Schalcken the Painter

The Netherlands, the seventeenth century. Godfried Schalcken (Jeremy Clyde) is a young painter, working in the studio of Gerard Dou (Maurice Denham). Schalcken is in love with Dou's daughter Rose (Cheryl Kennedy). However, one day a rich old man, Vanderhausen (John Justin) claims Rose for his own...

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's short story “Shalken the Painter” [sic] was first published in 1851 and is an imagined episode in the life of a real person, Godfried Schalcken (1643-1706), a distinguished Dutch painter, whose real mentor Gerard Dou (1613-1675) is also a character in the story. Leslie Megahey's script was at one time considered as a potential Ghost Story for Christmas, maybe to be directed by that strand's regular director Lawrence Gordon Clark. However, Clark had left the BBC for a freelance career, and the run of Ghost Stories had come to an end in 1978 with The Ice House. Schalcken the Painter was broadcast the following year in the run-up to Christmas – late on Sunday night, 23 December 1979 – so it could be regarded as a Ghost Story for Christmas by any other name. However, there are distinct differences between it and its predecessors over the previous eight Christmases (five from M.R. James, one from Charles Dickens, two original scripts, all but the last directed by Clark).

By then Megahey had gained charge of the BBC's long-running arts documentary strand Omnibus and he commissioned his own script for it, with himself as director. Omnibus had been the home eleven years earlier of Jonathan Miller's adaptation of James's “'Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad'” under the shortened title of Whistle and I'll Come to You. The impact of that story – with an opening voiceover to give the story its arts-docu context – was felt in the style of the later Clark-directed James adaptations. Schalcken has a voiceover too, a narration by Charles Gray in person as Le Fanu. (Interestingly, the first suggestion to play the narrator was Vincent Price.) Like the Ghost Stories, Schalcken was shot on film, colour 16mm and all made use of the BBC's expertise in production and costume design for historical drama. Co-funding from German television added to the budget.

Yet, there are differences. Schalcken is some twenty minutes longer than the longest Clark-directed Ghost Story. (The original story is 8000 words long, about the same length as “'Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad'”.) Megahey's pitch was “an arts documentary which mutated into a horror story”. There is emphasis on Schalcken's and Dou's working methods and discussion by Gray's narrator of some of Schalcken's key works when relevant. John Hooper's camerawork reproduces the look of Dutch paintings of the period, including their use of chiaroscuro – the production is in places surprisingly darkly-lit for late 70s television, a time when less-good sets could devolve artfully sepulchral lighting into murk. Megahey paces the story on a slow-burn, leading steadily to a dramatic peak in the middle, and form there to the main horror scene at the end. The nudity (as you would expect in a film about artists and their life models) and, in one scene in particular, sexual content is not something you would find in the Clark Ghost Stories, their main source M.R. James being notoriously dismissive of “romance” and uninterested in female characters.

Schalcken the Painter dates from a time when television was a medium you had to see on the night or you risked not seeing it at all. There were early adopters of video cassette recorders around in 1979, and copies of Schalcken have circulated amongst aficionados of vintage small-screen horror. However, to the best of my knowledge, the BBC have not repeated it, so this dual-format release will be the first opportunity for many to see it, as it was for me, fifteen years old at the time of broadcast. And with HD television a reality now, as it wasn't then, the production looks better on Blu-ray now than it has ever done.

The Blu-ray

Schalcken the Painter is number 028 of the BFI Flipside line, the first television production to be included. The release from the BFI is dual-format, though the Blu-ray and DVD discs are identical in content. It was the former which was supplied for review as a checkdisc. The 15 certificate refers to Schalcken and The Pledge, with The Pit earning a 12.

The Blu-ray transfer is in the ratio of 1.33:1, as you would expect from television in 1979. As mentioned above, Schalcken was shot entirely on 16mm film, as more “prestige” drama projects often were at the time: celluloid was more expensive that 625-line videotape. On Blu-ray this is a thing of beauty, far in advance of you would have seen at the time. There is grain, quite a lot of it in fact, but that's what you would and should expect, and John Hooper's photography comes up very handsomely, including that all-important chiaroscuro. It's a good bet that shadow-detail is finer than it would have been on your TV set in 1979. The Blu-ray is mastered from a 16mm interpositive and is in 1080p24. (Though wouldn't it have been shown on TV at 25fps?)

The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered in LPCM 2.0. It sounds just fine, though I'll leave as a question whether this film was shot in 24fps or 25fps. I do not have perfect pitch and have never been able to detect PAL speed-up, or maybe in this case HD slow-down, other than in side-by-side comparisons. English subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing, on the feature and all the extras, and I didn't spot any errors.

The extras begin with a short film, The Pit (26:59), written and directed by Edward Abraham, from the short story by Edgar Allan Poe. It was financed by the BFI Experimental Film Fund in 1962, for a total budget of £876. The cast and crew donated their services but even so, this is a remarkable film on such a tiny budget, not least because it was made in 35mm black and white. There is just one word of spoken dialogue (“Morte”) so the film relies on the direction, Gus Coma's lighting (more chiaroscuro), an atonal score by Leslie Harverson and the performance of the lead and only credited actor, Brian Peck. The transfer, in the original ratio of 1.33:1, comes from a newly restored 35mm print, and is very fine, some minor scratches and spots notwithstanding, and shows how monochrome 35mm really lends itself to HD.The shadows are inky black, as I assume they are meant to be (not having seen the film before now) and the grain is natural and filmlike. Also on the desk is a short gallery (0:58) of design sketches for The Pit.

It's 1982 and you and your mates are just sitting down in your local screen (no multiplexes in them days) to watch Porky's. And there's a short film before it. So what would be the ideal curtain-raiser for a smutty X-certificate sex comedy? Well, I'm not sure I would have picked The Pledge (22:17) a Gothic horror piece from a short story by Lord Dunsany (who doesn't get credited), written and directed by Digby Rumsey. But that's what it is, and I'm not sure what reactions were to this elliptically told piece, which was sufficiently gruesome also to gain a X certificate then, a 15 now. This isn't too far removed from the more experimental end of British filmmaking: Peter Greenaway was one of the editors, lurking under a pseudonym, and the music score was by his then regular collaborator Michael Nyman. The film was shot in 16mm and blown up to 35mm for cinema release, and the timescale for this, and having fifty prints struck, was so tight that Rumsey was not able to place a caption at the end, but has now taken the opportunity to do so. The transfer is in the ratio of 1.78:1 (most UK cinemas would have shown it in 1.75:1 at the time), mastered from an original film print. It's certainly soft and quite grainy, but I don't doubt it would have looked that way on a cinema screen thirty-one years ago.

The final item on the disc is “Look into the Dark” (39:08), an interview with Leslie Megahey and John Hooper about the making of Schalcken the Painter. Spoilers herein, so don't watch until you have seen Schalcken itself. Megahey discusses the circumstances of his writing the script and eventually commissioning himself to make it. Hooper is on hand to talk about his approach to the lighting. Megahey's visual approach was influenced by Walerian Borowczyk, and we see a good-looking extract from the latter's 1971 film Blanche. (Arrow Films get an acknowledgement for this extract, so there's a clue to a forthcoming release of theirs, if you didn't know already.) Vincent Price was approached to be the narrator, as was Peter Cushing (who apparently objected to the film's content), before Charles Gray was cast. Arthur Lowe was Megahey's first choice to play Dou. We see extracts from the script (initially handwritten) as well as from the film itself.

The booklet runs to twenty-four pages, and begins with Ben Hervey's essay on Schalcken, which goes into some detail regarding its mise-en-scène. There are essays by James Bell on The Pit and Vic Pratt on The Pledge, plus one page of Digby Rumsey's memories of the latter. Also included are full credits for all the films, notes on the transfers and a reproduction of the opening page of the final script.



out of 10

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