Lady Summerisle (strange_complex) wrote,
Lady Summerisle

TV: Mystery and Imagination (ABC / Thames Television, 1966-70)

Obviously there has been much political drama over the past couple of days, but I don't really have anything profound to contribute to the related commentary and speculation other than "What a farce! Revoke Article 50 now." So I shall tidy up and post these thoughts about some old telly instead.

Mystery and Imagination is a Gothic anthology series broadcast on ITV in the late '60s. It originally consisted of five series. The first three, produced by ABC, offered several 30-minute episodes usually based on short stories, and the final two, produced by Thames Television, tackled whole novels in an 80-minute format. Sadly, all but two episodes and an additional three-minute clip from the first three series have been lost - I assume wiped for similar reasons to the BBC's Doctor Who recordings. Reading through their titles is an actively painful experience for anyone who loves Gothic horror and old telly. I'd especially love to have been able to see the four M.R. James adaptations they did, which are obviously crucial context for the ones the BBC started producing from 1968 onwards. But the two Thames Television series remain intact, and they plus the surviving remnants of the ABC era are now available on this DVD box set which I received for Christmas.

I have been watching it regularly in the evenings since, taking notes as I went along - and with increasing intensity and enthusiasm as I realised just how good this series actually is. I wanted the set primarily (and inevitably) for the 1968 version of Dracula with Denholm Elliott in the title role, but made the decision once I had the whole thing to watch what remained of it in broadcast order. That was absolutely the right thing to do, because it turned out that the Thames Television parts of the series in particular were actively innovative almost to the point of being radical - if that's not too ridiculous a thing to say about what is still fairly stagey and largely studio-bound black and white (except the final series) telly. Anyway, since the Dracula episode came more or less in the middle of my viewing experience, it meant I was prepared to expect something unusual by then because of what I'd seen before - and also knew I could confidently expect more of the same afterwards. Of course, now I've seen everything which survives and know how good it is, the loss of the early episodes seems all the more painful - but there it is. Comments on each individual story in (surviving) broadcast order follow below:

Series 1

3. The Fall of the House of Usher. Like most of the series, this is certainly based directly on Edgar Allan Poe's short story, but also departs from it quite happily and self-confidently. It's really a major hall-mark of the whole series to do this, and where I was in a position to judge it was particularly striking that they'd usually done it very independently - that is, they were by no means following lazily or slavishly in the footsteps of other adaptations. In this one, an obvious consequence of the shift from page to screen was that the unnamed narrator of the original story became a named character called Richard Beckett with a more fleshed-out life of his own including a fiancée called Lucy. More importantly, though, of the two Ushers, it's Madeleine rather than Roderick that we meet first, when she turns up at Richard's house saying she has run away from Roderick and asking for sanctuary. This already has the effect of shifting the focus of the story towards Madeleine rather than Roderick, and that just continues when she is first abducted from Richard's house and then tracked down by him back at the Usher home with Roderick. There, Denholm Elliott certainly puts in some sterling if slightly scenery-chewy work as Roderick (and of all roles some scenery-chewing is positively expected there), but he is if anything out-weirded and out-creeped by Susannah York as Madeleine, especially once she has begun to lure Richard's affections away from sensible, ordinary Lucy and decides that her best plan of action is to murder Lucy. In other words the story is far more about women and their agency than Poe's original ever was. A great first introduction to the series.

4. The Open Door. By contrast, I didn't know this story in advance, so I'm not able to comment on how it relates to the original. On the other hand, that meant I could really enjoy the thrill of the mystery it presents, in which several different characters in succession hear the disembodied voice of a child moaning, crying and calling for its mother to 'let me in!' around the ruins of an old, semi-ruined building. This was done really well, with the voice itself sounding very convincing and spine-chilling. In fact, the structure of the story was such that the first two sets of people we saw investigating the phenomenon were a pair of military men followed by a doctor - so, in other words, highly practical and rationalistic people unlikely to get spooked out over nothing. With them as our representatives within the story stomping around the ruins never seeing anything, but hearing the voice loud and clear and experiencing obvious bafflement and disquiet as a result, it all began to feel very real and unsettling indeed. Things were resolved when a clergyman was brought to the site, and not only recognised whose lost spirit the voice must belong to but was able to order it into the afterlife - so, as is often the case in Gothic horror, religious faith achieved what Enlightenment rationalism could not, and meanwhile the ghost lost its thrilling allure. Jack Hawkins excelled in this one as the worried father of the school-boy who initially reports hearing the voice, but according to the DVD box set notes a noticeable croak in his own voice on this production was the effect of cancer which would shortly mean he had to have his larynx removed, and it was heart-breaking to hear.

Series 2

No surviving episodes

Series 3

13. Casting the Runes. Just three minutes of this survive, so it's hard to judge what the original would have been like, but they are enough to show the same combination of faithfulness to the text yet freely self-confident adaptation found elsewhere in the series. They mainly cover the scene in which Dunning seeing a mysterious death notice in the window of his omnibus (so far, so true to the original), but in this version it is his name in the notice rather than Harrington's, and is displayed with a date of death one month hence. Frustratingly intriguing!

Series 4

19. Uncle Silas. This is where the 80-minute treatments of novel-length stories begin. I haven't read Uncle Silas and wasn't expecting to enjoy it all that much as I did know it didn't involve anything supernatural. But actually I found myself engrossed, partly precisely because I didn't know it so could enjoy seeing how the story unfolded, and indeed discovering how it relates to other classics of Gothic literature. I assume that Silas' family name, Ruthyn, owes a debt to Polidori's The Vampyre (and before him Lady Caroline Lamb's parody of Byron). I could also see some clear influences on Dracula, especially around Silas and his castle. His young niece Maud, who comes to live in the castle after her father dies, ends up in much the same position as Jonathan Harker - she can't leave the estate but certain parts of the castle are also locked up, and when she tries to send a letter for help with a local labourer, she finds it back in the hands of her captor the next day (and a search on the word 'letter' through an online edition of the text confirmed that that's taken directly from the original). Obviously I wasn't well-placed to spot significance departures from the source text, but I certainly found this adaptation well-paced and well-acted, with particularly cracking turn from Robert Eddison in the title role. His best line, spoken to his good-for-nothing son, which I'm tempted to make an icon out of at some point: "I fear there is nothing for you but the colonies."

20. Frankenstein. Again clearly written mainly from the book, though there are detectable traces of both the Universal Frankenstein movies (a hunch-backed assistant called Fritz, Victor's family bursting into his house at the height of his first experiment) and the Hammer ones (cheery inn scenes, off-screen sawing). To fit the story to the time-slot, the action starts in medias res with Victor's experiments in Heidelberg and remains there throughout. His family (omitting his father, who never really mattered) come to him there, and all the murders, his wedding to Elizabeth and the final confrontation between him and the Being (as it is called in the closing credits) also occur there. There is more explicit focus than I remember from the novel on the issue of Frankenstein playing the creator - at one point he explicitly articulates the power that creating a living being would give him, while later on his creation, perceiving him as 'God', draws the conclusion that 'God bad'. This must all have felt very central and crucial in the late '60s, when a lot of baby boomers were turning round to their parents and announcing that they did not believe in God. Most brilliantly of all, though, in a stroke of genius which I can't remember encountering in any other adaptation of Frankenstein, both Victor and the Being are played by the same actor (Ian Holm). This means the Being can literally accuse Frankenstein of making him in his own image, that they can be mistaken for one another and blamed for one another's crimes, and that the full resonances of the two of them as opposite numbers and antagonists can be appreciated. For late '60s TV produced on a limited budget, this really is one of the most intelligent and interesting adaptations of Frankenstein I have ever seen. Point of interest: between this and Uncle Silas, this marks two stories in a row involving cousins marrying as a major plot point.

21. Dracula. This was the adaptation I really asked for the collection for, and it blew me away. I've known about it for years, and it would have been difficult not to become increasingly interested in it since friending [personal profile] calliopes_pen and [personal profile] thisbluespirit on DW, since both are enthusiastic advocates for it. But it wasn't until sitting down and starting to watch through the rest of the collection that I really began to understand why they might be so keen. I definitely see now. Just like the rest of the series, it shows a strong knowledge of the original book and previous screen adaptations, but is also quite bold in departing from them. It uses the same conceit as the 1931 film of having the person who goes to the Count's castle as an estate agent also accompany Dracula back to England on the Demeter and become the madman in Seward's asylum. But in the 1931 adaptation that character is called Renfield and Jonathan Harker is a separate (and very wet) individual. In this adaptation, Jonathan is both the madman and Mina's betrothed, and because she is in love with him and he spends the whole film raving about the powers of 'the Master' (never either recovering from this or dying), this ties her closely to Dracula and his influence throughout. It all culminates in what is surely the most radical characteristic of this adaptation - Mina (and Jonathan) both still being clearly under the influence of vampirism as the closing credits roll, despite the fact that Dracula himself has been destroyed. Indeed, this may well explain the similar ending of The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula (LJ / DW), written two years later, which likewise focuses strongly on a central female character and ends with her inheriting Dracula's powers. Meanwhile, this adaptation doesn't start with the Transylvania sequences, but in Seward's salon (which has been moved to Whitby, as in the 1931 film and preceding stage play) after Dracula has already arrived and has become a regular visitor. We do see a little of Jonathan's experiences at Dracula's castle in flashback, though, including the brides whom I noticed were played by one Caucasian, one Asian and one Afro-Caribbean actress. It means that between them they accounted for the three parts of the world shown on a medieval T-O map, and as such I think reflected something of the theme of imperialism by world conquest which is very definitely present in the novel, and came out strongly in the Classical references I explored in my Brașov paper. Certainly, the Dracula of this adaptation quite explicitly proclaims that he wants to hold sway over the world, while his large Georgian villa - which a fascinated Lucy explores alone during the daytime - helps him to appear quite the colonial gentleman in a way that a crumbling abbey wouldn't have conveyed. His vampirism is presented as a blurred pagan / Satanic cult, offering rebirth to life everlasting - again something set up in Stoker's novel and developed by the Hammer vampire films, but much more concrete and explicit here. He has Nosferatu's fangs, but they only appear when he is ready to feast. Otherwise, he is human-looking but with a weakness for light which causes him to wear modern-looking rectangular sunglasses - perhaps the antecedents of Gary Oldman's in Dracula (1992)? Meanwhile, Hammer's impact is detectable in many motifs - falling autumn leaves, Van Helsing pressing a cross into vampire!Lucy's forehead, the Count melting in the sunlight at the end and leaving his ring on the ground in a pile of his dust. They probably also had more than a small part to play in vampire!Lucy's splendidly erotic approaches to Mina: "Let me kiss you, my dearest" and "There is no pain, only desire!", actually culminating this time in Lucy biting Mina herself. Once again, as with The Fall of the House of Usher, the female characters command our attention while the men are noteworthy mainly for their propensity to faint at the drop of a hat.

Series 5

22. The Suicide Club. This was the first episode produced in colour and they certainly made use of it! I particularly enjoyed the club President's purple velvet tail-coat. This was another story I wasn't previously familiar with (beyond the basic concept), but judging from Wikipedia it was an amalgamation of the first and third stories in the original collection. There was only one woman in it this time - Hildegarde Neil as an unnamed femme fatale who turned out to be the President's wife - but she did an excellent line in depraved callousness, and was stunningly beautiful to boot. Wikipedia tells me she is married to Brian Blessed - quite a pairing!

23. Sweeney Todd. I wasn't particularly looking forward to this one, as for me the story of Sweeney Todd sits alongside Jack the Ripper in the category of 19th-century stories which are actually just about horrible murders but which for some reason many people treat and adapt as though they were the same sort of macabre fairytales as Dracula (though Sweeney Todd does at least have the advantage over Jack the Ripper of not being a real person). The dreadful 2007 Tim Burton musical version didn't do anything to help with that (LJ / DW). I put it on anyway, as I'd committed to watching the whole series, and felt much the same as I have about previous adaptations for the first half hour. Gradually, though, I began to realise that this was far from a straight adaptation. Rather, this Sweeney is clearly insane. He has psychotic episodes which include seeing visions, hearing voices, and experiencing whole sequences of events which can't be real and which he usually wakes up out of with a shock, but which start by seguing so seamlessly out of normality that it's impossible for the viewer to tell when they begin, and thus what is 'real' and what is not. The result is that our own sense of 'reality' also erodes, so that we are essentially experiencing his psychoses right along with him. For a long time, our working assumption has to be that he has been driven mad by his own crimes - and his evident obsession with and desire to return to childhood innocence, as represented by a face free of hair, supports that view. But the ending reveals something almost worse, for him at least. Some closing dialogue between the police sergeant who has come to collect him and his apprentice strongly suggests that he had never actually killed anyone at all. The whole thing - the murders, his conscience and his discovery - were all in his mind. I'm no Sweeney Todd expert, but skimming through the Wikipedia page suggests that adds up to yet another exceptionally innovative adaptation, as I should have known by now I could expect from this series. Big bonus points for having Freddie Jones in the title role, demonstrating very much the same inner torment as he does so well in his role as Professor Julian Keeley in The Satanic Rites of Dracula - not to mention also Peter Sallis of Taste the Blood of Dracula in a smaller supporting role.

24. Curse of the Mummy. Finally, an adaptation of Bram Stoker's Jewel of the Seven Stars, which to my shame and sorrow I know only from other screen adaptations such as Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (1971; LJ / DW) and The Awakening (1984; LJ / DW). That means I know it's about an archaeologist who opens the tomb of the dangerous and transgressive Egyptian Princess Tera, his daughter Margaret, born at the moment of the tomb's opening, who looks exactly like Tera, and his attempt to resurrect the princess using seven lamps and a jewel with the constellation of the Plough inscribed upon it, only for this to result in her possessing his daughter. However, I'm unable to tell how faithfully any given adaptation has or hasn't followed the original novel (which I really need to put right very soon), although a read of the Wikipedia entry for the novel suggests that this is considerably closer than some. Particularly striking in this one is the fact that both the archaeologist and his friend are consciously aware of the daughter's resemblance to the princess and how much she seems to know about the princess' life (without anyone telling her), and have already commented that the princess seems to be speaking through her, well before they begin the reincarnation ritual. So they don't seem to mind at all that the princess is going to possess her, and indeed seem to be deliberately trying to complete that process - a big contrast with her father being horrified when he realises the consequences of his actions in both Blood from the Mummy's Tomb and The Awakening but (according to Wikipedia) quite in line with the novel. In any case, both the father and his friend are dead by the time it happens, so they never get to react either way. Quite a lot of the character behaviour within this story doesn't really make sense - e.g. the highly secretive archaeologist allowing a police officer to stay in the house after very little persuasion on the very night when he plans to conduct the resurrection ritual, or likewise allowing a doctor to perform an unspecified experiment with the mummy's hand despite the fact that we've already learnt it is immensely precious to him, or inviting that doctor to take part in the resurrection ritual despite barely knowing him, or the archaeologist's friend undertaking a long and arduous expedition to Egypt to retrieve some lamps for him, only to return with them saying he doesn't think the ritual should be completed and begging him not to do it. Well, why did you bring him the lamps then? Some of this, including the lamp business, is directly addressed and explained away as the workings of Tera's will - but far from all of it. There's also some quite trippy lighting and sound effects, which verged on Doctor Who-style SF effects at one point. And there is Patrick Mower, best known to me as naive cult initiate Simon in The Devil Rides Out (1968) as the doctor. Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, when we see Tera in her sarcophagus in this adaptation, she is not a withered and wrapped mummy, but a youthful-looking and beautiful woman, lying there as though in stasis. That is, she looks very much like Valerie Leon as Tera in Blood from the Mummy's Tomb, except somewhat more modestly dressed.


I'd thought that was an innovation on Hammer's part for reasons of obvious viewer titillation, but this TV adaptation was broadcast on 23 Feb 1970 while Blood from the Mummy's Tomb wasn't released until 14 October 1971, so it was certainly done here first - unless perhaps somewhere else before either?

That, then, is the lot, and hugely enjoyable and interesting they were too. Come for the Dracula, stay for the innovative adaptations, female agency and insights into telefantasy history. Great work all round.

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Tags: bram stoker, cult tv, dracula, edgar allan poe, frankenstein, gothic literature, horror, horror films, reviews, tv

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