These days practically forgotten by all but those few adults (un)fortunate enough to have been traumatised by it as kids back in the late seventies, when it was broadcast by the ITV regions on a Sunday afternoon, "The Clifton House Mystery" is an interesting piece of weird Children's telly made by HTV - the then ITV regional station for Wales and the West of England. An imaginative ghost story, told in six twenty-five minute episodes, the series uses the strange and the paranormal (all the rage at the time) as a back-way into some compelling local Bristol history based on the Reform Bill-related Bristol riots of 1831; writers Harry Moore and Daniel Farson came up with a unique, intelligently written and quite odd story that fulfils the contemporary remit of children's TV of the time by being seen to be on the one hand responsibly educational, while also still managing to be profoundly terrifying in places. One can well imagine coming indoors for tea, plonking one's self down in front of the TV with a plate of beans on toast on one's lap, only to be scared witless by the freaky goings-on inside the crumbly, pre-Victorian terraced house of the Clare family, who find themselves subjected to all manor of ghostly apparitions and paranormal phenomena upon first moving in: spots of blood-like liquid dripping from the ceiling, a ghastly disembodied face hovering over the sideboard in the kids' bedroom, and the unnerving apparition of a grinning old lady, who materialises in the daughter's room at night to tuck her in to bed. Not to mention the discovery of a mouldering body, later found to have been bricked-up in the wall behind the kids' bedroom! This is the stuff of a nervous child's nightmares indeed.
Although shot on video, with only a few sets and crude '70s special effects at its disposal, the series nevertheless manages to invoke a vivid, musty atmosphere, largely thanks to the brilliant production design of the sets for the house's interior and its vine-laden back garden. The series is entirely shot in the studio, with no location shooting at all (even the garden is a studio set), the story very rarely leaving the afflicted house apart from a few forays to the local library in later episodes, where the Clare kids attend a paranormal lecture and bone-up on the house's history. The scene is set with plenty of Victorian-era Gothic decrepitude: in a gloomy-looking interior with peeling brown wallpaper, an antiquated Grandfather clock at the top of the stairs and other suitably careworn clutter and bric-a-brac dominating the scene, we are introduced to Emily (Michelle Martin, who played George C. Scott's doomed daughter in the opening scenes of "The Changeling") and her aged Grandmother Mrs Betterton (Margery Withers), who has recently sold-off the old Clifton house excessively cheaply to the Clare family, apparently desperate to get her granddaughter away from the odd atmosphere of the place, although the strange young girl is reluctant to leave. The Clare Family - which consists of dad Timothy (Sebastian Breaks), mum Sheila (Ingrid Hafner), and their three kids: brothers Steven (Joshua Le Touzel) and Ben (Robert Morgan), and their elder sister Jenny (Amanda Kirby) — are moving in on the very day Emily and her Grandmother are moving out; it's also the same day the Bettertons' unwanted possessions are being auctioned off in front of the usual selection of nosey, twinset & pearl-clad local busybodies.
Timothy Claire is an up-and-coming orchestral conductor and pianist, hoping to land a big tour of the United States from an overseas sponsor. As is par for the course with Children's TV of the seventies, the Claire kids are your usual Enid Blyton types, only with longer hair and decked out in '70s tank tops — all played by bright-eyed stage school kids with impeccable received pronunciation! They're the kind of children you only find in old TV series of yesteryear and Edwardian-era children's literature, being suitably adventurous in spirit but also unnaturally interested in esoteric educational subjects most kids wouldn't think twice about. The younger son, Ben, is overwhelmed with excitement, as only a fictional child could be, when he finds an old volume among the Betterson possessions by obscure author Thomas Chatterton (an 18th century poet and master forger of pseudo-medieval poetry!). The only misbehaviour we encounter in the whole series comes when Ben stays up late reading a book about Isambard Kingdom Brunel for a school project about the development of steamships, even though his mum's told him to turn off the light and go to sleep! At the auction, Steven enthusiastically spends three months' pocket money on a blackened old Dragoon officer's helmet, which he then diligently polishes every night and keeps on the sideboard in the brothers' bedroom. You won't catch these kids smoking or sniffing glue behind the bike sheds!
Mr Clare also buys an old painting of a Dragoon Commander, posed in front of a fiery backdrop, while the family observe the progress of the auction, and he hangs it on the wall in the living room above the mantelpiece; while Emily, before leaving her old home, secretly gives Jenny an old music box that plays a military marching band's theme. Not long after the family take up residence at Clifton House, the weird occurrences begin: a bowl appears to fly out of Jenny's hands, as though wrenched away by an invisible force; the boys wake in the middle of the night to a glowing apparition of a sad-looking face that simply hangs in the air. Later, one of the boys glimpses the same face reflected in a mirror instead of his own; while Jenny receives regular visits from an old woman in Victorian servant's garb, grinning and waving at her from the end of the bed, and who often tucks her in at night! Even the parents are afflicted: Pianist Timothy finds himself unaccountably breaking into the perky music box's theme tune (which he has never heard) while in the middle of performing a sonorous Beethoven sonata for guests, and Sheila starts to become convinced that the house must be haunted. Things come to a head when a dinner party ends in chaos, with smashing plates and blood dripping on the food from the ceiling. The housekeeper finally becomes distraught by all these events and leaves, refusing to ever come back to the house again!
With their parents at a lose for what to do, Ben and Steven make a momentous discovery when they realise that the shape of a window they can see from the back garden, appears not to match up properly with the interior of the house. They realise that there must be a secret room hidden immediately behind their bedroom wall. The lads set to work, chipping away at the plaster, and even their dad gets intrigued enough by the mystery to help them bash a large hole in the wall behind their wardrobe, big enough to enter. Inside, they find a darkened shuttered room, covered in cobwebs and untouched since the 1830s, containing the remains of an old, yellowing human skeleton in a dusty four-poster bed! The room also contains a sword — the same one clearly visible in the painting above the mantelpiece ...
The series thrives on its unusual mixture of classic children's book motifs — referencing familiar 'magical' elements from the likes of well-loved tales such as "The Secret Garden" or "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" — and relocates them in a traditional faux Victorian-gothic setting, while also catering to the then contemporary obsession for all things paranormal. The house looks brown, decaying and old throughout (the Claires never having the time for redecorating presumably — what with all the strange goings on) and thus there is a weird 'domestic uncanny' atmosphere all the way through the series, created by the juxtaposing of the Claire's '70s furnishings with the house's Victorian layout — its pediments and stained glass front windows — and having modern characters, in contemporary '70s fashions, living in such clearly old-fashioned Victorian surroundings.
What with familiar Gothic elements such as secret rooms with bricked-up bodies and the suggestion of hidden traumas in the Bettterson's family history, this standard Victorian ghost story structure allows the writers to strike out in two directions simultaneously: on the one-hand there is the investigation into the house's past, which brings up the true story of the Bristol riots of 1831, when the defeat of the proposed Reform Bill (which had been intended to extend the vote more widely among the male population) by the Tory dominated House of Lords, sparked crowds into furious demonstrations that resulted in the burning of many of the houses of unpopular personages. The Dragoons were drafted in to disperse the rioters, and hundreds of people were killed or wounded in the ensuing melee. The children discover that the Bettersons were related to a Thomas Brereton (the family name later changed because of the perceived shame attached to the story), who was an Irish-born Dragoon commander whose regiment was stationed in the city at the time. He was court-martialled for being too lenient in his treatment of the rioting crowds, and for refusing to have his men fire on them. This was a real historical figure who commited suicide before being sentenced by his accusers.
The children's attempts to uncover the cause of their haunting experience leads to some colourful and informative true life Bristol history being brought to light, but there is also a second strand of concern in the series: that of the paranormal, and the kinds of theories then in vogue to explain such outlandish alleged phenomena as poltergeists. The children come across a 'ghost hunter' by the name of Milton Guest, giving a lecture at their local library: an eccentric amateur investigator of the paranormal, played beautifully by Peter Sallis (Wallace of "Wallace & Gromit" fame) who gives the children a nifty 'scientific' explanation for ghosts: echoes of past events imprinted on the atmosphere by the strong emotions that attended them at the time.
The explanation given for Poltergeist infestations revolves around the now standard one given in most paranormal literature concerning supposed psychokinetic energy tapped from an adolescent nearing puberty — usually a girl — by some kind of spirit 'energy' (or perhaps simply caused subconsciously by the person themselves). This fits the profile of the brothers' elder sister, Jenny, of course; and Jenny does indeed seem to be the focus of much of the poltergeist disturbances. Like Emily before her, she is the bearer of the music box and the recipient of nightly visits by the grinning woman, as well as being prone to experiencing many unpleasant incidents, with plates and bowls breaking all around her; although, unlike Emily, she has not yet taken to dressing in weirdly old-fashioned Victorian-esque clothes!
It's interesting to consider the background to this story. A few years earlier, much national newspaper and TV coverage had been given to the Enfield Poltergeist case, in which a family were allegedly haunted in their London home by knockings, apparitions, and apports of objects — most of which centred on the elder daughter who was famously pictured by a newspaper reporter seemingly being thrown across her bedroom by a malevolent force. It's perhaps not coincidental that Jenny wears a similar-looking red night-gown to that of the girl seen in the Enfield pictures, and is about the same age. There is an unanticipated change of emphasis in the very final episode of the series that seems unusual and rather sophisticated for a story aimed at children. Instead of providing reassuring closure, the series ends with the Claire family, having apparently laid their ghosts to rest with the help of a ritual instigated by Milton Guest (who is thrilled to have finally seen a ghost after a career of having conspicuously failed to do so), agreeing to appear on a local HTV news programme (the necessary involvement of the police after the discovery of the skeleton whips up a lot of press interest) where they discuss their experiences. By now, the father, Timothy, has rationalised the whole thing away, and the children are left almost bereft by the disappearance of the ghostly phenomena, and disappointed by the less-than-serious attitude to the whole thing taken by their TV interviewer (a real broadcaster of the day who here plays himself). The family are pictured complacently watching their own interview in their living room, when the TV suddenly cuts out. Without forewarning, the music-box starts playing again by itself and Jenny sees the grinning old lady materialising once more in the corner of the room!
Instead of being terrified though, the children are delighted.
With its clever plotting, intelligent storytelling and scary, ambiguous ending, "The Clifton House Mystery" still plays very convincingly, even to a modern audience schooled in the special effects-laden ephemera of present-day TV. It has a charm and a depth to it, a fairy tale innocence and a cunning mischievousness that makes it easily watchable, and although the superimposition methods used to achieve the ghost effects may be laughably primitive by today's standards, the series still retains a slight air of unease even now. Network present all six episodes on a single disc here, and it still looks pretty good, with very little wear and tear discernible, and the image equally as sharp as when the series was first broadcast. A scarily good piece of nostalgia TV, that's well worth checking out.