Continuing the series of exclusive interviews for Angela Carter Online, comes the full transcript of a recent Q&A with Professor John Ellis, who was the producer on Angela Carter’s controversial documentary The Holy Family Album (1991). The Q&A took place at the Royal West of England Academy (RWA) in Bristol on the 11th January and after a screening of the film. As well as answering questions from the audience, Professor Ellis was in dialogue with Dr Charlotte Crofts and Dr Marie Mulvey-Roberts, both from the University of the West of England, Bristol. This event forms part of the celebration of Angela Carter taking place in Bristol at the moment, the centre of which is the RWA exhibition Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter.
Laying bare Angela Carter’s taste for the blasphemous and shocking, and perhaps further evidence of her love of winding people up (see Edmund Gordon’s comments on this), The Holy Family Album is a sacrilegious take on the history of Christian painting and iconography. Carter re-imagines this tradition as a series of photographs in God’s family album, voyeuristically displaying every moment of family life and simultaneously hiding a few dark secrets. God himself, however, is absent from the photographs, for He is the photographer behind the images, “calling the shots” as Carter puts it in her voice-over narration.
The documentary was written and narrated by Carter, directed by JoAnn Kaplan, and produced by John Ellis of Large Door Productions for Channel 4. As John remarks below in the Q&A, the film was wisely (or not) scheduled for broadcast in December of 1991, and it caused quite a stir. A scathing article appeared in The Times before it was transmitted, Channel 4 received many letters of complaint, and the show was featured on their review programme Right to Reply. Sadly, the show has never been retransmitted and the script never published (it is notably absent from the collected dramatic works). Because of its absence, there has been little scholarly work and discussion of this late work by Carter. However, Charlotte Crofts devotes an entire chapter to it in her brilliant book Anagrams of Desire: Angela Carter’s Writing for Radio, Film and Television. Lastly, this film was one of the points of inspiration for curator Marie Mulvey-Roberts for the Strange Worlds Exhibition. Three of the paintings featured in the documentary can be viewed at the exhibition: Arnulf Rainer’s Wine Crucifix (1957-78), William Holman Hunt’s The Shadow of Death (1870-73) and Stanley Spencer’s The Marriage at Cana (1953). For more information on this, head over to Get Angela Carter.
Before reading the Q&A, you may wish to watch The Holy Family Album, which Professor Ellis has made available to watch on Vimeo. (He has also made the script available too.) However, this comes with a trigger warning, as some viewers may find this material offensive.
Q&A with Professor John Ellis, Dr Charlotte Crofts and Dr Marie Mulvey-Roberts
RWA, Bristol, 11th January 2017
Charlotte Crofts: Does anyone want to begin by expressing their thoughts and feelings after seeing the film?
Audience member: Just how wonderful it was!
John Ellis: Thank you.
Audience member: What was your, and Angela’s, intention in making this film?
JE: Well, I can speak for myself only, in that I just thought it was a wonderful idea and it was in keeping with the work that Angela did on fairy tales, turning upside down what is, after all, the most amazing story and central fairy tale in our culture. To start examining what its dark side is. What is the implication, if you begin to say where do these pictures come from? The intention was to examine religious art from a new perspective and to examine religious belief from a new perspective, from a doubting if not atheistic perspective. Angela’s intentions, so far as I know, was to create a lot of mischief [audience laughter], to express an atheistic point of view, which she does very clearly. It’s an idea that she had for a while. I had produced a series for Channel 4 called ‘Opening Up the Family Album’ with feminist photographer, Jo Spence, about five years before this film and we’d asked Angela if she had anything to contribute to it and she “well, I think you should look at religious art like this”. But that didn’t fit in to the conception that Jo had at all. Then, a few years later when this adventurous portmanteau arts programme on Channel 4 called Without Walls was developed by Waldemar Januszczak, I proposed the idea to him about Angela Carter in August 1990. Januszczak thought it a nice idea to have Angela Carter, hummed and hawed about the proposal for three or four months, as they do, then said that he would give me development money, which was very useful for the research. It was at that point that Angela said “I have lung cancer and I don’t think I’m going to live very long”. So I went back to Januszczak and told him that we better get on with making this programme.
“I just thought it was a wonderful idea and it was in keeping with the work that Angela did on fairy tales, turning upside down what is, after all, the most amazing story and central fairy tale in our culture” (John Ellis).
CC: I think Carter was quoted as saying something like atheism is a very rigorous system of disbelief that has to be practiced, slightly like a religion. [Audience laughter] That’s not an exact quote but she said something along those lines, and Carter was indeed an atheist. What I love about seeing this film again is how literally many aspects are taken. When you go to the Eucharist and you take communion, you understand that these are the body and blood of Christ. But to show these things, as this film does, as tomato ketchup and a lamb chop, and to represent the birth of Christ by showing a human birth on video is really striking. Although religious ideas are drilled into you through ritual, to actually see a baby being born on television is incredible. Births are rarely shown on television but when they are shown, they are almost always sanitised.
Marie Mulvey-Roberts: Angela Carter loved shocking people. But this film is also very poignant. As an atheist, she wouldn’t believe in an afterlife. However, watching the scene in the film that shows a beating heart during a surgical procedure was very moving for me as it made me think of the fact that a few months after the making of this film Carter’s own heart would stop beating. One of the things that John drew to my attention was the quality of Angela’s voice, for you can hear that it deteriorates throughout the film because she was suffering from lung cancer. There is an uneven quality that reveals the presence of the disease that was killing her. So I found that very, very moving.
“One of the things that John drew to my attention was the quality of Angela’s voice, for you can hear that it deteriorates throughout the film because she was suffering from lung cancer. There is an uneven quality that reveals the presence of the disease that was killing her. So I found that very, very moving” (Marie Mulvey-Roberts).
Audience member: Do you think Carter enjoyed riffing on that slightly kitsch style, almost like Peter Blake? Was that her deliberate choice?
CC: I think it’s closer to Monty Python…
Audience member: Monty Python, yes!
JE: It’s all there in Angela’s script. Getting the hearts [in the paintings of Jesus and Mary] to beat and so on involved somebody putting their hand in a lamb’s heart…
Audience member: There’s a very distinctive style used in the film…
JE: Basically, this film is as scripted. We kept as close as we could to Angela’s choice of images and the way that the story was told. Indeed, she started off saying she thought that there shouldn’t be a commentary, that the film would be self-explanatory, but we eventually persuaded her to do a commentary and she recorded some in April and some in June of 1991 after we had done the shoot.
MMR: Did Jo Ann Kaplan have anything to do with the beating hearts?
JE: Well, Jo Ann was the person who drove this forward. She was a filmmaker who died only a couple of years ago now and she had a background in art history. She got on fantastically well with Angela.
CC: I believe Kaplan was Jewish but she had a very kitsch sensibility and she loved religious iconography. So I think the combination of her and Angela was very productive.
Audience Member: It’s a bit like her writing, which also has that element in it, circus-like element…
JE: Well there’s a lot of the kind of high-end religious stuff. I mean in response to the programme we received an awful lot of letters. Those were the days when people wrote letters to broadcasters in response to what they saw on television. [Audience laughter] And actually I’ve still got many of the letters we received, and it’s interesting the kind of letters we received. There’s a lot of denunciation, there were some letters that said that we had finished the story too early and you didn’t include the resurrection – which is true, good point [laughs] – and then there were those which actually welcomed the programme from a Christian point of view, from a more evangelical kind of Christianity which profoundly distrusts idolatry, distrusts the narrativization and the making physical of the metaphysical in a way a lot of art does. So the programme received an interesting set of responses. But most of them were condemnatory.
“I mean in response to the programme we received an awful lot of letters. Those were the days when people wrote letters to broadcasters in response to what they saw on television” (John Ellis).
CC: I wonder if you could talk a bit about Right to Reply and the way that Without Walls became “With Walls”.
JE: When we finished the programme, Waldemar Januszczak, the commissioning editor, decided quite rightly that it needed to be passed through the pre-censorship procedures that then existed in television, the kind of referring up to see whether it was fit to be shown, up the editorial chain of command. And so he did that and Channel 4 said fine. But they didn’t do any publicity. He began to get cold feet before the programme was shown. In his “infinite wisdom” he scheduled it just before Christmas [Audience laughter] for maximum impact. In those days, the way you did publicity was to send out preview cassettes and that was something that Channel 4 could do but we, as independent producers for Channel 4, weren’t allowed to do. Whether I was right or not, I still don’t know, but I did have a conversation with the Sunday Times media correspondent and said there’s this programme next week on Wednesday which will be of interest and it’s by Angela Carter and it is quite a critical take on religious art – I didn’t say religious belief, but religious art. He made a story from this and got some shocked quotes from various clerics and it snowballed from there. The day before the programme’s transmission there was an editorial in The Times saying that this programme should not be shown – not that they had seen it either. [Audience laughter] So the programme was shown, around half a million people watched it and there were a lot of complaints. At that time, Channel 4 had a programme called Right to Reply on Saturday nights where angry viewers could take on people from the programme. Ill though she was, Angela was really keen to do this but Januszczak said that he would do it. Edmund Gordon, her biographer, says that Januszczak was rather mealy-mouthed in his arguments about the programme, which is true…
“In his ‘infinite wisdom’ [the commissioning editor] scheduled it just before Christmas” (John Ellis).
CC: I would love to have seen what she would have said…
JE: Well, I know what she said. She said “Fuck them! Fuck’em!”
CC: What was that helpful comment she offered?
JE: Waldemar asked for a comment from Angela and after one of those phone calls she came up with a comment which was: “This programme is not blasphemous. One cannot blaspheme against that which doesn’t exist!” [Audience laughter] Januszczak said this was profoundly unhelpful. [More laughter] I just thought it was straightforwardly accurate.
MMR: It got banned in Ireland I believe.
JE: Oh really?
MMR: I came across that and I just wondered if it was banned in any other country.
JE: Well nothing has ever been done with the programme in terms of distribution or sales.
CC: Well, I wanted to ask you about that. The collected dramatic writings didn’t include it, it’s never been published, but you’ve recently made a lot of your materials online.
JE: Well it’s one of those hard things, because the rights I got on the script were simply the rights for the use of the script in the programme and so the script itself belongs to Angela’s estate and they’ve never chosen to do anything with it. The programme and broadcast rights belong to Channel 4 and they’ve never used them since the first broadcast. I recently asked if I could have all the rights but didn’t get a reply.
MMR: I tried to have it on a loop in the exhibition but we couldn’t get the rights for it.
JE: I take Channel 4’s lack of response to me to mean: “do with it what you want”. Hence, I put it onto Vimeo so it’s available online. I’ve always been a bit reluctant to put the whole thing up there because of the offence it might cause…
CC: Vimeo is more anonymous than YouTube. Did you choose Vimeo for a particular reason?
JE: I put it on Vimeo because there you can put a kind of content warning. You can say “you might find this offensive”.
CC: Your other work is available on YouTube. Angela Carter contributed to several programmes that John produced for a series called Visions, which is an early film criticism series. There’s an amazing video-essay about The Draughtsman’s Contract, the Peter Greenaway film. I thought about this yesterday during Caleb Sivyer’s paper at the Fireworks conference as it’s all about the act of looking. And she was on Visions also for an episode about The Company of Wolves, the cinematic adaptation of her short story of the same name, which she and Neil Jordan adapted together.
MMR: Oh yes, can I point out to the audience that the actor who plays the conjurer in The Holy Family Album also plays the werewolf in The Company of Wolves – Micha Bergese. Someone was talking about Carter’s writing as having a circus-like quality. Well, he’s a mime artist and you’ve got all that carnival, circusy element coming through.
CC: I’ve been invited to introduce The Company of Wolves at the Bristol Film Festival.
MMR: I would have liked to have shown the BBC Omnibus documentary as well but I’ve been chasing permissions for that with the BBC and that’s been very tough. It’s a fantastic documentary entitled Angela Carter’s Curious Room so if we can get hold of it before the Strange Worlds exhibition finishes then we’ll publicise it on our website, getangelacarter.com, and through the RWA website.
JE: I sometimes think it’s just better to do these things and not seek permission. [Audience laughter]
Audience member: In the spirit of Angela Carter! [Audience laughter]
JE: It’s also because, you know, it’s a quarter of a century ago and the owners of these things haven’t done anything with them and you know they should be accused of neglect in the same way that people who let historical buildings fall down should be accused of neglect.
MMR: Yes, I agree.
“[The Holy Family Album is] a testament to Carter’s subversive power, which has slightly been sanitised by the way she’s been portrayed as “the white witch of English literature” after her death” (Charlotte Crofts).
CC: For me, it’s just such a pleasure to have this film screened in this context with this wonderful exhibition that Marie and Fiona have co-curated. It’s a testament to Carter’s subversive power, which has slightly been sanitised by the way she’s been portrayed as “the white witch of English literature” after her death. It’s mainly The Bloody Chamber and her rewritten fairy tales which are known more widely, but this shows a slightly darker, more subversive side but also an amazing sense of humour which I just think is really important to remember. You can see she had a twinkle in her eye when she was narrating.
MMR: Yes, absolutely. I’d also like to point out that Charlotte was a pioneer in writing about this other side to Angela Carter. Her book, Anagrams of Desire looks at Carter’s writing for radio, television and film, including The Holy Family Album. So, look out for Charlotte’s book, published by Manchester University Press. I should also add that we have been able to include three paintings from the film in the exhibition and it has been extraordinary to see the originals lined up alongside each other in the side gallery. These are Stanley Spencer’s Marriage at Cana which has a sexualised element which would have appealed to Angela Carter, Holman Hunt’s The Shadow of the Cross with the radiant young Jesus’s outstretched arms forming a shadow of the cross in the background and Arnulf Rainer’s The Wine Crucifix which in a more abstract way represents the shedding of blood during the crucifixion and the changing of wine into blood during the Catholic communion, which links back to the miracle at Cana when Christ turned water into wine.
Audience member: Could I ask a question about the music? I thought the selection was superb, cheeky, and naughty. How did you pull all those strands together for the film?
JE: Well, most of the music is Keith Tippett’s, prepared piano. He came one Saturday and basically performed it with only rough cues to guide him. It’s a quite extraordinary piece of work that in many ways makes the programme by holding everything together. The folk song, ‘It Takes a Worried Man’, was Angela’s choice, as you might expect given her background in folksong. As for the Pergolesi piece, ‘Stabat Mater’, I don’t remember who came up with that suggestion. It’s possible that that was simply based on the direction given in the script for that sort of music and that was the one we could find.
MMR: Those of you who have yet to visit the Strange Worlds exhibition upstairs might like to know that you can hear the only known recording of Angela Carter singing a folk ballad. That comes from Carter’s time spent living in Bristol in the 1960s, where she was very involved in the folk scene.
JE: I’d also like to note that the grotto in the film actually belongs to Corinna Sargood, a friend of Angela’s. Tippett lives somewhere not so far away.
MMR: Yes, Corinna is an illustrator and we have some of her work in the exhibition too. As John has said, the grotto in the film is from Corinna’s garden.
JE: And Corinna provided a lot of the religious ephemera, shall we say, that appears in the programme.
CC: Such as that piece of folk art with the doors that pop open?
JE: Well actually we bought that and I’ve still got it. It comes out every Christmas! [Audience laughter]
MMR: Yes, I can imagine that Corinna would like that because it does look so Mexican. She spent many years in Mexico and you can see some of her Mexican-inspired art in the exhibition as well.
CC: I would like to draw your attention to the amazing screen upstairs with a large zebra painted on it, and on the other side of the screen there’s a desert island scene with parrots and things like that. This desert island scene was presented at Angela Carter’s memorial, which took place in a cinema rather than a church. At the end of the service, the screen was turned around so that the audience could see the zebra. The story behind this is that Carter was invited to appear on the radio show Desert Island Discs. Although she had made her selection, she was too ill to travel to the studio. However, she had made her selection in preparation and indeed these songs were played at the memorial. Her choice of an object to take with her to the desert island was a zebra, hence Corinna’s painted screen. [Audience laughter] I just love the way that the ritual was formed around that, a service that was not religious in any way.
MMR: Yes, they played her selection of music at the service and people came and spoke. Corinna painted the screen and her husband built the screen itself. We were very fortunate to have been able to borrow this piece for the exhibition. And it is very timely, because this year marks the 25th anniversary of Carter’s death, which the exhibition and the Fireworks conference both mark. To have that screen was a really important part of this celebration of her life and work. We also have the invitation to Carter’s memorial service in a display case upstairs, also designed by Corinna and which fits in with this desert island theme. It was a very sad event but also full of joy and humour, which is what Carter would have wanted.
Audience member: Were there any particular documentaries that Carter was influenced by in making this programme? I wondered if something like John Berger’s Ways of Seeing was a possible inspiration for Carter?
CC: I did actually want to mention Berger, for Ways of Seeing also uses imagery to explain its main points, showing how images function, and indeed this is what The Holy Family Album does too…
MMR: And Berger died only a week or so ago…
Audience member: If this programme were to be shown on television today, what do you think the reaction might be? I also don’t think there is enough atheistic material presented on television.
“You can also imagine the Twitter storm if they were to show The Holy Family Album now” (Charlotte Crofts).
CC: Well, Channel 4’s remit, when it first came out, was to show alternative material, including alternative religious content. But then it did Big Brother and really changed its focus. I don’t think Channel 4 is an alternative broadcaster. You can also imagine the Twitter storm if they were to show The Holy Family Album now. If Twitter had existed in 1991, that would have been really interesting to observe.
Audience member: I think the reaction would be worse today than in 1991.
JE: I think it probably would be, yes.
CC: Let’s do it! [Audience laughter]
MMR: Not that you asked about this, but we’ve had a conference over the last two days that concentrated on the life and works of Angela Carter, and we had people from all over the world. I asked one Japanese delegate about how people in Japan might have reacted to The Holy Family Album and she said that the Japanese are actually very atheistic despite having strongly religious formal customs and rituals. Angela Carter herself spent two years or so living in Japan after she left Bristol and perhaps would have found some empathy with that culture, in that regard amongst others.
CC: I would like to thank you all for coming today to see this film and for your questions for John.
John Ellis is Professor of Media Arts at Royal Holloway University of London. John has had a rich and varied career, including being on the editorial board of Screen (1975-84), a film studies lecturer at the UK’s first Film Studies departments at the University of Kent, and a television producer for Large Door Productions, which produced a number of documentaries for Channel 4 until its closure in 1999. Large Door was set up in 1982 to produce Visions, a magazine series for the then iconoclastic Channel 4 (its remit was “to encourage innovation and experiment in the form and content of programmes to cater for interests that ITV did not to provide overall a distinctive service”). The first episode of Visions featured a brilliantly perceptive review of Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) by Angela Carter. John has produced a number of programmes and written publications. To read about these and to find out more about John’s research interests and activities, head over to his staff page at Royal Holloway University of London here.
Charlotte Crofts is Associate Professor of Filmmaking at the University of West of England, Bristol. Charlotte is a specialist in digital cinema and teaches Filmmaking, with an emphasis on professional practice and employability. She organises the Carry Grant Festival, Cary Comes Home, and is the designer of a number of innovative projects, such as the Curzon Memories App, Projection Hero, and the Pop-up Fleapit, which appeared most recently at Fireworks: The Visual Imagination of Angela Carter. Charlotte is author of Anagrams of Desire: Angela Carter’s Writing for Radio, Film and Television (Manchester University Press, 2003), ‘”Curiously Downbeat Hybrid” or “Radical Retelling”? – Neil Jordan’s and Angela Carter’s The Company of Wolves’ in Sisterhoods Across the Literature Media Divide (Pluto Press, 1998), and ‘The Other of The Other: Angela Carter’s “New-Fangled Orientalism”‘ in Rebecca Munford (ed.), Revisiting Angela Carter: Text / Contexts / Intertexts (Palgrave, 2006). You can read more about Charlotte on her profile page of the Get Angela Carter website.
Marie Mulvey-Roberts is Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of West of England, Bristol. Marie’s research interests range widely, from eighteenth-century literature to Gothic Romanticism, especially Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and from human rights issues to Angela Carter. Marie is the author of several books, including Dangerous Bodies: Historicising the Gothic Corporeal (Manchester University Press, 2016), and she is editor of The Handbook of the Gothic (Palgrave, 2009) and Literary Bristol: Writers and the City (Redcliffe, 2015). Marie is currently editing a book called The Arts of Angela Carter: A Cabinet of Curiosities for Manchester University Press. She is also the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the journal Women’s Writing. Lastly, Marie is the co-curator of Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter, the first art exhibition on the work of Angela Carter, at the Royal West Academy in Bristol which commemorates the twenty-fifth anniversary of her death in 1992.
I would like to thank John, Charlotte and Marie for agreeing to let me record and then publish this Q&A, as well as for all of their helpful suggestions during the editing process.
4 thoughts on “ The Holy Family Album: Q&A with Professor John Ellis”