Monday, 18 May 2015

Charley Says

I have wanted this dvd for some time, but I think I was probably fearful of it bringing back too many memories of my 1970s childhood, which it has, and also that it would be like watching TV with ones maiden aunt, which is exactly the impression it gives. The subtitle to the DVD reads 'More than 280 live and animated classics from the Central Office of Information archives.' Watched back-to-back they certainly do give a strange impression, in fact have unnerved me to the point where I've just nearly turned a lightswitch off with a wet hand. 
This is not something I'm accustomed to doing, and would normally dry my hands or use my elbow. That said, to go by these films, the Britain of the 1970s was full of people who went fishing near overhead lines, drink drove, crossed the road without looking, put lit fireworks in their pockets, didn't wear seatbelts, painted polystyrene ceiling tiles with gloss paint (I can't begin to think how bad a gloss-painted ceiling would look), wedge fire doors open, leave bottles on beaches, and so on. The wonder is there's anyone left at all.
The sad thing is, the world is full of people who do these sorts of things all the time. They're called idiots. And the Central Office of Information failed, in my opinion, to account for the fact that idiots think no harm can ever come to them. Also the simple fact is that public information films tend to be attended to by those of a careful mindset. I'm afraid I'm left with the terrible conclusion that these public information films were a fantastic waste of public money.
Of course the 1970s were one of the points that made a sea change in views of safety here, with the Health and Safety at Work Act of 1974, which is essentially still in force and smoothed out previous industry-specific laws. In my work place we have a thermometer marked with the Shops and Factories Act of 1961. It has been bought in the past few years, and I'm so pleased the design hasn't changed in all those years. In the 1970s, though, a number of things came together, industrial unrest, change in the law, the assertive trades union activism of the time. So these films focus both on rights and duties or privileges.
It is also interesting to see the different world portrayed. People obviously didn't routinely wear seatbelts. Decimal currency and pelican crossings were things that people had to become accustomed to. There are warnings about lighting a paraffin heater without the room being ventilated – I can't remember the last time I saw a paraffin heater. There is a point at which a film tells you what to do if you have a water leak, and it shows the householder turning off the electricity. The fuse box it shows is one of those old ones with the wire, which were a right royal pain the arse to replace if it blew. Which of course highlights the fact that approaches to safety have changed nowadays – there is a wider acceptance that the world is full of idiots, and safety tends to be built in. The man shown using a power tool with a home-made plug which results in electrocution would have been much safer with a modern fuse box. That said, I have gone to much trouble to find some round-pin plugs for the lighting circuit in my swanky new apartment. My dad would laugh hollowly at me buying 'old' plugs in 2015. My friend in South Africa, though, maintains they are the only normal ones. She doesn't accept that they only have those plugs because SA was electrified by the British, nor does she accept that our modern plugs are both the most painful in the world to tread on and the safest in the world because of their multiple inbuilt safety features.
My point here of course is that a lot of these messages were wasted. Some were just plain wrong, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the 'stranger danger' which dominated government safety films for decades. It's wrong. It's always been wrong. We are all most likely to beabused, beaten, and murdered by someone we know. That is the simple fact of human behaviour. Statistically we are safer with complete strangers! Apart from anything else, paedophiles tend to be cunning, secretive, and convincing.There is one particular advertisement which tells children not to accept lifts from strangers. The paedophiles were too canny for that. In fact, in true chilling 1970s style, the paedophiles were actually making the safety films. Several of them on the DVDs are narrated by Rolf Harris and Jimmy Saville. Saville is dressed respectably in a suit rather than his trademark tracksuit and string vest, but Harris needn't think he's appearing on my blog with a shirt on. (I'm still thinking of calling it Topless on Television). Anyway, if you're a paedophile, public life and a respectable persona of being concerned for da kids is obviously a good way to hide your intentions.
I had also forgotten how fatalistic the 1970s were – I remember them from the time but had forgotten that public information used to tell us what to do in the event of a nuclear strike. I remember my mother having a wardrobe full of hoarded tinned goods just in case. I had forgotten that we were told what to do. I had forgotten I knew that you could come out after two days, and if anyone died in the shelter you should bury them after five days. That was the level of detail we were given in the Protect and Survive series of leaflets and films, and they were widely criticised at the time for the likelihood of their public effect making a nuclear strike more likely.
Of course what we were fearing never happened… exactly. In Europe it waited for the 80s and happened in the Ukraine, at Chernobyl. Modern nuclear reactors are built with safety features which cannot be overridden, but at Chernobyl they thought they would see what would happen if you did exactly what the manual told you not to. This is the real lesson of Charley Says: the world remains full of idiots who can't be trusted to run a bath, let alone run a nuclear reactor!

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Catching Up

This post will be in a different format from my usual ones, which are usually focussed on a particular show, period, or theme. I've been away from this blog for a while, but I'm now settled in a new home. It isn't exactly where I wanted to be, but close enough, and was absurdly cheap. So far the only things that don't work are the lights in the oven and cooker hood, so I've come off extremely lightly. The only thing I haven't tried is the Jacuzzi bath – to me this flat is a palace and always will be. 
Of course I haven't stopped watching television; my recent viewing has followed two trends, one of which is well away from the 'mostly British, mainly 1960s' theme of my viewing. The other trend is that I find I return to The Avengers in times of stress: there really is no substitute for joining Steed and Mrs Peel in imagination, drinking tea from bone china in a railway carriage, or drinking champagne in the back of a taxi. I have also diversified somewhat to watch some new-to-me series.
Grantchester has been something of a disappointment to me. Despite my liking for unreality in television, I only appreciate unreality in shows which don't claim to be realistic. The pretty-boy vicar's jazz obsession and burgeoning bromance with the policeman is just too anachronistic for the 1950s. Do period drama or do modern, but the 1950s is just too far away gracefully to receive the projections of modern living.
Grantchester was of course associated with Rupert Brooke and his circle, and may well be intended to create an assonance with the classical world of Barchester portrayed in Trollope's books. I have been watching the BBC dramatisation of these stories with great appreciation. The period approach is faultless, and the pace perfect for books written in a more leisurely age.
I have finally bought a boxed set of Budgie, starring Adam Faith, which I have been wanting to watch for some time. It is famed as the predecessor of Minder, having a strikingly similar premise and plots. I have read criticisms of it that it creaks like an old gate, and I'd have to admit that I can only agree with that verdict. Admittedly, this is after only one viewing, in which I kept finding my attention straying, so that I can't actually remember that much of the plots.
Monty Python is a show which I feel is probably very badly served by many of its DVD releases. Everyone knows certain famous sketches from it, and I feel there is a problem with the fact that many of its releases are focussed on selections from the series. Of course as another show originating pre-video, we could only reproduce how original audiences viewed it by watching it one episode a week at the same time. Even watching episodes back-to-back, though, I'm finding I appreciate it better as a whole series of episodes: comedy in many ways works better with peaks and troughs, and only having peaks over-stimulates.
French and Saunders are a comedy duo I remember very fondly from their original broadcasts in the 1980s (I was never quite so keen on Victoria Wood, and of course there is a symbiosis between French and Saunders and the characters in The Young Ones). Once again, I have been re-watching their shows on a 'Very Best of' DVD, and am now itching to get the whole thing. At the time I thought it was terribly grown-up and sophisticated that the band in the show was called Raw Sex: seeing it again nearly thirty years later, of course I understand the point that Raw Sex are not sophisticated or sexy!
Some seventies shows which I missed while writing about seventies show have also come my way. To The Manor Born is a perennial favourite of mine. I think I probably watched it contemporaneously with Hinge and Bracket in Dear Ladies, and developed a taste for somewhat bitchy posh ladies with sharp tongues!
A seventies show I'd never come across until I found the DVD in the entertainment exchange is Bouquet of Barbed Wire. I started watching it while I was unpacking my boxes in the new flat and am struck by how it completely avoids most of the common themes of 1970s TV, instead focussing on a father's obsession for his daughter.
Get Some In! is a 1970s show set in the RAF in the 1950s. It is very much a classic sit com based on the lads doing national service. Their corporal is played by Tony Selby, familiar from many more underdog roles in 1960s TV. It is in many ways superior to It AInt Half Hot Mum,, more subtle, less crude. I notice that the Amazon reviews focus on old men's reminiscences about their own national service, which may explain why the show is less well-known.
As I'm writing this I am watching Bewitched, a real reminiscence of a show I used to love in my childhood. I've also bought a DVD of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which I haven't watched yet but used to love. His suspense worked better for me in a short time slot: the films build the suspense too slowly so that I tend to fall asleep!
I will no doubt be writing further about these and other shows in the near future, now that my head is in the same place as my body for long enough to get on the keyboard and write some blog posts!

Thursday, 2 April 2015

(Whatever Happened to the) Likely Lads: Second Impressions

In my last post I came to some probably premature conclusions about seventies TV which could best be summarized in the phrase, 'rush back to the sixties'. That was fully my intention, until I spotted the boxed set of The Likely Lads in a charity shop. Since it was absurdly cheap & the Society of St Vincent de Paul used to visit our mother, I bought it, despite not having favourable memories of the 1970s return of the show.
In my real/unreal division of TV shows, this one would definitely come into the real category. In fact it was the first public collaboration of two of the big names of British television:
'Taking a BBC course in directing for television, Dick Clement was tasked with making a short production using one studio and a £100 budget. Stuck for an idea, he turned to drinking companion Ian La Frenais, and the duo worked up a notion they'd originally conceived as a comedy skit for the BBC's in-house drama club, the Ariel Players.
'The result was a slice-of-life comedy about two friends, which so impressed the Corporation they offered Clement a job in TV, and asked him to develop the project into a series.
'Set in the North East (but filmed in Willesden Junction, London), The Likely Lads was one of the first shows to bring regional dialects to the network. James Bolam was cast as the proudly working class Terry Collier and Rodney Bewes as the slightly more aspirational Bob Ferris.
'Friends since school, the two characters now worked together in an electrical components factory, and spent their time dealing with the foibles of life - lack of money, supporting a rubbish football team, worrying about the future and chasing women.
'Very much influenced by the kitchen sink dramas of the 1950s, for its time this was strikingly naturalist comedy. The conversations between Terry and Bob felt real, and their concerns where ones shared by most viewers.' (http://www.bbc.co.uk/comedy/likelylads/)
I'm sorry, but none of this will do. On my return to this show I find it so self-consciously 'real' it isn't possible. I am just watching an episode with location footage of mass areas of slum clearance being gradually replaced by the sort of concrete modernism which has probably also been condemned by now. This is where this show clearly hit a contemporary nerve: the only problem is that that footage could have been shot anywhere, including my beloved Midlands. 
The setting is real but the performance now strikes me as wrong in content & tone. The content includes recurring themes of working-class aspirations, change in society...once again the subject matter of these shows is a familiar one of the era. I feel this is the key to the show's success: the masses viewing it would be forced to agree with one or the other of the friends. The middle classes would pride themselves on their glimpse into the lives of the gritty northerners. This would not have been majority viewing on first showing: it's a BBC2 job, remember.
The presentation is also subtly wrong to my mind. I have commented before on my irritation at pseudo-regional accents. Likely Lads is set in the north-east of England, & I'm not in a position to judge the authenticity of the accents, but it just chimes wrong. Certainly only one of the actors is a native of up there: Bewes was born in Yorkshire before going to school in Luton before RADA, & while Bolam was born in Sunderland, he then went to school in Derby before training at the Central School of Speech & Drama. Perhaps this is a purely personal preference: my liking for unreal TV means I'm rarely obliged to task a show with it's realism.
A further subtext is the nature of friendship, & how life experience changes one & ones relationships. Sadly, similarly to The Prisoner fanclub beginning to mimic events in the show, real life's vicissitudes have led to a split between two former best friends:
'They were the best of friends – on screen at least. But now a feud that has simmered between the estranged stars of the BBC sitcom The Likely Lads for almost 35 years has erupted. Rodney Bewes, who played Bob Ferris in the series, has accused his former co-star James Bolam of condemning fellow cast members to poverty through his refusal to grant permission for the series to be repeated on network television.
"Jimmy Bolam's killed it, which is such a pity," he said: "I'm very poor so I have to tour one-man shows because Jimmy has buried The Likely Lads. You have to sign a waiver for them to repeat it and he stopped it while he did New Tricks. Well, New Tricks has been on so long, and is so repeated, that he must be very wealthy; me, I've just got an overdraft and a mortgage."
Bewes added: "He should let it be repeated on BBC2 or BBC1; to stop other people earning money is cruel."' (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/tv-radio/the-likely-lads-fall-out-as-bolam-refuses-to-sanction-tv-repeats-1899057.html)

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Seventies TV: Some Conclusions

I have been absent from here for some weeks. It's all been quite stressful – suffice to say that you can tell my progress across the city by the trail of bruised and bloodied estate agents. I mean, really, some of them are almost determined not to sell anything. The upshot is that while I am in the process of buying a suitable and ridiculously cheap flat (using the one estate agent in this city I've been impressed by: without naming names they have a swanky address in the Jewellery Quarter but which is actually quite tatty when you get there), while also preparing to litigate against the landlords and letting agents of my present flat for their failure to maintain the building. I solemnly swear I don't go around looking for these things, they just happen to me. In one of my local asides, the flat I'm buying is very near a place in the city centre popularly known as Rentboys' Corner. I really don't know whether they still ply their trade there – I would guess not in these days of the interweb, although that said one of my colleagues who was new to Brum wondered why everyone laughed when she told them her address in Edgbaston until one night she was dressed up for a night out and a man stopped in a car to ask her how much.
I have not forgotten about seventies TV, although I've ground to a halt in posting about it. My next projected post was going to be about Reggie Perrin, but after my last posting about Leonard Rossiter I realised I couldn't really face it. Apart from anything else the only thing I really had to say about it was that it seems to me to be based on the perennial tale of there being only one sane person in a certain environment. Certainly Perrin's sanity is proved for me by the way he does increasingly insane things with a view to the applause of those surrounding him.
On the whole I have been pleasantly impressed by the quality of 1970s TV, since I was expecting it to be awful. I would detect a trend towards over-egging the cake in terms of making too many series of shows. It AInt Half Hot Mum would be the perfect example of this – possibly Terry and June and Minder as well. These shows are all based on a fairly simple premise and repeating it ad nauseam does not work.
Some shows have surprised me by how good they are – I remember Some Mothers Do Ave Em as bloody awful: its memory is ruined by the fact that what everyone remembers is Frank's ridiculous sayings and his hopelessness, which overshadow its quality comedy.
Shows I've mentioned elsewhere here but not specifically posted on under the heading of seventies TV would include The New Avengers and The Professionals. Both of these have a distinctively more gritty seventies feel than many of the more unreal 1960s shows which I actually prefer. One of the things this romp through the seventies has done is make me realise how unreal my personal taste in TV actually is! Nor is it as simple as to say that the seventies were the decade when the real took over from the unreal – the earlier Avengers were extremely gritty indeed, so perhaps the unreality was something that happened in the late sixties.
Of course it may simply be that TV of the seventies reflected the grim reality of the world at the time. Bloody awful, it was, and probably escaping into a fantasy Britain would have not been acceptable.
Fantasy in terms of viewing how the other half live is well represented in the decade, though, particularly by two series I haven't got round to blogging about here, and I remember both of them. Two's Company has a superficially simple basis of culture shock and clash, although the chemistry between the actors lifts it into a different territory. I have been interested to read for the first time of Elaine Stritch's struggles with alcoholism and her approach to her diabetes. It is obviously true that actors who have suffered are in a better position to portray depth. The seventies thing of transcontinental sophistication is best represented by this show: the ones I've blogged about so far have tended to emphasise environmental or alternative concerns. Sophistication is also represented, in a more old money way, by To The Manor Born. How I loved that show as a child! In fact I think possibly the reader will get my blog posts best if they are read in an Audrey Forbes-Hamilton voice. Here the old money meets the new money and ultimately they are reconciled.
A superb show I've only just discovered from the seventies is Zodiac. I can even forget that it has Anton Rodgers in, and it represents the alternative mysticism thing of the seventies. I seem to remember Anton Rodgers as good in Murder Most English.
There have been relatively few complete duds in the seventies TV I have been watching. Notable is my intense disappointment with the Tomorrow People. It lacks atmosphere and plot, and thus did almost nothing for me. On the other hand I have also been very impressed by UFO. I was projecting a similar series of posts on eighties and nineties TV (I would feel no need to take it beyond the seventh series of the X-Files), but am afraid that my perception is that the number of duds increased greatly as these decades went on. I have recently tried re-watching Hi de Hi, which I remember as plodding but inoffensive, and was bitterly disappointed. I am not going to tackle any of the other shows featuring a virtually identical cast, and have little to say about Allo Allo. I have therefore changed my mind about this plan.
Instead my present viewing seems to have gone back to my beloved sixties, and two superb series I've only just discovered are Undermind and The Protectors (I mean the ABC series, not any of the other series of the same name). Perhaps it's significant that both of them are ABC series – probably the history of UK independent television would make an interesting essay in itself. I am also still interested in the putative influence of South African apartheid on The Prisoner. My projected conclusion is that it is possible to read The Prisoner as an allegory of apartheid, but as is always the case with that show, it would be impossible to reach a conclusive identification. I have been reading The Apartheid Handbook, and am now armed with a copy of (I'm not making this up) Apartheid – The Lighter side, so have good examples of the sort of ridiculousnesses that went on both under apartheid and in The Village. I'm thinking of dealing with it thematically rather than episode-by-episode, but we shall see. More anon.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Seventies TV: It Ain't Half Hot Mum (Again)

I've just been watching the first series of It Ain't Half Hot Mum, and have come to quite a different impression from the one I posted about in my last post here, where I got side-tracked into racism & body issues. That was also largely based on memories of the show when it was first broadcast, when I was a child, and on viewings some discs I bought of series 3 and 4.
It is usual to comment on the show's now-unacceptable (and unacceptable at the time to those portrayed) attitude towards various ethnic groups, imperialism, and so on. I think this can distract from the show as a show. Firstly I certainly would guess that eight series of this show were way too many: unfortunately I've sold the discs of series 3 and 4 so could only compare by watching them on – ahem – a certain internet website which often has whole episodes of TV shows on. However, the characterisation and the show's standing as a situation comedy strike me as much better in the first series. The characters leap out fully-developed right from the start of the first episode, and I would have to respect this as quality writing. I stand by my later memories of Perry and Croft's TV shows as being dreary – perhaps the same principle of going on too long (and bizarrely with virtually the same cast in programme after programme) applies.
One thing has struck me in particular as interesting – the acceptance that 'Gloria' is homosexual. He makes comments accepting that he is, he doesn't seem to deny it (leaving the question of insult aside) when referred to as a poof or a nancy boy. The show interestingly raises a further level of sexual ambivalence by the excitement Captain Ashwood shows at the idea of the men dressing up as women. Just like the real thing. Hmmm…
Nor is the actual situation in India at the end of the second world war completely ignored, although obviously it is only used as the background to the sitcom. The situation, if you like, is that the inhabitants of the country want the British out. This provides an interestingly unstable background to the antics of the concert party. I feel that in addition to the colonialist response to this so often demonstrated in this show, it may also faithfully reflect an attitude reported during the Second World War – when your life is continually in danger everything changes proportion and sometimes important things are treated in a shrug it off way. There was nothing that could be done about the situation so people just 'carried on', in the words of the irritating posters so fashionable a few years ago. It's cringe-making now, but a sing-song or a concert party probably was seen as a valid way to boost morale or at least provide escape in a dangerous situation.
Don't get me wrong – this show remains demeaning to virtually every group of people it mentions. It couldn't really be broadcast in any prominent position today. The jokes in the show are just that, you may say, and don't mean any harm. But the point is that ultimately they do. Words are things, it is not true they never hurt, and perceiving the freedom to insult whole groups of people in the name of entertainment creates an environment where it becomes acceptable. But the reason I'm posting again is that I've come to the conclusion it didn't start as bad as it went on, and also the higher quality of the first series suggests some better writing than I would have noticed in my previous viewing. It's still Probably Not Cult, though.

Friday, 20 February 2015

The Avengers: Hot Snow

I have been prompted to write about Hot Snow by two things recently: one was the appearance of Ingrid Hafner in The Clifton House Mystery, and the other is that I have been watching Undermind, another show from the ABC stable. I love the first three series of The Avengers in their own particular way, in a way quite different from that in which (posh grammar) I love the last three series. In fact, for me it is a relief to be back in the early-to-mid-sixties after my lengthy excursion into the seventies, although I can't quite put my finger on what the difference is. I've mentally pinned it on to the live vs recorded difference, but it may not be that.
Certainly Hot Snow has a good go at being about as gritty as you can get. In the televisual language later perfected in The Avengers, if you were to see Dr Tredding's home and surgery set-up, it would equate to a solid character at the heart of the community. The house is neither modern nor trying to impress with upper-class privilege. However, of course I am reading it through the lens of the later series.
The major difference is that Steed is not the lead, of course. This dialogue from the third act, which does not survive, highlights the deliberately ambivalent impression he would have given to the viewer:
A little later, Steed telephones Keel from the gang's flat.
STEED: Hello, Dr Keel. Do you recognise the voice?
KEEL: Yes.
STEED: Now listen carefully. I haven't got much time. They want to get
you. I told them I can persuade you to re-enact what happened
to your fiancée. I explained to them that you would think you
were following up the trail that would lead to her killer.
KEEL: Where do I meet him?
STEED: Outside Vinsons. He'll force you into a car. You must get in.
Now, do you understand? You must get in. It's 11.45. Shall we
say in 30 minutes?
KEEL: I can just about make it, but...
Steed replaces the receiver.
KEEL: Hello?
The telephone line goes dead.
Steed turns directly to the gang, who have been listening in.
STEED: Everybody clear?
CHARLIE: The docks.
STEED: We'll pick him up at 12.15. By 1.15, he'll be floating out on the
tide.
(Richard McGinlay, Alan Hayes & Alys Hayes: The Strange Case of the Missing Episodes, Hidden Tiger Books, Electronic Edition, 2014, pp. 25-26)
I also realise something: I've been watching Hot Snow because I wanted to compare it with Undermind (which I can only describe as superb, but which richly deserves a post of its own), but I've been avoiding posting about it. I'm afraid of posting about it in case I later want to say something different about it: but I've decided just to go for it and I can always post again later. I also realise I've rarely watched what there is of it all the way through, even though I've watched other things on the disc repeatedly. I think there's a sense of dissatisfaction about Hot Snow. This may be adequately explained by it effectively ending one third of the way through. If I just didn't like the earlier Avengers at all it could be that, but I'm just not sure what about it gives me this sense of unease and desire to avoid it.
Because in so many ways it's perfect. Murray Melvin is perfect as the effete gangster. It even manages to presage the baddie-with-pet motif which I'm sure we would all associate with James Bond. I love that the fifty years which divide us from this show are long enough to make our world markedly different: one of my dissatisfactions with Mad Men was the self-conscious way in which the actors made a point of smoking. Here, it is taken for granted that doctors will smoke. It is not pointed. That is just what happened at that time. In wracking my brain for criticism, I've been forced to the old faithful that the scenery shakes in one place when Dr Tredding closes a door. In fact I'm forced to a conclusion: the sense of dis-ease here may be entirely deliberate. Given that this is the episode where Keel's fiancée is murdered in front of him and the villain is not captured (until the next episode), thereby setting his life in an entirely new course of Avenging rather than just medicining, it can only be deliberate that the viewer is left with a certain discomfort. And this is surely the hallmark of Stonking Good Television.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Seventies TV: The Clifton House Mystery

Children's TV of the 1970s again, and once again a series that I was probably too young to see at the time of its original broadcast. And I have no doubt that my mother would have discouraged me strongly from watching it, on the pretext that I would find it frightening (as I child you don't understand how these pretexts work for adults). In fact I think I would have loved it, given that I've discovered it's based on a true story:
'The 1978 children's paranormal TV drama The Clifton House Mystery was a ghost story based on the circumstances of Brereton's death. The plot revolved around a family moving into an old house in Bristol that finds a long-dead skeleton in a hidden room. After some unexplained incidents, they become convinced that a ghost connected in some way with the Bristol Riots of 1831 is haunting the house. After checking local records, they realize that it is the ghost of a dragoon commander who was court-martialled for his handling of the riots, and who later disappeared without a trace. The ghost is named "George Bretherton" in the TV series. One of his descendants, named "Mrs Betterton", had sold the house to the family, but was allegedly unaware of the hidden room and its contents, referring only to a vague family scandal that happened generations ago.' (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Brereton)
In fact I think back to the seventies as a halcyon time of interest in all things…I suppose the word 'paranormal' would cover it, or possibly 'supernatural'. Certainly The Clifton House Mystery has an aura of incredible familiarity, and certainly not because I have seen it before, but because it manages to include many of the great elements of a classic ghost story – a basis on real history, objects with a link to dead people, a hidden room, blood dripping from the ceiling, human remains. In fact these were many of the staples of my childhood reading, when I could get to choose it myself. One of my favourite books was The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively, which once again draws on the classic folklore of the ghost story. In fact the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford actually has a witch in a bottle among the exhibits. When I got to about the age of thirteen my mother finally gave in to my badgering to consent to me having an 'adult' ticket at the library, so worried was she that I might find out some mystery or frighten myself somehow. In fact the first thing I took home was The Most Haunted House in England by Harry Price. Those familiar with the Borley Rectory story will be aware that opinion tends to be sharply divided between fanatical belief and fanatical denial. My own opinion is that the story is too good to be true: there is hardly an element of traditional ghost stories missing, and while I can't claim to know anything about psychical research I can see that Price's efforts were sloppy at best, and the need to remove an alcoholic, nymphomanic, terminally-bored, vicar's wife from the scene before investigating should be obvious to all.
Anyway, this over-egging of the cake doesn't afflict The Clifton House Mystery: its story is just right. Instead it is spoiled by other things. Visually the set gives exactly the right impression of darkness and neglect, and the repeated music box music is perfectly hypnotic. Peter Sallis makes an interesting ghost hunter, but unfortunately he is spoiled for me by over-identification with a certain later role. But the one huge hole in the plot of this one is that after a human skeleton is found in the hidden room, the parents just leave it there and don't do anything about it. What? Incredible. It's perfectly simple to include the authorities as bumbling simpletons or disbelievers. Rather this unreal action pushes the story over into fiction so far that it erodes the real impression so necessary to a ghost story. Rather, this is a gilded youth story rather than a ghost story. The children go off to a lecture on ghosts without their parents knowing where they were, they actually knock a hole in a wall without being told off. This unreality is what makes this story as essentially out of synch with our own world, although you may also think that that is the point of this genre:
'You don't have to be nine to find this stuff funny. When I re-read the book for this article, aged 36, I laughed just as much as ever. There is also great comfort in these descriptions of boyhood – even if they also come with their own difficult truths. This may be a book targeted at children, but it's still Penelope Lively. She never talks down to her younger readers, never assumes that they are less than intelligent. The result is a book more profound than most written for grown-ups. And also sadder.
'Even in the opening pages, we hear that the village of Ledsham has "the air of being dwarfed by the present". A new, uglier reality is encroaching on the cosy past: "New housing estates were mushrooming now on two sides of it, but the centre remained as it must always have been with the houses and streets a size smaller than the houses and streets of a modern town. Lorries, and even the tops of cars, rode parallel with the upstairs windows of the terraced cottages."
'It soon becomes apparent that everything in the book is at odds with time – as James becomes all too aware.' (http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/dec/12/comfort-reading-penelope-lively-ghost-thomas-kempe)