If You’re Sitting Uncomfortably…
Once upon a time — back in 1806, to be precise — there were two brothers who set themselves an ambitious task: to pull together a comprehensive set of the fairy tales which had been told in Germany for countless generations and to preserve them in their current contemporary form so that the products of this rich oral tradition would not be lost. The Brothers Grimm started compiling their catalogue of stories when Jacob was 21 and Wilhelm was 20. (It’s a rather sweet coincidence that this is pretty much the average age of every performer you’ll see on stage here today, too.)
Their Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales) were published in two volumes — the first in 1812, the second in 1815 — but like any writers worth their salt, the Grimms were never entirely satisfied with what they’d done and their Great Work never really felt finished. They worked on them diligently until they died (1859 in Wilhelm’s case, at the age of 73; Jacob outlived him by four years, passing away in 1863, aged 78), by which time they were already up to their Seventh Edition crammed with over two hundred stories. Viewed as the product of 110 combined years of work by just two people, the collection we so easily dismiss as kiddies’ stuff takes on a much more impressive dimension.
In a sense, Grimm Tales Retold is also the literary product of a scholarly exercise — after three years of putting on productions at the University where we’ve gleefully rewritten, restructured and reimagined existing works by other authors, it felt like the time had come to write something from scratch for ourselves. Instead of a wholly original script, though, we decided to see what could be done with some of Jacob and Wilhelm’s stories instead.
We had two basic starting points: the stories should be set now, in the present day, not in an historic past; and the brothers themselves should be the ones to tell the stories. Straightaway, this made me think we could have fun borrowing something more familiar from TV and cinema: the anthology series, or more specifically still, the portmanteau film.
The form works by joining separate stories together to create a whole which is more than the sum of its parts. Whereas an anthology series tends to feature self-contained stories linked only by having the same writer, a portmanteau film connects its story segments with a link narrative or framing device, often featuring a host who introduces and comments on the action. Depending on how old you are, you’ll probably have very different reference points for the kind of thing I’m talking about. I doubt most of you are old enough to have lived through the Forties, but that was when the form really blossomed in this country — and, surprisingly, the genre which turned out to suit the portmanteau best was horror.
Dead of Night (1945) is the best by miles, and for a film made in the dying days of World War II, it doesn’t pull its punches. There’s a premonition of death before an epic bus crash (staged with tiny models), the ghost of a small boy who’s been killed by his only slightly older sister, a love triangle which ends in suicide, a man possessed by a murderous spirit lurking inside his mirror, and a magnificent story about a schizophrenic ventriloquist and his dummy. It’s all set within an ingenious circular framing narrative about a man suffering from a recurring dream, which begins all over again as the end credits roll.
The Seventies are when the horror portmanteau really hit its heights in Britain, or plumbed its depths, depending on your outlook. Amicus Productions churned out a glorious series of films with fabulously suggestive titles such as Asylum, Vault of Horror, Torture Garden, From Beyond The Grave, Tales from the Crypt, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors and (my personal favourite) The House That Dripped Blood. They were filled with stars who ought to have known better but whose agents probably told them it would only involve a few days of filming or simply wouldn’t let them say no to the money.
These pillars of the British acting establishment would then find themselves thrust into ludicrous situations that felt like they’d been written on the back of a fag packet. They could take consolation from the fact that each mini-story generally lasted twenty minutes or less, so the damage to their reputations would be fairly minimal. From husband-murdering Joan Collins being menaced by an escaped lunatic dressed as Santa Claus to domestic tyrant Terry-Thomas getting chopped up by his wife and his body parts being neatly stashed in carefully labelled jars, they are a flared and fabulous vision of the dark side of the decade that good taste forgot. I love them. They’re getting increasingly difficult to find now, but I urge you to track down copies of them if you can.
Between 1979 and 1988, television went down a less sensational and more sophisticated route with Tales of the Unexpected. Already, if you are of a certain age, you are hearing a very specific bit of floaty music in your head and picturing a silhouetted woman in a leotard flouncing around in front of an orange background. (If you aren’t, get onto YouTube after the show.) In the beginning, the host for each episode was the man who wrote most of the stories from which they were adapted: none other than Roald Dahl himself. Generally the chills were more psychological than visceral, with a pronounced streak of very dark humour running through them. How could you fail to love stories like Lamb to the Slaughter where a woman murders her husband with a hunk of frozen meat which she then cooks for the police who are baffled at their inability to locate the murder weapon?
The format fell out of favour during the Nineties and Noughties, but a generation of influential writers who spent their childhood enjoying these retro relics are now the ones busily reinventing the anthology series for the twenty-first century. Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s Inside No. 9 and Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror hark back to this golden age, developing and modernising the form by tapping into the social, political and technological anxieties of their digital-age audiences.
Our early ambition was to feature seven stories in Grimm Tales Retold, yoked together with a framing device featuring Jake and Will, our thoroughly modern storytelling siblings. We knew the show was likely to be long, so we scrapped The Musicians of Bremen before the first draft. It was going to be my 80s slasher film homage, in which an all-female rock band take the wrong turn in their tour bus and end up fighting for their lives against a gang of bad guys. (On a modest DTA budget — I know, I know…) Like many Hollywood high-concept blockbusters, The Final Girls never got the green light and now it exists only in my head.
Rapunzel made it to the first draft but didn’t survive beyond that. I saw it as a story about a very sweet person who, through no fault of their own, brings pain and suffering to everyone around them: their mother and father, their adoptive parent, the man they love, and even themselves. It sounds depressing but it was actually very sweet — hope and love survived in the face of terrible odds. I can see now why it had no place in the final cut…
And then there was Snow White, which I resisted abandoning right up until the very last. The seven dwarfs were reimagined as pretentious conceptual artists, competing for a prize to capture The Face of Beauty using a vacuous model called Nuvola as their muse. In their efforts to win at all costs, they put poor Nuvola through increasingly awful ordeals — near-suffocation in a Steampunk corset, near-asphyxiation via toxic hair treatments, near-death-by-poisoned-apple in a televised game of Russet Roulette. The winner eventually triumphs by filming Nuvola’s final moments inside a glass coffin filling up with water, live on stage. The design team breathed a huge sigh of relief when we dropped it from the third draft.
Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood made the final four, but they now look very different to their first incarnations; Hansel and Gretel and Rumpelstiltskin are much closer to my original visions for them — but in every case, you have Gareth to thank for the fact that you are not seeing any of them exactly how they started out. In their own way, none of them were quite up to the job, and he knew it. So he prodded me to push them further and prune them harder, boiling them down until what we had left was the deliciously dark confection you’re about to enjoy.
Philip Holyman — writer and dramaturg for Grimm Tales Retold