Saturday, March 23, 2024

The Exorcism: The scariest thing I have ever seen on television

Written for Terence Towles Canote's 10th Annual Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon.

What’s the most frightening thing you’ve seen on television? I can remember an episode of Sexton Blake, shown during children’s hour on ITV, in which Tinker, the great detective’s resourceful young assistant was measured for his coffin by a sinister undertaker while he was still alive.

A bit of research tells me that the Sexton Blake story involving Mr Tapp the undertaker was screened in two parts when I was seven years old. 

Don’t listen to the Haunted Generation mob and their claims for the Seventies: we Boomers had a harder time of it in the Sixties.

If I’m allowed to mention films I saw on television, then the scene in the Bob Hope picture The Cat and the Canary where a hand reaches through the wall behind a bedhead and searches the bed while the occupant sleeps hit me pretty hard. 

Until then I’d assumed that if my back was to the wall then at least I was safe from attack by bogeyman from that direction.

Finding The Exorcism

But if I have to name just one frightening programme then it has to be a television play that I saw when I was 12. For decades, as I waited impatiently for the internet to be invented, I didn’t know even what it had been called.

But then I bought a collection of television criticism by the influential Welsh academic Raymond Williams. I began reading his review of a play by Don Taylor called The Exorcism, and it became clear that this was what had scared me all those years ago.

The Exorcism was broadcast by the BBC on Bonfire Night 1972, as part of a series of seven plays called Dead of Night. Originally there were meant to be eight, but the now-famous The Stone Tape came in at 90 minutes and so did not fit the series format. Only three of the seven survive today and the good news is that The Exorcism, which was the first in the series, is one of them.

You can buy those three plays on a DVD from the British Film Institute. The website there describes The Exorcism well:

The best known and perhaps the most terrifying of the episodes – four wealthy, middle-class friends (Clive Swift, Edward Petherbridge, Anna Cropper and Sylvia Kay) gather for a Christmas dinner in a country cottage only to find that the past will not rest while they feast.

But as I don’t want to have to worry about spoilers here, and as I’m sure you are busy, I suggest you watch The Exorcism on YouTube now while I add some spoiler space. 

You may want to have a stiff drink by you.

Are you OK? I did warn you.

When I discovered The Exorcism was on YouTube it took me a while to pluck up the courage to watch it. When I did, it wasn’t as frightening as the first time and not because I was no longer 12 years old. It was more that I knew what was coming. I found I had remembered for 40 years the wine that turned to blood, the total blackness outside the windows and the news bulletin at the end about a bizarre Christmas tragedy.

My motivation for writing this post was to alert readers to this extraordinary piece of television drama. I don’t want to go on saying “Wasn’t it scary when…?”, but if you want to hear a discussion of the play you’ve just watched, then I recommend an episode of A Very British Horror. One of the participants says The Exorcism is the only thing he has watched in the making of the podcast that has given him a nightmare.

What I shall do is offer some thoughts on the individual television play as an art form, some notes on the cast of The Exorcism and, finally, a look at its fortunes after this first broadcast.

The television play

Watching The Exorcism today, it speaks of the year 1972 in three ways. First, it is an essay in folk horror, in that the rational outsiders encounter something dark and rural and come off second best – it is the cottage that has exorcised its new inhabitants, not they who have exorcised the echoes of past horrors.

Second, it is a piece of popular entertainment that wears its politics on its sleeve: there is a discussion of whether it’s possible to be a rich socialist, and the play gives a very definite answer in the negative. Just ask the police officers who had to turn out on Christmas morning.

There would be questions in the House today, but such overt political content was unremarkable in 1972. The BBC broadcast a series call Play for Today between 1970 and 1984 that, by the end, encompassed more than 300 individual plays, and many shared The Exorcism’s politics. It’s been said that if you watched nothing but Play for Today, you would have forecast a Communist revolution in 1979 rather than Margaret Thatcher’s election victory.

And there is a third way in which The Exorcism speaks of 1972: it is a television play that does not aspire to be a movie. Though television drama’s critical standing today is perhaps higher than it has ever been, it does give the impression that it hankers after the sheen of Hollywood. But when The Exorcism was broadcast, the television play was seen as a discrete art form and it, at least, looked to the theatre at least as much as it looked to the cinema.

Don Taylor himself, in his memoir Days of Vision, described the television studio as:

…an empty space. A prepared canvas ready to paint on; the vacuum of an open mind waiting to be filled. It can offer the landscape of the imagination, ready to be entered, a world inside the head as vivid, often more vivid than the world outside the eyes that the film camera photographs so faithfully. It can offer nothingness, waiting to become something, a world waiting to be created out of the chaos of four characterless walls, a shiny floor, and a grid of lights. It is something waiting to happen, a statement ready to be made. One object or person placed within it makes a quite specific and individual point. Two, and the play begins.

You can hear about Taylor’s approach to television drama from his son, the actor Jon Dryden Taylor, in an edition of the podcast The Box of Delights. It’s worth mentioning that part of what makes The Exorcism such a claustrophobic experience is his use of close ups, and another part is that the play takes place in real time - it follows the verities.

I grasped this difference in approach, when compared to today’s television, through watching the 1961 Granada Television production of John Arden’s play Serjeant Musgrave's Dance. When I say it was clear that the aesthetic behind it was that of the theatre rather than the cinema, I don’t mean that Granada had just filmed a stage performance or that the acting was too broad. The cast - Patrick McGoohan, John Thaw, Freda Jackson, Stratford Johns - was far too good for that.

What I mean is that the viewer is aware the performance is taking place in a television studio, and even expect to see the cameras at any moment. You don’t, but you are left wondering if it would matter if you did. Has anyone ever produced Brechtian television?

The cast

Of the four actors in The Exorcism, only Edward Petherbridge is still alive. Like the rest of the cast, he appeared on television far more than on film – it is harder to trace people’s stage careers, but all four were considerable theatre actors too.

Petherbridge is best known for playing Lord Peter Wimsey in BBC adaptations of the Dorothy L. Sayers novels. He also appeared in The Ash Tree – one of the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas. 

Anna Cropper, who is so impressive here, made her career principally in television plays. She was married for a time to William Roache, who has played Ken Barlow in Coronation for 64 years now, making him the world’s longest-serving actor in a continuous role. Their son Linus Roache had a huge reputation as a Shakespearian actor when he was a young man, but his star seemed to fade. He was very impressive in Stephen Poliakoff’s television series Summer of Rockets in 2019. Anna Cropper died in 2007.

Sheila Kay also worked more in television than films, often appearing in situation comedies, and she later trained and practised as a psychotherapist. She died in 2019.

Clive Swift was a mainstay of British television and is the most recognisable face in the cast because of his years opposite Patricia Routledge as Mr Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances. He appeared in the first two Ghost Stories for Christmas: The Stalls of Barchester and A Warning to the Curious. The way he carries off those Seventies threads in The Exorcism is greatly to be admired. He too died in 2019.

The afterlife of The Exorcism

The Exorcism was put on as a stage play in London in 1975. Don Taylor, as his son explains in The Box of Delights podcast, was unhappy with changes that had been made to the script and wanted his name taken off the production. His agent, the famous and fearsome Peggy Ramsay, threatened to disown him if this was how he reacted to his first West End opening, so he relented.

Rachel, the part played by Anna Cropper in the original television production, was played on stage by Mary Ure. She had been married to the playwright John Osborne and been in the cast of his groundbreaking Look Back in Anger. But by the early Seventies, her career and health were in decline, but the opening night of The Exorcism was seen as a triumph.

Ure had drunk her share of champagne and then took her prescription medication on top of it. The mix was enough to kill her. Anna Cropper stepped in to play the role, but the press made great fun of the idea that The Exorcism was a cursed play.

Nevertheless, its small cast and gripping story have made it a favourite with amateur theatre companies. But would I want to watch it again?


Brian Schuck said...

I'm always looking around the internet for vintage movies and TV that I've never seen and aren't generally accessible in my corner of the world. Some time ago I came across The Exorcism, and was floored by it. It is so effective at building an otherworldly, sinister atmosphere in the most banal of settings, with upper middle class characters who think a little too much of themselves.

Love the Don Taylor quote of the TV studio as "waiting to become something, a world waiting to be created out of the chaos of four characterless walls..."

Terence Towles Canote said...

It seems to me folk horror enjoyed a brief vogue from the late Sixties into the early Seventies. At any rate, I have always loved it, so I will definitely have to check out "The Exorcism." I want to thank you for introducing me to this episode and doing such a great job writing about it! Thank you for contributing to the blogathon!

Jonathan Calder said...

Thank you for hosting it. I was quite proud when I spellchecked the post: I'd only called it The Exorcist once.