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.|
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.
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.|
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.
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.|
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.|
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.
|She doesn't move.|
|Jessica and Clovis.|
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.
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.|
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.