Monday 3 April 2023

Dramarama: Snap

By Scampy Spiro

With folk horror having become the subject of increasing cultural fascination over the past decade (fuelled, in part, by the spotlight it received in Mark Gatiss’ 2010 documentary series A History of Horror), one candidate that still seems curiously overdue for rediscovery would be Snap, a 1987 installment from the ITV children’s anthology series Dramarama (1983-1989).

A motley collection comprising contributions from a variety of different ITV production outfits, Dramarama was known for its willingness to take on the weird and the eerie (in its earliest incarnation, all of the episodes were linked by a supernatural theme, under the heading of Spooky), and in Snap we find the series indulging a particularly arty bent.

It’s probably fair to approach the episode, directed by Michael Kerrigan from a teleplay by Richard Cooper, as Dramarama’s answer to the BBC’s line of classic supernatural dramas derived from the works of M.R. James - most notably Whistle and I’ll Come to You, directed by Jonathon Miller as part of the Omnibus strand in 1968, and A Warning to the Curious, Lawrence Gordon Clark’s 1972 addition to his annual, decade-spanning anthology series, A Ghost Story for Christmas. Both are now regarded by folk horror enthusiasts as quintessential entries to the canon, with Snap being an admirable attempt to recreate the same sense of macabre desolation that makes them such immersive viewing.

tells the story of a boy who is packed off on a hiking expedition across the Romney Marshes as part of a dubious school assignment, apparently intended to build character and make him better equipped for surviving the rat race. Narrative action consists largely of our hero traversing the fields and sands while gradually cottoning on to the fact that he is not alone out there; wherever he goes, he is stalked by a hooded, shadowy figure whose intentions, we suspect, are none too savoury.

As it turns out, our protagonist has unwittingly entered into a dangerous duel, in which his very future and identity are now at stake; the boy and his pursuer are portrayed by Alex Crockett (whom you may recognise as David Jefford from Press Gang) and Jason Rush (who later had a run on EastEnders), and the closing credits confirm that that they answer to a common moniker, Peter Ibbotson.

The story ends with the original Peter returning to the road where his father Frank (Roy Boyd) had agreed to collect him, only to discover that Shadow Peter has inexplicably taken his place in the passenger seat of his father’s van, as he is consigned, helplessly, to the oblivion of the darkened marshes. This is a children’s drama, yet no attempt is made to sugar-coat the bleakness of its conclusion; it trusts that its viewers can handle a full-on shot of teatime disturbance.

The influence of the M.R. James adaptations is evident in the emphasis on the lonely, implicitly forbidding nature of a seemingly picturesque landscape – a landscape so uncanny that the spectres therein feel like mere extensions of a bigger, more omnipresent threat, something that Snap allows to fester in its long stretches of silence, and the predominant absence of characters outside of Peter and his aggressor.

As with both Whistle and I’ll Come to You and A Warning to the Curious, a chase across beach terrain provides the film with one of its most indispensable sequences, while the figure of the Shadow Peter appears to have been consciously modelled on that of William Ager, the vengeful wraith from A Warning to the Curious. Snap is also book-ended by an extract from “The Rime of The Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

“Like one that on a lonesome road / Doth walk in fear and dread / And having once turned round walks on / And turns no more his head / Because he knows, a frightful fiend / Doth close behind him tread.” This reference gives additional weight to the ostensibly innocuous seagulls glimpsed as Peter nears the beaches on which his destiny is drastically rewritten, further emphasising the uncanny nature of the landscape by suggesting an inherent interconnection between the natural and the supernatural (in Coleridge’s poem, the title character was cursed for murdering an albatross that, it transpired, had some powerful allies).

The title Snap derives from both the underlying theme of duplicity (referring to the card game where the objective is to identify similar cards), and from Peter’s passion for Polaroid photography, a hobby that itself entails the replication of imagery. The early stages of Peter’s journey are experienced through the instant pictures he collects, static images that initially show an idyllic English countryside.

As Peter treads deeper into the marshes, his Polaroids are pervaded by increasingly macabre imagery – dead hawks, goat skulls and finally the murky silhouette of his own stalker surveying him from the shrubbery. It is implied, through a voiceover, that the camera was a gift from Frank, and that Peter’s desire to master the art of photography stems from the imperative to do his father proud. There is a cruel irony to Peter’s obvious attachment to an occasion on which his very existence was treated as cause for celebration, given that Snap deals with his obliteration from a world that seems all too eager to cast him aside.

Thematically, Snap has as much in common with those BBC ghost stories as it does the classic Twilight Zone episode Mirror Image, which sees Vera Miles competing with a malevolent doppelganger, apparently the expatriate of a parallel universe, for survival rights in her own timeline. Like Miles’ character, Peter seems fated to lose his battle for effectively no other reason than the woeful shortage of sympathy he finds among the bystanders to his plight.

Although Snap is largely a two-hander between Crockett and Rush, early on in his adventure Peter stops at a church where he is rejected by adult authority in the form of a trio of workmen who take an immediate disliking to him (one of them, a painter played by Sam Smart, tells Peter to “get lost”, an instruction he will be shortly forced to take all too literally).

The original Peter is unvalued wherever he goes, to the extent that there is arguably an air of conspiracy to the school’s response in sending him out to the marshes on his own; the insinuation is that the adults around him have set the stage for the Shadow Peter to supplant him, not so much through distrust or indifference than because they have willed the original Peter out of the picture.

The story’s conclusion is foreshadowed in the opening scene, when Peter glimpses his shadow-self attempting to hitch a ride from the vantage point of his father’s van, and is advised by Frank that, “I’ve got one layabout on board, let’s leave it at that.” The pivotal transformation occurs midway through the story, when the Shadow Peter manages to get hold of the original Peter’s yellow parka, leaving his own black coat for the original Peter to don; they have effectively shed and exchanged their skins with one another.

But even before then, it is suggested that Peter already has something of the Shadow Peter inside of him; we see flickers of a troublesome nature following his unwelcome reception at the church, when he potentially kicks a can of paint across a tombstone in retaliation, although the act itself occurs offscreen, leaving it unclear if the original Peter is actually the culprit.

This prompts the question as to the exact essence of the Shadow Peter, has he wandered in from a parallel dimension, like Miles’ sinister double, in which case the marshes might be seen as a supernatural crossroad at which different realities converge, or does he signify some suppressed part of Peter’s character that, out in the otherworld, is assuming frightening new life? The latter is hinted at in the climactic sequence, when Peter, lured once again into the illusory refuge of the church, is greeted by his shadow self with assurances of familiarity: “You know that you like me. The secret of me, the darkness of me and the things I do. You know me.”

If the implication is that Peter has willed his shadow self into being, perhaps out of frustration at the rejection he routinely faces from his adult company, then we might ponder to what extent Snap should be viewed as a morality story. Is Peter a victim of his own poor choices, and his ultimate inability to prevent his darker impulses from taking over? Or is he done in by the coldness of his adult overseers, who as good as push him down his self-destructive path?

The greatest betrayal occurs at the end, in Frank’s apparent failure to notice that the son he has picked up is not the same one he dropped off, raising questions as to his complicity in Peter’s fate. From Frank’s perspective, the excursion has been a success – Peter has been sent off into the marshes and come back a different person. Compared to his shrinking counterpart at the start of the story (who, in Frank’s words, could “just about string five words together”), Shadow Peter seems a livelier, more confident beast.

And yet, we sense that Frank’s willingness to accept his new, improved son could ultimately be to his own detriment, as foreshadowed in the story’s taunting punchline, supplied by the smirking Shadow Peter: “It’s alright, Dad. I’m going to be different from now on. You’ll see.” The “You’ll see”, echoed for effect, has dual meaning, highlighting the irony in Frank’s ostensible inability to see the difference while hinting ominously at Shadow Peter’s forthcoming retribution against the world to which he is now headed. In this regard, Snap is not so much a warning to the curious as to the callous.

Dramarama would again tackle the idea of a sinister mirror world infringing on our own in a 1989 instalment, Back to Front (and if I didn’t know better, I would swear that Jordan Peele saw this one prior to directing Us). The final outcome, while not dissimilar to that of Snap, incorporates a greater element of quirky humour. It would make for a brilliant double bill, if you’d prefer to wash the grimness down with a little malevolent glee.

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1 comment:

  1. Good review of one of the dark greats shown through Dramarama, always a broad church in terms of contributors and genre but the horror stuff always seemed to be a cut above much of it. 'Death Angel' is another excellent spooky story it featured, albeit originally broadcast as part of Theatre Box.

    Nice to see credit given to Michael Kerrigan and Richard Cooper as well, both responsible for some great television and sadly no longer with us. The latter's work in scripting children's drama serials (Quest of Eagles, Codename Icarus, Knights of God, Eye of the Storm) was exemplary in particular.