Gill Hedleyback

Curator & Contemporary Art Consultant

The Towers of Ilium

Gill Hedley speaking at Site Gallery, Sheffield, in 2006

The Towers of Ilium

Text to accompany the showing of her film. Follow this link to a more extended version with further text, synopsis and cast list (PDF).

image of Ilium burning from the film
image of Ilium burning from the film

Origin

Ilium is another name for Troy, the site of the legendary Trojan war. It is a real place, in the Dardanelles, in what is now known as Turkey, very close to the site of another tragic campaign, Gallipoli, which took place during the First World War. The Iliad, Homer's story of Troy, has become one of the greatest tales in western literature. Written about 750 BC, it tells in powerful detail about the conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans and the deaths of many warriors, but above all that of Hector at the hands of Achilles. Lynn MacRitchie, visiting the area, was moved by the proximity of these two sites, their battles fought over a millennium of years apart, to make a film. The result, the Towers of Ilium, suggests that war is always present and often close to home.


Location

Seeking a location close to London which in some way resembled the Gallipoli Peninsula, the artist was directed to Coalhouse Fort Park, East Tilbury, Thurrock, a site on the Thames Estuary long associated with military history. Known as a defensive site on the river since the 15th century, the current fort was completed in 1874. The radar tower was built during World War Two. To disguise its true function, its structure mimics that of a water tower.


Concept

Local stories were combined with passages from the Iliad to form the core of the film. The radar tower became the pattern for a model tower which is carried in procession by a group of warriors, a re-imagining of the Tilbury Trojans, a notorious skinhead gang formed in Tilbury in the late 1960s. On a specially prepared site, they take part in a series of stylised fights, a reference to the funeral games with which both the Trojans and the Greeks honoured their dead warriors. The character of Achilles appears, commenting on the futility of such combat, which can have only one outcome - death. A second, large-scale model tower is burned, the spectacular blaze intended to suggest that the real radar tower has been destroyed, the destiny Achilles predicts for all such structures and the societies which rely on them. Is it inevitable that the young, present-day boy who appears at the beginning and at the very end of the film must also be destined to experience such conflict?


Production notes

From September 2012, local volunteers worked with a team of arts professionals to realise the project. Movement and costume workshops were held throughout February and March and the film was shot on location in Coalhouse Fort Park over three days in April 2013.

The procession movement sequences were devised in workshops with the volunteer performers led by Charlie Morgan and held at The Beehive in Grays. The volunteers were joined by students from the East 15 Acting School in Southend, who play the parts of the Trojan warriors. The fighting sequences are based on wrestling, boxing and the ancient martial art of pankration, all of which formed part of the funeral games held for warriors which became the origin of the Olympic Games. Pankration is still practised in Greece.

The costumes were designed by Lesley Ford and made by a team of volunteers working under her direction at the Royal Opera House Production Park in Purfleet. The designs reference skinhead clothing and the logo of Trojan Records, which the Tilbury Trojans skinhead gang adopted as their own symbol. Volunteers appliqued the Trojan-style helmet motifs on to the T-shirts worn in the procession and stencilled the motif on to the T-shirts of the fighters.

The model towers were designed and made by Steve Taylor of Four Fish Designs in his workshop in Whitstable. A small model was made to represent an iconic impression of the radar tower in the park. A much larger model was made as an exact detailed replica of the real radar tower. The pyro-rigging for the burning of the large model tower was designed and carried out by John Kennett of brightFX.

Much of the park is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and Ray Reeves, the park ranger, had to identify a place where the grass could be cut down to hold the fights and the large model tower could be built and burned. The fire sequence could only be filmed during April in order not to disturb the birds which migrate to the park every winter. Different bird songs can be identified on the soundtrack, thanks to the skill of sound recordist Len Usselman. Voles and bees are also protected on the site, and the buzzing of a bee forms a motif on the sound track for the scenes with the young boy.

A very different sound can be heard in the last two scenes with Achilles - gunfire, from a firing range on the other side of the estuary. The first shots rang out just as Mark Bell, the actor who plays Achilles, began to speak, providing an unexpected but highly appropriate accompaniment to Achilles' final words.

Richard Carlton, director of photography, and his camera team took great care to capture the special visual quality of the location - the high skies filled with light reflected from the river contrasting with the stark, military buildings scattered across the landscape. The camera used was an ARRI ALEXA fitted with a classic Cooke zoom lens, all supplied by Feral Equipment in London.

The music was composed by Charlie Skelton and Mark Elliott and refers both to the music of Homer's time and to the skinheads' favourite music, ska, brought to England from Jamaica by the Trojan record label, whose name the Tilbury Trojans took for themselves. When Homer first recited the Iliad he is likely to have been accompanied by the music of a lyre, which was certainly played in later centuries when recitations of the Iliad had become the evening entertainment at the Olympic Games in Athens. For the soundtrack, Charlie Skelton researched, designed, built and then played his own version of a lyre - perhaps the first to be heard since ancient times!

The dialogue spoken by Achilles was adapted from the Iliad and the voiceover to the fight sequences is based on an archive interview with a young skinhead.

Local liaison was by Jules Easlea, who organised everything to do with the performers, both volunteers and professionals, including finding rehearsal premises and the headquarters for the procession shoot, St Catherine’s Church, East Tilbury, used by kind permission of Canon Robinson. Jules also co-ordinated the press and publicity for the project.

Thurrock Council gave generous support to the project in kind, including the use of the Thameside Theatre for workshop rehearsals and the screening facilities for the premiere.