My latest novel The Fountain in the Forest is a detective story set in contemporary London, and in the South of France during the mid-1980s, as well as at the Battle of the Beanfield at Stonehenge in 1985. The story begins in the present day with Detective Sergeant Rex King of the Homicide and Serious Crime Command at Holborn Police Station hurrying to a central London crime scene. A brutally murdered man has been found backstage in the vast scene-painting workshop known as ‘the paint frame’, backstage at the Royal Palace Theatre in Covent Garden.
My theatre is entirely fictional, its name a crude translation of Théâtre du Palais-Royal after several Parisian theatres so called, and it’s located roughly on the site of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, but the paint frame is real. It is the studio of a friend of mine, and I visited while I was doing a residency in the French Department at King’s College London, and consequently spending a lot of time in Holborn. When I first saw the paint frame I couldn’t believe that such a space could still exist in the West End. Apparently there used to be several such scene-painting workshops in London, all of them working pell-mell to produce cloths for dozens of productions per year, but they are fast disappearing, falling prey to changes in technology (the increasing use of print and projection in place of hand-painting) and to urban regeneration. Another paint frame, the historic Harkers Studio in Walworth, South London, is currently earmarked for closure, following the local authority’s granting of planning permission for redevelopment of the site as luxury flats.
The paint frame at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane is where theatrical backdrops and gauzes have been painted since at least the nineteenth century. The fabric is stretched across huge, wooden frames, each of which can be raised and lowered at will thanks to a complex system of pulleys and counterweights. The frames themselves are like great lumbering wooden guillotines or scaffolds, and they weigh a ton. As artists’ studios go, this one is also alarmingly vertiginous, since each frame is suspended above a great drop that is almost as deep as the gantried and glazed ceiling far above is high.
Once I’d seen this cathedral-like studio, such a rare space and so redolent of the history of Covent Garden and London’s Theatre Land, and designed for nothing less than the production of illusions, I just couldn’t forget it. I knew it was my crime scene, and once that was in place I began writing The Fountain in the Forest.
The Fountain in the Forest by Tony White is published by Faber & Faber in January 2018, (£14.99)