Thursday, November 1, 2012

"Analyse a spook?"


Anna Cropper plays Rachel in the DEAD OF NIGHT episode THE EXORCISM. Cropper also appeared in the 1975 West End stage version of the story, after Mary Ure died from an alcohol and barbiturate overdose following a disastrous opening night.

DEAD OF NIGHT was a series of self-contained supernatural stories broadcast on BBC2 in 1972. Taking its name from the Ealing portmanteau film of 1945, this incarnation ran for seven fifty-minute episodes, and only three - THE EXORCISM, RETURN FLIGHT and A WOMAN SOBBING - are known to survive in the BBC archives. RETURN FLIGHT - shown on the 12th of November - is a surprisingly banal and predictable aviation-based story from the pen of Robert Holmes; A WOMAN SOBBING - shown on 17th December - is a solid yarn which greatly benefits from the wide-eyed performance of Anna Massey as a bored housewife and mother who hears a female voice crying from the attic space. The two programmes under consideration here have a fluid association with the series: THE EXORCISM was conceived as a stand-alone work but shown as the DEAD OF NIGHT opener, and THE STONE TAPE was included in the same production block for "internal" reasons, but was broadcast as a singular play on Christmas Day.

THE EXORCISM begins with Edmund (Edward Petherbridge) and his wife Rachel (Anna Cropper) showing Dan (Clive Swift) around their recently renovated cottage. As Dan's partner Margaret (Sylvia Kay) helps prepare Christmas dinner, Rachel plays a clavichord, but realises that she has no idea what the tune is. There is a power cut, and the telephone is also suddenly inoperable. After digesting their meal, all four suffer shooting pain; Dan finds that the door won't open, the windows can't be unlocked, and the outside has been plunged into total blackness. Rachel falls into a trance, and relates the experiences of a woman whose husband was hanged when trying to obtain food for her and their two starving children, while the squire and his family indulged in sumptuous meals. We learn that the wife locked herself and the children in their house and waited to die from starvation, hoping that the house would recall the injustice of their deaths.

After appearing uncredited as a six-year-old child in Hammer's film version of THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT, Jane Asher is reunited with the work of Nigel Kneale in THE STONE TAPE.

Written and directed by Don Taylor, THE EXORCISM is the standout surviving episode of DEAD OF NIGHT, and different in tone to the famous run of ghost stories made by Lawrence Gordon Clark for the BBC in the 70s. Instead of the seeping vistas of M.R. James and Charles Dickens, THE EXORCISM is reminiscent of Luis Buñuel's absurdist 1967 comedy THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL. A socio-political spook story, the programme is highlighted by some choice but resonant dialogue; after Dan surmises that the couples "should concentrate on how to be socialists and rich", he later tells Margaret not to be afraid as they have been privileged. The coda, where a newscaster reports that the four friends have been found dead apparently from starvation, provides a chilling conclusion to a real time, claustrophobic play which has been enhanced by a sparse but solid cast: Swift is particularly suited to his role, and Cropper's performance in her possessed state is alarmingly believable.

THE STONE TAPE has Peter Brock (Michael Bryant), head of Ryan Electrics research, working on a new recording medium. Scientists move into Taskerlands, an old Victorian mansion, that has been renovated to act as their facility. Foreman Roy Collinson (Iain Cuthbertson) says that the refurbishment of one of the rooms remains uncompleted, as builders refuse to work on the grounds that it is haunted. The researchers explore the area and hear the sounds of a woman followed by a scream. Computer programmer Jill Greeley (Jane Asher) - who is susceptible to the paranormal - sees an image of a woman running up the steps in the room and falling, apparently to her death. Inquiring with the local villagers, they learn that a young maid died there, and Brock realises that somehow the stone has preserved an image. Becoming more desperate under mounting pressure to deliver results, Brock wipes the image. Jill realises that the maid was masking a much older recording, and is confronted by a malevolent presence. Transported to a proto-Stonehenge, she falls to her death, with the elder force claiming a replacement for the ghost girl.

The BFI's STONE TAPE DVD of 2001 includes an audio commentary by Nigel Kneale moderated by critic Kim Newman. Containing an array of interesting trivia and asides, Newman states that this programme - however dated in equipment and fashion - remains seminal because it portrays a technological development we are still living through.

Written by Nigel Kneale and directed by Peter Sasdy, THE STONE TAPE is a landmark slice of supernatural television. A central theme in Kneale's stories are conflicts that stem from some primal yearning, effecting the past, present, or future. In fact, THE STONE TAPE can be considered the final part in a trilogy of Kneale tales - together with QUATERMASS AND THE PIT and his lost masterpiece THE ROAD - that refine and counteract the notion of haunting by applying scientific evaluation. It was also one of the first stories to promulgate the hypothesis of residual haunting, that ghosts may be explained as recordings of past events made by the physical environment. Amazingly, this science babble has come to be known as the Stone Tape Theory by parapsychological researchers, and in the 2004 BBC7 Radio Serial Ghost Zone, a character refers explicitly to the theory as an explanation for the way an invading alien intelligence is "replaying" scenes from the past. For what is ostensibly a ghost story, THE STONE TAPE explores the living; how humans interact in such a situation - particularly in relation to business and money - and, if indeed, a human presence is required to amplify the process. This is effectively bought to the screen by an excellent ensemble cast, whose intense performances often border on the melodramatic.