Foreign Countries #27: The Woman in Black (1989)

Nigel Kneale had an impressive career. Interviewed by the BBC when he died, Mark Gatiss referred to him as the man who invented popular television and it’s a sentiment that’s hard to argue with. His collaborations with Rudolph Cartier brought about the first proper serial for television with The Quatermass Experiment (1953), The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968) would foreshadow voyeuristic tripe like Big Brother (1999- ) and Celebrity Love Island (2005-06), while The Stone Tape (1972) would remain one of the most influential ghost stories for decades to come. Yet it’s a curse that a writer labelled as ‘genre’ may never been seen alongside the very best. Mark Gatiss again:

“He is amongst the greats – he is absolutely as important as Dennis Potter, as David Mercer, as Alan Bleasdale, as Alan Bennett, but I think because of a strange snobbery about fantasy or sci-fi it’s never quite been that way.”

And finally, in August 2020 Network is finally able to release his last great work.

Susan Hill’s 1983 novella The Woman in Black has proved fruitful for dramatists. Stephen Mallatratt’s 1987 play has been running in the West End since 1989; there have been two radio adaptations, and the big-budget film from a reformed Hammer in 2012, starring Daniel Radcliffe. But Nigel Kneale’s TV adaptation from 1989, directed by Herbert Wise, will always be my favourite incarnation, and I include Hill’s original in that.

First transmitted on Christmas Eve that year, it terrified my 11-year-old self in a way that has never really left me. On retrospect, I was far too young to see such a production, but I lived in a pub and my parents were working downstairs, and this story provided such a dark fascination that the temptation was far too great to avoid.

Kneale’s screenplay eschews the framing narrative of the book and plunges us straight into the 1920s, making the story more immediate and urgent, with young solicitor Arthur Kidd (Adrian Rawlins) journeying to the remote Crythin Gifford to oversee the transfer of the estate of the deceased Alice Drablow.

The story bears many of the hallmarks of an M.R. James tale and indeed many trappings of the English Gothic novel but this is no postmodern work of literature, and Kneale doesn’t treat it as such. And while it is a largely faithful retelling of the tale, his influence shines though.

We see an isolated community on the brink of a great technological change from which it will never recover. Much is made of Eel Marsh House’s electrical generator and the introduction of a phonograph is a neat narrative device to give potentially clunky exposition via the voice of the dead. Kneale has form here, in the Beasts episode What Big Eyes (1976), check out Joe Nash’s RSPCA character giving a lengthy info dump while on the phone to a lady trying to get a cat down from a tree , “Have you tried a saucer of milk?

The ghost is introduced early on and she appears subtly, almost casually but the unsettling music by future Oscar winner Rachel Portman leaves you in no doubt that something is terribly wrong. Indeed, the fact that the Woman can appear seemingly at will, and that this spectral presence causes a physical reaction in Kidd is one of the most disturbing aspects of the whole story.

Sound is used sparingly but to great effect, especially when Kidd is lost in the mist on the marsh. We see nothing but we hear: a coach and horses, a crash, a piercing scream and finally terrible, deafening silence. Kneale effectively reusing the premise of The Stone Tape, although this is no residual haunting.

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The one scene that tends to linger most in the mind is the Woman’s assault on Kidd in his lodgings above the pub, and it’s this violation of personal space, with the realisation that there’s no safe space from the ghost, that brings with it the ultimate fear. This is a ghost that doesn’t play by the rules of Gothic literary tradition. This is a ghost that hates you and wants you dead. This is a ghost that will pursue you. This is a ghost that you can run but never hide from. This is a ghost as trauma.

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The menace of the ghost as an older woman touches on the historical fear of witches and all the cultural and social baggage that brings to a male dominated society, but the Woman isn’t just a harbinger of your death. Like the best Gothic villains, tragedy and revenge are her constant companions, here that means the death of a child. This theme is played with a light touch, but the story makes an effort to establish Kidd’s young family, and from Kidd saving the Gypsy child in the market to the shots of the row of small headstones in the churchyard, you’re meant to infer one thing above all others: the Woman in Black kills kids. You begin to realise with mounting horror the logical, inescapable conclusion to this tale.

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Kneale’s love of science is almost equal to his dislike of people, and for the most part the inhabitants of Crythin Gifford are an unfriendly if not unsympathetic lot. But there is no hostility to Kidd, merely an unspoken, knowing fear of what he is blindly walking into. The main mouthpiece for the locals is Sam Toovey (Bernard Hepton), a reassuring presence that’s world away from his turn as the sinister Fisher in Robin Redbreast (1970). He and his wife are now childless so are spared the main force of the Woman’s wrath but even through the smaller roles such as Trevor Cooper’s struggling farmer or village factotum Keckwick (William Simmons) we glimpse the hardship of British rural life after the First World War, making the contrast with Kidd all the starker. He’s young, urban, decent. And doomed.

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Herbert Wise’s direction is well paced, tense and lingering when building fear, economical when scene setting. The acting is just the right side of theatrical, even David Daker manages to rein it in enough although unsurprisingly Bernard Hepton is the best performer in it. But special mention should go to Pauline Moran, best known as Miss Lemon in Agatha Christie’s Poirot (1989-2013), who, just through make-up and physical performance (she has no dialogue) is utterly mesmerising. No CGI here, just intense acting that’s infinitely more effective than Hammer’s polished but rather dull effort 23 years later.

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Susan Hill was reportedly unhappy with some of Kneale’s rather superficial changes to the novella, Arthur Kipps becomes Arthur Kidd and Toovey’s dog changes gender. In Andy Murray’s updated biography of Kneale, Into the Unknown, writer and critic Kim Newman notes:

“He was very offended at the notion of Susan Hill using the name of Kipps from HG Wells as the hero of The Woman in Black, and so he decided not to use it and to change the hero’s name to Kidd.”

This is a grim and gripping production that is up there with the best of Lawrence Gordon Clark’s 70s ghost stories for the BBC and has aged just that bit better.

A perfect winter’s tale. Even in the height of summer.

 

 

A version of this essay appeared in We Don’t Go Back – A Watcher’s Guide To Folk Horror by Howard Ingham. You can purchase it here. You can buy Andy Murray’s Into the Unknown – The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale herehere.

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