Hitting the Heights – Heathcliff Richard, throbbing passion and withering looks

Ash Hunter’s Heathcliff and Lucy McComick’s Cathy in Wise Children’s Wuthering Heights in 2021. Picture: Steve Tanner

AS Emma Rice’s adaptation of Emily Brontë’sWuthering Heights heads to York Theatre Royal from November 2, Steve Pratt considers the reaction to the original novel and previous incarnations of the story.

Bell, book and Brontë 

EMILY Brontë’s only novel Wuthering Heights was published in 1847 under the pseudonym Ellis Bell. Wuthering Heights and Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey were accepted by publisher Thomas Newby before the success of their sister Charlotte’s novel Jane Eyre. 

It was described by reviewers as both “a disagreeable story” and “a strange book”. Another thought the faults of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre were “magnified a thousand-fold”, adding that “the only consolation which we have in reflecting upon it is that it will never be generally read”.

Another critic noted: “It is not without evidences of considerable power: but, as a whole, it is wild, confused, disjointed, and improbable; and the people who make up the drama, which is tragic enough in its consequences, are savages ruder than those who lived before the days of Homer.” 

Praise was in short supply. “We rise from the perusal of Wuthering Heightsas if we had come fresh from a pest-house. Read Jane Eyreis our advice, but burn Wuthering Heights,” suggested one critic. 

The writer in United States’ publication Graham’s Lady’s Magazine was clearly no fan: “How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors…”

Cliff Richard’s Heathcliff in 1996

Heath-Cliff Richard

HEATHCLIFF, a musical conceived by and starring Cliff Richard, centred on the character of – yes, you’ve guessed it – Heathcliff. Some imagined that dark and brooding Heathcliff was outside clean-cut pop star Cliff’s acting range. Song lyrics were by Tim Rice, no less. The musical’s book was not by Ms Brontë but Cliff and theatre director Frank Dunlop. 

A studio album with ten songs from the show, including duets with now-Dame Olivia Newton-John, was released in 1995 with the stage version premiering the following year in London. Ticket sales broke box office records although critics were less enthusiastic than Cliff’s fans.

Moors the merrier

IN 1939, MGM turned the book into a movie, recreating the Yorkshire Moors on a California ranch and in a Hollywood film studio. Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon starred. A “very poor” adaptation, thought one critic, adding: “The accuracy is dreadful, the characters are almost unrecognisable and the setting a century and a half out. Enjoy it as a romance but, if you watch as a portrayal of the book, you will be disappointed.”

Oscar-nominated as best picture, the film lost out to Gone With The Wind.

Ralph Fiennes, in his film debut as Heathcliff, and French star Juliette Binoche as Cathy in Peter Kosminsky’s 1992 film Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights

Beating about the Bush

WUTHERING Heights was Kate Bush’s debut single in 1977, written when she was 17. It became the first UK number one written and performed by a female artist.

Kiss me Hardy

THE 2009 ITV adaptation of Wuthering Heights starred Charlotte Riley and Tom Hardy, who became a couple in real life once the cameras stopped turning. Their romance had a happier ending than Cathy and Heathcliff’s – they are now married with children.

Throbbing passion 

JANET McTeer, the award-winning actor who worked in the York Theatre Royal coffee bar as a student, not only appeared in the 1992 Wuthering Heights film as Ellen Dean but also read the audio book.

A reviewer considered her performance brought the book fully to life, adding, “McTeer’s sections throb with the passions appropriate to this classic.”

O-O-Brontë 

THE forgotten James Bond – hands up those who remember Timothy Dalton played 007 in three movies – was shaken and stirred by Cathy when he played Heathcliff in the 1970 film. Producer Louis Heyward declared this would be more like the book than the first American version (not difficult), saying “Hollywood now goes in for the truth. Heathcliff was a bastard and Cathy a real bitch and that’s how they’ll be in this film”.

A sequel, Return to Wuthering Heights, was threatened but happily never materialised.

Lip Service satirists Maggie Fox and Sue Ryding in Withering Looks

‘Allo, ‘Allo, Eeethcleef

THE 1992 film version was shot on Yorkshire locations with Ralph Fiennes as Heathcliff and French actress Juliette Binoche as Cathy. The scenery was authentic but critics worried about the French actress’s faltering English accent, not to mention seeing an uncredited Sinead O’Connor narrating the story as Emily Brontë herself.

Effing Heights

A BBC Radio 3 adaptation put the f-word into the mouths of Cathy and Heathcliff to “capture the shock” that greeted the publication of the book (which had words crossed out in the original text because they were considered too strong).

Writer Jonathan Holloway declared: “What I wanted to elbow out is this idea that it’s the cosy greatest love story ever told – it’s not. For me Wuthering Heights is a story of violent obsession, and a tortuous unfulfilled relationship. This is not a Vaseline-lensed experience.”

Gone with the Howling Wind

HURLEVENTwhich translates as Howling Wind – was a 1985 French film adaptation of the first part of the novel, set in 1930s’ Southern France. Other adaptations have moved the story to Catholic Mexico, a California high school and medieval Japan. The book has also been an opera and a graphic novel.

Withering Looks

LIP Service, alias comedy duo Sue Ryding and York’s Maggie Fox, continue to perform their award-winning Brontë spoof Withering Looks on stages up and down the land. The show is described as “an authentic look at the lives and works of the Brontë sisters – well, two of them actually as Anne has just popped out for a cup of sugar”. 

Wise Children’s Wuthering Heights, a York Theatre Royal, National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic co-production with Emma Rice’s Wise Children, runs at York Theatre Royal from November 2 to 9. Box office: 01904 623568.

LipService link up with Pocklington Arts Centre for live stream of Withering Looks

Maggie Fox, left, and Sue Ryding in a scene from LipService Theatre’s Withering Looks

POCKLINGTON Arts Centre favourites LipService Theatre will present a special live stream of their savvy yet delightfully silly Bronte sisters spoof Withering Looks tomorrow night (22/4/2021).

Forming part of the still-closed East Yorkshire venue’s ongoing series of online events during the pandemic lockdowns, the 7.30pm streaming will be introduced on Zoom by LipService duo Maggie Fox and Sue Ryding.

They will conduct a live question-and-answer session too at the finale. “We’ll either be on Maggie’s sofa or mine, with some no doubt very interesting photographs behind us!” says Sue.

Tickets are selling fast with customers from far and wide – including Belgium – snapping them up.

Dubbed “the Laurel and Hardy of literary deconstruction” by the Guardian, LipService have visited Pocklington Arts Centre regularly, and when pandemic restrictions put a cross through their latest return, they settled on tomorrow’s stream instead.

“We’re doing this live stream specially for Pocklington Arts Centre, who had booked us to perform Withering Looks as part of their grand celebrations for their 20th anniversary last year, when obviously we couldn’t do it,” says Sue.

For the uninitiated in the Lip Service world of affectionate parody and pastiche, Withering Looks explores a day in the life of the Bronte sisters. “Well, two of them, Anne’s just popped out for a cup of sugar,” say the duo. “And in true David Attenborough style there’ll be additional footage, going behind the scenes of the making of the show.”

Commissioned by the Bronte Parsonage Museum, the filmed performance by “Britain’s favourite literary lunatics” was recorded by Maggie, from York, and Sue, from the other side of the Pennines, at the Bronte family’s home at Haworth, West Yorkshire.

Scenes from Withering Looks filmed “in the actual parsonage where the Bronte sisters wrote their actual books actually” will be complemented by additional material by Maggie and Sue recorded in and around Haworth village and on the wild and windswept moors in sub-zero temperatures. 

“We made the recording three years ago in January, when the Parsonage was closed for cleaning, so we could do the filming,” says Sue. “That’s when we also filmed some scenes on the moors…in a blizzard. It was freezing! I think we nearly died! I’ve never been so cold!”

Maggie recalls the filming sessions: “We worked with a wonderful crew, with Noreen Kershaw directing us. She got a fantastic team together with the floor manager from The Teletubbies, the soundman from The Night Manager, and a brilliant cameraman, who did documentaries outdoors with Billy Connolly, so he was used to the cold.”

Maggie and Sue first met as drama students at Bristol University in a “very serious Henrik Ibsen production that had the audience on the floor laughing”. A tragedy for Ibsen nevertheless turned out to be the launching pad to a very long partnership in satirical comedy.

Lip Service’s promotional image for their digital performances of Chateau Ghoul in lockdown

Forming LipService in Manchester in 1985, Maggie and Sue have chalked up 22 original comedies from a distinctly female perspective, as well as series for BBC Radio and tours of Germany, Eastern Europe, the United States and Pakistan, over the past 35 years.

Not everyone has appreciated their comic tone. “We did a ‘very controversial’ production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest, when someone asked: ‘Who thought this was a good idea, with all the cross-dressing and the underlying scandal that was going on among the actors?’,” says Maggie.

LipService are keeping busy, despite the hiatus in live performances. “We should be on tour with our new show, a farce set in a hotel called Chateau Ghoul, but we’ll now be doing that tour this autumn,” says Sue. “In the meantime, while venues remain closed, we’ve being down live stuff on Zoom to keep our audiences involved, offering an interactive digital performance, with the invitation for people to make origami windmills.”

Maggie adds: “We’ve had lovely feedback, with people saying how much they’re enjoying see us close up for about 50 per cent of the show. But it is quite disconcerting seeing people with their ‘computer face’ on. That neutral face, where you think, ‘Do they hate us?’. It’s weird for us getting familiar with seeing them so close up!

“Doing a digital performance is a new way of performing for us, and we’ve really enjoyed it, because it means we can perform ‘live’, but we can have a different relationship with our audience, chatting with them beforehand, where they’ll tell us on the stream where they’re watching from, or what they’ve had for dinner…”

…“Or we can pick on people for the quality of their origami!” says Sue. “But what’s been interesting is that we’ve had an international response, with people watching from Belgium, Oklahoma and San Francisco.”

What next? “We’ve been thinking about turning our Sherlock Holmes show into an interactive murder mystery, using the material in a different way for a streamed show,” says Maggie.

Above all, they long for a return to taking to the stage. “I really, really miss loading the van, driving to venues, looking around towns – like going to York Minster – doing the shows and hoping there’s a bar open afterwards,” says Sue.

Meanwhile, what about those ticket holders from Belgium, Luc and Hilde Verstraeten-Mariën, who will Zoom into the PAC show after their plans to catch LipService live were thwarted by the pandemic?

“We were excited to hear that Lip Service had created Zoom performances,” say Luc and Hilde. “We’ve just watched Château Ghoul and it made our day! We really enjoyed the show: it was funny, cheeky, and mad. We enjoyed the interactive part of it and we thought they made clever and creative use of Zoom. We kept giggling for the rest of the evening!

“We are looking forward to more of the same: refreshingly funny, intelligently witty and slightly mad at the same time, highly creative, high-standard comedy with a twist by two fabulous women.”

Tickets for Withering Looks cost £15 at pocklingtonartscentre.co.uk.

Copyright of The Press, York

LipService Theatre take Bronte literary spoof Withering Looks onto Zoom for Pocklington Arts Centre virtual show

Maggie Fox and Sue Ryding in LipService Theatre’s literary spoof of the writerly Bronte sisters, Withering Looks

POCKLINGTON Arts Centre favourites LipService Theatre will present a special live stream of their savvy yet delightfully silly Bronte sisters spoof Withering Looks on April 22.

Forming part of the still-closed East Yorkshire venue’s ongoing series of online events during the pandemic lockdowns, the 7.30pm streaming will be introduced on Zoom by LipService duo Maggie Fox and Sue Ryding, who will conduct a live question-and-answer session too at the finale.

Tickets are selling fast with customers form far and wide – including Belgium – snapping them up.

Commissioned by the Bronte Parsonage Museum, the filmed performance by “Britain’s favourite literary lunatics” was recorded by Maggie and Sue at the Bronte family’s home at Haworth, West Yorkshire.

Scenes from Withering Looks filmed “in the actual parsonage where the Bronte sisters wrote their actual books actually” will be complemented by additional material recorded in and around Haworth village and on the wild and windswept moors in sub-zero temperatures. 

“Withering Looks explores a day in the life of the Bronte sisters (well two of them, Anne’s just popped out for a cup of sugar) and in true David Attenborough style there will be additional footage going behind the scenes of the making of the show,” promise the duo.

Maggie, from York, and Sue, from t’other side of the Pennines, first met as drama students at Bristol University in a “very serious Henrik Ibsen production that had the audience on the floor laughing”.

A tragedy for Ibsen nevertheless turned out to be the launching pad to a very long partnership in satirical comedy, as the duo recall. Forming LipService in Manchester in 1985, Maggie and Sue have chalked up 22 original comedies from a distinctly female perspective, as well as series for BBC Radio and tours of Germany, Eastern Europe, the United States and Pakistan, over the past 35 years.

Dubbed “the Laurel and Hardy of literary deconstruction” by the Guardian, LipService have visited Pocklington Arts Centre regularly. PAC director Janet Farmer says: “I’m absolutely delighted to have LipService returning to our live events programme, albeit this time virtually. 

“PAC has a longstanding relationship with the company, with Maggie and Sue selling out numerous performances in recent years with their unique theatrical style and infectious enthusiasm.

“I, along with fellow PAC staff members, will be attending the performance and this will be the first time the venue has had direct interaction with its audience members, at an event, in over a year.”

Meanwhile, what about those ticket holders from Belgium, Luc and Hilde Verstraeten-Mariën, who will Zoom into the PAC show after their plans to catch LipService live were thwarted by the pandemic?

“We were excited to hear that Lip Service had created Zoom performances,” say Luc and Hilde. “We’ve just watched Château Ghoul and it made our day! We really enjoyed the show: it was funny, cheeky, and mad. We enjoyed the interactive part of it and we thought they made clever and creative use of Zoom. We kept giggling for the rest of the evening!

“We are looking forward to more of the same: refreshingly funny, intelligently witty and slightly mad at the same time, highly creative, high-standard comedy with a twist by two fabulous women.”

Tickets for Withering Looks cost £15 at pocklingtonartscentre.co.uk.