Alan Morrison on
two recent BFI releases
Dead of Night: The Exorcism (1972)
By Don Taylor
Starring Anne Cropper, Clive Swift,
Robin Redbreast (1970)
By John Bowen
Starring Anne Cropper and Bernard Hepton
Red of Night
These two Seventies supernatural plays recently released by BFI are both excellent genre-examples of what to my mind is the atmospherically unsurpassed pinnacle decade of British television drama. The Exorcism is one of three surviving episodes from the portmanteau serial Dead of Night, which was very much the anthological complement to the BBC’s classic Ghost Stories for Christmas; while Robin Redbreast, though stylistically indistinguishable from both aforementioned portmanteau series –the usual video-studio/film-location split typical of Seventies television– was nonetheless a one-off teleplay (the colour print of which, slightly annoyingly, no longer exists), as was also, for example, the truly unsettling, uncannily authentic and atmospheric masterpiece Schalcken the Painter (1979), which was broadcast a year after its natural anthological home, Ghost Stories for Christmas, had officially ceased.
It would seem appropriate perhaps to also include in this review the equally eerie portmanteau series of the same era, Supernatural (1977), which includes some truly spine-chilling episodes, but the reason for focusing here on just two specific teleplays from among this nostalgic BFI crop is twofold: firstly, both star the almost-forgotten but prodigiously gifted actress Anne Cropper –who first shot to notice with her compelling portrayal of a young schizophrenic in the David Mercer and Ken Loach’s remarkable Laingian teleplay, In Two Minds (1967; which was later remade for the cinema as Family Life, 1971); and secondly, both are in different ways forms of ‘dialectical drama’, a scriptural style almost unique to Sixties and Seventies television.
Don Taylor’s rather deceptively titled The Exorcism –which truly deserved a much more specific and evocative title to do justice to its thematic complexity– is that even rarer thing: a ‘socialist ghost story’, or what one might term, a dialectical immaterialist dramatisation. Taylor was an openly political playwright and director of the Sixties and Seventies who claimed at one point in his career to have been blacklisted for his Marxism. He collaborated with fellow socialist dramatist David Mercer on a number of hugely significant socialist-realist teleplays and screenplays during the Sixties, including Where the Difference Begins (1961), A Climate of Fear (1962), Morgan, A Suitable Case for Treatment (1962) and the Blakean-titled And Did Those Feet? (1965).
The four achingly middle-class but reasonably cultured and intellectualised ‘champagne socialist’ protagonists serve as a kind of dialectical quartet representing the incipient collapse of the socialistic post-war consensus, personifying the nascent acquisitiveness only just asserting itself in the early Seventies, which wouldn’t reach full philistine ripeness until the following decade, so was, at this point, at least still as intellectually as it was materialistically acquisitive. And this vestigial tilt towards egalitarian instincts, in spite of dialogic signs of incipient cupidity and propertied aspiration, is the redemptive pivot for Taylor’s social morality tale over which the supernatural aspects are almost superimposed more for metaphorical effect than anything else.
The Exorcism is essentially a parable for poverty in the midst of plenty which ingeniously uses an almost time-travelling narrative device of a haunting in a refurbished Jacobean house to impress the point that “the poor are always with us” –not only those of our own time, but the ghosts of those from our cultural past; and, symbolically, that these spirits still inhabit the very stones and beams of the once-peasant but now prestige-properties of a future bourgeoisie. Taylor’s ghosts are Marxist skeletons rattling in the closets of the renovated retreats of contemporary conspicuous consumption.
The script to The Exorcism is perhaps the most openly politicised of any ghost story before or since: in what other ‘ghost’ story would one encounter two characters deconstructing their own ‘champagne socialism’ over aperitifs –in this case, the two males of the quarter, the host, Edmund (played impeccably by Edward Petheridge), who shows some contrition for his Marxist father’s distaste for his capitalistic occupation in Public Relations, and his more sanguinely epicurean, cosmopolitan socialite guest, Dan (a bravura performance by a side-burned and neck-scarved Clive Swift –his name presumably a reference to his Dandyish dress-sense), who somewhat complacently, not to say contradictorily, recommends to Edmund that one should focus on “how to be socialists, and rich”.
More to the point, in what other televisual era other than the very intellectually 'free-floating' Seventies would one encounter such casual dialogic socialism as part of the scene-setting for what is supposed to be a supernatural play? (The term 'free-floating' is also appropriate for a teleplay which very much operates at the pitch of anxiety). Of course, as we learn later, this dialogue is integral to Taylor's 'covert supernatural' Marxist dialectic; indeed, as noted in accompanying brochure's critical essay by BFI curator Lisa Kerrigan: 'The Exorcism received a mixed critical response, with critic Matthew Coady remarking 'It is as though a Hammer Film had been taken over by the Fabian Society".
The Exorcism’s very pointed ‘politics-on-the-sleeves’ aside, the emphasis on moral retribution and sacrificial redemption in Taylor’s script does echo some former socialistically-tinged ‘covert supernatural’ polemical literary works, such as Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) and J.B. Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls (1945). While its peculiar depiction of gustatory-haunting, employed to emphasise a polemical juxtaposition of peasant-class starvation in the mid-seventeenth century with the moral poverty that underpins the conspicuous consumption of both past and present, which manifests in the protagonists’ physical repulsion at the taste of the food and drink they’re attempting to consume (the male host spits out the red wine declaring that it’s blood, while the other eaters suffer throat-burning convulsions after eating some of the food) and their growing realisation that they are inexplicably trapped inside the house, recalls aspects to Spanish director Luis Buñuel’s magical realist polemic on bourgeois decadence, The Exterminating Angel (1962, Mexico), in which the privileged guests at a mansion dinner party become psychologically imprisoned in a music room and almost starve to death (these influences are pointed out by BFI National Archive curator Lisa Kerrigan in her critical analysis for the brochure). Significantly, too, both of these psychical incidents –or supernatural happenings– appear to be presaged by female characters tinkling wistful tunes at pianos, which seem to alter the respective atmospheres.
The historical period chosen by Taylor, apparently –though not implicitly in terms of scriptural reference– that of the English Civil War is quite deliberate, being the difficult birth of English mercantilism, which in turn mutated into modern capitalism, the rarefied fruits of which are being conspicuously appreciated by the four protagonists prior to their psychically spoilt appetites and subsequently retributive abstemiousness (which, as the narration details by the end, leads to their own fatal starvations). BFI curator Kerrigan also picks up on the situational and atmospheric similarities between Taylor’s teleplay and the Nigel Kneale-penned During Barty’s Party, which he directed for the later grisly anthology series Beasts (1976).
But it will also be clear to those who are familiar with the supremely atmospheric and unsettling ATV series Sapphire & Steel (1979-82) that some key aspects to The Exorcism formed perhaps an unconscious template for aspects to P.J. Hammond’s pseudo-sci-fi series: specifically, an old isolated country house which appears to subtly warp into some form of time disruption (S&S Adventure One/ ‘Escape Through a Crack in Time’, 1979), an overlap of the modern day (late Seventies) with, again, the English Civil War period, triggered by parents’ sudden disappearance after a recitation of the ‘Ring a Ring O’ Roses’ nursery rhyme; and another isolated country mansion which also seems to slip back in time, to the 1930s, which is the theme of a fancy-dress dinner party, and where the protagonists also become inexplicably trapped inside the house which is engulfed in a starless darkness, as happens in The Exorcism (S&S Adventure Five/ ‘Dr. McDee Must Die’, 1981; the only S&S story, however, not penned by Hammond, but by Don Houghton and Anthony Read).
The impeccable character actor Clive Swift, staple of Seventies supernatural chamber-drama, puts in another of his effortlessly nuanced performances as the almost implausibly likeable, wine-ruminating, dapper-suited Dan, the epitome of suburban boho-chic in neck scarf and broad-lapelled jacket. The almost Plantagenet-profiled and underrated Edward Petheridge also puts in a brilliant performance, particularly when trying to grasp the prospect of his own insanity at being the only person at the table whose glass of Châteauneuf-du-Pape tastes like haemoglobin; Petheridge is an inexplicably neglected actor whose most prominent roles in the Seventies were as the prime minister’s son in John Bowen and Jonathan Hales’ 1971 dystopian serial The Guardians, and as the eighteenth century landed inheritor of a witch’s curse in the 1975 David Rudkin adaptation of M.R. James’ The Ash Tree, part of the Ghost Stories for Christmas portmanteau series.
But undoubtedly the acting honours go most conspicuously to Anne Cropper, an actress who really should have become much more recognised than she was, and whose frankly astronomical acting talent is often absurdly overshadowed by her having been married to the better-known but comparatively lightweight actor William Roache, and mother of actor Linus Roache (who presumably inherited the acting talent from his mother). Cropper has impressed me in everything I’ve seen her in –particularly her staggering portrayal of a young schizophrenic in In Two Minds (1967), but her performance in The Exorcism comes a very close second. Of particular note is her long and rambling possession-soliloquy which is shot in the most intrusive and protracted close-up I think I’ve ever watched, the anguished, spittle-mouthed Cropper acting ‘her socks off’ while intoning an agonisingly tragic monologue of the spirit of a peasant woman who died of starvation along with her children in the 1640s. The lingering spirit of this woman has willed the very bricks and beams of the house never to forget the partitioned perishing of herself and her children, which wasn’t even noted by anyone local at the time it happened –as is often the case, painfully gradual death through abject poverty is often made all the more iniquitous by a cruel circumstantial obscurity, which, metaphysically speaking, would indeed leave a very bitter spiritual aftertaste.
The climax of The Exorcism is quite possibly the most shocking I have ever seen in any television dramatisation of the period, or even beyond it: the middle-class quartet enter a room which appears to be a portal into the past aftermath of the woman and children’s deaths by starvation, and the BBC effects department came up trumps with some chillingly realistic corpses replete with brittle frizzes of hair, presumably made from wax or some similar substance –and the zoom-in on the mother’s cadaver is truly disturbing, her dead eyes staring up at a thatched ceiling in an eerily dim-lit attic bedroom, mouth locked wide-open in rigor mortis as if gasping for air or for the nourishment so chronically denied her.
Cropper proves her versatility as an actress in her more pivotal role in John Bowen’s Robin Redbreast (Play for Today, 1970), which was released by the BFI around the same time as the Dead of Night and Supernatural portmanteaus last year. Here Cropper plays the metropolitan Norah Palmer, a script editor, very much the self-determining middle-class ‘career woman’ of her time, who seeks some emotional respite after a relationship breakdown by staying at a detached country cottage she’s recently purchased as a holiday retreat. No sooner has she arrived at her countrified retreat –of indeterminate location, though possibly meant to be somewhere in Norfolk– Norah is greeted by her granite-faced housekeeper, Mrs Vigo, who has a habit of disembowelling chickens by hand in the kitchen sink; and by a rather impertinently proprietorial local man called Fisher (played with supremely restrained rustic menace by the slit-eyed, high-cheekboned and bony-nosed Bernard Hepton) who lets himself in through the garden gate asking if he can potter about the rockeries in search of some “sherds” (‘potsherds’, a type of prehistoric pottery).
Rather antediluvian in tweed-suit and hat and old countrified manner and accent (not to say vernacular), and apparently proud of the fact that neither he nor his the last few generations of his family have ever set foot outside the village, Fisher is very much a “sherd” himself, and his unfalteringly fixed, slanting gaze and rather ill-mannered habit of perpetual oral-rumination on some indeterminate cud –presumably a blade of grass?– furnishes the impression of a man who is inseparable from his rural environment, and in an unspoken conspiratorial partnership with the very landscape. Hepton’s perfectly pitched portrayal of the inscrutable “sherd”-nosing Fisher arguably overshadows even Cropper’s highly nuanced performance, and to some extent prefigures the similar, though more sympathetic, character he played in the spine-chilling 1989 television adaptation of Susan Hill’s Norfolk-located ghost story, The Woman In Black.
Fisher’s countrified ‘gentleman’-cum-druidic-conduit is of a character-type which crops up in a whole pedigree of similarly Wicca-preoccupied serials (part inspired by a resurgence in pagan ideas which came with the publication of Witchcraft Today (1954) by Gerald Gardner (or ‘Scire’ as the ‘Wiccan’ was also known) following the repeal of the Witchcraft Act of that decade – teleplays and screenplays of the period from the late Sixties through to the mid Seventies, but which reached its apex during the early Seventies in particular (and in this sense, Bowen’s play was something of a trend-setter): Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man (1973), Iain Cuthbertson’s equally menacing country squire Hendrick in Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray’s Children of the Stones (HTV, 1976), and the Michael Aldridge’s Merlin-esque Professor Young in Raven (ATV, 1977).
It's interesting that the recurring theme in such encounters of technologically advanced modernity with old pagan knowledge is not simply that of a sacrificial augmenting of human longevity, but of somehow cultivating human immortality through a sacrificial means, the knights move logic of which psychologists would describe as 'magical thinking'. Immortality –or rather, agelessness, via a synthetic rejuvination of dying human cells– is, after all, the one thing that human technology has yet to master. It's almost as if these Wicca incursions on modern society hold more menace for intimating that some obscure answer to this perennial quandary actually lies in the ancient mystical past, as opposed to a materially advanced future.
This pagan emphasis on appeasing Nature's appetite for sacrifice (most disturbingly in such cases, human sacrifice) as part of a bargaining in order to ensure a cyclical resurrection of crops for the harvest time manifests in both Robin Redbreast and The Wicker Man in the necessary human sacrifice of two male innocents: in the latter, a Christian virgin whose 'purity' is tested by a planted temptress, and in the former, a 'simple-minded' male 'innocent' who is, oppositely, invested into his predestined sacrificial role precisely through defloweration and insemination of a woman so that his offspring might in future resume the cyclical sacrificial role, and, in turn, his offspring, and so on... (Even in the more secular-inclined Straw Dogs, the character of the local simpleton played by David Warner is targeted by superstitious locals as a 'lamb for the slaughter'; and even if on a conscious level this is to do with a suspicion that he has raped the main protagonists' wife –or simply that he is being used as a scapegoat in place of the true culprit(s)– figuratively speaking, it seems to have much to do with the perennial paganish theme of offering up an innocent for sacrifice to appease some ancient element). The running symbolism is that innocent/young/ripe blood is somehow a wellspring for life, for fertilising nature itself (such ancient 'magical thinking' also adumbrates the vampirism of Bram Stoker's gothic horror story Dracula (1897)).
There are also of course echoes in Robin Redbreast of other near-contemporaneous depictions of the clash between modern metropolitan ‘permissive society’ and the ironically even more ‘permissive’ rural pagan past, as in Sam Pekinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), Anthony Shaffer’s The Wicker Man (1972), David Rudkin’s Play for Today, the Manichean masterpiece Penda’s Fen (1972), and Clive Exton’s teleplay Stigma (Ghost Stories for Christmas, 1977); while Bowen’s template was adumbrated in earlier supernatural films featuring the incursions of witchcraft into the modern day, such as Night of the Demon (1957), Night of the Eagle (1962), The Witches (1967), The Devil Rides Out (1967), and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), with which Robin Redbreast shares the central theme of a pregnancy shrouded in weird superstitions (these observations noted by BFI curator Victor Pratt in brochure contribution).
Similarly to Lord Summerisle’s ceremonial self-revealing in bizarre pagan garb near the end of The Wicker Man, Fisher in Robin Redbreast is finally revealed in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it parting shot in a long cowl with stag antlers protruding from his head (alongside Vigo and other locals who are apparently more than simply the proverbial coven, but actual pagan demiurges, as signified by their similar garbs, one clutching a Reaper-like scythe) –while earlier in the play, during a dream sequence, Fisher is depicted staring through cracked spectacles and holding a dead hare. The rather strange montage of stills of dead animals, harvest crops, barley, corn, straw and large elaborately decorated loves of bread laid out at the foot of the local church’s altar also strikingly prefigure the montage of eerie stills of similarly adorned harvest offerings in a scene during The Wicker Man.
It is in the cultural treatment of Norah’s pregnancy, the result of a purely carnal dalliance with a young Aryan karate-training yokel called Rob (i.e. ‘Robin’), that Robin Redbreast has its most shocking polemical kick: contemplating an abortion, Norah’s un-empathic iciness towards the innocent young Rob on his pleading with her not “to kill his child” is quite disturbing to witness, even if she subsequently breaks down with proleptic remorse for what she is planning to do –and, finally, relents, and decides to carry the child. Here Bowen’s polemic on the ethical quandaries of then only recently legalised foetal terminations (re the Abortion Act 1967) packs a real punch; while contraception is depicted in a similarly clinical way, as if to emphasise the sterile pragmatics of contemporary secular culture, as we witness Norah rifling in her dresser and producing a plastic container significantly missing its Dutch cap (quite a graphic scene of social-sexual realism for 1970).
But Norah’s decision not to interfere with Nature’s process is made all the more ironic, in the end, by the revelation that, as with the father, Rob, the child, if a boy, will also one day be ritually decapitated so that the spill of his blood should replenish the barren soils and bring an abundance of crops for the village. And here again the parallels with Rosemary’s Baby and The Wicker Man can be seen in the narrative terms of foregone offspring and pagan human sacrifice, respectively. The plan put in motion to prevent Norah aborting her pregnancy is of course not motivated by some rustic pagan conviction in the sanctity of human (and all) life, since it is only being prevented in order to ensure the birth and future ripening to sexually active adulthood of a life ritually predestined for premature death through sacrifice. But here Bowen's script really comes into its own in terms of ingeniously –albeit contentiously– juxtaposing the themes of abortion and pagan sacrifice in a way in which they almost overlap: it's as if Bowen is implying that Norah's contemplated abortion of the foetus inside her is being depicted in its own more clinical sense as a modern individualistic form of 'secular human sacrifice' in order to appease her own professional ambition and sense of emancipated sexual self-determination.
Whether or not Bowen meant to implant in his narrative some sort of feminism-sceptical polemic is left open to interpretation, but one senses his message is more about human perceptions of such ethical quandaries of the modern world, as well as illustrating how some ancient superstitions and rituals may have well been no more 'ethical' in terms of the sanctity of human life than are such modern surgical procedures/incursions into the natural reproductive cycle, as abortion. And, in any case, this paganish sacrifice of a fully mature human being is arguably far more morally despicable than the truncation of
foetal development at a stage before a proper embryo has come into being, and so, disputably, before it an actual 'life' has started to form. Perhaps Bowen intended this juxtaposition to be a kind of dialectical 'straw man'. But, as mentioned, in any case, Norah aborts her contemplated abortion –and, significantly, to a seemingly futile purpose.
Both The Exorcism and Robin Redbreast, linked not only in terms of narratives and style, but also by the central performances of Anne Cropper, are two exceptional examples of the atmospherically and scripturally peerless ‘television as theatre’ of the Seventies. To my mind, The Exorcism is marginally the superior of the two, mainly for its more claustrophobic and entirely studio-bound scenario, nuanced characters, aphoristic script and almost unique splicing together of Marxist dialectics and the paranormal. Taylor’s play also has slightly more sympathetic –if still moderately irritating– characters who at least demonstrate a transformational remorse through their very empirical lesson in under-consumption; while it says much about the dearth of sympathetic characters in Robin Redbreast that the most likeable and perversely endearing is a rather simple-minded bumpkin whose favourite coffee-table topic is the hierarchical structure of the Third Reich.
Robin Rebdreast is also of course part of the Dead of Night portmanteau, and one of the other two existing episodes, Paul Ciappessoni’s morosely engrossing A Woman Sobbing, featuring a spectacular performance from the inimitable Anna Massey, is another excellent slice of Seventies supernatural drama well worth viewing –as well as being a compelling feministic reworking of the ‘mad woman in the attic’ literary form, arguably piloted in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), distilled in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s harrowingly poetic The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), both of which works were revisited, in Daphne du Maurier’s Jayne-Eyre-esque Rebecca (1938), and Jean Rhys’s Jane Eyre-prequel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), and the latter, partly, in Ingmar Bergman’s film Through a Glass Darkly (1961); while later still, Fay Weldon’s teleplay Watching Me Watching You (her contribution to the Leap in the Dark portmanteau series 1973-80) furnished a similar neurotic-cum-supernatural female-centred scenario to A Woman Sobbing. The Recusant recommends both BFI releases, which are perfect complements to one another and come with exceptionally in-depth accompanying brochures.
The Exorcism: 10/10
Robin Redbreast: 8/10
Alan Morrison © 2014