Culture's tireless populist

December 2, 2005

Although his prodigious output provokes dismissive envy, Christopher Frayling's enthusiasm for despised genres is undiminished, finds Christopher Wood

Another year, another inch on the bibliography. Sir Christopher Frayling has published four books this year. Admittedly, one is a reissue of Spaghetti Westerns , first published in 1980, with new material. And one is a refinement of his work on the film director Sergio Leone, which reached an apotheosis in 2000 with the massive biography Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death . Another is a book of conversations with film production designer Ken Adam.

No negligible task any of them, but no gargantuan one, either. But the fourth is Mad, Bad and Dangerous? The Scientist and the Cinema , a survey of 100 years of misrepresentations of scientists on film. This book is a thorough and substantial work, well argued and, as always, highly readable.

And consider this. Frayling is rector of the Royal College of Art, chairman of the Arts Council, the longest-serving trustee of the Victoria and Albert Museum and chair of the Royal Mint Advisory Committee. He has a family - although its forbearance may not be infinite. "My wife said the other day," remarks Frayling, "if I sign another book contract in the next 18 months, it's divorce."

Productivity like this gets a man noticed, and promoted - and envied. The suspicion is that Frayling must be a "committee man", as Brian Sewell, the art critic of London's Evening Standard , calls him. His gift, Sewell insists, is for "flannel" and "waffle", and his achievements "small vain things".

Most media criticism of Frayling emanates from this same source, Sewell, the dauntless opponent of "dumbing down", who sees Frayling as one of the chief dumbers. Most often quoted is the personal abuse, but while he reviles the subject matter of Frayling's books, Sewell shows little sign of having read any. Possibly revealing is Sewell's yelp of frustration: "Perhaps Frayling has done too much ever to have done anything well."

Frayling's phenomenal work rate - including a lengthening list of authoritative DVD commentaries - might make one think so. But the 15 or so volumes that he has to his name are not easily dismissed. No serious student of spaghetti westerns can overlook his work on Leone and other Italian western directors. Equally, his Vampyres is a key text on English Gothic and Romantic fiction.

Frayling's first book, Napoleon Wrote Fiction , resulted from researching Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Paris for a PhD in the late 1960s. Frayling came across some manuscripts, "in strange spidery handwriting and not very good French", that turned out to be short stories written by the young Napoleon, misfiled and hitherto unknown. Were they any good? "Not really. They're all about young men who want to be generals. If you can imagine the sort of stories a Corsican with a chip on his shoulder might have written, they're like that."

Something of a coup, nonetheless. And Frayling's time investigating the Enlightenment was to bear more fruit, pointing the way towards his second book, The Vampyre , later expanded into Vampyres: From Lord Byron to Count Dracula . Its origins were twofold. "I was researching the dark side of the Enlightenment. The age of reason was beginning to seem very unreasonable indeed by the late 1960s. Simultaneously there was my enjoyment of Hammer films, and all my colleagues at Cambridge not taking them seriously. The two things came together."

Vampyres , a meticulous probing of the folkloric and Romantic antecedents of Bram Stoker's Dracula , presented a dizzying array of prototypes and symbolic interpretations of vampirism. It was also an indication of Frayling's great strength: the ability to write in a scholarly manner while never forgetting that a non-expert might like to understand it.

"I didn't grow up in a house with many books," Frayling says. "I was the first member of the family to go to university. I've always felt an obligation to write as clearly as I possibly can. Umberto Eco observed that you can write a PhD on Mickey Mouse. There's nothing intrinsically trivial about any subject; it's how you approach it."

The mention of Hammer films is significant, suggesting at once his tendency to approach the historical via the contemporary, his sensitivity to visual media and a delight in genres often dismissed as unworthy.

"I've always felt it's important to make connections between what one's studying and how it feeds into the bloodstream of contemporary culture," he says. "When people dealt with contemporary culture, it was in a highly literary way. You approached Ingmar Bergman as though he were writing plays. It's partly because people have cultural hierarchies. At the top of the tree are fine art and literature, and certain kinds of music, and slowly you go down. In the mid-60s, the things at the bottom were sneerily categorised as popular culture. I couldn't understand why key art forms of the 20th century were looked down on in that way."

Hammer horrors, with their "garish Victorian colour, sexuality, metaphor, fairy tales... this explosion of allegory and eroticism", blew away Frayling, coming as they did after the "gloomy British cinema of the mid-50s". It was no surprise that he responded with similar pleasure to the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s, which reinvigorated the fagged-out western genre just as Hammer injected fresh blood into the UK film industry. "I love taking up causes that everyone despises. Hammer was almost the lowest of the low, but Italian westerns were even lower. It became a crusade to make people take them seriously."

That crusade has resulted in several editions of Spaghetti Westerns , the magisterial biography of Leone, one of Clint Eastwood, and this year a lavishly illustrated Leone spin-off, Once upon a Time in Italy . Frayling has also written about Tutankhamun, the 1930s film Things to Come , and numerous aspects of art and design. Does anything tie such disparate threads together? "It's forms of art that are about metaphor, allegory and fairy tale," Frayling says, "the world of the imagination. I'm not so interested in realism. These are all kinds of Gothic."

And, one could add, all are searching yet approachable ways into popular culture - which is where Frayling's critics step in. "I'm not saying there's not good and bad," he insists. "I find completely misconceived the argument that certain kinds of artistic endeavour are intrinsically dumb.

There's good and bad in everything. There's great pop music, there's terrible pop music. But to say it's dumbing down simply to talk about those genres excludes nine tenths of the experience of living in the 21st century."

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