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Tag Archives: Folk Horror

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

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: Guardian of the Abyss (1980)

It was a coincidence that I watched Guardian of the Abyss so hot on the heels of Warlock; my viewing schedule just happened to fall that way. Nonetheless it was a serendipitous, even synchronistic juxtaposition and while their use of occultism is fascinating to ponder individually, studying them in tandem is more instructive still. Both episodes use the language and motifs of the Western Mystery Tradition faithfully—neither reduces its practice or study to mere devil-worship—but there the similarity ends. The relative moral complexity of Cosmo Gallion’s circle in Warlock is entirely lacking in the Order of Choronzon: where Gallion was seeking knowledge and enlightenment; in Guardian of the Abyss, Charles Randolph is motivated entirely by pride and a base lust for power.

Indeed, Charles Randolph is essentially an analogue of Mocata, from Hammer’s 1968 cinematic adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s novel—The Devil Rides Out; and the narrative of Guardian of the Abyss is reminiscent of that classic film in several respects.These correspondences are only highlighted by the presence of Rosalyn Landor, whose first screen role had been in The Devil Rides Out when she was only ten years old. Fortunately her participation in Guardian of the Abyss was not a mere sop to cinema history and here she is the perfect choice for her aloof and otherworldly character. John Carson is similarly well cast—but as a veteran of Hammer villainy, that is unsurprising: he brings to Charles Randolph all the diabolical menace he exuded playing Squire Hamilton in Plague of the Zombies.

Guardian of the Abyss was scripted by David Fisher, who was responsible for a similarly occult-themed 1978 episode of Doctor Who—The Stones of Blood. Both these stories suggest he was fully conversant with occult mythology and Guardians of the Abyss is full of references that suggest he was aiming for a certain verisimilitude. Aleister Crowley’s attempts to invoke Choronzon are referenced; as are Doctor Dee’s experiments with Edward Kelly—his shewstone and his receipt of the Enochian language. Inevitably there is a glut of more clichéd imagery, including mesmerism, poppets and blood-sacrifice: this is a Hammer production after all! It’s curious to think that audiences in 1980 were expected to be fully conversant with such material—a legacy of the counter-culture’s diffusion into mainstream media.

Certainly the nods to The Devil Rides Out are intentional; there is even a plot device lifted straight from The Wicker Man and it shares that film’s downbeat ending. Indeed, although Guardian of the Abyss may exemplify the “demonisation” of occult traditions in popular media (no pun intended), you cannot say it isn’t appropriately spooky. The Order of Choronzon are a thoroughly sinister bunch and—despite some dodgy prosthetics—the climax is genuinely chilling. Indeed, it is probably far more unnerving than the conclusion of The Devil Rides Out. At the end of the day, that is exactly what you want from an episode of a horror anthology series—even if it means smearing Thelemites in the process. Besides: isn’t the frisson of transgression exactly what draws many people to the Left Hand Path in the first place?

Produced by Hammer Films in association with ITC Entertainment : originally transmitted on 15th November 1980

 

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