Friday 31 March 2017

March Competition

To win a copy of Georgia Hunter's novel We Were the Lucky Ones, answer the following question in the Comments section below. Then copy your answer to so that I can contact you for your land address.

"Halina is the most rebellious of the five Kurc siblings and follows only one set of rules: her own.  Can you think of another woman in history with similar character traits?”

Closing date 7th April

We are sorry that our competitions are open only to UK Followers.

Good luck!

Thursday 30 March 2017

Cabinet of Curiosities by Charlotte Wightwick - Murano Glass

This January, I went to Venice for the first time. I have had a fascination with the city since I was a very young child and family friends returned with a Murano glass paperweight for my parents and a small replica Venetian mask for me.

I loved my mask the way that only a small girl can: it seemed to me to be the very epitome of elegance and I could only think that the place it came from must be similarly beautiful. But I found myself fascinated by my parents’ paperweight too, its smooth roundness pleasing in the hand, and the intricate flowers inside a mystery I could not fathom (how had they got there?)

Through school, university and years of novel-writing-research, my love of the Italian Renaissance grew, and with it a desire to see Italy for myself, yet in recent years I have prioritised visits to other cities: Florence, Rome, Milan.

Eventually, I had to take the plunge: would I love Venice as much as I had dreamed as a child?

The answer, you may be glad to know, is yes: like thousands before me, I fell immediately and entirely in love with La Serenissima. The sense of wonder John Julius Norwich describes in the introduction to his History of Venice was very much with me as I explored the city from the canals and bridges, or wandered its tiny, winding streets.
The Grand Canal, Venice 2017
In Venice, more than anywhere else, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. However majestic the churches, however magnificent the palazzi, however dazzling the pictures, the ultimate masterpiece remains Venice itself.
Murano, Janury 2017

Which brings me to this month’s item in the Cabinet of Curiosities. Sadly, the Venetian mask of my childhood is long gone, lost to who-knows-what Marie Kondo-style cull, and I suspect my parents wouldn’t be too keen on my stealing their paperweight. So, I just had to buy my very own piece of Murano glass. This proved surprisingly difficult.

Murano, one of the islands in the Venetian lagoon, has been a world-renowned centre of glass-making for centuries. All of Venice’s glass-blowers were relocated there in the thirteenth century, initially as a protection for the rest of the city against fire, an occupational hazard when dealing with molten sand. When the Murano craftsmen discovered the secret of making first clear glass, and later some of the best quality mirrors available in Europe, this segregation allowed the notoriously controlling Venetian government to maintain a monopoly on both the items and the men, punishing runaway glass-makers severely.

Today, Murano glass remains world-famous, although much of the glass available to tourists is reportedly imported cheaply from China. This, however, was not my biggest problem when it came to buying my very own piece of Venetian history.
Murano glassware, photo credit Daniel Ventura

Nor was the problem merely one of price (although I did have to put down the 700-euro wine-glass I was happily waving at my friend and revise my plan of buying six of them…) It was more fundamental than that. Like Jan Morris, I think

that almost everything they make is, at least to my taste, perfectly hideous…

Eventually, I found what I was looking for: a necklace (within my price range!) that would be a memory of a beautiful city, a personal symbol to me of my own past and of my love of history, and a thing of beauty in its own right.

My necklace! I think its pretty....

  • Jan Morris, Venice, Faber & Faber (1960, revised 1993)
  • John Julius Norwich, A History of Venice (1977, reissued 2003)
  • Il Museo del Vetro (Glass Museum, Murano)

Photo credits:
  • Charlotte Wightwick unless otherwise stated

Wednesday 29 March 2017

March Guest Post - Georgia Hunter, We Were the Lucky Ones

Georgia Hunter, photo credit: Andrea Carson
When Georgia Hunter was fifteen years old, she learned that she came from a family of Holocaust survivors. Here she speaks to Charlotte Wightwick about her quest to uncover her family’s staggering history and how she turned this into her debut novel We Were the Lucky Ones.

Tell us a bit about We Were the Lucky Ones
My novel tracks my grandfather, his parents, and his siblings—a family of Polish Jews—as they scatter at the start of the Second World War, doing everything in their power to survive and to reunite.

The characters in the novel are based on your own family, but you didn’t know about this part of your family history until you were a teenager. Can you tell us about how it made you feel to discover what happened to them?

It was mind-blowing! Growing up, I knew my grandfather not as Addy Kurc, but as Eddy Courts, and I assumed he’d been born in the States. I learned that he came from a town called Radom, Poland, and about his Holocaust-era past a year after he died, when a high school English teacher assigned our class a project in looking back at our ancestral roots. I sat down with my grandmother, Caroline, and it was in that interview that I discovered I was a quarter Jewish, and that I came from a family of Holocaust survivors. It was a shocking revelation, of course—one that sparked an endless array of questions, the first of which was why was I just learning this now?

How did you go about researching everything that happened to them?

I began researching We Were the Lucky Ones nine years ago, when I flew to Paris to interview two relatives—Felicia, who was a year old at the start of the war, and Anna, who’s mother Halina is also a main character in my story. From there I travelled to Brazil and across the States, meeting with cousins and friends—anyone with a story to share…Where there were gaps in my timeline, I looked to outside resources—to archives, museums, ministries, and magistrates around the world, in hopes of tracking down relevant information. Over time, I collected details from organisations near and far, including a nine-page statement that had been hand-written by my grandfather’s older brother, extensive military records for others, and (in perhaps my most treasured find) the first-hand accounts of three relatives who had since passed, captured on video by the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive.

Given the amount of research you did, and the accuracy with which you sought to portray your family, why did you choose a novel rather than writing a biography?
My goal, first and foremost, was to write a book that did my family’s story justice. It was important to me to tell it as truthfully as possibly. It was also important to me, however, that the story read less like a history lesson, and more like a novel: visceral and immersive. I wanted readers to understand, through the eyes of the Kurcs, what it meant to be Jewish and on the run during the Second World War… I wanted my ancestors to come across as human. And so, I allowed myself the creative license to dive deep into my settings and my characters’ psyches… In taking this route, it’s my hope that I was able, in the end, to bring the story even closer to the truth.

We Were the Lucky Ones is an amazing story of survival amongst unimaginable horror. Was there anything that you found out in the course of your research that you just couldn’t believe?

One of the first statistics I came across in my research that I found particularly shocking was that fewer than 300 of the 30,000 Jews from my family’s hometown of Radom, Poland, lived to see the end of the war. Knowing that the Kurcs made up a significant percentage of that 300 was an impossible truth to digest at first—we were, it seemed, a statistical anomaly.

It was also hard for me at times to wrap my head around the means by which my relatives were able to skirt death, over and over again.

One of the things that struck me in the novel was how quickly you portray things going from a normal, comfortable middle-class life to the ghetto, or to living outside the law. How do you think it was possible for things to change so quickly?

I, too, was struck by how quickly things changed for the Kurcs…I chose to open the book in the spring of 1939 for this exact reason—so I could depict what life was like before their worlds, like the worlds of so many other European Jews, were turned upside-down.

It’s hard to say how it was possible for things to change so quickly and drastically—I think that’s part of what makes the Holocaust so horrifying. I had to keep reminding myself as I wrote that, at the time, no one could foresee the atrocities that would unfold over the course of the war; that the Kurcs didn’t have the perspective we have now; that they were simply trying to survive from day to day, with no real concept of what was to come.

The other part of the book which I found fascinating, perhaps because I know relatively little about it, was what happened to the family after the war - their and so many others’ journeys to try and start better, safer lives. Can you say a bit about this?

It’s true that you don’t hear as many stories of how families and individuals, most of whom were left with nothing, were forced to start over after the war. I was somewhat surprised in my research to learn that my family’s narrative didn’t end on VE Day. The war was over, Allied victory had been declared, but the family remained scattered, with several relatives unaccounted for. Anti-Semitism was still rampant. Their lives were still at risk. They were homeless. And even when the Kurcs did finally find a safe haven in the States and in Brazil, life was far from easy… It would be years before they were able to put down roots. I talk about some of this in the “Since Then” section at the very end of the book.

Is there anything about the story that you don’t know, and which you wish you did?

I wish I could have asked my grandfather why he didn’t share this piece of his history with me when I was a kid. I don’t fault him for not telling me—I understand wanting to put this chapter of his past behind him—but I often wonder what reason, exactly, he’d offer. Would he tell me the period was too traumatic for him to relive? That he was trying to protect me? That he’d seen what being Polish and Jewish could have (should have, if left to the odds) done for his family and he didn’t want to subject his family to a similar risk? Or that he was far more consumed with looking ahead and ensuring a successful life for himself and his family than with rehashing the past? I’ll never know for sure, but I imagine his answer would have been some combination of all of the above.

We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter is published by Allison & Busby at £12.99; you can find out more at

Tuesday 28 March 2017

What a Difference A Day Makes by Julie Summers

Tomorrow, Wednesday 29 March 2017, is the most significant day in the life of the United Kingdom this century and possibly even of the last forty years. Some go as far as to say it is the most momentous decision taken by this country since the end of the Second World War. Whatever side you are on in the question about whether it is a good or bad thing that Britain is going to leave the European Union, it cannot be denied that invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is a noteworthy event. The Britain of today will look different in two, five, twenty years time. The anxiety must be what that Britain will look like and how will the changes affect all our futures.

The idyllic Suffolk village of Long Melford, a corner of Old England
As a historian I find momentous and noteworthy events both alarming and exciting. As such I turned back to history to give me some lead on the whole development of the idea of a united Europe and examine what its forefathers had in mind in the immediate aftermath of 1939-45 for the future of a war torn continent. There are many significant players who had a finger in the early version of the European pie but one of the most fascinating from my perspective was a man who had spent the pinnacle of his career training volunteers to enter Nazi occupied Europe and cause mayhem, murder and sabotage. His name was Sir Colin McVean Gubbins. His name may not be familiar to British or American readers but in France, Belgium, Poland, Czech Republic, Norway and the Netherlands he is recognized as a great hero. 

Sir Colin McVean Gubbins KCMG
Born in Tokyo in 1896 he was sent, aged seven, to live with his maternal grandparents on the Isle of Mull. He did not see his father or mother for five years but he described his childhood as blissfully happy. After school he attended the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich and in the summer of 1914 he was in Heidelberg learning German. In August had to make a frantic dash back to Britain to avoid arrest. He succeeded by disguising himself as a child and later wrote: ‘My escape from being imprisoned in Germany was entirely due to the kindness of the Englishman, a complete stranger, who lent me £1 on Cologne platform.’ Gubbins was at Ypres for the first and second battles, then on the Somme where he won his Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry. He was shot in the neck on the Somme in October and was in hospital for eleven days; he was gassed in 1917 and suffered from trench fever in April 1918 but was fit enough to join General Ironside, later commander-in-chief of the Home Forces, as ADC on the autumn mission to Archangel in Russia to prepare a winter campaign. After the war, then aged twenty-three, Gubbins was sent to Ireland where he was given a three day course in guerrilla warfare and observed the methods used by the nationalists at first-hand. In 1923 he learned Russian and then went to India to learn Urdu.

Promoted to major in February 1934, he was posted to the War Office and appointed GS02 in a new section of MTI (Military Training Instruction), which was the policy making arm of the Military Training Directorate. In this role he was sent in 1938 to Czechoslovakia to oversee the withdrawal of Czech forces from the Sudetenland. It was something that he found exceptionally repugnant and it remained a matter of lasting shame to him for the rest of his life. It also gave him a first-hand view of the brutal force of Nazi expansion.

In the summer of 1940, after the fall of France, the invasion of Britain seemed imminent. Gubbins was put in charge of training stay-behind parties of men who would work locally to sabotage Germans stores, blow up bridges and generally slow down their advance parties. When the threat of invasion lessened he was transferred to a new section called Special Operations Executive, known by its nickname Baker Street which was the London HQ. Its aim was to train foreign fighters who would be sent back to their own countries to carry out secret missions.

Arisaig House, HQ of  SOE Special Training Schools
He moved to the Highlands to set up Special Training Schools where agents from occupied countries could be trained in the brutal arts of guerrilla or, as Churchill called it, ungentlemanly warfare. Men and women were turned into silent killers, explosives experts, radio operators and sabotage agents who were parachuted into France, Belgium, Poland, the Czech Republic, Norway and so on to carry out their secret and often deadly work. Gubbins worked with SOE for the whole war and clocked up some notable successes in Norway, France and, most spectacularly, in the Czech Republic when two agents trained in the Highlands carried out the successful assassination of Acting Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich in May 1942. The reprisals for the murder of Germans was hideous but the heads of the various governments-in-exile in London thought the boost to a country’s morale and the confirmation that they had not been forgotten was a price worth paying.

Jozef Gabcik (left) and Jan Kubis who were responsible
for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in May 1942

At the end of the war Gubbins’ department was shut down. His biographer wrote of him:
Britain was spared the shame and misery of enemy occupation; without this experience it is difficult to appreciate the part played by clandestine resistance both in restoring national self-respect and in permitting courageous individuals to escape from the ignominy of their situation. . . It was as a resistance leader that he came to fashion Special Operations Executive, and to write his own page in the history of almost every country occupied by the enemy in the Second World War.
So respected was he in the countries that had been occupied by the Nazis that the government had to waive the rule that an officer could receive only four foreign honours for services in the war. Eventually he received more fourteen awards including the highest from Norway, Denmark, Greece, France, Poland, Belgium and the United States of America. Gubbins received a knighthood in 1946 and began the second half of his life’s work, which was to promote European Unity. Despite the fact he had spent five years trying to devise every possible lethal means of undermining the Germans, he realized that the only way of securing a lasting peace in Europe was to work together.

In 1946 an old Polish friend, Josef Retinger, asked him to help set up the Independent League for Economic Cooperation in Brussels. This was merged with various others in 1947 to become the International Committee of the Movement for European Unity with Churchill’s son-in-law, Duncan Sandys as chairman. In 1954 he was asked to represent Britain as a founder member of the Bilderberg Group, an organisation set up to promote a strengthening of US-European relations and preventing another world war. When asked what he considered to be his greatest achievement he said the role he had been most honoured to play was in helping to prevent a further war.

Gubbins died in 1976 at the age of eighty, by which time Britain had been a full member of the European Union for three years. I wonder what he would think of the step his country is about to take on 29 March 2017.

Gubbins' story will be told in full in my next book Behind Closed Doors. It will be published in spring 2018.

Monday 27 March 2017

Pamela Gibson of Bletchley Park by Janie Hampton

Pamela Gibson is the oldest surviving person to have worked at Bletchley Park decoding centre during the Second World war. ‘But Bletchley was not my whole life,’ she says in her strong, velvety voice. ‘I’ve had other careers too.’ She also holds the world record for the longest ‘rest’ between jobs as an actor, proving that it’s quite possible to restart a career after 60 years.
Pamela was born in her grandmother’s drawing room in Knightsbridge in 1917, during a zeppelin raid. ‘I was almost called Zeppelina,’ she told me. Her favourite subjects at boarding school were elocution and horse-riding. ‘When the hunt came past, we all dropped our books and followed.’ Her father had been an opera singer and when she left school he sent her to Paris. There she was taught French by Yvette Guilbert, the Moulin Rouge singer portrayed by Toulouse Lautrec. After a few months improving her German in Munich, she attended the Webber Douglas Drama School. One of her first professional parts was opposite Cyril Cusack in The Playboy of the Western World. Then she went into rep; and when war broke out, into ENSA.
‘In 1941 an interfering godmother told me I was wasted on the stage and there was interesting work to be done if I applied to the Admiralty.’ Pamela was interviewed, and offered a secret job. ‘I was torn because my brother Patrick had just been captured in Libya, and was missing, so I wanted to be useful. But on the other hand, I had just been offered my first part in the West End, which was rather thrilling. I asked the man at the Admiralty who’d interviewed me, what he thought. “The stage can wait, but the war can’t,” said the man.’ So she accepted.
‘I thought it would be exciting and I’d be dropped into France as a spy. But I was sent to this big cold house called Bletchley. I suppose I was recruited because of my well to-do background. They thought that if they took in girls from families they knew something about, they were less likely to be German spies. I was very disappointed when I learned that my job was copying words onto index cards. The codes came in broken up and then we had to cross-reference them. There was a separate card for each battle ship, another for the port it was leaving, another for where it was arriving. Some days it was incredibly exciting but mostly it was quite dull, with messages about onions or something.’ Having lived on her own since she left school six years earlier, Pamela refused to live in a stuffy billet or share a room, so she rented a caravan in a field.
Bletchley Park Mansion, Buckinghamshire
By 1944 three quarters of the 9,000 workers at Bletchley Park were women. They were paid half what the men were, and only given temporary contracts. Pamela must have been outstanding as she was one of the few women who was promoted. As Head of the Index, she was in charge of 50 women in Naval Intelligence. ‘I was only promoted because I couldn’t type and at 24 I was quite old,’ she says modestly. ‘Although I was pretty fluent in German and French.’
Naval Intelligence hut, Bletchley Park.  Photo  by Toby Oxborrow.  
The tedium of long shifts was balanced with amateur dramatics, much improved by professional actors such as Pamela, and scripts written by Oxbridge graduates, such as the charming and gifted Wing Commander Jim Rose. ‘The best thing about Bletchley, was meeting Jim.’ At 32, Rose was considered too old to fly, so was put in charge of Air Intelligence at Bletchley Park. He had to decide which de-coded messages to hold back from the Air Force in case their actions then revealed to the Germans that Britain had broken the codes. On their first date, Jim took Pamela to dine at the Savoy. ‘It was very difficult to get a table, so he posed as an Irish peer whom he knew was not in London. Later we discovered that one of his friends had done the same thing, at the same place.’
They were married in 1946, a perfect match: both were cultured, generous and keen to make the post-war world a better place. They moved into a bomb-damaged square in Kensington, a few doors down from my family. When I was born, my parents asked Pamela to be my godmother. She was an unusually thoughtful one: my christening present included not only a silver mug (battered but still loved) but also a Swiss nanny for six months. Apparently Sister Klarli looked after not just me, but also my parents and my three older siblings; and was there for the arrival of my younger sister. Instead of toys for birthdays, Pamela paid for my piano lessons – a present that goes on giving. After the Roses children, Alan and Harriet, arrived, they moved to Zurich where Jim Rose was founder-director of the International Press Institute, an important global force for the freedom of the press.
For ten years after their return to London, Pamela was the school counsellor of North Paddington Comprehensive, caring for pupils who had recently arrived from the Caribbean. When she was 60 she had to retire, but didn’t give up. ‘I had to do something, so I became the vice-chair of the NSPCC,’ she said as if it was as simple as buying the weekly fish. After Jim died in 1999, Pamela, then aged 84, went back to her first career and renewed her membership of Equity, the actor's union. A few acting lessons later, she was cast as Lady Jedburgh in Lady Windermere’s Fan, directed by Peter Hall at the Haymarket Theatre. She also understudied for Googie Withers, then just 83. After only three nights, Googie Withers fell ill and Pamela was called upon to play The Duchess of Berwick. With several more parts over the next five years, she has maintained her position as the actor with the longest period of ‘resting’ between jobs. ‘It was wonderful to get back on the stage after 60 years. Acting helped me get over losing Jim. The fear of going on stage is the best defence against grief.’
Churchill described Bletchley Park as ‘the goose that laid the golden egg but never cackled’. Everyone there had signed the Official Secrets Act and until recently Pamela never spoke of her war-time career. Not even that she had known the computer scientist Alan Turing, though she insists not well. ‘He was polite and intelligent, but he really preferred the company of men.’ Even when the film Enigma about Bletchley Park was released in 2001, she only commented to a few friends, ‘We never wore hats like that.’ When The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, came out in 2014 she changed her mind. ‘I realised that everyone else was talking about it, so why shouldn’t I?’ she told me. Suddenly she was in the limelight with appearances in books and on television, and even Desert Island Discs. ‘But we don’t need to be glorified. We were all well protected and properly fed.’
The cast of The Marraige of Figaro,  Bletchley, 1943
Pamela will be 100 years young in November and remains as beautiful and chic as ever. She still entertains friends and grandchildren in the elegant Georgian house in Kensington that has changed little since she moved there 71 years ago. ‘I’ve had a lucky life,’ she says. Nonsense, I’d say it wasn’t luck, but resilience, determination and chutzpah.

Sunday 26 March 2017

South of France Magic and Make-Believe, by Carol Drinkwater

Quite by chance, while internet browsing, I came across an article in Variety magazine – almost a film industry bible – announcing a new film studio complex converted from warehouses to be opened on the outskirts of Marseille. This is exciting news.
France’s Mediterranean coastline from Marseille all the way to Monaco and onwards to Menton and the borders of Italy has always been popular as a backdrop to cinema.
Cannes to Monte Carlo, for example, was glitteringly captured in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief.
Much of the glamour of the French Riviera has been built on its twentieth-century film history including, of course, its renowned Cannes Film Festival which I wrote about for the HistoryGirls here:

I mentioned in my January blog that several chapters of my new novel, THE LOST GIRL, are set in Nice, post WWII, including at the iconic La Victorine Studios.

Most people when they think of filmmaking hubs tend to cite Hollywood or Bollywood or perhaps some of the old British studies such as Elstree. France is known for its thriving film industry, one that is very well supported by the State, but I think on the whole the average filmgoer would consider Paris as France's cinema centre. There are indeed several studios in and around Paris that have been producing films for well over a century now (late 1890s), but there is also the South of France. It was, and still is to a lesser degree, the Hollywood of France mainly due to its fabulous locations, but not solely for that reason.

                                                                Marcel Pagnol 1931

Marcel Pagnol, the Provençal novelist, playwright and filmmaker became, in 1946, the first cineaste to be elected to the Académie Française. Although he died in 1974 he remains internationally known  for his marvellously evocative novels such as Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. All set in and around the countryside of his birthplace, Aubagne near Marseille.  However, Pagnol's legacy goes a great deal further than his literature. Marius, an early play of Pagnol's, was directed for the cinema in 1931 by Alexander Korda and became one of the earliest French-language talking films to find success outside France. On the strength of this, Pagnol founded his own film studios on the outskirts of Marseille. He played all roles in the business of filmmaking from director to editor, financier, screenwriter and script coach. He was fluent in English and his native Provençal tongue as well as French. His studios produced some masterpieces. He worked with many great actors and regularly employed local talent so that the sing-song Provençal accent and the local traditions of life were also celebrated and gained an international reputation.

Here below, for your amusement, is a link to The Baker's Wife directed and adapted by Pagnol from the novel, Blue Boy, written by another masterly Provençal voice, Jean Giono. In 1940, this film won the New York Critic's Circle prize for Best Foreign Film. (Pagnol had won this same award in 1939 for Harvest and triumphed again in 1950 for Jofroi).

Harvest (in French, Regain) was also based on a Jean Giono novel, Second Harvest
It stars one of France's greatest screen comedians, Fernandel, who came up through vaudeville. He was also a Provençal, born in Marseille.

Further along the coast in Nice lies the Victorine Studios. The history of this studio goes back to when its doors were first opened in 1919, before Pagnol's studios in Marseille were founded and close to three decades before the early sections of my novel, The Lost Girl, are set.

                                                                     Anouk Aimée

The Victorine Studios, today operating as the Riviera Studios, has been the home of film production since before the earliest days of Hollywood. Nice was a cinema hub from 1910 onwards. In 1913 the French film pioneer Léon Gaumont founded the original Victorine studios in a white villa that stood in its own ten acres of grounds. Like so many of the great artists of the day who were living and working there at this time, Gaumont was drawn to this coast for its abundance of natural, soft light. Unfortunately, he never followed through on his original plans.
In 1919, Serge Sandberg with his business partner Louis Nalpas set up the Ciné Studio at the Victorine. Both were film producers. Louis Nalpas (1884 - 1948) was born in the Greek community of Smyrna, modern-day Turkey. Nalpas had arrived in Paris 1909. He soon made his mark when as early as 1912 he produced La Dames aux Camélias with Sarah Bernhardt. Russian-born Serge Sandberg  (1879 -1981)  was the financial investor for the venture. Their intention was to create not only Le Hollywood Français on the Victorine site, but to establish a film centre on the Riviera which would return French filmmaking to its pre- first world war glory.  They invested aplenty, building four studios, workshops, an open-air theatre ... Unfortunately, their partnership grew strained when they ran out of money, even before they had produced one single picture.

In 1924 the charismatic Irishman, Rex Ingram, lauded by Eric von Stroheim as the world's greatest movie director, leased the Victorine. With funds from Louis B. Mayer's MGM in Hollywood and with the blessing of Marcus Loew, Ingram renovated the site, creating one of the most state-of-the-art studios of its time.
He was married to the American actress Alice Terry who starred in many of his films.

The shooting of his extraordinary film Mare Nostrum (1926) with Alice in the leading role as the spy Freya took fifteen months and went way over budget.  Louis B. Mayer was not happy and was refusing to finance any further European escapades. Nonetheless, with the same team around him Rex Ingram went on to make The Magician adapted from Somerset Maugham's original novel.  He continued with two or three more silent pictures at the Victorine but his key team players, his cinematographer and editor, had left and by 1928 he had split with MGM.
With or without Ingram's brilliance at the helm, by the mid twenties the Victorine was the dominant Riviera studio. Throughout the twenties many silent films were shot there and from 1930 onwards, the lots were busy producing "talkies".
In the 1930s Fernandel performed in a series of comedies made there. 

                                          Rex Ingram with his wife, American actress Alice Terry.

There is a enchanting story about the shooting of Les Enfants du Paradis filmed at the Victorine during WWII (1943) with a very restricted budget. Many local residents were hired as extras. It is claimed that before the camera crew could shoot the food prepared for the film, the locals stole and ate the lot.

After WWII, the Victorine was the only studio still surviving in Nice yet filmmakers were flocking to the south to make their pictures. Jean Cocteau was attempting to raise funds to get another studio built in Mougins but this, alas, never materialised. Still, this period, between 1946 up to the 70s became the golden age of Riviera cinema. Many masterpieces came out of this time. I almost had the good fortune to work there myself with François Truffaut. I met him for the main role in La Nuit Americaine, Day for Night. Unfortunately, he judged my French imperfect (rightly so back then) and the role was awarded to the very lovely Jacqueline Bisset.

Truffaut and Bisset

Graham Greene who lived in nearby Antibes and was apparently a huge admirer of Truffaut makes a cameo appearance as an insurance company representative. In the credits he is billed as Henry Graham. Truffaut only discovered later the true identity of the small part actor.

Jacqueline Bisset

For many movie-makers, Nice and the Côte d'Azur promised not only year-long sunshine but spectacular vistas of sea and mountains. There were pretty ochre-toned villages with cobbled streets, palm trees, grand belle époque hotels and villas ... Everyone wanted to work there. Life was sweet along the coast; the war was a memory and the rich were anchoring their yachts. A community of filmmakers, technicians, hungry actors was burgeoning. The Americans were flying in and out, staying for long periods at the Hotels Negresco, Ruhl in Nice; the Carlton in Cannes.

In my new novel The Lost Girl, one of the two principal female characters is Marguerite. During the post-war sections of the book, she is an eighteen-year-old girl from Reims - a baker's daughter - who fantasises about becoming a star, an actress on the silver screen. She has run away from home to Paris, begs a ride on the famous blue train from the capital to the south in the hope of winning the leading role in a film that is to be shot at the Victorine Studios. Of course, the journey to stardom is pitted with many falls and real life does not run as smoothly for Marguerite as in her daydreams. Magic and make-believe can come at a cost ...

The Lost Girl will be published by Penguin on 29th June. Here is a link to pre-order if you would like to.

Saturday 25 March 2017

Edward Lear by Miranda Miller

   I’ve been reading Edward Lear’s wonderful nonsense poems to my little grandsons and have just noticed that there is a plaque to him near where I live. The site is now a seedy mews off the Holloway Road in north London but when he was born in 1812, the youngest to survive of twenty-one children, it was a middle class family house in the village on Holloway, near Highgate.

   When Lear was four his father, Jeremiah Lear, a stockbroker, was imprisoned in the King’s Bench for debt. The family was scattered and Edward's eldest sister, Ann, who was twenty years older than him, looked after him. They lived together until she died, when Edward was almost fifty. Lear was a delicate child and an epileptic, at a time when the illness was considered shameful. He referred to it as “the Demon” and throughout his life he also suffered from acute bouts of depression. He had very little formal education and later wrote, “I am always thanking God that I was never educated;” in spite of this he taught himself six languages and became an accomplished composer as well as a poet and artist. He played the accordion, flute, guitar and  piano.

   As he and his sister had no money he had to earn his own living from an early age: “ I began to draw for bread and cheese about 1827, but only did uncommon queer shop-sketches – selling them for prices varying from ninepence to four shillings.” Audubon’s great work, The Birds of North America, was first published in the 1820s and started a fashion for big, lavishly illustrated books about exotic birds and plants. In his late teens Lear visited the Zoological Gardens to study parrots:

"...for the last 12 months I have so moved – thought – looked at, – & existed among Parrots – that should any transmigration take place at my decease I am sure my soul would be very uncomfortable in anything but one of the Psittacidae.”

  The Psittacidae (1832) established Lear as a celebrated illustrator. In 1846 the young Queen Victoria invited him to Osborne to teach her drawing.

   In 1846 Lear published A Book of Nonsense, a very successful volume of limericks, and in 1867 his most famous poem, The Owl and the Pussycat, which he wrote for the children of his patron Edward Stanley, 13th Earl of Derby.

   Although Lear's nonsense books were popular during his lifetime a rumour circulated that "Edward Lear" was a pseudonym, and that the books' true author was the man to whom Lear had dedicated the works, his patron the Earl of Derby. Supporters of this rumour offered as evidence the facts that both men were named Edward, and that "Lear" is an anagram of "Earl". Perhaps this is yet another example of British snobbery, like the insistence of many scholars thatShakespeare couldn’t have written his own plays because he didn’t have enough education.

   Lear's delightful inventions, such as The Quangle Wangle and The Pobble Who Has No Toes, were brilliant jokes that came out of his profound knowledge of natural history. He adored children, although he never had any, and travelled all over Europe. He had many friends:

How pleasant to know Mr.Lear!

Who has written such volumes of stuff!

Some think him ill-tempered and queer,

But a few think him pleasant enough.

His mind is concrete and fastidious,

His nose is remarkably big;

His visage is more or less hideous,

His beard it resembles a wig.

   Lear was constantly worried about money and his letters are full of this. In 1863 he begged an aristocratic friend to “ write to Lord Palmerston to ask him to ask the Queen to ask the King of Greece” to create a job for him as “Lord High Bosh and Nonsense Producer...with permission to wear a fool’s cap(or mitre)....three pounds of butter yearly and a little pig, - and a small donkey to ride on.” He fantasized about selling his illustrations to Tennyson’s poems for £18,000 and buying a “chocolate coloured carriage speckled with gold, driven by a coachman in green vestments and silver spectacles wherein sitting on a lofty cushion composed of muffins and volumes of the Apocrypha.”

Lear fell unrequitedly in love with several men and proposed marriage (unsuccessfully) to a woman 46 years younger than him. He died in 1888 - just a few months after his famous cat, Old Foss - in San Remo on the Italian Riviera, where he had lived for eighteen years with his Albanian servant. I hope his solitary life gave him pleasure and that he sometimes, like the Owl and the Pussycat, found someone to dance with:

'Dear pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling

Your ring?' Said the Piggy, 'I will.'

So they took it away, and were married next day

By the Turkey who lives on the hill.

They dined on mince, and slices of quince,

Which they ate with a runcible spoon;

And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,

They danced by the light of the moon,

The moon,

The moon,

They danced by the light of the moon.