1972 seems to have been a peak year for the production of supernatural drama at the BBC. Under conditions which had seen unemployment double in eighteen months to reach levels unprecedented at that time since the 1930s; during a period in which a state of emergency had been declared by the Government earlier in the year after The National Union of Mineworkers’ decision to vote for a nationwide strike led to power blackouts becoming a frequent occurrence across the entire country; and with the escalating troubles in Northern Ireland bringing forth ‘Bloody Sunday’ on the streets of Derry/Londonderry -- beleaguered Britain rounded off a particularly hard year with a series of less than cheery ghostly wintertime supernatural tales, courtesy of some of the best writers and producers then working at the country’s top broadcasting institution. Between them these bleak dramas offered audiences gathered round their winter hearths some unsparing social commentary and a dark portrait of the psychological state of the nation, issuing from a modern Gothic perspective that dove into the anxieties underpinning this moment of crisis for British society, rather than providing the comforts of period drama escapism or the cheap gaudy thrills that were often associated with the horror genre.
Christmas Eve saw the broadcast of the second in Lawrence Gordon Clark’s highly praised “A Ghost Story for Christmas” strand, in which MR James’s classic Edwardian short story, “A Warning to the Curious”, was injected with an added sense of contemporary relevance by turning Peter Vaughan’s central character -- in marked contrast to the subject of the original tale -- into a working class amateur archaeologist who, after being made unemployed during the Depression, stumbles on something in the landscape ancient and priceless that should’ve been left alone while out looking for Anglo Saxon treasure on the East coast of England. The very next evening saw the transmission of Nigel Kneale’s equally influential “The Stone Tape” – a memorable stand-alone ghost story for Christmas Day in which hard commerce and ruthless capitalist business acumen leads science into a wreckless confrontation with malevolent horrors from a forgotten past now reawakened by its mix of cold hubris and the profit motive. This last work had been brought to the screen by former DOCTOR WHO producer Innes Lloyd, and script edited by Louis Marks: the latter a prolific writer of British popular drama who’d also worked on DOCTOR WHO periodically ever since scripting 1964’s William Hartnell era story “The Planet of the Giants”, and who would continue to do so throughout the 1970s on stories as diverse as that very year’s Jon Pertwee adventure “Day of the Daleks” and 1978’s Tom Baker Gothic classic “The Mask of Mandragora”.
Before “The Stone Tape” the two had previously collaborated as producer and script editor respectively on this seven-part anthology series of supernatural dramas with a similar psychological bent, brought together under the series title “Dead of Night”: a clear reference to the classic Ealing Films horror anthology portmanteau picture of 1945. This studio-based series of video-taped dramas began broadcasting on November 5th, 1972 with Don Taylor’s politically charged, proto-folk-horror chiller “The Exorcism”, and continued throughout the following winter weeks until finishing on December 17th with “Robin Redbreast” writer John Bowen’s “A Woman Sobbing”. Only one series was ever made, despite its apparent popularity.
“The Stone Tape” had at one stage been planned to be broadcast as part of the same anthology collection, before eventually being allotted its own Christmas day slot, although still with the same “Dead of Night” production team overseeing proceedings. Lloyd seemed particularly attracted throughout his TV career to the possibilities offered by the single television play format for developing new talent and encouraging experimentation. He produced drama anthologies such as “Play for Today”, “Screen Two” and “BBC Playhouse” among many others; but perhaps his most fondly remembered work outside of his connection with DOCTOR WHO (in which he oversaw, with Gerry Davis, the show’s first change of lead actor in 1966) came about as a result of Lloyd’s long-standing association with Alan Bennett, in particular their 1987 collaboration on Bennett’s acclaimed first series of “Talking Heads” monologues. Meanwhile former academic, history teacher and translator Louis Marks moved into writing for TV in the 1950s, working on early B&W ITC dramas such as “The Four Just Men” and “Ghost Squad”. In the mid-70s he moved into production, the aforementioned Nigel Kneale play being but one of a plethora of prestigious titles he oversaw up until his retirement from the industry in 2002, which included two acclaimed Andrew Davies adaptations of George Eliot novels -- 1994’s “Middlemarch” and 2002’s “DanielDeronda”.
Horror and science fiction anthology TV series were particularly popular mainstays in the BBC and ITV schedules of the 1960s and 70s, but most of them have long since vanished from the archives -- victims of the policy then common throughout the industry of wiping video-recorded programme tapes for later reuse and for the preservation of valuable storage space. Consequently only three episodes of “Dead of Night” now survive as far as anyone is aware: the two mentioned above and the Robert Holmes scripted “Return Flight” (another major DOCTOR WHO connection to ensure this release will have a degree of cachet in this 50th anniversary year of the show). All three surviving episodes are included on this single disc release, which is being put out (in collaboration with the BBC) by the BFI to tie in with its recent four month season celebrating all things Gothic in the visual arts with a series of conferences, nationwide screenings, book and DVD/Blu-ray releases, under the umbrella title “Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film”.
Also thoughtfully included are the downloadable camera scripts for all the episodes including the four missing ones, which have been made available as PDF files accessible through the DVD-ROM drive of a computer. These are further supplemented on the disc itself by a gallery of production stills for two of the missing episodes, enabling the reader to glean at least some idea of what these lost dramas would have looked like on the screen originally.
THE EXORCISM (TX: 5 November 1972)
Don Taylor’s left leaning political sensibilities informed his work at the BBC right from the very beginning of his association with the organisation, when he joined it in 1960. Early plays dealt with issues such as slum clearance and development, racism and class sensibility, but his collaborations with similarly minded writer David Mercer produced some of the most adventurous work of early 60s drama with plays such as 1962’s “A Suitable Case for Treatment” and 1963’s “For Tea on Sunday”, the latter anticipating some of the themes of Taylor’s political supernatural drama “The Exorcism” in its story of a genteel dinner party disrupted by sudden violence which is used as an illustration of the tensions simmering below the surface of polite society. Taylor’s abiding belief in the single play format put him at loggerheads with Sidney Newman when the latter took over as Head of Drama at the BBC in 1963 with a more populist mandate centred on audience friendly serials rather than Taylor’s beloved one off dramas. Taylor felt himself increasingly side-lined and he turned down opportunities he felt unbecoming (such as a chance offered him by Newman to direct a DOCTOR WHO story), feeling increasingly out of sympathy with the new direction of the department. Eventually he moved into working for the Arts Department, where he directed and wrote drama-documentaries and film biographies of historical figures, etc., and he only returned to drama in 1972 after Newman’s departure. A stint at ITV also saw Taylor helming two episodes of Nigel Kneale’s 1976 “Beasts” TV anthology series: “Buddy Boy” and “During Barty's Party”, the latter story in particular being a memorable surrealist attempt to convey the repressed class fears and paranoia of an outwardly stable, middle-class couple who come to believe their suburban house infested with thousands of intelligent rats that live in the walls and skirting!
Middle-class complacency and modes of normalcy disrupted by the uncanny, forms the subject matter of Taylor’s opening 1972 salvo, to kick off the anthology series “Dead of Night” with its most memorable episode. But this time such archetypes are used as a means of excoriating the upwardly mobile in 1970s Britain, particularly those sections of the former working class who’veused the benefits of a modern education system to move away from their class-roots and adopt the lifestyle of a bourgeois elite. Here, the enthusiastic espousal of a glib political conservatism by a group of nouveau riche comes to be challenged by the horrors and injustices of a past still imprinted in the walls of a former 18th century paupers’ cottage. The story centres on middle-class couple Edmund (Edward Petherbridge) and Rachel (Anna Cropper), who invite their married friends Dan (Clive Swift) and Margaret (Sylvia Kay) out to their newly acquired cottage in the countryside for a Christmas dinner celebration to show off their weekend retreat from the rat-race. The picturesque, thatched roof and half-timber frame dwelling (seen in one filmed exterior shot in an otherwise entirely studio-bound piece of work) is at least two-hundred years old, we learn, and was acquired when Rachel felt drawn to it after the urban couple spotted it from the road while driving through the area. The house was covered in weeds, boarded up and in a severely dilapidated state, yet the two were able to acquire the land at a knockdown price and renovate the apparently ownerless cottage to include all the mod cons relevant to the lifestyle of a middle-class advertising executive (one of Don Taylor’s perennial bête noirs) such as Edmund. The stone wall interiors have been re-plastered, electricity and gas have been fitted and the latest stereo hi-fi system, dish washer and washing machine have been added to give the cottage’s rustic charm that extra layer of comfort and convenience.
The tour of the renovated home Dan and Margaret receive near the start of the play highlights the conspicuous consumption and bland décor that denotes both couples’ detachment from the grim history of the house and, in particular, Edmund’s estrangement from the economic class of his upbringing -- as does the latter’s choice of garish tie and his friend Dan’s horrendous safari suit and cravat combo! The shapeless colour-clashing dress which serves as Margaret’s choice of attire seems to fit the image of the tasteless ‘70s often satirised in modern stagings of “Abigail’s Party” -- but it is emphasised all the more when placed in sharp contrast to Rachel’s rather dowdy all-black garb, which has an old fashioned ‘Victorian widow’s’ cast about it, indicating a lingering sensitivity to the past, perhaps facilitated by her artistic nature (she’s a musician) which makes her susceptible to psychic contact, later in the play, with the cottage’s long-since departed former resident.
Edmund and Dan talk about Edmund’s recent falling out with his father -- an old-school socialist and Labour voter -- after Edmund’s confession that he no longer relates to the left-wing values and principles he was brought up to believe in; Dan offers the opinion that it is still possible to be a Champaign drinker and a socialist, anticipating the values of Blair’s New Labour by a good twenty-years or so! Taylor cleverly makes use of contemporary 1970s events, mores and interests to integrate the gradual encroachment of the supernatural into the lives of these unsuspecting protagonists with a gradual manipulation of the environment they’ve attempted to neutralise with their festive conviviality, and an emphasis on the suburban comforts they’ve overlaid on the historical associations bound up with the location in unthinking attempts to erase what went before through home improvement.
This process begins with the demonstration of a showpiece antique clavichord Edmund has purchased for display purposes in the livening room, not considering that the central heating will affect the tone of the instrument when played in this transformed environment -- as subtle a metaphor for the idea that a change of atmosphere and perception might be brought upon the place by just such tampering and modification. This antique instrument facilitates the first instance of a psychic disturbance when Rachel reveals that she has no idea where the mournful piece of music she plays for the assembly on it actually came from: it simply emerges from her as though she were possessed by some outside force. This weird experience leads the gathering into an extended discussion of psychic phenomena and other related issues then popular in the 1970s, beginning with Dan theorising that, the mind having recently been ‘proved’ by the existence of telepathy, to possess the ability to extend itself through space, might also be able to make its presence felt across time as well.
Margaret’s dismissal of ‘all that Age of Aquarius mumbo-jumbo’ and her contention that it is ‘only for people who can’t be bothered to think things through logically’, leads to a discussion and a debate on the merits of rationality and intuition as to which of them -- the mind or the heart -- offers the best means of acquiring knowledge about the world, with Dan contending that the intellect is constrained by perceptions which are often erroneous or faulty and that pure intuition might actually be more accurate. To prove this he tests a party trick on Margaret in which he blindfolds her and then tells her he is about to cut open her cheek with an open razor, when in fact he merely gently touches her skin with nothing but an ice cube. The expectation set up by Dan’s alarming claims causes Margaret to experience the touch of the cold wet cube on her cheek as though it were the painful sting of an open cut, followed by the wetness of blood, which Dan offers as an illustration of his point that faulty information about the environment can alter perception and experience and corrupt one’s rational evaluations of reality.
These epistemological speculations are soon interrupted by a series of disruptions to the gatherings’ collective perceptions, which appear to indicate that either reality is being manipulated by some malign supernatural force, or else the party is experiencing a form of group hysteria: first all the lights go out and, this being the early 70s, everyone assumes it’s a power cut: ‘flip a few switches and suddenly we’re back in the Dark Ages!’ says Margaret, rather prophetically: ‘our civilisation hangs by a thread!’ When the telephone turns out not to be working either, Edmund persuades himself it must be bad workmanship by the electrician he employed to wire up the cottage: while Dan speculates that the Marxist contention that society determines consciousness was wrong and that ‘technology determines consciousness, these days!’
This is only the prelude to the eerie, unexplainable series of perception altering events that rapidly follow: Edmund spits out the expensive burgundy Dan has bought especially for the dinner, claiming it tastes like blood … but when anyone else sips from the same bottle they can taste only wine, as expected. Everyone simultaneously feels intense pain in the stomach and a burning of the throat after just a couple of mouthfuls of the lavish Christmas dinner Rachel has laid on with the aid of her ultra-modern new kitchen, and they believe themselves to have been poisoned by the turkey … but only for a few moments, after which the sensation passes as quickly as it first arrived. As the party beings to accept it is suffering from some form of mass hallucination or delusion the group’s experiences become even more extreme. When they attempt to break the spell by leaving the house they discover that, like Luis Buñuel’s bourgeois characters in “The Exterminating Angel”, they are unable to, and that the view outside the house has been replaced by a inky black void of nothingness. The appalling apparition of a child’s skeleton materialises on the bedspread in front of Rachel in the main bedroom, and the ghostly clavichord air she played earlier now strikes up on its own; photographs of the exterior of the house, taken after Rachel and Edmund’s renovations were completed, now display a tumbledown cottage from another era instead -- with the thin face of a blonde woman in a shawl pictured standing at one of the windows! The centrepiece of the play comes as Rachel goes into amediumistic trance state and takes on the personality of that occupant of the house from hundreds of years ago, while the brand new plaster crumbles and falls from the walls in lumps and the house reverts itself to its former state, apparently in defiance of this attempt by modernity to blot out the traumas and truths of the past.
Anna Cropper, the star of John Bowen’s ‘Play for Today’ “Robin Redbreast” from 1970 (now also available from the BFI) undoubtedly takes this well executed catalogue of eerie supernatural events and haunted house phenomena to another level as she dons the mantle of the persona of an 18th century peasant woman and relates this person’s emotional and angry first-person account of sliding into poverty and starvation while despairingly attempting to survive during a rural famine after the execution of her husband for poaching on the squire’s land. Sweating and foaming at the mouth, Rachel acquires an appearance we associate from supernatural fiction with possession or with trance-like states … but in this case her appearance is dictated by the symptoms once experienced by the woman whose forgotten plight is now being exhumed from history. The previous dinner party debates about Marxism and what determines the content of consciousness are thrown into sharp relief by the immediacy of the process of actual physical starvation which is now being brought forth and exhibited, in Rachel’s transformation, to be experienced in the present by the assembled party, which has apparently been chosen to bear witness to an injustice that had been removed from memory and gone unrecorded by history. The nameless woman’s distraught account of watching her children slowly starve to death while the squire’s family just across the estate live in luxury and entertain themselves with a feast and after-dinner music played by the squire’s daughter at the clavichord, has an obvious parallel with the complacency of these new rich who isolate themselves from the social problems of their own age, and see themselves as a new and different breed from that of their fathers’ generation, who struggled for better working conditions and better rights which they now benefit from but feel no loyalty to continue.
The most significant portion of what becomes a long but compelling monologue by the possessed Rachel, is the part of it during which the dying woman who now occupies Rachel’s form rages against the fact that the horrific death of her entire family has been neither witnessed nor even acknowledged as something worthy of comment according to the values of her own age. The sense of helplessness and frustration and despair she experiences is made palpable to the viewer thanks purely to the strength of the performance by Cropper, which gives us to understand exactly why Edmund, Rachel and their two friends have been chosen to undergo, both physically, emotionally and intellectually, exactly what the starving peasant once went through. It’s a process which culminates in the four being led to an squalid attic room in the rafters of the cottage, where special effects man John Friedlander concocts the final confrontation that will enable them to fully understand the social conditions endured by their historical forebears, and how their own cocooned middle-class lifestyle has similarly protected them from an accurate interpretation of the political situation of their own era.
Taylor’s use of the common tropes of supernatural fiction and contemporary mystical/pseudo-scientific jargon then commonly used to express belief in supernatural realms --posited to exist beyond the limits of the rational intellect imposed by perception -- as a metaphor for lack of class consciousness is a clever one, which results in what is still probably the most memorable and eerie of the three surviving dramas in the series. This episode was repeated by BBC4 at Christmas in 2007, but it’s good to finally have it available on disc for ownership after the BFIpreviously made the entire “Ghost Story for Christmas” collection (also repeated at the time) available just last year.
RETURN FLIGHT (TX: 12 November 1972)
The rest of the series’ episodes deal with individuals apparently haunted by spectres that relate specifically to their own lives and inner psychology: “Return Flight” by Robert Holmes in particular shows how the primary themes associated with the Gothic, such as the return of the repressed, can be transposed to a modern day setting and dealt with in the commonly practiceddramatic idiom of character study, without recourse to the usual Victorian visual references usually thought of when one considers the Gothic genre. This tale about a middle-aged airline pilot, whose conduct and mental state is being investigated after a routine passenger flight during which he took evasive action over Hamburg to avoid hitting another large aircraft that nobody else among his crew saw (and which was never picked up on radar), remains ambiguous to the last on whether or not Captain Hamish Rolph (Peter Barkworth) experiences a real haunting in the traditional sense – in the form of an actual encounter with a phantom wartime aircraft -- or whether or not the experience is all in his mind; but there’s no doubt that the incident becomes symbolic of worries and feelings unique to his own psyche which are prompted, in a deeply personal way, by feelings of bereavement after the death of his wife.
The spectre of World War 2, and what it meant for that generation to which Barkworth’s character belongs, who joined the RAF just as the war was coming to an end and so missed out on the ‘hero worship’ afforded their slightly older peers belonging to the school which took part in the Battle of Britain and various heroic wartime bombing missions -- also looms large over this psychological profile of a man hiding his feelings of resentment and inadequacy behind a thin veneer of clipped professionalism, a quality cultivated every day as part of the benign persona underlining the approach expected in the conduct of a commercial airline pilot. A contemporary play about someone of Captain Rolph’s generation as they reach middle-age, could only have been made at around the time this story was written and broadcast, and tacitly hinges on a wider consideration of this transitional period in Britain’s understanding of itself during the postwar decades, especially in terms of its relationship with Germany at a time when the UK had just officially joined the Common Market after years of negotiation … the economically flourishing West Germany being one of the EEC’s founding members while Britain, at the time of joining up, seemed to be sinking into desperate economic chaos.
Such issues must have held a special personal interest for Robert Holmes, the play’s writer. By 1972, Holmes had carved out a not insignificant career as a leading writer for British TV drama, starting with his first job on “Emergency Ward 10” and inclusive of such mainstays of the era as “Dr Finlay’s Casebook”, “Public Eye” and the ITC series “The Saint”. In 1968 he contributed his first story for DOCTOR WHO and seven years later was to become script editor on the show in partnership with producer Philip Hinchcliffe, during a period when the show became known for its Gothic literature influences. Holmes’ own contributions during this time were to ensure that his name went on to become thought of as belonging to one of the show’s most revered writers, thanks to classics such as “The Pyramids of Mars” and “The Talons of Weng-Chiang”. He continued contributing to DOCTOR WHO occasionally for many years after his three years as script editor, a particular highlight being “The Caves of Androzani” – regularly voted one of the best WHO stories of all time. By the time he came to write for such popular and fondly remembered BBC series as “Bergerac”, “Blake’s 7” and Shoestring”, Holmes’ reputation was assured; but his one- off play for “Dead of Night” reunited him with Louis Marks (who’d been script editor for a 60s crime series he’d previously written for called “No Hiding Place”, and later created the fleetingly popular soap “Honey Lane” which had also been an early provider of work for Holmes during his early years as a jobbing script writer; Holmes later returned the favour by employing Marks to write for DOCTOR WHO), looked back to Holmes’ pre-television days in the armed forces in 1944, during which time he became the youngest commissioned officer in the British Army. Before entering journalism -- which was to become his gateway into TV script writing -- Holmes also spent time in the Metropolitan Police service, but it’s possible to speculate that “Return Flight” examines an attitude and frame of mind that Holmes might well have encountered during his years in the army, being of the same generation as the central character in the play, who is given by Barkworth a certain fragile world weary resignation masked by stiff-upper lip professionalism.
We don’t actually witness Captain Rolph’s phantom encounter, initially: the play begins with an investigator from the Air Safety Division called Samuels (Artro Morris) discussing the case with Rolph’s boss (and best friend since their days in the RAF together), Frank Warley (Bernard Brown). The actual incident itself is shown in flashback as Rolph relates it to Samuels during the subsequent interview. Although it gradually becomes clear by implication that Captain Rolph believes he has seen and been buzzed by a British Lancastrian bomber over West German airspace, at no point does he ever admit this impossible fact to his bosses -- he merely insists on there having been a near miss incident with an unidentified aircraft. The issue of the Captain’s state of mind after his recent bereavement still comes up, though, as does his decision to return to work only two weeks after the funeral. His claims are set against the German investigation into the matter, which has apparently revealed no off-course planes were in the area at the time that could account for the alleged incident.
At various points in the private conversations between Samuels and Warley ‘German efficiency’ and ‘thoroughness’ are cited as reasons for believing the Germans’ claims, while Rolph’s determination to keep up appearances, hiding his emotions despite the grief he must be experiencing, is alluded to at one point as ‘a national failing’, explicitly tying the specifics of the story to wider concerns of the day relating to beliefs generally held then, and to some extent now, about national characteristics which contrast a German nation which has confronted its past and gotten over it, with Britain – a country seemingly trapped in a spiral of decline and a backwardness, rooted in the suppression of emotion and an inability to let go of old attitudes about the past. In fact, Rolph’s attitudes to his superiors (men such as Samuels belong to the wartime ‘hero’ generation that the likes of Hamish Rolph missed out on joining by mere months) has an even more personal tint to it, bound up with the failings of his marriage, his estrangement from his African Missionary daughter and his feeling of being ‘second best’ to his wife’s first husband, who died while returning from a bombing mission over Germany during the war. Holmes cleverly and subtly adds details of personal history throughout the play and brings psychological insight into a backstory which impinges heavily on the Captain’s alleged supernatural experience, making it possible to see the incident from various angles which encompass the personal, cultural and social. All the threads are brought together with a tragic finality during a closing act in which Rolph is cleared of poor conduct and given charge of a flight from Hamburg to Luton, ferrying some German football supporters who are flying to England to watch a match tellingly scheduled to be played between Germany and Coventry -- one of the primary targets and victims of the Luftwaffe’s bombing campaigns that were designed to bring devastation to mainland Britain during World War 2.
A WOMAN SOBBING (TX: 17 December 1972)
The suburban experience and its encounters with the Gothic meet their most potent exemplar in John Bowen’s play “A Woman Sobbing”, the final episode in the “Dead of Night” series, directed by long time BBC director Paul Ciappessoni -- whose credits read like a cross section of the BBC’s most popular shows of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Once again a country home -- this time a drably ordinary suburban semi -- becomes the locus of a peculiar haunting when Jane Puller (Anna Massey) starts hearing the sound of a woman crying at night in the attic room of her and her Market Research Executive husband’s Sussex house. But Jane is the only person who can hear these disturbing sobbing sounds, and she is already being treated for depression – which is part of the reason the couple moved out of London to this quiet neighbourhood to begin with, along with the conviction that the clean air would be better for their children’s health. Bowen’s play tackles issues of mental illness and emotional repression through the prism of a modern Gothic play in which the characters themselves are already aware of the genre antecedents to their situation: they already know that attic rooms have a special significance in Gothic literature, from “Jane Eyre” and on to Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”, as signifiers of the repressed female psyche; and they are aware of the kind of historical material that makes a good English haunting: ‘Perhaps there’s a priest hole or something … a bricked up hole with a skeleton?’ remarks Jane at one point, although her husband Frank (Ronald Hines) assures her that the house isn’t old enough to be haunted.
His immediate answer is for her to take a few more of the Valium pills that she’s already been prescribed by her doctor for her feelings of depression; and Jane’s own worries about what her symptoms really mean lead her to look at spiritual solutions, later in the play, more as a self-administered placebo option than anything else -- although her efforts run up against the modern church’s unwillingness to carry out its own exorcism rites in her home because of the lack of objective evidence in the case. Jane’s symptoms, as she herself knows, are precisely those of a schizophrenic and involve paracusia (aural hallucinations), anxiety and feelings of paranoia which cause her, at one point, to wonder aloud if Frank isn’t trying to ‘Gaslight her’ (drive her mad with hidden tape recorders in the attic, etc -- as in the Patrick Hamilton play adapted for a film by Thorold Dickenson). Mental illness comes to seem more terrifying than the prospect of the house being haunted by a malevolent spirit to Jane, but Bowen’s great skill here is to make the experience of both seem simultaneously real, each being a reflection of the other in a situation which repeats itself in the play’s eerily effective recursive ending.
The experience of the middle-class, middle-aged, ‘70s housewife – stuck on her own all day with boisterous children she no longer likes, struggling with resentful feelings towards the demands they make on her time, and unable to communicate her feelings of loss to a husband content with a staid and uneventful married life – is a common theme in drama of this vintage, when an emergent, more assertive feminist awareness clashed with traditional views about femininity and a woman’s place in society more forcefully than they had before, and when casual sexism was often still considered an unchallengeable norm by many outlets of mainstream culture. We get a soupcon of this context after Jane becomes convinced she can smell gas emanating from the same upstairs attic room (with its faded, peeling wallpaper and its dusty clutter and junk -- which includes an old Victorian rocking horse -- conjuring all the expected Gothic associations) from whence she often hears the sound of the mystery woman’s crying. Despite Frank being unable to detect any hint of a gas leak, let alone hear the sounds of distress Jane can hear issuing in the dead of night from the room, workmen from the gas company are sent for who play up to the sexist stereotypes perpetuated by the “The Confessions of …” and “The Adventures of …” sex comedy film series from later in the decade, in a faintly sinister and mocking way – trivialising Jane’s fears as the neurotic outpourings of a sex-starved middle-aged has-been.
She later violently hammers and tears at the stained walls of the room as the incessant vocal exclamations, sighs and sobbings continue to haunt her mind whenever she enters. As doors and windows in the room open by themselves, apparently silently beckoning her to throw herself from the upstairs attic window, the room clearly begins to take on the role of a repository for what appear to be external manifestations of Jane's fears and suicidal thoughts; internal states she experiences but cannot admit to, or deal with directly, and which the room allows her to temporarily disassociate herself from whilst ultimately remaining tormented by these experiences that no one else can have access to or is able to experience for themselves.
Jane’s initial attempts to deal with the phenomena and her own illness rationally and sensibly give way to increasing desperation as each attempt at medical intervention or spiritual ritual placebo fails to deal with the problem. Frank’s decision to employ an attractive female Dutch aupair to help with the children, and to provide someone to look after them should Jane need to go away to be treated for her illness, merely accentuates Jane’s insecurities and feelings of sexual redundancy, and she becomes convinced that the perfectly pleasant and felicitous young woman, Inge (Yocki Rhodes), who gets given the job, is able to hear the voices and sobbings as well -- simply because she is a woman -- and yet refuses to admit the fact, even though she sleeps in the same, now tastefully redecorated, attic room!
A fleeting vision of a woman who throws herself from the window of the haunted room, and the sound of a distressed child’s cry echoing briefly there while Jane explores it, add to the feelings of acute paranoia and anxiety that come to dominate Jane's mind, alluding to her repressed suicidal thoughts and fears that she might harm her own children; and there’s a truly unsettling sequence during which Jane attempts to perform her own exorcism but is met with ghostly witch-like cackles and derisive sneers that only she can hear, despite several other people being in the room at the same time. Such sequences make the experience of being haunted a palpably traumatic, terrifying, personal and inescapably real one – perhaps more successfully than many less ambiguous representations of haunting phenomena that have been created for the screen. This is a profoundly eerie, thought-provoking, scary but intelligent examination of gender roles, the male/female experience of marriage and of medical, psychiatric and social attitude towards mental illness, which remains powerfully affecting despite the air of tragic inevitability surrounding its eventual climax.
A glance at the four camera scripts for the missing episodes of the series reveals their similar concern with the various anxieties and fears of the professional classes in the early-70s, marking the series as a provocative snapshot of the British bourgeois psyche -- its subconscious phobias, career worries, sexual uncertainties and neurotic peccadilloes sublimated into a Pot Pourri of ominous supernatural threats, signs and portents. This long unavailable collection of surviving episodes also comes with a wonderful glossy booklet featuring a series overview and some concise and insightful write ups on each of the remaining episodes by BFI National Archive curator Lisa Kerrigan; as well as biographies on Innes Lloyd, Louis Marks, Don Taylor, John Bowen and Robert Holmes by writer Derek Johnson, Oliver Wake (of Britishtelevisiondrama.org) and web producer Alex Davidson. “The Exorcism” is the most obviously memorable of the three, but both “Return Flight” and “A Woman Sobbing” are powerful, affecting and exquisitely performed pieces of work which explore some of the darkest recesses of the human mind in subtle, well-crafted drama that illustrates the versatility and endurance of the Gothic genre in a contemporary setting.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!