Sunday, 6 November 2011

Dick Turpin's Last Ride

A story that has been 306 years in the making.

No true blogger can resist this illumination of myth creation, that of the Dandy Highwayman. The writer (Daniel O'Brien) brings together three real figures to debate their approaches to Dick Turpin.

The three are contemporary historian Thomas Kyll, who was at the York assizes when Turpin was sentenced, the 18th century catch-penny biographer Richard Bayes who either knows rather a lot or is making it up, and the romantic novelist William Harrison Ainsworth who came along in the 19th century and filleted out the saleable story of the fabulous ride from London to York.

The beef which Kyll and Bayes have with imagineer Ainsworth is that his fiction is so good that it has swamped the real story and, moreover, his commercial success was based on leaving out the crucial relevant facts about Turpin: he was a thug with no redeeming features whatsoever, and there was no heroic ride.

When I told Nana Raft I was going to see a story about Dick Turpin, she said
"We've seen Black Bess's grave".
"Nana, I hate to tell you this, but there wasn't really a Black Bess"
"No? So you tell me what's down the hole, then - it's a huge gravestone" in that tone of voice when people use when they've got a knock-down argument. Ainsworth is correct - people want Black Bess to exist.

The disputants then re-animate Turpin to show the story from each viewpoint and to argue about the details and what this means for posterity. Is Ainsworth right when he says that Turpin paid for his crime at the end of a rope and that the story is an entirely separate issue? He is, after all, a romantic novelist, although he has certain views about his source material.

Director Abigail Anderson skilfully handles Jack Lord's performance as Turpin as he has to swing between graphic nastiness and the romantic highwayman of the story. Perhaps best of all, they invoke the real Turpin, the butcher-turned-thief who was not dramatic at all.

Richard Pepper as Kyll strikes the most sympathetic note with conscientious bloggers; that need to get the facts down at the time as far as possible, knowing that somebody else is going to spin them later. Julian Harries as Ainsworth portrays literary glamour, Morgan Philpott as Bayes is the everyman, the rough sort, and credibly claims to know what he is talking about. He is closer to either a tabloid journalist or someone who has had help with writing a memoir. Ainsworth speculates that there may be an explanation for how he got his information, and it's not the official explanation Bayes offers. Astute writing, that is, considering the current questions in the papers. How else do people suppose stories are verified if not by bending the law round corners?

All the performances are absorbing. However, if you are going to appear on a stage with the stunningly beautiful Loren O'Dair, who plays her fiddle, dances, sings, is an acrobat and portrays a mythical horse, then you have to accept that she's going to run away with the show.

The cast of five canter the story through a scaffold set, playing multiple parts and instruments, punctuating the story with music drawn by Pat Whymark from English folk songs - no, it's alright, not the ear-achy nasal ones - proper songs which are complex and melodious. The skill in the stage craft keeps the story moving; there are no disconcerting blackouts. The scenes are conjured by acting, minimal props and subtle lighting which helps keep the accounts separated.

There's just time to catch performances at Ipswich and Eastbourne.

Book: Dick Turpin - The myth of the English Highwayman
James Sharp, Profile Books, 2004
ISBN 1 861197 418 3

Update 1 Jan 2012:  An old story turned up in a search about e-fits. York Castle Museum used descriptions issued at the time by the Government and the London Gazette to create a modern e-fit of Turpin.


Captain Haddock said...

An interesting topic WOAR .. though I doubt I'll be rushing to see the stage version .. ;)

Incidentally, at the time of Turpin's execution, York (unlike London) didn't have a permanent scaffold ..

A temporary set-up was erected on the Knavesmire (now part of York Racecourse) for each execution or set of executions, this is recalled by a York pub, called The Three-Legged Mare ..

Woman on a Raft said...

A temporary scaffold; such optimism.

MTG said...

The naked truth is so light a mere whisper will keep it moving in air.

Captain Haddock said...

"A temporary scaffold; such optimism" ..

We never seem to learn, do we ?