Green Belt Gothic:
Dead of Night
David Evans-Powell takes a look at the 1972 anthology series Dead of Night and its particular delight in terrorising the middle-class…
Perhaps rather aptly for a horror series, Dead of Night is as much of a haunting presence as those ghosts the episodes present. For much of the time since its broadcast, it has been characterised by its absence or its inaccessibility.
Only three of its seven episodes survive – ‘The Exorcism’, ‘Return Flight’, and ‘A Woman Sobbing’ – and, until the BFI DVD release of these surviving episodes in 2013, only one of them – ‘The Exorcism’ – had been repeated since its original broadcast, when BBC Four showed in on 22 December 2007. A proposed eighth episode – Nigel Kneale’s highly acclaimed play The Stone Tape (Peter Sasdy, 1972) – was instead given an extended running time and was broadcast on Christmas Day 1972 separate from the Dead of Night banner. Dead of Night then, has been overshadowed in many ways by both its own elusiveness and by the starriness of what could have been its jewel in the crown. It is fortunate then that the BFI’s release of the surviving episodes – a release that also includes the scripts from the missing episodes – has given the series well-deserved visibility and a whole new audience. Even the missing episodes, by virtue of the scripts, are more present now than they have been since the initial broadcast.
Originally broadcast between 5 November and 17 December 1972, during a boon period for British television horror (Christmas 1972 would not only be led up to by the seven instalments of Dead of Night, but would also see the broadcast of The Stone Tape and, that year’s A Ghost Story for Christmas – ‘A Warning to the Curious’, Dead of Night is part of a tradition of British television horror anthologies that included Mystery and Imagination (1966-1970) on ABC and later Thames Television, Late Night Horror (1968) on BBC Two, and the aforementioned A Ghost Story for Christmas plays (1971-1978, 2005-2006, 2010, 2013, 2018-2019) that had been preceded by the 1968 adaptation of ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You‘ as part of Omnibus.
Where Late Night Horror and Mystery and Imagination opened their episodes with montages of unsettling imagery (close-ups of bare branches, birds flapping in slow-motion, skulls grimacing at the camera) against a soundtrack of low, ominous music, Dead of Night instead opts for something far more arresting. In place of the somewhat cliched assemblage of eerie elements, Dead of Night episodes open with the sound of footsteps, running through the undergrowth of a forest rendered as a deep red negative image. The camera tracks with the sound of the footsteps, while an unearthly whistling sound becomes ever louder, giving the impression that the camera is a figure fleeing from the unseen source of the noise. As the sound reaches a crescendo and seems to be almost on top of the moving camera it cuts abruptly to the title caption. It’s a sequence of only 18 seconds but is striking for its intensity, brutal minimalism and focus on narrative as opposed to solely imagery.
The series borrows its title from Ealing Studios’ 1945 horror film, perhaps drawing a connection between the film’s portmanteau structure and the anthology nature of the television series. Perhaps also, the series’ producer Innes Lloyd intended for some of the stately prestige with which the film was regarded would rub off on the series. In contrast to the A Ghost Story at Christmas plays, the Dead of Night plays were intended to be original material rather than adaptations and were also all set in the modern-day (another similarity with the 1945 film: though the individual tales are not dated, none of them appears to be out of step with the time period of the framing device) rather than the Victorian/Edwardian eras or the indeterminate Mittel-Europe of the 19th Century so often favoured by the horror genre. Indeed, Lloyd had claimed that ‘there is nothing at all gothic about the series. No characters in sheets, no funny noises late at night’ (Kerrigan, 2013). Lloyd’s comment betrays a feeling that the series’ emphasis on the contemporary, and possibly on original writing, elevates it above the gothic tradition more commonly associated with horror and exemplified by Mystery and Imagination (which entirely comprised adaptations of works of literary horror from the 19th and early 20th Centuries).
Lloyd’s comment though is one that Lisa Kerrigan understandably takes issue with. While he is right in that Dead of Night does not feature any of the motifs usually associated with the gothic (cobwebbed castles, decaying aristocratic families, portentous stormy weather) it is heavily preoccupied with gothic themes and conventions. In fact, in terms of themes explored, Dead of Night is as close to gothic as you can get. The trappings may be different, but the gothic substance is there.
Dead of Night is an interesting mediation between two forms. On the one hand, it is both immediate and modern. Lloyd is right to draw our attention to the modernity of Dead of Night, bringing horror to the houses, streets and offices immediately familiar to the viewer. Helen Wheatley has commented upon this ‘terrifying turn towards the domestic, with the Gothic anthology relocating from the past to the present day’ (Wheatley, 77). She goes on to site Dead of Night in a wider tradition of the contemporary set and originally written British anthology series, including Haunted (1967) and Thriller (1973 – 1976). Later in the decade, A Ghost Story for Christmas would move in a similar direction with the final two plays in the original run – Stigma (1977) and The Ice House (1978) – both contemporary-set pieces of new writing.
Most of the Dead of Night plays could, as with episodes of Nigel Kneale’s Beasts (1976), Play for Today (1970 – 1984) and Hammer House of Horror (1980), be described as ‘green belt Gothic’. All of them are set, at least in part, within the homes of socially aspirational middle-class families nestled either in suburbia or the rural hinterland of the commuter belt. The streets and houses would look very much like those the viewer would see every day from their windows. Similarly, the lifestyles represented would have been remarkably familiar for a large proportion of the audience, not only from real life but from a whole host of other television programming. As with many of these other series, the episodes of Dead of Night ‘drew on British television’s recognisable narratives and image repertoire, from the hapless family of the domestic sitcom to the homes and workspaces of the social realist drama, producing a series of horrific narratives out of the everyday fare of television drama’ (Wheatley, 78). In the no-longer-extant episode ‘Two In The Morning’, Peter Jeffrey plays a down on his luck, hen-pecked husband who is not a million miles away from seventies sitcom staples like George Roper (George and Mildred, 1976-1979), Wally Batty (Last of the Summer Wine, 1973-2010), and Basil Fawlty (Fawlty Towers, 1975 & 1979), while the shifting of action between home and office in episodes like ‘Two In The Morning’ and ‘Smith’ recalls the soapy antics of middle-class melodramas like Compact (1962-1965) and The Brothers (1972-1976).
There is clearly a very deliberate choice made by the creative team that the viewer should see the Dead of Night plays as a mirror image – albeit a slightly distorted one – of their own lives. In addition to Innes Lloyd’s desire for contemporarily written and contemporarily set horror plays, the writers and directors also understood that this was the series’ intention. In the script for ‘Bedtime’, writer Hugh Whitemore describes the house in which protagonists Lorna and Geoffrey live as ‘the ‘Habitat’ lifestyle’, referring to the Habitat brand founded by Sir Terence Conran in 1964 in Chelsea. An iconic, swinging sixties brand, by the seventies it had become chicer through commissioned artwork from leading British Pop Artists, and more affordable with the arrival of flat-pack furniture in 1971. The Habitat look – the modern, sleek, almost Scandinavian style – was popular with the British affluent middle-classes, as were the new houses, built-in modern estates and that allowed for a greater degree of open-plan living. Whitemore’s script directions highlight that Lorna and Geoffrey’s new house is ‘a new development of about thirty so-called ‘executive’ townhouses’, while Lorna responds to her mother’s sniffy disapproval at the non-traditional layout of the house that ‘it makes more space, more light.’
It is telling how preoccupied the Dead of Night episodes are with the suburban and domestic lives of the British middle-class. Aside from some short external scenes, almost all of ‘The Exorcism’, ‘A Woman Sobbing’ and ‘Bedtime’ are set in these spaces. Even those set predominantly in less familiar settings – Madame Tussauds in ‘Smith’, an aeroplane in ‘Return Flight’, and the (one presumes) more upper-class country estate of novelist Powys Jubb in ‘Death Cancels All Debts’ – still feature scenes located within the middle-class home.
It is this emphasis on domesticity, even intimacy, that provides the Gothic themes to the episodes, despite what Innes Lloyd may have said. While the settings may be modern, middle-class and almost mundane, the intensity with which the emotion of the domestic space is brought to the fore identifies these as Gothic tales. The Dead of Night plays sit in a similar tradition to more immediately, recognisable Gothic horror tales, such as The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963) and The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961) in which the horrors experienced can be interpreted as much to be the manifestation of the protagonist’s troubled emotional and psychological state as they are the actions of an external haunting entity.
Certainly, as with Miss Giddens in The Innocents (itself one of numerous adaptations of Henry James’ 1898 novella and psychological horror ur-text The Turn of the Screw) and Eleanor Lance in The Haunting, there is a significant implication that the protagonists of the Dead of Night plays may be experiencing ghostly phenomena as an expression of their suppressed desires and anxieties. And Like Miss Giddens and Eleanor Lance, many of these protagonists are female. This is another commonality with the Gothic horror tradition, that of the heroine under psychological or emotional threat. In all but two of the plays the main character experiencing the manifestations is female. Male characters do witness or suffer at the hands of the manifestations, but usually in a secondary role.
Geoffrey may be concerned about Lorna in ‘Bedtime’, but it is she who is apparently possessed and victimised. Edmund and Dan may experience the same phenomena as Rachel and Margaret in ‘The Exorcism’, but it is the women – and especially Margaret – who are the focus. In ‘Smith’, Michael may be the one possessed but his girlfriend Anne is the intended victim of the possessing spirit. As well as the female protagonists, a significant number of the antagonist ghosts are female too. ‘The Exorcism’ sees the ghost of a poor woman, who starved to death with her children, seeking retribution, while in ‘A Woman Sobbing’, Jane is the only one who can hear the ghost of a woman crying from within the attic. In the case of ‘Smith’, the spirit may be a man – the ghost of serial killer George Joseph Smith, known as the ‘Brides in the Bath’ murderer – but the nature of his crimes is very much one focused specifically upon women. Curiously, those two episodes in which men are the leading characters – ‘Return Flight’ and ‘Death Cancels All Debts’ – see these characters haunted by the ghosts of younger men, respectively a Second World War fighter plane crew, and a friend who was the focus of unrequited love.
The domestic space amplifies the suppressed desires and anxieties that are bubbling away under the surface. Whole episodes take place almost entirely within the home, in kitchens, hallways, lounges, dining rooms and (particularly) bedrooms. Often the episodes move from domesticity to intimacy, unusual for a British horror series of the time. In ‘Bedtime’, it is implied that Lorna is possessed by a spirit that inhabits her antique brass bedstead and the relationship between her and the bed is described in sexual terms. The script directions describe Lorna as enveloped by the bedsheets ‘wrapping her body in a close embrace. The camera to Lorna’s face. Suddenly it’s difficult to distinguish between pain and pleasure; Lorna’s facial reactions become disturbingly ambiguous as the sound of her painful breathing reaches its climax with a whimpering cry.’ There is then a direction for Lorna to reach out and grasp the bed frame in a gesture deliberately designed to recall a sequence earlier in the episode when making love with her husband. In ‘Smith’, Michael’s possession by George Joseph Smith highlights a prurient fascination with intimately charged crimes in which a husband would kill his wives when they were naked and vulnerable in the bath.
Earlier in the episode, Anne has a conversation with Madame Tussaud’s owner Mrs Hunter about the female attraction to ‘lady-killers’ with Anne commenting that ‘the fact that a man commits a murder … the truth seems to be that women liked them.’ Elsewhere in the plays, the frustrations stemming from the absence of intimacy are the anxieties bubbling away under the surface. In ‘A Woman Sobbing’, Jane makes pointed comments, based upon a magazine article she has read, on the decline of a man’s desire for sexual intercourse after 40 (her husband Frank is 41). Meanwhile, the gas fitter makes sexually suggestive comments to her when he comes to check for a suspected gas leak. ‘Bedtime’ sees Geoffrey and his neighbour Keith discussing the likely inevitability of marital boredom and the possibility of infidelity. The marriage between Wisbich and his wife Jessie in ‘Two In The Morning’ is sour, with him ruminating later about whether his wife still has any feelings for him. Even in ‘Return Flight’, Captain Rolph is haunted by the knowledge that his deceased wife most likely loved her first husband more than she did him as her second, while in ‘Death Cancels All Debts’, novelist Powys Jubb is driven to depression and drink by memories of a young man he had feelings for in his youth and by the guilt he has over his sexless relationship with his wife.
What connects all the plays are existential concerns absence and dislocation – the frustrations and fears caused by gnawing doubts that something not being there that should be and by a sense of being alienated from your own life. ‘Two In The Morning’ is entirely focused on Wisbich, a man who is convinced an exact double of him has appeared in his life and is a much more impressive man than he. The episode is ambiguous, with some other characters noting the resemblance but others not; meanwhile, his doppelgänger appears in all aspects of his life, dating his wife’s friend and attending his art class. The double draws into extreme close-up Wisbich’s feelings of failure and mediocrity, and his sense of being surplus to requirements in his own life. Lorna in ‘Bedtime’ feels increasingly unfulfilled by her married life as well as dissatisfied by the middle-class set on the estate she is expected to be part of. Her sense that her life is lacking makes her keenly aware of the potential she has squandered and the opportunities that are no longer open to her. In ‘A Woman Sobbing’, Jane and Frank are both disconnected from each other, as well as from their children (Jane notes rather dispassionately how little she likes her own children, and Frank comments that he only sees his children at weekends because ‘Jane gets them off to school after I’ve left, and they’re in bed when I get home.’). In ‘Return Flight’, the death of his wife has kept Captain Rolph in a state of inertia, unable to process and move on, a similar scenario to that which Powys Jubb finds himself in, in ‘Death Cancels All Debts’.
Many of the episodes seem to implicitly criticise the middle-class ‘Metroland’ lifestyle as something inherently toxic and debilitating. In fact, the series appears to take an almost perverse delight in punishing the characters for aspiring to the sort of lifestyle that leads to them suffering from, and being destroyed by, frustrated desire and existential anxiety. Beyond the scrubbed pine tables and the bottles of Burgundy, the rotten heart of the middle-class lifestyle is put under the microscope for all its faults to be seen in excruciating detail. The sheer banality of life in suburbia is highlighted in ‘Bedtime’ by the script’s reference to the house on the estate all being the same design. The snobbish self-perceptions of the middle-class as set apart from others by behaviours and taste – Lorna and Geoffrey’s dinner party guest Sarah refers to ‘P.L.U’ i.e. ‘People Like Us’ – is turned on its head, and instead becomes for Lorna a way of describing the sterile vacuum of a life that the middle-class has created for itself and one in which she has unwittingly become a prisoner.
While most of the female characters in the plays do not work – they are instead housewives and mothers – the men tend to be employed in only a small number of sectors: advertising, PR and marketing, publishing and sales. Again, this feels very deliberate on the part of the production teams, with the characters in ‘Bedtime’ commenting upon it (‘these places were custom-built for people like us … media men, architects, the young professionals’), in terms of representing who they felt comprised this suburban middle-class. These were newer and growing professions in the seventies – especially advertising, PR and marketing – and we could argue that they represented a softer, more consumerist, nouveau-riche sort of man, neither of the skilled technical, manual or working-class trades nor of the more reputable and established roles of medicine, banking or law. They are the inherently useless jobs that Douglas Adams would consign to the Golgafrinchan Ark Fleet Ship B in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980). As such, they occupy a professional no-man’s-land, carving out their own social and cultural niche.
Other entertainments come to the fore elsewhere. ‘Bedtime’ features another of those typically seventies pastimes – the Ouija board – while several episodes highlight how sex has become a form of recreation too. In Smith, Michael is shown to be having a fling with one of his work colleagues while still in a relationship with Anne. Both ‘Bedtime’ and ‘A Woman Sobbing’ see the male characters discussing the opportunities for infidelity and how an affair could be a release from the monotony of marital life and conjugal duties. Both also allude to the salacious interest in scandalous sexual activity, with Frank’s friend Sandy mentioning his fantasies about a girl he sees on his commute home (‘what this girl gets up to in my mind!’) in ‘A Woman Sobbing’, and mentions of ‘casual copulation’ and orgies in ‘Bedtime’.
The pre-occupation with titillation lays bear the carnal heart of the middle-class home. As well as an obsession with sex (both getting it and not getting it) there is an attention to eating and drinking (three-course dinners, French desserts, and lashings of gin, whisky and sherry) in several of the plays. This conspicuous consumption is something else that the ghostly manifestations take great delight in punishing. The most eloquent demonstration of this retribution is in ‘The Exorcism’, often regarded as the most impressive of the surviving episodes, in which the ghost of a 17th Century woman who starved to death with her children returns to wreak vengeance on the two self-important middle-class couples – Rachel and Edmund and Margaret and Dan – having Christmas dinner in the same cottage many years later. Political discussions between Edmund and Dan suggest they both hold what they feel are socialist leanings, and yet they cannot help their conversation moving on to their lifestyles of consumption and excess. The cottage they are in has been bought by Edmund and Rachel as a weekend retreat. They have refurbished virtually all of it and modernised it. Whilst there isn’t anything inherently wrong in any of this, it is the self-satisfied and somewhat smug recounting of this that hits home (‘Well if one’s going to live in the country, even at weekends, one must provide for the creature comforts,’ says Margaret rather pompously), as does their ignorance in earnestly discussing socialism while sitting down to an enormous Christmas dinner and copious bottles of wine. It proves too much for the ghost who exacts punishment by turning their red wine into blood before possessing Rachel and ultimately causing their deaths. ‘The Exorcist’ shows up the rank hypocrisy of the nouveau-riche middle-class as well as the seemingly insoluble chasm between the haves and have-nots.
It is a huge shame that only three of the seven episodes of Dead of Night survive. Those surviving plays show a deftness of touch and a sharp wit in highlighting how we create our own prisons of disconnection and alienation. The scripts for the lost episodes reveal stories that illuminate our tendencies to suppress our desires and fears, to venerate consumption and appearance, and to aspire to the parochial and conventional. These plays reveal the twisted mirror-images of Margot and Jerry Leadbetter (The Good Life, 1975-1978), Beverly and Laurence Moss (Abigail’s Party, 1977) and Terry and June Medford (Terry and June, 1979-1987), beset by the ghostly manifestations of the dark truths they don’t wish to confront. In suburbia in the seventies, if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes back at you from across the scrubbed pine table and vol-au-vent hors d’oeuvres.
– Kerrigan, Lisa, Dead of Night, BFI DVD release, 2013
– Bowen, John, A Woman Sobbing, Dead of Night, BFI DVD release, 2013
– Taylor, Don, The Exorcism, Dead of Night, BFI DVD release, 2013
– Allison, Dorothy, Smith (Dead of Night scripts), BFI DVD release, 2013
– Whitemore, Hugh, Bedtime (Dead of Night scripts), BFI DVD release, 2013
– Wheatley, Helen, Gothic Television, 2006, Manchester University Press
– https://www.habitat.co.uk/our-heritage-1970, accessed 13.11.20