Thursday, 22 December 2016

The Austringer (1969)

One of the only surviving stills from the 1969 BBC play The Austringer.
A ghost story, for Christmas. Not a folk horror, so much as about a folk horror. I read it to some friends on the darkest night of this year. 

I must acknowledge a debt of gratitude to my friend Jon Dear for the technical details in this story; every accuracy is his, every error mine, and so this story is dedicated to him.


•••

When he lifts Mrs Mills' garage door and the rising light unveils the metal shelves, the boxes and the neat stacks of film cans, like a sheet being lifted, it is all Charlie can do not to utter the words, about bloody time.

“I can't tell you if there is anything of worth in here,” says Mrs Mills. “It was Bernard's domain. He was really quite territorial about it.” She is contained, made of short, straight lines. Straight back, straight hair, straight mouth. Even in her eighties, even though she might look on a photograph like she's made of straw, in person she has a gravity to her, a weight, like she's made of lead.

Charlie is intimidated by her, of course. “There isn't any way of knowing, Mrs Mills. Let me take a look. I'll let you know if I find anything worth keeping.”

“I won't want to keep any of it.” She is talking to the boxes.

“Um, well. If there's anything you could sell, then.”

“Quite honestly, I wouldn't know.” She takes a step back, seemingly without moving her feet. “I'll leave you to it?”

Charlie cannot fathom how anyone could not see what he sees here. These boxes, some stamped with BBC on the side, seem to him like fabulous treasures, thought lost; the faint smell of metal and must is like the puff of stale air that hit the face of Howard Carter as he cracked open Tutankhamun's tomb.

Can you see anything? Yes, wonderful things.

Five years, this took. Five years.

His breath is caught. Mrs Mills, beside him, is visibly pulling away, waiting with the barest minimum of politeness for the word. “Oh. Yes. Sorry. Yes. Of course. I'll come in later.”

Even with Mrs Mills gone, Charlie restrains himself from running across the garage floor. He steadies himself on the metal upright of the shelf unit; it wobbles slightly, and he takes his weight off it. The cans are hefty things, designed to hold reels of 16mm film. He carefully lifts the top one from the stack in front of him, and although its label is perfectly visible, Charlie rubs the dust from it anyway, perhaps in case his eyes are deceiving him.

“DR WHO.” EPI. SIX
“POWER OF THE DALEKS”

•••

You might know this: from the beginning of the 1960s through to the mid-70s, British TV shows were routinely thrown away. Things were different then: the idea of keeping a TV show on your shelf was no more feasible than bringing home a theatre production. With only two and eventually three channels, you either watched what was on the TV or you didn't, and if you missed a show, you missed it. Your favourite show was an appointment you kept or missed. Repeats didn't happen much.

They were recorded on two-inch videotape. And videotape was so expensive back then that after they'd made a copy on black-and-white film to sell abroad, this done by pointing a film camera at a flat TV screen, they'd tape over the programme with something else. Dad's Army with the snooker. Doctor Who with Panorama. Now of course, we see TV as a thing you can keep, and we expect to have everything in a commercially available box set, on our shelves or on demand, and the idea that television might be lost forever is alien to us. Enthusiasts have hunted down the film copies of missing television episodes for decades, travelling across the world, poring over the broadcast records of stations as far afield as Canada, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, New Zealand. The things they bring back are only copies, often multiple generations down the line, things originally made in colour surviving in washed-out black-and-white echoes: the ghosts of television.

Occasionally you hear this rumour that a trove of this missing television might be found in the UK, in the hands of a private collector who for whatever reason – ignorance, selfishness, a need to own a thing that no one else has – has been sitting on it, keeping it hidden. Sensible enthusiasts consider these stories to be somewhere on a continuum between fondly held wishes and paranoid conspiracy theory. Father Christmas or Roswell, take your pick.

But, as Charlie picks through the contents of a suburban garage belonging to a retired television engineer, recently deceased, he begins to think that some of those rumours might have had some substance after all.

•••

Charlie doesn't recognise everything; but when even Wikipedia has comprehensive lists of missing episodes of archive television and the 4G is decent, it only takes a few seconds to find what he suspects. Each can he lifts up has another treasure inside it. Something thought lost, something precious, sought after, unseen for decades.

The Power of the Daleks, parts one, two, three, five and six. Ten, fifteen, thirty more episodes of lost Doctor Who. That one episode of Doomwatch that Charlie's father used to say was the best thing he'd ever seen on television, the one where Robert Powell's character dies failing to defuse a bomb. The BBC adaptation of a science fiction tale called Immortality, Inc. where a man who's about to die in a car crash winds up in a future where people can transplant their minds into other people's bodies. Two of the three missing episodes of Dad's Army. The episode of Hancock's Half Hour where Tony Hancock's been watching Quatermass and convinces himself that the unexploded bomb he finds in the back garden is an alien spaceship. A late night play, a ghost story called The Austringer.

Charlie is consciously moderating his breathing, trying not to hope. The film could be mouldy, cracked, decayed. The cans could be mislabelled, empty. The can – The Austringer – is flapping up and down in his hands, they're shaking so badly. He racks his brains, trying to think how he can get this to someone who had the kit and the know-how to restore it and still take the credit for finding it. Still get the money.

Five years, this took. Five years of buying a pint or four every Tuesday for the red-faced, pock-nosed old racist in the pub who seemed to know an awful lot about old telly and had an anecdote about everyone who ever worked at the BBC. Five years of angling to find out what he knew and what he'd really kept before the man got too drunk to make any sense. Five years of pretending to like the old bastard.

Until the night Mills had let Charlie walk him home, and Charlie had given him a cheery wave, and smiled, and thought, God, I hope you die of a heart attack.

And Bernard did, a couple of nights later. Only it was liver failure that got him.

Go to the funeral, and then leave it long enough to be sensitive, not long enough for her to clear things out.

Hello, Mrs Mills. We met at the funeral. Charlie, yes. That's right. I used to talk with Bernard at the pub. He asked me if I'd look after his old films and things. He thought they were worth something, but never got round to finding out, you see, and the last night I saw him, yes, at the pub, the last night I saw him, he asked me to come round and look over what he had and tell him if he could sell it. And I thought, well, I owed it to him to come and see.

Charlie steadies himself. Takes a deep breath. He owes me this, he thinks.

He puts the last can down, atop the fifth neat stack on the floor. He wavers about bothering to look in the boxes. They could be any old junk, anything. Nothing. Nothing to match the treasure in the cans, surely.

Charlie is imagining a season – no, a year of events in the BFI dedicated to his find, him on a seat at the front with the director and the head of the restoration team, being interviewed about the find in front of the audience. He is already rehearsing the story he's going to tell on stage, imagining the posture he'll adopt in his spotlit scene in front of the screen – he'll need a new suit. He'll need a haircut. He catches himself pushing his hair back.

“OK,” he says to himself. He goes to a box, the one on the top, thick cardboard, metal edges and corners riveted on. He hefts it off the shelf and onto the concrete floor. It has a weight to it, but there is something hard inside, something that rattles. Kneeling, he works the lid off and it comes loose and off with a small, sudden pumf of released dust.

VHS cassettes. Full to the brim. Three boxes of them, the names on the tapes corresponding to the names on the film cans. He doesn't dare to hope, but why else would they be here? Bernard worked in TV. He had a line to people with the resources to – no. No. It can't be. Charlie pulls one out, looks at the label on the spine of it.
Hancock's Half Hour.

A second one. Doctor Who 4. A third. The Austringer.

•••

The Austringer was broadcast on Thursday, 18th December 1969 at 11.00pm, in colour, on BBC Two. Although its audience appreciation index was more than acceptable and the few notices it received were favourable (a critic in the Evening Standard called it, in passing, “a first-rate chiller” for instance), few people saw it, and the BBC only apparently made one black-and-white copy for sale overseas which, if the records are to be understood correctly, never got as far as being sold, perhaps out of a lack of confidence on the part of the BBC that viewers outside of the UK might even know what an austringer was.

•••

Before he has even taken his coat off, Charlie, dust all down his front, is up in the attic looking for his old video machine, so overcome with excitement that he can barely get it back down the ladder without falling off and breaking his neck. He keeps telling himself that it's not true, it can't be, they're blank or they're mislabelled or they're episodes of Corrie, or the darts, or The Bridge on the River Kwai or something. I don't know, he tells himself, anything at all. But no matter the story he gives himself, he knows, knows that he's got a thing that's special.

These things have a pull to them. He can feel them tugging on him, a weird feeling. They want to be found. They want to be seen. This is it. This is the real thing.

He sets the video up under a small, spare Christmas tree that has no gifts beneath it, unplugs the fairy lights to make way for the video – Christmas is, after all, for quality television and film – and fumbles the connection, realises that he's looking at the wrong source, starts again, and gets it running. Then he sits down and puts in the video marked Doctor Who 1.

There it is. Wobbly, in the way that old videotapes are. The scene where Patrick Troughton looks in a mirror, and William Hartnell's face looks out at him. The distrust of Ben and Polly. The way the new Doctor refers to the Doctor in the third person, the conversation where he only replies with his eyebrows, tiny facial tics, notes played on an old wooden recorder. The expression of subtle triumph on the Doctor's face when the Daleks recognise him. Not seen on any screen for fifty years, save Bernard Mills's.

Charlie begins, briefly, to cry.

The Horror Serial: He sees Tony Hancock, spooked by the last episode of Quatermass and the Pit, rushing back and forth through his house, his hysteria increasing, kinetic, infectious. The extreme close up of his face. “It's happened all over again... Hancock and the Pit!” The way the camera holds just long enough to be funny as the spooky music rises.

Survival Code: he sees the sweat on Tobias Wren's brow, under the pier, as he finds there's another wire on the bomb. The voice at the other end of the intercom, Dr Quist, says, “Don't pull it! Don't pull the wire! Follow it back to the terminal.” Wren says, “I'm pulling the wire now.” Back in the control room they breathe a sigh of relief. “You know, I think he's done it.” That second of relief, and then the model shot of the pier, blown to pieces as the bomb goes up and Toby Wren with it.

He must have known, Charlie thinks. If he was just collecting old shows of interest he'd have episodes that were known to survive among the rarities. He'd have complete runs or partial runs of series. But everything Bernard Mills kept in his garage is a thing thought lost forever, junked, forgotten, the stuff of enthusiasts' and archivists' futile wishes. The vindictive old alcoholic knew what these things meant. He kept them for himself. He deprived the world of them. Charlie knows that he is better than that. He will make sure the world sees them. In a way that will ensure that everyone knows he found them.

He has to watch them all first, of course. To check they're all there. He has to. Of course he does.

He puts in the tape marked The Austringer. The picture, in black-and-white, of a bird's eye view, a lonely fen.

•••

The camera settles on a car, a couple. They're quiet, she resting her hand on his knee. A thud; they stop the car, get out. A bird, dead. I think it's a hawk, says the man.

It's lying in the road, broken. It must have flown in front of us just as we were passing, says the man. What's that? says the woman.

She indicates a ring around its leg. It must have belonged to someone, says the man.
Well, what do we do? she says.

There's nothing we can do, the man replies.

They drive off. Atop the bluff, a tall, ragged figure stands in silhouette, unnoticed by the couple in the car. Beside him in white, the title: The Austringer.

•••

Charlie jolts awake. The low current buzz of the VCR, and his own breathing, the only sounds in the room. The screen lights the room up; the tape is paused. The jagged snowy lines criss-cross the screen, obliterate a face, gaunt, partly visible, staring out at him, its eyes gaping black pits in the snow, the only light in the room. It's – he looks at his phone, no notifications – about three in the morning.

He fumbles for the remote. He's sitting on it. He must have put his weight on it as he stirred and pressed pause. He's tired.

It's been a big day.

He presses stop and ejects the tape, as if apologising for abusing it. He brushes his teeth, but when he gets to his room lies down in his clothes and falls deeply asleep.

Charlie dreams of birds, of an old, gaunt man, tall and skinny and ragged, who sends the bird to hunt, watches it bring down a quail, and the camera of Charlie's dream, all in grainy black-and-white, travels back and forth, from bird to man to man to bird to man over and over, and those long gnarled arms swinging the lure, retrieving the kill, trudging to the summit of a bluff, looking out over a lonely, quite modern cottage.

Charlie feels a faint terror in the watching of this stiff and lonely figure, and a feeling that soon the bird will come for him, and conceives a desperate hope that the man's hooded eyes, like pits in shadow, will not turn towards him, nor that the picture in his dream will be frozen in video-pause snow for more than forty years.

•••

A skinny, threadbare black-and-white figure, seen from behind, stoops over the broken body of the hawk. Long grey hair flutters in the wind, a battered wide-brimmed hat with feathers in its band, an old, long black coat, patched at the elbow. The owner of the hawk. Seen at this stage only in part, or in gaunt and ragged silhouette, he stands, looks out over a countryside as threadbare as he is.

We see battered shoes crossing a hillside serrated with terracettes and rocks, a shoulder across which that long, straight grey hair down flaps and whips. The movement of the man's hair is filmed to be faintly unsettling, faintly odd (an article Charlie read some years ago said something about how parts were filmed backwards, and sped up slightly to give a sense of wrongness).

The couple meanwhile pull up at the cottage they have rented for this weekend; as the play progresses we will find that their names are Greg and Leslie, that they are nervous and unwilling to have much to do with the outside world.

Greg calls a person we do not see, makes reference to the children, calls the unheard person at the other end “darling”; we are meant to infer that Greg and Leslie are conducting an affair, that they are lying to their respective spouses about where they are, who they are with.

The austringer – he isn't once called that in the play, of course, he only carries that name in the credits, for that is what he is, someone who hunts for game with a hawk, an austringer – is at the door of Greg and Leslie's cottage and in a tightly scripted scene that effectively marries tension and humour, he is asking for reparation, payment. It takes a while for Greg, an urban professional, to understand what the tall, sunken-cheeked man with the deep-set eyes and the long grey hair is getting at, and even then he still fails to understand really what the man wants. The man wants another trained hawk. There's half his meals and the money for the buying of the other half. There is a living, of sorts. Greg wouldn't know where to start; he insists on offering money, and the man says no, no, he wants a hawk, you see, a hawk like that one.

The conversation ends in frustration. A door slams. The old, tall man leaves empty-handed.

What a peculiar gentleman, says Greg to Leslie, and they agree. When they lie down together in bed that night, having forgotten about the hawk, the camera fixes in tight focus on two wedding rings left on the dressing table, the bodies beneath the sheet blurred in the background, beginning the languid movements of lovers.

•••

Charlie takes an effort of no small will to shower and walk to the Tesco Extra to get some milk and something to eat for lunch; even as he's leaving the house he can feel the tapes pulling him back. He wants to see The Highlanders, The Abominable Snowmen, The Faceless Ones; he wants to be the lone disciple at the resurrection of these lost artefacts, who will then spread the good news of their resurrection from televisual death.

They are alive, they are alive.

Once he's eaten his lunch – a sandwich, hastily scoffed on the way home – he can't take anymore, he has to see. He drops the sandwich wrapper in the hall and all but runs for the lounge, as if scared that his hoard will vanish.

He closes the curtains and picks up The Austringer. But he thinks, maybe something else, so he settles down with five episodes in a row of Adam Adamant Lives! They're not great TV; Gerald Harper, in the title role, is too arch, too knowing, the direction too pedestrian, the plots too slow. But that isn't the point, because there are men like Charlie who would sell their own children to have them, even on old VHS tapes.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Walker. Charlie sees Captain Mainwaring call Pike “you stupid boy,” and that's nothing special, Arthur Lowe delivered the line dozens of times in dozens of episodes, but no one has seen him deliver it in this episode, no one has seen Clive Dunn tell everyone not to panic in this script for nearly five decades. It is a delight.

It's late again. Time for the ghost story. Charlie replaces the Austringer in the machine, and tries to rewind to a place he remembers seeing, but he ends up so close to the start that he decides he might as well watch the whole thing again.

•••

In grainy black-and-white, the lovers are eating; they talk. They're very middle class, plummy, talking the talk of theatre shows and office colleagues and city life, of mutual friends who do not know the truth about them. But never quite of spouses, never of children. The conversation slides past these things, skirts around the central truths of their lives. Greg and Leslie are not likeable people. But they're human.

The noise of smashing glass outside interrupts Leslie mid-sentence, brings Greg to his feet. Outside; the passenger's side window of the car has been broken; a hand reaches into the ashtray, takes out some cigarette butts, some ash. Greg gets outside in time to see someone dash behind a tree. The austringer is gone. Greg checks the car to see if anything has been stolen, can't find anything.

The scene changes. Now the old man is alone in his small, spare home, so different to the lovers'. The incidental music, a gentle melody played on a single flute, rises a little, haunts you. The camera focusses tightly onto his hands as he works the butts and ash into a lump of wax, and the wax into two wax dolls. He puts them next to the fire. Then the old, gnarled hand holds the foot of a bird. And throws it into the fire.

He mumbles something. The music stops, abruptly. Three knocks at the door, three at the window.

The austringer looks up. Two faces, the faces of women, aquiline, birdlike, hair falling over eyes that are in shadow or entirely absent, long-fingered hands pressed against the glass.

Back in their cottage, Greg and Leslie sit on the bed, across from each other. The incidental music, the flute, begins to trill and both of them look up, expressions of sudden dread etched on handsome faces unaccustomed to fear. The flute sounds merge into the sound of screeching in the night outside.

The sound of feathered wings beating against glass.

•••

Again, Charlie has drifted off to sleep; again, he jolts awake.

The screen is paused again, the snow over the eyeless face in the window. He decides to press play, try to make sense of it regardless.

•••

Greg, in a dressing gown, is in the cottage kitchen. He's making tea. A rattle of the window makes him jump, and he throws tea all over himself. He groans, gets a teatowel, dabs at himself. A face, eyes in shadow, appears in the window behind him, briefly, just enough to make you wonder what you saw in an age before pause and rewind.

The door of the kitchen slams shut. Leslie? he says. He tries the door. It won't open. He starts to call for Leslie with more urgency, more volume.

Leslie sits at the dressing table. She unties her hair, looks down for the brush, looks up and sees the reflection of those two birdlike women with feathers in their matted hair, eyes obscured with pits of blackness, in long white May-Queen dresses of an earlier age. One raises a hand, reaching towards her. She spins around, and no one is there. She takes deep, juddering breaths. Calms herself down.

Then a long-nailed hand falls on her shoulder. She screams now, falls off the stool, scrambles for the door, almost on her hands and knees.

The kitchen door flies open. Greg hears the screams of rushes to the stairs, his hand on the bannister as Leslie falls headlong, screaming, then silent.

She lands in a heap at the bottom. There is a sickly crack. Her face is staring, open-mouthed, open-eyed.

•••

Charlie doesn't know why he keeps falling asleep.

The ringing of the phone wakes him. It's Mrs Mills.

“I hadn't heard anything from you,” she says, without any apology for calling late – is it late? Charlie isn't sure – “I wondered if you had any idea of the value.”

“Ah. Right. Yeah, yeah. Right. I can't be sure,” he says. “I have had a look at the cans and I've not found anything of value yet. I can't even be sure that what's written on the cans is what's on the film, to be honest.”

“Do the labels suggest the film is valuable?”

It begins to dawn on Charlie that she might have had a better idea of the value of the cache in the garage than she might have let on.

“I, well, I don't know for sure –“

“What about the tapes? Aren't they recorded with the contents of the cans?”

She knows, he thinks.

“I – maybe. I, uh, I don't have a video any more.” He is apologetic, longing for her to get off the screen.

A pair of pale, black-eyed faces stare out of the screen at him from behind snow. He turns to look the other way, at the wall.

“I was not expecting you to take them all away with you if you had no means of watching them,” she says.

“Yeah. I – I'm going to see a mate about them tomorrow.”

“You'll keep me updated?” She is sharp, persistent.

“Yes. I certainly will. Thank you, Mrs Mills.”

She hangs up. How to do this without her knowing?

He ignores the phone the next time it rings, and the next, and then the battery dies and it is silent. And then he sleeps right there in the armchair. It's dark when he wakes up. He's hungry, thirsty. But there is more TV to watch. It matters. He gets up and puts in The Abominable Snowmen and watches, rapt, doesn't notice when he pisses himself. There's only him in this room, with the TV and a pile of tapes with magic on them. They need to be watched.

He decides to watch The Austringer again.

Something smashes outside. There is a rustling sound behind Charlie and then the never-used lock on the lounge door goes click, all by itself. Charlie doesn't move. He has television to watch. Lost television, unearthed, in black-and-white copy; the ghost of television.

•••

Greg runs out of the house, holding a fire poker. And there is the austringer, walking away over the hill. He runs after the man. Whose pace doesn't slow or speed up.

A fractured cat and mouse game ensues, but as soon as the city man thinks he might catch the warlock, he is gone, only to reappear on another hill, in another direction. Everything is jagged, the camera angles skewed, the cuts swift and disorienting. And then Greg isn't the hunter. Here are those two eyeless figures. They approach him, come rushing towards him through the trees. Greg runs headlong over the moor, crouches behind a rock, eyes screwed shut. You know they're just above the rock, a woman's hand rests on it just above the top of Greg's head, a pale, dirty hand with long fingers and long nails. Greg's nerve breaks, and he gets up and runs, and it's all close-ups of his face. Then it's a wider shot, and Greg arrives in a cairn, a circle of stones.

A shot from a high angle. Terrified, Greg clings to the stone in the middle of the circle. Two figures in white, hair matted, advance on him at four and eight o'clock. He stands up, backs away. Behind him, at the twelve o'clock point, a third figure enters the circle. Leslie, pale and her eyes in shadow, still in her nightgown, reaching for him.

•••

Charlie stares, transfixed at the screen. The picture quality is worse than ever, and adjusting the tracking seems to do nothing, but it is as if the pagan apparition of Leslie's ghost is here in the room standing in front of him, eyeless. He can feel black-and-white wind on his skin, drizzle in his hair.

The quality of the picture is deteriorating. He can't find the remote. He is there now, standing next to Greg, the phantoms coming closer. And the gaunt warlock, still bereaved of his hunting bird, at the edge of the circle looking in. But the picture grows fuzzier, as the old man, expressionless, turns and walks away into video-distorted darkness.

Everything is doused with snow.

Charlie can't hear what Greg is trying to say; but the camera is in tight close up on him and there isn't a Greg there anymore, just Charlie in his place and none of this makes sense, neither the ending of the play nor the ending of his evening makes any sense to him at all; he hammers with the heels of his hands against the inside of the screen, and then everything crashes into blackness.

•••

A week later Cora Mills, claiming to be convinced that Charlie has absconded with her late husband's treasures, calls the police on Charlie. They break into his house, but they don't find him, only an armchair that smells of urine, a television still on, showing nothing, a stack of empty film cans and three neat piles of videotapes, all blank.

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