“Iuse the same makeup as Michael. I can’t have my face running when I’m sweating on stage,” says CJ, one of the UK’s leading Michael Jackson impersonators. “And when my makeup looks good I look at myself in the mirror and think: ‘Yeah!’”
I’m backstage at Liverpool’s Epstein Theatre being talked through CJ’s cosmetics routine. The room is littered with black faux-leather trousers; hanging up are a dozen or so jackets, no doubt worth a small fortune, used to create the culture-defining Michael looks. I can’t help but jump as CJ opens a small carry case to reveal a wig-wearing mannequin’s head. His show, Jackson Live in Concert, promises to be quite the spectacle – for those who have left their moral dilemmas at the door.
CJ discovered the music of Michael Jackson when he was four years old. The moonwalk, the mystique: he quickly became obsessed. “I was always watching Michael, practising his dance moves, trying to sing like him,” he says. As he grew older, his talent for mimicry developed, and Jackson’s artistry provided an alternate reality when CJ served in Iraq in 2004. “Michael wrote about healing the world, making it a better place ... in Iraq I’d listen to those songs. They took me away from what was going on.”
Returning home he found work on a building site, but spent weekends performing Thriller in social clubs and holiday camps; CJ is now 32 and his show is supremely polished. But after the documentary Leaving Neverlanddetailed child abuse allegations against the King of Pop, his livelihood is under threat.
“It’s been a mad few weeks,” he sighs over the phone from his Cheshire home. “Michael is such a big part of my life, it puts question marks over my career.” He describes his life after Leaving Neverland as “trial by media … The public are the jury in this. They’re the ones deciding my fate.”
It’s not only Michael Jackson tribute acts that have been left in a tricky position. In the wake of #MeToo and Operation Yewtree, many once-beloved stars have faced allegations of being immoral or criminal. It puts impersonators – whose earnings depend on the reputations of the stars they mimic – in a moral quandary, especially while the truth of the various allegations is being investigated. Are they allowed to carry on regardless? Or should they face the public wrath, too?
Jimmy Jemain has performed a Cliff Richard tribute act ever since he tasted fame as a 1990 Stars in Their Eyes finalist. A self-confessed “bit of a rebel” as a kid, he praises Cliff for taking him away from a life of “cars and motorcycles” in his home county of Hertfordshire. But his livelihood was rocked in August 2014, when historic sexual offence allegations were made against Richard. “I never believed a word of it but it knocked me back,” recalls Jemain in a tone alarmingly similar to Cliff’s. “The workload was going down, I suffered with depression, but I’m thankful his fans stood by me. I kept the flag flying.” Once Cliff was cleared of all wrongdoing, Jemain was back to work within three weeks and is now “bigger than ever”.
Of course, Richard always vehemently protested his innocence and was never arrested with any offence let alone charged. For other musicians whose performances are attached to a celebrity name, the situation can be far more toxic. Pete Phipps performed alongside Gary Glitter as the drummer with the Glitter Band during their 70s heyday, backing two of his biggest glam rock hits: Rock’n’Roll Part 2 and Leader of the Gang. “I didn’t like his record but it was £25 a week,” he says. “We had no idea about what Gary was doing.”
Glitter, arguably the UK’s most reviled former pop star, was first arrested in 1997 after thousands of child pornography images were discovered on his computer; he was later jailed in Vietnam after sexually assaulting two children, and is currently in prison in the UK for historic child sex offences. In late 1997, the Glitter Band joined the singer on a 25th-anniversary tour, just after the pornography charges surfaced. “On the first day, we were called into Gary’s room; he told us he was innocent, we went ahead with the tour,” recalls Phipps. Once the tour ended, “that was the last we saw of him”.
The band never officially broke up in the wake of Glitter’s disgrace, but were “virtually written out of history” as Phipps describes. Their records were banned, royalties dwindled and their music was deemed abhorrent by association. “Until 1997, we were doing 250 shows a year; in 1998 we didn’t have one.”
Phipps became a drum teacher soon afterwards. “Did parents question …” I ask. “Oh yeah,” he interjects. “The question is always: ‘Did anybody know?’ Of course nobody knew. We were devastated, but you can’t equate the impact of this on us against the impact it had on his victims.”
After a recent German tour and summer shows planned for the UK, the Glitter Band are enjoying a tentative, unlikely resurgence. What about the songs banned from mainstream play? “Audiences want us to play those songs,” he says. “They like the music even though these awful things happened.”
Fortunately for these tribute artists, fans tend to overlook a lot for the sake of art, from the irritating – Morrissey’s political bile because of their love for the Smiths – to the outright criminal (festive mornings are still soundtracked by Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift For You despite his conviction for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson in 2003).
“Rather than Phil Spector as a person, we focus on the early 60s, which felt like a new era,” says Gert Geluykens, manager of Da Doo Ron Ron Ron – A Tribute to Phil Spector. “The show is a tribute to the music of Phil Spector, not a glorification of him. He’s not an interesting specimen, he’s a very unpleasant man.”
Jerry Lee Lewis, meanwhile, married his 13-year old cousin and saw two other wives die in suspicious circumstances, but Great Balls of Fire remains a classic. “As a person, Jerry is very questionable,” says Jerry Lee Lewis tribute performer Peter Gill. “But you’re not paying tribute to the person, you’re paying tribute to the performer. So it depends on how much of a pedestal you want to place him on.”
So what of Jackson’s increasingly wobbly pedestal? There have been nearly three decades of allegations against the singer, culminating in those from Wade Robson and James Safechuck in Leaving Neverland. Safechuck says that Jackson taught him to masturbate at 10 years old, and “married” him in a mock ceremony; Robson says he was made to fellate Jackson at the age of seven. But according to CJ, “these allegations are no different to what’s happened to MJ for the past 30 years. His music has still carried on; why should this be any different? It’s not swayed how I’ve thought about Michael in any way.”
As the highest-paid dead celebrity of 2018, Jackson’s legacy remains too valuable for his estate to let the name be scandalised, no matter the allegation; the estate sued HBO over Leaving Neverland, calling it “a one-sided marathon of unvetted propaganda”.
CJ views Leaving Neverland as just another slander on Jackson’s legacy, although he hasn’t seen it. “I don’t watch documentaries that have no facts to back them up,” he says with conviction, repeating the point every few minutes.
Whether born of genuine love for Jackson, or self-interest, given his line of work, there is something a little uncomfortable about CJ’s devotion to the singer. Yet while emulating the crotch-grabbing of a suspected paedophile might seem distasteful, many fans don’t have a problem with it; the Michael Jackson West End musical Thriller Live has extended its run to 2020 amid the controversy.
Back at the show in Liverpool, CJ is soundchecking Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’. A few hours later, via jet-black wigs and razor-sharp contouring, he is transformed, appearing under the spotlight to Scream. His tattoo sleeve is covered, and the northern accent is swapped for an MJ squeal; he “shamones” to Black or White and gyrates on the floor to Earth Song as hijab-wearing dancers chant “what about us”.
“The documentary has left some things unanswered but these shows are fun,” says concert-goer Robert. “There are kids here who’ll have a little dance and that’s what they’ll go home with. The music will never change. Someone else can be Michael’s judge, not me.”
“I try to separate the art from the artist, and with Michael the art is bigger than the man,” says another attendee in the theatre bar. “It’s not like he’s benefiting from it any more,” replies his friend.
For the audience of kids in sequinned gloves, and their tipsy parents, it is as if Jackson himself had chosen Liverpool as the location for his reincarnation: crowds fill the aisles to spin and kick the air without restriction, and arms clamour towards the stage as CJ reaches out into the crowd. If tonight is anything to go by, the MJ economy is too big to fail. But closing with Man in the Mirror is a fitting climax for a unique type of fandom – one that should perhaps take a look at itself.
Podcasting is experiencing a Netflix moment. Global hits – from the ground-breaking Serial to Up and Vanished, and TV crossovers such as Dirty John – and Spotify’s plan to spend up to $500m on leading producers have made podcasts a hot media property.
Global monthly podcast listener figures are forecast to grow more than six-fold, from 287 million in 2016 to 1.85 billion in 2023, according to the Ovum research company Ovum. In the UK, Ofcom says that nearly 6 million people tune into a podcast each week, double the number of five years ago.
“A Netflix moment is a very accurate characterisation of what is happening in podcasting,” says Hernan Lopez, the founder of the podcast studio Wondery, maker of hits including Dr Death and Over My Dead Body. “I would say we are reaching an inflection point. Huge numbers of people are realising that there is great content available that isn’t offered by traditional players.”
This moment has not been lost on Spotify. This week, it splashed more than $100m on true crime podcast maker Parcast. It was the Swedish music and audio streaming company’s third acquisition in quick succession after spending $230m on Gimlet, the firm behind popular podcasts including Homecoming, made into an Amazon TV series starring Julia Roberts, and the podcast platform Anchor.
Spotify has $200m more to spend on building its position in podcasting this year. The company has said it is a “safe assumption” that over time more than 20% of all listening on the service will be non-music content.
Like Netflix, moving into owning original content is a strategic necessity for Spotify, which makes low margins from the music licensing deals it has with the big three record labels.
The battle to be a big player in podcasting distribution, led globally by Apple, is intensifying with Google last June launching its own service and the BBC, one of the biggest producers in the world, launching the BBC Sounds platform. This week, it emerged that the BBC has pulled its podcasts from Google, accusing the Silicon Valley giant of directing people to its own service.
The biggest issue remains how to make money out of podcasts. In 2015, the year after the first series of Serial launched – the first global hit that put podcasting on the digital media map – worldwide ad revenues from podcasts totalled just $171m. This year the figure will be about $1bn, and will almost double by 2022, according to Ovum.
Traditionally, podcasts have been free, sometimes with ads, but now paid-for models are emerging. The biggest move is being made by the US newcomer Luminary, which has secured $100m in backing and styles itself as the “Netflix of podcasts”.
Luminary has been spending serious money to secure big names for exclusive podcasts, from the Girls creator Lena Dunham to Malcolm Gladwell and Conan O’Brien, and intends to launch in June with an $8 a month, ad-free model. It will also offer a free tier, where listeners can play non-exclusive, ad-supported podcasts from numerous third parties.
However, the limitations on listeners’ tolerance of ads and propensity to pay could well keep the commercial viability of podcasts constrained. Unless, of course, the content can be exploited more widely. Netflix has turned Dirty John (52m downloads) into a drama starring Eric Bana and Connie Britton. Dr Death (36m downloads) is also being adapted into a scripted series by Universal Cable Productions, maker of Mr Robot and The Sinner.
“I don’t believe that a podcast needs a TV remake to be successful, but I do believe it can benefit from it,” says Lopez. “The TV launch of Dirty John effectively gave the podcast a new release, a new wave of millions of listeners.”
For decades, the world of romantic fiction has been divided by a heated debate about racism and diversity. Is there any hope of a happy ending? By Lois Beckett
Last year, the Strand Bookstore in New York convened an all-star panel titled Let’s Woman-Splain Romance! The line to get in the door stretched down the block, and the room was thrumming with glee even before the panel started. This was not an audience that needed to be told that smart women read romance novels, or that the genre could be feminist. The authors speaking that night were all big names, including Beverly Jenkins, an iconic author of African American historical romance – who blew a kiss to the audience as she was introduced to whoops of delight – and two breakout stars of the previous year, Alisha Rai and Alyssa Cole.
The subtext of the event was clear: it was not just a celebration of romance novels, but a celebration of diversity within an industry that has long been marked by pervasive racism. For decades, publishers had confined many black romance authors to all-black lines, marketed only to black readers. Some booksellers continued to shelve black romances separately from white romances, on special African American shelves. Accepted industry wisdom told black authors that putting black couples on their covers could hurt sales, and that they should replace them with images of jewellery, or lawn chairs, or flowers. Other authors of colour had struggled to get representation within the genre at all.
Jenkins and Cole, who are black, and Rai, who is south Asian, had been fighting against these barriers for years. Their success – as authors of critically acclaimed love stories sold in Walmarts and drug stores across the country – had not made them any less vocal.
The panel moderator turned the “diversity” question to Rai first. Her latest series was, he began, “very multicultural and [with] a broad spectrum of sexual identity in it. There’s a lot going on in the sweeping saga that has hot romance at the centre of it.” He paused.
“I’m sorry, is that a question?” Rai asked, very calmly. In her day job, she was a lawyer.
The moderator started referring to a previous time when romances had been less diverse, but Rai cut him off.
“We’re still not at mission accomplished,” she said. And the issue was not really diversity. “It’s about reality.”
“Can I say nipples in here?” Rai continued. The audience giggled. “Many, many years ago, when I first started writing, someone said to me: ‘Oh, this is the first book where the heroine had brown nipples, like on the page,’ and I was like: ‘What? That’s crazy!’ She was a long-time romance reader. I thought about it. I’m pretty sure nipples come in all shades, but they’re always, like, pink on the page, or berries, or some kind of pink fruit.”
By this point, the audience was guffawing and Jenkins was bent over with laughter. “What happens is, it goes into one book, it goes into 10 books, people read those books and write their own books, and suddenly, everybody’s got pink nipples,” Rai said. “And they forget about the fact that that’s not reality.”
Jenkins straightened up. “I always had brown nipples in my books,” she said. “That’s one of the things readers said early on: ‘No offence – we’re tired of reading about pink nipples.’”
The conversation shifted to other implausible but time-honoured turns of phrase: looking daggers, panther-like grace. Everyone laughed, and there were cupcakes, and at that moment in the bookshop, in front of this multiracial panel of bestselling writers, it might have been easy to think that the future of diverse romance had already arrived. Except, the authors kept warning, it had not.
Romance readers compound the sin of liking happy, sexy stories with the sin of not caring much about the opinions of serious people, which is to say, men. They are openly scornful of the outsiders who occasionally parachute in to report on them. In late 2017, Robert Gottlieb – the former editor of the New Yorker and unsurpassable embodiment of the concept “august literary man” – wrote a jocular roundup of that season’s best romances in the New York Times Book Review. He opined that romance was a “healthy genre” and that its effect was “harmless, I would imagine. Why shouldn’t women dream?” The furious public response from romance readers – “patriarchal ass” was among the more charitable comments – prompted a defensive editor’s note from the NYT, which later announced it was hiring a dedicated romance columnist, who happened to be both a woman and a long-time fan of the genre.
Coverage of the romance industry often dwells on the contrast between the nubile young heroines of the novels and the women who actually write the books: ordinary women with ordinary bodies, dressed for their own comfort. Reporting on the first annual conference of the Romance Writers of America (RWA) – the major trade association for romance authors – in 1981, the Los Angeles Times wrote that the 500 authors who attended were “not the stuff of which romance heroines are made – at mostly 40 and 50, they were less coquette and more mother-of-the-bride”. That observation – combining creeping horror at the idea that middle-aged women might be interested in sex, with indifference to the fact that male authors are rarely judged for failing to resemble James Bond – is typical.
Part of the intense scorn romance authors face is the result of their rare victory. They have built an industry that caters almost completely to women, in which writers can succeed on the basis of their skill, not their age or perceived attractiveness. Romance writing is one of few careers where it is possible for a woman to break into the industry, self-taught, at 40 or 50, alongside or after raising her children, and achieve the highest levels of professional success. Not only possible; typical. Nor is romance is some marginal part of the book industry – in 2016, it represented 23% of the overall US fiction market, and has been estimated to be worth more than $1bn a year in the US alone. There is something threatening about all this, says Pamela Regis, the director of Nora Roberts Center for American Romance at McDaniel College – hence all the “sneering and leering”.
Romance novels follow a strict formula: they must be love stories, and by the end the protagonist must achieve their “happily-ever-after”, often referred to as the “HEA”. (Less traditional authors now sometimes end with the HFN, or “happy for now”.) The genre’s guarantee to readers is that its heroines’ labour of love will never go unpaid. As the RWA puts it: “In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice.” Justice, in this context, means “unconditional love”.
Outsiders often associate romance novels with historical “bodice-rippers”, but the genre is a vast continent with many ecosystems. There are chaste Christian romances set among the Amish, where the hero and heroine’s closest contact is the exchange of steaming hot baked goods; erotic romances featuring sex clubs and orgies; novels set in the medieval Scottish highlands or among cowboys in the American west; series romances that tell the individual love stories of each player on fictional football or hockey teams.
For all this diversity of genre, the romance industry itself has remained overwhelming white, as have the industry’s most prestigious awards ceremony, the Ritas, which are presented each year by the RWA. Just like the Oscars in film, a Rita award is the highest honour a romance author can receive, and winning can mean not only higher sales, but also lasting recognition from peers. And just like the Oscars, the Ritas have become the centre of controversy over unacknowledged racism and bias in the judging process.
Last year, however, many observers felt that this was sure to change. One of the standout novels of 2017 had been Alyssa Cole’s An Extraordinary Union, an interracial romance set during the civil war. The book had already won a number of awards and made multiple best-of-the-year lists.
When the Rita awards finalists were announced in March 2018, An Extraordinary Union was nowhere to be seen. A novel rated exceptional by critics had been not even been deemed as noteworthy by an anonymous judging panel of Cole’s fellow romance writers. The books that had beat Cole as finalists in the best short historical romance category were all by white women, all but one set in 19th-century Britain, featuring white women who fall in love with aristocrats. The heroes were, respectively, one “rogue”, two dukes, two lords and an earl.
What followed, on Twitter, was an outpouring of grief and frustration from black authors and other authors of colour, describing the racism they had faced again and again in the romance industry. They talked about white editors assuming black writers were aspiring authors, even after they had published dozens of books; about white authors getting up from a table at the annual conference when a black author came to sit down; about constant questions from editors and agents about whether black or Asian or Spanish-speaking characters could really be “relatable” enough.
Then, of course, there were the readers. “People say: ‘Well, I can’t relate,’” Jenkins told NPR a few years ago, after watching white readers simply walk past her table at a book signing. “You can relate to shapeshifters, you can relate to vampires, you can relate to werewolves, but you can’t relate to a story written by and about black Americans?”
In response to the outcry over the Ritas, the RWA went back over the past 18 years of Rita award finalists and winners. During that time, the RWA acknowledged in a statement posted on its website, books by black authors had accounted for less than 0.5% of the total number of Rita finalists. “It is impossible to deny that this is a serious issue and that it needs to be addressed,” the statement from the RWA board noted. According to the current president of the Romance Writers of America, a black woman has never actually won a Rita.
The romance novel industry found itself facing a similar crisis over racism and representation as Hollywood, or the news industry, or the Democratic party. But one thing that sets it apart is that it is facing this challenge as an industry dominated by women – specifically, white women. Would anti-racist activism, and the backlash against it, play out differently in an industry run by women – and, in particular, by women who were writers and readers, who by definition loved stories of joy and reconciliation?
The backbone of the US romance community is the nearly 100 local chapters of the RWA, which provide mentorship and peer support for women embarking on the long and lonely work of novel-writing. On a Saturday afternoon last spring, I attended a meeting of the Heart of Carolina Romance Writers. A few dozen white women gathered in a classroom at a small for-profit college outside of Raleigh, North Carolina, and the meeting began, as it always does, with the good news.
“I did a presentation at the Wake County library with other historical fiction authors, and we dressed up like our time period: we had Victorian and Edwardian and World War II,” one author announced, to murmurs of approval. Another author, who had just released a new book, said: “It’s the best launch I’ve ever had, and it was an independent, so I thank y’all because I’m sure you guys are the ones who bought it.” The women followed each update, big or small, with a round of applause.
The most exciting update had been saved for last. One of the chapter’s most senior members was Hannah Meredith, a 74-year-old with dyed auburn hair, a brisk demeanour and the deep, throaty voice of a woman who had been a smoker for nearly six decades. “I have good news. I have a new cover – ” Meredith began, before pausing dramatically – “for a book that is nominated for a Rita!”
There was applause and cheers. Meredith’s novel, Song of the Nightpiper, a fantasy romance, had been named as one of eight finalists in the paranormal romance category. Nancy Lee Badger, the chapter president at the time, seemed as excited as Meredith. A Rita finalist in their chapter! At age 74! With Meredith’s triumph duly celebrated, the group moved on to the main focus of the session, a breezy presentation on writing more “dynamic dialogue”, from author Allie Pleiter, who had sold more than 1.4m books.
At the end of the meeting, with a few minutes left, I asked the members what they made of the Rita controversy. Many of them, it turned out, had been following the debate closely, and their reactions were divided. “I was really surprised,” said Meredith. “You look around and you go: ‘This isn’t a very diverse group.’” But, she added, “it has been, and people have moved away and taken other jobs, that were of colour. But I don’t think any of them ever felt like they weren’t appreciated.”
A younger woman in a gingham shirt pushed back at this. “That’s the point. As white women we can’t see it. We’re coming from a privileged place where we’re not even aware of it.”
A woman in a polo shirt noted that when All About Romance, an independent romance review site, had released its list of best books of the year, there had been no black authors on it. The site had subsequently tried to correct this, but in their correction, they confused the names of two of the most famous black romance authors, Brenda Jackson and Beverly Jenkins. “Basically, my impression as an old white woman, is that we need to listen more to people,” she said.
Some of the white authors were less convinced that the lack of black Rita finalists and winners was proof of any racism in the judging process. It was hard for anyone to win a Rita, they argued. They themselves had entered, they had not won and they were not complaining.
Badger did not say much during the meeting, but she had talked to me earlier on the phone. She acknowledged that only about three of her 50 local members were black and that those numbers were “poor”, given the diversity of North Carolina. But, she noted, there were already plenty of rules to encourage an inclusive environment. “How do I make sure that women of colour, Asian, etc, are able to reap the benefits of being part of this organisation?” she said. “I can’t force them to come to a meeting.”
A few minutes into the conversation, Badger spontaneously began talking about recent efforts to remove Raleigh’s monuments to Confederate soldiers. Badger was not a southerner – she grew up in New York – but she had been disturbed by efforts to get rid of the statutes. I asked what connection she saw between the debate over the Rita awards and the effort to take down confederate monuments, which had sparked conflict in cities across the US.
In both situations, Badger said, only a small group of people were objecting, but in response everyone would be forced to change. “It’s one group of people that is not happy with the monuments because they’re saying they’re monuments to slavery, but I don’t think so,” said Badger. “It’s just too bad, that it upsets somebody at 200 – however many, 150 years later.” In the romance world, the small group getting the attention were “women of colour” and nobody seemed to be talking about Asians, or senior citizens, or “including all these other people, that aren’t making a fuss”.
While her own feelings were conflicted, Badger did believe the controversy was important enough to set aside time for her chapter to talk it over with a journalist, and some of the members felt that the anger over the lack of diversity within romance was fully justified. “I think there’s a problem,” the woman in the polo shirt had concluded. “And I think that women of colour need to be in the lead. But of course, in our group, we’re all white.”
This was a point that many of the women kept returning to – the fact that everyone in the room that day was white. There was no consensus on what this fact demonstrated – one of the group’s past presidents was black, several people pointed out – but it was a fact that demanded explanation, that left even the women most adamant that there was no problem a little unsettled.
A long-time chapter member mentioned that one of these former black members, a writer named Kianna Alexander, had been part of the chapter for three or four years. There was a clear reason why Alexander was no longer coming to their meetings, the woman said, and it was purely logistical. “She has a very complicated family situation, so it’s difficult for her to make the drive here.”
It was about an hour-and-a-half drive south from where the romance writers group met to the small North Carolina town where Alexander lived with her family. I drove the route in the darkness that night. Alexander had promised to meet me in the morning for breakfast.
Romance novels – the realm of women’s fantasies – have always been political. When the Berlin Wall fell, the British romance publisher Mills & Boon, which is owned by Harlequin, made a point of handing out more than 700,000 copies of their romance novels to East German women. “Sex! Capitalism! Individual choice!” the books seemed to announce. Within three years, Mills & Boon was selling millions of books across the former eastern bloc.
Because romance novels follow a strict formula, the genre is often seen as “peculiarly hollow”, says Jayashree Kamblé, the vice-president of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance, and an English professor at New York’s LaGuardia Community College. In fact, she argues, the rigid conventions of the genre, with its familiar plot arcs and predetermined happy ending, make it a revealing space for tracking women’s desires and fears at different moments in history.
Through the 1960s, many romance novels had stayed relatively prim, with the sex mostly implied. Authors experimenting with more sensual stories still had to negotiate with editors determined to uphold what they saw as moral standards. But the widespread adoption of the pill, and changing attitudes to women’s sexuality, would finally open up new literary possibilities. Scholars date the emergence of the sexual revolution in romance fiction to 1972, with the publication of Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and The Flower, a bodice-ripping historical romance featuring explicit sex scenes.
In the 80s, as Reagan and Thatcher dismantled the welfare state, romance heroines found themselves drawn to domineering corporate heroes. “The hero is often the head of a large corporation. He’s buying out a small company,” Kamblé said. “The heroine represents the little person who’s losing that fight.” After 9/11, there was a sudden boom in “sheikh novels” set in the Middle East, in which white western heroines fell in love with Arab potentates. (These novels might have been “produced with the best intentions”, the cultural historian Hsu-Ming Teo told me via email, but they were often set in made-up countries whose imagined culture was an Orientalist mashup of “exoticism, sensuality, wealth, a mostly benevolent and superficial Islam”.)
Today’s romance novels are certainly not all feminist texts, but Kamblé believes that the genre tends to move in a progressive direction. Above all, it focuses on women’s emotions, their internal lives and their quest for satisfaction, in a way that no other genre has yet matched. But these innovations in the genre are taking place within an industry that is still overwhelmingly white. The result, Kamblé said, is that most romance novels simply erase people of colour, resulting in all-white fantasy worlds that include only stereotyped supporting characters, or simply no people of colour at all.
Kianna Alexander lives in a modest home south of Raleigh, North Carolina. Across the street, her neighbours have a set of Confederate flags on display, and when she walks around her rural neighborhood, Alexander tries to remember always to bring her ID, to prove, if anyone questions her, that she actually lives there.
Alexander told me that she had once been very involved with the Heart of Carolina Romance Writers group but, during the 2016 election campaign, that had changed. While she was feeling “frustrated, angry, frightened” by Trump, her fellow members had a different reaction. “The mood there was just like: ‘Politics is no big deal,’” she told me. There had been logistical reasons for dropping out, too, but she said that wasn’t the main reason, and now she couldn’t imagine going back. “They were too silent,” Alexander said. “It was almost as if they knew that whatever happened was not going to have much of an effect on their lives.”
A decade into her career as a published author, Alexander has worked her way from smaller independent presses to contracts with major publishers, including Harlequin, the most famous name in romance publishing, and she is an unabashed champion of the genre. “Romance is the only place that I know you’re going to go and get a happily ever after every time,” she said. “There are a lot of good books in every genre, and I understand the value of literary fiction,” she told me. “But what makes suffering so appealing?”
Despite her success, Alexander knows all about the barriers that make it more difficult for authors of colour to succeed. On the morning we met, we visited her local Walmart to look at the book section. Her latest Harlequin romance was on display, but it was not placed with the other romance novels. Instead, it was on a separate shelf marked with a neat label: African American. Alongside Alexander’s romance were assorted books with black people on the cover: a “spiritual guidebook” by film-maker Tyler Perry, the rapper Gucci Mane’s autobiography and “street lit” novels about black protagonists struggling to succeed in tough urban environments.
The African American section is not an issue specific to Walmart, or to North Carolina. Many black romance novelists told me they had found bookstores and large retailers stocking their work in a special black section, far away from shelves that the majority of romance readers will be browsing. On a previous visit to her North Carolina Walmart, Alexander had asked a manager why the books were arranged that way. He said it was for the convenience of readers, who liked being able to easily locate the books they wanted. “But I don’t know if it’s the African American reader who likes it, or the white reader who likes that everything else is separated out,” Alexander told me, as we walked out of the store. “Then, they don’t, like, make a mistake and buy one. ‘Oh no! Didn’t mean to do that!’”
In response to questions about Walmart’s African American sections, a company spokeswoman said: “We carry books in every store from authors of all backgrounds, and in certain stores where we know many customers gravitate to specific authors of different backgrounds, we highlight those authors with a broader offering. In no way is our intention to discourage all shoppers from perusing all titles available to them, but to highlight authors from all backgrounds and provide better opportunity for sales.”
It wasn’t just booksellers that were segregating Alexander’s love stories. The process started with the publisher. Harlequin, which merged decades ago with the British romance publisher Mills & Boon, was acquired in 2014 by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and is now a division of HarperCollins, has sold more than 6.7bn books, and currently publishes 110 titles a month, with romance series designed to suit every taste. Novels are grouped by genre or “heat” levels, from sweet and chaste to steamy and explicit. But the Harlequin line that Alexander wrote for, Kimani, was grouped by only one thing: race. The heroes in Kimani books can be any race or ethnicity, Alexander said, but Kimani heroines, like their authors, are black.
Alexander and many of her fellow black authors have long had mixed feelings about Kimani. The series had a dedicated readership, and Alexander’s Kimani books sold better than anything else she has published. Some black authors told me they believed that for some readers a dedicated black romance series really was a quick way to locate what they wanted to read.
But, like being shelved in the black section, black authors also believed that being part of a segregated line limited their sales, cutting them off from readers of other races who might also enjoy their work. Some former Harlequin authors even alleged that Kimani had been given separate and unequal treatment by the publisher: less marketing, fewer chances for authors to promote their books.
In May 2017, Harlequin had announced that it would be gradually phasing out five lines, including Kimani, for financial reasons. If the publisher had quickly integrated black authors into its other Harlequin lines, this decision could have garnered broad support. Instead, nearly a year later, in the spring of 2018, Alexander and other Kimani authors were still in limbo, unsure if they had a future with the brand, or if the closure of Harlequin’s segregated black line would simply mean fewer opportunities for black authors overall.
A spokeswoman for the publishing giant HarperCollins, Harlequin’s parent company, declined to respond to specific questions about Harlequin’s past and present editorial choices regarding romances by black authors and featuring black characters. “We value the discussion about diversity that is taking place in publishing and are working to increase representation and inclusion in our stories, as well as in our author base,” she wrote.
Harlequin’s dedicated black romance line is relatively new, having launched in 2006 after being acquired from another publisher. For almost 100 years before that, the company had rarely published romances with black heroes and heroines at all.
That changed in the early 1980s, when Harlequin recruited Vivian Stephens, a charismatic black editor and one of the founders of the RWA, who championed what was then referred to as “ethnic” romance. In 1984, when Harlequin published its first black romance by a black American author, many readers got their books through a subscription sent directly to their homes. Before publication, Stephens told the book’s author, Sandra Kitt, that Harlequin executives in Canada “were really concerned that their subscribers would be up in arms about, quote unquote ‘this black book’,” Kitt recalled. When the novel, Adam and Eva, did eventually come out, the company received only four letters of complaint. It ended up selling respectably and became one of Harlequin’s frequently reissued classics.
But after working at Harlequin for about two years, Stephens was fired. She told me she was never given any explanation for why she was forced out. After Stephens left, Harlequin continued to publish novels by Sandra Kitt – but only the ones she wrote about white characters. It would take another decade, until the blockbuster success of Terry McMillan’s 1992 novel Waiting to Exhale, which detailed the romantic travails of four professional black women, for the US publishing industry to begin to realise what a lucrative market black women readers might be. Beverly Jenkins told me that in 1996, when she published her breakthrough novel, Indigo, which featured a dark-skinned black woman as the heroine, she was often approached by readers who were moved to tears at seeing themselves represented in a romance novel. Seeing their reactions, she cried, too.
Marketing black love stories to black women was one thing, but publishers remained sceptical about the idea that white readers would read those same stories. In the late 1990s, Suzanne Brockmann, a white author writing a sequence of Harlequin romances about sexy Navy Seals, decided that she wanted to make a black character the hero of her next book. It was, she admits now, something of a “white saviour” move. Brockmann’s thinking, she told me, was that Harlequin simply didn’t realise the commercial opportunity it was missing by not printing more black romances.
Harlequin published Brockmann’s book in 1998, but she was shocked by the way the company dealt with its publication. She recalled her publisher saying: “You will make half the money because we will print half the copies. We cannot send it to our subscription list.” It was the same argument Harlequin had made 14 years earlier: “We’ll get angry letters.” It wasn’t just black characters that Harlequin rejected, according to Brockmann. She said she was also told they would not publish a novel with an Asian American as the central character. (Brockmann later moved on to another publisher.)
The experience of authors who wrote early Harlequin novels with black characters suggests that white readers might be more willing to embrace black stories than white publishers and editors have traditionally assumed. At the same time, it seems likely that white readers’ racism has played a role in the industry’s persistent exclusion of black stories. Several black authors described meeting white women at book signings who would ask to get a book signed, but emphasise that they were buying the books for a black friend, or a black colleague, certainly not for themselves. Others had seen or heard comments from white readers that they found happy stories about black women unrealistic.
A particularly infuriating comment, some black authors said, is when white women describe taking a chance on a romance with a black heroine, and then express surprise at how easily they were able to identify with the story. Shirley Hailstock, a black novelist and past president of RWA, told me about a fan letter she once received from a white romance author. She sent me a photograph of the letter, with the signature concealed.
“Dear Shirley,” the white author had written, in a neat cursive hand, “I’m writing to let you know how much I enjoyed Whispers of Love. It’s my first African American romance. I guess I might sound bigoted, but I never knew that black folks fall in love like white folks. I thought it was just all sex or jungle fever I think “they” call it. Silly of me. Love is love no matter what colour or religion or nationality, as sex is sex. I guess the media has a lot to do with it.”
The letter, dated 3 June 1999, was signed, “Sincerely, a fan”.
In 2015, the year Donald Trump launched his campaign for the White House, the RWA began a serious effort to address racism and diversity within its membership. For years, black authors had talked about feeling unwelcome in the organisation, and having to find refuge in what they called the “Second RWA”, where they advised each other as they negotiated the microaggressions and outright bigotry of the larger organisation.
Now the RWA, spurred on by board member Courtney Milan – a former law professor, bestselling author and prominent advocate of diversity within romance – began to take a more proactive approach, from ensuring more authors of colour joined the board, to publicly calling out a publisher for excluding black authors.
The efforts have sparked a backlash from some of the RWA’s 10,000 members, more than 80% of whom are white. (By contrast, about 61% of the US population as a whole is non-Hispanic white.) HelenKay Dimon, the group’s current president, who is white, told me she regularly receives letters from white members expressing concern that “now nobody wants books by white Christian women” or criticising the romance association’s sudden “political correctness”. Dimon acknowledged the difficulties that all romance writers were facing – traditional publishers buying fewer books, an increasingly crowded ebook market – but, she continued, there is “a group of people who are white and who are privileged, who have always had 90% of everything available, and now all of a sudden, they have 80%. Instead of saying: ‘Ooh, look, I have 80%,’ they say: ‘Oh, I lost 10! Who do I blame for losing 10?’”
One of the public flashpoints over the board’s diversity efforts came in the summer of 2017, when Linda Howard, a bestselling white author who had been among RWA’s first members, wrote in a private RWA author forum that the board’s focus on “social issues” was driving some members away. “Diversity for the sake of diversity is discrimination,” Howard wrote, arguing that the group’s resources should not be focused “on one (or more) group to the exclusion of others”.
Howard, who left RWA over the furious response to her comments, told me that she was not eager to rehash the incident. “I wasn’t against diversity. I was against the way the board was handling it,” Howard said, when we spoke recently. “I thought it could have been handled better and gotten better results.” She said she understood that the “big pool of anger” around the diversity debate came from a lifetime of people being treated as if they weren’t as good as everyone else.
I asked her what had stuck with her, more than a year later, out of the many angry responses that she received. “Social media has a lot to answer for,” she said. “Social media makes it possible for people to attack en masse, and not deal with the human aspect.”
While Howard felt that if people had been speaking face-to-face, the conversation would have been more constructive, others disagree. Many activists argue that Twitter has been a powerful tool for amplifying conversations – and demands for accountability – that might otherwise have been stifled or ignored. But in response to this new dynamic, a counter-narrative has emerged where people calling for change are criticised for being uncivil or even dangerous. Alisha Rai and Alyssa Cole – who, along with Milan, are among the most prominent voices in the Twitter debate – told me they had been labelled “mean girls” or “diversity bullies” for talking about racism in a way that was not “nice”.
“‘Niceness’ is going on Twitter and Facebook and saying how you were bullied by the people talking about diversity,” Cole said. “We would always be described as screaming, harassing. All of these weird terms … ”
“Censorship,” Rai added. “Policing.”
Rai continued: “They tell us niceness means you sit down and you shut up and you take what you’re given. And you don’t complain, because if you’re given anything, you should be grateful, right?”
It has become commonplace for pundits to lament that social media has undermined civilised debate and to suggest that angry Twitter mobs may be harmful to democracy. But when I spoke to Dee Davis, who ended her term as RWA president last year, she saw a utility in the kind of combative approach some romance authors of colour had taken on Twitter. To make real change, she said, “You need the fighters. You need the gladiators.”
If you were on Twitter, you should know what you had signed up for, she told me. “You don’t go into a hockey arena if you’re not ready to play hockey.” And, she added, if the board’s commitment to diversity meant that the RWA lost members, that would just be the way it was. “Any change is always going to make somebody go: ‘Well, this isn’t for me any longer,” and I think that’s OK,” Davis said.
Davis agreed that the conversation we were having about RWA seemed similar to the debates going on within the Democratic party, about what to do about “diversity”, about whether the more radical or moderate wing of the party would hold sway, who might be alienated by the choices the leadership was making. The root of the conflict in RWA, as in the Democratic party, Davis believed, was that her own generation, the baby boomers, were hanging on to power too long. They were used to get their own way, used to being influential, and it was time for them to let go and they would not.
For Cole and Rai, it wasn’t just the pushback to calls for diversity that worried them. They were also concerned that publishers might treat diverse romances as a passing trend, and that white authors might be best positioned to profit from writing “diverse” stories. In 2016, on a conference call presided over by Harlequin executives, “diversity” was listed among the themes that the publisher wanted to see more often, according to one author who was on the call. On the list were “more marriages of convenience, more sheiks, more baby themes, more alpha heroes, more diversity”. To the author on the call, it sounded as if Harlequin was treating diversity “more like a marketing opportunity.”
The annual awards gala of the Romance Writers of America is a very pleasant event. There is no dinner, only dessert and wine, and there are virtually no men present. The ceremony is the culmination of a frenetic five-day industry networking conference, which has a strikingly different atmosphere from most publishing industry events. Instead of the usual tote bag or briefcase, the savviest attendees carry a foldable rolling plastic crate from Walmart, which they fill with dozens of free novels. The 2018 conference took place at a Sheraton hotel in Denver, Colorado, in July, and the schedule included educational seminars such as History Undressed, an expert’s guide to underwear through the centuries, and a session on firefighting led by one bestselling author’s firefighter husband, which involved him hoisting up participants and carrying them around the room.
The dress code for the Rita award ceremony itself, appropriately for an industry focused on women’s happiness, is: whatever makes you feel festive. Some authors get their hair done and wear floor-length sequinned dresses, chandelier earrings, corsages. Others choose loose pants and tunic tops and sensible shoes. At the 2018 ceremony, an award-winning author paired a red satin dress with sequinned Converse sneakers, and another wore a high-low ballgown with hiking sandals, proving that it is possible, now and then, to have it all.
The golden Rita statuette is awarded in 13 categories, from best erotic romance to best paranormal romance. On the night, as the winners, often choking up, read their acceptance speeches off their phones, they talked about the women who had helped them get here. They talked about the constant likelihood of failure, about writing love stories as a second or third job, about learning how to close the door to their children and partners in order to write. “Thank you for the great sex,” Kristan Higgins, the bestselling author married to the firefighter, blurted out to him as she accepted the award for best mainstream fiction novel with a central romance. “My children are not watching tonight,” she added, after a moment.
Kianna Alexander, the young black author from North Carolina, was seated in the center of the ballroom, at the same table as Hannah Meredith, the 74-year-old Rita finalist from the Heart of Carolina Romance Writers, the local chapter Alexander had left after 2016. The conference, like the local chapter, was overwhelmingly white, but there were a scattering of authors of colour in the room for the award ceremony. Alexander clapped politely, her face very still, as one white woman after another stood up, cried, and accepted her award.
The culmination of the ceremony was the lifetime achievement award, which was being presented to Suzanne Brockmann, the white author who had written a black Harlequin romance in the late 90s. As she took to the stage to give her keynote speech, the mood shifted. Brockmann’s son, who is gay, presented the award to his mother, and she started by talking about him. Brockmann told the audience that at the 2008 conference, she had wanted to give a speech celebrating California’s decision to legalise gay marriage. “I was told that the issue was divisive and some RWA members would be offended,” Brockmann said. “I regret not walking out. I should’ve rocked the living fuck out of that boat. Instead, I was nice. Instead I went along.”
This was just the warmup. Now, she turned to her main point. “RWA, I’ve been watching you grapple as you attempt to deal with the homophobic, racist white supremacy on which our nation and the publishing industry is based. It’s long past time for that to change. But hear me, writers, when I say: it doesn’t happen if we’re too fucking nice.”
Brockmann had considered the possibility that she would have to keep talking through icy silence. Instead, many of the thousands of women in the room were already rising to give her a standing ovation. At Alexander’s table, she and Meredith both stayed seated. Meredith was sitting, arms folded, leaning in to tell her sister, who was sitting next to her, that she did not approve of the speech. Alexander was intensely aware of how visible she would be if she stood at that moment, with white women sitting all around her. She thought Brockmann’s speech was headed in the right direction, but she wasn’t sure.
“Here comes the part of my speech where I get ‘political,’” Brockmann continued. “When you write what you see and what you know and what you have been told to believe, like books set in a town where absolutely no people of colour or gay people live … ? You are perpetuating exclusion, and the cravenness and fear that’s at its ancient foundation. Yeah, I’m talking to you, white, able, straight, cis, allegedly Christian women. And don’t @ me with ‘Not all white women’. Because 53% of us plunged us into our current living hell,” she said, referring to exit polls that the majority of white women voted for Trump in the 2016 election.
By the end of her speech, the vast majority of the white women in the room were giving Brockmann a standing ovation. And Alexander had stood, too, and lifted one fist into the air.
At the dance party after the award ceremony, on a small wooden dance floor set atop the vast, brightly lit expanse of hotel lobby carpet, dozens of women danced barefoot to Talk Dirty to Me, or swayed gently, wine glasses in hand. Piles of glittering heels lay abandoned at the side of the dance floor. Alexander, who had done a Facebook livestream from the party for her fans, was examining the Twitter reaction to Brockmann’s speech. Some authors of colour were sharing approving reaction gifs. Others said later it had made them emotional to hear the exclusion they had faced addressed so publicly.
But not everyone was enthusiastic. According to Damon Suede, a well-known RWA board member, angry emails poured into his inbox during the speech, including from some people he had previously regarded as friends, complaining that the awards should not have permitted a speech “bashing” conservatives.
Hannah Meredith had not stood up to applaud Brockmann’s speech. But she had not walked out either. After the ceremony, as she smoked outside the hotel, she explained why the speech made her uncomfortable. She had not voted for Donald Trump, she said, so she didn’t take the remarks about his supporters personally. But, she said: “I will be honest, when it became very political, when it became sending [people] to go out and vote, I’m not sure it belonged.”
“I’m inundated with politics,” Meredith continued. “I want a space where I’m not. That doesn’t mean you can’t talk about being inclusive. Love is love, and I agree with that.” Meredith said she wanted RWA to address diversity without being overtly political. “Maybe it’s old age, but I feel like everyone is trying to push everyone apart. My gang is the good gang. If we’re all divisive, divisive, divisive, we’re screwed.”
What Meredith said about wanting a space without politics echoed what Kianna Alexander had told me about why she had left the Heart of Carolina Romance Writers group: the sense that some people saw politics as distant or optional, rather than something that directly shaped their lives. For Alexander, Trump’s mockery of a disabled reporter during the campaign, his open racism, were personal threats to her, her husband and her son. There was no space where she could avoid politics.
Eight months after the denunciation of white supremacy at the romance industry’s annual conference, the RWA announced the latest Rita award finalists. The group’s president had been optimistic that more black authors and authors of colour would finally be represented. The board had announced it would track scores given by individual judges and be on the lookout for any hint of bias. Anecdotally, at least, it seemed that more authors of colour had decided to enter their books, hopeful that the judging would be more fair.
Instead, what the results of the peer-judged contest seemed to reveal was a quiet, continued resistance. The 2019 finalist list featured almost 80 authors in total – and only three of them were authors of colour. This time, Alyssa Cole had submitted a book that had been named one of the New York Times’ 100 notable books of the year, a rare honour for any romance novel. As with her critically acclaimed entry the year before, it had not been rated highly enough to final in the Ritas.
“I don’t know how they could take the message any other way than: ‘We don’t feel like we’re wanted here,’” Dimon, RWA’s current president, said of the group’s members of colour. The responses from some white authors – including the prominent author who tweeted: “I agree 100% that this must change, but can’t we wait five minutes for the finalists to enjoy their day?” – only made writers of colour more frustrated and angry. One tweeted that the debate inside RWA’s private message board had grown so acrimonious that a white author had sent her an email threatening to sue her. More than one writer suggested that the Rita awards, in their current form, were illegitimate.
Alexander had watched the Rita results come in, and it had ruined her morning. But, she told me, there was no question that she was going to stay a member and keep fighting. She had begun to see signs of real progress, even if they were still too rare. The long work of pitching and revising was paying off: in recent months, she had heard one black author after another announce book deals. In February, Alexander had signed a contract with Harlequin’s Desire line, which features dramatic romances set against a backdrop of luxury and glamour. Alexander said she knew of at least five other black authors who had transitioned from Kimani, the black line that was being phased out, to a different Harlequin line. And, for the first time, Alexander saw an ad for a black Harlequin author in one of the women’s magazines sold at grocery store checkout lines. The magazine wasn’t Essence or Ebony: it was a black Harlequin author being marketed to everyone.
Film director Marcus H Rosenmüller looks out of the car window, a little spooked. “It is only one kilometre from the concentration camp,” he says. We are in a quiet, pretty, well-heeled town, a short drive from Munich. It is called Dachau.
“It’s quite shocking to be coming to Dachau, isn’t it?” says the British producer Chris Curling. Both men agree there is something eerily appropriate about filming here. They are making a movie about the life of the legendary German Manchester City goalkeeper Bert Trautmann, who is still best known for his part in the 1956 FA Cup Final against Birmingham City. With 17 minutes of the match left, he dived at the feet of Birmingham City’s Peter Murphy, and sustained a nasty neck injury. But he continued to play, making two crucial saves as Manchester City won 3-1. Trautmann was a hero, particularly when, three days later, it was discovered that he had actually broken his neck.
Although Trautmann never played for Germany (he was not allowed to because he played his club football in England), he was already regarded as a world-class keeper (two days before the 1956 final, the Football Writers’ Association named him footballer of the year, the first goalie to win the award). After breaking his neck, he recovered and went on to play for City for another eight years. By the time he retired in 1964, Trautmann had played 545 matches for the club.
But Trautmann’s story is far more remarkable than his broken neck. He joined Manchester City in 1949, only four years after the end of the second world war. Hostility towards Germans was, understandably, still high. When I was growing up as a Manchester City fan, learning about Trautmann was a rite of passage. It was a good decade since he had retired, but he still represented everything that was great about City: bravery beyond the call of duty, tolerance, the new postwar world in which the German god in goals was embraced by one and all as “our Bert”. And yet, so close to the war, we could take our tolerance only so far. Bert, we were told, was different from the Nazis who had made it their mission to wipe out the Jews and the Slavs and the Gypsies and the gays; he was the good German.
But the reality was very different. In fact, Trautmann was a high-achieving Nazi who fought on the eastern front, embraced Hitler wholeheartedly, and was awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class for bravery in battle. And it is this that makes the Trautmann story even more amazing than I was led to believe as a child.
The production is on location at a big old house in Dachau that serves as the hospital where Trautmann discovers he has broken his neck. It is summer and the actor John Henshaw is wandering around in a three-piece tweed suit. He is a big man, not entirely comfortable in the heat. “It was 36C last week, and I had this on and a big overcoat on top of it. I was sweating like a cheese,” he says. Henshaw plays Jack Friar, the club secretary who signed Trautmann for St Helens (his club before City), and eventually became his father-in-law.
Henshaw talks of the hostility towards Trautmann when he signed for City. “When he first started playing, he was getting death threats. God, what a brave man he must have been!”
The Manchester public had good reason to be suspicious of Trautmann. City has always had a large Jewish following, and many felt betrayed by the club when they signed the goalkeeper. An estimated 20,000 fans stood outside the Maine Road stadium shouting “Nazi” and “war criminal” and threatening to boycott the club. The film-makers have recreated newspapers from the time with headlines such as “Send the Nazi home” and “Kraut goalkeeper with Iron Cross,” and “Man City’s goalkeeper doesn’t want to remember our pain”. One article quotes him as saying: “I did what all soldiers do. I had no choice!”
Trautmann had been a tough, sporty boy, with little time for vulnerability. He despised his father’s weakness for drink and compromise, and venerated the Führer for rebuilding the economy, championing sport and marshalling a master race. He joined the Hitler Youth, and – aged 17 – volunteered for the army. In the early days, at least, Trautmann revelled in the war – and in the cause. Where better for a testosterone-fuelled Aryan idealist to express himself? In the book Trautmann’s Journey, written by Catrine Clay in collaboration with its subject, we learn that the young Bernhard was a model Nazi: blond, blue-eyed, bigoted and ruthless. In one memorable passage, he describes how he would simultaneously stock up on cigarettes and entertain himself during downtime in the war. This would involve going into town, beating up Italian soldiers (they might have been fighting on the same side, but he despised their weakness) and relieving them of their cigarettes.
By all rights, he should have been dead before he even discovered his gift for goalkeeping. On the Russian front, as the Nazi forces retreated, Trautmann was blown up but survived. In France, he was buried in rubble for three days after being bombed again. He was captured by the Russians and the French but escaped both times. In 1944, he was one of the few survivors of the Allied bombing of Kleve, and was trying to get home to Bremen when he was caught by two American soldiers in a barn in France. The soldiers decided Trautmann had no useful information to give them so marched him out of the barn with his hands held up. He thought he was going to be shot, so he fled, jumping over a fence. However, he landed at the feet of a British soldier, who greeted him with the words: “Hello Fritz, fancy a cup of tea?” This time, he didn’t run.
Trautmann was one of only 90 survivors from a regiment of 1,000 men. He became a prisoner of British forces and ended up in a PoW camp in Lancashire. At the camp, he played as a goalkeeper for the first time. He had been a centre half, but got injured in one match and typically refused to go off so they stuck him between the sticks, where he remained for ever after. There were three categories of prisoner at the camp: white for anti-Nazis, grey for unsure and black for unrepentant Nazis. Trautmann was one of around 10% classified as Nazis. All this, and he was still only 22. No wonder Rosenmüller thought he was a rich subject for a film.
The German actor David Kross, who starred in the Oscar-winning film The Reader, is sitting in his goalkeeper’s kit reading Trautmann’s biography, waiting to be called. “He has got a very polite, friendly mask,” says Kross of Trautmann. “But he can get really angry.” Has he played anybody as angry before? “Not really, no. It is a big task for me. I am normally nice!” When I ask Kross what drives the goalkeeper, he immediately says guilt. “He’s seen some terrible things. It’s the guilt of not acting against it or not doing something to stop it.” Trautmann and fellow paratrooper Peter Kularz witnessed a mass extermination in a forest: men, women and children were herded into a trench and shot by an Einsatzgruppen, a Nazi paramilitary death squad. Trautmann and Kularz crawled away on their bellies, then ran for their lives. If they had been spotted, they would have been shot on the spot because the Einsatzgruppen wanted no witnesses. Years later, Trautmann admitted he was still haunted by what he saw. (“If I’d been a bit older, I’d probably have committed suicide,” he said.)
It is the mix of guilt and anger that makes Trautmann fascinating. He had none of the humility you might expect from a man tortured by what he did and saw. As a prisoner of war, he could not understand why a Jewish officer might be abusive to him. “He had to drive the Jewish officer to different locations,” Kross says. “And the Jewish officer treated him badly, so he hit him. And yet this complex, contrary man unwittingly became a messenger of peace.”
The astonishing thing is that so little is known about Trautmann in Germany. Kross admits he had never heard of him before being offered the part. The actor hopes that the film, which is largely funded with European money, will make the keeper famous in his home country.
Rosenmüller, a Bavarian film-maker who played semi-professional football himself, has been working on the project for almost a decade. He was making a film with the producer Robert Marciniak, who told him about the German goalkeeper who broke his neck playing for an English team in the FA Cup final. Both men became obsessed with Trautmann – and turning his life into a movie. They first met him in Nuremberg, when he received a medal from the German FA. They then spent a week with him in 2010 at his home near Valencia in Spain (Trautmann died in 2013).
Rosenmüller says he was a closed man who gradually opened up. “He first showed us a bit of himself, and then more. He told us he had not had enough courage to make things different in the war.” I ask Rosenmüller if he feels Trautmann was being honest – did he feel bad because he did not have the courage to stop things happening, or did he feel bad because of the things he did himself? Probably both, Rosenmüller says. “He went as a volunteer, and I’m sure he wanted to be a good soldier.”
Even if he never fully addressed his war crimes, Rosenmüller says to go as far as he did was remarkable. Trautmann belonged to a generation that found it almost impossible to talk about what they had seen, whether as victims or as perpetrators. “He was honest to say he could not interfere because he lacked courage. It was not like: “I couldn’t do anything.’ It was: ‘Shit, I didn’t have the courage.’ For me, it was heroic to say: ‘I did wrong.’”
There are lots of heroes in the Trautmann story – the Friar family, Manchester City football club, the supporters. But perhaps the biggest hero is Rabbi Alexander Altmann, whose parents were killed in the Holocaust. In an open letter to the Manchester Evening Chronicle, he wrote that Trautmann should not be punished “for the terrible cruelties we suffered at the hands of the Germans ... If this footballer is a decent fellow, I would say there is no harm in it. Each case must be judged on its own merits.” After Altmann’s letter, the protests stopped. Trautmann went on to win an OBE for his work for Anglo-German relations.
For Rosenmüller, the story is a personal one. He has always wondered how he would have turned out if he had joined the Hitler Youth and been indoctrinated by nazism. Would he have had the strength to resist, or would he, like Trautmann, have volunteered for the army? But most of all, he says, it is the theme of reconciliation that inspires him. “I once made a documentary about a farmer because the farmer was fascinated with Bishop Tutu. Tutu’s Truth And Reconcilation Commission gave South Africans the opportunity to admit they had done terrible things, and people forgave them. That was such an incredible thing. And it’s a pity that we Germans never did that.” Rosenmüller says that the failure of the Nazi generation to address their crimes led to the student protest movement of 1968 – a generation of German youth revolting against their parents’ silence.
And yet in Lancashire in the late 1940s, a formerly unquestioning Nazi loyalist was interned in a prisoner of war camp, and forced to address his crimes and prejudices. And the community, inspired by the words of Altmann, did forgive him. As far as Rosenmüller is concerned, that is the heart of his film. Yes, Trautmann was a great goalkeeper. Yes, he was ludicrously brave. But more important than anything, he became the living embodiment of truth and reconciliation.
Stanley Kubrick had put aside his adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s novelbecause he couldn’t find the right actor to play Alex, the violent thug. Then he saw Lindsay Anderson’s If …, in which I played another victim of institutionalisation. He turned to his wife and said: “We’ve found our Alex.”
I spent nine months with Stanley before we started shooting, watching violent movies every day. They were the most horrendous films: concentration camps, bodies stacked up. He was thinking of using them in the treatment sequence, where Alex is given aversion therapy.
One day, I asked Stanley what my friends the “droogs” were going to look like. He said: “What have you got?” I said: “The only thing in my car is my cricket bag.” So I put my whites on. He asked what the groin protector was, and when I told him, he said: “Wear it on the outside!” That became the look. In my mind, playing Alex, I always had the idea of Laurence Olivier doing Richard III – and the Nadsat slang the droogs spoke was very Shakespearean.
“I don’t know what I want,” Stanley would say, “but I do know what I don’t want.” The shoot took six months – his quickest ever. After the budget had spiralled out of control on 2001: A Space Odyssey, he wanted to show the industry he could make a small-budget film. It cost $2.2m, which is still high for a British film. A lot was shot on location around London, including at the Thamesmead estate.
In the scene where I’m being worked over by the police, the probation officer, played by Aubrey Morris, was supposed to spit on me. Poor old Aubrey ran out of saliva and so Steven Berkoff, who was playing a cop, said: “Don’t worry, I’ve got some.” He brought up the most hideous lurgies. Stanley asked: “Can you get it on his nose?” Berkoff says: “Yeah!” We did so many takes, what with Stanley not accepting anything less than 100%. He wanted it to dribble down just right, to be totally humiliating. Obviously, I was a bit pissed off.
During our preparation, Stanley showed me a picture of an eye-operation patient with lid-locks on and asked me if I could have that done to me: “Hell, no!” I said. So he brought in a doctor to anaesthetise my eyes. But most eye operations are done with the patient lying on their back, not sitting up watching videos. When we shot it, the lid-locks kept sliding off my eyelids and scratching my cornea. When the anaesthetic wore off, I was in such pain I was banging my head against a wall. But Stanley was mainly concerned about when he would be able to get his next shot.
We had shot the ending, which takes place in hospital, but we were stuck on the very important sequence with the beating up of the writer and the gang-rape of his wife. We changed the furniture, changed the actress a couple of times, then after five days, Stanley asked me: “Can you dance?” Because I was bored stiff, I jumped and went straight into the ad lib of Singin’ in the Rain, and on the beats whacking her and kicking the writer. Stanley was laughing so hard that tears were coming down his cheeks. We drove straight back to his house, where he called someone and bought the rights to use the song.
I was exhausted afterwards. I drove to Cornwall and spent a couple of weeks travelling around and walking on moors. The film was a huge hit. The intelligent newspapers would write editorials about it, not only reviews. It was bigger than just a movie, because everyone latched on to the issue of gangs and violence in society. After a year or so, Stanley and his family got some death-threat letters, and the police advised him to withdraw the film – which he did, but only in the UK. Everyone who’d wanted to see it had seen it by then.
I’d asked for $100,000 and 2.5% of the box office, which is what I’d got paid on my previous film. Stanley told me Warner had refused the 2.5%. But when I was invited to meet the studio heads, they said: “You’re going to be a very rich young man on the 2.5% we gave Stanley for you.” I knew he would never pay me. It was a terrible way to treat me after I’d given so much of myself, but I got over it. Doing this film has put me in movie history. Every new generation rediscovers it – not because of the violence, which is old hat compared to today, but the psychological violence. That debate, about a man’s freedom of choice, is still current.
Philip Castle, poster designer
I went to Stanley’s house and he showed me a rough cut of the film. I was impressed – with such a violent subject, you didn’t expect to see such terrific photography. There was so much pictorial gold to choose from. I sketched a few images from the film and then came up with the big capital “A”. After experimenting with a few concepts, I realised the key feature should be Alex with the knife.
I picked up my Aerograph 95 airbrush and got to work. They sent me Alex’s bowler hat, because Stanley thought I’d got its curve wrong. Apart from that, they thought everything was great and they paid me £650, about £9,500 today.
The poster was plastered everywhere: in the press, on the underground, on billboards. It was often next to another poster of mine, for Ken Russell’s The Boy Friend, which was a turnaround in my career. I didn’t think the poster was as great as people made out, but it’s certainly had a good run.
Hundreds of huge white plates lie scattered along the roadside in the centre of Doha, Qatar, as if someone has had a spectacular accident with a gigantic crockery cupboard. The creamy discs tilt this way and that, colliding with each other in a random muddle along the edge of the highway, forming an otherworldly landscape of canopies, terraces and enigmatic slit windows.
This pile-up of flying saucers is the new National Museum of Qatar, an astonishing creation by French architect Jean Nouvel, and the latest supercharged volley in the Gulf states’ cultural arms race. Two years ago, Nouvel unveiled the glistening upturned colander of the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Now he’s back with another gargantuan palace for the Emirates’ arch rival. In its sprawling nearly mile-long loop of galleries, the museum tells the story of how this tiny nation of nomadic bedouins and pearl divers became, with the discovery of natural gas, the most wealthy country per capita on Earth in just 50 years.
“Architecture is the testimony of an epoch,” says Nouvel, wearing his trademark black leather jacket and wide-brimmed black hat and standing beneath his soaring concrete discs. “This building is a testimony of this moment in Qatar – a very, very powerful period that has seen a very strong mutation.”
The gas-rich state’s phenomenal influence is evident the world over. In London, Qatar now owns more land than the Queen, having snapped up everything from Canary Wharf and the Shard, to the Olympic Village, Chelsea Barracks and Elephant and Castle – along with Harrods as the crowning jewel in its luxury portfolio. Its foreign investments range from banks to universities, while its buying power in the global art market is unmatched. So what form did Nouvel think would best embody this miraculous national story? What kind of monument could represent the world epicentre of soft power?
His first impulse was to bury the entire complex below the ground. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this didn’t go down too well with his client, who was looking for something rather more visible. Charged with conjuring a spectacular, unrepeatable form, his team went back to the drawing board and drew inspiration from a “desert rose”, an intricate rock formation created when minerals crystallise in the crumbly soil just below the surface of a shallow salt basin. “It is a form created by the desert and time, a structure of endless intersections,” says Nouvel. “It is totally irrational. And it was difficult, because no one knows what it looks like inside.”
The resulting supersized sand crystal grows out of an early 1900s royal palace on the site, extending in a virulent cluster to envelop a central courtyard – a nod to the region’s caravanserai buildings, where travellers would unload their wares. As the strange mineral apparition multiplies around the site, the discs take on different roles: one rises from the ground, forming a sloping terrace with great views across the bay; others project to provide much-needed shade. Barely anything about the museum is legible as a conventional building. Every part is made from the collision of intersecting discs, giving it the surreal object-like quality of a Claes Oldenburg sculpture.
Eighteen years in the making, the National Museum of Qatar was a fiendishly complex idea to realise. The 539 discs are clad with 76,000 glass-fibre-reinforced concrete panels, requiring a level of technical gymnastics only made possible by software developed by Frank Gehry’s office (and a construction budget of more than $400m). Unlike much computer-generated blobitecture, the museum has a geometric rigour and rugged material heft, as if it could have been grown from the ground. It balances the rough with the smooth: while the discs have a crystalline precision, tapering to razor-sharp edges, the courtyard has been left with a pleasingly sandy surface, as though ready to host a caravan of itinerant traders.
Step inside and it feels like entering a geological chasm. The angled plates create a labyrinthine experience, with ceilings soaring up above lofty lobbies, before plunging down to create intimate nooks and crannies. The spatial drama is amplified by the fact that the floor is also made of subtly ramped planes, drawing you through the galleries in a gradual slope. Nouvel says he got the idea from his mentor, Claude Parent, who imagined a radical future where all buildings would be composed of steeply sloping surfaces – a heady vision that is not without practical drawbacks.
“Jean’s architecture is incredible,” said Sheikha al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, chair of Qatar Museums, “but the walls make it very difficult to hang anything.” As a result, the exhibition format relies heavily on immersive projections that cover most of the walls, providing an animated backdrop to more conventional dioramas and displays of objects in vitrines.
Beginning with a 400-million-year-old fossilised fish, the loop of 11 galleries moves from the natural history of Qatar’s geology and wildlife, to archaeology, cultural traditions and pearl fishing, as well as the momentous discovery of oil and gas that changed everything. The family lineage of sheikhs is dutifully celebrated, too, with cases of their personal effects and medals bestowed by foreign nations.
The displays are generally well put together, but for now it all feels too sparse, the gaping rooms conceived for a collection that is incapable of filling them. The highlight is found in a side gallery, in the form of a temporary exhibition deftly curated by Dutch practice OMA and local architect Fatma al-Sahlawi, which puts Doha’s extraordinary building boom in much-needed context. It documents the early city masterplans to the present context, charting how 11 Pritzker prize winners have been hired to shape Qatar’s identity with evermore elaborate visions.
But what’s missing throughout the museum is any confrontation of the more painful side-effects of this rapid growth. Unlike at the city’s eye-opening slavery museum nearby, the sensitive territory of human rights is left well alone throughout.
It is a topic that this worldly nation should be more willing to confront head on. In 2016, a Guardian investigation into construction workers’ conditions in Qatar found alleged abuses ranging from irregular or decreased payment of wages to passport confiscation and high levels of debt bondage. Some Nepalese labourers employed at the national museum said they were paid a much lower salary than promised when they were recruited in their home country.
Facing increased international scrutiny in the run-up to the 2022 World Cup, Qatar has now introduced a minimum wage for migrant workers and says it is trying to replace the kafala (sponsorship) system with a new contractual system, and bar employers from confiscating workers’ passports. But for campaign groups like Human Rights Watch (HRW), the reforms don’t go far enough.
“While Qatar has taken some important steps to protect human rights, there is still a long way to go before migrant workers are protected from abuse and exploitation,” HRW’s deputy Middle East director Lama Fakih said in January. “As Qatar races to complete planned construction projects in time, now is the time to put in place durable labour rights reforms.”
The museum’s final gallery, set to focus on modern-day Qatar, is yet to be filled. The human costs of the country’s insatiable ambitions would be a worthy subject.
Now filming Sky series Temple and a film called The Glass House. Has had a child with partner, fellow actor Guy Pearce
When Carice van Houten goes out in public, she often notices people giving her searching looks, as if they can’t quite place where they’ve seen her before. When a woman came up once and asked her that, van Houten replied with the words, “The night is dark and full of terrors” – a key line from her terrifying fire priestess Melisandre. “The girl almost screamed,” she recalls with satisfaction. “Not just because she recognised someone from TV, but as if she really thought I was scary. Which was fun!”
Prior to Game of Thrones, the Dutch actor was best known for her smouldering performance in Paul Verhoeven’s 2006 thriller Black Book,playing a Jewish singer who joins the resistance against the Nazis. She joined the show at the start of season two, having turned down an opportunity to audition as Game of Thrones character Cersei Lannister a year earlier.
Melisandre, she admits, “was a struggle in the beginning. The things I’d done before, in film or theatre, were tragicomic roles where the focus was on human flaws, fears and doubts. This confident, religious, extreme character seemed to lack all of that. So I really had to work hard.”
By season five, Melisandre reveals her frailties, but not before engineering some of the most horrifying scenes in the series. “When I had to kill the little girl Shireen [the daughter of Stannis Baratheon, whom she burns at the stake], I thought, okay wow, this character has gone to the next level. I was quite shocked reading that, but at the same time I thought, this is such a bold, daring scene to do.”
Her abiding memory of shooting in Northern Ireland over seven years was feeling cold, not least when she had to give birth to a shadow demon in a damp cave. Luckily, she had Liam Cunningham and Stephen Dillane (who play Davos Seaworth and Stannis Baratheon respectively) to keep her entertained. “They are such opposites, like Laurel and Hardy,” she says. “Stephen is quieter and more introverted. Whereas Liam is just a goofball and never stops talking – it’s very funny though at some points you want to say, ‘Shut up!’”
A lot has changed for van Houten since she joined Game of Thrones in season two. She got together with the Australian actor Guy Pearce after starring with him in the film Brimstoneand gave birth to their son Monte in August 2016. (“I’m happy I did the Shireen scene before I had my own kid,” she says.)
As for her career, “The show definitely has opened doors,” she says. “Everyone knows what you’re talking about with Game of Thrones. I had a role in The Simpsons, which was my biggest dream when I first came to LA” – she voiced Milhouse’s cousin Annika van Houten in 2015 – “and that wouldn’t have happened without Game of Thrones, I’m 100% sure.”
There’s more TV ahead – she’s starring alongside Mark Strong and Daniel Mays in Temple, a remake for Sky of the Norwegian series Valkyrien, and she will also appear in a film adaptation of the Simon Mawer novel The Glass Room. “Hopefully it won’t stop with Melisandre, and people will get to know me for other things. And hopefully,” she adds, reflecting on the air of menace that surrounds her most famous character, “it will be a bit on the lighter side next time.” KF
Who’s your favourite character? Samwell Tarly. He’s the one truly good person in the show. You just wish that the world was full of people like him.
What’s the secret of the show’s success? It’s a bit like Shakespeare: there’s something in it for everyone and it holds up a mirror to society.
Most enduring memory of the show? Being on a horse. I was terrified every time.
John Bradley (Samwell Tarly)
Bradley is shooting two films later this year including Tale of the Wet Dog. He is dating a journalist who interviewed him about the show
“Game of Thrones was the very first audition I ever did,” says John Bradley, who was fresh out of drama school in Manchester, where he’s from, when he went up for the role of hapless but loveable Night’s Watch recruit Samwell Tarly. “I just wanted to make a good impression on my agent, I wasn’t even thinking about getting the job,” Bradley recalls. Now the 30-year-old is one of the longest-surviving members of the Game of Thrones cast.
While his character fell in with Jon Snow in Castle Black, Bradley struck up a “lifelong friendship” with Kit Harington, who plays Snow, over eight years of shooting in Northern Ireland. They bonded over football (Bradley is a diehard Manchester United fan) and Alan Partridge and, during one 10-day hiatus, they retreated to Bradley’s Belfast hotel room to binge watch “a DVD compilation of Michael Parkinson’s greatest interviews while sharing a bottle of pink champagne. It was like Harold and Maude. We didn’t get cabin fever at all.” Last year, he attended Harington’s wedding to their co-star Rose Leslie.
Bradley also credits Game of Thrones with kickstarting not just his career – he appeared alongside Stanley Tucci and Natalie Dormer in Patient Zero last year and will be filming Tale of the Wet Dog in New York this summer – but his own love life, too: he got together with his girlfriend, entertainment writer Rebecca May, after she interviewed him about Game of Thrones. “Thrones took up my entire 20s, which is a formative time for anybody, but to spend it with amazing people doing this amazing show was just a dream,” he says. KF
Isaac Hempstead Wright (Bran Stark)
About to start university for the second time, studying neuroscience
Like many 19-year-olds, Isaac Hempstead Wright is off to university this September – but in his case, not for the first time. He’s tried once already, studying music and maths at Birmingham, but found that he was simply too famous for student life.
“I ended up being assigned a campus police officer,” he recalls. “It was really full-on and I felt completely overwhelmed. I couldn’t walk out of my halls without being mobbed or having to take selfies. Everyone knew where I lived. Because you’re on the university email system, I’d log on to get my lecture notes and have 40 messages from random strangers saying: ‘Hi, Three-Eyed Raven!’ Hempstead Wright dropped out early. Older now, and a lot wiser, he hopes this time will be different.
He was just 10 when he was cast as “Little Lord” Bran Stark (“I got an audition for a pilot episode and didn’t even know what that meant”), and says: “It’s been a unique upbringing, growing up on the world’s biggest TV show. But I stayed at school the whole time rather than leaving and becoming a full-time stage kid, so still had a relatively normal existence. Game of Thrones just became six months of the year where I’d go and do this wacky, totally different thing. I learned horse-riding, climbing, archery – it was like summer camp.”
Indeed, he has led a rare double life: “Sometimes the juxtaposition was just weird. I’d be on set, then fly back from Belfast and a car would drop me straight off at school. Now I’m in a geography lesson. What. Is. Going. On?”
Adolescence can be a tricky time, but Westeros provided plenty of shoulders to cry on: “I essentially had an extended family. Kristian Nairn[who played Hodor] became my big brother. Julian Glover [Grand Maester Pycelle] would give me acting advice. It was a huge support network to tap into. Working from age 10 in such an adult world means you learn people skills – to talk, to listen, take direction, be professional. It made me mature faster, in that respect.”
When it comes to keeping the show’s secrets, Hempstead Wright is an old hand. “I’ve got good at saying absolutely nothing with a lot of words,” he laughs. “But the sheer scale of the final season is massive. Big characters who have been kept separate all arrive in Winterfell. Storylines converge and come to fruition.” And what of his own clairvoyant character, last seen dropping the bombshell of Jon Snow’s parentage? “Bran’s story arc is fantastic,” he says. “He’s a disabled kid in the harshest environment, yet he doesn’t just survive, he triumphs. It’s such a great message. He’s not traditionally glamorous, he’s not an action hero, but he could save the world.”
There were tears when Hempstead Wright wrapped his last scene. “Those people have watched me grow up,” he says, “so it was like saying goodbye to family. I’m glad to see the back of Bran’s wheelchair though. Medieval ones weren’t designed for comfort.” MH
Who’s your favourite character? Controversially, Jaime Lannister. Even though he pushed me from a tower window.
Who should end up on the throne? Hodor. It’d be a peaceful kingdom with him in charge.
Secret of the show’s success? Most of it we owe to George RR Martin’s original source material. He created an entire world.
Jonathan Pryce (the High Sparrow)
Will star as Pope Francis opposite Anthony Hopkins as Benedict XVI in Netflix film The Pope, out later this year
Due to an aversion to dragons, Jonathan Pryce almost passed up the chance to be in the world’s biggest TV show. “Nearly a decade ago I was sent an early script and said no, because swords and sorcery wasn’t a genre that appealed to me,” recalls the Welsh actor. “Without me, of course, the show went on to become this huge international success. Thankfully they came back to me a few years later with the role of the High Sparrow.”
Once called “the busiest actor in Britain”, Rada-trained Pryce has played most of the greats on stage, won two Olivier and two Tony awards, starred in Hollywood hits and been a Bond villain. But he’s never been more recognised than for Game of Thrones.
“It happens on a daily basis,” he says, “so when I leave the house I think, ‘Oh God, I’d better look presentable.’ Otherwise there’s going to be that classic Daily Mail pic, looking unshaven, leaving the off-licence with two bottles of wine clutched under my arm. It happens in the strangest places too. I was touring The Merchant of Venice in China and got to a remote fishing village. As I stepped off the boat, people were pointing and going ‘High Sparrow! High Sparrow!’”
Pryce was genuinely shocked by fans’ reaction to his religious zealot character. “I was surprised when people referred to him as this horrible bad guy. I’d get quite offended on his behalf. Initially he went out among the people, washing and feeding the poor. His opening words to Diana Rigg [who plays Olenna Tyrell] were: ‘You are the few, we are the many’, which is almost Corbynesque.”
Comparisons between the Labour leader and the High Sparrow sprang up online when both rose to power in 2015. “Of course part of it was the High Sparrow’s grey look and quietly-spoken nature,” says Pryce. “I was also compared to Pope Francis, so it’s ironic I’ve since played him too.”
With the High Sparrow’s bare feet and simple tunic, Pryce was one of the lowest-maintenance cast members. “Mornings were easy,” he smiles. “I’d come in, slip on a bit of sackcloth and they’d throw dirt at me. That was my makeup regime. Going barefoot wasn’t great when filming in a dank, dirty cave just outside Belfast, but it was fine in Croatia and Spain.”
Viewers rejoiced in the sixth-season finale when the High Sparrow was vaporised by a giant green fireball. But shooting his death was more prosaic: “On set, the explosion was just me standing on a box and leaning back a bit. I didn’t see all the CGI wildfire until the episode was on TV. I went out for breakfast the morning after it aired, ordered some food, and the waiter said: ‘Don’t worry, it won’t be green.’”
Despite his initial scepticism, swords and sorcery grew on Pryce. “I knew I was only there for two series, but by the time it came to my death I was really enjoying it and regretted being blown up.” MH
Who’s your favourite character? Cersei. Partly because I got to bring her down a peg or two.
Who should end up on the throne? It should have been me!… as the song goes.
Most enduring memory of the show? The sunsets in Dubrovnik after a day’s filming were magical. And the polar opposite of being in a wet bloody cave in Belfast.
Gemma Whelan (Yara Greyjoy)
Next seen opposite Suranne Jones in forthcoming BBC period drama Gentleman Jack. Has had a baby daughter with her husband
Game of Thrones ruined Gemma Whelan’s meat-free diet. “It was my first day on set, I’d never done anything that big before and I was terrified,” she recalls. “I’m a pescatarian, but in the stage directions for my first scene it said: ‘Yara is gnawing on meaty bones’. I was too nervous to let them know I don’t eat meat, so ended up eating chicken legs all day. But hey, I got a huge protein rush and grew an inch overnight. Who knew?”
Pre-Westeros, Whelan was best known for comedy, performing her Chastity Butterworth character on the standup circuit and appearing in sitcoms, including BBC2’s Upstart Crow – so she was delighted to diversify into a dramatic role: “It’s difficult to straddle both, because people tend to pop you in a box. I’d been hoping to do drama, so it all happened serendipitously. Game of Thrones changed my career in terms of being taken seriously.”
I point out that a similar trajectory has worked out pretty well for Olivia Colman. “I suppose she’s done all right for herself,” laughs Whelan. “She’s my idol. Her career, please!”
Yara Greyjoy didn’t arrive until the second season, so before her audition Whelan decided to see what the fuss was about. “I thought, ‘Oh gawd, dungeons and dragons, not a big fantasy fan, but let’s have a look.’ I ended up watching 10 episodes in two nights and was hooked. Seventy actresses were up for the part. I was certain they’d hire some big name. So I was surprised when it went my way.”
Described by Whelan as “a salty pirate in smelly leather trousers”, Yara is a fierce seafarer whose role in the show has steadily expanded. “She’s strong and empowered. I did some fight training, but it’s the stuntmen who make you look really badass.”
Now Whelan is about to set sail for the last time. As she says: “Yara was last seen beaten and bloodied after being taken hostage by her Uncle Euron, never to be seen again. Or is she?”
Whelan took her baby daughter with her while shooting the final series: “She knows how the show ends. If only babies could talk, she could spoil it all.”
Like everyone we speak to, Whelan compares the show’s cast and crew to one big family. They stay in touch on a WhatsApp group, and after our interview she’s off to meet Alfie Allen (who plays Yara’s brother Theon) on London’s South Bank for a coffee and a gossip.
“It’s a little Greyjoy reunion,” she grins. “Me and Alfie hit it off immediately and remain very dear friends. Game of Thrones might be finishing, but the love goes on.” MH
Who is your favourite character? Tyrion, for his wit and intelligence.
Favourite GoT scene? Battle of the Bastards [season six, when Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton face off]. I’ve never watched a piece of TV so physically. When Kit got buried in those bodies and was suffocating, I forgot to breathe.
Who should end up on the throne? Arya, please! With a resurrected Joffrey as her hand.
Secret of the show’s success? Someone described it as The Sopranos with swords. You can’t be scrolling through social media when you’re watching – it commands your full attention.
Iain Glen (Ser Jorah Mormont)
Next appears in films The Flood with Lena Headey and What About Love with Sharon Stone
After Iain Glen came back from an audition for the pilot episode of Game of Thrones, he tried to tell himself it was just another casting, but “I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” he says.
Almost a decade later and his character, Ser Jorah Mormont, the exiled northern knight in the service of Daenerys Targaryen, is one of the few who have survived the violent, often-fatal turns in the drama’s sprawling plot, which found him enjoying a variety of exotic Mediterranean locations: Spain, Croatia, Morocco, Malta. “Other actors [on the show] would have very different tales of being really, really cold and dirty in some shithole that was meant to feel horrible, and did,” he says. “I used to joke with [showrunners] Dan and David about how disturbed I was that my storyline had changed and now I seemed to be in the cold, shitty place, which they should have a think about.” But wherever they went, he was overawed by the scale of production and access to locations of unusual beauty.
Glen was one of the more established actors going into the series, with acclaimed roles under his belt in film (The Iron Lady, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead) and theatre (he was nominated for Oliviers for both The Blue Room and The Crucible) along with a part in Downton Abbey. But his turn as the steadfast, valiant knight devoted to Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys, or Khaleesi, saw him catapulted to worldwide fame. (He is familiar with the fan nickname Ser Friendzone – because of his unrequited love for Daenerys – though he says, diplomatically: “I am such a dunce when it comes to social media I don’t fully understand what it is.”)
One notable encounter with a fan occurred in an airport. “I passed this middle-aged American lady and I could feel her body language alter, so I thought: ‘I’ll just keep my head down, keep walking and grab my coffee.’ But on the way back she managed to stand in front of me and said: ‘Excuse me, would you do me a favour? Could you just look me in the eye and say Khaleesi?’ So I did.”
Glen’s career is in “rude good health – Game of Thrones has been good for all of us”: in recent years he has appeared in numerous film and TV roles, including alongside Ruth Wilson in the BBC drama Mrs Wilson, and the 2017 film My Cousin Rachel. But the difference has been more marked for the younger actors, including Emilia Clarke, with whom he shared the most scenes. “She had a huge weight to carry,” he says. “We became very close. I have really enjoyed watching her become a bit of a star, and handle it all incredibly well.”
There is one particular memory of the show that Glen will always cherish, he says. They were filming a gladiatorial sequence in a bullring in Osuna, Spain, and his family had come out to visit; his daughter Mary was then eight or nine. “The Game of Thrones family took her and dressed her up like Ser Jorah, put her in a little kilt and put blood marks and cuts on her, made her all really dirty, gave her a wee sword and sent her off to the set. The director got her to sit beside the monitor and call ‘Action!’ and ‘Cut!’ in a tiny little high-pitched voice, as a massive fight sequence was brought to life. That’s a very fond memory and she still talks about it.” KB
Favourite GoT scene? The pushing of Bran off the tower at the beginning. It somehow captured everything that was going to be good about Thrones: the unpredictability of it and the psychological oddness.
Who should end up on the throne? No surprises: Daenerys.
Secret of the show’s success? Great writing, good cast, and that element of the “beyond our ken”, of things happening that we can’t understand, is nicely painted in.
Jacob Anderson (Grey Worm)
Currently recording his second album under the moniker Raleigh Ritchie, trying his hand at screenwriting
The first time Jacob Anderson saw himself on Game of Thrones he felt mortified. Before joining the show, he had loved the first two seasons. “So I was watching the third, really enjoying it, and then my little baby face showed up and I was like ‘Oh, weird – what’s he doing there?’”
Anderson, 28, grew up in Bristol, and juggles twin careers in acting (his credits include Adulthood,126.96.36.199. and Broadchurch) and music (he released his debut album You’re a Man Now, Boy under the alias Raleigh Ritchie in 2016). When he auditioned for the part of Grey Worm, commander of the Unsullied, the warrior-eunuchs, he was surprised to be handed some sheets in a made-up language to learn. Later, shooting the first scene in an oasis in Morocco, he was convinced he was going to get fired. “I thought I was going to mess it up.”
Instead, he’s one of the longest-running members of the cast, shooting gruelling battle scenes for the final season. “There was one night-shoot I’ll always remember,” he says. “I couldn’t see any cameras or technical equipment, and I was completely immersed, with fake snow blowing and hundreds of extras – there was a surreal moment in which I forgot I was acting. It was kind of terrifying, but also really exciting.”
When he’s not being quizzed by strangers in the street about eunuchs – “I’m not an expert” – Anderson’s main concern is music. Inspired by musicians including Amy Winehouse, Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway, he started writing songs at 14. “It was an outlet to express myself, since I didn’t really have people to talk to about stuff when I was growing up,” he says. “I’ve always responded really well to confessional songwriting.”
In the future, he hopes to get a part in a Marvel Cinematic Universe film (“dream big”) or, at least, some roles in English. But he’ll miss Thrones, even his unwieldy costume, which was so heavy it has left scars on his skin. “On the last day,” he remembers, “my dresser, Jade, took my armour off and I realised it was the last time I was ever going to wear it. I said, ‘Please, could I leave it on for just a few more seconds?’ I didn’t want to let go of it. And I hated wearing that costume. It’s really uncomfortable. I didn’t expect to feel as emotional as I did.”KB
Hannah Murray (Gilly)
Starring in Charlie Says, a film about the Manson family, out in May
When the first season of Game of Thrones came out in 2011, Bristol-born Hannah Murray was studying English literature at Cambridge and didn’t own a TV. She hadn’t seen the show when she got the audition for wildling Gilly, but realised she was onto something big when she started practising her lines: “I realised just how good the writing was from that scene, which was Sam and Gilly sitting round a fire – it was so rich and complicated and meaty.”
On the first day on set she had to do CGI [computer-generated imagery] work, which she had never done before: it was a scene with Ghost, the direwolf, so she was essentially acting opposite a tennis ball on a stick. There were donkeys and pigs in the background, and she was holding a skinned squirrel. An alumna of E4’s teen drama Skins, in which she played the troubled Cassie, Murray wasn’t prepared for the high-budget, immersive set she found herself in: “The experiences are incomparable – Skins was about a gang of people the same age as us in the city we lived in, this was a complete world.”
When the cast went to the season premiere in the States, with the New York Philharmonic playing the theme tune, they had to remain in the hotel to avoid being mobbed by fans. “It’s hard sometimes to remember that I’m a part of this thing that is so popular – there have been Saturday Night Livesketches about us. One of our directors, David Nutter, met Barack Obama, who was really upset he’d killed Jon Snow. That blows my mind.”
Murray credits Game of Thrones with getting her cast in Detroit, directed by Kathryn Bigelow: “I know she’s a really big fan of the show. Game of Thronesis something I’ll always be grateful for – it was such an amazing, intense experience.” KB
Game Of Thrones was Kristian Nairn’s first proper acting job. The much-loved role of Hodor – the hulking stable-boy named after the only word he is capable of saying – wasn’t a bad place to start.
“I was working as a DJ and in musical theatre,” says the Northern Irishman. “I didn’t have any real aspirations to act but my agent put me up for a role in Simon Pegg’s film Hot Fuzz. Another one-worder, oddly enough – that was ‘Yarp’. I didn’t get it, – by coincidence, it went to Rory McCann [who plays The Hound in GoT] – but the casting director remembered me, and four years later, called me back for Hodor.
“When I told my mum that I’d done another weird one-word audition, she freaked out because she’s a really big fan of the books.”
Hodor might have had a single-word vocabulary but Nairn developed 70 ways of saying it. “There’s a soundboard in a Belfast studio with me doing dozens of variations,” he laughs. “But it’s also to do with body language.” Is Nairn sick of getting “Hodor” yelled at him? “Not really. Fans usually want a selfie or a chat instead. Although when I met Michael J Fox, he did beckon me down and whisper ‘Say it for me!’”
At 6ft 10in, Nairn finds it tricky to keep a low profile: “I can’t exactly hide. My castmates enjoyed going out to dinner with me because I’d get recognised and they could hide behind me, still incognito.”
You won’t catch him complaining, though. “Game Of Thrones enhanced my life in so many ways. It enabled me to buy my mum a house, which is all I ever wanted to do. It taught me the craft of acting and gave me the confidence to just be myself.”
Now comes Rave Of Thrones, his live club night: “It combines two things I love, Game Of Thrones and DJing, and will be a fun way to celebrate the end of an era.” MH
Bella Ramsey (Lyanna Mormont)
Can be seen playing Mildred Hubble in the hit CBBC series The Worst Witch
When Bella Ramsey was cast in Game of Thrones, she wasn’t allowed to tell anyone about it until the episode that she appeared in came out. “And then,” she says, “madness happened.” Then aged 12, she portrayed Lyanna Mormont, head of House Mormont of Bear Island, who stands up to powerful male rulers with courage and conviction. The Hollywood Reporter called her “season 6’s breakout star”. People in the street started to call her “M’lady”. Not long after, she was cast as the lead in CBBC show The Worst Witch.
This was Ramsey’s first screen role, so she thought the huge set was normal: “The first day, we filmed on horses, just before the Battle of the Bastards. That was amazing. A member of the crew pointed at the grass and said, ‘You know someone got employed to place those tufts of grass in very specific places?’”
Lyanna came naturally: “I like how tough she is, she doesn’t take any nonsense from anyone. She’s a badass, and I also like the fact she’s never condescending or mean without a very good reason. In the past, female roles were often damsels in distress, so it’s important to have multi-dimensional characters like Lyanna.”
Next, she’ll be in Resistance, a film about Jewish children in Nazi Germany. In the future, she’d like to do something “action-packed, maybe playing football, because I love sport”. Looking back on Thrones, the thing she’ll miss most is her costume. “When I go to set in my normal clothes in the morning, I’m completely Bella. It’s a weird transformation. As soon as I step into my costume, it makes me feel like Lyanna.” KB
Game of Thrones season 8 starts on 15 April on Sky Atlantic
Nestled in a bowl in the rolling landscape of Yorkshire Sculpture Park stands a rugged brown wall, its gnarled sedimentary layers of gravel-flecked matter giving it the look of a great slice of earth hoisted freshly out of the ground. Emerging from a grassy slope, the monolithic slab runs for 50 metres with only a single break, where the presence of a glazed doorframe is the one telltale sign that this is not another piece of land art, but a habitable building. And an exquisitely made one at that.
“The question was whether it was going to be part of the landscape, or an object seen in the round,” says architect Fergus Feilden, one half of Feilden Fowles, the young practice responsible for the sculpture park’s new £3.6m Weston visitor centre. Their answer is that it’s both at once. From the car park, the building reads as a long enigmatic mass, a fissure in the landscape. But enter through the slot in the wall, and you find an expansive light-washed room, a warm timber-framed world where a long, slightly inward-curving glass wall frames a stunning view of the landscape, with tree-lined hills and sculpture-dotted meadows sloping down to a lake in the distance.
Housing a new gallery, restaurant and shop, the Weston is the latest addition to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s 500-acre grounds of fields, formal gardens, woodland and lakes – an extraordinary place where sheep roam freely among Henry Moore bronzes and highland cattle nose up against a James Turrell Skyspace in a former deer shelter. Founded in 1977 by former college lecturer Peter Murray, the park has evolved over the years, gradually taking over the grounds of Bretton Hall, an 18th-century Palladian mansion turned teacher training college near Wakefield, which closed in 2007, soon to be turned into a luxury hotel.
The landscape has been sculpted over the centuries by successive architects and gardeners, carefully moulded to look natural in the picturesque tradition, and dotted with assorted mansions, lodges, glasshouses and follies. More recently, the park has been an exemplar patron of contemporary architecture, commissioning Feilden Clegg Bradley to design the first visitor centre and an expansive semi-underground gallery in the early 2000s, followed by Tony Fretton’s conversion of a barn into another gallery at the other side of the park, and Adam Kahn’s concrete temple for Roger Hiorns’s copper sulphate-encrusted Seizure installation in 2013. But the Weston is one of their bravest projects yet.
“Feilden Fowles were by far the youngest and most risky choice,” says Clare Lilley, director of programme at Yorkshire Sculpture Park for the last 25 years. The architects hadn’t much to their name when they won the invited competition in 2014, but they have since become one of the country’s most sought-after young firms, with several school buildings and a huge pie factory under their belt, and a pair of Oxbridge college buildings underway. From their hidden oasis of a (self-built) studio at Waterloo city farm, they conjure sensitive projects that bridge urban and rural sensibilities, with a close attention to how things are made. And, just as animals roam the sculpture park, they are perhaps the only architects who can claim to have pigs poking their snouts against the office windows.
In the same way that their own studio presents an enigmatic blank wall to the street, and an entirely open glass and timber front to the garden within, the Weston building has a completely different character when approached from the park. It turns its back to the noisy M1 to the east, with the long earthy wall created by a sequence of meticulously mixed concrete recipes, poured to the architects’ exacting guidelines, after the nature of the local soil meant it didn’t make sense to use rammed earth. To the west, it opens up as a diaphanous freestanding pavilion, the long glazed front curving to embrace the landscape, while a fluted fibreglass lantern pokes out of the roof.
Making the building very much of its time (and recalling the fibreglass walls of Carmody Groarke’s temporary Filling Station restaurant perhaps a little too closely), this undulating translucent wrapping marks the presence of the new gallery within, where rows of sculptural concrete roof lights plunge from the ceiling in powerful horizontal waves. Board-marked from the rough-grained timber shuttering, the concrete planes each swoop down before curving up in a broad bullnose, recalling a structure from the heroic age of concrete – like something a young Pier Luigi Nervi might have created, only on a more diminutive scale. A hidden labyrinth of 10,000 unfired bricks behind the wall provides a clever method of temperature and humidity control, allowing the gallery to opt out of the onerous national standards for conservation, yet still receive precious loans – a bold move, first pioneered by Manchester’s Whitworth gallery. The opening show, by Delhi-based artists Thukral and Tagra, promises to raise the temperature, tackling issues faced by farmers in India and encouraging visitors to engage in traditional “kushti” wrestling.
After you’ve had a good tussle, there’s no better place to relax with a cuppa than the cafe-restaurant next door, sunken at a slightly lower level, where warm wooden cafe tables and chairs stand on a floor of ground concrete, while a Weetabixy ceiling of wood-wool panels floats overhead, above walls of faintly mottled lime render – a finely tuned space as carefully composed as the artwork it serves.
Ant and Dec considered splitting up after Ant McPartlin’s conviction for drink-driving last year, the pair have told the Guardian in an exclusive and wide-ranging interview.
McPartlin was more than twice over the legal limit when he smashed into two other cars in south-west London last March. He was driving his mother, and both cars he hit contained children. McPartlin was fined £86,000, believed to be a British record for drink-driving, and banned from driving for 20 months.
Declan Donnelly said McPartlin’s drink-driving offence was “indefensible”, and that when he heard about it he was angry with his friend as well as upset for him.
When asked if he had considered separating from his on-screen partner of almost 30 years, he said he would be lying if he had not thought about it, but that ultimately he wanted his partner healthy and happy, and the relationship back on track.
After the crash, McPartlin announced he was immediately withdrawing from his television commitments and going into rehab.
They said that they then reassessed their career and relationship. They realised they had started to take each other for granted, and had stopped talking to each other properly. “For the first time in many years, all we talked about were deep things like how we felt, and what the future held, and where we were, and all the chaos that has come along, especially for me,” McPartlin said.
The presenters are due to return as a TV duo next Saturday for the first time in a year on the ITV show Britain’s Got Talent.