Thursday 8 December 2022

Christmas at the BBC 1972 – Dramas Out of Crises

By Jon Dear

The last couple of years have been rather tough, haven’t they? Starved of a functioning government and with Covid and Brexit stalking the land like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse after Tory cutbacks, plenty of people spent the long weeks of isolation in front of the telly. But the early 2020s don’t have a monopoly on bad times producing great stories. November-December 1972 produced some of the best regarded and well-remembered television, particularly in the field of ghost stories, and as we shall see, a lot of shit went down in 1972 as Britain had an identity crisis, went to war with a European neighbour over fish and there was a narcissistic liar in the White House. Hopefully we will never see these times again.

Ghost stories are older than literature itself and like most ancient tales they often take the form of reaffirming social norms and boundaries and then presenting an example of the consequences of transgression. In pre-Christian winter festivals like Samhain, the end of agricultural year and the death of much flora is associated with the remembrance of ancestors followed by the rebirth of the sun and the land. As we move forward through history, tales of the weird and the spiritual remain as moral guides from a time when life was seen as a largely transitory phase but still midwinter was associated with the dead. And those tales progressed from oral to written. And much later from radio to television. Always domestic, always communal.

Britain in 1972, like now, had lost an understanding of itself, deeply divided by industrial strife, January saw the first of the miners’ strikes of the type that would dog Ted Heath’s government. The Longford Report’s risible moralising on pornography couldn’t help branching out into ‘values’, largely because it’s nigh on impossible to reach consensus on morality. And this is the same year the first Pride march was held to the sound of much pearl clutching. The UK found itself at loggerheads with its European neighbours, ranging from the farcical – as Britain went to war with Iceland over cod quotas – to the tragic – as the Bloody Sunday massacre became the lowest of low points in the history of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic requesting that UN troops be sent in to keep the peace. Still, at least Rangers won the European Cup Winner’s Cup, and were subsequently banned from the competition as the fans celebrated their victory by smashing up Barcelona.

Overseas things weren’t much better, the bitterly fought US Presidential election became merely a prelude to the Watergate scandal while the last (to date) trip to the Moon took place in the December as the great post war technological dream of the 60s died. The Olympics in Munich ended in tragedy and diplomatic fall out when eight members of terrorist group Black September took 11 members of the Israeli team hostage. After a botched rescue attempt all the hostages were killed along with five of the terrorists and one local policemen. And the expulsion of Indians living in Uganda by Idi Amin had direct consequences for Britain. Most of the refugees had UK passports and headed there accordingly, which created social tensions.

As for the telly, things got Chrismassy as early as 5th November with producer Innes Lloyd’s anthology series Dead of Night, seven modern day stories that despite Lloyd’s assertions there was nothing gothic about the series, featured repressed trauma, fraught relationships and themes of revenge and tragedy, in short, gothic as hell. It just wasn’t set in the 18th/19th century. Sadly, only three of the seven instalments survive.

The first episode, Don Taylor’s The Exorcism has less a Marxist subtext, more being beaten over the head with a copy of Das Capital until you die… of starvation text. Two rich couples have Christmas in one of their second homes, an old cottage haunted by a woman who starved to death with her children after her husband had been hanged for poaching. As the night wears on the cottage becomes cut off from the rest of the world, the food turns to ashes and the wine to blood. Possession and death soon follow. The good intentions of the protagonists – they don’t see why they can’t be socialists and wealthy – are not a defence. While people are starving, they cannot justify their bounty under her roof.

A Woman Sobbing
by John Bowen, a man who wrote one of the pivotal tv folk horror pieces, Robin Redbreast (1970), tells the story of a suburban housewife driven mad by the sound of a woman crying in the attic. A sound that no one else can hear. This one owes a lot to Charlotte Perkins Gilbert’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) in its examination of the attitudes towards the mental health of women. The other surviving episode is Return Flight by Doctor Who maestro Robert Holmes. It’s about a widower commercial airline pilot who’s a bit too old for it to be worth the bother of training him to fly jumbo jets but a bit too young to have flown during World War Two. His life is in limbo as he works on short haul European flights. But he starts to hear and see war planes from the 40s, as hallucination and reality combine, he attempts to land his plane on a Second World War airstrip that’s not been there for 30 years. A more gentle, gradual episode that the others, it nevertheless features an utterly brutal ending.

The four lost episodes include Bedtime by Hugh Whitmore, who had previous form with the weird for adapting works by EF Benson and Robert Aickman. This story can be seen as a sister piece to A Woman Sobbing, an upwardly mobile couple moving into a house buy an antique bedframe, which turns out to be haunted. The woman becomes less and less willing to leave the bed and the man learns what it’s like to be cuckolded by furniture. The refrain PLU (People Like Us) is used throughout, meaning young professionals, richer than their parents, disdainful of the more traditional working classes, they are the vanguard of a new class war and Whitmore shows them how they need to be careful of what they put their faith in. Death Cancels All Debts by Peter Draper, in which a man interviews a famous writer who it turns out is haunted by the ghost of his dead, male lover. The writer attempts to prolong the relationship through the themes of his work but now longs simply to die and be reunited.

There’s Smith by Dorothy Allison, the only woman to write for Dead of Night, this concerns a couple writing about serial killers of woman. For their piece on Brides in the Bath murder Joseph Smith they decide, for some reason, that the required verisimilitude will be achieved by spending the night in Alton Towers’ Chamber of Horrors alongside Smith’s waxwork. Let’s hope it doesn’t possess the man and kill the woman, eh? Finally, there’s Two in the Morning by Leo Lehmann, essentially an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Double (1846), a man failing at life starts to see his much more successful but exact double moving into his life and taking over. These stories concern a fear of being diminished, of turning your back too readily on things that got you where you are and thinking you can be the exception to the rule. All of these themes were being played out at the national level.

So that takes us to 14th December. Fast forward to Christmas Eve and the second of Lawrence Gordon Clark’s seminal Ghost Stories for Christmas, A Warning to the Curious. For many, this is the best one. Adapted from the story in MR James’s final collection of ghost stories, Clarke alters the focus by making the doomed Paxton (Peter Vaughn) both working class and recently unemployed at the time of the Great Depression, something that will be a touch point for Britain in 1972.

He follows his dream of archaeology and finding the lost Anglo-Saxon crown of East Anglia not as a passionate hobby but as the final throw of the dice for a man without a future. He’s treated with disdain by the boots at the hotel he stays at because if there’s one thing working class people love it’s other working-class people failing in attempts to better themselves. As an amateur archaeologist, as a working-class person operating in a middle-class space he is doomed and destroyed for his hubris. This feels like an adaptation that couldn’t have happened at another time, especially with the added detail that the ghost of William Ager will also pursue Dr. Black (Clive Swift) something that doesn’t happen in the original story.

For Christmas Day itself, we return to the producer and script editor of Dead of Night for a feature length tale from the King of Hauntology, Nigel Kneale with possibly his most famous non-Quatermass story, The Stone Tape. A story of British industrial decline, it begins with an R&D department of an electronics company moving into an old, renovated building to try and develop a new recording medium in an attempt to “beat the Japs”. One room is unfinished because the builders won’t go in there as it’s haunted by the ghost of a screaming woman. As the team begins to experience the phenomena, they realise the stone walls themselves are a recording/storage medium and begin to see £££!

Kneale has a gift for misanthropy and the central character of Peter (Michael Bryant) is the real villain of the piece as his monstrous treatment of his team, especially computer programmer Jill (Jane Asher) demonstrates. On the one hand this is a tale of hubris, arrogance and not listening to warnings as you chase your dreams no matter what the cost, on the other it’s an utterly chilling ghost story that breaks one of MR James’s central rules on the age of a ghost. The genuine malice that’s felt when you start to experience what the woman is screaming at. Something ancient and awful, a prehistoric, formless, unknowable terror.

To finish our Christmas viewing we have two Doctor Who stories, on 27th December there’s an omnibus repeat of The Sea Devils, which is a big deal as that would be your only Doctor Who repeat of the year, and the chance to watch a complete story rather than an episode of a serial. There’s no video, no recordings, no on demand viewing. This was a golden chance to catch up. A lovely little Christmas present!

Three days later Doctor Who’s tenth season would start with essentially, a panto. Much like Dorothy was transported to Oz, The Three Doctors sees the Doctor and his friends transported to a faraway kingdom where magic is real and a big villain lives in a castle and to top it all off, the Doctor’s previous incarnations are along for the ride! The story ends with the Doctor’s exile to Earth being lifted and he’s once again free to roam the universe. So, Doctor Who makes peace with its past and leaves the stagnant world of 1972 behind to forge new paths. And it’s worth nothing that Britain’s answer to industrial decline in 1972 was of course to have a referendum to join the European Common Market…

So why does any of this matter? Well, you may have picked up a certain amount of déjà vu running though this essay. We, in 2022 are haunted. A haunting, in a psychological sense, is that something is unresolved. In the 1990s things felt rather more celebratory and horrors, especially horrors about hauntings, were much rarer than they were in the 1970s. We are drawn to hauntings when we experience dissatisfaction with our present.

And the last year or two have been horrible for many but it’s not unprecedented. We’ve had a criminal in the White House before, we’ve had austerity measures and mutually destructive conflicts with Europe over fish. We’ve had influxes of refugees caused ultimately by our past actions in other countries. All these things are happening again and the culture we have represents a window through which we can look at our history and understand ourselves. Culture keeps us alive. Culture helps us process trauma and exorcise our hauntings.

Jon Dear is a writer and critic on television and film. He also hosts BERGCAST, a podcast on Nigel Kneale.

This article originally appeared in issue five of the Curious British Telly fanzine.

1 comment:

  1. It's always the Tories fault..never labour