Monday, June 20, 2022

Angela Carter discusses Peter Greenaway's The Draughtman's Contract in Channel 4's first week

This is television gold from the first week of Channel 4 in November 1982: the novelist Angela Carter discusses Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract.

Starting with this film, Greenaway enjoyed a vogue in the 1980s. Some thought him pretentious, but his concern for images in their own right gave his work a distinctive, Continental flavour.

Yet you could also say his films were very English. Drowning by Numbers, for instance, brings out something sinister that lies just below the surface of genteel Southwold. In fact, I had been on holiday in the town for a couple of days before I worked out why it felt so familiar.

The Draughtsman's Contract is a mystery film, though whether you can really solve that mystery from a study of the drawings made by the hero I don't know. Greenaway's original cut of it ran for three hours - and I would gladly watch it - so any loose ends can be attributed to the way this had to be whittled down.

When he went out of fashion it was partly because of a strain of cruelty that people saw in his films - you can see it here in the scenes from The Draughtsman's Contract.

That strain worries me more today than it did in the 1980s - there seems something crass and adolescent about it. But then, perhaps because I had seen so few films as a teenager, I had my own cinematic adolescence to catch up on.

The other thing that made Greenaway's films stand out was the music of Michael Nyman. His near-frantic reworkings of Baroque masters fit particularly well in The Draughtsman's Contract. These include Chasing Sheep is Best Left to Shepherds, which was one of the pieces of music my mother enjoyed in the last weeks of her life.

Angela Carter was a novelist, known for her feminist and magical realist approach. When she died in 1992, aged only 51, her reputation with both critics and the reading public stood extremely high.

It's my impression that she suffered little of the collapse of interest in their work that almost all writers suffer in the years after their death, but I've not read enough of her to tell you much more than that.

Besides, there is something else about her that cannot be ignored: that accent. She sounds extraordinarily posh and like someone from three decades before. It's how you imagine Princess Margaret must have sounded. At the same time, the odd word gives a hint that the accent is not entirely secure.

Carter's biographer Edmund Gordon was asked about the subject in an interview by Caleb Sivyer for Angela Carter Online:

CS: I remember being quite surprised by the particular sound of Carter’s voice the first time I encountered it. Although her voice changes quite a lot, I was surprised at those moments when she appears to adopt, perhaps self-consciously, an educated-sounding voice.

EG: Absolutely. I think it’s partly a generational thing. As Martin Amis says somewhere in his memoir Experience, "it used to be cool to be posh". I think there is partly that. 

But you know, she was not entirely un-posh. She had working-class roots but she was one generation removed from them. Her father was a Fleet Street journalist, she was very middle-class and she went to a private school. But what is extraordinary about her voice is that it suddenly shifts between registers, and indeed between accents. 

Last night [at the British Library celebration of Carter] when they showed two clips of her, she sounds sort of Northern sometimes and south London sometimes and very genteel and posh sometimes. It is an odd voice. 

But then I also think that in her work, there’s so much about performance and she obviously was a highly self-conscious person, and it is the voice of someone who’s quite self-conscious, somebody who is very aware of how they sound and how they’re coming across.

Perhaps unfairly to both women, I am reminded of what someone said about Allegra Mostyn-Owen, who had the misfortune to become the first Mrs Boris Johnson, at Oxford:

"She speaks to you as though she were launching a ship."


Lang Rabbie said...

I suspect Angela Carter's monologue to camera was filmed in house in The Chase in Clapham - bought in the 1970s when large terraced houses near the Common could still be acquired for a song.

Carter's alma mater - Streatham Hill and Clapham High School for Girls - have fairly recently named one of their houses for her.
One does suspect that her parents regarded achieving *that* accent as the main purpose of paying for her education.

Jonathan Calder said...

Angela Carter is not at all how I had imagined her. I hope to publish a guest post about her work one day soon.