I took my 8 year old son and his friend to see the BFG yesterday afternoon at the Cineworld in Ashford. It is a fantastic film in every sense, brilliantly bringing Roald Dahl’s book to life in a magical, yet believable, way.
Steven Spielberg’s casting is excellent: Penelope Wilton looks just like the Queen; and Mark Rylance uncannily resembles the original Quentin Blake cartoon of the BFG, with just a few sizing-up additions to his legs, ears and neck. But his kind, intelligent eyes, his wry, sad smile and his salty-caramel voice are unmistakeable. With those kinds of characteristics, you would think he could only have come from Ashford!
And you’d be right. David Mark Rylance Waters was born here on 18th January, 1960. His parents, Anne and David Waters (who had met as children in Hong Kong), were both English teachers. The family moved to Connecticut in 1962 when his father got a job at Choate School. So, no, he wasn’t here for long. Yet, his future career, as artistic director of the Globe Theatre in London, together with his world renown as a Shakespearian actor, have many links with the heritage of this part of Kent.
I have written before about the Shakespeare connections with Chilham Castle in the borough of Ashford. And Sir Edward Dering of Pluckley in Ashford owned the Dering Manuscript: namely, Henry IV part I, the earliest surviving manuscript of a play by Shakespeare. Furthermore, Ashford’s former rebel resident, Jack Cade, played a small, if vital, part in Shakespeare’s Henry VI. Rylance, himself, is an Anti-Stratfordian, sceptical about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. One of the posited alternative authors is Christopher Marlowe, who, as a child, attended Kings’ College, Canterbury, a 20 minute drive away from Ashford.
But Rylance doesn’t deny that Shakespeare, amongst others, put on plays at the Globe Theatre on the Southwark bankside of the Thames in London. Indeed, Rylance was instrumental in supporting Sam Wanamaker’s vision of rebuilding the Globe in the late twentieth century. And, here, he also has interesting things to say about the nature of heritage itself. When the Globe Theatre was finally re-built, Mark Rylance describes how tobacco, spirits and flowers were buried within the foundations of the building. “It seemed to me that the building should be blessed. We wanted to acknowledge the histories that were inherent in the building, Shakespeare and the Burbages, but also the hidden stories of that part of London – the terrible abuse of prostitutes, the hideous mistreatment of animals, of bears. To give something back, so the past wouldn’t take something from us.”*
Rylance’s successor as artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole, said he had been initially prejudiced against the Globe theatre, worrying it would be too ‘Disneyland’, too ‘Heritage’ (note the capital H to imply deadening ‘worthiness’). But he changed his mind. “I came to see ‘Measure for Measure,’ in 2004, and it blew me away. It was so intelligent. It was funny and alive and concrete. It had a physical life. It was full of grace and charity. What I thought was a theatre of the past became a theatre of the future.”*
Similarly, Ashford’s buildings have been a ‘theatre of the past’ and people such as ‘Mad Major’ Sawbridge, the Martyr John Brown, Ashford’s Poet Laureate, Alfred Austin, and Mark Rylance have all been its actors. Ashford can also be a ‘theatre of the future’: but now it’s up to us.
** With lots of thanks and love to Christian and Hugh for coming to the BFG with me and, thus, enabling me to write this post.