Review: Dead of Night / Cert: 15 / Director: Don Taylor, Rodney Bennett, Paul Ciappessoni / Screenplay: Don Taylor, Robert Holmes, John Bowen / Starring: Anna Cropper, Sylvia Kay, Edward Petherbridge, Clive Swift, Peter Barkworth, Anna Massey, Ronald Hines, Julian Holloway / Release date: October 28th
You might not remember that back in 1972 the BBC ran a seven-episode anthology series of horror stories entitled Dead of Night. The title was a homage to the brilliant 1945 movie of the same name (we can’t tell you the confusion that’s caused us) but the series real legacy was that an eighth episode, Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape, was broadcast separately and is rather better remembered as one of the BBC’s finest bits of homegrown spookiness. So what about the other seven episodes? Well, in true BBC fashion, four were wiped; but the remaining three have, so it says on the back of the box, been “highly sought by fans” and the BFI are now obliging with this DVD.
Ghost stories and a belief in the supernatural were rather popular in the '70s. This writer still remembers a friend of his father’s back then; he had just moved into an old house in the country and talked utter cobblers about a mysterious figure coming into his living room each evening. If memory serves, Dad thought he was an attention-seeking idiot but Dead of Night is very much a product of the same period; not only because they’re typical ghostly dramas of the time, but also because you can learn an awful lot about the mindset of the '70s Brit. They’re pretty slow-paced, so the country house dinner party setting of The Exorcism gives us plenty of time to observe the attitudes of Britain’s pre-Thatcher affluent middle-classes, still wrestling with the socialist consciences of their parents. In fact, without wishing to give too much away, this one turns out to be a political ghost story which, it must be said, is not something you find yourself watching every day. While it manages to be a little creepy, it still pales next to the BBC’s contemporaneous Ghost Stories for Christmas.
Return Flight is certainly the pick of the bunch when it comes to atmosphere. The story concerns an ageing airline pilot (Barkworth) who is the only person to see a mysterious plane in near collision with his own aircraft. Much of this one is predictable when you realise that this was a time when veterans of the Second World War were still working people in regular jobs, not just a dwindling number of old men; the war was a relatively recent memory in the early '70s. While the episode is satisfying to a point, the ending is ambiguous and frustrating.
Finally, A Woman Sobbing reminds us of a time when bored housewives still existed and anti-depressants were the latest fashionable middle-class addiction. Is that crying from the attic of her (inevitable) country house all in Jane’s mind or is something supernatural afoot? Actually, Jane (Massey) is so insufferable you’ll struggle to care. She doesn’t need the money (nobody in these stories does), so why can’t she go out and do some voluntary work or something? Thank goodness the Janes of this world are something of a rarity today.
Sadly, when you bear in mind that this was something of a golden age for BBC drama, these are not great pieces of television. They’re too ponderous to be effective chillers and the dramatis personae are a bit too self-consciously of the time. We suspect they may have seemed trendy and clever in 1972 but you can certainly understand why the BBC wiped half of them so shortly after broadcast.