Every time my wife watches a mid-eighties Top of the Pops repeat on BBC Four these days I feel the need to point out the portion of Bernard Lodge’s slit scan effect created for the Doctor Who titles in 1973. And I do mean every time.
Those titles that ran from 1973 to 1980, accompanied by the iconic theme defined a generation and proved the power of a title sequence to create mood and tone. ITV film series like The Avengers (1961-69) used their titles to convey style over peril, The Prisoner (1967-68) gave a quick overview of the series premise, just in case you had no idea what the hell was going on. But for creating an unsettling sense of the eerie nothing beats the titles and music of Shadows of Fear (1970-73).
A barren, post-apocalyptic landscape, indistinct voices and strange unknowns lurking behind every door. One of which we’re now entering. Roger Webb’s theme means you’re on edge before the episode starts.
A curious anthology series from Thames Television, Shadows of Fear only really ran for one series in early 1971. There was a pilot of sorts six months before and a half hour episode in 1973 (the only period piece of the entire run). The premise is suitably broad, the effect of fear on an individual.
The Death Watcher, broadcast on 26 January 1971 was written by New Zealander Jacques Gillies, a jobbing TV writer whose CV includes Danger Man (1960-62) and The Frighteners (1972-73). Apparently he lived on a Chinese Gunboat in Cornwall until it sank…
The episode was directed by Peter Duguid, probably best known for Callan (1967-72) and that adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1983) with Tom Baker.
Recently published psychologist Emily Erickson (Judy Parfitt)1 is invited by Dr Pickering (John Neville)2 to take part in an experiment on ESP. Her husband (Michael Hawkins) is uncomfortable, they know nothing about this man and he sounds like a bit of a crank. Pickering wants to show Emily evidence of psychic phenomena and gauge the opinion of a sceptic although the precise details of the experiment are kept vague at this stage. As well as scene setting this opening establishes that Emily is independent and willful but you get the sense that these traits should be read negatively. She’s reckless the subtext seems to read, if anything bad happens to her it’s partly her fault.
About six weeks after this episode was broadcast the first Women’s Liberation march took place in London. Writing this some 47 years later, we’re still as entrenched in victim blaming and hypocritical judgement as ever. Emily’s an academic, a published author. Intelligent women are dangerous.
We then cut to Pickering’s house and we’re left in no doubt that Mr Erickson’s right to be worried. Pickering’s telling a psychiatric nurse, Dawson (Victor Maddern), seconded from Broadhurst (are we to assume that’s Broadmoor?) that Emily’s on her way and that she might give them some trouble. Pickering then intercepts Emily on a train and tells her the plan’s changed and they’ll be going to a cottage in the middle of the East Anglian fens. “Suffocating in Suffolk” he jokingly offers.
We arrive at the house late at night. Well it’s supposed to be late at night but the day-for-night filter on the camera isn’t terribly convincing. “Do you have a ghost here?” Emily asks Pickering”. “Not really” comes the reply. “Not yet.”
While on one level all this is effective in creating a level of suspense as clearly Emily is walking into danger, the exact nature of which is unknown to us. But you can’t help the feeling that once Pickering explained that he wants to contact the dead and Emily tells him he’s talking horseshit (I’m paraphrasing), that she should have probably clarified a few details before accepting the offer. Without having seen the initial letter it’s hard for the viewer to judge but you start to think that perhaps her husband had a point. Emily clearly thinks so too and we’re treated to a couple of flashbacks of Erickson essentially saying “I told you so!” Emily had told him to let her “be the famous author for a bit.” What has her hubris got her into?
Whether or not this makes the viewer complicit in sexist victim blaming is up to individual conscience but as Emily starts to realise that there are plenty of scientists who would be willing to help Pickering so the viewer begins to wonder why she has been chosen. Then when Pickering says that to deter burglars they’ll be a Rhodesian Ridgeback wandering round the house all night so don’t leave your room, we know things are going full on Hitchcock.
Sadly although the sets are impressive, the studio lighting and flat camera work mean there’s precious little atmosphere building up in what should be a tense and chilling scene. Parfitt and Neville do their best but it still comes across as more sitcom than psychological terror.
She’s locked in her room for the night and Pickering goes to work on a strange contraption that involves putting chicken wire on a window frame, like he’s presenting Serial Killer Blue Peter. He then has a bit of a dance with the chicken wire…It isn’t until morning that Emily realises that Pickering won’t let her leave the house and that Dawson thinks she’s a psychiatric patient. Even the lady delivering the groceries thinks her cries for help are part of an illness (and in doing so advocates euthanasia – a chilling little aside about attitudes towards mental health).
We then jump forward five days and Emily is on hunger strike. The Police are searching but Pickering’s left a false trail. She tries to convince Dawson she’s a prisoner but he’s unconvinced, he’s heard that one many times. She tells him that she too once worked at Broadhurst and they have mutual acquaintances (that’s a bit too handy, didn’t Pickering check that out?). But once again what should be major plot and character development is delivered flatly and misses its mark and the passage of time never really comes across. Emily still looks the same, okay her hair’s a bit messier but her make up’s still on point (and is Dawson doing her laundry?). Peter Duguid never really conveys the claustrophobia or the helplessness. Perhaps the studio limitations are too much to overcome.
Emily finally agrees to play along in a bid to bargain and Pickering tells her what he intends to do. As people feel cold when ghosts appears, he hypothesises that to manifest a ghost converts energy to matter (someone’s been watching Quatermass and the Pit (1958/9)) but that as ghosts seem tragic, only ones that have died by violent means need to communicate (someone’s been watching – actually I’ve no idea what but they won’t like The Stone Tape (1972)). Therefore Pickering needs someone to die violently so he can attempt to speak to them as a ghost…
As Dawson knows nothing of this Pickering has to get him out of the house so gives him the following day off and sends him to the cinema (there was literally nothing else to do in early 70s Britain). Worth noting that Richard Fleischer’s 10 Rillington Place would come out only two days after The Death Watcher was broadcast and would have been in the news around this time. The true story of serial killer John Christie and the miscarriage of justice that saw Timothy John Evans executed for his crimes has a number of basic similarities with this episode.
The final act has Emily trapped in the weird contraption that Pickering’s been building. He’s going to drown her as she’s shown a large photograph of him to imprint a psychic link. Meanwhile Dawson’s being bored by the local gossip who’s talking about Pickering and the other woman he’s had at the house. This is apparently enough to convince him that the doctor’s up to no good and he rushes to a phone box to call Broadhurst to confirm Emily’s identity. The next thing we know Dawson’s flagged down a Land Rover and is racing back to rescue Emily. If this was trying to do Hitchcock earlier then we’re now into James Bond territory with over-elaborate death and a race against time.
The change in pace is quite a shift but at least now there’s some urgency, and the film sequences are far better at conveying this than the studio bound scenes. Pickering, now revealed as utterly unhinged is reminiscing about his ballroom dancing days and the girl who started this all off in his mind. It’s nicely underplayed by Neville, how many lives has he destroyed because of this? Fighting the impotent rage of inadequacy and regret. However as dancing hasn’t really come up in the plot before now the viewer is left wondering what the point of it really is. Pickering mentions the dancing and its associated communication as being “a kind of aptitude test” but he never once asked Emily if she liked a bit of a knees-up, apparently Emily’s mind matters more. How long do you think he searched for a psychologist who also loved ballroom dancing, surely there’s one? Perhaps she never answered his letter.
Dawson does make it back and rescues Emily, and we get the one truly creepy scene at the very end of the play. Emily, back at home with her family is told that Pickering has killed himself – violently – while holding a photograph of Emily. She’s turned the heating up to maximum but still complains of being very cold, and we know that ghost or not Pickering will haunt her forever.
The Death Watcher has a decent premise and good performances but its flat presentation and problematic subtext – that intelligent women are dangerous, not least to themselves – prove too much to overcome. If the whole thing could have been shot on film it might have been different. Certainly the fenland setting, with its wide green emptiness would have provided a bleak and eerie backdrop but we never really explore it. similarly if Emily could have engineered her own escape rather than be rescued by Dawson much of the subtext could have been redeemed. But no, Emily ends the play where you suspect society would prefer her to be, at home and afraid.