Surprisingly, given their almost unfilmable ambiguity, adaptations of the stories of Robert Aickman for television are more common than you might imagine. However, they are not especially easy to acquire. There was a dramatisation of Ringing the Changes in 1968, retitled The Bells of Hell, that has sadly been wiped; and an indifferently scheduled series produced by HTV West in the early Nineties called Night Voices, featuring stabs at The Inner Room, The Hospice, The Trains and Hand In Glove, which is nigh on impossible to track down. More recently, there has been Jeremy Dyson’s short film version of The Cicerones, usually relegated to Channel 4 in the early hours of the morning but generally regarded as the most successful attempt at bringing Aickman’s work to the screen.
However, arguably the most curious effort is this one, a half-hour dramatisation of one of Aickman’s most-remembered stories, if not one of his best. It was broadcast in 1997 as part of an anthology series called The Hunger, a glossy co-production between UK and Canadian companies, which combined horror and “erotica” to produce the sort of television you used to find late at night on obscure channels before the internet provided adolescents with access to real pornography. As such, an adaptation of an Aickman story might not seem an obvious choice, especially as the opening episode. Whilst the original tale is certainly about sex to some extent (insofar as any Aickman story can be definitively said to be about anything) television series such as these are not known for qualities like ambiguity and subtlety, qualities which define Aickman’s best work.
Unsurprisingly, if there is one regard in which this production succeeds, it’s capturing the backstreet seediness of the original story. The updated setting of a fetish club juxtaposed with monologues from Timothy Spall’s perfume salesman perfectly capture the banality of lust, although you suspect that wasn’t quite what the makers intended. Nonetheless, much of the nuance of Aickman’s story has been lost. Whilst Amanda Ryan brings an effective numb innocence to her role as Musidora, the showgirl who can be pierced by swords and remain unharmed, this device seems to have been reinterpreted as a transparent quasi-Freudian metaphor for penetrative sex. This simplistic perspective leads to the story’s original climax being substituted for something far less strange and infinitely less unnerving.
You also have to question the wisdom of casting vacant pretty-boy Balthazar Getty as the protagonist. Not only is he a profoundly limited actor, but by portraying this character as a wild-child who has come to London to escape a life of excess, you lose much of the potential thematic resonance of the story, even in this simplified interpretation. The repressed, sexually-frustrated mummy’s boy of Aickman’s original tale makes far more psychological sense, even in the limited terms the in which producers have chosen to interpret it. But such a casual, unthinking approach is typical of the programme as a whole. You could hardly expect a series of this nature to produce anything less than a bastardisation of Aickman’s uniquely weird vision, but by trying to shoehorn the story into a comprehensible and familiar narrative for a general audience they’ve ironically ensured it also fails on its own terms.
Originally transmitted on 20th July 1997
Produced by the Movie Network