Charlie Chaplin: Rags to Riches

Rising to fame in the silent film era, Charlie Chaplin became a worldwide icon for his performances in many films. Throughout his 75 year career, Chaplin also wrote, directed, produced, and composed the music for his productions. Best known for starring as the Tramp, Chaplin remains a firm favourite among many generations. Even those who have not seen his films know of Charlie Chaplin and recognise his trademark bowler hat.

Charles Spencer Chaplin was born in London on 16th April 1889. His mother, Hannah (1865-1928), was an actress and singer who went by the stage name Lily Harley. His father, Charles (1863-1901), was also a music hall entertainer. Unfortunately, his parents separated in 1891 and Chaplin, who stayed with his mother, grew up in poverty. At seven years old, circumstances forced the family into the Lambeth Workhouse, where he was separated from his mother and sent to the Central London District School for paupers.

After briefly reuniting with Hannah in 1898, Chaplin and his older brother Sydney were sent to temporarily live with their father. Meanwhile, Hannah was admitted to Cane Hill mental asylum after developing psychosis. Unfortunately, Charles Chaplin Senior was an alcoholic and abused the children, prompting a visit from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).

In 1901, Chaplin Senior died from liver cirrhosis, and the boys reunited with their mother. Sydney decided to join the army, leaving 14-year-old Charles to look after Hannah when her illness returned in 1903. With his mother back in the hospital, Chaplin lived alone, sometimes sleeping on the streets. Hannah was briefly released in 1905 but soon returned to the asylum, where she remained until she died in 1928.

Chaplin had his first experience of acting at the age of 5 when he stood in for his mother at a musical hall performance. By the age of 9, his mother was actively encouraging his growing interest in the entertainment sector, so he joined the Eight Lancashire Lads clog-dancing troupe and toured English music halls between 1899 and 1900.

While his mother was in the asylum, 14-year-old Chaplin registered with a theatrical agency in London’s West End and starred in an unsuccessful performance of Jim, a Romance of Cockayne by H. A. Saintsbury (1869-1939). Following this, Chaplin earned the role of pageboy in a production of Sherlock Holmes, which he starred in for two and a half years.

When Sydney returned from the army, he also expressed an interest in the acting world. The brothers went on tour together, and Chaplin found a position with Casey’s Circus, which earned him his first star role. By the age of 18, Chaplin was an accomplished comic actor but struggled to find more work after leaving the circus in 1907. Eventually, both Sydney and Charles joined a prestigious comedy company run by Fred Karno (1866-1941). Although Karno initially had reservations about Chaplin’s abilities, he eventually selected Chaplin to tour America’s vaudeville circuit with the likes of Stan Laurel (1890-1965). Reviewers described Chaplin as “one of the best pantomime artists ever seen here” and particularly liked his performance as the permanently drunk “Inebriate Swell”.

While on tour, Chaplin caught the attention of the New York Motion Picture Company, who invited him to join their Keystone Studios. Chaplin did not think much of the films produced by Keystone but welcomed the opportunity to develop his acting career. In his first film, Making a Living (1914), Chaplin portrayed a swindler who found himself in trouble with the local press. Chaplin disliked the outcome, but a slapstick fight scene inspired Chaplin’s future acting style.

For Chaplin’s second film, he selected an outfit that quickly became his signature look. Chaplin paired a baggy pair of trousers with a tight coat, a small hat and large shoes. A small moustache completed the look. Chaplin debuted the outfit in Kid Auto Races at Venice in February 1914, swiftly followed by Mabel’s Strange Predicament. In both films, he played the role of the Tramp or “Little Tramp”, a good-hearted vagrant with the manners of a gentleman. Chaplin continued to portray the character in many of his subsequent films.

In May 1914, Chaplin directed his first film, Caught in the Rain, which featured Chaplin as a tipsy hotel guest, although still dressed as his signature Tramp character. Following the film’s success, Chaplin continued directing and starring in short productions at a rate of one per week. At the end of 2014, Chaplin’s contract with Keystone came up for renewal, but the company refused his suggested salary of $1,000 a week, so Chaplin looked elsewhere for work.

In December 1914, Chaplin found work with the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company of Chicago, which agreed to a salary of $1,250 a week and a bonus of $10,000 upon signing the contract. Chaplin put time and effort into each production, releasing them monthly rather than weekly. He also recruited leading lady Edna Purviance (1895-1958), who went on to star in 35 films with Chaplin. They also had a brief romantic liaison.

Notable films Chaplin worked on with Essanay include A Night Out, The Champion and The Tramp. For the latter, Chaplin softened his signature character into a gentle and romantic type, although it still contained elements of slapstick. Unlike previous films, it had a sad ending, proving the Tramp cared for others, not just himself. It is this version of the Tramp that is fondly remembered today.

By late 1915, Charlie Chaplin merchandise filled shops across America, and fans wrote songs and comic strips about the actor and his characters. The Motion Picture Magazine nicknamed the phenomena “Chaplinitis”, which gradually spread across the ocean, making Chaplin the film industry’s first international star. As his contract with Essanay drew to an end, several companies sent him offers, including Universal and Fox. From the many proposals, Chaplin chose the Mutual Film Corporation, which signed the 26-year-old actor for $670,000 a year.

“We can afford to pay Mr Chaplin this large sum annually because the public wants Chaplin and will pay for him,” explained the president of Mutual, who set Chaplin up with a studio in Los Angeles. Chaplin produced The Floorwalker, his first film with the company, in May 1916. It contained the film industry’s first instance of a “running staircase”, which involved a frantic chase down an upward escalator.

Throughout 1916, Mutual demanded a new full-length film every four weeks, which Chaplin found challenging but managed to achieve. Working on stories around his signature character, Chaplin produced many memorable titles, including The Vagabond, where Chaplin’s character played the violin; The PawnshopThe Rink, which demonstrated Chaplin’s rollerskating skills; and One A.M., in which Chaplin was the sole actor.

In 1917, Chaplin insisted on more time to work on each film and produced only four in ten months. Nonetheless, these films are listed among Chaplin’s finest works. The Tramp-style character appeared in all four: Easy StreetThe CureThe Immigrant, and The Adventurer, which proved popular amongst Chaplin’s fans. Yet, Chaplin was dissatisfied with his output, feeling he was constantly repeating himself. He also received criticism from the British media for not returning home to fight in the First World War. Chaplin explained he registered for the American draft but never received a summons. Meanwhile, his films buoyed troops across the globe, and men began to impersonate the Tramp, causing Chaplin to take legal action. At the time, an estimated nine out of ten men attended costume parties dressed as the Tramp.

Whilst Mutual respected Chaplin’s need for extra time to produce films, the company agreed to release Chaplin from his contract when they realised he felt unhappy about his work. Unsure what to do next, Chaplin’s brother Sydney took over as his business manager and explained to the press, “Charlie [must] be allowed all the time he needs and all the money for producing [films] the way he wants … It is quality, not quantity, we are after.” Eventually, Chaplin signed on with the First National Exhibitors’ Circuit in June 1917 for $1 million.

In April 1918, Chaplin released his first film with his new contract. A Dog’s Life depicted the Tramp as a sad clown-like character, similar to Pierrot in European pantomime. The French critic Louis Delluc (1890-1924) described it as “cinema’s first total work of art”. Following its success, Chaplin joined the Third Liberty Bond campaign, which toured the United States to raise money for the Allied countries in the war. Chaplin contributed by donating all the money made from his short propaganda film The Bond. He also showed his support for the troops in Europe by writing and producing the film Shoulder Arms, set in the trenches.

The First National Exhibitors’ Circuit turned down Chaplin’s request for more money to produce his next film, so Chaplin joined forces with other dissatisfied film producers to form a new company in January 1919. Together, Chaplin, D. W. Griffith (1875-1948), Mary Pickford (1892-1979), and Douglas Fairbanks (1883-1939) founded United Artists, which allowed them to focus on their interests rather than conforming to the desires of commercial studios. Unfortunately, First National refused to release Chaplin from his contract, so he had to complete a further six films before working on his own material.

Before working with United Artists, Chaplin married Mildred Harris, a 16-year-old film star who claimed to be pregnant with his child. The pregnancy turned out to be a false alarm, but Harris soon fell pregnant shortly after their marriage in September 1918. She gave birth to a boy, Norman Spencer, on 7th July 1919, who sadly passed away three days later. Losing their child put an irreparable rift between Chaplin and Harris, so they divorced in April 1920.

The death of his son greatly affected Chaplin and may have inspired his next film, The Kid. With four-year-old Jackie Coogan (1914-84) as his co-star, the Tramp discovered an abandoned baby in an alleyway and raised it as his child. Lasting 68-minutes, The Kid was Chaplin’s first film to last more than an hour. It took nine months to produce and became an instant hit after its release in 1921.

Chaplin’s contract with First National finally came to an end in November 1922, leaving him free to work on his first independent film. Titled A Woman of Paris, the film starred Edna Purviance with only a brief cameo appearance from Chaplin. Unfortunately, the film flopped because fans had no desire to watch a Charlie Chaplin production that did not star Chaplin. Fortunately, he redeemed himself with The Gold Rush (1925), in which he starred as the Tramp. It quickly became one of the highest-grossing films of the silent era.

In 1924, Chaplin married 16-year-old actress Lita Grey (1908-95) after she revealed she was pregnant with his child. Due to their age difference, the marriage was a discreet affair, and she gave birth to their son, Charles Spencer Chaplin III (1925-68), six months later. In the same year, Chaplin became the first film star to appear on the cover of Time magazine.

In March 1926, Lita gave birth to their second son, Sydney Earl (1926-2009), but their marriage was falling apart. Chaplin spent most of his time in the film studio to avoid his wife, who eventually took the boys and left. A bitter divorce followed, leaving Chaplin on the edge of a nervous breakdown, especially when the proceedings became headline news stories across America. To avoid an ongoing scandal, Chaplin’s lawyers paid a cash settlement of $600,000, the equivalent of $8,940,000 today.

Before Chaplin’s split from Lita, he started working on The Circus, a film in which the Tramp becomes the accidental star of a circus show. Due to the divorce, Chaplin took ten months off before returning to complete the production. The Circus was eventually released in January 1928, and Chaplin received a special trophy at the 1st Academy Awards “for versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing The Circus.” Despite this, Chaplin associated the film with his divorce and refused to acknowledge The Circus for the rest of his life.

Toward the end of the 1920s, Hollywood introduced films with sound, also known as “talkies”. Chaplin was determined to continue making silent films, believing that “talkies” would detract from his pantomime-style acting. Nonetheless, Chaplin took the opportunity to write a musical score for his next film, City Lights. By the time City Lights was released in 1930, silent films were a thing of the past. Yet, City Lights was a financial success, and one critic exclaimed, “Nobody in the world but Charlie Chaplin could have done it. He is the only person that has that peculiar something called ‘audience appeal’ in sufficient quality to defy the popular penchant for movies that talk.”

Fearing audiences would think him old fashioned but not yet ready to produce a film with dialogue, Chaplin took a 16-month break, during which time he travelled across Europe and Japan. The day after he arrived in Japan, ultra-nationalists assassinated Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi (1855-1932), with whom Chaplin was staying as a guest. The original plan was to assassinate Chaplin to provoke a war with America, but Chaplin had gone out to watch a sumo wrestling match when the assassins arrived.

Chaplin returned to Los Angeles but still felt confused about his future film career. Instead, Chaplin started writing about his travels, which he published in the magazine Woman’s Home Companion. During this time, Chaplin developed a relationship with 21-year-old Paulette Goddard (1910-90), who had recently moved to Hollywood. Finally, he felt ready to return to the world of film and cast Goddard in Modern Times, released in February 1936. Rather than embrace spoken dialogue, Chaplin wrote the script without words but used sound effects and background music. At the last moment, Chaplin decided to include a gibberish song, which gave the Tramp a voice for the first time.

Following the release of Modern Times, Chaplin married Goddard while holidaying in China. Unfortunately, the marriage did not last, and they began to drift apart in 1938. Nonetheless, Goddard starred in Chaplin’s next film, The Great Dictator, which attacked fascism and satirised Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), who wore a similar moustache to the Tramp. Making a film about Hitler was controversial, especially as filming began only six days after Britain declared war on Germany.

The Great Dictator became Chaplin’s first film to feature dialogue. Chaplin did not feel completely comfortable creating a “talkie” but knew it would help get his political messages across. The film ended with a five-minute speech from Chaplin, who abandoned his character to plead against war and fascism. Despite the controversial subject, The Great Dictator was “the most eagerly awaited picture of the year,” and Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt expressed their enjoyment of the film. President Roosevelt also asked Chaplin to deliver the final speech over the radio during his inauguration in 1941.

Chaplin and Goddard divorced in 1940, and Chaplin began a relationship with the actress Joan Barry (1920-2007). When Chaplin ended the relationship in 1942, Barry became obsessed with him and was arrested twice. She then claimed to be pregnant with Chaplin’s child, which he denied, causing Barry to file a paternity suit against him. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which had been suspicious of Chaplin’s political motives, used the case as an opportunity to discredit his reputation. The FBI invented four charges, including the transportation of women across state boundaries for sexual purposes, all of which lacked evidence. Nonetheless, the court proceedings became headline news, although Chaplin was soon acquitted.

Barry’s paternity suit resurfaced after the birth of her daughter, Carol Ann, in October 1943. The courts declared Chaplin the father, despite blood test results that suggested otherwise. The judge ordered Chaplin to pay child support until Carol Ann reached the age of 21. The FBI made sure the media coverage painted Chaplin in a negative light. Admittedly, Chaplin did not help matters by marrying 18-year-old actress Oona O’Neill (1925-91) in June 1943.

Chaplin met O’Neill, the daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953), seven months before their marriage. Despite their 36-year age gap, Chaplin described their meeting as the happiest day of his life. After three unsuccessful marriages, Chaplin had finally found “perfect” love, and the couple remained married until Chaplin’s death. They had eight children, Geraldine Leigh (b.1944), Michael John (b. 1946), Josephine Hannah (b. 1949), Victoria (b. 1951), Eugene Anthony (b. 1953), Jane Cecil (b. 1957), Annette Emily (b. 1959), and Christopher James (b. 1962), the majority of whom became actors.

Despite finding happiness with O’Neill, Chaplin remained scarred from his dealings with Joan Barry. He claimed she had “crippled his creativeness”, and Chaplin felt unable to work until 1946. Not only did Chaplin struggle to get back into the filmmaking business, but his style of acting also changed dramatically. Monsieur Verdoux, released in 1947, was inspired by serial killer Henri Désiré Landru (1869-1922). Chaplin starred as a former bank clerk who married and murdered wealthy widows to support his family. He also vocalised his criticism of capitalism and his fears about nuclear weapons.

When Monsieur Verdoux premiered, the audience booed Chaplin and called for a boycott on the film. Nevertheless, the film was a success abroad and Chaplin believed it was “the cleverest and most brilliant film I have yet made.” Unfortunately, the media, led by the FBI, accused Chaplin of being a communist, which worsened his already damaged reputation. Chaplin denied the accusations, calling himself a “peacemonger”, yet he campaigned against the trials of the Communist Party members and the activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

With his fan base dwindling rapidly, Chaplin focused his attention on producing another film. Limelight, about a forgotten music hall comedian and a young ballerina in Edwardian London, was largely based on Chaplin’s life. The main character, Calvero, alluded to his poor childhood and his loss of popularity in the United States.

Reunited with his eldest sons, Charles and Sydney, Chaplin cast them in Limelight along with his wife and three of their children. Another family member in the cast was Wheeler Dryden (1892-1957), a younger half-brother who did not learn he was Chaplin’s brother until he was 26 years of age.

Due to the negative press in America, Chaplin decided to premiere Limelight in London in 1952. Chaplin and his entire family sailed to England on 18th September 1952, learning soon after their arrival that his re-entry permit had been revoked. To return to the USA, Chaplin would have to attend an interview about his political views and behaviour. Although later evidence suggested the FBI had no real reason to prevent Chaplin’s re-entry, Chaplin decided to stay in Europe, where he was warmly received.

“I have been the object of lies and propaganda by powerful reactionary groups who, by their influence and by the aid of America’s yellow press, have created an unhealthy atmosphere in which liberal-minded individuals can be singled out and persecuted. Under these conditions I find it virtually impossible to continue my motion-picture work, and I have therefore given up my residence in the United States.”

Chaplin’s wife travelled to the USA to settle the family’s affairs, then returned to her husband, renounced her US citizenship and became a British citizen. In January 1953, Chaplin decided to relocate his family to Switzerland, where he purchased Manoir de Ban, a 35-acre estate overlooking Lake Geneva. The building is now the site of Chaplin’s World, a museum dedicated to the life and work of Charlie Chaplin.

In America, the FBI continued to label Chaplin a communist, especially when the communist-led World Peace Council awarded him the International Peace Prize. Fortunately, in Europe, Chaplin’s political views were less important, and he felt encouraged to return to film work. Chaplin founded a new production company, Attica, and released A King in New York in 1957. Featuring autobiographical elements, the storyline featured a character facing accusations of communism. Without access to the equipment in Hollywood, the quality of the film suffered, but it still achieved moderate success in Europe.

Before working on his second European film, Chaplin edited some of his old film scores, composing music for earlier recordings and releasing several together as a compilation. The Chaplin Revue (1959), for instance, included A Dog’s Life, Shoulder Arms, and The Pilgrim. Simultaneously, Chaplin worked on his memoirs, which he released as My Autobiography in 1964. Whilst it became a best-seller, fans expressed disappointment at the lack of detail about his film career in America.

After the publication of his autobiography, Chaplin worked on a romantic comedy called A Countess from Hong Kong. Rather than starring as a lead character, Chaplin cast Marlon Brando (1924-94), Sophia Loren (b. 1934) and his son Sydney as the key characters. Chaplin only had a cameo role, which became his final film appearance. Sadly, A Countess from Hong Kong was a box office failure.

Chaplin suffered several mini-strokes in the early 1960s but was still determined to write. Unfortunately, he never finished his final work, The Freak, due to declining health. Instead, he focused on editing and compiling his old films.

During the early 1970s, Chaplin became the recipient of several awards and honours. At the Cannes Film Festival in 1971, he was made a Commander of the National Order of the Legion of Honour, the highest French order of merit. In 1972, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in America offered Chaplin an Honorary Award. Naturally, Chaplin felt uncertain about accepting the latter but eventually agreed to return to the USA for the first time in 20 years. At the Academy Awards gala, Chaplin received a 12-minute standing ovation, which remains the longest in the Academy’s history.

Chaplin had plans to work on more films, but another series of strokes left him wheelchair-bound. With assistance, he compiled a pictorial autobiography using old film reels and appeared in a documentary about his life, The Gentleman Tramp. In 1975, Chaplin was awarded a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II (b. 1926) at the 1975 New Year Honours. To receive it, Chaplin had to break protocol and receive the honour in his wheelchair rather than kneel in front of the Queen.

By October 1977, Chaplin needed round-the-clock care. On Christmas morning, he suffered another stroke and passed away in his sleep. According to his wishes, the funeral was a small, private affair, and he was interred at the Corsier-sur-Vevey cemetery. Many filmmakers and actors wrote tributes, including Bob Hope (1903-2003), who declared, “We were lucky to have lived in his time.”

Chaplin left more than $100 million to his wife, which tempted grave robbers Roman Wardas and Gantcho Ganev to dig up Chaplin’s coffin and hold his body for ransom in 1978. The criminals were caught a few months later, and the coffin returned to the Corsier-sur-Vevey cemetery. To prevent further burglaries, Chaplin was interred in a reinforced concrete vault.

Charlie Chaplin’s life is a story of rags to riches with many ups and downs along the way. Born into poverty, Chaplin had no choice but to fend for himself, using his love of acting as a means to escape his situation. Through talent and determination, Chaplin made a name for himself, soon becoming an international star. As celebrities still discover today, fame comes with public scrutiny. With his every move documented, Chaplin’s poor decisions, such as his relationships with younger women, were analysed and discussed at every opportunity. The media backlash allowed the FBI to attack Chaplin and accuse him of communist sympathies among other things. Fortunately, while his world and career were being torn to shreds, Chaplin met the love of his life and lived the remainder of his years in peace, surrounded by his children.

Film critic Andrew Sarris (1928-2012) named Chaplin “the single most important artist produced by the cinema, certainly its most extraordinary performer and probably still its most universal icon.” The multitalented performer is ranked by the American Film Institute as the 10th greatest male star of Classic Hollywood Cinema. Chaplin inspired actors, directors, scriptwriters, film producers, composers and musicians throughout his career, including Marcel Marceau (1923-2007), the French mime artist. Chaplin’s slapstick routines also inspired cartoon characters, such as Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse.

Time magazine claims Chaplin helped turn the film industry into an art. Without Chaplin’s input, films may have taken a different direction. He developed comedy as a genre and not just something for music hall entertainment. Despite all the scandals during his lifetime, Chaplin is a man to be respected, admired and remembered. Statues and memorials across the world preserve Chaplin’s iconic Tramp look and remind people of his achievements. Generations to come will know his name and recognise his signature style, proving how successful Chaplin was in an industry that the world now takes for granted.


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Curiouser and Curiouser

Over 150 years since Lewis Carroll published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the storyline and characters are still a global phenomenon. As the Victoria and Albert museum demonstrates in their exhibition Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser, the fantasy world of Wonderland continues to inspire artists, writers and members of the public. The immersive display takes visitors on a journey to discover the evolution of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, from its humble beginnings in the 19th century to its worldwide celebrity.

Lewis Carroll is the pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-98), an Oxford don, logician, writer, poet, Anglican clergyman, and photographer. Although Carroll is most famous for his literary works, he did not deliberately set out to become an author. Carroll’s career path changed one afternoon in July 1862, when he took a boat trip and picnic with the daughters of Henry Liddell (1811-98), the Dean of Christ Church College. Affectionately remembered as a “golden afternoon”, Carroll kept the three girls, Alice, Edith, and Lorina, entertained during the boat trip by making up fantasy stories about a girl called Alice and her adventures underground. The “real Alice” begged Carroll to write the story down, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was born.

The “real Alice”, Alice Pleasance Liddell (1852-1934), was only five years old when she met Charles Dodgson for the first time. Dodgson often asked Alice and her sisters to sit for photographs, so that he could experiment with his new camera. The Victorian era was a period of change, particularly in technology, science, art and politics, all of which inspired the story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Of course, the character Alice was based on Alice Liddell, a girl with a stubborn, curious nature who bullied Dodgson into writing the story down. He presented Alice with a handwritten manuscript called Alice’s Adventures Under Ground as a Christmas present in 1864.

Before giving the manuscript to Alice, Dodgson researched the natural history of animals to make some of his characters, for instance, a dodo, as accurate as possible. Of course, some creatures in the story are entirely fictional. Dodgson also sought the opinion of his friend and mentor George MacDonald (1824-1905), a minister and author who loved the story and suggested Dodgson publish it. By the time Alice received her copy, Dodgson was already preparing the manuscript for publication and extending it from the original 15,500-words to 27,500 words.

Not wanting to publish under his real name, Dodgson decided to create a pseudonym. Inspired by the Latin version of his real name, Carolus Ludovic, he chose two other English names that derived from the same words: Lewis Carroll. Dodgson also wished to change the book title and toyed with Alice’s Hour in Elf-land and other options before settling on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Finally, Dodgson/Lewis was ready for Alexander Macmillan (1818-96), a co-founder of Macmillan Publishers, to print his work. For the illustrations, he approached John Tenniel (1820-1914), who worked tirelessly alongside The Brothers Dalziel, a wood-engraving business in London. By November 1865, the book was published.

Both children and adults enjoyed the “delicious nonsense”, which inspired Carroll to work on a second book. The production time took much longer because Tenniel had other jobs but managed to work on the illustrations from 1869 onwards. Carroll named the sequel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, which was eventually published on 6th December 1871. It rekindled the nation’s love of Alice and the odd characters, as well as introducing new and bizarre creatures.

Most people are familiar with the story of Alice who follows a white rabbit down a rabbit hole. She finds herself in a hall with a tiny door, which she is far too large to fit through. She then discovers a bottle of liquid labelled “DRINK ME”, which she obligingly does, which causes her to shrink in size. Unfortunately, she can no longer reach the key to the small door, which rests on a table far above her head. Yet, she quickly discovers a cake labelled “EAT ME”, and grows to the size of the room. After flooding the room with her tears, Alice picks up a fan and shrinks back down.

Now Alice can fit through the door, where she meets several peculiar characters, including the Dodo, who starts a Caucus-Race, which consists of everyone running in a circle with no clear winner. Whilst Alice is based on Alice Liddell, Carroll based the Dodo on himself. Carroll spoke with a stutter and often introduced himself as “Dodo-Dodgson”. Carroll also referenced Alice’s sisters, Lorina and Edith, by mentioning birds called Lory and Eaglet.

Next, Alice meets the Duchess, who Tenniel based on Quentin Matsys’s (1466-1530) The Ugly Duchess (c. 1513). The painting is said to be a portrait of Margaret, Countess of Tyrol (1318-69), who had the reputation of the ugliest woman who ever existed. Since Matsys painted the portrait 150 years after her death, there is no proof that she looked as grotesque as the caricature. Nonetheless, Tenniel felt inspired by the painting and made the Duchess look equally ugly.

The Cheshire Cat, who belongs to the Duchess, has a distinguishing feature – his grin – and the ability to gradually disappear until only his mouth remains. The phrase “grinning like a Cheshire Cat” predates the Alice books, and according to A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, Second, Corrected and Enlarged Edition compiled by Francis Grose (1731-91), means “one who shows his teeth and gums in laughing.” Carroll may have based the character on Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800-82), the Patristic Catenary (expert on the fathers of the Church) and professor of Hebrew at Oxford University.

There are other characters in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel who may be based on real people. Whether Carroll intended this is uncertain, but Tenniel’s drawing of the Lion and the Unicorn looks remarkably like his Punch illustrations of Prime Ministers William Gladstone (1809-98) and Benjamin Disraeli (1804-88). Whilst the appearance of the Lion and the Unicorn may be Tenniel’s input, Carroll’s reference to a conga eel that taught “Drawling, Stretching, and Fainting in Coils” certainly alludes to the art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900), who instructed the Liddell children in drawing, sketching, and painting in oils.

One of the most memorable scenes in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is the Mad Tea-Party, where Alice discovers the Hatter having tea with the March Hare and the Dormouse. Carroll instructed Tenniel to base his illustration on Theophilus Carter (1824-1904), an eccentric British furniture dealer. Carter used to wear a top hat and stand in the doorway of his shop, watching the world pass by. While at the party, the sleepy Dormouse tells Alice a story about three sisters called Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie. This is yet another reference to Alice and her sisters. Lacie is an anagram of Alice; Elsie sounds like “L.C., Lorina Charlotte’s initials; and Tillie is short for Matilda, Edith Liddell’s nickname.

Carroll loosely based the Queen of Hearts on Queen Victoria (1819-1901) because he thought children would recognise her authority. He may also have taken inspiration from the Wars of the Roses (1455-87) because the Queen is angry that the gardeners have planted white roses instead of red.

Not all characters have real-life human counterparts. Through the Looking-Glass has many referenced to nursery rhymes, such as Humpty Dumpty, and features pieces from the game of chess. Dodgson even took inspiration from buildings in Oxford; for example, the “Rabbit Hole” symbolises the stairs at the back of the main hall in Christ Church.

By the end of the Victorian era, the Alice stories and characters extended beyond the books. Products and merchandise containing Tenniel’s illustrations were much sought after, and the stories found new life on stage as part of dance performances and pantomimes. Before his death, the English novelist Walter Besant (1836-1901) said Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland “was a book of that extremely rare kind which will belong to all the generations to come until the language becomes obsolete.” Besant’s statement proved correct, and Alice continues to be a positive role model.

In 1903, Lewis Carroll’s famous book was adapted for film for the first time. With the title Alice in Wonderland, the silent film squeezed as many scenes into a ten-minute slot. At the time, this was the longest film made in Britain. Directors Percy Stow (1876-1919) and Cecil Hepworth (1874-1952) used all the available technology to create live versions of Tenniel’s famous drawings. Twelve years later, American director W. W. Young produced a 50-minute version of the film, albeit still silent.

The first “talkie” version of Alice in Wonderland appeared on screens in 1931, starring Ruth Gilbert (1912-93) as Alice. The following year, the “real Alice”, now married to English cricketer Reginald Hargreaves (1852-1926), visited America to take part in the centenary celebrations of Lewis Carroll’s birth. Although Alice had kept herself out of the public eye for most of her life, her presence in America inspired “Alice Fever”, and the books, merchandise, and films soared in popularity.

The following year, Paramount Pictures produced their version of Alice in Wonderland, which combined the storyline from both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Previously, Lewis Carroll forbade stage productions to combine the two books, but since his death, producers disregarded his wishes. The film featured Charlotte Henry (1914-80) as Alice, Cary Grant (1904-86) as the Mock Turtle, and W.C. Fields (1880-1946) as Humpty Dumpty.

Without a doubt, the most iconic Alice in Wonderland film to date is Walt Disney’s 1951 animated adaptation. Mary Blair (1911-78) developed the concept for the illustrations, modernising Tenniel’s drawings with bold and unreal colours. Today, Alice is recognisable from her long, bright blond hair, blue dress and “Alice band”, a hair accessory named after the character. The lively script and music earned the film a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture, but it lost to An American in Paris.

In 2010, Walt Disney Pictures reproduced Alice in Wonderland as a live-action film directed by Tim Burton (born 1958). It is a much darker, fantasy version of the story, which serves as an unofficial sequel to the original. Alice is now 19 and thought her adventures in Wonderland were all a dream. She soon learns they were not when she falls down a rabbit hole for the second time in her life. The creatures of Wonderland need Alice’s help to defeat the Red Queen, not to be confused with the Queen of Hearts and slay the Jabberwocky, a dragon-like beast written about in Through the Looking Glass.

Burton’s Alice in Wonderland starred many leading actors, such as Johnny Depp (Mad Hatter), Mia Wasikowska (Alice), Helena Bonham Carter (Red Queen), Anne Hathaway (White Queen), Matt Lucas (Tweedledee and Tweedledum), Michael Sheen (White Rabbit), Alan Rickman (Caterpillar), Stephen Fry (Cheshire Cat) and Barbara Windsor (Dormouse). At its release, critics were torn between loving the computer-generated imagery (CGI) and hating that it “sacrifices the book’s minimal narrative coherence—and much of its heart.” Many fans of the original Alice complained the film ruined Lewis Carroll’s work. Having said that, Alice in Wonderland (2010) won an Academy Award for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design.

The Alice in Wonderland franchise was initially aimed at children, but in the 1960s, the stories began to appeal to artists, particularly those affiliated with the Surrealist movement. Surrealism, as a cultural movement, developed in the aftermath of the Second World War. Artists within the group aimed to change people’s perceptions of the world and explored the desires of the unconscious mind. The founder of the movement, André Breton (1896-1966), claimed: “everyone has the power to accompany an ever more beautiful Alice to Wonderland.” Encouraged by this, several Surrealist artists used Lewis Carroll’s dreamlike characters and storylines as inspiration for their creations.

One Surrealist artist, Salvador Dalí (1904-89), provided illustrations for a limited edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1969. These illustrations are a stark contrast to Tenniel’s original images. Each full-page artwork needs studying carefully to understand and appreciate the scene. Many contained typical Surrealist motifs, such as a melting clock, as seen in The Mad Tea-Party illustration. Alice appears as a stick-figure-like girl wearing a full-length skirt, playing with a skipping rope. On each page, Alice differs in size but is usually tiny in comparison to other elements in the artwork.

The Alice stories and themes also inspired the Psychedelic movement in the mid-1960s. In the United Kingdom, artists combined Wonderland with politics and social issues, and in the US, the stories inspired hallucinogenic artwork and multi-sensory experiences involving sound, images and movement.

Joseph McHugh (b.1939), the founder of the poster design company East Totem West, created kaleidoscopic prints based on characters from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. One features the White Rabbit standing on a chequered floor surrounded by objects from the story. Yet, all these elements are difficult to see due to the psychedelic pattern of blues, reds, greens and browns. Through his work, McHugh aimed to appeal to the hippie and freethinker generation of the 1960s.

Whilst Wonderland lent itself to the more abstract forms of art, it also appealed to more traditional artists, such as the Ruralists. Ruralism aimed to revive and update former painting styles, such as those by English landscape artists and the Pre-Raphaelites. The movement wanted to focus on typically English themes, including cricket and classic novels by English authors. They particularly admired the works of Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) and music by Edward Elgar (1857-1934).

Pop Artist Peter Blake (b.1932) and his contemporaries formed the Brotherhood of Ruralists in 1975 after becoming disillusioned with London and their former art styles. Their aims were “to paint about love, beauty, joy, sentiment and magic. We still believe in painting with oil paint on canvas, putting the picture in the frame and hopefully, that someone will like it, buy it and hang it on their wall to enjoy it.”

After forming the Ruralists, Blake’s work frequently included literary subjects, such as works by William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and Lewis Carroll. During the 1970s, Blake produced a series of illustrations called Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. Rather than replicate the Victorian-style illustrations by Tenniel, Blake painted Alice as a modern (seventies) girl. In one picture, titled ‘Well, this is grand!’ said Alice, Queen Alice stares out at the audience while a typically English country garden unfolds behind her.

During the 1950s and 60s, commercial artists used Alice, Wonderland and other characters to advertise brands and products. The release of the Disney film increased the popularity of Alice in Wonderland and companies fought to partner with the franchise. Sweet manufacturer Barratt’s used the Disney illustrations to advertise their Christmas crackers, and Ford Motor Company used coloured versions of Tenniel’s drawings to promote their new Falcon Wagons. The Irish brewery Guinness also partnered with the Alice franchise – one of the most peculiar pairings. The company hired artists to produce illustrations that loosely resembled Tenniel’s illustrations, combined with some Lewis Carroll-esque text. One poster reads: “He thought he saw a Dome that held Discoveries galore; He looked again and saw it was A Guinness by Thames Shore. ‘We know it’s Good for You,’ he said, ‘Need man discover more?'”

Although Tenniel and Disney created the two most popular visual versions of Alice and the other characters in Wonderland, every artist and designer has different visions and competes to develop new interpretations. This is particularly the case in theatrical and dance performances. The costumes and scenery need to stick close enough to Carroll’s original descriptions for the audience to recognise the familiar story, but they cannot be copies of previous designs. As technology has developed, the stage settings and special effects have become very ambitious, but there continues to be the issue of making fantastical costumes practical for the stage.

The V&A exhibition showcases several costumes worn on stage in various performances. Since Disney’s interpretation of the story, Alice is frequently depicted in blue, which many costume designers continue to replicate. To stand out from other stage shows, some designers look at Tenniel’s original illustrations, such as those in the young children’s book The Nursery Alice (1890), in which the main character wears a yellow dress. This is the colour the designers used for the costume in Alice, an opera performed in Hamburg in 1992.

Off the stage, fashion designers have used Alice in Wonderland as their inspiration for new clothing lines and one-off pieces on the catwalk. Designers include Christian Dior (1905-57), Vivienne Westwood (b.1944), Viktor&Rolf, Thom Browne (b.1965) and various Japanese-punk fashion houses.

Visiting the Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser exhibition at the V&A is almost like falling down a rabbit hole. From beginning to end, the installations look as wonderfully creative and psychedelic as Wonderland. Each section represents a different part of the Alice stories as well as various interpretations over the past century and a half. The further into the exhibition one travels, the “curiouser” it becomes until you start believing the Cheshire Cat that “We’re all mad here.”

The exhibition has more value for adults, who will appreciate the wealth of information and the opportunity to remember the stories and characters from childhood. Of course, it will also appeal to children, who will enjoy searching for the White Rabbit, watching film clips, and playing with fun-house mirrors and other interactive displays. The lights, sounds and twisting paths throughout the exhibition make visitors feel bewildered as Alice when she first entered Wonderland. You will likely exit the museum feeling entirely bonkers. “But I’ll tell you a secret: All the best people are.”

Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser is on now until Friday 31st December 2021. Tickets for the week ahead are released every Tuesday at 12.00. Adult tickets cost £20 but children under 12 can visit for free.


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Discover a Whole New World …

aladdin-the-musical-1From Broadway to the West End, Disney’s Musical Comedy Aladdin has been taking audiences on journeys to a whole new world for the past four years. Premiering on 26th February 2014 at the New Amsterdam Theatre in Manhatten, Aladdin soon flew to London in 2016, landing at the Prince Edward Theatre, taking the place of the successful Miss Saigon.

Based on the Number One Movie of the Year 1992, Aladdin brings to the stage some of the most loved Disney characters and songs for everyone, young and old, to enjoy. With magic tricks, pyrotechnics and lots of dancing, it is an experience unlike any musical production in the West End so far.

The well-known tale tells the story of a poor young man living on the streets of the Middle Eastern city of Agrabah who is granted three wishes from a genie in a lamp, which he uses to win the heart of the princess Jasmine and defeat the evil Grand Vizier. Featuring most of the scenes from the 90-minute animated film, the musical contains new songs and characters, extending the performance by an additional 40-minutes.

Loosely based on the story of Aladdin and the Magic Lamp from One Thousand and One Nights, Aladdin, played by Matthew Croke, the co-principal of RMC Academy of Theatre Performance in Sheffield, is a street urchin who first meets and falls in love with Princess Jasmine when he meets her in the marketplace. Running away from the palace and her father’s attempts to find her a suitor, Jasmine is disguised as an ordinary woman and Aladdin has no idea who she really is, although he soon finds out. Arrested by the Royal Guard for supposedly kidnapping the princess, Aladdin is rescued by the sultan’s Grand Vizier who, it turns out, has an evil ulterior motive.

Jafar, the Grand Vizier, is an evil, determined man who wants to become sultan and ruler of the city of Agrabah, but he can only achieve this with the help of a magic lamp. Although he knows the lamp is hidden in the Cave of Wonders, only a “diamond in the rough” can access it, and that diamond turns out to be Aladdin. The street urchin must enter the cave and take the lamp without touching anything else, however, a shiny ruby catches Aladdin’s eye. A single touch causes the cave entrance to collapse leaving Aladdin trapped inside.

 

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Abu

For the majority of the first half, the storyline has stayed almost the same as the film version, with the addition of a few new characters. Those who have seen the animation will recall that Aladdin had a kleptomaniac pet monkey named Abu, however, this was not possible on stage. Instead, Aladdin has three friends, Babkak, Kassim and Omar, who sing and dance with him in the marketplace as well as getting into all sorts of trouble. Although these are never seen before characters, they were originally written for the film but never made the final cut. Reintroducing them into the story allowed Howard Ashman’s (1950-1991) upbeat song Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim to be heard for the first time. This is a great tribute to the lyricist who died shortly before the release of the film to which he had devoted so much time.

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Iago and Jafar

Another animal in the 1992 version of Aladdin was Iago, the sultan’s sarcastic, rude parrot who teamed up with the evil Jafar. Likewise to Abu, it was not possible to have a talking animal on stage, so Iago became a man. Working as Jafar’s personal assistant, Iago’s character has a comedic effect with his disrespectful comments and over-the-top grovelling.

Thankfully, the most popular character in Aladdin, and most vital to the plot, receives the portrayal he deserves with fantastic songs, costumes and stage presence. It was going to be difficult to beat Robin William’s (1951-2014) character Genie of the Lamp but award-winning Trevor Dion Nicholas rose to the challenge, not only performing in the original Broadway production but making his debut in the West End, too.

By the end of the Act One, Aladdin has rubbed the lamp, met Genie and discovered he can be granted three wishes. This culminates in the popular song Friend Like Me, also written by Ashman, however, instead of performing the 2-minute film version verbatim, the producers extended it to last an impressive 8-minutes. Full of various forms of dancing and style of music, Friend Like Me pays tribute to other Disney productions, such as The Little Mermaid, and contains a tap dancing element in recognition of the show 42nd Street. Including magic tricks worthy of being in any magician’s repertoire, the final number of the act is thoroughly entertaining causing the audience to fall about laughing several times and wish for more.

 

Act two begins with the first of Aladdin’s wishes: to be a prince so that he can try to persuade Jasmine to marry him – cue the lengthy, amusing number, Prince Ali. This leads on to the awe-inspiring flying carpet scene where Aladdin takes Jasmine to see the world.  Whilst up in the air on a carpet held up either with invisible strings or real magic, the pair sing the most famous song from the film A Whole New World. Written by award-winning lyricist Sir Tim Rice (b1944), the romantic song is a stark contrast to the upbeat, fast numbers that preceded it, the only exception being Proud of Your Boy, which was cut from the original screenplay.

It does not take long for Aladdin to realise that pretending to be someone he is not causes more problem than it solves. Jasmine has recognised him from the marketplace but believes he is a prince. On top of that, Jafar and Iago trick Aladdin into getting arrested and thrown into the dungeons. Thankfully, Genie releases him with the use of a second wish, but what should he do with his third wish? Aladdin had initially promised Genie he would release him from his lamp but he also needs help rectifying the situation his first wish got him into.

Before he has a chance to decide, Jafar gets his hand on the lamp and wishes to become sultan. With everyone in the palace under his control, the new sultan wishes for more power and becomes a sorcerer. However, Jafar’s greed for strength and influence results in his downfall. Aladdin, with no help other than his own intelligence, convinces Jafar to wish to be an all-powerful genie, thus tying him to a lamp, cursed to spend the rest of his days granting wishes.

Although he could still wish for the princess’ hand in marriage, Aladdin chooses to set Genie free. Moved by his actions, the sultan (now restored to his rightful position) declares Princess Jasmine may marry whoever she pleases, be he royalty or commoner. So, Aladdin gets his other wish after all!

 

It would not be Disney without a happily-ever-after ending, however, Aladdin is full of hidden messages and morals, which makes the ending even better. Having three wishes fulfilled (as long as they do not involve love or death, Genie is banned from granting those type) seems like a fantastic opportunity, however, it also causes unforeseen problems. Aladdin thought to become a prince would improve his life and win him the heart of Jasmine, instead, he ends up insulting the princess and landing himself in prison.

Likewise, Jafar thought having his wishes granted would lead him to be the most powerful man in the kingdom. The power hungry villain was blinded by his greed and easily tricked into wishing to be a genie and sealing his fate, literally, in a lamp. With great power comes great responsibility, the obligation to grant everyone else three wishes!

As both Jafar and Aladdin discover, attempting to be someone you are not is not the right way to go about things. Jasmine loved the street urchin she met in the marketplace, not the arrogant prince who flaunted his wealth. Jafar pretended to be a trustworthy Grand Vizier but eventually received punishment for his wicked ways.

The biggest theme, however, is imprisonment and freedom. Genie, although powerful, is tied to his lamp, destined to do his master’s bidding for the rest of eternity. Jasmine and Aladdin, one rich, one poor, are both limited by their lifestyles. Aladdin is always looked down on for being homeless and a disappointment to his late mother, whereas, Jasmine has no rights as a woman and must do everything her father wishes. The lifting of these restrictions on each of the characters makes the ending all the more perfect.

10795844-1368522398-146359The West End musical Aladdin has only been running in London for two years but if the film is anything to go by, it will be one of the more successful shows in theatres. In 1992, Aladdin was the highest grossing film of the year ($217 million) and won a Grammy for the song A Whole New World. This phenomenal achievement was for an animated movie that only contained six songs, whereas the newer stage version has fourteen.

Disney was fortunate to have the eleven times Grammy Award-winning composer Alan Menken (b1949) on the team to produce both the film score and agree to work on the musical performance two decades later. Along with the lyricist Chad Beguelin, incredible new songs were produced for the stage that made the music much more impressive than in the original film. Of course, Rice’s A Whole New World needed to be kept in the script as well as Howard Ashman’s original songs and a few that never made it into the film. Ashman, who died of complications due to AIDs in 1991 would be proud to know that people are finally hearing more of his great works. Known as “our friend … who gave a Mermaid her voice and a Beast his soul …”, the added snippets of songs from A Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast are a perfect tribute to him.

 

Of course, the stage musical could not work without the phenomenal set design arranged by a whole team of people on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The scenes are truly impressive, not just for the way they look but for the way they function too. Just like the dancers, the sets had to be choreographed to move when they needed in order to transform into a different scene at the given time. During songs, particularly Friend Like Me, the set design is constantly moving as Genie uses his magic. Only the performers get applauded at the end of the show, however, the design team ought to be given greater recognition.

Members of the ensemble, for many of whom Aladdin is their debut West End performance, need to be appreciated too. Whilst they may not be a named character, they play a number of different roles, know most of the songs, learn hundreds of dance steps and are extremely quick at getting changed in and out of various costumes. In essence, these performers are the backbone of the show.

It is safe to say that Aladdin is a must-see show. It may not have the timelessness of other productions such as Les Misérables, but its upbeat, comic value makes it an entertaining, thoroughly enjoyable show. Suitable for all ages, Aladdin is the perfect show to see as a family outing or friends’ get-together, as proved by the rapidly selling tickets.

Tickets are available to purchase from Delfont Mackintosh Theatres at a variety of prices. Book online, by phone or in person at the Prince Edward Theatre in Old Compton Street, London. 

The Making of Harry Potter

Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the first book in the Harry Potter series written by J. K. Rowling. Since then, what began as a bottom-of-the-shelf novel has become an international sensation that is unlikely to fade from society any time soon. Three years after Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published, a film production team discovered the story of the young boy who discovers he is a wizard and developed an idea for a film. Filming began in 2000 at a studio in Leavesden on the outskirts of London, a town that has become a significant location on the map.

Warner Bros. Studio is situated on the old land belonging to Leavesden Aerodrome, an airfield that produced fighter planes during World War II and, later, Rolls-Royce aircraft engines. After closing in 1994, the hangars were converted to create suitable soundstages and recording rooms, which would eventually become home to the Harry Potter film cast and crew for over ten years. Now that all eight Harry Potter films have been produced, the studio has converted the place into a shrine-like museum for Potter fans to visit. Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter reveals the secrets and unbelievable talents of the various departments involved with the biggest film series in history.

Arriving at the studios near Watford is an exciting experience for all Harry Potter fans. Before entering the building, there are photo opportunities with statues of giant chess pieces that featured in the first film and enlarged posters and newspapers containing articles from the fictional publications in the wizarding world. After getting through security checks, visitors can spend some time (potentially hours) in the huge, unfortunately overpriced, gift shop whilst they await their timed entry to the studio. As the ticket holders queue up to enter the magical world of Harry Potter, the smallest set in the films, the cupboard under the stairs, provides a teaser of the delights to come.

After a brief introductory film, visitors assemble in front of a large set of doors, which are eventually pushed open (either by a member of staff or a lucky visitor who is celebrating a birthday) in a way that is comparable with Harry’s first experience of the room on the other side. This is the Great Hall at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry where students have their meals or magnificent feasts and balls. With huge, arched windows, real flagstones, brick walls and enormous torch holders, the hall resembles the inside of an ancient church or Westminster Hall in London.

The Great Hall is set up with two of the four lengthy tables, which the students sit at, and the staff table at the top. Models of eight of the adults stand in front of the latter as though welcoming visitors to Hogwarts. Professor Dumbledore, the headmaster, is positioned behind his golden owl podium, poised to give one of his memorable speeches.

Missing from the hall, however, is the enchanted ceiling that enthrals first years on their arrival at Hogwarts. Instead, scaffolding and lighting fixtures fill the space, which, in the films, were replaced with computer-generated visual effects to give the sense of a neverending night sky or fill the hall with floating candles.

 

Once visitors have left the Great Hall, they can view the rest of the studio at their own pace. Staff encourage everyone to take their time because, being a one-way tour, it is not possible to return to sections. In order to see everything, visitors are advised to be prepared to stay for three hours, although most people spend many more hours there.

A great number of film settings are on show, fully intact as they would have been during filming. These are surprisingly smaller than the films suggest and it is the clever skills of the cameramen that make the rooms or locations look bigger. The Gryffindor Boys’ Dormitory looks particularly tiny with child-size beds that were originally built for the 11-year old actors, forgetting that they would grow up to be gangly adolescents.

Gryffindor was one of the four houses students were sorted into on their first day at Hogwarts. Throughout Harry’s education, he shared a dormitory with his best friend Ron Weasley and three other boys, Neville Longbottom and Dean Thomas, whose initials can be seen on the trunks underneath their respective beds, and Seamus Finnigan. In the set next door, the Gryffindor Common Room shows the cosy area where Harry, Ron and their friend Hermione Granger would sit to relax or do their homework at the end of the school day. Decorated mostly in red (the house colour), the set decorators sourced medieval-looking tapestries to adorn the walls, old carpets and worn armchairs. Since none of the other house dormitories or common rooms appear in the films, there are no sets to reveal how the rest of the students lived.

The film sets of a couple of other rooms from Hogwarts are included in the tour, Dumbledore’s Office and the Potions Classroom. Dumbledore had a private office at the top of one of Hogwarts’ highest towers. It was only accessible through a secret stairwell, which was protected by a stone Griffin. Phenomenally, designers created this sculpted staircase, which, after the correct password was given, would rise out of a 12ft-hole in the ground.

Dumbledore’s office contains a huge collection of items that reflect the professor’s personality. Fascinated with the night sky, many references to astronomy can be seen around the room. There are also many mythical and fictional artefacts that are a key part of the Harry Potter stories. These include the Sword of Gryffindor and the memory cabinet.

The hundreds of books that line the shelves around Dumbledore’s desk are actually old British phonebooks covered in leather-like materials to give the impression of ancient tomes. Also in abundance are portraits of former headmasters. During production, these portraits numbered 48 and were often paintings of crew members dressed up to look like wizards.

The Potions Classroom set is also jampacked with props, particularly jars, of which there are hundreds. In the story, potions lessons were held in a dark classroom within the school’s dungeon, therefore, designers needed to make the set look as gloomy and dusty as possible.

 

Hagrid’s Hut is also an impressive set, as is the kitchen of Ron Weasley’s house. Rubeus Hagrid was the groundskeeper at Hogwarts and lived in a hut separate from the main castle. Since he was a half-giant, the contents of his hut needed to reflect his size, therefore, large furniture and props were produced. It was also rather crowded and full of cages containing real and fictional animals. On the other hand, The Burrow, belonging to the Weasleys, was a far more cosy set. Although much of the set contains typical items from the homes of “normal” people (or Muggles) many of them have been enchanted (or mechanised). Visitors can make the pans wash themselves, the iron move independently and knitting needles weave wool together by waving their hands over touch-sensitive pads.

Other sets include the green and red-bricked Ministry of Magic, the evil Professor Umbridge’s office, and the sinister Malfoy Manor. Although these were only small, many dedicated hours were taken to make them perfect for the various films. The fireplaces within the Ministry of Magic reached almost 30-feet high and were based on buildings that existed in Victorian London.

Up until this point in the tour, the sets had been rather small, however, three rather large and extremely impressive scenes soon follow. The first is the Forbidden Forest, which, as the name suggests, is a dangerous wooded area on the border of the school grounds. During the first film, scenes were shot on location at Black Park in Buckinghamshire, however, this often caused problems, for instance, unreliable weather, so the production team built their own in Leavesden instead. The tree trunks were built on a monumental scale, sometimes reaching 14-feet wide.

Parents of young children need to be aware that the Forbidden Forest set is particularly dark and involves smoke machines, scary noises and enormous spiders that dangle from the trees. Fortunately, the spiders are not real and are only physical animatronics, but that does not make them look any less terrifying, particularly the 18-foot spider hiding under the tree roots.

 

The next major set was only used during the final film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2. This was Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station, where students board the train, the Hogwarts Express, on 1st September to take them to school. For the first seven films, any scenes involving the platform were filmed at King’s Cross Station, but for ease of filming, a platform complete with track and train was produced for the very last parts of the series.

On this set, visitors can photograph each other pretending to run through the wall like the characters do in the films in order to access the platform, although, the most exciting part is climbing inside the carriage of the Hogwarts Express. The bright red train has become one of the most iconic vehicles within the film industry, however, it already had a long history prior to Harry Potter. This Great Western Railway 4900 Class 5972 Olton Hall locomotive was once a passenger carriage, the very first to traverse all the different lines in England. The steam engine began work in 1937 and retired in 1963 until it found fame on screen.

Inside one of the carriages, different compartments are set up to show how they appeared in each film. Although the decoration remained the same, the contents differed as the characters got older, beginning with sweet wrappers and ending with more grown-up-looking luggage. At the back of the train, the popular sweets trolley can be seen packed full of magical looking confectionary.

 

 

Eventually, the tour leads to the most impressive of all the Harry Potter sets, Diagon Alley.  In the books and films, Diagon Alley is a magic town hidden within the City of London. Only witches and wizards can access the alley and students go there every summer to buy their books and equipment for the new school year. The set is built to look and feel like an actual street with buildings on either side. Fans will be thrilled to see shops such as Gringotts Bank, Olivander’s, Flourish and Blotts and Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes. Set designers were inspired by scenes described in the works of Charles Dickens, therefore, walking along Diagon Alley also feels a little like going back in time.

 

Due to their nature, not all the film sets are inside. Within the backlot of the studio, where the animal actors once lived, are a few more important locations featured in the films. Although Harry’s home, or rather the home of his horrible Uncle, Aunt and cousin, was usually shot on location, a replica of his house on Privet Drive was also built. Visitors can enter the building and peak into the lounge, which shows the state of the room when thousands of letters inviting Harry to attend Hogwarts flew down the chimney.

Parked outside the house is another famous vehicle from the series, which appeared in the third film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Unlike the Hogwarts Express, which was a preexisting train, the Knight Bus was created specifically for the film. In the story, Harry takes the Knight Bus to London when he runs away from home. Being a magical bus, only wizards and witches can see it; it can also change shape and travel at illegal speeds in order to navigate the busy streets.

Designers built the bright purple bus from pieces of vintage London double-deckers. Due to having three floors, the Knight Bus reaches 22-feet and is significantly thinner than average buses. Although visitors cannot board the bus, they can peer into the rear end to see the peculiar interior.

One thing that can be physically experienced is walking across a section of the Hogwarts Bridge. J. K. Rowling never wrote about this bridge, however, it was added to the script for the third film and appeared in several thereafter. Only one section was ever built, the rest being computer-generated, but there is enough for visitors to get a sense of the rickety wooden structure. Made from old-looking wood complete with roofing (a blessing if it is raining), the Hogwarts Bridge is an impressive feat of architecture.

 

It is not only film sets that make up the Harry Potter studio tour. As already mentioned, models of the characters feature within some of the settings, for instance, the Death Eaters seated around the table in Malfoy Manor. There are also other displays of models dotted around dressed up in various costumes. Within the Great Hall at the beginning of the tour, models of the majority of Hogwarts staff stand together dressed in the typical costume they wore throughout the eight films. Around the sides of the hall are figures dressed in Hogwarts uniforms and robes. Each house has bands of different colours running through the material: Gryffindor red, Ravenclaw blue, Hufflepuff yellow, and Slytherin green.

After leaving the hall, the elaborate costumes that featured during the Yule Ball scene in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire are on display. Visitors are particularly drawn to Hermione Granger’s impressive pink gown, which fans can buy replicas of in the gift shop although, these are really expensive. The casual clothes that Harry and his friends wore are also exhibited, showing how their appearance changed as they got older.

Some may wonder why there are two models of the headmaster Albus Dumbledore wearing vastly different robes. The reason for this is the original actor, Richard Harris (1930-2002), died between films two and three. When Michael Gambon (b1940) took over the role, instead of trying to force him into the medieval-style clothing that Harris wore, the costume department gave Dumbledore a quirky make-over.

Only devoted fans would have noticed Imelda Staunton’s (b1956) wardrobe change during her role as the notorious Dolores Umbridge. With an inclination for the colour pink, her wardrobe got pinker and pinker as her power grew. Three outfits can be seen in her equally pink office during the tour.

 

By the time the final film had concluded in 2011, the prop department had either made or purchased over 5,000 pieces of furniture, 12,000 books, and 40,000 packaging designs. Tens of thousands more props were also used in the films that do not fall into those three categories and a great number of them are on show around the tour. For some props, Victorian style objects were purchased with the intention of adapting them to look like a wizard’s device, whereas, others were built entirely from scratch.

The amount of work the prop department, graphics department and artists did for the Harry Potter series is absolutely phenomenal. They were all extremely dedicated members of the crew and spent hours making objects that barely had any screen time. Some of the most impressive are the Goblet of Fire carved from the trunk of an English Elm; doors, such as the Gringotts Vault Door, which was full of motorised moving parts; and the Magic is Might statue carved from foam and painted to look like stone.

 

Other props that were vital to the making of Harry Potter include wands and broomsticks. Each character had a unique wand meaning the prop department produced over 3,000 throughout the filming process. These were made from various materials, such as wood, plastic, and rubber, and were intricately carved so that each one had its own distinct look.

The broomsticks, on the other hand, were less prevalent in the films, most frequently appearing during a game of Quidditch – a wizarding sport. As a result, the prop department did not need as many brooms as they did wands, however, they needed to be carefully designed. Not only did the brooms need to be sturdy enough to take the weight of the actors, they needed to be light enough for an owl to carry; most of the animal scenes were not computer generated, they involved many, well-trained creatures. Three of the brooms are in a display cabinet to show the range of designs. These are named Nimbus 2000, Nimbus 2001, and Firebolt. 

After visitors have perused the Quidditch equipment, there is the option of “riding” a broom themselves. Dressed in Hogwarts robes, individuals can sit on a stationary broom in front of a green screen to have their photograph taken. During the printing process, the screen is replaced with a Harry Potter scene background, which makes a lovely memento of the day.

 

Towards the end of the tour, after everyone has had a chance to try a glass of Butterbeer or some Butterbeer flavoured ice cream, the secrets of the magical creatures in the Harry Potter films are revealed. From actors wearing prosthetic make-up to robots built from steel and foam, the Creature Effects team used every technique imaginable. A lot of computer-generated technology was needed to produce the final, moving shots of the creature, which, in itself, is like a type of magic.

The curators of the Warner Bros. Studio Tour saved the best part to the very end. Described as the “crown jewel of the Art Department” a huge model of the Hogwarts castle fills an entire room. Viewed from a balcony as well as at ground level, the hyperrealistic model is absolutely breathtaking. The construction of the model took almost 100 pairs of hands to complete and was fitted with over 300 fibre optic lights. Everything is built to scale and includes bits of gravel and real plants to make it look as authentic as possible.

For footage involving the exterior of the castle, the filming department combined shots of the model with digital effects to make it look like a real, fully functioning castle. This alone sums up the extent the studio workers were willing to go to make Harry Potter the perfect fantasy film series.

 

The Warner Bros. Studio Tour has won many awards including Best UK Attraction 2017 and Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence 2017. It cost £41 (adults; children are £33) to enter, which may seem like an enormous fee, however, it is worth every penny. Families can spend the entire day at the studio, either having lunch in the cafe two-thirds of the way through or at the restaurant at the beginning/end of the tour. All the staff are extremely helpful and jump at the chance to reveal further information about objects on display. Whether you are an avid fan or fairly new to the Harry Potter world, you are guaranteed to have a magical day.

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At Home in Antiquity

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Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Coign of Vantage, 1895 (detail). Collection of Ann and Gordon Getty

Earlier this year (7th July – 29th October 2017), Leighton House Museum in Kensington put on the largest exhibition of an illustrious Victorian artist to be shown in London since 1913. Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity displays over 100 paintings that reveal the artist’s interest in both the domestic life of antiquity and his own home life.

Leighton House was the perfect location for an exhibition of an artist who portrays many ancient foreign scenes in his work. Originally the house of Frederic, Lord Leighton, 1st Baron Stretton (1830-96), a famous British artist of a similar era to Alma-Tadema, the house is full of decorative art and furnishings from all over the world.

The exhibition prevented visitors from appreciating the full extent of the house’s decor, however, the ‘Arab Hall’, fitted with an indoor fountain, remained untouched by the display. Here are a collection of ceramics, textiles, woodwork, windows and tiles from Leighton’s travels to the Middle East, particularly Damascus in Syria, and date as far back as the 17th-century.

The rest of the house is decorated in a similar fashion, however, Alma-Tadema far outshone the setting. His paintings are so exquisitely detailed, it was impossible to focus on anything else in the room. Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity has certainly been a star attraction for the museum this year.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema OM RA (1836-1912) was born Laurens Alma Tadema in a small village in the Netherlands. His father died when he was only four years old, leaving his mother to singlehandedly raise six children, three of whom were from her husband’s previous marriage. His mother encouraged the learning of artistic skills, however, intended her son to train to become a lawyer.

In 1851, however, at the age of fifteen, Laurens suffered a physical and mental breakdown that was misdiagnosed as a fatal case of consumption. Assuming he did not have long to live, Laurens was left to spend his days at leisure, often drawing and painting. Fortunately, the young man regained his health and decided to pursue a career in art.

A year later, at sixteen, Tadema moved to Belgium in order to study at the Royal Academy of Antwerp. Although he did not complete the course, he found himself a position as a studio assistant to Lodewijk Jan de Taeye, later working for the Baron Jan August Hendrik Leys (1815-69) who introduced him to the history of Belgium and France. Settings of these areas between the 5th and 8th centuries became a key topic of his early work. A few of these were displayed in the drawing room at Leighton House.

Although painted with exceptional skill, Tadema’s themes were not very popular amongst the clientele of the 1860s. As a result, Tadema decided to change tact, something that was sparked by his marriage to Marie-Pauline Gressin Dumoulin on 24th September 1863.

The happy couple’s lengthy honeymoon took place around Italy in cities such as Florence, Rome and Naples. The ancient facades inspired Tadema to produce Roman genre scenes. As well as Rome, Tadema became equally interested in ancient Greece and Egypt, researching them thoroughly in order to produce accurately detailed oil paintings. Although he was predominantly interested in the ways of life and the architecture of the periods, he also painted a few biblical scenes.

Tadema and Pauline had two children (their firstborn, a son, died in infancy). Their daughters, Laurence (1864-1940) and Anna (1867-1943) often became the subjects of their father’s paintings. Although his painting style did not alter, these scenes show a remarkable contrast with his imagined scenes. They reveal the differences in the household and fashions of the eras of focus.

Sadly, Pauline died of smallpox in 1869 at the young age of thirty-two. Spiralling into depression, Tadema’s work suffered and he eventually took the advice of his doctor to go to London to seek medical treatment. During his visit, he met the seventeen-year-old daughter of a physician, Laura Theresa Epps, and fell instantly in love. They were married in July 1871.

Tadema began his life in England with his new wife and daughters who were also artistically inclined. Some of Laura and Anna’s paintings were on show at Leighton House but were greatly outshone by the work of their husband and father.

It was at this time that Tadema adopted the English version of his name, Lawrence, and hyphenated his middle and surname to create a name that would appear at the beginning of exhibition catalogues.

Alma-Tadema became one of the most famous and highly paid artists of his time, receiving many awards including being made a Royal Academician on 19th June 1879. He was eventually knighted in England by Queen Victoria in 1899, the eighth artist from the continent to receive this honour.

As the years progressed, Alma-Tadema’s output dwindled. This was less to do with his age and more to do with a new passion – decorating his home. Various pieces of furniture and photographs of the place in which he lived featured in the exhibition, however, the most interesting was the collection of thin paintings that made up the ‘Hall of Panels’. In a room of his house, forty-five individual door panels were displayed along the walls containing paintings produced by friends and acquaintances of the artist. Seventeen of these were assembled for the exhibition at Leighton House including one by Frederic Leighton himself, The Bath of Psyche (1887). Other artists include John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Frank Dicksee (1853-1928) and, of course, his daughter Anna.

Laura Alma-Tadema died age fifty-seven in 1909 and her husband was not far behind her. After arriving in Wiesbaden, Germany in the summer of 1912 to be treated for a stomach ulcer, the Victorian artist passed away on 28th June 1912 at the age of seventy-six. He received a state burial in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Unfortunately, with the rapid developments of art movements during the first half of the 20th-century, Alma-Tadema’s classical paintings were rejected in favour of the modern experiments of new artists. For a while, his works were forgotten about, however, his depiction of antiquities was discovered by filmmakers, such as Ridley Scott, who used his historically accurate paintings to construct scenery and develop characters.

As part of the exhibition, the curators at the Leighton House Museum set up two adjacent television screens, one to show the painting and the other to play scenes they inspired. Clips were shown from eight films including Gladiator (2000), Cajus Julius Caesar (1914) and The Ten Commandments (1956).

The final room of the exhibition contained two of Alma-Tadema’s most impressive works. The majority of his paintings are exceptional for the way in which flowers, textures, metals and pottery are depicted. Alma-Tadema would source items to use as references and be very perfectionistic about his work. He was also particularly adept at painting stone and marble, earning him the title ‘the marbellous painter’. Evidence of these skills can be seen in The Finding of Moses (1904) and The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888).

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The Finding of Moses, 1904

The Finding of Moses was one of the last major works before Alma-Tadema’s death and was based on the biblical scene in Exodus 2:6. The Pharaoh’s daughter, who had come to bathe in the River Nile, has discovered the baby Moses hidden in a basket amongst the reeds. The scene shows a procession back to Memphis, the capital of the Old Kingdom of Egypt.

Alma-Tadema expertly painted realistic, full-length portraits of shaven-headed male attendants carrying Pharoah’s daughter on an intricately decorated chair. Beside her, two female attendants hold Moses aloft in his basket.

It is evident that Alma-Tadema undertook a significant amount of research to complete this painting. Amongst the decoration on the clothing and the daughter’s chair are symbols indicating her status and hieroglyphics identifying her as the daughter of Ramesses II.

The colours are fairly typical for a dusty Egyptian landscape, however, Alma-Tadema offsets the composition with the inclusion of delphiniums in the foreground, boasting another skill of his. The rich blues and purples turn the painting into something resembling a frieze and are a perfect contrast with the yellows and oranges of the pyramids in the background.

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The Roses of Heliogabalus, 1888

The Roses of Heliogabalus is set in an entirely different era. The painting depicts a (probably fictitious) event during the life of the Roman Emperor Elagabalus, also known as Heliogabalus (204-222). The teenage ruler sits at a banquet table leering down at his guests as a swarm of pink rose petals descend from a false ceiling. Whilst roses and their beautiful colouring generally have positive connotations, this scene is an imagining of something far more sinister, as written in the biography Augustan History (4th century):

“In a banqueting-room with a reversible ceiling he once buried his guests in violets and other flowers, so that some were actually smothered to death, being unable to crawl out to the top.”

As in all Alma-Tadema’s paintings, the Roman citizens are painted in a perfect likeness – almost photographic. However, the most phenomenal aspect is the sheer amount of rose petals depicted, drowning the emperor’s victims. Thousands of petals have been painted on top of the canvas, each one painstakingly detailed. This goes to show Alma-Tadema’s dedication to his work (and his perfectionism).

Lawrence Alma-Tadema was amongst the most financially successful painters of the Victorian-era and it is hard to believe that his work was rejected and ridiculed in the years after his death. Leighton House Museum curated a fantastic exhibition that not only shows off the impressive artworks, teaches the current generation about an artist who deserves to be remembered.

So much can be learnt by looking at Alma-Tadema’s work from artistic technique to historical context. A single painting can be studied for hours, each square inch containing so much detail.

Why this artist is not more widely known is baffling, but now there is hope as a result of the incredible exhibition Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity that Lawrence Alma-Tadema could become everyone’s favourite artist. It will be interesting to discover which artists the museum will reveal to the wider public next.

Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity was organised by the Museum of Friesland, Leeuwarden, the Netherlands (the artist’ hometown) and came to London following an exhibition at the Belvedere, Vienna bringing over 130 works to Leighton House Museum as the only UK venue for the show.