Keckwick and the Land of Sea and Fret:
The Woman in Black (1989)
Robert Taylor explores the role of Keckwick and the landscape of The Woman in Black (1989) in a time when regional networks created event television....
Robert Muller writes in his introduction to The Television Dramatist (1973) that “The great days of the television play are past. But then Great Days always lie in the past. The golden age is never present.”(1) Muller goes on to contextualise this statement, which is relevant to its period, further discussing the issue that one-off plays are never repeated and destined then (in perhaps one of the earliest mentions of such practice) to be wiped in order to allow recordings of future productions to take place. His purpose of bringing together a collection of television plays is to produce something that stands as testament to the play that may never be seen again.
Fast-forward some fifty years later, and we now live in an age where we can access surviving television by digital and physical formats that wouldn’t have been dreamt of back in the early seventies and with their elements restored to the point that productions often look better than they did when they were originally broadcast. What I found striking about Muller’s statement was how relevant it remained for there are still television productions locked away and mostly forgotten and, until very recently, this applied to a particular television film that I had experienced a long time ago and held dear ever since.
The Woman in Black is representative of another product of a golden age produced when the ITV network was still broken up into distinct regional broadcasters, in this instance Central Television, and each would use their funding to produce drama and entertainment output often to compete with each other and produce content that would be of a high standard, shared between regions and, potentially, sold overseas. ITV, itself, was set up in 1955 as a direct competitor to the BBC and was designed to be completely independent television.(2) One might argue that since the early 1990s, and several mergers later, the existence of just two divisions in the network somewhat waters down the potential for independent, quality production.
The impact of proper regional channels often meant the occurrence of event television which, in the days of four television channels, was a special occasion. Money and talent would be spent on entertainment, drama and film often of modest budgets but with committed cast and crew who used every ounce of their creativity to produce something memorable and lasting. The Woman in Black was preceded by another, largely unseen, Granada film production of Pied Piper, an adaptation of Nevil Shute’s World War Two novel. Massively overtaking the ambition of the BBC who relied solely on their premiere television showing of the Hollywood movie, Legal Eagles for their ‘event’ that Sunday evening.
The confidence that ITV had…. those were genuinely great days.
Arguably, there has not been a better (or even equalled) television ghost story since Central Film’s 1989 adaptation of The Woman in Black. The film seeped into my pores and took hold of me on that Christmas Eve all those years ago. A ten-year-old, who had a staple diet of horror movie classics and anything remotely supernatural but who had never seen a ghost story on-screen (I was too young to remember or even know of the BBC ghost stories for Christmas from the 1970s and during the 1980s there had been a severe drought of such programmes). The result of that viewing, in 1989, had left a certain childhood television trauma, a cold and sweaty fear that lasted weeks and months afterwards. I constantly lived with the memory of The Woman in Black. Memory because such was the effect it had upon me, I was told by my parents that I wasn’t to watch it again and it was subsequently taped over on the following Christmas Day. Wiped from existence.
But it never really left me. Even Rachel Portman’s score jingled around in my head for all those years after just one solitary viewing and when a video search company finally sourced a deleted sell through copy for me, I sat down with baited-breath and discovered that I had remembered the entire film with a good amount of clarity. By now in my teens, I began to appreciate just what a masterful piece this was and my love for the adaptation was born. In particular, I learned just what wonderful things can unfold when, as director Herbert Wise did, you allow your actors to breathe and discover their character and not burden them by over-direction. This coupled with Kneale’s spare dialogue and you have a treasure of a production. The cast in The Woman in Black is a stellar one and everyone has something to give no matter the size of the role.
“There’s no road, Mr. Kidd.”
Arthur Kidd, sent from a London firm of solicitors to a small town on the east coast, has been tasked with clearing up the papers and estate of the recently deceased Mrs. Drablow and put the house up for sale. A reluctant task but Arthur is clearly told that it will benefit his future with the firm and therefore has no option but to proceed and go forward. For vastly different reasons two characters that later assist Arthur, Sam Toovey and Mr. Keckwick (who will be his link between the bustle of progressing early twentieth-century life and the uninhabited decay of an estate that must be settled) also need to go forward but less for ambition and a secure future and more for survival and self-protection.
The production design and location work, overseen by Jon Bunker, is glorious in its representation of a landscape that is as wasted, ancient and the bearer of as many secrets as the ghosts that walk it. And as we journey with our protagonist, Arthur, away from the town of Crythin Gifford and into a deathly, cold and uninviting environment of sea and fret, he is accompanied by Keckwick who is no stranger to the marshes nor the house and seems unburdened by the fear that holds upon others.
Relatively mute in Susan Hill’s original novel where Keckwick is used simply as a device to further instil the unfriendly, weary tone of which Arthur has already encountered during his short stay in the village but Nigel Kneale breathes life into him, affording depth and hints of a meaningful past, with dialogue that can drive the narrative and yet be minimal and laced with regional dialect, a skill that Kneale displayed through-out his five decades as a writer. Keckwick’s voice is no exception and what actor William Simons delivers is understated brilliance.
Most famous for his role as PC Alf Ventress in the much loved and phenomenally successful ITV series Heartbeat, Simons was born in 1940 in Swansea and had a successful career as a child actor appearing in several film and television serials. However, by his teenage years he had developed severe acne-causing a degree of facial disfigurement that led him to turn to stage management and radio work for a few years before returning to television making the first of many appearances in Coronation Street beginning in 1968, Rumpole of the Bailey (1987), The Ruth Rendall Mysteries (1989) and also becoming typecast as a police officer with roles in Juliet Bravo, Emmerdale Farm, The Bill and The Inspector Alleyn Mysteries. Simons once said of his accidental typecasting, “I have played policemen many times in my career. I think I’ll be buried in blue!”
Simons was a patron of Changing Faces, a charity supporting people with visible differences and challenging stigma. He spoke of his own experiences following his facial scarring and medical procedures to attempt to alleviate the condition, “I developed acne so bad, I just wanted to run away and hide.” Keckwick’s visual appearance is not described in any detail in Nigel Kneale’s script but by sheer coincidence, Susan Hill’s description of Keckwick in her novel appears to resemble a similar affliction to Simons himself. ‘I noticed that his nose and much of the lower part of his face were covered in bumps and lumps.’(4)
Both a relatively small part as well as a break away from his typical role, Simons embraces the character of Keckwick giving him a dour and blunt quality but one that is not without some pathos. Much like the landscape of a good, ghost story, which is often barren and archaic as well as being left alone and quite out of time, this appears to be very much the same for Keckwick, a man of the land and he merges with it just as much as the ghosts that haunt it. In this adaptation, there is a habit of discreet reveals. At the funeral of Mrs. Drablow, we first encounter the woman in black standing at the back of the church and later shifting into view in the churchyard. Then there is Samuel Toovey, appearing motionless from the dispersing cloak of a crowd following an accident in the market square. But with Keckwick, he is just there, waiting, sat upon his pony and trap outside the Gifford Arms. One gets the impression that he will always wait.
Simons gives the sense of a man quite at ease with the land and its dreadful secrets where many others are not. He is a man who will visit Mrs. Drablow “twice a week regular” whereas other locals will barely acknowledge Eel Marsh House and the Drablow family. This characterisation appears to have been deliberately honed down by Kneale because there is an exchange of dialogue from the first draft of the screenplay that is omitted from later drafts and gives the impression that Keckwick is not comfortable about the place.
34. EXT. KECKWICK’S TRAP–DAY
Arthur is staring about, impressed by the sheer, bare openness of it.
ARTHUR: It’s beautiful.
KECKWICK: You might say so. Or not.
ARTHUR: I do.
KECKWICK: You must like lonesomeness. This is the lonesomenest place God ever made. If he made it…(5)
Maybe this exchange was too audacious when, at this point, we have only had subtle hints at any ominous foreboding. I think most likely, it contradicted Keckwick’s otherwise passive attitude and therefore was excised from further drafts. Keckwick took time for Alice Drablow where others did not. Maybe because she paid him well, as she herself reveals from beyond the grave via the Edison Phonograph, but Keckwick is clearly affected by her death and mourns her. It is as if she gave in purpose and instead all that he has now is to wait for the next person who might need him whilst, seemingly, being unaffected by superstition and tragedy that it otherwise connected with the place.
He has heart and soul and the need to share his remembrances of the otherwise forgotten and shunned Mrs Drablow. Arthur dismisses him in what may be Arthur’s only misstep in his otherwise impeccable good nature.
39. INT. EEL MARSH HOUSE. MRS. DRABLOW’S ROOM. DAY.
Heavy Victorian furniture and decorations. Thick curtains. Glass-fronted cases of old books, dull oil-paintings. On the table are more books, one or two of them are open at a particular page as if just abandoned by their reader. And piles of papers.
A huge armchair with loose covers sags with the imprint of a constant occupant.
KECKWICK: This was her chair. It was me that found her. When she died. I found her dead. Last week that was. Just sitting there. I thought she’d say, Good morning, Mr. Keckwick. But she didn’t.
Arthur turns a bundle of papers over. Receipts, notebooks, all sorts. He glances up at the shaded lamp above.
ARTHUR: Is that really electric light?
KECKWICK: Come, I’ll show you.(6)
Driven by duty of work and his evident, playful curiosity of electric light, Arthur has dismissed Keckwick’s evidently needed rumination. Yet, Keckwick does not even expect to be heard and simply proceeds to show Arthur the generator. It is clear this is a man who has been affected by tragedy and is brow-beaten into minimal expectations of life. Arthur is young and there is no sense that he has been beaten into any acceptance in life or affected by tragedy. His inability to hear Keckwick is not intentional. And if Keckwick is in any way trying to warn Arthur then it is clear he doesn’t know how to.
“I’ll be back before the tide. Three ‘o’ clock, no later”
Showing Arthur, the electricity generator, Keckwick appears to break from character and shows his attitude towards the idea of technology. “He must’ve been keen on new-fangled things”, in reference to Mr. Drablow’s outhouse installation. Suggesting that Keckwick doesn’t invite change into his world and rather would keep advancements at bay. The rise and fall of the tide are reassurance and affirmation of time and routine. No need for new-fangled things.
In life, we are dismissive of things we fear can change us, that we do not understand and that threaten to change our way of life, perhaps even displacing us from routine and occupation. And there is a scientific theory that even the most fearful, dreadful superstitious beliefs have their basis in a safe, well mind. “Individuals accept superstitious beliefs when they lose their sense of control over events and outcomes, or when conditions are dubious. Superstitions make individuals perceive their surrounding worlds as meaningful, predictable and controllable.”(7)
Keckwick needs purpose and meaning in his life but when he looks at the marshes outside, he knows it’s only a matter of time before something… and he quickly disperses leaving Arthur be until his return. This is the only visual clue we have that he might be uncomfortable, in some way, to spending any more time here than he needs to.
Keckwick punctuates a watershed moment in the journey of Arthur, of which there is no turning back, and what’s more, he took him there. Samuel Toovey will later try to rationalise Arthur’s experiences during a chat by the fireplace but the next few minutes, as Arthur explores the forgotten, half-sunken graveyard, clearly signifies something of the uncanny and malevolent directed solely towards him that will have far-reaching consequences. The tide has already come for Arthur and there is no turning back.
Toovey, is very much more a guardian figure, warm, straight-forward and quite matter of fact. He also seems to adopt rationale as a positive, dominant force in is life as if it might expel the nightmares. And he is looking out for this young man who is at the start of his life and career. Toovey has the benefit of foresight to do so and to try to be protector to Arthur. Not dis-similar to Keckwick, he appears to have accepted life for what it is and will make do although displays levels of a rather belligerent manner at one point, over dinner, “there’s no point at all, except to go on and on. Doing it becomes its own reason, you see? But in the end, there’s no point at all.”
Is it that the small, insular world of sea and fret that insulates those affected by their homestead into a condition of endurance and forbearance? Smaller communities are often as strong as they are insular, but one doesn’t get the impression that the town of Crythin Gifford has any community spirit. The woman in black has devastated them all in some way and there is no great show of unison rather people trying to find their own way through threat and tragedy.
Arthur is shown care by both Toovey and Keckwick but remains an outsider to both of them (he will never be in on the secret by their doing) and whilst Toovey remains grounded, more secure and steadfast in his attempts to educate, to challenge and to go on and on, Keckwick will merely function and manoeuvre the land he knows like the back of his hand, remain where he is and where he always will be. He is a shadow through the fret. A fret that continues to seep into a town that just acknowledges it’s there and that shuts its windows tightly to keep it out.
(1) The Television Dramatist, Robert Muller, Paul Elek Ltd, 1973, p.7
(2) Commercial Television, A guide to the constitution and working of the new service, The Times, 19 August 1955
(3) William Simons Obituary, The Guardian, 27 June 2019, The Telegraph, 27 June 2019
(4) The Woman in Black, Susan Hill, Hamish Hamilton Ltd, 1983, p.76
(5, 6) The Woman in Black, Nigel Kneale, First Draft Screenplay, November 1988
(7) International Journal of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences, Superstitions: A Culturally Transmitted Human Behaviour, Fatik Baran Mendal, 2018
- Don’t Go Mia: Horror Elements in 2Point4 Children January 22, 2021
- ‘A tuppence where yer ’eart should be’: Andy Milligan’s British horror films January 21, 2021
- The Burning Girls (review) January 21, 2021
- Whitechapel: Horror in the Dark Heart of London January 20, 2021
- Fairy Lore and its Influence on Arthur Machen and Some Other Contemporaneous Gentlemen January 20, 2021