Wednesday 26 October 2016

We Don't Go Back #2: Two Plays by Nigel Kneale (1975, 1976)

Murrain (1975), Baby (1976)

Enthusiasts for Folk Horror often look at 1970s TV as a golden age for the subgenre.

We're talking things like Children of the Stones, Robin Redbreast, the adaptation of The Owl Service, the BBC's Ghost Stories for Christmas (and I'll be doing one of those soon) and so on.1 But of course, for broadcasters the most attractive aspect of the sort of horror that depends on creeping dread and quiet implication, and on the aged contours of the British landscape is that it's the cheapest horror there is: when your one special effect only gets seen for such a brief period and is so dimly lit that the viewer is left wondering if they've actually seen it (and remember, this is in a time period when pause and rewind didn't exist), when your location is no more than a couple of hours' drive down the road and when your interior sets are made of stuff you can buy down the shops, you don't have to worry about production values! You can concentrate on making it good.

And a lot of the folk horror TV of this period really is that good, because the makers concentrated on overcoming severe economic and material limitations by getting the best scripts, performances and tone they could.

So I thought I'd pick Nigel Kneale's 1975 play Murrain and his 1976 play Baby. Not because they're necessarily the best, because better examples of TV folk horror are out there, but because they're both great examples of how to do a creepy tale on an absolute shoestring.

Murrain is obscure. It was part of a practically forgotten anthology series of plays called Against the Crowd, and this one is only considered notable because it's by legendary writer Nigel Kneale, best known for Quatermass, and it appears as a DVD extra on the Network box for Kneale's later anthology series Beasts (more on that in a minute).

“Murrain” is an archaic word for a plague afflicting livestock, and in the play Alan Crich, a bespectacled, serious vet, turns up at Mr Beeley's farm (film buffs will be interested to find that Beeley is played by Bernard Lee, “M” in eleven Bond movies – B. Lee, see) to find it afflicted with an entirely inexplicable ailment that has not only affected the animals, but has begun to spread to the people.
A confrontation in Murrain.

In a pivotal scene about a third of the way through, it dawns on the vet that the farmer, his family and his workers are convinced it's the work of lonely, elderly Mrs Clemson, who, the vet discovers, they have ostracised to the extent that she's barely able to survive. Appalled, he confronts them. Of course she's old and ugly, he says. Of course she talks to herself. Or she's got a cat – she did, but the farmhand killed it. Crich turns away in disgust. And then this exchange happens.
Beeley: All this talk! You're tryin' to prove there's no such thing. Well, you won't prove it to us. We know there is.
Crich: You're sick.
Beeley: They got you trained to thinkin' nothin's true if you can't find it in books or shove it in a bottle and analyse it!
Crich: That's called –
Beeley: You work out the rules! And what the rule don't fit, don't 'appen!
Crich: The purpose of science
Beeley: Then you find you got the rules wrong!
Crich: Then we change the rules!
Beeley: Ohh! That's handy!
Crich: For better rules! But we don't go back!
This is one of the essential tensions of British folk horror: the outsider who stands for progress and modernity, who not only doesn't understand the “old ways”, whatever they may be2, but refuses to; who sees the superstition that threatens them as a retrograde step: we don't go back. We don't go back, because the past holds fears and darkness. But because we don't go back, we cannot be armed against these primeval terrors. Because we don't go back, we are lost.

More than that, though. During another exchange, Beeley and his men describe Coronation Street and Opportunity Knocks as “scrying”. They're ostensibly the villains of the piece, but the advantage all the other characters have over Crich is that they recognise that even the people who believe themselves to live in a world of progress are actually living a life that depends upon the irrational just as much as any of them.3
Is Mrs Clemson a witch?All that matters in the end is who believes her to be one.
Murrain was apparently broadcast on a weekday afternoon. It's not particularly scary and shows literally nothing supernatural or explicit. But it's got a good dramatic force to it. It feels claustrophobic and the vet's interference drives the action and leads directly to tragedy. The resolution is logical, and works on many levels.

It's of a piece with Kneale's 1976 anthology Beasts, a series of loosely related one-hour plays which deal with vaguely supernatural inhuman creatures (which is why it's included in the DVD box). In Baby, the first of the Beasts plays, heavily pregnant Jo and her husband Peter, another vet (Jane Wymark and Simon MacCorkindale, repsectively) take up residence in a remote farmhouse. During the renovation, Peter and Jo find a large clay jar containing the dessicated, foetal remains of an unidentifiable creature. Peter, urged on by his (frankly aptly named) colleague Dick (T.P. McKenna), wants to give it an autopsy, but Jo is horrified by it and just wants to burn the thing.
Peter and Jo find something very strange.
It gradually dawns on Jo that something is very wrong, and the dead, perhaps not even born creature might have been deposited there for a reason, but Peter, who is capricious, highly-strung, prone to fits of anger and frankly borderline abusive, thrusts aside all her concerns. Jo's fear and isolation increase; she becomes aware of shadows and bestial sounds that stalk her. The dread grows until she faces a gut-wrenching denouement. The creature, unborn, reflects the fears of the parent.

I was talking about this with my friend Jon Dear.4 Describing Baby, he summed it up like this: “What it represents can be in your head. And that makes it inescapable.” And he's right. Not a single thing in Baby has an irrational explanation – even the final reveal could be the hallucination of a lonely woman put under a great deal of stress – but that makes it scarier. Because you can run away from a witch or a monster, but you can't run away from something in your imagination. You can't run from a trauma.

Neither of these plays are perfect. They're both obviously cheap, and both are slow for the tastes of a modern viewer.

Murrain is staged rather than directed; notwithstanding some great naturalistic dialogue, the actors stand in neat rows and communicate as if they're in a theatre. It makes for a static, cerebral sort of a piece. Baby is particularly nasty. Peter and Dick are awful people in their own right, and I am not sure if it is a strength or a weakness that Jo is saddled with such an erratic, mean-spirited husband, and I think that's due to a weakness of Kneale's writing generally: its misanthropy. From his writing, it seems apparent that Nigel Kneale didn't like people, and his take on human nature is often far too bleak for my tastes.

But both exemplify the foundation of folk horror: something old and evil waits for us, at the corners of our imagination, and at the last, we find that rationality fails us.

1Even Doctor Who, justly the most oversignified of classic TV shows, flirted with the style a good half dozen times in the 1970s and 80s. In “The Daemons” the Doctor visits a village that houses a pagan/Satanist cult; in “The Stones of Blood”, people are killed by actual standing stones, and in “The Awakening” a Civil War re-enactment becomes a vehicle for a demonic evil. This being Doctor Who, each of these ends up having an extraterrestrial explanation but the trappings and roots are there. (back)

2Other examples of the “modernist outsider meets something ancient” plot include Robin Redbreast, Children of the Stones, Stigma, and of course The Wicker Man. (back)

3Consider the British ritual of the Saturday night bender, where so many of us go out with the express intention of drinking until we humiliate ourselves. What sort of release does that give us? What do we get out of it? It doesn't take a lot of thinking to see this as a sort of bacchanal, a festival. And let's not even start on the magical thinking behind the National Lottery. (back)

4Jon is the most knowledgeable person I know about classic British TV. He's even got his name on the wall at the BFI. In homage to his knowledge of horror, I included him as the protagonist in a lengthy (and accidentally uncredited) running fiction in one of the many World of Darkness books to which I contributed. (back)