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Thursday, 24 October 2013

The BFI Gothic: The Dark Heart Of Film (Part 2) - Dead of Night (1972) & Classic Ghost Stories of M R James (1986)

DEAD OF NIGHT (1972)


DVD Release Date: 28 Oct 2013

Featuring: Anna Cropper, Clive Swift, Edward Petherbridge, Peter Barkworth, Anna Massey, Sylvia Kay, Jaqueline Pearce, Julian Holloway and Katya Wyeth.

Directed by: Don Taylor, Rodney Bennett and Paul Ciappessoni.

After bathing in the rather splendid Gothic waters of Robin Redbreast (see my previous blog entry of peril) it was time to for me move onto the 2nd preview delicacy that the marvellous people at the BFI had forwarded my way as part of their magnificent Gothic:The Dark Heart of Film season.  Once again my not so onerous task was to sit through another highly sought after classic of television and British Horror from the 1970's. It's a dirty job, but someone has got to do it - and I'm just the man for a dirty job.

Ahh, the 1970's, a much maligned and much celebrated decade in equal measures. I was a child of the seventies and therefore many of my personal memories are seen through my own personal (& much used) pair of rose-tinted glasses. As a consequence, my recollections of being a very young kid growing up through those years are mostly positive. The seventies was a decade of contractions here in the UK- on the debit side it was a time of political and social upheaval, the weekly strikes, power cuts, terrible fashions and IRA bombings. Oh yes, there was also Margaret bloody Thatcher coming to power…..maybe my rose-tinted glasses need cleaning. However, on the plus side the seventies also gave us David Bowie, Punk Rock, Star Wars and space hoppers….so it wasn't all bad.

What certainly cannot be denied about the 1970's was the quality of television production. It was a different world than the controlled and often insipid programming that was to come afterwards. The Seventies were a true golden period for dark and sinister drama, with the Christmas periods benefiting greatly with an abundance of horror fare. A Ghost Story for Christmas which ran through most of the decade, The Stone Tape (1972) An atmospheric modern ghost story, and Count Dracula (1977) all telling well crafted tales of horror and dread. More importantly, there was no dumbing down of the material to meet the lowest common audience denominator, nor was there much practice of exaggerating the horror genre into becoming cliched and predictable.

The 1972 series Dead of Night is a legendary horror anthology series released in November of that year. The bad news is that four out of the five episodes have not survived their dispatch to the BBC archives after the cost-cutting wiping of used tapes to record new programmes.

The good news is that the three episodes that do survive are perfect examples of the quality and themes that heightened the reputation of the series, both when it was first broadcast and subsequently in the years afterwards. Apart from the quality of the chills and thrills that the series offered, what resonates with the collection of episodes was the ability to adapt traditional Gothic themes such as emotional repression, supernatural visitations and voluptuous bosoms heaving in the midst of stressful romantic obsessions. The skill of the programme makers was the ability to transfer these traditional Gothic elements to a contemporary middle-class suburban setting with all it's political and social complexities.

Remember, this is a time when the audience were often treated with genuine respect and rarely bared witness to any dumbed-down horror during prime time. The Dead of Night series is no different, with a number of episodes containing clever critiques and examinations of the modern suburban lifestyles of middle class families. However, this  doesn't necessarily mean a concerted left-wing diatribe against the excesses of the 'me generation'. There is a genuine sympathy for the predicament for many of the people (particularly the women) in theses dramas - though that doesn't mean that their destinies are any less deadly,

The Exorcism - A film by Don Taylor, is arguably the episode which has gained the highest reputation for being the most frightening and memorable of the entire series. First broadcast on the 5th of November (how very apt) the story examines the clash between modern-day social beliefs and the injustices of the past - all dressed up in a covering of a delicious Gothic horror. It features a sophisticated and wealthy middle-class couple, Edmund and Rachel( Edward Petherbridge and the magnificent Anna Cropper) who have invited their equally sophisticated friends Dan and Margaret (Clive Swift and Sylvia Kay) to their newly refurbished country cottage retreat. This gathering of friends for Christmas dinner begins innocently enough with agreeable conversation around their privileged status and how they can reconcile this to their (long-gone) socialist principles. It is clear which of these considerations are winning out as both couples are the epitome of the new 'habitat generation' as they talk and play their party games.

However it soon becomes clear that the house they have renovated and it's previous owners may have other more horrific frightening prospects in store for the four friends. For soon things begin to take an ever more supernatural tone as Rachel finds herself playing a melody on the piano that she has no recollection of ever knowing, the phone becomes disconnected (oh those days before wi-fi, god love it), and the food and drink starts to have the most interesting of effects.

Once again the acting and writing is of the highest order with all four players in the ensemble convincingly portraying the conflicting pride and guilt they feel about their lives. Anna Cropper, as she was in Robin Redbreast, is especially excellent in the scene where the apparent connection that she has felt with the dead previous occupants sees her become possessed by the said owner, who's lifestyle was far, far less opulent than our present-day foursome. Hers in particular is a truly mesmerising performance.

Yes, The Exorcism may deal in part with commentary on wealth, privilege and political guilt - but do not let that put you off because it is an exemplary example of a wonderful supernatural story of chilling proportions. I don't want to give the ending away, except to say that that it as unsettling and effective as any I can remember.


In Return Flight - A film by Rodney Bennett, we are introduced to Captain Hamish Rolph, (played by the always excellent Peter Barkworth) an experienced airline pilot who has recently returned to his job not long after the death of his wife. The problem is that his professionalism is placed under scrutiny by the airline authorities after he declares a near-miss with another aircraft, however nobody else witnessed this event at the time. His employers and friends are both concerned that outwardly, he seems to have lost his normal sense of focus and discipline. However, we soon discover that inwardly the problems are far more sinister and complex as his bereavement and secret long held feelings of inferiority have resulted in a far more dangerous effect on on his psyche. The Phantoms of his mind, both real and unreal, are playing tricks on his personal view of reality, for which the consequences are that he is flying 'blind'.

This is a production that could have easily have found it's existence in an episode of The Twilight zone, and certainly the some of the issues here such as a man being haunted by the spectres from his own mind and past are familiar to those of us who love the work of Rod Sterling's eponymous series. Return Flight is an excellent character study of a middle-aged man trying to come to terms with both his personal and professional failings. He is someone who up to now who may have had at worse, an inaccurate perception of his life - his marriage for example, which may not been quite as happy as he seems to recollect, His resistance ultimately fragments and lets his mind carry him well and truly away to a place where perception and reality fade away.

Barkworth once again exemplifies the solid acting that you would expect from this series, with the critically acclaimed actor portraying a restrained sorrow and nobleness to his character's existence. 

The third and final instalment is perhaps my personal favourite of the three, possibly because it is a clever modern-day development of a classic Gothic tale of potentially doomed heroine. It is a theme that has been explored in numerous stories by since folk tales began and in numerous film adaptations, noticeably by such luminaries as Alfred Hitchcock. 

In A Woman Sobbing - A film by Paul Clappessoni, Jane a middle-class wife (Anna Massey) and her husband Frank have moved out to the country for the benefit of their children's upbringing. The couple's marriage has clearly reached a point of boredom and frustration for them both as they openly fantasise about relationships with younger partners. Soon  Jane starts to become increasingly paranoid and unstable when her nights are interrupted by the unsettling and unaccountable sound of a woman crying in one of the upstairs rooms of her new house. This sobbing noise is always accompanied by the smell of gas fumes. If that wasn't enough to force the woman into falling further over the edge into loneliness and depression, nobody else can hear the sounds or smell the gas, but her. Is Jane's husband really trying to drive her insane, or even kill her? Are the forces at work supernatural or simply the result of the fragmentation of her mind and sanity?

This episode has some deep and dark undertones in the exploration of the gender roles and mental illness. There are distinct Freudian elements as to whether the voice that Jane hears is actually real, or whether it is actually some long forgotten repressed memory or experience from deep within her unconscious. Both Jane and her husband are clearly unhappy in their respective marriage roles, but it is interesting that even in the more so- called liberated 1970's it is the woman who has no 'vent' for her frustrations having been worn down by her domestic existence. Her growing resentment of her children, her husband and the family Au pair threatens to overwhelm her completely.

The episode is deeply unsettling in its portrayal of Jane's psychological turmoil possibly manifesting itself either into supernatural consequences or deeper mental illness. The representation of the treatment that Jane's husband arranges for Jane is convincing and unsettling, with her treatment of Electro Convulsive Therapy looking clinically authentic. 

Again this is an intelligent and thoughtful approach to examining the human condition without losing the sight of the fact that it is supposed to be chilling and creepy enough to satisfy the horror enthusiasts within us. Because IT IS genuinely claustrophobic and frightening in it's climactic scenes as Jane becomes more and more unbalanced. This is helped in no small measure by the performance of Anna Massey, whose previous roles in Hitchcock's Frenzy and Michael Powell's stunning Peeping Tom receiving much deserved praise from critics and public alike. The increasing desperation and descent into into her own disturbed thoughts is beautifully portrayed by an actress at the height of her powers.

There are some people for whom the ending is annoyingly ambiguous, the neatly packaged let the ending explain all doesn't happen here - and I love that. I love the fact that I'm asked to think about it and make my own mind up as to the things that have taken place. 

DVD information and Special Features 

  • The video master information were made available by the BBC to the BFI and are presented in their 1.33:1 aspect ratio, in accordance with their original broadcast.
  • Gallery of stills from missing episodes
  • Downloadable PDF scripts from missing episodes
  • Fully illustrated booklet with essays and biographies by Lisa Kerrigan, Oliver Wake, Derek Johnston and Alex Davidson


Classic Ghost Stories by M R James (1986)

DVD Release Date: 28 Oct 2013
  • Featuring: Robert Powell, Michael Bryant 


Before I begin the review of the content of the next DVD sent to me by the BFI, I have something of a confession to make about the actor appearing in it (Yes, once again I unashamedly talk about my personal past... and yes, it involves a relationship). My first true love type individual (who of course shall remain nameless) was very much into me too  - which is always a good thing in regard to relationships, otherwise the Judge tends to take a rather negative view of things.... Anyhoo,  She was also well and truly into a certain actor called Robert Powell whom it is safe to say that she doted upon - so much so that once I could swear that she uttered his name while we were, well, you know. Though I know that she cared for me deeply, if the end of the world had wiped out the rest of humanity, except for the three of us, she and Mr Powell would have walked off into the sunset together faster than I could have said 'Jesus of Nazareth'

Of course I am well and truly past the raging paranoia and slight discomfort that I used to feel whenever old Bob happened to be on screen, and she-who-will-remain-nameless and I have long gone our separate ways. So I can now be completely impartial when considering any works featuring...........him.

The tradition of storytelling by one individual to an enthralled audience is probably as old as humanity itself. The ability to create an exciting and living imaginary universe out of nothing but ones own words and making people WANT to listen is something of a gift that I don't think that I have - it takes a special person to hold and enthral an intimate audience. The ghost stories of M R James were often performed by James himself to his students at Cambridge during the Christmas holidays and by all accounts he was a gifted orator within this intimate atmosphere. 

It was television (arguably more successfully than radio) that managed to convey authentically this intimacy of James' own readings when the much sought-after seasonal slot was given over to a his works in Classic Ghost stories in Christmas 1986.

The presentation for the story is cunningly simple, featuring Robert Powell (him) as the storyteller, resplendent in a master's robe within his college study. The storytelling is predominantly direct to camera with only the briefest of dramatisation and artwork to break up the prose. It is in this cosy setting that the 'Professor' tells his five terrifying tales, all clearly inspired by M R James’ legendary readings of his own works.

In The Mezzotint a haunted picture slowly reveals the terrors of what has gone before but only while there is no around looking at it, whilst The Ash-Tree tells of the execution of a witch and the dreadful curse she places on the Fell family - but beware all arachnophobics of this particular episode! Wailing Well involves a troop of scouts who find that curiosity can be fatal, and Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad concerns itself with an academic who gets more than he bargained for after he finds an enchanted whistle. Finally, in The Rose Garden, disturbing visions upset Mrs Ansthruthers’ gardening plans.

To a modern day audience, the notion of an actor speaking direct to camera for approximately 15 minutes per story may sound dry and simplistic - but this would be a mistake of huge proportions. Powell is a consummate storyteller with his distinctive and soothing voice perfectly embodying a feel for the phrasing and tone of James's Writing. If possessing a hypnotising voice wasn't enough, his delivery is often accompanied a subtle wry grin or noticeable glint in the eye when appropriate. I know I'm not the first person to say this, but the man can act.

Each of the stories may be just 15 minutes or so in length, but they feel much longer than that - and I mean that in a positive way. There is no convoluted introductions or padded out explanations - we are simply thrust headlong into the story, I say 'we', because the skill of Powell reading the stories just as James would have done in the halls of Cambridge, means that we feel he is talking to us, and only us. The nature of this type of storytelling on television when performed as skilfully as this means that we are carried along the tidal waves of each story's building tension.

If that wasn't enough, the DVD also features three episodes of  the series Spine Chiller (1980). 

The series was described at the time as 'storytelling for older children', its origins being found as an off-shoot of the children's programme, Jackanory. Spine chillers features Michael Bryant reading three more James stories (Including another version of The Mezzotint) for our delectation. 

Once again the power of the episodes rely heavily on the the ability of the actor to tell a story  - perhaps more so in this series as the use of any dramatisation or illustration has been completely stripped away. However like Robert Powell, Bryant's delivery is note and pitch perfect perfectly conveying the complexities of emotion an tension for each of the the stories.  

There have been numerous adaptations of M R James's ghost stories but both series here perfectly show that even in this 21st century multi-digital world, there is a place straightforward and intimate storytelling. Watching this DVD, essentially experiencing someone talk through the camera to me, has been one of the most enjoyable horror experiences I've had for some time.


DVD information and Special Features

  • The video master information for the Classic Ghost Stories were made available by the BBC to the BFI and are presented in their 1.33:1 aspect ratio, in accordance with their original broadcast.

  • The episodes from the Spine Chillers were transferred from the original 16mm archive element by BBC studios and post production. Standard Definition video masters were made available to the BFI by the BBC. All episodes are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

  • Spine Chillers: The Mezzotint, A School Story and The Diary of Mr Poynter (1980, 36 min in total): acclaimed actor Michael Bryant reads three of M R James’ stories adapted for the BBC’s Spine Chillers series – produced by Classic Ghost Stories producer Anglea Beeching and the team behind the BBC children’s series Jackanory.

  • Fully illustrated booklet with a newly commissioned essay by BFI TV Curator Lisa Kerrigan.

I have to give a combined 10 out of 10 for these two DVD sets, they are that good.







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