Scratch Beneath the Surface of ‘Dead of Night’, If You Dare

[26 December 2013]

By Adrian Warren

You’d do well to respectfully appreciate each and every episode of this often overlooked supernatural anthology show, first broadcast by the BBC in 1972, for the following reason: regardless of Dead of Night’s artistic merits – of which there are several, by the way – the three shorts presented here are the only ones that survive from a total of seven that were originally broadcast. Genre fans will cringe at the reason why four are missing, too: the lost episodes were victims of the BBC’s extraordinary folly, embodied in a barmy official policy that dictated that master tapes of the corporation’s seminal shows were ordered wiped in order to recycle tape stock. Yes, really.

Such an historical oversight seems incomprehensible these days, and one can only assume that the BBC’s former powers-that-be deemed that their programming lacked cultural significance and was therefore undeserving of longevity, neither to be protected nor preserved for the enjoyment of future generations.

Watching Dead of Night would suggest there are flaws in that line of thinking. Even taking into account the BBC’s justification (tapes were excessively expensive when the audio-visual genocide was in full swing), it’s still an incredible shame that such irrevocable action was carried out. It wasn’t only Dead of Night that was affected by this policy, either; other notable casualties include early episodes of Doctor Who, Z-Cars, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s Not Only but Also, Hancock’s Half Hour and Top of the Pops. Thanks, Director General.

That said, whilst one can rue the four episodes that are forever gone, one can still celebrate and cherish what remains, and for this we must thank the BFI, ever-reliable as the preserver and guardian of Britain’s film and television heritage. The three surviving episodes are presented in this one-disc DVD collection, and each one possesses a clear, sharp and bright image that belies its age. The whole set is accompanied by an interesting assortment of supplementary material.

Whilst the fairly leisurely pace that was typical of the period may frustrate viewers looking for energetic and visceral supernatural thrills, I’d advise sticking with at least two of these episodes, for your patience will be rewarded with intellectual stimulation, and a tone of general strangeness that will eventually creep insidiously under your skin. Indeed, what marks out Dead of Night as special is the intelligence of its scripts; scratch below their subtle chilliness and you’ll see complexity evinced, manifested through clever subtext, often of a political or familial nature.

Dead of Night,

Dead of Night, “The Exorcism”

The opening episode, “The Exorcism”, written and directed by Don Taylor, is the most politically motivated of the trio, and it is also the only story that has developed something of a life beyond the original Dead of Night showing: since its first broadcast, “The Exorcism” has become a regular on the repertory theatre circuit. (I saw a pretty unsettling stage version about ten years ago, and it had lost none of its power).

Set in a large cottage in rural England, the episode features two wealthy, bourgeois couples, Dan and Margaret, and Edmund and Rachel (Clive Swift, Sylvia Kay, Edward Petherbridge and Anna Cropper), who are attending a Christmas dinner party. Initially the evening goes well, until electrical power to the house is lost, the abundant and lavish food spread seems to spoil instantaneously, and perhaps most ominously of all, the red wine acquires the taste and texture of blood.

The terror really sets in when the foursome realise that they can’t see anything at all in the pitch darkness outside the windows – just a void of black. Are they all trapped in an alternate dimension, are they experiencing an inexplicable natural phenomenon, or are the ghostly victims of a past injustice restless in the face of the party’s consumption and materialism?

Something of an interesting side note to the episode concerns the presence of Clive Swift as Dan, one of the male leads. Around this time, and in the space of just a year or so, Swift had a phenomenal acting run in several other high-profile genre projects. In addition to “The Exorcism”, he also gave significant performances in two of the BBC’s superb M.R. James adaptations for the Ghost Stories for Christmas series (The Stalls of Barchester and A Warning to the Curious), plus a role that probably represents the pinnacle of his career – a major appearance in Alfred Hitchcock’s brutal London-set thriller Frenzy. (Anna Massey, who plays the lead in Dead of Night’s third episode “A Woman Sobbing” also has a prominent role in Hitchcock’s film).

Dead of Night,

Dead of Night, “Return Flight”

The second episode is “Return Flight”, starring the reliable character actor Peter Barkworth as Captain Rolph, a stressed airline pilot distracted in the air by what appears to be a near miss with a WWII Lancaster bomber. “Return Flight” is by far the most oblique and subtle of the three episodes, with nothing overtly supernatural occurring during its entire running time.

This is not to suggest the episode is without merit, though some viewers may find its still, reflective tone a little on the dull side. Far more than an ambiguous ghost story (there is some speculation that Rolph hallucinated the whole incident anyway), “Return Flight” is really more about personal grief and coming to terms with bereavement and inadequacy than it is about tangible spooks and ghouls. The only dark shadows here appear to be in the recesses of Rolph’s damaged psyche, and this will no doubt disappoint some. The episode’s fairly predictable twist ending seems tacked-on, and doesn’t help matters either.

Dead of Night,

Dead of Night, “A Woman Sobbing”

The third and final episode is “A Woman Sobbing”, another strong entry. Veteran thriller writer John Bowen’s script is deliciously creepy, and concerns the family problems of young parents Frank and Jane Pullar (Ronald Hines and Massey). Whilst Frank seems content, Jane feels stifled and bored by her middle-class life, and she is, unsurprisingly, on the cusp of depression. With an already fragile mind, the last thing Jane needs is to start hearing the ghostly sounds of a woman sobbing throughout their new house.

Using such a generic trope as a narrative springboard could have resulted in a clichéd mess, but Bowen’s writing is both gently paced and yet pervasively disturbing, with a genuine sense of doom looming into sight as the episode progresses. Effective too is Jane’s increasing tendency to question her sanity as the sobbing sounds get louder and more frequent, and as her constitution crumbles, so the drama heightens. (Frank is inexplicably unable to hear the spectral sounds).

On a simple level, horror fans will enjoy the episode’s more unsettling sequences; certainly, the moments when Jane is alone at the top of the house and she is suddenly confronted with the loud and disembodied sounds of ghostly sobbing are not easily forgotten.

Overall, it’s easy to overlook just how ubiquitous this kind of programming was on terrestrial British television during the ‘70s. In addition to Dead of Night, there was also the BBC’s aforementioned Ghost Stories for Christmas series, its stablemate Supernatural, not to mention the terrifying The Stone Tape, a one-off play broadcast prime-time on BBC2 in ‘72.

ITV also contributed healthily to the genre with the excellent Nigel Kneale-scripted Beasts in the mid-seventies (unbelievably, Swift found time to appear in this series too), and the infamous Armchair Thriller, which contains the terrific episode Quiet as a Nun, very highly recommended if you have a penchant for a memorably frightening finale. British horror was even abundant at the cinema during this time; the iconic Amicus Productions was experiencing its golden age, the legendary Hammer Films was still active, and smaller production companies such as Tyburn and Tigon were threatening the market share of the two big players.

Sadly, those heady days appear to be over forever. Nowadays, the rare appearance of a supernatural anthology series on television is very much tied into nostalgia: it is often broadcast around the Christmas season (as those produced during the ‘70s normally were), and more often than not it is the brainchild of a prominent genre specialist such as Mark Gatiss, who seems to delight in resurrecting older programme formats, as seen with his own excellent four-part ghost story Crooked House), broadcast by the BBC in ‘08. Since then, nothing really.

Of course it’s nice to have genuine and high-profile fans of ‘70s genre programming paying lip service by creating a smattering of critically-acclaimed period homages here-and-there, but wouldn’t it also be great to be spoiled with a plentiful selection of new productions that don’t necessarily rely on the nostalgia ticket to proceed?

The horror genre seems more popular than ever at the cinema, so why not a reappraisal by a major British television broadcaster? Perhaps the BBC in particular could produce some new and regular genre programming as penance for wiping all those fabulous anthology shows from the archives; that’s the least it could do, right?

The disc’s extras are good, and include a gallery of stills from the lost episodes, downloadable scripts for the same, and a fully illustrated booklet featuring various in-depth essays and biographies.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/177533-dead-of-night/