“Bloody strange but not, I have decided, queer”: Ngaio Marsh’s Killer Dolphin (1966), the Theater, and the Sexual Offences Act 1967

A scene from Grace and Frankie

“Theater Is Not for Fags,” the sign reads.  It was brandished, among other such boards, in a rather unconvincing crowd scene in “The Other Vibrator,” the possibly well-intentioned but insipid eleventh episode of Grace and Frankie’s third season, with which I eventually caught up only a few days ago.  The morning after, I finished reading Ngaio Marsh’s Killer Dolphin (1966).  And the way that my wayward mind works, I put it down with that slogan in mind.

Retitled Death at the Dolphin, Marsh’s mystery novel was published in Britain in 1967, half a century before the Grace and Frankie episode first aired.  That means it came before the public just as the Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalized consensual – and private – homosexual acts among adult males in England and Wales.  This being Gay Pride month, I am perhaps especially alert to anxieties surrounding gender and queer identity.  At any rate, I detected an unease – or a playful response to public misgivings, actual or perceived –about homosexuality in Marsh’s narrative, which features a single gay character, and a minor one at that, while most of the other players – actors and creatives all – are carefully coupled in more or less, and mostly less, cosy heterosexual bonds.  

Could it be, I wondered, that Marsh, herself a theater director, was sharing the sentiment that public playhouses – in swinging London, to boot – are not a platform for gay men?

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Make/Believe: Photographs of/by Angus McBean

The illusion of the stage. The magic of the movies. The glamour of fashion. In a career spanning half a century, Angus McBean (1904–1990) turned instances of make-believe and masquerade into enduring records of enchantment.

Poster design by Neil Holland, from a photograph of Angus McBean by Robert Greetham

McBean was born and raised in South Wales. His father had worked in the collieries. Encouraged by his mother to make art his life, McBean moved to London. After working in banking and retail, he became a theatrical mask-maker and designer before achieving international fame as a photographer.

This year’s exhibition at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University, showcases McBean’s work in advertising, his commissioned portraits, and his annual Christmas cards. It offers rare glimpses of McBean’s private life, holidaying on the continent, as captured in two unique photo albums. Also featured in the exhibition are portraits of McBean at home, in later life, by the contemporary photographer Robert Greetham.

Make/Believe installation view

Not all the personalities on view in this exhibition – Marlene Dietrich, Ruth Draper, Audrey Hepburn, Vivien Leigh, Claire Luce, Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, and Welsh icon Ivor Novello among them – are as familiar today as they once were, even though some of them, including Rosemary Harris and Maggie Smith are acting to this day. All of them, like McBean, lived by their passions, whether performing on stage and screen or playing on the tennis court, as Wimbledon champion Helen Wills Moody did.

Make/Believe installation view

McBean’s photographs were made in the pre-digital age of the medium. Using scissors and paste, montage and collage, as well as elaborate sets and props, McBean employed every trick of the trade to bring out the beauty, vitality and personality of his subjects. His photographs were staged, not taken.

Drawing inspiration from Salvador Dalí, whose exact birthday he (incorrectly) claimed to share, McBean ‘surrealized’ many of them. ‘This thing of truth doesn’t really come into it,’ MacBean said in late life of his portraits.

Make/Believe installation view

The theater, to McBean, was ‘fantasy.’ It was ‘what you wished it to be.’ It was also the refuge McBean needed at a time when being queer was a crime. During the Second World War, he endured a two-and-a-half-year sentence of imprisonment and hard labour. His work is a testament to the imperatives of making, believing, and make-believe.

Make/Believe, which draws almost entirely on the School’s collection, opened to the public on 16 May 2022 and runs until 30 September 2022.

Curators: Hannah Beach, David Eccles, Helen Flower, Ellie Hodnett, Mayu Maruyama, Ekene Okoliachu, Lucija Perinic, Joanna Reed, Katerina Vranova, Portia Sastawnyuk, Anna Slater, and Helena Zielinska. with support from Senior Lecturer Harry Heuser (text and concept) and Senior Curator Neil Holland (staging and design).

Make/Believe installation view