The BBC experienced a real golden age for television horror during the late 1960s and 1970s. Almost every year seems to have produced an array of horror delights, ranging from ghost stories of all types to full blown, psychological nightmares. Though now over half of the series is missing from the archives, 1972’s horror anthology Dead of Night and its surviving three episodes represent a very typical but rewarding batch of television horror. It seems that various series, from Mysteries and Imagination, Omnibus, Play for Today and many others all started to collectively share writers, directors and most importantly, ideas allowing what looks to be from the outset an entire sub-genre of its own to form.
Don Taylor’s The Exorcism (broadcast 5th of November) is the first episode in the winter series and sets the tone for horror of the era. Two couples are having a dinner party in their country cottage (this is of course the 1970s) when strange events begin to hamper their middle-class evening. Interestingly, this is the one of three surviving episodes that is written and directed by the same person. With the exception of the series’ second episode, it is clear that this makes a huge difference. Taylor’s story is the only one on the disc that can fit under the banner of folk-horror, sharing parallels with Robin Redbreast (which also has Anna Cropper as an isolated woman), The Stone Tape and many other programs which evoke creatures through disturbance; in this case the refurbishment of a country cottage.
The Exorcism has a number of wonderful moments as well as some entertaining period features. While the atmosphere becomes more and more suspenseful as the cottage seems to become possessed, it is still extremely difficult for one to ignore and not get distracted by Clive Swift and Sylvia Kay’s hyper-1970s clothing. Swift also brings to mind his role as Dr. Black in two of the BBC Ghost stories, making the series feel part of a natural family. The second episode, Return Flight by Rodney Bennett (broadcast 12th of November), adds to this collective feel by having more links to Doctor Who than perhaps any other program outside of Blake’s 7.
Return Flight, contrary to attention given to A Woman Sobbing, is the strongest of the surviving episodes. Peter Barkworth (Leader Clent to Who fans) plays an aircraft pilot under psychological pressure after the death of his wife and his apparent visions of a Second World War Lancaster Bomber as he is flying. The story is by Robert Holmes who needs no introduction for followers of the good Doctor. His working relationship with Rodney Bennett is well documented and it shows splendidly in this layered and highly ambiguous tale of hallucinations and escaping the past.
Out of the three stories Return Flight has aged the least, with little to indicate its era other than the obvious, multi-camera studio its filmed in. The colours are as muted as its main character, hiding behind the obvious stress of his life while seeming to be haunted by the generation of RAF pilots that took all of the glory and attention he missed out on. It’s also a sad tale, more mature than either story beside it and a surprisingly touching piece of work from the usually malevolent Holmes.
The final episode of the series (not counting The Stone Tape which, though made by the same team, was not released as part of the series) is Paul Ciappessoni’s A Woman Sobbing (broadcast 17th of December). With a script by John Bowen who penned the previously mentioned Robin Redbreast, it carries an interesting feminist theme alongside its ghost story. Like all of the stories here, the supernatural presence is ambiguous, potentially being dreamt up in the psyche of its main character. The story presents 1970s Britain as deeply misogynistic (which is pretty accurate) and the haunting as being a feminist problem with the ghost of a sobbing women above a bedroom only being heard by women.
There is a strange clash between the direction and the story itself. Ciappessoni’s style seems like an odd juxtaposition against Bowen’s story; constantly undecided as to whether it wants to address Bowen’s themes or go for a straightforward ghost story. In the end, it goes for neither and ends up being a satisfactory, but flawed story of cyclic hauntings and its connections to sexism.
The release itself has a few interesting, if slightly depressing curious. A gallery of stills from some of the missing episodes are available as well as PDF files of the scripts (sadly not available on this screener). While it’s sad to find yet more of Innes Lloyd’s (producer of Doctor Who between 1966 and 1968) work to be missing from the archives, making him one of the most hurt creative figure in the archive culls of the 1970s, the release is a testament to his ingenuity, the format of 1970s television horror and its effectiveness for dark, winter time viewing.
BBC Dead of Night is released by the BFI on the 28th of October.