Paddy Russell’s death on 2 November saw the end of one of television’s true pioneers, the first female floor manager at the BBC and the first woman to direct Doctor Who. You can read Toby Hadoke’s obituary for Paddy in The Guardian here. She cut her teeth under legendary television producer and director Rudolph Cartier on the Quatermass serials and Sunday Night Theatre, including the controversial adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954). Later they would both work as directors on shows such as Z-Cars (1962-78), Out of the Unknown (1965-71) and Late Night Horror (1968).
Late Night Horror saw just one series of six 25 minute adapted horror stories from writers such as Richard Matheson, H. Russell Wakefield, Roald Dahl, Robert Aickman and Arthur Conan Doyle. Originally broadcast on BBC 2 over April and May 1968, the series was produced by Harry Moore, now probably best remembered as co-writer of The Clifton House Mystery (1978). It boasted a very striking title sequence.
Recently returned to the archives by Kaleidoscope, The Corpse Can’t Play is the only surviving episode from the series and the second of two directed by Paddy Russell. For this story she was joined by designer Clifford Hatts whom she had worked with on Quatermass and the Pit (1958-9). It was adapted by experienced TV writer Hugh Leonard, based on the short story Party Games by John Burke. Sadly it’s a black and white film print of 2″ colour videotape recording, which you imagine takes away some of the impact from the rather bloody ending.
We open in that most brutal and unforgiving of arenas, a children’s birthday party.
Ronnie Jarman (Frank Barry) is turning…..I dunno, 11? And his mother, Alice (Clare Austin) can’t keep control of the unruly mob of boys and girls so retreats to the safety of the kitchen with her friend, Joanna (Christine Pollon) to prepare party food and await the arrival of her husband, Tom (Neil Hallett) who she feels is much better at this sort of thing.
The opening scenes are tightly scripted (and they should be, we’ve only got 25 minutes), the setting a modern suburban home. It may look kitsch and unfashionable now but this is 1968 and represents all that was upwardly mobile. Through these early scenes we learn that Ronnie is privileged, thus we get a sense of who will be the victim in this tale.
I’ve written before about how Britain’s obsession with class often frames drama, add some children and we’re into Lord of the Files territory. But of course that story documents the decent into savagery of a bunch of public schoolboys who have no supervision, here the adults are present but ineffectual and before too long an outside influence has arrived.
Simon Potter (Michael Newport) turns up uninvited with an unreasonably expensive present. He’s in Ronnie’s class but no friend of his (or anyone else’s), nevertheless Alice tries to make him welcome. We learn that Simon’s father dies some years ago but not why he seems so unpopular. Alice puts it down to his shyness.
There’s some intelligent story telling at work here, when you see Ronnie mock Simon for not having a father you assume it to be privileged spite but given what happens at the climax to the story you’re left wondering if the children aren’t wary of Simon for rather more primal reasons. However the story is somewhat let down by its lack of subtlety and rather obvious signposting.
We’ve already seen Ronnie prepare some fake hair (scalp), a filled rubber glove (hand) and a peeled grape (eyeball) for a forthcoming macabre game. We then see this odd boy whom the other children are wary of turn up uninvited. When dad Tom gets home carrying a lot of dangerously sharp gardening equipment, we’re not exactly into Steven Moffat levels of intricate plotting…..
Perhaps I’m being a bit too harsh, there’s only 25 minutes including title and closing sequences and Leonard goes a great job in building a sense of claustrophobia, ably sold by Clare Austin’s anxiety and a load of screaming kids (great use of sound to disconcert). But you can’t help feeling a bit cheated when the ending is so clearly indicated when you’re barely half way through.
Nevertheless this is a well made, well acted piece that boasts excellent sets and is tightly shot for a multi-camera production. It deals with the potentially controversial subject of a murderous child by playing it absolutely straight and not shying from the utter horror of the children’s reaction.
Contemporary reactions to the production were predictably full of moral indignation with questions being asked about the stability of such material for child actors. Producer Harry Moore responded with the assertion that people underestimate the macabre nature of children’s minds and it’s often their own limitations they’re criticising.
The Corpse Can’t Play would only be repeated once, in 1970. After that it wouldn’t be seen again until its recent screening at Missing Believed Wiped at the BFI. It’s a fitting tribute to Paddy Russell so soon after her death and demonstrates what an accomplished director she was even in this early stage of her career. It will hopefully see the light of DVD release before too long.