Here Be Giants: The Childe Of Hale

'Childe of Hale' still, Richard Whitby 2014, funded by Arts Council England

Ahead of a special screening tonight at the Bluecoat, visual artist Richard Whitby tells us about the ‘giant’ star of his surreal new film, why folklore continues to fascinate, and whether the Childe of Hale really was over 9ft tall…

Tell us about the Childe of Hale; who was he? How did you come across the story?

Hale is a small village on the Mersey, just south of Speke. The ‘Childe’ was a man called John Middleton, born in 1578 and died in 1623 – this is written on his grave in Hale Village church. The grave also states that he was 9 ft 3″ tall. There are some other fragmentary bits of documentation about his life: we know that he was employed by Gilbert Island, the local landowner, and that he was taken to London when his master was knighted by King James I.

Most of the other material on him is second-hand: several paintings of him, none of which were painted during his life time; the mention Samuel Pepys makes in his diary of having seen the Childe’s handprint at Brasenose College Oxford, long after his death. Then there are the obviously mythological elements, such as the story that Middleton, as a child, drew out an outline of a giant in the sand of Hale shore, slept within the outline and woke up to find himself a giant. Also, the much-beloved but unfeasible story that he was so tall that he had to sleep with his feet sticking out of two windows in the gable end of one of the thatched cottages in the village.

“He was dug up at some point (I had thought by Victorian archeologists; others told me that it was to hide his bones from grave-robbers)”

I grew up very near Hale, and went to primary school there – so I’ve known the story my whole life, really. It is very well-known in the village: there’s a pub named after him, he appears on the school’s badge, and the grave is well visited. More recently, there have been two successive statues of him, and information boards around the village. So there is an effort in the village to make the Childe part of a formalised ‘heritage’.

How much of Middleton’s biography is historically correct, do you think, and how much has been embellished? Was he really over 9ft tall, for example?

For me, this is the crux of my interest in the story; that there are so few solid points on which it hangs. For example, Middleton’s height would seem his defining feature, but I’m told no one actually knows what it was, as measurements were not standardised in his lifetime. He was dug up at some point (I had thought by Victorian archeologists; others told me that it was to hide his bones from grave-robbers) but no measurements were made of his bones, only rough comparisons to contemporary skeletons.

There are also disagreements over why he might have been called ‘the Childe’; one version has it that he was of limited mental capacity or ‘childlike’; another that his singularly impressive height simply marked him out as the child of the village of Hale.

In terms of my film, all this flexibility and historical fogginess was a gift!

When did you know that you wanted to make an artistic response to the legend? Why a film?

It was something that was knocking around for a while – it seemed like a story that had cinematic potential (some of which I hope I have realised in the project). And I like the inherently heightened artificiality of costume dramas, and that that is up for scrutiny automatically. This project led directly out of a video I made at The Royal Standard in 2012, which featured volunteers pretending to be architects. I got stuck on this idea of people grabbing hold of, in that case architectural, icons around them. That project made me want to continue working in that way, on Merseyside.

The process for this one was to advertise for local volunteers to act in a film telling Middleton’s life story. Except for one import from West Derby, everyone in the film is from, or connected to, the village. There are two major influences on the process that went into the shoot – firstly, there’s the annual village carnival. This is a day (or at least as I remember it) when people in the village dress up in DIY costumes and make a communal, quite extrovert display of themselves.

The second is the work of Peter Watkins, a leftwing filmmaker whose most famous stuff was made in the sixties and seventies. He used non-actors in this weird costumed interview form, which he called ‘docudrama’ – my favourite is his Edvard Munch (1974), in which a camera crew interview the painter’s family in 19th-century Norway. He does it in this very intense, serious way – and also that film in particular uses visual motifs (a head turning; a glistening lake) that recur again and again throughout the film’s three-hour-plus length. To me it’s an exciting and deeply affecting collision of surrealism and documentary.

So in the shoot, we decided who was going to play which characters, and then interviewed them in role. There’s a degree of cooperation and shared purpose in any video or film production beyond a certain size that creates a social space – I think the shared nature of the story helped dispense with some of the hierarchies in more professional productions. It was very relaxed and informal, and I tried to encourage people to use their own ideas of what the story is – or should be.

“It was really important to me that the shoot be a section of time that the cast and crew spent together – a social group that otherwise wouldn’t have existed”

In school we used to watch this BBC programme about the ancient Greeks; in the title sequence there was a shot of some guys rowing a galley. One of them was wearing a wristwatch. This is exactly the kind of leakage that I’ve tried to emphasise in my film – rather than crystallizing ‘the truth’ of the story, I wanted to make something with it, today – like people do in the village carnival. It was really important to me that the shoot be a section of time that the cast and crew spent together – a social group that otherwise wouldn’t have existed – and some of the listless waiting around, the incidental conversations, have made it into the edit. The video is a container for this accrued, recorded… stuff.

Why does the Childe of Hale, and stories like it, continue to fascinate?

That’s a good question. There are two answers; if stories ‘like this’ means stories about physically unusual people, then I think the fascination relates to a human fascination in inhabiting a body different to one’s own, and phenomena like gigantism only increase that – imagine being 9 ft tall! You can’t, really. And even less, living at a historical moment far removed from our own. Middleton in particular ends up being quite empathetic – in my film at least, he’s something of a victim. In a way, ‘Childe of Hale’ has ended up as a weird, tragic super-hero film!

Secondly, if ‘like this’ refers to the realm of ‘local history’, I think communities always look for things that distinguish their locale – unique stories like this add a value to a place. In a Thatcher-era idea of heritage, this is a pecuniary value – what I want to invoke is something like a shared narrative hook, that is adaptable and free to be appropriated by multiple voices. Maybe something like a traditional folk song. For example, one of the actors, Lynn Clarkson-Wright, has written a children’s book called The Very Tall Tale of the Childe of Hale – her version is very different to mine but they can co-exist.

What did the community in Hale think of your film?

Well, I wouldn’t like to presume what the community thought, but sixty people came to the Hale premiere, in the village hall, where much of it was shot. Lots of people said they liked it.

I was quite nervous about showing it in the Village – the shoot was a very happy, collective thing, but afterwards the footage became completely mine, and I have taken liberties with it – there are things in it that no one on the shoot, including myself, would have imagined would be in the film (the Egyptian god Anubis, for example…). There’s a separation there. I didn’t make the film as a service to the people in Hale. The edit and especially the sound is very disjunctive, quite punk, but two quite elderly ladies came out and told me that I’d done a good job and that it was “very well put together.”

What do you want the impact of your film to be? What’s happening with the film — will it tour?

It’s been shown in Hale, had a small screening at the BFI in London, will be at the Bluecoat tonight and then at Showroom Gallery in London. It also might go to the Brindley in Runcorn. Afterwards, it will be available online. In the course of the project, the dissemination of the film through screenings, rather than exhibition, has made more and more sense. The shoot was a one-off event, in which a group of people coalesced around an activity, and the screenings have mirrored that. And I like being there, with the work. People can take me to task if the want. The film was a temporary part of the village, unlike the bronze statue of Middleton – someone else could make another film if they wanted.

As told to Mike Pinnington

See a free screening of Childe Of Hale tonight at the Bluecoat, Liverpool, Wednesday 24 September 2014, 7-8pm

Richard Whitby is a Doctoral candidate at the London Consortium — conducting thesis research on ‘the position of live spectacle in mediatised culture and British neoliberalism’. See more here:

Fascinated by the Childe of Hale? Read more on the man, myth and legend in this 2004 feature from John Reppion in the Fortean Times 

Posted on 24/09/2014 by thedoublenegative