Helena Bonham Carter and the Thirty-Foot Elephant

I still find the good folk of Greenwich a bit unfathomable at times. How can they, for example, work themselves up into such a right old lather about the arrival of a faux-American diner at the pierhead (whilst simultaneously demanding faux-traditional lampposts on the neighbouring piazza), and yet remain totally unfazed by the installation of a 30-foot elephant in the middle of a UNESCO World Heritage site?

I don’t know. I guess when a place is used for filming as much as the Old Royal Naval College is, you just get a bit blasé: Pirates of the Caribbean, Sherlock Holmes, Great Expectations, Kung Fu Panda III (This Time It’s Noodle Time!) – they’ve all been to the ORNC, except possibly the last. All the same, though, shouldn’t coming across a 30-foot elephant whilst on your afternoon constitutional prompt at least one raised eyebrow? Especially when you just come across bits of it, lying around on the ground, as I did last Monday.

“Well, I don’t know what it is,” observed a grey-haired gentleman to his wife, pausing briefly by the Painted Hall to consider the giant disembodied trunk lying horizontally beside a truck, “but you don’t see many of them.”

And he was right, of course – you don’t. But surely “Holy fuck, Muriel, what in the name of Beelzebub is that?!?” would have been a more appropriate response? It’s a giant disembodied trunk! Look at the bloody photo!!!

Anyway, it turns out they’re filming Les Miserables.

My first reaction, on discovering this, was that I had absolutely no idea Les Mis featured giant elephants. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realised that, despite its 25-year hegemony in the West End, I really had absolutely no idea what Les Mis was actually about at all. If pushed, I’d probably have hazarded that it involved lots of French people moping about being sad, or triste, as they say over there:

Pierre: Bof! Je suis triste…
Jean: Mais oui. Je suis triste aussi.
Pierre: Et vous, Marie, êtes vous triste?
Marie: Oui, je suis absolument désolée…

That sort of thing. But, having had my curiosity piqued by this multipartite pachyderm, I did a bit of research, and – well, I think I might just have to rewrite that little scenario:

Pierre: Bof! Je suis triste…
Jean: Mais oui. Je suis triste aussi.
Pierre: Et vous, Marie, êtes vous triste?
Marie: Non.
Pierre: Non? Pourquoi non?
Marie: Imbécile! Regardez le grand éléphant!

Because it seems there really were giant elephants in Paris in the early part of the nineteenth century. Or one giant elephant, anyway. But it was even bigger than the one they’ve built in the ORNC – it was, in fact, nearly 80 feet high.

I might as well tell you the whole story, given I’ve done the research.

OK. Ever since the storming of the Bastille in 1789, the area around the old fortress had lain pretty much derelict. And Napoleon, fearing that the site might become a focal point for renewed revolutionary fervour, decided that what was needed to put the idea out of people’s heads was some sort of imperialistic monument – a vast physical symbol, not to beat around the bush, of his military prowess. What he couldn’t decide, though, was what form it should take. He knew it had to be intimidatingly big, but beyond that… what? They already had the Arc de Triomphe, after all.

It was a conundrum. So one night, when he was alone with Joséphine, Napoleon said (and please remember I’m translating here from the French):

“Oh, ma chérie, were I to say that I wished to impress you with an enormous erection in the middle of the Place de la Bastille, then tell me – what image would first flash before your pretty blue eyes?”

Joséphine smirked, and softly murmured “Ooh-la-la!” Before she could reply properly, though, Napoleon handed her a piece of paper and a pencil and told her that a drawing would probably be best. Slightly disconcerted, she did a quick sketch, and passed it to him.

Napoleon frowned, raised his eyebrows, and then laughed.

“Of course, ma chérie, you are so clever! A giant elephant! It’s perfect!”

And he leapt to his feet and ran off to speak to the Imperial Sculptor before his beloved could tell him that he’d been holding the piece of paper upside down.

The plan was to cast the elephant in bronze made from the melted-down remains of foreign cannon captured in earlier campaigns. First, though, a full-size plaster mock-up was installed, just to see what it looked like. Unsurprisingly, it looked like a giant elephant.

I should maybe mention, at this point, that the year is now 1814. And, as any student of Abba will know, that’s highly significant. Because, less than twelve months later, my my, at Waterloo, Napoleon did surrender – seemingly under the impression that, if he did, he’d feel like he’d won when he’d lost, which is patently nonsensical, but… that’s the fog of war for you. Or just proof that winning Eurovision and winning a major land battle somewhere to the south of Brussels require totally different skillsets.

Anyway, after his surrender, the people of Paris rather lost heart in commemorating their former emperor’s military prowess in bronze. So the plaster elephant remained in place. And stayed there until 1846, when it was pulled down because rats were living in its legs.

But it features prominently in Victor Hugo’s novel, and will plainly be featuring in the film too; as will Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway Scottage. None of whom are in evidence in SE10 so far, obviously, but… any day now, I’m hoping to spot Ms Bonham Carter sat by herself in a corner of the Mitre with a pot of gin and a pickled onion.

She’s always struck me as a gin and pickled onion sort of girl.


4 Comments on “Helena Bonham Carter and the Thirty-Foot Elephant”

  1. Ankur says:

    Great post (great blog actually, quite enjoy your ‘incredulous gazing’ at Greenwich!). Amazing photographs as always – how do you get them so sharp and punchy in all light conditions?!

    • Matt Haynes says:

      Thanks very much for that! As for the photos… um, I’m not sure… it’s not a fancy camera, no SLR or anything like that – just a fairly old 5 megapixel Canon, which in pixel terms is obviously only a fraction of what most mobile phones have these days. Obviously I try to smarten them up in Photoshop before sticking them on the blog, adjusting the levels and so forth, but that’s about it. Sorry… that’s not very helpful, is it?…

  2. Hi Matt, tried to email you, got two bounce backs. :-(. Lara.

  3. What we need is the return of the Sultan’s Elephant! A clash of the Titans?

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