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On Spies and Trees: The Creative Surreal

January 23rd, 2015

A guest post by Penny Billington. Many thanks to Tim Woolmington for the use of his images.

smiling wassail Wassail (Old Norse “ves heil”, Old English hál, literally ‘be you healthy’) refers both to the salute ‘Waes Hail’ and to the cider traditionally drunk as an integral part of wassailing, an English drinking ritual in January to ensure a good cider apple harvest the following year. “Was hail”, and the reply “drink hail”, are a drinking formula adopted widely by the indigenous population of England

Today I came home to hear that Brian Clemens had died.  Aged 64, said the radio.

Two minutes earlier I hadn’t heard of him, though I must have seen his name hundreds of times in my youth. For he was the script writer, editor and co-producer of the iconic BBC TV series ‘The Avengers’, which reinvented the spy drama and was a smash hit in England and the USA in the 1960s.

And today, near the time of the old twelth night, a bunch of us, largely Druids, went wassailing the orchard in Glastonbury Abbey.

So what connects the two?  If it seems a surreal proximity, then that is entirely the point.

For it seems to me, in post-wassail euphoria, that both the Avengers series and our singing spring from a creative attitude to life; and an unusual expression of that attitude. Both in turn come from an internal sense of a Britain that has never existed in the real world, but is of intrinsic worth to the way we live our lives; part of the spirit that informs us. For behind our reality of the grey, faceless, conforming present, most British people still hold firm to the image of themselves as eccentric. Britain is still a place that, although tiny geographically, yet has enough esoteric space to allow each person their own individual way of connecting and making decisions on the way that they engage with life.

Penny ArthurBy Clemens direction, The Avengers never left England, unlike contemporary spy dramas; and although the role model Emma Peel was a fabulous sop to swinging London, she and the suave John Steed inhabited a totally invented England. This was timeless with classic Edwardiana and Savile Row suits, and with surreal activity below the radar. A land where dark and subversive elements could emerge with impunity from behind lace curtains, within leafy suburbs and chocolate-box picture villages.

When a genius bends his mind to creating classic telly, then for an hour a week we can inhabit the world he has defined: of SMOG (scientific measurement of ghosts) mad professors, pet cats becoming miniature tigers, killer robots, mind-transference machines and invisible assailants. In Clemens capable hands, it was a world where wrong was always defeated with a stiff upper lip, a rolled umbrella and a judo throw.

When a community group run with creativity, they are making a conscious choice to create defining and significant moments of ‘otherness’ in their lives; to punctuate their everyday reality.

From this instinct, on this occasion, fifteen people shared the experience of an enchanted afternoon in the Abbey, with the sun pouring from the ‘Italianate blue’ of the Glastonbury sky, and the birds joining our songs. Irrelevant as it might seem to some people in the context of the ‘important’ things of the world, it was a choice that asserted our belief in the here and now, our relationship with locality and nature and an hour of refreshment in busy lives. And, along with our thanks to the trees and the blessing of the elements on the orchards, it was a laugh!

penny trees

Brian Clemens’ achievement was to practically singlehandedly invent niche and cult drama, described in his obituary and both ‘erotic and menacing’. Our wassailing did not go into that territory… But there was a deep two-way connection, an intimacy with the magical and brooding orchard.  Our singing procession, with an awareness of the weather, birds, the dark living roots beneath, and the sleeping trees surrounding us, evoked a change of consciousness; a depth and sense of reciprocity. And when at the end we each praised the apple, the last toast was to the awe of life; to the mystery, which can sometimes only be hinted at through the surreal. For that place is both light and dark, with the potential to be simultaneously ecstatic and menacing. It is that force that through the green fuse drives the flower, the life force that causes the apples to fruit each year. And it is the force brings us all in turn to our seasons of birth, experience and death.

So, somewhere amongst all those fruity, funny, fantastical Avengers scripts, along with Morris dancers, cheese rollers and tar barrellers, I hope that there were a small group of wassailers. Who better to provide the depth and resonance of actual bizarre and beautiful eccentric reality to the magical imagined England which is Brian Clemens legacy? I like to think that the inner vision of film writers can inspire our creative relationship with our inner and outer reality, and make the latter richer for observing the former, and acting on its impulses.

wassailingI for one would be glad to hone a life wherein, like the Avengers, ‘The surreal is perfectly balanced with deadpan wit.’ Juxtaposed exquisitely with the necessary demands of the mundane world, what a delightful country to inhabit.  And as a motto to carry into 2015, that coined by the pragmatic Mr. Clemens, ‘Arse on chair, pen on paper’ which I less elegantly interpret as ‘put the creative work into your life: and don’t just think about it; get on and express it’ seems a pretty good dictum to follow to achieve it.

‘First-rate man of mystery’: Brian Horace Clemens OBE (30.7.31 – 10.1.2015)

Holders of the mysteries of regeneration; the Glastonbury apple trees 2015.

For services to the regenerative spirit of creativity, a toast to both:


Penny Billington ***

*All quotes from Brian Clemens obituary:

Full biography:

3 Responses to “On Spies and Trees: The Creative Surreal”

  1. i grew up with the Avengers and saw it evolve from an intelligent, sort of noir, drama into a stylish and hugely entertaining slice of 60s culture. The quirky combination of nostalgia, wit and cunning plots was in its own way kind of mind expanding. I sometimes wonder if some of those idyllic locations were among the seed thoughts that sent me on this path.

  2. I grew up with the Avengers and, as a teenage girl, Emma Peel was a role model for me. Ms Peel we are needed! And John Steed’s old car always ready for picnic with champagne in the British countryside: I thought it was the English way of life!

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