For his latest project, Queen guitarist, astrophysicist and friend of the badgers Brian May has teamed up with two photographic historians Denis Pellerin and Paula Fleming to author a new book, Diableries: Stereoscopic Adventures in Hell.
The monster hardback tome collects together a series of diableries ('devilments') – photographs of ghoulish 'stereo' cards featuring devils, skeletons and satrys, originally printed in France in the 1860s. These stereo cards are best viewed in 3D. As a consequence, May, who has held a lifelong passion for stereoscopic imagery, has set about designing his own 3D viewer - a pair of plastic spectacles known as the OWL – a pair are given away with the book.
The three authors are due to give a talk at the British Library on 30 October, where they will sign copies of the book. You can book tickets here.
Hello, Brian. Tell us about Diableries. Is this fascination with stereoscopy something that began in childhood?
Yes it was! It started out with Weetabix packets. They used to give away great stuff in cereal packets – I don’t know why they don’t do it nowadays. It was great for kids: you never knew what was going to turn up in your cereal bowl. Anyway, they gave away little stereo cards, little 3D cards of animations and cars and boats and I was just entranced because the cards looked very ordinary – just two little flat images on them. But once you sent away for your little 1s and 6d stereoscope to put your card in, it jumped into life – it became a window you felt you could walk through. I was bowled over, really. Why don’t people do this the whole time? Why do people even bother with flat pictures when they can have 3D pictures?
And the diablerie scenes presumably lend themselves quite well to 3D?
They do, yes. I saw my first diablerie at a Portobello Market where I was shopping for antiques, about 20 years after falling in love with the Weetabix gifts. I came across these wonderful things they looked amazing in 3D. I could immediately see them in stereo ‘cos that’s what I learned to do as a kid: I don’t need the viewer to see them in stereo. If you hold them up to the light the colours come through and the eyes all glow – I couldn’t believe the complexity and the imagination of it all.
Had you heard of them before? I imagine they’re a new one on most people.
At the time you couldn’t tell me anything about them and that's really continued to this day. Up until this book there hasn’t really been any information out there. And it’s a colossal story, it really is. Because it’s partly about religion, and the way people were told about hell [in those days] to warn them they’d better be good boys and girls. But then it quickly develops into something very funny and very satirical. It's really about Paris in the 1860s – and actually it's a very subversive and dangerous criticism of the government.
They were a way of protest?
Absolutely – a bit like cartoons in newspapers these days. But at their core these are wonderful works of art none of which exist anymore. All that exist are the stereo photographs that preserve them for all eternity. We’ve been restoring these things for years now – virtually in Photoshop, you can’t really touch the original, it’s too delicate. Collecting them has been 20 years work.
Can you really see in 3D without the glasses?
That’s right. It’s not difficult to do, actually. It’s a little trick of relaxing your eye and making the images go parallel. You can do it for any 3D picture book – it’s a very useful habit to develop. The images have to be side by side, though. If they’re on top of each other, like on a 3D TV, then I can’t. You’ve got to have 3D specs for that.
Is there much demand for any of this? Are you part of a collecting community?
It’s quite small. There’s probably about 50 people in the world who are passionate about diableries. Of those there’s probably only five or six who actually got into it seriously and tried to find out the history of them. There’s actually 180 cards in total if you take the whole series of diableries and we have them all – except two. We’re hoping this book will jog somebody into revealing those two missing picture.
Is that tracking them down, the detective work element, part of the fun for you?
Yes! It definitely is. It’s a bit like collecting cigarette cards as a kid. But it’s also like a jigsaw: you need to understand all the pictures to really understand what’s going on, to get a complete picture of what was in those people’s minds. It’s amazing, really. It’s a body of work the size of Shakespeare’s plays. It’s just enormous in content.
Inventing your own stereoscopic viewer, the OWL, would seem like a very Brian May thing to do.
A very Brian May thing to do - yes! I actually invented it for the previous book [A Village Lost And Found; an excavation of stereo photographs that ‘transports readers to the lost worlds of an Oxfordshire village of the 1850s'] and it did very well. I think we’ve now sold something like 20,000 OWLS. It has become the standard way of viewing stereoscopic pictures, which makes me very happy.
Is Victoriania something that appeals to you anyway?
Yes. I’m very interested in the way Victorians thought. They were astonishingly similar to us, they just had different things in their hands. Victorians had a stereoscope, we have an iPhone. In understanding the Victorians you can go a long way to understanding the present day, I think.
They were quite good at inventing things.
Absolutely. I suppose I relate to that. They also blended art and science together without even thinking about it. That appeals to me because I’ve always been an artist and a scientist and I think the two can inform each other very well. There’s a feeling today that if you’re a scientist you can’t possibly be an artist. I think it’s really not so. If you look at Sir Patrick Moore you realise you can really enjoy the whole world at both ends of the spectrum.
What’s going on now with The Sky At Night? The papers say the BBC is going to axe it now that Sir Patrick is no longer with us.
I’m not really shocked. The BBC has a history of not appreciating what it has. Unfortunately it doesn’t understand the wealth of talent that’s under its roof, and this is a great example. That programme is something very precious: every major professional and amateur astronomer in this country will say it’s a major influence. The Astronomer Royal will tell you the same. And so you’re messing with something that really is very important to this country and has been going for 50 years, which I think is a world record. It deserves a bit more respect.
Surely it’s time for you to step in and present it?
Well, you know - it’s been talked about. But actually, I don’t think I could do it. I don’t think anyone realised the enormity of the work that Patrick did to present that programme for 50 years. He was utterly dedicated to astronomy in a way which I can’t be – because I’m dedicated to so many other things. I would have to give up stereoscopy and music and trying to be a voice for wild animals and all these things that are very important to me. So: no, I don’t think I could present it. But I can help behind the scenes.
Given all these different hobbies and enthusiasms, what are people most likely to ask Brian May when they bump into him in the street?
Anything! I never know what people are going to say when they come up to me. Recently a lot of people have been shaking my hand and saying ‘Thank you for what you’ve been doing for the badgers’. And that means a lot to me. I think this country really has to make a sharp turn and start protecting its animals and giving them respect. We are animals. And it’s time we got past this misconception that we are the only important animals on the planet.
Recently you’ve been out planting trees.
Yes, that’s my Save Me charity. It’s very important to me. On the day that I die I would like to leave the world heading more in the right direction – even if it’s just a little bit. Because I think we have truly lost it. This country is in a terrible place. Law and order has broken down in the countryside completely. Its being ruled by hooligans running around with guns. It’s a terrible place for us to be. That’s down to the people who are getting to be in control, including the Environment Minister [eg: the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs]. There couldn’t be anyone less apt to be Minister of the Environment than this man who enjoys killing animals.
You recently wrote on your blog that ‘Britain is rotting at its core’. That’s quite strong.
It is strong! But then I find myself more and more saying things that would have shocked me a few years ago. But having seen Parliament up close now I tell you: I am shocked. It is a pitiful process. If this is what we call democracy then we’re in very poor shape. I would like to see it rebuilt from the ground up. I think a lot of us thought that those old vestiges of privilege and unfairness in British society were swept away under Harold Wilson. But it’s a strong as ever. The bullies are still in control, under this government more than ever. It needs a huge shake-up.
Do you think you’ve made a difference?
As soon as you stand up and speak your mind you make a difference. Somebody came up to me the other day when we were planting trees and said ‘You’ve changed my life – because I’ve thrown away all the slug pellets and now I don’t have any pesticides in my garden’. I thought: ‘Well, if I’ve made a difference to one person then its been worthwhile’.
The badgers: it's a lifetime commitment, isn't it?
It’s a big part of me now, so I don’t think there is any turning back. I couldn’t now. Once you see the huge amount of injustice you can’t un-see it. So, yeah. I’m committed.
What about music? Is there still any time for that?
Oh yeah! I’m constantly making music. I’m working with [American Idol contestant] Adam Lambert, as you probably know. We just came back from Vegas where we did a Queen show. Music is my saviour. It’s what fuels my life.
Will this Freddie Mercury biopic ever see the light of day?
Yes. It is in very good shape, actually. I mean: all that stuff in the press... Sadly you can’t believe anything you read in the press anymore. All that stuff about Sacha Baron Cohen [who was due to play Freddie] walking away because he didn’t like the script is utter rubbish. We didn’t bother to comment on it but that’s not what happened. We’re in great shape. It’s taking a long time but, you know, you have to do these things right. You can’t rush into them. We get one chance to make this Freddie Mercury movie and it has to be done right. With respect and love. And that’s the way its been done.
So have you found your Freddie?
I can’t tell you that. I think we’re very close.
Not Daniel Radcliffe then?
I can’t tell you.
So: maybe Daniel Radcliffe?
Well, we hadn’t spoken to Daniel Radcliffe I can tell you that [despite wild press speculation he was due to take the part]. There hasn’t been any talk of Daniel Radcliffe. Delightful though he is.
Check out Brian May's website londonstereo.com