I’m writing this post in the shadow of Orford Castle on the Suffolk coast. Built sometime between 1165 and 1173 to consolidate Henry II’s power in East Anglia, it’s probably best known these days for its uniquely designed keep but readers with an interest in such matters may know it more from the climax of Witchfinder General (1968).
One of these photos is from the film, the other from my recent holiday.
Not long after its completion, if local folklore is to be believed, it had a strange visitor. According to the chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall, a naked wild man, covered in hair, was caught in the nets of local fishermen. The man was brought back to the castle where he was held for six months, being questioned or tortured. He said nothing intelligible and behaved in a feral fashion throughout. The Wild Man of Orford finally escaped from the castle and was never seen again. Later accounts described him as a merman, and the incident appears to have encouraged the growth in wild men carvings on church fonts in the region.
Orford has a rich history as a beautiful but unsettling place. Orford Ness, now a wildlife sanctuary was a testing site for experimental aircraft and the ballistics for nuclear bombs. It was also the site of the Cobra Mist listening station, still held by the MOD but seemingly abandoned after unknown interference rendered it unreliable. And we’re just down the road from Rendlesham, the site of England’s most notorious UFO incident.
The past carves itself into the landscape, shapes it, informs it, defines it. It provides a constant link to the present for those concerned enough to look. Possibly no writer exemplifies this better than Alan Garner. Born in Cheshire and brought up in Alderley Edge, his work is rooted in the landscape and history of the area. Usually but somewhat reductively classified as a children’s writer, he rose to fame with books such as Elidor, The Owl Service and Red Shift, all of which have been adapted for television.
Dramarama was an anthology series on that ran on Children’s ITV between 1983 and 1989. Uniquely, various episodes were made by different ITV franchises and the first series was broadcast in two parts. The first seven episodes all had a supernatural theme and were made by Thames Television under the umbrella title Spooky.
The series was the brainchild of the head of children’s drama at TVS, Anna Home who had left the BBC in 1981 where, amongst her many achievements, she had produced children’s cult favourite The Changes (1975) and helped develop Grange Hill (1978-2008). The final episode of this initial run, The Keeper was an original story by Alan Garner and I think is probably one of the most terrifying things I’ve seen.
No concession is made to the intended age range of the audience and over 25 minutes, this claustrophobic two hander concerning an amateur investigation into the haunting of an abandoned gamekeeper’s lodge takes the oppressive influences of Shirely Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House – and it’s subsequent adaptations – and Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (1972), and combines them with the isolated rural horror familiar to viewers of The Blair Witch Project (1999). From the music – Gordon Crosse’s stark, unsettling medieval score – to the camera work – probing, invasive, like the POV of an unseen presence – all parts of the production are operating at the top of their game. Yet the most vital aspect remains the writing, and the dialogue is expertly and economically seeded with both clues vital for engaging TV drama, and for conveying the enormity of a place’s history. Garner is a very physical writer, you can always feel the land upon which his characters’ tread, even if, like here, you never see outside the confines of a crumbling house.
We open with a fire burning in a grate and an empty chair set before it. The camera moves towards it, as if to sit down? There’s a dissolve to a close up of the fire for the title and writer captions then we cut back to the room from a slightly lower angle, from the chair. There’s a noise from outside and the camera pans round to the window and we hear people approaching. The camera rises from the chair and starts towards the door…then the door opens and the spell is broken, we cut to a more conventional long shot, though keeping the chair in the centre of the frame. This opening sequence makes one thing abundantly clear, something’s here, and these new arrivals are disturbing it.
The arrivals are Peter (Tim Woodward) and Sally (Janet Maw), a pair of amateur paranormal investigators, although this is her first time. There’s a suggestion they’re a fledgling couple but we’ve no real time to dwell on such matters.
The POV camera work starts up again, going in uncomfortably close to both Peter and Sally, as well as investigating what they’ve brought with them. As Peter moves into the room, we’re shown something else, there’s not been a fire in that grate for a very long time…Welcome to Beacon Lodge.
Over coffee we get the info dump on the lodge, never a happy place or somewhere that people stayed for long. The last tenant, a gamekeeper shot himself and his daughter later bought the cottage but did nothing with it expect strip the roof and leave it to rot. And everything is rotting – expect the chair by the fireplace, the chair sally tries to sit in but it doesn’t feel right. During the info dump Peter mentions his grandmother being scared of this place and Sally notices that none of the window panes are broken. Beacon Lodge has a long history and people stay away.
There’s a nice parallel here between ghost hunters sitting around waiting for something to happen and trying to keep a drama about two people talking interesting. The unsettling camera work certainly helps but the narrative weaving of innocent pastimes like playing scrabble into something far more sinister is highly effective. Throughout the scrabble game Garner takes time to ensure we know each word that’s played. Sally has CUCKOO, WEST, WINDOW, NEST, while Peter gets LOVE, WIND, LODGING, GO. Not surprisingly Sally’s winning. Throughout this they discuss the nature and causes of hauntings, whether it’s people that generate them, the places themselves or a combination of both. While this sequence can be seen as dealing with the familiar trope of people messing with things they know nothing about, Garner adds in a chilling aside, neither Peter or Sally have seen a ghost but then Sally adds “I’d be more bothered if a ghost had seen me.” It’s one thing to try and dispassionately investigate the so-called supernatural. But what if the subject of your investigation turns its attention to you?
There’s a jump cut here and some time has passed. Sally’s been asleep and goes to get herself some more coffee, meanwhile Peter notices what appears to be poem written on a piece of paper, seemingly in Sally’s hand:
“GO from my WINDOW my LOVE, my LOVE,
GO from my WINDOW my dear.
For the WIND is in the WEST,
And the CUCKOO’s in his NEXT,
And you can’t have a LODGING here.”
Sally’s next line “We’re being used, I’m being used…I can feel it, absorbing” is one of the most disturbing lines I’ve ever heard as we now build towards the climax. A banging starts at the window, then at the door. There’s a unnatural wind and Sally has some sort of psychic attack. Unfortunately this sequence doesn’t work quite as well as it might. The wind isn’t effective and the banging is realised as part of the score, which while interesting from the point of view of whether or not the sound is diegetic (and there’s no trace of it when Peter plays back the recording he made), it doesn’t jolt or disturb the viewer as well it might. But then I keep forgetting, they viewers are children…
In the aftermath of the attack, Peter is all rationality and practicality, trying to get Sally to write down her experiences. But something’s happened to Sally. And she’s sitting in that chair, only now she seems able to remain.
“We should not have meddled…all it wants is to be left alone. The earth not broken. They were wrong to build a house here. That woman, she knew the land should not be broken. That’s why she left it. There is a keeper for the land. A keeper against trespassers…” She then repeats the poem. “Peter we were told. And now the keeper will not let us go.”
We don’t clearly see what happens next. The camera advances on Peter. Is it Sally? Is the presence from before? Are they now one and the same? It doesn’t matter, no one is leaving.
It’s hard to over emphasise how well layered The Keeper is. Catherine Butler talks about how Garner is “careful to integrate his fiction with the physical reality beyond the page” but here it’s woven with a sense of escalating dread that scared me more than half of Lawrence Gordon Clark’s Ghost Stories for Christmas (and I love those) and director John Woods deserves huge credit for the inventive camera work . But I’m even more disturbed that this was broadcast before 5pm in a slot designed for children, because The Keeper was made for children, and watching it now it’s really hard to relate to that.
Foreign countries indeed.