Saturday, 23 June 2018

Arthur - The Storyteller's Tale by Steve Gladwin

For this series of blogs about King Arthur and what he and the related stories mean to us nowadays and their continuing importance, I wanted to talk to a storyteller who also has a great love of the tales as well as having his own individual way of telling them. I decided to talk not to a full-time storyteller, who might inevitably live the tales more professionally, but to a true enthusiast who doesn't make his actual living out of it.

So answering my questions this month is my old friend and fellow Red Hot Bard, Andy Harrop-Smith, a part-time storyteller, who has a day job at Wrexham Hospital as an occupational therapist.

I first met Andy during an event which was part our storytelling festival, The Festival of the Singing Head in 2002, in and around the Meifod and Welshpool area. He was telling stories in the local tea-shop alongside a lady who wrote beautifully illustrated cat stories, and was being heckled by a suitably precocious eight year old who could have come out of a story himself. Years later Andy told me it he was the worst heckler he'd had in in all his years of storytelling.

Over the years I've worked with Andy on a number of projects as our alter-egos, the Red Hot Bards, including our Norse cycle of tales, 'Bright Pretty Things' and most relevant to this blog, on our 'Gawain'. He was also Bottom in my Midsummer Night's Dream themed hand-fasting and by the end of this blog you will have a good idea why!

The Big Man himself in Performance

For Andy is a true force of nature and as anyone who knows him and particularly has heard and seen him tell his tales can confirm,, he has a style quite unique to him; powerful, muscular and exciting, often raw and rude but never crude. In this series of questions you will get the real Andy and with it a true sense of what people at The Festival at the Edge and elsewhere have been experiencing for years. Should anyone be offended by any comments, (fans of Guy Richie and Captain America mainly!), I'm sure he will be delighted!

Also this may well be the first use of the word 'Mallorific'. Long may it continue.    

Now do read on.

First of all, thanks Andy for agreeing to talk to an awfully big blog adventure readers.

Now the theme of these three interviews is King Arthur and the way that the so called Matter of Britain has been told and retold, with a particular accent on re-tellings for the younger generation. So let’s start, if you don’t mind, by asking you if you can remember the first King Arthur tale you ever heard and what impression if had on you. Can you remember how old you were?

Hi Steve, and thanks for having me on the blog. King Arthur, I’m glad you asked. He’s a massive subject, and has become a massive character from somewhat humble beginnings. Pen power is permanent.
History was always my favourite subject at school. Apart from girls that is. I was fascinated mainly by British history, and dragged my poor, long-suffering parents around any castle that still had a few stones standing or a wonky portcullis hanging on its hinges. And I loved historical films, especially ‘medieval Hollywood’. OK, historically maybe not so accurate, but that’s the stuff of stories! Those films were like stories on celluloid. The two films that remain at the top of the list, in glorious Technicolor, are ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ with Errol Flynn (unarguably the best Robin Hood film ever) and ‘Knights of the Round Table’ with Robert Taylor as Lancelot. So by the age of about 9 years old I was hooked. And I’ve never really grown up…I don’t think storytellers ever do. The first book I read about Arthur was by John Steinbeck. All very ‘Mallorific’, but let’s face it, he’s one of the guy’s that gave us Arthur in the first place, and we need to be very grateful to him.

Now, as you know, last month I talked to John Matthews about the ‘old Arthur’ - if you like the more ancient and Celtic version -and the way that Arthur’s younger self is portrayed in his new book ‘The Sword of Ice and Fire.’
Do you have a favourite version of Arthur?

Well, as I mentioned, Steinbeck’s ‘The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights’ certainly left its mark, and was quite an inspiration for a young would-be Lancelot. And there was no ‘sanitisation’ either…at least one beheading or lance-through-the-helmet every page. I loved it. More recently I read Bernard Cornwell’s ‘War Lord Chronicles’ which was a different take on the legends completely. He’s a great author, his research is meticulous, and the books would have made a much better basis for a film series than the latest film abysmalisation, that ‘Legend of the Sword’ rubbish. Sorry Mr Ritchie, stick to gangsters.

Now I know you don’t make a living as a full time storyteller, although I’m sure you could do. Clearly however, stories of Arthur and Gawain and Merlin and Lancelot are meat and drink to your average storytelling audience. What do you think it is about these tales that appeals.

I think it was Roly Rotherham or Ronald Hutton who described Arthur as ‘the world’s first superhero’. And I think that’s why he appeals to every generation, young and old. We all love a hero, right vanquishing wrong, especially if he’s in shining armour. He’s certainly better than Captain America. Unfortunately Arthur’s not quite so well treated now as he was when I was a lad. And that’s a while ago, although I know that’s difficult to believe.

The tales are like an onion. By that I mean they’re ‘layered’, and not like a big brown vegetable that makes you cry when you chop it up. On the surface the Arthurian legends are big, bold and glitzy, especially when they’re clad in plate armour and carrying magnificent swords. But that doesn’t make for good storytelling on its own. I feel the next level is the Magic and that’s mainly supplied by Merlin. Because he’s a wizard. And when you examine the real ‘tell-able’ tales, they’ve often got Merlin as the leading man, with Arthur coming in as second or third on the bill. Arthur is the figurehead, but the story will often revolve around other characters who take the main part of the plot to its conclusion. And there never was a good story that didn’t have a little ‘magic’ in it. Of course there’s a serious side to the Camelot Saga…love, intrigue, adultery, betrayal, jealousy, revenge, slaughter, incest, cross dressing…like the plot of an old ‘Crossroads’ episode. So it’s all there, waiting to be told. Overall it’s the entertainment value, stories that people can relate to with a hint of mystery, magic and romance that holds the audience. And of course there’s the added possibility that some of the legends might just be true, which makes the stories even more fascinating. Like Captain America.

Can you tell us a little about the Arthur tales you’ve told and why you chose to tell those particular ones?

I tend not to tell the tales in any sort of order. That is from Arthur’s birth through to his demise at Camlan and chucking Excalibur away. That was a bit silly really. That’s the stuff of serous performance, and it’s been done many times before.
My favourite tell-able tale is certainly Gawain and the Green Knight…highly influenced by Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It’s a full performance in itself, and has all the ingredients needed for a good rousing story: a hero, magic, monsters and sex. And coconuts. That’s important. Contact me on Email to book a telling!
Others I like are ‘The Coat of Beards’, a really good tale for children with a moral and lots of snot up the giants nose. ‘The Sleeping Knights’ is a good one too…there’s another layer, the post-legend stories. Does Arthur sleep under the mountain with his trusty but rusty warriors waiting to ride out to save Britain in its time of need (possibly closer than we’d like to think).

Now presumably most people first hear the stories of Arthur as a child, and we know nowadays that less and less emphasis in schools is on children
being read to or even reading actual books, while at the same time their grip on some of the things in nature we took for granted is slipping away. I think it’s fair to say that there’s a huge connection between Arthur and the land and nature in the stories. Would you tell us your thoughts on that aspect? I’m thinking particularly perhaps of the story of Gawain and the Green Knight.
Having established how you first read or heard Arthur, have you read or seen any interpretations which have appealed to you and if so why? Also is there a right and wrong way to tell the Matter of Britain, or are we just being a bit precious about it all.

OK, I’m going to deal with all that in one go. I do think there’s a right and a wrong way to deal with ‘The Matter of Britain’, which is probably sounds hypocritical coming from the storyteller who twists myth and legend to suit the moment. But I do believe that you need to stick with the essence of the legends as they’ve been passed down through the centuries. For example John Boorman’s film ’Excalibur’ will remain the absolute definitive Arthurian epic of all time, and will never be out done. But if you want to make a film about some East-End thug growing up as a bouncer in a brothel, don’t dress him up as King Arthur…call him King Darren and make his court ‘Nelson Mandela Towers, Peckham’. If you change the plot too much it won’t work. And I do believe that we can afford to be a little precious about things that are precious. I think that most of the versions of Arthur aimed at a younger audience are pretty much true to the principles of Chivalry and respect, and outline the time-seasoned stories very well. How widely they’re actually read I have reservations about. As a trained Environmentalist, I’d like to see Lancelot do more recycling, and feel that the waste from Camelot’s garderobe could be processed more efficiently.

I’d like to move on to talk about The Festival of the Edge, widely recognised as one of, if not the leading storytelling festival, which you’ve been involved in the organisation of for quite a while now, and I also know you’ll be performing your version of The Soldier and Death there this July. How did you come to be involved and how is to going? I understand the festival has recently moved.

I’ve been with the organisation team for FatE for 17 years now. Doesn’t time fly? Not really, aeroplanes do. It’s always a stressful weekend for us…this year it’s 20-22 July, and we’ve got a cracking line-up of storytellers and musicians. Check out the website, tickets are still available! We’re over at our new beautiful location at Alderford Lakes near Whitchurch, so come along and have a brilliant weekend.
I love being part of the process that brings stories to people. I’ve got many treasures from storytelling over the last 20-odd years, and it’s a joy to be able to give something back. Yes, I’ll be doing a full performance of ‘The Soldier and Death’…with a little ‘storytelling licence’ and a puppet to spice it all up a bit.

In your time has there been much focus in the festival programme on tales of Arthur and all the rest?

To be honest we’ve not had a great deal of Arthurian stuff over the years. The most memorable was Sarah Rundle’s 2 hour-long version of ‘Gawain and the Green Knight’ about 4 years ago. Well 4 years and 2 hours actually. It was truly amazing, some of the best storytelling I’ve ever heard. The ‘biggie’ previous to that was Eric Maddern’s ‘Merlin’ over a decade ago. Apart from the odd tale told around the bonfire, Arthur has never really featured as a headline event. Tastes change, and storytellers generally steer clear of anything that’s considered to have been ‘done to death’. There’s been a bit of a resurgence in the Mabinogion in recent years, and Michael Harvey’s wonderful ‘Kilhuch and Olwen’ includes the original tale of Arthur’s court and his rather randomly talented band of warriors. Maybe we need to promote old KA a little more, there’s still plenty of mileage there.

Finally Andy, can you see there ever being a time when the tales of King Arthur will fall out of favour?

Well, as mentioned in the previous question, I think that a lot of storytellers are constantly looking for material that’s not had a great deal of exposure, especially for a general audience. Perhaps ‘Arthur and the Matter of Britain’ has become the subject matter for a more specific clientele…Druids, pagans etc, who can better appreciate the deeper layers of the onion. And cry. But there’s always room for the old myths and legends in the storytelling world, they really are bread and butter to storytellers. It’s new, vibrant re-workings that speak to our DNA memories that we need. Perhaps you and I should work on an Arthurian epic to tell around the various camps? Now, there’s a fitting project for the ‘RHB’s’!!

Thanks again Andy for talking to us and good luck with The Soldier and Death.

Coming Soon(ish)- Arthur Through the Seeing Stone with Kevin Crossley-Holland 

More on Festival at the Edge and this year's tellers etc at

Steve Gladwin

Writer, Screenwriter, Performer and Teacher

Author of 'The Seven' and 'The Raven's Call'


Sue Bursztynski said...

A delightful post! If Andy should ever decide to pay a visit Down Under I will certainly come and listen to his storytelling. Gawain and the Green Knight is a lot of fun if done properly. There is a silly but interesting film of it with Sean Connery as the Green Knight, who dies and says, as he melts into the earth, that he is a spirit of the land and nature... Gawain and Dame Ragnell is another one that would work, though perhaps it might need toning down for children.

Steve Gladwin said...

Glad you enjoyed it and him, Sue. Andy is in Australia in August I believe, but it's a big country obviously. But his e mail is just in case. Also I could have mentioned that Andy was actually an extra in First Knight, where he says he knocked Richard Gere off his horse! The story of Gawain and Ragnell is one of my favourites and I've told it often, sometimes with Andy's Gawain and the Green Knight. Fascinating that two of the greatest tales in the canon are very old English.

Andy Harrop-Smith said...

Hi Steve and Sue,
Firstly, thanks for your comments Sue. Steve's correct, I'll be in Brisbane in early September...I think that's about 1000 miles from Melbourne. Maybe a little too far to travel this time. He's also correct about my rather short film extra in the Arthurian un-epic 'First Knight'. It was something I don't generally admit to, and it used to be a closely guarded secret. Fortunately I'm un-spottable in any of the scenes. I think Richard Gere has still got in for me...notice his limp?

Sue Bursztynski said...

Andy, have a great time in Brisbane! It will be spring and already hot up there. There must be an interesting story behind that one about knocking Richard Gere off his horse... I never liked Lancelot anyway! (Though I did feel sorry for Parke Godwin’s version, Ancellius)

Glad we agree about those two stories, Steve. And you do realise Chaucer cheekily worked Dame Ragnell into the Wife of Bath’s Tale, the naughty man!