Have you seen The Mercy (2017)? The true story of hubris, pressure and the tragic pride of Donald Crowhurt’s disastrous attempt to complete the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race in 1968 that was made into an extremely dull film. The documentary Deep Water (1996) tells the same story in a far more effective way, using archive footage and audio clips that lets this most extraordinary of tales speak directly to the viewer.
Of course the narrative of documentaries are also at the, um, mercy of their directors and one point of view can be highlighted over another but in any case it’s an uncomfortable truth that dramatising a real life story tends to diminish it. Plundering the case files of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) may make for a great segment on Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers but make it into an actual drama and you often get crap like Worlds Beyond.
So what if you expand the story? To make it as much about the lives of those affected by an uncanny incident as about the incident itself. To make the focus as much about the reaction to those it affected and what that reaction reveals about wider societal prejudice. Does that make it work better as a story? Well it depends…
The ‘Moberly–Jourdain Incident’ took place on the 10th August 1901. Charlotte Anne Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain attempted to visit the Petit Trianon, a chateau in the grounds of Versailles. Becoming lost, they claimed to have observed the gardens as they had been before France’s eighteenth century revolution and encountered, amongst others, Marie Antoinette. The two women later anonymously published their story, entitled An Adventure to a fair amount of interest and ridicule. And while their adventure is lacking much in the way of actual action, the lives of the two women in question are interesting enough in their own right to make this tale worthy of adaptation. Because Miss Morison’s Ghosts is as much about women trying to be taken seriously in Edwardian Britain as it is about trying to convince the world they’ve been doing the time warp.
Charlotte Anne Moberly was the first Principal of women’s college St. Hugh’s Hall, and it was under her leadership that it became St Hugh’s College, the first constituent college at Oxford for women. Eleanor Jourdain was by any definition a remarkable person. The first woman to sit at Oxford for a viva voce examination, she was awarded a doctorate from the University of Paris for her research into symbolism in Dante’s Divine Comedy. These are serious people.
Coming in at over an hour and 40 minutes and with extensive location filming ,this is an elaborate production from Anglia using the Tales of the Unexpected production team. Broadcast in the August of 1981 and starring Wendy Hillier and Hannah Gordon (six months after they’d both been seen in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980)), Miss Morison’s Ghosts was written by Ian Curteis who had also recently adapted two R.F. Delderfield novels into People Like Us (1978). It was directed by experienced TV director John Bruce whose next job after this one would be the BBC’s 1982 version of The Woman in White.
The pre- titles sequence pitches a battle between two iron willed women as Frances Lamont (Hannah Gordon) is interviewed by Elizabeth Morison (Wendy Hiller) to replace her as Principal at St Guilbert’s College (names were changed to hide the identities of those in question in case you’re wondering although the first names of the two women remain the same). Lamont offered the job on the understanding that she works as Miss Morison’s Vice-Principal for a time to ensure a smooth handover. Now this is all painted as a potential generational battle, with the younger successor impatiently waiting for the changing of the guard, albeit conducted under a veil of Edwardian civility. Great care is taken to contrast the characters has much as possible. On their visit to Versailles Morison is dressed drably, moaning that it’s too hot and how she had it harder when she was younger, while Lamont is a picture of coolness in cream, reading the guide book and seemingly enjoying the experience.
With over a hundred minutes of running time we don’t seem too pressed so there are long shots of the French countryside and snatches of unseen conversation as we gradually establish that the women have become lost looking for the Petit Trianon. Being lost can be a curious psychological experience and quickness to panic can have a strong disorientating effect. So when a man in a tri cornered hat and cape appears and babbles at them for a bit before running off, you can be pretty sure that our heroines are feeling a little on edge. The gradual unease increases with the music becoming slightly more strained and the voice continuing (Lamont seems to hear the music as we do, Morison seems to hear something quite different), they interact with some characters to ask directions but others in the distance seem to be in tableau. Of course when John Bruce decides to slow the film down and go all Picnic at Hanging Rock you might as well flash a sign saying ‘uncanny’. This is turn strongly implies that we’re being told the phenomena is real and they really have encountered eighteenth century France. A bold claim but a potentially more satisfying one if, for the rest of the story you want to share in the frustrations of Lamont and Morison.
Nevertheless it’s hard to create that oppressive atmosphere so vital to understanding the central characters or to fully appreciate the music we hear is supposed to be digenic rather than incidental. We’re now less than 12 minutes in, all the spooky stuff’s happened and the viewer’s unclear about what’s supposed to have occurred. Then what follows is essentially the power struggle between Morison and Lamont for control of both the college against the backdrop of its succession, and what they should do about their experience. It’s all good drama, if slightly ponderous but you wonder if the focus of this production is quite right, the eerie confusion of the first 12 minutes giving way to an hour and 25 minutes of Edwardian class and gender politics (worth noting again that Curteis had been adapting Delderfield books before working on this). This is fine in itself but the hostile reactions to the book and the scandal that apparently engulfs the college happen off screen and we’re told about them second hand. Without this wider perspective we lack an appreciation of the pressure that Morison and Lamont are under and without that they can too easily come across as irritatingly myopic.
Morison is pitched as petty and selfish, an upper class suffragette with an inferiority complex, acutely aware of her lack of academic qualifications and forever name-dropping her father, a Bishop (and whom we later learn she didn’t like). The production has fun with this, particularly when she goes to visit the SPR and meets Dr. Hadley (Vivian Pickles) who Morison underestimates both intellectually (she assumes she’s an underling) and socially (Hadley’s father is the Archbishop of York and trumps Morison’s boast). Morison’s legacy is supposed to be her college’s membership of Oxford. Her obsession with being believed about her experience threatens to derail everything as she compares herself to Galileo, Luther and finally Jesus. Which is never a good look.
Lamont is seemingly everything Morison is not, she’s from a more humble background, academically gifted, a moderniser (she has a telephone installed in the college) and charming (she calls the students by their first name). But after initially being the cautious one over the effects of the potential publicity their story might generate, her increasing obsession overtakes that of Morison, with her decision to sue the SPR after they publish a negative review of their book. But this comes after she has succeeded Morison as Principal and is so late in the story that it appears rushed, and given the programme’s running time a rushed ending is somewhat frustrating.
Both of these women have spent a lifetime fighting the system to get where they are but as you only ever see them at the height of their powers they’re not portrayed with the sympathy they could be.
What we do get is a lot of scenes of women performing roles usually assigned to men. Both Morison and Lamont work, plan, scheme, argue, and they give self-indulgent sermons in chapel. In short they are shown to be complex, flawed characters. Easy enough when they’re based on real people but it’s still worth celebrating as a relative rarity. Sadly the pacing of the story works against it; straight into the action, a ponderous middle and rushed climax that ends with Lamont’s death after both women have been removed from their positions in disgrace. It focuses on the two women at the expense of what they’re fighting, and therefore loses much of the drama.
Both Wendy Hiller and Hannah Gordon are reliably good but I can’t help feeling that either cutting this down to an hour and upping the pacing, or lengthening it but fleshing out some supporting characters and giving the ending more time to breathe would have made this a much more satisfying production.