Beyond sad to hear about the disappearance of Julian Sands, who is still lost at time of writing, having not returned from a snowy hike in Los Angeles. I was only chatting to him three months ago, at a party at 50 Albemarle Street, original home of Byron’s publisher, John Murray. Sands is held dear by adherents of the Romantic movement, having played Shelley in Ken Russell’s barnstorming film ‘Gothic’, a fabulously overwrought melodrama about the events in the Villa Diodati in 1816. You’ve got to love a Shelley…
In 1987 I was working at a women’s magazine in a very lowly capacity, hoping to break into journalism. There was a magazine screening of the film in a huge cinema in Leicester Square. The next day I was forced to endure in silence as the feature writers poured scorn on the film, having utterly failed to see the humour in the horror and the solid research under the campery. Gabriel Byrne as a vampiric Byron! The then-unknown Timothy Spall as a miscast but highly entertaining Polidori; the beautiful and tragic Natasha Richardson as a lightly Scottish-accented Mary Shelley (a little nod to those in the know). And Julian Sands, butt-naked in a thunderstorm, evoking Shelley’s enthusiasm for electrical energy, as featured of course in ‘Frankenstein’.
At the John Murray party I approached Julian Sands to say how much I had loved ‘Gothic’. He very charmingly played down having any expertise in the poetry of Shelley, but invited me to a reading he was doing the following Monday at Keats House in Hampstead: ‘I’ll make sure you’re on the guest list.’ One good thing about getting older is that you become less impressionable, while remaining impressed. In the early Nineties I once glimpsed Julian scanning the departure boards at Charing Cross Station. If he’d spoken to me then I might have fainted! As it was I enjoyed chatting to this amiable, handsome and very modest person.
I didn’t take him up on the guest list invitation but bought a ticket to the event, where he read Shelley’s verse with enormous gusto and mostly from memory (with some amusing and well-covered blips and elisions). There are those who prefer a quieter, less mannered delivery but I found it terrifically energised and exciting. And what a wonderful voice!
I didn’t go up to say anything afterwards, considering that I’d had my opportunity and there were lots of others there who wanted to speak to him. Instead I chatted to a quartet of jovial gentlemen who had been at school with Julian, and were still in touch. They remembered him as having been very good at rugby, and looking over at where he was animatedly chatting while signing copies of the book he’d read from, you could still see the rugby player in his robust physique. Incidentally, I do now regret not getting him to sign mine! (The Duncan Wu-edited Essential Poems of Keats and Shelley, for which he wrote the preface.)
A few days ago in an email to another member of what you might call the ‘Romantic community’ I said I hoped Shelleyan vibes were keeping him alive. As soon as I sent it, I considered that was the last thing that Shelleyan vibes would do. The poet was lost at sea for ten days before being washed up and found; his avatar has now been missing for longer than that. If this truly is goodbye – thank you for everything, Julian. You were wonderful.