Angela Lansbury already had a highly accomplished career behind her by the time Murder, She Wrote premiered in 1984, having starred in Gaslight, The Picture of Dorian Grey and The Manchurian Candidate on film (netting three Academy Award nominations in the process) as well as Broadway triumphs in Sweeney Todd and Mame – an illustrious stage career that had bagged her four Tonys.
Since Murder, She Wrote ended in 1996, Angela has kept busy, winning a fifth Tony for Blithe Spirit – which has now transferred to the West End – and receiving an honorary Oscar last year. Angela Lansbury is a national treasure. An international icon. But it begs the question: how much do we really know about Angela Lansbury?
This was the question that set Chrissy Williams‘ mind racing. Upon waking from a dream in which Angela revealed to her that there was no Jessica Fletcher and that she was secretly a mass murderer, Chrissy decided to collect those dark thoughts into the form of an epic, ominous tale. After teaming up with artist Howard Hardiman, the result was the pamphlet ANGELA, a twisty, Lynchian mystery ‘for those who have fallen under Angela’s thrall’. I caught up with Chrissy and Howard to talk Angela, the Lanz and Lynchian influences:
How did you both meet and decide to collaborate?
Howard: Chrissy had been reading my comic, The Lengths, and she’s a very efficient stalker.
Chrissy: We met through mutual comics’ friends. I insisted that he work on ANGELA. Eventually he agreed after I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Howard: She broke my legs in a rage when I said I wouldn’t draw for her, then the idea grew on me.
Were you a fan of Angela or Murder, She Wrote before this project?
Howard: I’m not sure if I’d say I was a fan, but I do have photocopied printouts of her face all over my toilet wall, so I guess a passing interest.
Chrissy: I grew up watching Murder, She Wrote in Italian with my cousins – my mum is Italian, but I grew up in England, going to Italy for extended periods during school holidays. Murder, She Wrote was on at lunchtimes and we watched it every day. The vocabulary was never complicated and the plots were easy to follow – it was reassuring and relaxing, like images from a familiar nursery rhyme. And so, like all stories you grow up with in childhood, they crept into my subconscious and became part of different, darker stories.
What were your favourite Angela performances?
Chrissy: Jessica Fletcher is a role model – she is open-minded, generous, driven, tenacious and warm-hearted. She knows how to look after a garden. She has faith in humanity and an irrepressible impulse towards goodness. Bedknobs and Broomsticks was also OK.
Which came first, the text or artwork?
Chrissy: The text was first published (in extracts from this full piece) as an unfolding concrete poetry poster / broadsheet which was created for Antonio Claudio Carvalho’s p.o.w. series, inspired by Hansjorg Mayer’s futura series from the 1960s. It showed the text extracts with a single repeating black and white image of Jessica Fletcher’s face. Sidekick Books were interested in doing a fully illustrated pamphlet though, and when I met Howard it all fell beautifully into place.
How did you come up with the disturbing concept for the story?
Chrissy: I had a dream in which I woke up and found Angela Lansbury kneeling on my chest, throttling me. I had uncovered her secret: there is no Jessica Fletcher. All twelve series of Murder, She Wrote were a cover for the real Angela’s diabolical murderous acts. The text fell out of that nightmare, combined with bits of Jacobean drama I was reading at the time (there was a season on at the Old Vic, near where I was working then, which found its way into my writing). Her terrifying performance in the original Manchurian Candidate probably helped too.
And the nightmareish artwork?
Howard: I live on the Isle of Wight. It’s just how life is down here.
What would you say the story is in ‘Angela’?
Chrissy: It’s a dark love letter. It’s about trying to be good.
There’s an interesting Twin Peaks comparison here – are you a fan of that show and David Lynch in general?!
Chrissy: Yes, and yes. Howard’s artwork is what brought the Lynchian element to it directly, but it made perfect sense to me when he suggested it. Twin Peaks and Murder, She Wrote both frequently appear in the same lists of popular American detective shows. They spring from the same genre.
Howard: Oh certainly. When I was at school, we all watched it. When I saw the episode where Audrey Horne auditions for the brothel by tying a knot in a cherry stalk, I spent hours teaching myself how to do that, in case I ever had to audition for a brothel.
Were there any concepts for the artwork or text that you didn’t end up using? Perhaps they were too dark, or too risque?
Howard: There was an awful thing happening to a dachshund and we just couldn’t go there.
Chrissy: Oh, those poor dachshunds.
What are you working on at the moment and what’s next for you?
Howard: I’m nearing the end of a residency with Quay Arts on the Isle of Wight and I’ve got an exhibition, Line and Shade, which opens on the 26th of April. I’m also working on a new book about a Badger going for a walk in Wroclaw in Poland and working on a few painting commissions.
Chrissy: I’ve just had a new pamphlet published called Epigraphs (if p then q). It’s a sequence of 100 epigraphs, each of which could stand in for an individual poem, as well combining to form a single sequence in a hundred voices. I’m currently working on a longer manuscript, and have some readings coming up. In particular, I’ll be reading from ANGELA on 13th May 2014 with Richard Scott at Waterstones Hampstead.