Laurel Phelan, a 32-year-old Canadian, has just written a film script about Arthur and Guinevere. It is rumoured there are at least 10 films in various stages of production in Hollywood based on the Arthurian story, but Laurel's, she claims, has nothing to do with fairy-tales. Called Guinevere: Truth of a Legend, it attracted such interest in Los Angeles that one studio boss offered to buy it for enough to finance a decent expedition to find the Holy Grail. Gritty, dirty, dramatic, Laurel's version of Guinevere's life can, she says, be corroborated by most serious historical accounts. Not that she did any research before writing it. There was no need.
'No. You see, I saw it all,' she said with a sharp-eyed certainty. 'I was Guinevere in a previous life.'
Laurel journeyed to the West Country last week to revisit her old haunts: Cadbury Hill, alleged site of Camelot ('I just got out of the car and ran and ran. I was coming home'); Stonehenge, where Guinevere was, apparently, a regular visitor ('It was well intense - as we approached in the car I felt hotter and hotter, my head was buzzing, I was totally out of control'); and Glastonbury Abbey, her previous incarnation's last resting place ('I just recognised the burial spot immediately').
How, you might wonder, does a person recognise where she was buried? Surely she must have been less than alert to her surroundings at the time?
'Oh no, you see everything,' was Laurel's answer. 'You hang around a bit after you die, in spirit form. You witness your own funeral. But after that, obviously, I don't know what happened to this place, or to England.'
As Laurel walked around the abbey she talked matter-of-factly about aspects of Arthur's missus's daily life (curiously she said she used to eat potatoes, which, we all foolishly believed, weren't introduced to Britain until the 16th century). Tourists wandering past, eavesdropping, didn't bat an eyelid. Glastonbury is the kind of place where they think you are a bit odd if you don't believe in this sort of thing.
The town, where the national grid of ley lines criss-crosses like tartan fabric, has become the de facto headquarters of the New Age movement. Down the high street you might have difficulty buying a pint of milk, but it'll be no problem picking up 17 different ways of predicting the future. A mini-market called The Glastonbury Experience, for instance, is where crusties dragging anorexic dogs from pieces of string come for their crystals and divining rods. The Experience makes much of the town's connection with Arthur. Here, for pounds 200, Laurel bought herself a 4ft, silver-plated - and very sharp - ersatz Excalibur.
'My knife was much shorter than this,' she said, pointing half-way up the sword's alarming blade. 'It only came up to here.'
Her Excalibur was about the only thing Laurel enjoyed about the Glastonbury Experience, however. 'All this nonesense about Merlin and magic and round tables and the Lady of the Lake. It's real irked me. The truth has to be brought out.'
According to Laurel the truth is both more prosaic and considerably more violent: Arthur wasn't a king, sadly - he was a nobleman of Roman stock, keeping out the marauding hordes of northerners when the imperialists abandoned Britain in the fifth century. Merlin was not a magician but the local scribe; there was no magic - just plenty of herbs with hallucinogenic properties; and as for Guinevere, she was nothing like the lady of legend.
Not for her fopping around in flowing robes, theeing and thouing. She was a knife-wielding monomaniac who used her body to gain power and influence over men. In Laurel's screenplay Guinevere beheads her sister-in-law with a salivating relish and slices off a Saxon's privates before using them as you might a tea-bag: whipping them into boiling water and drinking the resultant brew.
'Guinevere was useful with a knife,' said Laurel. 'Since people have read the script, they have been rather nervous when they see me handling kitchen utensils.'
It all started 10 years ago for Laurel. She began having violent dreams full of blood and knives. So alarmed was she, she undertook past-life regression therapy under hypnosis to find out what was causing it - and discovered she was Guinevere. It was not a pleasant experience. 'I didn't like myself. I kept seeing me killing Saxons.'
But she kept up the therapy. 'Up to about the age of 23 my life paralleled hers. I was raped, I had a strong relationship with my father, I used men to get what I wanted. You see, one's past life is stronger than genealogy. I don't look that much like her. She had higher cheekbones than me, curly hair, bigger breasts. Damn.'
Laurel's regressions became more frequent and more detailed until she had recorded on cassette tape most of Guinevere's life story. Then last summer she was at a dinner party in Vancouver when she met Terry Hayes, a television director.
'Over dinner, she told me she was Guinevere in a past life, as you do,' Terry explained. 'So I said: 'Yeah, and I was Arthur.' Then she told me the story of Guinevere and I said it would make a great movie. Three weeks later she sent me a script. I thought, who cares if she's Guinevere or not, this is the most exciting story I've ever read in the business.
'We met up, did some work on the script, and she said: 'Let's do it.' I said, great, but we need money. Three weeks later she had come up with fifty grand, enough for me to go to LA and take it round the studios.'
Universal was the first company to bite, its representatives saying it was the best script they had read in 10 years.
'But they wanted to change it,' said Laurel. 'They wanted us to beef up Arthur, make it less Guinevere. They told Terry the world was not ready for a female hero. They said women particularly didn't want to see female heroes. Being men, they would know]'
Fearful of surrendering control ('I would never have got any rest if the truth was suppressed,' said Laurel), the pair decided to produce the film independently. For Laurel authenticity is more important than financial gain. She will, she says, be on hand to help the costume designers and set-builders get things right. With all the practice, she can now regress to order. So if a designer says: 'Sorry, luvvie, can't quite see the shoes, poppet,' she will oblige with a quick trance. This was how much of the script was buffed
and polished, with Terry asking
her to check on plot details and her going back in time, like a golden oldies' radio DJ.
Given the somewhat unusual provenance of the script, you might have thought financial backers would be hard to find. In fact much of the mega- million budget is already promised. 'The backers aren't thinking: 'Could this be true?' ' said Terry. 'They're thinking: 'Could this be money?' '
And so, armed with script and finance, Terry and Laurel came to Britain and Ireland to look for locations for the shoot, which will start in May, and to recruit the acting talent. Helena Bonham-Carter is keen to play Guinevere; Brian Blessed is slated to play her father. Other names, big names, are in negotiation. Terry believes this is because the script has excited them; Laurel has a rather different explanation.
'You see, everyone involved in this project was involved back then,' she said. 'One of the financiers was a Pict. When I told him, he wasn't too happy. Charlie (Terry's assistant) was one of my lovers. We're all meeting up again.'
One of the early backers was Evelyn Van Ginkel, Laurel's constant travelling companion, who has been driving her across the West Country in a hired Metro. Evelyn has a fifth-century connection, too. 'I found out on Christmas Eve I used to be Merewyn, Guinevere's friend and confidante,' she said. 'It was a heavy way to celebrate Christmas, I can tell you.'
And then there is the famous, middle-aged British actor whom Laurel didn't want to name but was very anxious should be in the film. 'You see, I went to the theatre a couple of years ago and saw him in a movie, and the moment he appeared I went hot all over. It was an incredible sensation. I knew immediately he was Lancelot in a previous life. Right up there on screen, his face turned into Lancelot's'
He is, Laurel says, now too old to play Lancelot. But she wants him to be Merlin. 'We told him about the Lancelot thing and he was very distant. But that's no surprise. There's a lot of misunderstanding between us which needs to be worked through. Whether he does the movie or not, we need to meet face to face. He and Guinevere have to resolve their difficulties.'
But whoever plays the roles, the person who claims to have been at the centre of the original yarn does not want to appear. 'Nah,' said Laurel. 'I've had enough of being that woman. Let someone else have a turn.'
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