This Summer We’re Channelling: Melina Mercouri in “Never on Sunday”

“Never on Sunday”, 1960. Melina Film

 
Never on Sunday is Jules Dassin’s love letter to Greece. Homer Thrace (Jules Dassin himself) is an American scholar and self-confessed amateur philosopher who comes to the port of Piraeus to find out the truth: Why Greece, the cradle of civilisation and culture, has given in to a life of pleasure. From that very premise, finding out the truth, he sets about improving Ilya (Melina Mercouri), a beautiful, graceful and intelligent, life-loving prostitute he is fond of, to him the personification of Greece herself. The truth is a little different than his perception of life, and than the American way of thinking and seeing the world.

Moralising and redeeming messages are often the weakness of so many good American films. And the fact that Jules Dassin made Rififi in France, having been blacklisted in Hollywood because of his pre-war communist affiliations, is part of what makes Rififi the best noir. As David Cairns wrote in his essay, I’m a Crook at Heart, Rififi confirmed “that outside Hollywood and the constraints of the Production Code, it was unnecessary to prettify the ugly stories with socially redeeming messages and moralising.” Therefore, François Truffaut confirmed, the relative permissiveness of the French censors “allowed Dassin to make a film without compromises, immoral perhaps, but profoundly noble, tragic, warm, human.” The French critic, would-be-New-Wave-director was a big champion of the film. “Out of the worst crime novel I have ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best film noir I have ever seen. Dassin shot the film on the street during high winds and rain, and he reveals Paris to us (Frenchmen) as he revealed London to the English (Night and the City) and New York to the Americans (Naked City).”

After making Rififi (1955) in France and winning best director at Cannes, Dassin took up residence and filmmaking in Greece. He shot Never on Sunday in Piraeus, in 1960, and just as he had done with Rififi, The Naked City and Night and the City, he revealed the seaport of Piraeus not only to the Greeks, but to the whole world. The whole atmosphere is authentically Greek, the music is traditional bouzouki music and the crew and cast are almost entirely Greek. Melina Mercouri, who would become his wife, was cast in the leading role.
 

“Never on Sunday”, 1960. Melina Film

 
“I was trying to criticise in comedy this awful tendency that Americans have,” Dassin explained in an interview with Gordon Gow in Films & Filming, “to try to remake the world in their image, in their thinking, in their imposition of what we call the American way of life. Often half-baked, often without any real understanding of what different countries are about.” About his character of a Homer, which he played only because he couldn’t afford the actors he had in mind, he wrote: “It’s about a man who tries to make people think as he does. He’s a guy who can walk into the happiest environment and by the tine he leaves, success in making everyone miserable. He meets a woman, she’s Greek. And he’s an American. Wherever he goes, he tries to impose the American way of life. He’s not a bad guy. He’s just dangerously naïve. He’s a boy scout. She’s so happy, he can’t stand it. He doesn’t think she should be happy.” With astute vision and humour in equal measures, the film explores the cultural misconception and the expansionism propagated by the Americans and their films. But it is Melina Mercouri that is the best part of the film – she won the award for best actress at Cannes for her role.

With her raspy voice, daring look in the eye, disarming candour and galloping naturalness, she has a magnetic presence. Every man in Piraeus adores Ilya, but she is the one who chooses her partners. She is independent, lives in her own apartment, not sharing accommodation like the other women in her profession, how have to pay an exorbitant rent for it. Forty at the time, Mercouri radiates the kind of beauty and wisdom that only come with maturity and “her charisma and likability elevate her beyond the archetypal figure of the whore with a heart of gold,” as Peter Shelley states in the book Jules Dassin: The Life and Films. The author further reports how Mercouri researched the part of Ilya in Notaras Street, the red-light district of Piraeus: “The girls received us graciously and in the most bourgeois manner. There was tea, little cakes, and polite conversation. They liked me. [In the film] I became the mascot of the whores of the world. I received letters from everywhere thanking me for portraying their profession with dignity.” She is wonderful in the role and one of the finest scenes is when Ilya, alone in the room, sings the theme song of the film, her acting talent and Dassin’s directing sensibility and skill beautifully coming together.

Often referred to as The Last Greek Goddess, Mercouri was not only a great actor, but also a fierce activist, firing “the imagination of a whole generation of Greeks”, as stated in the press release of the Technopolis exhibition celebrating the 100th anniversary since the birth of Melina Mercouri (held this spring, two years later because of the pandemic). She was in New York on Broadway performing in Illya Darling, the play adapted from Never on Sunday, at the time of the 1967 military junta in Greece. She was stripped of her Greek citizenship and her films and music were banned in Greece, but she kept on militating for her country, touring Europe to plead the cause of free Greece and building massive international support. She would return to Greece after the coup d’état, and start focusing more on theater. She would later on go into politics and become the Minister of Culture, a position she held from 1981 until 1989. To this day, she remains a symbol of Greece and one of its greatest ambassadors.

Also part of the almost entirely Greek cast and crew of Never on Sunday was costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge (she appears as Deni Vachlioti, her birth name). Born in Thessaloniki, in 1922, she emigrated to the United States to study at the drama school in Chicago and she soon decided she wanted to focus on costume design. A few years after she graduated, she moved to New York with her husband, Tom Aldredge, whom she had met at drama school, and her first job as a costume designer was for Elia Kazan’s 1959 Broadway play Sweet Bird of Youth, starring Geraldine Page and Paul Newman (interestingly enough, Melina Mercouri starred in the Greek adaptation of the same play in 1960, directed by Karolos Koun). Her career would span the worlds of film, theater, musicals, ballet and opera. Her costume credits include The Great Gatsby, Network, Eyes of Laura Mars and many of Jules Dassin’s exile films, from Never on Sunday, to Phaedra and Topkapi. She also did fashion design briefly, including a collaboration with Jane Fonda to create a line of workout clothing during the 1980s fitness craze led by the actress – Fonda said she needed someone who knew how to design for a dancer’s body.

It’s a dancer’s body you think of when you see Melina Mercouri blaze on the screen in Never on Sunday. When she dances, her black sheath dress dances with her. When she walks, her clothes walk with her. Theoni V. Aldredge not only understood film costume (“You don’t stifle a show with your ego. You don’t take over a show.”), she understood costume construction. She rarely used ready-made dresses in her costumes. And this showed on screen. On Melina Mercouri, the clothes stay differently than on the other ladies of the night. Not just because of Mercouri’s silhouette and extraordinary scenic presence, but because her character stands for more than what she is supposed to be… which is also the source of Homer’s confusion. The director clearly separates her “from the other town’s whores,” writes Peter Shelley, “who Dassin will objectify in a repeated and resonant image of four women’s legs walking in unison”, and when the camera finally pans out, it reveals the skin-tight, flesh-revealing costumes they all wear. Ilya’s is not a haughty, uptight clothing. More often than not, when you see a pencil skirt paired with a white blouse, or a body-hugging dress, lightness of movement are not exactly the first words that come to your mind. With Melina Mercouri, the opposite is true. There is only one way to define her elegance: alive and mercurial.

 

Melina Mercouri in “Never on Sunday”, 1960. Melina Film

 

Editorial sources: Jules Dassin: The Life and Films, by Peter Shelley; François Truffaut, Le Cahiers du Cinema, 1955; I’m a Crook at Heart, by David Cairns ; Theoni V. Aldredge: Broadway and Beyond, by Nan Cibula-Jenkins

 
 

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Read Instead…in Print


“I don’t go by nighttime dreams because it’s daydreaming that I like.”


 

Read instead… in print #15

The moment I saw the title and cover of David Lynch’s memoir, I fell in love with it. Room to Dream. It’s all in that title. The possibilities that title holds. The mysteries it eventually further deepens. I didn’t expect anything less from David Lynch. Room to Dream does not demystify. What movie lover would want that? A deconstruction of David Lynch’s films? Art does not need explanation, but to be felt and experienced and interpreted by each individual differently. The Lynchian universe remains an enigma.

It’s the personal journey of the artist that you look for instead in this sort of book. Here is one truth I already knew, but which is worth repeating again and again and again: David Lynch is a creator who does not compromise, does not sell out, a filmmaker who does not make movies for critics “but answers to the higher authority of his imagination”. And there are many random things I took away from the book, the kind of things I’m looking forward to in an autobiography the most, the little details and contours and the personal stuff teasing that take you a little closer to the artist and the man, without intruding. You’ve been invited in and you take this chance, a brief splash of insight, because the door will not remain open for long.

His childhood shaped him. He’s got a sense of humour. He was a happy child and has a happy personality, but has always been drawn to dark things. In high school he already had a well defined style and he still dresses the same way as he did back then. Appearantly, every woman he has met finds him attractive. He discovered meditation in 1973 and it changed his life. His films don’t really make money, but he does what he believes in. He values his privacy and his favourite thing to do is to be home working. He loves Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and The Apartment. He thinks Grace Kelly and James Stewart’s kiss in Rear Window is one of the best in the history of cinema (the other one is Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift’s in A Place in the Sun). For Laura Dern’s character in Twin Peaks: The Return, he created his own lipstick palette and mixed colours until he found the pink shade that he wanted. He loves Los Angeles light. He works with actors, not stars. Work always comes first. He gives himself room to dream.
 

Editor’s note: Read instead… in print is about a good book about cinema or filmmakers. No discursive, pretentious analyses, no verbose scrutiny. Because the idea is to invite you to read the book, not read about it here. But instead of using social media, I use my journal. Back to basics. Take it as a wish to break free of over-reliance on social media (even if it’s just for posting a photo of a good book) for presenting my work, cultural finds and interests. These are things to be enjoyed as stand-alone pieces in a more substantial and meaningful way than showing them in the black hole of Instagram thronged with an audience with a short attention span. This is also a look through my voluminous collection of books about film that I use as research in my adamant decision to rely less and less on the online and more on more on print materials.

 
 

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July Newsletter: Cretan Cicadas and the Sound of Summer


 
 

Photos: Classiq Journal

 
 
The humming of cicadas. It’s the sound of summer in Crete, and once you’ve experienced it, it can become the sound of every summer. The continuous noise that comes from the trees that carpet the rolling Cretan hills and interrupts the serenity of the noon is a soothing reminder that you are in the midst of summer. But not just any summer, but an unhurried, far-removed from the pace of everyday life summer. With this humming in your ear, and the high-rise sun in your eye, bouncing its blinding light off the stone-washed traditional cottages, or even off the waters of the sea if you happen to be on a beach sheltered by juniper pines, you feel you’re in a haze.

More than the sound of waves, I will always associate the sound of cicadas with summer, just as I have always done with a favourite summer film. The kind of film that can capture the suspended reality of summer, that can evoke a special childhood memory, that can make you succumb to chance and to the languid summer magic, or that is able to transport you to another time and world. It can be about a place just as much as it can about a mindset. A favourite summer film, just like a sound or song, lingers with you long after you’ve watched it and may even accompany you throughout a lifetime.

Summer is the only time of year when you can sometimes feel like the main character in your own adventure film, roaming the majestic scenery of your most without boundaries side. And watching the shimmering, huge sun dip into the sea, you get a deeper sense of tomorrow and that you can not really know what to expect from it.
 

 
Viewing

A few scenic films shot in Greece.

Never on Sunday (1960) is my favourite film set in Greece. It is Jules Dassin’s love letter to Greece. Homer (Jules Dassin himself) is an American scholar who sets about improving a prostitute, Ilia (Melina Mercouri), he is fond of, starting from the premise that he must find out the truth: why Greece, the cradle of civilisation and culture, (and subsequently Ilia, the symbol of Greece to him, beautiful, graceful and intelligent), has given in to a life of pleasure. The truth is a little different than his perception of life, and than the American way of thinking and seeing the world. Melina Mercouri is superb in the film (she won the Cannes Film Festival for her role and was nominated to the Academy Award). She holds the screen, such is her magnetic presence. The setting is the picturesque port of Piraeus, the music is traditional bouzouki music, the cast and crew are almost entirely Greek, and the whole atmosphere is authentically Greek.

The Two Faces of January (2014), featuring a wonderful trio, Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen and Oscar Isaac, with its underlying tension, ever-twisting emotional dynamics and that beautifully built contrast between a sun-drenched backdrop and a dark plot that takes us to Athens, an island or the coast line. It’s the story of a holiday gone wrong.

The Lost Daughter, one of the best films of last year, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel by the same name and which has as center character a terrific Olivia Colman as Leda, a middle-aged university professor while on a work holiday on a Greek island. In my interview with costume designer Edward K. Gibbon, we have talked about the costumes as part of the gateway to the character, a fundamental yet subtle and gentle piece to put the story on.

For Your Eyes Only (1981), because it’s a Bond film, because of its locales, which are very much a part of the allure of a James Bond film – Greece, as well as Italy and The Bahamas – but also because it was the first Roger Moore film that was shaped as a more serious and realistic spy thriller anchored on a young woman, Melina Havelock (Carole Bouquet), being also the first time when we are reminded of Bond’s personal story at the very beginning of the film when Bond goes to the grave of his wife – that was a first in the history of the Bond films. But what makes For Your Eyes Only stand out even more though is that they put a bit of edge on Roger Moore’s Bond.

Une femme à sa fenêtre (A Woman at Her Window), 1976, is based on the 1929 novel Hotel Acropolis, written by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, which tells the story of a woman who helps a union leader sought by police in 1930s Greece. The woman, an aristocrat married to her husband in name only, is Romy Schneider, which is why I set out to watch the film in the first place. Romy was nominated to the César Awards and, fortunately, the film, which also stars Philippe Noiret, makes up in scenery (beautiful tennis clay court included) for what it lacks in plot.
 

And a few summer favourites we look forward to each year: Jurassic Park, because we have the biggest seven-year-old dinosaur lover and true connoisseur in the house and we never get tired of watching Jurassic Park with him. And yet, the film is that good. We have also watched Jaws with him recently. “It’s good, but not as good as Jurassic Park,” was the verdict. Arguments ensued, each held their ground. And… the Hitchcock initiation has finally happened, with The Birds. And let me just say that we might have a movie buff on our hands. On a side note, I still very much believe that Rod Taylor is just as underrated as Tippi Hedren and her place among Alfred Hitchcock’s heroines is.
 

 
Reading

Billy Idol’s Dancing with Myself. He is the first big rock musician I have been to see in concert. The impact was huge, and his music has stayed with me. And it’s his love of music – not just punk, but the early rock ‘n’ roll, “the forward momentum of music that is meant to be danced on” and music in general, because he would “incorporate the energy and spirit of punk into many different musical settings” throughout his career – that you truly get to take a taste of in the book. From the kind of musician who believed in the power of song, and sincerely believed in his music, creating an audience where none had existed before. It’s so far away from today’s uneasy, disturbing lack of authenticity.

Cultivating Conversations, a monthly interview series with people doing interesting work within the bounds of community, nature, and sustainability.
 
 

“We wanted to create a new optimism
rather than continue to wallow on self-pity.
We were young and idealistic!
We believed in the healing power of music
and its ability to challenge society.”

 
 
Listening

Billy Idol: Billy Idol, Rebel Yell and Devil’s Playground.

Dickon Hinchliffe for The Lost Daughter should be the soundtrack of every road trip.

The Jurassic Park main theme, because isn’t it a great way to start a summer day, ripe for adventure, especially for children?

 

 

Making

Their art is olive oil. Presiding from the top of the hills over millennial olive trees on the north-western tip of Crete, the Astrikas Estate Biolea makes single estate, stone milled and cold pressed organic olive oil sourced from their 3,000 trees. Owned by two brothers, Biolea is a sincere and attentive family business that strives for excellence by combining innovation and tradition, remaining environmentally accountable, and promoting sustainable tourism. They don’t export their products, which is another identity-defining element that, frankly, makes the visit to the estate that much more special, as you can only procure their products, such as olive oil, hand-made soap and citrus balm, in their on-site shop. It’s a living space where one can find shelter from the blazing sun under the shade of olive trees, where people can meet and take their time, or an entire afternoon, to talk or simply unwind while enjoying a cold orangade (best refreshing drink), Greek coffee (so close to what I make at home) or a glass of wine at the outdoor wine bar.
 
Exploring

The island of Crete. And the best guideline for that are the words of Alberta Galla and Michele Buonsanti, who explored the Cretan shoreline by foot or by hardly accessible roads and wrote the book The Most Beautiful Beaches in Crete: A guide to hidden, picturesque locations along the Cretan Coastline. “You will need a good map, an adventurous spirit, a strong desire to go and explore the island”, because the aim is to avoid “doing it the easy way”, never giving in to the temptations of standard, sterile tours that are what tourists look for but also what keep real travelleres off from their destination and deeper experience. But these are guidelines to be applied to discovering the entire island, not just its beaches, with its hidden gems, sun-drenched tavernas and picturesque villages scattered along winding mountain roads lined by olive trees that end with grand vistas of the sea, rocky inlets or out-of-the-way gorges.

And always take up on the word of the locals, who, if you are lucky enough, can be your own hotel hosts. That’s how you get to discover the still authentic sides of the place and you might just find out that you prefer the rawness and simplicity of a rocky strand shaded by tamarisk trees with a beautiful position overlooking the sea to any other white-sand, picture-perfect, crowd-pleaser beach. What’s the point of going on an island if you don’t look for off-grid places that can kick off that feeling of pure freedom?
 

 

The regulars: The interviews, newsletters and podcasts I turn to every week and/or every month because they are that good. Craig Mod’s newsletters: Roden and Ridgeline. Soundtracking, with Edith Bowman. Alicia Kennedy’s newsletter. The Racquet magazine newsletter. The Adventure Podcast: Terra Incognita. The print magazines Monocle and Sirene.

 

Posted by classiq in Books, Culture, Film, Newsletter | | Comments Off on July Newsletter: Cretan Cicadas and the Sound of Summer

This Summer We’re Channelling: Ursula Andress in “Dr. No”

Ursula Andress and Sean Connery in “Dr. No”, 1962. Eon Productions

 
60 years of Bond films. It is hard to think of a more enduring popular culture. So how could we not celebrate the original Bond Girl this summer?

I am all for non-archetypal female characters in Bond movies. After all, I have repeatedly written about female characters who have challenged the portrayal of the Bond girl as a one-dimensional lust object and/or collateral damage. They are the ones who have made a lasting impression, distinguishing themselves through a lot more than skin and looks – although they had the looks, too, alright. They are in a league of their own, rather a real match for Bond instead of helpless side-kicks: Eva Green in Casino Royale, Carey Lowell in Licence to Kill, Carole Bouquet in For Your Eyes Only, Léa Seydoux in Spectre or Naomie Harris and her alt Bond girl in Skyfall – she may be the only one who has proven that she can capture Bond’s attention (and hold it) regardless of any hierarchy or sexual politics.

But, and this is a big but, being a James Bond film fan, this is not to say that I disregard by any means all the other Bond girls who have populated the 007 movies and their influence – I like this Bond Girl variation – especially that, despite all the gender discussions, the seduction game often appears as a two-way street, with Bond girls being the hunters and 007 the prey just as much as the other way around. The Bond Girl is meant to be a pivotal figure in the narrative. And I perfectly understand why, for some, Ursula Andress will always remain the epitome of the Bond Girl. From the very beginning, there has been much more than what meets the eye to the archetypal Bond Girl. Honey Ryder may be wearing just a small bikini when she is first glimpsed by James Bond when she steps out of the ocean, but the complexity and duality of that famed bikini go beyond the mere male gaze. It certainly is a beautiful item, too. A classic.

In an interview from The James Bond Archives, Ursula Andress recalled that, on her arrival on location in Jamaica, “we had no wardrobe, so we had to get the bikini right away. A friend of mine from Rome, Tessa Prendergast, had a boutique in Jamaica and she was also making dresses. So we made the bikini together.” The film crew were a small production, Ursula remembers, like a family who did everything together. And so they did. After having studied and lived abroad, Tessa Prendergast had returned to her native Jamaica to work as a clothing designer in the late 1950s and in a few years she would land her single most important film costume job.

Sean Connery would recall how Terence Young, the director, “took me on a trip to get our clothes and everything, and it was an eye opener. The budget of the clothes was astronomical in relation to the film , but he was right, Terence, because there was a look about it…” The budget for designing the costumes for the first Bond Girl however may not have been as big, and this might be one reason why they hired a relatively unknown designer to make them. But this didn’t hinder Prendergast from creating one of the most iconic costumes in cinema history, clothes that are not only effective narrative devices that reveal aspects of the character, but clothes that helped establish a memorable character, and Honey Ryder as the quintessential Bond Girl.
 

Ursula Andress in “Dr. No”, 1962. Eon Productions

 

Of great help in creating the costume was also the script, which described Honey’s outfit in detail: “Honey, standing at the water’s edge, her back to him. She is naked except for a wisp of home-made bikini and a broad leather belt with an undersea knife in a sheath. (Undersea knife differs from a conventional hunting one in that it has a rather bulky cork handle which causes it slowly to surface if dropped underwater. This is rather important as they are characteristic.)” In another interview, Andress explained that a different kind of bikini had been sourced before her arrival, but she disliked the “traditional Jamaican style” of it: “I didnt like the palm trees or the leaves or the tropical flowers on the print of the fabric. I wanted something very simple. […] I had a very special idea of how I wanted the bikini […] I chose the material. I didn’t sew it, but I helped to cut it!”

The bikini eventually turned out as it was supposed to: a simple, classy, practical working action garment suitable to withstand the demands of the role. “They were lucky they chose me,” Andress remarked, “because I was sporty, otherwise, if I had been a normal delicate person, I think I wouldn’t have survived what they made me do. […] The role for me was easy, because I used to do competition swimming, so the sea was no problem. Running around up and down the hills, through the mud, through this marsh was very easy for me. The difficult part was when I had to speak. I used to be very scared, but Sean helped me a lot and was adorable to me.”

Honey Ryder is introduced midway through the film. Asleep on the beach, Bond is awakened by Ryder who is singing Underneath the Mango Tree as she steps out of the ocean wearing her small, ivory bikini – “the cups are decorated with a dart detail, gathered at the center and decorated with a bow detail, the bikini briefs, cut across the grain, gathered at the hips and embellished with decorative straps, fastening at the left-hand side and lined in cotton.” The feminine details were however given a threatening edge by positioning a dagger strapped to her hip, in close proximity to her hand, ready to be used to defend herself. The leather belt was reportedly provided by Gordon Joslin, then a 28 year old Royal Navy Acting Petty Officer on HMS Troubridge. He recalled that a member of the production crew approached the naval officers who were watching the filming and asked for their assistance, taking Joslin’s belt and wrapped it around Andress’s hips.
 

Ursula Andress and Ian Fleming in “Dr. No”, 1962. Eon Productions

 

Unlike previous women in the film, the secondary women who contribute to the mise-en-scène of each Bond film, Ryder is not impressed by Bond’s charm, and her costume is the first to reflect the power of her character. When Ryder asks Bond: “What are you doing here? Looking for shells?”, he replies with: “No, I’m just looking.” Bond’s continuing “looking” though has certainly spotted the knife, too, and it can also imply more than the male gaze. We will learn in time that he is mostly attracted to tough, independent women, who can take care of themselves, but that he is also there to protect them if they need it. He is a real gentleman who likes to jazz things up a bit. When Honey Ryder grabs a shirt from the boat as she runs with Bond trying to escape Dr. No’s security team, the shirt gets wet and transparent, but in a later scene however, when she reveals to Bond her traumatic past, the shirt is dry and covering her body, thus allowing the focus to be on her life story. This is a Bond Girl with a past, a character that future Bond films would continue to build their toughest Bond Girls on.

And what if Honey Ryder is positioned as the epitome of sexualised female image? She is unashamed to be so, and she makes that image work to her advantage. And I do believe that Oliver Saillard was right when he said that the bikini works to promote “the power of women and not the power of fashion.” The year was 1962. The sexual revolution was starting to dominate society. Brigitte Bardot had already single-handedly made the bikini a commercial sensation when Roger Vadim brought her to Cannes, in 1953, and she posed on the sand during the film festival in what was then considered extreme beach wear. She again caused a sensation in And God Created Women, in 1956, when she wore a bikini. French designer Louis Réard invented the bikini in 1946 and named it after Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands where the USA was conducting nuclear tests. Legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland proclaimed it was “the most important thing since the atomic bomb.” It provoked outrage from the churches and conservative members of society and it took another fifteen years for the item that heightened the sexualised female body beyond what was normally on display in society at the time to be accepted in the USA. In America, the bikini was endorsed by such stars as Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth and Jayne Mansfield. They all contributed their part into making the bikini a success. But for Ursula Andress, it was a two-way street, just as the seduction game between Bond and the Bond Girl.

“This bikini made me into a success,” Andress has explained the impact of her role and costume in the film. “As a result of starring in Dr. No as the first Bond Girl, I was given the freedom to take my pick of future roles and to become financially independent.” I believe that, even by today’s standards, that is something universally acceptable. Not that the James Bond films have ever endorsed the conventional type. We wouldn’t love them as much as we do if they did.
 

Editorial sources: The James Bond Archives; Fashioning James Bond: Costume, Gender and Identity in the World of 007, by Llewella Chapman; For His Eyes Only, edited by Lisa Funnell

 
 

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The Poetic Power of Illustration: Interview with William Grill

Bandoola: The Great Elephant Rescue, by William Grill

 
 
When I came across William Grill’s book The Wolves of Currumpaw four years ago, I had no idea that I was in for a complete shift of view on children’s books, illustration and storytelling. William Grill’s illustrations evoke the kind of creative freedom that children have, that complete freedom of the mind, something priceless that we, as we grow up, will try the rest of our lives to recapture without succeeding. His style of drawing, those effortless, unrestrained, natural-flowing, simple yet remarkable strokes of pencil leave enough room to the imagination. It’s the most striking feeling. The writing is spare, yet the illustrations carry so many details and sincere understanding – they are drawn from real life, from actual observation, from looking and seeing, truly seeing.

I bought The Wolves of Currumpaw for my son. Then I bought Shackleton’s Journey for myself. And I bought the latest Bandoola: The Great Elephant Rescue because William Grill’s books already feel like classics. But there is more to them than the storytelling and drawings. You just have to hold any of them in your hands to understand why. Every single detail, from the cloth spine to the cover artwork, feels very much hand-crafted. It helps children imagine. Adults, too. “When we are no longer children, we are already dead,” Constantin Brâncuși said. William Grill’s books help us remain children.

William’s first book, Shackleton’s Journey, won the 2015 Kate Greenaway award and has been translated into over 14 languages. His second book, The Wolves of Currumpaw, won the 2016 Bologna Ragazzi prize for non-fiction. When not drawing himself, William enjoys teaching and encouraging others to draw, and he is currently working alongside another author for a new book. I am honoured to have Will as my guest today, talking about drawing, childhood, unhindered creativity and worldwide journeys that fuel his work.
 

Bandoola: The Great Elephant Rescue, by William Grill

 
 
What is your earliest drawing memory?

One of my earliest memories was drawing at the kitchen table next to my older brother Kit. I can remember looking at what he was drawing and wanting to be as good as him. Another specific memory was when I was about seven, at school where we were drawing fruit, I chose to draw a pineapple which took ages – though I was quite pleased with it. Most lessons I struggled with, but I remember feeling like this was something I could do if I tried.
 
 
Your style of drawing is so simple and sincere yet exceptional and striking. When I looked at your illustrations in Shackleton’s Journey, I imagined being in the open sea, 500 miles from the nearest civilisation, on a tiny boat, and I felt chilly staring at Endurance trying to cross the Weddell Sea. As for your drawings of Lobo, in The Wolves of Currumpaw, they just let my imagination roam free. Were you allowed the freedom to draw whatever you liked in your childhood? Did you have a teacher or art teacher in school who encouraged you to draw?

Thank you! My mum was always very encouraging with art that we made, I think that made all the difference. My mum also had a partner for a while who was good at drawing and painting, I can remember him teaching me about using different grades of pencils, etc. I don’t think my art teachers did anything out of the ordinary. Seeing my brother and his friends drawing things really did make me want to draw more and be better.
 
 

“It’s a shame children don’t get much time to draw at school, and those who don’t draw neatly aren’t necessarily ‘bad’ at art or being creative.”

 
 
Do you yourself work with children? Because I believe that children’s books authors are a great source for educational alternatives and who could help creativity and open up possibilities more than schools usually do.

I try and visit schools every March and October – it’s a great thing to do for me as much as it is for them! I get quite inspired by what they make, often wishing I had the same energy and freedom that some of their drawings have. I hope that my visits encourage those who like to draw, or those who are maybe less academic (like myself). It’s a shame children don’t get much time to make or draw at school, and those who don’t draw neatly aren’t necessarily ‘bad’ at art or being creative – I get a lot of pleasure seeing those come out of their shell or being proud of a drawing they’ve made.
 

I wholeheartedly agree. What about the books of your childhood? What was the book that sparked your imagination more than any other when you were a kid?

I used to love What Do People Do All Day, by Richard Scarry. The busyness and detail of the book, the characters, and the fact that it made me realise that outside school the world is full of possibilities and different personalities, all interconnected and working in unison.
 

We should learn from children’s ability of seeing no boundaries and no storytelling boundaries. What did you dream to be when you were a child? How early on did you know you wanted to be an illustrator and children’s book author?

When I was five, I used to want to be a builder, I think I thought a builder could make anything he wanted! And then, when my mum took me to a carpenter’s workshop to pick up a kitchen table, I used to want to be a carpenter.
 
I didn’t want to be an illustrator until I was about 21, when I was in my first year at Falmouth University. I didn’t think children’s books were for me until I got a publishing offer by Flying Eye Books. Luckily, about two weeks before the end of my course, my tutor encouraged me to bind my Imperial Trans Antarctic Expedition (now Shackleton’s Journey) drawings in a dummy book for the D&AD design show in London. As a dyslexic, I’d always struggled with reading and writing, so the thought of being an author seemed impossible.

 

The Wolves of Currumpaw, by William Grill

 
 
There is a lot of research that goes into your books. For The Wolves of Currumpaw, for example, you also went on location to New Mexico. How important is actual observation for your work?

I try to get as much research as I can first hand. Drawing on location, speaking to people who are experts in their field, seeing a country in person can all give you little or big rewards that, to me, are worth it – a chance upon a particular view, a gallery, a local artwork that inspires you… It makes you more connected with what you’re researching, not just the visuals, but the other senses as well: smell, temperature, sound, they all contribute to the experience you’re trying to distill into your book. Direct experience gives you more confidence in the story you are telling. Seeing Lobo’s territory in New Mexico, for example, was so useful, it was really different than how I had imagined it, and being there in real life just made me care about the story so much more.
 

Do you always carry a sketchbook with you?

Always!
 

You also went to Myanmar as part of your research for Bandoola. Did that have a great impact on your story? And if so, how

Visiting Myanmar was hugely useful for gaining a deeper understanding of the environment, elephants and the working relationship between humans and elephants. There isn’t a great deal of books or documentaries about timber elephants, and the idea of seeing them in real life was alluring. There are things you see and feel in person that you just can’t get from watching a screen or reading a book. I got a better sense of the scale and strength of the animals, but also of their sensitivity. Meeting and observing the oozies (elephant riders) gave me a greater appreciation of their skill and connection with their elephant, incredible to me where nature is quite far removed and sanitised. The oozies walk around the jungle bare foot, while I tried the same, they were cut up by bamboo after half a day’s walk tracking an elephant!
 

What else fuels your creativity?

I watch a lot of films and documentaries. With film, there’s so much you can learn about composition, colour, image quality and storytelling, while documentaries can open your eyes to so many different subjects that I wouldn’t be able to access through books because I’m a slow reader! I also love looking at paintings, prints and textiles, they all give me inspiration and ideas, too.
 

Which are your favourite films and documentaries?

Favourite films: Days of Heaven, Badlands, Alien, The Thing, Predator, O Lucky Man, Wings of Desire, Memories (animation), The Man Who Planted Trees (animation), Five Easy Pieces, The Sting, Dawn of The Dead (original), After Hours, Dead Man.

Documentaries: The Hermit of Treig, When We Were Kings, Cosmos, Koyaanisqatsi, The White Diamond, Encounters at the End of the World, Stories We Tell, The Century of the Self, BBC Documentary – Hells Angels, London 1973, OJ: Made in America, Touching the Void, The King of Kong.
 
 

“I try and make the text as short as possible.
Exposition can be patronising, and, by leaving space
for interpretation, it can make for a richer experience for more readers.”

 
 
All your books, Shackleton’s Journey, The Wolves of Currumpaw and Bandoola: The Great Elephant Rescue, are non-fiction books, based on real events, and, more than that, man versus nature stories. What exactly sparked your interest in these subjects and in re-telling these stories?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been intrigued by animals. Growing up in the countryside, working on a farm when I was younger and having a mum who taught philosophy at school all probably have something to do with my interest in how we interact with the natural world. Animal ethics in particular really got me thinking about it when I was a teenager. As I wasn’t the most academic person at school, I found myself participating in as many outdoor pursuits as I could. I suppose all of this combined to make me drawn to these stories visually, but these stories also carried value and meaning to me that I want to share.
 

Shackleton’s Journey, by William Grill

 
 
I think it’s extraordinary how your books introduce children and young audiences to real-life stories, historical events, cultural diversity. Your books are also beautiful, hand-made works of art in themselves. Do you believe the world of children’s books today underestimates the depth of topics young children are capable of understanding?

I think children are more capable than we might assume, and if we present them with a challenging topic, they may rise to that occasion. To me, it’s about how you present that information. On the rare occasions we got to discuss ethical issues at school, I found it so much more engaging and stimulating than regurgitating information – like I was learning something about real life, and, in doing so, it made me wiser in some way. Something I really believe in is cross-curricular learning, and critical thinking. As challenging as it may be, if a book can combine aspects of science, history and maybe even ethics, whilst being emotionally engaging and relevant, then I think children will get far more out of it.

 
In your books, the drawings alone could easily tell the story. Do you prefer to tell stories in images rather than with words? How important is it for you to leave space to the reader and his imagination?

I hope that’s the case. When I make a book, I write a list of bullet points out of all the major events or information, then the writing stops and I make a small storyboards based on these points – I want the images to drive the book. Then I’ll make the text work around the imagery. I try and make the text as short as possible.

Like in film, often the sound and visual can make a point that is more powerful in poetic form than literal form. When we over-explain, it’s far less interesting to us as a reader… it’s satisfying to fill in the gaps sometimes. Exposition can be patronising, and, by leaving space for interpretation, it can make for a richer experience for more readers. If I could, I’d have far more wordless pages, but that means more pages, which isn’t practical for the publisher. One day I’d like to make an animation, as I feel music and sound can help tell a story, which can reduce words further.
 

I really feel that true comprehension comes from the images in your stories, from thoroughly looking at the images. That’s where the true alliance between you and the reader occurs. Have you considered creating a purely fictional book?

I would love to create a piece of fiction one day. I get fleeting ideas, but haven’t yet had something that I’m compelled to do. Hopefully that will happen at some point. I still feel I am learning how to tell stories working with non-fiction. The closest I’ve come is planning to adapt a classic piece of fiction. There’s just so many non-fiction subjects I’m drawn to at the moment that should keep me busy for a long time to come.
 

Are you working on a new book currently? Anything you can share with us?

I’m currently working on a new book alongside an author – it’s nice to just focus on images for a change, we get on well and make decisions together, which is good! All I can say is that it is non-fiction, and really about appreciating the world around you.
 

In this time and age, what to you wish people appreciated more?

Tough question! There are so many things… I think I just wish that we appreciated our planet more, as obvious as it sounds, from the small and insignificant to all the amazing animals that exist on it. Humans have really only been here for a fraction of time compared to many species (flora & fauna), and it’s questionable how long we will be around for, and what we’ll leave behind, but when we do make an effort and think beyond ourselves, we can do great things.

Thank you, Will, for sharing your work and creative process with us.
 
 

williamgrill.co.uk | Instagram: @william.grill

 
 

 
 

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