Thursday, 1 December 2011
David Pinner Interview - The Cult Of David Pinner
David Orphan delves into the extraordinary career of the writer, actor and director, David Pinner, whose work covers everything from the occult to the English Civil War and Anti-Communism, and it spans five decades of the ever-changing face of British stage and screen.
Since graduating from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) in 1960, David Pinner has been prolific as an actor and writer in a multitude of varying styles and genres, which makes him hard to pigeonhole. Pinner was one of the few writers of his generation, who wrote about the occult and the supernatural. His 1966 play, Fanghorn, published by Penguin and banned by the Lord Chamberlain, was a surreal comedy about a lesbian vampire, while his previous 1965 play, Dickon was the first drama about cancer. Then in 1968 he wrote The Drums Of Snow, which was an epic play in verse, with songs, about Charles the First and Oliver Cromwell. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, despite being a supporter of Right Wing Labour, Pinner was known as an Anti-Communist writer because of his Stalin Trilogy of plays and his novel, There’ll Always Be An England.
Most famously, Pinner’s novel, Ritual, was the seed from which grew the cult film, The Wickerman. And for the first time since it was published by Hutchinson in 1967, Ritual has now been lovingly reprinted by Finders Keepers as a facsimile of the original. It is surprising that it has taken so long to be re-published because recently First Editions of Ritual were fetching as much as 600 pounds on Ebay.
Like many others, I have a compulsive interest in the occult and the supernatural as it is an integral part of British rural folklore. The sense of dangerous unease that emanates from numerous stories by Edgar Alan Poe, Lovecraft and Dennis Wheatley have always fascinated me because they explore the hazy line between the believable and the inexplicable, which is an inherent part of popular culture. This is especially true in the cinema. Films such as the Jonathan Miller adaptation of M.R.James, Whistle And I’ll Come To You, the Tigon movie, Blood On Satan’s Claw, Jerzy Skoliwaski’s The Shout, and the cult children’s program, Children Of The Stones, are just a handful that give me the unsettling sense of comfort and disquiet. They all encapsulate the blend of terror, unease and rich imagery that run through both Ritual and The Wickerman.
I spent two fascinating hours on the phone with David Pinner, who is a remarkably kind-natured, enthusiastic and endearing individual; a true British treasure.
David Orphan. You trained at RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art); how was this time, and directly after, for you?
David Pinner: It was a very important time for me. I had already written my first novel and several plays before I went to RADA. Then when I’d completed my training, I went straight into acting, and I continued as a full time actor until I was 28. During that period I covered a wide range of parts in various theatre companies, including the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, the Sheffield Playhouse, Perth, the Empire Sunderland, Theatre Royal Windsor, Stratford East and The Mermaid. One of the first actors I acted with was Donald Sutherland (star of Don’t Look Now) the A movie, that was screened with The Wickerman, which was initially the B movie. Also I did a great deal of acting on television; Acquit or Hang with John Hurt; Auto Stop with David Hemmings; House Of Strangers with Margaret Lockwood and Jane Asher, and Emergency Ward Ten. But while I was acting, also I wrote a great deal.
DO. So your 20s were a particularly prolific time for you.
DP. Absolutely. Plays and novels seemed to pour out of me at that time. During 1966 I wrote two very different plays. One was Dickon, which dealt with my father dying of cancer, and it was the first play to confront the implications of the pernicious disease. My second play, the dark, surrealistic comedy, Fanghorn, was in fact the last play to be banned by the Lord Chamberlain. I remember being called into the Lord Chamberlain’s office, with my director, Charles Marowitz, to meet His Lordship in person at Saint James Palace. His Lordship said, ‘Mr Pinner, your play requires at least 80 cuts because it has practically everything in it but necrophilia.” I replied; ‘ Well, I did write in six weeks, so I was bound to miss something out.’ He responded, ‘ This kind of levity is not helping your situation, Mr Pinner.’ Then he went on angrily; ‘I have a sixteen year-old daughter. What would she think of your play?’ I said, ‘She’d love it.’ Then he thundered, ‘It’s banned!!’ And so Fanghorn was unable to be staged in the West End until the Lord Chamberlain’s office was abolished in 1968. Then Glenda Jackson starred in my comedy as the lesbian vampire at the Fortune Theatre.
DO. A number of your works have themes of the occult and the supernatural running through them. Where does this interest come from?
DP. It stemmed from me, as a boy, being terrified by Christopher Lee as Dracula, and then for many years I always had this irrational fear of vampires and the dark. But I still went on reading H.P. Lovecraft and Dennis Wheatley, who wrote The Devil Rides Out, because I was fascinated by the supernatural. But only, you understand, from a literary and dramatic point of view. And so I was one of the first writers of my generation to write about the occult, rather than just Technicoloured horror.
DO. During this time, what films did you find inspiring that dealt with the occult? You mentioned the novel, The Devil Rides Out. Did you enjoy the movie?
DP. Some of it, but I did find various scenes to be rather blatantly lurid, and also very low on laughs.
DO. Why do you think people, including myself, find these themes constantly so appealing in popular culture?
DP. Because the occult creates hypnotic mystery, plus a sense of dangerous excitement. We live in an uneasy and a somewhat agnostic society, so witchcraft, paganism and the supernatural appeals to us because of the inherent, dark sensuality and also the baleful electricity. We like to flirt with forbidden and arcane dangers.
DO. Your work has covered a wide range of themes, why so?
DP. I don’t like to repeat myself in my writing, so habitually I try to find something new to challenge me. As a result, it’s hard to label me as a writer because I’m always exploring different genres and subject-matter. I love employing vivid imagery and my plays are often poetic, but equally I imbue my work with mordant humour and irony. In my Stalin Trilogy of plays, I deal with power, and the Terror that follows in its wake, whereas in my Seasons Quartet of plays, I focus on love and betrayal. And in all my other plays, I try to cover everything in between.
DO. What other artists inspired you in your early years as a writer?
DP. To me, the two greatest dramatists are Shakespeare and Chekhov because, between them, they mirror all the tragic and comic paradoxes of the human race. In the 20th century, I was influenced by dramatists such as Bertolt Brecht and his epic theatre, and The Devils by John Whiting.
DO. It’s inevitable that we talk about your novel, Ritual; so how did it come about?
DP. When I was 26, having just written my vampire comedy, Fanghorn, I decided I wanted to write a film that dealt with the occult, but that was also a detective story. And my wanting to put a detective element in my film almost certainly came about because at the time I was playing the leading role of Sergeant Trotter in Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap in the West End. Then Michael Winner, the film director, liked my detailed synopsis that I’d written, which I called Ritual, but he felt it was too full of imagery, so my agent, Jonathan Clowes, suggested that I write Ritual as a novel. Then Jonathan promised me that he’d get it published, which is why it is dedicated to him. So while I was still in The Mousetrap, I wrote the novel in 7 weeks. Indeed I wrote chunks of it on the tube train on my way into the West End, and even some of it in my dressing room. Then when I had finished it, Catherine, my wife drove me, with the only copy of my manuscript of Ritual, to my agent’s office because at the time I hadn’t learnt how to drive. And as she was driving along the road, a car behind us honked at us over and over again. Catherine was mystified and furious because she is an excellent driver. But the honking continued, so eventually she pulled over. The driver stopped and gesticulated at our car roof. So Catherine and I got out of our car to look at what he was pointing to – and it was my only manuscript of Ritual, which was lying precariously on the top of our battered Morris Estate. So there almost wasn’t a novel called Ritual, and then Christopher Lee and Anthony Schaffer wouldn’t have been able to buy the rights of my book, and so the cult classic, The Wickerman, would never have existed.
DO. What is the story behind Ritual’s eye-catching cover?
DP. Not a clue. As a writer, you weren’t consulted about what the cover was going to be like in those days. Publishers were much more arbitrary. The cover of the Corgi paperback edition is much more mundane. It’s just a photograph of a little girl lying under an oak tree. It wasn’t until the mid ‘70s that writers were consulted about the covers to their books.
DO. Is there any more of your work you would like to see re-printed?
DP. I’ve just had comedy, Fanghorn, and my Hallowe’en musical, Lucifer’s Fair, with Edred, the Vampyre, published by Oberon Books as The Vampire Trilogy.
DO. What are your thoughts on Finders Keepers and other similar collectives, who are linking up bridges between popular culture throughout the decades?
DP. I think Finders Keepers, publishing Ritual, have done a splendid job because it is a perfect facsimile, and it’s an extremely adventurous thing to do as the novel has been out of print for over 40 years. But I’m thrilled that there is a new readership for it, so that is part of the strength of Finders Keepers because it continues to ‘find’ things in the past that are worth ‘keeping’.
DO. And during the 60s and 70s, why do you think there was such an outpouring of creativity from artists such as yourself?
DP. I believe the reason was that - after the Second World War – suddenly you had all these Grammar School boys and girls, who found that they could say things that were socially unacceptable before, and so, for the first time, you could explore taboo subjects. This made you feel adventurous because you wanted to take great risks. As a result, everyone was very excited, and with the departure of the Lord Chamberlain everything was possible.
DO. You’ve been involved in the British Stage and Screen since the beginning of the Sixties. How has it evolved for you over the years?
DP. None of it for the better, I’m sorry to say. Especially latterly. Margaret Thatcher was responsible for the worst of it. She was against the Arts. Since her ‘reign’, there are very few opportunities to write plays for television. In fact plays on television no longer exist. Whereas in the ‘60s, and through to the early ‘80s, there were plenty of TV plays. I met Catherine, my wife in a BBC ‘Play For Today’ in 1965. Also, in much the same way, the theatre repertory system has gone, and there used to be 60 theatres in the British Isles, which gave actors and writers a great deal of employment.
DO. You are currently doing readings from Ritual, what can people expect?
DP. Many reminders of the visual aspects of The Wickerman, but also much in my novel is very different from the film – including the ending. And in my novel, there is a great deal of black and ironic humour. So, all in all, I hope my reading illuminates some of the darkness with flashes of lightning.
DO. Finally – sorry to put you on the spot, but could you choose three answers to each of these categories?
Films: On The Waterfront (Elia Kazan)
The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman)
Ivan The Terrible (Sergei Eisenstein)
Music: Requiem (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart)
Chamber Music (Franz Schubert)
Petrushka (Igor Stravinsky)
Literature: King Lear (William Shakespeare)
The Cherry Orchard (Anton Chekhov)
The Brother Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoevsky)
Art & Design: Paul Cezanne
David Pinner’s book Ritual is available now in paparback and hardback through finder keepers forgery online and through most bookshop’s.