Tuesday, 2 July 2019
Unnatural Causes: Lost Property
The climax to Lost Property is so unsettling and so enshrined in nightmare territory that it's one of the most disturbing moments of British television. But barely anyone remembers it.
Perhaps it was so shocking that the nation decided to blank it out from their memories. Or there weren't enough people watching. It was, after all, part of the forgotten Unnatural Causes anthology series. Airing on ITV in late 1986, Unnatural Causes was comprised of seven standalone plays which all focused on unusual deaths. I'd written about the magnificent Hidden Talents episode on here before, so I decided to try another edition to see how it compared. And Lost Property turned out to be equally intriguing.
As adults we often find ourselves yearning for a sense of childlike innocence. This desire for a simpler existence is no surprise. Adulthood is a time of dubious decisions and moral indiscretions. We don't want to give in to base desires, but we can't resist. Unless we're a particularly well behaved member of the clergy. Anyway, does childhood innocence hold all the answers? Or are we looking at it through a lens rose-tinted with nostalgia? Probably. It was so long ago (for most of us) that it's difficult to remember. Nonetheless, we live in an adult world and we wouldn't get very far if all we did was play hopscotch and sing nursery rhymes.
Anne Forest (Miranda Richardson) disagrees with this. And she should know a thing or two about childhood as she owns a school. Unfortunately there's one minor detail missing from her school: schoolchildren. Following an inheritance, Anne purchased the school from the previous owners and moved in there with her artist husband John (John Duttine). With no formal training in education, Anne is unable to transform the fire damaged school (hence the favourable price) into a bastion of learning once more. Instead she rattles around the empty corridors with all the pretenses of a teacher dedicated to her pupils' cause.
Anne's eccentric behaviour hints at a troubled soul, but it also sounds a death knell for her marriage. In her quest for innocence, Anne has retreated into a chaste existence. And this is in sharp contrast to her past actions. John spitefully claims that, in the past, he had to wait his turn behind the rest. But now even this 'turn' has evaporated into the ether. It's not only sexual frustration which is straining the sinews of John's sanity. Anne's reluctance to restore the school, along with a converted studio for his art, has pushed his patience to breaking point. Relegated to sleeping in the staff room, John is prone to exploding into bursts of furious anger.
This marital strife will soon pale into insignificance. Strange things are afoot within the confines of the school. A chilling atmosphere begins to descend and this disturbing mood is heralded in when Anne hears an unseen child singing outside the building. Later, while Anne is collecting pond samples, a small, cloaked figure is seen hurrying around the perimeter of the pond. John's axe soon goes missing and a mysterious chopping sound echoes around the schoolyard late at night. Cracks begin to appear in Anne's adopted innocence and, after John mocks her for having plenty of black marks in her register, she viciously beats him with a cane. And then Marian Price (Louise Hellecar) arrives.
Shrouded in mystery, Marian is an enigmatic character who claims to be an ex-pupil of the school. Anne first comes face to face with Marian when she discovers her sat at a desk in the classroom. And, with a disturbing calm, Marian proceeds to tell Anne about the old days of the school. Marian was very fond of the previous owner Miss Palmer and she's also keen to point out how dangerous the pond, with its entangled weeds that pull you under, can be. Anne also has a warning for the future. She doesn't want anyone sitting at her old desk. And, if they do, Marian promises to hurt them.
Lost Property certainly sets up an absorbing premise and it's one that's difficult to ignore. I was overjoyed to discover Hidden Talents a couple of years ago as it summed up the world of Curious British Telly. It was forgotten, it was downright disturbing and its atmosphere permeated into my mindset for days. So, when I got a tipoff that one episode featured Miranda Richardson and John Duttine I had to investigate.
Fresh out of Blackadder II, Richardson is fantastic as Anne. It's a character which is a world away from the brattishness of Queen Elizabeth and Richardson inhabits Anne with a subtle arrogance and desperation. John Duttine, of course, is that little bit older and that little bit more experienced. And his performance is tremendous, all packed full of naturalism and power. The chemistry between the two is an unusual and enthralling one. It demonstrates not only the impact of past indiscretions and mental health, but, beneath all bitterness, the burning embers of love. Louise Hellicar, whose CV is ridiculously short, cuts an understated figure as Marian, but it's a chilling performance shot through with a psychopathic vengeance.
These characters find themselves in a world created by writer Peter J. Hammond, a man whose well-stocked back catalogue also includes sitcom Lame Ducks which Duttine starred in. And the world that Hammond has crafted is an unsettling, claustrophobic one. The narrative within Lost Property is confined to the grounds of the school which has the effect of imposing a lonely, remote atmosphere. It's an ambience which reflects the mental condition of Anne whilst also underlining the tragedy of a school where joy and excitement has long been extinguished. Lost Property is also well paced. Despite the low-key action throughout the play it never feels as though time is dragging. And, given that the play is close to 35 years old, this is a testament to the writing.
Where Lost Property really excels is with the ambiguous nature of Marian. A smudged name tag beneath a coat hook in the cloakroom bears the name Marian, but who is she? A malevolent spirit who died in the fire at the school? Or maybe she drowned in the pond? If, in fact, she is still very much a fixture in reality, perhaps she is aggrieved by the suicide of the school's previous owner Miss Palmer. There's a level of psychopathy on display when Marian first meets Anne in the classroom, but her behaviour and movements are far too otherworldly for someone who lives on the other side of the village. Peter Hammond wants the viewer to wrestle with their own interpretations of such obscure motives and it's a device which cranks up the mystery to almost unbearable levels.
Anne's bid for innocence is also shot down by the events unfolding in Lost Property. Two years of pretending to be someone else has done nothing but escalate her misery. Running away from past indiscretions solves nothing. Better to face them and move on rather than trying to cover them with a fragile veneer. Anne finally realises this and decides that it's time to reconcile with John and move on. But it's too late. She's encroached and tinkered with a world of innocence for too long. The ending, which is superbly intertwined with several callbacks, is shocking when it arrives.
If you plan on watching Lost Property then it's probably time to stop reading this paragraph as spoilers lie ahead. The sight of Marian, with all emotion drained from her face, clutching a hand scythe and advancing on the screaming and restrained Anne is nightmarish. It coincides with John investigating the pond, but the viewer is well aware that the jetty into the pond is unsafe. And those unforgiving weeds are not going to let go of him. It's a dark, downbeat ending and one that makes every organ in the body squirm in horror and discomfort. A bleak denouement, but one that sums up the brilliant, grisly nature of the play.
Due to various copyright issues I can't put Lost Property up on YouTube - things seem to be taken down from there more readily than ever these days - but if you want to take a look at the play then feel free to send me an email!