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Making of Mortdecai - The Curious Life of Kyril Bonfiglioli
On February 6th, 2015, the world will watch Johnny Depp hamming it up in his latest role - a moustachioed art dealer, bon viveur, portly scholar, rogue and occasional criminal, Charlie Strafford Van Cleef Mortdecai.
Mortdecai features in a series of humorous crime novels. These were written in the seventies by another moustachioed art dealer, bon viveur, portly scholar and a rogue ( we are not sure about a criminal past). Born Cyril Emmanuel George Bonfiglioli ( yes, that is his real name) he sadly will not be around to enjoy the success and adulation that he would have so much adored.
While the novels enjoyed a modicum of interest and eventually a cult following, they were not world shattering best sellers. Poor Kyril Bonfiglioli, a gifted dilletante though he may be, died far too prematurely of alcohol and penury.
Perhaps you will join me in exploring the life of the creator and his creation, for it is a tale worth telling. Beneath the facade of boisterous debauchery and a roguish twinkle, lies a sad story of a restless creative spirit whose undoing came from copious consumption of spirits.
And in doing so, you may care to pick up his books. They truly are guilty delights worth discovering.
'I am Charlie Mortdecai...I am in the prime of my life, if that tells you anything, of barely average height, of sadly over-average weight, and am possessed with the intriguing remains of rather flashy good looks. Sometimes, in subdued light, and my tummy tucked in, I could almost fancy me myself.'— Kyril Bonfiglioli, Don't Point that thing at me
The Hon. Charlie Mortdecai arrived with his sleazy charm, snobbery, tips on fine living and a quick turn of the phrase back in 1973 in the tastefully titled 'Don't Point that thing at me'. A riproaring roller coaster of minor crime, convoluted plot, several cliff hangers and sensational humour.
A huge fan of PG Wodehouse, Kyril Bonfiglioli modelled his creations Charlie Mortdecai and his manservant Jock Strapp ( yes) on a skewed version of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves. What make the books highly readable are Kyril's outlandish sense of humour and a talent for one ( if not two or three) liners. You will giggle mercilessly one minute and then perhaps grimace at another gag in the next.
Kyril Bonfiglioli wrote three Charlie Mortdecai novels. The first two really are cracking good reads - Don't point that thing at me ( 1973) and 'After you with the pistol' ( 1976) and a third of uneven quality - 'Something nasty in the Woodshed' (1979) He also wrote a clever linked historical novel featuring one of Mortdecai's ancestors - 'All the tea in China' ( 1978) .
He left an unfinished fifth novel featuring Charlie Mortdecai called 'The Great Mortdecai Moustache Mystery' at the time of his untimely death in 1985. The latter was completed by author and literary mimic Craig Brown and published in 1996.
What is fascinating is how closely his literary creation mirrored Kyril's own persona.
A life of a restless, creative spirit who, in his own admission, was 'abstemious in all things except drink, food, tobacco and talking'.
The Curious Mr Kyril Bonfiglioli
Cyril Emmanuel George Bonfiglioli was born in Eastbourne in 1928. His father Emmanuel Bonfiglioli was of Italo-Slovene ancestry. His mother Dorothy ( née Pallett) was English.
Cyril's father was an antiquarian bookseller. His childhood growing up among books on indiscriminate subjects must have much to do with his curiosity, breadth of knowledge and creativity. It is also clear he was an auto-didact - he would assimilate and deploy prodigious knowledge on all manner of subjects - art, heraldry, fencing, shooting, language, drinking, and sex.
For reasons known only to himself, he changed the spelling of his first name to Kyril in his later life.
World War II
The second world war was raging in 1943. Frequent German air raids were common in the South of England and required people to run to the nearest air raid shelter. In 1943, at the age of 14, carefree Kyril was out playing in the streets when the air raid alarm went off. His mum and his younger brother, were together in what they thought was the safety of an air raid shelter.
Sadly, the shelter suffered a direct hit and Bonfiglioli's mother and his eight year old brother were killed. One wonders what impact this may have had on young Kyril, who had to break the news of this tragedy to his Father. In his characteristic gallows humour, Kyril has been known to quote ' The honest perish while the mischievous survive'.
Kyril enlisted into the army and served in West Africa. A personal memoir in the form of a blog from a friend (Don Wells) talks of his time as an Education sergeant in Aberdeen. There are many amusing anecdotes contained within. Kyril's book jacket claims aren't just his creative inventions - He was indeed a brilliant fencer and was the inter-regimental sabre champion. He was also a crack shot who could shoot a sixpence out of someone's hands. His ex-wife's biography and his friend's recollections confirm that Kyril had prodigious knife-throwing talents among other things.
The more one reads about his life the more we realise how much of his own colourful life helped him shape his literary offspring.
Talent and Adversity
Kyril's own dandyish personality and an uncanny collection of skills seem to co-exist with his misfortunes. He lost his first wife after the birth of their second child. As a twenty seven year old widower with two children, Kyril enrolled into Balliol College, Oxford, to study English. Without a long list prior academic achievements, Kyril was accepted on the strength of his thesis on - of all things - Heraldry.
Oxford would be his home for well over a decade and a half. His larger than life persona, autodidact brain, fondness for pranks, have left such an impression on many friends and acquaintances at Oxford. Even today there are fond memories and amusing anecdotes that float around Oxford of people's experiences with Kyril. I am sure many more will surface after the release of the film.
Kyril met his second wife Margaret at Oxford. After completing his degree, he went to work at the Ashmolean museum as an assistant to an art historian. His fondness for art and amazing visual memory served him well in this role.
Kyril started dealing with art while working for the Ashmolean and in 1960 set up his own company, Bonfiglioli Limited. His wife Margaret recalls their large old Victorian home filled with extraordinary clutter of all manner of things. Paintings, antique bottles, chinaware, stuffed birds and whatever else Kyril felt were a good bargain.
Kyril's knack to spot a good deal peaked when he picked up a Tintoretto at a country house auction for 40 pounds. No one is clear what brought an end to his fortune - for by mid -sixties, Kyril's second marriage was approaching it's end.
His wife recalls his home was not only filled with antique clutter but also of many lodgers ( to bring in some extra income) but Kyril's legendary parties where he shall hold court like a decadent Roman emperor, filling everyone with fine spirits and filthy anecdotes. Perhaps it was too much for a family home to take such rabble rousing. For Kyril was fond of alcohol.
Kyril had edited a couple of SF magazines while his art dealership was flourishing. His wife recalls him showing a few pages of his first novel to her during the late sixties. By the end of his second marriage, Kyril moved in with a former secretary, Judith Todd, and had moved to the Lancashire village of Silverdale.
His art dealership pretty much finished by this time and Kyril's steady decline into financial depression seemed to spark his creative juices. His first novel arrived in 1973 by which time he had left Judith and began living in Ireland and eventually in Jersey. He seemed to have made little money during this time and lived largely on the back of the little income he must have got from his writing. He was also supported by many friends but it didn't stop the decline into depression and copious drinking.
His uneven output of further novels followed in the remaining years. Kyril's lost his battle with alcohol in 1985 when he eventually succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver. While the plots are deplorable and the characters shallow, Kyril's ability to call forth Greek literature, french poetry, a prodigious knowledge of guns, fashion, gourmet food tips and expansive erudition about all things alcohol make the books into mindless decadent pleasures.
His wit and restless creative mind must have co-existed with loneliness and inability to settle into a happy family life.
As with many others before him, Kyril's creative output will enjoy much attention long after his departure. He will have something witty and scathing to say about the irony, God rest his soul.
'You must have noticed from time to time, self-indulgent reader, that brandy, unless you positively stupefy yourself with it, tends to drive sleep away, rather than induce it... It is otherwise with Scotch whisky; a benign liquid. All credit, I say, to the man who first invented it, be his skin of whatever hue. Indeed my only quarrel with him is that sixteen ozs of his brainchild, taken orally per diem for ten years or so, lessens one's zest for the primal act.'— Kyril Bonfiglioli, 'Dont point that thing at me'
Don't Point that thing at me
Channelling the spirit of PG Wodehouse, Kyril concocts a tale full of anarchic antics featuring the degenerate aristocrat and art dealer Charlie Mortdecai and his thuggish man servant with few active brain cells, Jock ( I must encourage Jock to take up Squash. He will make an excellent wall.)
A stolen Goya is in the possession of our decadent hero. Mortdecai's former schoolmate and constant thorn on the side Superintendent Martland is just one of the many who are after the painting. Things soon heat up ( as they do) with several dead bodies, a diplomatic passport, a trip to the States, a Kraut villain and his eager wife.
But to be honest the story plays second fiddle to Mortdecai's incessant ramble as he stops between drinks to survey the world with his alcohol glazed eyes and to put forth mildly amusing commentaries.
'Jock' I said crisply, 'We're going to defenestrate Mr Martland'
Jock's eyes lit up. 'I'll get my razor blade, Mr Charlie'
'No no Jock, wrong word. I mean we're going to push him out of the window'— Kyril Bonfiglioli, 'Don't point that thing at me'
After you with a Pistol
The very, very rich Johanna Krampf ( her from the previous novel) who has a thing for men of Charlie's build and age, wants to marry Mortdecai. She also wants him to be involved in the assassination of a monarch and a touch of drug smuggling. Not to mention also a survival training camp for feminist spies.
The powers to be want Charlie Mortdecai to 'get in there, and win' which he attempts to do ( figuratively and literally) with the help of a dozen oysters. Back with his old friends and acquaintances, Charlie's second adventure proves as much as chaotic as the first.
Another riproaring adventure full of cliffhangers and clipped one-liners, Bonfiglioli's work seems to amuse him a lot more than others, but is well worth a pleasant afternoon in the garden, with a tall Gin and tonic and some savoury cucumber sandwiches. Tell your own personal Jock to fetch 'em, dear reader.
' Wonderfully selfless little chaps, oysters, I always think; they let you swallow them alive without a murmur of protest and then, instead of wreaking revenge like the surly radish,they issue this splendid aphrodisiac dividend. What beautiful lives they must lead, for sure.'— Kyril Bonfiglioli, 'After you with the pistol'
Something Nasty in the Woodshed
Minor aristocrat and erstwhile art dealer Charlie Mortdecai, decamps to the island of Jersey with his delectable wife Johanna and thuggish manservant Jock Strapp. Hoping to hide away and enjoy the serenity ( 'among tax dodgers and inbred natives'), Mortdecai is dragged into a spot of sleuthing when a friend's wife is attacked by what seems to be a cult of Satanic devotees.
Largely misogynistic and rather careless in its treatment of feminine assault, Bonfig's third novel descends into a miasma of confusing plot lines and meanders through the Channel island setting with barely concealed contempt for all life that is seemingly normal. Kyril must have been fairly well oiled during the writing of this novel and even his characteristic bon homie and skewed humour is fairly patchy in this output.
'Nothing else happened that day except the exquisite curry, throughout which I played records of Wagner: he goes beautifully with curry, the only use I ever found for him.'— Kyril Bonfiglioli, 'Something nasty in the woodshed'
'Professor Weiss's face was inhabited by a moustache of second category, except that no legion, not even the Ulpia Victrix itself, could have thundered through it without the use of machetes, pangas and other jungle clearing implements that I forget... it whiffled benignly as if to say ( to my amateur orchidarium) 'persevere young feller-me-lad''
- Kyril Bonfiglioli ( with Craig Brown) The Great Mortdecai moustache mystery'
The Great Mortdecai Moustache Mystery
Left as an unfinished manuscript by Kyril at the time of his demise and later completed by Craig Brown, the Mortdecai moustache mystery involves Charlie's trip to Oxford where the seemingly accidental demise of a Don is more than what it seems.
Charlie turns sleuth back at his old haunts to find out who or what killed Brownwen. A siting of twin thugs of uncertain origin, a certain order of books revealed by the fine patina of dust that glows in the rays of the setting sun, Greek notations in a lexicon, all point to the eventual solution through much drinking and moustache twirling.
It is hard to say how much of a manuscript Kyril left, but Craig Brown does a splendid job of aping the Bonfiglioli style full of bon mots and barking mad schemes. The Oxford settign gives Kyril an opportunity to write about familiar grounds and no doubt the years he spent at Balliol helped build the background to this novel. A fair read for the Mortdecai completist.
'Professor Weiss's face was inhabited by a moustache of second category, except that no legion, not even the Ulpia Victrix itself, could have thundered through it without the use of machetes, pangas and other jungle clearing implements that I forget... it whiffled benignly as if to say ( to my amateur orchidarium) 'persevere young feller-me-lad''— Kyril Bonfiglioli ( with Craig Brown) 'The Great Mortdecai moustache mystery'
All the Tea in China
'Which tells how Carolus Mortdecai Van Cleef set out to seek his fortune in London Town; on the high seas, in India, the treaty ports of China and even in darkest Africa; and how he found it, predictably, in a place which has no longitude and precious little latitude' reads the subtitle of All the tea in China.
One can only marvel at Kyril's high concept naval tale of treachery and lechery, featuring the adventures of Carolus Mortdecai, Charlie Mortdecai's dutch ancestor. Leaving Holland after a predictable act of lechery with buckshot in his breeches, young Carolus hides out in the teeming tea shops of London. Finding a place in an opium clipper setting sail for China and armed only with his rapier and capacity for idiocy, Carolus Mortdecai does what his lineage does best. Drink, womanise and seek good fortune among a sea of villainy.