White Men Are Cracking Up: Siren Spirits

siren spirits

White Men Are Cracking Up:

Siren Spirits

words by Andrew Screen

During the 1970s the anthology drama series was ubiquitous on both the BBC and ITV channels.

The long-running premiere drama platform Armchair Theatre (1956 – 1974) had bought prestige to ITV, though it had recently been retired from service, whilst the BBC flagship drama anthology BBC Play of the Month (1956 – 1983) still had the legs to stagger into the next decade. Play of the Month was part of a range of anthology drama from the Corporation which also included The Wednesday Play (1964 – 1970) and Thirty Minute Theatre (1965 – 1973) that had proved incredibly popular with viewers, reviewers, technicians and performers.

However, the appetite to make and consume these type of programmes was starting to fade amongst producers and viewers, and this type of programming would be less popular over the coming decades. The economics of production also played a crucial role in the decline of the anthology drama as it was costly compared to ongoing series.

Theming a number of plays under an umbrella title was common with British examples including the ABC series Tales from Dickens (1957) and Saki (1963) which adapted the stories of the eponymous writers. Notable BBC anthologies included Moonstrike (1963), detailing acts of resistance in World War Two Europe, and The Indian Tales of Rudyard Kipling (1963) which is hopefully self-explanatory. One of the most enduring ITV anthology drama series was ATV’s Love Story (1963 – 1974) which clocked up over 120 episodes during an eleven-year run.

The BBC took the themed anthology drama programme to an extreme by commissioning[1] the over-ambitious Churchill’s People, a series of twenty-six historical dramas based on the Winston Churchill books A History of the English-Speaking People[2]. Broadcast over December 1974 to June 1975 the series is widely recognised as a miserable failure due to the studio-bound production offering little in the way of spectacle or realism despite the BBC investing numerous resources and top-drawer casting. Each episode dealt with a particular period to lesser and greater success – most often lesser!

Opening with an audience around two million the series plummeted to less than half a million by transmission of the fifth episode and was quickly shunted to a late-night slot for the rest of the run. Guardian critic Nancy Banks-Smith famously described the series as having “little to offer us but blood, horsehair and history. Though a hell of a lot of each.[3]

Horror and suspense have always been popular areas for the anthology drama format and has a long and rich history dating back to the 1940s, on both sides of the Atlantic, with key TV productions in both America and England. Many of these programmes operated under umbrella titles which gave viewers a clue to the type of tales offered such as the UK’s House of Mystery (1957) or Tales of Mystery (1961 – 1963) from ITV. North American series included Canada’s The Unforeseen (1958 – 1960) and the USA’s One Step Beyond (1959 – 1961). These were titles that promoted suspense, thrills and something offbeat and the search for a good term or phrase that codified what to expect to viewers continued through the decades. Sometimes the title of a horror anthology could theme a group of tales under a particular topic or single term which would loosely link a set of stories; Beasts (1976) for example. By the late 80s and early 90s, however, it seemed that getting a new slant had been exhausted for the increasingly rare anthology form.


Thankfully BBC Two offered an interesting and fresh take on the themed horror anthology with Siren Spirits, a four-episode run of supernatural tales from Asian, African or Caribbean female authors and directors. Each twenty-minute story was set in present-day London and infused elements of the supernatural with the spiritual. One of the series producers, Ingrid Lewis, commented that “Siren Spirits arose out of reading the work of black writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. They use magical realism as a tool of empowerment, not as a means of escape. Too often black writers get trapped in social realism because they’re forced to write to other people’s agendas. The brief for this specified scripts on the theme of the supernatural.[4]” The series, a co-production between the BBC and the British Film Institute as part of an initiative to enable more obvious black and ethnic presence in the media, was broadcast on BBC 2 during the 1994 Christmas period and was later compiled into a feature-length drama for theatrical exhibition overseas.

The series began with a double-bill of stories on Christmas Day 1994 with “Memsahib Rita” and “Bideshi” being broadcast in slots that years previously were traditionally for the BBC ghost stories or similar festive programmes. Making her television writing debut, Tanika Gupta scripted “Bideshi” which was billed as “a true story of a strange and haunting premonition”. Gupta, who was awarded an MBE in 2008, would go on to write for Grange Hill, Eastenders and The Bill, and is now more well known for her theatre plays, with The Waiting Room staged at The National Theatre in 2000 a notable highlight.

Veteran stage, film and television Indian character actor Roshan Seth played Ajoy, a man dying in hospital after a stroke. He is haunted by the fact that he has not reconciled with his daughter and her choice to have a baby with a man of African descent. In the finale, Ajoy’s spirit floats through the streets of London where he meets the grandson he will never know. Finding peace, at last, he skips off-screen and into the afterlife to the musical accompanist of Nellie the Elephant! Scriptwriter Gupta based the story on her own personal experience; “My film is based on a dream my father had about four years ago. He dreamt he was in heaven and in order to get to his family he had to crawl through a tunnel which brought him to the front of our house. He waved to us but we didn’t see him and then he realised he was dead.[5]” Four days later her father died. The BFI’s website Screen Online notes that the production benefits from “an accomplished first script, magnificently realized” and that it “is a warm, perceptive look at a father-daughter bond.[6]

The script for Memsahib Rita was supplied by Kumari Salgado who has since served as a script editor on the second season of BBC drama series The Lakes (2010) and Holby City. This was the story of a young mixed heritage Asian girl, Shanti (Nisha Nayor), who is followed to her father’s sari shop by members of the BNP. As they begin to threaten her, two glamorous and mysterious woman, appearing like a cross between Rita Hayworth and Bollywood movie stars, step forward to protect her. The production has been described as juxtaposing “Hollywood film noir and Technicolour Hindi movies with documentary-style realism.[7]” This episode was directed by Pritibha Parmar who has balanced a career making pop promo videos for the likes of Tori Amos and Midge Ure, with creating documentaries about feminist, LGBT woman and South Asian diasporic culture. The production was released as part of the extra features on the BFI Blu-ray release of My Beautiful Launderette in 2017.

The third episode was Get Me to the Crematorium on Time (29th December 1994) written by Yazminne Judd and directed by Dani Williamson. This told the story of a recently widowed middle-class black woman trying to cope with her husband’s death. She takes to wandering the streets where she is eventually picked up by the police and referred to a psychiatric hospital. She escapes in order to attend the funeral where finds consolation in sharing one final appointment with the spirit of her dead husband.

The final episode, White Men Are Cracking Up (31st December 1994), combined elements of film noir and magic realism to great effect, and featured the sadly underused actor Jon Finch playing Inspector Mangrave, who is investigating why powerful and eminent men are dying. This is possibly the most recalled episode of this obscure series thanks to the deaths being caused by an orgasm-inducing African goddess. Distinguished playwright Bonnie Greer’s story saw the men committing suicide after their encounter with the goddess in a script which explored the fetishisation of black women, white male insecurity and issues of colonialism. Mangrave himself cannot resist and eventually becomes a victim by the end of the story. The film can be viewed for free here and it is certainly worth twenty minutes of your time.

A tragically unknown series, which combined exploration of the complexity race relations in modern Britain with a unique perspective on supernatural themes, Siren Spirits has never been repeated and, apart from the availability outlined in the above article, remains unique and undiscovered.

Sources:

[1] Commissioned by Head of Plays Gerald Savoury

[2] This is a four-volume history of Britain which covers the period from the Roman Empire’s invasion of Britain in 55BC to the start of the First World War in 1914.

[3] The Guardian, 7th January 1975

[4] Producer Ingrid Lewis quoted in “Dreaming of a Black Christmas” by Ellen Cranitch, The Independent, 21st December, 1994. Available at https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/dreaming-of-a-black-christmas-ellen-cranitch-on-the-dawn-of-a-new-era-for-black-writers-on-british-1388248.html (accessed 22nd February 2019)

[5] Tanika Gupta quoted in “From Death, Springs Life” by Lisa Vanoli, The Stage and Television Today, 8th December 1994, page 23

[6] http://www.screenonline.org.uk/tv/id/496609/index.html (accessed 21st September 2020)

[7] “Dreaming of a Black Christmas” by Ellen Cranitch, The Independent, 21st December, 1994. Available at https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/dreaming-of-a-black-christmas-ellen-cranitch-on-the-dawn-of-a-new-era-for-black-writers-on-british-1388248.html (accessed 22nd February 2019)

Andrew Screen

Andrew Screen

Writer on things film & TV by night, author of The Book of Beasts, an official guide to the Nigel Kneale series, (coming soon). SEN practitioner by day.

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