Tuesday 22 November 2016

We Don't Go Back – Guest Post: The Woman in Black (1989)

(Once again I have to mention before we start that The Age of Miracles is still funding. Kickstarter tagged it as a "Project We Love" and overnight it went from 67% to 82% funded. I have hopes that it will actually hit target. Don't dash them! Or do. I suspect my reaction will be entertaining either way.)

Today I'm very pleased to be handing over my blog to another guest writer. I've known Jon Dear for something like fifteen years He's one of the most knowledgeable people I know on the subject of British TV, and he's the one person I know whose name features on the wall of the BFI.

When I asked Jon to write something for my project, he suggested Herbert Wise's 1989 adaptation of The Woman in Black, which he has strong memories of watching as a kid, and which I hadn't seen. This version of The Woman in Black is sadly not currently available on DVD in the UK, although US/NTSC imports are out there. It's almost freakish to find a piece of drama that isn't domestically available in some form in the present, and I think that it changes the way we read it as a text. It becomes rarefied, unusual. A relic of an earlier age.

Here's Jon's post on The Woman in Black.

Susan Hill’s 1983 novella The Woman in Black has proved fruitful for dramatists. Stephen Mallatratt’s 1987 play has been running in the West End since 1989; there have been two radio adaptations, and the big-budget film from a reformed Hammer in 2012 (starring Daniel Radcliffe). But the overlooked TV play from 1989, directed by Herbert Wise, will always be my favourite.

First transmitted on Christmas Eve that year, it terrified my 11-year-old self in a way that has never really left me. On retrospect, I was far too young to see such a production, but I lived in a pub and my parents were working downstairs, and this story provided such a dark fascination that the temptation was far too great to avoid.
Arthur Kidd is a doting father.
Nigel Kneale’s screenplay eschews the framing narrative and plunges us straight into the 1920s, making the story more immediate and urgent, with young solicitor Arthur Kidd (Adrian Rawlins) journeying to the remote Crythin Gifford to oversee the transfer of the estate of the deceased Alice Drablow.

The story bears all the hallmarks of an MR James tale and indeed many trapping of the English Gothic novel but this is no postmodern work of literature, and Kneale doesn’t treat it as such And while it is a largely faithful retelling of the tale, Nigel Kneale’s influence shines though.

We see an isolated community on the brink of a great technological change from which it will never recover. Much is made of Eel Marsh House’s electrical generator and the introduction of a phonograph is a neat narrative device to give potentially clunky exposition via the voice of the dead.
Shouldn't we go and talk to her?
The ghost is introduced early on and she appears subtly, almost casually but the extraordinary music by Oscar winner Rachel Portman leaves you in no doubt that something is terribly wrong. Indeed, the fact that Mrs Drablow can appear seemingly at will, and that this spectral presence causes a physical reaction in Kidd is possibly the most disturbing aspect of the whole production. Sound is used sparingly but to great effect, especially when Kidd is lost in the mist. The one scene that tends to linger most in the mind is Drablow’s assault on Kidd in his room, and it’s this violation of personal space, with the realisation that there’s no safe space from the ghost, that brings the ultimate fear.
The lonely mourner.
The menace of the ghost as an older woman touches on the fear of witches and all the cultural and social baggage that brings, but Drablow isn’t just a harbinger of your death. Like the best Gothic villains, tragedy and revenge are her constant companions, and for the cast that means the death of a child. This theme is played with subtly, but the story makes an effort to establish Kidd’s young family, and from the Gypsy child in the market to the shots of the row of small headstones, you’re meant to infer one thing above all others: Alice Drablow’s ghost kills kids. You begin to realise with mounting horror the logical, inescapable conclusion to this tale.
I need to keep my head clear.
Kneale’s love of science is almost equal to his dislike of people, and for the most part the inhabitants of Crythin Gifford are an unfriendly if not unsympathetic lot. But there is no hostility to Kidd, merely unspoken fear of what he is blindly walking into. The main mouthpiece for the locals is Sam Toovey (Bernard Hepton), a reassuring presence that’s world away from his turn as the sinister Fisher in Robin Redbreast, but through small roles such as Trevor Cooper’s struggling farmer or Keckwick (William Simmons) we glimpse the hardship of British rural life after the First World War, making the contrast with Kidd all the starker.

Herbert Wise's direction is well paced, tense and lingering when building fear, economical when scene setting, and the acting just the right side of theatrical. Hepton is by far the best performer in it. This is a production that is up there with the best of Lawrence Gordon Clark’s BBC classics and has aged that bit better.

It’s tragically unavailable on DVD in the UK, but if you can track it down, I urge you to do so. It’s the perfect Winter’s tale.