We can’t stop it. We can’t bargain with it. Even if we don’t remember what the ritual is. The ritual has an infinite number of working parts, surrounding us. Moving pieces on the chess board. Completing the ritual is how we save Albion.
It is one of the most common cliches in criticism, especially in film reviews, to describe something as ‘magical’. It’s often the last resort of the mainstream critic when confronted with something which either touches on mythic themes or evokes a childhood sense of delight. It’s especially irksome to someone who both occasionally commits acts of criticism and also practices magic.
There are of course some rare and fine films which are both metaphorically and actually magical: much of the work of Kenneth Anger; Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain. John Harrigan’s second film for Foolishpeople, Armageddon Gospels, can resolutely be added to this list.
Armageddon Gospels is a true and timely work of magic in every sense: often delightful, firmly anchored in British myth, consciously an act of ritual, and deeply profound.
(And, the perfect length. There is a tendency for films to err on the side of length these days: we live in a world of two-and-a-half-hour comedies, three hour superhero flicks. Harrigan’s first film, the very fine Strange Factories (2013), is some three hours long, a little over the line for the tale it tells. Armageddon Gospels’ running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes, precisely what it needs to be and no more.)
How do you define when a ritual begins and ends?
The film’s origin is in two deaths and a disaster. From the director’s notes;
Armageddon Gospels was created in direct response to what occurred in 2016. On January the 10th, David Bowie died and on the 2nd of February, after a six year long demise into the darkness of Alzheimer’s, my mother died.
On the 23rd of June Britain voted to leave the European Union. The country of my birth gave way to racism and fascism, ideologies that existed in the seventies, as I grew up. The undigested racism, hatred and bile resurfacing to consume the land of my birth. The same fear and hate I recognised from childhood, but not the truth of the place I called home. The rise of intolerance coincided with both deaths. My mind combined these events into a story about refugee gods, returning to search for the holy grail, in a ritual that might save the mythic landscape of England from the haunted presence of an entity called the Bone King…
We shot Armageddon Gospels over the course of the summer in 2016, in East Sussex on the South Downs, one of England’s most beautiful national parks.
The ideas and concepts, the sadness and loss was mirrored in communion with the most beautiful and quintessentially English location that I had ever worked within. As we shot each scene across the South Downs, the weather appeared to change and shift, mirroring the emotions I was experiencing. Albion was felt as a presence…
In Armageddon Gospels a ritual takes place to honour and heal Albion of the Bone King’s sickness. We shot this scene at the feet of the Long Man of Wilmington, an immense hill figure. The ritual was performed beneath the giant Albion himself, in a chalk field, on what appeared as the exposed bones of the land.
This day-long ritual act attracted the attention of several people who were walking the Downs: one of them was Jo Burke, a musician who would eventually provide the remarkable, folk-drenched score. (Not the only synchronicity in the production, by any means. To represent The Grail, Harrigan wanted a piece of Moldavite; a green meteoric stone often associated with both the Grail and the Emerald Tablet of Hermes. It just so happened that actress Kate Alderton – best known for her portrayal of Arlen Riley Wilson in the stage version of Cosmic Trigger, here playing Aradia – knew someone who had a piece… her mum, Pauline Collins.)
Harrigan is no stranger to the rituals of performance: as founder and creative director of Foolishpeople, he and his troupe have been creating immersive theatre experiences for nearly thirty years. He drew on this background to both write and direct the work, calling the cast and crew in from past performances. The well-knitted nature of the company pays off – both in the many remarkable performances and the ability to create such a powerful film on a budget of less than £10,000. The cinematography of Mark Caldwell and editing by Paul Jenkinson create a work which would shame a much larger production, and many of the cast also have production roles.
Merry gods, freaks, the queerest of the queer. That’s why we’re here.
The film, although allowing for more than a few mysteries (apt in such a work) is resolutely clear in its stance: Albion is (as I’ve noted elsewhere) a Mongrel Nation, made of immigrants, populated by gods and tales from everywhere – a ghost soil which welcomes all who walk upon it. The xenophobic, isolationist spirit which now haunts Britain is personified here as the monstrous Bone King – a figure sometimes seen in traditional British celebrations, here it become a nightmarish creature through fairly simple costuming and effects, its presence draining the colour from the very landscape as it pulls the land into the ‘Undertow’. Each of the ‘refugee gods’ who engage with it here come from a past more cosmopolitan than many ‘Deep England’ writers would care to acknowledge: Robin Goodfellow, Percival and the Fisher King of Arthurian legend, Sophia and Dianna, Ipona and the May Queen, John Murrell and other Cunning-folk. Each performance is a pleasure; many of the cast are decidedly not ‘English’, which is part of the point.
The Bone King is England, the Bone King is hatred, the Bone King is bigotry, the Bone King is patriarchy, The Bone King is war and loss and grief.
-Cunning John Murrell
The Bony King and his demons believe Albion belongs to their kind alone. It doesn’t know or care for the true history of this land. It wants to suffocate and drown a truth far stranger than you could imagine.
For me, certain scenes has particular resonance: the speech of the May Queen (Laura Wolfe) and her brief bonding with Pearl (Claire Tregellas); an encounter with Ipona (Sabrina Rodríguez) within the Chapel Perilous; Aradia (Alderton) and Sophia (Tereza Kamenicka) among the Cunning-folk; the heartbreaking duet between the Fisher King (Harrigan himself) and Dianna (his wife Lucy Harrigan); the hard-won comradeship of Percy (Scott Temple) and Robin (Finn Harrigan): the battle with the Bone King; the final ritual, and the parting speech of Cunning John Murrell (Milo Cradick). But every single moment held me completely.
Harrigan and Foolishpeople have given us a film which draws on the rich depth of Albion’s history and lore, and the beauty of its countryside, to pass through the Chapel Perilous of folk horror to offer the Mongrel Nation a new addition to The Matter Of England, something as precious as the Grail… hope.
Rise up Albion
Rise up Albion the mongrel
Rise up Albion the Giant
Rise up Green Man
Rise up Arthur
Rise up Finn
Rise up Merlin
Rise up the Fey
Rise up the spirits of the Green
Rise up Albion
Open the borderland
Open thy Wyrd port
Draw and welcome the odd and other to these shores
Tonight the giant wakes.
-Cunning John Murrell
—Armageddon Gospels shows at the Byline Festival on 25 August and at the Brighton Rocks Film Festival in October to celebrate John Harrigan’s win for Best Director: both screenings will feature a Q & A session with Harrigan.
All quotations taken from the film.
Further showings and a digital release will follow in late 2018/early 2019.