Blog piece I wrote for The Economist on the Book of Mormon, and how it is translating for English audiences.
The man behind the Mighty Boosh’s Bollo and Spike Jonze’s Wild Things talks about his life as the film industry’s “primary primate”.
IN his 30 year career, Peter Elliott has been attacked by most of the animal kingdom: chased by black mane lions, clawed by a panther, mauled by chimps more than once, almost flattened by stampedes of zebra and wildebeest and – scariest of all – elephants in fancy dress.
Elliott, a short, limber man of 5’5” and 52 years, wears his wounds with pride. For the actor and animal movement expert, each injury is a badge of experience.
“For the amount of time I’ve been doing this, I’ve been quite lucky. I’ve still got all my fingers,” he says.
Were any creature to relieve Elliott of his digits, the chances are it would be a member of the ape family. He has devoted much of his professional life to simian study, even infiltrating a group of chimps to earn a place in their hierarchy.
As the “film industry’s primary primate”, he has starred in Gorillas in the Mist, Congo, and surreal comedy series The Mighty Boosh, in which he plays the DJ gorilla Bollo. He’s such a lifelike ape, in fact, the LAPD nearly shot him for being an escaped wild animal.
Most of the world’s hi-tech gorilla suits are built on his frame, and he can speak “chimp” – a nuanced collection of pants, hoots, grunts, whimpers, barks and screams. Until recently, he could converse with the primates of London Zoo from the garden of his flat in Gloucester Avenue, Primrose Hill, opposite the suitably named Darwin Court.
“Most people think they’re little cuddly things but chimps are probably the most dangerous animals to work with,” he says. “A fully grown chimp is about eight times stronger than a man in the upper body, as emotionally stable as a one-year-old child, with an IQ of about 85. Submissiveness is a good idea.”
The son of a woodwork teacher, Elliott was “always one of those kids that would come home with pockets full of animals” during his Hertfordshire childhood. His monkey mania began in 1978 when, aged 21, he auditioned for a part in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan. Warner Bros had done a test film with a mime artist in an ape suit and panicked: it was terrible.
Elliot, 18 months out of drama school, was flown out to LA and appointed head of research and development, with a stratospheric budget and an army of underlings. He went from happy-go lucky acrobat to Hollywood silverback in one agile leap.
The film’s producers wanted to mix real apes with human actors in costumes. Elliott spent two years trying to find out if this was possible, concluding it was “completely mad. Everyone was going to get their arms and legs torn off.”
At the time, the height of gorilla impersonation was hairy stuntmen running around on two legs. Elliott, who trained as a method actor, decided method chimps were needed. He spent months at the Oklahoma Primate Centre observing behavioural patterns, sounds, and mannerisms, and talking in sign language to a chimp called Washoe. “The doctor had to tell her to sign slowly because I wasn’t very good,” he recalls.
Improvising for up to eight hours a day, Elliott sometimes fails to leave his work at the studio, pant-hooting in restaurants and barking on public transport.
“You get into a strange stream of consciousness that can be difficult to switch out of,” he says. “Working with animals makes you realise how out of touch we are with reality. You learn great respect for them, probably more than you respect people. They still live in the real world; we live in a large, architecturally designed zoo we call a city.”
Elliott is an unpredictable interviewee: switching from howling primate to middle-class father-of-three to wave to an anxious-looking neighbour. He is prone to starting sentences with “When I was living with the Masai” or “If there is such a thing as a controlled stampede, you don’t start it with a shotgun”, and the pleasant flat he shares with his children and wife (a teacher at the Central School of Speech and Drama’s movement department) is crammed with animal models, artefacts, and hundreds of porcelain penguins from his many trips to Africa and beyond.
Recent projects include big budget Hollywood productions like Where The Wild Things Are and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but his first choreography credit was for the slightly less slick Quest for Fire, which makes the dubious claim of having “over a million years of evolution in one movie”. It was while filming Quest he got caught in the mammoth stampede.
“Well, it was 14 elephants dressed as mammoths,” he corrects. “So they were already quite annoyed. Nobody had told me elephants can run about 30 miles an hour when they get going. I had to roll out from under them. Then they went through the wardrobe tent, through the make-up tent and off into the wilds of Scotland. It took us about eight hours to find them all.”
For Elliott, that’s another day at the office.
Text: Simon Wroe
Nothing to do with Argos or Ikea, but proof you can get drunk on words.
This helpful list of Norse dwarves, known as the Dvergatal, appears in the middle of the ancient Icelandic poem, the Voluspa. Odin is hearing about how the world was created when the “catalogue” begins. I recommend you read the list aloud for full intoxication. Perhaps leave the English out altogether.
As a side note, Icelandic name laws are incredibly strict. Were these mythical dwarves alive today it is likely many of them would be embroiled in lengthy legal proceedings.
“Nýi and Niði, Norðri and Suðri, Austri and Vestri, Alþjófr, Dvalinn, Bífurr, Báfurr, Bömburr, Nóri, Án and Ánarr, Ái, Mjöðvitnir, Veigr and Gandalfr, Vindalfr, Þráinn, Þekkr and Þorinn, Þrór, Litr and Vitr, Nár and Nýráðr, Reginn and Ráðsviðr — now I have told the list of Dvergar right.Fili, Kili, Fundinn, Náli, Hepti, Víli, Hanarr, Svíorr, Nár and Náinn, Nípingr, Dáinn, Billingr, Brúni, Bíldr and Búri, Frár, Hornbori, Frægr and Lóni, Aurvangr, Jari, Eikinskjaldi.To tell the talk, the Dvergar in the generation of Dvalinn were a race of [conquering] lions up to [the generation] of Lofarr. They sought settlements from the halls of stone [to] Aurvangr (‘plot of mud’) to Jöruvöllr. There was Draupnir and Dolgþrasir, Hár, Haugspori, Hlévangr, Glóinn, Dóri, Óri, Dúfr, Andvari, Skirvir, Virvir, Skáfiðr, Ái, Álfr and Yngvi, Eikinskjaldi, Fjalarr and Frosti, Finnr and Ginnarr. So remember while the eras [of humans] live, the list of the long descent [of the ancestors] of Lofarr.”
ON a chilly autumn night, an elegantly dressed figure is picking his way through the alleys and snickleways of Hampstead.
Adnandus Dyzantae walks slightly pigeon-toed, but with confidence; he has done this journey many times. When his friend Bronco John was alive they would make this pilgrimage every night, the old boy lapsing between lucid and raving, the young man fey and impeccable, his demons kept close.
“That’s the alleyway Bronco lived in,” he says, stopping. “He was camouflaged by the smell of urine in there. It’s the back of a dry cleaners now.”
Adnandus speaks in a soft, clipped tenor. His sentences sound as if they are being read from the page and, indeed, they might be, for Adnandus is a writer. At the age of 31 he has written his first book, The Ill Literate, an “honest as possible” documentation of his life in the shadow of schizophrenia.
The streets of north west London are paved with memoirs, but Adnandus’s offering stands alone. He has not changed a single word of it since he wrote it, in cramped longhand, at the small flat he shares with his mother and sister in Fitzjohn’s Avenue.
Stranger still, he has not even read his own book; reading causes him such profound psychological discomfort that he has only managed to read one book – Wuthering Heights – in his entire life. (His mother made him read that when he was seven.) The book was also written under maternal duress: for every day he didn’t write a page, she wouldn’t speak to him for a day.
“I have literally three friends: my sister, my uncle and my mother,” he told me. “When one of them withdraws their warmth it’s quite shell-shocking.”
His fourth friend was Bronco, the village’s celebrity tramp. “The Barred of Hampstead”, as Peter Cook and others called him, was prone to making grand proclamations about how he was going to bomb the millionaires’ enclave with teabags or employ “a thousand Russians to infiltrate the area and rape all the lesbians”. His abrupt, coruscating moods earned him notoriety amid the area’s cashmere sweaters and coffee cakes, but they belied a troubled mind.
Adnandus met Bronco John in 1997. The young man had already survived a destructive life, a nervous breakdown and an attempted suicide, exacerbated by intense bullying at school, yet he was only just beginning to realise he might be unwell.
“I was so accustomed to mental illness as I grew up I didn’t know the feelings I was experiencing even existed. That was my natural disposition. I would wake up, have a bath, put on an immaculate white shirt, lie down on the floor and writhe in agony,” he remembers.
The first encounter between the two lost souls is described in The Ill Literate:
My parents duelled with vehemence; in the middle I was made to bleed. I swam through my blood to the bench across the street from our apartment… The figure that now traipsed into my eyes was, let us say, ungroomed in appearance and demeanour. Shoulder length hair made up of lots of individual hairs clinging to each other desperately was met by a beard that looked like a grisly bear smiling.
Bronco became Adnandus’s escape. The hours he spent walking the streets and drinking tea with the hobo took him away from his obsessive stepfather (who passed the time “agonising over whether everything was hereditary or environmental”), and away from the “dark blade within me, which forever sharpens itself on my psyche”.
He knew Bronco would be behind Bacchus, the Greek restaurant, for his dinner of bread and potatoes; that he would be coming up Church Row at 3am; that he would be washing his armpits sub rosa in the Everyman cinema toilets around midday or playing the piano in Villa Bianca of an evening.
“I never anticipated my life was going to revolve around a homeless person. It was like being with a brother – we had a kinship. Bronco would be livid about all sorts of things, but he had no malice in him. He’d berate Paul McCartney for his success, saying it should be him up there.”
Despite their friendship, Bronco remained a mystery. He would grandstand in Hampstead High Street, trying to mesmerise impatient drivers with teabags, but fiercely guarded the secret location of his shed. Even his hand-rolled cigarettes seemed “like straws peeping into another reality from which he drew life”.
All the time Adnandus was getting sicker. “The murky feeling that lies behind everything” was taking over. He thought an earth-bound entity had attached itself to him and sought the help of exorcists, hypno therapists and transcendentalists – to no avail. Medication was the last solution.
He was eventually put on Clozapine, the same anti-psychotic drug as his uncle, a child prodigy who had suffered a mental breakdown at 22, and the shadows began to recede. Film and music became bearable for the first time in years and the “soundless agony” of touch and sound was muted.
“Bronco was very against me going on to medication. Partly because he was terrified of psychiatrists and partly because he thought I would never speak to him again,” says Adnandus. “He was right. As I started to get better I started to find his company intolerable: his repetitiveness, his indignance, his angst.”
The “undertaker and the corpse” crossed paths less and less frequently. The last time they saw one another Adnandus was too busy to talk him; six months later, on Christmas Eve 2005, Bronco died.
Adnandus traded “happy voyeurism” for writing – a more socially acceptable form of schizophrenia. The resulting book is probably as close to mental illness as you can get without suffering it: dense, perplexing, and flecked with brilliance. He compares spring and autumn to identical twins, “one of whom was dying of a terminal illness as the foliage lost colour, became crisp and fell from the trees”; while a street is “like an ingenious whore who retains her allure even after a millennium of loveless fornication”.
Those looking for an autobiographical warts ’n’ all, however, might be disappointed. The book does not mention the tangled circumstances of his birth, conceived during the brief arranged marriage between his mother, a former model, and a wealthy Pakistani landowner.
Nor does it talk about his troubled childhood, “living under the constant threat” of his father returning.
“I had this very tense loving mother and this abstraction of a father. We didn’t let anyone into the house without having known them for at least six years,” he recalls.
Part of the reason he changed his name to Adnandus Dyzantae, when he was 16, was to avoid any association with his father.
A cast-iron bond has been forged between mother and son. She phones him often during our conversation. “Every five minutes,” he sighs, rolling his eyes. “She loves to nurture.”
As soon as he is home she begins nagging fondly him about the state of his room. “He’s got 7,000 books in there and he hasn’t read a page of any of them,” she informs me.
Pictures of The Beatles, Jesus, and Audrey Hepburn adorn Adnandus’s room. “My mum thinks I love Audrey Hepburn,” he explains.
“He does love her,” says his mother, poking her head round the door. Then she proudly shows me the hundreds of poems Adnandus has written. “Writing for him is like breathing,” she says.
Adnandus is more critical of himself. He can peddle out his “sob story” for a few hours, he admits, but then he’s exhausted all his avenues of engagement. What he cannot see is just how much that means for a man who, a few years ago, could not hear Mozart without screaming.
And what about Bronco? Wouldn’t he approve? Adnandus smiles. “I think he’d be proud. As long as he didn’t read it.”
Text: Simon Wroe
RECEIVED wisdom has it that if a person wishes to eat well in a city, he or she should eat where the cab drivers eat. Those who follow this rule in London may find themselves behind a car wash near Paddington Station, staring at a large and unsightly cabin.
This is the New Oak Café, one of only two late-night eateries catering specifically for the black cab trade (the other is south of the river Thames, in Southwark).
It is a 96-seat, no-frills operation – harsh strip lighting, football on the television, some pictures of New York, three fruit machines and a few
DayGlo plastic flowers – but one central to many of London’s 22,000 cabbies.
Although cabbies work alone, they tend to feed in packs: the “day men” tuck into dinner while the “night men” polish off breakfast. Either meal might be followed by a nap in the cab outside.
The typical diet of a British cabbie will be a surprise to no one, although it might be a shock to the body that abides by it: variations on the fry-up theme, chips galore, spag bol and prodigious quantities of tea. (The New Oak, which opened this summer, currently serves a selection of cold dishes while it waits for its hot food licence to be approved.)
What makes the New Oak a completely unique eating experience, however, are the particular social codes and pockets of language its diners uphold.
First and foremost of the house rules: No “miniscab” drivers are allowed to eat on the premises.
“I’m open to minicabs for takeaway. I’d have uproar if they were sitting down,” explained John Anderson, the cabbie turned “guv’nor” of the establishment. “I accept chauffeurs. They’re different, but unfortunately I have to draw a line when it comes to minicabs. There’s a war going on. And there’s been a war since 1954, when they came out.”
Mr Anderson (dark suit, mobile phone headset, gold rings on seven of his fingers) has been feeding his fellow drivers for 30 years.
His first business was one of the tiny cabman’s shelters, or “green huts”, which were established by the Earl of Shaftesbury in 1875.
He believes cabbies’ eating habits are the same as they ever were. But others say tastes are changing with the times.
“You have your old fat boy who eats a full fry-up every day, and then you get the younger guys that will eat a Pret salad and go to the gym,” says Dominic Shannon, a former boxer and cabbie of 14 years.
“There’s stuff in the trade papers now advertising fitness classes and Krav Maga for cabbies. You’re seeing it on the ranks – big blokes getting out of their cabs and stretching.”
Apart from the unanimous hatred of minicabs, other codes of the black cab driver are disputed.
Seniority (how many years you’ve been driving a Hackney carriage) is widely respected, though some exploit it to jump the queues at the “feeding troughs” (taxi ranks) or to “broom off” (pass on) undesirable fares (drunks, “wrong ’uns”, people that live in south London).
Drivers who have recently passed The Knowledge – “butterboys”, as they are called, because they are “but a boy” – are sometimes called upon to buy teas for everyone in the café.
Places like the New Oak do not last long. Its predecessor – a similar cabin set-up behind King’s Cross – closed down this summer to make way for redevelopment. Before that it was the Royal Oak Café, which shut because of the Crossrail project.
Property developers have already submitted plans for the site on which the New Oak now stands.
Within four years, it will be gone.
But as long as there are black cabs in London there will always be somewhere like it: a hidden-away place of robust food and tribal values, where “minicabs” and “butterboys” fear to tread.
Text and picture: Simon Wroe
The readership of all the major English newspapers, explained by Roger Bennett of The New York Times:
The Daily Telegraph
Older conservatives who mourn the loss of the empire by placing cricket before family. Last truly happy on D-Day.
The Guardian (or The Observer on Sundays)
Bikram-practicing middle-class liberals preoccupied with ending all wars and rolling their own cigarettes.
The Times of London
Definitely a member of the political and corporate elite; fancies him-or herself as tolerant; has zero middle-class friends.
Slightly depressed and overeducated underachievers who are really worried about the environment.
The Daily Mail
Middle-class housewives who live in fear of rising house prices, Elton John and Gypsies. Loves: Lady Thatcher, talented-pet stories and George Clooney.
The Daily Express
Intolerant, easily outraged and yet to recover from Lady Diana’s death. Constant fear of terrorist attack is blunted by gin and reality TV.
The Daily Mirror
A really great night out starts with binge drinking at the greyhound track.
Beloved by working-class conservatives eager to read a tabloid that goes for the jugular whether the topic is politics, soccer or topless women.
New project launched to archive the voices and memories of London’s bastion of free speech, Speakers’ Corner (via the Camden New Journal).
Exhibit A: Abandoned teddy bear, Primrose Hill
Exhibit B: Abandoned teddy bear, Brixton
Alright, so Barack Obama doesn’t live in Ilford. But the President of the United States is the son of a Luo, a Kenyan tribe from the Kalahari desert who are the subject of this wonderful 20 minute documentary by oral history company On The Record. Though it doesn’t mention it specifically in the film, many Luo now live in Ilford and Stratford, on the outskirts of London, where these interviews were conducted.
More info: http://on-the-record.org.uk