Tag Archives: British TV



Format: DVD

Release date: 18 November 2013

Distributor: BFI

Directors: Simon Langton, Alan Cooke, Peter Sasdy, Claude Whatham

Writers: Robert Muller (7 of 8 screenplays), Sue Lake (Viktoria)

Cast: Billie Whitelaw, Ian Hendry, Robert Hardy, Jeremy Brett, Gordon Jackson, Denholm Elliott, Sinéad Cusack

UK 1977

400 mins

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.

Mark Stafford

Schalcken the Painter

Schalcken the Painter

Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 18 November 2013

Distributor: BFI

Director: Leslie Mehagey

Writer: Leslie Mehagey

Based on: Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s short story ‘Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter’

Cast: Jeremy Clyde, Maurice Denham, Cheryl Kennedy, John Justin, Charles Gray

UK, 1979

70 mins

First aired on the BBC on 23rd December 1979, Leslie Mehagey’s Schalcken the Painter is lush, weird, postmodern and creepy. Based on Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1839 ghost story, both works craft an unsettling fiction around real 17th-century Dutch painters, Godfried Schalcken and his tutor, Gerrit Dou. Pitching his script as an arts lecture that morphs into a horror story, Megahey plays with Le Fanu’s use of historical figures by presenting the film as a documentary, a trick aided by its screening as part of the arts series Omnibus. The film meticulously recreates the interiors made famous by the Dutch masters, lifting them from the gallery wall, and having our protagonists inhabit them.

The film’s opening is slow and elegant, establishing Dou (Maurice Denham) and Schalcken (Jeremy Clyde) as deeply unsympathetic characters. Despite the film’s aesthetic beauty, the events it depicts are ugly, as Dou willingly sells his young niece, Rose (Cheryl Kennedy), into a grotesque but lucrative marriage. Despite his sincere affections for Rose, Schalcken is so paralysed by his own aspiration to succeed as an artist under Dou that he does nothing to help the woman he claims to love.

The film works on two levels: firstly, as a slow-burning morality tale in which we wait with unpleasant anticipation for Schalcken’s punishment; and secondly, as a critique on the relationship between art and commerce, sex and money. Thus we return to the ghost story as arts lecture, with the film commenting on the commodification of 17th-century Dutch painting, where private patronage led artists away from spiritual or lyrical subjects towards depicting the plush interiors of the people controlling the purse-strings.

As for the film’s Schalcken, after he trades passion for ambition, we spy on him visiting a parade of prostitutes and employing peasants as models, who we watch undress and pose. A product of its time, Schalcken the Painter is part feminist attack on the brutality of marriage contracts, part exploitation movie as we’re treated to plenty of female flesh. However, the film’s climactic scene undercuts any earlier titillation with an image that is horrific, as opposed to erotic.

The film’s Gothic flashes, matched with the deadpan conceit that what we are watching is a documentary, intensify the contrast between the veracity of the film’s period details and its supernatural elements. In particular, the real Schalcken’s celebrated representation of candlelight is exquisitely mimicked, and yet it is this feature of his painting that is dramatised to suggest the corruption of the character’s soul.

It’s difficult to imagine this as festive viewing. But like Jonathan Miller’s stunning adaptation of M. R. James’s Whistle and I’ll Come To You, also produced by Omnibus for the BBC’s BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series, this is no cosy Dickensian tale. Yet where Miller’s work is visceral, Schalcken the Painter is typified by a cold restraint, like the paintings it honours. However, beneath its cool intellectualism there lurks a pessimism about the human condition that chills to the bone.

A cult classic, not to be missed.

Stephanie King

Dead of Night

Dead of Night The Exorcism
Dead of Night

Format: DVD

Release date: 28 October 2013

Distributor: BFI

Directors: Don Taylor (The Exorcism), Rodney Bennet (Return Flight), Paul Ciapessoni (A Woman Sobbing)

Cast: Clive Swift, Edward Petherbridge, Anna Cropper, Sylvia Kay, Peter Barkworth, Anna Massey

UK 1972

150 mins

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.

Extras on the BFI’s DVD release of Dead of Night include a detailed, well-presented booklet, and a stills gallery of the lost episodes.

Mark Stafford

Weird Adventures

The Boy Who Turned Yellow

Format: DVD

Release date: 17 June 2013

Distributor: BFI

The Monster of Highgate Ponds

Director:Alberto Cavalcanti

UK 1961, 59 mins

The Boy Who Turned Yellow

Director: Michael Powell

UK 1972, 55 mins

A Hitch in Time

Director: Jan Darnley-Smith

UK 1978, 57 mins

For anyone who spent their childhood in the UK before the 1990s, films produced by the Children’s Film Foundation were a regular feature on kids’ TV; comprising odd, one-off dramas that, when screened amid the hectic modern cartoons of the late 20th century, not to mention gunge-filled game shows and tweenage soaps like Grange Hill, already felt old-fashioned even before the series came to an end in 1985. Perhaps this was due to the not-for-profit basis of the organisation that made them (and government funding via the Eady Levy), or because the company made films specifically for British children (with an assumption of what that audience would enjoy) without pressure from market forces. That said, nostalgia for the range has brought a tear to the eye of many – particularly the generation who grew up in the 1980s and are obsessed with old TV shows and video games – so the 160 films and two dozen serials that the CFF produced have emerged in dribs and drabs over the last few years on DVD.

To rectify this, the BFI have been releasing new themed collections, with three instalments per disc – not particularly generous, considering the 160 available, but better than their former policy of one 45-minute TV show per disc – and Weird Adventures is the third in the range, collecting three sci-fi/fantasy films from the 1960s and 1970s. The earliest, The Monster of Highgate Ponds, has aged the worst of the three. While footage of 1960s London is charming, especially the rarely filmed canals and docks, and the politeness and received pronunciation of the young actors is refreshing, there simply isn’t enough plot to fill the hour-long running time. One scene, for example, where the children encounter circus workers in a pet shop, who state they’re looking for an unusual animal to join their collection, is reasonably entertaining the first time we see it, and forgivable the second, for inattentive young members of the audience who might have nipped to the loo earlier on, but the third iteration of the same scene just seems like lazy, patronising writing.

Direction by Alberto Cavalcanti (Night Mail, 1936 / Went the Day Well?, 1942) is solid, but not quite exciting or lurid enough for a tale about a dinosaur hatching from an egg and taking up residence in the Highgate swimming ponds. Elsewhere, the realisation of the monster via stop-motion animation when young (by Halas and Batchelor, best known for 1954’s Animal Farm), then as a man in a dinosaur suit when full-sized (and pitched halfway between Godzilla, 1955 and Rentaghost, 1976–1984) is pretty good, but the interminable length makes the film a hard slog for modern audiences.

Luckily, the second film in the collection, The Boy Who Turned Yellow, is far more remarkable, not least as the final collaboration by director Michael Powell and writer/producer Emeric Pressburger. A mixture of educational narrative about the sources of power from the National Grid, plus a children’s adventure movie regarding mice lost in the Tower of London, the eponymous description of the lead character’s change in colour creates a heady mix of caper, surrealism and free-form structure that makes the viewer wish Powell and Pressburger had helmed a few more films for the CFF.

Finally, slapstick sci-fi drama A Hitch in Time is probably most memorable for the appearance of former Doctor Who actor Patrick Troughton, playing another eccentric time-machine pilot. However, a terrific antagonist played by TV stalwart Jeff Rawle steals every scene he’s in as a malevolent teacher, with a dozen similar ancestors that a pair of time-travelling kids encounter through the ages. While the direction is somewhat workmanlike due to long-standing CFF director Jan Darnley-Smith being behind the camera, the witty, episodic script by T.E.B. Clarke, writer of Ealing Comedy classics Passport to Pimlico (1949) and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), keeps the action going at a steady clip. Although Troughton is ironically underused as the mad professor, his machine anticipates a similar device in Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes (2007) and the historical antics almost seem like a dry run for Time Bandits (1981), which was made only three years after this film.

Like many anthologies, Children’s Film Foundation Volume Three: Weird Adventures is a bit of a mixed bag, but these minor works by great British film directors and writers are certainly worth investigating for cineastes with a curiosity about B-movies aimed at a family audience.

Alex Fitch