Dancing Ledge

When the going gets tough the tough start blogging

From underwater naturist films to lighting the way for the tripsters and hipsters


Edward Craven Walker pioneering maker of underwater naturist films and  inventor of the lava lamp

With its gloopy, trippy, luminous light, the gently bubbling Astro lava lamp will forever be associated with the turn-on, tune-in, drop-out generation of the 1960s. Organiser of the famed Woodstock Festival, Wavy Gravy, was an early enthusiast declaring it “Amazing!” before adding with breathless enthusiasm that: “It causes the synapses in your brain to loosen up.”

In fact this ultimate addition to any 1960s hippy pad owes its origins to a Dorset based former World War Two RAF pilot, a remarkable imagination and that old business trick of being in the right place at the right time. The man behind the lava lamp – which celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2013 – was the late Edward Craven Walker, a remarkable daredevil, inventor and pioneering naturist who shot the first underwater naked films to squeak past the censor.

5. Edward and Christine Craven Walker early 60s

Craven with Christine and their first delivery van in the early 1960s

Whatever else the dapper Craven (as he was invariably known) may have been he was certainly no hippy. Not that he minded being associated with the counter-culture.  Once he was aware that everyone from The Beatles to The Grateful Dead were making much of his new invention, he made a public statement: “If you buy my lamp, you won’t need drugs… It is like the cycle of life. It grows, breaks up, falls down and then starts all over again”

The hipsters lapped it up and the endorsement of the counter-culture did Craven no harm at all. However anyone who thought  that the concept of the lava lamp was conceived during an acid trip could not have been wider of the mark. Craven was actually inspired by a Heath Robinson style oil-filled egg-timer that he spotted in a pub in the New Forest.

He set about creating a lamp that worked on roughly the same principle – using heated oil, melted wax and an old orange squash bottle. After many modifications the lava lamp went into production at his factory in Poole in 1963. The company has been based in or around the town ever since.

3. An original lava lamp 1960s Astro lava prototype

An original prototype for the Astro lava lamp

The first two lava lamps on the market – The Astro and Astro Baby – immediately chimed with the emerging sixties hipsters but marketing was much tougher in those distant pre-internet days. In fact the original lava lamps were delivered around the country in a rickety old secondhand Post Office van. Craven’s second wife, Christine Baehr, recalls how exciting life was when the lava lamp suddenly became the must-have accessory for the hip and the happening. It appeared in cult TV programmes like The Prisoner and Doctor Who. No self respecting follower of fashion would be without one. It was even deemed an official design classic. Not that the trend-setters had a monopoly. A lava lamp was also featured in the decidedly uncool sit-com George and Mildred.

Down in Poole the Walkers suddenly found themselves at the sharp end of the swinging sixties. “Things seemed to move so quickly. It was terribly exciting,” says 69-year-old Christine who still lives on the Dorset-Hampshire border. “Psychedelia was a long way from our thoughts but it was the height of Beatlemania and one day a shop in Birkenhead phoned and said: ‘We thought you might be interested to know that Ringo Starr has just been in and bought one of your lamps.’

“That was it! We had no experience in marketing or PR but we didn’t waste any time in getting that particular message out. Things went absolutely crazy. We suddenly found ourselves in this bubble which just seemed to keep expanding. It was enormous fun.” That single Beatle endorsement had put them well and truly on the map.

Christine met Craven in 1960 when she was still in her teens. They married soon afterwards. She remembers him as a man “full of energy and ideas.” His controversial lifestyle and the notoriety he drew from his naturist films were, says Christine, of little concern: “It didn’t worry him at all because he felt there was nothing to worry about.”

Cressida Granger took over the Poole company in the early 1990s and now runs it as Mathmos – a name derived from the seething subterranean lake by in the cult 1960s sci-fi movie Barbarella. She has similar memories of the devil-may-care Craven. She first encountered him when she found a growing demand for lava lamps on a vintage stall she ran at London’s Camden Market. It occurred to her that she might be able to source the lamps direct from the Poole company. After doing a deal with the Walkers she turned the then declining company around and took over the business.

13. Mathmos Astro lava lamp heritage range

21st century version – the Astro lava lamp heritage range

Cressida remembers Craven as a force of nature. “He used to fly helicopters, drive speed-boats and fast cars and once came running into the office shouting: ‘I’ve just bought a fire engine’. He was always inviting me to go in his helicopter. I used to think ‘If you hadn’t crashed so many Jaguars I might actually consider it’ But he was great fun: very bright and a very unconventional thinker.”

She recalls her initial business meeting with the Walker’s at their nudist camp at Matchams just outside Bournemouth but denies claims that she only agreed to a face to face  meeting if Craven and Christine agreed to keep their clothes on for the duration of their discussion. “That wasn’t what happened at all” she laughs. “It was however suggested that I might like to take my clothes off. Let’s just say that I declined and the meeting went ahead with all us fully clothed…which was a great relief. ”

Although lava-style lamps are produced all over the world, Cressida Granger insists that the Mathmos lamps, still finished and filled in Poole, are unique, the precise contents a closely guarded secret. So, I asked, has the secret formula been memorised by a select team and locked in a safe somewhere? I’m afraid not,” replied Cressida. “It’s written down and kept in a purple folder.” Silly of me. Of course, it would be.

To celebrate the 50th birthday Mathmos has launched a limited edition Astro lava lamp complete with certificate signed by Christine. The company has also produced a new heritage collection and has just completed a season of commemorative events at the London Design Festival. This included the unveiling of the world’s largest lava lamp – a 200-litre monster – at the Royal Festival Hall.

But it wont be the biggest in the world for much longer. At least not if the residents of Soap Lake City in Washington State, USA, get their way. There have been plans afoot for more than a decade to build a 60-foot lava lamp as a tourist attraction. The $1million dollar plan has yet to find funding though.

Alphonse Mucha the art nouveau master who inspired 1960’s pyschedelic poster art

L 137 Gismonda

Mucha’s poster for Sarah Bernhardt’s Gismonda

It was 120 years ago that the talented but relatively unknown young artist Alphonse Mucha was catapulted to international fame after a chance encounter in a Paris print shop found him designing a poster for superstar actress Sarah Bernhardt.

Such was the power of his work publicising her new play Gismonda that the public clamoured for copies. As soon as the image appeared on the streets of the French capital on New year’s day 1895 people were cutting them from hoardings and bribing bill-posters to hand them over. Bernhardt, at the height of her fame, immediately signed Mucha to a six year contract.

His Gismonda, with it’s subtle pastel shades and sensual design literally revolutionise poster art. No one had seen anything like it before. Art Nouveau had been born and Mucha’s reputation had been sealed. Before long his work was everywhere, advertising not just the illustrious Bernhardt but cigarettes, bicycles and baby food.

L 113 Zodiac


Mucha’s work drifted in and out of style but decades later, long after his death in 1939, his influence could be seen in the hippy era posters for concerts by Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead and The Doors. Mouse and Kelly in San Francisco and Hapshash and the Coloured Coat in London were among those who adapted Mucha’s style for the tune in, turn on, drop out generation. Yet Alphonse Mucha’s posters represent just a tiny part of his prodigious output. He didn’t much care for the Art Nouveau label either. There was more to him than that.

Now a breakthrough exhibition at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum in Bournemouth explores the full might of his extraordinary artistic legacy.

Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty runs from 1st of April until 27th September and explores the core principle underlying his artistic philosophy – that the aim of art is to celebrate beauty. It examines how Mucha’s distinctive style evolved and developed beyond Art Nouveau. It’s a compelling story tracing the work of an artist driven to create not just posters but paintings, sculptures, jewellery and much more in a roller-coaster life of changing fortunes.

Alphonse Mucha

Alphonse Mucha

Born in Moravia (now the Czech Republic), Alphonse Mucha was feted in Paris and New York at the turn of the 19th/20th century and went on to enjoy widespread recognition in the newly independent Czechoslovakia where he designed the Republic’s new postage stamps and bank notes. Eventually though, during the dark days of the rising Nazi regime, he was sidelined in his Czech homeland. His death at the age of 78 came after severe interrogation by the Gestapo. Even beyond the grave Mucha’s artistic legacy faced a struggle. Communist control in Czechoslovakia saw his art dismissed as bourgeois and decadent.

Which is where Dorset law firm Humphries Kirk, which is sponsoring the Russell-Cotes exhibition, comes into the equation. The company has close connections with the Mucha family and worked tirelessly to keep Alphonse Mucha’s name and work alive when it was threatened with obscurity before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

L 106 Nestles Food

Nestles baby-food

Senior partner James Selby Bennett is a cousin of Sarah Mucha, wife of Alphonse’s grandson John, and has known the family for decades: “I well remember the dark days of uncertainty and repression before the velvet revolution in Prague,” he says. “Alphonse’s works and heritage were under considerable threat. The advice that we gave the Mucha family proved resilient. It is no exaggeration to say that the works on display and the deeper artistic heritage of this extraordinary artist were saved for posterity and we at Humphries Kirk are very pleased to have played our not inconsiderable part in that.”

What happened to Alphonse Mucha was the result of massive political upheaval across Europe during the 20th century. “He was very big in Paris and then in New York and then in the Czech Republic right up until the time of his death but during the Second World War they tried to airbrush him from history,” says Mr Bennett. “There was a short interval when everyone thought it was OK and Alphonse’s son George took his wife Geraldine and their young son back to Prague and lived in the family house. Then suddenly the Communists grabbed power and they were all out. Literally out. “Geraldine once described to me how George came back from work one day and they were all sitting on the street with a handcart with all their possessions in it, including the priceless works of art.”

As a visitor to the home of George and Geraldine in cold war Prague Mr Bennett witnessed at first hand the bugging of their home. “When I was there they would often find a new microphone usually with a light and a slight humming noise. It was extraordinary. I was a Territorial Army officer and after the wall came down I was given sight of part of my own dossier. Here I am a solicitor and farmer in Dorset and yet excerpts of my conversations were being listened to too. Every room in that house was bugged including the loo. They listened to every poop and parp.”

L 114 Reverie 1897

Reverie 1897

It was a strange time and, as the Berlin Wall fell and what Mr Bennett calls the “vultures and carrion crows” moved in for a piece of the action, the future of the Mucha collection was very much under threat. Happily with legal advice from Humphries Kirk the collection was saved and Mucha’s wider artistic heritage fully re-established.

Mr Bennett, whose mother Dolores Lees was a wartime resistance heroine and the only Englishwoman to receive the Croix de Guerre and bar, also has a curious political history. He is that rare beast – an English country solicitor, landowner and former TA officer who is a card-carrying member of the Labour Party. He even made front page national headlines during the 2001 general election campaign when he unwittingly became a have-a-go hero while canvassing as the Labour candidate in Dorset Mid and North Poole during the elections. The six foot seven inch, 17 stone lawyer raced into action after spotting a burglar breaking away from two men who had him cornered. Leaping from his Labour battle bus, he felled the thief with a rugby tackle and hung onto him until the police arrived. He then calmly continued canvassing, making sure that the victim of the burglary pledged a vote for Labour in return for his actions.

L 166 Cycles Perfecta

Mucha poster advertising bicycles

Fourteen years on his commitment to both the Labour Party and the artistic legacy of Alphonse Mucha remain as strong as ever. “I think it is marvellous that you can go to the Russell-Cotes and see these extraordinarily beautiful and fascinating pieces. Not just the pictures and the posters but also his sculptures, jewellery and his designs for everyday living. It’s a very appropriate location.” he says.

Museum manager Sue Hayward agrees, pointing out that the exhibition will draw links between Mucha’s work and philosophy and the Art Nouveau environment of the Russell-Cotes Museum and its remarkable collections.

*Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty is at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum until Sunday 27th September. For more information visit russellcotes.com



Bidding a sad farewell to Joy Beverley

The Beverley Sisters with Joy (centre), Babs (left) and Teddie (right). Their classic line-up.

The Beverley Sisters with Joy (centre), Babs (left) and Teddie (right). Their classic line-up.

I was saddened to hear of the death of Joy Beverley. She may have been 91-years-old and she certainly enjoyed a proverbial “good innings” but I suspect she would have liked to have hung on for a while more. I speak as someone who until a few short years ago used to often spend happy afternoons chatting to the Beverley Sisters. That stopped you in your tracks didn’t it! I’ll explain. During my years as arts and entertainments editor on the Daily Echo in Bournemouth I had occasion to interview Joy and her sisters, the twins Babs and Teddie, a number of  times.

It was that sort of job. One minute I’d be with John Mayall talking about the British blues boom or hanging out in a bar with former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor. The next I’d be lamenting the death of variety with Cannon and Ball, interviewing Ken Dodd sitting backstage somewhere in his vest and pants or…talking to the Beverley Sisters.  The inimitable harmony trio made a career out of being fresh-faced innocents who sang ever-so slightly bawdy songs. Identically dressed and loved by a fan-base that crossed the generations, they were acutely aware of their image and, perhaps even more importantly, their strength as a trio. Unlike many who work together for decades but eventually fall out, The Beverley Sister really were incredibly close. They even all shared the same birthday. Joy was born on 5th May 1924 and Babs and Teddie followed exactly  four years to the day later. Irving Berlin may have written Sisters, the song that became their unofficial signature tune, for the movie White Christmas but it could have been penned specially for Joy, Babs and Teddie.  The opening lyric ‘Sisters, sisters. There were never such devoted sisters’ tells it exactly as it was.

Meeting them was a delight helped no end by the fact that as soon as they discovered that I shared a surname with their mother Victoria, whose maiden name had been Miles, the Bevs took a distinct liking to me.  “How interesting!,” squealed Babs when I first introduced myself. “Maybe we’re related?” Just a cursory glance at either of our family trees  would have  blown that theory right out of the water but it was certainly an ice-breaker. Within minutes all three sisters were talking nineteen to the dozen about there early lives, their parents George and Victoria who performed as the music hall duo Coram and Miles and of course their extraordinary showbusiness career which made them one of the most enduring harmony trios of the post war years.

What a great story it was. Brought up in the East End, their singing talents were first noticed when they were chosen as models for a wartime Ovaltine poster  and the photographer heard them singing for the local troops.  He recommended them to a BBC producer friend who re-christened them Beverley Sisters and found them a gig on Variety Band Box.  They were on their way and in a few short years were massively popular. They played their first Royal Variety Performance in 1952 and recorded a string of hit records. Over the next decade they became not only a mainstays of British TV but also the highest paid female act of the time reputedly earning the equivalent of £10,000-a-week. Their chart hits included I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,  The Little Drummer Boy, Bye Bye Love and The Little Donkey but there were also longtime  favourite performance numbers  like How Much Is That Doggie In The Window? and of course the aforementioned Sisters.

Max Bygraves copy pictures from his personal collection: Max with the Beverley Sisters

Max Bygraves with the Beverley Sisters

Joy helped seal the Beverley Sisters fame in 1958 when she married the golden boy of football Wolves and England captain Billy Wright. The undisputed soccer superstar of his day, Wright led England as captain 90 times and became the first footballer to notch up 100 caps for his country. Together Joy and Billy were the ultimate celebrity couple, the Posh and Becks of the late 1950s. Their wedding – which took place at Poole Register Office during a day-off from a Beverley Sisters summer season in Bournemouth  – was mobbed by literally tens of thousands of fans.

Joy and Billy remained happily married until his death from pancreatic cancer in 2004. The last time I actually met The Bevs  was when they appeared as special guests in their friend Max Bygrave’s retirement concert. It had been Max – who I got to know well during my time at the Bournemouth Echo – who had originally introduced us. The retirement show in November 2003  came just before Max and his wife Blossom left their beautiful Bournemouth cliff-top home after more than 30 years and headed for a new life in Australia. It was a bizarre but happy evening during which Max, always canny with money, had attempted to sell his massive collection of ties in the foyer for £10 each. It was a bright idea he’d hatched while clearing out unwanted possessions prior to the Australia move, “Everyone always sends me a tie,” he explained. “I’ve got hundreds of them.” I expect he made a few quid but as business schemes went this was hardly on a par with the ultra shrewd investment he’d made back in the early sixties when he bought the rights to Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver! for £350.

Joy, Babs and Teddie were an essential ingredient in that retirement show. They had shared countless variety bills with Max for more than 50 years. He would have hated doing the show without them. Though they were well, into their 70s the Bevs would have done anything to be there.   They apparently made a rather striking arrival at the town’s Pavilion Theatre that afternoon having managed to get stopped by the police for driving the wrong way along Westover Road. Fortunately their misunderstanding was forgiven and a rather splendid anecdote had been born. To this day I smile at the thought of  a hapless traffic policeman pulling over their car and being greeted by the sight of the Beverley Sisters beaming out at him.

After that show. The Bevs occasionally continued to regale me with stories over the phone from their adjoining houses in North London but not for long. Their own retirement soon beckoned. I’ll treasure the memories though of the three of them jabbering happily away on the conference line that they routinely used for interviews. The sisters had been so close for so long that they had a positively telepathic understanding of each others thought processes. They frequently finished each others sentences,even when the conversation had gone off at some crazy tangent. It was often impossible to tell who was saying what but it really didn’t matter. They effectively spoke as one and they never lost the ability to deliver a useful soundbite. A quote you could use. For instance when, in the 1980s, the Bevs suddenly found themselves with a new gay following they took to it as only three ladies with penchant for wearing pink could. Astonished by the strobes, stage-smoke and flashing lights that greeted them as a super-camp crowd delivered ear-shattering ‘bow-wows’ to accompany  How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?, they observed that it was “Just like being back in the Blitz”. The media loved that one and they loved the Bevs too. They were friendly, fun and they knew how to play the showbiz game.  I’ll miss Joy and know that Babs and Teddie, now 88, will be devastated by her death. I hope they’re OK.


Mona Lisa and mad snappers

photograph by Hattie Miles ... August.2015 ... Paris ... (not) looking at the Mona Lisa

Tourists at the Louvre in Paris (not) looking at the Mona Lisa. Photograph by Hattie Miles, August 2015

A never-ending tide of humanity in t-shirts, trainers and cagouls surges ever onwards, sweeping up the grand steps of The Louvre – the one-time Parisian Royal Palace that is now one of the largest and most famous art museums in the world. These tourists –  just a few thousand of the 10 million people who visit here each year – are heading for the first floor of the Denon wing, home to an exquisite collection of French and Italian paintings. They are intent on finding La Gioconda, Leonardo da Vinci’s early 16th century masterpiece universally known as the Mona Lisa. It’s not difficult. It’s sign-posted every few metres.

Mona Lisa smiles for the cameras

Mona Lisa smiles for the cameras

As they draw close they prime their phones, iPads and cameras as a team of security guards usher them into a cordoned-off, makeshift pen. Finally in front of the relatively diminutive painting – a portrait in oils on wood-panel measuring just 30 by 21 inches and protected by bullet-proof glass – they strain to get a clear enough sight-line. Many turn their backs on this painting that once hung in Napoleon’s bed chamber to take selfies of themselves, grinning faces with the enigmatic Mona Lisa playing second fiddle  in the distant background. Few appear to have any opinion about the painting. They simply have to have it on their hand-held device before returning home. They don’t really look at the Mona Lisa at all, just view the image on the screen of their phone. They don’t discuss it either or even consider buying a postcard.

Tourists with Monet's Water lilies

Tourists at the Orangerie in Paris with Monet’s Water lilies

It’s difficult to imagine how life during the first decades of the 21st century will be viewed by our descendants. We are living in an era of visual self-gratification. We look but we rarely see.  Despite this we obsessively record our leisure time in an unedifying series of bad images snapped on smart phones, iPads, Go-Pros, selfie-sticks and occasionally even conventional cameras.  A couple of years ago someone calculated that a tenth of all photographs that had ever existed had been taken in the previous 12 months. Since then our appetite for pointlessly snapping everything we see has continued to grow and there’s no sign of our digital gluttony abating anytime soon.

In the days of photographic prints our rejects were often shoved in a drawer and forgotten, sometimes for many years until a chance rediscovery revealed their true worth. Some of my favourite photographs are the self-same prints that once seemed rather dull and nondescript. Sadly, those images – the ones that take us time to appreciate – barely exist anymore.


Looking through a doorway at Musee Picasso

In Paris we visited not only The Louvre but many other favourite art museums including Musee d’Orsay, the Picasso Museum, the Orangerie, Musee Rodin and the Pompidou Centre. Now people have always taken photographs in these amazing centres of culture, us included.  Something has changed though. The sheer mass of phone-toting snappers traipsing through these world-class galleries methodically collecting an image of every work they see has grown enormously. As we witnessed with the Mona Lisa, few people actually look at the painting or sculpture they are photographing and they certainly don’t stop to study it. They just want to acquire  proof that they have “done” Manet’s Olympia, Degas’ Little Dancer, Rodin’s The Thinker or Monet’s Waterlilies.

photograph by Hattie Miles ... August.2015 ... The Louvre

A visitor snapping Ingre’s Grande Odalisque at The Louvre

Intriguingly somewhere along the line the perceived etiquette of gallery behaviour has changed. Standing in front of a painting without photographing it is now considered by many to be simply  getting in the way. I was studying a rather splendid  Cezanne still-life in the Orangerie when three different people simply walked in front of me and took pictures with their phones. There were no apologies. In their eyes I was standing around doing nothing. Yet when I raised my own camera people ducked out of my way, raised their hands in apology and frantically skirted round me. How strange!  For a start I would have been more than happy to wait and anyway I wanted people in the picture. That was the point of taking it. If I simply wanted an image of an artwork I would have bought a postcard.

The strange case of Victor Noir the unlikely martyr who became a sex symbol

Victor Noir's grave at Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris photograph by Hattie Miles ... August 2015 .

Victor Noir’s grave at Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris has become a magnet for the childless and those looking for love. Photograph by Hattie Miles (August 2015)

What a bohemian life we lead!  I’m in Paris leaning on a grave in the Père Lachaise cemetery chuckling as my wife photographs another man’s erection. Right! Now I have your attention let me explain. The man in question is in effigy form. It is the bronze memorial to 19th century journalist Victor Noir, the pen-name of hapless hack Yvan Salmon, who was  gunned down in his prime in 1870 and, for reasons lost in the mists of time, commemorated with a statue that features him in a state of perpetual sexual arousal.

Childless women and those looking for love rub Victor's lump

Childless women and those looking for a husband rub Victor’s groin.

It is an extraordinary life-size memorial which ostensibly portrays Noir’s untimely death, but there is more. Frock-coat open, he lies on his back, shirt undone, bullet wound in his chest, his top-hat lying on its side at his feet. His trousers are partially unbuttoned too and there is a very obvious bulge in the crotch area. In a bizarre twist of fate Victor’s sculpted image has gradually found fame as a fertility symbol. Childless and lonely women leave messages and flowers in his hat , kiss his lips or even rub the lump in his trousers. For those unlucky in love the belief is that they will find a husband within a year while the childless will miraculously be able to conceive.

Flowers in Victor's hat

Flowers in Victor’s hat

This myth is believed to have emerged after tour guides contrived to invent a story that made some kind of sense of this strange grave. However no one really knows the truth or indeed why sculptor Jules Dalou chose to immortalise Victor Noir in such a manner. All indications suggest that the newspaper reporter behind the nom de plume, Yvan Salmon, was a relatively mundane fellow. What’s more he was just 22-years-old and though engaged to be married, very probably still a virgin.

What is clear is that visits from desperate women are frequent and often.  There are wilting flowers in his hat and the bronze figure is covered in an oxidised patina of verdigris except in the trouser area, which along with his lips, positively gleams from the attention received.

Victor is one of the more intriguing residents of the huge Père Lachaise cemetery – final resting place of countless thousands of the great, the good, the notorious and of course  the thoroughly ordinary folk of Paris. Among the more famous figures occupying graves in this hauntingly beautiful Parisian city of the dead are Chopin, Proust, Oscar Wilde, Molière, Colette, Isadora Duncan, Edith Piaf and of course American rock star and poet Jim Morrison whose grave can be found by following fans graffiti and the faint lingering smell of marijuana.

It’s a cast list that ensure that this vast cemetery which climbs a tree-swept hill to the north east of the city remains high on the list of must-see Paris attractions. Père Lachaise is a magical world of cobbled pathways and monuments that range from magnificent sepulchres  to crumbling, broken memorials to long forgotten souls. It’s a compelling place full of ghosts of the past and many stories that remain untold, half-told or reinvented.

The strange case of Victor Noir is a fascinating example of how both life and death can sometimes take an unusual turn. It all began when Victor’s pro-revolutionary editor at the newspaper La Marseillaise became embroiled in a political row with Prince Pierre Bonaparte – nephew of the late Emperor. Angry words were exchanged and the hapless Victor was despatched to fix the terms of a duel. Bonaparte was incensed that a mere minion had been sent to demand that honour should be satisfied, a scuffle ensued and Victor was shot dead.

photograph by Hattie Miles ... August 2015 ... Pere Lechaise, Paris ..

Oscar Wilde’s memorial at Pere Lachaise  smothered in kisses

Although he was just an ordinary newspaper reporter, a rather mundane individual by all accounts,  the slaying proved a catalyst for protest and demonstrations across the city. Before long the name of Victor Noir became inextricably linked to the causes of revolutionary activists. So much so that 20 years after his death Victor’s body was exhumed from a family grave near his home in the suburb of Neuilly and taken to Père Lachaise where he lies to this day beneath the extraordinary memorial created by Jules Dalou.

Not surprisingly perhaps the Victor Noir grave has not been free from controversy. As recently as 2004 the authorities fenced the site off  to prevent what they described as “lewd acts” being performed on the effigy. A BBC report at the time stated: “Officials concerned about damage to the icon’s groin area have erected a fence around the grave, and a sign prohibiting indecent rubbing.”  More than a decade on there is no fence, no sign and a distinctly relaxed attitude to how visitors may or may not choose to express themselves.

Other graves at Père Lachaise have given cause for concern too. Devotees of Oscar Wilde smothered his exotic memorial – painstakingly carved from a 20 tonne block of Hopton Wood stone by Jacob Epstein –  in so many lipstick-slavered kisses that it was  feared the monument would be permanently damaged.

Jim Morrison's grave .

Jim Morrison’s modest  grave .

In 2011 a glass screen was erected to protect it. It is now only the climbers who manage to plant a crimson smacker on the Wilde tomb which depicts a sphinx-headed winged messenger. Epstein gave it a spectacular pair of testicles too but not only did these cause trouble from the French police who maintained that were “unusual” and should be covered up but, once revealed in all their glory, they became the target of vandals who finally removed them in 1961. Legend has it that the ‘Wilde bollocks’ were then pressed into service as a paperweight by the cemetery manager. Whatever the truth they are now missing.

Vandals also managed to make off with a large stone bust of Jim Morrison sometime in the early 90s.  The lead singer of The Doors died, aged 27, in mysterious circumstances in Paris in 1971. The official account of his death stated that he died of heart-failure while taking a bath at the apartment he was renting with his partner Pamela Courson. However the fact that there was no autopsy and a hastily issued death certificate allowed his body to be released for burial before too many questions could be asked  led many to suspect that he actually died of a heroin overdose. Other theories maintained that he was murdered or that he faked his death in order to escape public attention. For years rumours persisted that he had changed his identity and was working as a bank clerk in Los Angeles. As if! But then who would have believed that mild-mannered reporter Yvan Salmon would end his days shot by Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew, become a martyr for the Republic, be immortalised as a randy ladies man and ministered to almost daily by strange women?

Tourists at Pere Lachaise

Tourists at Pere Lachaise in Paris in August 2015.

Fact file: Père Lachaise, which covers 110 acres was originally opened in 1804.  It was the city’s first garden-cemetery and though it initially contained only 13 graves, it now contains an estimated one million bodies.  It is easily found adjacent to the Boulevard de Ménilmontant in the city’s 20th arrondissement. The Philippe Auguste station on Metro line 2 is closest to the main entrance, although many  people prefer to head for the Gambetta station on line 3, which allows them to enter near the tomb of Oscar Wilde and then walk downhill to visit the rest of the cemetery. Don’t make the obvious mistake and get off at the Père Lachaise Metro station as it is 500 metres away and near a side entrance that has been closed to the public. You can buy a plan of the cemetery at the conservation office near the main entrance or download it in PDF form from the internet. Armed with this you can navigate your way around the famous graves and trace some of the key events and characters that have shaped French history. There are three memorials to the First World War and  Père Lachaise is also the site of The Communards’ Wall – Mur des Fédérés – where 147 Communards, the last defenders of the workers’ district of Belleville, were shot on 28 May 1871 – the last day of the “Bloody Week” in which the Paris Commune was finally crushed.

Remembering George Cole all at sea away from the Arthur Daley car-lot. He wasn’t acting either

So farewell to actor George Cole who has died aged 90. In a career that spanned more than 60 years he played the wily spiv Flash Harry in the St Trinians films and appeared with everyone from Olivier to Burton and Taylor before becoming known to a generation of Tv viewers as dodgy car dealer Arthur Daley in Minder. I met Cole a couple of times in his later years. Read about our encounters here. 

George Cole as Arthur Daley turning a little green while criossing the Channel in a force nine gale

George Cole as Arthur Daley turning a little green while crossing the Channel in a force nine gale. Picture: Hattie Miles

By Jeremy Miles

TURN the clock back 30 years and I’m in the middle of the English Channel , standing unsteadily on the bridge of a ferry, and clinging on for dear life as the ship pitches and tosses through heavy seas.

My eyes settle on Arthur Daley, one hand on the navigation console, the other clasped to the side of his head: “Oh my good Gawd,” he says, before letting out a moan that sounds not quite human. Inspector Chisholm and Terry McCann look on wanly.

No, not a bizarre dream, but real memories of being despatched to write a feature on the filming of the classic Christmas TV special Minder on the Orient Express. It had all seemed like a great idea, until we realised that we were expected to cross the Channel in a force nine gale.

Most of the cast, which included Honor Blackman and a then completely unknown Ray Winston, made their way reluctantly aboard. Some, however, had other ideas. Adam Faith insisted on staying firmly on dry land until the wind dropped enough for him to nip aboard a hovercraft and make a late dash for France, where he could be reunited with the Minder crew.

A decade ago I was briefly reunited with veteran actor Cole remembered the occasion well.

“Oh, that crossing – wasn’t it dreadful?” he said. Just weeks before his 80th birthday, Cole was doing a round of interviews to flag up the release on VHS and DVD of the tenth and final Minder Series. The programmes, carefully packaged in a three-volume box set, was the end of the road as far as Minder was concerned. Broadcast between January and March 1994, it saw the original Minder of the title – Dennis Waterman’s Terry McCann – sidelined and replaced by Gary Webster as Daley’s nephew Ray. These were considered far from vintage episodes but watching them again I realised  just how good they actually were. For it wasn’t only the last gasp for Minder – it marked the dying days of a level of TV production that had simply ceased exist. You only had to glance at the technical credits to see that there was a serious budget at work.

Cole, who told me that he accepted the role of secondhand car dealer Daley because the original synopsis of the character said that he “dressed like a dodgy member of the Citizens Advice Bureau”,  admitted he is eternally grateful for the part. It gave a late boost to an already long and illustrious career and right up to the date of our interview in 2005 he was still being deluged with fan mail.  Hardly surprising perhaps when you remember what an impact the character had on the British viewing public.

But Cole was quick to remind me that Minder was far from an instant success . “The first series didn’t get into the ratings at all nor the second but the third went like a rocket. “I knew something was happening when taxi drivers started saying: ‘How’s her indoors?’ or ‘You ought to give that Terry a bit more money’.”

Suddenly second-hand car lots all over Britain started using the Daley brand as a kind of jokey advertising slogan. “Very strange,” chuckled Cole. He also found himself getting a few sideways looks whenever he tried to cash a cheque and to this day you can buy Arthur Daley bank notes on e-Bay. “They keep sending them to me to be autographed. They’re supposed to be issued by the Bank of Fulham.”

A keen fan of the TV re-runs, Cole was delighted that the shows were going out on DVD saying that he particularly loved watching old episodes to try and spot the ‘It’ll Be Alright on the Night’ moments. “You recognise those times when there were problems but we managed to get out of it without stopping.”

Bringing it all back home: Ann Sidney half a century after winning Miss World

Miss World 1964, Ann Sidney, photographed at the Haven Hotel, Sandbanks, Poole ... 21.11.2014 ... photograph by Hattie Miles

Miss World 1964: Ann Sidney photographed in November 2014 at Sandbanks in Poole by Hattie Miles exactly 50 years after she won the title that changed her life.

Ann Sidney swings her 4×4 into the car park at the Haven Hotel in Poole and leaps out shouting: “I’m so sorry I’m late!” Crikey! We’ve been here all of three minutes and she’s missed our agreed 2pm rendezvous by maybe 45 seconds. Not only does Ann look astonishing for a woman who turned 70 several months ago but half-a-century after she walked off with the Miss World crown she is as vital and energised as ever.

Enthusing about being back in Poole – the town in which she grew up – she apologises for wearing a hoodie, t-shirt and sports trousers . “Travelling clothes!” she explains. Never mind, she looks absolutely great but she also wants to be photographed in the flash dress she’s carrying on a hanger. Old habits die hard.

It was a little over 50 years ago that, as an apprentice hairdresser from the backstreets of Upper Parkstone, Ann Sidney put Dorset on the map by winning the Miss World competition. She still takes a moment to distill those memories. Until that day she admits her experience of “overseas travel” was limited to taking her bicycle on the ferry to the Isle of Wight.

Within weeks of winning the Miss World title, the Secondary Modern girl who left school at 15 was on a plane heading for Hollywood. On arrival she was bundled, albeit graciously, into a car and driven to Bob Hope’s house. There she suddenly found herself rehearsing a show to entertain the troops in Vietnam. Whoosh! Her life had changed forever. In the next few months she would travel around the world five times.

She is reluctant to talk too much about those days. It is all going in a book. The nitty gritty, she says, includes nearly being blown-up in Vietnam and the the low-down on her affair with Bruce Forsythe. Bruce was 35 and Ann a mere 19 when he first wooed her while starring in a summer show in Bournemouth.

She is appalled by suggestions – widely spread across the internet – that she escaped from her heavily chaperoned hotel suite on the night of her Miss World triumph to spend a night of passion with him. Rubbish, she says. “It all happened a year later. No way would I have risked my Miss World crown. Any hint of a scandal in those days and they’d strip you of your title. I just hate it that they get it all so wrong.”

She claims she was snubbed by this year’s Miss World pageant because of the Forsythe connection. “Bruce is an important person and very close to the Miss World organisation. I’m afraid it looks as though they just didn’t want me there – even in my 50th anniversary year. I’m not sure what they we’re expecting me to do. Throw a stink bomb? Grab his toupee and throw it across the floor like a frisbee? I don’t think so.”

Ann is certainly not one for dishing the dirt. Quick to suppress unpleasantness on social media she recently put those getting troll-like on her behalf in their place, saying: “I don’t want this to be Brucie bashing – I loved him once but that once was a long time ago – let’s all move on shall we.” Ann has moved on many times. For years she lived in Las Vegas. There have been five husbands.

Ann and her brother George on the beach in the 1950s

Ann and her brother George on the beach in the 1950s

Far more innocent memories are flooding back as she sits talking outside the Haven Hotel. She stares across Poole Harbour towards the Purbecks and tells me about her memories of Poole in the 50s and 60s. Happy days playing on the beach with her brother George, feeding the ducks, skating on Poole Park lake and of course the incredible night she won Miss World.

Her mum and dad – Gladys and George – were watching at home on their 10 inch black and white TV. Not because, as was reported at the time, they didn’t want to put her under too much pressure but simply because they couldn’t really afford the trip to London. “I miss my mum and dad every day, says Ann. “At 70 years of age and officially I suppose an old crone, I look back and realise that I was incredibly lucky to have them as parents. They were both givers, and gave to me what money can never buy – love and good manners.

“That night was incredible. I was offered a year’s contract as an ambassador for the International Wool Secretariat, which involved promoting the industry across the globe. That year was a blur. I travelled the world first class and collected a wardrobe from all the top couturiers. What girl, even today, would not jump at such an opportunity?”

She has special memories of returning hoime “It was amazing. So many people turned out to see me and Lord Montague laid on a vintage Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost to drive me through the town. I had never experienced anything like it. “Everyone was so welcoming.”

A 20-year-old Ann Sidney celebrates winning Miss World in November 1964

A 20-year-old Ann Sidney celebrates winning Miss World in November 1964

What would follow was a career as an actress that included working on everything from Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg’s  ground-breaking movie Performance alongside Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg and James Fox to Tv appearances in sit-coms like Are You Being Served with telly stars like John Inman.

There was much more too, like “Seeing Europe in grand style, meeting celebrities and dining with people I never in a million years expected to sit next to. Going to Maxine’s restaurant in Paris – and meeting Aristotle Onasis and Maria Callas. They sent over a bottle of very expensive champagne to our table… somehow I rose to the challenge. As the saying goes Nothing succeeds like success.”

Fame did have its downside though. Ann remembers going home to her parents in Parkstone desperate for a few quiet days only to discover a list of friends and relatives queuing up to meet her.

“Mum and Dad were not only proud, but very sweet people, who wanted to please – they often got me into things I didn’t really want to do on my time off. Sometimes, I just wanted to stay at home with them, kick off my shoes, and chat – just be me. Mum would look at me in my jeans and sloppy sweater and say: ‘You can’t go out looking like that!’ I would say, “Mum – what do you want me to do, wear my crown? They took it back you know, it was only hired!” And then of course she would laugh.”

Reflecting on those days, Ann admits that Poole has always felt like home. “You know what?,” she says. “I’m 70. In 10 years time I can imagine myself shuffling along Poole High Street with my zimmerframe and people nudging each other and saying; ‘See her, she used to be Miss World!’ It’s bound to happen.” And with that Ann Sidney howls with laughter adding: “I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been.”

Ha ha! So David Hockney reckons that 2015’s gays are just too “boring and conservative”

Celebrations as London's 2015 Pride march makes its way along Oxford Street

Celebrations as London’s 2015 Pride march makes its way along Oxford Street

It’s a little ironic. Just weeks after David Hockney lamented the vanishing bohemian spirit of his youth and complained that gay men have become boring and conservative here I am trying to get across Oxford Street to catch the final day of his exhibition. What’s stopping me is a rainbow-coloured  tide of marching, dancing, chanting, strutting, pouting humanity. Gay, lesbian, bi and transsexual. Men and women. They are out and proud and doing their bit to give London 2015 its biggest Pride march yet. I’m standing outside John Lewis and the logistics of crossing the road to get to Hockney’s Painting and Photography show just a couple of hundred metres away at  the Annely Juda Gallery in Dering Street is interesting to say the least.

Painting and Photography by David Hockney

Painting and Photography by David Hockney

I find a crossing point amid the barriers but have to wait for what appears to be the religious section of the Pride march pass by. The banners read ‘Jewish lesbians’, ‘GLBT Catholics’, ‘Gay Christians’. They’re laughing, smiling, high-fiving spectators. Strangely Su Pollard hoves into view dressed in a coat of black net and pink feathers. “Could have made an effort,” jokes one observer. “That’s the kind of thing she wears to Sainsbury’s”.

Suddenly there are football fans, including Arsenal’s Gay Gooners, some cross-dressing  WAGS, a Rugby team, swimmers, roller skaters, a gay rowing club and a bunch of people in full  fetish mode – rubber, leather, chains, straps, gimp-masks and a pack of obedient  ‘dogs’ on chains.

Those with somewhat more unusual predilections were also present.

Those with more unusual predilections were also present.

There’s something rather odd about a man in leather cracking two huge bullwhips in the middle of the road outside the House of Fraser. The words ‘boring’ and ‘conservative’ do not immediately spring to mind though. Later I will note that there are indeed some Conservatives, with a big C  (why does that sound rude?) taking part in the march. I spy groups of banner-waving Labour and Lib Dem LBGT groups too which of course is only right in the interests of political  balance. Even in their united cause the traditional party divisions are clear. No sooner have the Labour group danced past wearing t-shirts emblazoned with a slogan that assures us that they have ‘Never Kissed a Tory’ than the Conservatives are delivering a cheeky riposte, slapping stickers onto people’s arms that read: ‘I Kissed a Tory – and I liked it’. The Lib Dems arrive with a banner that  simply states: ‘Freedom From Conformity’.

I find myself thinking about the strange phenomenon I am witnessing. People from the very centre of the British establishment. Card-carrying political party members, parliamentary workers from ‘Parli-Out’, groups from  just about any multi-national you choose to mention, joining with those on the absolute fringes of GLBT activism to celebrate their ‘otherness’. I suppose the whole march is a protest of sorts: a protest against intolerance, but with crowds 30,000 strong surging through central London, partying and pirouetting under the benign eye of the police, it’s difficult to see who they are protesting to. The small-minded are not in much evidence today.

LGBT Theatre takes the bus

LGBT Theatre takes the bus

However it’s worth remembering that just 64 years ago I was born into a Britain that thought it was appropriate to chemically castrate gay men and it is less than 50 years since simply engaging in a homosexual relationship could land you in prison. We’ve moved on a long way since then but sadly  hate crimes against LBGT people are on the increase and I did see a furious looking elderly man wearing a ‘loud’ but very expensive looking sports jacket raise his stick and snarl at a couple of men in pink PVC skirts and tops that read ‘Anal Angels’. All this incidentally took place in Whitehall under the gaze of the monument to Earl Haig whose actions as the Field Marshal commanding allied troops during the First World War cost tens of thousands of lives. No doubt a significant minority of the soldiers sent to the Western Front 100 years ago were gay too. It’s a sobering thought that had they chosen to ‘come out’ then Haig would almost certainly have had them shot. Unless of course they were public school educated officers with friends in high places. Then they would merely have been locked up in a mental hospital until they were ‘cured’.

Climbing the stairs to the Hockney show I reflect on his words bemoaning the fact that in Britain today so many gay men want to enter into civil partnerships, get married and have children through adoption or surrogate mothers. “They want to be ordinary – they want to fit in…everywhere is so conservative,” he told a national newspaper. Hattie and I have a number of gay and lesbian friends – the vast majority lead pretty normal lives. They are not screaming queens or butch, dungaree-wearing dykes. They are just people who happen to be in same-sex relationships and I’m sure that was the case with the vast majority of the marchers yesterday.  The Pride march is after all as much a carnival as a rally. People dress up, let off steam and stick two fingers up at the haters, the trolls, the champions of oppression, the bullies who preach blind prejudice. There actually aren’t too many of them out there – believe it or not this is still a very tolerant country – but they cause so much damage.

David Hockney probably wouldn’t like the fact that a very large number of yesterday’s marchers finished their day by climbing onto buses, heading out of town and, divested of their satin and tat, fishnets and face-paint, seamlessly merged back into a variety of quietly conventional suburban worlds. It’s the way it is in 2015. The bohemian 1960s world that Hockney enjoyed was only ever populated by a relatively small number of counter-culture movers and shakers.

A large Christian presence challenging homophobia in the Church

A large Christian presence challenging homophobia in the Church

Given the right company, a certain degree of determination and a modicum of luck, the creative core of society can still enjoy radical and unconventional lifestyles. I am not just talking about sexuality here but writers, artists, performers and pioneering talents both gay and straight in many other areas, including science and business. However, in a world where houses that were once student squats have been redeveloped into multi-million pound homes for oligarchs and bankers, the very fabric of what gave the 1960s its launch platform has been undermined.  Despite this I truly believe that it is not impossible to overcome the monumental obstacle of greed that we are facing these days.  I am convinced that at least some of the brightest talents can and will still make it. It gets tougher all the time but just think of us as a nation with a gradually lowering sperm count. The strongest and most potent will still thrive.

How mile-a-minute Harry lost £60 million on gambling, fast women and bad business deals

Devotees of the ongoing ITV drama series Mr Selfridge will know that things are fast spiralling out of control for the American retail entrepreneur. As the final episode of season three hits our screens tonight, they might be interested to know the real Harry Gordon Selfridge was even more reckless than the TV version portrayed by Jeremy Piven.

He came to London in the early 20th century and revolutionised the retail experience with his eponymously named store. It was a huge success and he made millions but he also managed to lose most of it through bad business deals, pipe-dreams, gambling and his taste for high-maintenance women. Below is a magazine feature I wrote last year about his extravagant spending and his little known life, away from London, on the Dorset/Hampshire coast.

Jeremy Piven as Harry Selfridge in the TV series

Jeremy Piven as retail magnate and self-made millionaire Harry Gordon  Selfridge in the TV series

By Jeremy Miles

Millions of viewers have been tuning in to Mr Selfridge, the glossy ITV1 drama about the flamboyant self-made American retail giant who taught the British how to love shopping in the early 20th century. But how many of them know that Harry Gordon Selfridge  – the man who founded the Selfridges department store and coined the phrase “The customer is always right” – lived for years right here on the Dorset coast?

Between 1916 and 1922 he rented the imposing cliff-top Highcliffe Castle near Christchurch. It was the start of a new era in the life of this extraordinary self-made man who had clawed his way up from being a 14-year-old stockroom boy in Chicago to become an inspirational retail entrepreneur. It would also mark the point when his reckless spending, womanising and gambling began to spiral out of control.

The real Harry Gordon Selfridge photographed around 1910 soon after his move to London

The real Harry Gordon Selfridge photographed around 1910 soon after his move to London

Selfridge had made millions and established a world-beating department store that had finally made shopping sexy. It had turned him into a multi-millionaire superstar. But the boy they had called Mile-a-Minute Harry back in Chicago was never able to simply sit back and enjoy his wealth and fame. He was a hopeless adrenalin junkie, a risk-taker who always wanted more.

While his devoted wife Rose and their children enjoyed the genteel country life in Highcliffe, Harry would race to town to entertain the glamorous young French singer and dancer Gaby Deslys. Gaby – one of a series of lovers – was extremely high-maintenance. Harry leased her a big Georgian townhouse in Kensington sending a Selfridges van each day bearing flowers and gifts. Meanwhile the singer had the run of the Oxford Street store, helping herself to whatever took her fancy. Jewellery, furs, fine-silks… they all went on Harry’s personal account.

Highcliffe historian Ian Stevenson says: “Everybody says Selfridge came to Highcliffe because he was worried about his family being in London with the First World War Zeppelin raids but the other half of the story is that he was having this affair.”

Stevenson, a former Fleet Street journalist, is an expert on Highcliffe, it’s castle and Selfridge’s time there. He helped author Lindy Woodhead research her best-selling book Shopping, Seduction & Mr Selfridge which inspired the TV show and he reckons the real-life Harry Gordon Selfridge was even more remarkable than the character portrayed in the TV show by actor Jeremy Piven.

Stevenson isn’t particularly impressed with the TV version, saying “Frankly it plays fast and loose with the facts. They’ve made Selfridge so much younger than he really was. He was 53 when he opened Selfridges. There’s nothing in the programme to indicate that.” However he does concede that everyone else – Lindy Woodhead and Highcliffe Castle management included – seem delighted with the series. Not surprising perhaps. Visitor numbers and book sales have soared since Mr Selfridge hit the TV screens. The second series opened in 1914 and it is hoped that a third series will take the show into the Highcliffe years. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” says castle manager David Hopkinson. ( Note to readers: This did not happen, Series three has steadfastly ignored the Highcliffe connection).

Despite this Ian Stevenson is finding people ever-more eager for stories of the charismatic Mr Selfridge and his time at Highcliffe Castle.  It was a period of change for Harry during which both Gaby Deslys and his wife Rose would meet premature deaths. The  Family made a big impact on Highcliffe during the First World War, flying the Stars and Stripes from the castle roof and establishing a Convalescence Camp for wounded servicemen on the nearby recreation ground. After Rose’s death from pneumonia  in 1918 Harry devoted even more time to playing the the grand showman. His Whitsun fete at the Castle in 1920 attracted 5,000 people with special trains from Bournemouth and Southampton ferrying the crowds to and from nearby Hinton Admiral station.

At Highcliffe Selfridge was set on a path of outrageous displays of wealth and grandeur. He would play high-stakes poker with society friends like the tea magnate and keen yachtsman Sir Thomas Lipton and Royal financial advisor Sir Edward Cassel who had a holiday home at Branksome. Later Harry himself would keep a huge steam yacht, Conqueror, moored at Southampton. Like most of his interests it cost a fortune.  But gradually the money was running out.  The Wall Street Crash combined with a reckless relationship with gambling-addicted showgirls, The Dolly Sisters  – he would buy diamond necklaces to cheer them up when they lost his money on the tables in Monte Carlo – proved financially fatal. By the late 1930s his £60 million fortune was gone. He owed the taxman tens of thousands and Selfridges could no longer afford to pick up the tab. In a boardroom showdown Harry was forced out of the business he loved.

Harry Gordon Selfridge would die, aged 90, in relative poverty. A tragic down-at-heel figure in his final years, he would often catch the bus to Oxford Street just to stand and look at the great store that continued to thrive without him. Shabby and ill-dressed, he was once even arrested as a suspected vagrant. His simple gravestone now stands alongside those of his wife and mother in St Mark’s Churchyard in Highcliffe just a few hundred yards from his grand former home. Just a mile or two away is the beauty spot Hengistbury Head, the site of one of his more bizarre plans, to build a massive castle of his own.

Selfridge could stand at the bottom the Highcliffe grounds and see the ancient headland. When he eventually managed to buy it from Bournemouth landowner Sir George Meyrick, he announced with customary gusto that he was going to build “the biggest castle in the world”. Plans were drawn up for a massive 250-room Neo-Classical palace, a Gothic fortress with four miles of ramparts, its own theatre, a huge ballroom and a Versailles-style Hall of Mirrors. At one point he even planned to include a 300 foot tower. It was never too be. Eventually he had no option but to sell Hengistbury to Bournemouth Council for £25,000.

Ian Stevenson, like many other locals, is hugely relieved that this nature reserve and centre for environmental  research was spared the worst excesses of Selfridge’s imagination: “It’s a blessed relief that he frittered his money away. Nobody would have been able to afford to keep that building up and ‘The Head’ would now be littered with the ruins of his castle.”

One final tale from Ian Stevenson perhaps speaks volumes about how Harry Gordon Selfridge, despite fabulous wealth, could never compete with the elite of British Society. The 1921 wedding of his daughter Violette to French Viscount Jacques de Sibour was a huge social event but a request for Violette’s good friends Daphne and Viola Bankes from Kingston Lacy to be bridesmaids earned a sharp rebuttal from their snooty mother Henrietta. “She was too snobbish to allow them to take a role in the wedding of a commoner’s daughter,” says Stevenson.

For more about Highcliffe Castle go to www.highcliffecastle.co.uk

Birdsong – love, loss and slaughter on the Western Front

Birdsong: Lighthouse, Poole

This play is an absolute triumph! Rachel Wagstaff’s stage adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ best selling novel Birdsong brings the murderous madness of the First World War battlefields on the Western Front into sharp focus.

Faulks’ poignant story of love, loss and inhuman suffering has been reworked as a magnificent piece of multi-layered theatre in this touring production by the Original Theatre Company.

Under director Alastair Whatley, a strong cast, powerful set and superb lights and sound combine to make this story of young English officer Stephen Wraysford thrown into the horrors of war on the rebound from a passionate affair into a compelling stage drama.

Peter Duncan as Jack Firebrace. Photo by Jack Ladenberg

Peter Duncan as Jack Firebrace. Photo by Jack Ladenberg

Edmund Wiseman is brilliant as Wraysford who is fighting not only the German army but his own demons as he prepares to lead his men – a rag-taggle bunch of horribly ill-equipped volunteers – over the top into the hellfire of the Battle of the Somme. It will be battle so fierce that as the verdant French countryside is turned into a muddy morass strewn with broken bodies it even silences the ever-present sound of birdsong.

The sense of fear and hopelessness is tangible as, during the stand-out scene of the play, the men – office boys, farm-workers, labourers and shop assistants – write what may be their final letters home. Vocal harmony and violin highlights the emotion of the moment.

Wraysford clings desperately to the memory of his lost lover, Isabelle Azaire, the abused wife of a French factory owner, and the pre-war affair that brought them a few brief months of happiness. Their story is told through a series of seamless flashbacks with Emily Bowker  as the trapped wife forced to abandon all for love and some kind of freedom.

Back at the front Wraysford is stationed amid shattered trenches at a command post controlling a network of tunnels snaking beneath no-man’s land. A team of sappers – “sewer rats” – crawl into the darkness to lay explosive charges beneath enemy lines.

Among their number is the honest, decent and dutiful Jack Firebrace. In a standout performance by Peter Duncan we discover that Firebrace is endlessly resourceful, steadfast in the face of adversity and remains almost inconceivably strong as he receives heartbreaking news from the home-front. He offers compassion and support to his comrades and looks on in distraught resignation as they die one by one.

His own death…in agony, paralysed and trapped in the filth, darkness and rubble of a sabotaged tunnel is so unjust that it somehow stands as a metaphor for the whole mindless and disgraceful slaughter of war.

The message of this play, and Faulks’ book, is clear. As we prepare to commemorate next year’s centenary of the Battle of the Somme  – a campaign that claimed the lives of nearly 20,000 British soldiers on the first  day of fighting alone – we must never forget and we must never allow such horrors to happen again.

Sadly, it only takes a glance at the TV news to see that the brutal inhumanity of war lives on.

Jeremy Miles


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