Saturday 19 December 2020


Written by Donald Cotton
First broadcast April/ May 1966
Plot spoilers? None for anyone who's ever seen a Western

“The Doctor picks a gunslinger for a dentist.”
- From the BBC Episode Guide

”Now the fans go a gunnin’
“Sayin’ this story’s so wrong
“Them accents is awful
“But what’s worse is that song”

As I may have already mentioned, the Radio Times’ ’Doctor Who Tenth Anniversary Special’ brought two problems to my young mind. I just could not reconcile the plot descriptions of two storylines with the show as I knew it.

The first being ’Edge of Destruction’, and the second was... oh, you guessed. In one they never step out of the Tardis at all, the other they arrive in the Wild West. But how could not just a science fiction show but the science fiction show of my day possibly transform itself into a Western? Or, more inexplicably still, a comedy Western?

As I was later to be told, the answer to the riddle was simple – it couldn’t. It was quite simply a stupid idea to begin with and that was all there was to say about it. Even the BBC’s own on-line guide paints it as Auntie’s least favourite nephew. It quotes Ian Levine: “This story in short should never have been made, and will for ever remain a true embarrassment to ‘Doctor Who'.”

And this argument’s ace card is always the recurrent dirge of a song, which keeps coming back whenever you think it’s over in order to handily tell you about something you just saw happen. (The closing juxtaposition between that song and the familiar 'Who' theme, with barely a respectful couple of seconds to divide them, must be one of the show’s strangest moments. Despite stiff competition.)

”Friend, if yer aimin’ to watch this
“Ye may wanna think twice
“That song works on the drama
“Like a Brecht alienation device”

But in more recent years this story has had something of rehabilitation. An Outpost Gallifrey poll gave it over 3 out of 5 points, putting it (if marginally) above the bottom ten Hartnell stories. (Though this may be because the story the fans reallywant to vent their hatred over is its predecessor, ’The Celestial Toymaker’.) Or a simple and entirely understandable unwillingness to agree with Ian Levine.)

Indeed, once seen in the context of it’s era, ’The Gunfighters’ starts to make a lot more sense. There’s an early gag where Steven and Dodo’s flamboyant disguises are contrasted with the more practical wear of the real Wild Westers. But overall, the last thing this story does is try to tell the West like it was. It’s more significant they decide to put on cod Western accents, something they’ve bothered with noplace else pardner.

For the Tardis doesn’t land in the West, it appears inside a Western - like they've ported between genres. Virtually the first line is a reference to the Last Chance Saloon, and virtually the last line is the Doctor accusing Dodo of having fallen for “every cliché-ridden convention in the American West”. Just in case we hadn’t noticed. In a Western, all roads lead to the OK Corral. And indeed, here it is...

Donald Cotton’s previous script, ‘The Myth Makers’, had been about showing us up close the grubby reality behind the legend. But by this point things had already got meta. ’Doctor Who’ had become something of a wild card in the schedules, travelling not through time and space but every other genre currently being broadcast. In which case, why not a Western? Westerns were then perennials on TV schedules, including ‘Gunsmoke’ (1955/75) and ‘The Virginian’(1962/71).

Besides, science fiction often overlapped with Westerns. ’Star Trek’ was dubbed “Wagon Train to the stars". And both it and ’The Prisoner’ featured their own metafictional West stories, with ‘Spectre Of the Gun’ (1968) and ’Living In Harmony’ (1967) respectively. (Both take the meta thing further, heightening the artificiality of their environments. But all three visit a Land of Tropes, and do so quite overtly. ’Spectre’ was notably another take on that OK Corral business.)

Though strangely this may be clearer now, after those Westerns are gone from the airwaves. As Wood and Miles say in the 'About Time' guide “a generation weaned on 'Blazing Saddles' 'gets this story better than the people who missed the point in 1966.” It's closest cousin in 'Star Trek' is not ’Spectre’ but the gangster planet story 'A Piece of the Action', where Kirk and company beam down into a gangster movie and start talking like da wise guys. (Ostensibly a society modelled on a history book, not a movie. This fools no-one.)

One being cowboys and the other gangsters is merely a surface difference. In both it's tropes are encountered by characters outside of them and turned into gags by their touch, a fictional world rubbed against another to spark metafiction.

And the story's nearest direct relative is the not-a-historical-but-outright-farce ’The Romans’. Again, there’s nothing really wrong with this idea. Westerns are quite often structured like farces, milking limited sets for misunderstandings and mismeetings, dominance and submission games etc. (Think for example of Howard Hawks.) Even the infamous song may not be such an alienation device, there to remind you this is all been staged. Many Westerns were built around narrative songs, for example 'Rancho Notorious' or for that matter 'Gunfight at the OK Corral'.

But if ’The Gunfighters’ presence on the schedules makes some sense, that doesn’t necessarily mean the story itself is any good. Firstly, as mentioned with ’The Romans’, a farce is dependent upon a strong cast to carry it off. But by this point the original cast had broken up, leaving us with Steven and the notoriously poor Dodo.

The humour does have it moments. The Doctor’s line “I do wish people would stop offering me guns” has now been chalked up a classic. And Sheena Marshe’s rambunctious, larger-than-life portrayal of Kate is also fitting. Caught out in a lie when valiantly misleading the villainous Clantons, she cries out archly “well ain’t my face a-blushin’!” But too often the humour feels closer to the end-of-term sketch show style of ’The Chase’ than ’The Romans’. In both, you do sometimes wonder if the participants weren’t having more fun than you.

How did things degenerate from the genuinely good ‘Myth Makers’ to this?  As Shannon Sullivan recounts, Donald Cotten’s script had fallen to Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis to produce. Neither liked the historicals in general, or the comic bent on offer here in particular. (Though two more historicals still followed.) Meanwhile, director Rex Tucker decided to play up the farce elements and (yes it was him) foreground the infamous song. Perhaps that led to the strangely abrupt shifts between the farcical and the more dramatic moments, leaving the story with a dissatisfyingly uneven tone.

”That song’s like a sore tooth
“It turns viewin’ folks mean
“It comes back when it looks over
“And tells you things you just seen”

The script also makes a clunking functional error in clearing up the Doctor Who/Doc Holliday confusion halfway through. This not only dampens narrative momentum, but unleashes the most perennial problem of the historicals – finding a way to integrate the travellers into the action.

Lacking any other means, it mostly achieves this by forcing the pieces. Doc Holliday takes Dodo with him when he leaves town, then the gunslinger chasing him decides to drag along Steven – amenably slowing down their travelling time to keep us up with the storyline. The Doctor agrees to talk to the Clantons about coming along all peaceable like, but there’s no earthly reason why they should listen to him and they don’t.

But worst of all is the climactic and titular gunfight at the... okay, you already guessed where. It’s established the Doctor disdains guns and those who use them, which (by this point in the show) is entirely in character. But as this means none of the travellers should have anything to do with the gunfight itself, Dodo is prodded into the middle of it with little reason at all. Which contrasts with 'A Piece of the Action', which is all about Kirk deciding to go native and put on the gangster swagger himself.

Cotton himself seemed to recognise this problem with his 1986 novelisation, which places the Doctor there instead. (Of course it could be claimed that, were there more sparks to the farce-playing, you’d be less likely to notice this sort of thing. Much like magic tricks, farce is the art of audience distraction.)

What we end up with is not some strange anomaly but a story which actually falls far too neatly in place – its merely second helpings after ’The Romans’. If it’s not the disaster that some more single-minded fans insist upon, neither is it a neglected jewel. The story’s ‘rehabilitation’ will probably wind up as a correction, which is closer to the way it should be. And that really does drag upon your nerves...

”There’s bodies a-pilin’
“In this here story to tell
“But some say it turned so bad
“It killed the histori-er-cal”

Coming soon! To savagery and beyond…

Saturday 12 December 2020


First broadcast: April 1966
Written by Brian Hayles (and, uncredited, Donald Tosh)
Plot spoilers? I wouldn't worry

”I'll never be able to look at a doll or a playing card again with an easy mind. They really do have a secret life of their own.”
- Dodo

Fiction Comes in Colour

In the all-important business of comparing Sixties 'Who' to Eighties TV game shows, if 'Keys of Marinus' was 'The Crystal Maze' then 'Celestial Toymaker' is 'The Adventure Game'. It's the one where they go to a puzzle world, and have to play their way out of it. Except while 'Adventure Game' was set on the planet Arg, here they've not been taken to any kind of planet but somewhere other – described dramatically by the Doctor as “the realm of the Celestial Toymaker”. So yes, this makes for another 'sideways' story. And yet at the same time he calls it “somewhat familiar”.

Officially this wasn't the show's first venture into the Land of Fiction. That was the Horrorworld section of 'The Chase', even if they backed away from the notion as soon as they raised it. But it was bound to happen. The science fiction of 'Who', with its absolute uninterest in anything genuinely resembling science, was always going to hearken to that fiction half. As the story so far shows, its tendency was to get all allegorical – rather than concern itself with credible world-building, it's focus was on what those worlds might stand for.

Look how quickly it gets going. There's barely any lead-in or preamble. A story motor is the Doctor already knowing the titular Toymaker, so he can drip-feed us exposition as we go. But this can be done because we know him, even if we've never seen him before. He's the sort of antagonist who's likely to turn up on a show like this. He just needs a name – the Celestial Toymaker, that'll do – and we're off.

Yet for all that its something tied up with the DNA of the show, this was another story designed to chime with the Sixties. The series didn't go into colour until the Third Doctor, yet I had always illogically assumed this was a colour story. And looking back to my much-treasured 'Twentieth Anniversary Special', on the spread given to this season it's the only story to be given a colour illo (reproduced below). As that scene doesn't appear in any of the episodes and there's others on-line to go with it, the most likely explanation is that contemporary colour publicity shots were made. Something they notably repeated two years later for the story's thematic successor, 'The Mind Robber'.

For in a way it was a colour story, in the way the upcoming 'War Machines' had to be in black-and-white – this was a modern, happening story. It starts with Dodo parading her “fab” Carnaby Street clothes, just as the fusty old Doctor is rendered invisible. But the main reason you can tell it's a self-styled modern story? It's all the Victoriana.

Though Lewis Carroll's 'Alice' books had long been a staple of popular fiction, they enjoyed a new lease of life in the Sixties. Jonathan Miller's acclaimed adaptation of 'Adventures In Wonderland', for example, was shown some months later. John Lennon considered Carroll an influence, and made him one of the cut-out celebrities shortly to appear on the cover of the incoming 'Sergeant Pepper' In a year which also saw Jefferson Airplane’s ’White Rabbit’ and the Incredible String Band’s ’Mad Hatter’s Song’.

And if the hippy interest ostensibly lay into reading non-existent nudge-nudge drug references into the work, that was their hamfisted one-track-minded way of parsing a genuine insight – there was something strange and possibly even dangerous here, beneath the skirts of twee Victoriana.

Which was what? Writing on that Miller adaptation Mark Fisher refers to “the feeling that Wonderland is Alice's world alone, yet she has no place in it. She is always late, in the way, misunderstanding what ought to be obvious. In this way, Carroll is the precursor of Kafka, and ultimately 'Alice's Adventures In Wonderland' has far more in common with 'The Trial' and 'The Castle' than with 'The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe' or 'The Wizard of Oz'.” And he's right. Miller's version resolutely burns its way through the story's surface features, the nursery-room Victoriana, to get closer to it's essence of child-eye paranoia.

So its perhaps no surprise to find the BBC episode guide citing his name here. Structured around a serious of encounters with strange creatures, it mirrors the Alice books. But that’s in form. What about content?

Snuff Hopscotch in The Sinister Playpen

Much like 'Web Planet' they are literally drawn to a place rather than randomly landing there. And much like 'Web Planet' there's a division between the mental labour of the Doctor (who has been made intangible save for one playing hand) against the Toymaker and the manual travails of Steven and Dodo. The games they must play against his minions involve traversing spaces, overcoming physical obstacles.

The centre of 'Celestial Toymaker' is of course the Celestial Toymaker. Back in 'Monsters Versus Aliens' I noted 'Who' specialised in monsters, “always reducible to human foibles and hence always explicable in human terms”. Yet the Toymaker is the most alien thing so far. Inscrutable, he has no origin story. Unlike the Daleks he doesn't want to take over our world, nor the planet of some Earth-like people, he wants us to draw us into his.

Perhaps surprisingly then, particularly with the references to his being an adversary of old, the emphasis then falls from him and the Doctor – and falls onto Steven and Dodo. It's widely agreed that, with Michael Gough and William Hartnell actually acting in the other room, lumbering the viewer with Peter Purvis and Jackie Lane was something of a mistake. (This write-out was for the standard reason, to allow Hartnell to go on holiday. Donald Tosh has stated that earlier script drafts focused more on their conflict.)

There's some vague pretence at the start about the game he’s set being a challenge for the Doctor, the Toymaker describing it as “for the mind, the developed mind”. And we need something that looks fantastical and complex, like Mr Spock's 3D chess from 'Star Trek'. But the Trilogic game they pick instead is clearly child's play, and is really only used as a ticking clock for Steven and Dodo to race against. The Toymaker even speeds up the hands whenever he's feeling mischievous. (Which is often.)

But never mind, let's look where we're being directed to look. With her afore-mentioned 'fab' gear and her first reaction to Toyland “it looks dead boring to me”, Dodo is something of an anti-Alice. And this reaction is stronger still with the stripy pullovered Steven. He scoffs “you must be joking! Kid's games!” with such outrage you expect him to add that he's been in high-minded historicals, and will be bringing this up with his agent.

Their adult presence seems intended to create a juxtaposition which makes Toyland look more childlike, that its sinister side doesn't reveal itself until too late. The Doctor urgently warns them “this place is a hidden menace” and “the game you're going to play is not so innocent as it looks”. As Tomb of the Anorak says “the majority of its appeal seems to rely on the juxtaposition of innocent characters and situations with the deadly and the macabre.” 

Perhaps its aiming at something like the 1971 Genesis album 'Nursery Cryme' (below), with its cover image of decapitated heads on croquet lawns in a children's book illustrational style. And like much of 'Toymaker' it's a notion which recurs later in 'Who'. The Weeping Angels, for example, are clearly based on the children's game Statues.

That's the intent. Frankly, it doesn't work. There's no real unexpected rupture points between the twee and the macabre. There's just four episodes of bad actors playing cheap games which are, by common consent, tedious beyond belief. One involves Steven and Dodo looking for a key, and ends with them finding a key. There may have been snuff hopscotch at some point, though it's possible by that stage I was just hallucinating. Dodo had it right at the very beginning. It’s dead boring.

The script suffered rewrite roulette between Brian Hayes, and the uncredited script editors Donald Tosh and Gerry Davis. The main reason for this was budgetary – each version striking out something which looked like it might cost money and replacing it with something which didn't. As the games form the bulk of the script they suffered most, being scaled down considerably from their original version if not changed altogether. And perhaps this undercurrent of the macabre was lost along the way. Tosh found the result “much lighter, more pantomime” than his original intent. But however it happened, the story's a failure.

Not the Puzzle But the Pieces

Yet is it a total failure? You'd defy the keenest fan to show any interest in those silly games. But interest in games and puzzles isn't what drives the story at all. This is not a puzzle world so there can be puzzles. On the contrary, there are puzzles here so this can be a puzzle world.

Consequently the fear doesn't come from taking a wrong step in snuff hopscotch, or sitting on the wrong chair and getting a chill up your bum. The fear is of being reduced to an automaton, a game piece on a board that belongs to the Toymaker. Dodo and Steven are forced to play his games to escape this fate, but must play against others who've already played and lost. (Repeat antagonists who, in a nice touch, are always played by the same actors.) 

As the Toymaker says "I'm bored. I love to play games but there's no-one to play against. The beings who call here have no minds, and so they become my toys.” Seen this way, the image of the Doctor being reduced to a playing hand is a strong one. This isn’t really Carroll, but there’s a closer correlation to him that you often get.

Dodo has a running argument with Steven about the reality of the world and their antagonists. There is something of a big brother/younger sister element to their relationship. Which may be why fans tend to assume that the elder Steven's right. Yet the headstrong lad would seem to be the straight man of the joke, given lines like the quite hilarious “I'm going to see if there's an invisible barrier round his backside”.

It's the more empathic Dodo who intuits the situation and insists the Toymaker “can bring them to life, but they have wills and minds of their own”. As she says, after Steven's zillionth tantrum, “if they're not real, how can you lose your temper with them? You can't have it both ways, you know.” Their antagonists do seem to develop more personality with each iteration, from the two clowns to the King and Queen cards to Sergeant Rugg and Mrs Wiggs, like greater time outside the doll's house allows more of their humanity to reappear.

A child can have an animistic conception of the world, imbuing spirits into inanimate objects. This can include their toys, which seem not props but to have their own life with which the child interacts. Yet what can seem charming and innocent to an adult can have a sinister side, as the child senses 'their' toys are not actually under their control. And we carry a trace memory of that into adulthood.

...all of which leads you to expect Dodo to do a Lincoln act, to throw open the doll's house and allow the toys to regain their wills and minds and walk free. Except none of that happens. Their running argument reaches a head in the third episode and is then forgotten about. (When the King and Queen are replaced by Cyril, the story seems to take a different direction, and abandon previous themes.) However, it seems so seeded that perhaps it's something else which got lost in translation between one draft and the next. Whichever, it's another nice idea which doesn't come off. What we have here is another interesting failure. Like a broken toy, pick it up and it will rattle with sound – but don't expect it to have life of its own.

Lost Without Translation (Signs Which Point Nowhere)

Except there's one way to look at this where it does almost line up, though one almost uncertainly unintended in any of the string of rewrites. This review has so far jumped between the concepts of 'puzzle worlds' and 'fictional realms' interchangeably, and there is a reason for that...

What happens in a 'Who' story? They encounter an adversary, get split up and separated from the Tardis, and on their way back the script conspires to throw at them a series of pitfalls and obstacles. And all that happens here except those obstacles are made diegetic, formalised into the story. The script's full of metafictional references.

TV then tended to use dressed down adult actors for child roles, often with little attempt to disguise them. You'd merely stuff an adult in short trousers and give them a cap, like a form of 'youth drag'. They continue this here with Peter Stephens as Cyril (below). Yet Steven makes a point of saying that he “look(s) pretty grown-up to me”. And once the unquestioned convention is pointed out it starts to look pretty creepy.

And there's an association between being fictional and being an automata of the Toymaker. The King and Queen cards are there to serve a plot function as much as playing cards serve a game function. They have no actual agency, they exist only to serve a greater purpose. Its not just that they must do their master's bidding, royalty made servants. Its that they only have life when they are doing his bidding. The rest of the time they are back in the box.

And this has a particular meaning for a show with a strong allegorical element. The Daleks for example are not just counter-tokens to stop the other side getting back in the Tardis and off the board, they exist to point out at things in the wider world. Pretty much everything in the Hartnell era represents something in this way.

The crew want to be back out in the Whoniverse, where they can be making a difference. But they're trapped in the Toymaker's realm - a hermetic space where signs are just signs. Divorced from their meaning they exist only in relation to one another.

And the games have no 'meaning', in the sense of significance, because they're in a realm which doesn't - and so they become more like empty rituals. Fail to win the game and you appear to die, but actually you become trapped in it. Places in the dollhouse are shown awaiting Steven and Dodo. 

And as everyone else has fallen out of the regular universe to get here, so they retain a memory of what they were before they were diminished. Like one of those fever dreams where you can reach out but never grasp anything, you can utter words, form sentences, but you can't utilise them. In Semiotic terms, the Signifier has become divorced from the Signified, and language no longer describes the world but just refers to itself. Signs which point nowhere, what could be a greater trap than that?

The Doctor's is rendered intangible before he enters the Toymaker's realm. Unlike later, when he has to be prevented warning Steven and Dodo, there's no intra-story reason to do this. It even cuts against the notion that the viewer should only be gradually made aware of the sinister nature of this realm. But it has a symbolic value, there to tip us off we're entering the intangible. Look how Steven's repeated threats of physical force are attempted only once - and to no avail.

But most of all look to the repeated motif of the fake Tardises. Conceivably, these came from the fact the Tardis prop on stage was just a cramped hollow space. But within the story the Tardis, the very thing which allows the crew to travel the Whoniverse, the symbol of their agency, has been rendered into a hollow sign. It's like that time you were looking for scissors, and kept repeating "scissors, scissors, scissors" like the word might summon the object.

In this way the endless rewrites, while they probably did wash the story of any originally intended rhyme or reason, may even have served to enhance things. The more remote and disconnected it got from its original purpose, the better it described the Toymaker's realm.

The exception to, and proof of, all this is the Toymaker himself. Like the Red Queen in Carroll, all the ways belong to him. Effective use of language is his alone. The pieces of the Trilogic game move at his command, but so do the clowns and playing cards. Without him they're inert, listless as dolls. 

Attempting to escape the Doctor realises “if this place vanishes, the rest of us will vanish also”. They can't destroy his realm without destroying themselves because they are themselves based in it. They're not merely signs, but they are signs. As the Doctor puts it, “the mind is indestructible. So is the Toymaker.” After earlier being struck mute the Doctor finally affects their escape by imitating his chief power – his commanding voice.

From Celestial to Infernal (And Back Again)

More than anything else in the Hartnell era, this is a terrible story persistently haunted by a brilliant one. Which makes it in equal parts frustrating and fascinating. Could anything have been done to solve this? Maybe...

In the longstanding debate over which found ‘Who’ story would best be lost, this one ranks highly. And we know this because for a long time it was lost, and it worked much better that way. In 1976 the Doctor Who Appreciation Society proudly named its newsletter after it. In 1982 John Peel was enthusing “this was one of the weirdest, cleverest and most successful 'Doctor Who' stories ever”. But in 2004 the ’Lost in Time’ box set gave us the chance to actually watch the surviving episode. (Yup, just one. Still too many.) At one point in the story the Toymaker shows Steven and Dodo film of past incidents, causing the Doctor to cry “Turn around this instant! Turn away from it!” And the reappraisal went pretty much like that really.

And as those budget cuts bit, original producer John Wiles said he'd prefer the thing to have been scrapped altogether. Which is the smartest thing ever said about ’Celestial Toymaker’. It would work so much better if it hadn't been made. But we knew just enough to know it almost was.

With ’Who’ the lightning rod is not the lightning. It’s very often the idea of the thing that appeals, with the cheapskate stuff that got cobbled together for the screen just a way of attaching to that idea. So imagine back when you just had a few stills, and evocative quotes (such as Dodo's up top), and were able to mull over them at your leisure.

Things can be literally legendary, a status they gained precisely because they didn’t get made – Jodorowsky’s adaptation of ‘Dune’, the Who’s ‘Lifehouse’. They’re not just flawlessly uncompromised by production, leaving us free to imagine them as we want. They enable us to imagine something beyond our imagining.

The Toymaker never reappeared in the show proper, but has become a staple of spin-offs and fan fiction. (He was intended to return just as it was cancelled. But as it had virtually become a fan production by then, this emphasises the point rather than diminishes it.) Which suggests not just that people were reacting to something in him, but also sensed that it was something which hadn't been able to flower in his original appearance. He was from a daft TV series from the Sixties, trying to riff on contemporary trends they only clumsily understood while avoiding spending any money, reduced by rewrites which progressively lost the point of the exercise. And yet he's still out there now...

Saturday 5 December 2020


Tate Britain, London

“I will not Reason And Compare, my business is to Create"
- Blake

Irreducible Strangeness

The last London Blake show, also at the Tate, was in 2000. In art history terms that’s but a blink. (And woe betide any wag who suggests it’s that earlier show I’m covering here!) Which suggests two things; that he’s now thought of primarily as a visual artist and that he’s become a fixture of the gallery circuit. The first seems unsurprising, those dense epic poems not exactly working for the world of text messaging. But why the second?

As the show says: “He has inspired many creative people, political radicals and independent minds”. And, at least in part, Blake is so totemic because everyone feels free to invent their own Blake. He’s become a human scrying glass, into which people peer in order to see what they want. And what people normally want is validation, the scrying glass to show them that their personal ideology is the fairest of them all.

The previous show I had to queue up behind some berk in a UKIP T-shirt, presumably having his own visions of getting our Albion back from all that foreign Modernism stuff subsidised by the EU. And indeed some see the author of ’Jerusalem’ as a part of “our culture”; which they’re capable of seeing only in terms of heraldry, a shining piece of precious only slightly less lustrous than Shakespeare. 

While to political radicals he’s rebel and visionary. Jim Morrison for example, named the Doors after a Blake line. And Matthew Collings came and saw “a Jeremy Corbyn god roll[ing] a sun along the ground as if he’s rolling away Boris Johnson’s no deal: a British lion laughs.”

And I should know. Delightedly discovering him during my A-Levels, I pictured a combination of proto-rock-star, whose innovative work and unconventional lifestyle shocked and challenged the Establishment; nascent comics creator, who daringly merged words with images; and incisive political thinker of an anarchist bent. In short, John Lennon, Jack Kirby and Kropotkin rolled into one convenient package. I quote-mined Gilchrist’s biography for evidence of this, disregarding the rest. (Which was most of it.)

Blake can be made such a scrying glass because he offers no system of thought of his own, allowing you to impose yours upon him. He can often affect the opposite, making grand and proclamatory statements, swoopingly dismissing widely held orthodoxies as mere folly. And he was notorious for being fulsomely opinionated in conversation. But to assume he is to be decoded, let alone that you alone hold the key to that code, is to miss him altogether. He was not doctrinal but an inchoate visionary, a latterday hedgerow priest living from vision to vision.

In his Blake biography, Peter Ackroyd acknowledges “he was, above anything else, an artist and not an orthodox ‘thinker’: he was attracted to images or phrases as a means of interpretation, and never espoused a complete or coherently organised body or knowledge.”

His philosophy would be better thought of as an anti-philosophy, a distrust of systems which he constantly compared to mere physical mechanisms, machine thought for a machine age. One of his more famous lines was “the bounded is loathed by its possessor”. So why on earth try to bind him? Such a large part of his appeal is his irreducible strangeness, where his works look mystical to their very marrow. Why would you destroy what you love just to have it as a keepsake?

However if there is no Blake in the sense of a body of doctrine, that doesn’t mean there is no Blake. It’s just that trying to ‘get’ Blake isn’t going to get him. Most artists don’t exist in that sense, of being philosophers or political theorists. They’re no better placed to explain what they’re doing than anyone else. But private obsessions drive them, and they look around themselves with a magpie eye for inspiration. In trying to come to terms with them, we’re more analyst than dutiful reader. We do all this with other artists without thinking about it much, and need to do the same for Blake.

Were he to somehow attend this show, it would probably seem to him a strange irony that he was finally appreciated, but in a post-Christian society. Yet he saw the Bible as a fantastical work, stuffed with dreams, apparitions and prophecies, not a repository of instruction designed to instill a shopkeeper morality. (Arguably, much of what he wrote was Bible fanfic.) We should read him the way he read.

The show sticks Blakean lines up on the walls, such as “sudden I beheld The Virgin Ololon and adress’d her as a daughter of Beulah”, above works such as ’Visions of the Daughters of Albion’ (1793, above), then has the common sense to announce it doesn’t intend interpreting any of this. Equally wisely it goes to some lengths to reconstruct the Blake of his time, at times literally - reproducing the whole of his 1809 solo show. (Held in his family house.) And locating him matters.

The Old, Weird Britain

All this claiming of Blake, arguably that started during his life. In all likelihood with Blake himself, as he wasn’t short on self-importance. But the first discernible movement was the Romantics. To who he was so beloved that some habitually kissed the bell-handle on his door. And arguably their imprint on him remains the deepest. Certainly it’s the longest, with the Tate’s page on Romanticism illustrated by a Blake.

True enough, like the Romantics, Blake reacted against the increasingly mechanised and mechanistic world of the Industrial revolution. Yet…

It might seem redundant to criticise the Romantics for romanticising things, but there’s no real way around it. And one of their chief romanticisations was their conception of the true artist, the genius-savant who owes nothing to the society around him, who pursues his own private visions in its face. And Blake was, or seemed, the perfect person to project that figure onto, working in near-isolation, either ignored by critics or dismissed as “an unfortunate lunatic”.

And there is some truth to this. Financially, he was almost entirely dependent on patrons. Which went, in a word, badly. Perhaps there is an inherent tension in the sympathetic commission, where the payment is made as a gesture of support to the artist but also in the expectation of you getting back something you want. If so, it was a tension Blake had an unerring ability to locate and repeatedly prod. He had a private muse he could do no other than pursue, at times against his own best interests.

However the parts which didn’t fit, such as a six-year training at the Academy which seems to have passed without major incident, they went the same way as my reading of Gilchrist. (It should be noted how they also venerated the pre-industrial past and women in the same way, as something mystic and otherly, best worshipped from a respectful distance.)

Then there’s the chronology. Romanticism’s kick-off is usually seen as 1798 with the publication of the ‘Lyrical Ballads’, poems by both Wordsworth and Coleridge. Wordsworth was then twenty-eight and Coleridge two years younger; Blake was already forty-one. Though most imagine him a Victorian he was a Georgian, a contemporary of Gillray. (They’d even studied together at the Academy.) And unlike them his background was not at all bohemian, but artisan.

While we tend to forget this it was self-evident at the time, of course, and so soon fed into the scrying glass. It became evidence of his great originality that he’d been a Romantic before there was even Romanticism, a John the Baptist in the artistic wilderness. His followers called themselves the Ancients, emphasising his age.

But mostly there’s nature. A central tenet of Romanticism was the interest in Nature as subject matter, rather than mere pleasing backdrop. But Blake rarely drew from nature, and while he did draw inspiration from this world it came from his native London more than the countryside. While acknowledging “Wordsworth loves Nature”, he added his own rejoinder - “Nature is the work of the Devil.” As Ackroyd has said: “Blake… regarded Nature as no more than the Mundane Shell or Vegetative Universe that was the vesture of Satan.”

In fact this prophet, this supposed harbinger of future artistic and social trends, spent much of his own time looking back. His troubles with sales were due to with his subject matter and temperament (both difficult), but largely with his style being seen as archaic and anachronistic. His heroes were Raphael and Michelangelo, not the then-fashionable Reubens and Rembrandt, who he disdained. He promised “the grand style of Art restored”. Aesthetically, he seemed less outsider than throwback. If we’re to get Blake, even a little, we need to look where he was looking - and he was looking back.

A Dissenter Among Dissenters

Another among the many groups who have claimed Blake are the Anarchists. Literally the first book I ever read on politics, about the time I was first reading Blake, was George Woodcock’s ’Anarchism’. Which stated in its opening section “mystics and stoics seek not anarchy, but another kingdom. Anarchism, historically speaking, is concerned mainly with man in relation to society.”

Which seemed clear-cut at the time. Yet Blake rides his fiery chariot through the firewall of that distinction. It wasn’t just he wanted social change and another kingdom, he saw the two as inextricable.

If there was a long period where Blake was effectively a prophet in the wilderness, in his younger days he was directly connected to a radical tradition. A tradition arcane to us now, an old weird Britain. You could call it Dissent or Nonconformism, and let’s not concern ourselves about the distinction.

As EP Thompson said in ’The Making of the English Working Class’: “Against the background of London Dissent, with its fringe of deists and earnest mystics, Blake seems no longer the cranky untutored genius [but] the original yet authentic voice of a long popular tradition.”

It’s not quite true to say Dissent originated in the English Revolution, inasmuch as there was a causal relationship it was the other way around. But the Revolution incubated and stirred it up, linked social change to another kingdom. The restoration of the monarchy had arguably settled the question, consolidated in the Church of England, in the way that centuries later the post-War consensus arguably settled political differences. But Nonconformism was by definition those who found this a compromise too far, and stayed outside the established Church.

In practice this was more a milieu than a specific group with Wikipedia listing a somewhat bewildering eighteen groups, including Grindletonians and Muggletonians. (Dissenter groups manage to sound esoteric and provincially English simultaneously.)

Though, rather than being some vow of rebellion, Blake’s Dissenting was originally passed on to him by his parents. In fact, in their quiet independence they were more typical of the breed. Wikipedia points out that “Nonconformists in the 18th and 19th century claimed a devotion to hard work, temperance, frugality, and upward mobility” which made it a natural choice for shopkeepers and tradespeople. Religion was considered a matter of personal morality, rather than political conviction. The world around you was fallen, but you did as best you could. Everything fell back upon the individual.

But the twin events of the American (1765) and French Revolutions (1789) stirred up Dissent once more, rekindling memories of what had happened in England. It’s significant that Blake adapted both Bunyan and Milton, both radical Dissenters of their day. And of course taking this path made him a dissenter among the Dissenters, a nonconformist among Nonconformists.

Yet he went on to live through the time after that, after the Terror and war with France, when revolutionary favour diminished and quietism came to dominate Dissent all over again. The effect was to increasingly mystify the past, even as he still drew from real traditions. He’d said “The Nature of my Work is Visionary or Imaginative; it is an Endeavour to restore what the Ancients called the Golden Age”. And the myth of the Edenic past becomes associated with the notion of a repository of vital but lost knowledge, forgotten but recoverable, perhaps a whole ur-language.

Where Word Meets Image
Blake was aesthetically no Romantic, not just in the sense of his approach to nature but also naturalism. Though often dramatic his art is made up of tableaus, in which figures stretch and contort themselves into grand gestures, poses they then hold for our information - much as policemen do when directing traffic. When they’re also called upon to convey urgency they become at once hieratic and histrionic; often with unintentionally comic effect, even if you’re not supposed to say so. See for example ’The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve’ (c. 1826/7, below).

And this was the era when all that was starting to be challenged. There’s two versions of a print of Chaucer’s Pilgrimage to Canterbury, one by Blake (1810, below) and another his contemporary Stothard. Blake neatly arranges a linear procession, every horse’s head pointed forwards. You almost await the identifying labels on white scrolls to attach themselves to each figure.

While Stothard naturalises his, filling it with incidental detail. By any criteria Stothard’s is the more modern, all of which led to Blake loudly decrying it. Through a complex set of reasoning, not necessarily involving reason, Blake had come to believe the commission was rightly his. But if that stirred up his anger, his negative comments were consistent with his general views on art. He disliked anything which might distract from the central idea.

Art history would tell us to look to Stothard, as he was at the start of something new, and past Blake. But if Blake was in a tradition he was doing something unique with it…

Trained as an engraver, etching and pressing his own work made a material difference. As he commented “Milton and Shakespeare could not publish their own works”. But it was more than that.

His relief etching (etching in negative image), began in 1788 with ‘The Book of Thel’, and there’s a real sense that Blake as we know him begins only here. Crucially it allowed him to add his handwriting to printing plates. (Accomplished by writing backwards, the reversal them reversing once printed.)

To quote Ackroyd again: “These are not poems… these are discrete works of art in which the words are only one element in a unified design.” They’re often compared to illuminated manuscripts of the Bible, but there’s an important difference. Those “illuminations” might enhance the Bible’s text but it is complete without them. Whereas here we need both to get the complete work.

Further, the connection between text and image is often not direct enough for us to see these as accompanying illustrations. They’re more like two parallel channels which spark off one another like musical lines in an overall composition. Let’s take plate five of ‘America A Prophecy’ (below) as our example.

And we can see what he looks like without this combination, because some of his commissioned work lacks it. For example ‘Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard’ (1797/8, above) has conventionally typeset text. And the Blakean alchemy immediately dissipates, images transform back into illustrations, servants to the words not their siblings.

Ackroyd says: “It is as if he could not see words without images, and images without words; in that a sense he returns to a much earlier sense of language as imagery.” This is evident in ‘An Allegory of the Bible’ (c. 1780/5, above), based around figures ascending steps. It might seem a timeline of progress from earth to heaven - child to adult to brighter-coloured beings of spirit. Atop the whole thing is the expected radiating figure, but instead of God it’s a book. If spirit is raised above flesh, word is then raised above spirit. (The title was admittedly added later, but it seems to fit.) And it’s notable how book images abound, books often appearing recursively within books.

We perhaps shouldn’t over-emphasise this. Blake often made prints without words, sometimes taking earlier designs and removing the words. Most likely because they looked less daunting, and so sold better. But they can be as Blakean as anything else here, supplying some of my favourite works from the show.

Then again that might simply be because they worked better here. We still don’t have a place for Blake in quite a literal sense, hence we try and stuff him into an art gallery and hope that does. The show manages the best it can, putting up plates in sequence with the text intact. But once they are up there, framed on the wall, you inevitably focus more on the images.

In the rush to examine his text/image combinations, his sense of colour is often overlooked. Vivid, non-naturalistic, they exude much of the mood of his work. Ackroyd again: “these are colours which seem to be not of this earth, but of that imaginative landscape he carried with him everywhere.” His prints have a grainy texture which, when applied universally, de-differentiates the figures from their backgrounds.

We can see this in ’Nebuchadnezzar’ (1795/1805, above) which, as well as turning the title character into a wild animal, with clawed foot and trailing beard, also seems morph him into his own background. Some mythologies make no distinction between their Gods’ bodies and the landscape they inhabit, they didn’t create the world so much as it's composed out of them. And there often seems an echo of that in Blake.

Symbols Raised

Symbolism arrived even later than Romanticism, and so there were none to hang round Blake’s bell-push during his life. But at least in approach they inherit more from him. The Symbolist Manifesto, issued in 1886, declared their interest in “real world phenomena“ only as “perceptible surfaces created to represent their esoteric affinities with the primordial Ideals.”

Then, as so often with Blake, we need to push this notion further, into a kind of Neo-Platonism. And as Matthew Collings points out in the Standard, Blake’s compositions are “only assemblies of signs. It’s nothing like reality… for Blake the only real thing is imagination.” To Blake its the symbols which are the real things; we’re just their imperfect copies. They’re the bright colours, we’re the pallid shadows. (In the sense of where art is in relation to us, Malevich is much more in Blake’s lineage than Constable.)

It might be objected that Blake was not ascetically disengaged from the world, communing only with angels. If nature offered him no inspiration, his native London was full of it. But he took these sights only for their symbolic value; he ‘read’ London as if it were a text, extracting meaning from it. Ackroyd again: “What Blake saw was not the crepuscular and dirty city of the historian’s imagination, but a city filled with angels and prophets. He saw a biblical city.”

Blake wrote in ‘Milton’ “every natural event has a supernatural cause”. Our reality follows from this intense, heightened world. But not in the consequential sense of mainstream Christian doctrine, where Eve ate the apple so now we live in a fallen world. That would make our reality a fait accompli. Though the world he depicts feels in many ways primordial it’s also volatile, its effect upon us not fixed or determined but in a state of eternal flux.

As Ackroyd says: “[in] his Prophetic Books… various faculties and aptitudes are engaged in a constant battle for supremacy.” More than “first this, so then that” it’s the alchemical doctrine of “as above so below.” This heightened world is above, in the sense of more important than, ours. Primal forces clash and re-clash in it, sending their shifting shadows down to us.

As Ackroyd puts it, “his belief that the dimensions of material existence are a prison from which we must escape and that the human senses are a degraded and pitiful residue of eternal power.” The world is not fallen because of events which happened before or above it, it is fallen because it is the world, because it is merely material.

‘Elohim Creating Adam’ (1795, above) is striking because it’s so unlike Michelangelo, despite him being one of Blake’s heroes. God is shown across a supine Adam, holding him down, their eyes not meeting, a snake already wrapped around his leg like bounds. In modern parlance the image is ‘rapey’, suggesting God imposed physical form on Adam as an act of violation. It’s very similar in composition to ‘Satan Exulting Over Eve’ (1795). This is God as the demiurge, trapping man into the confines of physical existence. Though here called Elohim Blake also gave him the name Urizen, thought to be a homonym for “your reason”, as the tyrant creator.

We see Urizen in ‘The Ancient of Days’ (1794, above), a strong enough image to make it onto the poster. His lowered hand seems to expand into the compasses as much as hold them. He’s not just circumscribing what he creates, for him to create is to circumscribe.

Blake wrote in ‘The Everlasting Gospel’ (1918) “Upon his heart with Iron Pen/ He wrote Ye must be born again.” (Though in that case it’s Jesus forewarning a Pharisee he hasn’t got it and so, translated into Buddhist terms, remains trapped to the wheel.) He always claimed that when his brother died he saw his spirit leave, clapping his hands with joy.

All In the Mind

And yet interestingly even in this elevated world, outside our mundane reality, themes and images of confinement predominate. Why should this be? In fact there’s another way of looking at Blake, which runs simultaneously with all the above. Had you told him his cosmologies were merely in his imagination, he’d doubtless not have seen a problem.

Again this is something of a Nonconformist thing. Ackroyd recounts Blake enthusing over an engraving used as a frontspiece for a Dissenting text. It “shows the figures of man and woman: each figure has several flaps which can be opened to reveal fresh images beneath, and these human forms are shown to contain heaven and hell, and all the stars, within themselves. It is a depiction of the ‘One Man’, ‘Universal Man’ or 'Cosmogenic Man’ that was so influential among the mystics and philosophers of the late eighteenth century.”

Urizen can be shown as a tyrant, against who a heroic figure resists. A figure which often seems a surrogate for Blake himself. Yet Urizen, a Blake creation, comes just as much from Blake, and Blake not only knew this but incorporates it. The creation of mere matter, Urizen was often referred to as an artisan-like figure. And Blake was… well, you guessed.

So if Urizen is the rule-giver against which others revolt he is himself a tragic figure, valiantly pursuing his course of action but wrong for the right reasons. In a delicious irony, the begetter of chains is sometimes depicted bound himself, the maker of matter mere matter himself, all suffering under him including himself. All the best villains are misguided social reformers.

Ackroyd comments that “a characteristic Blakean scenario… is that of an isolated figure with upraised arms in an attitude of fear or reverence…. the figures seem to be struggling to liberate themselves from the confines in which they are crushed by paint, and metal, and print.” Not just as a figure within the drama, but by the mechanics of their own making. There’s something almost metafictional about this paradox.

To see how characteristic this is, compare the early ‘The Death of the Wife of the Biblical Prophet Ezekiel’ (c. 1785) and plate ten of ‘The Book of Urizen’ (1794, both above). Compressed, foreshortened bodies set under agonised heads with aloft eyes. Neither are chained, but both look as though to be embodied is to be chained.

The appeal of Blake isn’t that he’s otherworldly, in the sense of accessing a portal you might pass through into some other place. It’s his sense of another world which is already intermingled with ours, which cannot be separated from ours. The angels in the tree were always there, he just saw them where we failed. As someone-or-other once said, “man has closed himself up till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.”

These can appear primal questions, and Blake himself most likely saw them that way. Yet they could not be anything but historically contingent. Blake lived his life amid tumultuous social changes, and his art was inevitably his attempt to make sense of those changes. Inevitably it was more seismograph than map, as he tried to resolve problems he found he could only articulate.

It would be tempting to argue events pushed Blake away from politics to the ‘other kingdom’ of mysticism. Indeed, he did shift in that direction. But to reductively suggest he abandoned one for the other would be to do violence to him.

Thompson later comments “throughout the Industrial revolution we can see this tension between the ‘kingdom without’ and the ‘kingdom within’ in the Dissent of the poor, with Chiliaism at one pole and quietism at the other.” (Chiliaism is in brief the belief that Christ’s coming back, probably soon, so religion needs to get itself involved with worldly affairs again and sharpish.) Blake tries to resolve this question by dragging the two kingdoms together, by placing one above the other, by staging psycho-dramas in his mind or by any other means to hand. But whatever the scenario confinement reappeared, chains re-inscribed themselves on the plate.

Marx famously wrote that religion…

”…is the fantastic realisation of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

”…Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions… Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.”

This is not, as is commonly supposed, a critique of the con-tricks of Churches. That would be like coming across scam emails from supposed Nigerian benefactors, and assuming the cause of the problem is Nigeria. Marx tries to deal with religion by both encountering it at its best, and by tracing it to its source.

Blake asked two related questions. Is it possible to live an unbound life? And, can there be more to life than mere existence? The lack of a political answer to these pushed him towards a metaphysical, and hence a religious, expression of the questions. If the answer wasn’t here on earth perhaps it was there, up in the sky. But even with his prodigious imagination he could only pose and re-pose the questions, his art an arena across which raged an unresolvable war.