Friday, 29 January 2016

Apartheid in The Prisoner: Living in Harmony and The Girl who was Death

Normally, when I take one of my meanders through The Prisoner and try to see it through one possible interpretative filter, I like to take it one episode at a time and really chew it over. This has rather hit a snag when I have come to Living in Harmony and tried to see echoes of South African apartheid. I am afraid that my initial theory, that you can see echoes of pretty well anything you like in The Prisoner if you try, since it was written to be open to multiple interpretations, has been proved correct. In my own mind, I have already been forced to come to the conclusion that perhaps the apartheid reading is not the best one to understand The Prisoner; in fact I still think the best way to understand it is the theory that John Drake of Danger Man was an agent who deliberately put himself in the position of seeing what was happening in the retirement Village for dangerous people, which he himself had helped set up.
What I have noticed, is that most interpretations of The Prisoner tend to work better on the earl;ier episodes, and fall down when it comes to the episodes dealt with here, and subsequent ones. IN fact, if you are looking echoes of South African apartheid in The Prisoner, this interpretation is best seen in the final episode, to great effect. I don’t want to pre-empt that episode yet, but I do want to write about the previous few episodes as building up to it and preparing the viewer for the shock of the true implication of South African apartheid as seen in the final episode. Since they deal with very much the same aspect of apartheid in my opinion, in a change to my established procedure I have decided against omitting Harmony all together and I have decided to deal with Living in Harmony and The Girl Who Was Death in one blog post.
What could a dream about a wild west town which is actually an image of The Village have to do with a brutal oppressive regime in a colonised southern African state? That is the difficult question that I couldn’t answer and was tempted to omit the episode completely in this run through, until it struck me that actually the answer to that question is staring me in the face. The Harmony dream merely adds an extra level of unreality to the existing unreality of the highly socially-engineered Village. To get the connection with South Africa, you have to read the experiences of white people under apartheid, all of which describe the completely artificial bubble in which they lived. I have written before about how it was unlikely that the ruling minority would ultimately overturn the regime, since humans tend to stick with what is in their own best interests. These words will become especially painful in the context of Fall Out.
There are probably also useful parallels to be drawn between conditions in the American Wild West at the time Harmony is set, with the conditions the various groups of white settlers experienced in South Africa. Europeans settling in, say, Kenya, seem to have had a much easier ride of it in comparison to the incredibly harsh conditions to be experienced further south. These conditions have left the whites of the country, particularly the Afrikaners with their memories of their Great Trek, permanently marked. I asked my friend in South Africa why so many place names incorporate ‘fontein’ and she pointed out that water is so short in South Africa. The connection between the conditions in South Africa and the Wild West, and this episode of The Prisoner, is that this episode is largely a façade behind which there is no mention of the real danger. We all know by this point that Number 6 is never really going to come to any harm in The Village, because he is far too valuable. Similarly the apartheid regime in South Africa set up a protected world of privilege for the white minority which served to disguise both the harsh conditions of the country and the living conditions of the majority of the population. This regime was buttressed by the use of the law, religion, and pseudo-science to provide a theoretical and moral framework for what was happening: these people were quite literally living in Harmony, and it is important not to forget that apartheid South Africa claimed to be a theocracy, that is a society ruled by God.
This sense of unreality is carried over into The Girl Who Was Death, and I think if hints of apartheid are to be found in that episode, it is best seen as an extension of the unreal story as a reflection of the unreality in which the privileged minority lived. The cricket game, fair, and scene in the pub are perfect images of transplanting a European society into a foreign culture, exactly what the white settlers tried to do in South Africa. There are just a couple of specifically African ways in which this one can be understood, since it reincorporates an element of danger. I think the girl who was death can be seen as a figure of the whites’ fear of traditional African beliefs, practices and magic. Naturally this fear would always be subsumed into the fear of God which continues to dominate in the country, or else seen as primitive and uneducated, but the woman’s ‘magic’ is a perfect example of the sort of thing the white settlers were fearful of.
This episode also incorporates a very real sense of danger, which can be interpreted as referring to the completely justifiable fear experienced by, well, anyone, in a harsh tropical setting if you’re not born to it and experienced. The danger is seen in the specifically ‘English’ settings, and I feel this is an image of the way the whites were encouraged to see the blacks, as dangerous, primitive, and that they would try to overturn the fledgling European culture if they could. The woman is the personification of the other, both magic and also wildness: exactly what apartheid was alleged to contain.
This sense of danger can serve the function of bringing the reality home to the viewer: both the reality of danger and the reality of apartheid. This will naturally be intensified as the programme comes to its climax. The fact that The Girl Who Was Death starts off odd and becomes more deranged as it goes on doesn’t actually detract from a parallel in apartheid: it’s almost exactly what happened to the apartheid regime! Even as The Prisoner was being made, the apartheid regime was already buckling under the weight of its own fantasy (= the lighthouse itself is the rocket!), and from then on was held up by an increasingly desperate and brutal regime. I am actually quite impressed with how these two episodes can be related to apartheid, and in fact I think this is the interpretation I’ve looked at so far which best deals with them.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

The Losers

I see from the sparcity of information on the internet that this TV show is both little-known, and in fact was unsuccessful at the time of broadcast. The material is not promising, true: Leonard Rossiter plays an out-of-luck wrestling promoter, who takes on what he thinks is a dead loser so that he can make money from bribes from the other side. The trouble is his protégé turns out to be preternaturally gifted at wrestling, despite being unpromising material. This may sound as if it is Rigsby-does-wrestling, and indeed it can seem like that, because of course on one level Rossiter is always Rossiter and never anybody else.
But despite being so apparently unpromising, this show is excellent. This is of course due to excellent writing by funny man par excellence Alan Coren, one time editor of Punch, which adds a whole sophistication and subtlety lacking in, say, Rising Damp. The uninspiring base plot is enlivened by a series of hilarious vignettes: the scenes where they meet the queens in the theatrical guesthouse and Rossiter talking to a prostitute spring to mind. This show has genuinely made me laugh out loud with a proper belly laugh, and few shows, least of all ‘unsuccessful ones’, can do that.
Visually the show shows the full awfulness of the travelling life of any showman of any description. The sets remind me very much of staying in a B&B at the end of the 1970s with my dad – the colour palette is like mud and nothing is new. I have only two criticisms – one that the Foskett character played by Rossiter is just slightly too like Rigsby in some places, particularly in a episode of racism. I would reiterate my repeated observation that you don’t notice a really good actor, who will take on the character he is acting. It is too noticeable that this is Leonard Rossiter.
The other criticism is on a different level. I have also written here that I do not expect TV shows of 30 or more years ago to have the kind of quality of picture that you would expect of modern shows, in fact I rather like the less-technical effect of old shows, much as many people find vinyl preferable to CDs or digital. The problem with this show is that it has obviously suffered badly – one episode is missing completely, for example. The others claim to be restored, and I have to say that this is not up to the usual standards of Network. I still have not got to the end of the first episode because the sound is so patchy that it is impossible to listen to. That sound problem is not evident on the other episodes, but the picture is not restored up to the level I would normally expect. I am using two pictures to illustrate the actual picture quality; one is from the gallery on the disc, presumably a production still, and the other is an actual capture of Rossiter with the prosititute from the show. If I have to come to s final judgement on the picture quality, it would not be a deal-breaker for me, but the sound combined with the picture, combine to a problem which indicate substandard to me. I would prefer a more-restored picture with, say, a comment on the archival nature of the sound. I hope this will be corrected on any future releases of this disc, but judging by the reviews on amazon.co.uk which advise people not to buy this because of the sound quality, I would doubt there will be future releases.
So all in all, despite contemporary lack of success and lack of reputation, this is an excellent show marked by writing of real quality which distinguishes an unpromising plot. The DVD release is marred by a sound quality which makes it impossible to listen through the first episode. So all in all, I would not dissuade people from buying this show, but to be wary not to expect too good quality, and if it is re-released I would hope the quality will be worked on.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Mister Rose: First Impressions

I published several times last year on the subject of what would happen to the cult TV fan if the supply of ‘never seen’ series were to run out, an idea which got taken up to some extent on the blogosphere and certainly seemed to find echoes in fellow classic TV fans. On consideration, I feel there are probably several things which happen to the cult TV fan: I doubt there is anybody who literally has a cut-off date for television of, say, 1970 or 1980, so the classic TV fan will go on to find newer TV series which appeal. I have this week been on annual leave; when asked by normal people what I am doing with it I am replying that I am doing nothing, but the cult TV fan will understand that I am staying at home and recreating with some new DVDs. This is not nothing, of course, but one cannot tell the laity the names of the TV series that one is watching because of the ensuing silence. I have found myself returning to Dr Who serials of the 1960s (watch this space for forthcoming blog posts) and also have been watching some of the TV shows of my childhood. I realise the majority of this blog’s audience is American, so Paddington Bear, Rainbow and Basil Brush may not strike a chord with my core readership. Since my ‘manager’ still hasn’t actually been sacked, if you do not know Rainbow I would urge you to have a look on youtube and you will see my ‘manager’ personified perfectly in the character Zippy. I have also discovered that there were films made based on the Saint novels (why did nobody tell me this?) and so I am waiting for some to arrive, since I have rewatched the TV series at a distance of thirty years and found I have lost my former taste for it.
On spec I bought the discs of Mister Rose. It turns out that this show is the final part of what we would now call a franchise lasting through most of the sixties, based on the popular character of Mr Rose, a Scotland Yard detective, and Mister Rose deals with his life after retirement. This show is responsible for me realising what my defining characteristic is for a TV to strike home with me, and it turns out it is a certain sixties milieu. If a character drives a Mini, there is some cultural conflict, there are hippies of any vein, I am happy. I have written repeatedly about the conflict of Tradition with Modernity in 1960s television, but it has taken me forever to realise that that is probably the defining characteristic of the television I like. On the surface, Mister Rose is a detective series pure and simple, but its sixties setting gives it an aura of swinging sixties.
Yet Mister Rose is very much the swinging sixties looking backwards. It is very clear that his years as a detective have given him an ability to pass among all sorts of people, despite his own apparently pomposity and upper class aspirations. Not much play is made at all on the reaction of a traditionalist to modernity – the staple of Adam Adamant – and in fact the show is probably rather tame even by the standards of the 1960s. I am very aware that the shows I am watching were made in 1967: we’re talking Mrs Peel era here, but there is a distinct lack of kinkiness. However the world in which Mister Rose lives is very clearly that of the sixties; and it is interesting to be reminded that there were ways in which the mores of fifty years ago were very different from today. He belongs to a club, speaks repeatedly of needing a daily and in fact employs three staff all together, and in the episode I am watching there is talk of ‘scandal’ as a result of marital infidelity. Nowadays surely people still side with whichever side they are attached to, but it would hardly be a scandal nowadays.
Visually the show is not as well restored as Emma Peel-era Avengers. I have seen worse and better shows from the 1960s, but if you can’t tolerate anything other than a crystal-clear picture, this may not be the show for you. I have two series and I notice that the sound on series 2 is not nearly as good as series 1. I took series 2 to watch in the staff room at work and was surprised to find I had to turn the volume up full and was still straining to hear it. I am not overly fussed about having every vintage show immaculately restored, but in this case it is noticeable and actually makes it difficult to listen to the show. The stills on the box are in colour and I have no idea if that was how it was originally broadcast, but the episodes are uniformly black and white. There is lots of visual interest in sets and the dialogue is always witty and sparkling, if it becomes catty in places.
I realise I haven’t made this criticism for some time, but this show is a culprit of my usual gripe, that 1960s TV shows employed the same actors over and over again, which makes these people distracting at times, because you’re trying to place what else you’ve seen them in. Other than that I highly recommend this show for the sixties milieu and detection if you’re interested in a whodunit.
Incidentally, it seems it is possible to read Rose in a much more sexual way than I have – I can’t see this myself but cult.tv has this to say about him:
' William Mervyn plays Rose as a character that comes across as Jason King for the blue-rinse brigade; no doubt at the time he had the same knee-trembling effect on those in their fifties upwards as Wyngarde’s author-come-detective had on those of a younger disposition.' ( Source I am also indebted to this site for the picture of the dvd box)

Monday, 11 January 2016

Apartheid in The Prisoner: Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling

I was in two minds about whether to post on this episode at all. On the one hand, its relevance to apartheid South Africa can be summarised by referring to quack science and social control, subjects examined at length in the whole series.
On the other hand as I watched the episode again just now, I was struck by how many, and how varied, were the possible echoes of apartheid if you look for them. People's personal values are sacrificed to an ideology. The government is involved in this at the highest levels. The atmosphere of unreality necessarily created to cover up the sinister goings on. The intelligence needed to maintain control. Even the party can be seen as an image of white people's privileged, sheltered lifestyle,  buttressed by some very dodgy things indeed. And finally the use of science in the service of the ideology.
In this,  this episode plugs perfectly into the ambivalent approach to science I have often noted in 1960s TV shows. Science is both seen as the wonderful cure of all ills, yet its power is also feared, and the need to control science emphasised at length. This episode therefore contains a warning against the sort of society run by a totalitarian regime which will use science in its service. This is of course exactly a description of apartheid -era South Africa. And that is what happened.
' A White South African scientist has told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that the White apartheid government considered trying to develop a bacteria which would kill only Africans.
'The former head of a military research laboratory, Daan Goosen, told the commission that the project had the backing of South Africa’s then Surgeon General, who described it as “the most important project in the country.”
'Although the substance was “officially” never developed, Mr Goosen said that an unknown European scientist claimed to have developed a strain of bacteria in the early 1980s “capable of killing pigmented people”.
'“It could have been used as a negotiation back-up,” Mr Goosen told the Commission. “A thing like this could have been used to maintain peace. It was a case of being the strongest.”
'Plans to travel to Europe for a meeting were abandoned because of fears that it could be a trap, but the witness said South African scientists continued their own work on the project, and also looked into methods of making Blacks selectively infertile.
'Goosen also said he and his immediate supervisor,http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wouter_Basson"> Wouter Basson
, had discussed the possibility of killing Nelson Madela and Oliver Tambo – then President of the ANC – through the use of carcinogens, as well as arranging the supply of snake venom “to eliminate an enemy of the state.”
'In other testimony, the former head of the police forensics laboratory, General Lothar Neethling, told the Commission that he had been instructed to supply Basson with confiscated supplies of narcotic drugs such as marijuana, LSD and Mandrax.
'The intention, he said, was to extract the active ingredients for insertion into crowd-control grenades.
'It was alleged that officials plotted to mentally disable Nelson Mandela with poison during the final years of his imprisonment
'Mr Goosen told the commission he now realised that he was wrong to work on the projects, but said he had not been thinking rationally at the time.' ( http://www.africanglobe.net/africa/proof-south-africas-apartheid-government-developed-germs-kill-blacks/)
The problem with this is that the nature of scientific experimentation in South Africa only became widely known decades after this show. Nonetheless the warning remains,  and remains valid in these days of terrorism: we have a responsibility to get the world we want.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Doctor Who: The. Invasion

New year and I feel like some Doctor Who. I will return to finishing my series of posts on apartheid in The Prisoner, but since this is supposed to be a blog, it had better primarily cover what TV I’m actually watching! That said, I was very chuffed by the reception of my recent post comparing The Avengers with Batman, which started off as a stray thought in my grasshopper mind, but has had an incredible number of hits since being published.
Another comparison which isn’t often made is of Doctor Who with Sapphire and Steel. I don’t think this one can be drawn out too far, but it is this Doctor Who adventure which has made me think of it. The parallels are obvious when you think about it – the protagonists appear in a random place and time, not always under their own volition, and there is usually some crisis. The protagonists are the ‘experts’ come about the spot of trouble, and while the time theme is the undergirding of everything in Doctor Who it becomes literally everything in Sapphire and Steel. Sapphire and Steel are clearly not human, yet certainly appear to be, and appear in our world, to everyone’s great mystification.
And that is the point at which this Doctor Who adventure really takes off for me. I wrote last years about how disappointed I was by the boxed set of remaining fragments of Who episodes which have not been made up into whole shows. I have recently watched The Web of Fear with great appreciation, The Five Doctors is a Who serial which remains permanently in my collection… You’ve spotted the connection, haven’t you? It’s taken me forever to put two and two together but what really does it for me is the eruption of alien forces, whether Doctor Who or Sapphire and Steel, into our world, with the effect of adding an extra layer of meaning to our world. Certainly in terms of The Invasion, I find it much more atmospheric before the cybermen make an appearance. I am the sort of TV viewer who is the bane of writers and everyone involved, since I’m almost determined to understand TV on my own terms.
These terms as far as The Invasion are concerned, are that this alien force breaks into the late-1960s milieu that I love so much. The Britain depicted in this series is very much the swinging Britain of the time, yet this Britain merges seamlessly into the time distortion of Doctor Who (and even Sapphire and Steel). The scene with the wind-up gramophone with the horn, picked up in the Portobello Road, is iconic of 1960s style. Think of the penny farthing in The Prisoner, and the collection of vintage telephones in Tara King’s flat, both further examples of the way periods were mixed in the style of the time. The clothes of the time drew heavily on art nouveau themes and vintage military dress – the past was everywhere plundered, and with hindsight, this tendency could be interpreted as the way in which time gets broken into and disrupted. It is not commented on, but the gramophone represents a disruption of time, as a suggestion of why Doctor Who is there.
This 1960s tendency to draw on the visuals of the past comes face to face with the contemporary and opposite 1960s tendency towards modernity, which is yet viewed very ambivalently. This Doctor Who adventure brings to a head the fear so often expressed around technology in the TV of the time – that it can be misused, and that it can get out of control. The scene in which Doctor Who and Jamie escape via a lift uses the lift as interesting image of the way modern technology controls us. With his greater scientific knowledge, the Doctor can break this control and use it to break free of restraint. The International Electromatics building is of course an image of the ultimate modernity of the time, where the machine becomes all and humans become unnecessary. Ironically it now appears very old-fashioned indeed and unfortunately the humans selected for employment there can hardly be described as competent. The old-fashioned message is that you cannot ignore the human element.
A further 1960s preoccupation, parodied in The Avengers and The Man from UNCLE, yet played completely straight in so many series, also occurs here, that of the evil megalomaniac who wants to take over the world. The potting shed is not nearly enough – only the world will do, in this case also using extra-terrestrial beings in the attempt to take over. Again I wouldn’t like to draw out this comparison too far, but I feel that probably the viewer of the time, seeing this adventure through Cold War-trained eyes, may have been able to see in the cybermen’s mooted invasion a clear reference to the situation in Europe at the time.
I have also realised one of the things which may make me slightly uncomfortable with Doctor Who. I am very keen on dividing TV into real and unreal, and Doctor Who rather destroys my constructed division by moving about between the two divisions. The stock trick of 1960s television, playing the unreal completely straight so that it can be taken as real, seen in Batman and The Avengers, is turned around into Doctor Who. The whole point of the doctor is that in him the unreal becomes real, and the reaction of our own reality is always going to be incredulous.
Fear of modernity is embodied in the International Electromatics building, and peaceful old blighty in need of defence is embodied in the cow which looks into the Tardis at the beginning of the first episode. Once again, this show uses the classic TV visual language to train us how to interpret what is happening and what we are seeing. And once again, it subverts the language used in The Avengers slightly, by making the point of security the alien and modern nature of the doctor, rather then the Establishment figures embodied by leather armchairs and public school educations. The Establishment is, however, represented by the dome of St Paul’s in the scene of the emergence of the daleks from the sewers, yet interestingly this is also shown in such a way that it appears from behind a modern building.
I don’t mind at all that the first and fourth episode have been reproduced using animation. I actually prefer it to the approach of screen captures used to illustrate the recorded sound used in The Web of Fear. Other than that, the picture is clear, the sound is certain, the cast are assured, it is exactly what you would expect of a quality BBC production of the time.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Doomwatch

Well that’s the annual Winterval over as far as I’m concerned. I’m slightly disorientated because nearly everyone in my apartment building has gone away for Christmas, leaving the place eerily quiet and dark. Additionally I had underestimated how warm a small modern flat could be, with the strange result that I’m sitting here in an unheated flat on the 27th December wearing a vest (undershirt to US readers) and feeling distinctly warm. These two things are putting me in mind of the end of the word and so my attention has naturally turned to the legendary series Doomwatch, which I see is due to be released in its remaining entirety in the spring. This post is solely based on the DVD of two episodes – about a plastic-eating virus and mutant rats – and reading around other people’s writing on the show.
In this show the 1960s’ ambivalence towards scientific progress reaches its peak, as does suspicion (I don’t really want to use the words conspiracy or paranoia) towards the establishment. The frequently simplistic Cold War-era dialectic of goodies and baddies, with the Establishment firmly set as the goodies, although open to infiltration, is turned on its head and made more realistic. I feel that probably this is one of the reasons old TV is so comforting, even TV dealing with such apparently live issues as megalomaniac evil genii, that the end is always going to be a return to a settled status quo, and peace for Blighty. Doomwatch is not slow to deal with the other side of this coin, that the government could set up a toothless agency to be seen to be ensuring the safety of scientific investigation, with the sequel that the personnel selected for the agency turn it into a real investigative body, and that the reality of scientific investigation could well lead to actual disasters.
As usual the key for me is to try to watch the show from the perspective of the time and my feeling is that this show would have been genuinely chilling. As has been commented repeatedly here before, the 1970s was an age of real fear, people were actually prepared for nuclear war starting at any moment. My own mother had a hoard of tinned food and a plan written on the back of an old envelope. In Doomwatch, just as in real life, the optimism of the post war years turns bitter and the technology which made so much of life easier than it had been, was easily turned against us. That this pressed buttons in the psyche of the time, was indicated by the huge popularity and prominence of the show at the time.
Given the contemporary popularity of the show and its legendary status among cult TV fans, I would have to comment that it is very difficult for what was intended to be a shown-once show to live up to its inflated reputation. It is also mooted as a predecessor of The X-Files, obliging it to carry a very heavy mantle indeed. That said, Doomwatch doesn’t do a bad job at all. It is perhaps necessary to make a few allowances before judging it. Its production values are in my opinion slightly old-fashioned for the time, although once again trying to see it through contemporary eyes I’m guessing it was intended to use the pace and ethos of a serious drama, if not of documentary footage at the time. One of its episodes, which was never broadcast, did use actual footage of an execution, for example. The overall impression is firmly of a serious contender in TV drama terms, intending to give an impression of being based on actual facts: Doomwatch’s success is that required by all TV fantasy, that it makes the viewer believe that the events in the show could happen. The second episode on this DVD is actually the classic example of this, and is probably more effective now than forty years ago, since rats are now actually beginning to take over urban areas and the authorities are having increasing difficulties keeping on top of them.
Visually, it uses an interesting mixture of the visual languages used by the various shows I have blogged about before. Classic British interiors are used to indicate either the Establishment or solid, authoritative knowledge. Visually, we know we can rely on the Doomwatch staff because their offices are conservative, panelled, with books. The Doomwatch personnel are interstingly seen in opposition to Establishment figures who disbelieve their information about a plastic-eating virus, and who are seen in exactly the same environment. Modern, laboratory-type environments are used to indicate the rarified atmosphere of the research which ironically leads to danger for humanity. This is again a slight inversion of the visual language used in both The Avengers and Doctor Who.
In addition to an increased complexity of visual language, the characterisation of Doomwatch is more developed than in some ‘sci-fi’ series. No character is the cardboard cutout that you could expect, but each character has a full share of ambivalence and complexity. This is an adult show, and is dealing with complexities of adult emotions and life. In terms of pace the show moves slower than modern TV, as is to be expected. I suppose what I’m feeling towards here is that Doomwatch copes well with its inflated reputation, given the production of the time, and the fact that it was intended to be viewed once and then wiped.
My one criticism is a criticism of effect. The plastic-eating virus is very well shown as creating a strange black sludge. In the episode about the rats a very effective scene shows rat traps being set, before they are found propped open with cutlery and the bait taken, by rats who are heard from outside the room but not seen. The fact that they are unseen makes this scene effective and that is how they should have been left. The effect is completely spoiled by the next scene, in which some very obviously unreal rats are seen attacking the investigators. Even in the early 1970s surely the effect could have been better than that.
So my overall impression of Doomwatch is that it is a sophisticated, overall effective show, well capable to carrying the heavy mantle of its reputation, with just some reservations about shortcomings in special effects. I’m looking forward to the remaining shows being released this year.

Friday, 18 December 2015

The Enfield Haunting

Christmas is coming and true to form I’m getting as close to being Christmassy as I’m ever going to be by posting about a ghost story. It may seem like this broadcast is way outside my comfort zone of usually 40+ years old TV, but I have always had a fascination with anything which could come under the heading of weird. I am keenly awaiting the release of the forthcoming documentary on Borley Rectory, since that along with this story was one of the formative influences of my young weird life. Also ‘the paranormal’ may be said to come under the usual definition of ‘cult’ rather than my own definition, of anything I like!
This is a show which rightly claims to be based on a true story, of a family tormented after the daughters began playing with a Ouija board. It is one of the more high-profile haunting stories in British psychical lore, and is the more effective for having taken place in an urban area in modern times and is therefore free of the usual paraphernalia of ghost stories. Even allowing for some dramatic license in making the story into a modern TV mini-series, this show is not a bad adaptation of the original story by any means. It is paced exactly right to give the correct fear. It even-handedly correctly places the story in its context of adolescence and budding sexuality without becoming prurient in any way. The effects are not over-done in any way. Apart from the few quibbles below, I literally cannot fault this production and would recommend it to anyone for a Christmas ghost story.
My main problem with it is that it slightly takes the family’s situation out of its correct setting. Of course this would only be an issue for someone who read the original book or has seen photographs of the actual house. The house in which it is set is rather more upmarket than the original council house in which the family lived. I have included period photographs to illustrate the real circumstances in which they lived. The problem with the house in this show is that while it is shown as unkempt from outside, the interior is an accurate setting of 1970s furniture. This is the only point at which it doesn’t add up: a family who either couldn’t to paint the outside of their house or were too distracted by other things, also would not have had a contemporary interior. And of course this is borne out by the contemporary photographs. Judging by the patterns, I would date the lino and some furnishings in the house from the 1950s or before. This is a family which was clearly in big trouble, including financial, and there seems to be a tendency in modern productions to avoid the realistic set. This is an unfortunate fault because it makes the story fail to add up, even if you are not familiar with the original story.
What accurately comes across is how completely distressed was everybody involved in the case. It was not so much a broken family as a fractured one. In addition to the father leaving and the elder son being ‘away at school’, the family went on to experience mental illness and young death from cancer. Grosse, the man investigating, was also in mid-bereavement, and this production accurately portrays the way in which there is no way in which this could have been approached objectively.
I like Timothy Spall’s portrayal of a man who is clearly very ill. He sounds as if he smokes about 80 a day, and I cannot fault his portrayal, except to say that I feel it might be slightly overdone at times and the other actors have far more subtle presences. There is a very real sense in which this production makes the story the story of Maurice Grosse, rather than the story of the Enfield poltergeist, which surely has more than enough material in itself.
These faults apart, I cannot recommend this show too highly and commend it as an even-handed approach of a story which more than anything else would lend itself to hysteria.
Image credits: Telegraph and Daily Mail