Sunday, January 1, 2017

Bridal Torment


Thomas Hardy reflected a concern for the poor in society, and particularly the lack of opportunities offered to women. For The Withered Arm and Barbara of the House of Grebe, there is nothing but torment for young brides.

IN his 1888 collection Wessex Tales, Thomas Hardy writes of the true nature of nineteenth century marriage and its inherent restrictions, the stance of women, and a society which could not cope with even minor diseases. Hardy did not explore the sensibility of Jane Austen or the vivid caricatures of Charles Dickens; rather, his poems and novels are filled with characters that are as functional and rustic as their clothes; his dramatis personae follow the hardened edge of nature, the intractable working of fate, and the inevitability of a relentless decline. There is also a sense of enigma, that something beyond our physical appearance is guiding our hand. For many people of a certain age, one such story - The Withered Arm - is remembered as an oddity of their school experience. Often included on English Literature syllabuses, it sits awkwardly between ambiguous morality tale and surreal horror.

Wessex Tales was made into a BBC anthology; the first broadcast was THE WITHERED ARM, and is a masterpiece of the form. In a Southern England rural community, wealthy farmer John Lodge (Edward Hardwicke) returns home with his new young bride Gertrude (Yvonne Antrobus). Gertrude awakes one morning to find four painful welts on her arm, and consults Conjuror Trendle (Esmond Knight) with the reluctant help from weathered milkmaid Rhoda Brook (Billie Whitelaw). Trendle prescribes a ghoulish cure: “you must touch with a limb the neck of a man who’d just been hanged.” It transpires that Rhoda’s son Jamie (William Relton) is the illegitimate spawn of Lodge, and it is he who is the man hanged for a frivolous reason.

In an illustration of Hardy's "magnificent gloominess", Yvonne Antrobus appears as a horrific vision in THE WITHERED ARM.

Rhoda’s dream sequence of a grotesquely grinning Gertrude taunting her with her wedding ring - only to have Rhoda angrily grabbing the bride’s arm before awakening - is eerily effective, and in the programme’s standout image Whitelaw holds the distinction of the only actress to ever make milking a cow look ethereally sinister. A mix of jealousy and body horror, Gertrude is the Gothic Outsider not just existing in an unfamiliar world, but an ultimately unwanted one: she cannot bear children.

Directed by Desmond Davis - who would go on to direct the Ray Harryhausen opus CLASH OF THE TITANS - THE WITHERED ARM was dramatised by Rhys Adrian greatly indebted to THE BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW. Wandering wearily through the bracken and ploughed earth, Gertrude’s physical affliction makes for close relation to SATAN'S CLAW's yearning for devil skin. The programme is also enveloped by the hanging ethic, unsurprising as Hardy himself was an enthusiastic spectator of such public punishment. This is illustrated by scenes of locals jostling for position to see the noose being made, and an old man selling wooden hanging figures. There is also a cinematic shot of a silhouette of the gallows against the day-for-night sky.

Ben Kingsley and Joanna McCallum play the heights of Hardy's married anguish in BARBARA OF THE HOUSE OF GREBE.  

The sixth and final WESSEX TALE was BARBARA OF THE HOUSE OF GREBE. Lord Uplandtowers (Ben Kingsley) wants to marry Barbara (Joanna McCallum); however, this daughter of Sir John Grebe (Leslie Sands) elopes with handsome Edmond Willowes (Nick Brimble). Marrying "beneath her," Barbara can only gain her parents consent by having Edmond "educated" in Italy for a year, while their lodge house is readied. During his stay in Europe, Edmond is facially disfigured in an opera house fire while saving others; on his return to England, Barbara is repelled, forcing him to leave a farewell letter. After leaning of his death several years later whilst in a loveless marriage with Uplandtowers, Barbara receives delivery of a commissioned statue of a pre-accident Edmond from Pisa. Worshipping this as a shrine, Uplandtowers learns of the original disfigurements and has the statue amended accordingly, at last receiving Barbara's affections.

Dramatised by David Mercer, this unnatural tale of social status was described by T. S. Eliot as "to have been written to provide a satisfaction for some morbid emotion." Barbara experiences love and loss at every extreme level, from its initial blooming to isolation and despair. Edmond's burned reveal is starling: what seems to be a simple mask turns into a full unveiling of face and wig, as if the forced exile is peeling an orange. While captured in their matrimonial hell, Kingsley and McCallum excel, Barbara caressing her model as Uplandtowers simmers to his ultimate victory.