Sunday, 20 December 2015

Dead of Night (1972)

Dead of Night was a short-lived BBC horror anthology series which ran for seven episodes in 1972. Only three episodes survive and have been released on DVD by the BFI. Having now watched the series I feel that it’s perhaps a pity that any episodes survived.

The first episode, Don Taylor’s The Exorcism, opens with a dinner party in a country cottage. The owners of the cottage have spent a great deal of money on renovations to make the cottage a snug comfortable country home. They have invited another couple over for dinner. 

Strange things start to happen. The electricity supply fails; the telephone goes dead. The food and wine have a strange taste. What can the explanation be?

Sadly the explanation is an excuse for some of the crudest and most manipulative television you’re ever going to be unlucky enough to be subjected to. It’s delivered in a smarmy self-satisfied and extraordinarily insulting manner. Most of all this episode is an opportunity for some very ugly wallowing in misplaced adolescent guilt. The DVD liner notes describe it as a Marxist ghost story and if you think that sounds like a spectacularly bad idea you’d be right.

Episode two, Return Flight, is much better. It helps that it had a competent writer in the person of Robert Holmes. A middle-aged airline pilot, Captain Rolph (Peter Barkworth) has a near miss shortly after departure from Hamburg. The only problem is that no-one else, not even his co-pilot, saw the offending aircraft. It also didn’t show up on ground radar. The German authorities are sceptical of Rolph’s story. Eventually it is decided that a DC-8 on a training flight may have wandered off course. Both the German authorities and the British investigators are happy with this explanation.

Captain Rolph is relieved that his reputation has been vindicated but then some rather disturbing things start to happen. He hears voices that appear to be the crew of an unknown aircraft in distress. He catches fleeting glimpses of the same aircraft he saw before - a four-engined propeller-driven aircraft. Perhaps it’s just a reaction to the recent death of his wife. Then he strikes trouble on another flight from Hamburg. Is he haunted by the past - or more to the point is he haunted by someone else’s past? Or is he imagining things?

It’s quite a good story with just enough ambiguity to keep things interesting. It also has the advantage that it’s a straightforward story without any axes to grind. It benefits from an exceptionally fine and subtle performance by Peter Barkworth.

The third of the surviving episodes (and the seventh to be transmitted) is A Woman Sobbing by John Bowen. A middle-aged middle-class couple have moved to the country for the sake of the children. The wife, Jane, hears the sound of a crying woman but nobody else hears anything and she slowly cracks up. The plot could have been disposed of in ten minutes (and even then it would be an uninteresting story). It’s padded out to 50 minutes with talking. Lots and lots of talking. Followed by more talking. It’s not even interesting talking. It’s deadly dull talking. It’s an object lesson in how not to make a television program.

This being the 70s a lot of the talking is about sex. It manages to make this into a very tedious subject. 

The story seems to have conceived as an exercise in social commentary and it illustrates all the reasons why social commentary makes for boring television. Jane is unhappy. Considering that she and her husband are wealthy and live in a lovely home and that her husband, Frank, is a pretty nice guy it’s easy to see why she’s unhappy. Who wouldn’t be? Being wealthy and living in a large comfortable picturesque house in the country must be Hell. They talk about their problems. Endlessly. Nothing happens until the entirely predictable ending (which happens to be very clumsily foreshadowed early on thus ensuring that there is no suspense at all).

The BFI have released the three surviving episodes on a single DVD. Picture quality varies from mediocre to poor. There are a few extras - there stills galleries from the lost episodes and fairly informative liner notes.

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