Angela Carter was a master of radio drama

Kate Chisholm in The Spectator

The writer Angela Carter (born in 1940) grew up listening to the wireless, her love of stories, magic and the supernatural fed by Children’s Hour, and especially a strange, frightening and yet captivating dramatisation of John Masefield’s novel Box of Delights. In the introduction to Sunday’s Drama on Three, which gave us two of her plays written for radio, Carter (voiced by Fiona Shaw) says that what she particularly likes about the medium is the way the listener has to (or is allowed to) contribute to the narrative, adding their imagination, their mind-pictures, their own way of seeing. Carter, just like Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter or Howard Barker, really understood how to make the most of radio’s potential to make real the inner voice and relished the freedom to play with text and meaning unbound by concrete limitations.

In Vampirella (first broadcast in 1976 and here directed by Fiona McAlpine) Carter criss-crosses in an instant between subjective and objective reality. She was, she says, inspired to write it by the sound of her fingernails trailing across the top of the radiator in her study while she was sitting at her desk waiting to find something, anything, to write about. That sound made her think of a gilded birdcage, a hand cursed with nails three inches long, ‘fit only for gouging’. The daughter of Count Dracula, last in the line that began with Vlad the Impaler, is trapped in that darkened castle of popular myth somewhere in Transylvania, waiting for someone to come and release her. Up turns a stalwart Englishman, straight out of empire, who’s bicycling across the Carpathian mountains in search of adventure. An unfortunate accident lands him in the castle and at the mercy of those nails (brilliantly voiced by Jessica Raine, moving between menace and seductive charm at a whisper) and Vampirella’s Scottish sidekick, Mrs Beane, a ‘stern,tartan governess’, who ‘has a mouth like a steel trap’.

Carter might indulge in fantasy but her message is always pointed and her language richly coloured yet never indulgent. Sunshine becomes a kind of ‘irradiated darkness’; Vampirella’s hair falls down ‘inconsolably as rain’; the ‘angel of inquietude’ stirs in every corner. After escaping, saved by a passionless kiss and ‘the cold showers of my celibacy’, our Hero arrives in Bucharest to hear about the assassination in Sarajevo. The Count lives on ‘behind every battlefield’.

(read the full article here)

BBC Two: “Angela Carter: Of Wolves And Women”

On August 4, BBC Two will broadcast Of Wolves and Women, a dark and delicious foray into Angela Carter’s extraordinary life narrated by by Sally Phillips. The programme will be available on BBC iPlayer shortly after broadcast.

Pioneering her own distinctive brand of magic realism, works like The Magic Toyshop and Nights At The Circus cracked open the middle-class conventions of the post-war novel and influenced a new generation of writers.

Hattie Morahan as Angela Carter

Yet in her lifetime Carter’s fierce politics, frank exploration of gender, and fondness for the supernatural unnerved the macho literary establishment. She never won the Booker Prize or received the staggering advances of her male contemporaries – and regularly struggled to pay the bills, despite creating the acclaimed film The Company Of Wolves.

Four decades on, Carter’s powerful tales of desire, fearless women and monstrous sexual predators have never felt more relevant. As Jeanette Winterson says in the film: “Every woman writing now has a debt to Angela Carter, whether or not they have read her. She was ahead of her time. And that’s why we’re so interested in her now because she’s coming into her time almost prophetically.”

While Carter’s early work drew on her creepily claustrophobic childhood and miserable early marriage; it was her experience of living in Japan in the 1970s that liberated both her writing and her sexuality.

And she continued to live out of kilter with polite society, horrifying critics with expletive laden put-downs, falling in love with a teenage builder in her 30s, becoming a mother at 43 – and, tragically, winning the reviews of her career for Wise Children, the week after her death at the age of 51.

Made by the award-winning team behind The Secret Life Of Sue Townsend (Aged 68 ¾), with animation by Emmy award-winning Peepshow Collective, this film is a visual treat inspired by the surreal imagery of Carter’s fiction.

Hattie Morahan plays the young Angela (with extracts from unpublished letters and diaries), while Maureen Lipman, Kelly MacDonald and Laura Fraser read from Carter’s fiction.

Including rare archive and family photos, with contributions from Angela’s friends, family, students and admirers – including Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Jeanette Winterson and Anne Enright.

Emma Rice announces UK tour of “Wise Children”

Emma Rice has announced that her new company’s first production, the stage adaptation of Angela Carter’s novel Wise Children, will tour the UK following its world premiere at the Old Vic in October.

The piece, which is about twin chorus girls and their bizarre theatrical family, runs at the Old Vic from 8 October to 10 November, before touring to Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, York and Coventry, with further venues to be announced soon.

Created and led by the former Shakespeare’s Globe artistic director, Wise Children is based in the south west with the aim to create ensemble work to tour nationally and internationally.

To mark the launch of the company, tickets for the final dress rehearsal at the Old Vic will be available free, available through a lottery via Wise Children’s website.

Performances at Oxford Playhouse 13 – 17 November 2018

Performances at Cambridge Arts Theatre 20 – 24 November 2018

Performances at York Theatre Royal 5 Mar – 16 Mar  2019


Last year, Renato’s Theatre Company in Bristol have transformed Angela Carter’s story ‘Puss-in-Boots’ into a stage musical  on the 25th anniversary of her death with an exciting adaptation of her celebrated short story. The company write that through a combination of “feline musicality, […] bawdy wit and undertones of gender issues still relevant today, this production promises to be uplifting, wickedly funny and suitably provocative!”  There are rumours that the musical will be revived this year – more details when we have them.

Emma Rice: ‘I don’t know how I got to be so controversial’

(from The Observer)

‘You’ve one path in life, which is your integrity, your vision, your soul”: Emma Rice.

“It was on Shakespeare’s birthday,” says Emma Rice, remembering the April day in 2018 when she walked away from the Globe theatre. After only two seasons as its artistic director, she had received what amounted to a vote of no confidence from the board that had appointed her, and her departure caused an outcry in the world of theatre. “The heavens opened as I left,” she remembers, “and something washed away at that moment. I had such a sense of the narrative of my life…”

We are sitting in an office in Bristol’s Spike Island, the building in which Rice’s new company, Wise Children, is installed (about which more in a moment). Two years on, Rice looks splendid, with exclamatory hair, silver hoop earrings and festive yellow clogs. She is feeling “euphoric” at having started a new chapter. Yet her eyes have a complicated look as the subject of the Globe looms: sadness mixed with humour. She has barely talked about it publicly since she left. “I feel gratitude and relief that two years of transition are over. Not that I wanted what happened to happen – I didn’t.” She loved the space, audience and excitement at the Globe: “I will miss it until the day I die.”

The reason offered for her departure was that the powers that be did not like her unconventional use of sound and lighting (her opening production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream had a disco feel – David Bowie as a garnish to Shakespeare). The Globe prides itself on its natural effects, but she knew, as an open letter she posted on the Globe’s website revealed, that this was about more than lighting: her artistic vision was no longer trusted. She could not continue. “My artistic process is all I have,” she says.

“I felt like Polonius behind the curtain,” she admits, laughing sadly. What she means is that when they stabbed her, they had not intended to finish her off. “They were surprised when I didn’t get up. That’s my guess. When I started working at the Globe, I came on too strong. I met the space with artistic frenzy, it was so exciting – the lights, the sounds. I don’t think they imagined I’d leave. They thought I’d accept new guidelines, that I’d want the job more than my practice. My guess is they were shocked when I said: ‘Absolutely not’. I felt like Tina Turner. [Turner refused to give up her name in the divorce courts: ‘I’ve worked too hard for it.’] You’ve one path in life, which is your integrity, your vision, your soul. It was never an option to stay.”

Biography Prize for The Invention of Angela Carter

Edmund Gordon has won the Biographers’ Club Slightly Foxed Best First Biography Prize 2017 for The Invention of Angela Carter, a finely judged and elegantly written biography, in which Gordon teases out the truth behind Angela Carter’s fictions about her own life, while recounting the brilliant and volatile career of this born writer, critic and fabulist.


Sam Leith, Literary Editor of The Spectator and judge of the Best First Biography Prize commented ‘This was an exceptional shortlist, in which every book showed not only thorough knowledge of its subject but deep and sympathetic understanding. From the Tudor court, to the battlefields of the First World War, from a busy Obs/Gynae ward on the NHS to the august halls of the National Gallery, from a book-lined study to a Japanese love-hotel, we were thoroughly immersed, too, in the worlds these books inhabit. In the end, though, we had to pick a first among equals. And for its elegant writing, fastidious research and becomingly modest yet entirely authoritative portrait of its fascinating subject and her unique work, we chose Edmund Gordon’s The Invention Of Angela Carter as our winner.’

A Warm Biography of the Fantastical, Feminist Angela Carter

By Dwight Garner (New York Times)

The English writer Angela Carter (1940-1992) tended to look, one observer said, “like someone who’d been left out in a hurricane.” She liked to make an impression, and her hair was often wild. She wore, when young, what she termed “a reasonably suave Jimi Hendrix cut.”

She enjoyed floppy hats, tattered furs, large eyeglasses. Boredom was her enemy. Carter was a disrupter of dull dinner parties. A friend called her a “raconteur of glee.” If she rang you on the phone, you’d clear your schedule for the afternoon.

She was a similarly disruptive agent in British fiction. Her novels, when they began arriving in the late 1960s, were unlike the button-down realism that then prevailed. They were fantastical, feminist, absurdist, sexy. She tinkered with genres (fairy tales, horror, science fiction, gothic) most literary writers scorned.

Carter found an audience before she died, at 51, of lung cancer. But it was only after her death that her reputation was secured, and it has continued to rise. The Times of London, in 2008, ranked Carter 10th on its list of “the 50 greatest writers since 1945.” In 2012, her novel “Nights at the Circus” was named the best of the winners of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

Like all the best writers, she was incapable of phoning anything in. Her fiction aside, Carter’s thick book of collected journalism, travel writing, criticism and essays, “Shaking a Leg” (1997), is its own erudite stay against dullness.

Now we have “The Invention of Angela Carter,” the first full-length biography, and it will consolidate her position. Edmund Gordon has written a terrific book — judicious, warm, confident and casually witty. The ratio of insight to literary-world gossip, of white swan to black swan, is as well calibrated as one of Sara Mearns’s impossible balletic leaps.

Gordon has had the good fortune to seize upon, for his subject, not only an important writer but one who led a deeply interesting life. This bio unfolds a bit like one of the fairy tales Carter shook to release its meaning. The pages turn themselves.

(read the full review in the NY Times)

Breaking the Spell

For Angela Carter, literature had the power to upend the fictions that regulate our world.

By Namara Smith (from The Nation)

The title story in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, the collection of reimagined fairy tales that contains her best-known work, is based on the legend of Bluebeard. Carter updates the story’s setting to the late 19th century—the widowed husband smokes Cuban cigars, the young wife wears a Poiret shift to dinner—but otherwise retains its traditional contours. The familiar plot unfolds with a sense of inevitability, as if every action were preordained. The heroine drifts through the story like a sleepwalker, hypnotized by her husband’s “heavy, fleshy composure,” the rhythmic motion of the train that carries her to his castle in Brittany, the scent of the lilies that fill her bridal suite. Even when she discovers the bodies of his previous wives laid out in a gruesome tableau and it becomes clear that she is his next victim, the mood remains dreamlike.

The spell isn’t broken until the story’s final pages. In the 17-century version of the fairy tale by Charles Perrault, the bride is saved by her brothers-in-law; in Carter’s, it’s her mother, a military widow who comes galloping up the causeway, armed and dangerous, just as the killer is about to cut off the young wife’s head. Carter narrates his reaction with a typical flourish: “The puppet master, open-mouthed, wide-eyed, impotent at the last, saw his dolls break free of their strings, abandon the rituals he had ordained for them since time began and start to live for themselves; the king, aghast, witnesses the revolt of his pawns.” His authority shattered, the husband is reduced to “one of those clockwork tableaux of Bluebeard that you see in glass cases at fairs.”

Variations on this scene—the moment when the strings are cut and a familiar story suddenly veers off course—recur throughout Carter’s fiction. The strongest emotions in her work are elicited by the prospect of a leap into the unknown, the event that could not be predicted or controlled. Unlike many writers shaped by the upheaval of the 1960s, Carter never disavowed the politics of that period or treated them as a temporary madness; she remained committed, throughout her life, to the possibility of radical change. Her novels tend to conclude with either a wild party, an act of violent destruction, or a combination of the two. Although her fiction drew heavily on traditional folklore, she saw herself as being in “the demythologizing business.” Myths, Carter asserted, are “extraordinary lies designed to make people unfree,” and she adopted their conventions in order to blow them up. At the end of her second book, The Magic Toyshop, a Gothic reworking of Paradise Lost, the two main characters look at each other “in a wild surmise” as their house burns to the ground. “Nothing is left but us,” the heroine says. She doesn’t seem unhappy about it.

As Edmund Gordon emphasizes in his new biography, The Invention of Angela Carter, the allure of remaking oneself remained a constant throughout her life. Her notebooks and letters are filled with plans for self-improvement projects: to learn Gaelic as well as “the French they speak in France”; to work out how to “live off the land”; to dye her hair a different color; to redo the kitchen. Carter was enthralled by fashion, particularly its potential to antagonize others. At her first job—reporting for a local newspaper—she wore green lipstick until her colleagues complained. Decades later, when she bought her first house, she painted the outside blood red.

In the journal she kept as a young woman, Carter wrote a sentence from André Breton’s First Surrealist Manifesto over and over: “The marvellous alone is beautiful. The MARVELLOUS alone is beautiful. The marvellous ALONE is beautiful.” She loved storms, pyrotechnics, circuses. When she was 30, she moved to Tokyo to live with a Japanese man she had met and fallen in love with six months earlier. Two years later, after the relationship dissolved (she’d found another woman’s lipstick on his underwear), she returned to London alone. Carter knew they weren’t compatible, she told a friend, when she made him take her to a fireworks display and he was bored by it. Who could be bored by fireworks? (read the full review at The Nation)

“Pussy” – a musical adaptation of Angela Carter.

Pussy is a musical adaptation of Angela Carter’s radio play and short story Puss-in-Boots from her well-known collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber. Carter’s genius was to unfurl the feline raunchiness implicit in Charles Perrault’s tale. The outcome is high comedy and the target it hits is the male chauvinism imprisoning human sexuality. The show presents sexual intrigue and seduction as seen through the eyes of a talking, booted, dilettante cat.

This musical version of Carter’s radio play and short story, ‘Puss-in-Boots’, commemorates the 25th anniversary since her death. This extravaganza is a blend of Perrault’s fairytale (translated by Carter), commedia dell’ arte and Figaro from the operas by Mozart and Rossini. The music captures the prose of such antics as his somersaulting holding a full wine-glass and speaking in French, the language closest to a purr. Music and lyrics have a feline quality. The ribald cynicism of the tom-cat protagonist expresses Carter’s radical treatment of traditional fairytales, which expose gender issues still relevant today.

Angela Carter was one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, best known for her transformations of the fairy tale. She also wrote a libretto for an opera and published the children’s book, Comic and Curious Cats (1979). Around five of her nine novels were written while she was living in Clifton, Bristol during the 1960s and where she studied English at the University of Bristol. This entertainment promises to capture her subversive humour and to introduce or re-acquaint audiences with her highly original and wicked imagination.