DVD Review: A View from a Hill

The BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas series had petered out by the end of the 1970s. They ceased to use the works of M.R. James as a basis for their story adaptations, instead turning to other classic authors such as Dickens or new and independent works, with varying degrees of success. Some of these are in the DVD set I purchased this spring and I may or may not deal with them later.

After a long lapse, the BBC returned to M.R. James this past decade. In 2005, their first new adaptation was based on a short story titled A View from a Hill. This is a story of James’s that I’d never read before seeing this television version. It’s not in the anthology under my pillow, nor on the Gaslight site. I have found it online in a couple of places and read it since then; for example, it’s on the Thin Ghost site at
http://www.thin-ghost.org/items/show/162.

Basically, it’s the story of a pair of binoculars that allow the person looking through them to see things such as old buildings that were there long ago in the past. But the way the binoculars were constructed means that there is a price to pay for this vision.

The BBC version begins with a young man (an actor I don’t know named Mark Letheren) standing on the platform of a tiny rural railway stop on a lovely autumn afternoon, and looking impatient. It’s not a delayed train he’s waiting for, but the person who was supposed to come and pick him up.

After awhile, he gives up. Fortunately, he has his bicycle with him; unfortunately, his bag falls off the back onto the road and he has to retrieve it.

When he arrives at the house where he thinks he’s expected, it’s a large and grand old place but looks neglected and perhaps even empty. No–there are two people living here: the last Squire, Mr. Richards, and his elderly family retainer, Patten (Pip Torrens and David Burke respectively, two actors I know fairly well).

Mr. Richards is astonished to see the young man, who introduces himself as “Fanshawe. I’m here about the collection.”

Fanshaw tries on a skull“That’s next week,” says the squire.

“This week. I’m here.”

“So I see.”

Both Richards and his manservant are a hoot in their different ways. Neither seems entirely in touch with reality, but Richards has more funny lines.

Fanshawe is shown to his room. While unpacking and meticulously putting his belongings away, he discovers that his binoculars have been broken.
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DVD Review: Ghostwatch

On Halloween night in 1992, the BBC aired this program as a live, reality show (although it was actually neither). Banks of telephones were at the ready to receive calls from the general public to hear about their own brushes with the supernatural.  Viewers were promised an evening in the most haunted house in England–not some ancient gothic-style edifice with towers and secret passages and a long history of beheadings and nuns walled up when the place was an abbey, but an ordinary looking council house in a post-war suburban development in a place called Fox Hill in Norfolk.

Mike Smith at the Ghostwatch phones What gave the show not only a sense of being real, but a certain air of respectability, was the presence of some of the BBC’s prominent personalities of the day. The host was journalist Michael Parkinson–a face very familiar to the British viewing public since the 1970s; the closest American equivalent would be someone like Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw. Also appearing were Mike Smith and his wife, Blue Peter’s Sarah Greene. But the person I’m most familiar with among the group is Craig Charles, who was Lister in Red Dwarf, and who provides the comic relief until things get too gruesome for comedy.

After a brief introduction by Michael Parkinson, we are shown a piece of videotape recorded by psychic researchers inside the house at Fox Hill, in a bedroom where two little girls are just going to sleep. A time code in the lower right corner shows that it’s nearly 4 am when thumping sounds are heard coming from the walls. Things start to fly around the darkened room. Both girls are screaming and their mother comes in.

Dr. Pascoe and Michael ParkisonMr. Parkinson is seated in the studio with a parapsychologist, Dr. Lin Pascoe, who’s been involved with the Fox Hill haunting.

Mike Smith mans the phones like it’s a PBS telethon except that the Beeb isn’t asking for money and they aren’t giving away canvas shopping bags. (Although I do like the black T-shirts with the Ghostwatch logo that Sarah Greene and some of the television crew are wearing.)

Sarah, along with a cameraman named Chris and a sound guy also named Mike, will be spending the night in the house with the family, whose name is Early. Remote cameras have been placed in all the rooms and can be viewed at the studio and from the monitors in the equipment vans parked outside, where Craig is stationed.

Although the DVD runs a straight 90 minutes, dialog here and there indicates that the scenes that follow were shown at intervals between other programs throughout that Halloween night.
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DVD Review: Classic Ghost Stories

This was an extra DVD in the M.R. James Ghost Stories set. I’d mentioned that a couple of the other disks had an extra short feature in which Christopher Lee took the role of M.R. James, presenting one of his stories to a group of enthralled students. These are similar short features, done in 1986. Each is about 10 minutes long.

The actor telling the stories is Robert Powell, wearing spectacles and a pinstriped suit with a high Edwardian shirt collar and the black robe of a Cambridge don. The setting for the room he is in likewise suggests that of a scholar at Cambridge, with a desk and shelves full of books on one side, a comfy armchair before a fireplace with a high fender on the other, and a pointed-top Gothic door.

The Mezzotint
On the Gaslight site at http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/jamesX04.htm.

This is one of James’s most memorable stories, a good, creepy tale of a museum curator who purchases a mezzotint (a kind of engraving) of an old house:

It presented a full-face view of a not very large manor-house of the last century, with three rows of plain sashed windows with rusticated masonry about them, a parapet with balls or vases at the angles, and a small portico in the centre. On either side were trees, and in front a considerable expanse of lawn. The legend “A.W.F. sculpsit” was engraved on the narrow margin; and there was no further inscription. The whole thing gave the impression that it was the work of an amateur.

But this scene changes and becomes more disturbing each time anyone looks at it.
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DVD Review: The Quatermass Experiment

This is the very first of the Quatermass stories. It aired on the BBC in July and August of 1953 and introduces us to Professor Quatermass and the adventures of his Experimental Rocket Group.

Unfortunately, only the first two episodes of the original series survive. The DVD features a copy of the script so you can see how this version of Nigel Kneale’s story turned out, but I’ve also watched the Hammer film version that was made a couple of years later.

First, the two television episodes.

Episode 1: Contact Has Been Established

The episode begins with a voice-over announcer informing the viewers that the first manned rocket into space was launched from Australia one morning. The crew consisted of three men, whom we’ll hear more about later on. Contact with the rocket was suddenly lost and there’s been nothing but silence for more than 50 hours.

We then go to the control room for the British Experimental Rocket Group in the UK, as they discuss the problem with their Australian base. Everyone looks anxious, but one woman on the team seems more upset than the others. The group’s leader–Bernard Quatermass (played by Reginald Tate), although we won’t get his name for awhile yet–speaks comfortingly to her; their conversation establishes that she is Judith Carroon (Isabel Dean), married to one of the crewmen aboard the rocket, and a valued mathematician on the team. Judith is worried that one her calculations could have caused this malfunction. Judith Carroon and Prof. Quatermass

Then, to everyone’s relief, they pick up a signal. They aren’t able to contact the crew, but the rocket is heading back towards Earth. Judith does some calculations to project where it’s going… and track where it’s been. The rocket should have gone into orbit, but broke away and apparently took up some long, elliptical path. It’s been much farther from Earth than it should’ve been–halfway to the Moon if Judith’s math is correct. Quatermass regains remote control of the rocket to start its descent. It comes down in the London suburbs, about 10 miles from their headquarters.

There follows a long interval with a black screen and suspenseful music, and the next scene opens within the ruins of what was an old lady’s home near Wimbledom Common with a great big rocket sticking up through it. The couple next door have come to investigate; the wife seems to think that they’re faced with a nuclear warhead and wants to get away as fast as they can, although if she were right I don’t think they could get far enough quickly enough for safety.

The old lady and her cat The old lady (Katie Johnson from the Ealing comedy, The Ladykillers) is all right, although she’s trapped on what remains of the upper floor with a yowling cat in a wicker carrier. She’s understandably bewildered and believes the Blitz is recurring (“Have they started again?”) A Bobby arrives to rescue both old lady and cat with a tall ladder. Other emergency services people soon gather, as well as the neighbors and reporters eager to interview anybody they can get to talk to them. Among the latter is James Fullalove from the Gazette, who takes this exciting event as a welcome relief from his usual work on things like the Chelsea Flower Show.

By the time the members of the Rocket Group arrive on the scene, the place has taken on an atmosphere of carnival. One of the team, a man named Marsh, sets up radio equipment as close to the rocket as the heat from the exterior will allow and tries once again to contact the men inside. Judith shushes the crowd; she hears someone tapping. “They’re alive!”
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DVD Review: Quatermass & the Pit, Pt. 6

Episode 6: “Hob”

After the power was shut off during the press conference at the end of Part 5, Barbara Judd is the only one who sees the glow inside the spaceship in the darkness before the lights come on again.

The spaceship glows! Professor Quatermass tries to get the crowd of reporters and technical staff to leave, but Colonel Breen and the War Office guy want them to stay… and stay they do until the outer hull of the ship begins to pulse and glow so brightly that everybody can’t help but notice. By then, it’s too late.

Sounds of vibration are heard. Debris starts flying around and all hell breaks loose. People scream and push to get out of the pit. But not everyone is eager to escape. Breen remains, staring at the glowing ship hypnotically. He and a couple of other men just sit down on the ground in front of it, watching it. The reporter Fullalove also remains, snapping photos.

The crowd rushes out into the street, but something more than panic drives them. They seem to be influenced by the ship in the same way that Barbara Judd and the drillman were earlier and they run, guided by some reawakened instinct. They see the world around them as Martian grasshoppers, like themselves. The telekinetic debris accompanies them. Walls of the nearby buildings begin to shake and tumble down. Not just the people who were at the construction site and near the glowing spaceship are affected; it’s spreading around London.
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DVD Review: Quatermass & the Pit, Pt. 5

Episode 5: The Wild Hunt

The story picks up shortly after the end of Part 4. Captain Potter and his men find Barbara Judd halfway down the ramp, with an injury on her head from some flying object. She tells them that what she saw hopping past her was one of those giant grasshopper creatures, when in fact the soldiers and the viewer know it was the drillman. Potter goes out to find the drillman, and Barbara goes back to the Nicklin Institute, where she tells Dr. Roney and Professor Quatermass everything that happened.

A gargoyle at the church--does not look like a grasshopper to me. The phone in Roney’s office rings. It’s Captain Potter; he’s located the drillman at the church where he collapsed after his mad, possessed, bunny-hop dash from the construction pit. When Quatermass goes to speak to him, Miss Judd goes along. She wants to see what the drillman looks like now.

Inside the church, the drillman (whose name, by the way is Sladden) is in the care of the vicar who found him in the churchyard. The vicar gives him a huge mug containing just a little cocoa and heaping spoonfuls of sugar.
Sladden drinks his hot cocoa.
The man is no longer possessed by the time Quatermass comes to see him, but asking questions about what happened to him only agitates him again. “They was coming!” he cries out, and some more telekinetic events occur in the vestry.

The vicar is inclined to think that these are signs of a great evil; he’s surprised when Quatermass, a Man of Science, agrees with him.

Sladden says that he couldn’t see anything but those grasshopper-creatures, hundreds and hundreds of them alive and leaping around an alien landscape with a purple sky. He was one of them.

From this, Quatermass concludes that Sladden has seen a vision of life on Mars as it was 5 million years ago. More than that, he has a new idea about the kind of genetic tinkering the Martians did to their ape-men at that time.

To test his hypothesis, he wants the drillman to recreate what he was doing when things started going weird at the pit site. The vicar protectively objects, but Sladden consents. The reporter Fullalove has once again followed Quatermass and is lurking behind the vestry door, eavesdropping on the whole scene.
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DVD Review: Quatermass & the Pit, Pt. 4

Episode 4: The Enchanted

Barbara Judd and Dr. Roney in the spaceship. Dr. Roney and Barbara Judd gather up the specimens and rush to get them preserved and sent to the institute for study. Now that the sealed forward section of the spaceship has been breached and filthy modern Earth-air has reached them, they are decaying rapidly. The fishy stink causes more nausea.

Quatermass, examining the forward compartment after the previous occupants have been removed, says that the membranes that make up a network inside resemble magnified nerve endings. These too are rapidly decaying. Apart from the membranes and some remnants of colored liquids, there’s no sign of instrumentation or equipment. Quatermass conjectures that the ship was in some way alive–“The hull itself did the thinking.”

Colonel Breen, incredibly, still believes that the Nazis have something to do with this.

When the colonel finds Fullalove looking around inside the spaceship, he has a hissy fit and has the reporter thrown out. But he doesn’t take away Fullalove’s tiny spy camera. The next morning, the front page of the Gazette has a story about the crashed spaceship with some really cool photos.

Roney has the exoskeleton of one of the creatures in his office. He calls it an arthropod rather than a big grasshopper, and observes that it has 3 hind legs like a tripod. Unlike the ape-men found in and around the vessel, they are definitely not of this Earth.

Professor Quatermass and an old friend from Mars.Quatermass says that it has the face of a gargoyle on a cathedral (not the gargoyles I’ve seen, which tend to be reptilian, but we’ll go along with him for the sake of the story). Both men look at the anthropological mural on the walls of the office, a reproduction of cave paintings that are 30,000 years old; there’s one little figure wearing a horned mask that resembles a gargoyle. Could these images of imps and demons be dim racial memories handed down from humanity’s remote past?

Dr. Roney calls the arthropod creature an “old friend we haven’t seen in awhile.” Considering the creature’s delicate structure and the thinner atmosphere in the sealed-off section of the ship, he and Quatermass eventually come to the conclusion that it must have come from Mars.
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DVD Review: Quatermass & the Pit, Pt. 3

Episode 3: Imps and Demons

The young soldier who was hysterical at the end of Part 2 is conveyed into the shack that Dr. Roney uses as an office. He’s still in shock over the thing he saw inside the aft compartment of the mysterious object they’re digging up. Dr. Roney gives him some brandy from a flask he keeps “for emergencies” and Quatermass questions him about what it was he saw.

“Little,” the soldier reports. “Like a dwarf. Crooked.”

Roney’s assistant Barbara Judd reads aloud a very similar description of the Hobbs Lane ghost from a 1927 newspaper article. Has the soldier ever heard of it? No. That was more than 30 years ago and he’s not that old. Capt. Potter sends him home.

The other men in the Bomb Squad carry on with cleaning the object up. The ejected hatch cover is discovered not far from the opening. Quatermass examines this and concludes that it would have to be unscrewed from the inside to open.

But he’s got another intriguing clue to follow up on: the 1927 newspaper articles mention that Hobbs Lane has always had a bad reputation. There were earlier stories of hauntings here, especially in the 1700s.
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DVD Review: Quatermass & the Pit, Pt. 2

Episode 2: The Ghosts

The story picks up just where it left off at the end of Part 1.

Is the object discovered in the pit of the Hobbs End construction site by Dr. Roney’s archaeological team more than 5 million years old? Preposterous, says Col. Breen. It can’t be very old–the non-metallic surface isn’t even corroded.

Professor Quatermass tries to scratch the surface with the diamond in his ring and finds it’s harder than diamond. While he’s kneeling down, he observes that there are odd projections on the sides of the hull that he guesses were used to hold external launching components similar to those his own rockets use, and that were ejected in flight.

While his Bomb Squad men have been busy digging out the object, Captain Potter has located the records for WWII bombing raids in the neighborhood and finds that nothing bigger than a few incendiaries landed here.

Most of the people living in Hobbs Lane had moved out before the construction project began, but one elderly couple a few doors down from the open construction pit remain. The local police are evacuating them now in the face of the bomb threat. Before they go, Captain Potter and Roney’s assistant Barbara Judd catch them to ask what they remember about the local bombings.

The abandoned houseThe Chilcots have been in their home since the first World War; Mrs. Chilcot can remember little “sparklers” incendiaries falling, but no large bombs.

What about the house next door? asks Potter, indicating the half-collapsed building between the Chilcots’s home and the construction pit. That looks like it was bomb-damaged.

No, says Mrs. Chilcot, that place was abandoned long before the war. The last occupants left it in 1927 and no one has wanted to live in it since–it has a reputation of being haunted. The story was in all the papers at the time.

The skull inside the shipThe Bomb Squad, in the meantime, has found an opening in the hull. The hatch is missing and the inside of the object is filled with dirt. They begin to clear this out, and almost immediately pull out another hominid skull, this one intact.

Dr. Roney takes charge of this find and carries it into the little shack he’s using as his office to clean it up. As he exalts over the very good condition of this new skull, he starts to say that it must have been protected by being inside the hull… then stops when he realizes the implications. How could such a fragile fossil not have been crushed when that huge thing landed?
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DVD Review: Quatermass & the Pit, Pt. 1

I’ve been meaning to review the 1967 Hammer film version of this story, aka Five Million Miles to Earth, since last October; that was the one I grew up with on late-night television and affectionately refer to as Giant Fascist Grasshoppers from Mars. But I’ve just ordered and received the original versions of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass teleplays, which aired on the BBC in the 1950s. I’d never seen more than fragments of them before the package arrived from the UK last week.

Quatermass & the Pit is actually the third in the set; it aired in six episodes from December 1958 through January 1959. But it’s my favorite so I’m doing it first. I’ll compare it to the later film version when I get to the end.

Episode 1: The Halfmen

Our story begins on a construction site in Knightsbridge, London, on a street which two different signs (one new and the other very old) alternately tell us is Hobbs or Hobs Lane. A big, deep pit is being excavated under the former foundations of some old row houses, when a truck driver notices something that’s been dug up in the latest scoop of spoils: a damaged human skull. When the workmen examine it more closely, they realize that it’s actually a fossil and has been “down there a long time.” One of the men adds that he’s never liked working in this place.

A newspaper placard informs us that “3 More Bodies!” have been discovered.

We now go to the Nicklin Institute of Research in Natural History, where well-known Canadian paleontologist Dr. Matthew Roney is about to hold a press conference. Dr. Roney wants the press and the general public on his side so he can keep his archaeological dig open long enough to finish his work there properly; the owners of the construction site want him and his team out as soon as possible.

Barbara Judd, Dr. Roney, and Ape-manDr. Roney believes that the skeletal remains found on the site are of great scientific importance. They are dated at 3 to 5 million years old, much, much earlier than hominids have previously been believed to exist.

His assistant Barbara Judd brings out a clay model she’s reconstructed from the bones they’ve recovered so far: the figure is small and ape-faced, but it stands upright and has a remarkably large brain.
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