Homa Taj In Conversation with Ian Kelly (part i) – From Casanova to Harry Potter & The Pitmen Painters
In contemporary popular culture, Ian Kelly is best known for his role as Hermoine Granger’s father in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. In the context of late modern history, Kelly is considered one of Giacomo Casanova’s most authoritative biographers. However, even before Harry and Giacomo came along, Kelly had penned the lives of the arbiter of British dandyism (Beau Brummell: The Ultimate Man of Style, 2005) and a most celebrated French chef (Cooking for Kings: The Life of Antoine Carême, the First Celebrity Chef, 2003). And, this isbefore writing about chefs became fashionable.
One may call Kelly a sensualist-aesthete intellectual. I did. He didn’t mind. That was when I met him a few days after I had seen him perform in the hugely successful The Pitmen Painters at the Duchess Theatre, in London’s West End. Written by Lee Hall (Billy Elliott), the play is set around a group of Ashington (Northumberland, UK) miners who, in the mid 1930’s, had hired a teacher to instruct them in art appreciation. Based on real life historic events, The Painters tells the story of the rise to stardom of a group of manual laborers-turned artists who despite their success continued to work down the mine, as they had done for years prior. Inspired by William Feaver’s Pitmen Painters: Ashington Group, 1934-84, the play gathers several outstanding British performers including Trevor Fox, Joe Caffrey, Michael Hodgson and David Whitaker.
When I saw The Pitmen Painters, in the middle of October, the play worked as a tonic after my experience of encountering a somewhat self-absorbed and rather inauthentically elitist cast of characters at an annual contemporary art event (Frieze Art Fair). Perhaps this is why The Painters resonated so strongly with me. In the words of its author (Lee Hall):
Despite the advances in education and the blossoming of the welfare state, somehow we have failed to ‘democratise’ the riches of culture. That the [Pitman Painters] Group managed to achieve so much unaided and abetted should remind us that dumbing down is not a prerequisite of culture being more accessible. That is a lie perpetrated by those who want to sell us shit. Culture is something we share and we are all the poorer for anyone excluded from it.
Homa Taj – What interested you most about taking part in The Pitmen Painters?
Ian Kelly – The play is written as a history piece and, of course though it is absolutely grounded in history, what I love about it is that it is completely relevant for now. In a sense, it is much of a play that uses the past as a metaphor for a discussion about art now, and that is the sort of history that I am interested in anyway. That which is pertinent to its period and one that is truthful, I hope, to some of the characters and its period.
HT – You mean Pitmen (the play), and history (in general) …
IK – Yes, it is the same with the history that I write. I think that history should be used like that. And, that is some of the ongoing attraction that has contributed to the success of the play. People love the ideas that are being aired. I mean, Lee [Hall] is an extraordinary writer and it is a wonderful dialectic. The play needs an audience to make sense which is also why it makes it the stuff of theatre but also the stuff of art. You need the audience/ viewers to deliberate themselves and a lot of it is asking questions more than giving answers that are right and proper because these are things that are still being argued about. Also, Pitmen was written in the booms years. Ironically, we opened just as the crash (of 2008) happened and, suddenly, it is a play which is also about the arts and arts funding and art education that, during a recession, becomes all the more pertinent. So, oddly, a play that is set in the 1930‘s, early 1940’s, has found its moment now.
HT – It is amazing how little some things change. Or, how cyclical these types of evolutions are. Just when you think that you have gotten rid of a system or way of thinking it comes right back full circle which can be pretty unsettling… but also, in this case, exhilarating, to be able to voice it in an aesthetic fashion.
IK – Yes, this is one of Lee’s great skills. He stumbled upon the story, literally, kind of by accident, in a secondhand bookstore and immediately saw its dramatic potential and its ability to carry a lot of the ideas that he’s interested in discussing.
HT – At what point did you become involved with the play?
IK – Half the play was written when I became aware of it, when Lee asked if I’d be interested to participate in the production. I actually didn’t know what it was going to be at that stage. That was an extraordinary journey as well, to be at the making of it, if you see what I mean. Also, the first version of the play was really quite different. Much longer. Much sadder, if you can imagine. Even bleaker with strange Chekovian themes about settling where you are as an artist in life. Audiences love it but it was quite an uncomfortable sit through, though the first half is so ebullient and so joyous about education and aspiration in the arts. So, little by little, they have kind of found their level together, I mean the first and the second halves. Although, it still confounds expectations but that is good too. But, ultimately, it isn’t the story that people want. It is a piece which tells a really brave story in the arts.
HT – How was it received in America?
IK – It is even more brave in New York because they are very uncomfortable with the art of the collective and art in the community… and, a piece about art appreciation.
HT – The individualistic concept of art appreciation, production and consumption in America is antithetical to this type of collective thinking…
IK – Yes. Precisely. And, it is also about art redeeming you in some other way and rescuing you from living in a small town and turning you into a big star.
HT – Yes, it’s the classic case of rags to riches…
IK – Of course. So, I also love that aspect where although the history is used as a paradigm for now, because it is a true story, it can only be what it is. And, it is rather unusual. It’s very specific as a result and I hope that it still has that quality about it, to an extent. That it goes on about real lives and real situations. That it is not a story one could make up quite like this.
HT – But, also, this type of collective art production is fairly unusual in the late modern and contemporary art world.
IK – Yes, but it is quite common in the theatre.
HT – Yes, of course, that is the art form of the theatre, and film. But modern and contemporary visual art production is so solitary, in the way its character has developed over the past two centuries. To get two artists to collaborate on a project is quite a challenge.
IK – … Yes, it’s because we get so hooked on individual voice. So, this play becomes a discussion partly about that as well. But that is only one aspect of art. It’s not the primary. I know we love it in a post-romantic fashion because it is where the creative moment is really meant to be.
HT – You mean the branding part…, because it is much easier to sell a star-artist…
IK – Yes, the branding of the individual. Of course. That is what celebrity means. Well, of course, people are interested in schools of work and coteries of artists and so on. But, in the end, you see, Pitmen was an experiment in art appreciation and was also about seeing by doing. The work itself was always meant to be a side issue to that. It was for the other reasons that they kept at it. …There is the whole concept of learning by doing your own work that is at the heart of so much art teaching. And, then there is Robert Byron’s [my character] thesis which he wrote about The Pitmen Painters.
HT – Have you read his thesis?
IK – Oh, yes. It is in effect one of the founding documents of the Arts Council (England) in that it is a really important piece about how art is not meant to be top-down patrician teaching of the greats but should be experiential. But that influence was very important in post-War art settlements. So, there is a very positive story to tell. It, being a British play, of course, ends on a very minor key. Because we like that here [laughs].
HT – But the play did well on Broadway.
IK – Oh, tremendously. Yes, it absolutely goes down as a hit, and rightly so. But, you know what, you could feel – we did a lot of post-show discussions – that people were battling it. And, it wasn’t the accents. And, it wasn’t socialism. Because Americans like all that foreignness. That’s all fine…
NT – Ah! I know for a fact, and I say this as an American, that we devour everything that is British.
IK – Well, potentially. But, it was interesting to see a structural issue about hating the story, about art being told that way. I mean they didn’t like the complicated teaching too much. They want teachers to be, you know, hearts-and-minds. That inspirational single voice. Lee is quite complicated about teachers. He is interested in the educative process but not about turning teachers into heroes which is fine but, of course, that is not the American tradition either. However, they are much more troubled by the tragedy of one of the characters (Young Lad played by Brian Lonsdale) being killed and another (Oliver Kilbourn played by Trevor Fox) going back to the minds of the collective whereas he might have gone and taken a stipend and gotten rich. Or, some such.
But, tell me, how did you hear about the play.
HT – Well, I came to London to attend Frieze (Art Fair) and the BFI London Film Festival. And, since most events take place at BFI Southbank I, of course, had to stop by and pay my respects to the National Theatre which is just next door. There I saw a leaflet for The Pitmen Painters.
IK – Oh, yes, one of the great joys of being in a cultural capital! Once, we even had the (Pitmen) paintings in the gallery of the National Theatre. And, there is going to be another pop-up gallery near here (Duchess Theatre). That was another lost issue, we could’t get the insurance to bring them to America. We used to struggle to get the audience back after the interval because, of course, they would get lost in the paintings… So, yes, that is heading our way as well.
HT – … How did you become interested in theatre? When did you decide that you wanted to become an actor?
IK – Well, I was at Cambridge (University, UK) reading history but being an actor which is a regular route, with Lee Hall amongst others. We met when we were nineteen in a production which was half students and half professionals, The Life and Adventures of Nicolas Nickleby, which was an eight-hour community theatre piece and I was playing Nicolas and he was playing Smike. I don’t know if you know the novel or the play…
HT – Broadly speaking, yes.
IK – Well, both of us as 19 and 20 year-olds wanted to be in theatre and, in my case, writing and acting was always the intention.
HT – And, theater not film. Or both? Or it didn’t matter? Because some actors are very partial to one medium or the other, “I only want to do theatre or film.”
IK – Oh, golly. I suppose I love to tell stories and the stories which I like to tell are very often historical. The medium in which I tell them is pretty much an accident. Although, I did go to film school at UCLA after Cambridge so I do have a love of film. Also, I thought that the writing I would be doing would be screenplay but that is not very realistic in the British market. Actually, my first book came out of a screenplay idea, Cooking for Kings but then got commissioned as a book and is now in development as a TV series. But you tell stories whichever way that you can if you are lucky enough to find subjects that people are interested in.
But I do adore the theatre. And the lovely thing about The Pitmen Painters is that it brings together quite a lot of strands including my long-standing friendship with Lee who I think is one of our great talents. And, to be around the world of art and art history and to have the opportunity to tell a very important story. The play also has given us the chance to plot (our) next collaboration. So, it’s been a very happy coincidence of all things at once. But, I’d be a brave man, as I would have been as a twenty year-old, to say that this is the only thing that I want to be doing.
At its best, in a British career, you don’t make those decisions anyway. My friends from film school don’t get to do much theatre in LA and there isn’t much radio drama going on in America though, here, we still do bits and pieces but very little film. I have been relatively lucky to do some film work and accidental collaborations.
HT – … Speaking of film, I can’t believe that the Film Council has been dissolved!
IK – Yes. Astonishing. Just astonishing. So, here is this counter cultural measure (on the one hand)… yet we have had this very commercially successful run with this quite dense play about art in the middle of a recession. It’s sort of wondrous, really. But, I do a lot of lecturing about the books through an organization called the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies, and they are all over the world, actually. For example, I was in Australia talking about my books and realized that there is a real hunger, people want a live discussion about art… And, that is an element of what is very special about this doing The Pitmen Painters. Although, hopefully, if it will one day be a film it will be a very different beast mainly because this density of ideas can only properly be expressed with language …
HT – Now…, I am very interested in your work as a writer. I have been reading some of the rave reviews that you have received for your books – Casanova: Actor, Lover, Priest, Spy; Beau Brummell: The Ultimate Man of Style; and, Cooking for Kings: The Life of Antoine Careme, the First Celebrity Chef. Starting with Casanova: The New York Times calls it, “A sheer testament to the power of the written word;” The Times says that it is “Magnificent;” The Guardian hails it as “Fresh and exhilarating;” and, so on…
Ik – Oh, gosh thank you.