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Shirley Collins 'Death And The Lady' by Nick Abrahams

David Knight - 22nd Sept 2016

Shirley Collins, a legend of British folk music, has a new album coming out - her first for 38 years, no less. Maverick filmmaker Nick Abrahams has directed the video for the first single Death And The Lady - and he's also making a comeback of sorts. This is his first video since Sigur Ros's Ekki Mukk, featuring Aiden Gillen, four years ago. 

In the Sigur Ros film Gillen rambles through the countryside, accompanied by a talking snail, the voice supplied by Collins, who took the part after being approached by Abrahams. This film is in some ways a companion piece to that, continuing to explore the oddness and ancient magic to be found in rural England, and the cycle of nature.

With his collaborators, including DoP Ole Birkeland and artist Cathy Ward, Abrahams embraces the song's theme with imagery of skulls - one of the locations was the ossuary, or crypt, at St Leonards Church in Hythe - and 'hooden horses' of ancient Kentish custom. But it's also a celebration of life, and we witness birth even within the symbol of death: a chick hatched in a bird's nest found in an ancient skull. 

And there is Shirley Collins herself, now 81, a serene and happy presence in the film, and with the help of Abrahams, a revived voice breathing fresh life into traditional English folk music.


"After a gap of four years, I was lucky enough to get a call from Bart McDonagh at Domino Records asking if I was still making pop videos, as I was on a ‘thank you..’ list on an album they were putting out soon. It turned out to be Shirley Collins making her recording comeback after a 38 year absence, so I said ‘yes’ like a shot. 

"Shirley has a voice that seems to be in touch with the traditions of the past, but also the dark mystery that makes England so weird, wild and mesmerising, and it is these two aspects that I wanted to convey in the video. 

"Shirley says that when her then husband had a very public affair, it ‘led to a loss of confidence in my ability to sing well, leading on to dysphonia, where sometimes I couldn't even make a sound.’ Fortunately the persistence of avant-garde apocalyptic musician David Tibet (who has championed fringe musicians, from Anthony Hegarty to Tiny Tim through the years) over literally decades has lead Shirley to record again. 

"Producer Dhiraj Mahey at Primal Pictures persuaded Ole Birkeland (who has just shot C4's National Treasure and before that The Crown for Netflix) to come on board as DOP, and we shot on super 16mm, to get a very earthy, optical feel to the subject matter. All the better to soak up the elemental imagery of fire, water and skulls.. lots of skulls! Hopefully a touch of Kenneth Anger and Saint Derek Jarman can be felt, especially Jarman’s Journey to Avebury, some of the influences discussed with editor John Maloney. 

"There is a warmth to the summers day we filmed on that contrasted nicely with the strange intimacy and coolness of the ossuary (at St Leonards in Hythe, absolutely worth a visit). Artist Cathy Ward created the corn dollies that pepper the video, utterly modern but steeped in tradition - which also pretty much sums up the aim of the video…

"The ‘hooden horses’ who travel through the video are part of an ancient Kentish folk custom… As Shirley had been the voice of the snail in my last pop video (for ‘Ekki Mukk’ by Sigur Ros, which Ole and Dhiraj were also my co-conspirators on), it seemed appropriate for a snail to emerge from a skull here too. Marigold flowers make repeated appearances, as in some cultures they are seen as the flower of death. 

"I am not really a pop video maker but this has reawakened my interest, if the project is right. I guess that is a cliche - but it doesn’t stop it being true! A screening at the British Museum has just been arranged for ‘Death and the Lady’, and also its inclusion in an exhibition in 2017." 

David Knight - 22nd Sept 2016


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Nick Abrahams
Dhiraj Mahey
Production Company
Primal Pictures
1st AD
Yah-wan McClelland-Scott


Director of Photography
Ole Birkeland
Camera Assistant
Alexandra Voikou


John Maloney


Bart McDonagh
Domino Records


Toby Amies
Sound design
Jens Petersen

Other credits


Geoff Cox


Cathy Ward

Special thanks to

Rev’d Andrew Sweeney, Suzanne Maylon, Sally McCleery, Polly Marshall, Bart Mcdonagh, Brooke Salisbury, Barry Measure, Becky Bazzard, John Claude, Haridas Stewart and Adam Biskupski

David Knight - 22nd Sept 2016

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