Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Tall, Dark and Handsome!

In the summer of 1972 I sat down to watch a children's TV programme called Desert Crusader ...and fell desperately in love. His name was Thibaud (pronounced Tee-bow). He was le Chevalier Blanche, the white knight, a half-French, half-Arab crusader knight adventuring around the Holy Land during the reign of King Fulke 1131-1143. As his name suggests, he was garbed in white robes, apart from his black sword belt, and was the epitome of the chivalrous warrior. I can remember being glued to each episode and not wanting to blink lest I miss a microsecond of my hero's performance. You have to realise that there were no video recorders or DVD's back then - nothing to record these episodes to rewatch. They had to be treasured in the memory.
Desert Crusader was a French made programme, its home-grown title being Thibaud ou les Croisades. It was dubbed for an English audience which made for interesting lip sync! Around the same time programmes of a similar format were popular in the UK. Belle, Sebastian and the Horses for example, or The Flashing Blade - which had a very catchy theme tune. See here for example http://tinyurl.com/6o9fax
Desert Crusader's theme music and opening titles can be accessed here http://tinyurl.com/62xhpe
You would not believe how much my heart used to pitter-pat at that intro once a week as I awaited my date with Thibaud! I had always told myself stories verbally but I never wrote anything down until I was 14. My first effort at a novel was a Tudor tale inspired by watching Keith Michelle in the 6 Wives of Henry VII, but I'd not got very far into it and had become bored with the storyline.
Now, a year later, in love with Thibaud (as portrayed by actor Andre Laurence) inspired by the programme as a whole, I wrote my first full length novel and actually thought that I'd love to become a writer for a career. My hero was loosely based on Thibaud - I suppose these days it would be called fan fiction but there was no name for it then. Although it started as 'fan-ficition' it quickly developed a life of its own and departed from the beaten track of the TV series, broadening out into a whole new landscape.
I wanted my writing to feel as real as possible, so I had to knuckle down and do the research. This involved hauling home from the library various tomes on the Middle East, the crusades, medieval weapons and culture, geography, horsemanship, food and drink. You name it, I set about reading far more diligently to feed my hobby/project than I would ever have dreamed of doing where my schoolwork was concerned!
My long-suffering mother despaired as instead of asking for clothes and makeup for Christmas and birthday presents as per a 'normal' teenage girl, I'd ask for books such as Runciman's History of the Crusades vols I and II, or the Oxford History of England. By the time I'd finished my first 500 page novel I was hooked. Yes, this was what I was meant to do. I wanted to write historial adventure fiction for a living. Of course in the real world it was a case of 'dream on' and those dreams in question, first given a solid framework and focus when I was fifteen, didn't materialise until I was 32 when I finally reached the slush pile of literary agent Carole Blake with my 8th novel The Wild Hunt. Carole took me on and seventeen years after first setting eyes on Thibaud, I achieved my goal. It is probably no coincidence that Guyon, the hero of The Wild Hunt, looks very much like Thibaud in my imagination!

I thought I had lost Thibaud and Desert Crusader forever. When I mentioned the programme at talks no one seemed to remember it, and dubbed programmes had fallen out of fashion. It was never likely to be repeated. But then a man called Philip McDonnell wrote to me saying that he remembered it well and it had triggered his own love of history. He had tracked it down and had discovered that all of the episodes were available from Amazon France. I am very grateful to him because it has meant, more than 30 years down the line, I have been able to obtain the full set and once again look upon the face of the character who began it all for me.
Has the programme stood the test of time? Well....yes and no. The acting has more ham than the deli counter at Waitrose's. The fight scenes are hysterical, the costumes are straight out of Men in Tights. Run it on Fast Forward and it looks like an episode from Benny Hill. However, Thibaud, I am happy to report is still absolutely gorgeous (freshly washed blow-dried hair notwithstanding). Amid all the ham and slapstick, serious themes are treated thoughtfully and actually with a touch that is far more subtle and in keeping with the period than something like Kingdom of Heaven. The interraction between Christians and Muslims is one of people rather than idealogies. There are good and bad Christians in the story lines and good and bad Muslims - and their religeon doesn't have anything to do with whether they are goodies or baddies. There are distinctions made between the different Muslim and Crusader factions. The Tuaregs and the Bedouins and the Egyptians all wear different garments and have cultural differences. Thibaud, born of a European father and Turkish mother, straddles the lines between the cultures and thus is a good observer of both sides and able to move between the two. There is a very amusing episode with a red-haired Scotsman (wearing a kilt!!) who speaks with an accent the French obviously thought of as British. I was also surprised at how brilliant the horsemanship is in this series. There is a lot of riding about in the episodes, usually at a rapid trot or full on canter. Thibaud (Andre Laurence) is absolutely at home leaping on and off his mount, performing tricks such as leaping from one to another at full gallop, and just by his very body language, showing how much at ease he is around horses. This too helps to balance the authenticity of some of the less credible material and certainly enabled me to suspend my disbelief. For certain a knight would be able to ride as if it were second nature to him. It's interesting to hear the actors speaking in rapid French. I am sure that the Norman French of the period didn't sound exactly like this, but it is a step closer to the original than full on English, so although I don't understand all that is said, it helps my imagination to soar.

I am so glad to have found Thibaud again. I feel as if a piece of my past has been restored to complete the circle. I leave you with a particular close up. No wonder I was head over heels from the start. One look into these and I never stood a chance - thank goodness!

In the Interim

While I'm preparing a new main post, (concerning the tall, dark, handsome knight who inspired me begin writing historical fiction in the first place when I was all of fifteen) I'm dropping by to say that the HNS Conference went very well indeed and I'll be posting a transcript of the Beyond The Looking Glass session in a future blog not too far down the line I hope. I am also hoping to write a piece about Cartmel Priory which William Marshal founded on his return from the Holy Land. I've got the will and the information. Now all I need is the time!

Folks in the London area over the next couple of months might be interested to know that the Temple Church has an Effigies exhibition. Plaster casts of the Marshal effigies have been borrowed from the Victoria and Albert Museum. These were made in the 19thC before the incendiary bomb of WWII made a mess of William Marshal I's effigies. Now's a chance to see him with a nose! There are various sketches and documents from the archive displayed on the walls too.
If you are thinking about visiting the Temple Church to pay your respects, now might be a good opportunity. Url to more information here: http://www.temple2008.org/pgeEffigies.html