Saturday, 2 March 2013

Haunted: The Ferryman (1974)

The Ferryman was a 1974 episode of a Granada television series called Haunted, a series I’d never previously heard of. Being a television episode it only runs for 50 minutes but it’s still a fine example of 1970s British horror.

The Ferryman is based on a Kingsley Amis short story of the same name. Judging by the television adaptation I’d guess that Amis was trying to revive the classic ghost story, but with a few modern touches.

Jeremy Brett (best remembered as the greatest ever screen Sherlock Holmes) plays writer Sheridan Owen. Owen has finally hit the big time with a novel called The Ferryman. It’s a horror novel, but since both Owen and his publishers see themselves as literary types they naturally never refer to it as horror but as a literary thriller.

The story involved a country pub known as The Ferryman. The pub got its name from a local legend about a ferryman who had terrorised the area many years before, raping and murdering young women before he got his just deserts by being accidentally drowned. The ferryman comes back to life and resumes his murderous activities.

At the beginning of the film we see Owen being interviewed on TV, stressing that the book is entirely a work of fiction. We then see Owen and his wife making a getaway from a dreary party thrown in his honour. They drive off into the countryside and are caught in a severe thunderstorm. They are lucky enough to find a pub. The pub’s name is The Ferryman’s Rest, a coincidence that affords them some amusement.

The coincidences however don’t end there. The manager’s surname is Partridge, just as in his novel. And the barman’s name is Fred, just as in his novel. By this time Owen is started  to feel rather uneasy. And then he notices the name of the licensee on the wall - Miles Attingham. And Miles Attingham is the name of the hero of his novel.

This has to be more than coincidence. But what explanation can there be? Sheridan Owen does not believe in ghosts, although his wife does. He has to find a rational explanation. Since he’s a man who puts his trust in science, it has to be a scientific explanation. The one he comes up with is pretty outlandish, but at least (to his relief) it avoids the supernatural. He decides that he and his wife have somehow found themselves in a parallel universe, identical to our own universe in every respect but one. In this universe the events of his novel are real. Or at least they’re about to become real.

Owen becomes really worried when Miles Attingham’s daughter unexpectedly arrives home from London (where she’s a drama student). In his novel it was Miles Attingham’s daughter who was about to become the ferryman’s latest victim. He has to find a way to prevent the events of his fictional work becoming all too real. And there is another event, just as disturbing to Sheridan Owen, that may also become real.

It’s an interesting story, and all the more interesting because of its reluctance to draw conclusions. Julian Bond was responsible for the adaptation and what he gives us is very much in the tradition of the great ghost stories of the past, albeit with a hint of science fiction that gives it a more modern flavour.

Jeremy Brett is extremely effective as Owen, a man who is rather pompous and self-satisfied. Sheridan Owen might be the author of a successful ghost stories, but he does not like mysteries when they occur in his own life. He is a rationalist and the idea of the irrational irritates him, and when the evidence points overwhelmingly in favour of the irrational he is somewhat lost although he is, to his credit, determined to play the hero if he has to. Fans of the Sherlock Holmes TV series will notice (to their delight) quite a few familiar mannerisms but this is a different kind of role that requires a different kind of performance and Brett is equal to the task. The supporting cast is very solid.

Network DVD have released this episode and one other of the Haunted TV series on DVD. Disappointingly, the transfer is not up to their usual standards. Picture quality varies from poor to terrible. In spite of this The Ferryman is still very much worth seeing. The BBC did some superb TV adaptations of ghost stories in the early 70s and this effort from Granada is just as good. Highly recommended.

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