Blu-ray Review: The Woman in Black (1989)
1925. Arthur Kidd (Adrian Rawlins) is a London solicitor, married with two young children. He is sent to the North-Eastern coastal town of Crythin Gifford to settle the estate of Alice Drablow, a widow who lived alone at Eel Marsh House. Staying to attend Alice’s funeral, Arthur finds the locals reluctant to discuss both Alice and the house, which Arthur has to spend much time in. At the funeral, Arthur sees a woman standing at a distance, dressed in black, among the gravestones...
You could claim that horror on the small screen, often in the form of adaptations of classic supernatural stories and often shown over the Christmas holidays, had a golden age in the UK which lasted from the late Sixties to the early Nineties, productions which scared and left a lasting impression on a generation. They include takes on M.R. James such as Jonathan Miller’s version of Whistle and I’ll Come to You and the later annual Ghost Stories for Christmas (see The Stalls of Barchester, Lost Hearts, The Signalman and A View from a Hill), the Dead of Night series from 1972 (only three out of seven of which survive), Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape, also from 1972 - there must have been something in the water at the BBC that year. This run probably ends with Ghostwatch in 1992, the controversy about which led to future nervousness at the BBC about horror material. The Woman in Black, first broadcast on ITV on Christmas Eve 1989, comes towards the end of this run but it’s certainly worthy of it. For those who saw it then, it has stayed in the memory, especially for one scene...and you’ll know which one that is when you see it.
Susan Hill (born 1942) is a prime example of someone who is best known, to the general public at least, by a single work. She began early, with her first published novel, The Enclosure, published in 1961 during her first year at University, and attracting controversy due to its sexual content due to its having been written by a “schoolgirl”. For the rest of the decade and into the Seventies, she published seven further novels and was a well-regarded literary novelist, with award wins and a Booker Prize shortlisting for The Bird of Night. I’m the King of the Castle won the Somerset Maugham Award and has been taught in British schools. Then came a ten-year hiatus (her giving birth to a daughter in 1977 contributed to it) until 1983 when The Woman in Black was published. It draws on past classic ghost stories, particularly those of M.R. James (one of the chapters is even called "Whistle and I'll Come to You" – not least in its use of a hapless protagonist who gets put in danger by people who know more about the situation than he does. The Woman in Black is a novella, demonstrating that a shorter length is ideal for this kind of horror story. The novella has since become a popular school text.
Hill wasn’t the first literary writer to take on the ghost story – which you could certainly argue is more “respectable” than other horror subgenres – but you can’t argue with its success. Four years later, Stephen Mallatratt adapted it into a stage play which is the longest-running play in London’s West End after The Mousetrap, pandemic-caused theatre closedowns notwithstanding. The present television version dates from 1989 and the BBC have adapted the story for radio twice. Then there was the 2012 film version, starring Daniel Radcliffe, which spawned its own sequel, The Woman in Black: Angel of Death, in 2015.
The 1989 version, adapted by Nigel Kneale, follows the novel for the most part, but made some changes, not all of which Hill was happy with. These included some character renaming, so Arthur Kipps in the novel becomes Arthur Kidd, apparently because Kneale, an admirer of H.G. Wells, disapproved of Hill’s naming her protagonist after that of one of Wells’s best-known novels. The adaptation omits the frame story wherein Kipps, after being asked to tell a ghost story one Christmas Eve, is too traumatised to oblige but then writes down his account, which is the novel we then go on to read. (A similar framing device is removed from every adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw that I’m aware of.) This does have a bearing on the ending of the television play. I’ll say no more to avoid spoilers, but suffice to say it darkens it more than a little.
Thirty-one years on, The Woman in Black, takes us back to a past era of television drama, not just because Kneale and the director, Herbert Wise, are no longer with us, and not just because it was shot on film and not the high-definition video which is almost ubiquitous nowadays. You can sense that it was a prestigious production of its time, with cinematography (Michael Davis), production design (Jon Bunker), costume design (Barbara Kronig) and score (Rachel Portman) all top-notch. The cast is fine, too, with Adrian Rawlins a definitive Arthur, his enthusiasm and his love for his family evident from the start, which makes the events of the story all the more harrowing. Pauline Moran as the title character has no dialogue, but her presence is indelible. They’re supported by many major character actors of the time. Herbert Wise had a long career as a director, almost all of it on television. He’s best known for directing the whole of I, Claudius (which, unlike this, was an all-studio production shot on video), but this is another fine entry in his filmography. Wise and Kneale had previously collaborated on the 1986 single play Ladies' Night. The story is allowed to build slowly up to its moments of wrongness and disturbance over its one and three quarter hours (two hours with the commercials). So patience is required, but it’s amply rewarded.
Other than one repeat screening (Christmas Day 1994 on Channel 4), VHS releases, plus a US DVD edition back in 2000, this version of The Woman in Black has been unavailable for some time, so this Blu-ray release is more than welcome.
Network’s Blu-ray release of The Woman in Black is a Region B encoded disc, with a BBFC 15 certificate.
The Woman in Black was shot on 16mm film, and has been restored for this release from original elements. Needless to say, we are watching this on larger and higher-spec televisions than it was originally intended for, but given that the source is higher-resolution than standard-definition video, that’s all to the good. Colours look fine and grain is natural. The Woman in Black dates back to before the widescreen era, so this transfer is in the intended 4:3. That’s the version you should watch, and I say that because also on this disc is a version cropped to widescreen (16:9). This isn’t the way this production was meant to be seen, but it’s available if you must. The transfer includes the original captions leading us into and out of the commercial breaks. You’ll see that one of them immediately follows the major scare, so at least you got three to four minutes of advertisements to calm yourself in.
The soundtrack is mono, rendered as LPCM 2.0. Television stereo sound (Nicam Stereo) was introduced in the UK in 1986 on the BBC, but this wasn’t nationally available until 1991, so I suspect that The Woman in Black, an ITV production from 1989, was mono, as it is on this disc. I certainly wasn’t capable of listening to it any other way when I saw it on its first broadcast. The soundtrack is clear and well-balanced. English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing are available and I didn’t spot any errors.
On the disc is a commentary track (which plays over the 4:3 version), featuring Kim Newman, Mark Gatiss and Andy Nyman. All three men’s expertise in small-screen horror is undoubted, Newman as a critic, Gatiss as one of the League of Gentlemen and the man behind recent revivals of the BBC’s Christmas adaptations of M.R. James. Nyman is cowriter of the play Ghost Stories, filmed in 2017, and has a further connection with The Woman in Black in that he acts in this production, as Arthur’s junior colleague Jackie. All three’s enthusiasm and knowledge is to the fore, and this is an entertaining and informative listen.
Also on the disc is a self-navigating stills gallery (1:35). This release also includes a booklet written by Andrew Pixley, which is as detailed as you would expect from his other contributions to television disc releases. There is also a reproduction the production’s original pressbook which is oddly just a little too large to fit inside the case.