Sphinx Aren’t What They Used To Be

A couple of unusual things happened this weekend. Firstly, the weather forecasters predicted two full days of complete sunshine and a temperature of 21C. In London. In early April. The second strange thing was that this absurd prediction actually came true. Normally during such a weekend I might typically have driven down to the coast, or maybe spent some time cycling in the park. But a few recent events have conspired to suck some of the energy and enthusiasm out of me. So instead I unfolded my handwritten list of Cemeteries I Haven’t Yet Visited, closed my eyes, and randomly prodded the paper.

West Norwood Cemetery is a 40 acre site in south east London, so for me that’s a 30 minute train ride up to central London, followed by a further 15 minutes out through the other side. It’s one of The Magnificent Seven, the group of private cemeteries that were established in the 19th century to deal with overcrowding at the various parish cemeteries. It’s not the first of the seven I’ve visited.

The cemetery had its first burials in 1837, and although all the plots are now taken, the crematorium is still active and you can have your ashes stashed in the columbarium. It holds London’s finest collection of sepulchral monuments, has 69 listed structures, and is on the National Register of Historic Parks and Gardens. It’s a peaceful place.

All of these were shot with an orange filter, most of them them with the wonderful (but hefty) Mamiya Sekor C F/2.8 45mm lens (35mm equivlant=28mm). I semi-stand developed them (one gentle inversion at the half-way mark) in a 1+99 dilution of Rodinal for 60 minutes. I find this gives a really nice level of bite without being too grainy. On these sunny, cloudless days I don’t bother with the onboard meter. I just use sunny 16, allow an extra stop of light to compensate for the filter, and then it’s just 1/125 & F/11 or permutations thereof all the way.

Camera: Mamiya 645 Pro TL
Film: Ilford FP4
Process: Developed in Rodinal 1+99 for 60 minutes

The Crematorium; still in use today

After a hour or so of wandering round, I found a shady spot to eat the sandwich I had brought with me, and was thinking about catching the train home. That’s when it occurred to me that a couple of stops and about ten minutes further down the line was Crystal Palace Park.

I’d forgotten how nice Crystal Palace Station is, and at the risk of being mistaken for a train geek, I took a quick snap. To be honest, when you spend a sunny Saturday hanging round a cemetery, people thinking you’re a train spotter is the least of your worries.

Wikipedia describes Crystal Palace Park as a Victorian pleasure park, which I think is a lovely turn of phrase. The district of Crystal Palace takes its name from the building –The Crystal Palace – in which the Great Exhibition of 1851 was held. Yet the exhibition wasn’t held in Crystal Palace; it was held in Hyde Park in central London. Confused? Don’t be.

The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations (phew) was conceived as a celebration of modern industrial technology and design. It was an attempt to show the rest of the world how Britain was a clear leader in industry, and in the process stick two fingers up to the French after their highly successful Industrial Exposition of 1844. Plus ça change. After the exhibition, between 1852 and 1855, the park was created as a home for the relocated and rebuilt Crystal Palace, but tragically the building was destroyed by fire in 1936, leaving just the few remnants you can see from the photos.

That’s the Crystal Palace TV Transmitter in the background. 719 feet and the fifth tallest structure in London.

There’s plenty to see and do in the park. The boating lake. A maze. The famous Crystal Palace Dinosaurs – a series of extinct (and often inaccurate) animal sculptures that date from 1852. But it was the sphinxes that really drew me here on this day. It was about twelve years ago now, on my only previous visit to the park, that I sat beneath them holding the hand of a pretty red-headed girl with a kind heart. I’ve no idea what’s happened in her life since then, but a few years back I was surprised to be told she now lives just a couple of miles away from me. I keep that little bit of information wrapped up and tucked away at the back of my mind, but occasionally I take it out, just to see how it feels.

There are six sphinxes in all , and they’ve been there ever since the site was moved from central London in the 1850s. What surprised me however, is that they are now in much better condition than when I last saw them. And as you clearly can’t see from the photo, they’ve been painted terracotta. I’ve since found out they were restored last year, and analysis has shown that they were regularly painted up until about 1900, after which they gradually started to fall in to disrepair.

This dude was happy to ham it up for the camera.

And in the middle of the park, at the sports centre, they were playing beach volleyball. I took the photo just so I can tell people that I did indeed have a lovely day at the seaside, and no, I didn’t waste a glorious weekend wallowing in nostalgia and gravestones..


Theatre Of Blood

It’s well known in these parts that hanging round cemeteries is one of my guilty pleasures. Unsurprisingly I have many more, most of which I’ll keep to myself if you don’t mind, thanks for asking anyway. But there is one other I’m prepared to admit to: old British horror movies. For me, the golden era is the 1950s to the mid-seventies, and I’m particularly fond of the classic Hammer and Amicus pictures.

Way back in the seventies when I was a kid we were lucky enough to have a second TV, an old beat up black and white portable that a family friend had given us. It didn’t have any buttons for the channels, just a dial that you had to twist to tune in to one of three stations – that’s all we had in the UK back in those days. Most of the time this TV lived in the kitchen where it kept my mum company whilst she cooked, but on the weekends I was allowed to take it up to my room on the condition it was lights out and TV off by ten. Dear Mum, in the unlikely event you ever read this, I’m sorry. I’m a bad son. Yes, the lights did go out at ten, but the TV stayed on, and it was round about midnight on Friday and Saturday evenings that these films were shown. I’m sure my parents would have been horrified if they had known what I was watching. They’d have worried that I’d scare myself witless. As it turned out, I scared myself witless. Nowadays many of these old pictures come across as camp and creaky, but I still love them.

I was probably around ten when I first saw Theatre Of Blood (1973), a wickedly black comic picture starring Vincent Price, Diana Rigg, and a host of fine British character actors. Price plays Edward Lionheart, a failed Shakespearean actor whose performances are savaged by the critics and thus is driven to drown himself in the Thames. Unbeknownst to all he survives and proceeds to exact a bloody revenge on all of them. Those critics who gave him poor notices become the victims of a series of inventive and gory murders imitating Shakespearean death scenes. Price hams it up big time in a number of different guises, not least his insanely memorable portrayal of a camp hairdresser with an afro. If this film was made today, that haircut would have it’s own Twitter account. Oh, and did I mention Diana Rigg was in it?

One thing that’s quite unusual for the time is that (as far as I can tell) every scene is shot on location, in and around London. There are no studio sets at all. And it was whilst watching it again recently that I realised that one of the scenes is shot in Kensal Green Cemetery, a huge gothic style graveyard in West London. So, a classic horror movie filmed in a local graveyard – was there really any chance that I wouldn’t pay a visit with a camera? Seriously?

Kensal Green Cemetery
Mamiya 645 Pro TL with 45mm Sekor C lens / Ilford FP4 / Developed in Rodinal 1+99 for 60 minutes

In the movie, Lionheart’s daughter Edwina (Diana Rigg) is seen tending his memorial in the mausoleum’s portico. In reality this statue is actually a monument to sculptor Robert William Sievier, but in the movie the face is cunningly disguised to resemble Vincent Price.

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Four other movies that kept me awake as a kid:

Horror Express (1972)

Bonkers Anglo-Spanish production redeemed by Christpoher Lee and Peter Cushing. A monster from another world is loose aboard the Trans-Siberian Express, sucking out the brains of some dodgy 1970s actors and taking over their bodies. Telly Savalas turns up half way through for no reason other than to chew up the scenery. Best quote:

Policeman:The two of you together. That’s fine. But what if one of you is the monster?
Peter Cushing: Monster? We’re British, you know.

Quite.

The House that Dripped Blood (1971)

Actually it didn’t. Not a single drop of it in fact. Director Peter Duffell wanted to call the film the more appropriate and refined ‘Death and the Maiden’, but producer and head of Amicus Studios, Milton Subotsky, wanted something more dramatic. This is one of those of Portmanteau horror films – several separate stories connected by a single theme or a location – that were popular ever since 1945’s Dead of Night. In this case, the four stories are linked together by a creaky old house. Beautiful Queen of Horror Ingrid Pitt turns up in one of the segments and takes a bite or two out of a pre-Doctor Who Jon Pertwee. When I was a kid, Ingrid Pitt playing a seductive vampire gave me a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach, but I didn’t know quite what it meant.

From Beyond The Grave (1974)

Another Amicus Portmanteau flick, this time the linking device is Peter Cushing’s seemingly doddery old antique shop proprietor. Think you can put one over on him? Think again. My parents couldn’t understand why the electricity bill went up for the following year after I’d seen this film, but it was that long before I could sleep with the light off. Bits of this still give me the willies even to this day.

The Devil Rides Out (1968)

Christopher Lee plays against type as the good guy in Hammer’s adaption of Dennis Wheatley’s 1934 occult novel. Contains all the elements that Wheatley is famous for. Devil Worship? Check. Sacrificing animals? Check. British superiority and causal racism? Check. I actually own an original publicity photograph of Lee and fellow actors in the scene where they spend the night in the chalk circle whilst Satan’s legions are mustered against them. If I could have my time over again, that would be my ideal job – an on-set photographer.