The TV footage shows Kit Williams pulling up in front of London's Durrants Hotel in a smart black Range Rover. He climbs out of the back, walks through the lobby to the hotel's wood-panelled Armfield Room and sits at a table there. Waiting for him is a flat red box, about eight inches square, with the lid closed to conceal its contents.
He opens the box, removes a layer of protective bubble-wrap, and lifts out a gold medallion which he suspends in front of his face by its chain. The medallion is just over five inches long and shaped like a trotting hare, its outstretched body filled with a swirl of intricate gold filigree. A tiny bell dangles from each of he hare's feet, flanking the splayed frog and smiling sun which hang from the its belly. Its eye, a tiny ruby, glints red for a second as it catches the light.
Laying the medallion flat on the table before him, Williams attaches a jeweller's eyepiece to one lens of his glasses and bends for a closer look. “I recognise my work in the way a mother would recognise her babies,” he says. “There we are: ‘KW’ in a circle, a crown for gold - ‘750’, which is 18 carat gold. Yes. Well, that's it. What a nice thing to see again. I thought I'd never, ever see that again.” (1)
The hare had endured a long, strange journey to make this reunion possible. Beginning life in Williams' Gloucestershire workshop in 1979, it had since spent 30 months buried in a park near Bedford, sparked a global craze among the world's treasure hunters and sold over a million books. It had launched a scandal when it was finally found, been sold in a bankruptcy auction at Sotheby's and found itself spirited overseas by an anonymous buyer. Not one, but two BBC documentaries were required to bring the hare back home and let Williams hold it again in the Summer of 2009.
The artist hadn't seen his creation for over 20 years by then, and had long since given up any hope of ever finding it again. And yet, here they were in the same room. “It was like an apprentice piece,” he told BBC Four's cameras. “I made it because I was no-one going nowhere. And then I made this thinking 'This is something really special'. And it turned out that way. I'm a little bit overwhelmed to see it again.”
The story of how the hare found its way back to Williams relies on a string of lucky chances - one of which I was able to play a part in myself. Before we come to that, though, let's remind ourselves why it was worth running to ground in the first place.
Williams began his career as a professional artist after winning the John Moores Exhibition prize in 1972, making his first sale through London's Portal Gallery that same year and holding his own shows there every year or two for the rest of the decade.
His paintings - then, as now - were full of meticulously-detailed flora and fauna from the British countryside. He filled these scenes with naked women and cheeky old men, infusing the fecund fields and woods around them with a sense of folkloric romance and innocent sexuality. He was equally skilled at crafting ingenious three-dimensional objects, such as the fiendishly complex puzzle box, full of hidden compartments and trick releases, which he made to impress the Portal's Eric Lister.
Tom Maschler, then the chairman of publishers Jonathan Cape, saw one of Williams' pictures at the gallery and thought the painter would be a good candidate for an illustrated children's book. With the help of Lister, he engineered a lunch invitation, and the two men set off to visit the artist in March 1976. Williams showed them more of his paintings, and Maschler produced a copy of Nicola Bayley's Tyger Voyage, a beautiful children's book which Cape had just made a best-seller. Would Williams be interested in doing something like that himself?
Williams replied that he had no interest in a project like that whatsoever. Unlike his paintings - each of which he could begin afresh with a whole new subject - illustrating a children's book would mean painting the same characters again and again, and that was a job that would bore him silly. Even Maschler's suggestion that Williams could write the book as well as illustrate it failed to move him. “I found myself apologising, and dropped the subject until I left,” Maschler recalls in his 2005 memoirs. “Then I could not resist saying ‘It's a pity about the book. You could have produced a book like no other. A book that would have caught the imagination of the world. But never mind.’ We drove back to London, and I thought that was that.” (2)
If Maschler had planned that parting shot as a deliberate stratagem, then it was a highly effective one. The suggestion appealed to Williams' ego, and he found it impossible to dismiss from his mind. “The publisher told me ‘I think you could do something that no-one's ever done before’,” he told Start The Week's Richard Baker in 1982. “And it was that that got me.” (3)
If Williams was going to spend the time needed to paint every illustration for a full children's book, he reasoned, he wanted to be damn sure the art would get more than a cursory glance. “I thought ‘Right! There should be something hidden in the pictures’,” he explained. “That way, instead of saying ‘This is art, ’ I can say ‘This is a puzzle’. And they look at it not because it's art - they're not frightened by any art in the thing - they're looking for something else. They're looking for a puzzle. It's sort of like going in through the back door.” (4)
“It was a solution to a problem,” he added when talking to Baker. “If I'm going to paint for three years solid and put all this work into it [...] I've got to make people stop and look, and look again and look again.”
Williams spent the next few weeks gradually slotting ideas together in his mind. If the book was going to be a puzzle, he decided, then there should be a real prize at the end of it - and that prize should be genuine buried treasure. He was determined not to produce the same disappointment he'd felt as a child, when the cereal packet's promise of “buried treasure” turned out to be something as mundane as a cheap transistor radio sent by post. “I thought it'd be nice to really, really, bury treasure,” he told Radio 4's Profile. “Actually put gold in the cold, wet earth.”
The next step was to work out the bare bones of Masquerade's story. Williams concocted a tale of a love token passed from the Moon to the Sun, using Jack Hare as her messenger. Somewhere along the way, Jack would lose the jewel he had been entrusted with, and it would be the readers' job to find it.
By then, about three months had passed, and an excited Williams decided it was time to talk to Maschler again. “One day, the telephone rang, and Williams was on it,” the publisher recalled. “He was saying ‘Oh, the treasure and the moon and the sun and the stars, and, and, and, a hare! And I need the money! I need £3,000 to buy the gold! And then there's the puzzle, but I don't know what it is yet. ’ And so on. I mean, he sounded like a mad man.”
To his credit, Maschler did not dismiss this tirade out of hand, but arranged instead for Williams to visit his London office in a couple of weeks' time. He managed a slightly calmer explanation this time, and Maschler was sold. “I was totally convinced,” he says in his memoirs. “We gave him a contract and paid the £3,000.”
Williams returned home, and set about devising a structure for the master puzzle itself. It had to be something detailed enough to identify the burial spot with great precision, but cunning enough to present a real challenge. The artist had never been a fan of crosswords or anagrams, and felt sure anything he could devise in that format would easily be cracked by expert puzzlers. And he wanted to avoid anything that could be solved by simply setting a computer to work on it. “I thought ‘I've got to devise a system that has never been used before’,” he told BBC Four. “It had to be something very simple, but absolutely unique.”
he'd solved that one, Williams decided on a hiding place for his prize and began thinking about the paintings themselves. Pondering how to encode the crucial information in each of his planned 15 pictures, Williams' eye fell on a rotating painting he called his orrery. Like its 18th Century inspiration - a mechanical model of the solar system - this painting accurately tracked the phases of the moon. But Williams' version was filled with human and animal figures, who tumbled round in a circle as he clicked the lettered frame from one position to the next. Suddenly, he had his answer.
Williams spent the next three years refining his master riddle, painting Masquerade's exquisite pictures and writing the accompanying text. He packed each painting with elaborate clues, red herrings, private jokes and a million other tiny surprises. Two of the paintings contained magic squares which, taken together, revealed how a crucial third painting must be read. Another packed its background football pitch with atomic numbers which, when translated into their matching letter symbols, produced the message “False: now think again”. Maschler had warned Williams that the book's paintings must not show even a single pubic hair, prompting the painter to add a carefully-placed hare logo to the lowest portion of his girl swimmer's costume as a kind of visual pun. He included a Queen's Silver Jubilee tea caddy in another picture for no better reason that than he happened to be painting it while the Jubilee celebrations were in progress.
For all this playfulness, Williams was careful with the key information, taking great pains to get everything right and make the puzzle's mechanism function smoothly. He surrounded the master riddle with a host of what he called “confirmers” pointing to the same solution. These were designed to reinforce the conclusions of anyone solving the main riddle, assuring them they were on the right track and following more than a string of chance co-incidences. The prose of his story was packed with secondary puzzles too, many of them mimicking the verse riddles of the 10th Century's Exeter Book, which Williams loved.
He finished the paintings in 1979, and then phoned Maschler again to announce he was ready to deliver them. “They were painted on wood,” Maschler said. “Each one was wrapped individually and sewn up in a blanket - every single picture. He was snipping the thread and he was taking them out and he was putting them round my office. And they just about filled the office. As he began to do this, I got more and more excited. When he'd finished, I'd got the room full of people. I'd got about 15 people in to see these pictures. I mean, I was immediately aware that we were in the presence of something extraordinary.”
Maschler's excitement was a little dampened by the realisation he'd forgotten to warn Williams that any lettering in the paintings should be done in simple black characters to let foreign publishers substitute their own translated text. In fact, Williams had rendered the poetic phrases surrounding each painting in grey or red letters, each one painted to look as if it had been chiselled into stone. Not only that, but the very format he'd used to construct his puzzle meant the paintings' lettered elements would be next to untranslatable anyway. Maschler swallowed hard and said nothing, resigning himself to an English language edition alone.
The good news was that the paintings themselves were astonishing, and that Williams' story to accompany them turned out to be better written than the publisher would have dared hope. Far from the extensive rewrites which he had assumed would be necessary for such an inexperienced author, all that was needed was for Cape's editors to correct the artist's somewhat eccentric spelling.
Williams left Maschler's staff to get on with preparing the book, and returned home to make his hare. “I had never made jewellery, although I had worked in brass, steel and copper,” he later wrote. “From one piece of gold, I cut the outline of the hare, five and a half inches from nose to tail, then sawed out and drilled the filigree work within the body. The other piece of gold was enough to make the hare's legs, ears and tail, which I riveted to the body. Everything else - the bells and their tongues, the chains the tiny animals, had to be made by melting down the remaining scraps of gold, beating them into coin shapes then cutting them out.” (5) He wrapped the hare in paper, placed it a terra cotta casket which he'd made to defeat metal detectors and filled the remaining space inside with melted wax. The inscription on the casket read “I am the keeper of the jewel of Masquerade, which lies waiting safe inside me for you or eternity”. All that remained was to bury it at Williams' chosen site.
A few days before the burial, it occurred to Maschler that the event would need a witness. For secrecy's sake, Williams was determined to bury the hare himself, and to do so with no journalists or cameras present. Maschler persuaded him that one unimpeachable witness should go along though, if only to prevent Masquerade sceptics arguing they had no proof the hare had ever been buried in the first place. The publisher's first choice would have been the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Governor of the Bank of England, but it seemed unlikely that either would be available at such short notice.
Instead, he turned to Bamber Gascoigne, then the presenter of BBC 2's University Challenge, and a respected academic author. Gascoigne had already played host to the hare at his Richmond home when Cape hired his wife Christina to photograph it there for the book's back cover. He later became Masquerade's official historian.
On August 7, 1979, Williams collected Gascoigne in his battered old Post Office van and the two men drove off into the night. Here's Gascoigne's description of what happened when they reached their secret destination:
“(Williams) produced a compass and measured twenty heel-to-toe shoe lengths. At that point, he moved his compass low over the ground. Suddenly, its luminous needle swung south. Williams plunged a penknife into the earth, and winkled out a magnet. He had buried it there, with its own magnetic north pointing south, some two-and-a-half years previously. [...] Williams now unpacked from the sack a trowel and a black plastic bin-liner, which he spread out on the grass to one side. With his knife, he cut a neat rectangle of turf about the size of the mouth of a generous letter box. He lifted off this piece of turf, unbroken, and placed it with reverence near one edge of the bin-liner. He then took up the trowel and began picking away at his cavity with the caution and delicacy of a good dentist.” (6)
Gascoigne spends the next few paragraphs fretting about what a cold night it was, noting the brick fragments which Williams turns up from time to time, and wishing his companion would dig a bit faster. Then he takes up his description again:
“At last, Williams measured the depth of the hole against his forearm and declared himself satisfied. We were ready for the interment. Nothing solemn was said as the small earthenware object was lowered gently to the bottom of the hole. [...] The earth and bricks went back into the hole, as neatly as they had come out, leaving only a small residue to be carried away in the bin-liner. The rectangle of turf was placed on top of the incision and was gently patted down. Then my two-gallon container of water was emptied over the ground to conceal any looseness of the newly dug soil and to give heart to the uprooted grass.”
As a finishing touch, Williams produced a fresh cowpat which he had brought with him all the way from Gloucestershire in a sealed tupperware container, and deputised Gascoigne to deposit this on the spot where they'd been digging. “Bamber said he knew the height of a cow's bottom,” Williams confided to BBC Four viewers. “So he did the pouring and splocked it around very much like it would be. And then we left.”
Masquerade was a novel enough idea for the media to get quite excited about its September 1979 launch. The BBC's Nationwide, a popular magazine programme which followed the early evening news, sent a crew to visit Williams a few days before the burial, filming him inserting the hare into its terra cotta case and pouring in the surrounding wax. He also staged a little pantomime for the cameras, letting them film him as he packed a spade and a sack into the back of his van, drove off in the darkness, and then returned on foot to challenge viewers directly. “Now the hare's been buried,” he said, staring crookedly into the camera. “It's up to you to find it.”
The Nationwide film was broadcast on September 19, the night before Masquerade's publication. The previous Sunday's Observer, a UK national newspaper, had already printed some previews of the book's paintings in its colour magazine. British industrial relations were in a terrible state at that time, with Labour's Jim Callaghan just ejected from power after the disastrous Winter of Discontent, and incoming Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher beginning to confront the unions. Both The Sunday Times, one of The Observer's main rivals, and ITV - then the BBC's only rival - were on strike during the crucial week, giving the book's publicity a far bigger audience than it would otherwise have had.
The promise of all this publicity, together with Cape's own trade previews, meant the company had already sold 40,000 copies to bookshops around the UK. This accounted for about two-thirds of Maschler's initial print run of 60,000 for the home market, and these flew off the bookshop shelves almost immediately. By the afternoon of publication day, Cape's Bow Street distribution office had received orders for an additional 8,000 copies. “Small bookshops which had bought only one copy now wanted twenty,” Gascoigne writes. “Williams' treasure hunt had immediately captured the public's imagination.”
Before publication day was over, Maschler had ordered a second print run of 50,000 copies. He'd have liked to make it more, but the Italian printer Cape was using simply didn't have the paper available for a bigger order. Instead, Maschler arranged for duplicate film to be shipped back to England, where he ordered yet another 50,000 copies to be printed. By Tuesday, September 25 - just four shopping days after publication - the whole of the first print run was sold and Maschler added another 50,000 copies to Masquerade's total. By Christmas that year, there were 210,000 copies circulating in Britain alone, and Masquerade had dislodged Frederick Forsyth's novel The Devil's Alternative from the top of UK best-seller lists.
Sales in Britain and the Commonwealth eventually climbed to 600,000 copies, with another 400,000 sold in America, 80,000 in Japan, 30,000 in Germany, 20,000 in Italy, 10,000 in the Netherlands and 5,000 in France. Each nation brought it's own unique approach to the book, as Williams explained when interviewed by BBC Four. “The American attitude was, they would read it - ‘Oh, fantastic’ - and then start guessing,” he said. “‘Underneath Nelson's Column,’ and things like this. [...] It was always guessing. Whereas, the Japanese saw it as a book of philosophy.”
All the foreign-language markets but one accepted that the book's painted text and the structure of its solution could not be translated from English. Only the Italians troubled to remake the puzzle completely for their own market. Liliana Denon and Joan Arnold liked the British edition enough to get Williams' permission for this, and persuaded the Italian rights-holder to co-operate. They made their own authorised duplicate of the Masquerade hare, lodged it with a Milan attorney, and buried a note giving his name and contact details under the heel of the giant Neptune statue at Monterosso al Mare in an area of Italy called La Cinque Terre. The statue is perched on the wall of a cliff at the sea's edge, making the climb to its heel a dangerous one, but the two women were undaunted.
They modified Masquerade's puzzle by translating the phrases surrounding each painting into Italian, and then substituting their own numbers in Williams' two magic squares. Decoding the squares correctly allowed readers to count the letters round each painting and find the phrases “Monterosso al Mare” and “Statua del Gigante”. They also inserted two consecutive sentences in their translated text of Masquerade's story, the first one ending “.alle calcagna”, and the second beginning “Del Gigante oceano...”. Dropping the full stop between these gave the phrase “alle calcagna del gigante,” or “at the heels of the giant”.
This Italian cousin for Masquerade was published in March 1981, and remained unsolved until May 6 the following year. The finder was 41-year-old Carla Vignola, who climbed the cliff for herself when the heel clue finally struck her a year after buying the book. Denon and Arnold were watching her from a hiding place nearby, and showed themselves only when Vignola had successfully excavated her prize.
I would have been 21 when Masquerade first came out and I do remember seeing a copy of the book at around that time. I puzzled over it briefly, decided I didn't have a clue where to begin solving it, and then went back to guzzling cheap lager and jumping around at Clash gigs. Like everyone else, I saw the news coverage of the hare's discovery in March 1982, and concluded from the information that followed that I would never had had the patience or imagination to get remotely close to finding the book's solution.
I never forgot Masquerade, though, and it came bubbling back to the surface of my mind when I stumbled across a copy of Gascoigne's Quest for the Golden Hare in a second-hand bookshop in 2004. That prompted me to investigate Dan Amrich's excellent Masquerade website, and a month or two later I was up to speed on the whole remarkable story. I managed to sell The Idler a 3,000-word article about Masquerade for its Spring 2005 issue, and was left hoping I might one day get the chance to tell the story at greater length.
That chance came in 2008, when I realised the 30th anniversary of Masquerade's publication was coming up, and took that opportunity to pitch a Radio 4 documentary about the book to an independent production company I sometimes worked with. That company - Whistledown Productions - included the idea with their proposals for the next commissioning round and, a few weeks later, Radio 4 agreed to buy it.
My job was to research the basic story, conduct a handful of location interviews and contribute to the jointly-written script. Our presenter, the author and broadcaster John O'Farrell, handled the studio interviews, while Whistledown producer Emily Williams managed the whole process and edited the hugely disparate material we'd gathered into a coherent whole. In the course of doing all this, we interviewed quite a few of Masquerade's keenest followers - Mike Barker, John Rousseau, Neil Parrack, Karen Stephens - and that's where most of the quotes that follow were obtained.
Williams' first notion of just how obsessive some British Masqueraders would get came in the competition's very early days, when he received a letter from a reader who'd travelled all the way from Switzerland to Cornwall in pursuit of the hare and then got himself stuck half way up a cliff there when the tide came in. None of our interviewees could quite match that degree of lunacy, but it certainly wasn't for want of trying.
Take Cheltenham actuary Neil Parrack and his family. Neil, his wife Ann and a couple of their older children were studying Masquerade round the kitchen table in the small hours of December 27, 1980. They settled on Williams' second painting, which shows a pair of dancers representing the Sun and the Moon, flanking a merry old gent who's sitting on top of the Earth. The moon-man's trousers are patterned with a star map, on which the words “Taurus” and “Orion” are visible. Around the edge of the picture appear all 12 signs of the zodiac, each with its appropriate symbol.
“Because a lot of it was to do with signs of the zodiac, we were reading those out to see what spun off in our thoughts,” Neil Parrack told O'Farrell. “And when someone said ‘Gemini’ that really electrified the whole atmosphere, because we could say ’Gem in eye’! Yes! Well, there's masses of eyes - which one?” (7)
The family dug out an Ordinance Survey map of their own county, and found the nearby Needlehole Farm. And what's the hole in a needle called? The eye! The Parracks went off to bed in triumph, convinced they had only to drive the few miles out there to claim their prize. Charles, Neil's 17-year-old son, was so excited that he rose at 6:00am, borrowed the family car, and headed off to Needlehole while his parents slept. Alas, the waterlogged country lanes around there prevented him finding the farm, and he returned home with nothing to show for his efforts but some very muddy clothes.
Neil took a more deliberate line. He recruited his friend Tony Bennett - a heavyweight puzzler from the Government's GCHQ intelligence centre - who quickly concocted some dubious numerology to count out the word “Gemini” from the painting's border letters. The final confirmation came when Bennett pointed out a pylon marked on Needlehole Farm's land, indicated by the Ordinance Survey's standard symbol of a letter “X” inside a square. Any schoolboy knew that “X” always marked the spot where buried treasure was to be found, and as for the square, well, Masquerade was an anagram of “Made Square,” wasn't it? What more proof could anyone need?
The two men joined forces that afternoon, bundled assorted offspring into the car, and drove to Needlehole Farm. “When we got there, we found there were twin pylons, and that's quite a rare occurrence,” Neil said. “Gemini! The twins! So, when we got there, we thought ‘This is definitely it’. And then we started digging. [...] We found that we couldn't actually dig in the middle of the pylon, which seemed to be the obvious place, so the Bennetts started on one and we Parracks started on the other. And we went round the foot of each pylon seeing what we could find. We just got muddier and muddier and more desperate and disillusioned.”
The expedition returned home defeated, its two leaders enduring superior smirks from their far more sceptical wives. Neil wrote to Williams with an account of their adventure, who was tickled enough by this to recommend the families to a US television crew looking for Masquerade eccentrics. The two families joined forces again to re-enact their Needlehole visit for the cameras, and were duly splashed all over American TV. Still they weren't quite ready to give up. A second bout of numerology produced the phrase “code hare at large”, but that didn't seem to be much help either. Like the many hunters who obsessively anagrammed every element of Masquerade, the Parrack/Bennett team had proved only that, given enough data and a free hand how to manipulate it, you could produce any answer you chose. As they would discover when the hare was finally unearthed, though, they had been right to start by thinking about eyes.
Meanwhile, 4,500 miles to the west of those Cheltenham pylons, a Wyoming maths teacher called Karen Stephens was getting to grips with her own copy of the book.
The American edition carried a note on its back cover inviting readers to send their solutions to Cape by post and promising them a free plane ticket to the UK if they got it right. Williams was sent on a publicity tour of the US chat shows, where his performance as a British eccentric stirred up a lot of interest. The enterprising airline boss Freddie Laker followed this up by offering special Masquerade flights to the UK, with a free spade awaiting every traveller when they arrived at Heathrow.
Stephens had no interest in Laker's flights, but that didn't stop her being intrigued by Masquerade when she saw it in her Book of the Month Club's offerings. “I only had one television station, and my husband was working out of town a lot,” she said. “I thought ‘Oh that would be fun, ’ so I ordered it.” (7)
Already a puzzle fan, she started by simply listing the initial letters of each word from Masquerade's opening chapter in the hope that they would spell out something useful, then tried a few variations on this approach with equally little success. “It was all well and good, but it didn't get you anywhere,” she said. “I didn't have a clue what I was doing. After about six months of getting nowhere, my husband, who's a professional surveyor, came up with the idea that the only way you could pin-point something on the planet that exactly was by surveying it and having longitude and latitude.”
Armed with this idea, Stephens found herself thinking of the Greenwich Meridian. This is the Earth's line of 0 degrees longitude, which is used as a global standard for navigation and time-keeping. About 235 miles of this meridian passes directly through England, and what could be more natural than for Williams to bury his hare at some point along such a significant line? Stephens studied the numbers mentioned in Masquerade's story and paintings, and used these to select precise points of latitude along England's stretch of the meridian line.
That produced a lot of different possibilities, and Stephens had no idea which was correct, so she simply flooded Williams with letters, each one containing a slightly different answer. Sooner or later, she hoped, the sheer volume of her correspondence would let her hit on the right location. That was an approach which had served her well in an earlier Games Magazine competition, where she had netted $1,000 by sending the organisers many copies of the single correct answer. When the magazine made its random draw from all the correct answers received, Stephens had many more chances than her rivals of being the one selected, and so won the prize.
Unfortunately, the same approach did not work with Masquerade. Using degrees, minutes and seconds for her latitude readings - as Stephens did - she would have needed just over 13,000 guesses to cover every possible point along England's stretch of the meridian line, and sending that many letters was never going to be possible.
Even so, she does qualify for one distinction. Gascoigne credits her with the most letters sent to Williams by any single individual, saying she holds this record “by a margin of several hundred”. When O'Farrell put this point to Stephens for our own programme, she first said “I don't think I sent more than three or four at a time, but I may have” and then - when he suggested the total was in the hundreds - laughed and confessed “I'm afraid so”. As things turned out, though, she hadn't been so very far off in choosing the Greenwich Meridian: William's chosen hiding place was just half a degree off that mark. “I learned many valuable lessons after Masquerade,” she said. “And I've successfully solved two major armchair treasure hunts since.” (8)
Many other equally colourful Masqueraders are profiled in Gascoigne's book. There's Tony Gibson and Peter Marskell, who called the Portal Gallery posing as rich US art collectors; Edward Jenkins, recruited at seven as a frontman for his parents' theories; Michael Savill who decided the windows in one painting represented punch-card instructions for a weaving machine. Perhaps the strangest of all was the American Gascoigne christens “Richard Dale”, whose story we'll come to later.
Williams became accustomed to hearing from oddballs like these, and used their exploits as fodder for his regular TV appearances. Interviewed by Desmond Morris for a BBC arts show in February 1980, he recalled an incident from the previous November.
“It was a night like this,” he said. “Rain was pouring down. I live way out in the country, and there was a knock on the door. I opened the door and looked out, and there's two huge fellows standing there, covered in mud and absolutely wet right through. And I thought ‘No, no, no’. And they went ‘It's OK, it's OK, we're not here to bash you up. All we want to know is how deep is it? We're down 15 feet. How far have we got to go? ’” (9)
Williams was getting as many as 200 letters a day at the height of Masquerade fever, the longest of which would cover seven pages of this site. With personal callers to deal with as well as the 30,000 letters the book eventually produced, Williams relied on his village neighbours to keep the worst intruders at bay.
“The Masquerade thing really brought the loonies out of the woodwork,” he said in one 1985 interview. “There were people turning up, and most unsavoury tales. And, in the end, it was a super thing. The people in the village , if they saw anybody, would say ‘Williams? Williams? No, never ‘eard of ‘ee’. And they would say ‘You know, the one who buried that hare. ’ ‘Oh ‘ee. ‘Ee don't live ‘ere, ‘ee lives in Nailsea - it's about 18 miles that way. ’ They'd send people off, and it was terrific.” (4)
It wasn't all fun, though, as Williams told O'Farrell when asked to recall those days. “I found it difficult,” he said. “I got sort of nasty things through the post, like severed rubber hands with blood. And there was some strange American occasionally would send me his breakfast - the cornflakes, the milk and everything - in a sealed box. And you'd think ‘I don't really like this. This is getting a bit nasty’.” (7)
Mike Barker and John Rousseau met when they were both research physicists at Sheffield University, and kept in touch as each man moved into teaching the subject at Lancashire schools. Their introduction to Masquerade came on New Year's Day 1981, when their two families gathered at Rousseau's Fleetwood home. His three daughters, the oldest of whom was then 15, were working on the simple anagrams surrounding Masquerade's paintings, the adults joined in, and gradually John and Mike found themselves drawn into the book's deeper mysteries. “We'll be the ones to do this,” Rousseau told his old friend. “It needs a couple of physicists.”
Working together, the two men would eventually produce what Gascoigne calls “the perfect solution” to Masquerade. But they followed their own share of dead ends first. Rousseau, for example, stared at the Puppeteer picture long enough to conclude that the hat he wore was a beret - that is to say, he had a beret on his head. That sent John, his wife Sheila and his daughter Lizzie off on a 700-mile round trip to Berry Head in Devon, where the two grown-ups left Lizzie sleeping in the car while they went off into the night with their £50 metal detector.
“A policeman came along and he said ‘Hello, Love, where's your Mum and Dad?’” Rousseau recalled. “She said ‘They're out digging for treasure’. And he said ‘Oh, OK then’, and he wandered off. You can't believe it, can you? It was different world.”
All they unearthed that night was a stash of flattened baked bean tins, but even that expedition was not entirely wasted. It convinced Rousseau they must verify any theories carefully before embarking on another speculative trip. From now on, Barker and Rousseau would be strictly methodical in how they tackled the puzzle.
They had more luck with a special supplemental clue, published by The Sunday Times on December 21, 1980. This showed Williams' own self-portrait, surrounded by animals and clutching a fish in his right hand. Attached to the fish was a label reading “A6000”. Williams' left hand held up a piece of paper, covered in what looked to be nonsense symbols. Faithful to reality as always, he had drawn himself with the divergent squint which always made his eyes look as if they were pointing in two opposite directions.
The fish clue was quickly disposed of by a couple of physicists: 6,000 Angstroms (commonly abbreviated to “A6000”) represents the red wavelength of the spectrum. The fish itself was clearly a herring, and red herrings could be discarded at once. After a good deal of folding and reflecting in mirrors, the half-characters Williams had used on his paper message combined to read: “2 do my work IA.ed IV men from XX. The tallest and the fattest and the righteous follow the sinister”.
Not realising that Williams' squint was a simple representation of how he happened to look, Rousseau concluded they should think in terms of lines extended outward from his eyes to the edges of the picture. As with Parrack's theories about gems in eyes and the supposed role of Needlehole Farm, this was another case of someone stumbling close to the right answer for entirely the wrong reasons.
Putting the squint theory to one side for a moment, Barker and Rousseau tidied up Williams' code phrase to read: “To do my work, I appointed four men from twenty: the tallest and the fattest. And the righteous follow the sinister.” Four men from twenty suggested four fingers or toes from the twenty which each individual has. The tallest and fattest of these would be the two middle fingers and the two big toes. If the righteous followed the sinister, then that must mean the left hand (or foot) came before the right. This didn't seem to mean much on its own, but the two men noted down their findings and waited to see how they might fit into the bigger picture.
Their next step came when they spotted the similarity between the two magic squares Williams had included in the book - one in his Pennypockets painting, the other in his Puppeteer one. A magic square is a grid of numbers which produce the same total when added vertically, horizontally or diagonally. In a 4x4 square like the ones Williams used, each corner block of four numbers should produce that same total too. Williams followed these rules exactly with the Pennypockets square, producing a consistent total of 34 everywhere you looked, but added a twist of his own by leaving one entry blank. The Puppeteer's square used letters instead of numbers, and printed those letters in several different colours. Again, it left a single entry blank.
Barker and Rousseau had already been fooled by the atomic numbers in Williams' playing field square - “False: Now think again” - so this time they looked at how the two remaining squares might relate to one another. The two blank entries were each in the same position - third row down, third column along - so it did look as if the two squares were meant to be read together.
Matching the numbers from the Pennypockets square to the colours used in their matching Puppeteer entries produced an intriguing result. In the Pennypockets square, for example, the top left corner was occupied by a number 16, and the square next door by a 3. The equivalent two positions on the Puppeteer square are occupied by letters in blue and green respectively. Mapping each number against its matching colour and then re-arranging the numbers in ascending order produced a sequence of “red, yellow, green, blue” which repeated itself until the square was complete.
Pressing on, the duo then turned to the coloured rings on the puppeteer's fingers, each one connected to a string operating his two puppets. Applying their colour sequence, they noted that each of the red rings was connected to the middle finger on a puppet's left hand, each of the yellow ones to a left big toe. The green rings always linked to a right middle finger and the blue ones to a right big toe. That gave a new sequence, this one reading “left middle finger, left big toe, right middle finger, right big toe”. That fitted the Sunday Times clue precisely, which meant it must surely be right.
The girl puppet was holding both hands to her eyes, and that served as a reminder of Williams' introductory lines to the book: “To solve the hidden riddle, you must use your eyes”. The squint in Williams' self-portrait had already started Rousseau thinking about lines extending from a character's eyes to the painting's lettered frame, and the fact that those letters seemed so unevenly spaced suggested this theory was sound.
The two men had already decided that only a piece of written information could identify the hare's location with enough precision. Pointing his readers towards certain letters in the pictures' frames would certainly be one way for Williams to do it. But which lines from which character's eyes would he have used? And drawn through which other points on the painting to reach the particular letters required? Again, it would have to very precise to guarantee the right result.
The breakthrough came when Rousseau sat down with a ruler to study the picture showing a ring of animals circling the sun. Each animal in this picture displays just one eye and a single foot - always the right foot of its front legs. This simplified matters considerably, and Rousseau started drawing lines from each animal's eye through the furthest point on its front hoof or paw. This, he reasoned, was the closest equivalent any animal could have to a middle finger. He began with the hare, worked his way clockwise round the circle of six animals, and soon started getting results.
“If you look at that ring of animals, starting with the hare, and you go from right eye to right big claw, you end up with an ‘A’,” Rousseau explained. “And if you go to the next animal, which is a ram, and you go from the right eye through the right hoof, you get an ‘M’. If you go round like that, you get the word ‘amulet’ - A-M-U-L-E-T. That's the hare. That's the golden hare.” (7)
“I knew that was it,” Barker chimed in. “So I went through every picture, and for each animal whose eyes, feet and toes you could see, I went from left eye through left middle finger, left eye through left big toe, right eye through right middle finger, right eye through right big toe. [...] I was jumping up and down with excitement. And then we got this sentence: “Catherine's long finger over shadows earth buried yellow amulet, mid-day points the hour, in light of equinox look you.”
There were a host of smaller clues and confirmers which helped reinforce this solution, not least the hierarchy of animal puppets whose own coloured rings told them the order in which each painting's livestock should be tackled. Most exciting of all was the acrostic they discovered from the first letter of each painting's contribution to the master clue. Some of the 15 paintings gave them more than one word, producing the list:
Catherine's / Long finger / Over / Shadows / Earth / Buried / Yellow / Amulet / Mid-day / Points / The / Hour / In / Light of equinox / Look you.
Take the first letter of each painting's contribution, and you have ”Close by Ampthill”. Barker and Rousseau quickly discovered that Catherine of Aragon had a cross erected to her in Bedfordshire's Ampthill Park. Catherine was the first of Henry VIII's six wives, and that fitted with the first painting's framing words “One of Six to Eight”. Place yourself next to Catherine's Ampthill cross at noon on March 21's Spring Equinox, dig a hole where the tip of its shadow fell, and that's where you'd find the hare.
Job done, you might think. But, like many Masqueraders, Barker and Rousseau felt that solving the puzzle was not enough. They expected to have to dig for their prize, and lever its casket up from the mud with their own hands. Rousseau, with memories of the Berry Head trip still fresh in his mind, thought they should solve every aspect of the book's remaining details before they even thought about any physical digging. Barker was less patient though, and on January 4, 1982, he decided the time had come to inspect the cross for himself. He and his family had just returned from a ski-ing trip abroad and, rather than driving directly home from the airport, they detoured to Ampthill Park and climbed to the cross's hilltop perch.
As 12:00 noon comes round at each longitudinal point on the Earth's Northern hemisphere, shadows there point due north. At noon on any given date - in this case the Spring Equinox - those shadows hit a precise and predictable length. Barker got his wife Celia to stand next to the cross so he could gauge its height, adjusted his sighting compass's reading by six degrees to compensate for the Earth's magnetic deviation, and worked out that the tip of the cross's shadow would fall about 20 feet from its base at Williams' chosen hour. The ground north of the cross was on a slope, though, and without more sophisticated instruments, he could only narrow the spot down so far. “We're talking about an area of ground that's about the area covered by the average double bed,” he told O'Farrell. “I decided to go home and make an inclinometer so I could pin-point it more accurately.”
Exploring the area around the cross before he left, Barker found a nearby stone which had a few lines from Psalm 104 carved into its surface:
“Oh Lord, how manifold are thy works,
In wisdom hast thou made them all,
The earth is full of thy riches.”
This stone - nicknamed the frogstone for its rounded, lumpy shape - had been unknown to Williams when he selected Catherine's Cross as the hare's burial site, but struck both him and Barker as further confirmation that they'd found the right spot. In fact, it had been placed there by an order of nuns called The Mary Sisters in 1972 - long before Masquerade was ever thought of - as one of the many inscribed stones they've dotted round Britain's countryside to celebrate its beauty.
Barker jotted down the verse for further consideration, then returned to the cross and prised out a square foot of turf to see what the ground underneath would be like for digging. Discovering stones and broken tiles, he carefully replaced his turf, disguised the wounded soil as a molehill, and followed Celia back to their car. If he'd known that a party of rival hare-seekers had also set their sights on Ampthill Park, he might not have left so soon.
The first Eric Compton, a Bedford metal detector expert, heard about Masquerade was when his friend John Guard asked to borrow some of Compton's equipment. Compton lent him a detector, but Guard returned it after about three days saying he needed Compton to help him use it properly.
I met Compton last April, during a day of location interviews for the Radio 4 programme, and recorded my conversation with him as we stood next to Catherine's Cross itself. “John came back and said 'Can you come out with me? I want to disclose something to you, but I don't want you to mention anything about this to anybody',” he told me. “We went to a pub called The Compty Arms, and he told me about Kit Williams' Masquerade, the jewelled hare and all that. I'd never heard of it. He said 'There's clues in The Sunday Times, and people from all over the world are trying to figure out where the hare is buried. But I know where it is.” (10)
I asked Compton what sort of man Guard was. “I liked him,” he replied. “He could hold a conversation with anyone. He was into smoking cannabis and that, but he'd got that charisma. He'd got that way with him.” Guard worked as an advertising salesman for Bedfordshire on Sunday, which was then edited and run by Frank Branston. Branston, who went on to become Mayor of Bedford, was another of my Ampthill interviews that day, and he described Guard in much the same way.
“He was an odd character,” Branston said. “He had a certain charm. He was a vegetarian, an animal rights campaigner and an eco-campaigner - but he also had a slightly dodgy background. He was exposed by the Daily Mail some years earlier because he was with one of those companies which made money by enticing inadequate people to take a course that was supposed to fit them for the rougher world. It involved shouting at them and humiliating them and extracting money from them. So he was a fairly dodgy character although, by and large, fairly harmless. Very dapper chap he was: slim, blonde, always wore a pinstripe suit.
“One thing I knew about John was that his girlfriend was called Veronica Roberts, that she was a kind of hippy, and that she'd once lived with Kit Williams. One day, I'm sitting in my office, and John comes in with a strange expression on his face. And he says ‘Frank, if I were to tell you that I know where the golden hare was, what would you do about it?’ I said, ‘Well, I'd publish a story about it. Do you know?’ And he said ‘Well, yes. You know Ronnie used to be Kit Williams’ girlfriend? Well, she told me. ’
“I said ‘Let's go and dig it up, then, ’ but he said ‘No, no, it's not as easy as that. You've got to go there on the equinox, and you have to dig where a shadow falls’. We chatted about it for a bit and he went off and said he'd think about it all. Eventually, he left the company, and I more or less forgot about it.” (10)
Back in The Compty Arms, Guard and Compton finished up their drinks, and Guard announced it was time to move on to their next stop. “So we get in his car, and we go up to Hartington Street,” Compton said. “And it's a little house. As you enter the door, there's an open fire and a hob with a little kettle boiling on it. And all of a sudden this beautiful woman walks through the door. She's got long curly hair, lovely brown eyes. Very gentle and feminine. And this is Veronica. She was the former girlfriend of Kit Williams. Now John was living with her and, of course, she told him where the golden hare was buried.”
Guard, Roberts, Compton and his son Richard, then 14, made their first moonlit trip to Ampthill Park the next night. “Veronica stood in front of the cross, holding an earthenware pot identical to the one the hare was buried in,” Compton told me, pointing to a spot a few yards from the cross itself. “And she said ‘That's where it is’. We dug up about a metre deep and a metre wide and, as the earth came up, I was running my metal detector over it.”
That was the only trip where Compton saw Roberts visiting the cross, but the three men made several more digging trips in the week or so that followed. They always visited the cross at night, with Richard acting as look-out to warn of any early-morning joggers or other intruders nearby. “We dug up an area, I would say, at least 20 foot by ten foot,” Compton said. “And we must have gone well down below three or four foot. We carried on, night after night, over a period of seven to nine days. Not every day, but every couple of days or something like that.”
Guard led one final assault on the day of the Spring Equinox itself, but still they didn't find anything. “John did most of the digging,” Compton chuckled. “He kept on spurring me on, saying 'It's here , Eric, it's here. I can assure you. Oh, you can imagine my thoughts. I was getting fed up with it.”
Guard had kept Roberts happy by telling her he planned to sell the hare in America and give the proceeds to an animal rights group. They would need someone to act as the public face of their discovery, however, and Guard promised Compton £1,000 if he'd agree to take that job on. Presumably, he feared that his own connection with Roberts and the inside information she'd revealed would otherwise come out - and that was something he couldn't allow.
“He said to me ‘Eric, I want you to handle all the television and radio’,” Compton explained. “ ‘I'll pay you £1,000 for doing that. ’ I think John was going to prime me to say how it was - other than his being with Veronica Roberts, because she was going to be out of it. [...] There's a lot that he wanted to keep hidden.” By that time, though, no promise of cash could persuade Compton to continue, and he dropped out of the whole thing with no payment at all.
He and Guard had another encounter some time after their final digging trip together. “He came round to my house, and the door went banging,” Compton told me. “He said ‘Eric, you've been up there! You've found the hare! You've taken it! ’ I said ‘John, I have not been up there! ’ That was the end of the matter as far as I was concerned.”
Over 25 years had passed since these midnight digs when I spoke to Compton, so it's hardly surprising he could no longer recall the exact dates involved. Piecing the other evidence together, though, the most likely time seems to be early 1981. That would place Guard and Compton's own Spring Equinox visit in March of that year, well after the Sunday Times clue was published. It may also explain why Mike Barker noticed only the faintest depressions near the cross in January 1982. If I'm right, the ground Guard and Compton excavated would have had almost a year to recover by then, helping to disguise the fact that it had ever been disturbed.
Barker returned to Ampthill Park himself on February 18, 1982 - just over a month before the Spring Equinox - and this time, he brought a home-made inclinometer with him. Armed with this device, he was able to narrow his target area down to a much more manageable size, marking it clearly during daylight hours and then returning after dark to dig.
“I dug a hole about two feet square, and it was hard work,” he said. “I was digging up little bits of tile, and goodness knows what else. It wasn't easy digging - it was really tough. And I didn't find anything. I went down to arm's length, and then I expanded the hole to about six by four. [...] I was standing up to the waist in this big grave-like hole.”
It's this which provides the most likely explanation for Guard's tantrum at Compton's house. Without knowing the date of that tantrum, it's impossible to be sure, but my guess is that Guard saw evidence of Barker's digging at Ampthill Park, and that it was this which prompted him to assume Compton had been up there. “He took me up to Ampthill Park to show me the area of freshly-dug soil,” Compton recalled. “I said ‘John, we already dug that area up a long time ago - down to about three feet’. He started shouting ‘Who does have it, then? ’”
After two or three hours of exhausting digging, Barker gave up and decided to return on the day of the equinox itself to see where the cross's real shadow would fall at twelve noon. Two big holes had now been dug at what was clearly Williams' chosen spot, and yet still the hare remained undiscovered. The next development would surprise everyone.
Williams received the hand-written letter on Friday February 19, 1982, the day after Barker's digging session at Ampthill. Franked February 17, and posted in Dunstable, it reads:
“Dear Mr Williams,
“Please excuse me from not writing in my address, but if I am correct about the whereabouts of the hare and this letter fell in the wrong hands all my efforts over the past 18 months would be for nothing if I were to be followed to the site and it's difficult enough with it being a public place, I believe the hare to be in this area.”
There followed a rough map - shown above - depicting Ampthill Park's rugby field, the frogstone and Catherine's Cross, all in approximately the right positions relative to one another. Stretching north from the foot of the cross was a faint shadow, with an arrow and the word “HARE”.
The letter resumed:
“If I am correct, you will recognise the sketch. If I am not correct, I would like to know as the digging is very hard and I have spent far too much time searching for the hare you can reach me on [telephone number] please transfer the charge and ask for Ken.”
P.S It was also very hard to locate you.
P.P.S HAVE MANY OTHER CLUES AS WELL AS SKETCH.” (6)
Williams could see immediately that this map was correct, so he phoned the number given straight away and told the man who answered “You've got it!”
Far from seeming excited, the mysterious Ken announced wearily that he couldn't go out and dig up the hare that day because he had a cold. As they talked, it dawned on Williams that this man had understood very little of Masquerade's puzzle, and seemed to have stumbled on the hare more or less by accident. His full name, he said, was Ken Thomas, and he'd originally heard of the hare from September 1979's Nationwide broadcast.
Knowing what we now do about Masquerade's aftermath, it's impossible to tell how much of the account Thomas offered Williams is true. For what it's worth, though, he said he'd bought a copy of the book a few months after it was published, spotted the “One of Six to Eight” clue and decided that must mean Catherine of Aragon. As he happened to live near Kimbolton Castle where Catherine died in 1536, that's where he started searching.
That proved fruitless so, Thomas said, he then deduced from Bedfordshire's local newspaper coverage that Williams must live in the county, and narrowed the likely villages down to two. Driving round these villages in the late summer of 1981, he happened to pass the nearby Ampthill Park and decided to stop there to give his dog a run. Ampthill Park is only 20 miles from Kimbolton Castle but, until his visit there that day, Thomas said he hadn't known the park had any connection with Catherine. It was only when his dog happened to pee against the frogstone, he said, that the verse prompted him to notice Catherine's Cross.
Thomas told Williams that he'd returned to Ampthill later, and that this time he'd noticed five rectangular depressions in the grass, following a line to the north. These, he said, looked to be several months old. His seven or eight night-time visits to Ampthill Park which followed, he said, were spent digging in the gaps between the depressions, producing a series of holes each about two feet square but no buried treasure. Thomas told Williams he'd concealed all signs of this work carefully, and then left.
That description of a line of depressions stretching north of the cross is consistent with Eric Compton's account of his own work there with John Guard. “The procedure was that we dug a trench, roughly about three foot wide and three foot deep,” he told me as we stood next to the cross. “Then we'd backfill the trench with all that, cover it up with grass clippings and go another three foot across, three foot deep.” If I'm right in guessing that Guard and Compton's digging happened in early 1981, then the depressions they left would indeed have been several months old by late summer that year.
Gascoigne reproduces Thomas's version of events in his book, but clearly has his doubts. “Ken seems extremely vague about his astronomy,” he writes. “Although he apparently had a friend (even more reticent than himself) who helped him with the calculations and sometimes went digging with him.
“When I met Ken, several months after the discovery of the hare, he was still insisting that it had been buried to the magnetic north of the cross and that his earlier digging had been in the direction of true north (the exact opposite is the case). Before speaking to Kit he can hardly have understood the clue about the equinox - for that gives a precise length to the noon shadow and makes pointless Ken's procedure of digging along the entire length of the line.”
This was all a far cry from Mike Barker meticulously correcting his own measurements by that crucial six degrees to find the shadow's proper line. At a distance of 28 feet from the foot of the cross - the precise point where the hare was buried - magnetic north and true north will vary by nearly three feet, and that seems to be a distinction which Thomas had not understood.
Williams got more and more cagey as their telephone conversation progressed, and was careful to volunteer as little extra information as possible. Even so, Thomas managed to extract from him that the line of depressions in the soil was off-target, get a clearer idea of how far the hare lay from the cross and grasp that the equinox was important.
Cold or no cold, he reports returning to Ampthill next day: Saturday, February 20. He says he hadn't visited the site for a week, and so was shocked to discover the remains of Barker's grave-sized hole at what he now knew was almost certainly the right spot. Suspecting Williams had stolen the prize by digging it up overnight, he phoned the artist and was reassured to find him genuinely astonished by the news. Williams knew no-one had contacted Jonathan Cape, and that suggested the hare was still in place, so he told Thomas to go back to Ampthill Park and to dig again for himself.
Thomas says he made three more digging trips to Ampthill Park on the Saturday, Sunday and Monday nights, enlarging Barker's old hole but finding nothing. By now Williams was threatening to contact the press saying the hare must have been found by persons unknown, but Thomas persuaded him to delay a little longer.
On Wednesday, February 24, Thomas says, he returned to Ampthill Park in daylight, this time with his unidentified friend. Both men were dressed as council workers. They stretched a fence of official-looking tape around the target area, and set about digging again through the earth Thomas and Barker had both already over-turned and replaced. This time, Thomas says, they struck paydirt, spotting the earthenware casket at about 2:45 in the afternoon. Coloured exactly like the dirt that surrounded it, the casket would have been very easy to miss during the many night-time digs which preceded its discovery, and it's perfectly possible that Barker, Guard or Thomas had already uncovered it once and bundled it unseen back into the hole.
Thomas rang Williams to give him the news, and said he'd like the artist to be present when the hare was extracted from its casket. When Williams rang back next day, however, he was told Thomas could not be reached because he had collapsed and gone into hospital.
Tom Maschler was eager to get the publicity campaign surrounding the hare's discovery up and running, not only for its own sake but also because Cape's cheap paperback edition of Masquerade was already in the works. Suitably updated with the puzzle's full solution, and timed to coincide with the news coverage the hare's discovery was certain to produce, that edition promised to be another big seller. But getting the timing of all this right depended entirely on Thomas's co-operation, and suddenly he could not be reached. He remained impossible to contact for a full week, during which time Williams and Maschler had no choice but to keep the hare's discovery a secret.
Finally, Thomas got in touch again, and agreed to meet them to discuss what came next. “Suddenly, we were into this detective story,” Williams told O'Farrell. “He had specified we had to go to this hotel to meet him and see the jewel. My wife, myself and the publisher, no-one else whatsoever. No journalists or anybody. When we arrived there, we went to reception and they said ‘Oh yes, there's a letter waiting here for you’. He had a friend waiting in this hotel, who was looking out to see us coming across the car park - that there were just the three of us. And we were then sent to another hotel, and it just went on and on like this.”
When they finally did sit down together, Maschler managed to persuade Thomas that he couldn't hope to avoid the media's interest altogether, but only to the extent that he would agree to one television interview and one newspaper interview. The Sunday Times and BBC's Omnibus arts programme were duly lined up for a couple of exclusives.
After a last-minute change of both date and venue from Thomas, The Sunday Times' two reporters finally got their interview at a Crest Motel on the M1 on Friday, March 12. Any later than that, and they would have been hard-pressed to meet the deadlines for that Sunday's March 14 paper - and that would have left them well behind the BBC news report which they knew was scheduled for the same day. Their interviewee was happy to admit “Ken Thomas” was not his real name, but insisted that was the only one they used. Even his dog had to be granted an alias to protect its real identity.
Thomas's other appointment that day was an evening one at Ampthill Park itself, where Williams, Gascoigne and an Omnibus crew were already waiting to film him. He threatened to call this appearance off several times as the day wore on, but eventually turned up just as darkness was falling. Williams dipped the casket in hot water until the wax inside melted, while Thomas watched. He seemed anxious to leave as little of his face visible as possible, hunching a hooded coat and scarf against his chin, pulling a cap down as far as it would go over his eyes and tilting his face away from the camera's glare.
“We were suspicious,” Williams said. “He was strange in the way that he wanted total anonymity if he was going to talk to the press at all. He had to be in disguise and everything. And I thought ‘This isn't what I had planned’. And then, when he showed us all his workings-out, I thought ‘I don't know. He's found this out by mistake some way.’ I couldn't work out how he'd done it.” (7)
Gascoigne calls the Ampthill costume Thomas's “full disguise”, contrasting it sharply with “his own very different persona”. Whatever the man looked like in everyday life, it seems, it certainly wasn't the scruffy farmer he presented to Omnibus. “After the initial fuss had died down, Ken Thomas agreed to meet me for lunch,” Gascoigne writes. “With memories of his down-at-heel appearance, I was astonished to meet an extremely svelte and well-dressed man in his forties, with perfectly groomed hair, a perceptible aura of aftershave, and several very large gold rings on his fingers. [...] Ken confessed that he had chosen his [Ampthill] disguise precisely because it was so unlike his usual self.” (6)
Thomas travelled down to London next day - the Saturday - to record an interview in the Omnibus studio, which he insisted on conducting in the same clothes he'd worn at Ampthill and with his face blurred by a frosted glass screen. His fiancee Elizabeth watched as the interview was recorded. The sound engineers asked Thomas if he wanted his voice distorted to disguise that too, but he said that would not be necessary.
The couple returned to the studio on Sunday to view the edited film before its transmission that evening. Just 40 minutes before it was due to go out, Elizabeth asked how Thomas's voice would be disguised on air. Told that it would not be, she promptly passed out and had to be removed from the studio by ambulance. Thomas told the Omnibus team that she had a heart condition, and claimed this was why he'd been so keen to avoid publicity. The producers frantically jerry-rigged a series of telephone links to detour Thomas's words on their way to the transmitter, each one adding a little more to the distortion produced. That would have to do.
Gascoigne describes Elizabeth's sudden fit in his book, concluding with the words: “Cynics will say she passed out because she knew Ken had something to hide.” Given his bizarre behaviour since first contacting Williams, who could blame them?
Mike Barker first heard the hare had been found when Celia called him into the living room on the evening of Sunday, March 14, to hear an item on the BBC evening news. Jan Leeming was telling the nation that Masquerade's treasure hunt was over at last.
“I went into the living room, and the television was on,” Barker said. “There's a helicopter shot of Catherine's Cross, and I could see my hole and the terrible mess it had made. Apparently, somebody had got the hare, and I couldn't for the life of me understand how that had happened.” He swallowed his shock and tried to focus on what Leeming was saying. “The bizarre quest ended in a park near the village of Ampthill in Bedfordshire,” she announced. “The finder, who prefers to remain anonymous, could find his persistence has earned him up to ten times the pendant's original value of £3,000.” (11)
The picture changed again, switching to the Omnibus film from two days before. This showed Williams at Catherine's Cross after dark, melting the wax from the casket to extract the hare as a heavily-swathed Thomas looked on. Leeming tied up the item with a reminder that evening's Omnibus would have the full story, and then handed over to weatherman Michael Fish.
“The most awful thing for me was that somebody had cracked the puzzle and got there before us,” Barker said. “That was the key thing - not necessarily that they had got the hare. I wasn't too bothered about that. [...] I wanted precedence on solving that puzzle for my sake and John's.”
The Omnibus edition which followed the news that night showed Thomas's interview, his face blurred by the frosted glass screen between him and the camera and his voice distorted by the crew's last-minute telephone rig. For some reason - probably cock-up rather than conspiracy - that whole segment of the programme is missing from the BBC's archive tape. Everything else has been preserved, though, including Rod Argent's all-star band closing the programme with one of the songs from Masquerade's hit musical at the Young Vic.
Barker got up and called Rousseau. He and Sheila had been out all evening and, although their daughters had seen the BBC's evening bulletin, they hadn't yet plucked up the courage to tell their parents what it contained. “Bad news.” Barker began when Rousseau picked up the phone.
As the two men reeled from this development, Frank Branston was puzzling away at its implications too. “From the evidence in the Sunday Times story, you could tell that Ken Thomas was most likely local,” he told me. “For one thing, he was walking his dog in Ampthill Park. The other thing was, his spokesman was a well-known solicitor in Bedford called Ken Borneo, so it was fairly obvious be must be local. I rang the reporter on The Sunday Times and said ‘I think this guy didn't find it the way he said. There's some connection with Kit Williams.’ But he pooh-poohed it.
“I knew John Guard's mother, and I saw her in the street,” he continued. “I said, ‘John must be feeling a bit fed up about the Golden Hare,’ and she said ‘God, yeah. He came round with The Sunday Times and he was going round the house yelling and kicking the skirting boards.’ Then I saw John and he was saying ‘Ah, what a bummer,’ and all this kind of thing. And to be fair to John, he was quite convincing.”
The national newspapers followed up the Thomas story all week, faithfully repeating the version of events he'd given to Williams. They were particularly pleased with the notion that all these eggheads could have been defeated by Masquerade's puzzle, only to see the hare finally discovered by a dog who stopped to pee on a random stone. This was the single aspect of the story which every newspaper emphasised, and it's still the one thing which most casual readers know - or think they know - about Masquerade today.
On the morning after the news broke, Barker wrote to Jonathan Cape with a letter for them to forward to Williams. This contained the painstaking answer to the puzzle which he and Rousseau had put together, tackling every aspect of the book step by step to produce Gascoigne's “perfect solution”. He mailed this letter the same day, not knowing that it would simply sit at Cape's offices until enough letters had accumulated to make it worth sending them on to Williams.
A few days later, Barker's sister managed to find Williams' home address in a library directory. This time, Barker decided a telegram was in order and sent Williams the very simple message “CLOSE BY AMPTHILL”. This, of course, was the confirming acrostic from Masquerade's master riddle and could only be known by someone who'd solved that riddle in its proper way. As soon as Williams received the telegram, he knew Barker and Rousseau had cracked it. The letter arrived a day or two later, setting out their full solution in exactly the terms Williams had envisaged but, although he felt bad for them, there was nothing he could do.
Many of the readers who'd been struggling with the book themselves resented Thomas's discovery, believing the secrecy he insisted on must surely mean there was dirty work underway. This resentment deepened when it became clear that Thomas had no interest in exhibiting his find, despite the fact that London's Victoria & Albert Museum had already invited him to do so. There were thousands of Masqueraders in Britain who would have loved a chance to see the hare for themselves, and they felt that Thomas was conspicuously failing to play the game.
Some blamed Williams, suggesting he had somehow colluded with Thomas or even that the blurred figure they'd seen on Omnibus must be Williams himself. Soon, yet another anagram was added to the dozens Masquerade had already produced. “Kit Williams” re-arranged neatly to spell “I will mask it”, and some saw this as evidence that the artist must be duping them.
Williams published one more puzzle book - 1984's The Bee on the Comb - and then returned to the quiet life of a country painter. The book's quest had not ended remotely as he or his fans would have wished but that's where matters rested for the next six years.
Masquerade returned to the headlines in November 1988, when Sotheby's announced it would soon be auctioning the hare on behalf of a bankrupt company called Haresoft. This was the computer games company Thomas had set up a few years earlier, using a bank loan secured by the hare itself. When it became clear that loan wasn't going to be repaid, the bank had called in its security, and now wanted to turn Masquerade's treasure into cash.
Memories of the whole affair were still fresh enough to get the auction a lot of press. Anxious to ensure a good turn-out of potential bidders, the bank even allowed Blue Peter's Caron Keating to wear the medallion on-air. Introducing the item with one of Masquerade's paintings, she then dramatically unzipped her jacket to reveal the hare gleaming against her jet-black jumper. “It must have taken Kit Williams ages,” she confided as she talked young viewers through its decorative details. (12)
The auction itself came early in December, when the hare fetched £31,900 from an anonymous telephone bidder - five times Sotheby's estimate. Williams bid for it himself, but had to drop out at £6,000.
Branston saw the results of the auction reported in that Sunday's Observer. Now that he knew the name of Thomas's company, he decided it would be worth giving the hare's discovery another long, hard look. “When I got into work next day, I looked into the company records, and the director of Haresoft was this chap Dugald Thompson, who lived about 15 miles from Ampthill,” he told me. “He had to list any previous directorships, and there was Clayprint!”
Clayprint, Branston knew, was a company John Guard had once set up, the idea being to make a fortune by letting companies stamp corporate slogans or logos on to the bricks of their buildings. “He used to come up with ideas that never worked in any kind of commercial way,” Branston told me. “I think they sold about two or three bricks.”
Never mind Clayprint's failure, though: here was evidence not only of Ken Thomas's real name, but also of a direct link between him and Guard. “Dugald Thompson was a director of Clayprint, of which another director was John Guard, who was living with Ronnie Roberts, who was Kit Williams' former girlfriend,” Branston said triumphantly. “So we had the chain there.”
Branston called in one of his reporters and briefed him to go and see Thompson while Branston himself set off to visit Guard. He made sure both he and the reporter cornered their quarries at the same time so the two men would have no chance to cook up a story together.
“The reporter who went to see Thompson didn't get much out of him,” he said. “And I didn't get that much from Guard. But he wasn't denying it. As I left, after chatting to him for half an hour or so, he said ‘Well, in the end, the only one who made any money out of it was the bank.’ I took that as being reasonable confirmation. In fact, you didn't really need that much confirmation, because the chain was the point.”
Branston's assumption now was that the little performance Guard and his mother had staged for him after the hare's discovery was simply an attempt to put the editor of their local paper off the scent. “Guard and Thompson must have found it eventually,” he said. “They clearly didn't want it known that it had come out via Kit Williams' girlfriend, so they'd have some difficulty in how to make it public. But I do know their hand was forced, because they saw signs of digging there. Whether that was the teachers or somebody else, I don't know, but I think that's what forced their hand into finding a way to bring it out into the open.”
When I asked Branston if he thought Guard and Thompson could ever have found the hare without Roberts' help, he laughed aloud and said: “No! Not a chance in hell. John Guard was OK, but he wasn't that bright.”
Branston wrote up the full story for Bedfordshire on Sunday, giving the paper a considerable scoop. The Sunday Times' Barrie Penrose followed this up a few days later, leading his own story on the revelation that Williams now felt he'd been “conned” by Thompson. “Williams says he has always had reservations about the find,” Penrose began. “Now, new evidence obtained by The Sunday Times, has convinced him there was a complex plot to find the hare, involving a former girlfriend of his, late-night digs with metal detectors, and even militant animal rights groups. ‘This tarnishes Masquerade, and I am shocked by what has emerged,’ Williams said last night.” (13)
The story went on to spell out the chain connecting Thomas, Thompson, Guard, Roberts and Williams, just as Branston had discovered it. Eric Compton's role was mentioned too, along with the £1,000 Guard had offered him, Guard's promise that the hare's proceeds would fund animal rights groups and the plan to sell it in America. Then it continued:
“Roberts said last week that, from the first time she met Guard, he was interested in her connection with Williams and that he introduced her to Thompson so that he could question her about the jewel's whereabouts. She now concedes that it was she who pointed Thompson towards Ampthill, where she had often visited Williams in the 1970s. [...] Roberts will say only that she ‘cannot remember’ if she went on the dig; ‘I don't say they're liars, but my mind is now blank’. She does, however admit that, when the hare was found, it was Guard who told her that ‘Ken Thomas’ was Thompson. ‘It was mind-boggling. I was very worried that the link might be made’.”
Penrose closed his story with one final quote from the man who'd started it all.
“Williams said: ‘I never really believed that he [Thomas] had solved the puzzle, but I had no proof. This new evidence convinces me. [...] I have tried to think why Veronica would get involved, as she was not interested in money. The only thing she would do it for is animal rights groups.”
Returning to this topic 20 years later for our Radio 4 programme, Williams recalled a picnic trip he'd made with Roberts while working on Masquerade. “I had gone to the spot, on the exact day, on equinox, to sit and wait for the shadow to come,” he said. “So I'd know exactly where it was. And I had taken with me a little magnet. So I sat and waited for the sun to come round at mid-day and, at that moment, I just pushed the magnet into the ground, so I knew at night I could find it. She didn't see any of that at all. But whether, later on, when we parted, she thought ‘That was a strange thing that we did that day.’ That's the only way I can think of that it came about.”
Asked the same question by the BBC Four team, he added: “I said I wanted to just sit here and have the picnic. I didn't tell her about the magnet, and she didn't know about the magnet. But she must have guessed.”
Barker and Rousseau felt the Sunday Times story explained a lot of the shenanigans they'd been unable to understand at the time of the hare's discovery. O'Farrell asked them if they'd felt cheated by the whole thing. “A bit,” Barker replied. “Wouldn't you?”
The Whistledown team and I started work on the programme we'd sold to Radio 4 early in 2009. Naturally enough, Williams and Gascoigne were two of the people we were keenest to interview, but in the event both said ‘No’. They'd each had their fill of Masquerade obsessives 30 years ago, and neither man wanted to risk poking his head above the parapet again for fear of provoking another flood of mad letters. They wished us luck in making the programme, but politely declined to take part.
That was a disappointment, of course, but we knew there was plenty of Williams audio available in the BBC archive, so it wasn't an insurmountable problem. We drew up a list of interviewees covering all the other aspects of the story we wanted to include, and got to work with them.
John Guard was already dead by then - the victim of what Branston called “a mixture of drink and drugs” - and all our efforts to find Veronica Roberts proved fruitless. We asked Dugald Thompson to appear on the programme several times, but he always refused, saying he preferred to reserve his own account for a book he was working on. As soon as the book's remaining legal difficulties were cleared, he told me, then he'd be able to tell the real story which only he knew.
Speaking after the programme's transmission to a local BBC radio station, he continued to dispute everyone else's version of how the hare was found. “Dugald Thompson maintained that he found the pendant on his own,” the station's website reported. “However, he also said that, because of legal reasons, he still can't reveal the full story about how he discovered its location”. (14)
Working in fits and starts between other projects, we gradually got the programme together and, by the beginning of June, we had a rough cut assembled. Our delivery deadline was already looming when Williams called, saying he'd decided to give us an interview after all. This was rapidly arranged, and Emily set about trimming back all the other interviews to make some room in the programme's 28 minutes running time. Some of the other interviewees were annoyed to find their own contributions cut to the bone in the programme's final edit, but we simply had no choice.
Speaking on the later BBC Four documentary, Williams explained that he'd decided to do their own programme because it promised to concentrate as much on his recent work as on Masquerade itself. But it had seemed churlish to speak to the television crew while turning us down, and now he was glad he'd changed his mind. “Whenever in the past any mention of it came on, in a quiz game on television or something like that, it would spawn lots of letters and so on,” he explained. “I was always worried it would come to the surface again and disturb what I was doing. But no, it was really nice.”
Our programme, titled The Grand Masquerade, went out on July 11, 2009, closing with an appeal from Mike Barker asking whoever now owned the hare to release it for an exhibition of some kind. Five days later, a news website called This Is Gloucestershire repeated Barker's words, but mis-attributed them to Williams himself. “Masquerade author appeals for hare,” it headlined the story. The Independent picked up on this next day (“Author calls for owner of jeweled amulet that bewitched the nation to come forward”), and that started it bouncing round the internet again. (15, 16)
I followed all this with some amusement, happy to see that our little baby was still spreading its ripples in the media pond. The real shock came a month later, when the BBC's website carried a story announcing that the family who now owned the hare had heard The Grand Masquerade at their home in Egypt. The man who'd bought it at Sotheby's back in December 1988 had done so as a Christmas present for his wife, it emerged, and it was their grand-daughter who'd heard the programme and its appeal for the hare to be shown. (17)
Luckily, BBC Four was already working on its own Kit Williams programme, and this provided a perfect opportunity to fly the hare back home and reunite Williams with his creation for the cameras. This was duly done, and the medallion's return became not only a fitting climax for BBC Four's programme, but also a handy peg for the press conference launching the station's new season. “It looks great,” Williams told the assembled reporters. “It's very emotional, because I had not remembered it being as delicate as it is. Then, when I picked it up, the little bells jingled. It sparkles in a way that I had forgotten as well. For 21 years, I had no idea where it was.” (18)
After verifying the hare's authenticity at Durrants Hotel, Williams took it to the nearby Portal Gallery, where he planned to make it the centrepiece of his new exhibition. He saved this as a surprise for the guests packing the gallery that day, who had come expecting to see only a selection of the paintings Williams had done since dropping from the public eye. The BBC Four team invited Barker and Rousseau to attend the exhibition with their families, but deliberately gave them no clue that the hare would be there.
“All they said when they got me on the phone was that they would really like to have us at the gallery,” Rousseau told me a few weeks later. “Mike absolutely couldn't go, as he and Celia had promised to look after his sister following an operation and there was no going back on that.” The researchers dropped some heavy hints to Barker that something special was afoot, finally telling him outright that the hare was going to be there. Still he couldn't be budged. “I was sworn to secrecy that I should not tell John,” Barker said. “And I didn't.”
This secrecy almost scuppered his friend's plans to attend too. “When Mike told me he couldn't go, I said to him that I wouldn't go either, as we were partners in this thing,” Rousseau said. “He persuaded me otherwise.” (8)
It was only when the Rousseau clan got to London that the TV crew mentioned the possibility of an interview. When John reached the gallery he, like everyone else, saw only Williams' latest paintings and a shrouded glass display cabinet in the middle of the room. “The instant Kit went to that cabinet, I knew the hare would be in it,” he told me. “I experienced a great wave of emotion when I thought of all the happy times my family and Mike and Celia had chasing the thing and how much my late wife Sheila would have loved to see it.”
BBC Four's footage of this moment shows Williams standing next to the shrouded cabinet, calling for hush, and then giving his guests a quick reminder of the hare's history. “A member of the family who now own it contacted the radio programme and said 'We have it!',” he announces. “'It's on the other side of the world!'. So, yesterday it arrived by aeroplane, and,” - whipping back the cloth - “tomorrow it goes back!” The camera zooms in to frame Rousseau's face as he leans forward to see the prize which had eluded him for so long. He looks close to tears. “It's overwhelming,” he says. “It's just a bit of metal, after all, but it represented something quite enormous. The only thing I've regretted in the 30 years since then and now is not seeing it. Now I have seen it - and I'm so grateful.”
“I was touched by the generosity of the hare's owners in responding to my appeal on the radio programme and allowing it to come to the Portal,” Barker added later. “As for not seeing the hare personally; well, I told the lady from the BBC that I wasn't particularly interested in jewellery but more interested in puzzles. That's still true and I would dearly love to know for sure when, exactly, that hare came out of the ground.” (8)
Appendix I: Rod Argentís musical Masquerade
The Young Vic's Masquerade musical looked all set for a West End transfer when the hare was unearthed in March 1982.
“We had a full house every night for three weeks,” Rod Argent, the show's composer, said. “And we had some great feedback. But without the added bonus of the jewel not having been found, it made it quite hard to have it rooted in anything, you know? That did seem to make a big difference.”(10)
In the end, the musical ran for another two weeks after the hare's discovery, but then closed with all hopes of a bigger theatre forgotten.
Argent penned his first international hit at the tender age of 19, when his band The Zombies made She's Not There a US number 3 in 1964. More hits followed with his next band Argent - including Hold Your Head Up's UK number 5 - but then he was ready to try something new. “Argent split up in 1975, and I deliberately wanted to move into different musical fields,” he told me. “I just wanted to spread my wings a bit - write for television, films and produce other artists. So that's more or less where I was when the Masquerade musical came about,”
In 1980, Kit Williams had sold Masquerade's musical rights to Hit & Run Music, a company owned by the rock band Genesis. Tony Smith, the band's manager was given the job of finding someone to write songs for a Masquerade show.
The first idea was to use many different songwriters, each of whom would contribute one number to the finished show. “That seemed a crazy idea right off the bat,” Argent said. “To make a musical work, you've got to have some sort of continuity of idea and story. But I thought 'Well, I can write a song. That's absolutely no problem.' So I wrote this song called Masquerade.”
Williams liked the song, and asked him to write three or four more. Argent agreed, but only on the condition that, if Williams liked those too, he would be allowed to write the whole show. “Kit loved those songs, and said ‘We want you to write the musical’,” Argent said. “At that point, I discovered that Tony had already employed Frank Dunlop as the director and the idea was to workshop the musical at the Young Vic.”
Argent started serious work on the show around March 1981, when Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats was preparing its first West End run. Argent had agreed to join Cats' orchestra as first piano for the show's opening five weeks, and used his downtime in rehearsals to study Williams' book. “I remember sitting in the auditorium in Cats, looking through Masquerade, trying to get to grips with the structure of the piece and how it was going to go musically,” he said.
Argent produced his old hardback copy of Masquerade, and began flipping through the pencilled notes he'd added to its margins. “Jack should begin unaccompanied and the frog should join in unaccompanied,” he read. “That was our first idea, and we did end up with it unaccompanied. ‘At the very beginning, the Sun and the Moon move together. All the while, violins hold a mysterious dissonance. At the moment of eclipse, there's an earth-shattering bang to frighten the wits out of the audience.’
“And then you had the Sun singing I'm Looking for a Friend, and then the Moon singing My Lord the Sun. The two of them sort of come together, and it ends with the last few lines of the Sun singing I'm Looking for a Friend Today.”
The first handful of Argent's songs for the show were premiered at Lloyd Webber's own Hampshire arts festival in July 1981. “I've found the original programme here,” Argent said, shuffling through the papers on his coffee table.
“Performed by Rod Argent, Colin Blunstone and Stephanie Lawrence. Accompanied by John Heisman, John Mole and Barbara Thompson.” He was too modest to say so, but that gave the band two ex-Zombies, a star of West End musicals, two former members of jazz-rockers Coliseum and a highly-respected saxophonist - not bad for a private event that then drew fewer than 100 people.
Somewhere in that audience was the singer Marti Webb, who was then working on a new album with Lloyd Webber as her producer.
“Andrew said he'd like to use the song Masquerade on her album,” Argent explained. “And that was the only one which actually found its way on to a record.”
Appearing as the penultimate track on Webb's 1981 album Won't Change Places, Argent's Masquerade lyrics draw heavily on Williams' imagery.
“What I'd do is take sentences from the text as much as possible, and weave them into the songs,” he explained. “I tried to incorporate some of the things that people are saying in the riddles. I wanted to reflect the book even though we, of necessity, had to make the story very different from this loose, riddly fairy tale.”
Williams' paintings were a big part of Argent's inspiration too. He turned to his copy of the book again, and pointed to the hare sat bolt upright on a tree-stump. “There's a feeling you get from the pictorial representation of the hare,” he said. “I tried to reflect the sort of character you get from looking at him. And I think that's true of all the pictures.”
Throughout this whole process, Argent was working with Dunlop's stage adaptation, the two men trying to dovetail music and plot into a cohesive whole. But one thing they couldn't do was play off any of Williams' clues in the book. “I had no idea what the clues were,” Argent said. “And it was a major point that there shouldn't be any further clues in the musical. Kit made a point of saying that from the beginning.”
By the time he'd finished, Argent had about 20 pieces of music - most of them full songs. He showed me the old reel-to-reel tape boxes containing his original demos. The hand-written notes scrawled on the box lids listed each tape's contents: I'm in the Dark, The Awakening, Love Let Me Be Your Slave, Looking for a Friend, Devotion, My Lord the Sun, Making of the Jewel, Masquerade, Choose a Number, Which One is Me and Towards the Morning.
“This is me on a little four-track tape machine, making the demos of the original songs,” he laughed. “I don't have a tape machine any more, so I couldn't play them through to see how they sounded.”
Meanwhile, back at The Young Vic, casting was proceeding apace. Roger Rees, fresh from his triumph as the RSC's Nicholas Nickleby, took on the role of Jack Hare. Sarah Brightman, already performing in Cats, joined the cast as Tara Treetops, and the chorus included a then-unknown Sinitta Renet. Brightman had enjoyed a big UK hit three years earlier with I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper. Sinitta would have to wait until 1986 for her own first hit - So Macho - but it was clear the cast didn't lack star power. The crew was equally distinguished, led by Tony-winning choreographer Arlene Phillips.
Brightman helped to stir up some publicity for the show by donning a tight stretch leotard before talking to journalists outside the theatre in early April. “The music is so good I wanted to be part of it,” she told them. (19)
The Young Vic was booked for three-weeks starting in March - the idea being to get the audience's feedback every night and use that to lick the production into its final shape. The Observer interviewed Rees just as the show was opening, and he told them he was very much enjoying flying about the stage on Jack Hare's wires, but that audiences should not come along expecting to see him in a bunny costume. “I look more like a farm worker,” he said. ”And the ears could easily be a couple of feathers.” (20)
Argent's clearest memories now are of the sheer chaos of trying to get everything ready for opening night. “It was very exciting,” he said. “The band were great. Everybody was 100% into it and loved it.”
Critics were banned from The Young Vic's performances on the grounds that Masquerade was still a work in progress. This spared the show the risk of any bad reviews, but led to a few snide remarks of its own. The Daily Telegraph, for example, dubbed this run “the longest try-out period for any musical outside America”. The Standard's diarist - who must have paid for his own ticket - praised Argent's music, but added that the show as a whole was “was somewhat too strong on whimsy”. (21, 22)
The run was just nine days old when news broke that the hare had been found, and from that point on the writing was on the wall. There was some consolation when Omnibus invited Argent to perform the song Masquerade on the same evening's programme. He led the band on piano, while Marti Webb sang the same arrangement she'd featured on her album and Julian Lloyd Webber guested on cello.
Perhaps the strangest thing in this whole story is the fact that Masquerade's musical ended up being written by someone who - unbeknownst to him - lived less than four miles from the hare's hiding place.
“It's a very strange co-incidence that Kit ended up liking my music and that we did the musical together, ” Argent said. “After the jewel was found, he said to me ‘I was scared stiff you'd know where it was, because it was buried in the next village to where you lived’. But even though the thing's been found now, and I have read the story of it, I'm still not sure what the clues mean.”
Argent views the whole episode today with great affection. “I looked on the whole thing as an interesting challenge, ” he said. “When you're writing songs for an album, you start off with a blank sheet of paper, and there's nothing to guide you. But with a musical, you've got all sorts of reference points. If somebody says ‘Look, I think we need a song here that portrays this, and has this sort of direction, that really gives you something to hang your hat on.
“Sometimes, I was going home at night and writing a song for the following morning. And I found that quite invigorating. ”
Appendix II: Losing your mind in a London drain
Nearly two million people joined the treasure hunt which Masquerade inspired, but only Richard Dale went so far as to sacrifice his sanity in pursuit of the golden hare.
Dale - not his real name - first saw Masquerade at a friend's house near his Philadelphia home on August 24, 1981. He was immediately captivated by the puzzle, persuaded his friend to give him the book, and set about researching its solution.
Williams had specified that the prize medallion was buried somewhere in the UK, so Dale began with the only source of British maps he had available: a copy of the London A-Z. He rapidly concluded that the hare was buried near West Middlesex Drainage Works in Hounslow (page 97, square 4J) and booked himself a cheap flight across the Atlantic.
When he arrived in Hounslow, he searched the area for a while, and then settled on a drain cover in Oak Lane which seemed significant. He prised it up, and fished out a five-and-half inch ceramic plug from the drain wall. Dale pocketed the plug and took it back to his hotel room. Once he'd cleaned it up, he decided he could see the initials “KW” (for “Kit Williams”) on its surface.
Next morning, when Jonathan Cape, Williams' publisher, opened its doors for business, Dale was already waiting on the step. He explained his discovery to three different people there, all of whom told him as gently as possible that he was mistaken.
Convinced they were lying, Dale called The Sunday Times instead, where three journalists agreed to meet with him. Unfortunately, they proved just as unable to detect the “KW” initials as the Jonathan Cape staff had been, and Dale found himself back on the street.
He was still convinced he was right, but felt sure now that he was being asked to pass some additional test before his victory could be acknowledged.
He began to see everything around him - a London cabbie's casual conversation, a scuffle in the local pub - as vital clues to the conspiracy. Back home in Philadelphia, he matched his own experiences to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, and allocated roles from the book to his own tormentors. Any fresh information which contradicted his convictions was simply evidence of how cunning his enemies could be in laying a false trail.
“I convinced myself that Kit Williams' book was a media masquerade,” he later wrote. “Performed in print, on television, involving perhaps hundreds of people in every country where the book has been published. The biggest masquerade in the history of mankind.” (6)
And then, on March 14, 1982, Williams announced that Ken Thomas had found the real hare medallion - not in Hounslow, but in Ampthill, near Bedford. When he heard this news, Dale assumed the development was just one more twist in the global conspiracy against him.
His suspicions were further raised when Thomas insisted on hiding behind frosted glass for his one and only television appearance.
Were Williams and his cronies indirectly acknowledging that the hunt was over, but substituting an actor for Dale? Could Thomas even be Williams himself?
For reasons which remain unclear, Dale decided the extra task he was expected to perform must involve toilet paper. He mailed Williams a roll from Philadelphia and then, concluding this had probably been stolen by UK postal workers, followed it up with a long strip on which he had written the entire Sermon on the Mount.
Finally, he decided that Agatha Christie must be behind the whole cruel plot. After all, she had died in 1976, the year Williams began work on Masquerade, and left quite enough money in her estate to fund the whole scheme. Who better than a detective novelist to dream up the infinite complexities involved?
In 1983, Dale finally agreed to seek psychiatric help. It would be another five years before the true story behind Thomas's find emerged.
It's easy to laugh at Dale's delusions - a process I've been happily nudging along here. But we should not forget there was a great deal of genuine suffering involved too. He first told his story in a series of letters to Bamber Gascoigne, who was then researching his Masquerade history Quest for the Golden Hare. He allowed Gascoigne to reproduce extracts from these letters only on the condition that their author be given the pseudonym Richard Dale.
“When I was alone with my thoughts, whether in my apartment, at the gym, or sitting on my front step with one of the dogs, I would often start to cry,” he told Gascoigne. “I was frightened by what I perceived as an enormous responsibility - being identified for the rest of my life as The Keeper of the Jewel of Masquerade. [...] My tears were as schizophrenic as my behaviour, brought on by the unlikely combination of fear and overwhelming joy.”
Gascoigne's last letter from Dale came in November of 1982, begging him not to write any more as Dale feared his own disturbed mind would spin further conspiracies from even Gascoigne's most innocent remarks.
“Do what you want with my 'confessions',” he wrote. “But, please, please, no more correspondence. My account may have sounded sane, but I am still in a great deal of very peculiar pain.”
This is an expanded extract from my Masquerade piece in The Idler's Spring 2005 edition (Idler 35). The information is drawn from Gascoigne's book.
This piece completes my trilogy on remarkable 20th Century treasure hunts. You can find the other essays here (Treasure Hunt Riots) and here (Lobby Lud).
For more information on Masquerade, including a page-by-page guide to the book's paintings, visit Dan Amrich's website: www.bunnyears.net/kitwilliams/.
As I write this in February 2010, the Radio 4 Masquerade documentary is still available online via this BBC website. The RealPlayer prompt you'll need is at bottom of their story.
1) The Man Behind The Masquerade (BBC Four, December 2, 2009).
2) Publisher, by Tom Maschler (Picador, 2005)
3) Start The Week (BBC Radio 4, July 5, 1982)
4) Profile (BBC Radio 4, February 21, 1985)
5) Masquerade: Kit Williams Tells The Answer to The Riddle, by Williams Williams (Jonathan Cape, 1982).
6) Quest for the Golden Hare, by Bamber Gascoigne (Jonathan Cape, 1983).
7) The Grand Masquerade (BBC Radio 4, July 11, 2009).
8) E-mail correspondence, January 2010.
9) Friday Night Saturday Morning (BBC 2, February 22, 1980).
10) Personal interview, April 2009.
11) Nine O'Clock News, BBC 1, March 14, 1982.
12) Blue Peter, BBC 1, November 24, 1988.
13) The Sunday Times, December 11, 1988. The Sunday Times gives Veronica's surname as “Robertson” rather than the “Roberts” used elsewhere. I've changed their reference here to avoid confusion.
14) BBC Three Counties website, August 5, 2009
15) This Is Gloucestershire, July 16, 2009
16) The Independent, July 17, 2009 (http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/mysterious-golden-hare-still-casting-its-spell-30-years-on-1750107.html).
17) BBC News website, August 20, 2009 (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/arts_and_culture/8212244.stm).
18) The Daily Telegraph, August 20, 2009 (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/6059930/Masquerade-author-Kit-Williams-reunited-with-lost-golden-hare.html)
19) Evening Standard, February 1982.
20) The Observer, March 7, 1982.
21) The Daily Telegraph, April 4, 1982.
22) Evening Standard, April 2, 1982.