Interview: Sheila Steafel, Star of THE GHOSTS OF MOTLEY HALL

PrintE-mail Written by Cleaver Patterson

Most of us, when asked, has a program which was a formative part of our childhood television.  For many reading this magazine Dr Who will rank high .  For me however there was one show which stood out from all the others, The Ghosts of Motley Hall.  From the sinister, discordant, theme music to the crumbling facade of the mansion itself, everything about this show was 'haunting', each episode a mini, self-contained ghost story.  As it seldom gets an airing on television now, I was excited to recently discover the complete series on DVD.  Re-watching it as an adult, over thirty years after it was first shown, I was surprised at how sophisticated the humour of what was basically a kid's afternoon show, is.

I decided I wanted to find out if my feelings were a result of mere rose tinted nostalgia, or if there was indeed something more to the show's apparent timelessness.  Imagine my delight when 'The White Lady' herself, Sheila Steafel, happily agreed "to chat about Motley, one of my very favourite series"!  So I put it to Sheila, was I wrong to be so bewitched by a kid's television show now that I'm in my forties?

"Although the three series (1975-77) of THE GHOSTS OF MOTLEY HALL  were made as children’s programmes, they attracted appreciative viewers of all ages. The reason may have been that the writer Richard Carpenter (affectionately known as ‘Kip’) and director Quentin Lawrence (ditto ‘Q’) as well as we in the cast respected our audience and never ‘played down’ to the lowest common denominator as many other TV programmes are inclined to do. We never thought of the series as anything but a serious, if somewhat eccentric, drama."

Eccentric seems an apt description for a show which basically throws five disparate characters together with no other unifying denominator than that they are all ghosts.  Each individual ghost is as different from the others as day from night, from the woebegone White Lady herself, to the affable Elizabethan jester Bodkin, and it must have taken some judicious casting to bring each of the individuals so vividly to to the screen?

"Part of its merit was indeed in the casting. It would be impossible to think of anyone but Freddie Jones playing the blustering Victorian military ghost of Sir George Uproar, and who but Nicholas le Prevost could have brought the young, swash-buckling Restoration blade ‘Fanny’… I nearly said ‘to life’?  Arthur English of course WAS the Shakespearian jester Bodkin, and I still wonder at my luck at being cast as the anonymous White Lady, (I’m not a ghost, she would wail,I’m just a description!) It was a part to die for…. which I suppose in a way did! We four ghosts couldn’t leave the Hall, but Matt, the deceased stable boy, (played by a young Sean Flanagan) could, which meant the story lines weren’t altogether confined to the interior set. The estimable Peter Sallis as the nervous yet determined janitor completed the team of regulars, while the distinguished guest actors, different in each episode, contributed hugely to the quality of the series."

Writers and directors alike (and I'm sure Richard Carpenter and Quentin Lawrence were no exceptions) are renowned for being fiercely protective of their work, which must prove difficult for performers.  According to Sheila however, this was not the case with their show, especially where one specific element was concerned. 

"Kip and Q decided we should each of us choose our own method of disappearing, but specified that as a ghostly function it would take quite an effort. In the event we all staggered unsteadily when we arrived anywhere, particularly Fanny, who always managed to land in the most unlikely and usually most painful of places. I decided that pinching the bridge of my nose as though expecting a huge sneeze would generate the energy I needed to materialise or fade."

Speaking so fondly of her fellow cast and crew, I get the impression that the 'diva'ish' traits of the White Lady were resolutely restricted to her character.  With five such strong individuals, surely they rubbed each other up the wrong way at times?

"We had enormous fun making the programmes, but what was even more rewarding was that we became a genuine team… almost a family, and this trust and fellowship showed on screen. We would give lines away to each other, as well as crucial moments: Wouldn’t it be better if YOU said that, or did that?  And we were grateful for suggestions from one another, and even criticism. I remember Freddie taking me to one side after one of the White Lady’s excessive bouts of emotion and telling me as politely as he could that there was no need to be quite so realistic, because screwing my face up ‘didn’t make The White Lady as attractive as she should always be.’ Point taken."

And how about what could almost be referred to as the 'sixth' character of the show, the dilapidated Motley Hall?

"The set itself was ‘permanent’, which meant that during the run of the series a studio was set aside for our use only, and with familiarity Motley Hall with its vast sombre, dusty hall, cobwebbed staircases, and secret passages became ‘home’."

Apart from the humour injected by Richard Carpenter's writing, and the individuality each of the actors brought to their own characters, the other lasting memory of the show, and an aspect which still works today even in our age of CGI, was the use of special effects.  The said effects, mainly consisting of the ghosts vanishing and reappearing at will, were never a 'character' in themselves so didn't detracted from the storyline or interaction between the people - they were merely a means to an end.  That's not to say that they weren't state of the art, which could prove at times a little confusing for the cast.

"In those days special onscreen effects and visual trickery were new and challenging. As far as my limited knowledge goes, in order to make us transparent or disappear altogether, they removed the colour green from ‘the spectrum’, which meant that anything green wouldn’t be acknowledged by the camera. ‘A ghost’  would be shot against a plain green background, standing on a green cloth, with all the shadows eliminated. Then one camera would cover the scene, let’s say in the main hall where it was due to appear, while another would cover the ghost in the green area The two pictures were aligned for perspective and your position, the director Q would bring up the picture of the hall sans ghost, and then on cue fade the camera up on the ghost, and it would materialise.

By the mid 1970's Sheila was well known to British audiences having appeared in such iconic television shows as The Frost Report and Z-Cars, and on the big screen in Daleks - Invasion Earth 2150 AD in 1966 and Quatermass and the Pit the following year.  In fact she starred in quite a few things with sinister overtones, as she later went on to appear in the cult comedy horror Bloodbath at the House of Death with Kenny Everett in 1984.  However The Ghosts of Motley Hall was one of the first programmes in which she appeared, I think it would be safe to say, where all the characters had equal billing and she didn't play second fiddle to someone else.  The show definitely brought out her feminine side, though being a trailblazer for spectral feminism wasn't without it's downside, particularly where her appearance was concerned. 

"The White Lady was one of the few opportunities I’ve had to play a heroine of sorts.  I loved wearing the wispy white robes, though from time to time they did trip me up, quite noticeably in one of the episodes, and the long wig, though not exactly ‘flowing’, added to the image. The long false fingernails, though, became the bane of my life on and off screen.  They had to be glued on each morning, and were inclined to come off under the slightest pressure, so I had to become adept at avoiding using my finger tips, and ordinary activities like eating and dressing demanded concentration and innovative manual skills. Peeling them off each night began to tell on my own nails, which started to weaken and discolour. I tried leaving the false ones on overnight, but would often be woken up by a painful jab inflicted by the odd fugitive nail lurking inside the bed, while the rest hung on at alarming angles."

By the end of our conversation I felt glad to know that there's nothing childish about my memories of Motley though, true to her character, Sheila left me somewhat enigmatically.

"If I had to choose, my favourite episode would be GODFREY OF BASINGSTOKE, with Ian Cuthbertson in a suit of rusty armour glorying in the role of the clankingly dull knight who had tripped head first into a well in the grounds of Motley, got wedged, and drowned. So painfully plodding was he, that The White Lady gratefully resolved to remain her anonymous self rather than finding her name was Mathilda, Godfrey’s affianced bride. I once asked Kip Carpenter if the White Lady actually knew who she was; and he did point out that when it looked likely her identity might be discovered, she managed to manipulate the situation in favour of her continued anonymity. As for me, I’m sure she knew exactly who she was, and I’m fairly sure I know who she was too. But I ain’t telling."

Cleaver Patterson

'WHEN HARRY MET SHEILA' (personalised, signed autobiography) available from Sheila Steafel's website:

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