Her father remarried in 1942. So Diana had a stepmother and she was able to tell me a lot of things about the stepmother who in her own right was a fascinating character and no one had really written much about her either.

The way in which I got to Diana was through her daughter, Audrey, who is a lawyer (and I’m a Washington lawyer also) with another firm down the street from where I am. That was my entrée. Diana was not interested, it was difficult to get the first interview with her. I invited her and her daughter over to our house for a few drinks and she loosened up and we got along.

I did not find a cache of letters in the attic like the kind writers love to come upon, but I had some still living sources including Hopkins’ granddaughter who is a professor of history in Georgia, June Hopkins. She’s written a book focusing on Hopkins’ years as a social worker and is a descendent of Hopkins and his first wife – another fascinating character who was a social worker and a Jewish woman who Hopkins met when he was working in a settlement house in New York City.

Hopkins once quipped that he had “a leave of absence from death.” How true a word was spoken in that jest?

That was his quip when he was over in Russia with Stalin after Roosevelt died. He really did. He had a cancer operation after his second wife died of cancer in late 1937. Hopkins had an operation at the Mayo Clinic and they discovered cancer of the stomach. They removed, some say half, some say more than that, of his stomach and they reattached the plumbing. He didn’t ever function properly after that. Although, amazingly, the cancer did not recur and usually with stomach cancer it does.

So he survived but he was always having difficulty after that absorbing nutrients. Exactly what the medical problem was is still not precisely known. Several people have written about it – coeliac disease, allergic to some of the things people are allergic to today that they didn’t know about then. He didn’t take care of himself, he drank all the time. But he had injections, took liver extract and so on.  One of the reasons Roosevelt invited him to live in the White House was that he was sickly and didn’t look so good. Of course Roosevelt wanted someone to be right there anyway.

After he got back from Tehran at the end of 1943, on New Year’s Day of 1944, he basically collapsed and had to go to the Mayo Clinic to recover. They said that he did not have a recurrence of cancer, but they did experiment with various ways to increase his intake of nutrients. He was in Mayo for 6 months before he came back and then he was way behind in terms of his relationship with Roosevelt. So it wasn’t until late 1944 that he restored his place at Roosevelt’s elbow. He missed out on a lot, but he actually saved Roosevelt from making some mistakes in late 1944. He recovered enough to go to Yalta (early 1945) but he spent the entire time in bed. He did get out of bed for the plenary sessions, but spent the rest of the time in bed.

roll-photo-crop-120x158Hopkins was witness to some of the biggest geopolitical decisions of his era – including the decision that keeping in with Churchill was more important than supporting the aspirations of Indian national leaders like Nehru; and the decision that keeping in with Stalin was more important than the independence of Eastern European or the Baltic States. These big decisions had big impacts on the lives and freedoms of millions of people. How conscious was Hopkins of the effect of those decisions?

It was all about winning the war. Even Churchill said he would court the devil – meaning Stalin – to win the war. The survival of civilization was at stake. Living with Roosevelt, he knew Roosevelt’s mind, if anyone knew Roosevelt’s mind. Hopkins was not immune from being seduced by Stalin, but I think he was more careful with Stalin than he was with Churchill. He had relationships with the Soviet Ambassadors Maisky (London) and Litvinov (Washington) as well as Molotov.

There was a guy named Joseph E. Davies who was a former Ambassador to the Soviet, very wealthy, living in Washington. Davies kept copious notes of dinners and meetings where he would call Hopkins over to his house and talk about how the Russians should be handled. Hopkins was in a position where he was speaking for the President on some pretty major issues, but i think he knew where the President stood on issues like the Baltics or Eastern Europe

During his lifetime (and afterwards) Hopkins was accused of profiting from public office. Why was he targeted for such character assassination and how did he afford to live in the manner to which he became accustomed?

Well first of all he was a proxy for Roosevelt and the right wing would use him as a way to criticise or challenge FDR.

Hopkins died with almost no money. When he resigned from the Truman administration in the summer of 1945 he went to New York. He had no money, neither did his 3rd wife Louise  – she was working as a nurse in the war – but they were New Yorkers and they went house hunting. He was out of the administration and he was going to write a book. You would think they would get a two bedroom or one bedroom apartment but they ended up in a three or four storey town house on 5th Avenue overlooking Central Park. He hired a writer to help him write his books and he got all his papers assembled in that place.

I asked Diana, “How could they possibly afford that?” Diana said, “Well that was Averell Harriman [son of a railroad baron, Secretary of Commerce under Truman and later Governor of New York] who basically paid for that place.” Hopkins lived there and in late 1945 he really went downhill and had finally to go into a hospital. Louise was really connected in New York. She was friends with Jock Whitney who was a very eligible, very wealthy guy who started the Museum of Modern Art.

He leant her some of his paintings – very, very famous paintings. Hopkins got interested in art as he was in the hospital surrounded by some of these paintings that were leant to him, and which were around him when he died in 1946. Diana has one of those paintings out at her house in Virginia.

Insinuations were made about Hopkins’ ties to the Soviets. Did he, as is claimed, pass nuclear secrets and arrange for shipments of uranium to the USSR?

There were allegations that came from a guy called Major Jordan who claimed to have personally observed or overheard conversations between Hopkins and Air Force officers in which Hopkins authorised nuclear secrets to be put into boxes or briefcases and boarded onto planes in Montana bound for the Soviets. Major Jordan claims Hopkins authorised the disclosure of designs for building an atomic bomb to be shipped to the Soviets. It was very specific kinds of testimony in a congressional hearing. Of course the Republicans and the right wing gave those allegations creedence.

The cross-examination and report written after, in my judgement, completely vindicated Hopkins. By the time those hearings were held, Hopkins was dead. I have a book on my bookshelf that was written by Major Jordan after that and he makes the same allegations, but there’s no proof that designs were sent to the Soviet Union through authorisation from Hopkins.

The intercepts that the Russians got in Moscow through their spies were collected, translated and published after the collapse of the Soviet Union. When that book came out there was a flurry of newspaper articles and reports saying Hopkins was one of the sources of Soviet intelligence. It later turned out that the agent concerned was Laurence Duggan. The decrypts reveal that Duggan had worked for the Soviets before he fell to his death from his office in 1948. In my view, and most rational observers conclude too, Hopkins was not a Soviet spy.

usa-p-strategy-91Hopkins was brilliant one on one. He was the personal bridgehead between FDR, Churchill and Stalin. Yet what makes him fascinating in terms of his own legacy was his capacity to manipulate the bureaucratic machine. How do you write an engaging portrait of someone who’s very good in meetings and very good at paperwork?

You just put your finger on it. I think a lot of writers, including me, will just try and brush that off because it’s too difficult to write.

It’s very difficult to put meat on all those meetings. How did he really drive the New Deal programs that he did before the war started? The WPA, all of the jobs programs, the Federal Writers’ Project. His battles with Harold Ickes over who’s gonna get to build all the dams and the roads. He was on top and he remained on top. It was terribly difficult with infighting and backbiting.

The same thing happened with Lend-Lease which was his major bureaucratic responsibility, he got it up and going. How do you write about that without becoming dreadfully boring? Where were the key levers that he had to pull to make Lend-Lease work? Lend-Lease was not that effective but at least it gave everybody hope. You can write about that, about how much did it actually help Russia.

And how do you express his executive leadership? It’s much easier to talk about the night he spent with Churchill or the meeting he had with Stalin. Stalin is a character that has tremendous power so you can write about the tension between the two or with Churchill, but there are hundreds of bureaucrats, faceless bureaucrats who were going out and doing wonderful things.

Ultimate armchair general question – and without preempting your work on Marshall – if you had been in Roosevelt’s chair when he had to decide who was to lead the Normandy landings, which commander would you have picked – Marshall or Eisenhower?

If Marshall had expressed his preference to Roosevelt, Roosevelt would have given it to him. But he didn’t. He said, “It’s your decision and I’ll happily go along with whatever you want to do” – although he desperately wanted to do it. At that time Roosevelt was being heavily lobbied by the other Joint Chiefs and also by a bunch of congressmen. So if I were Roosevelt then I would have given it to Eisenhower, but if Marshall had said “I want it” and I were Roosevelt I’d have done it because he needed Marshall more than anything. It turned out to be the right decision but there was a huge lobbying campaign going on in Washington at that time behind Marshall’s back.

The key thing in the Hopkins book took place in July 1942 and that’s when Marshall was desperately trying to leverage the British into letting him invade Western Europe in 1943, or if they had to do an emergency thing he’d have put something together for ‘42. But he didn’t want them to go to North Africa. Hopkins was playing both sides of that thing and I think the significant moment in those meetings in London was when the British were saying, “We’re not going to do this. We want to go to North Africa.” Hopkins wrote on a note, “I’m terribly depressed.” Hopkins wanted to go the way the British were headed and so it was a moment when Hopkins was doing something to placate Marshall, and make him think he (Hopkins) was on the General’s side, but he really wasn’t. My editor at OUP emailed me when he got to that point in the book and he said, “That’s the essence of Hopkins.”

During the 6th Democratic debate for the 2016 Presidential nomination, Senator Bernie Sanders named Roosevelt and Churchill as leaders who would influence his decisions on foreign policy. In this important election cycle how important is that question and how impressed are you by Senator Sanders’ answer?

They always say it’s the most important election of our time. I think Roosevelt was one of our most admirable presidents. What’s really hard to understand is how difficult it must have been to work with Churchill. As the balance between the US armed forces and the British shifted, Churchill would just not let go of this peripheral strategy for defeating the Germans. How maddening it must have been for Hopkins, Marshall and everyone who had to deal with him. But certainly Churchill will always be so much of a profound figure from when he basically stood alone. That was his moment.

What should be playing on the stereo when we’re reading The Hopkins Touch: Harry Hopkins and the Forging of the Alliance to Defeat Hitler?

A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square and As Time Goes By from Casablanca. It’s so interesting that on New Year’s Eve of 1942 they played the Casablanca movie at the White House and a week later they’re in Casablanca. If anyone ever writes a screenplay of Hopkins at that time, that would be something good to put in.


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“No murderers at dinner, please, no politicians, and I think no soldiers if their talk would all be of blood and battles.” – Author Christopher Redmond discusses Lives Beyond Baker Street

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“People admire superheroes, the larger-than-life figures who fight for justice. They also enjoy hearing about eccentrics, and Holmes certainly is an eccentric.”

Like insects trapped in amber, preserved in situ for all time, the cast of characters who populate the environs of 221B Baker Street offer a glimpse into a vanished milieu. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote what he saw. The canonical Sherlock Holmes stories are filled to bursting with charmers and charlatans, machiavellians and muddleheads inspired by, or taken directly from, the Victorian and Edwardian eras. In March 2016 MX Publishing will be setting 800 Sherlockian period portraits in a single gallery, a biographical dictionary to accompany fans as they journey in company with Holmes and Watson.

Canadian author Christopher Redmond is a Sherlock Holmes expert of exceptional standing. His Welcome to America, Mr. Sherlock Holmes (1987) chronicled Conan Doyle’s 1894 tour of America, while his In Bed With Sherlock Holmes (1984) examines the sexual elements in stories of the great detective. Arguably Christopher’s most important contribution thus far is his A Sherlock Holmes Handbook (1993) which went into a second edition in 2009.

The editor, past and present, of leading scholarly journals focused on all things Holmes, Christopher is also a founder and guiding genius behind Sherlockian.​Net – the web portal about Conan Doyle’s most famous creation.

Lives Beyond Baker Street: A Biographical Dictionary of Sherlock Holmes’s Contemporaries
(published by MX Publishing, March 2016
). To find out more click here.


Why the lives of Sherlock Holmes’s contemporaries?

Most people who are interested in the original Sherlock Holmes are interested in the world in which he moved, and the people around him. Most of the characters in the Holmes stories may be fictitious, but they are convincing portrayals of how people lived and behaved in that era. Standing just behind them (and, surprisingly often, making brief appearances in the stories) are the real people of the 1880s and 1890s. I wanted to introduce them to readers, in more depth than the footnotes in an annotated edition can do.

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Each biography is a paragraph long. How on Earth do you go about scaling down the great and the good to fit that frame?

Of course it means leaving out lots of details and many accomplishments, but it’s always possible to summarize who an individual was and what he or she did. I was constantly asking myself: what would an encyclopaedia say about Willam J. Burns? How would I tell my grandchild the story of Nelly Bly? What’s the elevator pitch for Sir Thomas Lipton?

Lives Beyond Baker Street is going to contain the lives of names who remain household even today, but who’s the who in there who’s been most unfairly overlooked?

That would be Bertha (Ringer) Benz, the wife of automotive engineer Karl Benz, who drove his prototype car 120 miles cross-country in 1886 to demonstrate that it worked, and invented brake linings during her trip. Without her efforts at marketing and technical improvement, the “100-horse-power Benz car” mentioned in one of the Sherlock Holmes stories would never have existed.

What kind of sources have you been using?

My introduction to the book lists a number of Sherlockian sources that have helped me identify people I should include. General information about them came from reference books and, primarily, online reference sources. I have to acknowledge constant use of Wikipedia, which contains a mountain of information about both well-known and obscure historical figures; the hard part is knowing which details to pull out and how to combine them into a narrative that’s interesting and doesn’t waste words.

Why only 800 biographical sketches? Or why so many?

I set that as the target early in the project, when I thought that each biography could be limited to 100 words. Eight hundred paragraphs each 100 words long would make 80,000 words, which I thought was a reasonable size for a substantial book. Unfortunately I rarely was able to stick to the 100-word target. I did manage to write exactly 800 biographies, if my count is correct, although one reviewer has already said that he thinks there are 806.

Why does Sherlock Holmes continue to fascinate, especially North Americans?

People admire superheroes, the larger-than-life figures who fight for justice. They also enjoy hearing about eccentrics, and Holmes certainly is an eccentric. Discriminating readers admire his dedication to sheer logic, pure reason, at the expense of emotion and human frailty. And, to justify my book a little further, the Victorian age in which his life is set has a great appeal because we see it as stable and reasonable, a time when inventors and reformers were making life a little better every year.

How did your own love and fascination for Holmes begin? Does it extend to Conan Doyle’s other work?

I read Sherlock Holmes as a young teenager — most people did in those days — and never really grew out of my enthusiasm. I have read most of Arthur Conan Doyle’s other books but don’t often return to them.

Conan Doyle wrote the original Sherlock Holmes stories, inspiring others to take up his characters and carry on writing where he left off. Sir Arthur was the first Holmes writer, but is he still the definitive and best?

Yes indeed. Of course he is the definitive author because he is the one who created the character and his immediate setting, his Watson and Mrs. Hudson, his Baker Street sitting-room and magnifying glass and all the rest. Any subsequent Sherlock Holmes is based on the original, either trying to match it or deliberately varying from it. And ACD is the best author of Sherlock Holmes because of his brilliantly clear, simple, straightforward and yet imaginative style, which has not been equalled and is infuriatingly hard to imitate.

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If you were having a dinner party, and could only invite two of the figures profiled, who would you invite?

I can eliminate many of the 800 immediately: no murderers at dinner, please, no politicians, and I think no soldiers if their talk would all be of blood and battles. I would love to dine with Caroline Otero, but perhaps that meal should be tête-à-tête rather than with a party! So perhaps I’ll choose Anthony Hope Hawkins, who wrote some of the Victorian era’s other popular adventure fiction including The Prisoner of Zenda, and music-hall star Bessie Bellwood, who was known for her uninhibited repartee. That should keep the conversation lively.

What should be playing on the stereo when we’re reading Lives Beyond Baker Street: A Biographical Dictionary of Sherlock Holmes’s Contemporaries?

I don’t have a close relationship with music, and I don’t play anything when I’m reading or writing, but perhaps it would be pleasant to hear something by one of the composers or performers mentioned in the book. I wonder if there are any recordings of Sir Charles Hallé’s orchestra, which Sherlock Holmes himself supposedly heard in concert.


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