Project: Tales of Court Hey

In July 2022 I was asked to write a short play for Prescot-based Imaginarium Theatre, a community-based performing arts company (and associate company of the Shakespeare North Playhouse) with whom I’ve worked on and off since 2016, playing such roles as Caliban in The Tempest, Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet and the Spirit of Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol. This project was commissioned by One Knowsley for the Knowsley Feel Good Festival and Knowsley Flower Show, held on 6 and 7 August 2022.

The brief was to create a fun and fast-paced family show about the history of Court Hey Park, where the performances were to take place. With the help of the Friends of Court Hey Park and Knowsley Council, I delved into the archives and picked out a handful of historical episodes that would give an entertaining and informative glimpse into the park’s past.

The writing process was not without its challenges – not least my coming down with Covid a few days in – but the resulting performance was tremendously fun and brilliantly received. It focused on the life of Robertson Gladstone, the 19th-century merchant and politician (and brother of Liberal PM William Ewart Gladstone) who built Court Hey Hall, a mansion that stood on the present site from 1836 to 1955. Part-Carry On, part-Horrible Histories, The Gladstones of Court Hey may have been an absurdly comical farce, but it was very much rooted in the facts, touching on politics, religion, the social realities of Victorian life and the story of the Gladstone family, warts and all. The framing scenes, involving a pair of present-day police officers and an over-enthusiastic archaeologist, highlighted the family’s legacy, and how the Gladstones’ love of the outdoors and support for education lives on in what takes place in Court Hey Park today.

The play was written for a cast of three, who handled a colourful array of props and underwent multiple costume changes, switching breathlessly between approximately 15 different roles. Their improvisational skills and knack for audience interaction brought the script alive, engaging crowds ranging in age from toddler to pensioner.

The project was funded through a Knowsley Heritage Grant, via One Knowsley and the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Pictured, top: Director Gaynor La Rocca, actors Rachael Reason, Francesco La Rocca and Kieran McCarthy-Hoare, and yours truly, the writer. Photos: Kristian Lawrence

St Francis: The First Nativity Scene

St Bonaventure on the first live Nativity scene, created by Francis of Assisi in 1223:

Now three years before his death it befell that he was minded, at the town of Greccio, to celebrate the memory of the Birth of the Child Jesus, with all the added solemnity that he might, for the kindling of devotion. That this might not seem an innovation, he sought and obtained license from the Supreme Pontiff, and then made ready a manger, and bade hay, together with an ox and an ass, be brought unto the spot. The Brethren were called together, the folk assembled, the wood echoed with their voices, and that august night was made radiant and solemn with many bright lights, and with tuneful and sonorous praises. The man of God, filled with tender love, stood before the manger, bathed in tears, and overflowing with joy. Solemn Masses were celebrated over the manger, Francis, the Levite of Christ, chanting the Holy Gospel. Then he preached unto the folk standing round of the Birth of the King in poverty, calling Him, when he wished to name Him, the Child of Bethlehem, by reason of his tender love for Him. A certain knight, valorous and true, Messer John of Greccio, who for the love of Christ had left the secular army, and was bound by closest friendship unto the man of God, declared that he beheld a little Child right fair to see sleeping in that manger. Who seemed to be awakened from sleep when the blessed Father Francis embraced Him in both arms. This vision of the devout knight is rendered worthy of belief, not alone through the holiness of him that beheld it, but is also confirmed by the truth that it set forth, and withal proven by the miracles that followed it. For the ensample of Francis, if meditated upon by the world, must needs stir up sluggish hearts unto the faith of Christ, and the hay that was kept back from the manger by the folk proved a marvellous remedy for sick beasts, and a prophylactic against divers other plagues, God magnifying by all means His servant, and making manifest by clear and miraculous portents the efficacy of his holy prayers.

The Life of St Francis OF AsSisi (LEGENDA SANTI FRANCISCI), by St Bonaventure. X: Of his fervour and diligence in prayer

Read or download Bonaventure’s The Life of St Francis of Assisi here.

Dracula (1958)

For the 30th anniversary edition of Eric McNaughton’s excellent We Belong Dead magazine, contributors were asked to write about their favourite horror films. Mine was an easy choice: Dracula, the 1958 Hammer production starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

The studio was to make several outstanding films over the ensuing couple of decades, but rarely did all the elements combine in such perfect balance as they did here, arguably the pinnacle of Hammer’s achievement in the realm of the Gothic. As a child, I succumbed easily to the film’s charms; Hammer had me in its grasp, and neither it nor Dracula has let me go since.

If you want to read the c2,000 words before it, or any of dozens of lavishly illustrated articles on horror films ranging from Häxan, Halloween and Psycho to The Wolf Man, The Wicker Man and The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue, buy a copy directly from the We Belong Dead website.

Look out for my article on the 1956 film of The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the upcoming ‘Euro Horror’ edition, too.

Benediction (John Macquarrie)

Benediction is not a practice observed in any Anglican parish I’ve been part of, but it’s played a part in my visits to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham and, more recently, to the brothers of the Society of St Francis at Alnmouth. I’ve found it, and the accompanying Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, an uplifting spiritual experience.

The Franciscan friars helpfully provided a short essay by the late Anglo-Catholic theologian John Macquarrie, which explains the practice simply and beautifully:

Benediction … makes real to us in an impressive way the fact that God is always reaching out to us, to bless, to strengthen, to assure us of his loving kindness toward us.

Read the full essay here (PDF): Some thoughts on Benediction from Professor John Macquarrie (PDF)

Event: In the Grip of Hammer 2: Beyond Hammer Glamour

Mark Sunday 27 February on your calendars, Hammer fans! My friend and colleague Robert JE Simpson and I will once again be in conversation, this time with a special guest.

Dr Penny Goodman is an academic, lecturing in Roman History, but it’s her love of Hammer horror that brings her to In the Grip of Hammer 2: Beyond Hammer Glamour. On Twitter I’ve dubbed her ‘Queen of Hammer Subtext’ on account of her ever-fascinating and insightful observations, and so we’re delighted she’s joining us as we dig a little deeper into Hammer’s early vampire films. On Twitter Penny is @pjgoodman.

Robert JE Simpson is a historian, critic and cultural commentator – not to mention one-time official archivist for Hammer Films – with a particular interest in Hammer’s sister company, Exclusive. On Twitter he is @exclusivephd.

And I’m David L Rattigan, a writer and editor who’s utterly obsessed with Hammer horror films and has been tweeting on the subject – in preparation for some upcoming related projects, fingers crossed! – as @hammergothic on Twitter since 2020.

As with the last event, the conversation will be fairly informal, and we encourage interaction, so do come along to comment, ask questions and chip in with your own observations.

The livestream is an official Cinepunked event and is free to watch. Tune in to In the Grip of Hammer 2: Beyond Hammer Glamour at 8pm on Sunday 27 February on the Cinepunked YouTube channel.

If you missed the first In the Grip of Hammer, catch up below:

Event: In the Grip of Hammer

My friend and colleague Robert JE Simpson and I will be in conversation on Thursday 13 January at 9pm GMT. The event is live online and is free to attend. Hopefully we’ll attract a few followers from our Hammer-related Twitter accounts (mine is @HammerGothic, and Robert’s is @exclusivephd), and there’ll be time for some interaction and a Q&A. From Cinepunked:

Thursday 13 January 2022, CinePunked presents In the Grip of Hammer.

In the first of a new occasional series of CinePunked conversations with fans, enthusiasts, and collectors, our very own Robert JE Simpson will be in conversation with David L Rattigan (himself no stranger to CinePunked) about their shared love of classic Hammer Films.

Robert JE Simpson is a film historian and cultural commentator, previously worked as the official archivist for Hammer Films, and is currently writing a book about the early history of Hammer’s sister company Exclusive Films. He tweets about the project at @exclusivephd.

David L Rattigan is a freelance writer and editor with a Hammer horror obsession, and for the last year has been tweeting about his love for the films over at @hammergothic.

Robert and David have a long-standing working relationship and have collaborated on a number of magazine, book and podcast projects.

Hammer Films are perhaps best known for their series of gothic horror films produced in England between 1956 and 1976, including popular series of Frankenstein and Dracula features starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. In 2006 the company went back into production and has produced a stream of horror films in the years since, including Wake WoodThe Woman in Black and The Lodge.

The conversation will be live-streamed via the CinePunked YouTube channel, and will include an audience Q&A. Robert and David will not just be talking about Hammer horror, but the company’s other output, and what fandom means to them.

Bookmark the channel now.

View the event page on Facebook.
Bookmark CinePunked YouTube channel.