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Hammer House of Horror: Witching Time (1980)

Hammer House of Horror’s sole venture into the realms of folk-horror is inevitably one of my favourite episodes of the anthology series. The plot is relatively straightforward: teetering on the edge of nervous collapse, exacerbated by suspicions of his wife’s infidelity, the alcoholic film composer David Winter is surprised to discover the witch Lucinda Jessup, a previous occupant of his house, magically transported from the 1620s to his stables. Fortunately, nobody’s incredulity at this turn of events lasts for very long, and she proceeds to claim Winter as her own, whilst subjecting his wife to a campaign of supernatural persecution. Unusually for the series, good triumphs in the end: Lucinda is eventually vanquished and the Winters are reunited. This perhaps detracts from the horror somewhat, but the episode remains satisfying overall.

Much of its success can be attributed to the casting of Patricia Quinn as Lucinda. Born to play witches, her performance is as ripe as ever, and even the rustic accent she adopts cannot disguise her gloriously plummy tones. She is mesmerising in every scene in which she appears and the only reason she does not overshadow everybody else on screen is that she is acting alongside Jon Finch as David Winter. He brings his typical intensity to the role, powerfully conveying his character’s steady dissolution over the course of the episode. Prunella Gee as Mary Winter inevitably appears bland when compared with Quinn, but she turns in solid work nonetheless. The only other character of note is Ian McCulloch who does a fine job of portraying the sort of cad who cuckolds his friend and then abandons his lover when she most needs his support.

The authenticity of the image of witchcraft presented in the episode is variable. On the one hand, poppets are always guaranteed to lend atmosphere to a production, and the principles of sympathetic magic by which they operate are properly observed. We also see poltergeist-type activity ascribed to witchcraft rather than ghosts, which corresponds to the prevailing opinion in the 17th Century. Unfortunately, however, there is one glaring inaccuracy: supposed witches were not burnt at the stake in England—they were hanged. Now this is an error common to a great deal of fiction dealing with witchcraft, and writers may plead poetic license on the grounds that burning is a more intrinsically dramatic mode of execution than hanging, thereby emphasising the horror. Nonetheless, it is a mistake that manages to irk me every time it appears.

Surprisingly, unlike so much “hexploitation” (and many vintage Hammer productions) Witching Time is not guilty of being overly misogynistic—a few moments of gratuitous nudity aside. Despite being the ostensible villain, Lucinda is portrayed as independent and adroit; the audience is even encouraged to sympathise with her to some extent and be disturbed by her ultimate demise. Equally, Mary is no damsel-in-distress but a resourceful and ultimately loyal woman who single-handedly defeats Lucinda’s evil influence. Compare this with David, who is spineless and ineffectual, or Charles, who is selfish and treacherous. This reversal of traditional roles, and portrait of witchcraft as empowerment, feels refreshingly modern, and help to distinguish the episode as one of the series’s most enjoyable forays into the supernatural.

Produced by ITC Television : originally transmitted 13th September 1980

 

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Requiem (2018)

The resurgence of interest in the idiom that has become known as folk horror is one of the more surprising cultural trends of the 2010s. Its influence has even stretched all the way to terrestrial television, which has been averse to supernatural themes for at least two decades now. The BBC’s most recent effort, Requiem, came hot on the heels of their exquisitely shot 2016 serial, The Living and the Dead, and similarly demonstrated that British television could still produce effective examples of the form when they put their mind to it. The series is not without flaws, but on the whole it succeeds in offering a new variation on a genre which for all its pleasures has certain limitations. Sadly, the fact that the series received poor viewing figures means that we might not see any further home-grown attempts at supernatural drama for a while.

After witnessing her mother’s grisly suicide, celebrated cellist Matilda Grey finds material linking her to the case of a missing child in the rural Welsh village of Penllynith twenty years earlier. Accompanied by her musical partner, Hal Fine, she travels to the area in search of answers, and begins to uncover a conspiracy that ultimately shatters her very identity. In many ways, the plot is a familiar one: the insular community full of hostile locals; the cabal of local worthies dabbling in the occult; the protagonists slowly uncovering their own intrinsic connection to the place. Indeed, it conforms to all four criteria of what Adam Scovell calls the Folk Horror Chain. He identifies the influence of the landscape, the community’s isolation, their skewed belief system, and finally an act of invocation or summoning as the tropes which define the genre.

Where Requiem diverges from many archetypal instances of folk horror, such as ‘The Wicker Man’ or ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’, is that the belief system in question is not a pagan or diabolist cult, but a form of theurgy rooted in esoteric Christianity—namely the Enochian system of ceremonial magic formulated by the 16th Century polymath Dr. John Dee. Although the series does not delve too deeply into Dee’s occult philosophy, signifiers are peppered through the series, including the Monas Hieroglyphica, the Enochian script, and an obsidian scrying mirror. The setting is also consistent with Dee’s biography, as he had family connections with Wales, although they actually hailed from Radnorshire in the Marches, whereas Penllynith (actually Dolgellau in Gwynedd) appears to be in the mountainous heartland of Snowdonia.

The series sustains its mystery nicely, and whilst Matilda’s connection to the missing child is made clear early on, there are many other threads to follow. The ringleader of the conspiracy is not particularly difficult to identify—perhaps intentionally—but you’re kept guessing as to where others’ loyalties lie. Equally, the motives of the conspirators remain obscure until the later episodes, and although there are plenty of references to Dee, it is not immediately clear what these amount to. When the climax arrives, it owes a debt to both ‘The Wicker Man’ and the final episode of ‘Twin Peaks’, wrapping things up on a unsettling note. The very open-ended conclusion left some viewers wondering about the prospect of a second season, but it was always intended as a limited serial, and the dénouement is all the more haunting for leaving the viewer hanging.

Thankfully, the production does full justice to the writing: the photography is vivid, the editing taut and the cast committed. As Matilda, Lydia Wilson is as luminous a presence as ever. Her character is deeply flawed, and many of her decisions over the course of the series feel utterly frustrating, but Wilson manages to keep her sympathetic without sacrificing the necessary intensity. She receives sterling support throughout from Joel Fry, Joanna Scanlan, Tara Fitzgerald, Sian Reese-Williams, Claire Rushbrook and Richard Harrington. There is none of the overacting which can sometimes tarnish supernatural drama; the performances are all naturalistic and sincere. The only weak link is James Frecheville, who is perhaps just a little too vacant to be remotely interesting, even for a character written to be an unwitting pawn.

Of course, when evaluating supernatural drama, one of the most crucial questions has to be: is it suitably atmospheric? Fortunately the answer here is affirmative. The Snowdonian landscape cannot help but be evocative, but credit must go to the production team for conjuring such a potent ambience beyond that. Thankfully, they eschew horror clichés such as jump-scares and instead concentrate on invoking a persistent sense of dread and sheer wrongness. Much is achieved through sound design, and acknowledgement must also go to the eerie incidental music composed by Dominik Scherrer and Natasha Khan, which augments the series considerably. Such qualities ensure that Requiem succeeds admirably, and demonstrates that it is still possible to find fresh avenues for folk-horror, whilst simultaneously remaining true to the form.

Produced by BBC Television : originally transmitted 2nd February – 16th March 2018

 

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The Dark Angel (1989)

A critical inspiration to both M.R. James and Bram Stoker, the Irish author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-73) is best remembered today as one of the most significant writers of supernatural fiction of the 19th Century. His seminal tale Green Tea (1869) established both the psychological ghost-story and the occult-detective trope, while his novella Carmilla (1872) was the first vampire story to attain the status of a literary classic. However, in addition to his short fiction, Le Fanu also penned a number of sensation novels in the mode of Wilkie Collins, and it was for these that he was best known during his lifetime. Although the novels lack any overt supernatural element, they are rooted firmly in the Gothic tradition—the atmosphere laden with mystery, madness and the ultra-mundane.

Le Fanu’s most critically successful novel was Uncle Silas, first serialised in the Dublin University Magazine in 1864. It’s the only one particularly well-remembered today and has been adapted for screen on three occasions: first as a feature film starring Jean Simmons in 1947; then as an episode of Thames Television’s Mystery and Imagination series in 1968; and finally as a three part serial for the BBC in 1989. This latter dramatisation was retitled The Dark Angel, doubtless to better advertise its Gothic nature, although the moniker does not really have any connection with the content. Nonetheless, with a running time of three hours it is the most faithful attempt to recreate the novel in a filmic medium; and whilst the production is certainly flawed, it is probably the most successful.

The plot is familiar enough: following the death of her father, the young heiress Maud Ruthyn is despatched to live with her Uncle Silas, a notorious libertine and suspected murderer, until she attains her majority. Now sunk into dissipation, and crippled by debt, the still charismatic Silas plots to steal Maud’s inheritance with the help of his boorish son Dudley and the monstrous governess Madame de la Rougierre. It is standard sensation novel fare, replete with all the cliches of the genre—including opium addiction, locked rooms, hostile servants, a contested will and the gaslighting of the heroine. Although the viewer can see exactly where the plot is going, the sinister detail accumulates gradually and it is not until the final episode that the full desperation of Maud’s predicament is clear.

Fortunately, the production is suitably lavish and it does not stint on the Gothic melodrama. To achieve an ominous and oneiric atmosphere, frequent use is made of soft focus, motion blur and Dutch angles—almost to the point of excess. However, it is the performances which are really compelling, and whilst Beatie Edney is merely sympathetic as Maud, the villains steal the show utterly. With his cadaverous cheekbones and mesmeric eyes, Peter O’Toole is perfectly cast as Silas, his portrayal capturing both the dissolution and dominance of the man. But even he is upstaged by Jane Lapotaire, who as Madame de la Rougierre plumbs the very depths of grotesquery. When either one is on screen, it is possible to overlook The Dark Angel’s predictability and revel in its overripeness instead.

Produced by BBC Television : 4th – 18th January 1989

 

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Sea of Souls s04e01-2: The Prayer Tree (2007)

Debuted by the BBC in 2004, the first two seasons of this series—which followed the exploits of a parapsycholgy department in a Scottish university—proved a rather frustrating viewing experience. It was originally produced at a time when orthodox opinion in British media circles maintained that fantasy would not attract an audience, and therefore, very little genre drama made it to the screen. Sea of Souls was one of the rare exceptions; however, the mood of the industry was such that the programme was regularly hamstrung by the paradoxically unsubtle ambiguity with which it treated the supernatural. Of course, such ambiguity is consistent with the context of academic parapsychological investigation, but nonetheless in those first two seasons, you often found yourself wishing that the programme would throw caution to the wind and fully embrace its Gothic nature.

The situation improved substantially with the third season, which began to present the supernatural more explicitly; especially in the last episode of the run, whose plot left the audience in no doubt concerning the reality of occult powers in the programme’s universe. However, having now hit its stride, the show was permitted to develop only a little further before cancellation loomed. The fourth season consisted solely of a single story told over two episodes; but whilst this last hurrah may have been quite niggardly compared with the previous three six-episode seasons, the creative team did not skimp on the quality. Indeed, these two episodes arguably represent the programme’s zenith and it is regrettable that no more episodes were produced thereafter.

The plot is in many respects a classic haunted house tale; something which Sea of Souls had not tackled before. Following the death of their child, a young couple played by Neve McIntosh and Ben Miles move into a dilapidated mansion of the west coast of Scotland, intending to renovate the property and open it as a hotel. It is not long before mysterious disturbances in the house induce the couple to consult the parapsychologist Dr. Douglas Monaghan (the redoubtable Bill Paterson), who in this season lacks his post-graduate sidekicks. Monaghan’s investigations reveal that the house once belonged to a Victorian physician and founder member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn played by Douglas Henshall. He lived there with his consumptive wife and her temptress sister, and was ultimately hanged for the murder of the former.

It is always welcome to find mention of the Golden Dawn—that most romantic of esoteric societies—on modern television. The wall-painting of the Tree of Life which the young couple discover behind the plasterwork ably evokes the sense of mystery and awe so characteristic of the order. Nonetheless, the programme is not entirely sympathetic to the society, suggesting that it was largely the product of polite, middle-class individuals who had been gulled by hoaxes and charlatans. Such bourgeois occultism is contrasted sharply with the native Palo religion practised by the physician’s Caribbean maid. It perhaps reveals an unconscious racial bias to suggest that whilst British Victorian occultism was an ostentatious sham, the primitive, almost shamanic magic of Palo must be efficacious. There is certainly something of the “magical negro” trope about such a conceit.

Still, this binary opposition does not detract from the overall plot, which ably succeeds in its efforts to unnerve the viewer. Although the effects used to portray the haunting are relatively mild and clichéd, the revelations which proceed from these incidents are genuinely disturbing—especially the chilling denouement. The script’s success is abetted by the strength of the actors who realise it: Paterson, Miles, McIntosh, Henshall and Christina Cole all give sincere, intense performances which lend conviction to the whole production. Whilst it is undoubtedly a shame that no more episodes followed to build on the strength of this final serial, we must be thankful that such an impressive work made it to screen and that the show was able to go out on a high.

Produced by BBC Television : originally transmitted 17th – 19th April 2007

 
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Posted by on May 16, 2019 in 2000s, BBC Television, Occult

 

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Father Brown s03e12: The Standing Stones (2015)

There are many mysteries intrinsic to the BBC’s latest vehicle for the sleuthing ecclesiastic created by G.K. Chesterton. Why, for instance, did the producers update the stories’ early-20th Century setting to the 1950s? Why is a Catholic clergyman serving as parish priest at a village church in the rural Cotswolds? Why did the writers largely discard Chesterton’s ingenious original stories in favour of their own clichéd confections? And why have they chosen to ignore the philosophical rigour which made those stories unique in the annals of detective fiction, and turned them into the sort of cosy whodunnit of which there is already a surfeit on British television? The resulting series owes more to Agatha Christie than Chesterton’s vision; and yet it is not entirely without merit—almost entirely due to the inspired casting of Mark Williams as the unassuming cleric. It’s a shame that he wasn’t given stronger material with which to work, but nonetheless, he almost single-handedly elevates the series from mediocrity.

The Standing Stones is not a particularly distinguished episode, even by the series’ modest standards, but it is notable for introducing the folk-horror idiom to the daytime TV schedule. A remote village is being ravaged by polio—tensions are running high and residents are behaving oddly; meanwhile, a pregnant woman is found murdered at a prehistoric stone-circle nearby, which local legend states has the power over life and death around midsummer’s eve. It’s all fairly familiar stuff, and shows such as Wycliffe or Midsomer Murders have been seasoning rural crime drama with occult tropes for a number of years now. Nonetheless, without wishing to spoil the conclusion too much, this series is notable for refusing to write off this theme as a red-herring; although this does little for the narrative tension (something of a critical omission in this genre), it places the episode firmly within the tradition of non-supernatural folk-horror, rather than letting it resolve into a pseudo-example as so many crime dramas would.

However, the depth of writers’ engagement with the form is not especially great. The folklore attached to the stone-circle has a veneer of authenticity, but their handling of other motifs is indifferent and confused. There is no coherent perspective on pagan theology: it is not clear whether the local cult is reviving a genuine local custom, or simply engaging in ostensive action influenced by the dominant theories of the myth-ritualists—an issue which classics such as Robin Redbreast and The Wicker Man tackle with aplomb. Nor is the depth of the writers’ research particularly great: one suspect in the murder case is a local eccentric who practices divination and alternative medicine, and who refers to dowsing the energy lines around the prehistoric circle—despite the fact that the geophysical concept of leys did not enter the public consciousness until the late-1960s. This is a minor fault in itself but ultimately symptomatic of the shallow treatment which characterises the entire episode and undermines it dramatic force.

Fortunately, there are some redeeming features. Mark Williams is excellent as ever, and his character is allowed to make some interesting points on the difference between Christian and pagan theology at the climax; which, despite falling far short of Chesterton’s extensive analysis of this topic, well illustrates Father Brown’s singularity. Mark Benton, another reliable actor, is also well cast as a local policeman—excelling in a role which requires him to be simultaneously approachable and sinister. The star of the show, however, is probably the eponymous prehistoric monument, and the producers sensibly chose the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire to perform this part. One of the most atmospheric stone-circles in the British Isles, thanks to the worm-eaten oolitic limestone from which they were constructed, they’ve memorably featured in at least one other folk-horror production (Doctor Who: The Stones of Blood) and their genius loci is once more a commanding and evocative presence on screen.

Produced by BBC Television : originally transmitted 20th January 2015

 
 

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A Ghost Story for Christmas: The Ash Tree (1975)

Broadcast as a “Ghost Story for Christmas” in 1975, The Ash Tree was the BBC’s last adaptation of the work of M.R. James for three decades, and also their most adventurous—indeed, it bears the stamp of the scriptwriter almost as prominently as its original author. The scriptwriter in question was David Rudkin, a widely acclaimed dramatist in his own right, and one of the BBC’s most distinctive talents in the 1970s, best known for his visionary Play for Today, Penda’s Fen. Broadcast the preceding year, it is a profoundly strange, fiercely intelligent and palpably pagan work—qualities which Rudkin also brings to The Ash Tree. The result is the most challenging adaptation of James’ work, and one which divides audiences; Rudkin certainly offers no quarter to the viewer, but for those beguiled by his unique aesthetic, it ranks as one of the strongest entries in the Ghost Story for Christmas strand.

The Ash Tree is widely regarded as one of M.R. James’ finest works, in terms of both literary technique and the atmosphere of horror the story invokes. It is thus merciful that Rudkin’s script does not take too many liberties with The Ash Tree’s basic plot; rather, like Jonathan Miller’s 1968 adaptation of Whistle & I’ll Come to You, it draws out certain psychological and sociological themes which were absent in the original text. Thus, in the 18th Century, Sir Richard Castringham inherits a country seat which he sets out to improve; he soon finds himself plagued by an ash tree outside his bedroom window, and inexorably succumbs to the curse placed on the family by Mrs. Mothersole, whom his ancestor, Sir Matthew, had condemned to death for witchcraft a few generations earlier. Although this tale represented a mere “pleasing terror” for James, in Rudkin’s hands it attempts to stand as a damning indictment of patriarchal oppression in the early modern period.

Rudkin’s principal innovation is to transmute the image of Mrs. Mothersole from the stereotypical crone implied by James into an independent young woman who catches the eye of the repressed Sir Matthew Castringham, thereby casting her subsequent persecution as a manifestation of the authorities’ fear of liberated female sexuality. In this respect, the adaptation strongly resembles Michael Reeves’ classic film, Witchfinder General, released several years earlier in 1968. However, whilst that film is an exclusively human tragedy, in which the women tormented by Matthew Hopkins are innocent victims, The Ash Tree confuses the matter by imputing genuinely magical powers to Mrs. Mothersole. Although her activities are initially confined to innocent herbalism and shape-shfting, she resorts to maleficium in extremis and the resulting manifestations at the climax represent something truly corrupt. As such the conclusion almost feels like an anti-Enlightenment manifesto.

Equally distinctive is the script’s elision of the two time periods—Sir Richard in “the present”; Sir Matthew in “flashback”—which emphasises the immanence of history, whilst invoking an oneiric and sometimes elliptical atmosphere. The two Castringhams are so closely identified with each other that viewers unfamiliar with the original story may find the narrative’s protean chronology somewhat confusing, especially as Edward Petherbridge plays both roles. As such, Petherbridge acts as the lynch-pin of the drama, and like Peter Vaughan and Michael Bryant before him, he portrays James’ haunted protagonist with appropriate intensity, ably delineating the dual protagonists’ ambiguities. Indeed, his enactment of Sir Matthew’s psychological struggle between faith, rationalism and lust transforms the squire from a moral coward into something resembling sympathetic character.

The British landscape is also a significant player in the drama. Although the original story was set in Suffolk (like many of James’ tales), Clark relocates it to Cornwall, where the wild moors and desolate outcrops provide an elemental backdrop to the action—exquisitely photographed by Lawrence Gordon Clark. The brutality of 17th Century society reflects the brutality of the environment, whilst emphasising the atavistic “pagan” current with which many writers have associated historical witchcraft and to which Rudkin was no stranger. Such ideas, have long been discredited amongst scholars; however, the “witch cult” hypothesis continues to inspire the creative imagination—especially attempts to evoke the “folk horror” aesthetic which pervades this production. With interest in that sub-genre burgeoning, Rudkin’s adaptation surely stands as ones of its foundational texts in the televisual medium and displays many of the idiom’s strengths, alongside its attendant confusions.

Produced by BBC Television : originally transmitted on 23rd December 1975

 

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K9 & Company: A Girl’s Best Friend (1981)

To this day, fans of Doctor Who regard K9 and Company as an infamous relation whose name is not to be mentioned in polite company. This is hardly surprising: although the viewing figures were respectable, the pilot episode was a critical flop and a full series was never commissioned—a small mercy for which many were thankful. The horrific theme-tune alone—just one of the many crimes Ian Levine has perpetrated against Who fandom—is enough to trigger post-traumatic stress disorder in some viewers. However, with the exception of the title sequence, K9 and Company isn’t actively bad; merely uninspiring. Whilst such banality cannot be excused, it’s now interesting to view the episode in the context of “folk-horror”—a sub-genre which has received much critical attention recently.

One of the reasons K9 and Company fails to gel is the bizarre decision to remove the eponymous mechanical hound from an overtly sci-fi landscape: with the exception of K9 himself, there is no other fantastical element to the programme—which has the effect of undermining the credibility of the primary folk-horror narrative, and leaving K9 an incongruous inclusion in his own series. As a vehicle for Sarah Jane Smith, the episode is fine; as a showcase for K9, it is disastrous. The problem is compounded by the introduction of Brendan—one of those smug child-geniuses of whom John Nathan-Turner was so fond—who further detracts attention from the star whilst being utterly infuriating in his own right. The character’s only virtue is to offer a welcome inversion of gender-roles where getting captured is concerned.

Even as folk-horror, K9 and Company is thin gruel. The plot—such as it is—is a familiar one: an insular village is home to a witchcraft coven who require human sacrifice to ensure the crops do not fail. Even by 1981, this particularly motif had been flogged to death and the episode offers no radical twist on the formula. The pagan pageantry is effectively handled, but the coven never feels to be much of a threat. Although the ever-reliable Colin Jeavons imbues his character with both the required cowardice and menace, there is little suspense regarding the identity of the coven leaders and the actors they chose to play the part lack the gravitas provided by the likes of Bernard Hepton (Robin Redbreast) or Christopher Lee (The Wicker Man).

The philosophy of witchcraft as portrayed in the episode is as inconsistent as the rest of it: it’s implied that the coven has a long tradition in the village; yet they worship Hecate—who as an ancient Greek goddess is unlikely to have been worshipped by a genuine folk-tradition in the Cotswolds. Perhaps this reflects the syncretic influence of writers such as Robert Graves, Margaret Murray, James Frazer and Gerald Gardner, who attempted to identify many ancient female deities with a single “Great Goddess”. The Wicker Man, for instance, admits that Summerisle’s pagan tradition was largely invented by a Victorian antiquarian. However, there is no such clarification here. Doubtless the origin-myths of Wicca were so insidious at the time that even the writers were confused on such points of authenticity.

If the episode has a saving grace, it is the character of Sarah Jane Smith. In the parent series, she was too often relegated to a subordinate role, whose purpose was to ask questions, scream, fall over, and get captured. Here she is written as the character was originally intended: proactive, resourceful and confident; a reminder of just why Sarah Jane is DW’s most fondly remembered regular. Indeed, one of the reasons there is so little sense of threat in the episode is not merely that we do not particularly care about the fates of Aunt Lavinia or Brendan, but that a common-or-garden witches’ coven seems no match for the character. Needless to say, she is played with verve by Liz Sladen. Even amidst such mediocrity, her performance shines: watched today, it only emphasises the tragedy of her early death in 2011.

Produced by BBC Television : originally transmitted on 28th December 1981

 

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Supernatural Radio Drama Capsule Reviews 1

Afternoon Play: The Ditch (BBC Radio 4 – 1st February 2010)

Tom Saunders, a wildlife sound recordist, goes missing, leaving only a collection of recordings and a notebook. These fall into the hands of his radio producer, who tries to piece together what has happened. His quest leads him back to the disturbing aural landscape of Slaughton Ditch, where an obsession with hidden sounds has terrifying and fatal consequences.” A play teeming with ideas, this press-office synopsis cannot possibly hope to do justice to The Ditch—surely one of the finest examples of supernatural drama ever produced for radio.

Utilising the talents of internationally renowned sound-recordist, Chris Watson, few radio ghost story have taken such advantage of the aural medium. Given the nature of its topic, this is perhaps inevitable; but it is not just the excellent field-recordings on the soundtrack—the whole play could only work on radio. It makes use of “found footage”, weather reports, author-narration and wildlife documentaries to create something that is as much aural-collage or sound-installation as it is drama.

Meanwhile, the subject matter is an almost visionary fusion which includes ideas surrounding electric voice phenomena (EVP); T.C. Lethbridge’s theory of residual haunting (previously dramatised by Nigel Kneale in The Stone Tape); ornithological comment on the behaviour patterns of migratory waders; and landscape phenomenology that recalls the philosophy Alan Garner has often expressed in his work. The result is a unique example of radio drama; a highly recommended auditory experience.

Voices from the Grave: The Parson (BBC Radio 4 – 4th January 2008)

This final episode in the enjoyable Voice from the Grave series is sadly not as strong as some preceding entries, possibly because it has a somewhat predictable trajectory for anybody familiar with ghost-stories or folk-horror. The new vicar of the parish—who is suffering from post-traumatic stress connected with his experiences working as a missionary in some unnamed war-torn country—attempts to prevent “Bottle Kicking”—a local calendar-custom reminiscent of traditions such as Cornish hurling, the Jedburgh Hand Ba’ or the Haxey Hood.

Needless to say, the villagers are not too thrilled by an outsider interfering in their cherished sport; especially as the function of the ritual turns out to be something more than cultural preservation and community bonding. The “land needs blood” motif is scarcely unfamiliar, but it has interesting points to make about the propriety of the ritualised tribal conflict which many sporting customs represent. Similarly, moral questions are raised as the eponymous parson appears to be victorious, but at what cost to his own spirit?

However, these philosophical themes are not sufficiently developed, and the play is ultimately forgettable. It is ably produced and well-performed by radio veterans such as Geoffrey Beevers, but the script simply doesn’t offer enough of a new variation on the basic “folk-horror” formula or even enough action. The relatively happy ending is similarly problematic; it’s all wrapped up too neatly and consequently the play fails to haunt us as it should. As such, this episode of Voices from the Grave is worth a listen but it’s unlikely to inspire much devotion.

Voices from the Grave: Middlewitch (BBC Radio 4 – 2nd January 2008)

BBC Radio 4 claimed the dramas written for this series were “more than simply scary – they are studies of humanity, love, rage and despair, of passion, longing and pain”. Personally, I get quite irked by the patronising insistence that weird fiction must study the human condition and I am quite fond of stories whose metaphysical explorations require characters that are barely more than ciphers. Still, if mainstream media must balance the outer limits of supernatural fiction with “human interest” then at least one must be done well and preferably both.

However, it is a rare occurrence that both human and supernatural aspects work in harmony to the extent evident in Middlewitch—arguably the highlight of BBC Radio 4’s Voices from the Grave series. The story concerns an aged wise woman who sits watching the shore at a remote Welsh coastal town steeped in 19th Century Methodism, alongside a naïve under-age couple hoping to make love for the time and a new minister struggling to understand the hateful legacy of one of his Victorian predecessors.

The play handles the “new vicar trying to understand the curse on his congregation” motif far better than its series-mate The Parson; there is simply far more going on, and whilst it’s hardly an original plot, the characterisation excels. This is augmented by passionate performances which really convey the drama with conviction. This is especially true of the downbeat climax; you can really hear the urgency in the actors’ voices. As a result, Middlewitch is a profoundly haunting play whose implications will linger with you long after listening.

Solstice (BBC Radio 4 – 21st December 1985)

A curious piece, this one: its ambitions are certainly admirable, but it tacks too close to the two qualities with which BBC radio plays are so often damned in the public imagination—worthiness and pretension. It primarily takes the form of a monologue, delivered by “Father Christmas” as he explores the pagan roots of the midwinter festival and the shamanic origins of the character. It’s the sort of territory fruitfully explored by Robert Holdstock in Mythago Wood two years earlier; but whilst Solstice displays some of the same magic, it cannot really match that masterpiece.

The winter shaman’s narrative dominates—apart from a few interjections from a raven and the hag of winter—but too often the tone seems hectoring rather than forbidding (which I assume is what it’s aiming for). A reading of the poem Littleblood from Ted Hughes’ neo-shamanic verse cycle Crow only serves to demonstrate a lightness of touch that is sadly lacking elsewhere in the play. The drama only occasionally connects us with that primal, atavistic dread of the cold and darkness which pagan midwinter festivals were once a beacon against.

Inevitably, it contrasts the conspicuous consumerism and glib platitudes of our own Christmas celebrations with the harsh realities of the winter solstice for man at the end of the last ice-age. Taking full advantage of the aural medium, the sound of adverts jingles and cash registers are blended with crackling frost and howling winds. It’s an atmospheric stew and an important message, but sometime risks sounding like a self-righteous sermon at the expense of dramatic momentum. Solstice is ultimately a failed experiment—a polemic as opposed to a play—but there is beauty in it still.

 
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Posted by on April 18, 2014 in BBC Radio, Folk Horror

 

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Hammer House of Horror: The House That Bled to Death (1980)

Possibly the most famous episode of Hammer House of Horror, The House That Bled to Death is as lurid as its title suggests. Ironically the appellation cannot help recalling The House That Dripped Blood; a portmanteau film produced by Hammer’s great rival—Amicus—which is rather less literal than this televisual outing. The plot is a familiar one: an average nuclear family moves into the modern suburban house in which a brutal murder was once committed. It is not long before they start to experience all manner of supernatural phenomena: the walls run with blood; a severed hand turns up in the fridge; and most significantly two hunting-knives keep reappearing in mysterious circumstances.

As ever, the influences on this episode of Hammer House of Horror are not difficult to discern: the most conspicuous is certainly The Amityville Horror; the film of which had been released the previous year—based on a bestselling book published in 1977. Closer to home, the episode was surely also influenced by the narrative of the Enfield Poltergeist: although Guy Lyon Playfair’s book on the subject could only have been released a short time before the episode was written, the case gripped the British tabloid media from August 1977 until the paranormal activity abated in 1979. Although much of the imagery is drawn from the many domestic horror movies produced through the 1970s in the US, it is the controversy surrounding the books themselves that seems to have been episode’s principle inspiration.

Sadly many of the shock techniques deployed by The House That Bled to Death have lost their impact today and the episode certainly pales compared to that high watermark of British “suburban haunted-house” stories, Ghostwatch—it tries too hard to be graphic at the expense of building dread. The climactic set-piece in which a children’s party is showered in blood by a ruptured pipe ought to be sickening; however, the use of such vividly scarlet “Kensington gore” diminishes the credibility of the scene. The only truly disturbing moment is the sight of the family’s cat impaled on a broken window; a particularly nasty moment which makes you wonder if the script-writer was familiar with Nigel Kneale’s classic haunted-house story, Minuke—in which the family’s pet dog suffers a similar fate.

The double-twist conclusion leads us into Tales of the Unexpected territory and redeems much of what has gone before by demonstrating that its tackiness was deliberate. Yet like so many twist endings, it also leaves you feeling cheated—with the impression that the time you invested in the previous forty-five minutes was wasted on an extended set-up that proved to be misdirection. Moreover the rationalisation offered by the conclusions transmutes the episode from supernatural horror to psychological thriller in an instant. Whilst it makes us pause to ponder the effect cases like Amityville or Enfield had on the young children at the centre of those media maelstroms, it is ultimately a hollow revelation and rather less satisfying that its author doubtless intended.

Produced by Hammer Films in association with ITC Entertainment : originally transmitted on 11th October 1980.

 

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The Watch House (1988)

Based on a 1977 novel by prolific children’s author Robert Westall, The Watch House was adapted for television in 1988 by BBC North-East. The three-part series is set in “Garmouth”: a thinly-veiled pseudonym for Tynemouth, where the series was actually filmed. Children’s television drama had a penchant for going further afield than London and the Home Counties in this period—think Moondial, The Snow Spider, Century Falls, Earthfasts, Elidor and more—a trend which often yielded a potent atmosphere missing from series with more narrow horizons. The Watch House is especially successful in its evocation of the genius loci, thanks to its loving use of the ruins of Tynemouth Priory and the eponymous Watch House of the First Volunteer Life Brigade.

Like Moondial, The Watch House was originally written with a real location in mind and mercifully the BBC budget stretched to filming there. But that is not the only similarity: both dramas open with an adolescent girl being fobbed off into the care of some distant relative she has never really met and supernatural events throughout act as a counterpoint to personal trauma. Sadly, this strategy isn’t as deftly accomplished as it was in Moondial and Ann—the protagonist—is a more prickly character than Minty ever was. The ebb-and-flow of the narrative is also poorly handled; a number of emotional beats seem to happen off-screen between episodes and so each part starts at a moment of high tension which seems disconnected from the conclusion of the preceding installment. The effect is quite jarring.

The supernatural aspect of the plot concerns a haunting at the titular life-brigade watch-house which Ann must resolve before she can achieve her own emotional closure. Its motifs are far less unique than Moondial but thankfully the terror delivers: I originally watched the story aged five and it traumatised me thoroughly. The double-haunting makes a clever twist and the malevolence of one ghost is particularly well conveyed. If the jump scares seem muted today they certainly weren’t at the time. Even now the way the camera focuses on the dusty skull is particularly eerie, although the image I most vividly remember being disturbed by is the ship’s figurehead carved into a representation of a Hoplite—especially its final destruction.

Watched as an adult, it is undoubtedly the sense of place which is most vividly communicated and the watch-house itself is probably the most powerful presence in the serial; an abandoned, cobwebbed building full of strange and forgotten artifacts—it evokes a potent melancholy which is emphasised by the mournful incidental music. The conclusion ties things up rather neatly so as to provide the closure that will prevent years of nightmares; thus, the serial does not haunt us in the way we might like. However, it was not made for adults, and the fact that a number of images lingered with me over so many years is a mark of its success as children’s supernatural drama. There is always need for such entry-level supernatural drama; and whilst it may not hold up as well as Moondial for an adult audience, there remains much to enjoy for those attuned to the genius loci.

Produced by BBC1 : originally transmitted 7th – 21st December 1988

 
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Posted by on March 6, 2014 in 1980s, BBC Television, Children's TV

 

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