Thursday, 1 December 2016

There Are Spirits Abroad In The Land: Ghostly Tales for Dark Nights

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2013)

A notable theme threading through two of the three horror-themed vintage TV plays and series under consideration here – Robin Redbreast (Play for Today – James MacTaggart, 1970), Dead of Night (BBC series, 1972) and Schalcken the Painter (Leslie Megahey, 1979) – is that of the spirits of Old England awakening from their quiescence, to protest at the selling of their toil or to offer a reminder of their presence when they have been forgotten or disdained. Sometimes however, as in the BBC’s 1970 ‘folk horror’, Robin Redbreast, they never went away. It’s quite a find from the archives. Its arrival into a new age decades after its first broadcast seems appropriate for a story concerned with sacrifice and rebirth.

It begins with a cottage, a ‘before’ photograph of a cottage near Evesham to be precise, to which script editor Norah has repaired after a breakup and where her liberated, ‘modern’ ways of thinking meet far older channels of thought. The locals she meets are a curious bunch, if not unfriendly. There’s the sly and somewhat sinister Fisher (a tremendous Bernard Hepton), orchestrator of proceedings thereabouts, the inscrutable housekeeper Mrs Vigo, who exhibits a sort of patient and amused condescension for this city-dweller’s ways, and Rob the gamekeeper, who Norah is positioned into meeting, and then mating with.

She has moved to Flaneathan Farm, place of birds ‘in the old tongue’, as she is told by Fisher. Woman have always lived here, he adds. And what of all the cracked window panes in the house when she arrived? Birds that flew down the chimney and then tried to escape, says Fisher. ‘They should have known they had a way out, but being birds, they didn’t.

John Bowen’s dialogue – well worthy of a second visit – is full of non-sequiturs between Norah and villagers as she tries to elicit some – any – information regarding the real-life mystery play in which she finds herself, the rules of which are known to everyone else but her. ‘Why do you call him Rob when his name’s Edgar’ asks Norah of Mrs Vigo, ‘answer’s to it,’ she replies. ‘It’s not his name,’ ‘short for Robin,’ says Mrs Vigo. And where else would a Robin go but the place of birds? And how does a Robin get its red breast?

The longer Norah remains, the more her interactions are filled with foreboding. Early on, being cautioned by Mrs Vigo to keep warm a half-marble that she has brought in from her window-sill is one thing, but being heavily pregnant and told to her face, ‘come the winter, the dark days, you go where you will and no objection, no effort made to keep you, but now, come Easter, here am your place,’ is quite another. ‘She isn’t really a prisoner, this is 1970,’ says her friend Madge in London. But she is not there.

One can idly muse what difference the addition of music or a theme song would have made to the drama, from those musicians who were drawing deep from the wells of Britain’s folk and mystical heritage at the same time, but that would have changed the atmosphere, made the whole a little too muscular. Robin Redbreast’s unnerving atmosphere comes just from being set in the present-day where a veneer of normality is maintained. The dark traditions do not need to be called up; they are.

As long as you remain only momentarily diverted by the sight of Clive Swift’s fetching sage-green buckled trouser suit and cravat combo, Don Taylor’s The Exorcism is the most potent of the three surviving episodes of the BBC’s 1972 anthology Dead of Night, in which protest against the stifling mores and deracinated carelessness of present-day living are mixed into a supernatural setting. It’s a biting piece of social comment in which a Christmas dinner goes from bad to worse to intolerable to unimaginable, the play’s conceit being that an event can be so traumatic that its record is held in the walls where it occurred. If this sounds familiar it’s a theme also explored in Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape, which was in fact originally slated to be part of the series but eventually made as a separate production.

The play’s targets are set up from the off as four self-congratulatory types assemble in a couple’s newly renovated cottage. ‘We like the area and it’s reasonably convenient for London’ says host Edmund; ‘it’s friendly here – you know how a house sort of welcomes or repels you as soon as you open the door,’ says his wife Rachel, her words unwittingly revealing the truth that she has been welcomed to the house, but for a purpose she has not divined. ‘I think we should be concentrating on how to be socialists – and rich,’ says Dan on hearing how Edmund’s father disapproves of his purchase, each line more bait for a trap set to spring. The play’s dialogue justifies a second watch in fact so you can notice just how tightly scripted the piece is. When Rachel plays the clavichord, her husband remarks that the instrument is ‘just right for the cottage, small-scale, intense’. Indeed – though by the end its keys are detuned, its notes rancid.

Silver gravy boat in hand, Rachel calls the guests through to dinner at a table complete with a spotlight for carving. The lights go. ‘But I haven’t finished the pudding, or the coffee’ says Rachel. And nor will she, her body becoming the channel for the cottage’s previous occupant to issue a searing ‘cry against injustice from the dark centuries’ which has chosen its listeners and demands their hearing. ‘You know this is becoming a very moral tale … you throw a few switches and we’re back in the dark ages,’ says Dan’s wife, more presciently than she could have known.

Haunted house dramas are a film staple, but The Exorcism’s conviction, righteous anger (channelled, as in Robin Redbreast, through the privileged victim of choice, Anna Cropper) and sense of all-too plausible historical injustice lend it individuality and charge. When Edmund and Dan go to fetch candles after the lights go, Dan talks of whether it is society or technology that determines consciousness. His blithe reasoning misses another possibility however, one crucial to the matter at hand, that the past, its people’s toil, their deaths, their landscapes and their buildings, which we now buy and sell and in which we live, also shape consciousness, and you forget this at your peril.

From 20th century England we move to the Netherlands in the 17th century for the last of the haunted offerings I want to look at today.

In his 1968 programme for the BBC’s Omnibus series, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, Jonathan Miller made – as a way of introducing the themes and preoccupations found in MR James’s writing – an adaptation of James’s story of the same name. Notwithstanding its status as a personal documentary film essay, it stands as one of the best adaptations of James’s work. Schalcken the Painter, also made for Omnibus, this time by Leslie Megahy in 1979 when it was shown in the late hours of December 23rd, is a similarly genre-troubling piece, though its creative layers go even deeper. On one level it’s a ghost story - an effective one too, adapted from Sheridan Le Fanu’s tale of the same name; on another it’s a biographical portrait of the painters Godfried Schalcken and his mentor, Gerrit Dou; it’s also a parable about greed and covetousness, wealth and value, and, not least, it’s a meticulous recreation of the milieu and practices of Dutch 17th century painting, as exquisitely lit and composed as the canvases of Vermeer, de Hooch and Schalcken himself, from which it takes its cue.

‘In all the paintings I have seen,’ intones narrator Charles Gray about Schalcken’s work, ‘I have remarked a strange distance in the relationship of the human figures therein, contacts made only by the expected conventions and courtesies of polite society, or by commercial transaction. Sensuality without warmth, without passion, trappings that are ornate and lovely, and yet set in a darkness that the faltering lamplight or candle flame never seems capable of penetrating.’ There, in a nutshell, is the world of Schalcken the Painter. Indeed, as we traverse the tale, in which a mysterious man of ghastly aspect and pallor as grey as a tomb presents a coffer of unalloyed gold to buy Gerrit Dou’s niece and ward and Godfried Schalcken’s would-be betrothed, Rose Velderkaust, only for her to disappear entirely after she has been taken from Dou’s house, for much of the time it feels like the film is itself inhabiting a series of Dutch miniatures (it comes as no surprise that director Megahy credits Walerian Borowczyk’s 1971 film, Blanche for making him realise the possibilities of what he could do with the look of the film). Its sound is important too; it’s filled with the weight of silence of the rooms in which time passes, allowing sounds not normally heard – the scratch of a quill or charcoal on paper, the click of beads on an abacus, footsteps, the creak of a floorboard, the scrape of a brush through hair – to assume weight and portent.

The script might be spare, Megahy resisting advice to flesh it out a little, but the words that are used are lean and to the point. ‘Turn from the light … your breast bare … look into the dark’ are the opening words of film, spoken by Schalcken to his model, after which we see Schalcken, master of the effects of candlelight in his paintings, eye reddened by concentration in the flicker of a candle’s tall flame. (And that’s meticulous recreation for you – one candle flame is not like another, and the tall orange flames that flare so characteristically in Schalcken’s paintings are recreated exactly in the film.)

Later, when Dou and Schalcken await the arrival of the mysterious visitor from Rotterdam, Dou asks ‘Van der Geld?’ of the man’s name, ‘Vanderhausen’ responds Schalcken. Dou’s mind is firmly on the money. Indeed, gold seams and rills the film, from our very first sight of Dou counting his coins. Then there are the gold coins in Vanderhausen’s coffer, the pearls around Rose’s neck, the treasures of her marriage settlements, the tinkle of coins into a brothel keeper’s palm, the coins that Schalcken sprinkles into a model’s lap, the golden light of a fire as the painters enumerate their takings, the coins placed on Dou’s eyes at his death and those that Rose scatters at her feet from Schalcken’s purse.

‘Do you trick yourself out handsomely now’ says Dou to Rose before the visit of Vanderhausen, recalling the narrator’s words about the woman in the painting that sets the story off: ‘her features wear such an arch smile, as well becomes a pretty woman when she’s engaged in some charming trickery of her own device’. It’s a nice alteration from Le Fanu’s original, which has, ‘her features wear such an arch smile, as well becomes a pretty woman when practising some prankish roguery’.

Schalcken, played by an aloof and nicely testy Jeremy Clyde, in love with Rose but lacking the spine to make good on his entreaties of endearment after he unwittingly signs his name as a witness to her marriage contract (‘he was in love, as much as a Dutchman can be,’ says the narrator), reveals himself to be in thrall to the lure of money that so appeals to Dou. His impulse of love gives way to the impulse of ambition; Rose is left to her fate as the object of a marriage contract. As the narrator says, his is ‘a tale of heartlessness’.

Schalcken the Painter was much requested for a DVD release and rightly so. It’s a rare combination of intelligence and artistry – in all its forms.

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