Monday, 8 July 2013

Mystery and Imagination (1966 TV series)

I’ve now watched the two surviving episodes of the original run of the Mystery and Imagination series made by ABC Television in Britain between 1966 and 1968.

The six episodes made by Thames TV from late 1968 to 1970 all survive but sadly most of the ABC episodes perished in the great British videotape holocaust of the early 70s when just about everything that had been made in black-and-white was destroyed.

The two surviving ABC episodes both date from 1966 - The Open Door (based on a story by Mrs Oliphant) and The Fall of the House of Usher (based rather loosely on the Edgar Allan Poe story).

For some unknown reason the producers at ABC decided to have a continuing character in the first three seasons, a young man by the name of Richard Beckett (played by David Buck). He seems to me to serve little purpose but he also seems to do little harm. It appears that in some episodes he became directly involved in the story (as he does in The Fall of the House of Usher) while in others he acted as little more than an introducer (as he does in The Open Door).

The Open Door is a classic ghost story with a Scottish setting. A young boy is disturbed at night by the sound of a child wailing and screaming to be let in. But of course no such child can be found. The father of the boy who hears the screaming ventures into the old ruined house nearby and hears the voice as well. Even the sceptical local doctor hears the voice.

Jack Hawkins plays the father. By this time he could no longer speak and all his dialogue had to be dubbed. The wonderful Scottish character actor John Laurie is delightful as the local minister who is called upon to exorcise the presumed ghost.

The Fall of the House of Usher takes some liberties with Poe’s story although it’s reasonably faithful to the spirit of his writing. Richard Beckett, who is about to be married, meets a young woman, the sister of an old college chum. Madeleine Usher is beautiful, a fact he notices at once. She is also clearly quite quite mad, a fact he singularly fails to notice.

Richard persuades his wife-to-be, Lucy, to befriend Madeleine. This proves to be a slightly unfortunate decision. Richard arrives at Roderick Usher’s house to find that his old friend is scarcely recognisable, his hair turned completely white. The atmosphere of the house is ominous indeed, the house itself making ghastly creaking noises as the unstable foundation settles. The behaviour of Madeleine and Roderick is not reassuring. Roderick tells Richard that neither he nor his sister may ever marry, madness being the sure inheritance of the Usher family. We are inclined to believe Roderick on this point. Roderick is worrying enough but Madeleine seems like she might be the more dangerous of the two.

Susannah York, one of my favourite actresses, plays Madeleine Usher. Roderick Usher is played by Denholm Elliott. With these two fine performers cheerfully and enthusiastically chewing the scenery poor David Buck is rather overwhelmed. He’s distinctly out of their league.

Despite the studio-bound feel that is common to most classic 1960s British television these two episodes manage to conjure up a fairly impressive gothic atmosphere. In fact, as was often the case with the best British television of that era, the studio-bound feel becomes more of an asset than a liability. It presented a challenge to everyone involved, from the set designers to the directors, and it was a challenge that often brought out the best in people. The gothic is particularly suited to black-and-white productions shot entirely in the studio, lending such productions a decidedly other-worldly feel.

With great stories to work with and some truly superb actors the results are impressive, making the loss of the other sixteen episodes even more of a tragedy.

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