Fevered, fervid and not a little bit fruity, Robert Muller’s anthology TV series Supernatural was broadcast by the BBC in the summer of 1977 with little fanfare, to a largely indifferent reaction, and then sat on the shelves, unrepeated, ever since. If Dead of Night, the other spooky 1970s anthology offering recently released by the BFI, was an attempt to drag the ghost story into the modern world and drop all the traditional trappings, Supernatural represents a wholesale volte-face, an enthusiastic swan dive into all things Gothic, Stygian and stylised, from the opening blast of doomy organ and shots of gargoyles onwards. It’s all set in the 19th century, with a delicious framing device wherein the Club of the Damned is gathered to hear the true-life tale of terror of a would-be member. If their story chills the club’s blood sufficiently, they will be allowed to join; if not, death awaits. We don’t see much of the club’s activities beyond the slurping of claret, so we have to assume the rigour of the entrance exam is worth the candle.
The meat of the show then consists of the likes of Robert Hardy, Jeremy Brett and Gordon Jackson relating their terrible tales, seven in all, over eight episodes, which run the gothic gamut, featuring ghosts, werewolves, doppelgangers, vampires and the reanimated dead. A common theme is of the unspeakable desires bubbling under the surface of an excessively polite and straitened society, so in Viktoria, the tale of murder, remarriage and revenge from beyond the grave, is complicated by the wicked stepfather’s barely repressed homosexual longings. In Night of the Marionettes, Jackson’s scholar has a troubling, passionate relationship with his own daughter (Pauline Moran). And in Mr Nightingale the timid titular character (Brett) brings chaos and ruin to a Hamburg family household when his libido is unleashed, via his doppelganger, shagging one daughter (Susan Mawdsley) and inducing pyromaniac ecstasy in another (Lesley-Anne Down). Perhaps it was all those stultifying conversations about fish…
If the above suggests a barrage of blatant filth and depravity, then relax, gentle reader, for Supernatural is one of the least explicit, and most literary forays into freakery that TV has created. It’s mainly about performance and dialogue; eloquent, precise and polysyllabic in the style of the works it references, Muller’s scripts (only one, Sue Lake’s Viktoria, was not his work) are as rich as Christmas cake, and clearly relished as such by a cracking cast of British thespians. The two parter Countess Ilona/The Werewolf Reunion, for instance, manages to have a theme of sexual exploitation and venereal disease, a self-confessed ‘erotomane’ as one of its characters, and features four apparently grisly deaths via lycanthrope, without showing so much as a bare buttock or a hairy hand. Its delights rest in Ian Hendry, John Fraser, Charles Kay and Edward Hardwicke having a whale of a time as the utterly despicable representatives of the male sex whom Ilona (Billie Whitelaw) has assembled for a ‘surprise’ party. Lady Sybil manages to assemble the great Denholm Elliott and former angry young man John Osborne as the loosely hinged sons of grand dame Catherine Nesbitt, for a tale of phantom visitations and wayward mesmerism. The first tale, The Ghost of Venice has Sinéad Cusack, and Robert Hardy as an aging actor, getting lost in obsession and self-deception, and the last, Dorabella, is a twisty number about vampiric infatuation. In all, there is no place for naked fumbling or method mumbling – this is all about sweaty brows and crisp pronunciation, with performances aimed at the back row, Loachian realism be damned. Near everybody here seems prone to fits of delirium and the derangement of the senses. It’s drenched in Mary Shelley, Stoker and Stevenson, and all things dark and romantic. Marionettes actually turns on the Byron/Shelley/Polidori meeting on Lake Geneva that spawned Frankenstein. And it’s telling that what seems to be a gratuitous close up of a see-through blouse in one episode turns, via a dissolve, into a literary reference.
This is not to suggest that Supernatural’s charms are purely verbal. Shot on the customary, for the time, mix of 8 mm film and standard videotape, the series has a distinctive look, revelling in Dutch angles, chiaroscuro lighting and deliberate compositions. Some effects are clearly borne of budget, like the close-ups of woodcut drawings shot in ‘wibble vision’, which replace expensive exterior shots of period Venice and Hamburg, or the use of negative to create Mr Nightingale’s visions of ‘black seagulls’; other techniques show a creative mastery of the technology available. Overlays and dissolves are used extensively, but most of the show’s mood is conjured by stagecraft, sleight of hand and elaborate set design. One gets the feeling that every ornate candlestick holder or piece of carved wood from the BBC backlot was used thrice over to fill out the Olde European Castles, Mansions and dodgy roadside Inns required.
Supernatural, in all its florid excesses, is an honest attempt to revel in the possibilities of the gothic genre, and while at times it skirts close to camp, there is no winking at the audience here, no arch references to modern mores. It may be played to the hilt, but it’s played straight nonetheless. The stories all have something to say about sexual politics, repression and desire, and are packed with sly and unexpected moments and strange details. How much you enjoy it rests upon your tolerance for its wordy, slow-burning storytelling, its emphasis on atmosphere over sensation, and its utter lack of interest in humdrum reality. Personally I found it irresistible. Some episodes work better than others: Ghost is too stagey, and ultimately too silly, and Dorabella doesn’t ring enough changes with its vampire schtick to pay off, but all have their moments. Mr Nightingale is gleefully subversive and cruel, Lady Sybil is The Old Dark House with weird psychology, and The Night of the Marionettes is an extraordinary thing, with its German expressionistic stage sets and freaky living puppets. All in all, it’s smart, engaging stuff, and well worth a wallow.