Madness and Marat Sade

Crazy Times in Cambridge – Part Three

I’ve posted two blogs already about ‘Crazy Times in Cambridge’, but this third will deal with some seriously mad enactments, rather than just student exuberance and defiance.

In the early spring of 1969, a bunch of assorted students, friends and townies began to rehearse for a production of Marat Sade in Cambridge . Or, to give it its full title, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, written by Peter Weiss. It’s a play within a play, set in 1808, and featuring the inmates of a French lunatic asylum fifteen years after the French Revolution.

I’m proud to say that I was one of the insane band. We gave our all to the madness and chaos. Bruce Birchall, our alternative-style theatre director extraordinaire, strode around in rehearsals, thwacking his tall boots with a whip, in a suitably de Sade manner.  It was a stirring, primeval experience, which took up a disproportionate amount of both our study and leisure time, but engaged us completely. When we performed at Peterhouse College, one friend in the audience reported, ‘At first I was just looking at students acting as lunatics. But then you really did become lunatics.’ Praise indeed.

The photos below are taken from the sheets of contact photos for the production, which I’ve managed to keep hold of all these years.

Bruce Birchall, director, top left in shirt, the herald John Barker with a feathered cap, Julian Fellowes, in charge of the lunatic asylum, bottom left. And Jo Morgan, as Marat himself, in the bath, bottom row.

One of the poignant aspects of looking at these photos now is to ruminate on what became of those who took part. I have followed some over the years, and caught up with others more recently, thanks to the ease of Internet searching. Here are some of our varied destinies: human rights lawyer, initiated as shaman in Siberia, financial journalist, expelled from Cambridge for drug dealing, local radio commentator, imprisoned as member of the Angry Brigade, advertising executive, writer, died young of natural causes, computer scientist. A mixed bag.

Isabelle Feder, whose recollections are posted below, featured in this photo which was made into a giant-sized poster to advertise the play, and placed prominently in the window of Bowes & Bowes bookshop.

However, while doing the original research for this blog researching for this blog, in 2012, I was sad to discover that Bruce Birchall had died the previous year before in 2011. But a conversation about Bruce’s demise was to be found here.

As David Robertson remarks there (another of our troupe at the time): He was an ‘interesting’ indeed extraordinary character; some would say ‘colourful’; others, ‘impossible to manage’. He was both generous with his time, and relentless with his views. In the time I knew him, he would pick an argument in an empty room. Yet beneath a personal presentation that owed no debts to genteel bourgeois conformity, or even hygiene, lay a sharp mind, albeit one distorted, some would feel, by an intimidating monomania.

I’m afraid the ‘poor personal hygiene’ comment really was true! You didn’t get too close. As Margaret, then the flatmate of Gill, David’s future wife, also confirms: We used to hide the hairbrush when he came round as he had chronic headlice and would pick up the brush, stand in front of the mirror and brush his nitty knotty locks. He would look for it, and we would have to say ‘Oh where can the hairbrush have got to?’  

Gill, whose hairbrush was abused, seen here as an inmate of the asylum playing Charlotte Corday, the peasant girl who (in real life) hd murdered Jean-Paul Marat in his bath. I think the girl top left is probably me.

Others have written up their accounts of Bruce during his post-Cambridge years, when he headed into urban radical theatre, squats, street events and the rest. He was also a grand master at chess, and some have remembered him almost solely for that. A brief resume remains here and another memoir can be explored here.

Spot me looming in the top row, third from the left – lots of long dark hair. The hand on the shoulder in the foreground belongs to Chris, my future husband (bottom right) – notable for the marks on the knuckles, where they had been stamped on by a policeman during the Denis Healey protests! (See Crazy Times in Cambridge Part Two)

Bruce and the Heir Hunters

Bruce Birchall was also the subject of an edition of ‘Heir Hunters’, a popular television programme chasing up inheritors of unclaimed estates. (Series 7, episode 6, aired July 14 2014), announced with the description: ‘The heir on another estate tries to learn more about her deceased cousin, a chess champion and radical playwright.’

From this I learnt that his mother was from an Austrian or German family, with the name of Wasservogel (‘Waterbird’), and his father was Sydney Birchall. Bruce was an only child. The estate he left was £100,000 – no one knows how he amassed this money. He certainly never seemed to have many worldly possessions, and was living in a Housing Association flat in West London when he died.

The heirs traced were his two first cousins on his father’s side, one of whom, Hilary, spoke about her childhood recollections of Bruce on the programme. He later became the ‘black sheep of the family’, chastised for not knuckling down to a proper job. A friend of Bruce’s from boyhood, Bill Hartstone, had come to see Marat Sade and said it seemed to be full of ‘dangerous-looking lunatics’. (Excellent! Just what we intended.) He also reminisced that Bruce had once played in a chess championship wearing a bathing costume – probably for practical reasons of heat in the competition room! Everyone interviewed, including the playwright David Edgar, agreed that Bruce was very clever.

Only two photos of him were shown, from boyhood -and if I try searching on Google images, the only ones which come up are the ones that I’ve already posted from the Marat Sade production.

Bruce watching his actors, while playing the role of Asylum Supervisor

Updating scenes of madness

My first post about Marat Sade appeared in 2012, on my former blog at (my blog has since migrated to here to Cherry’s Cache, in a different and I hope enhanced format). It produced a goodly flow of responses from others who remembered the production as a stand-out event in their student years; it even led to some happy reunions, as well as a lot more reminiscing. I’ll continue here with some of these conversations.

Did I remember, asked Isabel, the beautiful blonde standing above the crowd of lunatics, that we were dressed in real shrouds? No, I did not.

Did I also know that it was Julian Fellowes, of Downton Abbey fame, who played the asylum’s director? Hah! I was vaguely aware that we were at Cambridge at the same time, and hadn’t been able to remember which one he was. Hello Julian – now Baron Fellowes of West Stafford – you were already practising the aristocratic role that would come your way later!

Julian Fellowes as M. Coulmier, with his ‘wife’ and ‘daughter’, watching the performance by the inmates of the asylum

Did I recall, asked Tim, that he had been crucified as Jesus in the production? Ah, yes…he had a splendid dark beard and long hair which made him a natural for the part.

And ‘she died young’, I was told by Margaret, pointing at the photo of the Dutch girl who had once described me as ‘very, very untidy’. As Else was some kind of anarchist, it seemed to me ridiculous then that she should notice or care about such things. Now I feel sad that she left us a long time ago. 

We were all, also according to Margaret: ‘So young! so pretty! so mad!’

In another photo, that features my own non-starring role, I can also see the hand of Chris, my future husband (bottom right), placed on the shoulder of the guy next to him. Note the black marks on its knuckles. This was the result of us joining in the student protest in March 1968, against Denis Healey – you’ll find the account in my earlier blog **** of how a policeman stomped on it

To crown this rather haunting experience of revisiting Marat Sade, I’ll add here some extracts which Isabel sent me from letters written to her mother at the time. (Included here with her kind permission.)

On 9 February 1968, she wrote:

Sunday morning dawned bright and clear and I ventured forth to audition for the part of a mad woman in Marat Sade. I went to a rehearsal on Wednesday and we had to do the most amazing things. Still it was huge fun and like the man said – “What’s the point of a revolution without general copulation?”  

On 14 March her mood was darker, but triumphant:

The production of the Marat Sade has been going like a bomb. However, it’s terribly scaring and I spent the whole of Tuesday night having the most vile nightmares. I’m very proud of the fact that a large blow-up of a mad-me is adorning the window of Bowes & Bowes – FAME at last.”

Crazy times indeed. 

See also:

Crazy Times in Cambridge Part One

Turbulante Times in Cambridge (part two of ‘Crazy Times’)

Angels in the Roof

An angel in the roof of St Peter Mancroft, Norwich (photo by Michael Rimmer)

Next time you’re in a medieval church, look up. Do you see angels? Are they gazing down upon you from the heavenly firmament, forever flying forward from the roof beams? If so, then the chances are that you’re gazing at an ‘angel roof’. Or else perhaps you are a close ally of the poet William Blake, who saw angels in many places on many occasions. Scorn not – he was a man of vision. See William Blake and the Moravians. Either way, ‘angel roofs’ are a fascinating but little investigated feature of British medieval architecture.

Angels at the Lying-in-State

When Queen Elizabeth II died in September this year, her body lay in state at Westminster Hall from Wednesday 14th to Monday 19th September. Thousands filed past her coffin, and the whole event was live-streamed on TV. Most of us have probably never viewed the interior of Westminster Hall before, and still fewer may realise that its construction back in the 14th century marked a special moment in English architecture: the creation of an ‘angel roof’. Take a look at the photo below, and you’ll see that there is a carved angel on the end of each roof beams.

Why Angels?

Why was the positioning of carved angels in a roof be so significant? You might after all expect to find them in churches and state buildings, given the importance of angels in Christian theology. But this kind of representation of angels was not a part of our architecture until the time of King Richard II. For his coronation procession in 1377, he decided that angels should be on hand to confirm his new status, which included a mechanical moving angel who bowed down and offered him a golden crown. Many angels appeared subsequently in other royal pageants and state occasions of his reign, either human players dressed as angels or further inventive mechanical versions. And then the carved ones were brought into play, when the angel roof of Westminster Hall was built in about 1395, leaving a lasting testimony to Richard’s urge for angelic recognition. Angels in general stayed in fashion too, and their evocation spread to the provinces too; in parish churches, it became common for ‘angel’ characters to appear in the Mystery Plays and other ecclesiastical ceremonies. And as beams decorated with angels began to be built in some of these regional churches, certain styles of angel became common – both the carved angels and individuals acting as angels tended to wear the same kind of ‘feather suits’!

However, despite Richard II’s endorsement of angels, an angel roof in a parish church was something of a luxury, not do-able everywhere in the country. The chances of seeing an angel roof in East Anglia are relatively high – elsewhere in the UK, they are low to zero.

But there is one here in Exeter, where I live, and rather surprisingly, it’s not in a church. Exeter city was once filled with medieval buildings, many of them blown to smithereens by wartime bombing raids, and many more demolished as a consequence of ill-judged re-development plans by the Council. The building does however stand in close proximity to the Cathedral, in the Cathedral Close, and inside Number Eight is the remarkable feature of an angel roof.  It is a hammerbeam roof, dated by dendrochronology to between 1417-1422,  with carved wooden angels stretching out from the beams. It is also, seemingly a copy in miniature of the roof at Westminster Hall; this was built by Hugh Herland, master carpenter to Richard II , and constructed as mentioned between 1393-1398.

No 8-9 The Close is the central building; the little passageway on the side leads to the entrance of the medieval hall with its angel

The Mystery of Number Eight

But how did this come about? It’s tucked away down a side alley, largely unknown to visitors and residents alike, unless they visit the ‘Helen of Troy’ boutique which presently occupies it. The building is also known as the former Law Library of the university, but this only dates from recent centuries, and tells us nothing about its origins. The mystery and provenance of this extraordinary roof has long been argued over by historians, but now some light has been shed on this by Cathedral archaeologist and historian, John Allan. I’ll reveal his conclusion a little later on!

The angel roof at no. 8 The Close, Exeter

The Angel Roofs of Britain

So what is an ‘angel roof’ when it’s at home (or in heaven)? To pursue this further, I consulted an excellent study The Angel Roofs of East Anglia: Unseen Masterpieces of the Middle Ages by Michael Rimmer. Many of the details given below are taken from this book, as I fully acknowledge.

Angel roofs date from the medieval period, a time when churches were shaped, decorated, carved and painted to represent the spiritual world. As you stood in a church service (no pews then!) you would be immersed in the Christian cosmos, and seeing representations of its stories through the statues, vivid wall paintings and ehtereal stained glass windows. Mystery Plays were also performed in the churches at appropriate times of year, bringing alive the Bible narratives, and acts of worship were felt to be within the presence of Christ and the Virgin Mary, plus at least some of the saints and – in this case – angels. There was drama, passion and beauty all around. Looking up to the roof and seeing angels there would be like getting a glimpse of heaven itself.

Angel roofs, therefore, were in keeping with the general religious experience. Once, there were probably several hundred ‘angel roofs’ in England and Wales, some on hammerbeam (short beam) roof supports, some as non-supportive elements of the roof. They were built in the years following on from that first one in Westminster Hall, until the Reformation of the mid-sixteenth century put a stop to such ‘idolatry’. One of the final angel roofs was built in about 1540,at Llanidloes church in Wales, according to Rimmer, and I would also include Cleeve Abbey in North Somerset, which dates from the same period.

The roof of the refectory, Cleeve Abbey, N. Somerset – left with a little section unfinished due to the onset of the Reformation, which denounced such idolatry

Locations of angel roofs

Around 170 angel roofs survive in Britain today, and the vast majority of them are in East Anglia. (A map from Rimmer’s book can be accessed at There is also a smaller pocket of them in the West Country, with just two in Devon, of which 8 The Close is one. (I’ve not yet been able to identify the second angel roof in Devon. Rimmer’s map seems to point to the Great Torrington area, where archaeologist John Allan singles out Orleigh Court and Weare Giffard Hall as the two most notable medieval roofs there, but, as he says, these seem to be more adorned with beasts than with angels!)

Why do these two areas of East Anglia and the West Country host the most? The answer, as with many things, lies with the resources available: primarily money, timber and skills. Building angel roofs required great expertise, plus a lot of good timber and generous amounts of money to pay for it all. There were renowned master carpenters in both these areas, the far East and far West of England, and both areas too became wealthy from the medieval wool trade. Additionally, the required timber for the roofs was best transported by water, if it wasn’t to be found in the immediate vicinity, so again these two coastal areas had the right conditions. It’s probably no coincidence that these regions also boast the best carved church bench ends in the country, a testimony therefore to the presence of master carvers, and the money to pay them.

An angel from no. 8 The Close, Exeter

What about the Reformation?

In the English Reformation of the 16th century, the new wave of Protestantism endeavoured to get rid of decoration which might be considered distracting and even idolatrous. Away with worshipping the Virgin Mary and the Saints, and all the statues and images which took attention away from purer forms of prayer! (Church music might have gone too, were it not that Elizabeth I was very fond of choral music, apparently.) But whereas it was easy enough to smash stained glass windows and break statues, it was actually very hard to take away angelic roof supports. Moreover, they were high up and thus almost inaccessible. So given that the Reformers generally wanted to keep the outward shell of a church, it would have been foolish to start knocking the roof about. On a recent trip to North Somerset, I was delighted to discover the angel roof in the refectory of Cleeve Abbey, (well worth a visit) which, as I mentioned earlier, was begun later than most, in the mid-1500s. This has been left intact, but there is a little stretch left unfinished, probably because the Reformation had just started to take hold, and the monasteries were dissolved on the orders of Henry VIII. But we need to remember that not everything happened fast in those days; in his book, Rimmer considers that the Llanidloes angel roof of 1540 may have been completed after the Reformation began simply because Wales was a long way behind in catching up with the news!

The carvers

The actual creation of the angels, as opposed to the erection of roof timbers, was carried out by master carvers rather than carpenters. These specialists were highly skilled, highly paid, and tended to be peripatetic, and sometimes even brought in from abroad. Records show that the going rate was about 15 shillings an angel, equivalent to 30 days pay for a master carver of the period. There was scope for creativity, and angels often hold other objects and emblems, such as musical instruments, symbols of Christ’s passion,or the coats of arms of benefactors. Some angel figures may even be carved as ecclesiastical role-players – examples include a chalice bearer, a celebrant or a choir master in one church.

Keeping it pure and simple

But a surprising fact, in the face of such imaginative representations, is that nearly all of the roof angels were left unpainted. This is in contrast to the medieval habit of painting the interior of churches and their contents in bright colours. It may have been just too difficult to paint them, or to keep up their maintenance. Occasionally some angels, for instance those nearest the Chancel, might be painted, or coats of arms might be picked out in colour. But the natural look was the general rule.

A further angel from no. 8 The Close, Exeter, above. Arguably, the one below from Cleeve Abbey is finer, but the overall effect of the Exeter angel roof is imposing.

Not a church!

But despite the predominance of angel roofs in churches, very few are found in other contexts, and one of these is the Exeter angel roof . Indeed, only a handful exist outside parish churches – Coventry Guildhall, as well as Westminster Halll, for instance. What was Number Eight, Cathedral Close, therefore? It is, after all within the Cathedral precincts. John Allan, Consultant Archaeologist to the Dean and Chapter of Exeter Cathedral, has come to a conclusion after many years of research, and wrote to me as follows: …. The purpose of the fine late medieval building containing the Law Library has been much discussed; it has been claimed as the chancellor’s house or as a building accommodating a notarial bureau. It was in fact simply a canonry. In other words, the house or complex of buildings inhabited by a canon, a cleric of the Cathedral.

On a tour around the Cathedral Close, John also told us something about the life of these medieval canons, which I’m paraphrasing here. Once again, quite a lot of it was to do with money! ‘In Exeter, canons had to be resident to benefit from the ‘Common Fund’(their source of a living), whereas in other areas canons without this obligation often stayed in their country residences. Although living humbly was in the basic ‘rule’ for canons, they were required to give generous hospitality, and so were expected to provide meals to all and sundry. Originally canons were required to live in humble abodes, but the argument they could muster to build something grander was, therefore, that while in residence they needed a big hall to do their duty of hospitality! Guests would regularly arrive at the door, and include choirboys, Vicars Choral, and so on.‘ So a canonry was also a kind of drop-in diner, and perhaps here the Canon concerned had a nice inheritance that he could spend on something lavish which would be admired, especially at times of feasts and gatherings. Bishops too were often judged favourably according to how much money they could spend on appropriate buildings, hospitality and city improvements.

Remains of another medieval canonry in Exeter, close to the Cathedral. The large fireplace can be seen, and there would have been another large-scale dining room to accommodate guests. (Site of St Catherine’s Almhouses)
Another dizzying view of Exeter’s angel roof

We have a building, and an angel roof, to treasure, in no. 8 Cathedral Close, Exeter. And I will be craning my neck now every time I visit a medieval church – or indeed a medieval hall! – to see if there is another roof full of angels to marvel at.

The angel roof at Westminster Hall, designed by Hugh Herland – the roof that started the trend! And has recently come into prominence, with the lying-in-state of Queen Elizabeth II.


The Angel Roofs of East Anglia: Unseen Masterpieces of the Middle Ages Michael Rimmer (The Churches Conservation Trust 2015)

Red Coat Guided Tours – I was introduced to No. 8 The Close as part of my training as a Red Coat Guide for Exeter, which whetted my curiosity to investigate further. The wide range of tours are offered free throughout the year, with themes such as ‘Medieval’, ‘Introducing Exeter’, and ‘Cathedral to Quay’. Please click on the link to see these.