The 20th anniversary of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) seems as good a time as any to answer this question:
Why has 90s TV drama aged so badly? This time I’m talking about the look of the piece, all centre partings and chinos. It looks dated rather than old. The past is indeed a foreign country but 90s drama is close enough that many aspects of it are not only fairly easy to recall, most of those involved are still with us.
You won’t believe what Douglas Henshall looks like now.
And unlike say 70s TV drama, I can still remember at lot of it from its original broadcast and can’t quite get my head around how much my perspective has changed in the last 20 odd years.
Three Miles Up was adapted from a short story written by Elizabeth Jane Howard while she was working at the Inland Waterways Association (you can tell, it’s got houseboats in it) and published in collaboration with her then lover Robert Aickman (you can tell that as well, it’s got houseboats and ghosts in it).
Not always a winning combination.
Helmed by Lesley Manning, probably best known for directing Screen One’s infamous Ghostwatch (1992) it formed part of BBC1’s Ghosts series broadcast in early 1995, diplomatically just before ITV’s similar Chiller series.
Two estranged brothers patching up their relationship after the death of their mother, decide to go on a houseboat holiday.
That sounds like a bloody terrible idea to me.
Like most dramas where family relationships are at the core Three Miles Up examines the brothers’ fractious relationship and unhappiness with their lot as well as their resentment at their late mother’s shortcomings.
The younger brother, Billy (Douglas Henshall) has an old whistle that their mother said to blow if they were in trouble, and she would come. Against brother John’s (Dan Mulland) wishes he blows it.
Now one doesn’t have to have the widest knowledge of ghost stories to think that particular plot device may ring a slight bell from somewhere.
Clue: it’s one of these.
This is hardly original nor subtly introduced, but it doesn’t try to be, it does however go somewhere rather more unexpected (rather like the houseboat1, ).
Quae est ista quae venit?
Materque tue. 2
Like all good rural ghost stories the story makes effective use of the landscape and the wide expanse of (I think?) the Fens is both alienating and hostile. The recurring vision of the brothers as boys looking though a cellar door as someone drowns below them is a constant reminder to the viewer that madness is never far away.
The discovery of a young woman, Sara (Jacqueline Leonard), sleeping under fallen tree brings an etherial, Grimms’ Fairy Tale quality to an increasingly dreamlike scenario and as the brothers fall under her spell and she advocates taking a route unmarked on the map, into the unknown, you’re left in little doubt who the women is meant to be. Once again subtlety is in short supply and the viewer is being hit in the face with metaphors that are more obvious than something that’s very obvious indeed.
Like the ending to a Tales of the Unexpected.
The conclusion when it comes feels sad and inevitable. Yet although this is a story where much is predictable, it’s what it makes you feel that is significant. You care about the brothers and their lives of lost moments and regret. You feel the loneliness of the little boat lost in the directionless waterways and featureless fenland.
The story plays with time and perception to good effect and wears its influences on its sleeve. A ghost story for a summer holiday more than a winter’s night.
1 Meta AF.
2 Please God somebody get this. And find it funny.
2 thoughts on “Foreign Countries #3: Ghosts: Three Miles Up (1995)”
Brilliant piece. Spot on. I still watch it occasionally on You Tube as it’s one of the better ghost stories which have been televised. Indeed, it’s very dated – unlike the MR James stuff which doesn’t date at all.