Sunday, January 15, 2017

Drama Nation


"He cannot resist the inexplicable; almost any happening qualifies for his interest so long as it is out of the ordinary." Terry Nation's stab at DRAMA PLAYHOUSE created Robert Baldick.

FORMING part of the third season of DRAMA PLAYHOUSE - the BBC's launching pad for potential series - THE INCREDIBLE ROBERT BALDICK: NEVER COME NIGHT was Terry Nation's first completed work for the Corporation's drama department since his six episodes of DOCTOR WHO - THE DALEKS' MASTER PLAN in 1965. Directed by Cyril Coke, this never-commissioned pilot is a Victorian Gothic with the titular Baldick (Robert Hardy) an eccentric detective/scientist who owns his own steam locomotive and has a pet owl. A fusion of Sherlock Holmes and Fox Mulder, Hardy plays Baldick with suffocating gusto, but there are too many themes in too short a running time to create a satisfying whole. Elements of Victorian literature (loyal assistants, windswept nights) and Gothic fiction (secrets in the woods, ruined abbey, failed exorcism, unruly villagers) are further complicated by the alien artefact sting, a payoff that is not just a narrative anomaly but an unnecessary Quatermass-like "resolution".

Squire Aldington (Reginald Marsh) and Reverend Elmstead (James Cossins) discover the corpse of a young woman in the reputedly haunted ruins of Duvel Woods Abbey. Elmstead visits friend Robert Baldick, in the hope that the unconventional sleuth will assist in this latest of murders to effect Boardington village ("local legend has it that the deaths go back into prehistory.") Aided by his valet Thomas Wingham (Julian Holloway) and burly gamekeeper Caleb Selling (John Rhys-Davies), Baldick delves into local parish records, and discovers that the Abbey has long been associated with human sacrifice. Excavating deeper within the crypt, fear and anxiety grips the group; Thomas is pulled into a chamber below, which is full of human bones and pervaded by a sense of absolute evil. Baldick is convinced that the Abbey contains a distillation of the terrors and phobias of all the people who have visited the enclose, and later studies a strange object he retrieved from the floor: a small metal box containing intricate electrics and runic symbols.

DOCTOR WHO - THE ANDROID INVASION was the second of two non-Dalek scripts Terry Nation turned in for the series (the first was THE KEYS OF MARINUS from 1964).

Although beautifully shot and well received, the programme suffered from scheduling problems which was triggered by a behind-the-scenes tussle over the name of the character. BALDICK was originally to be shown on 6th September, but in the immediate aftermath of the Munich Olympic massacre, it was removed at the last moment and eventually aired at a later than usual time slot on 2nd October. However, the original airdate of 23rd August was quashed by legal ambiguities between the BBC and Robert Baldick Junior, a PhD student whose father Dr Robert Baldick - an Oxford French literature academic - had granted Nation permission to use his name. Unfortunately Baldick Senior died before the broadcast date, and head of drama serials Andrew Osborn eventually conceded that - although it was too late to change the pilot - the name would change if the venture would develop.

For DOCTOR WHO - THE ANDROID INVASION, Nation invented the rhinoceros-like Kraals, who go to finite trouble to create an exact replica of an English village and populate it with synthetic organisms to rehearse an invasion of Earth. Chief Kraal scientist Styggron (Martin Friend) also intends to release a deadly virus to aid resistance, but this is ultimately as unnecessarily convoluted as BALDICK. Themes of duplication and mind-draining are lost in a number of silly plot elements, most of all duping astronaut Crayford (Milton Johns) in thinking he has lost an eye by simply giving him an eye-patch. On the surface this is a minor entry in the Time Lord's greater Gothic scheme of the mid-70's, but it does cover interrogation - The Doctor (Tom Baker)’s subjection to the Analysis Machine - and 1950’s Sci-Fi paranoia; Crayton may be a critical laughing stock, but is a man in identifiable flux.

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.