Sunday, October 1, 2017

Echoes from Beyond


Irene Shubik's Play for Today: The Evolution of Television Drama is an account of her career that has become the standard reference work on the subject. Shubik had devised ABC's OUT OF THIS WORLD before moving to the BBC, where her influence on the development of the single play encompassed OUT OF THE UNKNOWN, THE WEDNESDAY PLAY/PLAY FOR TODAY, WESSEX TALES and PLAYHOUSE.

DAPHNE Du Maurier's THE BREAKTHROUGH tells of Saunders (Simon Ward), sent to a remote government lab to help prove a theoretical energy. The experiment involves a subject close to death, as well as in a computer-induced hypnotic trance and telepathic communication. The person is a mentally deficient but psychically gifted child - possibly affected by the death of her twin - who can report the dying sensations posthumously. Lacking any clear resolution and suffering from limiting studio sets and stifled performances, there is too much speculation to enable the drama to breath, even in its Suffolk exteriors. THE BREAKTHROUGH reminds of THE ASPHYX, which also documents spirits and near-death experiences before similarly descending into absurdity, but far more melancholic is William Trevor's MRS ACLAND'S GHOSTS, where tailor Mr Mockler (John Bluthal) receives a letter from stranger Mrs Acland (Sara Kestelman). The woman tells him of how the three ghosts of her childhood siblings have continued to make appearances to her; Mockler discovers that Mrs Acland is now in a mental institution - having been placed there by her husband - and was in fact an only child.

After these try-outs, BBC2 PLAYHOUSE mutated into THE MIND BEYOND. In the first three tales Meriel the Ghost Girl explores the contradictory nature of psychic experiences, opening with George Livingston (Donald Pleasence) witnessing a convincing séance, only for the authenticity to be questioned in a film noir pastiche and re-evaluated by young reporter Robina Oliver (Janet Street-Porter, of all people); Double Echo sees autistic teenager Alison Fisher (Geraldine Cowper) treated by Harley Street Dr Mallam (Jeremy Kemp), only for the pair to develop a telekinetic bond that can see into the future; and in The Love of a Good Woman, after the death of his first wife, Henry Ridout (William Lucas) remarries and builds a new life in a harbour town. But his dead wife' s restless spirit communicates with him through his young daughter.

Penguin released The Mind Beyond to accompany the series, which was edited by Shubik. All the writers provided prose versions of their teleplays, with the exception of Stones, which was adapted by the producer herself.

The second half of the series starts with The Daedalus Equations, where mathematical variables from a dead scientist are channelled into money-grabbing psychic fraud Eileen Gray (Megs Jenkins), yet the equations continue; Stones details the plans of a Stonehenge relocation to Hyde Park to boost tourist revenues, with academic Nicholas Reeve (Richard Pasco) realising that the disappearance of three children is linked to their fathers ownership of the last-known copies of Stonehenge Defended; and The Man with the Power is a second coming of a (black) Christ story, where Boysie (Willie Jonah) embarks on a divine quest, leaving his girlfriend, home and job.

The opening titles of THE MIND BEYOND usher the viewer into a world of haunted faces and electrical impulses, a twilight domain away from rational human senses. The eight PLAYHOUSE's under consideration here typify the giddy pseudoscientific and paranormal so prevalent in 70's BBC drama, but the centre staging of mentally-disturbed characters - and Livington's questionable interest in the naked Meriel the Ghost Girl - clash with the more conventional yarns of mysteries better left alone; and in The Man with the Power, religious allegory seems a leap too far. But the productions are a goldmine for familiar faces: Anna Massey is the brittle wife of Henry Ridout, Linda Hayden's sister Jane admits to being Meriel, and Michael Bryant and Peter Sallis appear in The Daedalus Equations as earnest professor and lurking intelligence man respectively.