“Uncle Silas” is one of the great classics of mid-Victorian sensation fiction, standing alongside Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s “Lady Audley’s Secret”, Ellen Wood’s “East Lynne” and Wilkie Collins’ “The Woman in White” as one of the most enduring texts of this once derided genre. Published in its better known ‘triple-decker’ novel form in 1864, the original short story and the subsequent extended novelised version were written by Sheridan le Fanu – an author whose popular supernatural fiction went on to provide the inspiration and the template for the short stories of Edwardian ghost story writer M.R. James, and whose evocative vampire novella “Carmilla” has had a massive effect on the subsequent course of vampire fiction thanks to its perceived undercurrents of lesbian eroticism. “Uncle Silas” itself didn’t include any overt supernatural material, but is utterly steeped in the Gothic imagination and its traditions, and also provides detective literature with one of the first instances of the ‘locked room’ mystery. The tale has been filmed countless times since, and has now become almost as defining an illustration of the Victorian English Gothic sensibility as Charlotte and Emily Bronte’s respective “Jane Eyre” and Wuthering Heights”: it’s one of the classic texts producers can turn to when they want the period chills that are traditionally to be invoked by ancient country manor houses hiding secrets from the past in their locked attic rooms, the atmosphere of the time-honoured ‘dark and stormy night’ motif, and the psychological suspense to be derived from the concept of the central innocent ingénue menaced by evil, oppressive forces. “The Dark Angel” was a prestigious 1987 BBC adaptation of the novel, echoing its three-part structure with a trio of handsome-looking hour-long episodes shot entirely on film and featuring an all-star cast headed by a menacingly sybaritic Peter O’Toole as the dark angel himself. This glossy filmed series was directed by Peter Hammond – a highly regarded TV director with a cult following thanks to his innovative studio work on some early videotaped episodes of “The Avengers”. This three hour adaptation displays Hammond’s famously meticulously arranged style of composition to excellent effect and the classy cinematography provides the tale with the wistful landscaped look of the mid-Victorian Pre-Raphaelites -- like something from the work of John Everett Millais.
Closely following the events of Le Fanu’s novel, the story introduces the young Maud Ruthyn (Beatie Edney) – a naïve young woman raised from early childhood by servants after the death of her mother, in her rich father’s secluded manor house at Knowl. Austin Ruthyn is a follower of the heretical Christian mystic and philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, and with only the gossip and superstition of the orthodox Mrs Rusk and the other servants to keep her company in her enforced isolation, Maud comes to inject all manner of dark and malign heretical significance into the religious practices her father and his friend Doctor Bryerly (Guy Rolfe) are supposedly engaging in together behind closed doors in her father’s study. With no one her own age to confide in, Maud spends her days in romantic consideration of the seductively dashing, Byronic portrait of her Uncle Silas that hangs in the wainscoted drawing room at Knowl; this uncle is the black sheep of the family: a gambler and a libertine who has lived a life of debauchery in his youth with the quintessential casual style of all typical Regency rakes. But Austin has recently come to forge a great friendship with the man (whom the besotted Maud has never actually seen in the flesh) in latter months, due to his supposed recent conversion to the Swedenborgian ‘heresy’. Rumours still abound of the disgrace Silas is said to have brought to the family name; there are even rumours of murder having taken place in a sealed room in his home at Bartram-Haugh.
Belatedly declaiming his concern over the neglect he’s shown Maud while single-mindedly pursuing his theological studies, leaving her to wander the great empty halls of Knowl by herself day in day out, Austin engages the services of a French Governess, Madame de la Rougierre (Jane Lapotaire), to educate and befriend his daughter and keep her company. But the grotesque, pallid-faced, parasol-twirling creature who turns up at Knowl House turns out to be a sadistic, gin-soaked and Laudanum imbibing harridan, who beats Maud with a cane when the other servants aren’t around to observe her true nature, and whose idea of a day excursion involves dragging Maud to see her own mother’s grave while the Governess performs a bizarre, disrespectful “danse macabre” in front of three skulls lined up on top of some of the gravestones! On one such trip, Maud is even obliquely sexually menaced by a leering man whom the Madame seems all too readily acquainted with already! Unable to convince her ever-trusting father of the malign intentions of this selfish, spiteful figure to whom he has entrusted her care, Maud is relieved when Madam de la Rougierre is caught red handed, apparently attempting to burglarise her father’s locked drawer containing his will, and abruptly dismissed. Her joy at this development is to be a short-lived one however – for her father is very soon discovered dead from sudden heart failure, and though his fortune is to be held in trust until Maud comes of age to inherit all of it, his last wish is that his daughter be sent to live with her uncle Silas at Bartram-Hough in the wilds of Derbyshire!
“The Dark Angel” is shot in an unusually cinematic fashion for the times, with Peter Hammond’s customary visual style being immediately evident if you’re a fan of all those Avengers episodes in which he’d invariably find ways to enliven otherwise static studio scenes with odd camera angles or – something that was a notable recurring Hammond speciality – the shooting of whole sequences that are reflected in or framed by mirrors, or with other unusual on-set props providing extra visual stimulus. All this is evident in this rather more glossy production, with Hammond emphasising Maud’s isolation with vast long-shots in which she’s often dwarfed by the enormity of her surroundings. The episode at the graveyard even features a scene between Maud and Madam de la Rougierre that’s classic Hammond -- shot through the eye socket of a skull on top of a gravestone!
The original novel was told from the point of view of a much older Maud, looking back at and reflecting upon her past experiences from a position of maturity which her younger self was obviously not privy to. Thus, the Gothic descriptions of the novel are largely fevered remembrances of her perceptions at the time, layering into the tale an extra level of awareness of the conventions of the Gothic romance genre and reminding us that the heroine has been raised on such literature, and so is injecting much of its inherent ambience into her recollections of past episodes from her life. This is not a device that is open to the image-based medium of film, so Hammond instead crafts an aesthetic based in our received ideas about such Gothic material: Beatie Edney’s rather bland Maud is invariably depicted dressed all in frilly white with long golden Pre-Raphaelite curls, while her nemeses the devilish Madame Rougierre (a striking, blackly League of Gentlemen-like comic performance from Jane Lapotaire) is a decidedly Tim Burton-esque figure: dressed entirely in jet black with a Goth-white powdered mask of a face and a drunken cackle invariably accompanying her various cruelties and gleeful graveyard jigs. She’d have slotted happily into Burton’s adaptations of either “Sweeny Todd” or “The Corpse Bride”.
Maud’s experiences are vivified with outlandish dream sequences that inject an element of Freudianism into her fantasies and fears about her father’s strange religion and her uncle’s romantic portrait. One notable sequence heralds the emergence of an overtly erotic element into the story, something which is always kept way in the background in the novel: Maud has a prophetic dream about her father’s death but imagines herself embracing him in his coffin and bringing him to life with a decidedly lingering kiss as, in the dream, he claws at her flimsy white shift. Still naively trusting her father’s complete and utter faith in the unseen Uncle Silas (even though this is the same man who previously engaged the services of Madam de la Rougierre!), despite the concerns and protestations of her cousin Monica (the great Barbara Shelley), Maud travels to Bartram-Hough -- a sprawling manor house which is falling into dilapidation due to Silas’s unpaid gambling debts. Maud is charmed by the easy manner and friendly demeanour of her relative, even though he has a strange habit of kissing her full on the lips (a further enhancement of the incest subtext in the novel). Silas claims to be chronically ill and spends his days propped up on cushions in his chambers wearing a Regency-era velvet dressing gown and consuming large quantities of ‘medicinal’ opium. His neglected young daughter Millie (Charlotte Coleman) is allowed to run wild on the estate but becomes a friend to the young heiress, the first she’s ever had until she’s eventually sent away to France, leaving Maud as isolated as before. Uncle Silas contrives a friendly disinterested demeanour but we know he’s after Maud’s fortune and has some kind of devious plan in mind to get it. After forging a few signatures he tries to engineer marriage between her and his uncouth, thuggish son Dudley -- who also turns out to be the leering man from the cemetery! After hearing strange noises in the upper levels of the castle-like manor, Maud tries to discover the room in which the guest who died, and who many say was murdered by Silas, would have stayed, but discovers instead that it conceals a person who has been secretly living in the same house as she the whole time … none other than the evil Madame de la Rougierre!
The final part of the story sees the gentlemanly charade previously maintained by the sinister Silas, the oafish Dudley and the grotesque Madam Rougierre stripped away when it becomes all too apparent that, with the marriage plan having fallen through and Silas being the next in line to inherit Austin Ruthyn’s fortune should anything untoward happen to Maud, the unholy trio are actually plotting to murder her -- all the while inducing Monica and a handsome army captain Maud has recently taken a shine to while holidaying with her cousin, to believe that she’s been sent to the same French boarding school as Millie.
Maud finds herself stripped of her clothes and left to rot in a flimsy almost transparent shift, drugged up on opium secreted in her tea and imprisoned in a grotty barred room in one of the highest crenelated towers at Bartram, through the window of which she can see Dudley in the courtyard below, digging the grave in which the conspirators plan to dispose of her body! Maud’s transition from childhood to adolescence is highlighted throughout with a much more erotically charged emphasis than is usually seen in adaptations of this story: Edney tends to waft around the sinister corridors of Bartram through most of the second and third episodes in a flimsy nightgown that leaves little to the imagination; Maud’s doomed attempts to attract the attention of her cousin from her barred attic prison when Monica’s carriage is turned away by her uncle, results in a struggle between Rougierre and a Maud suffering the ravages of her opium addiction, that leaves the young woman’s nightgown torn to shreds. Rougierre herself cavorts about in her underclothes, introducing Maud to an unhealthily prurient environment that is clearly in marked contrast to the romantic daydreams she’d previously entertained about the younger dashing Silas seen depicted in his portrait at her childhood home of Knowl.
Stripped of the older, wiser narrative voice from the novel to put the character into a clearer context, the young Maud becomes rather an annoyingly trusting and prissy little creature throughout most of the proceedings at Bartram-Hough, even when Silas’s perfidy seems completely obvious. The serial’s portrayal of the story’s evil characters is by far the most successful element of this production, though, with Peter O’Toole perfectly cast as the utterly amoral, completely ruthless relative who nevertheless always has a plausible answer for each of his subterfuges and a calculatedly kindly & charming manner which acts as the most disarming defence for his nefarious intentions. The moment when he finally openly turns on his pathetic, drugged–into-oblivion and utterly pain-wracked wretch of a niece at the point when his intentions are finally made unavoidably clear is truly chilling, and made all the more horrific by being viewed through the distorted prism of Maud’s hallucinogenic fever dream. The gruesome horror film element of the finale isn’t shirked at all and we’re given a truly hideous depiction of the violent death of one of the main characters at the end of this Gothic classic that seems a million miles away from the tasteful Sunday afternoon quaintness of most BBC period costume drama. “The Dark Angel” stands up incredibly well nearly twenty-five years after it was first broadcast and brings a sophisticated sensibility and a macabre wit to the material that feels perfectly in keeping with the original dark imagination of Sheridan le Fanu.
All three episodes are included on one disc from Network Releasing, and look surprisingly clean, colourful and vivid, the 35mm film elements having held up well over the years, and with there being nary an unwanted speckle or line to be discerned at any point. This is probably one of the best and most faithful adaptations of Le Fanu’s source novel, and Network’s nice-looking UK DVD edition serves it very well indeed.