Walking through the front door of The Kilns, Headington, is almost as disconcerting as passing through a wardrobe into a new world. Only this, very definitely, is an old world: the England of November 22, 1963, the day that C S (“Jack”) Lewis died – and a more famous Jack was gunned down in Dallas.
Here, time has not so much frozen as been re-frozen. The Kilns – once a cottage in eight acres, now hedged around with executive houses in a dismal Oxford suburb – has been expensively restored by the C S Lewis estate to look as if no one has touched it in 43 years.
Jack’s pipe sits on his desk, never to be refilled; the cosy kitchen is being toasted by his Aga; you can almost smell the Ovaltine. And sprawled on the sitting-room sofa is Douglas Gresham, Lewis’s stepson, who also stares down from a childhood photograph on the kitchen wall. The little boy in the picture looks remarkably similar to Edmund in Disney’s Christmas blockbuster, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
But this is where the 21st century forces its way back in, for the Douglas Gresham of today is unrecognisable as the naive child who came to live at The Kilns when his brilliant but abrasive mother Joy married C S Lewis.
At 60, Gresham is a tall and sleek man in thigh-length cavalry boots made for him when he was a Tasmanian dairy farmer. His white goatee and pencil-thin moustache could belong to one of those villains who patronise Lieutenant Columbo before he asks “just one more question”. (In one of his many incarnations, Gresham was an actor, and did indeed play villains.) I assume, wrongly, that he knows that today is the anniversary of his stepfather’s death. “Is it?”he says, looking at his watch to check the date. “So it is. Boy, am I jetlagged.”That is because he has just flown in from Hollywood, where he is co-producer of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He has just seen the finished cut, which he says left him feeling “that no time has passed and suddenly it’s two hours later like Narnia-time in reverse”.
The film is a triumph for Gresham, who charmed the movie industry into filming Lewis’s first Narnia book; the other six will follow if the audience figures are good. But then he has enormous reserves of charm – though liberals who encounter the gale force of his born-again Christianity may disagree.
Paradoxically, Gresham has not joined the Christian bandwagon gearing up around the film. Won’t it at least impart a subliminal Christian message to young audiences, I ask?
“I sincerely hope not,”he snorts. “Because – and this is what people always get wrong – it’s not a Christian film and the Narnia books aren’t Christian novels.”This will come as news to the thousands of churches across Britain and America that are endorsing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe because of its Christian message – and to the Disney organisation which, to the fury of liberal commentators, has appointed a Christian “outreach”organisation to promote the movie to British congregations.
“Jack didn’t intend the Narnia books to be an evangelistic fantasy,”explains Gresham. “The myths of Narnia are partly those of the great man-made religions – Norse mythology, Hindu mythology, as well as the true myth of Christ. Exposure to man’s myths will make young viewers ask questions about themselves – and only later will the seed of faith take root.”Gresham was responsible for ensuring that the script stayed faithful to his stepfather’s vision – “and that meant resisting the temptation to insert my Christianity”.
He also supervised the transformation of The Kilns, paid for by the impressive sums of money sloshing around in the C S Lewis industry. “We couldn’t find exactly the same sort of awful sofa, but overall I think we’ve done pretty well. It’s as I remember it.”Douglas Gresham and his older brother, David, arrived in England in 1953 when their mother left America and a ruined marriage. Born Jewish and raised atheist, Joy embraced first Communism and then Christianity.
Her pen-friendship with Lewis, begun in the States, deepened rapidly; Lewis, whose mind had been sharpened by all-male disputations, found himself developing the greatest intellectual friendship of his life with “a brash and superbly knowledgeable New Yorker,”as her son calls her.
Three years after arriving in England, Joy developed bone cancer. She and Lewis had already entered into a civil marriage of convenience to save her from deportation; after the diagnosis, Joy and the boys moved into The Kilns. What was it like for a 10-year-old boy, sharing a small house with a worldfamous author celebrated for his high-table put-downs – and who apparently looked like a red-faced pork butcher with yellow teeth?
“Well, Jack’s teeth were awful,”concedes Gresham. “But he was great fun to be around, even for a child. You couldn’t be in his company for long without bursting into laughter.”In 1957, Lewis married the now-divorced Joy in front of an Anglican priest while she lay on what she imagined was her deathbed.
“I prayed hard to Jesus that he would do something to give my mother back to me, because she was the only person I really knew in the whole world,”recalls Gresham. (You would have thought he knew his brother, too – but I don’t broach that tricky subject until later.) Then, against the odds, Joy was given two precious years of remission. “In this house, I watched Jack and my mother enjoy the happiest time of their lives, even though the sword of Damocles was hanging over them,”says Gresham.
He points to a space in front of the sofa. “They would play Scrabble on a coffee table just here. But to make it more interesting, they would use one board but the letters from two Scrabble sets, and words from any known language were permitted.”Being pathological point scorers, Joy and Jack would occasionally try to fool each other, and there was much jumping up and down to consult dictionaries. “It was great fun,”says Gresham.
Not for everyone, perhaps. A N Wilson, in his biography of Lewis, claims that Lewis’s tweedy friends found Joy “foul-mouthed, bad-tempered and self-assertive”– and that her influence on the author squeezed the fun out of the Inklings, the informal club of scholars who met in the Eagle and Child pub.
“Nonsense,”says Gresham. “Tolkien, for example, liked and admired my mother. So did the other great minds among the Inklings. They relished argument. That’s why there were gales of laughter as they tore each other’s work to ribbons.
“Sure, there were poseurs who couldn’t take being trounced in dialectic by a woman, a Jewess and an American. They disliked her intensely – but plenty of people felt the same way about Jack.”Joy’s death in 1960, aged 45, produced an ostentatious grief in Lewis; if someone mentioned her name, he would collapse into uncontrollable tears. A N Wilson writes that the Gresham boys “found him embarrassing”.
Douglas disagrees. “It wasn’t Jack’s grief I found embarrassing – it was the possibility of me crying in public. In the 1950s, British schoolboys did not cry. And if I saw Jack cry ing, then I would start.”Lewis was by then effec tively Douglas’s father; a letter he wrote in 1962 when the boy was demanding to be released from Magdalen College School exhibits paternal affection and mild exasperation. “Douglas has suggested work on a farm. He is lazy about bookwork, other wise very serviceable. If there were any choice [of farm], the lonelier the place – the further from pubs, cinemas etc – the better. He is desperately social and time-wasting!”Jack Lewis would not have been surprised, one suspects, by Gresham’s years in Australia, where he worked for a gelignite gang and performed dangerous stunts in small planes. However, he might have been taken aback to learn that his “desperately social”stepson would, after a crisis in his marriage in the 1980s, adopt a form of Christianity even more fullblooded than his own.
Douglas Gresham and his wife, Merrie, now live in a big house in Ireland, where they run a ministry that specialises in healing the trauma caused by abortion, which they believe is infanticide inspired by Satan. Indeed, critics have accused him of becoming obsessed with the power of the devil. (“Can you blame me, growing up in the house where The Screwtape Letters were written?”he says.) David Gresham, on the other hand, came to very different conclusions. Even before he left The Kilns, he had converted to orthodox Judaism and Jack had to find him kosher food – not easy in 1950s Headington.
Recently, there have been tabloid headlines about a “feud that has torn apart C S Lewis’s stepsons”. Is it true that they haven’t spoken for 15 years? “There is certainly no feud,”says Gresham. “We might not speak, but we’re in e-mail contact.”There has also been specu lation about the secretive finances of the CS Lewis estate, now run by “a discreet Swiss company”. Gresham is a full-time employee and has a fearsome reputation for policing its copyright.
So, just one last question. Is it true that he stands to make an enormous amount of money from the film of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe?
The microscopically trimmed moustache stretches into a smile. “Mind your own business,”he says.
This article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph