When I was ten, my parents moved us from urban Essex to rural Norfolk. I spent my adolescent years wishing I was as far away from this new county as I could get, lazily describing the reason for this as simple boredom. Nothing ever happened in a Norfolk village that would interest a proud urbanite like me and I longed for the social bustle and cultural richness of London. And yet London was less than two hours away by train. You could commute it if you wanted to, but some of the locals I spoke to in my Dad’s pub had either never been or went once and didn’t like it. The distance was not one of space but of attitude.
As an adult I now visit Norfolk and East Anglia every chance I get. I love the open fens and their big skies, the bleakly beautiful coastline, and Norwich is one of the most interesting cities in the UK. I now look back on the reasons for my immature disquiet as more than just simple boredom. “The quiet keeps you awake at night,” my Dad would joke, but there was an unease behind the mockery. It’s true I remember being disturbed by the lack of streetlights and the absence of a constant traffic hum, but rural Norfolk at night wasn’t exactly silent. I can recall running home in terror at the deep, bass animal noises coming from beyond the trees at the back of our garden, only to be told I should have paid more attention to the lyrics of Away in a Manger. The cattle were lowing.
To the uninitiated townie the countryside is eerie and ‘other’, and that’s nothing new. And now London is full of people wanting to escape the ‘rat race’ (whatever that is. As far I can recall people who live in rural communities still have to go to work, it’s just there’s bugger all public transport). Stewart Lee’s excellent routine on smug urban couples’ hypocrisy in expounding the catch-all ‘quality of life’ in their new rural homes while privately despairing at the lack of satisfactory culinary establishments and decent supply of illegal narcotics only highlights the lack of preparation and understanding.
There’s a line about half way through The Beast: “It takes a lifetime to find an affinity with solitude.” People born in rural communities have a pretty big head start on those couples that might appear on Escape to the Country.
But if the rural terror of isolation can be keenly felt in East Anglia (and readers of M.R. James and Susan Hill will know they can) then what about the remotest part of England, the West Country?
Anyone who’s driven to Cornwall will know just how isolated it is, bordering only Devon and surrounded on three sides by the Atlantic Ocean. The counties that make up the West Country are places that see themselves as apart from the rest of the country, land steeped in tradition and folklore from King Arthur’s last resting place to the Beast of Bodmin.
First broadcast in early 1982, West Country Tales took its cue from the supposed real-life experiences of the British public, made regionally by the BBC in partnership with Double Jay Productions.
There’s a constant theme of man’s place within nature that runs through the episodes (well, the ones I’ve seen anyway). In The Poacher, most of the episode is spent showing how, if you only take what you need, nature will always provide (assuming you bypass property laws anyway), and the eponymous poacher is rewarded with a fireside chat with Pan (who’s wearing a suit for some reason) before being knocked out and given Pan’s mark – it seems that is supposed to be a good thing..?
Some episodes, like The White Bird of Laughter are historical – I’m not sure how that fits in with real-life experiences (family legend?) – while others like Mrs Constantine deal with the encroachment of time, progress and entropy. All are set against the backdrop of the land itself, vast and unknowable.
Each episode of West Country Tales is told via narration with minimal character dialogue. This took a bit of getting used to, at first I felt it took me out of the story too much, that I was an extra stage removed. This was a mistake and a silly one – having a story recounted to you is a staple of supernatural tales. M.R. James’s tales are often told as third hand, making it all the easier to gloss over plot inconsistencies and a vagueness of detail if the storyteller them self doesn’t know. And anyway, what are the recovered documents of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or the Found Footage film style, if not retellings? The narration format also has a couple of advantages; you can pack a lot more story in to the 30 minute run time, and characters’ speech can concentrate on being vaguely normal and more natural sounding if it doesn’t have to worry about exposition and info dumping every few lines. You also get to lead the audience more firmly in the direction you want to go, again vital if you want to create atmosphere and build to a climax in less than half an hour. It’s also a useful cover for variable quality in the cast.
The Breakdown was written by Josephine Poole, based on a ‘contribution’ by a Janet Holt. Poole had written for Children’s horror classic Shadows (1975-78) and was an artist on Watership Down (1978). Set at the height of summer but broadcast during the cold winter at the beginning of 1982, it tells the story of a lone woman’s car breaking down outside the house of Bill Foster (John Abineri, an actor who despite the best efforts of Doctor Who fans is destined to be remembered as a Ferrero Rocher-proffering lackey), a widower who was convicted in the court of public opinion after his wife fell down the stairs and died.
So we have a man who is alone, friendless and has either every right to feel resentful at society or is literally a murderer, and a woman who we’re told is driving aimlessly on holiday, going and staying where she will. I remarked in my posts on The Orchard End Murder and Shadows of Fear: The Death Watcher that the moment a woman shows the slightest inclination to independence and self-empowerment, society is very keen on showing her being raped, murdered or kidnapped with the barely disguised subtext that it’s better for everyone if women know their place. And initially that seems what we have here. The Woman (Anita Harris, probably best known as Nurse Clarke in Carry On Doctor (1967)) has no real character to speak of, but the clues are there as to where we’re going. The narrator (Keith Barron) frames the story with the woman as victim so when he mentions in passing that her husband left her for a younger woman, you’re meant to see this as an indication that no one will miss her. It’s only when she later cuts herself and we’re told that she can’t stand the sight of her own blood although she’s never had a problem with other people’s, that you begin to piece things together.
As written, Foster’s very ambiguous. Every action he performs, from phoning the garage to trying to fix the woman’s car, could be interpreted as trying to trap her. So when he suggests she stays the night and she readily agrees, you get the feeling someone’s having some fun with horror clichés. What sort of woman agrees to stay the night in a strange man’s isolated home? Well, either a naive idiot or a psychopathic murderer, and whichever one you plump for may say a lot about your attitudes to such matters. So when the garage mechanic (Brian Jennings) finds Foster’s murdered body in the morning it’s not quite the revelation it might be, although it’s effectively shot. This story is all the better for being made completely on location, with Jennings’ exploration to the deserted house suitably tense.
One thing this story doesn’t seem to have is anything much in the way of the supernatural, but if you’ve seen Lindsey Vickers’s The Appointment (1981) you’ll recognise the similar 80s cosmopolitan feel about ‘otherness’ that pervades this episode. Foster is shown to be a keen gardener (and handy with a knife, part of the false framing) but it’s described as a futile battle with nature. And judging by the way that man’s role within nature is portrayed in other episodes of West Country Tales, it’s almost as if he’s committing a crime by trying to tame it. So often the pagan village conspiracy is directed against an outsider, and here it’s like we’re witnessing what happens when it’s turned against one from within. The wine he pours them both seals his fate – such a decadent, suburban thing to do. Pour her a cider and all would have been well.
By contrast The Beast by Kevin Brooks (the ‘contribution’ this time is from one G. R. Parkhouse) is as straightforward a tale as is possible. It’s told in two flashbacks but with the framing device playing no real role, leaving the story with a flat, unfinished air.
A man (David Gilpin – he’s in The Nightmare Man (1981), good fun, that) receives a panicked letter from his cousin, Jenny (Maggie Green) who now lives in his childhood home and asks him to return and help her and her husband. What’s happening to them now is what happened to the man as a child. Making his way via train the man remembers the terrifying encounter from his past.
The flashback is previewed with one of the most pretentiously dire lines I’ve heard in a while.
“My mind leapt a chasm in space and time.”
After more pontificating about the responsibilities of man to nature, the upshot is he gets attacked by some sort of creature (Milton Reid, you may remember him saying “pyramids” just before being pushed off a building by Roger Moore in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)) in the woods not far from his family’s farm. You get one, brief close up (see above). Every other time you see it, it’s either in long shot or the face has been blurred. This is a little jarring but you’ve got to work with what you’ve got, and the build up’s nicely handled. No one ever believed the boy’s story (until now anyway) and over time he moved away and forgot about it.
Jenny’s flashback is a little more drawn out. Essentially the creature or something very similar is terrorising them and stealing their livestock. Because the viewer now knows what it is, the focus shifts to Jenny’s increasing psychological isolation as her husband Bill (Steve Tomlin) thinks she’s overreacting and she’s left to face an unknown terror in an increasingly insecure home, without support. The climax of this flashback, with Bill finding the creature in an outbuilding and being attacked, should set up a final act as both our man and Jenny draw strength from each other to confront their fears to take control of the situation. But this never happens and the episode just ends.
There’s a subtext to this episode which I touched on at the start of this post, that outsiders come to rural communities expecting peace and quiet but find isolation and fear, and yet the focus, indeed the victims of this story, are a local family, which leaves a confused, disjointed feel. Added to this is the lack of conclusion – Jenny tells her story and that’s it, and there’s no response or suggestion from the man. It’s not that I want an explanation. I’ve mentioned before about how explanation robs fear of its power, and that’s not needed in a short tale such as this, but it’s been set up for something that never happens. An anxious letter, a hurried summons, then…nothing. Now that may have been how this story played out in ‘real life’ but if you’re going to dramatise it rather than go all Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World about it, you need a better note on which to finish.
A quick word on Anton Mullan’s stark, minimal electric theme. Not what you might expect for such a series, and I don’t know how it went down at the time but viewing these stories some 36 years after broadcast it feels nicely misplaced. Eerie in the most literal sense.
In these days of the Folk Horror revival I’m surprised that no one’s put these out on DVD, although there’s a few low quality recordings on You Tube. Like a lot of anthology series, it’s uneven but given some decent restoration it’s not hard to see a market for uncanny fare.
By the way, a couple of weeks before The Beast aired, the two part Doctor Who story Black Orchid was broadcast, the story of a deformed creature haunting a family’s past. Its working title? The Beast.