‘We are an elemental people’:
Grief, love beyond the grave and the liminality of the coast in Tigon’s
Neither the Sea Nor the Sand
In this in-depth essay, Paul Lewis examines Tigon Productions’ penultimate film, Fred Burnley’s 1972 ‘coastal gothic’, Neither the Sea Nor the Sand…
‘I want to marry a lighthouse keeper / And live by the side of the sea / I’ll polish his lamp by the light of the day / So ships at night can find their way / I want to marry a lighthouse keeper / Won’t that be okay’, sang Erika Eigen, performing lead vocals with the folk group Sunforest in 1969. This was also the year of publication of Gordon Honeycombe’s debut novel Neither the Sea Nor the Sand, which was adapted to the screen, for Tigon British Film Productions, by director Fred Burnley in 1972. In the US, Burnley’s film was distributed under the more lurid title The Exorcism of Hugh. It was the penultimate horror film produced by Tony Tenser’s Tigon British Film Productions: Tigon’s final horror film was the more conventional (in terms of its period setting, at least) Gothic horror picture-cum-monster movie The Creeping Flesh (Freddie Francis, 1973).
Burnley’s film opens on a tidal causeway. A woman, in a modish outfit that marks her as clearly out of place, crosses it, heading towards a rocky promontory on which sits a lighthouse that is accessible only at low tide, when the causeway is exposed. There, she encounters a brooding, handsome man. This is the first meeting between the fated lovers around whom the narrative of Neither the Sea Nor the Sand revolves: Anna (played by Susan Hampshire) and Hugh (Michael Petrovich).
Trapped in an unhappy marriage, Anna is holidaying on Jersey in the wintertime, reflecting on her relationship with her husband. Following their first meeting, she and Hugh grow closer and go on various outings together. Soon, their relationship becomes passionately sexual, and Anna decides to stay in Jersey with Hugh. They move into the house that Hugh shares with his brother George (Frank Finlay), a devout Christian who disapproves of their relationship.
Anna and Hugh decide to go on a holiday to the Scottish coast together. There, on an isolated beach, Hugh collapses suddenly. Anna runs to a nearby cottage to call for help, but by the time she returns to Hugh with the doctor, he is already dead. The cause of death is a sudden heart attack. That night, Anna mourns the loss of her lover. However, during darkness he returns to her; but he is silent and watchful.
Anna drives back to Jersey with Hugh. She faces the ire of George, who is convinced that his brother has returned from the dead, possessed by a demon. To prove this, he holds a burning candle underneath Hugh’s right hand: Hugh neither flinches nor cries out as the flesh burns. Insistently driving into town to find a priest who will exorcise Hugh, George’s car crashes and he is burnt to a crisp in the ensuant inferno. Anna is left with the silent, observant Hugh, whose flesh begins to decompose, and who communicates wordlessly with her, begging her to join him in death as she invites him into her bed.
Sometimes erroneously labelled as a zombie film, Neither the Sea Nor the Sand is probably best considered as an example of what this writer likes to term ‘Coastal Gothic’: a loose group of films made during the 1970s which feature tortured Gothic narratives in coastal settings, using this space (the inbetween-ness of the land and the sea) as a symbol of liminality. This includes the likes of Jess Franco’s Les possédées du diable (Lorna the Exorcist, 1974), Franco’s broodingly hypnotic shocker set in the French seaside resort of La Grande-Motte; Harry Kümel’s Les lèvres rouges (Daughters of Darkness, 1971), with its vampire narrative focused on the out-of-season resort of Ostend in Belgium; and Pete Walker’s The Flesh and Blood Show (1972), with its plot which features the unravelling of the past in the theatre at the end of a pier in a faded English coastal town (Cromer, in Norfolk). There are literary equivalents to these films, of course, in the form of recent novels such as Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney (2015) and Daisy Johnson’s Fen (2017).
Published in 1969, Neither the Sea Nor the Sand was Gordon Honeycombe’s first novel. Honeycombe was known to most as one of ITN’s most popular newsreaders (between 1965 and 1977); this was a role he took after struggling to find work as an actor. His initial period as a newsreader came to an end in 1977: he was suspended by ITN following publication of an article he had written for the Daily Mail which offered support for the national firemen’s strike, and in response to the suspension, Honeycombe quit his role. (In the mid/late 1980s, Honeycombe returned to television news broadcasting when he took the role as chief newsreader on TV-AM.) Leaving television news behind, at least for a finite period, he focused more intensively on his writing career – which included, in the early 1980s, assembling the volume The Murders of the Black Museum (1871-1970), an account of 50 murders associated with exhibits in the Black Museum at Scotland Yard.
Between 1957 and 1961, Honeycombe read English at University College, Oxford. During that period, Honeycombe had become interested in medieval theatre, co-directing and acting in mystery and miracle plays. (His first published book, in 1964, was Honeycombe’s own dramatization of one of these plays, titled The Redemption: A Play of the Life of Christ) Following the publication of Neither the Sea Nor the Sand, Honeycombe wrote another novel, the eerie Dragon Under the Hill (1972), which takes as its setting Holy Island and focuses on a lecturer in medieval history who settles there in order to finish his PhD. Honeycombe’s subsequent books were predominantly examples of non-fiction, and he continued to write stage plays and dramatisations for television and the radio.
Honeycombe adapted Neither the Sea Nor the Sand into a screenplay, though expressed considerable dissatisfaction with the finished picture. The script – and particularly, the dialogue during the love scenes – was reworked by Rosemary Davies, who a year prior had scripted the Jacqueline Bissett-starring drama Secrets for director Philip Saville. (Secrets is notable for being the first feature film shot on the Super 16mm format.) Honeycombe suggested that Tigon hired Davies to rework the script because they felt that a woman would have a better handle on the romantic aspects of the narrative. Honeycombe said that his worst suspicions were confirmed when he saw the finished film at a preview screening: he was mortified when, at the end, the man sitting behind him told his female companion, ‘I wouldn’t have paid to see that’.
Neither the Sea Nor the Sand was directed by Fred Burnley, and is Burnley’s only film credit as director: Burnley’s other directorial credits are in television (he had worked on episodes of programmes such as Whicker’s World and Omnibus), though earlier in his career he had been employed as the editor of a number of feature films, including Michael Winner’s The System (1964). Just three years after Neither the Sea Nor the Sand’s release, Burnley was working on a dramatization of the life of Alexander von Humboldt for BBC2 and developed lung disease after coming into contact with bat guano; this ultimately caused his death.
The title of Honeycombe’s novel (and, of course, this film adaptation) derives from a quote that opens the novel, ‘Neither the sea nor the sand will kill their love / Nor the wind take it in envy from them’. (This appears as an onscreen title over the closing images.) In the novel, this quotation is credited with a reference to the poet Ross Guyot. The poet was fictional, a concoction of Honeycombe’s; the name of this fictional poet was an anagram: ‘To S, yours, G’ – in fact, a dedication to Honeycombe’s parents. However, one wonders if (given Honeycombe’s abiding fascination with the medieval) the name was also an intentional allusion to the Thirteenth Century poet Guyot de Provins.
The phrase ‘neither the sea nor the sand’ actually originates within the Fourteenth Century allegorical poem Piers Plowman (c.1370-1390), which is generally credited to William Langland – though there is some dispute as to its actual author. Piers Plowman is often cited as being one of the origins of the Robin Hood myths: it contains the first literary reference to Robin Hood. (The poem notably associates Robin Hood with secularism, or possibly paganism, in the following passage: ‘I can noughte perfitly my pater-noster as the prest it syngeth [I don’t know my Lord’s Prayer as the priest says it] / But I can rymes of Robyn Hood and Randalf erle of Chester [But I know stories of Robin Hood and Ranulf, the Earl of Chester]’.)
In Piers Plowman, Langland writes ‘Neither the sea nor the sand nor the seed yieldeth / As they were wont. In whom is the fault? / Not in God nor in the ground that they are good no longer; / And the sea and the seed, the sun and the moon / Do their duty day and night, and if we also / There should be plenty and peace, perpetual for ever’. The passage speaks of the manner in which people have become alienated from the land, using this as a metaphor for Papal encroachments and non-residency – whereby the fruits of a region were harvested for the Catholic Church rather than being ‘reinvested’ in the regional economy (Piers Plowman has been interpreted as a work of anti-clericalism and a call for reformation; its presumed author, Langland, has more directly been cited as a follower of John Wycliffe, the Fourteenth Century Roman Catholic dissident).
Whether Honeycombe was drawn to the simple poetic purity of this phrase (‘Neither the sea nor the sand’) or had an eye on its more profound context – its anti-clericalism, and its focus on the relationship between land and folk – is unclear. Certainly, however, within Neither the Sea Nor the Sand there’s an undercurrent of a pagan understanding of the relationship between land and folk: Hugh and the coastal environment seem inseparable; Anna is merely an interloper in this immortal love affair. And set against them is the devoutly Christian George, with his fire and brimstone rhetoric, and his suggestion that the ‘returned’ Hugh is possessed by a demon (and therefore must be exorcised).
The first version of the novel was written in 1963/64, based on Honeycombe’s experiences of the coasts of Jersey and Sutherland, and inspired by a dream the author had in which he found himself in a snow-covered field and encountered a grave with footsteps in the snow leading away from it. This led Honeycombe to wonder if someone were to come back from the dead and leave their grave, where would he go? At that point, the novel was titled ‘The Undiscovered Country’; and via paradigmatic substitution, the snow in Honeycombe’s dream became, in his novel, sand. In terms of location for the initial meeting of Anna and Hugh, Honeycombe specifically thought of St Ouen’s Bay in winter and the causeway leading to the La Corbière lighthouse, which sits on a rocky promontory.
Honeycombe was fascinated with beaches and isolated coastal environments – the place where the sea – with its uncontrollable tides, its constant push and pull, its potential to erase and create via the process of longshore drift – meets the land. The coastline is a liminal space, a place of inbetween-ness: in between the tide and the land, in between life and death. The entirety of Neither the Sea Nor the Sand takes place in this space of ‘inbetween-ness’: even Anna and Hugh’s trip to Scotland focuses on the Scottish coastline, Hugh frolicking in the tide like a child – the visit to the coast like a return to home for him – whilst Anna, a ‘townie’ through and through, waits with quiet impatience. It is on the rough sands in Scotland that Hugh dies suddenly, from heart failure, and is left alone in his final moments as Anna rushes back to their distant lodging house in order to seek assistance.
Neither the Sea Nor the Sand establishes its coastal setting in the opening moments, with a languorous pan across the rocks against which the tide crashes, towards the causeway that Anna crosses, heading towards the lighthouse. There, she encounters Hugh. ‘It’s very lonely here’, she observes. ‘Like the edge of the world’, he responds. ‘Is this all there is?’, she asks. ‘Depends where you’re going’, Hugh replies philosophically, ‘It all begins again out there [the sea]. Perhaps there’s a road, hidden under the water, lined with drowned souls’. Hugh adds portentously: ‘Before they built the lighthouse, this place was a graveyard for ships. There are hundreds of wrecks out there’. Hugh asks why Anna has decided to visit Jersey in the wintertime. ‘It can’t be very real in the summer’, she says. ‘Everything’s real’, he tells her, ‘Reality is total’.
With this, the opening titles play out, the film’s main theme – with a breathy Edda Dell’Orso-style vocal – begins to swell. (Till this point, it’s been buried in the mix, beneath the dialogue, the crashing of the waves and the cawing of the gulls. The score, incidentally, was by Nachum Heiman, whose other credit in 1972 is Amos Sefer’s obscure oddity An American Hippie in Israel). It’s an enigmatic opening: the portentous, clipped, Pinter-esque dialogue; the coastal setting in wintertime; the contrast between Hampshire’s metropolitan modishness and Petrovitch’s brooding earthiness; the melancholic female vocals. In fact, it wouldn’t be out of place in a European example of Gothic cinema of the period: a Riccardo Freda film or a Mario Bava picture, perhaps.
Ever the romantic, Hugh takes his new love to the cemetery where generations of his family are interred. ‘We are the last of the Dabernons, my brother George and I’, he tells Anna, ‘We are all that’s left of centuries of Dabernon lives’. This sense of history is something which the film returns to time and time again, Honeycombe’s interest in the medieval coming to the fore every now and then. When Anna is introduced to George, the trio have dinner together, and George tells her of the long line of Dabernons: ‘We are a very ancient family, you know,’ he says, pointing to a mounted brass rubbing of Sir John Dabernon in a full suit of armour (‘Direct line back to the Thirteenth Century’). On one of their outings, Hugh takes Anna to an ancient burial mound. ‘I wonder if their ghosts are watching us’, she says. ‘Maybe’, Hugh responds, ‘“The past is another country”, someone once said. A part of us is always there’.
The relationship between George and Hugh is strange and off-key. George’s prissy mode of address is underscored by his clear disapproval of Hugh’s relationship with Anna – but whether this is because Anna is married, or because she is a cultural outsider is unclear. Anna is an outsider to Jersey, but as a modern metropolitan woman she is also an outsider to the coastal community – and coastal communities have notoriously scathing attitudes towards ‘townies’. In fact, later, on a cinema date with Hugh, Anna will self-deprecatingly describe herself as a ‘townie girl’, and by contrast, Hugh will tell her playfully, ‘We are an elemental people’. ‘I brought you up when our parents died’, George reminds Hugh over dinner with Anna, ‘You can tell that, can’t you.’ ‘He’s been a real mother to me’, Hugh tells Anna in a quietly snide manner. Later, after he realises that Hugh and Anna have slept together, George chastises his brother: ‘It’s disgusting. In mother’s room. In her bed. You were probably conceived in that bed [….] There are certain standards’. ‘Standards?’, Hugh asks George, ‘Blue films after bridge are okay, but making love to a real, live woman…’
Later, when Hugh and Anna sleep together during their trip to Scotland, the sex scene is that rare beast: a sex scene that is explicit without being graphic, and which is utterly integral to the film’s plot. Trimmed by the BBFC for the film’s original UK release (and it’s hard to imagine this scene being trimmed without an enormously detrimental effect on the audience’s understanding of Anna’s obsession with Hugh), it’s a naturalistic scene of love-making with a ‘did they or didn’t they’ sense of realism almost on par with the infamous sex scene in Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). The passion it evokes explains Anna’s dedication to Hugh which extends beyond the grave. There is a sense of an animalistic connection between the two that supersedes Hugh’s often dour demeanour.
Following Hugh’s death and return, despite George’s assertion that his brother has become possessed by a demonic entity (and the increasingly deathly pallor of Petrovitch’s makeup, including some funky contact lenses, suggesting bodily decay), Anna tries to keep hold of her love with Hugh by inviting him seductively into her bed. At this point, we know that something is not quite right about Hugh: he simply sits, or stands, and stares darkly, and Anna has been caring for him like a child. Yet… she still invites him into her bed: she removes her dressing gown slowly and lays back on the bed, hoiking up her nightdress invitingly to reveal her thighs. (On the soundtrack, a wonderful motif played on a harpsichord dominates, the instrument again suggesting a connection with the past.) The camera zooms in to her face, her lips parted expectantly. Then Burnley cuts to Hugh standing at the foot of the bed, glowering darkly, and there are brief flashbacks to the sex scene which takes place much earlier in the narrative. There is some cutting back and forth between these elements (the closeup of the expectant Anna, the closeup of the passive Hugh, the flashbacks to the earlier sex scene – moments of tenderness intercut with the aggression of passionate lovemaking) and… thankfully… a fade to black. Then: a fade-in on morning. A knock at the door. Anna hides Hugh in a locked room before answering it – aware that he is her dirty secret: at the door is the centenier (a senior rank within Jersey’s long-standing honorary police), come to tell Anna of George’s death in a car accident.
It’s a profoundly memorable scene, haunting because of its intimation – rather than what it depicts explicitly. A moment of necrophilic passion that thankfully shies away from the graphic excesses of, say, Jorg Buttgereit’s much later, punk-ish Nekromantik (1987) and Nekromantik 2 (1991), it anchors Neither the Sea Nor the Sand’s story as a narrative about love that extends beyond the grave. If the coastal terrain (with the promontory linked to the coast by the causeway along which Anna and Hugh walk in the film’s opening sequence) is a space that exists between land and sea, a symbol of the liminal space between life and death, passion (whether that take the form of sex or love is a matter of opinion) is for Anna and Hugh the causeway between life and death.
Hugh, the story suggests, is conjured back to life through Anna’s passion for him, and embodying this passion he tries to entice Anna to join him. After Anna has been informed of George’s death by the centenier, Hugh embraces her. She welcomes this, at first, but struggles when she finds that his hold on her is too tight (a fitting metaphor for their relationship, more generally). ‘Kiss me’, he implores telepathically, forcing her lips onto his. Anna resists. ‘You are dead!’, she screams and manages to break free, shutting herself in one of the rooms as Hugh batters at the door like one of George Romero’s undead ghouls in Night of the Living Dead (1968). ‘Please, Hugh, stop it!’, she begs, ‘Please stop loving me! Just put me down! I don’t want to die!’. What if your lover, the person with whom you share a bed and moments of profound intimacy, was perhaps not who you thought them to be? That is the pivot of the uncanny on which this sequence – and the film’s story as a whole – rests.
‘It’s my belief that when you’re called, there’s no power on Earth that can interfere’, the doctor in Scotland asserts after declaring Hugh dead: but the passion that Hugh and Anna share seems to transcend the Earthly. George, a man of faith, has a different perspective to the doctor: ‘When does a man die?’, George asks philosophically, ‘Who knows what happens at the moment of death? The soul doesn’t die: it simply leaves the body. Though what if it didn’t – if it went on living in a dead body, a prisoner in a body decaying around it? Is it possible?’ George concludes that Anna is the reason for Hugh’s current state of torment: ‘You’re the witch, trafficking in the devil. You have conjured an evil spirit into his dead body’. ‘My love for him has given him life’, Anna protests. To this, George asserts angrily, ‘It’s revolting! His flesh is cold, dead. There is no pulse, no heartbeat. Hugh’s body is rotting. It’s disintegrating hour by hour’.
Neither the Sea Nor the Sand has some parallels with the ‘Wish You Were Here’ segment of Freddie Francis’ Tales from the Crypt, also released in 1972, in which a businessman, Ralph Jason (Richard Greene), dies and is wished back to life by his wife Enid (Barbara Murray) – only for Enid to realise that Ralph has already been embalmed, and she has wished him into an existence of eternal agony as the embalming fluid courses through his body. Both stories, of course, have their roots in W.W. Jacobs’ 1902 short story ‘The Monkey’s Paw’, in which a man, Mr White, uses a spellbound monkey’s paw to wish his dead son Herbert back to life – only to realise that he has called his beloved son back into existence within a rotting corpse’s shell (to paraphrase Vincent Price’s memorable narration for Michael Jackson’s 1983 pop ditty ‘Thriller’). All of these are essentially narratives about confronting grief and loss – the same universal emotions that led to the rise of Spiritualism during the mid-Nineteenth Century and which contribute to an ongoing cultural fascination with grief, mortality and speculation about what comes after.
Most of Neither the Sea Nor the Sand is presented through the eyes of Anna, and Hugh remains a mystery for much of it. When he returns from death, Hugh’s silence is the silence of the grave, a symptom of his otherworldliness. With this sense of the uncanny at its heart, and a profound sense of place, Neither the Sea Nor the Sand has the texture of a folk tale – something that is evoked by a particularly memorable score, which is too rarely-discussed in coverage of the film, from Nachum Heiman. The film’s coastal setting is integral to its exploration of that liminal zone between life and death – and the manner in which love, desire and passion enable Anna and Hugh to traverse this. The profound sense of the uncanny is the cost of living by the side of this proverbial sea.
 Honeycombe, Gordon, 2015: ‘Far Away and Long Ago’. [Online.] http://www.gordonhoneycombe.com/Auto_Bio/auto_biography.html
 Honeycombe, op cit.