A seven-part anthology with a supernatural theme, Dead of Night (title nicked wholesale from the Ealing classic) was originally broadcast by the BBC in 1972. Producer Innes Lloyd’s brief for the show seemed to be a desire to remove the ghost story from its traditional Gothic trappings; the resulting episodes still concerned hauntings, of a kind, but Dead of Night specialised in characters being haunted by regret, middle-aged malaise and repressed emotions made manifest, rather than any run-of-the-mill spectres. Unfortunately, four of the seven plays have been lost, with this BFI disc containing the three remainders.
The Exorcism, written and directed by Don Taylor, concerns a Christmas dinner being given by Edmund and Rachel at their newly renovated country cottage for guests Dan and Margeret. Champagne Socialists all, they revel in the modern conveniences that working in P.R. can bring, and sit down to a sumptuous feast. But it soon becomes clear that someone, or something, has other ideas: the power fails, the ‘lovely burgundy’ Dan has brought along turns to blood in Edmund’s mouth, the turkey sets their mouths on fire, and the outside world seems to have disappeared. The Exorcism isn’t exactly subtle in its social message or delivery, taking one generation to task for the crimes of another, and pointing out that the comfortable lives of the bourgeoisie are, here literally, built upon injustice and suffering. A couple of shots of the cottage exterior aside, this is pretty much a one set, four-hander chamber play. It’s the most traditional of the ghost stories on offer, in that it features manifestations of a specific unhappy spirit, but the strident political tone makes this more of a very 1970s’ curiosity than a successful spookshow. It’s like Abigail’s Party goes to hell, with appropriately alarming fashion choices, and a tone of howling despair.
Return Flight, directed by Rodnet Bennet from a Robert Holmes script, is more elusive. It stars Peter Barkworth as Captain Rolph, a recently bereaved commercial airline pilot who becomes plagued by visual and audio manifestations of WW2 aircraft and radio chatter. He’s a bit of a cold fish, a man of a certain generation, unlikely to admit to weaknesses of any kind, and the things he’s seeing and hearing seem to well up from somewhere in his psyche, representations of a life not lived. Fair enough, but when he’s flying a crowded airliner, there’s more than his mental well being at stake, and Return Flight builds a fair amount of disquiet out of this situation. The first half is a character study of a damaged man, the second follows his low-key breakdown on a troubled flight, and the increasingly alarmed responses of Air Traffic Control. Ultimately, though, the execution here lets the inspiration down. Maybe it’s just that I didn’t like Captain Rolph much, maybe the technical demands were beyond a 1972 BBC budget, but this is all a bit well mannered, when it should be a study in sweaty brows and mounting tension.
A Woman Sobbing, however, is a stone-cold gem. Anna Massey is excellent as Jane Pullar, who has a stable marriage with husband Frank, two boys, and a sizable house in the country. Convention suggests she should be happy with her lot, but something is clearly wrong: she is being tortured at night by the sound, coming from the attic above, of a woman sobbing. Jane takes her valium, calls in the gas fitters, tries shrinks and priests, all are found wanting. She wonders, for a while, if her dull, undemonstrative husband is trying to drive her crazy a la Gaslight. She wonders if the house is haunted, if only women can hear the noise. The sound persists. John Bowen’s script is sharp and tragic, presenting an inescapable, circular nightmare in which suburban desires, modish psychiatry, and the modern church are skewered. It’s a feminist work which manages to avoid being reductionist or humourless. Here, as in Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water, supernatural phenomena are bound up with the daily trials of modern female existence, but here they are denied a backstory explanation or simple cause. Jane’s children get on her nerves (’I’ve decided I don’t like them much nowadays’) and Frank may indulge in fantasies about the au pair, but he’s no bastard. Everybody seems to be doing their bit, but nothing gets any better. ‘They didn’t build haunted houses in 1910’, reasons her husband, amusingly, and he may well be right, but still, that doesn’t help Jane.
While not up there, in terms of chills, with Nigel Kneale’s fantastically creepy series Beasts, or the splendours of the BBC’s M.R. James Ghost Stories (both pretty much essential), Dead of Night is well worth a look for fans of vintage cathode weirdness. There’s something about that blend of video and 16mm, that solid British thespian commitment and unflashy professionalism, that conjures an atmosphere not found in contemporary cinema. These are tales of emotional complexity and political mindfulness, which seem a touch mannered and artificial to modern eyes, but nevertheless carry their own distinctive charge.