Afore Night Come by David Rudkin

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RSC programme, 1962.

Not a review, this, you can’t really review a stage play you’ve never seen. Following the re-viewing of David Rudkin’s White Lady I’ve gone back to some of the published plays. If all you know of Rudkin’s work is his television drama, the plays are instructive for showing the consistency of his themes across the years. The recent resurgence of interest in Penda’s Fen and Artemis 81 has seen Rudkin’s work included among that group of film and TV dramas that Rob Young memorably labelled Old Weird Britain (after Greil Marcus and The Old, Weird America), a loose affiliate that would include films such as The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw, and television works by Nigel Kneale, Alan Garner (The Owl Service and Red Shift) and the MR James adaptations, one of which, The Ash Tree, was also written by Rudkin.

If the Old Weird Britain lies at an intersection between different dramatic forms—ghost story, horror story, science fiction, historical drama—then not all of Rudkin’s work would fall into the intersection, but two of the plays—The Sons of Light and his first staged work, Afore Night Come—could be coaxed into the charmed circle: The Sons of Light, with its sinister human experiments taking place underground, has ties to Artemis 81, while Afore Night Come is another piece about (intentional or otherwise) human sacrifice in rural England. I hadn’t read Afore Night Come until last week, and was struck by its similarity to John Bowen’s Robin Redbreast (1970), a more deliberately ritualistic piece of work. In its first act Afore Night Come is an almost documentary-like account of a day in the life of workers hired to pick the pear harvest in an orchard outside Birmingham; the eruption of violence in the second act is certainly foreshadowed but seems less premeditated than in Robin Redbreast, a factor which has apparently shocked many audiences. During its performances in the early 1960s the tendency was to see the play in the light of Harold Pinter and Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, it’s only in retrospect that a connection with more generic works emerges. There’s also a connection to White Lady via the pesticide spraying about which the workers are continually warned, and whose advent coincides with the moments of violence.

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Sight and Sound, August 2010. Illustration by Becca Thorne.

A couple of other things are worth noting: until 1968 all the plays performed in Britain were vetted by the Lord Chamberlain’s office who would routinely strike out any material deemed offensive or irreligious. Knowing this I was surprised by the recurrence of the word “fuck” in Rudkin’s script, and also the hint of same-sex attraction between two of the male characters, a detail that would usually have been removed. It seems that plays pre-1968 could be performed without censorship if the theatre was declared to be a private club for the evening (a similar state of affairs helped evade some film censorship) which is what happened with Afore Night Come in 1962. Given this, and the incident of a decapitated head being rolled across a London stage (probably the first since the Jacobeans, says Rudkin), it’s easy to see why audiences at the time might have felt assaulted, although the play still won the Evening Standard Drama Award that year. Sexual ambiguity/ambivalence or outright homosexuality have been a continual thread in Rudkin’s drama yet he’s seldom been given much credit for this pioneering work. A year after Afore Night Come there was Rudkin’s first play for television, The Stone Dance, a piece which sounds like another potential addition to the works in the Old, Weird Britain catalogue. Rudkin describes it thus:

A Revivalist pastor pitches his crusade tent within a Cornish stone circle. His repressed son becomes sexually obsessed with an outward-going local boy, and suffers a hysterical loss of speech. A storm blows the pastor’s tent away, and amid the stones, their primal purity reasserted, by the boy’s accepting touch the son is healed.

I believe that, prior to this, no tv play had overtly treated homosexual emotions as a central theme. (In Britain at this time, any gay sex could incur a prison sentence of up to two years.)

Many of the TV plays from the 1960s are now lost so there’s no guarantee that we’ll ever see this, a shame considering that Michael Hordern and John Hurt were the leads. No guarantee either that we’ll see any staging of the more interesting plays like The Sons of Light and The Triumph of Death which seem to be too eccentric for theatre directors. The scripts can at least be picked up relatively cheaply. To date there’s only Afore Night Come that seems to be revived with any regularity. Michael Billington, a long-time champion of Rudkin, reviews the Young Vic production from 2001 here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
White Lady by David Rudkin
The Horror Fields
Robin Redbreast by John Bowen
Red Shift by Alan Garner
Children of the Stones
Penda’s Fen by David Rudkin
David Rudkin on Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr

Richard Williams’ Christmas Carol

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It’s easy to loathe the teeth-grinding sentimentality of Charles Dickens’ seasonal tale, as well as its subtext which isn’t so far removed from Emperor Ming’s instruction to his cowed populace in Flash Gordon: “All creatures shall make merry…under pain of death.” Yet as a ghost story I prefer A Christmas Carol to the sketchier The Signal-Man, and I’ve always enjoyed this memorable 1971 adaptation from the animation studio of the great Richard Williams.

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Marley’s ghost.

Williams is best known today for his role as animation director on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? but prior to this he’d distinguished himself as creator of the florid title sequence for What’s New, Pussycat? (1965), and the animated sections—done in the style of 19th-century engravings and political cartoons—for Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968). Williams’ Christmas Carol owes a similar debt to Victorian graphics, not only to the original story illustrations by John Leech, but also to Gustave Doré’s views of Victorian London, scenes which had earlier influenced the production design for David Lean’s adaptation of Oliver Twist. Williams’ film crams Dickens’ story into 25 minutes but nonetheless manages to maintain the tone of the original to a degree which eludes many feature-length travesties, especially those in which the nightmare squalor of Victorian London is reduced to a shot or two of dressed-down extras. Dickens had first-hand experience of the squalor: Kellow Chesney’s The Victorian Underworld (1970) quotes at length from one of the journeys Dickens took (under police escort) through the notorious St Giles rookery, and his ghost story was intended as much as a warning to the complacency of middle-class Victorian readers as a Christmas celebration.

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The Ghost of Christmas Past.

For me the crucial moment in any adaptation comes when the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the figures of Ignorance and Want: in most film versions these tend to be a pair of well-fed child actors in rags and make-up; Williams shows us two grim spectres that owe more to Gerald Scarfe than Walt Disney. Williams is also truer to the ghosts themselves: Dickens describes Jacob Marley unfastening his jaw which falls open then remains that way while he proceeds to speak to his former friend; the Ghost of Christmas Past is the androgynous figure from the story with its ambiguous nature also shown by its shimmering indeterminate outline.

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Ignorance.

Any animated drama relies on its voice actors, and Williams was fortunate to have Alistair Sim (as Scrooge) and Michael Hordern (as Marley) reprising their roles from the 1951 film version, while Michael Redgrave narrates the tale. The film used to be a seasonal fixture of British television, and may still be for all I know (I haven’t owned a TV for years). For the time being it’s on YouTube, of course, with a full-length version here that’s blighted by compression artefacts but is watchable enough. 2012 is the Dickens bicentenary so expect to hear a lot more about the author and his works in the coming year.

Update: The version linked to originally has been deleted. No matter, there’s a much better copy here (for now).

As usual I’ll be away for a few days so the { feuilleton } archive feature will be activated to summon posts from the past below this. Have a good one. And Gruß vom Krampus!

Previously on { feuilleton }
“Who is this who is coming?”

“Who is this who is coming?”

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Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968).

He blew tentatively and stopped suddenly, startled and yet pleased at the note he had elicited. It had a quality of infinite distance in it, and, soft as it was, he somehow felt it must be audible for miles round. It was a sound, too, that seemed to have the power (which many scents possess) of forming pictures in the brain. He saw quite clearly for a moment a vision of a wide, dark expanse at night, with a fresh wind blowing, and in the midst a lonely figure—how employed, he could not tell. Perhaps he would have seen more had not the picture been broken by the sudden surge of a gust of wind against his casement, so sudden that it made him look up, just in time to see the white glint of a sea-bird’s wing somewhere outside the dark panes.

MR James, Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.

One of the alleged highlights of this year’s Christmas television from the BBC was a new adaptation of an MR James ghost story, Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad. The film starred John Hurt and came with the same truncated title, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, as was used for Jonathan Miller’s 1968 version, also a BBC production. The story title comes originally from a poem by Robert Burns. The new work was adapted by Neil Cross and directed by Andy de Emmony, and I describe it as an alleged highlight since I wasn’t impressed at all by the drama, the most recent attempt by the BBC to continue a generally creditable tradition of screening ghost stories at Christmas. Before I deal with my disgruntlement I’ll take the opportunity to point the way to some earlier derivations. (And if you don’t want the story spoiled, away and read it first.)

Continue reading ““Who is this who is coming?””