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Opening up The Magic Box

27 Jul

In 1951, Robert Donat was at the head of a star-studded cast in the British film industry’s contribution to the Festival of Britain, The Magic Box, portraying cinema pioneer William Friese-Greene. Although it’s an underrated film, it has inspired film makers like Martin Scorsese (as we explored on this site previously). Not only has the film been underrated, but many believe its subject has too.

As part of #BristolFilm2021, film director and historian Peter Domankiewicz is raising the profile of William Friese-Greene in the centenary year of his death. Cinema Rediscovered has teamed up with Bristol Ideas and South West Silents to present Opening up the Magic Box, a celebration of several parts.

From the Watershed website:

“There’s an opportunity to watch the all-star 1951 biopic, The Magic Box and listen to insights from Peter Domankiewicz and arts historian Sir Christopher Frayling, who have each contributed a chapter on the rediscovery of Friese-Greene for a new Bristol Ideas book of essays published this autumn. #BristolFilm2021

Always looking to the future, Friese-Greene created some of the earliest colour film systems, leading to his son Claude capturing 1920s Britain in colour in The Open Road, which will screen with a live accompaniment from world famous composer and musician Neil Brand.”

The Magic Box screening takes place on Sunday August 1 at 11.00am. To book, here’s a link. Follow that up on the same day by attending Peter Domankiewicz and Christopher Frayling: Who was William Friese-Greene? at 14.00. Peter tells me what makes The Magic Box so significant is the way Robert captures Friese-Greene. It is indeed time to do both men justice.

William Friese-Greene photographed in c.1890

Do follow Peter Domankiewicz at Twitter for more news on the project.

The miracle of Thomas Becket’s elbow and Robert Donat’s voice

12 Dec

On 29 December 1170, four knights loyal to King Henry II of England murdered Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, in the city’s cathedral.

More than eight centuries later, a bone fragment believed to be from Becket’s elbow was temporarily brought from Esztergom Basilica in Hungary, where it had been kept for centuries, to the site of his assassination.

Henry II appointed Becket Archbishop of Canterbury in 1161 because he wanted an ally in his disputes with the church. But, by the end of the decade, Becket had become overly pious, wearing a sackcloth shirt, consuming only bread and water, spurning riches and staunchly defending the faith. The poet T. S. Eliot explored that transformation in his play Murder in the Cathedral, first performed in the Chapter House of Canterbury Cathedral on 19 June 1935.

Becket and the king clashed over the supremacy of church and state (premonitions here of the later argument between Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey) and Becket went into exile in France after being accused of treachery. In 1170, he returned to England but soon angered Henry by excommunicating the Archbishop of York, who had sided with the king against Rome. It was then that Henry is supposed to have shouted, “What sluggards, what cowards have I brought up in my court, who care nothing for their allegiance to their lord. Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

Carrow-Psalter.jpgOn 29 December, four knights entered Canterbury Cathedral and hacked Becket to death in front of the high altar. Edward Grim, a monk, observed the attack from a hiding place and later wrote down what he saw. Two years later Becket was canonised and his shrine began attracting pilgrims from across Europe. Becket’s martyrdom is depicted in the mid-13th century Carrow Psalter, held at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

In 1220 Becket was reburied and relics from his body, said to bring about miracles, were dispersed across Europe, with part of his elbow ending up in Esztergom. Three centuries later, during the Reformation, Henry VIII – upstaged by the cult of St Thomas – ordered his shrine to be destroyed and his remains obliterated.

On its recent journey, the fragment of Becket’s miraculous elbow was temporarily reunited with a piece of  his skull – kept at Stonyhurst College in northern England – before stopping at Rochester Cathedral and Canterbury Cathedral. It was then returned to Hungary.

Donat-BecketEliot’s verse drama Murder in the Cathedral was commissioned for the 1935 Canterbury Festival. Eliot must have read Edward Grim’s eyewitness account of the murder, since he uses some its language in his play. In 1953, the Old Vic Theatre in London invited one of Britain’s finest actors, Robert Donat, to play the part of Becket in a new production directed by Robert Helpmann. It was an enormous challenge for the ailing actor, who had long suffered from crippling bouts of asthma and who would die five years later from a brain tumour after collapsing on the set of The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.

On the first night, unknown to the audience, there were two oxygen tanks in the wings just in case, but they were not needed. Donat’s appearance on stage was greeted with a wild burst of cheering and, after what everyone agreed was an astonishing performance, there were twenty curtain-calls. Ironically, Becket’s opening lines include:

“They know and do not know, what it is to act or suffer.
They know and do not know, that action is suffering
And suffering is action.”

Donat’s celebrated performance was recorded at London’s Abbey Road Studios in May 1953. The original tapes were remastered and issued on CD by EMI in 2006. The recording, well worth seeking out, captures what The Daily Telegraph critic, Campbell Dixon, called “A voice of magical charm and effortless authority which only a clod could hear unmoved.”


By Philip Lee, at whose excellent blog Quintessential Ruminations this piece was originally published. We’d like to thank Philip for giving permission to re-publish his article here.

Renée Asherson (19 May 1915 – 30 October 2014)

5 Nov

41ovMfW3TYL._SY300_We are sad to report the passing of Renée Asherson, aged 99, on 30 October.

Renée was Robert Donat’s second wife. They married in 1953 and remained married, though separated, until he died in 1958. Renée never re-married.

Renée was born in London during the First World War (19 May, 1915), and studied acting at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art. Her first stage role was a walk on in John Gielgud’s Romeo and Juliet in 1935.

In 1945, she appeared as Millie Southern opposite Robert Donat in Walter Greenwood’s northern comedy, The Cure for Love. In 1947, RD and Renée appeared as Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, and in 1949 in RD’s film version of The Cure for Love. By now, they were a couple. Renée and RD worked together only once more, in The Magic Box in 1951.

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Robert and Renée in The Cure for Love

In 1953, after RD’s triumph on stage in Murder in the Cathedral, he and Renée were married.

After RD’s death in 1958, Renée continued to work both on stage and screen. Her last film appearance was in The Others in 2001.

Renée Asherson is perhaps best known for her exquisite performance as Princess Katherine in Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film of Henry V.

A stand-out in her later career came in Memento Mori in 1992, opposite Maggie Smith, Michael Hordern, Thora Hird, Cyril Cusack and Maurice Denham.

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We send our deepest sympathies to all who are mourning Renée.