Sky Arts has chosen a different take on some of Wells’ lesser-known short stories in a quartet of adaptations the bare all the hallmarks of quality television: an excellent cast (including Ray Winstone as H. G. Wells himself and the likes of Michael Gambon, Antonia Thomas, Shaun Parkes, and Rupert Graves) and an intelligent treatment by writer and executive producer Graham Duff and director Adrian Shergold. The resulting adaptations - The Late Mr Elvesham, The Devotee of Art, The Moth, and The Purple Pileus can best be described, to borrow the words of Gambon’s character Edward Elvesham, as a ‘sensually opulent’ foursome with the world’s best-known science fiction writer.
Anyone versed in the tropes of short horror fiction is likely to spot at least some of the twists on offer well in advance so, for instance, it is hardly spoiling things to note that when, in The Moth, an entomologist is driven to a heart attack by his bitter academic rival, the rival begins to be haunted by a Death’s Head Moth that bares the markings of his victim. While the tales may superficially resemble the ghost stories of Charles Dickens and M. R. James they are a kind of ‘scientific romance’, the way H. G. Wells’ work was labelled in his own day.
In some senses ‘scientific romance’ is a contradiction in terms as the philosophies of science and romance were diametrically opposed. The Romantic Movement rejected the rational world of science, inspiring Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, literature’s warning against science’s overweening ambitions to replace the sacred and spiritual. The sleep of reason produces nightmares and the stories here all explore the limits of sanity as their characters experience personal encounters with events on the boundaries of the rational world. The Purple Pileus sees a hen-pecked baker embark on a mushroom-induced trip that transforms his character for the better but, in a post-feminist departure from the published story, his situation much for the worse.
The freedom granted by Sky Arts has also allowed other authorial voices to flourish. Anyone familiar with Duff’s work, such as Ideal and Dr Terrible’s House of Horrible, will appreciate the use of contemporary ambient music to create a sense of unease and the affectionate yet ‘knowing’ evocation of a distinctly British take on the horror genre. Duff’s sensibility is at one with The League of Gentlemen’s love affair with Tigon and Hammer Horror, but adds a trippy, dream-like edge to the mix.
Director Shergold adopts the golden hues of a gaslight Edwardian Gentleman’s club as his palate. The Moth is particularly effective as, by distorting the edge of the TV frame with a fish-eyed lens and various blurry masking effects the entomologists are themselves observed as if through insects under a microscope. The Moth also contains some disturbingly grotesque moments enhanced by excellent CGI effects. Shergold and his actors tread a fine line between nostalgic revelling in the conventions of horror and parody. Scenes of characters descending into madness inevitably, for me, recall the concluding moments in Dr Terrible’s And Now the Fearing. Winstone’s commanding performance is a little removed from how viewers might imagine Wells looked and sounded. He has a ‘blokey’ quality which suggests that any of the stories’ dilemmas might easily be sorted out by a quick head-butt from the author.
Perhaps the best story, The Late Mr Elvesham will be the first to be screened (the series will be shown in two sets of two episodes a night). It was especially engaging partly because of the central cast but also because (although some of the plot twists may be easy to predict) the ending is not only a surprise, but genuinely poignant. The concluding story, The Purple Pileus, foregrounds the use of black backdrops in juxtaposition with location filming. The technique of using minimalist, stage- like sets recall the Danish avant-garde art house movie Dogville although fantasy fans are as likely to be reminded of the third season of the 1960s Batman (in which a lighthouse was represented by a stand-alone spiral staircase) and the 1977 Doctor Who story The Sun Makers.
The Nightmare Worlds of H.G. Wells is a welcome exploration of the author’s short stories. Viewers will bask in the warm glow of nostalgia for a type of television once made familiar by the BBC. However, production decisions such as the conscious effort to include black British actors and a music score by Damon Reece of Massive Attack and Cocteau Twins singer Elizabeth Fraser challenge the cosy conventions of the way such tales have been told making this a must-see series for lovers of the genre.