He painted prisoners, devoured Dickens and worshipped the London News … ahead of a major show, our writer reveals how Britain changed Van Gogh – and how he transformed its art

Being Dutch, living in London, painting France … Starry Night Over the Rhone, 1888.
 Being Dutch, living in London, painting France … Starry Night Over the Rhone, 1888. Photograph: Hervé Lewandowski/RMN-Grand Palais/Musée d'Orsay

Vincent van Gogh was the most European of artists. His brief, intense life, before he killed himself aged 37, saw him moving between his native Netherlands, Belgium, England and France. He spent two years in London from 1873 to 1875, employed by an art dealer; in 1876, for shorter periods, he worked as a teacher in Ramsgate and Isleworth. Later, when he was living in Paris, Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo about seeing a painting that depicted London from Victoria Embankment, by Giuseppe De Nittis. “When I saw this painting,” he wrote, “I felt how much I love London.” The city provided a deep immersion into the bewildering, heady life of a fully industrialised metropolis. This was Dickens’s London, with its squalor, its teeming masses, its glamour, its wealth, its cruelty – and, importantly for his formation, its art galleries.

After his death, the love, at first fitfully, flowed in the opposite direction. When his work was shown at Roger Fry’s famous post-impressionist exhibition in 1910, it changed the course of British art. In 1947, bombed-out, austerity London was given a blast of the golds and scarlets and greens and azure blues of Provence, and Van Gogh’s paintings, by then sanctified into mass popularity, astounded the public once more. The Manchester Guardian’s critic, Eric Newton, wrote of that exhibition, held at what is now Tate Britain: “When he painted with reckless courage from a full heart … the results are astonishing. What is more, they will always be astonishing. That kind of genius cannot go out of fashion.” This month, Van Gogh will be returning to the building, as a major new exhibition examines his relationship with Britain – what he drew from it and what he bequeathed to it.

Starting point … the painting that sparked Van Gogh’s love of London: The Victoria Embankment, London, 1875, by Giuseppe de Nittis.
 Starting point … the painting that sparked Van Gogh’s love of London: The Victoria Embankment, London, 1875, by Giuseppe de Nittis. Photograph: Bridgeman Images

Van Gogh is no longer merely a popular artist, he is a worldwide brand. In 2017, 2.26 million visitors passed through the doors of the Van Gogh Museumin Amsterdam, an astounding number for an institution devoted to the work of a single artist. In the shop, sunflowers, irises and cherry blossoms emblazon every kind of item from spectacles to suitcases. His home village of Nuenen, on the outskirts of Eindhoven, where he spent important months training himself to be a painter – and where his father suddenly died, his girlfriend drank poison and the Catholic priest urged parishioners to stop sitting for him after one of his subjects became pregnant – is now a place of pilgrimage, with an visitors’ centre and coach-loads of tourists in the summer. The Noordbrabants Museum, in nearby ’s-Hertogenbosch, which holds a small but important collection of early works by the artist, even stocks in its shop a rubber in the shape of a severed ear (an “earaser”, if you please).

Vincent van Gogh exhibition poster Tate Gallery 1947 © Tate, 2018
 Photograph: Tate

Because of all this, it is hard to separate Van Gogh the global phenomenon from Van Gogh the real young man, tentative, passionate, principled, religious, curious, difficult. His curse and his blessing was his literary ability – and his extraordinary letters, which fleshed out his biography and made him an object of cultish fascination (and subject of plays such as Vincent in Brixton, and of films such as Lust for Life and Loving Vincent). The letters, preserved and promoted by his sister-in-law Jo van Gogh-Bonger, after Theo’s death from syphilis, also contain the material to rescue him from the wilder claims of the many observers who have struggled to separate his work from his mental state.

At the 1910 exhibition, the Observer’s critic, PG Konody, wrote that at least some of his paintings were “merely the ravings of a maniac”. But letters show that whatever his mental illness consisted of, it was not a matter of a madman raging at a canvas, or a lunatic expressing distorted, hallucinogenic visions in paint. When he suffered his most intense periods of sickness, he did not – could not – paint. Perhaps our age, with its gradually increasing sensitivity to the nuances of mental ill-health, can be the one that finally removes the stigma.

The Avenue at Middelharnis, 1689, by Meindert Hobbema.
 Van Gogh saw The Avenue at Middelharnis, 1689, by Meindert Hobbema while visiting the National Gallery. Photograph: National Gallery, London

Van Gogh lived in London before his momentous decision in 1879 to become an artist. (It is always extraordinary to recall that his active career was a mere decade in duration.) Working in Covent Garden at Goupil’s, as an art dealer specialising in reproductions, and lodging at Hackford Road in Lambeth, south of the river, he took long walks through the city streets, and often visited the National Gallery. A favourite painting in Trafalgar Square was Hobbema’s The Avenue at Middelharnis , which showed a distinctive flat Dutch landscape, with pollarded trees lining a lane that diminishes into the distance. It is the progenitor of many similar views by Van Gogh. According to Carol Jacobi, the curator of the Tate Britain show, it was also his reading of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress that made the “small figure on a long autumnal avenue” become a “visualisation of life as a journey”.

He described his own Avenue of Poplars in Autumn, which he made in 1884 in Nuenen, as a scene where “the sun makes glittering patches here and there on the fallen leaves on the ground, which are interspersed with the long shadows cast by the trunks”. Nine years earlier, when living in Britain, he had written out John Keats’s Ode to Autumn, in English, in a letter to Dutch friends.

Vincent Van Gogh’s former home in south London.
 Vincent Van Gogh’s former home in south London. Photograph: Jonathan Harbourne/Alamy

Van Gogh was deeply immersed in English (and French) literature. He read easily and quickly in the original languages. Dickens was a solace. When Van Gogh went into an asylum in Provence, late in his life, he bought copies of the novelist’s work in French translation. His famous paintings of empty chairs – his own, simple and rush-seated, and Gauguin’s, a more elegant piece of furniture in polished wood – echoed the touching drawing by Luke Fildes of the novelist’s empty chairmade soon after his death. He loved Fildes’s socially aware images of the urban poor, and Gustave Doré’s print series of London scenes. Later on, he copied Doré’s print of prisoners exercising in Newgate, making a solemn, claustrophobic painting of it. He bought Fildes’s print Homeless and Hungry, which had appeared in weekly newspaper the Graphic in 1869.

“I used to go every day to the display case of the printer of the Graphic and London News … the impressions I gained there on the spot were so strong that the drawings have remained clear and bright in my mind,” he remembered later. Eventually, he collected around 2,000 such prints. When he started drawing seriously, he toyed with the idea that he could make a living selling work to such publications. “He was developing his singular, forceful line from the lines used in these etchings,” says Jacobi.

Van Gogh lived in London only three years after Dickens had died. Books such as Hard Times fed his empathy for the downtrodden. One of his late portraits of his friend Marie Ginoux, made in 1890 (and with which Tate Britain’s exhibition begins) shows her with copies of Dickens’s Christmas Stories and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the table in front of her. He also adored George Eliot. “Have you read anything good lately?” he wrote to Theo in 1878. “Be sure to get hold of the works of George Eliot somehow, you won’t be sorry if you do, Adam Bede, Silas Marner, Felix Holt, Romola (the life of Savonarola), Scenes of Clerical Life.”

L’Arlésienne, 1890, by Van Gogh.
 Marie Ginoux with copies of Dickens’s Christmas Stories and Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in one of Van Gogh’s L’Arlésienne paintings. Photograph: João Musa/São Paulo Museum of Art

Later he read Felix Holt in Dutch. “It is a book written with great verse, and various scenes are described as Frank Holl or someone similar might have drawn them. The way of thinking and the outlook are similar. There are not many writers as utterly sincere and good as Eliot.” When Van Gogh began drawing in Nuenen, he often made weavers his subjects. Even though industrialised textile-making was taking over in nearby towns such as Tilburg, there were still cottage weavers in the village, scraping a living from their slow, laborious work using a technology unchanged for centuries (in the Nuenen visitor centre, there is a beautiful 18th-century loom, just like the ones in Van Gogh’s drawings).

He was inspired by Stephen Blackpool, the weaver in Hard Times; and perhaps even more by Eliot’s weaver, Silas Marner. One drawing, from 1884, shows a weaver with a baby sitting nearby in a high chair, rather like one imagines Silas and little Eppie, the child he adopts in the book. Van Gogh saw himself as a weaver of sorts – like “someone who must control and interweave many threads … so absorbed in his work that he doesn’t think but acts, and feels how it can and must work out”.

The threads of Van Gogh’s influence wind their way into British art. Jim Ede, whose home became Kettle’s Yard gallery in Cambridge, and who worked at the Tate before its conservative policies wore him down, persuaded Bonger to part with the great Sunflowers canvas that is now displayed in the National Gallery. (It will move back to Tate Britain for the exhibition.) Those flowers launched a new wave of avant-garde still lifes on these shores, by artists from Frank Brangwyn to Samuel John Peploe to Matthew Smith to Winifred Nicholson. Oddly enough, though, it was the painting The Potato Eaters – a grim, dark-brown scene of hard-bitten village life that was his early masterpiece from the Nuenen years – that the public was especially drawn to.

In a country half-crushed by war, the Van Gogh they needed was the painter of hunger and toil and people of small means. It will be interesting to see what Van Gogh we find ourselves needing in post-Brexit London.

The Guardian

Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine: how we made Sheriff Fatman

‘We used my flat’s rank toilet on the record sleeve with my guitar shoved into it – though I put a plastic bag over it first’

‘I’m a landlord too now’ … Carter, right, with Morrison; their song was about slum landlords.
 ‘I’m a landlord too now’ … Carter, right, with Morrison; their song was about slum landlords. Photograph: Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images

James ‘Jim Bob’ Morrison, vocalist/guitarist

I had read about a dodgy landlord in the South London Press. The drug-dealing, the “phoney prescriptions”, the awful living conditions for his tenants: it was all in the newspaper, even his physical stature. All I had to do was change his name – and I’d turned an awful story into poetry and pop music.

Fruitbat and I recorded the track in the same place we recorded the first four Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine albums: a brick shed in producer Simon Painter’s garden. There was no room to swing a cat, let alone set up a drum kit – two important factors in the band’s sound, since we used a drum machine. We knew the track was something special and it quickly became a live favourite, but it wasn’t really a success until we signed a major record deal with Chrysalis, who rereleased it.

I used to love the chaos when we performed the song live in 1989 and 1990. There would be so many people moshing around the band, it was difficult to tell where the stage ended and the auditorium began. We made heavy use of strobes in our sets and they’ve left my neck scarred. On good days, it looks like I’m wearing a posh scarf. When it’s hot in the summer, the tingling on my neck makes it feels like I’m being followed.

Watch the video for Sheriff Fatman

The lyrics namechecked some celebrities of the time, including the businessman Nicholas van Hoogstraten and the Prince of Wales, and we even mentioned Crossroads. Apparently Paul Henry [the actor who played Benny in the soap] got a bit miffed about Fruitbat appropriating his blue woolly hat. I’m not sure if bands today could get away with the “More aliases than Klaus Barbie” line. Big Cat Records, our original label, didn’t ever question anything in any of our songs. Maybe that’s why Fatman wasn’t on daytime Radio 1 as much as it could have been.

Sheriff Fatman used to be my Ralph-McTell-Streets-of-London-in-Big-Trainmoment – where the singer’s forced to perform his big hit over and over. But I’ve completely come to terms with it all – being “Jim Bob from Carter”, filling my solo sets with virtually nothing but Carter classics. Everyone knows Sheriff Fatman is coming: they just need to wait for it. And, now we’re all a bit older, I just enjoy an extended clap-along in the middle section of the song.

When the Bohemian Rhapsody or Rocketman producers begin casting the Carter USM movie, I’d like Sheriff Fatman to be played by either Michael Caine or Christian Bale in a fat suit.

Les ‘Fruitbat’ Carter, guitarist/vocalist

I actually had a very decent landlady at the time, although the flat’s toilet was a bit rank – it’s the one we used on the record sleeve. I covered the top of my guitar in a plastic bag before I shoved it down the bowl for the photo.

the 7in single cover for Sheriff Fatman by Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine.
 The 7in single cover for Sheriff Fatman by Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine. Photograph: Big Cat

Jim Bob had seen a few documentaries on the subject of slum landlords. I’d lived in some shoddy places when I first left home and experienced some awful conditions. Around this time, I worked for the Ministry of Defence. If I tell you what I did, I’d be in violation of the Official Secrets Act and would have to kill you.

When Fatman was first released, it only got into the indie charts. It was rereleased when we were more popular, and that’s when we made Top of the Pops. I think Chris Evans was a fan of the tune: he interviewed us in the toilet when we were on The Big Breakfast. When we played Fatman at gigs, the bouncers would get swamped. Surfers and stage-divers always broke through. Jon Beast, our larger-than-life compère (RIP), used to get them revved up with the “You fat bastard” chant.

I loved hearing Fatman covered by our Japanese tribute band, Clinton USM. They were kind enough to join us for the afterparty at a few of our reunion gigs. The real-life landlords who inspired the song are probably in a tax haven now. They’re the reason the song’s lyrics haven’t dated: they’re still accurate, unfortunately.

I’m a landlord too now, by the way. It just kind of happened. My tenants have mostly been fantastic. The only one who wasn’t is now buried under the patio.

The Guardian

The TV star on ‘putting himself out there’, voicing a horse and being in a power couple with Joan Bakewell

Stephen Mangan
 Stephen Mangan: ‘I am shockingly bad at art. Even my two-year-old can conjure up a scene better.’ Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

Stephen Mangan is a ubiquitous presence on our screens; most recently, the 50-year-old actor was seen in the fifth and final series of EpisodesThe Split(both on BBC) and Channel 4’s Hang Ups, which he co-wrote. This week, he presents Art 50, an ambitious four-part series on Sky Arts that showcases 50 artistic interpretations of what being British means in 2019, from the likes of poet Simon Armitage and musician Nitin Sawhney. He was born in London, where he lives with his wife and three sons.

Last Sunday, you were on Top Gear’s “Star in a Reasonably Fast Car” and you were one of their fastest-ever celebrities. Did you suspect you might be quite good at it?
I hoped I would be, but I had nothing to base it on apart from pure optimism and ego. But partly just out of desperation to beat Matt [LeBlanc] I completely risked life and limb. Any fear I had went out of the window in my ridiculous competitiveness. I spun the car a couple of times and you could see the guys behind the camera see me coming and one of them actually ran away at one point… he thought I was going to kill him.

Next up is Art 50, which was commissioned when article 50 was triggered in 2017. What can we expect from it?
There can’t be a person in this country who is not sick to their back teeth of Brexit. But this project is not about Brexit, this is 50 works of art looking at what it means to be British, so there’s poetry, dance, sculpture, a musical, short films. Nitin Sawhney wrote a new national anthem, rewrote the words, rewrote the music. [Conservative MP] Nadine Dorries gets a mention in it. A lot of it’s very funny, a lot of it is cynical, a lot of it’s very hopeful. It’s an attempt to provide a snapshot of the country right now and it’s fascinating from that perspective.

You share presenting duties with Joan Bakewell, as you do on Portrait Artist of the Year. Did you ever imagine you’d become a double act?
We were on Chris Evans’s breakfast show and he called us “Britain’s new art power couple”. I’ll take that. She’s a joy and also has lots of House of Lords gossip, which is great.

You are very opinionated about politics, especially on Twitter. What response do you get to that?
Yeah, it’s probably an unwise thing to do from my point of view. There’s a train of thought that, as an actor, you shouldn’t put it out there – you shouldn’t host Have I Got News For You, you shouldn’t go on panel shows or Top Gear. You don’t see Daniel Day-Lewis on 8 out of 10 Cats.

Maybe he’s waiting for a Christmas special?
Maybe he’s going to take over from Jimmy Carr or from Rachel [Riley]. Yeah, I’d love to see him in Dictionary Corner. Actually, he’d be great.

Is your experience on social media more positive than negative?
Yeah, it is. You struggle to love Twitter sometimes because it has become nastier and if you tweet something political then the bots will be on you, the Russians will be working overtime to let you know why you’re wrong. But I still find myself having to respond to Donald Trump and I know he’s probably not waking up thinking: “What does Stephen Mangan think? How has he responded to my latest tweet?” But you can’t help yourself: you’re shouting in the dark, but at least you feel you’re getting your point across.

You have just started shooting the second series of legal drama The Split. What can you say about where it picks up?
Not a lot, but I can tell you that it’s just a few weeks after the end of the first series. Anyone who saw the first series, or who knows Abi Morgan’s work, knows how interesting the characters she writes are. I got stopped a lot in the street by very disappointed people who would say to me: “You let me down! We thought you were nice, how could you do that to Nicola Walker?”

There are no goodies and baddies, everyone’s flawed, everyone has their issues… there’s more of that in the second series.

You studied law at university. Has playing a barrister in The Split confirmed you made the right decision to not pursue a career in law?
Oh God, yeah. It’s like, here’s what you could have won. I’ve got a lot of mates who are now lawyers and I wouldn’t swap it for all the tea in China. I am really delighted to be an actor.

Watch a trailer for Art 50.

You’re also doing a project called Beasts of London with the Museum of London where you voice Henry VIII’s favourite horse, Governatore. How did that come about?
The Museum of London said: “We have this exhibition; do you want to come and voice a horse? We have Brian Blessed playing a bacterium…” I said: “You can stop there. If Brian Blessed is playing a bacterium that’s all I need to know.”

I’ve since discovered that Nish Kumar, Joe Pasquale and Kate Moss are also doing it. It’s the supergroup no one ever thought they needed.

You’re good at driving, you’re a skilled piano player, you write, you perform… Is there something you are really terrible at?
Art. I am absolutely shockingly bad: drawing, painting, anything. And it really upsets me, because I’m surrounded by these people who can do it – my wife, my children, my sister – and to me it’s a form of magic. My two-year-old is better at art than I am. He can already conjure up a scene with crayons better than I can. I have a negative talent – I make paper worse.

The Guardian

While his music featured most famously in Pulp Fiction, echoes of Dale’s sound can be heard across the rock spectrum

Dick Dale performing in London in early 2010.
 Dick Dale performing in London in early 2010. Photograph: Alex Sudea/REX/Shutterstock

In theory at least, Dick Dale should have been a long-forgotten figure. He was the self-proclaimed King of the Surf Guitar, and surf music – particularly in its instrumental, twangy-guitar-led variety – was a brief fad: one of the passing fancies with which American pop occupied itself between the waning of the first wave of rock’n’roll and the arrival of the Beatles.

Those famous surf music advocates, the Beach Boys, had completely abandoned the genre within a couple of years of their debut single, cannily turning their attentions first to cars, then to the more general vicissitudes of teenage life; Dale’s career should have been over when Capitol Records dropped him in 1965.

Dick Dale, circa 1970
 Dick Dale, circa 1970 Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

And yet, Dick Dale wasn’t a forgotten figure. For all the sound he more-or-less singlehandedly invented should have been locked in time, a memoir of a forgotten, more innocent America, it wasn’t. You could hear echoes of his style – fast, very loud and heavy on the staccato picking – in a subsequent generation of virtuoso guitarists: Jimi Hendrix was a fan, but you really noticed his influence a decade later, when heavy metal came to be defined by the frenzied playing of Eddie Van Halen. At the other end of the rock spectrum, there was the Cramps: for all their devotion to the outer fringes of rockabilly, they audibly would not have sounded the way they did had Dale never picked up a guitar.

His original recordings had an afterlife that the man behind them couldn’t possibly have imagined when he entered the studio. Listeners to John Peel’s Radio 1 show in the late 80s became accustomed to hearing Dale in among whatever new indie sensations the DJ was playing that week; when Peel moved to the more cosy environs of Radio 4 to present Home Truths, he took Dale’s breakthrough 1961 single Let’s Go Trippin’ with him as the theme tune. When Quentin Tarantino used his 1962 cover of a traditional Mediterranean song, Miserlou, as the opening theme to his 1994 film Pulp Fiction, it revealed Dale’s music to a new audience, too young to remember the brief period when the King of the Surf Guitar could sell thousands of albums.

Dale’s guitar style was not born out of the standard rock and roll lineage: born in 1937, he was a fan of country music, but he was also of Arabic heritage: he was born Richard Mansour, watched his uncle playing the oud, and for all surf music came to represent a kind of sun-kissed white-bread version of American youth, the scales upon which his playing was based had a distinctly Middle Eastern cast.

He may well have been the first person to realise the electric guitar could be used not merely as a melodic instrument, but a bludgeon. At the height of his early 60s fame, he worked in collaboration with Leo Fender in the creation of ever-louder amplifiers: “When it can withstand the barrage of punishment from Dick Dale,” noted Fender, “then it is fit for human consumption.”

Dick Dale playing in Massachusetts in 2015
 Dick Dale playing in Massachusetts in 2015 Photograph: Boston Globe/Boston Globe via Getty Images

He enjoyed a brief period of mainstream fame, riding the surf fad: unlike four fifths of the Beach Boys, Dale actually was a surfer. Thereafter his commercial success declined, although he remained an inspiration: when Hendrix announced “you’ll never hear surf music again” during his definitive performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop festival, it was apparently intended as a nod to Dale, who was fighting colon cancer.

Whatever the changing fads in rock music, Dale continued to be a live draw: towards the end of his life, suffering from renal failure, diabetes and damaged vertebrae, he continued playing live in order to pay his medical bills. He told one journalist he wanted to die onstage “in an explosion of body parts”. It would have been a fitting end for a man who worked out, before anyone else, that the electric guitar wasn’t merely a musical instrument, more a weapon of visceral power.

The Guardian

Hospitality industry claims increase from 4p to 9p per person per hour will ‘wring the last life out of’ clubs, bars, cafes and hotels

A bar in east London – venues are nervous about rising music royalty costs.
 Venues are nervous about rising music royalty costs. Photograph: Maciej Dakowicz/Alamy Stock Photo

Phonographic Performance, a British music industry body that collects royalty payments for musicians, is planning to more than double the fees paid by pubs, bars and nightclubs to play recorded music.

By 2023, venues hosting DJ events – also including cafes, restaurants and hotels – will pay 9p per person per hour, versus an average of 3.9p today. This money is collected by Phonographic Performance (PPL) and distributed to the artists and record companies whose music is being played; the changes don’t affect venues that use music only in the background. Announcing the changes, the PPL stated: “The current tariff has been in place for around 30 years, and PPL’s view, supported by economic analysis, is that the fees in it are too low to be an appropriate reflection of the value to businesses of using recorded music.”

The fees paid will be in proportion to the number of people at a venue, “to ensure events with different audiences are treated fairly”, according to PPL. Smaller venues will not face the same rates as larger ones and may have to pay less than they do currently.

There has nevertheless been a backlash from the hospitality industry. “The margins for music venues are being repeatedly squeezed, and this is yet another nail in the coffin – some venues will undoubtedly be pushed over the edge by this increase,” said Steve Ball, the chief executive of the Columbo Group, which runs London venues including XOYO and the Jazz Cafe. He told the Guardian that the move could lead to job losses at venues, and therefore limit opportunities for up-and-coming musicians. “This greed will devastate the music scene in the UK, not only for those in the industry but for punters too … There is absolutely no benefit to PPL’s proposals.”

“It is only going to force more and more venues out of business,” said Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality, which represents 700 companies across the sector and estimates the increase in costs to the industry at £49m.

She argued the changes would “wring the last life out of venues … It is not just nightclubs and large venues that will be hit. Village pubs that host weekly discos will be strangled by the charge and there is every chance that such events, upon which many pubs rely, will be forced out altogether.”

Peter Leathem, the chief executive of PPL, has responded to the criticisms by saying the changes are on behalf of over 100,000 artists and record companies. “These are not just established and well-known names; they include session musicians, orchestral players, self-releasing artists and small independent record companies,” he told the Guardian. “It is important that they are paid fairly when their music is played.” He argued that current rates “significantly undervalued” artists’ work, and added: “We do not recognise the £49m figure cited by UK Hospitality.”

The changes to the fees will come into force on 1 July, with fees gradually increasing until 2023.

The Guardian

Netflix’s long-awaited documentary on the McCann case offered no new facts, no new insight – it didn’t even have a point of view

Kate and Gerry McCann in 2013, holding an age-progressed police image of their missing daughter.
 Kate and Gerry McCann in 2013, holding an age-progressed police image of their missing daughter. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Rumours of difficulties with Netflix’s documentary about the Madeleine McCann case have abounded almost from the moment it was commissioned. The McCanns themselves refused to take part and asked everyone around them not to either. At one point, it was said that it was going to be cut from an eight-part series to an hour-long one-off. Then it was going to be pulled altogether. Certainly no previews were made available, and the makers did not do the usual round of pre-show publicity interviews in the press, which is never a sign of great confidence in the product.

But in the end, The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann landed as a full eight-part series. Was it worth the wait? Did it confound the rumours and the doubters? No and no, not by any conceivable metric.

It was a simple retelling – in what felt almost like real time, so leadenly was it done – of the story of the three-year-old’s disappearance from the holiday resort of Praia da Luz one terrible night in May 2007. It was a blatant cash-in on the vogue for the true-crime series that have become a staple of Netflix’s output since the success of Making a Murderer a few years ago, but without any of the justifications previous works in the genre have provided. It was not the disinterment of a forgotten case, it was not the re-examination of a suspected miscarriage of justice. It offered no new facts, no new insight. It didn’t even have a point of view.

Instead, it was purely a rehashing of everything anyone who was alive at the time, or who has been of an age to understand the periodic appeals on anniversaries, birthdays and other painful dates by the McCanns for more information in the 12 years that have elapsed since, already knew. The vanishing, the panic, the initial horror and the delayed police response take up most of the first episode, and we move on from there through the searches that yield nothing, the growing media attention, the breakdown of trust between Kate and Gerry and the Portuguese police, the tenuous identification of a suspect, the sniffer dogs that throw suspicion on the parents, the magazine article that suggested a pact of silence between the McCanns and the friends they were holidaying with over the “fact” that Madeleine died in an accident while they were eating at the resort’s tapas bar 100 yards away and that they disposed of the body, on through all possible sightings, connections with other cases, the books later written, the agendas served, the legal suits that followed, and so on. All cul-de-sacs, all pointless recapping of parts of a story that still has no end.

All of it was padded out with extraneous guff – the history of the Algarve as a holiday resort, accounts from journalists of how they rushed to get to the story and then their breathless accounts of waiting for and not getting any news … The talking heads were frequently drowned out by the sound of barrel-bottoms being scraped.

It’s a feat of sorts, I suppose, to create something so morally and creatively bankrupt that your viewers would gain more insight into your case if they were to sit alone in a darkened room for 10 minutes to try to fathom the depths of parental anguish then, now and for the more than a decade in between. When the urge came upon the makers to put this series together, they should have done the same. They should have spent their time wondering how the McCanns bear it, sent up a heartfelt and useless prayer that somehow, some time, answers for that suffering pair are found and that they are allowed to live out the rest of their days in either joy or, at the very least, the kind of terrible peace that comes with knowing the worst.

The Guardian

In the early 90s, Norway’s black metal scene turned into a satanic cult as musicians burned churches, self-harmed and killed. As the film Lords of Chaos is released, the real-life protagonists look back

Rory Culkin as Euronymous in Lords of Chaos: in 1993, the lead singer of Mayhem was murdered by the band’s bassist Varg Vikernes.
 Rory Culkin as Euronymous in Lords of Chaos: in 1993, the lead singer of Mayhem was murdered by the band’s bassist Varg Vikernes. Photograph: Allstar/TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

“That period of my life is a swampy lake with skeletons in it,” says Rune Eriksen, AKA guitarist Blasphemer. “This will probably be one of the very few moments I’m willing to go back and talk about it.”

It has been 11 years since Eriksen left Mayhem, the world’s most aptly named band. He joined in 1994, rejuvenating the Norwegian black metal group after their guitarist Øystein Aarseth, known as Euronymous, had been murdered by their former bassist Varg Vikernes, AKA Count Grishnackh. Three years before that, their singer Pelle Ohlin, also known as Dead, killed himself. Understandably, Eriksen has moved on.

Norwegian black metal, though, is inseparable from its history. This month sees the release of Lords of Chaos, director Jonas Åkerlund’s intense dramatisation of events, focusing on the friendship and fatal rift between Aarseth (played by Rory Culkin) and Vikernes (Emory Cohen). It is bruising and brutal – when it screened at the London film festival last November, a man vomited, a woman fainted and an ambulance was summoned.

Åkerlund wants the film to have an impact. A director of music videos for Beyoncé, Madonna and Lady Gaga, among others, this is his fourth film, and his most personal. From 1983 to 1984, he was the drummer in the Swedish band Bathory, who were a major influence on Norwegian black metal, not that he takes any credit for that, heaping praise on the band’s singer Quorthon. “The sound we created was a mix of what we liked,” says Åkerlund. “And the whole punk thing, but playing it fast, which really wasn’t what metal was about back then.” That, along with Quorthon’s raspy wailing and satanic lyrics, threw down a gauntlet. Mayhem, formed in 1984 in Oslo, by Aarseth, bassist Jørn Stubberud (AKA Necrobutcher) and drummer Kjetil Manheim, set the gauntlet on fire.

Mayhem in the early 90s.
 Mayhem in the early 90s. Photograph: Publicity image from film company

Mayhem and the growing Norwegian black metal scene distinguished themselves by railing against religion. Myriad belief systems underpinned the movement, from paganism to Aarseth’s fervent communism, but Christianity was public enemy No 1. “Christianity never suited Norway,” says Dolk, founder of the band Kampfar. “It never belonged here. The black metal scene reacted to that. We needed to have something to be opposite to.” Eriksen says he was never political, but “always kind of a lone wolf. Norwegians are an introverted kind of people.” The starkness and coldness of Norway itself is embedded in the bones of Norwegian black metal.

Mayhem declared themselves satanists, not because they worshipped the devil, but because the creed promoted individualism, riled Christians – and got attention. They pioneered an unforgiving sound: demonic wails; hostile, pulsating riffs; a trance-inducing wall of noise. The more primitive the production, the better. When Vikernes, as Burzum, made his debut album, he asked the producer to give him the worst microphone he had. Darkthrone’s album Transilvanian Hunger, recorded on a four-track tape recorder, was, frontman Fenriz said, intended to sound “dead fuckin’ cold”; it sounds alien.

“Black metal is a wonderful subgenre with a very specific style,” says author Jason Arnopp, whose 1993 cover story for Kerrang! brought the scene global attention. “It sounds like evil, ranting demons laying waste to a snowy Scandinavian forest.” Eriksen says black metal “was atmospheric, with a deeper approach than what the death metal scene was doing. You could travel within it.” Dolk says it was “a way to express your inner demons”.

The demons erupted in 1991. Four years earlier, Pelle Ohlin had arrived in Norway. Hearing Mayhem needed a singer, the Swedish vocalist had sent a cassette to their PO box, along with a dead mouse attached to a cross. Ohlin transformed the band. Obsessed with death, he buried his stage clothes for days, allowing them to rot before wearing them; he brought a dead crow to rehearsal; he wore face paint on stage, which he called corpse-paint. Aarseth followed suit with the paint, as did many others.

On stage, Ohlin would self-harm severely. One of the most disturbing scenes in Åkerlund’s film has Ohlin (played by Jack Kilmer) slashing his arm to ribbons, splattering the front-row faithful, as he did during an infamous Mayhem gig: by the end of the show, only “true” fans remained.

Holmenkollen chapel, whichwas burned down by Aarseth and Vikernes and Bård Eithun, after the latter had told them he had murdered a man.
 Holmenkollen chapel, which was burned down by Aarseth and Vikernes and Bård Eithun, after the latter had told them he had murdered a man. Photograph: Eeg, Jon/TT News Agency/Press Association Images

Ohlin had mental health problems. At a party, says Dolk, “he started to cut himself. With a knife. We were so used to it, we put him in handcuffs, and left him lying in the corner. He didn’t stop drinking. Later, we drove into town and left him in front of the police station, just to make sure that he didn’t do more stupid stuff to himself, and went on partying.”

In April 1991, Ohlin killed himself in his bedroom. He had slit his wrists and shot himself. Aarseth found him, then took photos of him, disgusting many of his colleagues, including Stubberud, who quit the band because of it. “It isn’t every day that you get to see a corpse, so you have to make the most out of it,” Aarseth later reasoned in a radio interview. Many believe that this was a turning point for him, the band and the scene. “Before the suicide, everything was playful,” says Åkerlund. “After, everything became darker. How could it not? Euronymous was so close to Pelle.”

Aarseth started a record label, Deathlike Silence, and opened a record shop, Helvete (Hell). For disciples, the cryptlike store was the stuff of dreams: artists have talked of going in and having their musical horizons broadened by Aarseth, just as likely to recommend Tangerine Dream as he was black metal. Aarseth, though, was also becoming a victim of his own hype, making himself the focal point not just of Mayhem but the movement. “He became too high on himself, like: ‘I’m the leader,’” says Dolk. “He thought he could control the whole Norwegian metal scene. I know for a fact that there were a lot of people talking about getting Øystein [Aarseth] out of the scene. And by that I mean getting rid of him.” As in, killing him? “Yeah.”

Euronymous in his record store.
 Euronymous in his record store. Photograph: Knut Erik Knudsen/TT News Agency/Press Association Images

Things did get darker. On 6 June 1992, Fantoft stave church in Bergen was burned down. Vikernes, suspected of it but found not guilty in court, later explained that Fantoft was a Christian church built on top of a pagan holy site. And after Fantoft, more churches followed. Åkerlund believes the burnings were a case of escalating one-upmanship. “I don’t think they had a political agenda. I know that some of them are very extreme in their political agenda today, but they were young boys. I think they stopped thinking as individuals and started thinking more as a group, to impress each other, and to shock. They were in this bubble where, finally, you get immune: you take one step further, and then another, and before you know it, it’s not a big deal to kill a man.”

On 21 August 1992, Bård Eithun, AKA Faust, the drummer from Emperor, was sexually propositioned by a man in Lillehammer’s Olympic Park. Eithun stabbed him 37 times, killing him. The next day he told Aarseth and Vikernes about it; the three of them then burned down Holmenkollen chapel. More arson followed; copycat burnings increased. And in January 1993, under his Count Grishnackh alias (named after an orc in Lord of the Rings), Vikernes gave an anonymous interview to the newspaper Bergens Tidende, claiming the black metal scene was behind it all. “Our purpose is to spread fear and evil,” he told them. The following day he was arrested.

Varg Vikernes during his time in prison for murder.
 Varg Vikernes during his time in prison for murder. Photograph: Mick Hutson/Redferns

“These Norwegian kids were doing things that mainstream folk may have assumed metal musicians did all the time,” says Arnopp of the burnings. “To say the least, this was not a good look for rock music.” The musicians soon discovered this first-hand. Ivar Bjørnson, guitarist for Enslaved, has said that after leaving a pub on his 16th birthday, a man shouted “You fucking satanist” and kicked him in the head, hospitalising him. “The cops came to my parents’ place late at night, just to go through my room,” says Eriksen. “I was 17. They were trying to find something that connected me to something. They left empty-handed, but they’d found some strange imagery on CDs and were nodding to each other like: ‘Jackpot.’”

Meanwhile, the scene’s figures were at war with each other. Dolk says there were different black metal sects, and “deep threats” were common. Aarseth and Vikernes’ relationship had fallen apart due to Aarseth’s growing cult of personality, and the fact that he owed Vikernes royalties. Aarseth had also told people he planned to kill Vikernes. Whether he meant it or not is debatable – he also sent death threats, said Stubberud, to death metal bands who wore Hawaiian T-shirts. Still, at 3am on 10 August 1993, Vikernes arrived at Aarseth’s apartment and stabbed him 23 times. In May 1994, he was found guilty of murder and three church burnings, and sentenced to 21 years in prison. Norwegian black metal was no longer perceived as a musical genre, but a murderous cult.

Åkerlund’s film has, of course, opened old wounds. Some of the musicians have been supportive; many are aggressively against it. Vikernes himself, who has never shown any remorse for the murder, has called the film “slanderous garbage”, objected to his portrayal (“I have never participated in a threesome in my life”) and – since he is a virulent antisemite – taken umbrage at being played by a Jewish actor.

 Kampfar. Photograph: Sebastian Ludvigsen

The scene, though, has survived. Stubberud rejoined Mayhem, with Eriksen replacing Aarseth, making the music more extreme, winning them much acclaim. Eriksen says he lived “a pretty harsh life” in the early 2000s. “Mayhem has death and destruction in its past. And you can let yourself become a part of that thing and ride the waves of it, seeking extremities.” He left in 2008, forming a variety of bands, most recently his “blackened death metal” supergroup Vltimas.

Many of the bands are going strong; Dolk’s band Kampfar are about to release a new album that he says is his darkest yet. Outside of the music, though, things aren’t so dark. “Today, we all find it kind of funny and sad at the same time,” Dolk says of his troubled history. “Take Ivar from Enslaved: back then, we were writing stuff to each other that was so ugly, we had to look over our shoulders all the time. But today we’re the best of friends and we’re really embarrassed about all that stuff. A couple of years ago Kampfar got a Norwegian Grammy, and we were sitting there at the same table with Enslaved. We’re the same guys that back then sent death threats to each other. And we’re sitting there now in suits, drinking wine, eating fancy dinners. It was like: ‘How crazy is this?’” Pretty crazy.

The Guardian

Sandra Bullock film re-edited to remove clips of 2013 Québec train explosion

Bird Box
 Bird Box had previously been criticised for failing to remove the clip. Photograph: Saeed Adyani/AP

Four months after it first appeared on Netflix, footage of a real-life rail disaster will be removed from the movie Bird Box, the post-apocalyptic thriller starring Sandra Bullock.

The stock footage used concerns a 2013 tragedy in the Québec town of Lac-Mégantic when an unattended train carrying crude oil rolled down an incline, came off the tracks and exploded, killing 47 people.

Earlier this year, the streaming giant said it would not remove the clip, which in Bird Box is used to illustrate mass deaths in the wake of an invasion of spectral beasts who cause a person’s worst fears to materialise, leading them to kill themselves.

But in a statement to TheWrap on Thursday, Netflix confirmed that both it and the makers of Bird Box have decided to replace the clip. They also apologised, saying: “We’re sorry for any pain caused to the Lac-Mégantic community.”

In response, Quebec’s minister of culture and communications, Nathalie Roy, praised the decision, saying it shows that “by uniting and pooling our efforts, everything is possible.”

In January, she wrote to the CEO of Netflix urging the company to have the clips removed. The process to replace the footage worldwide will take several weeks, the company said.

The Guardian

Curator at British Museum says date of exhibition featuring artwork is ‘pure serendipity’

Art enthusiasts look at Edvard Munch’s The Scream at the British Museum, London.
 Art enthusiasts look at Edvard Munch’s The Scream at the British Museum, London. The earliest versions of the image were in colour. Photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/PA

There are days, as the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch well knew, when it is impossible to express one’s feelings in words, and only an image will do.

For those who may find themselves, for one reason or another, experiencing such a moment, the British Museum would like to help. Opening next month, it will host the largest exhibition of Munch’s prints in the UK in almost half a century, the centrepiece of which is a lithograph of the artist’s iconic work The Scream.

Having conceived the exhibition five years ago, the timing of its opening, according to its curator, Giulia Bartrum, is “pure serendipity – certainly at the moment when we are all worrying about bloody Brexit. But that’s actually sheer coincidence.”

Almost since it was created, says Bartrum, Munch’s image has been used to represent the human condition at different points in history. “It was used during the first world war, and at Greenham Common by the peace campaigners. It is used by the remainers outside parliament. You could plan this exhibition at any time and you would always key into some moment in society. When you look at images of The Scream in history, it comes up all the time.

“It just goes to show that this is an image of all time. We are always going to be anxious about something, and right now we are anxious about many things. Which is great in a way, but I feel it does take away from poor Munch and what he was trying to do as an artist.”

The Scream has been described as the second most recognisable image in art history, and is one of only a tiny handful of artworks to have its own emoji. But it was created in response to a specific incident experienced by the artist in early 1892 while walking on a road above Oslo with two friends.

“Suddenly the sky turned blood red,” he wrote, “… there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.”

Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream at Sotheby’s auction house in London in April 2012.
 The Scream at Sotheby’s in 2012. Most of the 80-plus prints in the exhibition have been loaned from the Munch Museum in Oslo. Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

The earliest versions of the image were in colour, created the following year in tempera on cardboard. There are, in fact, four colour versions – two in the Munch Museum in Oslo, one in the city’s national gallery, and a fourth, which sold in 2012 for $120m (£90m), in private hands.

Most of the 80-plus prints in the exhibition have been loaned from the Munch Museum in Oslo, which will not lend the actual paintings, says Bartrum, after two high-profile thefts in 1994 and 2004 (the artworks were recovered each time). “They are very, very, very acutely anxious about them,” she says.

In any event, it was the black and white lithograph prints of the image, made from 1895, which made the image and the artist famous, she said. Even these are very rare, with about only 20 copies in existence, and with the Munch museum’s copies too fragile to travel, the exhibition has had to borrow the version on display from a private collector.

It was installed on Wednesday on a blood red wall, evoking the dramatic skies that had so seized the artist. “In the black and white print he condenses [the image], he hones in on this figure,” she says. “The bands of red, translated into black and white… it’s like a tuning fork, with the [waves] resonating around you.”

All the same, it is not her favourite work in the exhibition – and certainly those seeking images to capture a sense of existential agony will have plenty to choose from, with the exhibition also including prints of Munch’s works Despair and Angst, both reworkings of the same scene above Oslo.

Being so well known for a single image is more of a curse than a blessing, says Bartrum, “because it puts [Munch] out of context. Yes, it is great that he is instantly recognisable, but if you can just wear a little badge saying, ‘I feel like Screaming’ because you’re having a bad day, and it’s an emoji … that means people use it and don’t think about it at all.

“I have felt all along that I wanted to give Munch back his place in history and show The Scream as he originally envisaged it.”

The Guardian