Controlled Collisions

By Tony Grisoni


What happens when a performance artist and a screenwriter collaborate on the telling of the strangest tales

Vanished! A Video Séance

It goes like this:

1932. Cashen Gap, Isle of Man. An ugly little house overlooking the Irish Sea. The Irving family – father, mother, Voirrez – the remaining daughter, 13 years old. A presence moves into the walls of the house. Learns to speak by listening and imitating. Calls himself Gef. Gef was a mongoose with yellow human hands and feet. He stayed with the Irving’s for some six years by which time he had embedded himself deep within the family structure, each member defining themselves through him. Gef’s relationships were complex and often sexually charged. Mr Irving claimed to be his teacher, and as Gef himself is reported to have said, “Ma feeds me and I look out for Voirrez."

The collaboration – between myself as a screenwriter and performance artist Brian Catling – was a controlled collision. We had wanted to work together for some time and this extraordinary story gave us the obsessive vehicle. One of our first meeting points was a shared passion for Super 8mm and Hi-8 video. Catling: “the intimate textural density of small format film and its freedom is very appealing. The wide spectrum of mood and its disengagement from laborious process gives access to changes of visual language that can reflect and articulate formal distance and close emotional states."

What became known as ‘The Dalby Spook’ was explored by the 1930s investigator into the paranormal, Harry Price and, amongst others, Nandor Fodor, a research officer for the International Institute for Psychical Research. The story hit the national headlines including The Listener and, for a time, Gef was the centre of a famous libel case. Our own research took us to the actual location, a windswept headland at the end of a long taxi drive through pitch black. The house had been destroyed. Only a wooden post studded with nails remained. But there were people in the village who remembered the family. Stories about the puckish Gef were still very much alive, as was the remaining family member, now an 80 year old woman.

Initially, we had hoped to shoot on film, but Gef proved to be too mercurial, too bright and mischievous for the various film funding bodies of the time. It was a blow. Catling’s video installation, Cyclops (1996, South London Gallery) was a revelation. Ian Hunt saw the installation as part of “Catling’s tirade", a means “ stave off encroaching literalism: what he calls in Cyclops ‘the relentless dumbness of the world.’” Cyclops was cinema reborn, the dark light of the 1996 Lumière Festival. It brought to mind a screening I once attended of Man of Aran, projected onto a crumpled sheet in a draughty hall in Inishmore. From that moment on we conceived of Vanished! as a video projection.

We planned three separate but interlocking narratives: mother, father, daughter. The daughter was to be alive and dreaming herself as a girl, the mother and father returning from the dead for a limited period of time; witnesses speaking directly to camera. To awaken the main players. To assemble the key elements. To call Gef home. Video as séance.

Julian Curry, Rosemary McHale and new-found talent Victoria Seifert agreed to perform. The bull-hearted Charles Beasley was there with his dauntless crew. Then the Arts Council of England rode in at the eleventh hour and made it possible to pay these people.

“Scarier than Blair Witch," wrote Jonathan Romney in The Guardian. “Vanished! comes into its own, making the most of ideas associated with projection: we are literally seeing the family’s fantasies and disturbances projected on screen... this is not simply a story of a folie à trois, but apparently a drama of deception and abuse… tellingly, nothing is spelled out."


We then went to Palermo armed with two Hi-8 video cameras. We trawled the Cappuccini Catacombs where the mummified dead, still in period dress, are hanging from the walls or arranged in groups: mothers and babies, lawyers, priests, children. Our hearts sank initially when we saw that a wire mesh had been erected to screen us from the crumbling corpses. Then we discovered that the mesh apertures were exactly the correct diameter for our lenses. The screen acted both as tripod and framing device. We returned home with 2,000 heads or portraits, each individually framed for two minutes. The plan was to write these characters’ stories – to put our words in their mouths – but the 2,000 illustrious cadavers proved to be more eloquent in their silence. The piece was first to be shown in a tower in Umbertide, Umbria and comprised two facing monitors hanging from the high ceiling. The cameo portraits stared across the space at one another in silent conversation, while the sound... “the room was flooded with the noise of life, recorded verité while we had been filming the dead. Families walk through. They talk, laugh, sing in five languages; dogs bark from outside, birds sing."


The Cutting

A professor lays claim to a preserved body unearthed in a peat marsh. He announces that the body is that of a 2,000 year old Iron Age man – an aristocrat – a Prince of the Fens – a willing sacrifice. An old woman cackles at the exhibited corpse. She says it’s the body of a lover of hers when a girl – a salacious fool who fell in the marsh one drunken evening on his way back from seeing her. The professor goes into a spin. He withdraws his precious find, goes home to seek comfort in his wife, a faded beauty, trapped in comatosed sleep. At night, the old woman goes to find her lost lover. The professor’s wife sleep-walks. And out in the marsh, something stirs...

In what has become a ritual for us, we made the first investigative trips; north to Jutland in Denmark, where Grauballe and Tollund Man were raised into the modern light, then to Cheshire and Pete Marsh’s resting place. On the way we passed a house where a modern murder became entangled with an ancient sacrifice; another tale of mistaken corpses.

Technically, The Cutting is a far more complex piece than Vanished! However, Charles Beasley and gang are there, ready to go as ever, and they’re to be joined by Sarah Simblett on a second camera. Keith Griffiths is producing. We have hopes of attracting a name actor or two. We can’t lose. Some sort of film funding should be possible this time... but after a series of exasperating meetings and e-mails, Keith draws a blank. We don’t fit.

Liberated from ossifying notions of genre and the dead hand of script development, The Cutting rapidly transmutes into something altogether richer and stranger. Our characters will play their parts with their eyes sealed. Only the dead will see. The pace picks up. Poet and performance artist Aaron Williamson agrees to be our sacrificial victim. Brian contacts the celebrated Icelandic actress Kristbjorg Kjeld, with whom he worked on a much earlier theatrical version of the tale. She agrees. The Henry Moore Foundation comes in with a small grant that makes it possible for us to pay something to cast and crew. Finally, after some deliberation, Brian and I decide to up the ante a bit: he’ll play the role of professor, I’ll direct. We’re to shoot black-and-white on digital cameras. Oxford University provide us with some stunning and hitherto unseen locations. Friends, family and work colleagues all pitch in to help. We’ll shoot over a year – when and wherever we can. We have a budget of £5,000.

And we’re impatient. To tell other tales, visit other worlds: A Winter – set amid the miasma of 19th century London; Snitch & Snatch – a vicious familiar torments his alien mistress; The Forest – luminous landscapes and time-slip; not to mention Cabaret Melancolique, featuring “acts that should not be seen, being so bad or so pure."

Finally, Romney again: “...making up such a bizarre apocryphal yarn is the sort of stunt that American independent film-makers would pull. It couldn’t happen in a British art gallery, could it?"

Screenwriter Tony Grisoni wrote Queen of Hearts (1989), the award-winning first feature by Jon Amiel. He has worked closely with a number of directors including John Boorman and Terry Gilliam (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 1998). He also scripted Michael Winterbottom’s In This World (2002). He is proud to count himself amongst the crew on board the ship of fools The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Current projects include Tideland, an adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s book for Terry Gilliam; Brothers of the Head, from the Brian Aldiss novel, for Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe; Laika for Revolution Films and The Good Machine, with N.G.Bristow, for Tall Stories.

Vanished! A Video Séance was first shown at the South London Gallery in 1999. It went on to screenings at, amongst other venues, The Ikon, Birmingham (as part of e.s.p. 1999), The Bluecoat Gallery, Liverpool and The Ruskin School of Art, Oxford. A DVD is to made available in 2003. Palermo was initially shown at La Rocca, Umbertide, Umbria. The Cutting is in post-production.

A Winter is in pre-production. Cabaret Melancolique was celebrated for its second year running at The Mildmay Club, Newington Green, London on Friday 13th December 2002. Few bones were broken.