Picture Palace


Sarah and I spent a few days in Amsterdam last week. I'd been there once before, on an art college field trip, twenty eight years ago. I don't remember much about that first visit. I filled a big A2 sketchbook with drawings, but I haven't kept any of my college work, so what they were drawings of I don't recall.

One of the things I do remember is this cinema, the Theater Tuschinski. I was mooching about looking for stuff to sketch when I suddenly noticed this strange art deco edifice, like an alien temple, squeezed in between a couple of more ordinary buildings on Regulierbreestrat near the Rembrandtplein. I sat down in a doorway on the far side of the street and started making a drawing of it. After a while the owner or manager of Tuschinsky's, who was played by Peter Lorre, came over to see what I was up to, and claimed to be so impressed that he suggested I stay in Amsterdam for a few weeks as a sort of artist-in-residence. I was far too shy to do anything like that, so I said no, which is a shame; it would have been an interesting experience.

Anyway, I wanted to have another look at Tuschinski's, and when we found it, on a damp Dutch night, it was just as spectacular as I'd remembered.

Calling it an Art Deco building doesn't really capture its strangeness, this is some kind of orientalist-Egyptian mutant Amsterdam strain of Deco; it has weird biomechanical ribs and buttresses, lamps like the business ends of giant fireflies, and centipede elephants for decoration. Here are some daytime shots:

When I was first in Amsterdam it never occurred to me to go inside. This time we did, and it's just as extraordinary inside as out. Sarah took lots of photos in the lobby, and in the curving corridors. It's all been recently restored, and looks magnificent.

There are four screens now, three of which are in a new wing at the back, but by luck the film we went to see was showing in the original auditorium, where the decor is as spectacular as anything that happens on the screen...

There's an account of the history of Tuschinski's here, and if you're ever in Amsterdam you should definitely try to see a film there (English language films are shown with Dutch subtitles). The staff were really friendly and helpful, too.

I think it might be my favourite building in the world.

All the photos are by Sarah Reeve, except for the square ones, which I took on my phone.

In other Dutch news, Cakes in Space, my new book with Sarah McIntyre, is now available in the Netherlands under the frankly superior title Astra En De Astrotaartjes. Here's a review by Sandra Hessels.

North Cornwall Book Festival and Armadacon


Photo: Daniel Hall
Sarah McIntyre and I had a great time last Friday at the North Cornwall Book Festival. It was a long drive, especially for my son, who had had a collision with a low-flying skateboard the previous day and looked as if he'd just gone six rounds with Jack Dempsey, but once we got to Endellion there was a warm welcome from chairman Patrick Gale and the rest of the team, and I finally got to meet Matt Haig (and learned that his wife's brother is none other than the great Dave Semple, who drew the excellent cover illustrations for my Goblins series).

Ever since Sarah and I started doing the Cakes in Space show we've been haunted by the knowledge that sooner or later we'd forget a major prop, and sure enough we did - the Nom-O-Tron somehow didn't make its way into the car. But Sue Harbour-Robertson, owner of the lovely house where the festival was held, came to our rescue, providing us with random vegetables and bits of electronic equipment, so the crisis was over almost before we'd had time to start panicking.

You can find Sarah's blog about it all here.

That was the last Cakes in Space event of the year, but we'll be dusting off our spacesuits again for various festivals and schools events next spring.

I'll be doing another West Country event soon; the ArmadaCon science fiction convention in Plymouth. The programme is starting to take shape over on their website, and I know that the guests will also include Doctor Who writer Andrew Cartmel. I'll be talking about my own work from Mortal Engines to Cakes in Space, and I'm also putting together a talk about some of the things which have influenced me over the years.

Unfortunately the North Cornwall gig meant that I couldn't make it to BristolCon this year, but I gather it was as good as ever, and next year's has already been announced, with Jaine Fenn and Jasper Fforde as guests of honour, so I will make sure I get there on September 26th 2015.

Black Angel


Anyone who has been reading this blog for a year or two will know that I like to bang on about Excalibur from time to time, John Boorman’s 1981 King Arthur movie having been a bit of a seminal moment for me.  The first time I saw it - 5th July 1981, a day to mark with a white stone - I remember that it reminded me of a strange little movie called Black Angel, which had played as a supporting feature with The Empire Strikes Back the previous year. But Black Angel was long gone by then, and never released on video or shown on TV, so I was never able to compare and contrast the two.

A few years ago I came across a reference to this lost movie on the internet, and wrote a piece about my memories of it. It turned out to be the work of Roger Christian, better known as art director on Star Wars and Alien, who sent me a very nice e-mail after I posted my piece, in which he mentioned that he was hoping to get it restored and re-released somehow.

Well, thirty four years later, I have finally been able to watch it again. It’s a fascinating little fragment of cinema history, whose influence can be traced through '80s fantasy films like Excalibur and Dragonslayer all the way to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies and HBO's Games of Thrones.

The story is a fractured, elusive affair. A knight (Tony Vogel) returns to his homeland to find it ravaged by war and sickness. Falling into a river, he almost drowns, but his life is saved by a mysterious girl. She claims to be bound as a servant to the Black Angel - who, when he finally appears, turns out to be a sort of personification of Death, all black armour and fraying cobwebs. The knight does battle with him… 

I remember being entranced by it as a teenager (it was the first time I’d seen on screen the sort of imagery I loved in the work of artists like Brian Froud and Alan Lee), but the story never quite came into focus enough to be satisfying. I feel rather the same way about it now. It feels like a haunting fragment.

It’s really a mood piece, like many short films. The budget looks miniscule, but the photography, by Roger Pratt, is remarkably beautiful. It unfolds like a series of paintings. There are lingering shots of wintry upland landscapes, through which the knight rides on his white horse. There is a great sense of the physicality of the landscape, the mud and wind (Christian claims Kurosawa as an influence; I wonder if there's also an echo of Terry Gilliam's mediaeval landscapes from Jabberwocky and Monty Python and the Holy Grail?). But it's a world of magic too; the scenes shift in a dreamlike way - the knight falls into a river, but emerges from a broad lake; figures appear and disappear; smoke drifts through the forests.  

To an Excalibur fan it’s all eerily familiar, because it’s made from the exact same elements as the 'quest for the grail' sequences in the later movie. In interviews, Roger Christian has mentioned that John Boorman loved his film and said it had the look that he was after for Excalibur, but the parallels go beyond the visuals. The increasingly hallucinatory nature of the knight’s quest seems like a direct forerunner of Sir Perceval’s adventures in Excalibur. The music is by the same composer, Trevor Jones, and features some of the same elements - ethereal singing, odd twanging electronic sounds, and a descending synthesiser scale which is repeated almost exactly on the Excalibur soundtrack. There is some underwater footage where the floundering knight errant tears at his armour as he sinks. Even the sparse, looped-sounding dialogue is similar (‘Follow me!’ cackles the raggedy old man whom the knight meets at the waterfall, vanishing into the trees, just like the child Mordred in Excalibur.

For me, watching Black Angel again felt like tracing something back to its source. It’s always worth remembering that works of art don’t exist in isolation; everyone has their influences; creators see stuff they like in other people’s work and import something of it into their own. As Picasso is supposed to have said, ‘good artists borrow, great artists steal’. And one of the pleasures of getting to know a work of art is working out its ancestry, and tracking all the tributaries which fed into it.

In the interview I linked to above, Roger Christian mentions vague plans of returning to the world of Black Angel and expanding it into a longer film. I have no idea where those plans stand, or whether the tenebrous atmosphere of the original could survive the process, but it would be great to see him do something of the same sort again.

I bought Black Angel on i-tunes for £1.49. It may be available in other places too - I'm still a bit vague about how you buy movies online).

There is a great interview with John Boorman here, in advance of his new film, Queen and Country.

It's Festival Season...

... which is why I haven't posted much here recently. It doesn't stop the indefatigable McIntyre, though; she has written detailed accounts of our adventures in Budleigh Salterton and at the Isle of Man LitFest.

Photo: Sarah Reeve

Now we have a short breather and a chance for Sarah to work like crazy on the pictures for Reeve & McIntyre Book 3, and for me to enjoy some nice long walks in the autumn sunshine. Then we're off to the North Cornwall Book Festival, where we'll be appearing on Friday 24th October.
Before then, on Saturday 11th, you'll be able to find me at my local comics shop, Gnash Comics in Ashburton, where I'll be helping to support the Books Are My Bag campaign for bookshops. And I'm also sorting out what I'll be doing at Armadacon in Plymouth.  Both of those are solo Reeve events - no Sarah McIntyre, no spacesuit, and definitely none of this sort of thing...