Weekend links 508

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Detecting the Forgery (1967), a collage print by Gary Lee-Nova.

• Nigel Kneale’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black was given a UK TV screening in 1989, followed by a brief video release after which it was buried for years, and subsequently overshadowed by the later (inferior) big-budget feature film. Network will be releasing the Kneale version on blu-ray in May. I wrote about the TV film a while ago.

• At the BFI: David Parkinson on 10 essential films featuring the late Max von Sydow, a welcome riposte to obituaries that headlined the often mediocre Hollywood fare that Von Sydow elevated with his minor roles. And at the same site, John Berra on where to begin with the martial arts films of King Hu.

• “Enthusiasts Archive, an artistic project by Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewandowska, is the result of extensive research amongst the remnants of amateur film clubs in Poland under socialism. It is a critical archive of amateur films found, restored and made available online.”

Stephen Calloway, co-curator of the Tate Britain Aubrey Beardsley exhibition, and drag performer Holly James Johnston sit down to tea to discuss the “dos and don’ts” of dandyism according to the artist.

• Mutinous Jester: The Collage Novels of Akbar Del Piombo by Gregory Stephenson. Related: Fuzz Against Junk: The Saga of the Narcotics Brigade (1959) by Akbar Del Piombo.

• Michael Richey on chindogu, the useless inventions of Kenji Kawakami.

• From farting to fornication: John Boardley on early print censorship.

Douglas A. Anderson on a case of plagiarism in Weird Tales.

• Mix of the week: mr.K’s Soundstripe vol 3 by radioShirley.

How To Get To Spring is a new album by Jon Brooks.

Rufus Wainwright‘s favourite music.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Occultists.

Spring Rounds From The Rite Of Spring (1975) by Alice Coltrane | Springlight Rite (1981) by Irmin Schmidt & Bruno Spoerri | Spring Returns (1999) by Isao Tomita

Shades of Darkness

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The end of the year in Britain is as much a time for ghost stories as the end of October, and this is one Christmas tradition (one of the few…) that I’ve always been happy to support. In recent years all of the best of the British TV ghost stories have appeared on DVD, along with some of the minor ones, but exceptions remain. Shades of Darkness was a series of hour-long supernatural dramas made by Granada TV in the 1980s, and so far seems to have only appeared on disc as a now-deleted Region 1 set.

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The series comprised two short seasons in 1983 and 1986, and dates from the period when Granada was in serious competition with the BBC for well-crafted period drama. Granada’s flagship production was the long-running Sherlock Holmes series, an attempt to film all the Holmes stories with Jeremy Brett in the lead, a mostly successful endeavour that was only compromised at the end by Brett’s failing health. Shades of Darkness shares with the Holmes adaptations some of the same production team (producer June Wyndham Davies and director Peter Hammond) together with well-chosen rural locations in damp and autumnal Lancashire and Cheshire.

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I’d only seen one of these films before, the adaptation by Ken Taylor of Walter de la Mare’s most anthologised story, Seaton’s Aunt. The story is a good choice for a series where the human drama is given as much space as the supernatural although the film doesn’t capture the subtleties or the insidious horror of de la Mare’s best writing. (The copy at YouTube is also blighted with Norwegian subtitles throughout.) I doubt that any adaptation of Seaton’s Aunt could satisfy me but it’s good to see Mary Morris in one of her last roles as poor Seaton’s malign and domineering guardian.

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More successful are Afterward by Edith Wharton, another popular entry in ghost-story collections, and The Maze by CHB Kitchin in which Francesca Annis’s post-war housewife is tormented by memories of a dead lover. Kitchin’s story is an odd inclusion among the familiar tales, and I wonder how it came to be chosen when it doesn’t seem to be subject to the same republication as the others. MR James biographer Michael Cox is credited as an executive producer on some of the films in the series, which suggests he may have advised on the story selections, but not on The Maze. Kitchin was a writer best known for his detective novels but he’s received more attention in recent years for a number of novels with gay themes. The Maze includes a character coded as gay who isn’t treated as an outright villain, an unusual detail in a story first published in 1954.

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Elsewhere, Hugh Grant has an early role in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Demon Lover, and there are three adaptations by Alan Plater, one of which, LP Hartley’s Feet Foremost, is another frequently collected story which Plater surprisingly mishandles. Plater’s adaptation of The Intercessor by May Sinclair is better, with John Duttine in the role of a writer trying to work in a haunted farmhouse. I saw Duttine on stage a few years after this when he played a similar role as The Actor in the first theatrical run of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. It’s possible that The Intercessor secured him the part.

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All these films are currently on YouTube with the exception of the final episode in season two, The Last Seance by Agatha Christie. Watch them here.

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Previously on { feuilleton }
The Return: a ghost story
Nigel Kneale’s Woman in Black
“Who is this who is coming?”

Nigel Kneale’s Woman in Black

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The British television tradition of screening a ghost story at Christmas was filled in 1989 with Nigel Kneale’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel The Woman in Black. This isn’t one of the best contributions to the annual ghost drama but at 100 minutes it’s one of the longest, and it has its supporters, some of whom value it above the recent Hammer film production. Seeing as I’d re-watched Nigel Kneale’s major film and TV works earlier this year I thought I’d give The Woman in Black another look. It was better than I remembered although it still left me feeling unsatisfied.

I’ve not read Susan Hill’s book so can’t say how it compares to the television version in any detail. (Wikipedia has a spoiler-heavy list of the differences.) I did see Stephen Mallatratt’s play in 1988, however, the first adaptation of the book which has since become one of London’s most popular theatre productions. The play conjures an effective sense of dread but relies a little too much on loud noises to shock the audience at crucial moments. This is a cheap trick in bad horror films (Wes Craven does it a lot), and it’s just as cheap a trick on a stage. Nigel Kneale may have altered Hill’s story to a degree which apparently displeased her but he didn’t resort to any Craven tricks.

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The BBC’s Christmas ghost stories have tended to be MR James stories, and The Woman in Black is very much a James pastiche which no doubt helped make it attractive to ITV. All the James hallmarks are there: a man of letters (solicitor rather than a scholar) visiting an isolated part of the English countryside; a lonely house; fearful locals; mysterious deaths; documentary evidence that requires examination; a haunting.

Adrian Rawlins is the young solicitor, Arthur Kidd, given the task of putting the estate of a dead woman in order. Rawlins would have been fine in a smaller role but he wasn’t a good choice for a central character, not when Kidd is on screen every minute of the running time. Far better is the always excellent Bernard Hepton as a genial landowner, a very different role to his sinister Fisher in Robin Redbreast. There’s a lot of solid period detail—Kneale’s dialogue fixes the date at around 1925—and the writing and direction manages to avoid insulting the intelligence. In place of the usual voiceover reading of letters we have Kidd listening to a succession of recording cylinders, an unlikely thing for an elderly woman to be using but it does give the film a connection back to Van Helsing’s device in Dracula. There’s even a surreptitious reference to Kneale’s “stone tape” theory when Kidd says that the ghostly sounds he keeps hearing are like a recording of a terrible event. Director Herbert Wise does some clever hide-and-seek business with the spectral woman, only fumbling things near the end when he makes the mistake of trying to imitate Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. So why does this version still remain unsatisfying?

Continue reading “Nigel Kneale’s Woman in Black”

Weekend links 190

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Seam Stress (1987) by Laurie LiptonThe Drawings of Laurie Lipton is out now from Last Gasp.

• The Quietus continues to be essential reading: John Doran talks to Richard H Kirk about Cabaret Voltaire | Sarah Angliss, musician and inventor of music machines, talks to Stuart Huggett | “…the most overt literary lodestar for The Art Of Falling Apart is John Rechy, trailblazing chronicler of the gay underbelly of hustlers and queens zig-zagging across America, and author of Numbers, the book from which Soft Cell’s song takes its name.” Matthew Lindsay looks back at Soft Cell’s second (and best) album.

• “The English have something of a tradition where they like to scare you out of your mind at Christmas, a kind of sobering up of the senses by forces that seem to be beyond them.” Colin Fleming on The Signal-Man by Charles Dickens. More ghosts: Lisa Kerrigan explains why she loves Nigel Kneale’s 1989 TV adaptation of The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, and the BFI resurrects The Mistletoe Bough (1904), “the oldest film version of a classic Christmas ghost story”.

• “…the story is filled with a whole mess of embarrassed and embarrassing euphemisms for (ahem) big dick—stiff language, so to speak, like ‘bludgeon,’ like ‘giant concupiscence’ and ‘ostentatious organ.'” Steven Cordova on A Visit to Priapus and Other Stories by Glenway Wescott.

• “Never produced, the screenplay for The Way to Santiago is credited to Orson Welles. A quick look at the text leaves no doubt it was the work of the Citizen Kane filmmaker when he was at the peak of his arrogant brilliance. The script begins: ‘My face fills the frame.'”

• If you’re at all interested in the current state of the British musical underground, the end-of-year lists at Ears For Eyes are worth your attention.

Pee-wee’s (Remastered) Christmas Adventure: An interview with Paul Reubens. Related: Grace Jones sings Little Drummer Boy for Pee-wee.

• “I’m like a drag queen at Halloween.” John Waters on his favourite time of year: Christmas.

• Mix of the week: Secret Thirteen Mix 099, an “(anti)Christmas mix” by Robert Curgenven.

• The British Library makes over a million free-to-use images available at Flickr Commons.

• Lost in Translation: Notes on adapting Ballard by Calum Marsh.

MR James at Pinterest.

Book Map by Dorothy.

Martin (1983) by Soft Cell | Ghost Talk (1985) by Cabaret Voltaire | For Laika (2011) by Spacedog