Dead of Night (1972)
There must have been something in the water in 1972 at the BBC, as over the last two months of the year they treated horror fans in a way they have rarely done since. First there was Dead of Night a series of seven supernatural tales, broadcast one a week from 5 November to 17 December. Then, a week after that on Christmas Eve, the BBC broadcast A Warning to the Curious, the second of their annual series of Ghost Stories for Christmas, adapted as had been the previous year's from M.R. James. And finally, on Christmas Day itself, there was The Stone Tape, originally intended as an eighth Dead of Night, but broadcast as a standalone. Of such are dreams, and nightmares, made, and this is why 1972 stands as an annus mirabilis – or should that be annus horribilis? - for small-screen horror.
Dead of Night has nothing to do with the celebrated 1945 Ealing film – something that film's producer, Sir Michael Balcon, pointed out in a letter to Radio Times - other than the anthology format. In the case of the TV series, each 50-minute story was presented singly, rather than the tales-embedded-in-a-framing narrative of the film. However, only The Exorcism has been repeated by the BBC and the third, fourth, fifth and sixth of the seven fell victim to the BBC's lack of an archiving policy at the time and were wiped, so exist only as the shooting scripts and some stills, both available on this DVD, and the memories of those who watched them at the time. I wasn't one of them, and don't remember being aware of the series in 1972. Given that I was eight years old, I wouldn't have been allowed to watch them if I had been: no doubt just as well. It's hard to be sure without seeing the whole series, but whoever scheduled them certainly started and ended the run with particularly strong stories. The BFI rather auteurishly calls them “a film by” each director concerned in their packaging, but as I said before regarding the simultaneously-released Robin Redbreast, television was a writer's medium, certainly then, and the writer's byline is at the start of each story, with the director listed at the end of the final credits.
The Exorcism (49:53)
In the case of The Exorcism, the writer and director is the same man, Don Taylor. Rachel (Anna Cropper) and Edmund (Edward Petherbridge) are a well-off couple who have bought and done up a country cottage. Echoes of Robin Redbreast are no doubt coincidental, with the presence of Anna Cropper in a lead role...and that play's writer John Bowen turns up elsewhere in the series too. But in The Exorcism, we are in for a rural horror of a different kind. The couple invite their friends Dan (Clive Swift, who had been in the previous year's Ghost Story for Christmas and would appear in this year's, a month later) and Margaret (Sylvia Kay) for a Christmas dinner party.
Broadcast on 5 November 1972, The Exorcism is the most celebrated of the Dead of Night stories. It's a tight four-hander (the fifth and only other credited role is real-life newsreader Kenneth Kendall, and there are some uncredited walk-ons near the end). Apart from brief exteriors at the beginning and end, it's set entirely inside the cottage. I've made the point that television drama, at least then, was more akin to the theatre than the cinema, and this is a prime case for that argument. In fact, The Exorcism has been performed on stage. What is also noticeable is a definite political theme to this horror story. Edmund and Dan, near the beginning, have a conversation about balancing left-wing principles with having a high-earning job, and Dan's suggestion is not to worry about it. One of the last lines is “We're privileged.” In between those points, with wine turning into blood, skeletons being found upstairs and the outside being plunged into darkness, a backstory emerges, of the rich exploiting the poor and depriving them of sustenance while they feasted...and the past is revisited in the present, in a monologue delivered by Rachel in tight close-up, a tour-de-force by Anna Cropper.
The Exorcism is intense, and properly scary, and no wonder it has lasted in people's memory. The BBC repeated it in 2007 (I'd seen it about twenty years previously, in a showing at the National Film Theatre).
Return Flight (50:08)
The usual principle with a series of self-contained stories is to begin and end strongly, leaving the middle for the...well “less good” would be unfair, as it's now impossible to judge if Dead of Night followed that pattern. But given that Return Flight is the sole surviving representative of those middle five, that's quite a weight to put on its shoulders and to be fair it's one it can't bear. Written by Robert Holmes (taking time out from Doctor Who) and directed by Rodney Bennett, it is certainly a supernatural tale, but it's not a scary one, and is more character-led.
Recently-widowed airline pilot Hamish Rolph (Peter Barkworth) comes under scrutiny when he starts seeing things during his work...specifically a Second World War Lancaster bomber. But was it really there? Rolph has to come to terms with the loss of his wife, and with feelings of inadequacy, such as his failure to gain promotion and a sense that he is now a little too old for his job. His late wife's first husband was a flying hero, one who died in a World War II bombing mission,
Return Flight gains from a finely-detailed performance by Barkworth, but as a drama it feels underpowered and you can predict the outcome. It may have been better at thirty minutes rather than fifty. Also given that Holmes had no compunction in scaring the children that Doctor Who was nominally aimed at, he's surpassed in this when writing for adults. Also, this is a production that isn't up to the demands of its subject, possibly due to the BBC budget it was made on. When watching old television shows on DVD, you have to remember that contemporary audiences were watching on much smaller, much less unforgiving equipment than we have now. Although these stories were made in colour, the majority of viewers in 1972 would have been watching in black and white. Seeing this on a larger TV screen exposes a thinness in the production design: clearly a BBC budget was not up to entirely convincingly depicting air traffic control nor the interior of an aircraft. Whether the story's finale should have been portrayed onscreen rather than offscreen, as it is, is due to stylistic restraint or otherwise is up to you, but ultimately Return Flight is too restrained for its own good.
On following Sunday nights, viewers in 1972 would have sat down to watch Bedtime by Hugh Whitemore (19 November), Death Cancels All Debts by Peter Draper (26 November), Smith by Dorothy Alison (3 December) and Two in the Morning by Leo Lehman (10 December). All of these are now lost from the BBC archives. I don't know if 16mm telerecordings were ever made of these, and in 1972 videotape recorders were few and far between and mainly rich men's toys, but even so check your attic. In the meantime, the shooting scripts survive, which I'll discuss further with regard to the disc extras below.
A Woman Sobbing (50:00)
Written by John Bowen and directed by Paul Ciappessoni, A Woman Sobbing introduces us to Jane Pullar (Anna Massey), married to Frank (Ronald Hines), a housewife with two young children. And she's kept awake by the sound of the sobbing woman of the title (Margaret John, uncredited for this, but listed in the credits in the small role of Fay). Frank can't hear her, nor can anyone else. Is Anna losing her mind?
Well, she might be. Bowen wrote Robin Redbreast in 1970, released on DVD simultaneously with this. As with that play, he takes care to embed his horror into the texture of everyday life. There's again subtext to be found – and again it involves the place of women in society, something that was beginning to make itself felt in popular culture by 1972. Again, we are in a household where the husband has a well-paid job (the Pullars have a colour television, something that put them in a minority in the early Seventies) and, in times just before austerity and three-day weeks and an oil crisis that put paid to a lot of 60s affluence, it's one that allows the wife to stay at home with two children under the age of ten. It's clear that Anna is wondering if motherhood and housewifery has been a lifestyle she's been oversold: the children in particular are more stressful than rewarding. Although there's no hint that he is actually unfaithful, Anna's worries about Frank are justified as he clearly has a wandering eye, prone to gaze at his secretary's bottom when in his office. This is intensified when the Pullars hire a German au pair, Inge (Yocki Rhodes). Anna wonders if Frank is trying to drive her mad – Bowen places pointed references to Gaslight, not to mention Plath-like suicide by gas oven. Also Plath-like is the course of treatment she undergoes for her troubles. Less so is an actual exorcism (one that doesn't appear in the story of that title) when all else fails. Massey's performance helps build up the tension until the ending. This is followed by a brief coda (set in 2002, from the script, though it doesn't specify that onscreen) with that age-old horror curtain-closer: it's happening all over again...
Dead of Night is released by the BFI on a single dual-layered disc encoded for Region 2 only. For those with a mind to traumatise their offspring, the 15 certificate refers to both The Exorcism and A Woman Sobbing, with Return Flight earning a PG.
All three stories (selectable individually or with a Play All option) are transferred in the original aspect ratio of 1.33:1, as they were originally broadcast. Both The Exorcism and Return Flight were made the usual way for TV drama of their day: mainly on video in the studio with 16mm film used for exterior scenes. The film sequences amount to brief shots at the beginning and end of the former and the final scenes of the latter. A Woman Sobbing varies this pattern: all the scenes set inside the Pullar house are shot on video as you would expect, but film is used for other scenes, not just the exteriors but interiors as well, such as those in Frank's office. As for the transfers, they're fine: the video material as sharp as you would expect from 1970s 625-line analogue, the film footage with the grain that you would expect.
The soundtracks are the original mono, and display the expertise of the BBC's sound departments: clear and with dialogue, music and sound effects well balanced. English subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing.
Also on the disc are stills galleries for two of the missing episodes (Bedtime and Death Cancels All Debts). In the set-up menu, you can also play this item, which will be iconic for those of a certain age:
And it will play, with a continuous 50Hz tone, until you switch it off, so dog- or cat-owners beware.
Available on the disc are PDF copies of the scripts of all seven episodes. These are the shooting scripts, so camera angles are included, and full cast and crew listings. This can't be a substitute for watching the four missing episodes, but it's the only one there is.
The BFI's booklet (twenty-four pages plus covers) kicks off with an essay about the whole series, followed by separate essays about each surviving episode, all by Lisa Kerrigan. These contain plot spoilers, so read them after you have watched the episodes. The rest of the booklet is devoted to biographies of series producer Innes Lloyd and script editor Louis Marks (both by Derek Johnston), Don Taylor (by Oliver Wake), Robert Holmes (by Derek Johnston) and John Bowen (by Alex Davidson, the same one that appears in the booklet for Robin Redbreast), credits for each episode, stills and DVD credits.