Tuesday, 17 January 2017

We Don't Go Back #30: A Photograph (1977), The Ice House (1978)

Certain writers and directors have cropped up here more than once. I've done two posts so far about Lawrence Gordon Clark's ghost stories, covering six things by him, and I have a couple more to do. Nigel Kneale has been covered three times now. I've written essays about three films by Ben Wheatley. I suppose the least well known of these multiple contributors to my homespun canon is the playwright and screenwriter John Bowen. Bowen's contribution to folk horror rests mainly on the lost-then-found Robin Redbreast, but his work has a running strand that often enters folk horror territory. Aside from his adaptation of The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, there are these two other plays in the genre, another Play for Today, and another ghost story.

He's really consistently good. His stories are always about something. Bowen's stories seem to bring the downfall of the arrogant and smug, the overbearing and the privileged. He explores the faultlines between people and finds powerful stories in the widening cracks.

A Photograph (which can be bought for streaming or download at the BBC store) is a case in point. I suppose because it was never lost, no one bothered to be excited about having found it, so it just sits there as part of Bowen's respectable output, and part of the vast catalogue we file under Old TV. And this is a shame, because it's brilliant.
Michael Otway's decaying cadaver opens the play.
In the very first scene of the play, you see the interior of what looks like a poor home, or a caravan. The camera pans across the room, and, beside a table laid with food, a dead man lies. He's been there a while. His eyes are milky, his skin bloodless. He is attracting flies. It's a strangely queasy thing. It's almost as if you can smell him.

The title appears, and then we are in a suburban home. It's a lazy Saturday. The man is called Michael Otway (John Stride, who was prolific and well-known in the 70s). He is bringing his wife breakfast in bed.  He's an arts critic. His wife, Gillian (Stephanie Turner) is a teacher. He receives an envelope containing a photograph of what looks like two girls in front of a caravan.
The photograph.
He doesn't know what it signifies. But the cracks in Michael and Gill's marriage begin to show. Gill makes a big deal of the photograph, wants to find out where it comes from. She gets the art teacher to blow it up so she can look more closely, pins it to the wall. Michael is strangely reluctant to investigate it further.

He is having an affair. You don't see his lover, beside a hand, you don't hear the lover at the other end of the phone line, but his lover is there.

Eventually he decides to find the caravan, with only a postmark and a picture to help him. And he finds it. On his way, he gives a young woman hitchhiking a lift, and she mocks him gently for expecting to bed her and for treating this as an adventure. A door to door evangelist gives him a lead. He finds the caravan. There he meets his death.
The boy, his mother.
Throughout the play we see the inhabitants of the caravan, an older woman (Freda Bamford, who played Mrs Vigo in Robin Redbreast) and a younger man (Eric Deacon). They act as a sort of Greek Chorus to the action, and are of course Michael's inevitable doom. But then the play's trick is that, in showing you the eventual fate of Michael, it shifts the mystery of the play; the issue is not how he ends up, but how he gets to the place where he ends up dead, and why he ends up dead.

Much of that depends upon who he is and what he is.

Early in the play, you hear the sort of broadcast Michael specialises in, and of course, when anyone gives a speech in a play, and everyone's listening, you are supposed to listen. It's important.
Michael (voice, on the kitchen radio as Michael and Gillian listen): Which brings me to the Morlocks. Those ugly, frightening creatures in HG Wells' novel The Time Machine, who do all the work and live underground in darkness, while up above live the beautiful people who compose music, write poems, paint pictures. And it all seems to be a parable about how the cultivated upper classes exploit the brutish, underprivileged workers, until you discover that it's the Morlocks who exploit the artistic people, quite literally exploit them. They eat them. It's easy to recognise the Morlocks in the capitalist society of the period when Wells wrote his novel, and when leisure for the few rested on the basis of a brutish and violent slum poverty. Where are they now? I think inside ourselves. Inside each modern man and woman the despised Morlocks live and breed and grow more powerful. We may pretend they don't exist but at the last it is we who will run screaming through the darkness of our own minds to be smashed and eaten by the Morlocks who dwell there.
Announcer: "The Morlocks", the final talk in our series Imagery and the Archetype, was given by Michael Otway...
(Michael switches off the radio.)
Gillian (visibly unimpressed): Very good.
Michael (pleased with himself): Strong stuff, eh?
Gillian (marking papers, not looking at him): Very strong.
Gillian listens.
Two things. First, this is the sort of smug, complacent bullshit that made me stop buying The Guardian. Yes, it sounds like a powerful warning, but it really isn't, because taking the idea of people in poverty who have the capacity to, literally, eat the rich and interpreting that as the darkness inherent in the human soul, all you're doing is excusing yourself from having to acknowledge the existence of poverty as a malevolent force.

And don't get me wrong, poverty is malevolent. It hardens, it creates cunning and violence, cycles of abuse and neglect. To say, "this is the darkness in all of our souls" ignores our responsibilities and ignores the fact that then, just as now, and now more than ever, poverty exists. Inequity exists. And poverty makes Morlocks of us. Don't ignore it, don't pretend it's false. Don't go, "but they're inside us all" because what you're really saying is, "they're inside us all, but not really me."

John Bowen knows it's bullshit. You only need to watch the play to see that. And Michael Otway is the sort of man who spouts this sort of thing as if it's a powerful, dire warning, when really it means nothing. And he is terribly, terribly pleased with himself when he does.
You think you want an adventure.
And that brings me to the second thing, which is that the act of listening to oneself with approval is central to the character of Michael Otway. He's turned on the radio specifically so he can listen to himself, and have his wife listen to him, and watch him listening to himself. He's that self-regarding. He is absorbed in how clever he is. he is convinced of his own common sense and decency. He is a man who quite literally loves to hear himself talk.

Part of Otway's downfall is that entirely apart from his ignorance, he has a fetish for working class people. He doesn't want to confront poverty in any real way ("If one could only give money to good causes without having to read their literature," he says), but oh, it gets him horny. He is married because he met a working class student at a talk he was giving and got her pregnant, and had a shotgun wedding, and then she lost the baby. But she's a teacher now, she's middle class now, or seems to be to him (the truth, that's more complex). And so he is sleeping with someone signified as working class (I admit, while the class commentary is as sharp as ever, the sexual mores of the play are very dated, and one of the twists depends upon a thing that might have given a frisson of shock to a 1977 audience, and brings hardly a shrug to an audience 40 years later).
All we see of Michael's lover.
His wife, who he doesn't care for, is suffering from depression. He cheats on her, he doesn't bat an eyelid when she tells him she has cheated on him, doesn't seem to be more than a little concerned that she seems to be falling apart before his eyes and that it is his fault.

Oh, but he's so terribly nice. So charming. But then, all the worst people are. It's the rural people, the poor people who, in Bowen's story, see things as they actually are. Michael's beliefs are the ones that are weird and wrong. When he stumbles into the hands of poor people out in the countryside who could eat him alive – and he has been in their clutches much longer than he realises – he is entirely without the resources to escape.
Bowen's last script for Ghost Stories for Christmas is The Ice House. I've mentioned it before, but it's important to note that it's rarely examined, and not highly rated. Which is a shame. It's one of my favourites. It's eerie and off-kilter, and each repeat viewing unlocks another mystery (but then, perhaps that's one of its problems: it was broadcast when no one had a video recorder and it didn't get a repeat, so repeat viewings were impossible for nearly everybody).
She doesn't move.
A man named Paul (again John Stride), a psychiatrist, we learn, recently divorced, is staying at a country spa. One of the masseurs, Bob (David Beames) has very cold hands. A touch of the cools, says Bob. It's warm in the building, but if you stay here too long, you start to feel terribly cold. Bob asks Paul to help him get away. Paul doesn't understand. That night, a single brief scream rings out across the premises. And then Bob isn't seen again.
Jessica and Clovis.
Paul wonders, but finds himself the object of attention of the strange brother and sister who run the establishment, Clovis and Jessica (Geoffrey Burridge and Rebecca Romilly, respectively). They talk in a stilted, precise manner, like something pretending to be human; as the story progresses, it hints that they have an intimate connection with the unique vine that grows on the side of the spa's old ice house. It has only two flowers, one red, one white (Jessica always wears red, Clovis white). It doesn't propagate. It doesn't need cuttings. Clovis and Jessica smile and are charming, but they're also sort of chilly. Their relationship is incestuous, much like the self-pollinating flowers on the vine. The flowers move by themselves.
The vine.
The people in the nearby village keep away. They don't like the spa. City folk come here. Lonely, single city folk. Often, they never leave. 

Paul sees guests become by turns catatonic, and whimpering with the cold. Strange holes appear in the glass of his window, which resemble the oddly phallic blooms of the vine. And then he starts to feel the cold, too. Everything seems to centre around the ice house. But Clovis and Jessica keep saying there is only ice in the ice house.  

Is there?
Possibly.
Watching it, and this next bit is going to ruin the rest of the film, so if you don't want to know the ending before  having seen it, look away now, it can be easy to have trouble seeing why it's classed as a ghost story.

The ghosts are the chilly brother and sister. They are the spirits of the vine, and the vine feeds off the cold of the Ice House, and its fragrance overpowers the ground. They have a certain opinion about the way people and things decay.  At the end, when Paul falls under their spell – and you can see it happen gradually, in the way that he too adopts their stilted way of talking, loses the ability to make contractions in speech – he gives in to the cold.
Jessica: We only want what is best. My brother and I do not approve of death, you see. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes, is what is said, but that is not true. Flesh does not return to dust or ashes, it putrefies. It returns to maggots. To stench and to slime. We do not find that at all pleasing. Therefore, we will not tolerate it.
Clovis: Ice preserves. 
We do not approve of death.
Jessica and Clovis want to preserve their victims in chilly stasis, frozen, unchanging, undecaying. But only a living death remains. Separated here in the countryside we make the mistake of thinking it and we are eternal, but change is constant. 

Bowen's work highlights the ways in which we separate ourselves from the world, from each other. It's humane and intelligent. Middle-class isolation is death; stories of rebirth and change and the acceptance of the hard truths of life become in his hands sometimes lyrical, sometimes horrific pieces. I said before that I don't think Bowen had it in him to write a bad script. I stand by that.

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