Tuesday, 8 November 2016

IN THE DARK: A Whisper Of Black Silk on BBC Radio

Thought I'd focus here on the storytelling drama I performed for BBC Radio Scotland at Halloween as part of their show In The Dark. This is now available to hear on the BBC iPlayer - but only for just over a couple of weeks, so listen now! I'll paste a couple of links below....

LINK 1: This is my story A Whisper Of Black Silk, in isolation... A WHISPER OF BLACK SILK

LINK 2: This is the full programme, as broadcast, in which my story is second on the bill, about 14 minutes in, after an atmospheric and subtle story by Kirsty Logan based on the Scots legend of the Kelpie.... IN THE DARK

Both are admirably introduced and compered by John Kielty who played Edgar Allan Poe in my radio play Moyamensing a couple of Halloweens ago. 

The show was performed before a live audience back in mid-October before a full audience at Glasgow's wonderfully atmospheric Britannia Panopticon Music Hall, the place where Stan Laurel famously made his stage debut.

The remit from our producer Elizabeth Ann Duffy was to tell stories rooted in Scots folklore and I was encouraged to draw inspiration from the lore and legend of my native Glasgow. I had coffee with Elizabeth Ann in Glasgow early last summer, promised I'd come up with something, said "Cheerio" and basically had come up with a story by the time I'd walked a couple of blocks through Glasgow's Merchant City. 

Thinking about the history and strange tales of Glasgow, I was drawn towards a story that has haunted me a good deal of my life - the story of Glasgow's most famous (possible) murderess, Madeleine Smith. In a nutshell, back in the mid-19th century, Madeleine - the daughter of one of the most respectable of haut bourgeois Glaswegian families, got into a passionate (emotionally and, it would seem, physically) relationship with Pierre Emile L'Angelier, writing him love letters of an intensity to make much 'official' Scots literature of the 19th century seem bloodless and sexless by comparison. 

When her family, oblivious of the secret relationship, urged her to marry a much more respectable young Scots gentleman, L'Angelier threatened to reveal the letters to her father. And then suddenly Pierre, in the habit of drinking hot chocolate on his nocturnal visits to Madeleine, died of what seemed to be arsenic poisoning, Madeleine herself being in the habit of purchasing arsenic in nearby Sauchiehall Street, for its efficacy as an exfoliant. 

Madeleine then went briefly 'on the run' only to be caught and put on trial for murder. Famously, the court found her neither Guilty nor Not Guilty, but rather decided the case against her was Not Proven - that rare verdict possible in a Scots court: in other words, "we think you might have done it, but we can't prove it, so go away and don't do it again." And away she went, finally living in America.

The case had always had a fascination for me. IF she did it - and IF Thomas DeQuincey is correct in identifying murder as being one of the fine arts, then Madeleine - I had always felt - was perhaps the finest artist to come out of Glasgow, far surpassing the likes of Alasdair Gray or Charles Rennie Mackintosh with a combination of raw passion and sheer conceptual precision to put one in mind of the early Stravinsky. Against the twin corrosions in the Scottish soul of machismo & puritanism (so inimical to the creation of art in the first place), she fought the good fight for a transgressive, uninhibited and uncompromisingly female eroticism. As a kid, I would wander through Blythswood Square on a kind of pilgrimage - without, to be honest, much idea of which specific house in this grand square at the top of a steep hill (conveniently en route to my youthful haunt in the front row of the Glasgow Film Theatre) Madeleine occupied. 

Some concerted research led me to the right house, complete with its low level window just around the corner, through which - I've heard - Madeleine used to hand up Pierre his hot chocolate. Although I've never been short of artistic heroes and role models - from Emily Bronte to Mary Shelley, Roman Polanski to John Webster, Jan Svankmajer to Max Ernst, Euripides to Howard Barker, Dostoevsky to Edgar Allan Poe, W B Yeats to Bela Bartok - I struggled, frankly, to find a real honest to goodness artistic hero in my own home city, past or present. Even the one Scots author I genuinely couldn't live without, Robert Louis Stevenson, came - inescapably - from that 'other' city to the East. 

So Madeleine, passionate and sensuous in her murderousness, took that 'hero' position for me, assuming a totemic role in my youthful imagination alongside those other figures I considered the patron saints of my own private matriachal mystery religion: Irena Dubrovna (from 'Cat People'), Mircalla Karnstein (from 'The Vampire Lovers' & my own novel - out on Kindle - Dances Sacred & Profane, here's a link: http://www.amazon.co.uk/DANCES-SACRED-PROFANE-Romance-ebook/dp/B00858QERM/ref=la_B004H9DTMQ_1_8?ie=UTF8&qid=1365784911&sr=1-8 - the fact that the second female lead in Vampire Lovers was an actress, non-murderous, called Madeleine Smith, added an extra resonance) and the Countess Elizabeth Bathory (as featured in my Wireless Theatre Company play Blood And Stone.).  

And after years of thinking about her, revering her with all the necrophiliac intensity of a Poe protagonist haunting the grave of his beloved, I thought perhaps I could use her story as the basis for my In The Dark performance. Certainly, in recent years I had noted that her house, now split into offices, had gained a plaque declaring it to be, officially, "Madeleine Smith house". What, I had wondered in passing, might it be like to work in her house - and maybe one day confront her ghost?

But there was a catch... creating an imaginative Gothic fiction, I didn't want to be too hemmed in by the restrictions of historical fact. And if Madeleine had killed at all, she had killed at long distance, poisoning Pierre in such a way that he died at his own lodgings a considerable distance away. In my story, bluntly, I wanted a crime of passion that would spray the walls with blood in the most immediate way.

So I opted instead for a "Madeleine-Smith-type" murderer in the form of the fictional "Bonnie Annie Sharp". This also gave me the opportunity to shift the setting from the city centre to my own part of Glasgow. Because I'm not just any old sort of Glaswegian, but a Southside Glaswegian - the centre of my Glaswegian universe being defined basically by the hilly sprawl of Queen's Park, my four homes in the city having been at the four corners of the park. And the house in which A Whisper Of Black Silk takes place faces "the dark end of Queen's Park".

But the idea remained: modern man stumbles on Victorian female ghost - and the new twist was the way she doesn't simply confront him at a corner and go "Boo!" but actually slips her way inside his brain and bone to haunt him from within - this giving me a further opportunity to give the story an undercurrent of dark humour... as a quintessential macho "man's man" Glaswegian male, the sort of guy who'd punch your lights out if you so much as suggested his having a feminine side, finds a very pronounced and passionate femininity taking hold of him... from within. A local Glasgow audience can be heard, in the recording, 'getting' this sardonically funny subtext with laser-guided efficiency. 

I only had 10 minutes plus to work with, but I like to think I've packed a lot into this 'monodrama': all my work, let's face it, either rips off Euripides' Medea or The Bacchae, and this manages a little bit of both, within the tightest of constraints. So do listen - before it vanishes back into the BBC vaults!  

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