Television

Ghosts from the past, ghosts from the future:

Haunted landscapes

in 1970s British Television

David Evans-Powell explores haunted landscapes in 1970s British television and discovers not a warning to the curious, but instead perhaps a warning to the unvigilant…

In the opening episode of the 1972 Doctor Who serial ‘Day of the Daleks‘, the Doctor – exiled to Earth at this point and played by Jon Pertwee – is mucking about with the console and accidentally causes future ‘phantom’ versions of himself and his companion Jo Grant, to appear. Later, the Doctor and Jo are called to help when a top diplomat claims to have seen a figure materialise in his study. Jo makes a connection to their doppelgängers that similar appeared from nowhere, and the Doctor reflects:

‘Well, there are many different kinds of ghosts, Jo. Ghosts from the past and ghosts from the future.’ (Episode one, 1972)

These manifestations are not, as is suggested in the opening episode, spectres from the past but are instead guerrilla fighters from the future returning to their past to avert Earth’s future subjugation by the villainous Daleks.
It is especially apt that a 1970s TV serial makes explicit reference to, and shows an awareness of, the influence that both the past and the future can exert on the present. Indeed, 1972 would prove to be a boon year for a particular kind of British horror that specialised in the present being interrupted by visitations from the past and the future, opening as it did with the first episode of ‘Day of the Daleks’ broadcast on 1st January, continuing into the winter with the haunted suburbia of Dead of Night, and concluding with that year’s A Ghost Story for Christmas: ‘A Warning to the Curious” on Christmas Eve and Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (Peter Sasdy, BBC, 1972) on Christmas Day.

The mutability of time in these television plays and programmes, and how it can invade and affect the present day in malignant and unsettling ways, is something that fascinates me, and clearly appealed to the writers and makers of the day. The notion that the past and the future exist in some sort of continuum, separated from the mundane world of our present, and in which lurk forces that threaten to break through and make mischief is one that permeates the seventies, from The Owl Service (Peter Plummer, ITV, 1969-1970), in which an ancient legend bound up within the landscape of a Welsh valley threatens to overwhelm the teenagers who are living there, to Sapphire and Steel (ITV, 1979-1982) where time itself is characterised as a malevolent entity intent on breaking into the present.

Sapphire and Steel

Often time is intrinsically connected with place. Our landscapes – rural and urban – are marked by traces of our history, rendered enigmatic now divorced from their own context. These relics of our heritage are the physical manifestations of our past, a doorway to a world that both lies back in time and under our feet.

Doorways though are thresholds to be crossed, and these relics permit the past – and sometimes the future – to cross into the present. To quote Adam Scovell, ‘A place retaining a trace of historical and cultural happening… can then allow for… slippages in time, the event and its topographical traces being the gateway that allows the past to exist within the present, often fantastically and sometimes horrifically.’

Before considering the television landscape of seventies Britain, we need to give some thought to the social context in which it was made, as well as considering the ghosts from the future that haunted the dreams and aspirations of the sixties.

Britain in the sixties was a confident and optimistic nation. At the Labour Party Conference of 1963, Labour Leader and soon-to-be Prime Minister Harold Wilson made his celebrated speech about the need to forge a new Britain in the white heat of technology, a vision of success and prosperity founded through scientific modernity and managerial efficiency. When his party came to power the following year, his government put this modernising agenda into effect focusing on education, industry, urban planning and economic growth. Peter Hutchings sees the Hammer studios output from this time tapping into this political desire to forge a modern, efficient, ordered Britain, arguably part of a longer term trend from the mid-fifties onwards, through what he calls the ‘valorisation of professional activity.’ He sees this in the characterisation of protagonists like Van Helsing (Dracula, Terence, Fisher, 1958; The Brides of Dracula, Terence Fisher, 1960) and Sherlock Holmes (The Hound of the Baskervilles, Terence Fisher, 1959), and antagonists like Baron Frankenstein (The Curse of Frankenstein, Terence Fisher, 1957; The Revenge of Frankenstein, Terence Fisher, 1958; The Evil of Frankenstein, Freddie Frances, 1964 and others) as modern, rational and scientifically driven. It is telling too that the first major television horror/fantasy programme on British TV – the BBC’s 1953 serial The Quatermass Experiment (Rudolph Cartier), adapted by Hammer as The Quatermass Xperiment (Val Guest, 1955) – is geared around a scientific, rational and very modern figure, who attempts to impose scientific approaches on irrational challenges. That The Quatermass Experiment then exposes the failure of scientific modernity to oppose powerful, irrational forces hint at the pessimism which was to come later in the seventies.

The Quatermass Xperiment

The mid to late sixties also saw a rapid change in individual freedoms, through the Wilson Government’s wide-reaching programme of liberal reforms, including the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, the liberalisation of both abortion and divorce laws, and the abolition of theatre censorship. Swinging Sixties culture, music and fashion had also brought a new age of permissiveness and a greater breadth of freedom of expression as younger generations embraced alternative ideologies. While the impact of these reforms and trends can be overstated, undeniably they set the tone for what the status quo would permit and society would accommodate, and gave many the encouragement to begin to embrace in public what was previously regarded as shameful, unspoken or private. 

Doctor Who (BBC, 1963 – ) offers, I think, a great illustration of these twin themes of sixties modernity – technology and permissiveness – brought together on screen. In the 1966 story ‘The War Machines’, a super-computer based in the newly constructed Post Office Tower, gains sentience and decides to build war machines to destroy humanity. The use of the Post Office Tower (now the BT Tower) as a pivotal setting for the story, and one in which a markedly hi-tech antagonist is based, captures the sixties fascination with the modern and technological. Completed in 1964, after four years of construction, it represents the first real intrusion of the modern into Doctor Who. Soaring as it does over the old post-war architecture of London, it is suggestive of both the opportunities offered by modernity, but also the threat it might pose. The story also illustrates how comfortable TV had become with depicting permissiveness in even a children’s series like Doctor Who, with William Hartnell’s Doctor shown in a nightclub with new Swinging Sixties companions Ben and Polly, something that could only have happened during those heady days of new social freedoms.

This concept of hauntology, of the ghosts of our past or our future impinging on our present, was frequently explored by Mark Fisher. Fisher distinguished two directions from which the present can be haunted. The first focuses on that which no longer actually exists but whose influence remains effective (i.e. reverberations from the past), and the second focuses on that which has not yet existed but which is already effective (i.e. expectations of the future) (Fisher, 19). As discussed, the sixties were heavily influenced by the latter.

However, as Fisher further explained, hauntology is a failure of the future. As the seventies dawned, the white heat of technology and subsequent accelerated social and cultural changes had not delivered on the future promised by the optimistic world of the sixties. As Adam Easterbrook says, ‘Britain in the 1970s was a frightened and frightening place’ (Easterbrook, 8). It saw the country beset by strikes, industrial malaise, states of emergency, and anxieties about social permissiveness. Concerns about the sustainability of society and culture – the basic elements of fuel, food, heat and light – were raised by rampant inflation and rolling blackouts. Fears were voiced both about moral laxity and environmental pollution, caused by social and technological change that had moved too fast and too far. 

Britain appeared increasingly ungoverned and ungovernable. The modern, optimistic future of the 1960s had failed the present, and it created a profound sense of confusion and anxiety. It is perhaps only natural that society should then look backwards, rather than forwards, for security, reassurance and a more authentic identity.

Penda's Fen

In Penda’s Fen (Alan Clarke), broadcast in 1974 as part of the BBC’s long-running Play for Today drama anthology series (1970-1984), young protagonist Stephen is both a product, and an exponent, of a regimented and systematised English authority. Sukhdev Sandhu identifies those characteristics against which Stephen defines himself: his grammar school education, adherence to the Anglican faith, his home in England’s green and pleasant land, and his fervent political conservatism. These are likely the same characteristics a large number of British viewers would have used to define their identities too. However, he faces several challenges to his personal identity, beginning with his acknowledgement of his homosexuality and concluding with the revelation of his adoption. These points of self-awareness see him alienated from those religious, educational, and patriarchal bastions that previously defined him. In consequence, Stephen is cast adrift to rediscover who he is, and in doing so, represents England in the seventies, in a state of anxiety and self-doubt. Like Stephen, the nation is in search of a new, and more authentic, self. Stephen’s personal quest towards self-discovery leads him to a vision of King Penda, the last great pagan Anglo-Saxon king within the British Isles, a clear indication that in the nation’s quest for authenticity and personal identity, rather than looking forward into our future, we should instead look backwards into our pre-Christian past. Penda represents, in the words of Sandhu, ‘the potential to redeem us from the lies and orthodoxies of state knowledge.’ He goes on to draw our attention to the fact that the word pagan is associated with the countryside and rural life as derived from Latin, a subtle indicator that the answers to those questions of identity and belonging are not to be found in any centralised, didactic spaces, such as universities or museums, but can instead be found out in the ancient landscape itself. While Penda’s Fen’s labelling as horror may be questionable, the dissonant atmosphere and manifestation of weird apparitions mean that ‘dread and paranoia permeate the drama’.

Britain in the seventies, now distracted from its pursuit of technology and modernity, seems to pause to behold the landscape of Britain for the first time, noticing it resonant with the ritual and relics of our folkloric past. Often, our heritage is depicted as a threatening, lurking force, waiting to pounce and reassert its authority. Our failed quest for a bright, new world, has alienated us from our own heritage, which now appears strange and eerie to us.

The malign past is made manifest in several ways. One is through the discovery, or more usually the unearthing, of objects, referred to by Reza Negarestani as ‘xenolithic artefacts’, relics of our half-forgotten folklore. Their presence when uncovered and revealed in our more modern and rational age both disconcerts and disturbs. They act as a medium through which those primaeval and mythic forces, sleeping for so long, can re-awaken and re-emerge into a world that has become dislocated from them. Even before their rediscovery, our mere awareness of them can exert a powerful and threatening influence over us.

A Warning to the Curious, broadcast in 1972 as part of the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas series, and based on a story published in 1925 by noted antiquarian and ghost story writer M.R. James, features a classic ‘xenolithic artefact’. James’ tales are redolent with haunted objects and landscapes, the latent awful power of which is unwittingly unlocked by inquisitive academics, who then suffer an inevitable punishment for their curiosity, having ventured too far from the security of their libraries and universities out into the rural unknown. Perhaps it is unsurprising then that his stories found popularity on TV throughout the seventies when confidence in these key bastions of authority and rationality had been shaken.

‘A Warning to the Curious sees Paxton, an amateur archaeologist, arrive at a Norfolk coastal town in search of the last remaining of the three Crowns of Anglia, legendary Saxon crowns that supposedly defended the realm from danger. While successful in his search, it becomes apparent that the crown is guarded by the spirit of the last member of the family sworn to safeguard the crowns, and he is coming for Paxton. As with Penda’s Fen, we have a link to our pre-Christian past with the crowns acting as a vital link back to our pagan history; however, unlike Penda’s Fen, the past in this instance is a source of dread rather than self-actualisation. The quest for the crown, out into an isolated part of the coast, not just a physical move but also a temporal one. The appearance of the ghost, as with the eerie manifestations in Penda’s Fen suggest that Paxton, like Stephen, is experiencing temporal instability. That Paxton is following in the footsteps of an earlier archaeologist who was murdered by the guardian spirit at the start of the serial, and he is himself followed as a victim of the ghost by his acquaintance Dr Black, suggests he is merely part of a potentially endless cycle of time. Paxton, like Stephen, has turned away from the failed present and is searching for a more authentic incarnation of Britain. Paxton isn’t a professional archaeologist, but rather an amateur using his search for the crown to give his life some purpose following losing his job as a bank clerk. Many viewers that Christmas who had lost their jobs due to industrial and economic strife may have seen something of themselves in Paxton and his search for meaning and authenticity. Adam Easterbrook mentions how Paxton is ‘eager to make his mark upon the well educated and closed circles of archaeology’. Paxton then also mirrors the seventies disillusion in the order and authority represented by the educated classes, a swipe at Hutchings’ ‘valorised professionals’ of the sixties. 

Children of the Stones

Elsewhere it is the landscape itself, rather the relics unearthed from it, which is the agent of temporal instability. In the 1977 HTV series Children of the Stones (Peter Graham Scott), the stone circle forms the means by which time and space are folded and the past is accessed. In the series Professor Adam Brake and his son arrive in Milbury (a fictionalised version of Avebury, a village partly encompassed by its famous stone circle) to conduct tests on the standing stones that surround the village. They are unnerved by the placid and uniform happiness shown by the locals, and stumble upon a plot by the village leader Hendrick to harness the latent, ancient power of the stones. The landscape is presented as a medium through which time is trapped in a cyclical historical pattern, described by Scovell as ‘past rituals being allowed to repeat with horrific inevitability’ and by Hutchings as ‘ancient landscapes where humans are compelled to repeat actions from a distant history, either real or mythological.’ There is the sense of the past as all-encompassing and inescapable, part of the very fabric of the landscape itself with Adam and his son trapped not only spatially but also temporally. The influence of the landscape is so powerful that characters are transformed into standing stones at the conclusion of the series, literally becoming part of the haunted landscape. The cyclical nature of history also suggests the redundancy of the future, a society dislocated and condemned to repeat an endless pattern. Hutchings neatly identifies this as ‘a straightforward division between the timelessness of tradition and the forward movement associated with science and modernity,’ and goes on to note that the story ‘depicts scientists, the creatures of modernity, investigating mysterious phenomena only to find that science is unable to save them in the face of an immensely powerful compulsion to repeat past events.’ Despite Professor Brake’s detailed scientific analysis, and he and his son’s apparent escape from the village, his explanations are not enough to fully discern or understand what has happened, nor to break the cycle of time which appears to start again as they leave. He may have won the battle, but he has failed to comprehend the war. 

In other examples, the past itself is so powerful it breaks through as an antagonistic force without the need for either artefact or rural landscape to act as a catalyst or medium. In Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape, broadcast in 1972, a sound technology company takes up residence in an old Victorian mansion to research new recording and playback technology. They explore one particular room, left unrenovated as it is considered haunted, and begin to attempt to record disturbing and eerie phenomena experienced by computer programmer Jill, with horrifying consequences. Again, we have the notion of cyclical, entrapping time, as the phenomena experienced by Jill and other members of the research team – the appearance of a terrified woman – is only one of numerous iterations reaching back into the far past, playing over the top of each other like multiple recordings. The echoes throughout the past, and Jill’s ultimate fate in joining them as the latest in a long line of female sacrifices, again illustrate both the inescapability of the past, and how a location can be so charged by historical events as to cause the past to co-exist with both the present and potential futures. We also again have the failure of male-dominated technology, rationality and modernity, this time represented by lead researcher Peter Brock, in unwittingly releasing the force and then in failing to comprehend and contain it. The ambiguous and deeply pessimistic ending in which Brock is assaulted by Jill’s final moments as she screams his name, suggests to me that the seventies patriarchal establishment is now shaken, aware of its own hollowness and inability to govern, and haunted by the validity of other forms of philosophy and culture. 

British TV in the seventies then depicts the social, cultural and technological fallout from the failure of the sixties’ visions of the future, and the consequent search for authenticity and identity in the past. While occasionally this quest for self is ultimately constructive, as in Penda’s Fen, more often it is destructive. Perhaps our lingering past traumas and creeping trepidation over the future are more of a risk than we care to admit, and the present world in which we live is more vulnerable and fleeting than we wish to acknowledge. Rather than a warning to the curious, television of the seventies is instead a warning to the unvigilant.

Sources:

Easterbrook, Mark, A Warning to the Curious, Ghost Stories for Christmas DVD booklet, BFI, 2013.

Fisher, Mark, What is Hauntology?, Film Quarterly, 2012, vol.66.

Hutchings, Peter, Hammer and Beyond: The British Horror Film, 1993, Manchester University Press.

Hutchings, Peter, Uncanny landscapes in British film and television, Visual Culture in Britain, 2004, vol.5 no.2.

Negarestani, Reza, The Cyclonopedia: Complicity with anonymous materials, 2008, re.press.

Sandhu, Sukhdev, Penda’s Fen, DVD booklet, BFI, 2016.

Scovell, Adam, Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange, 2017, Auteur Publishing.

Picture of David Evans-Powell

David Evans-Powell

David Evans-Powell is a PhD candidate and writer. He has published on the Doctor Who story The Awakening as part of the Black Archive range for Obverse Books, and has a monograph on the 1971 British horror film The Blood on Satan’s Claw published by Auteur Publishing (Liverpool University Press group) as part of their Devil’s Advocate range. Follow David on Twitter by clicking his name (above)

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